Nipping Trouble in the Bud
Chapter 1

It was in early July, 1960, only a few days after the Fourth of July had passed. I was busier than I'd ever been. Ellen and I were getting ready to be married in the middle of August. I was pushing myself pretty hard, trying to get my firewood delivery business built up while still handling a lot of the delivery driving myself.

From the very outset of our working together, Cousin Billy and I had been involved in trying to establish a new series of guidelines to govern the changes we were making in how we treated each other. We both were aware that things needed to change now that we'd added a business relationship to our personal and family one.

Now that we were really starting to do well, Billy and Theresa were beginning to have some doubts about whether or not I was exploiting them. I didn't think I was exploiting them. I really believed what I was doing was helping them as much or more than it was helping me.

Back when we'd all been children, it had been Billy that dominated me. He held this superior position relative to me primarily due to the differences in our ages. He'd had much greater physical strength, and he'd always been able to get whatever he wanted from me, sometimes by force, sometimes by intimidation. Now that I was fully grown, I no longer felt it necessary to bow to his will. Because I acted that way with him now, he was becoming concerned about how people would view the two of us in our emerging working relationship.

In addition to this, he was disturbed by what appeared to be taking place with our separate financial positions. I was expanding my sales, and Billy knew exactly how much money I was making with each delivered cord of firewood. My business was very simple, requiring very little capital outlay from me. My money was tied up in his firewood for only as long as it took me to make my deliveries and be paid.

Before I started buying in quantity from Billy, his firewood had been sitting around doing nothing for his bottom line, for months, if not years, at a time. Billy had a constant overhead in his logging operation, and this had gotten him into trouble in the recent past. Billy didn't like being dependent on me for his continued livelihood. At the same time, we were family, and my new business was bringing him in some much needed revenues.

I knew, almost as soon as we started doing business together, that it wasn't going to work out for either of us if I continued to let Billy remain the dominant figure in our business interactions. We were already having conflicts over the fact that I was making a lot of money off of what Billy considered his hard work.

As far as Billy was concerned, all I did was take his wood out and sell it to buyers already eager to purchase the product. Forgotten now was the fact that selling wood had always been the main weakness in Billy's business model. He didn't like selling, and he hadn't ever thought to hire anyone to sell the wood for him.

Now that I'd gone out and opened some accounts, he didn't think I should end up making more on each sale than he was. His position was that it was him that was doing all the hard work involved in acquiring and readying that firewood for sale in the first place.

Billy and I could both easily see that his logging operations had been greatly enhanced by having me out there creating a steadily growing demand for the hardwoods he harvested. Having a ready and dependable outlet to dispose of the wood quickly and profitably really helped him in bidding on new jobs for his logging and lot clearing operations. I was already buying all the trees he was able to harvest and cut into firewood cords.

Having turned all his previous backlog of firewood into cash had given Billy the capital to compete with some of the other small logging crews. He could bid more aggressively for jobs, knowing that he could quickly recoup his out of pocket expenses by selling off the new wood he was logging.

Even though I was bigger than Billy now, and outweighed him easily by at least forty pounds, Billy still thought of me as his younger cousin, someone he'd physically dominated for all of our previous mutual lives. He wasn't going to willingly relinquish what he felt was his proper role. He wanted to control things, to have the right of approval of everything I did in my new business.

To complicate matters even more, Theresa, his wife, believed that I was taking advantage of Billy somehow when it came to me buying wood from him. He worked a lot harder than I did, according to her, and therefore deserved most, if not all, of the profits being generated. Neither of them believed that my having the idea on how to capitalize on all that wood should be worth the kind of money I was now beginning to make.

If I'd been struggling, barely making enough to keep my trucks running or to pay my cousin, Lenny, they wouldn't have tried to pull what they were now in the process of pulling.

I was already paying him more for his wood than his current asking price for the product. He'd sell the same wood, more cheaply, to a total stranger, anyone who might happen to drive by his farm and see the sign that he had posted that announced he had cut firewood for sale.

Even paying him more than he was asking for the wood, I was doing very well for myself. I certainly wasn't taking advantage of Billy though. I'd had already had several other logging operators offer me the same kind of wood I was buying from Billy, and for a lot less money than I was paying for it now. Out of a sense of family loyalty though, I continued to only buy my wood from Billy.

For the past month or more, most mornings when I'd come out to Billy's farm to pick up the wood for that day's delivery, Billy would either do or say something to try to let me know that he was still the one who was in charge.

I didn't like having to deal with anyone's belligerent attitude, although I admit this was especially true if it was Billy. To my way of thinking, my business idea had probably saved Billy from having his logging operation go under. He should be happy that we'd found a way for him to stay in business and keep his farm.

I'd borrowed money from my parents to prepay him for the first loads of wood I was buying. Without that advance from me, he'd told me he hadn't known how he was going to get his family through the winter season. He was worried about losing his farm. In the very beginning, before he knew that my idea would be so successful, he and Theresa were both expressing their gratitude for my assistance. In a matter of a few short months, I'd gone from being their rescuer to being an exploiter. Maybe it was human nature to want to maintain relationships where you're the person on top.

Now that things were going well for me, and both of us were managing to earn much more than our expenses, Billy was trying to change "my" firewood delivery business into "our" firewood delivery business. He had also made it very clear that he was definitely expecting to be the senior partner in any restructured business agreement we might, eventually, strike.

"Jackie, I've been talking about things, with Theresa, and we both think we might need to hire ourselves another firewood delivery guy. Not to squeeze you, or cut you out of anything, just to keep us from having all our eggs in one basket, like what we're doing now with having just you."

I could tell that Billy had rehearsed this opening salvo of his. This was a much more confrontational approach than any he'd attempted before. I already knew he was trying to force me to give him half of the firewood sales profits I was earning.

"How's that supposed to work for me, Billy? I'm already buying everything you can cut. Does this mean you don't care if I go out and make my own deals with other logging outfits? I think Mr. Gracia still has more wood than he can dispose of over at his place. I know he was asking my old man why I never came to see him after I started selling wood around this area."

"I guess you could do that, Jackie. That would be up to you. You know he cheated me, right? How would it look if you started doing business with a guy who went out and screwed over someone in your own family? You think Uncle John would think it was alright for you to go and do something like that?"

Billy was right about that. When my father had told me that Mr. Gracia had approached him, he'd also told me what he'd told Mr. Gracia in reply: "You've got some fucking nerve even talking to me after what you did to Billy Blackwell. Get away from me, you creep, before I forget that you used to be someone I liked and respected."

My dad was like that. Family loyalty meant everything to him. If someone hurt anyone in the family, he was now an enemy. It was very clear cut and simple with him. I wouldn't want to try to explain to him why I was doing business with anyone who'd hurt Billy. Billy knew this and wasn't above using that against me either.

"Maybe not him then. I know lots of other small logging crews though. I don't think I'd have any problem buying as much firewood as I needed, not if I drove around and really went looking for it. I would probably get it for a lot less than what I'm paying you. Don't you go and push this idea of yours so far that you won't leave me any other choice but to start doing business with your competition."

"I guess that's it then, Jackie. I'll keep on supplying you until the end of the month. After that, you can go try to make your own deal somewhere else. Don't try coming back to me later, after you find out you've gotten yourself in a bind."

"You mean me coming around like you did over at my house before, when you managed to get my father to go to bat for you and your crew about getting some work out at the sub base? You can't have it both ways, Billy. If you want us to stop helping each other, I'm all right with that, but don't try to put me out of business just because you're jealous of what I've been building on my own."

When I left Billy's farm that day my thoughts were not very optimistic. I was sure that most of the family would side with Billy and Theresa. Most of them had no idea how much my creating a market for Billy's wood was helping Billy and Theresa to succeed with their own business. To them, I was just a young kid, fresh out of school, who'd somehow lucked into a creating his own job, and, in the process, had been using Billy's established business as my springboard for doing so.

As a general rule, all our family members worked for wages. Billy, having a business of his own, was a source of family pride. To them, it was like I'd somehow attached myself to Billy's business. If I went out now and started buying my wood from anywhere else, to them it would seem like I was turning around and taking advantage of Billy after he'd been the one who'd given me my start in the first place.

It was funny in a way, that the only relatives who understood how much what I was doing was helping Billy's business, were the three of us. I knew that Billy and Theresa weren't 'book smart', but they were shrewd in lots of other ways, especially Theresa. I was sure the reason they were doing this was as much about them seeking to retain some semblance of control over their own business as it was about them trying to co-opt mine. They could both see how dependent on my future success they were starting to become.

Billy's ego had taken a pretty big hit when it first became apparent that my sales were quickly pulling his bacon out of the fire. Rather than enjoying the fact that he now had a lot more money coming in than he'd ever had before, Billy was worried that he'd somehow be seen, in the family, as being inferior, business wise, to me. He'd had all of that he wanted with his brother, Dale, back when he was still a kid. He didn't want to be on the unfavorable end of any future comparisons with me.

It didn't matter to them that I'd never tried to promote myself as being superior to Billy in any way. That didn't mean I was going to allow either of them to deal with me as anything less than an equal though. I'd been very lucky to stumble across an idea that looked like it would turn into a permanent business. I was already making more money than I'd ever anticipated making. In addition, the future prospects for my business were looking even more positive. At least they had been, before Billy's little bomb shell landed on me that morning.

I spent the entire day trying to think of some way out of this dilemma I was now facing. Everything I managed to think of had, as a side consequence, the very real prospect of injuring Billy's business. I knew I had to avoid even the appearance of having done that to Billy.

When I finished my deliveries, I headed back to Groton. On most days I would have driven back to Billy's farm and waited to make sure that Lenny hadn't experienced any problems. Billy had already been given schedules for the deliveries we'd each be making for the remainder of that week.

When I got back home, my father was pacing back and forth from the kitchen to the living room. He had a drink in his hand, whiskey and water, and was busy making all his opinions known to my mother. The gist of which was that I better take immediate care of this problem with Billy, or else he'd know the god damn reason why I hadn't. I hadn't even gotten the door closed, coming into the house, before he started to let me have it.

"Yutch, god damn it, why can't you ever be content to just feed at the trough with all the rest of us? Why is it that you have to stir up things instead of trying to make them work?"

"Does this have something to do with Billy attempting to horn in on my firewood business?"

"Your business? What the hell do you know about running a small logging operation? Nothing, that's what. All you've done is get Billy to let you go out and sell his wood for him. You can't walk into another man's business and start telling him how much of his money you're going to be keeping. If it wasn't for Billy, you wouldn't even have any firewood to run all around New England selling. Where's your loyalty, Yutch?"

One thing my father had always been famous for was his ability to go off half cocked. Usually, with little or no factual information to go by. In spite of not having any grasp of what the problem really was, he'd always felt more than qualified to make a ruling as to what was right and proper for the rest of us to do. I knew he had no real understanding about what it was I had actually been doing for Billy. In spite of this ignorance on his part, he'd already decided that I was the one who was guilty of ruining what he had thought of as a good thing.

Billy was doing well now, and so was I. If anything was beginning to put that in danger, the way my father looked at things, it must be my fault, because I was the newest person to be involved in Billy's business. It didn't seem to matter to my father that it had been Billy, hat in hand, who had come to him, a short while ago, asking for his help in keeping his logging crew together because he'd run out of money to bid on any new logging work.

Other than his vehicles and his logging equipment, Billy's only business assets were the five or six hundred cords of wood that were sitting stacked up all around his farm, passively waiting for someone to come by and take them off Billy's hands. I had been the one to discover a way to turn a huge portion of that wood into money. Money that Billy had desperately needed to see his family through another winter.

In the beginning, all Billy and Theresa were concerned about was seeing their short term financial prospects brightening. Now that the firewood business was growing into something really substantial, they were beginning to worry about how much money I was making for what they saw as the minimal effort I was putting in.

Now that my parents were becoming involved, I knew Billy wasn't just trying to cut himself in for a little bigger profit margin on the wood he was selling me. He intended to either become my partner, or else drive me away from the firewood business altogether.

I knew he might succeed in doing the latter too, because I'd need to go against my family's wishes if I tried to strike out on my own and secure a non family source of firewood to sell. I didn't think I'd be able to make myself do that. My business was important to me, but my family, and my place in the family, were far more important. I thought of my father as the head of our family, and I wouldn't go up against him over this.

"Billy didn't have the first idea about how to go about turning all that wood he'd collected back into money. He was selling about six cords a month from his signs out on the road. It was my idea to take the wood out to places that didn't have so many free standing clusters of hard woods. I don't need Billy's wood to keep on selling firewood in the big towns and some of the cities. Billy isn't in the business of selling firewood, not really. I sell five or six times as much wood in one day as he's been selling on his own in a month. I don't need Billy or his wood to stay in business. If anything, Billy needs me a lot more than I need him."

"You're starting to get too damn big for your britches, Yutch. You think you know it all. Well, you don't know as much as you think you do. I'm not going to have you doing anything to hurt your cousin. You hear me? Nothing. You don't want to sell his wood? Fine, but you aren't going to go out and compete with him in his own business. I just won't have it."

"What about Lenny then? Are you going to find him another job that he can handle? I can sell my trucks pretty easily. I can go enroll in school in the Fall too. Ellen and I will have to postpone getting married too, because I'm not getting married when I don't have an income. I'm telling you right now though, if I do this, not only am I losing out on a good income, but Billy and Theresa are going to have a real tough time making a go of things by themselves. Billy only knows one part of his business. That was how he got in so much trouble before."

"Billy's been doing this for a good long while without any help from you. What makes you think he can't make it on his own without you?"

"It costs money to harvest trees, dad. You make your money back by selling the wood. These stands around here are too small. Most of them aren't worthwhile for a big outfit to come in and harvest. These little crews, like Billy's, they can get in for a cheap bid, but these small stands of trees don't usually have enough product to make a big enough harvest to interest the people who buy large amounts of timber. Firewood is usually the best use they can put their product to around here. The problem is, in this part of the state, too many people have access to their own small stands of wood. They don't buy their firewood, they chop it down and make their own, just like Billy does, only in much smaller amounts. Firewood prices in this part of Connecticut are lower than almost anywhere else. Supply and demand. That's why I take the wood and move it over to where most people don't have the time to do it, or access to trees for cutting their own firewood. People from the city, they don't mind paying money for the extra convenience. Even then, I don't sell to the people who burn the wood, I sell to the people who sell it to those people."

"You don't think Billy can do what you do?" I heard the doubt my father now was having. Billy had never impressed any of us with his business skills before. He impressed us with his work habits, and with his determined perseverance. Billy was very good at solving problems that required sheer brute force, and a willingness to expend great sums of energy to get things done.

"I think we both know that Billy hates selling. He isn't really that much of a talker. He can probably go out and find someone to sell the wood for him, but I doubt he'd find anyone better than me to do it. Especially not if he tries to keep all the profits from the sales for himself. I think there's a very good chance that he won't be able to keep his business profitable, not like it is right now."

"Billy doesn't seem to have any doubts about being able to replace you, Yutch. That's a good part of the reason I'm trying to nip this thing in the bud, before either of you get to a place where it can't be ironed out between you. With you having plans to set up housekeeping on your own, this isn't any time for you to go all hard headed on us. Billy says he'll let you keep on working for him, but as part of his business, not out on your own like you say you want it to be."

"I'll pass on that, pop. Tell Billy I'm going to sell my trucks. If he wants to buy them, I'll take twelve hundred for the both of them. I'll go ahead and keep things going until the end of the month, but after that, I'm done."

"How certain are you that Billy won't be able to make a go of this on his own, Yutch? If you do what you're saying now, and he does manage to keep things going, you're the one who gets left out in the cold. You know that much, right?"

"I'm not positive he won't make it, but I don't see him being able to keep up the sales like I did, and if he does, I'm betting he won't be able to make any more than he's already making right now."

My father nodded. He seemed pretty satisfied with my refusal to give in to Billy. I wasn't sure whether he believed what I was predicting or not. Maybe he just wanted to prevent the two of us from having a long, drawn out, fight that would polarize the family. It didn't matter to me anymore anyway. I'd felt pretty lucky to have stumbled across the idea in the first place. I'd already made quite a bit of money. If Billy bought my trucks at my asking price, I'd have enough to see me through at least the first two years of college. After two years, we'd all know whether Billy and Theresa were right, or if I was.

I went to my room and started trying to figure out a budget for going to college. I wasn't seeing Ellen until the next evening. I'd have to figure out some way to tell her that our wedding plans would have to be put on hold.

Billy was barely speaking to me when I went over to the farm to pick up my load the next morning. I knew he'd gotten a phone call from my father the night before. I had two separate deliveries scheduled for that day, mine, up to New Haven, and then Lenny and me both taking two loads over to Providence, later that afternoon. I was hoping to get back to the farm before one o'clock that afternoon. I was just getting ready to leave after I got loaded up when Theresa came out of the house and over to my truck.

"Jackie, you've got Billy all upset now. Why do you have to be so stubborn about this?"

"Look, Teri, I'm not the one trying to make changes. You guys are. I just hope this doesn't end up putting you and Billy out of business in addition to it already costing me my business. I don't see Billy being able to manage the sales side of things. It would be a terrible thing if this turned out to be a disaster for all of us."

"You could just give him what he wants."

"That's what I am doing. He wants it all. Both of you do. This is greed, pure and simple. I thought up a way that made all of us some money, and now you both want the money you're making, plus most of mine. I won't work for Billy, and I know I can't compete against him because he's family. After you guys go broke, if you ever do, then I can come back from school and set this up again, using somebody else to supply the wood for me."

"Why should you make more than us, Jackie? You do, you know? You don't have our overhead, so most of what you get is pure profit. You know how hard Billy works. He takes most of the risks too. What makes you so special that you should make more than we do?"

"What I do is what makes you guys money, Teri. You both seem to have pretty short memories. I remember Billy working just as hard as he does now, and then him sitting in our kitchen and telling us that he was pretty certain he was going to lose this farm. The only thing that has changed since then was me taking a chance on being able to sell the wood up in the cities. I wasn't sure I could sell any of it, or even if I could, whether I'd make enough to cover my expenses. You and Billy both know your wood isn't the only wood I can sell, and that's why you've brought my father into this. I already know I can sell firewood for a profit. Now, we're going to find out if you and Billy can find someone who can replace me. If you can, then you need to find out if you can do it cheaper than I'm doing it for you now. You better hire someone in the family too, because if you find anyone as good at selling as I am, he'll be smart enough to know he can make a lot more by going off on his own and selling whatever firewood he can get for the least amount of money. You two are just going to end up creating your own competition."

I left her standing there beside where my truck had been parked as I put it in gear and drove back out to the road. I knew that Theresa usually didn't let her emotions cloud her judgment. Certainly not as often as Billy did. For Billy, it was more about who was going to be in charge. Theresa was more practical. All I'd done was introduce her to the possibility that this move might backfire on them too, leaving all of us worse off than we were before.

I got back in time to reload and head up to Providence, not too long after Lenny had come in and gotten the other truck loaded. Billy still wasn't saying much, but I could see, from his facial expressions, that he was worried about something. I left, believing that my earlier conversation with Theresa might have accomplished something worthwhile.

I didn't get back from my afternoon delivery until almost eight that evening. I called Ellen as soon as I got home. We went out for some steamed clams and chowder over by the point. I was working my way up to telling Ellen that we were going to have to delay our wedding for awhile. It had seemed simpler to do when she wasn't sitting right there in front of me.

"Baby, I've got some bad news to tell you." We had finished eating and I wanted to get this over with while we were still out in public. Not that Ellen would be inhibited much by this. "It looks like Billy and Teri have decided that they don't need me to help them sell firewood anymore. They're hiring someone else to do it, and my family doesn't want me going out and trying to compete with them. I guess I'm going to take some of the money I've been making and go back to school for awhile. This means we can't go ahead with the wedding for right now."

"Nice try, Jackie. You were doing really well, right up to where you got around to that thing about us having to postpone getting married. The invitations have already gone out. We can still get married. My father will help us out if we need him to. Do you think anyone else can do what you did? Aren't they taking a big chance by doing this without knowing if its even going to work out better for them?"

We spent another hour talking about my business, and about Billy and Theresa. Ellen seemed to think like I did, that Billy and Theresa were both discounting how difficult it was going to be for someone else to go out and open up new accounts. It hadn't been that difficult for me, but I'd had my grandfather's help in getting my first big sale. After that, I had enough money coming in to allow me to run around soliciting for new business.

I didn't believe I was a great salesman or anything, but I knew I was probably more persistent than most sales types were. I also was pretty good at coming up with reasons why these wholesalers should buy from me. I stressed my delivery dependability, and the excellent quality of the firewood we were selling for the relatively low costs that were involved. People hadn't exactly been jumping up and down when they first learned that I'd come around to sell them a truckload of firewood.

By the time I took Ellen back home, she'd almost convinced me that we could still go ahead with our wedding. I told her I'd give it some thought, even though I was afraid of the idea of being married and unable to support her as well as she was used to being supported by her father. When I'd proposed to her, I'd been confident that my economic prospects were bright.

When I got back to the house after seeing Ellen home, both my parents were waiting up for me. The first thing my mother wanted to know was whether I'd called off the wedding.

"We're thinking about it right now. We'll make a final decision on that soon. Ellen wants us to go ahead with the wedding. I think we should wait."

"Your father talked to Billy again tonight. Billy isn't so sure anymore about what he wants to do. He thinks he might be willing to let you come in as a junior partner with him. He might let you have some of the profits from the whole business, not just the firewood sales."

"The firewood sales are the only thing that produces revenue, Ma. All the rest of it is expenses. According to Theresa, my business already makes more than theirs. Maybe I should let Billy give me his business, and I'll make him a junior partner?"

"Jackie, that isn't helping. You should try your best to reach some kind of an accommodation with them. Theresa said something about you maybe paying them more for the wood you buy. Could you do that?"

"I could, but I'm not going to. This whole thing is about them being greedy, wanting more than they're entitled to. I'm not trying to take anything of theirs. They want to take from me. I already pay Billy more than anyone else does for that firewood. I could have gone out and bought it from somewhere else for less money, but I never did. I don't want anything from Billy that's his, and I'm not going to give him anything that's mine."

"You're just going to throw it all away then?" My father sounded sad and disappointed in me when he said that.

"You aren't giving me any other choices. You don't want me buying from anyone else, because it would end up hurting Billy. I know I'd make a lot more money if I did do that, but that isn't what I want. I don't know why its all right with you that Billy is sticking it to me, but I'm not allowed to fight back. When this is over, no matter how it finally turns out, I'm going to have lost a lot. I didn't do anything wrong to deserve that. This is just Theresa and Billy being greedy, and them being jealous of what I've done."

We talked some more, but nothing much came of it. They were worried now. I guess they'd both started thinking about the past by now, and had then remembered how things were before I'd gone out and started selling firewood for Billy.

They had to believe that what I was warning them about might be a real possibility. Now that they could see that possibility for themselves, all of their earlier, hastily jumped to conclusions weren't quite so clear cut for them anymore.

My parents, and almost all of our family had been very poor for quite a long time. Billy and I had both been making more money than they'd ever seen in their whole working lives. My success had been reflecting back on them. They didn't want to see that success end, not if there was any way to avoid it.

The next morning I was over at Billy's before five. I had a long haul to make, and I needed to get back to make another delivery early the next day. I had been planning on adding another truck, and another driver too, so that I wouldn't have to work any more of these eighteen hour days. With the recent developments, expansion was now the last thing on my mind.

"Did Uncle John tell you what Theresa wanted to do?"

"That junior partnership thing?"

"Combine both businesses is what we're offering. You can have twenty percent of what we net. After five years, we can talk about increasing your share."

"Not interested. You can have all of it. I have other ideas for things I can do. I might go to college for a couple of years, maybe get my degree like Dale did. At least I won't have to keep getting up at three thirty and driving all day and half the night. I think Dale had the right idea. What time do you think he has to get up in order to teach those college kids? Maybe eight thirty or so?"

I was throwing Dale up to him because I was very angry with what he was trying to force me to do. I would be willing to bet that neither of us had mentioned Dale's name, out loud to the other, in about five years.

"Theresa said we could also work things out in a different way. Maybe increase the price you pay for the wood?"

"Billy, you don't get it. We both know I'm already paying you more for the wood than anyone else ever would. I'm paying more than you're asking as it is. You want to be the boss, but I won't work for you. You want part of my profits, but I won't give them to you. You want me out so you can try to take what I already had. I'm not sure, but I don't think you'll succeed in that either. The problem is that you're good at things I'm not good at, and I'm good at things you aren't good at, or else just won't do.

"At our best, we help each other, and shore up each other's weaknesses. At our worst, like right now, we're probably going to end up fucking up the best thing either one of us is likely to ever get. In a way I feel lucky because I don't really have that much to lose, and no one is depending on me to keep them in food and clothing, or by putting a roof over their heads. If I end up going tits up, no one else will suffer for it except me. I won't knuckle under, Billy, and without me out there selling all this wood so that you can keep on bidding jobs, I'm not that confident that you can keep running your business in the black after I'm gone."

"You think like that, Jackie. I wasn't doing so bad before, and I'm in pretty good shape now that I've turned over a lot of the inventory that had been piling up. Even if I had to cut back to half of what we're doing together now, we'd still be getting by. If we did more than half, we'd probably end up making about what we do right now."

"You might not want to keep trying to piss me off, Billy. Right now, I'm ready to walk away from what I've worked pretty hard to build up. I'm agreeing to do this out of respect for both my parents, and because of their expressed wish that you and I don't end up hurting each other by competing. We both know though that I could buy more wood than I'm getting from you, and all of it for at least two dollars a cord less than what I'm paying you right now. I could probably get quite a bit of my wood, in the very beginning at least, for up to six dollars a cord less. You shouldn't put me in a position where I'm so mad that I stop caring about what my parents want. If I decided to stay in the business, using other people to buy my wood from, you wouldn't be able to last another year. Maybe if that happened, I'd buy the farm from foreclosure though, just to make sure we'd keep it in family hands."

Billy stood there smiling at me. We both knew he was barely able to manage not opening the cab door on my truck and reaching in to pull me out of it. I didn't want to tangle with him. I wasn't sure if I could take him now or not. We had both grown stronger in the years since we'd last tangled together.

I knew any fight would signal a definite end to our negotiations. Both of us now knew we were negotiating. I figured I could end this right there by agreeing to pay Billy another dollar per cord for his wood. If I did that though, he'd have something he could use as proof that he'd made me concede something to him.

I knew I couldn't live with giving him anything more than he was already getting. I wanted us to keep our two companies separate too. He could have all of his, and I'd keep all of mine. He knew now that I wasn't going to give him anything he'd been trying to get.

"Theresa's going to be real upset, Jackie. She was sure you'd meet us halfway on this. I told her that was unlikely, but she doesn't know you like I do."

"Ellen's upset too. I'm calling off our wedding because of this. I can't go running off to college with a wife to support. All of us are going to put up with things we shouldn't have to though, so I don't feel that bad about having to postpone getting married."

"I think that was another reason why Theresa hoped you'd work something out with us. That whole wedding thing. I guess this does come at a pretty bad time for you. Just remember that we offered you several ways to get this thing settled. You can't say we weren't willing to try to make things work."

I got back from my delivery run at a little after one the next morning. I set my alarm clock for four thirty and fell into my bed. Ray was snoring softly, but I didn't have a problem with getting to sleep. When the alarm rang at four thirty I had a real difficult time getting up and getting ready to leave. I made it over to Billy's farm at about five fifteen.

It took about twenty minutes for Billy to get my truck loaded. I sat in the cab, trying to catch a short snooze. Billy woke me up after he got done putting on my load. I drove off to make my delivery, happy that this marked my last delivery of the week. Because of what was happening between Billy and me, I'd decided not to spend most of my weekend going around trying to establish new accounts.

I finished making my delivery at around eleven that morning and drove back to Groton. I stopped off at Ellen's house on the way home, but one of her sisters told me that Ellen and her mother were out doing something having to do with planning for the wedding. So much for Ellen listening to what I'd been telling her.

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