Von Grantville

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Chad sat on the front porch swing staring blankly ahead. He held a tumbler of Kentucky's smoothest bourbon and water. It was like a cruel joke. I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, those thirty-five new cars you have on your lot? You won't have to pay for them. The bad news? They're going to sit there and rot until you take them apart and sell them piece by piece. Or, you can sell them to the government for pennies on the dollar because nobody's got gasoline or money for cars except the government. Funny, yeah, Mr. Big Time Auto Dealer.

He'd never intended to live out his life in Grantville. When he studied marketing at West Virginia University, Chad wanted to go into international business. Then Dad had his stroke the day after Thanksgiving in Chad's senior year. He lived, but with the left side of his body partially paralyzed. Mom couldn't handle it mentally or physically at that time. Wes, his older brother, had a full-time job in Charleston working for the government. So rather than taking a few easy courses his final semester to pump up his GPA, Chad petitioned to graduate early because he had all his required courses completed. He received his diploma through the mail. Didn't even go to commencement. Three years later he bought the car dealership for a pittance. Lou Prickett had grown too fond of booze and was about to lose the franchise anyway.

Now, here he was. A businessman without a business. In Germany. Strange world we live in.

Debbie came over to the porch swing and sat next to him. "Penny for your thoughts, dear."

Chad smiled wryly and put his arm around his wife's small shoulders. "Just thinking. Never thought, heck, never imagined I'd ever get to Europe after I came back to Grantville. Much less live in Germany with you and the kids."

Debbie pulled his arm a bit tighter by tugging his hand. "Have you thought about what you're going to do? Some of the Methodist Women have set up an assistance committee for those German people who've been wandering into town."

"Don't know." Chad took another sip of bourbon. "All the cars and trucks I don't sell to the government, I'm going to have to disassemble for parts. I'll get Bob Szymanski and my other mechanics to do it. Added to my current parts inventory, it'll be worth a fair amount eventually. Trouble is, in the short run, we're going to be hurting for money because I'll have all the costs of tearing those apart but damn little income. We'll probably have to sell some land just to buy groceries."

Debbie pulled away from him. "Don't you dare!" she snapped. "Don't you even think about selling a single lot!"

Chad stared wide-eyed at his wife. She never . . .

"I had an interesting talk with that nice Scottish cavalry captain after he brought over one of his troopers to interpret for us today. He asked who was the laird who owned the land outside town. When I told him that most of it was owned by individuals and coal companies, he looked at me like I was crazy. Then I told him Dad owned 160 acres and you had, here and there, over seventeen hundred acres with houses on some of them. He said you must be a laird to own so much and live in a huge mansion in town. After that, he started treating me as if I was some kind of nobility. He must have said something to his trooper because the next thing I knew, the Germans we'd taken in started bowing their heads to me when I approached them."

Chad grunted a laugh. "Oh, yeah, that's me, Charles Hudson Jenkins von Grantville. Senior."

"I'm not kidding, Chad. In that captain's mind, we're nobility."

Chad still laughed. "Oh, yeah. I suppose I'll have to fight duels to protect the honor of our noble family name, too. Uh-huh, right."

This time Debbie joined him in laughter and leaned back against him again. "Okay, okay it's silly but . . . Do you know how many houses and trailers we have dotted around the countryside?"

"What . . . forty? You're the one taking care of those books. Do we really have that much land?"

Debbie's smile was smug. "Forty-one rentals according to our last tax return. Got back a nice depreciation-based refund a month ago. Deposited it in the bank here in Grantville. Seventeen hundred acres, sure. Some of it is just hillside, of course, since you and your dad bought anything that came on the market cheap enough. We've got the creeks flowing through some of them but it's ours. We may have lost three parcels outside the Ring of Fire but we didn't lose any rentals.

"But what I'm thinking is that we don't have a mortgage on a single one of them any more. We always went through the Bank of Grantville but last year I refinanced them through a New York bank. Our trailer loans were all run through the Farmington bank. Do you realize we have absolutely no debt? None! Honey, we've got rent money coming in from thirty-one active rentals. Ten are empty right now, but that won't last long. Yeah, we've got taxes and maintenance expense. Some of those places are pretty old. But with Chip and Missy not going off to college, we could finance our own construction."

Chad considered for a moment. "Well, that's almost right. Most of our tenants were working in Fairmont, Morgantown or somewhere other than Grantville. In other words, where are they going to get the money to pay their rent?" He sipped his whiskey.

Debbie snorted. "That's a temporary situation and you know it, Chad. They'll have to buy their own food, too. They'll pay their rent or they can move."

Chad knew his smile was a bit twisted. Debbie might have gotten her degree in Elementary Education and taught until Missy was born, but running their rentals for the past several years had given her the same set of hard-headed business rules he had.

"Well, it's a cinch real estate's going to be just a bit more difficult to come by. Building materials are going to be just a bit more expensive as well. You planning on providing materials for the construction boom once it gets going?"

"We've got plenty of trees—maple, oak, ash, pine and other timber. We've never had any of those hillsides cut. I never liked the looks of the timber-cutters who came around. After the first one visited us, I checked out recommended timber-cutting best practices on the Internet. Then I started asking questions. Not a single one ever heard of a contract. So I said no thanks. Now we're going to have a lot of scrub trees and tree limbs for fireplace wood as well as logs for construction."

Chad took a sip from his glass. "Sounds good, I suppose. Doesn't get my blood pumping any more than selling auto parts does."

"Oh, I didn't figure it would." Debbie stood and stretched. "We can hire someone to oversee the day to day operation but you should be there to watch. To see everything is done to conserve the land. They won't pay attention to me. Anyway, there's no way I'm going to hike into the woods to supervise a timber crew. You, well, you ran the dealership garage as well as the sales room."

Chad nodded. It was a plan, at least. "Okay. Damn! I just had a thought. Where are they going to get the gas for the chain saws? Come to that, how are they going to haul the wood out of the woods?"

"The old fashioned way, I suppose. There's bound to be a few of those big two-man saws and buck saws rusting in barns and garages . . . not to mention axes. You can probably hire some of our unemployed tenants to do the work."

"Horses." Chad frowned. "Might be able to get tractors but we'll probably have to buy or rent draft horses or oxen to haul out wagons filled with firewood and the logs. Think your dad has any old horse collars lying about the barn? He's bound to have some saws from your grandfather's day. We can find farm wagons easily enough. Heck, just a few built-up wheeled axles with a tongue welded on. Won't even need to have tires, just the rims. Next question is, does Denny's Lumber still have its own sawmill?"

Debbie shook her head. "No. But I'm certain all the parts are there somewhere. Nathan never threw away anything. Thank God we got the electricity back. That'll power the sawmills."

"Well, looks like I've got something to keep me busy for a while. You can do the rentals and help the refugees with the other gals."

Debbie glanced over at him. "Um . . . it's a bit more than just helping. I got elected chairwoman."

Chad sighed. Every time she became a chairwoman, it cost him money.

****

The dealership had to pay its mechanics to take apart the cars and trucks so Chad joined in to save on labor costs. He received strange looks the day he came into work wearing coveralls. He shrugged and gave a twisted smile. "Times are hard and money's tight." They all nodded with rueful grins. They'd been there.

Two days later, after completely disassembling three cars, Bob Szymanski, Chad's lead mechanic stood up and put down his wrench with deliberation. "This is stupid."

"Huh?" Chad asked.

"Why are we taking these cars apart?"

"Because we don't have any gas."

Bob put his tongue to the side of his cheek and shook his head with a teasing smile. "Uh-uh. We don't have gasoline. We do have gas."

Chad stood slowly. For minutes his face contorted as he thought. "Using barbecue grill gas tanks?" he asked with wry smile.

"I made a couple of gas-powered cars using kits when I was still in high school. We can compress the local gas. You ready to assume the position?"

Chad nodded and Bob gave a shrill whistle. All the other mechanics gleefully surrounded the two men. Chad stood for the traditional reward for Jenkins management stupidity, a practice started by his father. Whack! Bob delivered the dope slap to the back of Chad's head.

"Okay, guys. New orders. Bob, you're in charge of engine conversions. We'll work together on the pricing. Automobile or power units. I want each of you guys to do your own cars and then drive around town. Wait. Buy a lot of pressure tanks and their connections first. That's what's going to limit production. Cars are everywhere but not pressure tanks. When they're gone, we're out of that business. Okay?"

"What are we going to use for money to buy them, Chad?"

He grimaced. "I hope you guys like eating beans more than I do. We're going to have a couple tough months before things turn around."

****

"I'm telling you, Denny, there just ain't enough logs coming in right now to keep that many guys hanging around." Donnie Lee Swiger was arguing with Denny Reilly who was in the midst of setting up a sawmill for his lumber yard. Donnie Lee stopped talking when he saw Chad walk into the pole barn. "Oh, hi, Chad."

"Hi, Donnie Lee, hi, Denny. How's it going?" Chad had only a nodding acquaintance with Denny, who'd bought his last car from Trumble and was originally from Bluefield.

"Fine, fine." A dozen years older than Chad, Denny spoke with confidence. "Getting the sawmill set up. I figure we're going to need it. Found a couple torn up blades and one good one from back before the lumber company started buying dimensional lumber. We'll be ready for business in a week. You planning on some new construction?"

"Not just yet. What with my stock in trade being rendered useless for the time being, I figured I might cut a little of my timber. Just me and a couple of my tenants. I figure a log or two a day, maybe less." Chad leaned back against a steel beam, vaguely wishing he'd taken up tobacco chewing. The good old boys always had a chaw or a whittling knife when they started talking business. Gave them something to do while thinking. The one with the most patience usually got the better deal.

He didn't bother to look at the avaricious gleam in Denny's eyes. Donnie Lee was behind Denny, grinning like a cat watching a mouse approaching a piece of tempting cheese. Chad had been selling cars to Donnie Lee since he got out of the Army. While Denny might know a lot about the lumber business, Donnie Lee knew he had a lot to learn about mano-a-mano dealing with Chad.

"Now that's interesting," Denny countered. "I reckon we could buy anything you cut. In fact, we could probably throw in kiln-drying any lumber you want to keep for yourself. Good, stable wood, won't split on you."

"Sounds good." Chad shrugged. "I figure I'd just cut enough to cover expenses until my rentals start producing a decent cash flow again. Most of them gotta get new jobs. Those who were inside the Ring of Fire. It was a nice day so some of my tenants were out of town."

"Sorry to hear that. Sort of. I guess they're happy that they're back in their time rather than disappearing like us. You know, you might have to do timber-cutting longer than you think, what with all your empty or non-paying rentals. Here's what I was thinking . . . "

It took four hours of hard negotiating but Denny finally "persuaded" Chad to go into the timber-cutting business in a big way, even financing two weeks pay for the lumber crew, just until they got their first payment for the logs from Denny. As was his custom, Chad deliberately left some money on the table for Denny, knowing that pigs get fat and hogs get butchered. Just like the car business, this wasn't a one-time deal.

Late February, 1632

The trouble at the Refugee Center erupted quickly. Two women were flailing at each other, pulling hair, kicking and using their fists. Fights between women cooped up in the old high school gym during winter weather were nothing new to Debbie. She and two of her assistants ran over to break it up.

One woman was far more vicious than the other. Debbie grabbed her from behind. The woman pulled back her arm and her elbow collided with Debbie's right eye socket. Debbie hung onto the woman as she tried to twist and squirm away from Debbie's assistants to attack her opponent again.

"Excuse me. Is this the fishmonger's shop?" Debbie's mother-in-law, Eleanor Jenkins' voice pierced through the clamor. The question was so inappropriate that the struggling woman stopped fighting. Then she almost collapsed and started crying.

Debbie was so disoriented by the blow she lost the train of events for the next several minutes. By the time she understood what was going on, Eleanor had taken charge. She was sitting behind a long table on the announcement stage in her best imperial manner with two long-time friends, Nancy Reardon and Sandra Kip.

Eleanor tapped on the table with a small wooden mallet. "If you will all come to order, we'll get on with the hearing." Her tone was mild but firm. "There have been some strong accusations between the two combatants. Frau Maria Deschler, please step forward."

Maria was a sturdy dark-haired woman in her mid-thirties with a torn blouse and bruised face. Three children who looked to be between ten and two were standing around her, holding onto her apron.

"Frau Deschler, please make your statement before us and your peers," Eleanor pronounced in precise German.

"I don't know what happened, Honorable Frau Jenkins." The woman's chin shook. "I was about to wring out my washed clothing when this other woman came up to me, called me a thief and began hitting me. Naturally I fought back."

"What did she accuse you of stealing?"

"A wringer I bought from an up-timer a week ago."

"Liar!" the other woman screamed. She would have attacked Maria Deschler again except the men next to her held her back.

"Enough of that." Eleanor pounded her makeshift gavel on the table. "You may step back, Frau Deschler. Ursula Mitdorff, please step forward."

The brunette in her late twenties, her hair loose from her kerchief stepped in front of the stage. Anger was visible on her blotchy face and in every step.

"Frau Mitdorff, would you explain your actions and accusation?"

"It is Fraulein Mitdorff, Honorable Frau Jenkins. I am a laundress. She stole my wringer sometime last night. There are no other wringers here at the Refugee Center. I looked for it all morning and found her with it." The younger woman pointed at the other woman. "She is a thief!"

Nancy Reardon leaned over and whispered something to Eleanor. "Yes. Fraulein Mitdorff, we have the wringer in question. Can you identify it?"

The wringer was inside a box next to Sandra Kip and not visible to the young woman. "It is a Maytag. The cover is white. It has been modified so that it has a large wooden handle." Sandra looked down and nodded.

Eleanor's face was neutral and she breathed deeply, filling her lungs. "Thank you, Fraulein. Please step back. Frau Deschler, forward. Do you have anything to add to her description?"

"No, Honorable Frau." The woman was on the verge of tears. "But I bought it."

"From whom and how much did you pay?"

"I don't know his name. It was at the market. An up-timer. He wore a brown jacket and jeans. I paid . . . ten dollars."

"She is a liar!" The younger woman surged forward to the "witness position." She pointed at the mother. "I looked for weeks to find a wringer. None for sale! Anywhere!"

The older woman retreated. This time Sandra Kip asked the question. "If there were none for sale, exactly how did you acquire this wringer, Fraulein Mitdorff?" Her voice was ice in the cool and now silent gym.

The younger woman's face was pinched and white showed around her tight mouth. Then she lifted her head. "I paid for it with my body. An up-timer saw me wringing out laundry. For two weeks I visited him at night. Two weeks in which he . . . " Tears came to her eyes and she wiped them away after clearing her throat. "I did anything he wanted. He was at least honorable enough to keep his bargain."

The faces of the three women at the table were harsh. "Frau Deschler? What have you to say?" asked Nancy Reardon. One glance at the mother and it was obvious to everyone that she'd stolen and then lied about it. She shook her head in terror.

"I only wanted to dry my children's clothes quickly. I'd seen how well her wringer worked and knew it came from an up-timer. I didn't know how she'd . . . " The woman buried her face in her hands, sobbing.

Eleanor nodded to Sandra who handed the object to the young woman. "Fraulein Mitdorff, please take your wringer with our apologies. Apologies for this incident and for the way you had to pay for it." The laundress gathered it to her chest and, head down, quickly left the area.

Eleanor folded her hands together on the table and shook her head. "Frau Deschler. I shall not ask your peers what German law says should be your punishment. This is Grantville." Sandra and Nancy leaned over, hands concealing their words as they spoke to Eleanor. She gave a quick nod. "Frau Deschler. For your error you will first sincerely apologize to Fraulein Mitdorff. Then you will do community service for a month. Frau Deborah Jenkins will give you your work assignments. For the rest of you, do not attempt to bother either of these women about this incident. This hearing is finished."

Frau Deschler would have left but Debbie blocked her departure until Eleanor and the others joined them. Eleanor looked her in the eye. "Frau Deschler, I hope you understand that this hearing was not a legal court. Community service assigned by Frau Jenkins is not enforceable. But if Fraulein Mitdorff and the others here see you doing it, they will not want it to go further."

Frau Deschler was trembling as she nodded. "I hope so."

Debbie gently put her hand on the woman's arm. "Why don't you introduce me to your children?"

****

Camping during winter in Germany is damn cold, Chad told himself. One of Dad's old mechanics had told him about being constantly exhausted while slogging through France during the winter of '44-45 but it never sunk in until now. He could have walked the two miles each way to and from home every day but the days were short. If he wanted to make sure the land didn't get trashed, he had to be on site. Besides, the weather took it out of him. An extra hour or more each way, climbing over snow-covered hills and walking on icy roads was exhausting.

Money had been tight, damn tight even without the loan and mortgage payments because over half of their renters were looking for new jobs. Chad and Debbie talked it through and told their unemployed renters that they had a one month's rent moratorium. During those months the Jenkins family's only expenditures were for food because the utility and phone billings were in shambles. Chad's biggest source of pride during those months was that he hadn't missed a dealership payroll in spite of buying gas tanks. He hadn't failed his people.

Their tax refund and the few paying rentals barely covered expenses until the rental, engine conversion and timber money began to kick in. Once all his previous renters found jobs and he filled the open rentals, he finally had net income rather than losses. Then his stomach unknotted.

In October his timber crew built two bunkhouses that could be transported to each new site. They'd also found two potbellied stoves somewhere, so the bunkhouses stayed warm at night and during winter storms.

Once the logs had been trimmed and cut to proper length, they were hauled out of the forest down to the edge of the road. From there the logs went to the sawmill.

****

It was a late February Friday afternoon when the crew rode the wagon filled with firewood into town. Estes Frost, the experienced logger Chad had hired as his timber-cutting boss, would pay the crew its wages after the firewood wagon was emptied at the lumberyard.


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About Russ Rittgers

Russ Rittgers is a CPA who doesn’t do audits, thank you very much. He prefers to prepare personal income taxes (except his own). No one at corporate shows half the appreciation and thanks that an individual taxpayer does.

Retired from the Naval Reserve, his duty assignments ranged from the Philippines to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. He’s now waiting for the munificent military retirement checks to start rolling in once he reaches age sixty. He is married with two no-longer children.

Russ began writing while on trips, during airport layovers and in hotel rooms. His first four novels are still a collection of 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive and will never see the light of day until posthumously discovered and proclaimed to be “great works of his early writing career.”

He has been posting in 1632 Slush since 2003 and his first published story is “Chip’s Christmas Gift.”

Russ’ story “Ellis Island” is in Ring of Fire II.