At Loggerheads

THE BIG RIG came lumbering slowly out of the low-lying fog. The truck announced its presence long before the Hatch family saw it. Sue and John stood silent beside their car. The Honda sat off the one lane dirt road at an odd angle, both passenger side wheels in a muddy ditch up to the rocker panels.

Sue gave a little cry of relief when she heard the flatulent diesel sound as the unseen driver eased off the accelerator. They’d been stuck for hours.  She couldn’t get warm wearing the light sweater she’d brought, but she couldn’t sit another minute in that car.

She looked at her son kicking in John’s arms. Jason needed food.  The last of the milk went an hour ago. The kid cried incessantly now. Damn John and his scenic shortcuts!

John took it on the chin first in her unhappy tirade and later in her pointed silence. It matched exactly the hush of the deep woods until Jason got started. John, for his part, bore Sue’s mood stoically.

He got them into it and he didn’t know how to get them out. Their Honda had stood them in all kinds of weather, but nothing did well in mud.

Sue’s petulant attitude didn’t help. He’d tried all the things a man will try, first with confidence and later in desperation.

The pine forest stood majestic in the coolness of the fall day. The fog that began in the lower valley after the sudden rainstorm had moved upland as the sun heated it from above. Now it covered the entire valley but not the high ground above them.

Looking up the hillside, searching for some inner peace, Sue thought the tall pines’ dark green needles should strike a pleasant contrast to the big patch of vivid blue sky that appeared after the quick storm. It could be a picture postcard, but her mood wouldn’t let her enjoy it.

Here they were, miles from civilization. They didn’t dare try to walk back to the seldom-traveled highway in mid-state Maine they’d left for this route because of bears. The woods were full of them. She wouldn’t even consider it, and no way did she want John leaving her and the baby.

“Ouuu!” she cried in utter frustration, “John, do something with Jason!

John had seen frustration in his wife in their past ten years of marriage. He’d just have to wait it out.

He said as gently as he could, “We’ll get out of here, honey. I’m doing the best I can.”

“You’ve said that five times and we’re still here!” she screamed.

John subsided. He walked with his son in his arms on the nearly dry crown of the road. Motion sometimes distracted Jason. Not this time. His clock said time to eat so he let his parents know.

John looked at the sun. Nearly noon. He pictured his watch on his dresser at home. Lot of good it did there, and the car’s electric clock had quit a couple of months ago. Meant to have it fixed…the road to hell, he thought.

This lark he’d planned didn’t turn out that way. Route 633 had to be five miles back, at least. He rued his decision after a mile but couldn’t find a turnaround. Maybe at the next curve he’d find a place, but it didn’t happen.

The sudden downpour, gone as fast as it came, turned the road into a quagmire. It came on so quickly and hard he had to stop. He literally couldn’t see the road. It worried him that they were still going up the side of this mountain. Once he started driving again, he feared they’d be in trouble, only a matter of time.

Out of the fog the big Mack logger nosed its way upward. The driver saw them and stopped. A man his late thirties got out of the cab, nimbly caught the step and jumped to the ground. He wore an insulated red and white, checkered flannel shirt with sleeves that came just above his wrists. He had plenty of muscle under the shirt. He looked them over and then at the Honda and stood silently for a moment.

“Private road, mistah,” he said in his quaint Maine accent. “Didn’t yuh see the sign back theah?”

No,” John said, “I didn’t see any sign. My map showed this road and I thought it went to a scenic overlook.” John still had Jason and he whimpered and fussed even as John bounced him in his arms.

“Yuh got a bit of the way up the hill.”

“I know. I was looking for a place to turn around, but it kept going up and up.”

“Ay-uh. No place to turn fur another mile, I guess.”

“Then we got the rain and instant mud and you can see what happened.”

“This road’ll handle a rig. That little pip-squeak car’s no good here.”

“I found that out.”

“Lemme see thet map o yourn.”

John handed the baby to Sue and she cooed at Jason and bounced him some more without much success. John went into the passenger’s side of their car and grabbed the map off the dash. The logger didn’t introduce himself. John went up to him and turned so they could both look.

“This is where I think we are.” He pointed to a place on the map.

“Ay-uh. I kin see whayah yuh made yuh mistake. Yuh see this nub ovah heah?” the man pointed.

“Yes.”

“Now, yuh see this nub ovah heah?”

“I’m on the wrong mountain, aren’t I?”

“Ay-uh.”

“Can you help us out and get us turned around?”

“Well,” the man said, “yer trespassin’ and Mr. Mulgrave don’t take kindly to trespassers.”

The man didn’t sound at all friendly.

“Look, all we want is to turn around and get out of here. You can’t pass my car. It’s blocking the road.”

“That’s not a problem, mistah. I kin push you right over the edge there. Yuh see the edge there, don’t yuh?”

John looked involuntarily. He didn’t like the steep down-slope at all. Sparse growth and fifty feet further down a cliff that dropped out of sight.

Now the guy looked mean. John gauged what kind of man he could be. Thin but hard muscled, he couldn’t weigh more than one fifty. John had him by thirty pounds. Pretty obviously the man had an active physical life and worked hard at it. John had a desk job a few years of sitting away from his iron pumping days. He doubted he’d be a match for this stranger.

Sue took this moment to get into the conversation. “Look, mister, we’re in your way and you want us out of your way, right?”

For the first time the man really looked at her. Cute little thing. Her turned up nose kinda reminded him of his dead sister Maude. About the same age, too. Two years since the cancer got her. He loved his Sissy, so ‘bout that time he told God to go screw.

The gal wore a light blue dress with some kind of lacy white stuff bordering the edges, made for riding comfort in a car, but not for standing around outside in a mountain wilderness. Her light sweater wouldn’t cut a Maine wind, no how. Like he’d asked, he saw her shiver.

She had a cute kid, too; would have been cute if he wasn’t caterwauling right about now. The woman tried to push its face against her breast to muffle the noise. That just made him notice her chest.

Kid didn’t matter, but Mr. Mulgrave had strict instructions about people nosing around. He had a lot to lose if anyone saw his operation and got outsiders involved. Pretty likely they’d see it if he got them to a turnaround.

“That’s right, little lady.”

“So won’t you help us?”

The man pondered. Foxy looking thing. His eyes narrowed. “Maybe I kin. Maybe yuh kin do somethin’ for me. Maybe yuh kin help me a bit and maybe then I kin help you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Flat out, I ain’t been with a woman fer a real long time. I’m feelin’ a need.”

“You don’t mean…?”

The man stared at her.

John gaped at the two and horror came to his face.

“Wait just a minute!” he said, “What you’re suggesting you’re going to have to do over my dead body. Forget it, mister!

“You got nothin’ tuh say, buddy. I’m talkin’ tuh the lady. But since yer talkin’, you wouldn’t have a problem with returnin’ one favor fer another, would yuh?”

John saw white! He felt hot all over. Nobody could do this. Maine was part of a civilized country, wasn’t it?

The scenario had turned strange and ugly. He decided he couldn’t argue with the guy and no man would rape his wife before he lay stone cold dead trying to prevent it.

“You’re doing nothing, mister. Who the hell do you think you are?”

Sue looked confused for a moment, but now she could see a confrontation coming and she could stop it.

“John, let me talk to him.”

“No, Sue. Don’t you know what’s going on here?”

“Yes, I do. I want to talk to him.”

“No!”

“Excuse me,” she said to the man, and took John’s hand and led him away out of earshot.

The trucker watched with interest while Sue in low but intense conversation gesticulated wildly and John gestured back with finality. Finally he threw his hands up in disgust, turned and walked rapidly back to confront the man.

“Under no circumstances am I going to give my wife to you. Forget it! She has nothing more to say.”

“Whatevah.”

The logger turned, walked back to the truck and quickly got in. John divined his next move. He ran to the idling truck as the driver put the rig into low gear. With a rage he hadn’t felt since he’d pasted that bully Bobby Hunt in the face as a boy, John jumped onto the step, reached through the open window and punched the man in the side of the head.

Momentarily stunning the man, John pressed his advantage, grabbed his coat and pulled him toward the driver’s window. The driver’s foot came off the clutch and the big truck started forward. John hung on, one arm around the man’s neck as the other reached wildly for the steering wheel.

Fifteen feet from the Honda, Sue, between the car and the oncoming truck, screamed and tried to run up the hillside, slipped on mud in the roadside gully and went down with the baby, instinctively twisting to save Jason.

Her head hit a rock. She lay suddenly quiet and still, while the baby screamed on her chest. The truck headed directly for her legs.

John hit the driver full in the face. Then he grabbed the wheel desperately, turning it hard to the right. The vehicle found the edge and went over, missing Sue’s legs by inches.

As the big truck’s rear wheels cleared the road and the rig started slowly down the steep slope, the man stirred and sat up.

John grabbed his neck and squeezed. With a violent twist to the left, the man hit John in the face and John reeled away, lost for a moment. As he fell back the crook of his arm found the outside mirror and hung him up. Recovering quickly, he savagely went back through the window and hit and gouged at the man. They were twenty-five feet down the slope and gaining speed.

The man’s foot found the air brakes. Fending John off, he stomped on the pedal. The engine stalled, but the brakes couldn’t stop the rig. On wet ground ten tons of steel riding on ten huge rubber tires slid slowly toward the precipice, making long, reddish dual skid marks.

Ten feet…five…John screamed a horrible epithet and fell away from the truck as the front end went over the cliff. John grabbed at the hardy root on a stunted tree. It tore away and he slid closer to the brink. He grabbed wildly for another. It held. He lay, feet out over space, eyes closed, terror in his heart.

He heard a cry with a sob and then the wrenching sound of the loggers rig leaving the ground on its way over. Sound followed sound, first nothing but a wail, then crashing, crashing, crashing, trees going over forever…then silence.

Sue! Jason!

He pulled himself carefully up and got ground under him. His gorge rose. He swallowed it back. Painfully, he grabbed any handhold he could find as he worked his way up the hill. His fingers began to bleed and mix with blood from his scored knuckles. He wore holes in his pants and his face felt numb.

Not as bad as the other guy, he thought with well-deserved malice.

Nearing the road he heard Jason’s healthy cry and as he gained the crest, he saw the baby on unmoving Sue’s chest, her arm across him.

With a catch in his throat, he called, “Sue?”

With halting steps he walked to his wife. Bloody ground under her head and the sharp rock next to her told the story. He bent down and felt. Pulse weak but regular. He gently moved her arm and gathered up the baby. Jason whimpered in his daddy’s arms.

Sue needed attention. Jason would have to wait. He carried the baby to the car and locked him into his car seat. Grabbing the first aid kit from the passenger’s side door well, he went to the trunk and got the picnic blanket out. He felt Sue over. Only the head wound. She moaned.

“Sue?”

Gradually she came to. He gentled her in his arms.

Sue’s eyes focused and she let out a short scream as a nightmare passed through her and reality crept in. When he could see reason in her eyes, he told her the man had gone and wouldn’t be back. She clung to him.

The road dried by mid-afternoon. John had Sue get in the drivers seat and told her how to rock the automatic up one side of the rut he’d made, stand on the brake while she shifted and then run up the other side to gradually widen the lock he’d placed on the right wheels. While she did that, he pushed; first front and then rear. In that manner they eventually got free of nature’s muddy trap.

They drove the mile the man said would have the first turnaround and found it. They also found a side valley with several acres of healthy growing marijuana plants. The authorities would be very interested in the crop. What was the owner’s name…Mulgrave…yes…Mulgrave.

The police would no doubt be interested in another story they had to tell, too.