Yet another previously unpublished short story. Enjoy.
The Drubbing of Joseph McGee
a short story by Harvey Stanbrough
It really was a simple thing, the drubbing of Joseph McGee. It wasn’t meant to be a big deal, just a little corrective action, a little attitude adjustment. And it was necessary.
At around six feet tall and filled out at around 240 pounds, McGee was one of those guys who actually looks like a lumberjack, which is what we all are. But he was also one of those guys who makes life miserable for everyone else, and he’s got a mouth on top of that. Life’s miserable enough up here on the side of the mountain, far from our homes and families for months at a time, cutting timber, dodging falling and rolling trees, cleaning ‘em up, loading logs and trucking ‘em down the mountain.
It’s rough work. It’s miserable in the summer with the percentage of humidity often matching the temperature, and it’s miserable in the winter when the icy cold temps drive us all inside whenever we aren’t working. And it’s always miserable downwind from Joseph McGee.
The truck drivers didn’t have a terrible time of it like the rest of us did. They mostly lounged in the cab of their truck and smoked cigarettes as they waited for us to load them up. Then they’d get a bill of lading and any final instructions from the boss, climb into their truck and drive away. Often as not, a fog had set in, and between the fog and the trees we couldn’t even see them go after the first quarter-mile or so.
There were seven drivers at my last count, and we sent out two loads per day. So the drivers worked only once every few days. Those with families had even relocated to the nearest town, Swanson. So when they were off, they were with their families. They got to watch their children grow. They got to eat supper and breakfast at home, and between those two events they got to see their wives. That’s important when you’re a young man.
And before you ask why we hadn’t relocated our families too, it wouldn’t be worth it. We could clear the old growth from one side of a good-sized mountain in a month, then work our way down one of the other two or three sides. So we were in place three or four months before we’d move to a new mountain.
We had nights off, of course. But it wasn’t like we had our cars and pickups sitting around the logging site. We were trucked in at the beginning and trucked down after we were through. So if we wanted to go anywhere, we had to walk. And trust me, after you’ve worked one end of a two-man saw ten or twelve hours in a day, it’s all you can do to get back to the tent in the late fall and winter or back to your sleeping bag in the spring or summer. And even if you could walk down to the nearest town, the trip there and back would take all night. By the time you got back the next morning, you’d have to go straight to the saw and start working again. So going home wasn’t for us, except for the week or so we got off in between cuts.
So all twenty-six of us were kind’a jammed together when we weren’t working.
The bosses, three of them, had their own tent to sleep in complete with a coal-oil heater. The rest of us crowded into an old Army surplus GP tent. To save on costs and cut down on the chance of a fire, the company opted to give each of us an extra Army surplus wool blanket instead of a stove. So we didn’t have a heater, but with twenty-six of us in the same place, it was warm enough.
There was also a small mess tent, where two cooks prepared two meals a day, morning and night. But it was about the size of the bosses’ tent, so it was only a kitchen. There weren’t any tables or benches. We didn’t eat there. We’d get our grub, then carry it back to our tent or settle in against a tree trunk or log or maybe on the running board of a truck to eat, if there was a truck there.
The only other amenities we had were a shower bag rigged to a low branch of a ponderosa pine out on the edge of the camp and a bottle of company-supplied booze per man every three days.
And that shower bag is what caused the problem. Or what solved the problem. It was rigged on the edge of camp and just over the slope so the excess water would run downhill. Joseph McGee had been with us for almost this whole cut—he’d joined us on the third day, riding up with one of the truck drivers and being hired-on on the spot—but that was almost two months ago and he’d yet to take advantage of the shower.
That kind of went all over us, what with him sleeping in one of the two cots next to the door of our tent.
As you walk through the front door of our tent, there were thirteen cots on either side of a central aisle. The more senior guys were in the middle six or seven rows where it was warmest. My cot was the seventh on the left. From there the newer guys slept in the rows toward the back and then toward the front, in that order.
The newest guys had to take the cots next to the door. They put up with the brunt of the icy wind that blew up the mountain every evening and down the mountain every morning. They took the blasts of cold air when anyone went out to get breakfast or supper or to answer the call of nature. If the wind untied the door flaps in the middle of the night, they were the ones who had to get up and secure them again. It wasn’t something we ever talked about. It was just the way things were.
None of that had mattered until Joseph McGee showed up. He had the first cot to the left when you came in through the door, or the last cot on the right when you went out. Coming or going, you had to pass by that cot, and coming or going you had to put up with the stench. And if you caught a full blast of it in the face, like if he rolled over or fluffed his covers while you were passing by, it would make your eyes water.
For showers, the rest of us had settled into a rotation. Most of us would strip down and shower every three or four days in the early afternoon when the sun was high overhead. It wasn’t something we even scheduled. It was just something we did out of a sense of decency toward our fellow human beings.
Because it happened in the middle of the day, guys would usually go as a team. They’d mark their next tree, lean their saw up against it, then go shower. Some of them even showered together, washing each other’s backs. Then they’d get dressed, head back to the saw, and go back to work. But at least they knocked the stink off, and it would take three or four days to build up again.
The few who didn’t want to strip down for a full shower would take an old t-shirt and a bar of soap to the shower, spill a little water on it, and soap it up. Then they’d wash their face, neck, pits and undercarriage in that order. Then they’d soak the rag again and rinse it all off. But at least they stayed clean.
Only Joseph McGee didn’t see it that way.
Things finally started to come to a head when McGee had been there a little over a month. Bill Jackson, another new guy who slept in the cot next to McGee’s, waved his hand across his face and asked McGee when he was going to take a shower “for Christ’s sake.”
McGee only sat on the edge of his cot and started unlacing his boots. He was facing Jackson, and as he slipped off the first boot he looked up and grinned. “Hey, we’re all working men here, am I right?” He slid the boot under his cot, then peeled off his sock and laid it carefully over the back of the boot. Heaven forbid he should get any dirt on the sticky, nasty-smelling thing. I could smell it all the way to my cot. Then McGee shrugged and said, “It ain’t like we’re a bunch’a women, know what I mean?”
Bill just had time to say, “Man, you just stink, that’s all I know. You gotta get a—”
By then, McGee had pulled off his other boot. He left that one where it was, and as Bill spoke, he peeled off his other sock, then wagged it past Bill’s face. “Here. Get a whiff of this.” Then he laughed.
Bill might’ve jumped on him right then, but he’d already turned away and was retching. But it wouldn’t have gone well for Bill anyway. He was maybe five-six or seven and skinny as a rail. He was wiry and eerily strong for his size, but McGee would’ve wiped the ground with him.
McGee watched as Bill retched, and when the little man was through, he said, “Most of us here are men, Jackson. We can put up with a little body odor, considering we all have it. This whole tent stinks.”
Well, he was right about that. The tent was rife with odor constantly. Only he didn’t seem to understand that most of that odor came from him.
Then he feinted with the sock like he was going to wag it again. As Bill flinched away, McGee said, “Besides, see? Stinky socks make a great defensive weapon. Just like mace.” Then he laughed again, folded himself under his blankets and went to sleep.
So anyway, that was the incident that brought home to the rest of us that we really had a problem, and that we might have to deal with it. I figured I’d talk to the bosses the next day. Me and four other guys are all senior here, having been with this crew the longest, and I’m usually the one who talks for all of us.
Only McGee beat me to it.
The next day, I walked past the mess tent, slapped the side of the bosses’ tent, then lifted a flap and walked in.
But before I could open my mouth, Jim Masters, the main boss from the company, looked at me from behind his black horn-rim glasses where he was sitting on his cot with a plateful of breakfast. “Hey, Nick, looks to me you guys have a problem over there.”
“What problem?” I said.
He took a bite of scrambled eggs and hash browns. Amazing how he balanced it all on his fork. As he chewed open-mouthed, he said, “The new guy. McGee, right?” He chewed a little more. “He came in a little while ago. Wanted to know—” He stopped and raised one hand, then visibly swallowed and stabbed a piece of sausage and put it in his mouth. As he chewed that, he said, “Wanted to know why all the ‘sissies’ in your tent take showers. Even asked why we ‘waste’ all that water on showers.”
“What’d you tell him?”
Rob Sloan, the number two guy who’d once been one of us, said, “We didn’t tell him nothin’. Ain’t our problem, is it?” Sloan was always a worthless hog, even when he was one of us.
Masters shook his head at Sloan, then swallowed again, then pointed his fork at me. “You need to fix that, don’t you? Before things get outta hand?”
I lied. “I have something planned.”
Jake Horowitz, the other boss and also formerly one of us, said, “Give him a pink belly. I’ll bet that’d work. When I was in the army, I seen more than one guy get a pink belly for not taking a shower.”
The other bosses only looked at him.
“Yeah,” I said, “I’ll take care of it. Only not like that.”
Masters said, “Up to you. Lemme know when it’s resolved one way or the other.”
One way or the other. What’d he mean by that?
Then he clarified. “I’d personally rather you’d all keep taking showers, but if that ain’t the way it works out….”
So “one way or the other” to him meant we’d either all keep taking showers or nobody would.
Well, that’s kind of what I had in mind anyway. I left the tent to go to work, and through the morning, during breaks, I talked to a few of my stouter friends.
That early afternoon, when the sun was overhead and McGee and I had worked our saw almost halfway through a massive pine tree, I let go of my end of the saw.
He let go of his end too, then straightened, stretched his back and sneered. “What’s up? You tired already?”
“Nah, I got something to show you. Come with me.” To emphasize it was an order, not a request, I turned away.
His boots were crunching through leaves and sticks behind me. So far, so good.
When I got to the shower bag, I stopped, turned to face McGee, and gestured toward the OD-green bag with my left hand. “That is the shower unit. We use it to stay clean enough that we don’t run off wildlife and make each other’s eyes water. And starting today, you’re gonna use it too.”
He actually looked up as if he’d never seen such a thing before.
As he looked at me again, he said, “And what if I don’t?”
I held my right hand out to my side, palm up, and one of the other guys slapped a rag and a bar of soap in it. I never looked away from McGee. “You don’t have a choice.” I held out my right hand. “It’s time. Here, take these.”
The three other guys I’d talked with earlier were moving up, one behind him and one to either side.
If worse came to worst, they’d position him under the bag and I’d pull the cord to release the water.
McGee sneered again. “Oh, I’m pretty sure I do. With all due respect, I decline.”
And that’s when things went wrong.
Tom grabbed both McGee’s arms from behind just as Rick grabbed his left shoulder and Jack grabbed his right.
McGee screamed bloody murder and struggled, his face growing red with the effort, but the three guys held on and moved him closer and closer toward the bag.
When he was almost in position, I dropped the rag and the bar of soap and reached for the cord that would dump a few gallons of water on him.
Then Bill Jackson, who was standing on the far side of the tree from McGee and just out of my line of vison, muttered plainly, “You’re such an asshole.”
And McGee launched. I’d never seen strength like that before. He literally flung Tom and Rick away like they were nothing, leaned forward and charged past the tree.
Bill, being as limber and spry as he was, easily sidestepped him and backed into my field of vision.
McGee yelled, “Hey!” then “Help!” mixed in with rustling leaves and sticks as he slid down the hill some thirty feet—to a ledge we didn’t even know was there. After that there was only the long, drawn-out, fading scream.
Everybody was stock still, probably in shock.
Finally Bill said, “I didn’t even know that ledge was there.” He looked up at me, then at the others. “Anybody?” A faint smile played on his lips.