Tuesday Sampler: Tree Soldier by J. L. Oakley
November 13, 2018
He blames himself for the fiery accident that caused his brother’s disfigurement and the death of the bootlegging woman he loved. Read an excerpt from J. L. Oakley’s stunning historical fiction novel of suspense, love, forgiveness, and redemption.
One mistake can ruin a life. One mistake can transform it.
A government forestry camp set deep in the mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest might not seem the likely place to find redemption, but in 1935, Park Hardesty hopes for just that.
Blaming himself for the fiery accident that caused his brother’s disfigurement and the death of the bootlegging woman he loved, planting trees, building bridges and mentoring tough, homesick New Jersey boys brings him both penitence and the renewal of his own self-worth.
When he wins the love of Kate Alford, a local naturalist who envisions joining the Forest Service, which allows only men, he also captures the ire of a camp officer who refuses to let her go. Just when he is ready to seek his brother’s forgiveness, he is falsely accused of rape.
Every aspect of his life he has tried to rebuild is put in jeopardy. In the end, the only way he can defend himself is to tell the truth about his brother, but he risks being kicked out of the camp.
Worse, he could lose Kate’s love forever.
The game was in the third ending when McGill and some others struck. It was all supposed to be a joke, a tradition, but from the start, it turned ugly. Surrounding the group of eight, a crowd of local enrollees began to ask questions of the boys and when Costello or Spinelli spoke they got teased for their accents.
“Hey, they did all right,” a blonde local named Larsen said. “They did their share.”
McGill knocked the enrollee’s cap off. “Sure they did. You’re gonna get dunked.”
“So?” Staubach said. The big blonde Pennsylvanian straightened his back. He was a farm boy, but not the hayseed they thought he was. He put up his dukes. “We’ve got bigger rivers where I come from.”
“Yeah, but we’ve got man eating fish. Ever wonder why a salmon looks so threadbare by the time it spawns? It’s the little fishes in the water that nibble at them, bit by bit. They can take off your toes if you’re not watching. If the cold don’t get you, they will.”
“Where do I sign up?” Staubach asked.
“Why, over there,” one of McGill’s buddies said. He pointed to the willow-lined bank at the end of the field, some fifty feet away.
“Come on fellows, let’s show them what we can take,” Staubach said.
“Now wait a damn minute,” McGill growled. “You got to be done proper.”
“Then carry me there.” Staubach swaggered his shoulders.
McGill looked annoyed but instantly several enrollees seized and carried Staubach like a plank of wood to the river. There they swung and tossed him out into the river. When he yelled as he hit the water, some of the locals began to cheer and chant, “Dunk them, dunk them.” The boys pushed on Joisey Squad, edging them toward the water. Joisey Squad pushed back.
Careful, Hardesty thought. He didn’t like the feel of the whole situation. A strange electricity prickled around the water’s edge.
“You’re next,” McGill said to Jacob Golden.
“Where’s Jeff?” Golden craned his neck and looked down river.
“He’s okay,” someone said. “He’s making his way down to the next stop.”
“How fast is it here?” Hardesty asked.
“You worried?” McGill sneered, his face puckered up like a Boston terrier’s.
“No, I’m just inquiring whether I should dog-paddle or display my Tarzan-like swimming skills.”
“It’s not too fast,” an enrollee said. “And it’s deep.”
“Stop talking,” McGill said. “You, Toland. Get some of the boys to bring up Golden and O’Connell.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Golden said and let himself and O’Connell be thrown in. Hoss Werner was next. He stood at the edge and held his nose before jumping off. Some of the locals laughed. A ways downstream Staubach waved as he climbed out and then turned around as Golden and O’Connell came paddling by. They had narrowly missed a big snag in the water, coming around it backwards.
Up on the bank, it was Costello’s turn. McGill’s squad charged him, but he fooled them all and twisting out of their hands, took a flying leap and went blind into the water. Fortunately, he avoided going out into the river’s faster middle.
“How’s the water?” Spinelli yelled to Costello. He got an answer quicker than intended when he was pushed in. He grabbed onto an enrollee from Spenser’s squad and they went in together. The local man came up sputtering to the roars of the others. Both young men made it down to the stony shore several hundred yards down, safely making it around the snag. Costello and Werner were there to pull them in.
“That leaves you two,” McGill said. He looked really steamed. Turned around and looked sharply at Hardesty and Sal Lorenzo. “Who goes first?”
Hardesty shrugged. At this point, they had no choice, but go in. The honor of squad at stake. He looked over at Lorenzo and was surprised to see him pale and drawn. A tough, wiry Puerto Rican from Newark, what bravado he normally carried was long gone. He worked his mouth constantly, his dark eyes on the water. Sensing Hardesty’s gaze, he looked up at his straw boss and instantly Hardesty knew what was wrong. Lorenzo couldn’t swim.
“I’ll go,” Hardesty said. “I’ll wait for you, Sal,” he said directly to him, ignoring McGill’s curious look.
“I’d rather not go at all,” the eighteen-year-old replied.
“You gotta. It’s tradition,” a local enrollee next to him said. “Unless you’re chicken.”
“I ain’t chicken.” Lorenzo spat.
McGill suddenly understood. “Aw, he can’t swim. That’s what he’s afraid of.” His eyes grew wide. “Hey, Larsen. Get that clothesline rope.”
“What for?” Lorenzo asked.
“To snag a fish.”
“Do I have to?” Lorenzo asked Hardesty.
“No,” Hardesty said. “You don’t have to.”
“It’s okay,” Larsen said. “I’ll tie you good. You’ll only get wet.” Squeezing through the group around the remaining enrollees from Joisey Squad, the blonde put the rope around Lorenzo’s waist and tied it in front. “We’ll hold onto you. I won’t let go. I promise.”
Lorenzo seemed resigned to his fate. Hardesty could see it on his face and appreciated the fact that he had probably faced worse things in the streets back home.
“You going in, Park?” Lorenzo asked.
“Sure. I’ll go in.” He took the rope in his hands. It didn’t seem strong. Its cotton fibers looked old and rotten. “You got another?”
“This’ll do,” McGill said. “Quit babying him. You going in?”
“Sure… I’ll do it,” Lorenzo said. “When Park’s ready.”
“Ready?” McGill nodded to two of his friends and before Hardesty could react, Lorenzo was picked up and tossed far out into the river. He went down, then came up sputtering, grabbing desperately for the taunt rope.
“That was a dirty trick.” Hardesty got right in McGill’s face and slammed him on his shoulders. “What the hell did you do it for? What was the point?”
McGill shrugged him off. “Watch your paws.”
Hardesty watched the boy flounder in the water and hoped Larsen and the two others that held him would bring him in quickly. He hesitated, wondering if it would do any good at all to go in, when he could help haul him in here on shore.
“Bring him in, Larsen,” he finally asked. “He’s done his time.”
“No wait,” McGill said. “He’s not done.”
“He’s done.” Hardesty reached for the rope but before he could lay hold of it, in one sickening moment, it broke, causing Larsen and the others to fall to the ground. Lorenzo went spinning out into the middle of the river, thrashing his arms wildly where the rope had once been secured.
“Park!” The boy screamed, then quit when he got a mouthful of water.
“You bastard, McGill.” Hardesty tore along the edge of the bank, looking for a place to go in, watching in horror as Lorenzo swung back into shore directly in line with the snag. For a moment, he seemed to be held in place there, before swinging out into the current again and crashing back into the weathered gray roots of the old tree.
“The rope!” Careless of his safety, Hardesty dove into the water and let the current take him down to the snag. At the last minute he stroked over to where Lorenzo was caught on some roots. The boy’s head was bleeding and half-submerged under the water. Hardesty came alongside and kicking out, clung onto one of the roots while desperately lifting Lorenzo’s chin out of the water.
“Sal!” he shouted above the water’s noise. He slapped him on his cheek and the boy’s eyes opened. “Hold on. I’ll cut you free. Can you do it?”
The boy nodded, choking and spitting out water. “I think so…” He had one of his arms wrapped around a gnarly root, but when he brought up his free arm, he cried out in pain. One glance told Hardesty that it was broken. “Just hold on.”
Hardesty got his knife from its soggy scabbard and sawed on the rope. The water was a numbing cold and he found it hard to concentrate as it pulled relentlessly on his clothes and body. His feet were in danger of slipping off the root he stood on. He did not notice that Spenser had joined him until he was beside him. Together they got the boy untangled from the snag.
“Dumb tradition!” Spenser yelled over the water’s torrent. “You did good, Sal. No one’s going to give you a hard time.”
The boy smiled weakly. He looked like he was going to pass out and Hardesty feared shock. When he was completely free, Hardesty asked if anyone had gone to get a doctor.
“Yes,” Spenser said.
“Then let’s get him away from this.” Knowing that it would probably hurt him, Hardesty chose the best lifesaving hold he could think of for this water and kicked out into the river with Lorenzo. Spenser stayed close and together they were swept downstream to the low bank. By now most of Joisey Squad was standing there ready to help as well as a crowd of boys from the other squads. The dunking had turned ugly and many were ashamed. As soon as the three were within grabbing distance, there were hands to help pull them in safely to shore. Groaning, Lorenzo was gently lifted out of the water and brought up on the bank. A blanket was produced and the boy wrapped up. A group of enrollees volunteered to take him to the infirmary, but Hardesty checked him again for shock. The boy looked cold and pale, but Spenser okayed the move and Lorenzo was quickly taken away.
“What happened?” Spinelli asked.
“That happened,” Hardesty replied pointing to McGill as water dripped off his head and nose. His sopping wet clothes clung to him like he had just emerged fully clothed from a bathtub. His skin was like goose flesh. As they walked back up towards the field, McGill was standing with his little group. Larsen off to the side looked horrified, but McGill didn’t look particularly perturbed. There was a sly smile on his face when Hardesty came up to him.
“He couldn’t take it,” McGill sneered.
“He took it all right. Here’s his answer.” Hardesty slugged the Tar Heel in the mouth in a single movement that sent McGill to the ground. Hardesty stepped over him and walked on, gathering people as he went. His own squad stayed close to him, clearing the way as he went back into the camp. Something roared behind him, yelling at him to stop. Hardesty turned in time to see McGill charging up to him.
“No one lays a hand on me!” he shouted. “No one!”
“All right, I won’t.”
McGill didn’t see Hardesty’s foot until too late. Tripping, he lost his balance and went rolling down the bank to the pebbly narrow beach below.
“I’ll get you, you dirty foreigner,” McGill shouted as he climbed back up, but Hardesty was already across the field. He held his hands up in the air.
“No hands,” he yelled back, his squad laughing beside him.
Please click HERE to find Tree Soldier on Amazon.