Shootout at White Alice

1987 Small Town Alaska

The axe swings in a graceful arc, the day’s declining light glints off the whetted steel. With power and precision, it connects with a round of knotty spruce, piercing it neatly, splitting it in two. The cry of the renting wood, heard from afar, sounds like the crack of a high-powered rifle. Before the halves hit the ground, another full round is placed on the block, set there quickly and precisely by a pair of scarred and powerful hands. Again, the axe sings through the crisp fall air, delivering another sharp blow, and once more a round of spruce relents to the meticulously honed instrument. Again and again the axe repeats its relentless task, as if striving to satiate its hunger for green spruce. The half rounds mound up around the chopping block until there is no longer room for another.

The man who belongs to the powerful and imperfect hands sets the axe casually against the chopping block. He steps back and surveys his work.  His name is Ron Grimley. He’s fifty-five years old. His hair, scraggy and gray, runs halfway down his back, his last haircut is only a distant memory; he hides most of it under a warped and creased leather cowboy hat. The hat’s crown is ringed with a white salty crust, deposits from years of hard work and sweat.

His face is weathered and time worn, replete with tiny meandering creases and channels. Akin to an artist’s canvas, Ron’s face displays his life’s story. His skin is bronzed from a life exposed to the elements and mostly covered by a chest length, salt and peppered beard. His eyes are an unsettling gun metal gray. They are rimmed in red and constantly watering. One look into those eyes and it’s easy to tell they have seen things no man should.

Although the day is cool and mist hangs heavy in the air, Ron wears only a faded and torn Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon tee shirt. His muscular arms and barrel chest fill the threadbare rag. Holding up his worn and pitch-stained jeans are bright red suspenders. On his feet he wears a pair of scuffed and dusty, square-toed cowboy boots. Ron can’t remember the last time he wore any other type of boots, but he thinks it was probably in the army.

He snatches up a frayed and tattered black and red checkered lumberjack shirt from where it lay on the ground. Its sleeves are cut off mid forearm and one front pocket has been torn nearly off; it dangles uselessly. He quickly shrugs the shirt over his wide shoulders but leaves it unbuttoned.

He walks the short distance to his pickup truck. His gate is purposeful but his stride is slightly lopsided. His shoulders uneven, caused by a long-ago injury.

His Truck is a Ford one ton with a full bed. Like Ron, it has seen better days; it has its fair share of dents and rust. Its color, a faded blue, is barely discernible under the permanent coat of back road mud. The rear bumper hangs low on one side, and one of the headlights, like his jacket pocket, is dangling uselessly from its socket. He leans into the bed of the truck, rummages around with both hands in an increasingly frantic motion, when suddenly, like a man finding a massive gold nugget in his pan, he omits a strangled whoop and holds skyward a can of Budweiser beer, his last. A slow crooked smile spreads across his hardened features. The can is covered in sawdust and bark and smells like chainsaw gas. He minds little and pops the top with one finger, tilts the can to his rough lips, and takes a long pull of the lukewarm libation. Spitting out a few fine particles of sawdust, he pauses to burp and draw a breath. A pink tongue snakes out of his mouth between yellowing, crooked teeth and licks the foam from the whiskers of his upper lip. It takes one more long pull to finish. Crunching the can in one hand, he tosses it in the bed of his truck. He turns to survey the mound of split spruce; his eyes are teary. He blinks a couple times and inhales deeply. He enjoys the pitchy, antiseptic aroma that fills the air, fruits of his labor.

He begins the task of loading the wood into the bed of his Ford. Armload after armload, he doesn’t stop until the bed is full, each half round meticulously stacked to achieve maximum payload.

Upon completion of the laborious task, a full cord of freshly split spruce is neatly stacked in even rows, from front to back and mounded above the cab. A solid day’s work for two men but he routinely accomplishes the task on his own.

Ron hurries to lash the load as it’s still an hour’s drive to town, and he wants to be there before the end of the work day. He needs to sell the load of wood, his truck and chainsaw need gas, and he needs beer.

Upon reaching town, he parks at the edge of The Eagle Quality Center’s parking lot. The biggest grocery store for seventy-five miles is set between a bank and the Post Office. It’s a perfect place to be seen by many.  He makes sure his truck is parked so it’s visible to the patrons of the store and the drivers passing on the street. He digs out a couple of torn and ratty cardboard signs from behind his seat. Printed on both signs in bold felt marker is simply the number 200. He wedges a sign between a couple split pieces of wood on either side of his truck.

Satisfied he has done all he can to advertise his load he climbs back into his truck, resigned to wait as long as it takes.

Ron slouches in his seat, cranks down the window and retrieves a can of Bugler tobacco from the glove box. Bugler is his favorite brand… but not because it’s the best, more importantly it’s the cheapest. In a matter of seconds, a well rolled cigarette protrudes from his lips.

He fumbles in his pants pocket for a brief moment, fishing out a scuffed and worn Zippo lighter. Engraved on the lighter is a death head in the middle of a peace symbol, with the words “Why Me” and the numbers 69-70 \ 72-73. He flicks the wheel on the lighter and sucks the flame into the tobacco. He takes a long draw, holds it in for a minute, before slowly letting the smoke trickle out of his mouth, rising into his bushy mustache. It gathers in a pool under the brim of his hat before dissipating in the path of a slight breeze. Ron’s eyes are closed; he’s slumped down in his seat, seemingly asleep. The cigarette stays in the corner of his mouth as he slowly smokes it down to within a half inch of his lips. The ash falls on his shirt front. Eventually he slowly turns his head and spits the stub out the open window; he sucks a drop of brown nicotine from his lower lip and hesitantly opens his eyes.

For that brief motionless moment his mind and body are still. He thinks to himself, “If only I had another beer, life would be perfect.”

Right there, right then, in that parking lot, in that small town in the largest state, thousands of miles, and a few lifetimes from where he began, he achieves a few rare seconds of peace. His mind in repose, he doesn’t hear the screams, he doesn’t smell the stench of burning human flesh. For that instant he’s distanced from the horrors of his youth.

Shaken from his respite by a muffler-less Toyota Corolla pulling in a few spots over, he shakes his head and sits up straight, thinking, “I have to sell this wood, I need a beer.”

Three days later Ron would lie face up in the rain on a lonely hill in the back country behind town. Slight wisps of steam casually rising from his torso, three bullet holes stitched across his chest. Clutched in his right hand, his ancient and battered thirty ought six rifle, spent of ammo and smoking from the barrel. His creased and floppy hat lies on the ground a few inches from his head. He gazes up at the dull sky as the last light slowly ebbs from those distant gray eyes. At last peace waits. His mouth twitches at the corners as his essence fades away.

In the middle of the rutted dirt lane that skirts the small hill, at idle sits a faded red International Harvester Chief. A man lies supine in the dirt beside the driver’s door. He’s surrounded by tiny shards of safety glass; the rain is quickly dampening his clothing. He’s bleeding from a small hole on the left side of his chest and on the same side a much larger hole in his back. Beside him lies an empty 357 long barrel revolver, its barrel sizzling in the rain.

Both doors on the Chief are open and the engine is running, the driver’s side window shot out by the bullet that has passed through the downed man.

Along the top of the hood below the window are three bullet holes, evenly spaced as though placed there by design. The passenger door has two more holes at mid height.

Behind the door stands a young man in his early twenties, rifle raised to his shoulder, his finger is on the trigger, its barrel pointing in the direction of the small knoll and Ron’s lifeless body. He too is bleeding. He’s been shot in both legs; a bullet has struck him on the outer edge of his left thigh passing clean through. The second bullet has hit dead center in his right thigh shattering the femur. The bullets have easily passed through the thin skin of the door, penetrated and exited, leaving gaping wounds in the back of both legs.

The young man has witnessed his father struck by a bullet but still return fire, emptying his pistol before collapsing to the ground.

He’s watched the rounds hitting below the windshield as they track towards him, he’s felt the violent blows to his legs that almost knock him down, but he still has managed to calmly shoulder his weapon, release the safety, acquire his target and accurately place three rounds in his assailant’s chest.

The young man’s quick and calm reaction has ended a man’s life, but most assuredly saved two, his own and his father’s.

For a few excruciating seconds he intently stares toward the distant upturned cowboy boots and the tiny wisps of vapor quickly dissipating in the mist. Not transfixed in panic but keenly searching for a continued attack.

Once satisfied the threat has been neutralized, and ignoring the increasing discomfort that will soon become mind numbing pain, he scrambles to save his father.

That same young man manages to tend to his father the best he can. While frantically trying to stop the bleeding, he loads his father into the Scout. Ignoring his own wounds, he drives twenty minutes over rough dirt road to the hospital.

The young man displayed a calm and resolve that didn’t come from training, but more likely acquired from a youth of wilderness living and ranching in America’s last frontier.

In a matter of seconds, two men drove up, a gun battle ensued, two men were violently wounded and one man lay dead in the rain. Two men drove away.

As every detail is never clear in these kinds of incidents and an investigation didn’t shed much light as to motive, it was deemed Ron shot first and the young man acted in defense of himself and his father. Case closed.

Some say it stemmed from an argument over a horse, others say Ron lost his battle with past demons; others blamed drugs and/or alcohol. A few said Ron was targeted and threatened by the young man and his father, but what lead up to those frenetic couple of moments that damp and foggy fall afternoon may never be transparent.

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Read more from Brad in Atlin Where Everyone Knows Your Dog’s Name. Available at many online stores.