"Elijah was convinced he had the best the country had to offer for physical training, weapons and language training, along with some of the finest teachers because his team members would not be ignorant. All were assembled at Fort Jackson in South Carolina a week before he had originally planned because of the work of the ten men who now made up his leadership council. The waiting staff were fairly clear as to what their task was, but that was all. Those with families were allowed to tell them they had been drafted by the government for a secret mission and didn't know when they would be back, but they would be unable to contact or be contacted for an indefinite time.
"Seventy young men who, for whatever reason, had been thrown away by family, community or by choice waited in Fort Knox, Kentucky. They were given plenty to read, plenty of and good food, and required to keep their barracks—which was miles from any other—clean as they were to keep themselves. They also began a strict program of exercise which included running and marching to develop their endurance. As might be expected, seventy young men between eighteen and twenty-two living together would have conflicts. The first fight was the last. An eighteen-year-old slugged the guy who had started the fight and shoved the other onto his bed. 'I don't know about you jerks, but I never knew where I would sleep or when I would eat from the time I was twelve until I got picked up and sent to the school and got in Elijah's program. I'll be damned if you assholes fuck up Elijah's project.'
"Elijah gave his contact the signal, much to the contact's surprise, and the men at Fort Jackson and Fort Knox were told to pack up and be ready to move out in an hour. Two hours later, trucks arrived and they were driven to an isolated siding and boarded rail cars with blacked-out windows at dusk. Three hours later, an unexpected train pulled onto a newly built siding deep in the mountains and thirty teachers and trainers stepped out of the coach as the train moved into the night.
"As they stood on the siding wondering what was going on, a man stepped out of the woods and said, 'Gentlemen, welcome to Sentinel Mountain. As of this minute, which is (he looked at his watch)—2030 hours—you are on military time and you have just lost your surname. As to your name at Sentinel Mountain, you have three choices, you may use your own name, you may choose a name or I'll do it for you. I strongly recommend one of the first two options. If you will follow me.' He turned and walked a short distance to where two trucks waited. They climbed aboard and the trucks drove away. Three hours later, the scene was repeated except there were over twice as many men.
"When all were assembled, Elijah walked to the front and said, 'Gentlemen, again, welcome to Sentinel Mountain. You are about to begin an adventure which you will soon learn to love or hate. Frankly, I think that is a matter of decision, not circumstance. I oversee this project, but the two months some of us have been working here, we find that it is best when leaders fit the job, so on any given task, anyone can be the leader. However, overall, the leadership council is in charge. This is our camp. You will find it primitive. However, it is luxurious compared to what we started with. In the morning, you will have hot water for showers and that is sheer luxury to those of us who had cold water for a couple weeks. You will have hot water because people at Sentinel Mountain cared about each other. I hope you will do the same. I know you have a million questions, but it is late and they will be answered—maybe—in time. Right now, it's time we were all in bed. If the four staff leaders will join me.' Four of the men who had been on the staff train stepped forward. Three were men Elijah knew from the military school and the fourth he had known when working summers at a boys' camp. They were men he knew and trusted. They had been informed they were staff leaders as soon as they reached the camp. 'The rest of you number off by sevens.' As soon as the groups had been formed, a member of the council showed them to their tent. The team members numbered off and their group leaders led them to their tents. Half an hour later, all was quiet.
"The next six months were intense. Only five of the potential team members had to be cut, two when they could not overcome their problem with gay men and especially gay couples. One because he could not accept German members of the team, even though the German members were there because their parents fled Hitler, and one because he hated African Americans. The fifth one was found to have a blood condition which had not been detected and had never shown itself until he missed an ax stroke and cut his leg severely and almost bled to death. He was trucked out to the grassy field and flown to an Army hospital where he recovered, but had lost so much blood his recovery was slow. He was contacted by someone connected with the group and since he could not be sent into the Army was allowed to join the secret group which encoded and decoded messages to and from the 'non-existent' groups working in Europe.
"At the end of six months, the staff returned to their previous positions with a much larger bank account than they had when they left and their lips sealed until after the war. One later published a book, labeled as fiction, based on his experience at Sentinel Mountain.
"One group of the men trained at Sentinel Mountain, under the leadership of Steve, worked with the Dutch underground recovering Dutch art treasures. Later Steve would laugh and say he became an art critic and historian by stealing stolen art works. He and his group also did their share of destroying bridges and railroads. Steve called that their deconstruction of poorly designed and executed sculptures. He did, by the way, become a respected art historian.
"A second group, under Mark, went after gold the Germans were stealing from the Netherlands. They never said how they managed to do it, but did say the US better be glad they were good citizens so Fort Knox was safe. Probably innocent boasting. Jason, who did the same job for France, claimed his group was better, but agreed either team could empty Fort Knox if they wanted to. After the war, Mark and Jason compromised and lived together in Belgium, both experts on coins and precious metals.
"Elijah's group was simply there to destroy anything that would set back the Nazis. He was never sure they had destroyed the secret lab or why it was so important that it be destroyed. 'We did what we were instructed to do and know what was supposed to happen, happened.'"
"Elijah's journals contain some thrilling accounts of what the groups did. They spent two years in Europe and until Europe was liberated, they worked. When the war ended, all of them were still alive although almost all had been wounded at one time or another. Elijah had been shot twice. His mission was never officially recognized, but each of his men received a generous grant from the grateful government. Elijah not only was given a generous sum of money, but also owned the training ground, all twelve hundred plus acres. Since he no longer needed to work, he retired to the mountains where he built a wonderful rustic house. He fenced a large tract of land and started raising cattle. Additionally, he started and operated a camp for boys who were in trouble for whatever reason, but especially boys who had been thrown away by family or community. He remained healthy until a few months before his death when a rapidly growing cancer was discovered. When told treatment could prolong his life for a few months, maybe a year, he refused saying he didn't see how a few extra months of misery was worth the additional misery of treatment. Fortunately, he did have a doctor who understood the benefits of medicines against pain and until the week he died, he suffered little pain although at times at the cost of semi-consciousness.
"When he died, my uncle, V. Jordan VanWinkle," Mr. VanWinkle chuckled, "he's my uncle, but twenty years my junior—my grandfather lived to be my age and married a woman half his age when he was sixty. She gave birth to Jordan when she was thirty-four. Anyway, he is executor of the estate. Elijah instructed that everything except Boys' Camp be kept in operation, maintained and updated as needed. Boys' Camp was to be closed as soon as the boys in residence could be cared for, but the buildings were to be maintained. Elijah had no one he trusted to run the camp. The cattle operation was to continue under the foreman who was to handle the operation, including hiring and firing as necessary. His housekeeper was to remain so long as she wished and if she decided to leave, her last task was to find a replacement. The general manager was to continue to oversee the whole operation as before. All was to be held in readiness for Joshua Elijah Taylor who met certain criteria and who had reached the age of majority. The will stipulated that if, upon reaching the age of majority, said Joshua Elijah Taylor could not be located or did not meet the criteria, a period of five years would be allowed to pass. If during those five years the criteria were met, the bequest was to be made." Mr. VanWinkle laughed, "And you, Josh, could easily have missed out except you had an extra five years: if you were known to be gay, you had ten years to meet the conditions of the bequest. In any event, you have, it's yours if you want it and within a year convince Jordan you are doing something constructive with the property. End of story. Oh, there is one other requirement. During the year you are deciding, on the anniversary of Sam's death, Elijah's ashes are to be cast to the winds from Sentinel Rock."
When Mr. VanWinkle finished, Josh sat in silence until his phone interrupted. He listened, then said, "Do tell. I'll call you back. Josh, Blankenship Ltd stock is still not moving. It is being offered at fifty dollars a share and still just sitting there."
"Eight thousand shares would give me control with Mrs. Blankenship's shares. I wonder? What do you think about my calling Mrs. Blankenship? She has always seemed to like me."
"Let's go to my club and work out. We can stay over for wine and cheese and talk about Blankenship Ltd. The stock's not moving and it's late enough in the day that it's not going to move today. We have time to think this through—think before you act."
It was just three-thirty when they reached the club and after a thirty-minute workout, they showered and dressed. They went to the club room and Mr. VanWinkle ordered wine and cheese. It had just been placed on the table when his phone chimed. He answered it, listened for half a minute and handed it to Josh.
"Josh Taylor here," Josh said.
"Mr. Taylor, Prue, I don't know how Mrs. Blankenship knew you were associated with Mr. VanWinkle, but she has been calling for a week, had her lawyer call, and now Senhor Soares is on the phone trying to reach you. Should I put him on?"
"Please do. Luc, Josh here," he said when he had been transferred.
"Thank God you have been located, Josh. Mrs. Blankenship has been trying to locate you all week. Her lawyer just saw Mr. VanWinkle senior at his club with a young man and he thought he recognized you from your voice, mostly. Anyway, Blankenship Ltd has no credit, Kelly has run off some of the best customers and if something's not done soon, the company will go belly up, I believe that's the expression. Mrs. Blankenship is convinced you can pull the company out of the fire and has assurances from several customers that if you are at the helm, they will stick with us. I know, 'You have to know what you are dealing with.' Situation is Kelly fired the leaders of the company beginning with you, and replaced them with his coke-snorting buddies. He spent company funds, appeared high in meetings with customers, and has been very abusive with the staff. Mrs. Blankenship ordered him into rehab and when he refused to go, she called the police and asked that they search his office and apartment. Needless to say, they found enough coke to charge him with possession with intent to distribute and he is in jail. Mrs. Blankenship refuses to bail him out."
"Hold on Luc, I thought you had been fired."
"I had been but, unlike you, the company still had my address and Mrs. Blankenship hired me and my first task was to locate you. We both have been trying and I guess were doomed to failure had you not been seen at Mr. VanWinkle's club. Who is he, by the way?"
"Long story," I replied. "Luc, I'm not at all sure I want to become involved with Blankenship Ltd and definitely need some time to think about it. Tell Mrs. Blankenship I will meet with her tomorrow at noon in the Old Man's office and we will discuss if and how I will be involved."
"Thanks, Josh. Now that I have delivered my message, how have you been? How are you doing?"
"Luc, I have had the most amazing two days. Let me call you later."
"Sure, call me at the office or at home."
Josh closed the phone, looked at Mr. VanWinkle and asked, "Sir, I know you have retired and likely aren't interested in working, but I need some advise and I think you're the man I need it from."
"I'm pretty expensive," he laughed, "unless it's something interesting."
"Oh, I can assure you, it's interesting."
"Well, let's go back to the hotel and talk about it. After dinner, I'm going home, but you should have your answer by then."
They drove back to the hotel and Josh told Mr. VanWinkle about the phone call.
"Before we go any further, call Mrs. Blankenship and tell her to take the stock off the market immediately. Until that's done, don't do anything."
Mrs. Blankenship wanted to talk, but Josh told her what he had told Luc, he would see her in the Old Man's office at noon tomorrow and told her to pull the stock off the market immediately.
Josh explained the situation as best he could to Mr. VanWinkle and the lawyer suggested he call Luc and invite him to dinner. "Invite his husband as well if he's not bored to tears by business." Luc accepted, but said Cândido was in New Mexico doing a lecture series.
When Luc arrived, Josh instructed him to come up. Josh had ordered a bottle of wine and it arrived at the same time as Luc. The three men had a glass of red while Josh briefly told Luc of his new situation. "I would have been leaving Blankenship Ltd soon had Kelly not fired me."
"I understand," Luc replied, "and I won't blame you if you forget the company and head to North Carolina. I hope you don't because I don't think the company can survive without you."
Josh made no reply. The two men discussed the situation while Mr. VanWinkle listened. Finally, Luc said, "I think we're just repeating ourselves. I think we both are pretty clear about the situation with Blankenship Ltd and I am sure you are, Mr. VanWinkle."
Mr. VanWinkle nodded and said, "Well, let's let it stew awhile. I'll give you my thoughts after dinner. Meanwhile, Josh, why don't you tell Luc more about Sentinel Mountain?" Josh did. Luc was fascinated.
When they had finished dinner, Mr. VanWinkle suggested they go out for coffee, which they did. They went to a small coffee shop and as soon as their coffee was served, Mr. VanWinkle said, "Luc, Josh, I listened carefully to your discussion during dinner. Here are my observations for what they are worth. First off, Josh, you have a year before you have to make a commitment to North Carolina. Sentinel Mountain is operating very well as it has been before and after Elijah's death. It is not in danger. Blankenship Ltd is. I am sure Luc could handle the company as well as you, but he cannot save it. You are a known entity to customers and suppliers. While the company's credit might be bad, yours is not. As to the question of your security clearance, I had Ms. Trent handle that today. It took a phone call to the right person. My advice? Take the position as CEO with Luc as your right-hand man. Pull in good people you know and trust to replace Luc and Kelly. Have them report to Luc. Travel, five days a week. You need to begin with your top customers and suppliers and work your way down to the smallest. Be upfront with them. In six months, resign and make Luc CEO and head for North Carolina. Will be a beautiful time of year there. Questions?"
"What about compensation?" Luc asked. "Kelly dealt a real blow to my pocketbook since we had just moved from Brazil and suddenly I lost my income."
"Good question," Mr. VanWinkle said. "Start with the compensation you were promised when Mrs. Blankenship rehired you and and ask for an equal amount in stock for the six months Josh is CEO if you can live on the salary you were promised."
"It's more than adequate. We can manage on that very well. After all, that's all the cash I expected." Luc replied.
"Josh, since you can live on your inheritance, take all your salary in stock. I suspect by the end of six months you both will be very wealthy young men."
Mr. VanWinkle's advice was sound and Mrs. Blankenship was delighted with the offer Josh made for himself and Luc. As soon as she left, Josh called Winston and told him he was rehired. He began his magic the next day, ferreting out crooked deals, and had saved the company a bundle and gotten back in the good graces of some suppliers before he left for the garage. Josh would have liked for him to work full-time, but he loved the garage too much.
Josh took over the Old Man's office, although he saw very little of it as he was on the road five days a week every week and six days most. He rehired Walt who Kelly had fired because he objected to Kelly and his crowd snorting coke on the plane.
By the end of the second month, Blankenship Ltd had begun a slow turnaround. Josh cut back his travel to three days a week and began intensive training of Luc to take his place. Luc suggested a man from Brazil for his previous position and Josh thought his judgment sound even before he interviewed the man. Neither Luc nor Josh could come up with someone to take Kelly's old position. He certainly wouldn't be coming back anytime soon, even with his high-priced lawyers—never, if they had any say in the matter. His lawyers were working on getting his sentence reduced so he'd still have the possibility of life when he left prison. Josh eventually called Mr. T'an and they talked for an hour. Mr. T'an finally said, "I have a nephew who, I am sure, could handle the job and do well. His English is excellent and he holds both computer and business degrees from American universities as well as a computer engineering degree from Taiwan. Unfortunately, he works for a competitor." Josh asked if there was a reason an uncle couldn't discuss a job change with his nephew and Mr. T'an laughed and said, "With your permission."
Two weeks later, the young man was in Josh's office. Luc had interviewed him and remained while he talked with Josh. Both agreed he would need guidance, but should be ready to take over Kelly's position in a matter of weeks, not months. They hired him.
As the young man left the office, Luc said, "Josh, you have a place in North Carolina you have never seen. You have been working twelve-hour days, not less than six days a week for two months. Take a weekend off and have a look.
"Luc, sounds good, but my understanding is I can fly to Knoxville or Asheville, but will still have a long drive ahead of me. Too much for a long weekend and I'm not ready to take off longer just yet."
"Too bad there's not an airstrip on the place," Luc responded.
"You know, there may be—at least the remains of one from fifty years ago. I'll see about that." Josh had Prue put in a call to Robin Johnson, the general manager at Sentinel Mountain. He had talked to him before, of course, assuring him nothing had changed and that he would be out as soon as he could get a business back on track. "Within six months at the latest," he had told him. When Prue had Robin on the line, Josh asked him how things were going and he said they were as usual. "I have a question, Robin. I suspect there was a grass airstrip at Sentinel Mountain when Elijah was using it as a training facility. Do you know anything about that?"
"Sure. Hasn't been used in years, but it has been maintained like everything else here. Updated too. Lights were added before Elijah died and we upgraded them last year. Planning on using it?"
"Weekend after next. I'll keep you posted."
A week and a half later, Josh made arrangements to rent a single-engine plane to fly to Sentinel Mountain from Asheville. Josh had planned to have a chat with Jordan VanWinkle before flying out to the mountain, so he booked a Thursday midday flight to Asheville and a night at the Grove Park Inn. He slept in Friday, the first time in ages, before seeing Jordan VanWinkle at one. They discussed the status of things at Sentinel Mountain, Jordan noting it was running as smoothly as it had when Elijah was alive. "There have been lean years for the cattle operation—it's never lost money, but a few years it did little more than break even—but eight years ago, Bob Morris, foreman of the cattle station, was reading about grass-fed beef free of pesticides and hormones and decided to try it. He also brought in a different breed of cattle, Dexter Irish, which were perfectly suited to the mountain pastures. Regardless of beef prices, he's always got top dollar for Sentinel Mountain beef, especially after he started dealing directly with a small slaughterhouse and select restaurants. When beef prices are high, he makes an excellent profit. When beef prices are low, he makes a good profit.
"I assume my nephew June gave you a check?" Jordan asked. Josh nodded. "You understand that was the money in the bank when Elijah died? It did not include invested funds nor did it include income since his death. I don't want to sway you with mere money, Josh, but if you decide to keep Sentinel Mountain and meet the usage criteria, you will be a very, very wealthy man."
They discussed the situation at Blankenship Ltd and Mr. VanWinkle told Josh his nephew thought Josh's true character came through loud and clear when he put off his personal business in order to save a company and the livelihood of hundreds of people, "but I do hope you will soon be a Tar Heel," he said as they shook hands and Josh caught a taxi for the airport.
He called Robin before taking off and gave him an ETA of fifteen hundred hours. Robin responded that it would, of course, still be light, but he'd have the strip lit anyway. As Josh flew toward Sentinel Mountain, he was struck by the beauty of the mountains. Unlike the western mountains, these were gentle, flowing, covered by trees of a hundred shades of green. He began to wonder about the field because he saw nothing and he should be approaching it within minutes. He flew over a ridge and below him was a lighted airstrip. He landed on one of the nicest grass strips he had ever encountered. When he climbed out of the plane, he was met by a tall, slender man of late forties, early fifties, but who could have passed for forty easily. He extended his hand and said, "Welcome home to Sentinel Mountain, Mr. Taylor."
"Robin," Josh replied, as the two shook hands, "I know I look old and haggard, but I do think I am younger than you are. I should probably be calling you Mr. Johnson, but if you're Robin, I'm Josh."
"Well, actually, I'm known around here as Rob. Anyway, welcome home, Josh," Rob said with a smile. "Sherry, my wife, asked me if you'd like to have a cookout for the Sentinel Mountain crowd tomorrow night to at least meet them. Janie, that's Janie Birdsong the housekeeper, will have dinner for you tonight at your place. You don't have to decide about tomorrow night right now."
"It's an excellent idea. Please tell your wife I would appreciate it. Rob, I was raised a Mormon, so grew up without coffee, tea or coke, much less alcohol. I got kicked out at seventeen, a bit earlier than Elijah, but for the same reason—I kissed a man. Since then I have discovered that I delight in the evils of coffee, tea, coke and a good red wine and a good beer. I don't want to offend anyone so, tell me, should I get some beer and wine in here for tomorrow night?"
"Well, Josh, I got kicked out of the local Baptist church when I was seventeen for partaking of the local brew called white lightnin' and, since then, I have repented of my evil ways and never touch the stuff, but a cold beer is something else. We don't have any wine drinkers here that I know about, although Elijah loved his wine. So if you're making a run, you can just pick up four or five cases of beer. Most drink Bud or Bud Lite. Had a group of Mexicans working here a couple years ago and they were really into their own Dos Equis and Tecate. Some of us like those a lot."
"Rob, I must admit I have been so wrapped up in getting Blankenship Ltd back on track that I haven't had time to think very much about Sentinel Mountain. How many people work and live here?"
"There's an even dozen on the payroll right now—there's myself, of course, the housekeeper takes care of the house with extra help from my wife when she needs it, but that's on a pay-as-needed basis. There are two full-time maintenance people, actually a man and wife team, with an additional maintenance person with primary responsibility for Boys' Camp, five people—two couples and a single guy—are assigned to the cattle station and two assigned to forest management."
Editors: Jesse and Scott.
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