Death in the Saddle, Ch 4

Jim Keyes, chauffeuring the Bruxton’s Bentley north on Monterey Avenue, looked in the rear view mirror to watch Peter Bruxton reviewing the pages of questions prepared for him. This was the morning Bruxton’s public relations agency had scheduled a TV appearance at the studio in Desert Hot Springs, and his boss was clearly nervous. The sedan pulled into the parking lot one hour before scheduled airtime, and Bruxton rushed out before the chauffeur could open his door.

Alice Green, who would ask questions to his rehearsed answers, greeted Bruxton in the studio where several cameras were mounted, and heavy cables lay on the floor.

Green, a petite woman with a dazzling smile, reached up and kissed Bruxton, then embraced him with the easy familiarity that is known among socialites. The TV interview, which was being billed as another newsworthy community program, was, in reality, a ploy to advertise Bruxton’s properties.

Seated at a small table, Alice Green and Bruxton faced each other. A crew of three technicians were adjusting the lights and positioning mike pickups on the two participants. Bruxton, with a jovial smile that was entirely uncharacteristic, and large horn-rimmed glasses that gave him an owlish look, wore a sport jacket with an open-collared shirt. He struck a casual pose as he crossed his legs at the ankles, then folded his arms and glanced briefly at the camera and the monitor behind the interviewer. One of the techs behind the camera facing Alice Green, held up his finger and counted: three, two, one, then pointed to her and mouthed, “Now.”

Miss Green referred to her notebook. “Mr. Bruxton, you’re one of a rare breed of highly successful entrepreneurs who started out almost, if not completely, penniless, and built an empire that boggles my mind, an empire consisting of magnificent homes with recreational facilities here in the Coachella Valley and in Montana. These places have eighteen hole golf courses, Olympic-sized pools and spas. In Montana you have ski runs that rival those in Norway. I’ve seen pictures of some of those luxury homes and condos, and I can’t possibly begin to describe their beauty in settings that are absolutely breathtaking.

“Let’s allow our viewers to see some of these fabulous places.” Several digitally enhanced color photos were projected on a screen, as well as an artist’s rendering of a clubhouse that resembled a colossal Swiss chalet. “These pictures are simply marvelous,” she gushed.

Bruxton acknowledged the exaggerated praise with a modest smile.

“I’m told that the first phase of homes in the Sunburst Village in Montana has been sold out even though construction is not complete.”

Bruxton knew that this was sheer hype promoted by his PR agent, but he wasn’t going to contradict her. He nodded with false modesty “That’s true.”

“You’ve created a kind of winter wonderland for the rich and famous. Tell us how you accomplished this. How did it all begin? Start with your days as a youngster.”

Bruxton removed his glasses, placed them in his jacket pocket, folded his arms across his chest and cleared his throat. “Well, Alice, it wasn’t easy.” He leaned back in his chair enjoying the self-serving narration. “Can you believe that at one time our family had to accept welfare handouts? My father was a post-World War II immigrant from Sweden, a woodsman, who came to Washington State where he had relatives working in the lumber mills. He got a job as a logger for a wildcat outfit. You probably know, logging is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. My dad worked for about two and a half years when unfortunately, he was killed in a logging accident. I never really knew him; I was too young, of course. There was no insurance and our savings were meager. My mother tried to keep her young family together by taking in laundry, baking breads and cakes for sale to neighbors and family. Like I said, it wasn’t easy. In fact, life was just damned hard.”

“How many children were there?”

“Two of us. My brother is a year younger.”

“Is he also a developer like you?”

“No, he took a different path. Unfortunately, we’re not close.” Out of camera range, Bruxton signaled Alice with a thumb down sign meaning he did want not to pursue that line of questioning.

“Tell us how you became so successful? I’m sure our viewers would like to know.”

“Even as a kid of about twelve I worked every day, even weekends. I delivered groceries and newspapers, swept and shoveled sawdust at the lumber mills and cleaned toilets in taverns after closing hours. I worked all night and went to school during the day. I often got scolded by my teachers for falling asleep in class, but by the time I got to high school, I probably made more money than the principal.”

“Did you go on to college?”

“I sat in on some classes at the community college for about three months, only half-listening to lectures on psychology, sociology, physiology—courses like that. I said to myself, what good are all those things for me? I got to get out and make money. I wanted some things so bad, things I never had, a decent home for my mother and me, a car and three squares a day. As it turned out, Uncle Sam didn’t give me much time to think about all that since I was drafted for ’Nam.”

“You were in the military?”

“Yeah, two and a half rough years.”

Alice Green continued the interview without referring to notes. “Before you left, did you leave any pretty girl behind?”

“Yes, I did. I met her at a church picnic in Spokane one summer—she was sweet sixteen, and I was eighteen, and I knew she was the girl for me. She was a beauty with long dark hair, big brown eyes, pearly teeth and a knockout figure.”

“My she sounds engaging, and did you marry her?”

“Let me tell you what happened. One day after a twelve-hour patrol slogging in the Mekong Delta, I went to mail call and received one of those ‘dear John’ letters. My sweetheart told me she found someone else. Naturally, I was dejected for awhile but not for long. I always recover and come back stronger. I measure life’s meaning in terms of achievement. That’s my driving force, my credo. A guy can’t stop and feel sorry for himself. No, sir, he’s got to go forward. Hard work finds its own rewards. I met the girl I married after my discharge.”

“That would be Mary?”

Bruxton nodded but said nothing more, indicating he wanted no further discussion of the matter.

“Earlier you mentioned a church picnic. Are you a religious man?”

Bruxton began to fidget. Why is she asking me that? I don’t remember seeing that question on her list. I’ll just skirt this as well as I can. “Not as much as I should be, I suppose, but I try to live by the golden rule. I support my church, and my accountant encourages it.” Both of them laughed. “Have you ever experienced business reversals?”

Bruxton pushed back in his chair, straightened his shoulders, and thought, this question is more like it. “You’re looking at an expert on the subject. Alice, I’d been a millionaire and a pauper three times over before I had my thirty-fifth birthday. I know what hard knocks are. I know what it’s like to go hat in hand to the loan officer and have him tell you he thinks you’re a damn poor risk. I know what it’s like not to be able to pay utility bills or feed my family and have doors shut in my face. Oh, yeah, I’ve had financial reversals, all right. But let me tell you, I’ve become a lot more savvy, and no one is going to sucker me again.”

“You said you were in Viet Nam, and I know you were decorated for heroism. Can you tell us about that?”

She’s going to get short shrift on this one, too. “The whole unit received a commendation.” Bruxton cast his eyes downward, the tempo of his response slowed as he spoke softly. “Frankly, it’s an experience I’d just as soon forget, too many got killed—it was ugly.”

Alice Green looked at her notes. “Is it true that you went before Congress some years ago to plead your case for switching some of your Montana land for some government-owned land?” She looked at her notes again. “At that time, wasn’t the National Environmental Protection Agency about to confiscate your land?”

Bruxton uncrossed his legs and cleared his throat again. Dammit, I didn’t want to discuss this. “Yes, well, that’s quite a long story, and I know most of our viewers wouldn’t sit still for the dull details. Suffice it to say, both me and the government came out all right.” The interview was going astray and causing Bruxton some uneasiness, but he continued to parry questions by saying that the answers were too complicated to explain adequately in the limited time they had.

“Initially you and your partner, Mr. Kurtz, owned the Montana land; now as I understand, you are the sole owner. Did you buy your partner’s share of the holdings?” Bruxton hesitated just long enough to create a gaffe. “Does that question cause too much personal disclosure? If so, we can go to another topic.”

“No, no. I just wanted to get the sequence of events in order, and I had to think. My partner, Larry Kurtz,” he hesitated then added, “we go back a long way. We fought in ‘Nam together and became close buddies. After our discharge, we pooled our small savings and bought a few acres of timberland in Washington. We sold our trees and borrowed money to buy larger tracts of forested land. Buying and selling like that, we came to own large tracts in Washington, Oregon and Montana. Eventually, we owned several thousand acres in Montana near Yellowstone National Park. Larry was always strapped for cash, and I frequently bailed him out. His ownership got watered down to much less than half. He sold his smaller portion designated as timberland for immediate cash. I invested in land which was designated for development.”

“What does that mean?”

“The government agency approved my share of the land for residential development and associated leisure activities, such as a golf course and ski runs—a lodge with facilities for snowboarding, sledding, ice skating—that sort of thing.”

Alice Green looked at Bruxton. “I would think that ultimately your selection of acreage for developmental purposes was much more profitable than your partner’s.” Bruxton closed his eyes and nodded slowly. After ten minutes of questions and guarded answers interspersed with intervals of advertising, Alice Green ended the interview. “So I can look forward to visiting your magnificent developments here in Rancho Mirage and in Bozeman, Montana, one day soon?”

“Yes, of course. I would be happy to escort you around. If you win the state lottery, we’ll offer you an estate package.” The ensuing laughter was constrained. A red light flashed denoting the ending time for the interview. Bruxton reached across the table to clasp Ms. Green’s hand. He thanked her for the opportunity to chat with her, while inwardly, he wondered whether the several thousand-dollar tab he’d paid for the interview was worth it.

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