"Shots fired at 10234 County Road 3. Officers en route."
That's where it all began, though it really started years ago. Sam and Caleb had lived next to each other for many years. Both were "men of a certain age," fairly curmudgeon-ish, and pretty much loners. But neither necessarily had a penchant for violence, and neither had a criminal record. Generally, they kept to themselves on their heavily-wooded neighboring properties in southern Oregon. There was, however, one ongoing conflict between them. And one day it led to shots being fired. That's when I got to know Sam and Caleb.
I got the call from the Sheriff's Department on Friday morning. It seems they had a mediation case for me. When I asked what it was about, they explained the conflict and then added that it had escalated to the point that shots were fired. My mouth went dry. The deputy thought my line had been disconnected.
"Ma'am? Are you there? Hello? So, can you take the case?"
"Of course," I replied finally, not really sure I wanted to, but knowing I needed the income. We made the appointment, and I started filling out the intake forms. Shots fired. Mediation instead of jail time. I'll admit, I was a little nervous.
I had never had such a contentious case. When I was trained as a mediator, it was mainly for small claims and neighbor-to-neighbor cases. Both sides were generally willing to work things out with the help of mediation. I specifically steered away from domestic relations mediation as I did not want to get in the middle of heavy conflict, potential abuse, raging emotions, and all that went along with nasty divorces. I just wanted to have my little client base with barking dog cases and happy resolutions. I just wanted the "win-win." This was the first time I had a case that had involved gunfire. In fact, it was the first time the Sheriff's office had ever referred a case to me, though I offered long ago. This was going to be interesting.
The following Monday was the appointment time for Sam and Caleb. Each walked into my tiny office within a minute of each other. They were scowling, both at each other and me. Clearly, neither of them wanted to be here, but it beat the alternative of jail time. I gave them the forms to complete, which they did in tense silence. Then they followed me into the conference room and sat down. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife.
Hesitantly, I said with a nervous smile, "So....you've checked your guns at the door, right?"
The question appeared to take them by surprise. Sam and Caleb glanced at each other, then mumbled that they were unarmed. After explaining the ground rules of mediation, I asked who wanted to summarize the conflict first. They went back and forth for a moment, then agreed that Caleb would go first.
"He shot me!" Caleb practically shouted. "That's what this is about. He is a maniac!"
Gingerly, I reminded Caleb of the rule about no name-calling. Sam's feathers had been ruffled, but he didn't escalate, so we continued. Caleb explained that Sam had shot at him while he was working on his property Thursday afternoon. He said he had no idea why, but he felt like if Sam would just apologize and leave him alone, they could go back to being neighbors. He did not elaborate. Then it was Sam's turn.
"He keeps stealing my water," Sam said blankly, "and I've had enough. So, yes, I shot him. He was trespassing on my stream, taking what is rightfully mine."
"It's not your stream if it's on my land!" Caleb stood up. Then Sam stood up. So, I stood up. They looked at me, then at each other.
"Gentlemen, please," I whispered.
We sat down. After some time, I pulled out the story in more detail. Sam and Caleb were neighbors who had been living next to each other for 14 years. Their properties were just south of town, a little ways up the mountain side. As it happens, there was a stream that flowed between their properties. It is unclear who the stream "belongs" to because it meanders back and forth between their properties, crossing the property line several times. For years, Sam would direct the flow of the stream to his fish pond and garden area. Then Caleb would come and move the rocks so the stream flowed onto his property. He diverted the stream water to fill a trough that he used to water potted plants and his farm animals. Back and forth they went, every couple of weeks or so. Back and forth for 14 years! I could not for the life of me understand how this could have gone on for so long, so I started asking clarifying questions to help me get a grip on the situation.
"So, what have you guys said to each other when you've talked about this situation?" I asked plainly.
"Oh, we haven't talked about it," Caleb offered.
"Nope, usually I just swear at him as I'm directing MY water back on to MY property where it belongs," Sam added.
"You haven't talked about it at all?"
"Nope," they said, almost in unison.
"Well, there's no time like the present," I said. Then, we mediated their conflict. Caleb told his side. Sam told his side. I had them listen to each other. Then, we talked about options that might make them both happy. Sam wanted water for his garden and fish pond. He said when he bought the place, the fact that it had water was a huge plus. Caleb had moved into his place shortly after Sam. Part of the reason Caleb chose his place was because it had water that he could use for his garden and chickens. We talked about the fact that they have common ground. They both like the stream. They both garden. They both need water. It wasn't much in common, but it was a start.
Slowly, their rock-hard outer shells started crumbling. Little rays of light began to shine through. They acknowledged each other's feelings. They understood that it may never be clear who really owns the water and how much of it they are entitled to. It took a few hours, but in the end, Sam and Caleb had come to understand each other a little better. And they came up with an agreement about the stream that worked for both of them. They would share the water, and they would talk about things as they came up rather than waiting another 14 years. They'd be better neighbors, maybe even friends.
I suppose the idea of jail time hanging over them was a motivating factor, but whatever the reason, Sam and Caleb worked it out. And I got paid. You could say it was a win-win-win.