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Chapter 5 - The Darkest Hour
If anything had been needed to give an impetus to Jack McMurdo’s popularity among his fellows it would have been his arrest and acquittal. That a man on the very night of joining the lodge should have done something which brought him before the magistrate was a new record in the annals of the society. Already he had earned the reputation of a good boon companion, a cheery reveller, and withal a man of high temper, who would not take an insult even from the all-powerful Boss himself. But in addition to this he impressed his comrades with the idea that among them all there was not one whose brain was so ready to devise a bloodthirsty scheme, or whose hand would be more capable of carrying it out. “He’ll be the boy for the clean job,” said the oldsters to one another, and waited their time until they could set him to his work.
McGinty had instruments enough already; but he recognized that this was a supremely able one. He felt like a man holding a fierce bloodhound in leash. There were curs to do the smaller work; but some day he would slip this creature upon its prey. A few members of the lodge, Ted Baldwin among them, resented the rapid rise of the stranger and hated him for it; but they kept clear of him, for he was as ready to fight as to laugh.
But if he gained favour with his fellows, there was another quarter, one which had become even more vital to him, in which he lost it. Ettie Shafter’s father would have nothing more to do with him, nor would he allow him to enter the house. Ettie herself was too deeply in love to give him up altogether, and yet her own good sense warned her of what would come from a marriage with a man who was regarded as a criminal.
One morning after a sleepless night she determined to see him, possibly for the last time, and make one strong endeavour to draw him from those evil influences which were sucking him down. She went to his house, as he had often begged her to do, and made her way into the room which he used as his sitting-room. He was seated at a table, with his back turned and a letter in front of him. A sudden spirit of girlish mischief came over her — she was still only nineteen. He had not heard her when she pushed open the door. Now she tiptoed forward and laid her hand lightly upon his bended shoulders.
If she had expected to startle him, she certainly succeeded; but only in turn to be startled herself. With a tiger spring he turned on her, and his right hand was feeling for her throat. At the same instant with the other hand he crumpled up the paper that lay before him. For an instant he stood glaring. Then astonishment and joy took the place of the ferocity which had convulsed his features — a ferocity which had sent her shrinking back in horror as from something which had never before intruded into her gentle life.
“It’s you!” said he, mopping his brow. “And to think that you should come to me, heart of my heart, and I should find nothing better to do than to want to strangle you! Come then, darling,” and he held out his arms, “let me make it up to you.”
But she had not recovered from that sudden glimpse of guilty fear which she had read in the man’s face. All her woman’s instinct told her that it was not the mere fright of a man who is startled. Guilt — that was it — guilt and fear!
“What’s come over you, lack?” she cried. “Why were you so scared of me? Oh, Jack, if your conscience was at ease, you would not have looked at me like that!”
“Sure, I was thinking of other things, and when you came tripping so lightly on those fairy feet of yours —”
“No, no, it was more than that, Jack.” Then a sudden suspicion seized her. “Let me see that letter you were writing.”
“Ah, Ettie, I couldn’t do that.”
Her suspicions became certainties. “It’s to another woman,” she cried. “I know it! Why else should you hold it from me? Was it to your wife that you were writing? How am I to know that you are not a married man — you, a stranger, that nobody knows?”
“I am not married, Ettie. See now, I swear it! You’re the only one woman on earth to me. By the cross of Christ I swear it!”
He was so white with passionate earnestness that she could not but believe him.
“Well, then,” she cried, “why will you not show me the letter?”
“I’ll tell you, acushla,” said he. “I’m under oath not to show it, and just as I wouldn’t break my word to you so I would keep it to those who hold my promise. It’s the business of the lodge, and even to you it’s secret. And if I was scared when a hand fell on me, can’t you understand it when it might have been the hand of a detective?”
She felt that he was telling the truth. He gathered her into his arms and kissed away her fears and doubts.
“Sit here by me, then. It’s a queer throne for such a queen; but it’s the best your poor lover can find. He’ll do better for you some of these days, I’m thinking. Now your mind is easy once again, is it not?”
“How can it ever be at ease, Jack, when I know that you are a criminal among criminals, when I never know the day that I may hear you are in court for murder? ‘McMurdo the Scowrer,’ that’s what one of oor boarders called you yesterday. It went through my heart like a knife.”
“Sure, hard words break no bones.”
“But they were true.”
“Well, dear, it’s not so bad as you think. We are but poor men that are trying in our own way to get our rights.”
Ettie threw her arms round her lover’s neck. “Give it up, Jack! For my sake, for God’s sake, give it up! It was to ask you that I came here to-day. Oh, Jack, see — I beg it of you on my bended knees! Kneeling here before you I implore you to give it up!”
He raised her and soothed her with her head against his breast.
“Sure, my darlin’, you don’t know what it is you are asking. How could I give it up when it would be to break my oath and to desert my comrades? If you could see how things stand with me you could never ask it of me. Besides, if I wanted to, how could I do it? You don’t suppose that the lodge would let a man go free with all its secrets?”
“I’ve thought of that, Jack. I’ve planned it all. Father has saved some money. He is weary of this place where the fear of these people darkens our lives. He is ready to go. We would fly together to Philadelphia or New York, where we would be safe from them.”
McMurdo laughed. “The lodge has a long arm. Do you think it could not stretch from here to Philadelphia or New York?”
“Well, then, to the West, or to England, or to Germany, where father came from — anywhere to get away from this Valley of Fear!”
McMurdo thought of old Brother Morris. “Sure, it is the second time I have heard the valley so named,” said he. “The shadow does indeed seem to lie heavy on some of you.”
“It darkens every moment of our lives. Do you suppose that Ted Baldwin has ever forgiven us? If it were not that he fears you, what do you suppose our chances would be? If you saw the look in those dark, hungry eyes of his when they fall on me!”
“By Gar! I’d teach him better manners if I caught him at it! But see here, little girl. I can’t leave here. I can’t — take that from me once and for all. But if you will leave me to find my own way, I will try to prepare a way of getting honourably out of it.”
“There is no honour in such a matter.”
“Well, well, it’s just how you look at it. But if you’ll give me six months, I’ll work it so that I can leave without being ashamed to look others in the face.”
The girl laughed with joy. “Six months!” she cried. “Is it a promise?”
“Well, it may be seven or eight. But within a year at the furthest we will leave the valley behind us.”
It was the most that Ettie could obtain, and yet it was something. There was this distant light to illuminate the gloom of the immediate future. She returned to her father’s house more light-hearted than she had ever been since Jack McMurdo had come into her life.
It might be thought that as a member, all the doings of the society would be told to him; but he was soon to discover that the organization was wider and more complex than the simple lodge. Even Boss McGinty was ignorant as to many things; for there was an official named the County Delegate, living at Hobson’s Patch farther down the line, who had power over several different lodges which he wielded in a sudden and arbitrary way. Only once did McMurdo see him, a sly, little gray-haired rat of a man, with a slinking gait and a sidelong glance which was charged with malice. Evans Pott was his name, and even the great Boss of Vermissa felt towards him something of the repulsion and fear which the huge Danton may have felt for the puny but dangerous Robespierre.
One day Scanlan, who was McMurdo’s fellow boarder, received a note from McGinty inclosing one from Evans Pott, which informed him that he was sending over two good men Lawler and Andrews, who had instructions to act in the neighbourhood; though it was best for the cause that no particulars as to their objects should be given. Would the Bodymaster see to it that suitable arrangements be made for their lodgings and comfort until the time for action should arrive? McGinty added that it was impossible for anyone to remain secret at the Union House, and that, therefore, he would be obliged if McMurdo and Scanlan would put the strangers up for a few days in their boarding house.
The same evening the two men arrived, each carrying his gripsack. Lawler was an elderly man, shrewd, silent, and self-contained, clad in an old black frock coat, which with his soft felt hat and ragged, grizzled beard gave him a general resemblance to an itinerant preacher. His companion Andrews was little more than a boy, frank-faced and cheerful, with the breezy manner of one who is out for a holiday and means to enjoy every minute of it. Both men were total abstainers, and behaved in all ways as exemplary members of the society, with the one simple exception that they were assassins who had often proved themselves to be most capable instruments for this association of murder. Lawler had already carried out fourteen commissions of the kind, and Andrews three.
They were, as McMurdo found, quite ready to converse about their deeds in the past, which they recounted with the half-bashful pride of men who had done good and unselfish service for the community. They were reticent, however, as to the immediate job in hand.
“They chose us because neither I nor the boy here drink,” Lawler explained. “They can count on us saying no more than we should. You must not take it amiss, but it is the orders of the County Delegate that we obey.”
“Sure, we are all in it together,” said Scanlan, McMurdo’s mate, as the four sat together at supper.
“That’s true enough, and we’ll talk till the cows come home of the killing of Charlie Williams or of Simon Bird, or any other job in the past. But till the work is done we say nothing.”
“There are half a dozen about here that I have a word to say to,” said McMurdo, with an oath. “I suppose it isn’t Jack Knox of Ironhill that you are after. I’d go some way to see him get his deserts.”
“No, it’s not him yet.”
“Or Herman Strauss?”
“No, nor him either.”
“Well, if you won’t tell us we can’t make you; but I’d be glad to know.”
Lawler smiled and shook his head. He was not to be drawn.
In spite of the reticence of their guests, Scanlan and McMurdo were quite determined to be present at what they called “the fun.” When, therefore, at an early hour one morning McMurdo heard them creeping down the stairs he awakened Scanlan, and the two hurried on their clothes. When they were dressed they found that the others had stolen out, leaving the door open behind them. It was not yet dawn, and by the light of the lamps they could see the two men some distance down the street. They followed them warily, treading noiselessly in the deep snow.
The boarding house was near the edge of the town, and soon they were at the crossroads which is beyond its boundary. Here three men were waiting, with whom Lawler and Andrews held a short, eager conversation. Then they all moved on together. It was clearly some notable job which needed numbers. At this point there are several trails which lead to various mines. The strangers took that which led to the Crow Hill, a huge business which was in strong hands which had been able, thanks to their energetic and fearless New England manager, Josiah H. Dunn, to keep some order and discipline during the long reign of terror.
Day was breaking now, and a line of workmen were slowly making their way, singly and in groups, along the blackened path.
McMurdo and Scanlan strolled on with the others, keeping in sight of the men whom they followed. A thick mist lay over them, and from the heart of it there came the sudden scream of a steam whistle. It was the ten-minute signal before the cages descended and the day’s labour began.
When they reached the open space round the mine shaft there were a hundred miners waiting, stamping their feet and blowing on their fingers; for it was bitterly cold. The strangers stood in a little group under the shadow of the engine house. Scanlan and McMurdo climbed a heap of slag from which the whole scene lay before them. They saw the mine engineer, a great bearded Scotchman named Menzies, come out of the engine house and blow his whistle for the cages to be lowered.
At the same instant a tall, loose-framed young man with a clean-shaved, earnest face advanced eagerly towards the pit head. As he came forward his eyes fell upon the group, silent and motionless, under the engine house. The men had drawn down their hats and turned up their collars to screen their faces. For a moment the presentiment of Death laid its cold hand upon the manager’s heart. At the next he had shaken it off and saw only his duty towards intrusive strangers.
“Who are you?” he asked as he advanced. “What are you loitering there for?”
There was no answer; but the lad Andrews stepped forward and shot him in the stomach. The hundred waiting miners stood as motionless and helpless as if they were paralyzed. The manager clapped his two hands to the wound and doubled himself up. Then he staggered away; but another of the assassins fired, and he went down sidewise, kicking and clawing among a heap of clinkers. Menzies, the Scotchman, gave a roar of rage at the sight and rushed with an iron spanner at the murderers; but was met by two balls in the face which dropped him dead at their very feet.
There was a surge forward of some of the miners, and an inarticulate cry of pity and of anger; but a couple of the strangers emptied their six-shooters over the heads of the crowd, and they broke and scattered, some of them rushing wildly back to their homes in Vermissa.
When a few of the bravest had rallied, and there was a return to the mine, the murderous gang had vanished in the mists of morning, without a single witness being able to swear to the identity of these men who in front of a hundred spectators had wrought this double crime.
Scanlan and McMurdo made their way back; Scanlan somewhat subdued, for it was the first murder job that he had seen with his own eyes, and it appeared less funny than he had been led to believe. The horrible screams of the dead manager’s wife pursued them as they hurried to the town. McMurdo was absorbed and silent; but he showed no sympathy for the weakening of his companion.
“Sure, it is like a war,” he repeated. “What is it but a war between us and them, and we hit back where we best can.”
There was high revel in the lodge room at the Union House that night, not only over the killing of the manager and engineer of the Crow Hill mine, which would bring this organization into line with the other blackmailed and terror-stricken companies of the district, but also over a distant triumph which had been wrought by the hands of the lodge itself.
It would appear that when the County Delegate had sent over five good men to strike a blow in Vermissa, he had demanded that in return three Vermissa men should be secretly selected and sent across to kill William Hales of Stake Royal, one of the best known and most popular mine owners in the Gilmerton district, a man who was believed not to have an enemy in the world; for he was in all ways a model employer. He had insisted, however, upon efficiency in the work, and had, therefore, paid off certain drunken and idle employees who were members of the all-powerful society. Coffin notices hung outside his door had not weakened his resolution, and so in a free, civilized country he found himself condemned to death.
The execution had now been duly carried out. Ted Baldwin, who sprawled now in the seat of honour beside the Bodymaster, had been chief of the party. His flushed face and glazed, blood-shot eyes told of sleeplessness and drink. He and his two comrades had spent the night before among the mountains. They were unkempt and weather-stained. But no heroes, returning from a forlorn hope, could have had a warmer welcome from their comrades.
The story was told and retold amid cries of delight and shouts of laughter. They had waited for their man as he drove home at nightfall, taking their station at the top of a steep hill, where his horse must be at a walk. He was so furred to keep out the cold that he could not lay his hand on his pistol. They had pulled him out and shot him again and again. He had screamed for mercy. The screams were repeated for the amusement of the lodge.
“Let’s hear again how he squealed,” they cried.
None of them knew the man; but there is eternal drama in a killing, and they had shown the Scowrers of Gilmerton that the Vermissa men were to be relied upon.
There had been one contretemps; for a man and his wife had driven up while they were still emptying their revolvers into the silent body. It had been suggested that they should shoot them both; but they were harmless folk who were not connected with the mines, so they were sternly bidden to drive on and keep silent, lest a worse thing befall them. And so the blood-mottled figure had been left as a warning to all such hard-hearted employers, and the three noble avengers had hurried off into the mountains where unbroken nature comes down to the very edge of the furnaces and the slag heaps. Here they were, safe and sound, their work well done, and the plaudits of their companions in their ears.
It had been a great day for the Scowrers. The shadow had fallen even darker over the valley. But as the wise general chooses the moment of victory in which to redouble his efforts, so that his foes may have no time to steady themselves after disaster, so Boss McGinty, looking out upon the scene of his operations with his brooding and malicious eyes, had devised a new attack upon those who opposed him. That very night, as the half-drunken company broke up, he touched McMurdo on the arm and led him aside into that inner room where they had their first interview.
“See here, my lad,” said he, “I’ve got a job that’s worthy of you at last. You’ll have the doing of it in your own hands.”
“Proud I am to hear it,” McMurdo answered.
“You can take two men with you — Manders and Reilly. They have been warned for service. We’ll never be right in this district until Chester Wilcox has been settled, and you’ll have the thanks of every lodge in the coal fields if you can down him.”
“I’ll do my best, anyhow. Who is he, and where shall I find him?”
McGinty took his eternal half-chewed, half-smoked cigar from the corner of his mouth, and proceeded to draw a rough diagram on a page torn from his notebook.
“He’s the chief foreman of the Iron Dike Company. He’s a hard citizen, an old colour sergeant of the war, all scars and grizzle. We’ve had two tries at him; but had no luck, and Jim Carnaway lost his life over it. Now it’s for you to take it over. That’s the house — all alone at the Iron Dike crossroad, same as you see here on the map — without another within earshot. It’s no good by day. He’s armed and shoots quick and straight, with no questions asked. But at night — well, there he is with his wife three children, and a hired help. You can’t pick or choose. It’s all or none. If you could get a bag of blasting powder at the front door with a slow match to it “
“What’s the man done?”
“Didn’t I tell you he shot Jim Camaway?”
“Why did he shoot him?”
“What in thunder has that to do with you? Carnaway was about his house at night, and he shot him. That’s enough for me and you. You’ve got to settle the thing right.”
“There’s these two women and the children. Do they go up too?”
“They have to — else how can we get him?”
“It seems hard on them; for they’ve done nothing.”
“What sort of fool’s talk is this? Do you back out?”
“Easy, Councillor, easy! What have I ever said or done that you should think I would be after standing back from an order of the Bodymaster of my own lodge? If it’s right or if it’s wrong, it’s for you to decide.”
“You’ll do it, then?”
“Of course I will do it.”
“Well, you had best give me a night or two that I may see the house and make my plans. Then —”
“Very good,” said McGinty, shaking him by the hand. “I leave it with you. It will be a great day when you bring us the news. It’s just the last stroke that will bring them all to their knees.”
McMurdo thought long and deeply over the commission which had been so suddenly placed in his hands. The isolated house in which Chester Wilcox lived was about five miles off in an adjacent valley. That very night he started off all alone to prepare for the attempt. It was daylight before he returned from his reconnaissance. Next day he interviewed his two subordinates, Manders and Reilly, reckless youngsters who were as elated as if it were a deer-hunt.
Two nights later they met outside the town, all three armed, and one of them carrying a sack stuffed with the powder which was used in the quarries. It was two in the morning before they came to the lonely house. The night was a windy one, with broken clouds drifting swiftly across the face of a three-quarter moon. They had been warned to be on their guard against bloodhounds; so they moved forward cautiously, with their pistols cocked in their hands. But there was no sound save the howling of the wind, and no movement but the swaying branches above them.
McMurdo listened at the door of the lonely house; but all was still within. Then he leaned the powder bag against it, ripped a hole in it with his knife, and attached the fuse. When it was well alight he and his two companions took to their heels, and were some distance off, safe and snug in a sheltering ditch, before the shattering roar of the explosion, with the low, deep rumble of the collapsing building, told them that their work was done. No cleaner job had ever been carried out in the bloodstained annals of the society.
But alas that work so well organized and boldly carried out should all have gone for nothing! Warned by the fate of the various victims, and knowing that he was marked down for destruction, Chester Wilcox had moved himself and his family only the day before to some safer and less known quarters, where a guard of police should watch over them. It was an empty house which had been torn down by the gunpowder, and the grim old colour sergeant of the war was still teaching discipline to the miners of Iron Dike.
“Leave him to me,” said McMurdo. “He’s my man, and I’ll get him sure if I have to wait a year for him.”
A vote of thanks and confidence was passed in full lodge, and so for the time the matter ended. When a few weeks later it was reported in the papers that Wilcox had been shot at from an ambuscade, it was an open secret that McMurdo was still at work upon his unfinished job.
Such were the methods of the Society of Freemen, and such were the deeds of the Scowrers by which they spread their rule of fear over the great and rich district which was for so long a period haunted by their terrible presence. Why should these pages be stained by further crimes? Have I not said enough to show the men and their methods?
These deeds are written in history, and there are records wherein one may read the details of them. There one may learn of the shooting of Policemen Hunt and Evans because they had ventured to arrest two members of the society — a double outrage planned at the Vermissa lodge and carried out in cold blood upon two helpless and disarmed men. There also one may read of the shooting of Mrs. Larbey when she was nursing her husband, who had been beaten almost to death by orders of Boss McGinty. The killing of the elder Jenkins, shortly followed by that of his brother, the mutilation of James Murdoch, the blowing up of the Staphouse family, and the murder of the Stendals all followed hard upon one another in the same terrible winter.
Darkly the shadow lay upon the Valley of Fear. The spring had come with running brooks and blossoming trees. There was hope for all Nature bound so long in an iron grip; but nowhere was there any hope for the men and women who lived under the yoke of the terror. Never had the cloud above them been so dark and hopeless as in the early summer of the year 1875.
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