Part 2 – The Scowrers
Chapter 3 – Lodge 341, Vermissa
On the day following the evening which had contained so many exciting events, McMurdo moved his lodgings from old Jacob Shafter’s and took up his quarters at the Widow MacNamara’s on the extreme outskirts of the town. Scanlan, his original acquaintance aboard the train, had occasion shortly afterwards to move into Vermissa, and the two lodged together. There was no other boarder, and the hostess was an easy-going old Irishwoman who left them to themselves; so that they had a freedom for speech and action welcome to men who had secrets in common.
Shafter had relented to the extent of letting McMurdo come to his meals there when he liked; so that his intercourse with Ettie was by no means broken. On the contrary, it drew closer and more intimate as the weeks went by.
In his bedroom at his new abode McMurdo felt it safe to take out the coining moulds, and under many a pledge of secrecy a number of brothers from the lodge were allowed to come in and see them, each carrying away in his pocket some examples of the false money, so cunningly struck that there was never the slightest difficulty or danger in passing it. Why, with such a wonderful art at his command, McMurdo should condescend to work at all was a perpetual mystery to his companions; though he made it clear to anyone who asked him that if he lived without any visible means it would very quickly bring the police upon his track.
One policeman was indeed after him already; but the incident, as luck would have it, did the adventurer a great deal more good than harm. After the first introduction there were few evenings when he did not find his way to McGinty’s saloon, there to make closer acquaintance with “the boys,” which was the jovial title by which the dangerous gang who infested the place were known to one another. His dashing manner and fearlessness of speech made him a favourite with them all; while the rapid and scientific way in which he polished off his antagonist in an “all in” bar-room scrap earned the respect of that rough community. Another incident, however, raised him even higher in their estimation.
Just at the crowded hour one night, the door opened and a man entered with the quiet blue uniform and peaked cap of the mine police. This was a special body raised by the railways and colliery owners to supplement the efforts of the ordinary civil police, who were perfectly helpless in the face of the organized ruffianism which terrorized the district. There was a hush as he entered, and many a curious glance was cast at him; but the relations between policemen and criminals are peculiar in some parts of the States, and McGinty himself, standing behind his counter, showed no surprise when the policeman enrolled himself among his customers.
“A straight whisky; for the night is bitter,” said the police officer. “I don’t think we have met before, Councillor?”
“You’ll be the new captain?” said McGinty.
“That’s so. We’re looking to you, Councillor, and to the other leading citizens, to help us in upholding law and order in this township. Captain Marvin is my name.”
“We’d do better without you, Captain Marvin,” said McGinty coldly; “for we have our own police of the township, and no need for any imported goods. What are you but the paid tool of the capitalists, hired by them to club or shoot your poorer fellow citizen?”
“Well, well, we won’t argue about that,” said the police officer good-humouredly. “I expect we all do our duty same as we see it; but we can’t all see it the same.” He had drunk off his glass and had turned to go, when his eyes fell upon the face of Jack McMurdo, who was scowling at his elbow. “Hullo! Hullo!” he cried, looking him up and down. “Here’s an old acquaintance!”
McMurdo shrank away from him. “I was never a friend to you nor any other cursed copper in my life,” said he.
“An acquaintance isn’t always a friend,” said the police captain, grinning. “You’re Jack McMurdo of Chicago, right enough, and don’t you deny it!”
McMurdo shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not denying it,” said he. “D’ye think I’m ashamed of my own name?”
“You’ve got good cause to be, anyhow.”
“What the devil d’you mean by that?” he roared with his fists clenched.
“No, no, Jack, bluster won’t do with me. I was an officer in Chicago before ever I came to this darned coal bunker, and I know a Chicago crook when I see one.”
McMurdo’s face fell. “Don’t tell me that you’re Marvin of the Chicago Central!” he cried.
“Just the same old Teddy Marvin, at your service. We haven’t forgotten the shooting of Jonas Pinto up there.”
“I never shot him.”
“Did you not? That’s good impartial evidence, ain’t it? Well, his death came in uncommon handy for you, or they would have had you for shoving the queer. Well, we can let that be bygones; for, between you and me—and perhaps I’m going further than my duty in saying it—they could get no clear case against you, and Chicago’s open to you to-morrow.”
“I’m very well where I am.”
“Well, I’ve given you the pointer, and you’re a sulky dog not to thank me for it.”
“Well, I suppose you mean well, and I do thank you,” said McMurdo in no very gracious manner.
“It’s mum with me so long as I see you living on the straight,” said the captain. “But, by the Lord! if you get off after this, it’s another story! So good-night to you—and good-night, Councillor.”
He left the bar-room; but not before he had created a local hero. McMurdo’s deeds in far Chicago had been whispered before. He had put off all questions with a smile, as one who did not wish to have greatness thrust upon him. But now the thing was officially confirmed. The bar loafers crowded round him and shook him heartily by the hand. He was free of the community from that time on. He could drink hard and show little trace of it; but that evening, had his mate Scanlan not been at hand to lead him home, the feted hero would surely have spent his night under the bar.
On a Saturday night McMurdo was introduced to the lodge. He had thought to pass in without ceremony as being an initiate of Chicago; but there were particular rites in Vermissa of which they were proud, and these had to be undergone by every postulant. The assembly met in a large room reserved for such purposes at the Union House. Some sixty members assembled at Vermissa; but that by no means represented the full strength of the organization, for there were several other lodges in the valley, and others across the mountains on each side, who exchanged members when any serious business was afoot, so that a crime might be done by men who were strangers to the locality. Altogether there were not less than five hundred scattered over the coal district.
In the bare assembly room the men were gathered round a long table. At the side was a second one laden with bottles and glasses, on which some members of the company were already turning their eyes. McGinty sat at the head with a flat black velvet cap upon his shock of tangled black hair, and a coloured purple stole round his neck, so that he seemed to be a priest presiding over some diabolical ritual. To right and left of him were the higher lodge officials, the cruel, handsome face of Ted Baldwin among them. Each of these wore some scarf or medallion as emblem of his office.
They were, for the most part, men of mature age; but the rest of the company consisted of young fellows from eighteen to twenty-five, the ready and capable agents who carried out the commands of their seniors. Among the older men were many whose features showed the tigerish, lawless souls within; but looking at the rank and file it was difficult to believe that these eager and open-faced young fellows were in very truth a dangerous gang of murderers, whose minds had suffered such complete moral perversion that they took a horrible pride in their proficiency at the business, and looked with deepest respect at the man who had the reputation of making what they called “a clean job.”
To their contorted natures it had become a spirited and chivalrous thing to volunteer for service against some man who had never injured them, and whom in many cases they had never seen in their lives. The crime committed, they quarrelled as to who had actually struck the fatal blow, and amused one another and the company by describing the cries and contortions of the murdered man.
At first they had shown some secrecy in their arrangements; but at the time which this narrative describes their proceedings were extraordinarily open, for the repeated failure of the law had proved to them that, on the one hand, no one would dare to witness against them, and on the other they had an unlimited number of stanch witnesses upon whom they could call, and a well-filled treasure chest from which they could draw the funds to engage the best legal talent in the state. In ten long years of outrage there had been no single conviction, and the only danger that ever threatened the Scowrers lay in the victim himself—who, however outnumbered and taken by surprise, might and occasionally did leave his mark upon his assailants.
McMurdo had been warned that some ordeal lay before him; but no one would tell him in what it consisted. He was led now into an outer room by two solemn brothers. Through the plank partition he could hear the murmur of many voices from the assembly within. Once or twice he caught the sound of his own name, and he knew that they were discussing his candidacy. Then there entered an inner guard with a green and gold sash across his chest.
“The Bodymaster orders that he shall be trussed, blinded, and entered,” said he.
The three of them removed his coat, turned up the sleeve of his right arm, and finally passed a rope round above the elbows and made it fast. They next placed a thick black cap right over his head and the upper part of his face, so that he could see nothing. He was then led into the assembly hall.
It was pitch dark and very oppressive under his hood. He heard the rustle and murmur of the people round him, and then the voice of McGinty sounded dull and distant through the covering of his ears.
“John McMurdo,” said the voice, “are you already a member of the Ancient Order of Freemen?”
He bowed in assent.
“Is your lodge No. 29, Chicago?”
He bowed again.
“Dark nights are unpleasant,” said the voice.
“Yes, for strangers to travel,” he answered.
“The clouds are heavy.”
“Yes, a storm is approaching.”
“Are the brethren satisfied?” asked the Bodymaster.
There was a general murmur of assent.
“We know, Brother, by your sign and by your countersign that you are indeed one of us,” said McGinty. “We would have you know, however, that in this county and in other counties of these parts we have certain rites, and also certain duties of our own which call for good men. Are you ready to be tested?”
“Are you of stout heart?”
“Take a stride forward to prove it.”
As the words were said he felt two hard points in front of his eyes, pressing upon them so that it appeared as if he could not move forward without a danger of losing them. None the less, he nerved himself to step resolutely out, and as he did so the pressure melted away. There was a low murmur of applause.
“He is of stout heart,” said the voice. “Can you bear pain?”
“As well as another,” he answered.
It was all he could do to keep himself from screaming out, for an agonizing pain shot through his forearm. He nearly fainted at the sudden shock of it; but he bit his lip and clenched his hands to hide his agony.
“I can take more than that,” said he.
This time there was loud applause. A finer first appearance had never been made in the lodge. Hands clapped him on the back, and the hood was plucked from his head. He stood blinking and smiling amid the congratulations of the brothers.
“One last word, Brother McMurdo,” said McGinty. “You have already sworn the oath of secrecy and fidelity, and you are aware that the punishment for any breach of it is instant and inevitable death?”
“I am,” said McMurdo.
“And you accept the rule of the Bodymaster for the time being under all circumstances?”
“Then in the name of Lodge 341, Vermissa, I welcome you to its privileges and debates. You will put the liquor on the table, Brother Scanlan, and we will drink to our worthy brother.”
McMurdo’s coat had been brought to him; but before putting it on he examined his right arm, which still smarted heavily. There on the flesh of the forearm was a circle with a triangle within it, deep and red, as the branding iron had left it. One or two of his neighbours pulled up their sleeves and showed their own lodge marks.
“We’ve all had it,” said one; “but not all as brave as you over it.”
“Tut! It was nothing,” said he; but it burned and ached all the same.
When the drinks which followed the ceremony of initiation had all been disposed of, the business of the lodge proceeded. McMurdo, accustomed only to the prosaic performances of Chicago, listened with open ears and more surprise than he ventured to show to what followed.
“The first business on the agenda paper,” said McGinty, “is to read the following letter from Division Master Windle of Merton County Lodge 249. He says:
“There is a job to be done on Andrew Rae of Rae & Sturmash, coal owners near this place. You will remember that your lodge owes us a return, having had the service of two brethren in the matter of the patrolman last fall. You will send two good men, they will be taken charge of by Treasurer Higgins of this lodge, whose address you know. He will show them when to act and where. Yours in freedom,
“J.W. WINDLE D.M.A.O.F.”
“Windle has never refused us when we have had occasion to ask for the loan of a man or two, and it is not for us to refuse him.” McGinty paused and looked round the room with his dull, malevolent eyes. “Who will volunteer for the job?”
Several young fellows held up their hands. The Bodymaster looked at them with an approving smile.
“You’ll do, Tiger Cormac. If you handle it as well as you did the last, you won’t be wrong. And you, Wilson.”
“I’ve no pistol,” said the volunteer, a mere boy in his teens.
“It’s your first, is it not? Well, you have to be blooded some time. It will be a great start for you. As to the pistol, you’ll find it waiting for you, or I’m mistaken. If you report yourselves on Monday, it will be time enough. You’ll get a great welcome when you return.”
“Any reward this time?” asked Cormac, a thick-set, dark-faced, brutal-looking young man, whose ferocity had earned him the nickname of “Tiger.”
“Never mind the reward. You just do it for the honour of the thing. Maybe when it is done there will be a few odd dollars at the bottom of the box.”
“What has the man done?” asked young Wilson.
“Sure, it’s not for the likes of you to ask what the man has done. He has been judged over there. That’s no business of ours. All we have to do is to carry it out for them, same as they would for us. Speaking of that, two brothers from the Merton lodge are coming over to us next week to do some business in this quarter.”
“Who are they?” asked someone.
“Faith, it is wiser not to ask. If you know nothing, you can testify nothing, and no trouble can come of it. But they are men who will make a clean job when they are about it.”
“And time, too!” cried Ted Baldwin. “Folk are gettin’ out of hand in these parts. It was only last week that three of our men were turned off by Foreman Blaker. It’s been owing him a long time, and he’ll get it full and proper.”
“Get what?” McMurdo whispered to his neighbour.
“The business end of a buckshot cartridge!” cried the man with a loud laugh. “What think you of our ways, Brother?”
McMurdo’s criminal soul seemed to have already absorbed the spirit of the vile association of which he was now a member. “I like it well,” said he. “’Tis a proper place for a lad of mettle.”
Several of those who sat around heard his words and applauded them.
“What’s that?” cried the black-maned Bodymaster from the end of the table.
“’Tis our new brother, sir, who finds our ways to his taste.”
McMurdo rose to his feet for an instant. “I would say, Eminent Bodymaster, that if a man should be wanted I should take it as an honour to be chosen to help the lodge.”
There was great applause at this. It was felt that a new sun was pushing its rim above the horizon. To some of the elders it seemed that the progress was a little too rapid.
“I would move,” said the secretary, Harraway, a vulture-faced old graybeard who sat near the chairman, “that Brother McMurdo should wait until it is the good pleasure of the lodge to employ him.”
“Sure, that was what I meant; I’m in your hands,” said McMurdo.
“Your time will come, Brother,” said the chairman. “We have marked you down as a willing man, and we believe that you will do good work in these parts. There is a small matter to-night in which you may take a hand if it so please you.”
“I will wait for something that is worth while.”
“You can come to-night, anyhow, and it will help you to know what we stand for in this community. I will make the announcement later. Meanwhile,” he glanced at his agenda paper, “I have one or two more points to bring before the meeting. First of all, I will ask the treasurer as to our bank balance. There is the pension to Jim Carnaway’s widow. He was struck down doing the work of the lodge, and it is for us to see that she is not the loser.”
“Jim was shot last month when they tried to kill Chester Wilcox of Marley Creek,” McMurdo’s neighbour informed him.
“The funds are good at the moment,” said the treasurer, with the bankbook in front of him. “The firms have been generous of late. Max Linder & Co. paid five hundred to be left alone. Walker Brothers sent in a hundred; but I took it on myself to return it and ask for five. If I do not hear by Wednesday, their winding gear may get out of order. We had to burn their breaker last year before they became reasonable. Then the West Section Coaling Company has paid its annual contribution. We have enough on hand to meet any obligations.”
“What about Archie Swindon?” asked a brother.
“He has sold out and left the district. The old devil left a note for us to say that he had rather be a free crossing sweeper in New York than a large mine owner under the power of a ring of blackmailers. By Gar! it was as well that he made a break for it before the note reached us! I guess he won’t show his face in this valley again.”
An elderly, clean-shaved man with a kindly face and a good brow rose from the end of the table which faced the chairman. “Mr. Treasurer,” he asked, “may I ask who has bought the property of this man that we have driven out of the district?”
“Yes, Brother Morris. It has been bought by the State & Merton County Railroad Company.”
“And who bought the mines of Todman and of Lee that came into the market in the same way last year?”
“The same company, Brother Morris.”
“And who bought the ironworks of Manson and of Shuman and of Van Deher and of Atwood, which have all been given up of late?”
“They were all bought by the West Gilmerton General Mining Company.”
“I don’t see, Brother Morris,” said the chairman, “that it matters to us who buys them, since they can’t carry them out of the district.”
“With all respect to you, Eminent Bodymaster, I think it may matter very much to us. This process has been going on now for ten long years. We are gradually driving all the small men out of trade. What is the result? We find in their places great companies like the Railroad or the General Iron, who have their directors in New York or Philadelphia, and care nothing for our threats. We can take it out of their local bosses; but it only means that others will be sent in their stead. And we are making it dangerous for ourselves. The small men could not harm us. They had not the money nor the power. So long as we did not squeeze them too dry, they would stay on under our power. But if these big companies find that we stand between them and their profits, they will spare no pains and no expense to hunt us down and bring us to court.”
There was a hush at these ominous words, and every face darkened as gloomy looks were exchanged. So omnipotent and unchallenged had they been that the very thought that there was possible retribution in the background had been banished from their minds. And yet the idea struck a chill to the most reckless of them.
“It is my advice,” the speaker continued, “that we go easier upon the small men. On the day that they have all been driven out the power of this society will have been broken.”
Unwelcome truths are not popular. There were angry cries as the speaker resumed his seat. McGinty rose with gloom upon his brow.
“Brother Morris,” said he, “you were always a croaker. So long as the members of this lodge stand together there is no power in the United States that can touch them. Sure, have we not tried it often enough in the lawcourts? I expect the big companies will find it easier to pay than to fight, same as the little companies do. And now, Brethren,” McGinty took off his black velvet cap and his stole as he spoke, “this lodge has finished its business for the evening, save for one small matter which may be mentioned when we are parting. The time has now come for fraternal refreshment and for harmony.”
Strange indeed is human nature. Here were these men, to whom murder was familiar, who again and again had struck down the father of the family, some man against whom they had no personal feeling, without one thought of compunction or of compassion for his weeping wife or helpless children, and yet the tender or pathetic in music could move them to tears. McMurdo had a fine tenor voice, and if he had failed to gain the good will of the lodge before, it could no longer have been withheld after he had thrilled them with “I’m Sitting on the Stile, Mary,” and “On the Banks of Allan Water.”
In his very first night the new recruit had made himself one of the most popular of the brethren, marked already for advancement and high office. There were other qualities needed, however, besides those of good fellowship, to make a worthy Freeman, and of these he was given an example before the evening was over. The whisky bottle had passed round many times, and the men were flushed and ripe for mischief when their Bodymaster rose once more to address them.
“Boys,” said he, “there’s one man in this town that wants trimming up, and it’s for you to see that he gets it. I’m speaking of James Stanger of the Herald. You’ve seen how he’s been opening his mouth against us again?”
There was a murmur of assent, with many a muttered oath. McGinty took a slip of paper from his waistcoat pocket.
“LAW AND ORDER!”
That’s how he heads it.
“REIGN OF TERROR IN THE COAL AND IRON DISTRICT
“Twelve years have now elapsed since the first assassinations which proved the existence of a criminal organization in our midst. From that day these outrages have never ceased, until now they have reached a pitch which makes us the opprobrium of the civilized world. Is it for such results as this that our great country welcomes to its bosom the alien who flies from the despotisms of Europe? Is it that they shall themselves become tyrants over the very men who have given them shelter, and that a state of terrorism and lawlessness should be established under the very shadow of the sacred folds of the starry Flag of Freedom which would raise horror in our minds if we read of it as existing under the most effete monarchy of the East? The men are known. The organization is patent and public. How long are we to endure it? Can we forever live—
“Sure, I’ve read enough of the slush!” cried the chairman, tossing the paper down upon the table. “That’s what he says of us. The question I’m asking you is what shall we say to him?”
“Kill him!” cried a dozen fierce voices.
“I protest against that,” said Brother Morris, the man of the good brow and shaved face. “I tell you, Brethren, that our hand is too heavy in this valley, and that there will come a point where in self-defense every man will unite to crush us out. James Stanger is an old man. He is respected in the township and the district. His paper stands for all that is solid in the valley. If that man is struck down, there will be a stir through this state that will only end with our destruction.”
“And how would they bring about our destruction, Mr. Standback?” cried McGinty. “Is it by the police? Sure, half of them are in our pay and half of them afraid of us. Or is it by the law courts and the judge? Haven’t we tried that before now, and what ever came of it?”
“There is a Judge Lynch that might try the case,” said Brother Morris.
A general shout of anger greeted the suggestion.
“I have but to raise my finger,” cried McGinty, “and I could put two hundred men into this town that would clear it out from end to end.” Then suddenly raising his voice and bending his huge black brows into a terrible frown, “See here, Brother Morris, I have my eye on you, and have had for some time! You’ve no heart yourself, and you try to take the heart out of others. It will be an ill day for you, Brother Morris, when your own name comes on our agenda paper, and I’m thinking that it’s just there that I ought to place it.”
Morris had turned deadly pale, and his knees seemed to give way under him as he fell back into his chair. He raised his glass in his trembling hand and drank before he could answer. “I apologize, Eminent Bodymaster, to you and to every brother in this lodge if I have said more than I should. I am a faithful member—you all know that—and it is my fear lest evil come to the lodge which makes me speak in anxious words. But I have greater trust in your judgment than in my own, Eminent Bodymaster, and I promise you that I will not offend again.”
The Bodymaster’s scowl relaxed as he listened to the humble words. “Very good, Brother Morris. It’s myself that would be sorry if it were needful to give you a lesson. But so long as I am in this chair we shall be a united lodge in word and in deed. And now, boys,” he continued, looking round at the company, “I’ll say this much, that if Stanger got his full deserts there would be more trouble than we need ask for. These editors hang together, and every journal in the state would be crying out for police and troops. But I guess you can give him a pretty severe warning. Will you fix it, Brother Baldwin?”
“Sure!” said the young man eagerly.
“How many will you take?”
“Half a dozen, and two to guard the door. You’ll come, Gower, and you, Mansel, and you, Scanlan, and the two Willabys.”
“I promised the new brother he should go,” said the chairman.
Ted Baldwin looked at McMurdo with eyes which showed that he had not forgotten nor forgiven. “Well, he can come if he wants,” he said in a surly voice. “That’s enough. The sooner we get to work the better.”
The company broke up with shouts and yells and snatches of drunken song. The bar was still crowded with revellers, and many of the brethren remained there. The little band who had been told off for duty passed out into the street, proceeding in twos and threes along the sidewalk so as not to provoke attention. It was a bitterly cold night, with a half-moon shining brilliantly in a frosty, star-spangled sky. The men stopped and gathered in a yard which faced a high building. The words, “Vermissa Herald” were printed in gold lettering between the brightly lit windows. From within came the clanking of the printing press.
“Here, you,” said Baldwin to McMurdo, “you can stand below at the door and see that the road is kept open for us. Arthur Willaby can stay with you. You others come with me. Have no fears, boys; for we have a dozen witnesses that we are in the Union Bar at this very moment.”
It was nearly midnight, and the street was deserted save for one or two revellers upon their way home. The party crossed the road, and, pushing open the door of the newspaper office, Baldwin and his men rushed in and up the stair which faced them. McMurdo and another remained below. From the room above came a shout, a cry for help, and then the sound of trampling feet and of falling chairs. An instant later a gray-haired man rushed out on the landing.
He was seized before he could get farther, and his spectacles came tinkling down to McMurdo’s feet. There was a thud and a groan. He was on his face, and half a dozen sticks were clattering together as they fell upon him. He writhed, and his long, thin limbs quivered under the blows. The others ceased at last; but Baldwin, his cruel face set in an infernal smile, was hacking at the man’s head, which he vainly endeavoured to defend with his arms. His white hair was dabbled with patches of blood. Baldwin was still stooping over his victim, putting in a short, vicious blow whenever he could see a part exposed, when McMurdo dashed up the stair and pushed him back.
“You’ll kill the man,” said he. “Drop it!”
Baldwin looked at him in amazement. “Curse you!” he cried. “Who are you to interfere—you that are new to the lodge? Stand back!” He raised his stick; but McMurdo had whipped his pistol out of his pocket.
“Stand back yourself!” he cried. “I’ll blow your face in if you lay a hand on me. As to the lodge, wasn’t it the order of the Bodymaster that the man was not to be killed—and what are you doing but killing him?”
“It’s truth he says,” remarked one of the men.
“By Gar! you’d best hurry yourselves!” cried the man below. “The windows are all lighting up, and you’ll have the whole town here inside of five minutes.”
There was indeed the sound of shouting in the street, and a little group of compositors and pressmen was forming in the hall below and nerving itself to action. Leaving the limp and motionless body of the editor at the head of the stair, the criminals rushed down and made their way swiftly along the street. Having reached the Union House, some of them mixed with the crowd in McGinty’s saloon, whispering across the bar to the Boss that the job had been well carried through. Others, and among them McMurdo, broke away into side streets, and so by devious paths to their own homes.