The miners emerged up from the shaft at Ludlow just as the red sun faded like a slash of blood behind the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Their leather caps sagged over their coal black faces as they walked, carrying their tin lunch buckets past the breaker, down the guttered dirt road. Byrnes was not yet to the tavern when his boy Daniel came running with the other boys from the breaker. He was dark-eyed and dusted coal-black from head to toe, wearing an oversized cap. Byrnes caught him by the arm and held him there.
“Aren’t you going to say hello to your father?”
The boy seemed incapable of looking him in the eyes. “Are you coming home now?” Daniel asked sheepishly.
“Not just now. The Union is meeting tonight.”
“And then you’ll come home?”
“Yes, after,” he said. “You’d better be in bed by the time I get home. I don’t want to find you waiting for me outside again like last time.”
“What if the sheriff starts arresting everyone again?”
“I won’t let him,” he said. “Not this time.”
“And if you lost your job, wouldn’t we have nothing?”
“Nothing?” Byrnes said. “Where did you get an idea like that? We’ll always have each other. That’s all that matters, isn’t it?”
“That’s all that matters,” Daniel muttered.
“Good boy.” Byrnes ruffled his hair. “Now go on home. I’ll be there soon.”
The tavern took on the odor of the mine as they crowded in, a hard-bitten lot who drank and fought and gambled and whored. The oldest among them wheezed with lungs full of dust. They could scarcely keep their sunken eyes open after swinging picks with six inches of clearance all day, the slate roof scraping at their backs, the endless drudgery of the pick and shovel.
By the bar, an ash-gray mutt lay curled on the floor, wagging her tail erratically, sweeping it across the dusty floor, watching Byrnes with her sad-looking eyes. One of the Union miners pounded his fist on a table top, rattling the half empty glasses. “Byrnes’s got the floor,” he bellowed.
The crowd went silent.
“There’s a cold wind blowing through the canyon tonight,” Byrnes began. “It’ll be another hard winter for us, getting cheated by the company and being denied our God-given rights. They’ll knock our pay because they find a piece of slate in the car. They’ll tell us we owe them money when payday comes. Tell us we owe them for a can of black powder, or for getting a pick sharpened at the smithy, or for our bills at the company store.”
“None of that’s going to change if we don’t get organized.” His eyes wandered across the crowd. “The company makes it so a miner is a miner from the day he’s born. It’s all most of us have ever known. Our school was the breaker, the tipple, the shaft, and the chamber. Your dad’s a miner. Your brother’s a miner. And they make damn sure you can’t do anything else. Is that freedom? We work in his mine. We live in his house. On Sunday we go to hear his preacher. And when we die we are buried in his cemetery…” His eyes raked across the room and he shook his head with grave deliberation. “Some of you say it’s a battle that can’t be won. But I’m here to tell you we won’t be defeated! Our time has come. Our time is…”
Byrnes stopped midsentence when he heard the scratch of the dog’s claws on the floorboards as she rose up on her haunches and her hackles went up. She bared her teeth and had begun to snarl viciously at something across the room. Heads turned, a murmur passing through the begrimed crowd.
“He done did it now,” someone said ruefully.
The dark figure looming in the doorway shifted. And then he stepped forward into the lamplight. Jack Carver was followed by two of his deputies armed with carbine rifles. The miners fell silent. No sound save for the snarling dog. Carver took off his hat and brushed away the canyon dust then dipped his head slightly to replace the hat. He was packing a huge .45 Schofield in his holster, his heavy boot falls thudding on the wooden floorboards.
In the quavering lamplight, you could just see the scar where his throat had been slit. People said he had come to the Colorado coal fields to evade the warrants out for his arrest in Texas. They said he had started the Rocky Mountain Coal Company with nothing but a rusty pick, a borrowed harness, and a mule. Now he was one of the richest men in Las Animas County. And if he had been running from the law, now he was the law.
The snarling mutt stood her ground until Carver’s gaze fell upon her and she quieted and slunk off behind the bar, her tail tucked between her hind legs.
“Suffering?” he asked. “These men don’t suffer. Hell, half of them don’t even speak English.” He turned to the bar and poured himself a shot of whiskey and rifled it down his throat. “And what’s this about God-given rights? What do you know about God? You supposed to be some kind of prophet, Byrnes?” He poured and drank another whiskey. His back had been turned to the room, but now he turned to address them. “I been listening and I think what you got… is exactly what God wants you to have.” He leaned and spat on the floor and then looked up again. “Or maybe God just don’t give a damn.”
“You think everyone’s afraid of you.” Byrnes tapped his finger to his chest. “I’m not afraid.”
Jack Carver laughed with delight. He sniffed around and inspected the bottoms of his boots. “Jesus Christ, boys, it’s getting deep in here. Stinks like someone dumped a fresh load of manure on my boots.”
The deputies behind him erupted with paroxysms of laughter.
Then Carver said to the miners: “If you all want to keep your jobs, then I suggest you get the hell out of here.”
Gradually, shamefacedly, they abandoned their seats and shambled out of the tavern. The deputies lowered their carbines and let them rest in the crooks of their arms. Behind the bar, the barkeep polished the same glass endlessly with a white towel. More miners stood up and walked out, shaking their heads disappointedly.
The tavern was empty now save for the five of them. Byrnes stood at his end of the bar holding the empty pint glass, looking at himself in the long mirror behind the bar. Byrnes called to the barkeep. “Give me a whiskey…”
The bartender went to him. “You should get the hell out of here,” he whispered.
“Give me a whiskey, and then I’m going home.”
The barkeep sighed and poured a glass. Byrnes swirled it, sniffing the aroma of vanilla and honey under his nose, taking that first sip, then another. He glanced down the bar to where Carver stood sideways against the bar with his thumb tucked in his ammunition belt, his holstered revolver hanging at his hip.
Byrnes finished the whiskey with a swift gulp. He stood up, counting out a handful of the coins that were in his pocket and paid. He moved down the bar slowly, approaching Carver, who was laughing with his deputies as he raised another shot. But when he turned around to meet Byrnes, the smirk drained swiftly from his face.
“You look like you got something on your mind?”
“The Union’s here to stay, Carver. And if it comes to blood then it comes to blood.”
“Is that right?”
“Well, all right then.”
The gunshot left Byrnes’s ears ringing. He staggered back a few steps, holding his gut with a look of complete astonishment, and then he bumped into the bar. A bone-handled knife dropped to the floor. He seemed to be in the act of sitting, but instead he fell heavily on the floor and there he remained with his back propped up against the bar, a puddle of blood spreading out around him.
The barkeep moved forward towards the bar and one of the deputies leveled his rifle at his chest, and the barkeep stopped suddenly and held his hands up.
“I know what you got under that bar,” the deputy said. “Now, just keep yer ass against that wall.”
Byrnes squirmed on the floor. His boot-heels, kicking slashes across the floor, toppled a chair at the poker table. He gritted his teeth and then he looked at the blood soaked shirt clinging to his gut and his face went pale. “Oh god,” he muttered, his eyes rolling about.
“You can hear me, can’t you, Byrnes?” Carver squatted on his haunches beside him, rolling a toothpick in the corner of his mouth.
“Daniel,” Byrnes said. “Daniel…”
“You see, boys, when you lose all that blood you start talking nonsense. Who is that? That your little boy?” He took the toothpick out of his mouth and then flung it across the floor. “Do you understand why I’m doing this, Byrnes? You’ve been pissing in my ears about this damn Union for so long.” The sheriff drew his Schofield again and cocked it and squatted on his haunches so that he was eye-level with Byrnes. “Now it’s my turn.” The sheriff leaned in closer and whispered hoarsely. “Now I get to put a bullet in your ear.”
Byrnes never heard the second gunshot. He saw a white hot flash just as the bullet mushroomed through his brain, and exploded through the bone on the other side of his head. He stared vacantly up at the ceiling. Carver wiped his nose with his knuckle, got up, and left a silver dollar for the whiskey he drank.
“I didn’t mean to make a mess on your floor,” he told the barkeep. He took a billfold from his shirt pocket and unclipped it and flipped through the bills. He tossed it on the bar nonchalantly and the money scattered. “Anyone asks, you say Byrnes got on the last train out of town.”
“I can do that,” the barkeep stuttered. “But—well—what about his little boy, Jack?”
“What about him?”
“People are going to ask questions if they hear Byrnes left without…”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Jack, it weighs on my conscience…”
“Why, now, what kind of monster do you think I am?” he interrupted.
The barkeep laughed nervously. “For a second there, I thought you meant…”
“Yeah, yeah… go get your scrub brush.” Then he looked at the deputies and wagged his finger at the body. “This son-of-a-bitch needs to disappear.”
Robert Lee Bailey was born and raised in a coal town south of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Monongahela Blood, a historical suspense novel, and his short fiction has recently appeared in The Flash Fiction Offensive and Wild Violet. He is currently at work on a collection of crime short stories. Read more of his work at www.anatomyoftheartist.com.
Daniel was there waiting for his father on the portico when Carver emerged, pulling on his riding gloves. Few and far between were the men who looked Carver in the eye and yet here was a child whose gaze he refused to meet. He looked out into the night. His breath clouded in the cold and he saw the windows in the miners’ shanties glowing yellow with coal-oil lamps through the wind-crippled tree limbs. His deputies had begun to unhitch their horses and climb into their saddles and tuck their rifles in their saddle scabbards. Carver tried to find words. He could tell Daniel was a breaker boy by looking at his coal-dirty hands.
“You all alone now?”
He waited but Daniel never answered him.
“Yeah, you’re all alone,” he decided. His deputies were watching and waiting. He looked out again into the thick darkness and could hear the misery in the sound of the desert wind. He leaned and spat off the porch. “If it don’t kill you, it’ll make you one mean assed son of a bitch.” He looked into the boy’s eyes. “You don’t look like you kill easy.”
Carver descended the stairs and unhitched his horse from its post. Without looking up, he said, “You want to start making some real money, you come by my office tomorrow. You won’t be picking coal anymore, kid.”
Carver put one hand on the pommel of the saddle and one on the back and stepped up into the stirrup and threw the other leg over the saddle and the horse stood steady. He took up the reins and heeled the horse and it trotted out into the darkness and his deputies followed him and he did not look back.