It was the fourth of February in the year 1875. It had been a severe winter, and the snow lay deep in the gorges of the Gilmerton Mountains. The stea_loughs had, however, kept the railroad open, and the evening train whic_onnects the long line of coal-mining and iron-working settlements was slowl_roaning its way up the steep gradients which lead from Stagville on the plai_o Vermissa, the central township which lies at the head of Vermissa Valley.
From this point the track sweeps downward to Bartons Crossing, Helmdale, an_he purely agricultural county of Merton. It was a single track railroad; bu_t every siding—and they were numerous—long lines of trucks piled with coa_nd iron ore told of the hidden wealth which had brought a rude population an_ bustling life to this most desolate corner of the United States of America.
For desolate it was! Little could the first pioneer who had traversed it hav_ver imagined that the fairest prairies and the most lush water pastures wer_alueless compared to this gloomy land of black crag and tangled forest. Abov_he dark and often scarcely penetrable woods upon their flanks, the high, bar_rowns of the mountains, white snow, and jagged rock towered upon each flank, leaving a long, winding, tortuous valley in the centre. Up this the littl_rain was slowly crawling.
The oil lamps had just been lit in the leading passenger car, a long, bar_arriage in which some twenty or thirty people were seated. The greater numbe_f these were workmen returning from their day's toil in the lower part of th_alley. At least a dozen, by their grimed faces and the safety lanterns whic_hey carried, proclaimed themselves miners. These sat smoking in a group an_onversed in low voices, glancing occasionally at two men on the opposite sid_f the car, whose uniforms and badges showed them to be policemen.
Several women of the labouring class and one or two travellers who might hav_een small local storekeepers made up the rest of the company, with th_xception of one young man in a corner by himself. It is with this man that w_re concerned. Take a good look at him; for he is worth it.
He is a fresh-complexioned, middle-sized young man, not far, one would guess, from his thirtieth year. He has large, shrewd, humorous gray eyes whic_winkle inquiringly from time to time as he looks round through his spectacle_t the people about him. It is easy to see that he is of a sociable an_ossibly simple disposition, anxious to be friendly to all men. Anyone coul_ick him at once as gregarious in his habits and communicative in his nature, with a quick wit and a ready smile. And yet the man who studied him mor_losely might discern a certain firmness of jaw and grim tightness about th_ips which would warn him that there were depths beyond, and that thi_leasant, brown-haired young Irishman might conceivably leave his mark fo_ood or evil upon any society to which he was introduced.
Having made one or two tentative remarks to the nearest miner, and receivin_nly short, gruff replies, the traveller resigned himself to uncongenia_ilence, staring moodily out of the window at the fading landscape.
It was not a cheering prospect. Through the growing gloom there pulsed the re_low of the furnaces on the sides of the hills. Great heaps of slag and dump_f cinders loomed up on each side, with the high shafts of the collierie_owering above them. Huddled groups of mean, wooden houses, the windows o_hich were beginning to outline themselves in light, were scattered here an_here along the line, and the frequent halting places were crowded with thei_warthy inhabitants.
The iron and coal valleys of the Vermissa district were no resorts for th_eisured or the cultured. Everywhere there were stern signs of the crudes_attle of life, the rude work to be done, and the rude, strong workers who di_t.
The young traveller gazed out into this dismal country with a face of mingle_epulsion and interest, which showed that the scene was new to him. A_ntervals he drew from his pocket a bulky letter to which he referred, and o_he margins of which he scribbled some notes. Once from the back of his wais_e produced something which one would hardly have expected to find in th_ossession of so mild-mannered a man. It was a navy revolver of the larges_ize. As he turned it slantwise to the light, the glint upon the rims of th_opper shells within the drum showed that it was fully loaded. He quickl_estored it to his secret pocket, but not before it had been observed by _orking man who had seated himself upon the adjoining bench.
"Hullo, mate!" said he. "You seem heeled and ready."
The young man smiled with an air of embarrassment.
"Yes," said he, "we need them sometimes in the place I come from."
"And where may that be?"
"I'm last from Chicago."
"A stranger in these parts?"
"You may find you need it here," said the workman.
"Ah! is that so?" The young man seemed interested.
"Have you heard nothing of doings hereabouts?"
"Nothing out of the way."
"Why, I thought the country was full of it. You'll hear quick enough. Wha_ade you come here?"
"I heard there was always work for a willing man."
"Are you a member of the union?"
"Then you'll get your job, I guess. Have you any friends?"
"Not yet; but I have the means of making them."
"How's that, then?"
"I am one of the Eminent Order of Freemen. There's no town without a lodge, and where there is a lodge I'll find my friends."
The remark had a singular effect upon his companion. He glanced roun_uspiciously at the others in the car. The miners were still whispering amon_hemselves. The two police officers were dozing. He came across, seate_imself close to the young traveller, and held out his hand.
"Put it there," he said.
A hand-grip passed between the two.
"I see you speak the truth," said the workman. "But it's well to mak_ertain." He raised his right hand to his right eyebrow. The traveller at onc_aised his left hand to his left eyebrow.
"Dark nights are unpleasant," said the workman.
"Yes, for strangers to travel," the other answered.
"That's good enough. I'm Brother Scanlan, Lodge 341, Vermissa Valley. Glad t_ee you in these parts."
Scott. But I am in luck to meet a brother so early."
"Well, there are plenty of us about. You won't find the order more flourishin_nywhere in the States than right here in Vermissa Valley. But we could d_ith some lads like you. I can't understand a spry man of the union finding n_ork to do in Chicago."
"I found plenty of work to do," said McMurdo.
"Then why did you leave?"
McMurdo nodded towards the policemen and smiled. "I guess those chaps would b_lad to know," he said.
Scanlan groaned sympathetically. "In trouble?" he asked in a whisper.
"A penitentiary job?"
"And the rest."
"Not a killing!"
"It's early days to talk of such things," said McMurdo with the air of a ma_ho had been surprised into saying more than he intended. "I've my own goo_easons for leaving Chicago, and let that be enough for you. Who are you tha_ou should take it on yourself to ask such things?" His gray eyes gleamed wit_udden and dangerous anger from behind his glasses.
"All right, mate, no offense meant. The boys will think none the worse of you, whatever you may have done. Where are you bound for now?"
"That's the third halt down the line. Where are you staying?"
McMurdo took out an envelope and held it close to the murky oil lamp. "Here i_he address—Jacob Shafter, Sheridan Street. It's a boarding house that wa_ecommended by a man I knew in Chicago."
"Well, I don't know it; but Vermissa is out of my beat. I live at Hobson'_atch, and that's here where we are drawing up. But, say, there's one bit o_dvice I'll give you before we part: If you're in trouble in Vermissa, g_traight to the Union House and see Boss McGinty. He is the Bodymaster o_ermissa Lodge, and nothing can happen in these parts unless Black Jac_cGinty wants it. So long, mate! Maybe we'll meet in lodge one of thes_venings. But mind my words: If you are in trouble, go to Boss McGinty."
Scanlan descended, and McMurdo was left once again to his thoughts. Night ha_ow fallen, and the flames of the frequent furnaces were roaring and leapin_n the darkness. Against their lurid background dark figures were bending an_training, twisting and turning, with the motion of winch or of windlass, t_he rhythm of an eternal clank and roar.
"I guess hell must look something like that," said a voice.
McMurdo turned and saw that one of the policemen had shifted in his seat an_as staring out into the fiery waste.
"For that matter," said the other policeman, "I allow that hell must B_omething like that. If there are worse devils down yonder than some we coul_ame, it's more than I'd expect. I guess you are new to this part, young man?"
"Well, what if I am?" McMurdo answered in a surly voice.
"Just this, mister, that I should advise you to be careful in choosing you_riends. I don't think I'd begin with Mike Scanlan or his gang if I were you."
"What the hell is it to you who are my friends?" roared McMurdo in a voic_hich brought every head in the carriage round to witness the altercation.
"Did I ask you for your advice, or did you think me such a sucker that _ouldn't move without it? You speak when you are spoken to, and by the Lor_ou'd have to wait a long time if it was me!" He thrust out his face an_rinned at the patrolmen like a snarling dog.
The two policemen, heavy, good-natured men, were taken aback by th_xtraordinary vehemence with which their friendly advances had been rejected.
"No offense, stranger," said one. "It was a warning for your own good, seein_hat you are, by your own showing, new to the place."
"I'm new to the place; but I'm not new to you and your kind!" cried McMurdo i_old fury. "I guess you're the same in all places, shoving your advice in whe_obody asks for it."
"Maybe we'll see more of you before very long," said one of the patrolmen wit_ grin. "You're a real hand-picked one, if I am a judge."
"I was thinking the same," remarked the other. "I guess we may meet again."
"I'm not afraid of you, and don't you think it!" cried McMurdo. "My name'_ack McMurdo—see? If you want me, you'll find me at Jacob Shafter's o_heridan Street, Vermissa; so I'm not hiding from you, am I? Day or night _are to look the like of you in the face—don't make any mistake about that!"
There was a murmur of sympathy and admiration from the miners at the dauntles_emeanour of the newcomer, while the two policemen shrugged their shoulder_nd renewed a conversation between themselves.
A few minutes later the train ran into the ill-lit station, and there wa_general clearing; for Vermissa was by far the largest town on the line.
McMurdo picked up his leather gripsack and was about to start off into th_arkness, when one of the miners accosted him.
"By Gar, mate! you know how to speak to the cops," he said in a voice of awe.
"It was grand to hear you. Let me carry your grip and show you the road. I'_assing Shafter's on the way to my own shack."
There was a chorus of friendly "Good-nights" from the other miners as the_assed from the platform. Before ever he had set foot in it, McMurdo th_urbulent had become a character in Vermissa.
The country had been a place of terror; but the town was in its way even mor_epressing. Down that long valley there was at least a certain gloomy grandeu_n the huge fires and tbe clouds of drifting smoke, while the strength an_ndustry of man found fitting monuments in the hills which he had spilled b_he side of his monstrous excavations. But the town showed a dead level o_ean ugliness and squalor. The broad street was churned up by the traffic int_ horrible rutted paste of muddy snow. The sidewalks were narrow and uneven.
The numerous gas-lamps served only to show more clearly a long line of woode_ouses, each with its veranda facing the street, unkempt and dirty.
As they approached the centre of the town the scene was brightened by a row o_ell-lit stores, and even more by a cluster of saloons and gaming houses, i_hich the miners spent their hard-earned but generous wages.
"That's the Union House," said the guide, pointing to one saloon which ros_lmost to the dignity of being a hotel. "Jack McGinty is the boss there."
"What sort of a man is he?" McMurdo asked.
"What! have you never heard of the boss?"
"How could I have heard of him when you know that I am a stranger in thes_arts?"
"Well, I thought his name was known clear across the country. It's been in th_apers often enough."
"Well," the miner lowered his voice—"over the affairs."
"Good Lord, mister! you are queer, if I must say it without offense. There'_nly one set of affairs that you'll hear of in these parts, and that's th_ffairs of the Scowrers."
"Why, I seem to have read of the Scowrers in Chicago. A gang of murderers, ar_hey not?"
"Hush, on your life!" cried the miner, standing still in alarm, and gazing i_mazement at his companion. "Man, you won't live long in these parts if yo_peak in the open street like that. Many a man has had the life beaten out o_im for less."
"Well, I know nothing about them. It's only what I have read."
"And I'm not saying that you have not read the truth." The man looke_ervously round him as he spoke, peering into the shadows as if he feared t_ee some lurking danger. "If killing is murder, then God knows there is murde_nd to spare. But don't you dare to breathe the name of Jack McGinty i_onnection with it, stranger; for every whisper goes back to him, and he i_ot one that is likely to let it pass. Now, that's the house you're after, that one standing back from the street. You'll find old Jacob Shafter tha_uns it as honest a man as lives in this township."
"I thank you," said McMurdo, and shaking hands with his new acquaintance h_lodded, gripsack in hand, up the path which led to the dwelling house, at th_oor of which he gave a resounding knock.
It was opened at once by someone very different from what he had expected. I_as a woman, young and singularly beautiful. She was of the German type, blonde and fair-haired, with the piquant contrast of a pair of beautiful dar_yes with which she surveyed the stranger with surprise and a pleasin_mbarrassment which brought a wave of colour over her pale face. Framed in th_right light of the open doorway, it seemed to McMurdo that he had never see_ more beautiful picture; the more attractive for its contrast with the sordi_nd gloomy surroundings. A lovely violet growing upon one of those black slag- heaps of the mines would not have seemed more surprising. So entranced was h_hat he stood staring without a word, and it was she who broke the silence.
"I thought it was father," said she with a pleasing little touch of a Germa_ccent. "Did you come to see him? He is down town. I expect him back ever_inute."
McMurdo continued to gaze at her in open admiration until her eyes dropped i_onfusion before this masterful visitor.
"No, miss," he said at last, "I'm in no hurry to see him. But your house wa_ecommended to me for board. I thought it might suit me—and now I know i_ill."
"You are quick to make up your mind," said she with a smile.
"Anyone but a blind man could do as much," the other answered.
She laughed at the compliment. "Come right in, sir," she said. "I'm Miss Etti_hafter, Mr. Shafter's daughter. My mother's dead, and I run the house. Yo_an sit down by the stove in the front room until father comes along—Ah, her_e is! So you can fix things with him right away."
A heavy, elderly man came plodding up the path. In a few words McMurd_xplained his business. A man of the name of Murphy had given him the addres_n Chicago. He in turn had had it from someone else. Old Shafter was quit_eady. The stranger made no bones about terms, agreed at once to ever_ondition, and was apparently fairly flush of money. For seven dollars a wee_aid in advance he was to have board and lodging.
So it was that McMurdo, the self-confessed fugitive from justice, took up hi_bode under the roof of the Shafters, the first step which was to lead to s_ong and dark a train of events, ending in a far distant land.