Billings rode in from the Junction about dusk, and ate his supper in silence. He'd been East for sixty days, and, although there lurked about him the hint of unwonted ventures, etiquette forbade its mention. You see, in our country, that which a man gives voluntarily is ofttimes later dissected in smoky bunk-houses, or roughly handled round flickering camp fires, but the privacies he guards are inviolate. Curiosity isn't exactly a lost art, but its practice isn't popular nor hygenic.
Later, I found him meditatively whittling out on the porch, and, as the moment seemed propitious, I inquired adroitly:--"Did you have a good time in Chicago, 'Bitter Root'?"
"Bully," said he, relapsing into weighty absorption.
"What'd you do?" I inquired with almost the certainty of appearing insistent.
"Don't you never read the papers?" he inquired, with such evident compassion that Kink Martin and the other boys snickered. This from "Bitter Root," who scorns literature outside of the "Arkansas Printing," as he terms the illustrations!
"Guess I'll have to show you my press notices," and from a hip pocket he produced a fat bundle of clippings in a rubber band. These he displayed jealously, and I stared agape, for they were front pages of great metropolitan dailies, marred with red and black scare heads, in which I glimpsed the words, "Billings, of Montana," "'Bitter Root' on Arbitration," "A Lochinvar Out of the West," and other things as puzzling.
"Press Notices!" echoed Kink scornfully. "Wouldn't that rope ye? He talks like Big Ike that went with the Wild West Show. When a puncher gets so lazy he can't earn a livin' by the sweat of his pony, he grows his hair, goes on the stage bustin' glass balls with shot ca'tridges and talks about 'press notices.' Let's see 'em, Billings. You pinch 'em as close to your stummick as though you held cards in a strange poker game."
"Well, I have set in a strange game, amongst aliens," said Billings, disregarding the request, "and I've held the high cards, also I've drawed out with honours. I've sailed the medium high seas with mutiny in the stoke-hold; I've changed the laws of labour, politics and municipal economies. I went out of God's country right into the heart of the decayin' East, and by the application of a runnin' noose in a hemp rope I strangled oppression and put eight thousand men to work." He paused ponderously. "I'm an Arbitrator!"
"The deuce you are," indignantly cried "Reddy" the cook. "Who says so?"
"Reddy" isn't up in syntax, and his unreasoning loyalty to Billings is an established fact of such standing that his remarks afford no conjecture.
"Yes, I've cut into the 'Nation's Peril' and the 'Cryin' Evil' good and strong--walkin' out from the stinks of the Union Stock Yards, of Chicago, into the limelight of publicity, via the 'drunk and disorderly' route.
"You see I got those ten carloads of steers into the city all right, but I was so blame busy splatterin' through the tracked-up wastes of the cow pens, an' inhalin' the sewer gas of the west side that I never got to see a newspaper. If I'd 'a' read one, here's what I'd 'a' found, namely: The greatest, stubbornest, riotin'est strike ever known, which means a heap for Chicago, she being the wet-nurse of labour trouble.
"The whole river front was tied up. Nary a steamer had whistled inside the six-mile crib for two weeks, and eight thousand men was out. There was hold-ups and blood-sheddin' and picketin', which last is an alias for assault with intents, and altogether it was a prime place for a cowman, on a quiet vacation--just homelike and natural.
"It was at this point that I enters, bustin' out of the smoke of the Stock Yards, all sweet and beautiful, like the gentle heeroine in the play as she walks through the curtains at the back of the stage.
"Now you know there's a heap of difference between the Stock Yards and Chicago--it's just like coming from Arkansas over into the United States.
"Well, soon as I sold the stock I hit for the lake front and began to ground sluice the coal dust off of my palate.
"I was busy working my booze hydraulic when I see an arid appearin' pilgrim 'longside lookin' thirsty as an alkali flat.
"'Get in,' says I, and the way he obeyed orders looked like he'd had military training. I felt sort of drawed to him from the way he handled his licker; took it straight and runnin' over; then sopped his hands on the bar and smelled of his fingers. He seemed to just soak it up both ways--reg'lar human blotter.
"'You lap it up like a man,' says I, 'like a cowman--full growed--ever been West?'
"'Nope,' says he, 'born here.'
"'Well I'm a stranger,' says I, 'out absorbin' such beauties of architecture and free lunch as offers along the line. If I ain't keepin' you up, I'd be glad of your company.'
"'I'm your assistant lunch buster,' says he, and in the course of things he further explained that he was a tugboat fireman, out on a strike, givin' me the follerin' information about the tie-up:--
"It all come up over a dose of dyspepsia--"
"Back up," interrupted Kink squirming, "are you plumb bug? Get together! You're certainly the Raving Kid. Ye must have stone bruised your heel and got concession of the brain."
"Yes sir! Indigestion," Billings continued. "Old man Badrich, of the Badrich Transportation Company has it terrible. It lands on his solar every morning about nine o'clock, gettin' worse steady, and reaches perihelion along about eleven. He can tell the time of day by taste. One morning when his mouth felt like about ten-forty-five in comes a committee from Firemen & Engineers Local No. 21, with a demand for more wages, proddin' him with the intimations that if he didn't ante they'd tie up all his boats."
"I 'spose a teaspoonful of bakin' soda, assimilated internally around the environments of his appendix would have spared the strike and cheated me out of bein' a hero. As the poet might have said--'Upon such slender pegs is this, our greatness hung.'"
"Oh, Gawd!" exclaimed Mulling, piously.
"Anyhow, the bitterness in the old man's inner tubes showed in the bile of his answer, and he told 'em if they wanted more money he'd give 'em a chance to earn it--they could work nights as well as days. He intimated further that they'd ought to be satisfied with their wages as they'd undoubtedly foller the same line of business in the next world, and wouldn't get a cent for feedin' the fires neither.
"Next mornin' the strike was called, and the guy that breathed treachery and walk-outs was one 'Oily' Heegan, further submerged under the titles of President of the Federation of Fresh Water Firemen; also Chairman of the United Water-front Workmen, which last takes in everything doin' business along the river except the wharf-rats and typhoid germs, and it's with the disreputableness of this party that I infected myself to the detriment of labour and the triumph of the law.
"D. O'Hara Heegan is an able man, and inside of a week he'd spread the strike 'till it was the cleanest, dirtiest tie-up ever known. The hospitals and morgues was full of non-union men, but the river was empty all right. Yes, he had a persuadin' method of arbitration quite convincing to the most calloused, involving the layin' on of the lead pipe.
"Things got to be pretty fierce bye-and-bye, for they had the police buffaloed, and disturbances got plentyer than the casualties at a butchers' picnic. The strikers got hungry, too, finally, because the principles of unionism is like a rash on your mechanic, skin deep--inside, his gastrics works three shifts a day even if his outsides is idle and steaming with Socialism.
"Oily fed 'em dray loads of eloquence, but it didn't seem to be real fillin'. They'd leave the lectures and rob a bakery.
"He was a wonder though; just sat in his office, and kept the ship owners waitin' in line, swearin' bitter and refined cuss-words about 'ignorant fiend' and 'cussed pedagogue,' which last, for Kink's enlightenment, means a kind of Hebrew meetin'-house.
"These here details my new friend give me, ending with a eulogy on Oily Heegan, the Idol of the Idle.
"'If he says starve, we starve,' says he, 'and if he says work, we work. See! Oh he's the goods, he is! Let's go down by the river--mebbe we'll see him.' So me and Murdock hiked down Water Street, where they keep mosquito netting over the bar fixtures and spit at the stove.
"We found him, a big mouthed, shifty, kind of man, 'bout as cynical lookin' in the face as a black bass, and full of wind as a toad fish. I exchanged drinks for principles of socialism, and doin' so happened to display my roll. Murdock slipped away and made talk with a friend, then, when Heegan had left, he steers me out the back way into an alley. 'Short cut,' says he 'to another and a better place.'
"I follers through a back room; then as I steps out the door I'm grabbed by this new friend, while Murdock bathes my head with a gas-pipe billy, one of the regulation, strike promotin' kind, like they use for decoyin' members into the glorious ranks of Labour.
"I saw a 'Burning of Rome' that was a dream, and whole cloudbursts of shootin' stars, but I yanked Mr. Enthusiastic Stranger away from my surcingle and throwed him agin the wall. In the shuffle Murdock shifts my ballasts though, and steams up the alley with my greenbacks, convoyed by his friend.
"'Wow-ow,' says I, givin' the distress signal so that the windows rattled, and reachin' for my holster. I'd 'a' got them both, only the gun caught in my suspender. You see, not anticipatin' any live bird shoot I'd put it inside my pants-band, under my vest, for appearances. A forty-five is like fresh air to a drownding man--generally has to be drawed in haste--and neither one shouldn't be mislaid. I got her out at last and blazed away, just a second after they dodged around the comer. Then I hit the trail after 'em, lettin' go a few sky-shots and gettin' a ghost-dance holler off my stummick that had been troubling me. The wallop on the head made me dizzy though, and I zigzagged awful, tackin' out of the alley right into a policeman.
"'Whee!' says I in joy, for he had Murdock safe by the bits, buckin' considerable.
"'Stan' aside and le'mme 'lectrocute 'im,' says I. I throwed the gun on him and the crowd dogged it into all the doorways and windows convenient, but I was so weak-minded in the knees I stumbled over the curb and fell down.
"Next thing I knew we was all bouncin' over the cobble-stones in a patrol wagon.
"Well, in the morning I told my story to the Judge, plain and unvarnished. Then Murdock takes the stand and busts into song, claiming that he was comin' through the alley toward Clark Street when I staggered out back of a saloon and commenced to shoot at him. He saw I was drunk, and fanned out, me shootin' at him with every jump. He had proof, he said, and he called for the president of his Union, Mr. Heegan. At the name all the loafers and stew-bums in the court-room stomped and said, 'Hear, hear,' while up steps this Napoleon of the Hoboes.
"Sure, he knew Mr. Murdock--had known him for years, and he was perfectly reliable and honest. As to his robbing me, it was preposterous, because he himself was at the other end of the alley and saw the whole thing, just as Mr. Murdock related it.
"I jumps up. 'You're a liar, Heegan. I was buyin' booze for the two of you;' but a policeman nailed me, chokin' off my rhetorics. Mr. Heegan leans over and whispers to the Judge, while I got chilblains along my spine.
"'Look here, kind Judge,' says I real winning and genteel, 'this man is so good at explainin' things away, ask him to talk off this bump over my ear. I surely didn't get a buggy spoke and laminate myself on the nut.
"'That'll do,' says the Judge. 'Mr. Clerk, ten dollars and costs--charge, drunk and disorderly. Next!'
"'Hold on there,' says I, ignorant of the involutions of justice, 'I guess I've got the bulge on you this time. They beat you to me, Judge. I ain't got a cent. You can go through me and be welcome to half you find. I'll mail you ten when I get home though, honest.'
"At that the audience giggled, and the Judge says:--
"'Your humour doesn't appeal to me, Billings. Of course, you have the privilege of working it out.' Oh, Glory, the 'Privilege!'
"Heegan nodded at this, and I realized what I was against.
"'Your honour,' says I with sarcastic refinements, 'science tells us that a perfect vacuum ain't possible, but after watching you I know better, and for you, Mr. Workingman's Friend,--us to the floor,' and I run at Heegan.
"Pshaw! I never got started, nor I didn't rightfully come to till I rested in the workhouse, which last figger of speech is a pure and beautiful paradox.
"I ain't dwellin' with glee on the next twenty-six days--ten dollars and costs, at four bits a day, but I left there saturated with such hatreds for Heegan that my breath smelted of 'em.
"I wanders down the river front, hoping the fortunes of war would deliver him to me dead or alive, when the thought hit me that I'd need money. It was bound to take another ten and costs shortly after we met, and probably more, if I paid for what I got, for I figgered on distendin' myself with satisfaction and his features with uppercuts. Then I see a sign, 'Non-Union men wanted--Big wages.' In I goes, and strains my langwidge through a wire net at the cashier.
"'I want them big wages,' says I.
"'What can you do?'
"'Anything to get the money,' says I. 'What does it take to liquidate an assault on a labour leader?'
"There was a white-haired man in the cage who began to sit up and take notice.
"'What's your trouble?' says he, and I told him.
"'If we had a few more like you, we'd bust the strike,' says he, kind of sizin' me up. 'I've got a notion to try it anyhow,' and he smites the desk. 'Collins what d'ye say if we tow the "Detroit" out? Her crew has stayed with us so far, and they'll stick now if we'll say the word. The unions are hungry and scrapping among themselves, and the men want to go back to work. It's just that devil of a Heegan that holds 'em. If they see we've got a tug crew that'll go, they'll arbitrate, and we'll kill the strike.'
"'Yes, sir!' says Collins, 'but where's the tug crew, Mr. Badrich?'
"'Right here! We three, and Murphy, the bookkeeper. Blast this idleness! I want to fight.'
"'I'll take the same,' says I, 'when I get the price.'
"'That's all right. You've put the spirit into me, and I'll see you through. Can you run an engine? Good! I'll take the wheel, and the others'll fire. It's going to be risky work, though. You won't back out, eh?'"
Reddy interrupted Billings here loudly, with a snort of disgust, while "Bitter Root" ran his fingers through his hair before continuing. Martin was listening intently.
"The old man arranged to have a squad of cops on all the bridges, and I begin anticipatin' hilarities for next day.
"The news got out of course, through the secrecies of police headquarters, and when we ran up the river for our tow, it looked like every striker west of Pittsburg had his family on the docks to see the barbecue, accompanied by enough cobble-stones and scrap iron to ballast a battleship. All we got goin' up was repartee, but I figgered we'd need armour gettin' back.
"We passed a hawser to the 'Detroit,' and I turned the gas into the tug, blowin' for the Wells Street Bridge. Then war began. I leans out the door just in time to see the mob charge the bridge. The cops clubbed 'em back, while a roar went up from the docks and roof tops that was like a bad dream. I couldn't see her move none though, and old man Badrich blowed again expurgatin' himself of as nobby a line of cuss words as you'll muster outside the cattle belt.
"'Soak 'em,' I yells, 'give 'em all the arbitration you've got handy. If she don't open; we'll jump her,' and I lets out another notch, so that we went plowin' and boilin' towards the draw.
"It looked like we'd have to hurdle it sure enough, but the police beat the crowd back just in time. She wasn't clear open though, and our barge caromed off the spiles. It was like a nigger buttin' a persimmon tree--we rattled off a shower of missiles like an abnormal hail storm. Talk about your coast defence; they heaved everything at us from bad names to railroad iron, and we lost all our window glass the first clatter, while the smoke stack looked like a pretzel with cramps.
"When we scraped through I looked back with pity at the 'Detroit's' crew. She hadn't any wheel house, and the helmsman was due to get all the attention that was comin' to him. They'd built up a barricade of potato sacks, chicken coops and bic-a-brac around the wheel that protected 'em somewhat, but even while I watched, some Polack filtered a brick through and laid out the quartermaster cold, and he was drug off. Oh! it was refined and esthetic.
"Well, we run the gauntlet, presented every block with stuff rangin' in tensile strength from insults to asphalt pavements, and noise!--say, all the racket in the world was a whisper. I caught a glimpse of the old man leanin' out of the pilot house, where a window had been, his white hair bristly, and his nostrils h'isted, embellishin' the air with surprisin' flights of gleeful profanity.
"'Hooray! this is livin' he yells, spyin' me shovelin' the deck out from under the junk. 'Best scrap I've had in years,' and just then some baseball player throwed in from centre field, catching him in the neck with a tomato. Gee! that man's an honour to the faculty of speech.
"I was doin' bully till a cobble-stone bounced into the engine room, makin' a billiard with my off knee, then I got kind of peevish.
"Rush Street Bridge is the last one, and they'd massed there on both sides, like fleas on a razorback. Thinks I, 'If we make it through here, we've busted the strike,' and I glances back at the 'Detroit' just in time to see her crew pullin' their captain into the deck house, limp and bleedin'. The barricade was all knocked to pieces and they'd flunked absolute. Don't blame 'em much either, as it was sure death to stand out in the open under the rain of stuff that come from the bridges. Of course with no steerin' she commenced to swing off.
"I jumps out the far side of the engine room and yells fit to bust my throat.
"'Grab that wheel! Grab it quick--we'll hit the bridge,' but it was like deef and dumb talk in a boiler shop, while a wilder howl went up from the water front as they seen what they'd done and smelled victory. There's an awfulness about the voice of a blood-maddened club-swingin' mob; it lifts your scalp like a fright wig, particularly if you are the clubee.
"'We've got one chance,' thinks I, 'but if she strikes we're gone. They'll swamp us sure, and all the police in Cook County won't save enough for to hold services on.' Then I throwed a look at the opening ahead and the pessimisms froze in me.
"I forgot all about the resiliency of brickbats and the table manners of riots, for there, on top of a bunch of spiles, ca'm, masterful and bloated with perjuries, was Oily Heegan dictatin' the disposition of his forces, the light of victory in his shifty, little eyes.
"'Ten dollars and costs,' I shrieks, seein' red. 'Lemme crawl up them spiles to you.'
"Then inspiration seized me. My soul riz up and grappled with the crisis, for right under my mit, coiled, suggestive and pleadin', was one of the tug's heavin' lines, 'bout a three-eighths size. I slips a runnin' knot in the end and divides the coils, crouchin' behind the deck-house till we come abeam of him, then I straightened, give it a swinging heave, and the noose sailed up and settled over him fine and daisy.
"I jerked back, and Oily Heegan did a high dive from Rush Street that was a geometrical joy. He hit kind of amateurish, doin' what we used to call a 'belly-buster' back home, but quite satisfyin' for a maiden effort, and I reeled him in astern.
"Your Chicago man ain't a gamey fish. He come up tame and squirting sewage like a dissolute porpoise, while I played him out where he'd get the thrash of the propeller.
"'Help,' he yells, 'I'm a drownding.'
"'Ten dollars and costs," says I, lettin' him under again. 'Do you know who you're drinkin' with this time, hey?'
"I reckon the astonishment of the mob was equal to Heegan's; anyhow I'm told that we was favoured with such quietness that my voice sounded four blocks, simply achin' with satisfactions. Then pandemonium tore loose, but I was so engrosed in sweet converse I never heard it or noticed that the 'Detroit' had slid through the draw by a hair, and we was bound for the blue and smilin' lake.
"'For God's sake, lemme up,' says Heegan, splashin' along and look-in' strangly. I hauls him in where he wouldn't miss any of my ironies, and says:--
"'I just can't do it, Oily--it's wash day. You're plumb nasty with boycotts and picketin's and compulsory arbitrations. I'm goin' to clean you up,' and I sozzled him under like a wet shirt.
"I drug him out again and continues:--
"'This is Chinamen's work, Oily, but I lost my pride in the Bridewell, thanks to you. It's tough on St. Louis to laundry you up stream this way, but maybe the worst of your heresies 'll be purified when they get that far.' You know the Chicago River runs up hill out of Lake Michigan through the drainage canal and into the St. Louis waterworks. Sure it does--most unnatural stream I ever see about direction and smells.
"I was gettin' a good deal of enjoyment and infections out of him when old man Badrich ran back enamelled with blood and passe tomato juice, the red in his white hair makin' his top look like one of these fancy ice-cream drinks you get at a soda fountain.
"'Here! here! you'll kill him,' says he, so I hauled him aboard, drippin' and clingy, wringin' him out good and thorough--by the neck. He made a fine mop.
"These clippings," continued "Bitter Root," fishing into his pocket, "tell in beautiful figgers how the last seen of Oily Heegan he was holystoning the deck of a sooty little tugboat under the admonishments and feet of 'Bitter Root' Billings of Montana, and they state how the strikers tried to get tugs for pursuit and couldn't, and how, all day long, from the housetops was visible a tugboat madly cruisin' about inside the outer cribs, bustin' the silence with joyful blasts of victory, and they'll further state that about dark she steamed up the river, tired and draggled, with a bony-lookin' cowboy inhalin' cigareets on the stern-bits, holding a three-foot knotted rope in his lap. When a delegation of strikers met her, inquirin' about one D. O'Hara Heegan, it says like this," and Billings read laboriously as follows:--
"'Then the bronzed and lanky man arose with a smile of rare contentment, threw overboard his cigarette, and approaching the boiler-room hatch, called loudly: "Come out of that," and the President of the Federation of Fresh Water Firemen dragged himself wearily out into the flickering lights. He was black and drenched and streaked with sweat; also, he shone with the grease and oils of the engines, while the palms of his hands were covered with painful blisters from unwonted, intimate contact with shovels and drawbars. It was seen that he winced fearfully as the cowboy twirled the rope end.
"'"He's got the makin's of a fair fireman,'" said the stranger, "'all he wants is practice.'"
"Then, as the delegation murmured angrily, he held up his hand and, in the ensuing silence, said:--
"'"Boys, the strike's over. Mr. Heegan has arbitrated."'"