BY ROB DENGATE
Copyright is held by the author.
“You’re not welcome here!”
Hank could see the fire in Cookie’s one good eye, the bartender’s massive frame blocks the entire doorway. Hank isn’t entirely sure that being at The Black Rose is a good idea in the first place so Cookie’s unwelcoming stance encourages him to turn around and leave. In his head though, there is that nagging little voice that pushes him to try to convince Cookie that there isn’t going to be any trouble this time. Perhaps it is his curiosity. Why would Garrett Thompson of all people try to set up this meeting between the two of them? Was Garrett just trying to get him in more trouble with the local constabulary or is there something more? He decides that whether Cookie wants him there or not, he has to find out.
“I am not here to cause problems, Cookie.”
Cookie laughs, his deeply soiled apron dances on his rotund belly, his eye patch sliding up slightly onto his forehead.
“Mason, if I had a nickel for every time one of you hooligans promised not to give me any hassles, I’d have enough money to move back to Toronto and open me a real bar.”
“Look, I know you wouldn’t believe me if I told you but Thompson said he wanted to meet me here, said he had something to talk to me about.”
“Hey Cookie, what do you say about giving me another drink?”
Cookie and Hank both look towards the bar to see Ralph Finnegan, his coal dust etched fingers dangling an empty whiskey glass over the counter. Cookie pushes a beefy finger into Hank’s chest several times.
“All right, I’ll let you in this time, but I’m warning you. You cause any trouble, you’re out on your ear and never setting foot in The Black Rose again!”
Hank enters, pausing for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the stinging sensation of the grey smoke that hangs in the air from cheap cigarettes. He walks past Dirk Kenso, one of the men from Hank’s crew. Dirk shudders under a frayed brown overcoat, his hands tightly wrapped around a tin cup of oily black coffee, a shot glass of whiskey at his elbow. Dirk has never quite gotten used to the cold, Hank thinks to himself.
Garrett Thompson sits at the end of the long L-shaped counter, his dark eyes stare straight ahead beneath his worn cowboy hat, a shot glass rests in his hand, inches from his lips. He quickly downs the whiskey, swallowing hard, and then shoves the empty glass across the counter towards Cookie. Hank notices that a couple of Garrett’s crew are sitting directly behind him at what passes for a table in The Black Rose, deeply immersed in a game of cards. A quick look around the bar and Hank notices that almost all of the patrons are from Garrett’s crew. Hank wonders, is this a setup? He sits in a stool near enough to Garrett to let him know he is there but also keep his distance.
“Cookie, I’ll have whatever Garrett is having and get him another one.”
The bartender finishes polishing a shot glass and slams it down in front of Hank. He reaches underneath the counter and pulls out a squat amber colored bottle with a long neck and uncorking it, slowly pours the copper liquid into Hank’s glass. He does the same for Garrett’s empty glass and then slides it over in front of him. Hank watches as Garret picks up the glass and swirls the whiskey around for a second before quickly slugging it back.
“I hate your guts!”
Hank takes his whiskey glass in hand and downs the vile liquid, feeling the burn as it slides down the back of his throat.
“I hate yours! Now that we got that out of the way, why did you ask me to come here?”
Over in the corner by the dust and grime caked front window of the bar, one of the miners begins to cough uncontrollably. He pulls out a grey rag from his pocket and coughs into it, black mucus continues to drip from his mouth as he wipes the rag across his lips. Hank turns and watches the man, shaking his head.
“Had one of my men die from it last week. Not a pretty thing to watch.”
“I didn’t come here to talk to you about the health of your men. Now what is the real reason you asked me to come?”
“I been watching McTaggart after one of my guys tipped me off that he’s been acting kind of strange. I don’t trust him to begin with but he’s been acting more secretive than usual. Guys have been seeing him and Stefan Lacombe in meetings together.”
“He’s been visiting my boss?”
“Yeah and it’s been all laughing and slapping backs kind of stuff. No one has been able to find out what they have been talking about but if they are acting that chummy, it can’t be good.”
“Consolidated Mines and Northern Mines have always been in fierce competition with one another. If they are working together…”
“If they are working together then we are all in a heap of trouble. Conditions are already bad here, I’ve had three guys die in the last month, and the pay is terrible. They could be uniting themselves against us workers to keep all the profits in their back pockets. If they keep the same working conditions in both camps, neither of us will be able to push for anything one company offers over the other. They would have a monopoly.”
“So what do you propose we do?”
“I say if they can unite against us, we can unite against them!”
“I don’t like it. What if it gets violent? My men have families in the south, mouths to feed and bills to pay. The last thing they are going to want to do is risk losing their job, get in trouble with the local constabulary or worse.”
“We have strength of numbers. It would be the two of them against all of us. They are too isolated. If McTaggart and Lacombe are confronted they will back down, they’re cowards. We won’t need to get violent.”
“Alright, I’ll go along with your plan, but the first sign of trouble, I pull my men out. I have to protect them first and I don’t owe you anything.”
“This is going to work, trust me.”
Garrett holds out his hand and spits on it, extending it to Hank. Hesitantly, Hank holds out his own hand, spits on it and they embrace in a firm handshake. The two men slowly get up from their bar stools, Garrett leading the way to the front door of the bar. Suddenly one of the men who has been sitting at a nearby table stands up and blocks Hank’s exit. It is Walter Pyzanski, one of Garrett’s men. The huge bald headed Pole is the local wrestling champion, his barrel chest barely contained within his blackened overalls. He stands in front of Hank, his heavy breathing stinks of whiskey and dry sausage.
“I thought they said you weren’t welcome here?”
“Thompson invited me.”
“Well I never said you could come back in here. Maybe I should make sure you never come back in here again!”
Hank could see Walter’s right arm begin to bulge, his hand is tightening into a fist. Hank takes a step back, perhaps if he could reach back he could grab a hold of an empty shot glass and crush it against Walter’s forehead and then make his escape. He knew Cookie would most likely ban him from The Black Rose for getting into a fight, but it was either try to knock out Walter or he was going to get seriously hurt. Just as Hank was about to reach back, a hand grips Walter’s left shoulder, spinning his body around and into a solid right hook to the jaw. Stumbling backwards from the blow, Walter crashes into the table that he had been sitting at, sending two chairs spinning off in opposite directions and crushing the flimsy table. Garrett relaxes his right hand as Walter is out cold.
“If I don’t have your trust now, I don’t know what it’s going to take.”
Hank nods as he watches Garrett rummage in his pocket, pulling out a few coins and tossing them onto the counter in front of Cookie.
“That’s for your table.”
Garrett waves a finger at Cookie, who seems about to say something.
“And don’t tell me that my money won’t cover the cost of your matchstick furniture!”
All eyes follow Hank and Garrett as they walk out of The Black Rose and into the cold November night.
“You want us to work with those cutthroats from Consolidated? Are you crazy? I wouldn’t trust those guys with a nickel change!”
There is a murmur of agreement among the men crowded into the small burlap work tent just outside of Mine Number One. Hank knows this is going to be a hard sell, but if Garrett Thompson is willing to rally his men at the Consolidated camp, he has to try to do the same on his end.
“Listen, I would be the first one to tell you that I wouldn’t trust Garrett Thompson if my life depended on it. You all know the history between me and Thompson. If he is right, if Consolidated is now in league with Northern, you think we are suffering now, but we are going to suffer more in the future. Things are only going to get worse for all of us. If we all stand together, we can send a message to McTaggart and Lacombe. It’s on our backs that the work is getting done, not theirs. We can have the final say!”
Hank pauses, he has said all he can, now he waits for their response. The men seem restless, whispered conversations fill the tent, men are shaking their heads in response to a comment from the man beside them. Then, slowly, one man stands up, the coal dust still caked to his leather mining hat, his face so grimy you can barely make out his eyes.
“I will support you Mason. My wife can hardly scratch out a life back in Coburg and I send her everything I make. I don’t know what would happen to her if things got worse.”
A smattering of men across the crowd nod in agreement, perhaps, Hank thinks, there is a chance.
“One brave man has stood up, one who values his family over himself. We all have reasons to fight for what is right. Who will join us?”
One by one, men begin to stand, some of them glancing at the men on either side of them first to see if their friends will stand with them. In the end, the entire group of men are standing on their feet, Hank smiles with satisfaction, they have listened to his plea.
“I will meet with Thompson and let him know your decision. In the mean time we have to continue to do our jobs. If the time comes for us to make a show of force, I will ask you then to join me.”
Hank slips out of the meeting as the other men talk amongst themselves. Now he needs to find out how Garrett made out. He thinks back to the confrontation with Pyzanski, the men who work for Consolidated could be pretty tough customers. Garrett Thompson is no wallflower but his men will be a harder sell. Hank has agreed to meet Thompson on the outskirts of Northern’s camp, next to the so-called no man’s land between the two camps. The fresh snow crunches under Hank’s feet, his short breaths hang like frozen clouds in the air as he walks. He approaches the no man’s land, noticing a shadowy figure lingering close to a stand of densely cropped fir trees. As Hank draws closer, Garrett steps out from among the trees.
“How did things go on your end?”
Hank can see Garrett’s face in the late November full moon, the dark shadow around his left eye is a telltale sign that things did not go smoothly.
“Took a little old style convincing if you know what I mean.”
“My guys seem to have their hearts turned towards home, I guess I got through to them.”
“Someone from my camp saw McTaggart in the company of another guy they didn’t recognize. If we are going to do this, now is the time.”
Hank nods his head. Stefan Lacombe’s small cabin lay on the west side of the mining camp, one of the few permanent buildings on the property. There was a faint light in the window of the clapboard hut, Hank makes out the silhouettes of at least two people inside. The two men huddle in the cover of a thick bayberry bush, the round red berries bringing the scent of winter to their noses. If they strain they can make out the murmur of voices inside the cabin but nothing distinct. Hank leans in close to Garrett.
“I still can’t tell what they are talking about.”
“We are going to have to go in, we have no choice.”
“Alright, but let’s do this my way.”
The two men move swiftly from the cover of the bush along the side of the hut to the front door. Hank motions for Garrett to stay a few paces back from the front door.
“If they see you with me they are more likely to be alarmed.”
Hank knocks loudly on the door, he can hear the knock echo off the thin walls inside the cabin. In a moment, Stefan Lacombe opens the door a crack and peers through the narrow opening.
“Who is it?”
“Stefan, it’s Hank Mason, I was wondering if I could talk to you for a minute?”
“I am in a meeting right now, Hank, can we talk tomorrow?”
Hank has to think fast, he senses Stefan is guarded, more than that, he doesn’t want Hank to know who his visitors are. Suddenly, he feels Garrett brush him aside, forcing open the door and sending Stefan Lacombe sprawling on the cabin floor. Hank rushes into the room, noticing the look of surprise not only on Stefan’s face but also the faces of Jack McTaggart and their visitor, sitting at a table in the corner by the window. McTaggart jumps to his feet, drawing back his long overcoat and placing his hand on the grip of a revolver.
“What is the meaning of this, Thompson?”
Garrett Thompson stands his ground, pointing a finger at McTaggart.
“Maybe I should be asking you the same question, McTaggart! Kind of cozy seeing you in here with Lacombe, our supposed competitor. Mason and I have to look out for our men. If there is something going on here that might make things worse for our men, we are here to put a stop to it!”
Stefan Lacombe stands up, dusting himself off and begins to laugh. Hank stares at Stefan in disbelief that he could be so callous, laughing in a moment like this.
“Not sure what there is to laugh about here Stefan, this is a matter of life or death for my men!”
“You are so right Hank. It is a matter of life and death. That is why Jack and I have been in contact with Mr. Stevenson from the Canadian Government. Ottawa has been alarmed at the fatality rates in the mining industry and we have been mandated to invoke new safety measures. Mr. Stevenson is here today to give us the final copy of the new measures and to make sure we sign off on our agreement to put them into place.”
McTaggart relaxes his stance, letting his hand fall away from the revolver.
“I hope you understand Garrett that you should see this as a great day for the men that work for both Consolidated and Northern. I apologize that you and Hank, as foremen, were not included in the talks but you would have found out soon enough. Stefan and I felt that you only needed to be told once everything was finalized with the Government.”
Hank is speechless, he looks over at Garrett who looks as white as a sheet. The stillness is interrupted by a growing commotion outside of the cabin. Hank’s eyes grow wide with terror.
Garrett seems to snap out of his stupor at the same moment and looks at Hank. Stefan looks at Hank and Garrett with a puzzled look on his face.
“I don’t think I understand.”
The noise grows louder, the flicker of torchlight can be seen outside the cabin window. Hank tenses.
“Let me put it this way. If we don’t do something fast, we are going to have a full scale riot on our hands!”
A thunderous pounding reverberates through the cabin.
“Open the door!”
Garrett shakes his head.
Hank walks deliberately to the door.
“Let me handle this.”
He swings open the door to see Walter Pyzanski standing in the doorway, a large group of Garrett’s men pressed in against him. A group of Hank’s men stand in a huddle off to one side, torchlight revealing the look of grim determination on their faces.
“You’ve had enough time to talk, we’re here for McTaggart and Lacombe!”
Hank feels the adrenaline pumping through his body as his hand tightens into a fist. In one swift move he swings his fist into a quick uppercut, connecting with Pysanki’s jaw and sending him reeling back through the crowd of men and into a heap in the freshly fallen snow. Hank turns to an astonished Garrett and smiles.
“Now you get to explain to everyone what is really going on.”
Rob Dengate is a member of the London Writer’s Society. He lives in London, Ontario.