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 steam ploughs
had, however, kept the railroad open, and the evening train which connects the long line
of coal-mining and iron-working settlements was slowly groaning its way up the steep
gradients which lead from Stagville on the plain to Vermissa, the central township which
lies at the head of Vermissa Valley. From this point the track sweeps downward to Bartons
Crossing, Helmdale, and the purely agricultural county of Merton. It was a single track
railroad; but at every sidingand they were numerouslong lines of trucks piled
with coal and iron ore told of the hidden wealth which had brought a rude population and a
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 have ever imagined that the fairest prairies and the most lush water pastures
were valueless compared to this gloomy land of black crag and tangled forest. Above the
dark and often scarcely penetrable woods upon their flanks, the high, bare crowns of the
mountains, white snow, and jagged rock towered upon each flank, leaving a long, winding,
tortuous valley in the centre. Up this the little train was slowly crawling.
The oil lamps had just been lit in the leading passenger car,
a long, bare carriage in which some twenty or thirty people were seated. The greater
number of these were workmen returning from their days toil in the lower part of the
valley. At least a dozen, by their grimed faces and the safety lanterns which they
carried,  proclaimed
themselves miners. These sat smoking in a group and conversed in low voices, glancing
occasionally at two men on the opposite side of the car, whose uniforms and badges showed
them to be policemen.
Several women of the labouring class and one or two travellers
who might have been small local storekeepers made up the rest of the company, with the
exception of one young man in a corner by himself. It is with this man that we are
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 which
twinkle inquiringly from time to time as he looks round through his spectacles at the
people about him. It is easy to see that he is of a sociable and possibly simple
disposition, anxious to be friendly to all men. Anyone could pick 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 more closely might discern a certain firmness of
jaw and grim tightness about the lips which would warn him that there were depths beyond,
and that this pleasant, brown-haired young Irishman might conceivably leave his mark for
good or evil upon any society to which he was introduced.
Having made one or two tentative remarks to the nearest miner,
and receiving only short, gruff replies, the traveller resigned himself to uncongenial
silence, staring moodily out of the window at the fading landscape.
It was not a cheering prospect. Through the growing gloom
there pulsed the red glow of the furnaces on the sides of the hills. Great heaps of slag
and dumps of cinders loomed up on each side, with the high shafts of the collieries
towering above them. Huddled groups of mean, wooden houses, the windows of which were
beginning to outline themselves in light, were scattered here and there along the line,
and the frequent halting places were crowded with their swarthy inhabitants.
The iron and coal valleys of the Vermissa district were no
resorts for the leisured or the cultured. Everywhere there were stern signs of the crudest
battle of life, the rude work to be done, and the rude, strong workers who did it.
The young traveller gazed out into this dismal country with a
face of mingled repulsion and interest, which showed that the scene was new to him. At
intervals he drew from his pocket a bulky letter to which he referred, and on the margins
of which he scribbled some notes. Once from the back of his waist he produced something
which one would hardly have expected to find in the possession of so mild-mannered a man.
It was a navy revolver of the largest size. As he turned it slantwise to the light, the
glint upon the rims of the copper shells within the drum showed that it was fully loaded.
He quickly restored it to his secret pocket, but not before it had been observed by a
working man who had seated himself upon the adjoining bench.
Hullo, mate! said he. You seem heeled and
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?
Im 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.
you heard nothing of doings hereabouts?
Nothing out of the way.
Why, I thought the country was full of it. Youll
hear quick enough. What made you come here?
I heard there was always work for a willing man.
Are you a member of the union?
Then youll get your job, I guess. Have you any
Not yet; but I have the means of making them.
Hows that, then?
I am one of the Eminent Order of Freemen. Theres
no town without a lodge, and where there is a lodge Ill find my friends.
The remark had a singular effect upon his companion. He
glanced round suspiciously at the others in the car. The miners were still whispering
among themselves. The two police officers were dozing. He came across, seated himself
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 its well to make certain. He raised his right hand to his right
eyebrow. The traveller at once raised his left hand to his left eyebrow.
Dark nights are unpleasant, said the workman.
Yes, for strangers to travel, the other answered.
Thats good enough. Im Brother Scanlan, Lodge
341, Vermissa Valley. Glad to see you in these parts.
Thank you. Im Brother John McMurdo, Lodge 29,
Chicago. Bodymaster J. H. Scott. But I am in luck to meet a brother so early.
Well, there are plenty of us about. You wont find
the order more flourishing anywhere in the States than right here in Vermissa Valley. But
we could do with some lads like you. I cant understand a spry man of the union
finding no work 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 be glad to know, he said.
Scanlan groaned sympathetically. In trouble? he
asked in a whisper.
A penitentiary job?
And the rest.
Not a killing!
Its early days to talk of such things, said
McMurdo with the air of a man who had been surprised into saying more than he intended.
Ive my own good reasons for leaving Chicago, and let that be enough for you.
Who are you that you should take it on yourself to ask such things? His gray eyes
gleamed with sudden 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?
Thats the third halt down the line. Where are you
took out an envelope and held it close to the murky oil lamp. Here is the
addressJacob Shafter, Sheridan Street. Its a boarding house that was
recommended by a man I knew in Chicago.
Well, I dont know it; but Vermissa is out of my
beat. I live at Hobsons Patch, and thats here where we are drawing up. But,
say, theres one bit of advice Ill give you before we part: If youre in
trouble in Vermissa, go straight to the Union House and see Boss McGinty. He is the
Bodymaster of Vermissa Lodge, and nothing can happen in these parts unless Black Jack
McGinty wants it. So long, mate! Maybe well meet in lodge one of these evenings. 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 had now fallen, and the flames of the frequent furnaces were roaring and
leaping in the darkness. Against their lurid background dark figures were bending and
straining, twisting and turning, with the motion of winch or of windlass, to the rhythm of
an eternal clank and roar.
I guess hell must look something like that, said a
McMurdo turned and saw that one of the policemen had shifted
in his seat and was staring out into the fiery waste.
For that matter, said the other policeman, I
allow that hell must be something like that. If there are worse devils down yonder than
some we could name, its more than Id expect. I guess you are new to this part,
Well, what if I am? McMurdo answered in a surly
Just this, mister, that I should advise you to be
careful in choosing your friends. I dont think Id 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 voice which 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 I
couldnt move without it? You speak when you are spoken to, and by the Lord
youd have to wait a long time if it was me! He thrust out his face and grinned
at the patrolmen like a snarling dog.
The two policemen, heavy, good-natured men, were taken aback
by the extraordinary vehemence with which their friendly advances had been rejected.
No offense, stranger, said one. It was a
warning for your own good, seeing that you are, by your own showing, new to the
Im new to the place; but Im not new to you
and your kind! cried McMurdo in cold fury. I guess youre the same in all
places, shoving your advice in when nobody asks for it.
Maybe well see more of you before very long,
said one of the patrolmen with a grin. Youre a real hand-picked one, if I am a
I was thinking the same, remarked the other.
I guess we may meet again.
Im not afraid of you, and dont you think
it! cried McMurdo. My names Jack McMurdosee? If you want me,
youll find me at Jacob Shafters on Sheridan Street, Vermissa; so Im not
hiding from you, am I? Day or night I dare to look the like of you in the
facedont make any mistake about that!
There was a murmur of sympathy and admiration from the miners
at the dauntless demeanour of the newcomer, while the two policemen shrugged their
shoulders and renewed a conversation between themselves.
A few minutes later the train ran into the ill-lit station,
and there was a 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 the darkness, when one of the miners
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. Im passing Shafters on the way to my own shack.
There was a chorus of friendly Good-nights from
the other miners as they passed from the platform. Before ever he had set foot in it,
McMurdo the turbulent had become a character in Vermissa.
The country had been a place of terror; but the town was in
its way even more depressing. Down that long valley there was at least a certain gloomy
grandeur in the huge fires and the clouds of drifting smoke, while the strength and
industry of man found fitting monuments in the hills which he had spilled by the side of
his monstrous excavations. But the town showed a dead level of mean ugliness and squalor.
The broad street was churned up by the traffic into a 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 wooden houses, each with its veranda facing the street, unkempt and
As they approached the centre of the town the scene was
brightened by a row of well-lit stores, and even more by a cluster of saloons and gaming
houses, in which the miners spent their hard-earned but generous wages.
Thats the Union House, said the guide,
pointing to one saloon which rose almost 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 these parts?
Well, I thought his name was known clear across the
country. Its been in the papers often enough.
Well, the miner lowered his voiceover
Good Lord, mister! you are queer, if I must say it
without offense. Theres only one set of affairs that youll hear of in these
parts, and thats the affairs of the Scowrers.
Why, I seem to have read of the Scowrers in Chicago. A
gang of murderers, are they not?
Hush, on your life! cried the miner, standing
still in alarm, and gazing in amazement at his companion. Man, you wont live
long in these parts if you speak in the open street like that. Many a man has had the life
beaten out of him for less.
Well, I know nothing about them. Its only what I
And Im not saying that you have not read the
truth. The man looked nervously round him as he spoke, peering into the shadows as
if he feared to see some lurking danger. If killing is murder, then God knows there
is murder and to spare. But dont you dare to breathe the name of Jack McGinty in
connection with it, stranger; for every whisper goes back to him, and he is not one that
is likely to let it pass. Now, thats the house youre after, that one standing
back from the street. Youll find old Jacob Shafter that runs it as honest a man as
lives in this township.
thank you, said McMurdo, and shaking hands with his new acquaintance he plodded,
gripsack in hand, up the path which led to the dwelling house, at the door of which he
gave a resounding knock.
It was opened at once by someone very different from what he
had expected. It was 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 dark eyes with
which she surveyed the stranger with surprise and a pleasing embarrassment which brought a
wave of colour over her pale face. Framed in the bright light of the open doorway, it
seemed to McMurdo that he had never seen a more beautiful picture; the more attractive for
its contrast with the sordid and 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 he that 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 German accent. Did you come to see him? He is down town. I expect
him back every minute.
McMurdo continued to gaze at her in open admiration until her
eyes dropped in confusion before this masterful visitor.
No, miss, he said at last, Im in no
hurry to see him. But your house was recommended to me for board. I thought it might suit
meand now I know it will.
You are quick to make up your mind, said she with
Anyone but a blind man could do as much, the other
She laughed at the compliment. Come right in, sir,
she said. Im Miss Ettie Shafter, Mr. Shafters daughter. My mothers
dead, and I run the house. You can sit down by the stove in the front room until father
comes along Ah, here he is! So you can fix things with him right away.
A heavy, elderly man came plodding up the path. In a few words
McMurdo explained his business. A man of the name of Murphy had given him the address in
Chicago. He in turn had had it from someone else. Old Shafter was quite ready. The
stranger made no bones about terms, agreed at once to every condition, and was apparently
fairly flush of money. For seven dollars a week paid in advance he was to have board and
So it was that McMurdo, the self-confessed fugitive from
justice, took up his abode under the roof of the Shafters, the first step which was to
lead to so long and dark a train of events, ending in a far distant land.