Short-Short Story by Lee Conrad

Strange Cargo by Lee Conrad

 This was published in Down in the Dirt in March 2017.


Strange Cargo


By Lee Conrad


Zachariah Woodruff watched as the long procession of down trodden men walked along the sun baked street in the small Arizona town of Bisbee. 100 guards, some on horseback, others in slow moving cars, flanked the men with shotguns and rifles at the ready.


One of the men raised his head and look directly at Zachariah. It was Nathan Jones, one of the leaders of the strike. A cynical smile flashed on Nathan’s careworn face and just as quickly faded. He continued his march with the other men but raised his head in defiance as he passed jeering townspeople.


Zachariah stepped into the shade of the overhang of the dry goods store, took his Stetson hat off and wiped his sleeve across his sweat beaded brow. His short black hair was just starting to turn grey. His mustache though was still jet black.


He thought back to his first meeting with Nathan just a few weeks earlier in the Longbranch Café.


****


When Zachariah had stepped into the café that night he knew the mood was different. The café was filled with angry miners and strike talk was in the air.


A tall, brown haired man of about 25 years old was talking to some miners. His black suit was dusty and threadbare, his boots well worn.


“Come on fellas, I need more of you to sign up with the union. The Industrial Workers of the World are going to fight to get us decent wages and better working conditions. We can’t let these copper bosses and Phelps-Dodge grind us down.”


Zachariah strode over to a table and greeted the owner.


“Evening Clarence. A cup of coffee if you please, although I wish this was still a saloon. This so called prohibition of selling alcohol could drive a man to drink,” he said.

Clarence shook his head. “Maybe someday, but 13 states have already stopped selling booze. It seems to be sweeping the country. Damn temperance people.”


Zachariah looked at the crowd and turned back to Clarence.


“What gives?”


Clarence leaned in closer. “New guy in town. Says he is an organizer for the union. You know that bunch the government is so upset about. They’re called the IWW. Bunch of reds heard tell.”


Nathan left the group of miners and walked over to Zachariah.


“Name is Nathan Jones,” holding his hand out to Zachariah to shake.


Zachariah out of politeness shook it but was wary.


“Name is Zachariah.”


“You’re not a miner are you? Not with hands like those,” Nathan said.


‘No I’m not. Why do you ask?”


“It’s my nature to find out what I can about a person. I like to size a person up to find out which side of the fence they are on.”


“So did you size me up?”


“Not yet,” Nathan said as he walked away towards a group of miners who had just walked in.


A few days later, on the edge of town, Zachariah saw Nathan talking to a group of Mexican miners.


“You see fellas; we ain’t like the other unions. The IWW members come from all races, skilled and unskilled. The AFL might not want you but the IWW, the One Big Union does. Now the company is going to try and drive us apart.” He moved around them, looking them in the eye, trying to win their confidence. “They tried that with us in New Jersey but we all stuck together. And we won that strike. Heck even here we got Italians, Polaks, Finns and Americans all sticking together. You all have been getting the worst end of the deal here in Bisbee. Stick with us and we can change that.”


The Mexican workers huddled together and talked about what they just heard.


A miner named Hector Vera stepped forward.


“Mister Jones, our families have lived here longer than any of you Anglos, longer than the mine owners. All of you should be sticking with us instead of us sticking with you. But we like what you have said to us and you have treated us with respect. If the other miners will stay together we believe that would be a good thing and we will join your union.”


All the miners shook hands with Nathan. A pact was sealed.


Nathan walked over to where Zachariah was standing.

Dangerous man, this Nathan Jones, thought Zachariah.


“Well, we meet again,” said Nathan.


“Just out for a stroll,” said Zachariah.


Nathan laughed. “In this sun?”


“I am heading to the Longbranch for a cup of java. Care to come along,” Nathan said.


They entered the café, sat at a table and ordered their coffee.


“I know what you are Zachariah, but I will just call you my ‘observer’,” said Nathan.


Zachariah just smiled.


“Where are you from Nathan?”


“Originally from Pennsylvania. I followed my father into the coal mines. He didn’t make it out one day and after we recovered his body and 12 others, well I just packed it in and moved on. Ever see a man crushed by a cave in? Ain’t a pretty sight. I joined the union and worked in some of the mines out here.” He took a sip of his coffee. “I believe in what I am doing. I ain’t hiding anything Zachariah so you can give your bosses the straight skinny on me. I don’t care.”


“The government says you are a bunch of un-patriotic reds in cahoots with the Kaiser,” said Zachariah.


Nathan laughed. “Of course they do. You see Zachariah, we don’t believe in killing workers just like ourselves in other countries. Why would I want to kill a German miner who is fighting for better wages and mine safety just like me?” He pushed his empty cup aside. “President Wilson said he would keep us out of this war in Europe. Just another liar. And this strike isn’t about the war over there. It is about the class war here and we aim to get what we deserve.” Nathan stood up. “Well I have to go Zachariah. Got work to do.”


“Me too,” said Zachariah.


The IWW and 3000 workers went on strike after its demands to Phelps-Dodge and the other mining companies were ignored. It was a peaceful strike but already the affect was hurting the profits of Phelps-Dodge and other mine owners. A war was on and there was a high demand for copper needed in the making of brass for bullets and shells.


At the Loyalty League meeting later that week, Zachariah gave his report. He was just one of many who gave reports that night.


The room was filled with representatives of Phelps-Dodge, local business, the other mining companies, the railroad and the telegraph company. Names of miners who were leaders or members of the IWW were written down. Of real concern was the uniting of the Mexican workers with the American workers. The 20 men in attendance, not a miner or working man among them, all agreed that drastic measures needed to be taken and soon.


Cochise County Sheriff Wheeler, the leader of the league, walked over to Zachariah.


“Good report Zachariah. Always good to have a Pinkerton man on our side.”


“Ex-Pinkerton, Sheriff. Remember that. Once I am through here and paid off I am moving on.”


“Well, it will be over soon. Lots of townsfolk’s are getting riled up because they think the miners are pro-German,” said Walker.


“That’s not true Sheriff and you know it,” said Zachariah.


“You and I know that, and most of the others in this room know it, but that ain’t the point son. We are going to use whatever means to destroy the IWW, get them out of Bisbee and get these mines running again. It’s what Phelps-Dodge and the other mine companies want.” The sheriff looked directly in Zachariah’s eyes. “Be ready because it is coming.”


Three days later at 2:00 am the word went out from the Loyalty League to its supporters to assemble at the post office, armed.


By 4:00 am 2000 men from around Bisbee and Cochise County had gathered, were sworn in as deputies and given white arm bands.


Sheriff Wheeler addressed the posse. “Men, you have been given a list of names. You loyal Americans will arrest them on charges of vagrancy, treason and being disturbers of the peace. Anyone not supporting us and unwilling to wear a white arm band gets arrested. Today the IWW and its supporters will be deported from Bisbee.”


At 6:30 am the posse moved through town and headed to the headquarters of the IWW at Brewers Gulch.


Nathan, asleep on a cot, was shook awake by another union man Kevin Barrett.


“Hey Nathan, men are coming down the street. They don’t look too friendly,” he said with panic in his voice.


Nathan jumped up and went to the window.


“Nothing we can do Kevin. They’re armed. None of us are.”


They stood in the center of the room as the door crashed open.


“No need for that fellas. It was unlocked,” said Nathan.


“Shut your mouth before I slam this rifle butt in it,” said a burly deputy.


Eight more deputies stormed in. Cabinets were turned over and union pamphlets scattered across the floor.


“OK men, let’s march these guys down to the post office with the others.”


Nathan found himself corralled with other miners and townspeople who were sympathetic to the miners, guarded on all sides by armed deputies.


At 10:00 am the Bisbee newspaper boys shouted out the headline “All women and children stay off the street!”


The posse went up and down the streets. Nathan saw one group storm into a miner’s house. A woman screamed, a child cried and a man yelled profanities. They dragged him out and pushed him in with others being force marched to the post office. Some of the deputies settled old scores and arrested people who had nothing to do with the strike and stole things from their homes for good measure. From Brewers Gulch to School Hill, scores of men, some barely dressed were being driven from their homes to the holding area.


Zachariah went over to the line of men and pulled Nathan aside.


“Well, if it ain’t my observer,” said Nathan.


“Ex-observer and ex-Pinkerton Nathan. I just took this job to get some money so I can go to ‘Frisco. But I didn’t sign up for this. This just reminds me why I left the Pinkerton’s. It disturbs me what this country is doing to working men and folks who came here for a better life. And don’t try to run. These folks are itching to shoot someone. They already killed one miner for resisting arrest.”


“I am not going to do anything stupid. We are sorely outgunned and besides this has been a peaceful strike. Once people learn what’s going on here today these vigilantes will be put in their place,” Nathan said.


“No one is going to find out for a while Nathan. The telegraph lines have been seized by the Loyalty League. Hell, the telegraph and telephone companies all belong to the same employer association as Phelps-Dodge and the other mine owners. And the newspaper is owned by Phelps-Dodge. The sheriff has deputies keeping an eye on the newspaper men just in case there are any independent thinkers that might get high and mighty and try and be a crusader.”


A look of dismay swept across Nathan’s face.


“Best get back in line Nathan. They are going to move you out soon.”


“Alright fellas, let’s not give these guys a reason to shoot us,” said Nathan to the men around him.


Sheriff Wheeler pulled in front of the line in a 1911 Ford model T touring car. Strapped to the back was a belt fed machine gun aimed at the strikers. The deputies called out to the arrested miners to move out through town.


Zachariah moved towards the dry goods store. The temperature had built up to 90 degrees and as the hundreds of miners moved along their feet stirred up the dust on the city street.


****

Nathan looked at the dry goods store and saw Zachariah staring back at him. Well you won this time, he thought. But there will be another time. He turned his head back and continued walking.


The morning progressed and the group of miners, supporters and some unlucky citizens swelled to 1000 as more men were shoved into their ranks. Along the way the so called loyal citizens of Bisbee taunted and yelled at the strikers. The mass of men moved out of Bisbee and the shelter of the Mule Mountains. The sun beat down on them as they walked past scrub brush and cactus. Throats were dry and lips cracked, but no water was offered by shotgun wielding deputies.


The posse marched them 4 miles out of town to the ball park and ringed it tight as a drum with armed men.


Nathan and Kevin collapsed on the ground next to a boy of about 18.


“What are you doing here boy? You don’t look like no miner,” said Nathan his voice croaking from the dusty march.


“I’m not. I work at the soft drink place.” He was close to tears. “They grabbed me and tried to deputize me and wanted me to wear one of their white arm bands. I told them I had friends who were miners that came in for soft drinks. I can’t arrest them. So they put me in line with you all.”


Outside the ball park a grey haired woman in a dress and floppy hat, got out of her buggy and walked slowly, cane in hand, towards one of the guards.


“You there,” she shouted. “Not only do you have some of my neighbors in there but you have my youngest son as well.”


Another guard came over. “You in sympathy with that lot?”

“Sure I am,” she said, a voice as angry as the look she gave the guard.


“Well in you go,” said the guard.


They pushed her in.


“Ma,” the boy cried out.


“Hush son, we’ll get out of this pickle.”


She went over to the bleachers, stood on the second row and yelled at the guards.


“I know many of you. Look at ya. Push women around. Picked up a gun against working men.” She looked over to a well-dressed man, white arm band and rifle at his side and pointed. “Dr. Boland, you are nothing but a dirty coward. You are supposed to care for people, not do this. And you Jacob, if your mother could see you now.” She looked to the other side of the ball park. “Shame, shame,” she said, pointing at various deputies. “Just a bunch of low down vigilantes.” She went on like that for 15 minutes.


“Get her out of there,” yelled one of the leaders of the posse.


They went in and grabbed her.


“I ain’t leaving without my son. Come on boy.”


Both left. The miners cheered.


One called out to her, “Mother, you can join us any time.”


“Maybe next time fellas,” she called back as she pushed her way passed the guards.


Late in the morning the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad brought 23 cattle cars down the tracks near the ball park.


“What do you suppose this is all about Kevin,” said Nathan.


They looked at each other, perplexed and worried.


Sheriff Wheeler fired the machine gun into the air and shouted out, “You are all guilty of treason. Deputies move them out.”


“Alright you men get up and get moving towards those box cars,” yelled a guard. Other guards joined in the chorus of shouts-- “Go on get moving!” On top of the box cars stood 25 armed deputies.


“How about some water,” a miner pleaded.


“Get going you,” a guard said as he pushed the miner towards the train.


More guards moved in and pretty soon the miners were climbing into the box cars.


“Hell, what is that stink,” a miner said as he held a bandana to his nose and mouth.


“There is about 3 inches of sheep dung in these cars. Have fun boys,” a guard said.


He and another guard laughed as they closed the box car door.


“Where are you taking us,” Nathan said through an open slat.


“Out of here and over the border to New Mexico. You are deported from the great state of Arizona,” the guard said.



Dejected men stood in the dung trying to get air through some openings in the box car.


“What is going to happen to my wife and children,” said a miner who put his head down and wept.


Men gathered around giving comfort to friends and shared stories of how they were rounded up. Angry voices questioned the legality of the deportation while others cursed the mine owners.


Hector Vera, the leader of the Mexican miners stood next to Nathan.


“How can they do this? My family has been in this territory forever. How can they force me out of my home?”


The whistle blew and the train moved down the tracks.


Nathan looked around at all the men. They were Americans, Irish, Finns, Mexicans and many others from around the world. Most had worked the Bisbee mines for years.


“Look at us fellas. You got forced out of your homes, separated from your families, our union crushed, all because you dared fight back for a bigger piece of the pie. But you stuck together and that is what scared them.” Nathan looked at the men in the box car as the train rumbled down the tracks. “What a strange cargo we are.”


The end.


Biographical Details:


Lee Conrad lives in upstate New York. He is a Vietnam era veteran who was anti-war while serving. He worked at IBM and was a rabble rousing union organizer. All in all just a bit of a trouble maker. His work in the labor movement took him all over the country and the world. He is retired but not inert. His stories have appeared in Down in the Dirt, Fiction on the Web, Literally Stories, Weatherbeaten, Fear of Monkeys, Longshot Island and Commuterlit.

--
Lee Conrad

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act".
George Orwell 

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