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11.

 

    Mining headquarters were located inside a large canvas tent that Frank had pitched above the southern bank of the valley stream, about a hundred yards from the entrance to the mine. He had chosen this particular place because it provided a measure of privacy; the mine portal and all of the associated facilities, the rail terminals, processing bins, tool storage, coal piles awaiting shipment-all the centers of activity necessary to conduct mining operations-were located on the northern side of the stream.

    Last Christmas, Rebecca had bought him an enormous wooden desk as a present. It was eight feet wide, with two rows of spacious cabinet drawers on either side of the  central foot well; the top had been fashioned from choice maple tongue and groove planking, two inches thick. She had rescued the desk, from a newspaper office in Fairmont that was about to replace all its furniture, before it was carted away to a waste bin. A local cabinet maker was employed to remove surface scratches, fill voids, and apply coats of a durable oil finish.

    At first, Frank was reluctant to haul such a handsome piece out to his rough and tumble mine site, but Rebecca insisted that it be used for the purpose she intended. One day, she predicted, it will stand within a well-appointed office in a permanent mining administration building. If necessary, it could always be refinished again. It was simply impossible, she decided, to find such a splendid piece newly manufactured. Everything was being cheaply made these days; the best quality furnishings had disappeared from the shops.

    A handful of workers were directed to carry the desk, tongue lashed continuously by a face boss less they damage the expensive artifact, a half mile from the tent city to Frank's headquarters tent, where he positioned it carefully beside the opening flaps, a location that permitted a modicum of quiet from the noisy site while affording a maximally efficacious view of the mine and valley.

    It was here, at his desk, his officious seat of mine administration, that Frank dealt with the myriad administrative matters that were brought to his attention as sole proprietor. He prepared payroll, kept the accounts current in the bookkeeping ledgers, conducted a voluminous correspondence with suppliers and customers, interviewed prospective employees, and ruled over his mining kingdom as the absolute monarch he was. On those occasions when, perhaps because the hour was growing late, Frank chose to remain at the mine overnight, he ate and slept with the other men in the tents on the plateau. He reserved his desk and tent for official matters only. By shutting the flaps, he communicated to everyone that he wished to be alone, undisturbed, and away from the din on the other side of the stream; but by opening the flaps and crooking  his neck, he was able to observe most things of interest, especially the rate at which coal loads left the valley and empty wagons returned. He usually left the actual supervising of mining at the working face to the bosses and foremen.

    One afternoon, just after the men had ended work for their lunch break, Frank was enclosed within his canvas retreat, tent flaps shut, plodding through a pile of unpaid invoices from his suppliers, when a loud commotion emanating from the other side of the stream shattered the mid-day peace, usually a period of relative quiet at the mine. Frank jumped up and ran outside. A crowd had gathered near the portal, but they were too tightly packed for him to determine the spectacle that had seized their attention. Men were jostling each other, waving their arms in the air, and calling out encouragement. Evidently a fight was in progress.

    Frank quickly waded across the knee high water and began shoving men out of the way as he tried to reach the center of the confrontation. "Break this up, men. Get out of the way. Let me through."

    When he parted the circle of spectators and reached the cause of the disturbance, he saw four men, two of them bloodied opponents, their clothing torn, and two others who were restraining them from continuing the struggle.

    "All right, you sons of  bitches, have you had enough of each other, or will you have a go at me instead?" growled one of the men who had helped separate the two combatants. Evidently, his threatening tone was having the desired effect. Both of the two men who had been attacking each other only moments before, now looked downward sheepishly, clearly unwilling to test the meddle of the intervening pair, particularly this one, the shorter and older of the two. They were obviously related, perhaps cousins or brothers, although Frank recognized neither of them. They must have only just arrived, he supposed; their clothing was freshly laundered and not really suitable for mining.

    On the other hand, he was very familiar with the two men who had been fighting; they had been employed at the mine for at least a year, and both had earned long standing reputations among the men as trouble makers. Frank should have tossed them both out of the valley long ago, but they were fine workers and not easily replaced. Fighting kept the men entertained, it was true; and when the fights began and ended after the men finished working-so long as the scuffles served to lower tension and no one was seriously injured-Frank was inclined not to interfere. But when men fought during working hours, even if on break, their scraps disrupted work for the rest of the day. The altercation became a topic for discussion at the working face, spreading excitement and restlessness that would not be settled until the evening dinner.

    He turned to the four men in the center. "All right, I want this ended now. Right now. Clean yourselves up and report to my tent in ten minutes. And don't keep me waiting if you want to stay on."

    The men looked away, nodded an unspoken apology, first to Frank and next to each other, then went separate ways, each accompanied by some of the crowd, no doubt their supporters and possibly also men who had bet on the outcome.

    Frank turned to the remaining two, the men who had ended the fight. "Thank you for breaking that up. I'd like to speak with both of you at my tent. It's just across the stream." He was impressed by the authority they had exuded and the respect accorded them by the men.

    Frank led the way back, the three of them splashing across the stream. He lifted open one of the flaps and invited the men in while he proceeded directly to his folding chair behind the desk.

    "I'm Frank Montague, and this is my mine as I'm sure you're aware. I don't think we've met before."

    "Pleased to meet you, sir," the shorter man said, extending his hand to Frank and simultaneously appointing himself spokesman for the pair. "I'm Isador Cheek and this is Maurice, my younger brother."

    Frank rose and shook both proffered hands. "Likewise, and welcome to Montague Valley. I'd offer you a seat except I have the only chair. When we're done here, catch a ride or walk back toward those tents you passed on the way in. Tell Quo Chung the cook to fix you some grub.

    "Now tell me why you're here."

    "We're looking for work, Mister Montague. Both of us have five years of coal mining experience."

    "Is that so? Whereabouts?" Frank inquired.

    "Kentucky. Stillwell Mining up in Harlan County."

    "So what brings you down here, to Virginia? Why did you leave Stillwell> By the way, I happen to know your boss, Rufus Stillwell. We've been friends for a couple of years."

    "Mr. Stillwell treated us fairly, Mr. Montague. I think he was pleased with our work. But we were homesick. Kentucky is a long way from Charleston."

    "Charleston, Virginia? So you boys are hillbillies?"

    "Yes sir. We've country boys, both of us. Mountain men, too."

    "Did you work as miners down in Kanawha County?"

    "We did. Three years at the Pocatalico River Mine."

    "All right. why did you leave?"

    "Well, I'm afraid that I had a bit of trouble down there. So I left and Maurice followed."

    Frank took a closer look at both of them. Isador was about five foot seven or eight, lean and muscular. His hands were heavily calloused and his fingernails dirty, commonly the marks of a miner. Frank tried to estimate his age, but his ruddy complexion could have belonged to a much older man. Isador was probably a year or two younger than he was himself.

    Maurice was a little taller and a little thinner and a little fairer as well, maybe two years younger than Isador, not much more than that. He seemed less earnest in his facial expressions, easier going; his brother likely made decisions for both of them. There the discrepancies ended. The brothers had the same sandy-colored hair, the same texture, and their features were nearly identical. They might have been fraternal twins.

    Frank looked intently at Isador and waited until he received all of his attention. "Tell me how much is a bit."

    "I burned down the foreman's barn."

    "What! Why the hell did you do that?"

    "He changed our timecards and got me fired for not showing up for work. But I swear to God that I've never missed a single day of work in my life."

    "Why would he do that?"

    "Because he wanted my girl friend, sir. She never would have left me for him if I still had a job."

    "Did that piece of mischief work? Did she leave you for that reason?"

    'Yep. He got her pregnant, too. They're married now, two kids, a third on the way"

    "How old is she now?"

    "Twenty-one. She was sixteen when she had the first."

    "Well, Mr. Cheek, consider yourself fortunate. And if you don't feel that way now, believe me you will later.

    "I'd like to offer you boys work; we can use every hand we can find, but...Well, things are getting pretty tight around here. I'm afraid I couldn't afford your salaries."

    "That's all right, Mr. Montague. We'll work for our meals and a cot in one of your tents. You can pay us later or not at all if you don't think we're worth it. All we ask is that you give us a chance to prove how hard we can work."

    Frank shook his head. Some people found themselves in more desperate straits than he did. He stood and extended his hand. "Consider yourselves hired, then. Get yourselves more suitable clothes and report to Wiggins the face boss in the morning. And don't forget about the food. Tell Quo Chung to help you find a tent, too."

 

    A little later, Wade and Saunders, the two pugilistic opponents, now washed and made presentable, entered his tent and stood silently before Frank. They expected to be fired, that was clear by their humbled demeanor.

    "You're not here for a conference. We've got nothing to discuss. I've had a belly full of your fighting and drinking. If we weren't so shorthanded, you'd be on your way out of the valley right now. And that, believe me as you've believed nothing else, is the only reason I'm going to let you stay until the next episode. Then I'll throw you into the first loaded wagon and have your ass hauled out of here to the river. I'm not giving you another chance, mind you, just delaying the inevitable until it's convenient to get rid of you both. At least now you have something not to fight over; you're both in the same situation."

    Wade spoke first. "There won't be any second episode, Mr. Montague. I swear to God."

    "That's right, sir. You won't see any more trouble from either one of us. We had a little talk before we came in. Thank you for letting us stay," Saunders added.

    Frank leaned back in his chair, lighted a cigar, and slowly exhaled a thin stream of blue smoke. He stared up at the two of them with cold, hard eyes.

    "Get the hell out of here."  

January 2012

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