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
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
“What’d you do?”
I inquired with almost the certainty of appearing
“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
“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
“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
“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
“‘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
“‘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 N, 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
“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.
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’
“‘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
“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
“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.
says the Judge. ’Mr. Clerk, ten dollars
and costs charge, drunk and disorderly.
“‘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
“’Your humour doesn’t
appeal to me, Billings. Of course, you have
the privilege of working it out.’ Oh, Glory,
“Heegan nodded at this, and
I realized what I was against.
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
“‘Yes, sir!’ says
Collins, ‘but where’s the tug crew, Mr.
“’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
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
“‘Ten dollars and costs,”
says I, lettin’ him under again. ’Do
you know who you’re drinkin’ with this
“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,
“’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 hérésies ’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,
“’"Boys, the strike’s
over. Mr. Heegan has arbitrated."’”