Illustration by Jacob Dehart
By Casey Kenworthy
The wind whipped with a savage, unforgiving chill as three company members stood huddled around one of the many community fire barrels, their hands stretched out towards its warmth with the hopes of it taking their minds away from the frigid pace of snow that plummeted from the gray, late evening sky and covered all of the surrounding scenery with a thick white quilt. The barrel’s soothing glow illuminated the men’s faces and held their attention in a fixed trance that relaxed their sore, weary eyes from the day’s usual events. The man at the left of the barrel — a stout fellow with a wool hat pulled tight on top of his head that clashed with his bushy, rusty gray facial hair that decorated his face — let out a lung throbbing cough that snapped the other two men’s attention from their entrancement.
“Still got that retched cough, eh Gunner?” inquired Shamus, a young, light spirited Irishmen of about 23, who stood stationed at the center of the barrel.
Clearing his throat, Gunner hacked up a rather unpleasant red-spotted mucus and spat it out onto the ground nearby him.
“Them damn coal mines ain’t helpin’ it none,” he replied. “Gets worse as we dig deeper n’ deeper.” He took a small pause and scratched his head, letting loose a heavy sigh. “Gotta bring food to the table somehow, though.”
Shamus rubbed his hands together vigorously, softly blowing his warm breath onto them.
“You outta grab yerself a pack o’ lozenges from the shop,” he said back. “Heard they dropped em’ down te twenty cents now.”
Gunner let out a snort that needed no explanation. A wage given from Mr. James Whittman, heir to the Whittman industrial fortune, left you with little to no money for anything aside from the essential bread and water that was just enough to put something in the belly. Shamus, a fairly new member of the Whittman Mining Division, was still ignorant of how life was going to be.
The Whittman Industries specialized in three different areas of development: mining, manufacturing, and engineering. Although diversified, each division’s contribution played a key role in the nation’s economic upbringing. The coal mined from Whitman Industries powered more than three quarters of the locomotives that traveled across the country. Steel manufactured in a Whittman facility became the structures of the monumental towering buildings being constructed in New York. The products and ideas that emerged from the Whittman Engineering Facilities provided innovation and enhanced technologies that offered both satisfaction and praise from the United States Federal Government. But the most prominent and well-known aspect of Whittman Industries was the company town it provided to house its laborers. Through years of hard-working success, the Whittman family had become national royalty, the hierarchy of American wealth and prestige.
All thanks to the backbreaking labor supplied from its laborers, individuals who saw no gracious rewards for their support of this industrial giant. In addition to low wages, Whittman Industries supplies the company town, a small established town created by the Industry that houses the workers at so called “cheap rates.” Although from an outside perspective it may sound delightful. Once inside things prove otherwise. The town is nothing short of an urban ghetto with the squalid, ram shackled buildings placed within a dilapidated environment. To make matters worse, the money rewarded to them was not U.S. standard issued currency, but rather company currency that held zero value outside of the town. No labor union dared to rally the workers, or rather slaves, of the Whittman Industry, as they greatly feared the security team, a group of men who monitor the company town’s population and make sure it does what it’s expected to do. The End Result would be brutal.
Essentially, once a worker in debts his life to Whittman Industries, he’s selling his soul to the devil.
The sound of a small baby wailing soon filled the men’s ears. The man positioned to the right of the barrel, who’d been silent and lost in deep thought, turned his head towards the direction of the heart wrenching cry, his mouth twisting into a distressed frown.
Gunner, observing the man’s change in demeanor, responded accordingly. “The little one doin’ any better, Chauncey?”
The man named Chauncey looked at him with swelled eyes that signified a regretful doubt. “The fever is persistent,” he replied. “No matter what we try it just won’t go away.”
The sound of frantic footsteps soon filled the men’s ears. Turning to look, the outline of a young female could be seen jogging towards them, her face stricken with panic. It was Mildred, Chauncey’s young wife.
“Chauncey, Chauncey,” she exclaimed in between exasperated breaths, “I can’t take it anymore!” She ran straight into him, wrapping her arms around him while burying her face into his broad chest. “I can’t stand to see our little Sammy in pain!”
Chauncey held his grieving wife with an iron clasped hug, resting his mouth on top of her head. She looked up at him with a river of tears streaming from her eyes, her body trembling with terror. “What are we going to do?” she asked.
Shamus, oblivious to the tragedy, made a sympathetic inquiry. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
“It’s my newborn son,” Chauncey replied. “We think he might be stricken with the scarlet fever, and we can’t find a way to treat him.”
“Have ye tried te hospital?”
“We have, but they’re overbooked,” he said, his eyes dropping to the ground. “We don’t have enough money to pay the incentive fee. It could be months before we even make it half way up the list.”
The shrill cry of young baby Sammy rang out into the night once more. Chauncey turned his head towards its direction. “We don’t have that kind of time,” he murmured aloud.
“Well why didn’t ye say so, Chaunce?” Shamus piped up exuberantly, “I’ll lone ye some money so you can make it to te top o’ the list! Just pay me back when ye can!”
“That’s kind of you, Shamus, but I couldn’t take your money.”
Shamus persisted, “I insist!”
“No,” Chauncey said, “I have another way.”
Mildred’s head jerked up again. “Another way?” she questioned with surprise, “What is it, Chauncey?”
He looked deep into Mildred’s eyes with a burning determination. “I’m going to ask Mr. Whittman for an advanced payment.”
Gunner’s eyes shot wide open, his mouth agape with surprise. “He’ll never agree to that, Chauncey!”
“I’ll make him agree,” Chauncey said, “I have to do it for my son!”
To be continued…
Be on the look out for part two, coming April 17th.