Hills Around Centralia Robert Cantwell (1935)
Credited with writing “the first modern novel to come out of the Northwest” and praised by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway as one of the most promising writers of his generation, Cantwell is a vitally important but often overlooked figure in the Northwest’s rich literary history. In “Hills Around Centralia,” originally published in the anthology Proletarian Literature in the United States, he depicts a small town in Western Washington responding to a real historic event that took place during his childhood—the Centralia Massacre of 1919. The story appears here for the first time since its original publication.
To learn more about Cantwell’s unique life and writing career, readers may turn to our interview with T.V. Reed, whose recent book Robert Cantwell and the Literary Left examines the personal history of Cantwell and the broader cultural significance of his creative and critical work.
The whole community was in a frenzy of fear. Travelers were wounded for not halting immediately on command from the searchers. One posseman was shot and killed by his Companions.... Throughout the state over a thousand men were arrested without warrants in the first days after the tragedy in an effort to stifle publicity and prevent an adequate defense.
—Was it Murder? The Truth about Centralia
As soon as they marched into school Kelly knew that something serious had happened, and for the next four days, until they met the wobblies in the woods, until they burnt the handbills and ran for their lives through the rain, he lived with a sense of danger and excitement confusing him and speeding up his life. Things happened, suddenly and unexpectedly, and everything was changed. The people became different and the town and the woods were strange. He waited for the wobblies to shoot, but they only passed out handbills. He hunted for a wobbly army but there was only a crazy old man and a logger who was running away. And on the first morning, as soon as they came into school and Miss Greer forgot to call the roll, he knew it was serious. The kids knew it. They began to whisper; even the girls whispered. Paul Collins punched him between the shoulder-blades and said, “Progermans again.” Before he could ask Paul how he knew, the assembly bell rang, loud and startling.
Miss Greer said Rise. Stand. March. Ever since the War they had marched in and out of class. The big phonograph played The Stars and Stripes Forever March. As Kelly turned into the assembly hall, marking time as the line swung around, he could see the little kids at their side of the hall marking time irregularly, and as the music grew louder and the classes surged up the aisles together excitement grew in him and he trembled. He marked time beside his place; the Stars and Stripes Forever played its way through; the kids stamped heavily on the oiled floor; the windows shook. Paul Collins shouted to him, “Progermans again! What did I tell you?” On the platform the principal lifted his arm slowly, bringing it down as a signal to stop marking time just as the music stopped.
Then the excitement began and did not let up.... The principal faced the flag on the wall and extended his arm toward it. His head was thrown back proudly. Below the platform, the teachers raised their arms toward the flag. For a long time, until the room became still, they did not stir. In the silence Kelly could hear the steady drumming of the sawmill and sometimes the shrill haulback whistle from the logging engines in the woods. Around him the hands pointed toward the flag pinned lifelessly to the wall and the stars and stripes forever marching repeated in his memory, repeated until shivers swept up and down his spine, and the grave words, obediently murmured, swelled like the roll of drums in a march. I pledge allegiance to my flag, the teachers said, and the children murmured in response, I pledge allegiance to my flag.
And to the Republic for which it stands.
And to the Republic for which it stands.
The words grew louder and more assured and more moving. One nation. One nation! he cried, holding his arm higher, Indivisible! With Liberty—with Liberty!—and Justice—and Justice!
They sang. Now they knew it was serious. The teachers were pale. Awed and alarmed, the children found the singing a relief. When they came to the high place their voices swelled free: Long may thy land be bright, with freedom’s holy light. At the next song the strange and half-painful excitement that held Kelly grew stronger, lifting him with a strong, exultant pride. America! America! God rest His grace on thee! And crown thy good. With brotherhood. From sea to shining sea. From the shining seas and from the alabaster cities the brave words rose, and when the song ended a vision of the great rich fields and forests lived and glowed in his mind. Alabaster, alabaster, he thought, treasuring the strange rare word, a church word that you could not use, putting it with the other deep words, freedom and majesty and liberty, in the hoard of precious words that could only be sung.
They sat down, and the principal faced them gravely. “Boys and girls,” he said, “I do not know how to begin telling you of the terrible thing that I must tell you. A terrible thing has happened, something almost more terrible than the War—I know you will understand how terrible this crime is and when you leave here today and go to your homes—for we are not going to have school today—I know you will go quietly and not shout or play on the schoolground. For this is not a holiday for you. I want you to remember—I hope that you will never forget—that we are closing our school to-day in memory of four brave men who have died, who were killed, defending their country and all that it means. These four men are dead, and we can honor them in the only way that we can: by leaving the schoolground quietly.”
He looked out over the assembly. His voice was grave and shaken. “I do not know how to tell you,” he said again. “These four men did not die fighting an enemy from some foreign country. They were shot down by traitors in their own country.... In Centralia yesterday they were marching in a parade to celebrate the return to peace to the world. Remember that. They were not marching toward enemy trenches where they knew they faced death. No. They were not marching into battle. They were marching just as you children marched into this assembly, peacefully, to do honor to brave men, their comrades in arms, who had died in the War. At their head was a young captain whose name you all know, a very brave and very young man who had fought bravely in Siberia and faced death a thousand times without fear. His name was Warren Grimm.” He paused, and the children stirred. “Suddenly, as the parade passed a radical hall, someone shot down. Warren Grimm and three others were killed.”
He stopped again. The strained look came back on his features. He started to speak and stopped abruptly, moving across the platform as he sought for the right words. There was a faint rustling from the crowded hall. Kelly drew a deep breath, awed and alarmed because the principal was no longer like someone he knew, no longer the old man who taught civics and snooped through the halls, but changed and gray and subdued—What did I tell you? Paul whispered, and Kelly thought it was wrong to whisper in a moment so solemn.
The principal said slowly, “I do not know what you children have heard of an organization that is called the Industrial Workers of the World, the I.W.W.—it may even be that some of your fathers are in sympathy with this organization—I do not know, and it is not my place to say. But I do know that the members of this organization, no matter what they claim to believe, and how many innocent workmen they deceive, have been guilty of a terrible crime. I know that they killed four young soldiers who had returned safely from the terrible carnage of War. And I am sure that if those of your parents who are in sympathy with this organization could only know the truth about it, could glimpse the suffering and distress and agony that this organization has caused, and see the anguish of the parents of these poor murdered boys—I know then they would have nothing more to do with it, I know they would revile and curse whoever came to them preaching its traitorous unamerican doctrines.”
His voice became angrily accusing. Kelly watched him with an absorbed oppression and fear. He thought the principal looked at him when he said your fathers. He wondered if the principal knew his father had said: This is a rich man’s war. “Murderers!” the principal cried. “Do you know what that means? Can you think of what it means to lie in ambush and hide and wait with murder and envy in your heart and then shoot to kill—to kill innocent, unsuspecting, men? If you have been to Centralia you will understand how easily anyone with murder in his heart could hide on Seminary Hill and in the buildings on Main Street and shoot down into a crowd and escape safely. That is what the murderers who killed Warren Grimm and Dale Hubbard have done. Warren Grimm was shot in the abdomen and died in terrible agony. Dale Hubbard was killed by a fiend who wanted one last victim before he was captured—by Wesley Everest, who has paid for his crime with his life. I do not want you to think of these murdered men as mere names that mean nothing to you. You must think of them as someone you know and love—as young Americans, like your own brothers, as young men only a few years older than you are, with mothers and fathers who are grieving for them now, just as your own parents would grieve for you if you were killed, as young men with arms and hands and clear bright eyes and ready smiles, fearless and friendly, shot down from behind, crying out in terrible agony as they died. Remember them! Remember, when you leave here today, that we have closed the school in memory of four brave Americans who died for their country—who died for you—as truly as ever four men died on the field of battle. I know I can trust you to remember and go quietly and not shout on the schoolground. I want you to rise now—quietly—and stand for a full minute in silent prayer while I repeat the names of these four men who died that America might live.”
They rose quietly. In a deep voice he read the names.
“Captain Warren Grimm.”
They bowed their heads.
we pledge ourselves never to forget that you have died for us.”
Never to forget! They left the building quietly. But the excitement and the exaltation and the sense of pain and grief did not go away, and by nightfall so much had happened that Kelly thought life would never get back to normal. He went with Paul Collins to look at the guns that Paul’s father had stored in his closet; he saw the new watchmen standing around the mill gate and at the edge of the town. Then he delivered his papers and the boy scouts collected the progerman handbills that appeared, mysteriously, in the streets; there was a fight and a logger was driven out of town. Then his father made him keep off the streets and in the morning all the handbill they had burned were back on the streets again and they burned them again. Then they went into the hills to look for the wobblies and there was only the logger who was sick and an old man whose face was bruised. But mostly there was a sense that the woods were no longer safe, and nobody knew what was going to happen.
When they left school Paul told him: the wobblies and progermans were going to be killed. Paul’s father was the town superintendent, and be knew. There was a wobbly army in the hills and the wobblies wanted to close down all the camps and mills. Paul’s father had a box of army rifles in his closet, and a bullet from an army rifle would go lengthwise through a railroad tie. The wobblies who escaped from Centralia were trying to get to the logging camps in the mountains, and the woods were full of them. Kelly heard all this and looked toward the woods that had never seemed filled with menace before. The day was cloudy. At the base of the logged-off hill the sawmill drummed steadily; the morning logging train had come in from camp and the logs were being dumped into the pond. He could hear the whistle signals from the logging engines in the woods and the occasional shrill whistles from the mill as the sawyers signaled for the millwrights when something went wrong. Between the mill and the school the rows of company houses, all alike, ended in the cleared space before the company store and the church and the pool ball, where the stage from Centralia turned around. Beyond the town the fringe of big trees, left as a break for the winds that swept up the valley stretched to the river; and beyond the river the green foothills of the Cascades repeated in ranges that grew higher and higher until they ended in the white wall of the peaks. Snow had already fallen on the higher ranges.
But now it was different. Deep in the shadows, beneath the big trees, safe in the underbrush, the treacherous unamericans moved without sound. He had heard people say, “The woods are full of wobblies.” Before it had only meant that the loggers in the far camps, always going on strike, were slackers and progerman troublemakers during the War. Now the green woods seemed crowded. The wobblies were strong in the camps, but they could not come into Paradise because Mr. Collins and all the new watchmen and the members of the Paradise Lumber Company Baseball Club threatened to horsewhip them and shoot them on sight and tar and feather them and run them out of town if they so much as shot off their mouths there. Now they were in the woods. The woods were alive with them. They slipped with unamerican stealth through the heavy salal bushes and crowded with progerman silence through the thickets of devils clubs. All day long Kelly looked at the green wall of timber and thought of the gray crowd of murderers who had buried themselves within it.
The evening stage came and he delivered his papers. There were twenty-five extra copies of the Tacoma Tribune and the Seattle Star, but no copies of the Union Record. He sold all the extra copies. The old logger who always bought the Union Record asked him, “Why don’t you sell a workingman’s paper?” and Kelly replied proudly, “I peddle American papers.” The old logger looked at him in disgust and said, “You peddle ------, you mean.” The papers said that one of the wobblies, Wesley Everest, had already been lynched. There were eight more in jail. They were all going to be killed. It served them right. The papers said that Centralia was tense and the nearby communities were tense and new outbreaks were feared. They said that Governor Hart stood ready. In every paper Governor Hart stood ready, and Kelly wondered what a governor did when he just stood ready all the time.
But at night, during the movie, the trouble started again. The accident siren blew at the mill. The men ran out of the show. A car had driven through town, and in the dim light handbills lay scattered like leaves over the wooden sidewalks and in the yards of the houses. The watchmen at the no trespassing sign had fired at the car as it passed. The crowds formed in front of the movie and the people began to talk. Shadowed under the dim street light, subdued and excited, the men handed the leaflets around. Kelly read one of them hurriedly: Governor Hart, the willing tool of the millowners, he read. Then in big letters: Was it Murder? The Truth About Centralia. They were progerman handbills, and he knew it was wrong to read them. Wesley Everest, lynched and mutilated for defending a workingclass hall.... Workers, defend the victims of the Centralia frameup.
The boy scouts began gathering up the handbills and burning them. The scoutmaster pulled Kelly’s handbill away and tossed it on the fire. “This way, Kelly,” he said sharply. He pulled Kelly over to where the other members of the Black Eagle Patrol were lined up in military formation. Kelly did not like the scoutmaster. His name was Froggy Anderson, and he was the manual training teacher at school and a college graduate, but the kids made fun of him because he talked too much. Whenever they went on a hike Froggy Anderson would explain about the different trees and their leaves and markings, and explain that there were male and female trees just as there were male and female people. The scouts said that whenever Froggy Anderson sneaked out in the woods he sidled up on a good-looking female fir tree. He always made the little kids sit on his lap whenever he told stories around the camp fire or told scout lore after the meetings.
Now he was abrupt and determined. “All right, fellows,” he said. “Pick up all the handbills you can get and bring them to me. Don’t stop to argue, just get as many as you can. We’ll give credits to the patrol that gets the most.”
They ran through the streets until almost midnight, gathering the handbills and bringing them to the fire. Paul Collins said that his father was going to buy them all new uniforms for burning the handbills.
Sometime in the night there was a fight in the bunkhouse, and a logger was run out of town by the watchmen. A crowd gathered in the road, and someone tried to make a speech, but the engineer brought the shay out of the roundhouse and tied the whistlecord down so no one could hear what the man was saying. Kelly was still gathering the handbills when his father found him. His father had been looking for him ever since the siren blew. He made him drop the handbills and get home. In the house he shook Kelly and said in a voice that trembled with anger, “You stay out of this, son. Do you understand me? If I catch you doing anything like this again I’ll beat you within an inch of your life.” Kelly went to bed, half-sick with excitement and shame, while the other kids were still running in the streets and the people were still talking on the comers, his mind whirling with thoughts of the wobblies in the woods, the alabaster cities gleaming and free, and the soldiers lying dead in the streets like the four loggers who bad been killed when the headrig came down, and whose bodies had been brought into town, stretched out on the floor of the freight depot until the hearse came to take them away.
In the morning the handbills were there again, and the scouts were excused from school to gather them up. In the night someone had painted on the watertower: Defend the Centralia boys. There were more watchmen around the mill and a crowd of men with Mr. Collins’ guns along the road. The handbills were the same as those they had burned before, but now there were more of them and it was tiresome to collect them again and burn them again after they had already burned them once.... At noon they hiked into the company timber on the east side of Paradise, and Kelly and Paul Collins found the two wobblies who had escaped.
Froggy Anderson went with them. Ordinarily they made fun of him on a hike and ran on ahead, but now he was serious and military and they were awed by the way he took command. The rain began. They crossed the Newakiaum and climbed into the foothills, following the mill creek, separating into pairs at the first ridge where a tall snag made a landmark they could see for miles. Kelly and Paul went up the creek while the others spread fanwise over the hills. In the deep woods, shadowed and noisy with rain, they hurried to cover their three miles and get back before dark. They had not gone far before they met the wobblies. It happened like this: Paul wanted to go back; he was tired and his feet were wet and he thought they had gone far enough. Kelly wanted to hurry because he had to get back to town by the time the evening papers came in, but he thought it would be disobeying the scout law if they said they had gone three miles when they had only gone two. They were arguing as they came to a narrow place along the creek, and Kelly called back, “What the heck. You baby,” just as he jumped from a half-sunken log in the creek to the bank, just as he looked up and in a spasm of fear saw someone, a logger, a wobbly, a ghost, hiding in the woods right beside him.
Bert and the old soapboxer had left Centralia on the night that Wesley was killed. They headed toward Klaber and Cougar Flat, but when they found the farmers frightened and unfriendly they circled back toward the foothills to try to reach the distant camps where the wobblies were strong. They had no food. The old man had been badly beaten on the last night in town, and after the first day he began agitating to the stumps and the trees. On the second be could only keep going for a few minutes at a time. On the second day Bert began to fear something else—a shape, a shadow, that moved through the woods ahead of them. Then on the third day he saw him clearly—a deputy gliding through the woods as swiftly and silently as a trout slides between the branches of a sunken tree.
Bert could see him clearly, not as a shadow, not as a movement, but as a man—a man dressed in a brown waterproof logger’s jacket, his face pale and smiling, a gun swinging idly by his side, hatless and yet dry in the drenched woods, a large man and yet so light on his feet that he seemed to dance soundlessly over the tender brush. Bert saw him clearly and lifted his rifle. The deputy disappeared. Bert could see the tree where he had been standing. Beside it the brush swayed and dipped in the rain. Bert swung his rifle to where the man might have hidden, where he might reappear, but there was no other movement and no sound but the infinite placeless rustle of the rain in the trees, a faint hissing like the sounds of insects on a summer night.
Fear overwhelmed him. He threw himself down and crawled backwards—awkwardly, spasmodically—into the brush that he had left. He could feel the sweat swelling on his flesh inside his wet clothing. He waited for some shot, some sound or sign of life; there was no place where all his body could be covered by the brush. Behind him he heard the soapboxer breaking his way loudly and fearlessly, heard him cough as he pushed against the clogged leafy underbrush. Then the old man cried out to the rain: Beware, beware! Oh, you men who work in these camps and these little sawmill towns. Who are your friends! Are they your friends, the bosses and the company rats? Have they risked jail for you? Did they fight the massacre of war?
Nothing answered him.
In scorn the old man cried: The Loyal Legion! Yes, the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen! With a general for your union secretary! And a millowner for your organizer! And a thief for your treasurer! And the cops for your sergeant of arms! The Loyal Legion!
Bert crawled back toward him. He called back, “Shut up,” but the old man could not hear.
He had seen nothing. His eyes had gone back on him. Nothing had moved. Yes, the old man said. The Four L is a safe union and a patriotic union and a union they will let you join. And I say there never was a union that fought for the workingman that the bosses did not hate and fight and try to destroy. And they cannot destroy.
Bert could hear the old man cough, and hear the crackling of the brush stop while the old man gagged and caught his breath.
The soapboxer was leaning against a tree, breathing hard because he had been coughing, looking up out of eyes that were sunken and dim, wearied now but normal, as if the coughing and the pain had brought him back to earth. “Stick close to me,” Bert said. “I thought I saw somebody.” He tried to whisper but his voice was hoarse and loud. The old man nodded. “Get down,” Bert said. The old man got down obediently. The heavier drops from the leaves sprinkled over him as he sank into the brush. They waited. Bert could hear the old man breathe and hear the rustle of his water-repellent clothing when he moved. Bert raised himself slowly to where he could look out over the hillside and the patch of shadowed brush he had left. He could see the drenched leaves, the dark glistening trunks of the fir and spruce. Nothing moved.
Beyond the hill daylight showed between the trees. They were near a town, or there was a clearing or a logged-off stretch somewhere ahead. Sometimes he thought he could hear the faint deceptive hum of a mill, indistinguishable from the sound of the rain. The old man lay stretched out on the muddy soil, face down, his forehead resting on his arm. The soles of his loggers were torn and the calks stripped out and twisted. His pants and soaked heavy mackinaw were mud colored; a little pool of muddy water formed where a tiny downhill stream washed against his body. While he watched the old man’s legs stiffened spasmodically, like those of a dog that sleeps and dreams that it is running.
Bert pulled at his shoulder. “Come on, Pop,” he said. “We better get on.” In a few moments the old man got to his feet, staggering, dazed and drunken with fatigue. Against his gray face the bruised and infected places were dark and enlarged. He forced himself into a kind of drugged alertness and Bert said silently, game old bastard, wondering how many miles the old man was good for. The old man asked, “Where are we?”
“We’re in Paradise Lumber Company timber. There was a marker back there. Near Paradise or one of the Paradise Company towns. Paradise, I think.”
The soapboxer swayed on his feet. “It’s full of corruption,” he said.
“We’ll have to go in.”
The old man was starting again. His eyes glazed and he began talking loudly. “Corruption,” he said again. “God forsaken company town. God forsaken highball outfit.” Then he began to cough and Bert quieted him.
The old man tried to whisper, “I know that town. Double rent for them leaky houses. I worked there. God forsaken place.”
“I know,” Bert said. “Take it easy.”
“Company money,” the old man said. “Jesus Christ. That God damn brass money you had to spend at their store.”
Bert nodded. “We’ll have to try it,” he said.
The old man looked at him, straining to keep his mind clear and on the subject while his body sagged in exhaustion. “You go down there they’ll kill you,” he said.
“They’ll kill you.”
Bert asked, “You want to drown? You want to starve to death?”
There was a long silence. The old man strained to think clearly and not give up or forget again. “They’ll kill you,” he said.
“You want to stay here and drown?”
The old man pulled his drenched mackinaw around his shoulders. “They won’t only kill you,” he said. “They’ll cut you up. What did they do to Wesley? You want your balls cut off?”
Bert turned away from him and looked out over the brush. Hills and trees swayed as his eyes darkened. “Wesley showed them how,” the old man said. “Now they know what to do. And even if nothing had happened they’ed run you out of town.”
That was true. And it must be worse now. Or better. What would it take to awaken the people and make them see? But the mills were still running and the men had not laid down their tools.
The old man said, “They’re wiping us out, Bert. This is their way. They whip up the people and get them confused. This is their way.”
He knew it was true. But he said stubbornly, “There must be somebody in them little towns. And we can’t make it to camp.”
“How can you find them?”
“I’ll find somebody. Somebody will be friendly.”
The old man said, “The people don’t know, Bert. How can they know? Who will tell them? They’re slow, slow, and there’s a lot of cattle there. They’ll kill you. They won’t ask who you are. They won’t give you a chance to get away.”
“You want to starve? You want to wait here and starve?”
The old man’s face twisted; the strength seemed to go out of him again. After a long time he said slowly, “They turn on the screws and sooner or later somebody is bound to shoot back. Maybe in Centralia or Everett or Butte—it don’t make any difference because it gives them their excuse and they turn the people against us. And they are wiping us out and they won’t stop now. This is their way. This is their chance. This is what they wanted.”
Bert said, “They can’t make these company towns without making the people friendly. They can’t make them live in them houses without making them friendly. They can’t make them pay double for everything without making them friendly. It don’t make any difference how many guards they put around the people will be friendly. They won’t do anything or they’ll be friendly.”
“Friendly,” the old man said. “Friendly to Warren Grimm.” His voice cracked; the speeches started again. He wavered and spread his arms in wide soapbox gestures as he called out to the brush. “Poor misguided bastards! Slaves in mind and body!”
Bert turned away and started down the hill, closing his ears to the anguished words and breaking through the brush without caution. Who are your friends? Are they your friends, the bosses and the company rats, you buckers and fallers, choker setters and firemen, you loaders and whistlepunks? Are they your friends, you doggers and edgermen, you off-bearers and boom-men and pilers in the rain? Your friends? Do they work as you do? Share the same risks? Dodge under the firs when the widow-makers come down and the snags fall and the butt logs tumble from the cold deck? What have you in common with them? When the price of spruce jumped from twenty to a hundred a thousand, did the raise go to you? Did your wages go up except where we led you and forced them up? Your friends? Who are your friends? Are they your friends, the men who hate us and exploit you?
He broke away from the voice and the old man’s warning. And if the old man was right? If in the little towns the workers were behind the Legion and the deputies, behind Hubbard and Warren Grimm, unstirred and inert and glad that Wesley was dead? Who are your friends? the old man asked, and he cried out in reply, Who are ours? He felt himself tear frantically at the brush because he could not stand the thoughts that flooded him when he stopped. At the base of the hill the underbrush was heavier. The tangle of salal and devils club reached to his shoulders. There was a creek at the base of the hill, swollen over its banks. The dark soil, stained with moss and decayed wood, was cut with hundreds of day-old streams. There was no cleared ground. He pushed into the tangle of brush, too stiff and cold to search for a way through it, and the thought of warmth, even the warmth of jail, pulled at him like the memory of some happy time before his life had darkened and his friends had been killed. Sometimes when he strained at the brush a red haze over his eyes blinded him, and sometimes he thought he could hear the blurred hum of a mill over the rain and the muffled sound of the stream, but he could no longer trust his eyes or his ears or his body, and he did not know if what he heard was a mill whistle in the distance or only a louder singing in his ears.
Then at a turn in the stream he saw the deputy again. This time there was no mistake. He stood in a clump of alders on the bank, pale and smiling, hatless, dry in the drenched woods, the gun still idly swinging by his side—Bert lifted his rifle and fired. His hands were stiff and he felt a moment’s surprise that the trigger was so heavy. The sound awakened him. The man disappeared. The sound rolled louder through the hills, amplifying with each echo until the trees were shaken with its thunder. He stared at the place where the deputy had been and there was no one there, only a torn place on the tree where his bullet had gone through. An alder waved jerkily as the overflowing stream washed around its roots.
The soapboxer called, “What is it?” He hurried through the brush toward Bert, anxious, awake, calling to him.
Bert said dully, “I thought I saw something.”
The sound hovered, holding them paralyzed. Then they ran downstream, spending their hour of panic-driven strength, fear clearing their minds and awakening them, driving them from the doomed spot where the echoes still roared and repeated like a great bell calling their enemies. The old man collapsed and crawled into the underbrush, where he stretched out choking and coughing, his feet digging into the mud each time a spasm of coughing shook him. Bert sat down with his rifle between his knees, holding the barrel with both hands and resting his head in his arms. He did not know how long he rested. The woods were darker when he looked up again.
He could see a short way down the stream. Again in the rainy shadow someone moved behind the screen of brush. He lifted the rifle again. Two boys came up the stream. He could see them clearly. The one in front pushed on busily, hoisting himself over the fallen snags and stepping far out, sure of himself, on the tree trunks that reached over the water. He was younger, tow-headed, blank-faced, dressed in torn blue overalls and the coat of some uniform—the coat was too large for him and the shoulders sloped down on his arms. Army leggings were wrapped unevenly over the legs of his overalls. Behind him the second boy moved more slowly, with dainty awkwardness. He was taller, wearing a long raincoat, and his features, dark and thin and almost girlish, twisted with distaste when he put his hand on the wet surface of a log to hoist himself over it. The younger boy called out. He jumped from a half sunken log to the bank where Bert was standing, landing hard with a grunt of satisfaction just as he saw Bert and stiffened with fear. His face went gaping and senseless. The second boy looked up, shuddered and half-bent, as if waiting to be struck.
Bert stepped between them. He looked down the stream to see if they were being followed. From the brush the old man asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Just a couple kids.”
No one followed them. The old man climbed the bank; the boys stared at him and then looked into the woods to see if more were coming. The older boy made an incomplete, convulsive movement, as if he started to run and found his feet caught firmly in the mud. Bert held him. “Where do you think you’re going?” The boy could not answer. His face was strained into an idiot expressionlessness. Bert shook him a little. “What are you doing up here?”
The boy gasped, “Let go. We’re on a hike.”
The younger boy gawked, startled but less afraid, waiting for something to happen. “We’re boy scouts,” he said. “Boy scouts.”
Bert said, “Have you got anything to eat?”
“Nothing,” Bert said. “No sandwiches.”
The boy drew a deep breath and shook his head.
“Where you from?”
The boy nodded backwards. “Five-six miles,” he said.
“What are you doing up here?”
He hesitated. Bert could see the boy’s fear give way a little, trying to think of what he should say. He said, boldly and hopefully, “We’re looking for the wobblies.” He stared at their faces to see what effect it had.
The old man sat down on a log and began to cough, bending over and gagging. When he straightened up he said, “That’s a pneumonia cough, Bert.”
Bert released the older boy. He said incredulously, “They’ve got the kids after us.” He heard the old man clear his throat and saw the boys shuffle uncertainly. The little kids, he thought dully. Even the little boys. They were staring at the old man, at the bruised and infected places on his face. “Sending the little kids after us,” Bert said. “Look.”
The old man said, “They’re against us. I said they’ed be against us.”
“Little kids,” Bert said dully. “Sending the little kids out.”
“I said they’d be against us. They’ll kill you down there. Time and again I said.” Yes, Bert thought, the little kids. He walked nervously to the younger boy.
“Who else is with you, boy? How many more? How many men?”
The boy said, “Nobody.” Bert’s hand tightened, black and blue, on his arm.
“You want me to throw you in the crick?”
“Nobody! Just the boy scouts! Just the troop!”
“Who put you up to it?”
“Nobody! Just Froggy Anderson.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know. Back at camp, I guess.”
Bert said, “I ought to throw you in the crick.” The older boy began to cry. Bert stood close to the boys so they would not run, listening to the rain draining through the trees and straining for some other sound. Suppose I’d shot, he thought. He felt tired and helpless, defeated more than he had been by the rain and his weariness and his hunger, more than he had been when he shot blindly into the woods. Let them come, his mind said. All the little kids. All the little kids and all the cripples and all the old women and the old men, send them out in the woods and let them hunt for us. In a dull voice the old man asked, Where is justice for the workingman? and Bert thought: the people are against us. I thought they would be friendly and here the little kids, the little kids.
The little kids, he thought, the little devils scared and cold. The older boy well-dressed and crying, pale as a girl; the little kid gawking with his mouth open while the soapboxer started to rave. The people must be crazy, he thought, and the old soapboxer mumbled, Whose justice? Justice for the millowners, yes. Justice for the Grimms and the Hubbards and for Governor Hart, their willing tool. Why? Because the wobblies stand for the common worker. Fight for the common worker. Die for the common worker. “Shut up!” Bert cried. “How can I think?”
“Little kids,” the old man apologized. “They don’t even know why they’re here.” He put his hand tenderly on the sore places on his face. “Their minds are poisoned,” he said painfully. “How can they know? That hurts me, Bert.” He began to cough again. “I’ll say this,” he said. “I don’t think much of the mother.... You boys! Why ain’t you in school?”
“They let school out.”
They let school out, Bert thought. They made it a holiday. You can go home now, Wesley Everest is dead. The schoolbells ringing. Yes, and all over the state and all over the country the kids would get a holiday and run out in the schoolyards hollering and yelling while his body floated in the Chehalis and the dogs ran loose in the streets. You can go home now, he thought. The wobblies are dead.
The trees drained steadily. The older boy had stopped crying; a little life had come back to him. The old man moved over near them, leaning against a snag as he questioned them, “What’s your name, son?”
The younger one said, “Kelly Hanrahan.”
The boy murmured inaudibly. “You better let us alone,” he said. “My father.” He looked at his feet and his voice trailed off into silence.
“What’s your name?”
“What does your old man do?”
“He’s superintendent...” The boy’s voice was faint and defiant. “You better let me go!” he said. “My father...”
The old man murmured, “The soup’s boy....” He turned to Kelly. “What does your father do?”
“Does he know you’re out here?”
The boy hesitated. “He don’t care what I do.”
The woods were almost dark. Bert could hear the boy’s shaken breathing and see the play of muscles twitching nervously across his cheek. This was the superintendent’s boy, miles from home, in the middle of the woods.... Suddenly his mind was clear and awake.
The old man said in a tired voice, “You boys don’t know why you’re here. You don’t know why you’re against us. You don’t know what happened.”
They did not answer.
The old man said softly, “Boys, listen to me. You hear things about us. You hear that we laid in wait and shot into their parade and you couldn’t count all the lies they tell about us. But this is the truth. This is what happened.”
The younger boy hunched his wet army coat over his shoulders and looked nervously at Bert. The little kids, Bert thought, why would they let them come out? Would they let them come out if the people were against us and hunting in the hills?
“This is the truth,” the old man said softly. “Listen to me now.”
“There were some men in Centralia who gave their lives to the working people. They believed that working people ought to stick together for their rights. They believed that workmen ought to get the full return for the work they did. They did not believe in the war—they did not believe the workmen of one country should go out and kill the workmen of another country—they believed that all workmen ought to stick together.”
He spoke slowly and painfully, struggling to keep his voice down. “Now listen. All the people who hire men to work for them—all the millowners and the bankers and the business men and the property owners—hated these men. Do you understand that? They said they were going to drive them out of Centralia. They said they were progerman and unamerican and everything else. This is what they did. Listen. Last year there was a parade in Centralia, and when the parade went past our hall, these men, businessmen and ex-soldiers and Legionaires, they broke in the hall and smashed everything there. They smashed the tables and the chairs and tore up the books and beat up everybody there. They did that. The business men did that.”
The boys stirred miserably. The trees darkened and drained; the rain had stopped. “Listen,” the old man said. “Listen to me. The wobblies came back. We fixed up that place again. And this year, when those men raided it again, we were ready for them. We waited. There was nine men inside and three thousand outside. And the nine men fought the three thousand and fought them off, as long as they had ammunition. Did you know that? Did they tell you that?”
He waited. The boys did not answer. “Did they?” The younger boy said, “No,” and the superintendent’s boy whined, “Let go.”
“Wait. There was one boy with the wobblies who would not give up when they ran out of anununition. He had a revolver, and a few bullets left, and he ran out the back way and tried to get across the Chehalis. Now listen. He was only a few years older than you boys—five or six years, maybe. And this is what he did. He held off all those people. He said he’d surrender to the police, and Dale Hubbard kept on coming and Wesley said Stop. Stop or I’ll kill you. Hubbard came on and Wesley killed him.”
In the darkness Bert felt his mind awaken and the broad picture of what had happened formed clear and distinct. There had been trouble in town or the boys would not be out. They had been afraid of trouble or they would not have let out school. The people were not friendly or unfriendly, but confused and afraid.... They would have to start on. Someone would be out looking for these boys.
“This is what they did,” the old man said. “They took Wesley, they took this boy a little bit older than you boys, and locked him up with the others. They beat him first, and broke his teeth. And this is what they did at night. They turned out all the lights in town. Then they went into the jail and dragged him out. They put him in a car and cut off his balls and took him back to the river. He was a little bit older than you boys—not much older, and they did this to him. The business men did this. They took him to the bridge and put a rope around his neck and dropped him over. He didn’t die. They pulled him up again and dropped him again and still he didn’t die. Then they shot him—they shot him and left him hanging there.”
They waited. Bert got up. “Did they tell you that?” the old man asked. “Did they tell you that when they let you out of school?”
The boys were shivering with cold and fear. Bert said, “Come on. Someone will be looking for them.” The old man got to his feet. Bert said roughly, “You boys. Was there any trouble in town?”
The older boy began to whine again. The other said blankly, “Trouble.”
“Was there a fight?”
“No.” Then he said. “Only some handbills.”
His heart leaped. “What about?”
The boy said hesitantly, “They was progerman,” and the older one said, “Nobody read them.”
“The boy scouts burnt them up.”
He said to the old man, “There’s somebody left,” but the old man did not hear him. “Just a few years older,” the old man said.
Bert walked to the old man and pulled him around. “They’ll be out looking for these boys.”
The old man said wearily, “Let them look. Let them look.”
“You know what will happen if we send them back.”
“A little older,” the old man said in anguish. “Just a few years. And this is what they did.”
“They’ll be up here looking for them. If we send them back they’ll be looking for us.” The old man swayed on his feet. Bert pulled him roughly. “Snap out of it,” he said. The old man reached over and grabbed the older boy by the arm.
“How old are you?”
The boy said, “Fifteen.”
“Five years older. Four or five.” He did not release the boy. “They knocked out his teeth,” he said. “First. You hear me? You know how it feels? You know what they did?” The boy began to cry.
Bert said, “Listen. Cool off. You know what they’ll do. If we send them back the whole town will be out here after us. And if they don’t come back....”
Slowly the old man understood. He released the boy. Bert began to tremble. He would not say what was in his mind. One of the boys stirred, and be moved over near them. The old man said, “Maybe... Could we drag them along?”
“They’ed hold us back.”
The old man said, “If anything happened to them they’ed blame it on us. Then they’ed be against us. The whole town. The whole god damn working class.”
Bert said, “It would have to be different.... As if they’ed fallen. Or the creek.”
The old man did not answer him. Bert smiled into the darkness. “No,” he said. “But it’s what they’ed do.” The old man said nothing. “Think what they did to Wesley.” Bert picked up his rifle and pulled the old man by the shoulder. “They knocked out his teeth,” he said softly. “They cut him up before they killed him.... And it would help us and hold them back.”
They cut into the heavy brush. The old man said, “You don’t mean it.”
“No. But it’s what they do.”
The brush closed around them. The old man started to call back to the boys, but Bert stopped him. “They won’t know if we left or not. They’ll wait awhile.” They turned away from the stream, up the steep bank, digging their feet into the slippery soil. The rain had left the leaves cupped and soaking, and now that they began to climb the stiffness and fatigue came back. Night closed around them, dense and heavy as the brush itself, until there was nothing left of the world but the damp tangle of vines and stalks that trapped and held them, their heavy breathing, the sound of their feet in the moist leaves and soil. It grew colder after the rain stopped and they climbed into higher ground. The underbrush thinned out; the big trees were far apart.
At the top of the first ridge they rested again. The old man stretched out on the muddy soil, face downward, his forehead resting on his arm, his legs twisting under him. Below the ridge the valley was a gulf of darkness without boundaries, silent and empty and cold, but above them they could see the mountains, lines of darker shadow against the sky, and the strange gray light of the snow. Bert sat beside the old man, holding his rifle between his knees, looking out over the spread of company timber and the county of company towns. Somewhere in the darkness the boys were fumbling back home, people were looking for them, the crowds would gather. In the morning the hills would be crowded. Now he thought of someone still working in the guard-ridden town, getting out the handbills and telling the truth. The thought came back as he dozed. It was warm and reassuring. It came back and went away; it was like a light in the window of some friend’s house, seen and then lost again in the middle of a rainy and miserable night.
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.