“The world must be made safe for democracy.”
—President Woodrow Wilson, April 2, 1917
Old Nick had been following the traveler ever since he left the detention camp back in New Mexico. It wasn’t that the traveler made a particularly appealing target himself, but everywhere this fellow went, trouble followed in his wake. And trouble was Nick’s food and drink.
The minute President Wilson had asked Congress to get the country involved in the endless blood-soaked war going on in Europe, Nick had smelled the ugly stench of hysteria and reached for his tool kit. His blades were sharp and his armaments were oiled and ready. Discord had been sown far and wide, and Nick had had plenty of work to keep him happy.
The miners’ strike down in Arizona had drawn old Nick like a fly to manure, and he had been so busy maintaining disorder that at first he hadn’t noticed the slender man in the thick of it all. The traveler was of middle height, and lightly built, his appearance unremarkable, except for a russet beard liberally streaked with gray, and sharp dark eyes.
On a morning in early July, Nick joined the armed posse that roused the striking miners from their beds, and helped cram them into twenty-three sweltering cattle cars to deport the troublemakers out of Arizona. Nick enthusiastically arrested anyone who looked like a miner and a couple of men who didn’t, and helped himself to some of their property along the way. He volunteered to man the machine gun guarding the deportees and spent the entire trip to New Mexico basking in the miners’ fear and fury as they were carried to their unknown fate. By the time they reached the barbed wire camps in New Mexico, the ardor of most of the detainees had flickered and waned. But the bearded traveler’s fire of determination burned bright as ever. This one would go his own way until the end, and Nick knew that whenever a man’s beliefs rubbed against the grain, sparks were bound to fly.
A few days later, as soon as his union lawyer got him sprung from internment, the traveler had headed straight for the train station at Hermanas and bought a ticket for Muskogee, Oklahoma. The strike was broken, and most of the strikers were broken as well. Nick knew there was little work left for him in the camp. So he scratched the little white scar beside his eye, set his bowler hat upon his head, and boarded the train behind the traveler. He knew the traveler wasn’t going to notice him. No one ever noticed old Nick. Especially not a man whose eyes were blinded by the fire of true belief.
“If there should be disloyalty,
it will be dealt with a firm hand of repression.”
—President Woodrow Wilson, April 2, 1917
The traveler stood at the head of the alley and watched the ruckus for a long time, trying to decide whether or not to get involved. He thought not. He had just been passing by on his way from the hotel to the Muskogee train station when he heard the commotion and stopped to take a look. He wished he hadn’t. It was barely light and the sun not even up and he wasn’t in the mood for a fight. He didn’t much like the idea of two ganging up against one, but the blond-haired youngster seemed to be holding his own all right. Besides, it wasn’t any of his business. He had had enough strife to last him a while, and he expected he’d soon have a passel more before much longer, so he didn’t see any reason to borrow trouble if he didn’t have to. He had a train to catch. He was just about to move on when the fat brawler got the young man down on the bricks and started pummeling him around the head.
“Damn Red!” the fat man hollered. His skinny companion grabbed up a length of board from the end of the alley and headed over to finish the job.
The traveler sighed. He unslung his rucksack from his shoulder, pulled his little blackjack out of his back pocket, and waded in.
It didn’t take much to break it up. One good slap with the cosh on the fat man’s shoulder and that was that. That was generally the way with bullies. They didn’t pause to figure out who had decided to even the odds, or why. One good howl from the fat one and the skinny one dropped his board and was gone before the traveler even got a good look at him. It took a little longer for the fat man to haul himself up and skedaddle. Still, he moved pretty well for a fellow of his size.
The blond youth lay where his attacker left him, facedown on the bricks with his hands clasped over his head. The traveler nudged him in the side with his toe.
“They’re gone, hotshot. You can get up now.” The traveler’s voice bubbled with humor. Or maybe it was relief. It was not often that he managed to get out of a shindy without so much as a bruise.
The kid’s head turned just enough to enable him to peer at his rescuer out of one rapidly swelling blue eye.
“Get up, boy,” the traveler repeated. “Let’s have a look at you.” The young man pulled one leg up, then the other, and raised himself onto his hands and knees. He grabbed the traveler’s proffered hand and stood. The traveler sucked air through his
teeth. The youngster was much the worse for wear.
“Your face looks like you got yourself caught in a meat grinder, kiddo. It’s lucky I come along when I did. You expect you’ve got any broken bones or busted insides that will require the services of a doctor?”
The young man patted himself down and took stock of his wounds before answering. He was a little hard to understand because of the split lip. “I reckon I got a bruised rib, here, and my eye hurts, but I don’t think anything is broke.”
“Looks like them fellows had quite a bone to pick with you.
What did you do to rile them up so?” “They took issue with something I said.”
One reddish eyebrow lifted. “I reckon. Did you disrespect the fat feller’s mama?”
The youth studied the older man out his rapidly purpling eyes, reluctant to answer.
The traveler slipped the blackjack back into his pocket and crossed his arms. “Don’t worry, towhead. I got no quarrel with a man’s politics or his ancestry neither. You say something against the war? Or do you just have a German name?”
An ironic smile attempted to form on the bloodied lips. “Neither. I’m just plain Henry Blackwood. I met them two at the diner yonder while I was having a bite before my train come. When we left, we were walking the same direction, toward the station, just having a chat about this and that when I said that I kind of wish this war would get over quick because I didn’t think the Germans are our natural enemies and I’m sorry we’ve got into a scrape with them. They took exception and thought to correct my faulty reasoning with their knuckles.”
The traveler did not look amused. He fished a white handkerchief out of his vest pocket and handed it to his companion. “That kind of talk can get you killed these days, boyo, or at the least, thrown in jail. Unless you’re willing to die for a currently unpopular principle, I’d advise that for the duration you keep your opinions to yourself.”
Henry dabbed at the worst of the cuts on his face. “Yessir, I expect I’ve learned my lesson.”
“You look pretty well grown. How old are you? Twenty-three, twenty-four? How come you ain’t in the Army? You waiting to see if your number comes up in the draft next week?”
“I tried to join up back in April. They wouldn’t let me. I got the asthma. I went ahead and registered last month, though. If I get rejected again, I may try the Navy come spring. I have no desire to get killed in a war, but better to do my duty than to go to prison for draft-dodging. Especially if them two represent present public opinion.” He handed the bloody handkerchief back to the man. “Thank you for saving me. I reckon if I hustle I can still make my train.”
“Well, you’d better make a detour to the station wash- room and clean yourself up before you present yourself to the stationmaster. They’re like to not let you on the train looking like you just got trampled by an elephant.” The traveler picked up his backpack and the two men headed back out to the street. Henry limped for half a block, but his gait had straightened out by the time they approached the railway station.
“I appreciate your help, Mister, but you don’t need to walk me all the way in.”
“I ain’t, sport. I’m heading out on the six a.m. eastbound myself. Where are you off to?”
“I’m just going up the way a bit. I came up from Texas yesterday. I’m going to live with my uncle for a spell. He’s got me a job at the brick plant in Boynton.”
This time both the man’s russet eyebrows shot upward. “Well, I’ll be go to hell. Boynton is my destination as well.”