Saturday, February 24, 2007

Golden Wheat/Black Coal Chapter 11

His desk was remarkably empty for a man with as much business to take care of as Mort must have had. Here and there were a small collection of bronzes, some of them useful objects that held ink or stamps, all of them patined black except where use had rubbed the bright metal through, and most of them on heavy stone bases of chalcedony. Though there were some small equestrian statues, many were portrayals of prey in agony, gripped by a predator such as a tiger. On a sideboard was a substantial marble sculpture of a dead child, evidently a portrait meant for a crypt. It’s chubby little white hand hung over the edge.

Mort sat before a dying fire, smoking a cigar, thinking about the new machinery he intended to buy for the mine and how it would increase profits. When there was a rap at the door, he called, “come,” and was interested to see that it was the Indian who had been carrying coal to the rooms. Somehow the man seemed familiar, but Mort couldn’t place him. Toby showed no curiosity about Mort but went about his business of raking a few klinkers out of the grate and renewing the coal supply in a zinc lined box to the side of the fireplace.

“Sit down for a few moments,” said Mort, grandly gesturing towards the other deep leather chair. “I’d like to talk to you.” The Indian sat gingerly on a footstool, which irritated Mort. Nevertheless, he offered a fine cigar to the Indian.

“Thank you, I have my own tobacco,” said Toby, and seeing the irritation, took out his old pipe so they could smoke together: in his own culture this was a ceremony of thoughtfulness and coming to agreement. Mort evidently saw it as some kind of competition or dominance. In the silence Toby eyed the fire warily. He didn’t like coal fires -- much preferred the snap and fragrance of wood.

“You’ve been working in this house a few days, but are you living here?”



“Not too far.”

“Your family along?”

Toby reacted the tiniest bit, wondering how much Mort was fishing and how much he really knew. “No.” He kept his eyes down, but the pipesmoke gave away the change in his breath.

“Ever consider going down in the mines?” asked Mort. “You could make a pretty penny besides being a part of the great industrialization of this nation! Coal is what makes the railroad run, what makes the big steam threshers operate, what heats the cities and drives the turbines that make the light! It’s time for all the Indians to join civilization, to help smelt the metals, steam across the oceans -- who knows, maybe even fly! Progress! America will rule the world, all because of her coal!"

This time Toby could not help looking appalled.

Mort regrouped. “You see those black lumps of coal? You know what they are? In ancient times there were swamps here and the dead plants piled up, compressed, were covered and pushed into the underground where they became very hot and even more compressed -- beyond what we can imagine. Now they are something valuable, stored up for our use today!”

Toby knocked the dottle of his pipe into the coal bin and rose, “I must finish taking this coal around.”

Mort tried one more time. “You see this diamond stick pin in my tie? Do you know what it is?”

“I’ve seen diamonds before.”

“But did you know it’s actually coal, compressed again, heated ferociously, until it turns from something black to something full of flashing rainbows! Something of immense value?”

“Hmmm,” said Toby noncommitally as he went out the door and closed it quietly. He was trying not to be rude. To himself he muttered, "I see more value in good grass."

Sitting there with his cigar, Mort took about five minutes of sorting through his mental files to realize that this was the Indian who had been traveling with Demeter, who had escorted the women to his Mandan home village. An hour later, Mort had made inquiries and knew that the three of them were camping in the trees around the spring just up the hill. He laughed! He’d known all along that Demeter was washing his clothes and was much entertained by it, but the addition of an adult male Indian was quite different.

Early the next day Cate and Toby were watching the foal buck and run in the grass next to the camp. Still a bit clumsy, the long legs didn’t always go where the foal expected them to be, and the comical sight made the couple laugh. Then they heard sawing, crosscut saws, rough voices, and the screaming crash of trees.

An armed group of loggers had arrived at the stand of evergreens to cut timbers for the mines -- there was never enough bracing down there in the tunnels, Mort remarked when he sent them. Toby warily came to see what was happening. “Our orders are to take all these trees by nightfall,” said the boss.

Then Cate, nearly crazed by the threat to what she considered a sacred grove, came out of the brush with an ax high over her head, ready to cut down anyone who got in her way. In spite of her screams and threats, they simply roped her from a bit of distance, took the ax and tied her to the wagon wheel. “Toby!” she shrieked. “The horses! Don’t let them get the horses!”

He was already on the way and in a moment was riding up the hillside behind the camp, bareback on Crossroads with the gangling colt coming along closely behind, bumping against its mother’s hips to stay in touch. When he cleared the grove and was on the open grassy slope, the boss of the tree-cutters lifted a rifle out of the wagon, sighted and shot. It was so easy.

The colt went down. Toby tried to make Crossroads keep going, but she would not. She doubled back to her colt, crying to it, urging it to get up and run away with them, but it was dead. Soon Crossroads and Toby were tied to the other side of the wagon.

Demeter, alerted by the shots just as she delivered laundry, saw what was happening from the stone porch of Lethe’s big house. There was nothing she could do, even with her revolver, except guard her freedom and curse them, curse Mort Lethe to forever hunger for success, wealth, and status without ever having any of it.

After nightfall, Demeter huddled without a lamp in her small cold house. Someone came in and she knew without seeing that it was Cate, bruised, rope-burned, enraged, and discarded. Toby and Crossroads had been taken down into the mines to work.

The women seldom saw the mules that ordinarily pulled the coal cars through the labyrinths of the mine. There were constant small fires down there, pockets of methane ignited sparks from the steel wheels of the coal cars grating on iron rails. Their tails and often even their ears were burned off. The constant darkness blinded them. They were well-fed, because one puts fuel into machines and that’s what they were considered to be, but they came above ground only to bring up the coal. Their stables were cut out of the coal down in the mines.

“The time has come to act,” said Demeter. The two women wrapped their shawls tightly around themselves and walked down the pathway, Cate carrying a bottle for the thirsty telegrapher. He was hunched over his desk with a green visor over his ancient eyes and his hands twitching at his task. Even when his fingers weren’t at the clicking mechanism, they spelled out words: “inventory,” “invoices,” “letter of agreement,” and all the other terms of finance that Mort constantly used to participate in the great web of finance and profit that stretched over the continent. The messages were the web of the spider. The coal was only, well, the fuel. The old man responded to a different fuel and his eyes lit up to see the women.

In a short time the old man had several messages that meant nothing to him, as they were phrased in a kind of code. One was to Plutus, Demeter’s banker son, who controlled the credit line that made Mort Lethe able to buy his new-fangled machinery. The other was to Boots, who owned the railroads that set the shipping fees for coal.

The women walked back up to Demeter's house. It was eerily silent. They saw that the little spring-fed stream that had run down along the road had stopped, gone dry. Killing the trees had killed the source of water.

No comments: