Coal Creek Rebellion

Copyright, 1984 by Jamie McKenzie

Hidden in the shadows, young Lent Harris kept his eyes on two shaggy-looking men hunched over the commissary steps with shotguns cradled across laps and hats pulled low against the sun. A dirt road wandered past them through dozens of boarded, empty shacks. Lent could see nothing moving . . . nothing but a small band of chickens trying to scratch their lunch from hard baked earth. He had been watching all morning, waiting for these men to make some kind of move.

Finally a man shuffled out onto the store's front porch - a towering giant dressed in a wrinkled cotton shirt and dark, baggy pants held up by sagging suspenders. Lent recognized him as Captain Cross, the mine superintendent. Even from his hiding place at several hundred yards, Lent noted the coldness and sharp features of a weasel - a very large weasel. He hated Cross as much as he could hate anybody in the world.

Cross stood on the porch for a moment looking up the road toward the shacks, and then he spat into the dust.

"Time's come," he announced, giving one of the sleepers a prod
with his heavy boot.

Grumbling and sputtering, both men stumbled to their feet, grabbed up their shotguns, and fell into step behind Cross. The morning heat lay across the road in silence - a silence broken now by the muffled steps of hunters stalking prey.


Tall for fifteen, Lent sprawled behind a fallen tree in a stand of pine just down the road from the commissary. Slender and dark-haired, he normally had the face of a choir boy - a kind of sweet, smiling innocence which brought him no end of teasing from his friends - but now his face was all storm and darkness as he watched the men approach. From the moment they left the porch, he had tracked them with his squirrel gun.

"Got 'em!" he whispered, pretending to fire.

The tall one was in his sights now. Lent smiled. A slight squeeze of the trigger would send one more soul . . .

But the Mining Company which was sending these men would just send another . . . and another. Lent could still picture the hand, the hammer, the nail and the big sheet of paper giving them a week to clear out:

He could still recall the crossed arms and unyielding eyes of Captain Cross as family after family loaded mattresses, chests, rocking chairs and box upon box of belongings onto farm wagons that groaned in complaint at the heavy loads. There should be a bounty for that kind of man, he found himself thinking.

"Lent!" The whisper was an alarmed hiss in his ear. "Get back in the house before that pea-shooter of yours goes off by mistake."

His Uncle John knelt frowning by his side while his heavily calloused hand gripped Lent's shoulder. "We've got enough trouble, boy. Don't need you adding to it."

There was no time to argue, for Cross and his two gunmen were closing in on the house by now. Lent slipped quietly away from his fallen tree to scurry back along a line of bushes that led to the rear yard. Shoving the squirrel gun into a space in the wood pile, he hurried through the back door of their small house to catch the drama unraveling out front.

His mother and father sat rocking on the front porch. Not a Sunday kind of rocking. Slow and going nowhere, but not peaceful. Watchful, but silent.

Captain Cross halted before this silent couple, nodded his head slightly and then reached into his pocket. Unfolding a wrinkled square of paper, he began reading:

"As the Tennessee Coal Mining Company no longer plans to employ those who had formerly worked in the Briceville shaft, all men are hereby given notice that they, their families, and all their possessions must be removed from company property by May the fifteenth, at the latest. The foregoing is by order of B.A. Jenkins, President."

Lent saw amusement behind the man's mask - the glimmer of something dark, a shadowed form creeping out of a primitive corner. And Lent felt himself at the edge of a deep chasm, fearful of falling.

"You got to move out." The voice was distant and free of emotion. Lent watched the man spit a stream of tobacco juice into the dust. "Yesterday was the fifteenth, you know. Time's passed for leaving."

He had shoved out a hundred families, but the script was always the same . . . same words . . . same expressions . . . same quiet gunmen chewing in the background, shotguns at ready.

Lent scanned his father's face, cold and impassive like the superintendent's, no hint of anger, fear or movement. No sign that he had heard the other man's threat or command.

Charlie Harris would never move. Lent knew it. His father was like the old mountain looming above the hollow where they lived. Solid. Set in his ways. Hard to budge. Some would say stubborn. After working the Briceville shaft half a dozen years now, he had grown attached. The hollow . . . the people . . . even the mine . . . they had become home to him. He'd set deep roots in the bottom land, and now he met the captain's stare with no sign of weakening.

Lent knew his father would never move. They were the last family, but Lent felt the roots and knew his father meant to take a stand. He only wished his rifle was closer by, and found himself wondering what weapon his father would use when the time came.

He saw his father shift weight to send a stream of dark brown liquid toward the can perched on the porch edge.

"We're not movin," his father announced.

Silent shots rang out as the two men's eyes met. In the background Lent saw the gunmen tightening their grip on their shotguns.

"We're staying," said Charlie Harris. And he wiped his mouth
against his shirt sleeve before folding his arms across his chest.

A glimmer of something dark flickered once again on Cross' face, and Lent saw a smile spread across the captain's mouth . . . a smile that awakened a childhood memory Lent had shoved way back into a corner.

One day when he was much younger exploring the tall weeds behind his house, Lent noticed an older boy threading his way through the woods with a small bundle in his hands. Thinking himself alone and safe from watchful eyes, this older boy sank to his knees, opened the bundle and held out a tiny kitten which struggled and whined against its captor rough handling.

From where Lent was hiding, he could hear the kitten's whining shift to the desperate terror of torture and death. Squeezing the tiny body between his legs, the boy grabbed a front paw in each hand and begun to pull them apart, his mouth twisted in a strangely mocking smile. Lent found himself running, hands over ears, but the sound of the kitten chased him into his house, his room, his bed and the rest of his childhood. This shriek of terror stayed with him night after night for more than a year, and he still sometimes awoke with a huge smiling face looming over his head as if he were the kitten.

The same kind of smile played across the captain's features now. "We're not playing, Charlie. You'd best move out and not cause trouble."

Lent waited for his father to break the silence, but quiet settled over the porch as Charlie Harris rocked his chair and locked eyes with the other man.

Stupidly, then, the family's prize rooster, strutting and bold as ever, wandered out from behind the house.

The captain's smile broadened at the sight of the brightly feathered fighting cock. A long moment dragged by as they all saw what was coming. Cross glanced at his gunmen and nodded toward the target. When the two shotguns fired, the bird seemed to disappear. One moment he was strutting proudly, the next he was gone.

Cross nodded toward the few feathers settling in the dust of the road. "As I said, Charlie, you best move out today."

Lent watched the frozen form of his father and the rocker which had come to a complete stop. He waited for the swift lunge of revenge, some kind of strong response, but his father remained stiff and silent.

As the three men turned to wander back down the road, Lent remembered the gun lying in the wood pile. Would his father reach now for the rifle perched over the hearth? Lent could see them striding down the road together . . . Uncle John, his father and Lent. They would call Cross from the commissary and blow him across the road like the dead rooster. They would stop the smiling . . . put an end to the leering . . . silence
the screams of terror that had haunted so many nights.

Lent waited, but his father did not move, did not rise from the silent rocker. He sat stiffly, jaw working hard on his tobacco, eyes staring down at floorboards.

Lent kept waiting until his question finally burst forth.

"What are we gonna do, Pa?"

Lent saw the jaw stop for a moment and then keep on working as if his father had heard no question, as if Captain Cross had made no visit, as if that old rooster was still strutting before the house, as if nothing at all had happened and the day was just like any other day instead of the beginning of some kind of ending.

When Lent looked to his mother for an answer, she caught his gaze for a moment, then looked away, clearly uncomfortable with his question. Shrugging, she rose to her feet, smoothed out her gingham dress, and stood looking far up the hollow.

"I kinda liked it here," she said. And then, without looking at Lent she turned and disappeared into the house.

Lent's uncle moved slowly across the porch and dropped down into the empty rocker next to his brother Charlie. The two men were clearly brothers, both of them almost square in build, shoulders heavily muscled, their faces marked by the
same strong features, brows that seemed carved out of granite and eyes that reminded Lent of hawks. Charlie was a few inches taller than his younger brother, but Uncle John was known throughout the hollow as one of the strongest men to ever work the mines. He could often be found arm wrestling when he wasn't working. His fame had spread over the state line into Kentucky.

"Want me to go for George Cox's wagon?" Lent's father seemed to ignore the question, his expression blank, his jaw still working on the tobacco.

Lent kept waiting for the explosion he knew must come, the call to arms, the rush toward action, but his father did not move.

Finally, slowly - painfully it seemed - Lent saw his father stop chewing, lean forward and send a brown stream into the can.

"Got no choice," he announced. "No choice."

Lent's immediate reaction was violent. "NO!" he shouted. "We're not movin, Pa! We can't!"

Charlie Harris went back to chewing his tobacco, and his eyes never met the question that burned inside his son.

Lent suddenly found himself running, fighting tears, driven
by a rage that roared louder than earth shifting within some mine, louder than the rumble of gas exploding deep at the base of a lonely shaft, a rage more frightening than a miner's deepest fear - the fear of cave-in and burial, slow death and separation.

Lent had been so proud. Last family to leave the hollow. They, the Harris family, were the only ones to stay and fight.

It had almost made up for what his father had done months earlier. The company was fed up with union troubles. Just when business was booming along, the miners always seemed to walk out of the mines in complaint over some problem or other. And so, the president of the Tennessee Coal Mining Company, B.A. Jenkins, tired of losing money and time, had hatched a plan to end the troubles, keep the miners at work and push the union aside.

It was all pretty simple. If you wanted to work, you signed the paper. The paper said you wouldn't strike. It said you didn't want a "check-weighman" to make sure the company didn't cheat when it weighed your day's production. It said you didn't mind getting company "script" instead of cash wages - script that could only be used at a company store which charged high prices. Your signature on this contract meant you wouldn't argue company decisions and you didn't want a union.

Lent's father, reluctantly and bitterly, had signed the
contract, believing that he was buying time and security - a home, a job and a place in the hollow.

As Lent slowed to a walk, the rumble inside him settled into a duller, quieter pain. Although his dream of a last stand was hovering near death, the smile of the captain loomed before him, and Lent found himself making promises, deep promises which filled him with foreboding.

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