The Defense of Strikerville

Damon Runyon

February 1907

The squad-room conversation had drifted to the state militia, and everyone had taken a verbal poke at that despised arm of the military resources.

“Onct I belonged to the milish,” remarked Private Hanks, curled up luxuriously on his cot and sending long, spiral wreaths of smoke ceiling-ward.

“That’s what I thought,” said Sergeant Cameron. “I recollect the time you first took on—Plattesburg, ’97, wasn’t it? I had an idea then that you came from the state gravel wallopers.”

“I’m kiddin’ on the square,” said Hanks. “I was an out-and-out snoljer with the milish two years ago out in Colorado. I helped put down the turrible rebellion in the Coal Creek district.”

This statement was received with obvious disbelief.

“Lemme tell you about that,” said Private Hanks, sitting up. “Lemme relate the sad circumstances of J. Wallace Hanks’ enlistment in the Colorado State milish, and if you all don’t weep, you haven’t got no hearts.

“They was a bunch of us discharged from the Fifth, in Denver, in 1904. We all has a good gob of finals, and of course none of us were going back. You all know how that is,” and Private Hanks looked suggestively at Private William Casey, who had just reenlisted that day for his fifth “hitch,” after a fervid declaration of a week before that he was through with the service forever; Private Casey at that moment being seated disconsolately upon his cot, red-eyed and dispirited.

“It takes me about a week to get ready to back up into the railroad building to hold up my right hand and promise Recruitin’ Sergeant Wilson and Uncle Sam to love, honor, and obey, or words to that effect. The rest of the gang was no better off. They was scattered up and down Larimer Street, stallin’ for biscuits, and doing the reliever act with them nice new citizens they’d bought in the flush of their prosperity.

“We all see another three year trick sticking up as conspicuous as a Chinaman in church, but none of us is dead anxious to go back so soon. We don’t want the gang out at the fort to give us the big tee-hee after all them solemn swears and rosy air-castles we’d regaled them with when we departed. We’d like to lay off a while until the novelty of our return wouldn’t be so strikin’.

“Most of us is too sick to even think of looking for work. We’d maced about everyone we could think of, from Highlands to the fort, and we’re done, that’s all. We’re about twenty-five strong, take us altogether, and there wasn’t forty cents Mex in the lay-out. Things is certainly looking fierce, and we’re all standing around on the corners waiting for the first guy to say the word for a break to the railroad building.

“I happens to pike at one of the signs in front of an employment office to see if someone ain’t looking for a private secretary or a good manager, and it reads like this:

“‘WANTED!—Able-bodied men for the State militia of Colorado. $2 a day and found.’

“I leaves the rest of these sad-eyed dubs standing around where they are and stalls up into this employment office.

“There’s a plug sitting behind the desk looking as chesty as a traveling man, and I nails him.

“‘What’s this gig about militia?’ I asks him.

“‘Strike—soldiers wanted—two dollars a day and found,’ he says, short like.

“‘Well, that’s where I live,’ I tells him. ‘I’m the original soldier; all others are infringements.’

“‘You gimme two bucks,’ he says, ‘and I ships you for a soldier.’

“‘Say, Mister,’ I asks him, ‘if I had two bucks, what d’you reckon I’d want to soldier for?’

“‘That’s my bit,’ he says. ‘If you ain’t got it, of course I can’t get it. The noble State of Colorado, she pays me just the same, but when I can get it out of rummies like you, I ketches ’em coming and going. See?’

“I did, all right, and it looks to me like it was a pretty fair graft. This guy explains the milishy business to me. There’s a big strike on in the Coal Creek district. The milishy is out, but there ain’t enough men, so they gives this employment guinea orders to pick up all he can. He’s just the same as a recruitin’ sergeant, only different.

“I tells him about the rest of the bunch, and he agrees to take ’em all. Then I went back and told the gang, and you’d oughta hear the holler they sent up. Milishy! Nix! Not for them! They’d starve first, and a lot more dope like that.

“‘Come out o’ it!’ I tells them. ‘Here’s a gee hungerin’ to slip us two bucks a day and all found, and you hams standing around with wrinkles in your bellies, sidestepping like a bunch of mules in the road. We takes this on while it lasts and gets a stake. The State’s good for the money, or ought to be. Come along, childern, before the boogie man sloughs you in the skookum for mopery!’

“’Course they comes! Why, this is duck soup for us all. Think of two cases a shift for snoljering! We’re there stronger than father’s socks when we lines up in that employment office.

“The gee I talks to sends for an officer from this milish, and he takes charge of us. He ain’t a bad feller, only he’s a kid and don’t sabe the war business much. He asked me if I’d ever seen service, and when I flashes about half a dozen parchments on him, he like to had a fit. At that, he’s a nice little feller and don’t mean no harm. Some of the guys were trying to kid him, but I made ’em cut it out.

“This officer shoos us down to the depot and loads us up on a train for Coal Creek. He asks us what we wanted to join, and of course we’re all out for the cavalry. It seems that was just what he wanted. They had a troop up there that was away shy of men, and a bunch that can ride fits in mighty nice. And so a slice of the first squadron of the Fifth goes into the milishy business.

“I’d hustled the bunch right through the preliminaries, and they don’t get much chanst to ponder over it until they was on the train. And then they was sore at themselves and also me. They breaks up into little squads in the smoker and sits looking gloomy-like out the windows. Every onct in a while some guy would sigh and say:

“‘S’posin’ ole Bluch would see us now!’ meaning Cap. Bluch Baker.

“This kid officer was mighty nice on the train, but he finds everyone but me mighty unconversational. We pulls into Coal Creek late that night, and then he suddenly gets all-fired preemptory.

“‘Get out and line up on the platform!’ he bawls at us, and, seeing we’re there, we do it.

“There’s a lot of guys in uniform standing around and looking us over some curious, but we’re pretty tired and don’t mind. This kid officer gives us right forward, and we climbs hills for the next hour or so until we comes to a bunch of Sibley tents, and a rooky challenges us.

“‘Halt!’ he says. ‘Who is it?’

“What d’you think o’ that? ‘Who is it!’ But that’s what he says, all right.

“The kid officer tells him it is Lieutenant Somebody with a detachment, and the rook yells for the officer of the day. We’re finally passed, although all hands looked at us some suspicious, and I don’t blame them. Another big gang is standing around rubbering at us as we drills into camp, and they makes a lot of fresh remarks. I’m pretty glad my bunch is tired, or there’d been remains to clean up. We’re assigned to tents, and a sergeant comes along and gives us a couple of skinny blankets apiece. The tents has floors, so bunking ain’t so bad as it might be, although it was colder’n a banker’s heart.

“A kid making a stab at reveille on a trumpet gets us out in the morning, and this same sergeant of blanket fame issues us mess-kits. It had snowed a few feet during the night, and we’re none too cheerful when we lines up at the mess-shack for breakfast. We didn’t have no roll-call, because we hadn’t give in our names. The camp is laid out pretty well, as we see it by daylight. The company streets were laid out in rows on a hillside, and there was a big stable for the cavalry horses at the bottom of the hill. We weighs up our comrades in arms as we sees them at the mess-shack, and they’re mostly kids. A few gees with very suggestive-looking shoulders and shamefaced expressions is scattered among them.

“The breakfast ain’t so bad, what there is of it, but I could tell by the wise look on the mugs of some of the gang that came with me that there’d likely be a minus in the ranks before long.

“Later in the morning, the captain of the troop lines us up again, swears us in, and takes our pedigrees. I listened mighty intent, but I failed to hear anyone kick in with their right name excepting me, and I had to do it because that kid officer had seen my discharge. Then they issues us clothes.

“Say, you orderly bucking stiffs, I wisht you could see them clothes right now! Most of them was second-hand, and I take it that our predecessors in that troop had put in their time in civil life serving as models for ready-made cigarettes. I never heard such a holler as went up from my gang since the canteen was abolished. They cussed the state milishy, the State of Colorado, the governor, and all his hired hands, and they wound up by cussing me for getting them into it. They was the worst-looking lot of rookies I ever saw in my life, and they was all the madder because I drew a pretty fair outfit myself.

“After clothes, we were sent down to the stables to draw our mounts. I have mentioned that those clothes caused pretty much of a holler, but it was simply a soft guffaw to the muffled roar that the gang let out when they saw them gallant steeds. I think the State of Colorado robbed the hack horse market of Denver when they sent out the milish, and they copped the whole crop of the previous generation of horses at that.

“Skates? Say, they wasn’t horses. They were hat-racks! they were shadows of horses—visions—dreams!

“The bunch was sore at first, but the funny side finally struck them, and they commenced picking out the worst mutts they could. There wasn’t much choice, but the lay-out my delegation drew was certainly a fright. They had all kinds of fun kidding, with them horses and with the rest of the troop. They’d put their saddles on wrong side before, and all such foolishness, to make the troop think they was awful rookies.

“But if the clothes and other things were jokes, that soldiering wasn’t. Nix! No play about that. I’ve monkeyed around in the war business a few days myself, and I never struck anything any harder than playing soldier in Colorado. You worked right straight through from reveille to taps. Post duty around camp; patrol mounted, and guard down in them mines where they’d drop you in a cage so fast you had to hang on to your hat with both hands to keep your hair from flying off. When you got down a mile or two, they’d throw you off with your little gun and tell you to stick there and shoot anyone that batted an eye. Fine business, that!

“It seems that my bunch was about half of this cavalry troop we belonged to. In addition there was a whole regiment of foot-shakers in camp, a battery with one of them old-time Napoleon field-pieces and a Gat, and another big troop of cavalry. They called this last lay-out the Denver Light Horse, and it was a bunch of swells. Most of them looked to me like they might be calico rippers in civil life, but they sure laid it on there. They had good horses, and their uniforms fitted them. We looked like a bunch of volunteers fresh from the states, lined up alongside of them.

“The clothes and horses let ’em out. They weren’t there with anything else, and most of them had something to say about running the troop. I give it to the guy that had command of us. He was a captain named Pard, and I finds out afterwards that he was a boss machinist or a boilermaker in Denver when he wasn’t working at this tin snoljer business. He was a silent sort of plug, but he was strong on the tactics. He knew what ought to be done, anyway, and when he told you to do anything, you had a hunch he meant what he said.

“This Light Horse outfit weren’t for us a-tall. The second night we were in camp, a large delegation comes yelling down to our streets, and when we looks out to see what the trouble was, we finds they had come to toss us in blankets. Get that? Toss them old heads from the Fifth in blankets!

“They didn’t toss. Not any to speak of. We turned over four tents coming from under them, and when the hospital corps arrived, there was ghastly bleeding remains scattered about. Naturally, we didn’t get popular with the Light Horse.

“This Captain Pard was wise to us in no time. He got hep that he had a crowd of the real things under him, and he didn’t try any foolishness with us. The rest of the camp had to drill every day. He gave it to us just once. Then he sorter grinned, said something about us appearing to be pretty well instructed already, and that’s the last drill we had. He had to take us out every day for a stall, but we put in our time laying around smoking cigarettes in some shaft house.

“Them strikers we were hired to suppress were already pretty much suppressed, as we found it. They was mighty sore at the milishy, and I don’t blame ’em, but our fellers got acquainted with a lot of ’em and found ’em pretty decent at that. There’s about ’steen little towns in this Coal Creek district, from one to six miles apart, and our troop did patrol duty on the roads between ’em. The strikers were peaceable enough, although they didn’t have no use for scabs. They never started anything with us, so we let ’em alone.

“They was especially sore at this Light Horse outfit. Them guys would go tearing through the streets on their horses, paying mighty little attention to life or limb, and they cut up rough with the strikers whenever they got a chanst. They had a big place downtown called a bull-pen, and these Light Horse snoljers were everlastingly throwing someone in the pen, and it made the strikers pretty hot.

“When they finds out we’re ’tending strictly to our own business and not minding theirs, the strikers got sorter friendly with us and told us their grievances.

“The mining companies owned the houses where the strikers lived, and when the strike comes on they just naturally throws them strikers out of house and home. So the strikers go to living in tents in regular camps and making out the best way they could. The biggest camp was located about two miles out of town and was on our patrol. We had to stop there every night to see if things was quiet, and it wasn’t long before our gang was mighty friendly with them strikers. The women in the camp always had hot coffee for us, and generally a bite, and we got to thinking quite a few of them.

“This camp I’m telling you about is on a hill, and there’s only one road to it that’s anywhere near decent for traveling. We calls the camp Strikerville.

“We’d been doing this play soldier act for about three weeks and was just waiting for a pay-day to blow, when a striker comes to us one day and tells us that the companies is going to give them the run from where they are camped. He says he has it pretty straight that the deputies will do the job and that this Light Horse outfit is in on the play. The deputies and the milishy are to raid the camp at night and start a big row; then the next day the milishy will run the strikers off altogether, on the ground that they are a menace to public peace.

“It seems, according to what this guy tells us, that if the strikers could be chased clean out of the district, scabs could be gotten without any trouble, and the mines put to work again. He says the milishy’s part in the deal ain’t to be recognized at headquarters, but the snoljers are to go along with the deputies like they was doing it of their own accord; same as the time a bunch of deputies and soldiers wrecked a union newspaper office over at Cadence. The headquarters hollers afterwards about ‘disorganized mob,’ and making a rigid investigation to discover the guilty parties, but it was always noticed that the guilty parties was never caught, and the office stayed wrecked.

“Well, this feller tells us that the gang was going to pull down the tents and wreck the whole camp. He was mostly worried about what it might do to the women and children, because there was a lot of ’em in the camp, and it was colder’n blazes, with two or three feet of snow on the ground.

“‘A girl baby was born to Mrs. McCafferty just to-day,’ he says, ‘and it will go kinder rough with her and the kid.’

“‘Why don’t you put up a fight?’ asks ‘Dirty Dick’ Carson.

“‘Fight? What with?’ the feller asks. ‘They took up every gun in the district when martial law was declared. If we could only put up one scrap, it would put a stop to this thing of sending these disorganized mobs, as they call ’em, around doing the dirty work.’

“‘I got a scheme,’ says Dick to me, after the feller left, and he outlines it with much joy. It made a big hit with me right off the reel, and at stables that evening C Troop, as represented by the former members of the Fifth Cavalry, has a quiet meeting, and Dick and me talks to ’em long and earnest. When we gets through, we has a hard time keeping them from yelling their heads off just to show how pleased they are.

“‘It’s all for that McCafferty kid,’ I tells ‘em. ’Think how you’d like it if you was just born and got throwed out of house and home into the snow. Also think of Mrs. McCafferty’s coffee.’

“The bunch got so excited with sympathy, I was afraid they would tip it off to the rest of the camp. To carry out our scheme, we had to have the first sergeant of the troop in. He made up the night patrols and assigned the other sergeants to command. Dick and me went to him and has him down to our tent where half a dozen of the old heads is gathered. It just happens that this top sergeant was a guy that had been with the volunteers in the Philippines, and he thought he was an old soldier. Along with it, he was pretty decent, and when he hears our scheme he kind o’ grins and falls for it right away.

“There were two patrols made up of about ten men, each under a sergeant, and they worked from dark until early morning riding the roads. At roll-call that evening the top reads off the names of the men on patrol, and although everyone of my bunch had been on duty the night before, our names is included in the list. In addition to that, he increases each patrol to eleven men, so as to take in all us fellers, and then he says:

“‘There’s going to be non-commissioned officers’ school this evening, and I want all my regular non-coms there. I’ll appoint Private Hanks to command Patrol No. 1, and Private Carson to command Patrol No. 2. They’ll report to me for instructions.’

“That looked regular enough. The rest of the troop was tickled to death, because they thought the top was throwing it into our gang for double duty. It had commenced to snow again heavy, and no one wanted to ride roads that night.

“‘Serves them old stiffs right; they think they know so much,’ I heard one of the rooky kids say, as we scattered for our tents.

“In the meantime,I sends one of our fellers through the lines just as soon as we was saddled and ready to start out, with orders to ride to the strikers’ camp and put them next. Then Carson and me went to the top for orders.

“I’ve always had a hunch that when we was talking to him in front of his tent, I saw a pair of eyes gaping through the flap, and that them eyes looked mighty like Captain Pard’s, but I couldn’t prove it if I had to.

“‘Don’t let anyone get hurt, now,’ was all the top had to say, and we falls in our details and rides out of camp.

“As I’m going past No. 1, the sentry hollers at me:

“‘More H Troop?’ H Troop being the Light Horse.

“‘Nope! Cavalry patrols; C Troop,’ I told him.

“‘I didn’t know; most of H Troop seems to be out on mounted pass to-night,’ he says, and a sort o’ chuckle runs through our bunch.

“It had started in to snow like the dickens, and you could hardly see your file leader. We were all pretty well bundled up, so we didn’t mind. The patrols were supposed to take different roads about a mile from camp, but we all headed straight out toward Strikerville. I sent out a couple of scouts to Handley, where the deputies hung out, and told them to hurry up and bring back a report.

“When we climbs the road to the strikers’ camp, and you had to do it pretty slow on account of the rocks and not being able to see very well through the snow, we finds a big stir going on. There’s a light in every tent, and camp-fires are burning all around. The women and kids are huddled over the fires, and the men are scattered about in little bunches, all talking at once.

“This guy I sent ahead had scared the life out of them. The president and half a dozen other leaders of the union who lived in camp met us, and I made ’em get busy right away.

“As I tells you, this camp is on a sort of flat plateau on top of a hill, and there is only one road to it. I made them put the women and kids in the tents furtherest away from the head of the road, leaving the lights and fires burning only where they could be seen from the bottom of the road. Then I gets every man jack and every kid of any size in the camp to rolling snowballs. It was a wet, mushy snow and packed fine.

“‘Put in a few rocks, if you want to,’ I suggests, and I guess they did.

“I posts one of the men at the bottom of the hill, and I puts the rest of them to work throwing up breastworks across the top of the road, to avoid accidents. There was a lot of loose rock laying around, and a fine trench is up in no time.

“Pretty soon my scouts from Handley comes in, their horses dead beat.

“‘There’s about twenty deputies and twenty-five of them H Troop guys over in Niccoli’s saloon,’ they tells me. ‘They’re getting pretty drunk, and someone’s liable to get hurt. They won’t start until about midnight, and then they’re coming a-hellin’.’

“‘Any non-coms with the troop?’ I asks, and they says, ‘No.’ None of them had their carbines, either; nothing but six pistols. That was to divert any idea that they was out on anything but mounted pass and a hunt for joy.

“‘Them deputies are making a fierce talk about tar and feathering some of you guys,’ one of my scouts tells them labor leaders, and it didn’t quiet the agitation which was stirring them none.

“I had the snowballs stacked along the front of the trench as fast as they was made, and it wasn’t long before there was enough to fill an ore wagon. I kept everyone hard at work just the same, because I didn’t want to run shy.

“All we could do was to wait and watch, and it was pretty cold work. The snow stopped along about midnight, but it stayed pretty dark. My fellows loafed around, smoking and talking and visiting the McCafferty kid. None of the women folks went to bed, although they had no notion of what was coming off.

“It must have been about one o’clock when I hears, away off, the pound of horses’ feet on the snow and a jumbled lot of talking and laughing. I hustles my men together and lines ’em up back of the breastworks where them strikers are still rolling snowballs like mad—good hard ones, too. I had ten of the fellers load their carbine magazines, and the rest I bunched with all them strikers, carefully instructed.

“Pretty quick, my outpost comes running up the hill.

“‘They’re stopped down below,’ he says. ‘They’re going to come with a rush to surprise the camp. All of ’em are half stewed.’

“I looked over my arrangements with a critical eye and didn’t see anything lacking. My force was lined up back of the breastworks, them with the carbines in the middle, and the strikers and the rest of my bunch on either side with arms full of big snowballs. We could look right down on the roadway, shining like a streak of whitewash across a coal pile. Back of us a few dying camp-fires were sputtering, and lights burned in a few tents. It was as quiet as a graveyard. Then a sudden yell splits the air, and here they comes!

“They was all mounted, and they was trying to run their horses up that steep, slippery road, yelling like crazy people. Some of them starts shooting in the air. They was riding without any kind of formation, and you couldn’t tell soldiers from deputies.

“I waits until they are right below us in the road, and then I fires a shot from my carbine and hollers, ‘Halt!’

“They stopped right in the middle of a yell for about a minute, but it was long enough. It brings ’em to a stop just below us, and I screeches:

“‘Ready! Aim! Fire!’

“My carbine gang tears off a volley, and the rest of the gang behind the breastworks launches about a barrel of snowballs on top of the bunch in the road.

“‘Fire at will!’ I commands, and they does; the fellers with the carbines shooting at the nearest fixed stars, and the others whaling away with the snowballs.

“Say! I’ve seen crowds suddenly jimmed up in my time; like the old Thirteenth on the Warren the time of the fire, or the gang at Zapote bridge the night the herd of carabao charged us, but that delegation in the road skinned ’em all a Salt Lake City block.

“They was just naturally stood on their heads. They yelled in dead earnest, but they didn’t do no shooting; they didn’t have time. I hadn’t thought about there being any danger until I see that bunch milling around in the road; the horses rearing and snorting and kicking, and everyone trying to go in the same direction at once. I was leary someone was going to get killed. If any one of ’em had gone down in that muddle, it would have been all day with ’em. The language them men used wasn’t scarcely fit to eat.

“All the time my crowd was slamming big snowballs down on the heads of the enemy and firing carbines, and some of the yells that rose out of the cloud of snow in the road sounded real painful. The firing squad was working them carbines overtime between laughs.

“The women and kids in the camps came running up to the breastworks to see what was going on, and they gets next to the game right away and commences to fire snowballs too, screaming and laughing.

“At what I judges is the psychological moment, I hollers:


“Then all of us sets up an awful yell and loads and fires snowballs faster than ever.

“Them in the roadway that had their horses turned right didn’t hesitate. They went down that road with a disregard for their necks that made me nervous. Them that couldn’t get their horses turned right slipped off and went on foot. Pretty soon all you could hear was echoes dying away in the distance and the screaming and laughing in the camp.

“We didn’t wait for them strikers’ thanks. We got our horses and got out of there almost as fast as the enemy. I separated the patrols and sent one out one way and took the other direction with my squad. We rode off a couple of miles and then went racing back. We got back to the foot of the hill considerably blown right after old Major Kelley, Captain Pard, all the headquarters’ officers, and some of H Troop came tearing along. Back of them Carson and the other patrol was whooping it up along the road, and away back a company of infantry and a Catling squad was kicking up the snow as fast as they could.

“They had heard the shooting at headquarters, and a H trooper had busted into camp with an exciting tale about the strikers massacring harmless soldiers and deputies.

“Now, of course, they knew something about this frame-up to attack the strikers’ camp at headquarters, but they hadn’t figured on it turning out but one way. Only that lone H trooper had returned, and the major seemed to sort o’ expect to find many gory bodies scattered around.

“I reported having heard some firing, but no signs of excitement. The whole works climbed to the strikers’ camp, me hunching up as close to the major as possible.

I saw Captain Pard occasionally glancing at me with a funny look, as he took in that mussed-up roadway; but the major didn’t seem to notice anything. The camp was as dark as pitch, but in answer to our yells some of the strikers came out looking mighty cross and sleepy. No, they hadn’t heard anything. No fight; hadn’t heard any disturbance, and as it was getting colder all the time, and the major was sleepy himself, it ended in him telling Captain Pard to instruct his patrols to make a thorough investigation. Then they all went back to headquarters.

“On the roads, before daylight, our patrols picked up fifteen H troopers, most of them bunged up about the head or face where them rock-loaded snowballs had landed, and we turned everyone over to the guardhouse for overstaying pass limits. Sore! Oh, no! That’s a mistake! I think they had commenced to tumble, because our fellers kidded ’em a good deal.

“When I was turning in that morning, an orderly comes to me and said the major wanted to see me at the officers’ mess. I was scared stiff for a minute, thinking the old man was wise, but I went over.

“All the officers of the camp were there eating breakfast. Captain Pard was sitting with an H Troop officer on either side of him, and he looks at me like he wanted to laugh.

“‘Private Hanks, did you learn anything about the occurrences of last night?’ asks the major, looking stern.

“I saw right away that none of them was on, excepting maybe Captain Pard, and they evidently had been turning it over among ’em and trying to get at the right of it.

“‘Sir!’ says I, saluting, ‘as near as I can make out, a gang of H troopers got gay around the strikers’ camp, and the women snowballed ‘em away!’”