Running into Red

It was comical, how Maury and his friend Red kept meeting each other, like in Idaho for potato or sugarbeet harvest, or Montana to fight forest fire, and then they’d drift off, going their own ways, and somewhere down the line they’d run into each other again. It got to be like a serial on TV at noon hour in the hay sheds, Maury telling about Red.

His stories didn’t always have a lot of action. Like, once he told about him and Red in this big department store in Salt Lake City and he got all roused up about what was there in the way of toys, a whole floor, nothing but toys. The two of them didn’t have money to spare for presents, but there they were, looking for free and just like kids, only more so, the way they carried on.

When he told us one of these episodes, Maury’d get all excited, sometimes he’d stand up and walk around, his eyes wide open and you’d know he was looking right at whatever he was talking about. Well, by the time he got to where Red was elected leader of a strike at a sheep camp in Sweetwater county, it was like we’d come to know Red really well, I mean, sort of personally. This time, though, Maury’d no sooner got started on the strike than old Enos broke in and asked the color of Red’s hair.

“Brown,” Maury said, “about what you have there, Enos, under that black hat. Dark brown.”

“Communist,” Enos said.

That interested me. I’d never seen a communist, not to my knowledge. I wondered if Enos had.

Maury said, “No, not exactly a communist, but Red had IWW ideas. You know, wobbly things, like ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’ Come to think of it, Red did run into an old time wobbliy once, rode a boxcar with him, from Reno to Gerlach I believe it was.”

Enos pulled out his turnip watch, opened it, said, “Communist.” Lester piped up. “What’n hell’s a wobbly?”

“They believe in one big union,” Maury said. Lester looked puzzled and Vern told him to take it under advisement. Vern was always telling that to me or Lester. Neither one of us ever asked what he meant by it.

Preacher snapped his lunch box together, meaning that time was just about up, but he leaned back against the stacked bales, put his hands behind his head. He was a good man for listening. You might think that strange, but this man we called Preacher was as ordinary as you could imagine and he hardly ever got all holy and know-it-all with us. He had a little Baptist congregation that couldn’t afford enough salary to keep a roof over his family with enough left over to send two kids to college, which Preacher did plan to do, don’t ask me how. Short-term jobs, like bucking bales at Harker’s, was the kind of thing Preacher was always fitting into his schedule. He said, “Proceed, Maury,” and Maury did.

“On the day they decided on for the strike, Red goes up to the foreman, name of Lambert, gives him the news. Lambert takes it pretty calm, says, ‘This whole thing is between you and the big man, got nothing to do with me.’ He stands there pawing at his mustache, then goes on to say he’s willing for him and Red to drive the truck over to Harker’s headquarters and put the case to the man.

“You drive, I’ll put the case,” Red said, which is the one smart move of the day. From then on, it’s all downhill. Lambert walks around the truck, still pawing at his mustache. He kicks at a tire, says, ‘This one’s soft.’ He gets out the hand pump, hooks it up. ‘Jared,’ he says, ‘could you give this a few licks? I’ll go let the cook know what’s up.’ Off he goes to the cook’s wagon and Jared starts working the pump, and Lambert turns around, calls out that the cook’s about out of stove wood and he throws in that canned peaches shortcake is in the works. The cook shouts, ‘Got to have a hot oven.’

“So, two or three workers go off to scrape up some sagebrush and dead juniper for the fire, and Lambert strolls on down to the dip tanks and Red and the others stand around watching, not doing a damn thing, standing there like dumb little lambs being curious about what might happen next. Well, they find out soon enough. Lambert calls out, wondering if two, three men could trot on down there and take a look at what Lambert’s noticed. Two or three or four trot on down.”

Enos had his watch out again, flipped open the cover and stood up, but he didn’t move on out to the trucks, which was unusual, Enos being such a stickler for starting right on time, and quittin’ that way too.

Preacher said, “Cut it short, Maury.”

“You can guess the rest,” Maury said. “Lambert gets everybody busy fussing around with diddly little jobs, pretty soon has them scattered all over and mostly out of sight, picking up firewood and down at the dip tanks reinforcing a post and tightening up a barbwire gate, stuff like that, and all the time laying out a steady run of chatter, about coffee coming up soon, one thing and then another. Nobody gets a word in, and damned if every last one of them don’t let him get away with it. Red too, he’s as dumbfounded as the next, and he knows it when he looks around and sees he’s standing at the truck all by his lonesome and Lambert comes up to him all easy and soft and gives him his time, cash money right out of Lambert’s own pocket. Red refuses the money, but Lambert puts it on the seat of the truck and walks off. Red throws a fit, does some shouting, but Lambert strolls on to the cook’s wagon and pours himself a cup of coffee and sits down there under the canvas fly and sips away like he was in a cafe in town. And the canned peaches shortcake is about ready to come out of the oven and already the smell of it is spreading downwind toward the dip tanks. Red told me he’d never felt so ashamed, swore that next time he’d know better.”

Preacher asked, “Was there a next time?”

Maury smiled a mouth-stretch smile. “Oh my yes, there was. I’ll tell you about that.”

“Not now,” Enos said and he walked out into the hot glare and we followed. But Maury had more to say. “The stockmen put Red on their blacklist, all over the state. Even down in Rock Springs, Red couldn’t land a job. He hopped a freight for the coast.”

Lester and I got on the rear end of our truck, Enos driving. Vern drove the other truck, Preacher and Maury in the back. Maury yelled at us, “Solidarity is nothin’ but a word. You got to give it legs.”

Martin Murie

Martin Murie grew up in Jackson, Wyoming; served in the U.S. Army (infantry); studied at Reed College (BA, Literarture and Philosophy) and University of California (PhD, Zoology); taught life sciences at University of Califronia, Berkeley and Santa Barbara, and Antioch College. He retired early, to write. His novels Losing Solitude (1996) and Windswept (2001) were published by Homestead Press and Red Tree Mouse Chronicles (2000) by Packrat Books.