Excerpt from Sweet Thunder

Thrust into the annual Miners Day parade as “Mounted Correspondent” of Butte’s plucky union newspaper, the Thunder, Morrie Morgan is about to score a scoop, thanks to Sam Sandison, legendary vigilante turned city librarian, and his ex-cowhands turned Rough Riders. Here Morrie is readying to be photographed for his moment of front-page fame:

SANDISON STAYED stirrup to stirrup with me as, down the block in front of us, cohort after cohort of defiantly singing miners marched past the lofty headquarters of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. What a scene that moment of the parade was as a thousand voices lifted in the verse, “Down there deep we’re all one kind, / All one blood, all of one mind / I back you and you back me, / all one song in unity.” Flags waves, pinwheels spun on sticks children held like lollipops, the sun shone bright on a Butte free of strife for the course of a day. And tomorrow, I knew even without the sage glint in Sandison’s eye, the civil war of labor and capital would resume, I would shed my temporary mantle of mounted correspondent and resume editorial battle with the Post, the calendar page would be turned, with each of us one day nearer to our destiny.

But right now, my role in life was to look as presentable as possible astride a clip-clopping horse while portraiture occurred. Catercorner from the Hennessy Building, the photographer Sammy waited beside his big box camera on a tripod, gesturing urgently to make sure I saw him and was ready. Gruffly saying he didn’t want to break the camera, Sandison dropped back out of range. “Don’t forget to smile at the birdy, laddie.”

A smile became out of the question, however, as I spotted a number of bruisers strung out along the entire front of the Hennessy Building, positioned against the wall and the display windows with their hands over their private parts in the manner of museum guards and other functionaries who stand around for hours on end. Unquestionably, these had to be the extra goons making good on Anaconda’s threat to station guards at all company property, in this case merely for show around the infamous top-floor headquarters. Of a type I would not like to meet in a dark alley, the Anaconda operatives favored gabardine suits; as Hill lore had it, blood was more easily sponged off that than softer fabrics. In the holiday crowd, they stood out like gray wolves.

After my initial alarm, I realized the scene was actually peaceful, no guns on display or evident inclination toward any, and with the long file of miners having marched past without incident, apt to stay that way. Blind Heinie’s newsstand was situated right across the sidewalk from where the most prominent of the goons had made their presence known alongside the department store’s big windows, and as the sightless old news vendor entertained himself by slapping his thighs in rhythm with the Miners Band’s distant rendition of “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” the nearest gabardined thugs were idly nodding along. Breathing a sigh of relief, I sat up tall as I could in the saddle to be ready for Sammy’s camera. The throng lining the sidewalk oohed and ahhed at the prospect of being in the picture, meanwhile making guesses about my importance. “I bet he’s some relative of Buffalo Bill’s. Look at that set of whiskers on him.” Trying to live up to all the attention, I patted Blaze’s neck, fiddled with the reins, straightened my hat. At least some of Armbrister’s hunch was paying off as, goons notwithstanding, the main display window with HENNESSY’S DEPARTMENT S TORE in large golden lettering made a fetching backdrop, mannequins in cloche hats and flapper dresses indolently holding teacups, the mischievous implication there that since Prohibition had come in, “tea shops” served gin that way. Bobbing in and out from behind his viewfinder, Sammy called across the street to me, “Slow down a little, Morgie. I want to get the shot just as you pass the window.”

Blaze and I never made it past. As if in a strange dream, I still see the individual who looked like a drunken bum, appearing from the far side of Blind Heinie’s newsstand, suddenly plunge through the other onlookers and come stumbling out of the crowd to intercept us with something held like a bouquet. But no, too late I Excerpt from Sweet Thunder by I VAN DOIG saw it was a rolled newspaper he had lit with a match, and with it flaming like a torch, he made a last running lurch and thrust the burning paper under Blaze’s tail.

Put yourself in the poor horse’s place. Driven wild by its singed hind part, my steed left the earth, and came down frantically swapping ends, bucking and kicking. His gyrations whirled us onto the sidewalk, scattering onlookers and goons alike. My panicky cries of “Whoa! Whoa!” fell on deaf horse ears. As if we were in a steeplechase, Blaze’s next jump aimed straight for the maidenly tea or gin party, as the case may have been, crashing us through the big display window.

Flappers flew, teacups sailed. Ducking falling glass, I was low as a jockey, clamping to the saddle for all I was worth.

Sweet Thunder is available at University Book Store. UWAA members save 10%. www.ubookstore.com

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