“From now on, there are bound to be two classics of the Great Depression—The Grapes of Wrath and Hardcastle.” —Los Angeles Times
In 1931 William Music is making his way back home to Virginia when he hops off a freight train in Switch County, Kentucky, to find something to eat. For eleven cents—all the money in his pocket—he buys a soda bottle’s worth of moonshine. Farther down the road, he takes two turnips and a handful of string beans from a kitchen garden and beds down for the night in a haystack. It is still dark out when he wakes up to a dog licking his forehead and a man pointing a pistol in his face.
Despite the awkward introduction, Music and Regus Bone are soon friends. Bone is a guard at Hardcastle Coal Co., whose owner will do anything to keep his employees from unionizing. For the irresistible wage of three dollars a day, Music—outfitted with an ancient, misfiring revolver and a holster made from a feed sack—hires on as a watchman despite his queasy feelings about the job. His attraction to the young widow of a miner killed by a former guard only deepens his discomfort, and when he and Bone catch a pair of union organizers, they make a decision that will change their lives and Switch County forever.
Inspired by real events, Hardcastle is a stirring tribute to the power of friendship and family in a time and place in which the price of integrity is more than a man on his own can bear.
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By John Yount
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 John Yount
All rights reserved.
MORNING, WICHITA, KANSAS OCTOBER, 1931
DAYLIGHT WAS LITTLE more than mist and blurred edges when William Music sprang up from the weeds and ran beside the Missouri Pacific freight train rumbling out of the switchyard. Other men appeared—ragged, dirty, ghostly in the grey half-light—running too. Music ran beside a boxcar, slid the door half open, threw in his paper parcel, and heaved himself in behind it. Before he even raised himself from his belly, he saw that the boxcar was already occupied by a huge man wearing bib overalls and no shirt or shoes. The big man was propped against the far wall, his hands draped over his knees and his head hung between his shoulders as though he were weary or asleep. Music righted himself, collected the paper parcel he'd thrown in before him, and said, "Howdy," but the man's hooded, groggy eyes drowsed only a moment upon him before they lost focus and his head lolled again toward his chest.
You ain't used to being rousted, are you, Music thought. Despite the hard reputation of the Wichita railroad police, he could see why they'd left the man alone. He appeared to weigh two hundred and thirty-five or forty pounds and was nearly as hairy as a dog.
For a long time he kept the weary figure located, at least in the tail of his eye, and plotted a countermove or two in case he should be rushed. There was nothing in the paper sack he carried but his suit coat, an old newspaper, and a tin pot for cooking, no money in his pockets except eleven cents; but the giant of a man wouldn't know that. Still, all through the morning and early afternoon, while Kansas at track side fell behind and Kansas in the distance seemed to keep pace, the man didn't stir. The freight blew its whistle from time to time, slowed here and there to clatter past a shabby depot, but never stopped; and only those boes and stiffs who had run it down and swung aboard when it left the switchyard that morning were going to catch it, for it was hell-bent for St. Louis, and there hadn't been a single grade steep enough to faze it.
To occupy himself, Music sat in the half-open doorway of the boxcar inventing the scene of his homecoming. It would be early evening. The sun wouldn't have set behind Howard's Knob, but the shadows would be long and cool when he turned off the county road just out of Shulls Mills and mounted the washed-out wagon road up toward the house and barn. His father would be out by the barn. His posture, the set of his shoulders, unmistakable. He'd be riving out shingles someone had ordered, say; and the wooden mallet would be striking the froe and bouncing once after each lick, which was his father's style. The sound would go whop-pop, whop-pop, whop-pop until the bolt split evenly. His father would not notice him, dreaming as he was in the rhythm of his labor. There would be no one else about, his two brothers, Earl and Luther, being back on the Knob with the mules and the sledge, say, bringing out one last load of oak before supper. He would walk up within a dozen feet before his father sensed him and let the mallet bounce twice on the backside of the froe to make a little flourish by way of acknowledging and greeting whoever had come. The sound would go whop-pop-pop, and his father would look up from under the brim of his old straw hat, see him, recognize him, and tuck away every sign of surprise and joy almost in the same instant they flashed across his face. "Well," he'd say in the calmest, easiest sort of voice and extend his hand. "We got that fine diploma from away off in Chicago," he'd say, as though in answer to a question, as though the diploma from Coin Electric had just arrived, although no question had been asked and the diploma would have arrived a year before. "Come on in," his father would say, and the two of them would start toward the house, but they wouldn't get there before his mother appeared on the porch, the cessation of the blows of his father's mallet together with some sure, sudden instinct having brought her to the door, eyes already brimming with the knowledge that it was he. "Will," she would say, "Lordy mercy, Will!"
She would surely say something like that. She would throw her hands up with joy. She would weep. For that reason, somehow, he could take the vision of his homecoming no further. His father, a quiet and private man himself, respected privacy. He would ask no questions, make no show. Seeing him come home after nearly two years—ragged, broke, hungry—would be enough to make him keep his peace. Not so his mother. It was not in her nature to leave a thing be.
Music got up to stretch his legs. He was light-headed, and his joints felt unstrung. At last, after so many days of nothing to eat, his innards had quit growling and rumbling, passing along the volume of emptiness inside him. The machinery of his digestion had grown quiet, sullen, painfully tight; and in his mouth there was the constant and unhealthy taste of brass. He remembered a greasy spoon on Maxwell Street in Chicago where a man could get a good-sized hamburger, potatoes, and coffee for a dime, the hamburger and potatoes served, not on a plate, but on a piece of newspaper. There were no seats and no flatware save spoons. So deep in his own thoughts, he was, he turned to describe to the big man propped against the far wall the dimensions of the hamburger, his hands already measuring it out in the air. But he caught himself before he spoke, and blew a little snort of laughter through his nose. The big man still slept, trembling all over with the motion of the boxcar. You're run to ground, ain't you, Music thought and pondered him for a moment, the bald spot on the crown of his head, the hair bristling even on his shoulders. There was a wound on one of the man's bare feet about the size of a fifty-cent piece. It was beginning to scab over, but around the edges the flesh was a bright and unlikely shade of red. Maybe, you goddam bear, Music thought, I ought to jump you. Kill you. Eat you. There'd be enough to last me all the way back to Shulls Mills, Virginia. He couldn't help the laughter that escaped him; and the massive head rose, but the eyes were hooded and only a rim of iris showed beneath the upper lid.
Music turned and leaned his shoulder into the doorjamb and looked out. The boxcar rocked, the wheels clicked, the air roared by; but in the distance Kansas kept pace. It seemed to go on forever. Closer, the infrequent houses and barns that slipped behind, the roads, the few trees, seemed interchangeable; and it required a leap of faith to believe there might be anything else. Rivers. Oceans. Mountains, say.
Somehow the man's foot caused Music's old wounds to itch, and he rubbed first one calf and then the other, remembering how he had regained consciousness in the line truck on the way to the hospital, the foreman driving, a working buddy calling again and again: "Hey, Music! Music! Goddammit!" He returned to the living with all his joints aching as though they had been pushed inches toward the center of his body; his lungs raw; and the calves of his legs, where the rivets had been, cooked as done as pot roast. He woke with the immediate knowledge that his working buddy had pulled the wrong fuse jacks and allowed him to get into twenty-three hundred volts. His life hadn't exactly flashed before his eyes, but something nearly as peculiar had happened. He had seen his grandfather sitting in the kitchen, his warped hands lying one atop the other upon the head of his cane, saying to him as though it were a matter of great importance: "Hear that rooster a-crowin. He says, 'Kikere kikere kie!'" That's what his grandfather had told him, his rheumy eyes bright with the only German word he knew, besides Musik, the name that, two generations before his time, had been brought from the old country to the new. When the electricity hit him, he'd had a vision of that, and oddly of Roanoke when he had gone there to the tobacco auction with his father for the first time, their wagon coming around a turn in the road behind the sleepy mules and the house lights, street lights, and the colored lights of businesses spread suddenly below him in the valley.
He'd been done with his schooling and had been working as a lineman for almost three months when his working buddy made that mistake and allowed him to learn things that Coin Electric did not teach. He had learned that twenty-three hundred volts did not, under all circumstances, kill a man, if he happened to have his safety belt on and his spurs dug in and therefore didn't fall and kill himself that way, if the juice didn't hold him fast but slapped him back, and if the pole in question happened to be a very dry chestnut pole and therefore not the best ground. He had learned that, in one split second, electricity could enter where you touched it, leave through rivets in the leather shin straps of your spurs, and in no longer time than that, find and violate all of you, down to your deepest, most secret core. Still, if his job had been there when he mended, he would have gone back to it.
In four days, maybe five, he'd be home. He wondered how it would be and what he could tell them. He took a deep breath and rubbed the stubble on his face. Well, he could bring them news. The boom had never quite found the way to Shulls Mills; he doubted that the bust had either. He could tell them about the depression. He could tell them about the jobs he'd had: unloading boxcars at the freight yards in Chicago from three to five in the morning and working as a dishwasher to send himself through Coin Electric's ninety-day course. He could tell them how once when he'd had his lineman's job and had been flush, he'd been robbed by two men armed with socks. That's right, he'd tell them. The socks were mates; pretty; each blue silk; each, it turned out, with a stone about the size of a hen's egg in the toe. He'd tell them how, when the men with the socks had told him to empty out his pockets, he'd laughed and knocked the closest one flat on his ass; and how that one had later pleasured himself by kicking him in the ribs before taking his money, his pocket watch, his cigarettes, and, finally, even his shoes; and discovering the twenty-dollar bill he kept in one shoe against just such a possibility, had somehow taken great offense, called him a low son of a bitch, and folding the twenty carefully away into his shirt, had jumped with both feet on the center of his chest. He had been just on the fringe of consciousness, not quite able to roll away, and he had heard his breastbone crack and—he'd swear to it—felt some of his pride leak out and something like humility enter in to take its place.
He could tell them how hard it had been to find any sort of work at all, even for a day or a few hours. It would be a difficult thing for them to understand since on their ragtag mountain farm there was never a shortage of work to be done. He would tell them how he had knocked about here and there. How at last he'd heard they were trying to hire linemen out in Salt Lake City, Utah, and were offering a good wage but weren't having much luck finding trained men; how he'd ridden the rails all the way out there only to learn it was nothing more than a rumor. And he could tell them that's when he'd decided to come on back home.
He didn't know what he'd tell them, but no such things as those. If he told them any of that, he'd be telling them how he'd been beaten, turned tail, and run.
His hunger was gnawing at him, and he was thinking he ought to stretch out and try to get some sleep when some stiff in a car up the line shouted, "Sooey, pig! Soooeeey!" The voice, made faint by the noise and speed of the train, seemed to hang beside the track like a signpost before it was snatched behind. Music saw a swale sheltering a house, barn, and a few trees, and then a field of corn stubble before he glimpsed the sow and the litter of piglets. "Hot damn!" he said, and on a sudden impulse snatched up his paper parcel and leaned out of the boxcar, holding on until it should rock again toward the cornfield. "Whoa!" the big man said behind him, roused at last. "Catch yourself, fool!" But he had already leapt into a violent rush of air, and in the next second, into a helter-skelter and even more violent conflict with the earth. He rolled and bounced and kicked up the dirt beside the railroad bed, it seemed to him, for hundreds of yards. He was surprised more than scared. The dizzy contortions of body and limb registered, oddly, without pain, and after a while it seemed to him that he had been able to withdraw somehow toward the center of himself, where he was relatively inviolate and bemused, like the stationary dead center of a rolling wheel. He was even able to hear hooting and jeering from the boes on the freight.
Later, after the train had blown past and gone and he had picked himself up, he discovered that his tin cooking pot was bent nearly flat, that he had lost a shoe, that the side of his face was skinned a little, and his right forearm and left hip were skinned a lot. He limped a little way down the track looking for his shoe before he felt suddenly so dizzy and weak he had to sit down on a tie. Although the freight was out of sight, he could still feel the diminishing vibrations of it, still hear its almost inaudible song along the rails. He blinked and rubbed grit from his eyes and spat it from his mouth. "Didn't kill me," he said, as though offering a final argument to a side of himself that took a strange, grim pleasure in pointing out his stupidity. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, collecting grit, and spat a viscous string of dirt and blood. Slowly his strength seemed to return, and he got up and limped down the railroad track, his shoeless foot feeling vulnerable, almost somehow amputated. When he saw the shoe, it was forty feet out in the cornfield, pointing away from him as though striking out on its own. He climbed down the short embankment, crossed the fence, and took it up. It was scuffed, but less than the one that had stayed on his foot, less than the rest of him. He sat down and put it on and felt whole again. He could not afford to let himself consider exactly where he was or how far he might have to walk before he could catch another freight.
The sow and the litter of pigs were a hundred and fifty yards away. Nearly a half mile beyond them, the roofs of the house and barn rose just above the swale—the owners of the pigs no doubt lived there—but there was no one in sight. He got up again and started out, but after he had closed considerable ground, the sow took note of him and began to lead her piglets away; and he had to trot, and then run, to get any closer. His side hurt but there was no help for it. The piglets began to squeal as he gained on them, and the sow, realizing at last that her litter could not keep up with her, stopped abruptly and turned to face him. Her flat nose handled the air, speculating on his motives as her piglets overtook her and swarmed behind her flanks. He came on, and as if with sudden insight, she seemed to start, as though she would turn and bolt away, but she did not. Some of her litter held their ground in the shadow of her protection as he bore down on them; others broke and ran. For a second time she started—a sudden spasm that seemed to force a grunt out of her and lift her off the ground in its violent agitation—and more of her litter deserted her. A great staple in her nose he hadn't seen before, pig eyes bleared with what seemed an ancient hatred, a funny downward bow in her neck which kept her snout high, at last she charged, two confused piglets charging with her.
Excerpted from Hardcastle by John Yount. Copyright © 1980 John Yount. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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