Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Valley of Fear (1914)
Part II - The Scowrers
It was the fourth of February in the year 1875. It had been a
severe winter, and the snow lay deep in the gorges of the
Gilmerton Mountains. The steam ploughs had, however, kept the
railroad open, and the evening train which connects the long line
of coal-mining and iron-working settlements was slowly
groaning its way up the steep gradients which lead from Stagville on
the plain to Vermissa, the central township which lies at the head
of Vermissa Valley. From this point the track sweeps downward
to Bartons Crossing, Helmdale, and the purely agricultural county
of Merton. It was a single-track railroad; but at every siding --
and they were numerous -- long lines of trucks piled with coal
and iron ore told of the hidden wealth which had brought a rude
population and a bustling life to this most desolate corner of the
United States of America.
For desolate it was! Little could the first pioneer who had
traversed it have ever imagined that the fairest prairies and the
most lush water pastures were valueless compared to this gloomy
land of black crag and tangled forest. Above the dark and often
scarcely penetrable woods upon their flanks, the high, bare
crowns of the mountains, white snow, and jagged rock towered
upon each flank, leaving a long, winding, tortuous valley in the
centre. Up this the little train was slowly crawling.
The oil lamps had just been lit in the leading passenger car, a
long, bare carriage in which some twenty or thirty people were
seated. The greater number of these were workmen returning
from their day's toil in the lower part of the valley. At least a
dozen, by their grimed faces and the safety lanterns which they
carried, proclaimed themselves miners. These sat smoking in a
group and conversed in low voices, glancing occasionally at two
men on the opposite side of the car, whose uniforms and badges
showed them to be policemen.
Several women of the labouring class and one or two travellers
who might have been small local storekeepers made up the rest
of the company, with the exception of one young man in a
corner by himself. It is with this man that we are concerned.
Take a good look at him, for he is worth it.
He is a fresh-complexioned, middle-sized young man, not far
one would guess, from his thirtieth year. He has large, shrewd,
humorous gray eyes which twinkle inquiringly from time to time
as he looks round through his spectacles at the people about him.
It is easy to see that he is of a sociable and possibly simple
disposition, anxious to be friendly to all men. Anyone could pick
him at once as gregarious in his habits and communicative in his
nature, with a quick wit and a ready smile. And yet the man who
studied him more closely might discern a certain firmness of jaw
and grim tightness about the lips which would warn him that
there were depths beyond, and that this pleasant, brown-haired
young Irishman might conceivably leave his mark for good or
evil upon any society to which he was introduced.
Having made one or two tentative remarks to the nearest
miner, and receiving only short, gruff replies, the traveller
resigned himself to uncongenial silence, staring moodily out of the
window at the fading landscape.
It was not a cheering prospect. Through the growing gloom
there pulsed the red glow of the furnaces on the sides of the hills.
Great heaps of slag and dumps of cinders loomed up on each
side, with the high shafts of the collieries towering above them.
Huddled groups of mean, wooden houses, the windows of which
were beginning to outline themselves in light, were scattered
here and there along the line, and the frequent halting places
were crowded with their swarthy inhabitants.
The iron and coal valleys of the Vermissa district were no
resorts for the leisured or the cultured. Everywhere there were
stern signs of the crudest battle of life, the rude work to be
done, and the rude, strong workers who did it.
The young traveller gazed out into this dismal country with a
face of mingled repulsion and interest, which showed that the
scene was new to him. At intervals he drew from his pocket a
bulky letter to which he referred, and on the margins of which
he scribbled some notes. Once from the back of his waist he
produced something which one would hardly have expected to
find in the possession of so mild-mannered a man. It was a navy
revolver of the largest size. As he turned it slantwise to the
light, the glint upon the rims of the copper shells within the
drum showed that it was fully loaded. He quickly restored it to
his secret pocket, but not before it had been observed by a
working man who had seated himself upon the adjoining bench.
"Hullo, mate!" said he. "You seem heeled and ready."
The young man smiled with an air of embarrassment.
"Yes," said he, "we need them sometimes in the place I
"And where may that be?"
"I'm last from Chicago."
"A stranger in these parts?"
"You may find you need it here," said the workman.
"Ah! is that so?" The young man seemed interested.
"Have you heard nothing of doings hereabouts?"
"Nothing out of the way."
"Why, I thought the country was full of it. You'll hear quick
enough. What made you come here?"
"I heard there was always work for a willing man."
"Are you a member of the union?"
"Then you'll get your job, I guess. Have you any friends?"
"Not yet; but I have the means of making them."
"How's that, then?"
"I am one of the Eminent Order of Freemen. There's no town
without a lodge, and where there is a lodge I'll find my friends."
The remark had a singular effect upon his companion. He
glanced round suspiciously at the others in the car. The miners
were still whispering among themselves. The two police officers
were dozing. He came across, seated himself close to the young
traveller, and held out his hand.
"Put it there," he said.
A hand-grip passed between the two.
"I see you speak the truth," said the workman. "But it's well
to make certain." He raised his right hand to his right eyebrow.
The traveller at once raised his left hand to his left eyebrow.
"Dark nights are unpleasant," said the workman.
"Yes, for strangers to travel," the other answered.
"That's good enough. I'm Brother Scanlan, Lodge 341,
Vermissa Valley. Glad to see you in these parts."
"Thank you. I'm Brother John McMurdo, Lodge 29,
Chicago. Bodymaster J. H. Scott. But I am in luck to meet a brother
"Well, there are plenty of us about. You won't find the order
more flourishing anywhere in the States than right here in Vermissa
Valley. But we could do with some lads like you. I can't
understand a spry man of the union finding no work to do in
"I found plenty of work to do," said McMurdo.
"Then why did you leave?"
McMurdo nodded towards the policemen and smiled. "I guess
those chaps would be glad to know," he said.
Scanlan groaned sympathetically. "In trouble?" he asked in a
"A penitentiary job?"
"And the rest."
"Not a killing!"
"It's early days to talk of such things," said McMurdo with
the air of a man who had been surprised into saying more than he
intended. "I've my own good reasons for leaving Chicago, and
let that be enough for you. Who are you that you should take it
on yourself to ask such things?" His gray eyes gleamed with
sudden and dangerous anger from behind his glasses.
"All right, mate, no offense meant. The boys will think none
the worse of you, whatever you may have done. Where are you
bound for now?"
"That's the third halt down the line. Where are you staying?"
McMurdo took out an envelope and held it close to the murky
oil lamp. "Here is the address -- Jacob Shafter, Sheridan Street.
It's a boarding house that was recommended by a man I knew in
"Well, I don't know it; but Vermissa is out of my beat. I live
at Hobson's Patch, and that's here where we are drawing up.
But, say, there's one bit of advice I'll give you before we part: If
you're in trouble in Vermissa, go straight to the Union House
and see Boss McGinty. He is the Bodymaster of Vermissa
Lodge, and nothing can happen in these parts unless Black Jack
McGinty wants it. So long, mate! Maybe we'll meet in lodge
one of these evenings. But mind my words: If you are in trouble,
go to Boss McGinty."
Scanlan descended, and McMurdo was left once again to his
thoughts. Night had now fallen, and the flames of the frequent
furnaces were roaring and leaping in the darkness. Against their
lurid background dark figures were bending and straining,
twisting and turning, with the motion of winch or of windlass, to the
rhythm of an eternal clank and roar.
"I guess hell must look something like that," said a voice.
McMurdo turned and saw that one of the policemen had
shifted in his seat and was staring out into the fiery waste.
"For that matter," said the other policeman, "I allow that hell
must be something like that. If there are worse devils down
yonder than some we could name, it's more than I'd expect. I
guess you are new to this part, young man?"
"Well, what if I am?" McMurdo answered in a surly voice.
"Just this, mister, that I should advise you to be careful in
choosing your friends. I don't think I'd begin with Mike Scanlan
or his gang if I were you."
"What the hell is it to you who are my friends?" roared
McMurdo in a voice which brought every head in the carriage
round to witness the altercation. "Did I ask you for your advice,
or did you think me such a sucker that I couldn't move without
it? You speak when you are spoken to, and by the Lord you'd
have to wait a long time if it was me!" He thrust out his face and
grinned at the patrolmen like a snarling dog.
The two policemen, heavy, good-natured men, were taken
aback by the extraordinary vehemence with which their friendly
advances had been rejected.
"No offense, stranger," said one. "It was a warning for your
own good, seeing that you are, by your own showing, new to the
"I'm new to the place; but I'm not new to you and your
kind!" cried McMurdo in cold fury. "I guess you're the same in
all places, shoving your advice in when nobody asks for it."
"Maybe we'll see more of you before very long," said one of
the patrolmen with a grin. "You're a real hand-picked one, if I
am a judge."
"I was thinking the same," remarked the other. "I guess we
may meet again."
"I'm not afraid of you, and don't you think it!" cried McMurdo.
"My name's Jack McMurdo -- see? If you want me, you'll find
me at Jacob Shafter's on Sheridan Street, Vermissa; so I'm not
hiding from you, am l? Day or night I dare to look the like of
you in the face -- don't make any mistake about that!"
There was a murmur of sympathy and admiration from the
miners at the dauntless demeanour of the newcomer, while the
two policemen shrugged their shoulders and renewed a
conversation between themselves.
A few minutes later the train ran into the ill-lit station, and
there was a general clearing; for Vermissa was by far the largest
town on the line. McMurdo picked up his leather gripsack and
was about to start off into the darkness, when one of the miners
"By Gar, mate! you know how to speak to the cops," he said
in a voice of awe. "It was grand to hear you. Let me carry your
grip and show you the road. I'm passing Shafter's on the way to
my own shack."
There was a chorus of friendly "Good-nights" from the other
miners as they passed from the platform. Before ever he had set
foot in it, McMurdo the turbulent had become a character in
The country had been a place of terror; but the town was in its
way even more depressing. Down that long valley there was at
least a certain gloomy grandeur in the huge fires and tbe clouds
of drifting smoke, while the strength and industry of man found
fitting monuments in the hills which he had spilled by the side of
his monstrous excavations. But the town showed a dead level of
mean ugliness and squalor. The broad street was churned up by
the traffic into a horrible rutted paste of muddy snow. The
sidewalks were narrow and uneven. The numerous gas-lamps
served only to show more clearly a long line of wooden houses,
each with its veranda facing the street, unkempt and dirty.
As they approached the centre of the town the scene was
brightened by a row of well-lit stores, and even more by a cluster
of saloons and gaming houses, in which the miners spent their
hard-earned but generous wages.
"That's the Union House," said the guide, pointing to one
saloon which rose almost to the dignity of being a hotel. "Jack
McGinty is the boss there."
"What sort of a man is he?" McMurdo asked.
"What! have you never heard of the boss?"
"How could I have heard of him when you know that I am a
stranger in these parts?"
"Well, I thought his name was known clear across the
country. It's been in the papers often enough."
"Well," the miner lowered his voice -- "over the affairs."
"Good Lord, mister! you are queer, if I must say it without
offense. There's only one set of affairs that you'll hear of in
these parts, and that's the affairs of the Scowrers."
"Why, I seem to have read of the Scowrers in Chicago. A
gang of murderers, are they not?"
"Hush, on your life!" cried the miner, standing still in alarm,
and gazing in amazement at his companion. "Man, you won't
live long in these parts if you speak in the open street like that.
Many a man has had the life beaten out of him for less."
"Well, I know nothing about them. It's only what I have
"And I'm not saying that you have not read the truth." The
man looked nervously round him as he spoke, peering into the
shadows as if he feared to see some lurking danger. "If killing is
murder, then God knows there is murder and to spare. But don't
you dare to breathe the name of Jack McGinty in connection
with it, stranger; for every whisper goes back to him, and he is
not one that is likely to let it pass. Now, that's the house you're
after, that one standing back from the street. You'll find old
Jacob Shafter that runs it as honest a man as lives in this
"I thank you," said McMurdo, and shaking hands with his
new acquaintance he plodded, gripsack in hand, up the path
which led to the dwelling house, at the door of which he gave a
It was opened at once by someone very different from what he
had expected. It was a woman, young and singularly beautiful.
She was of the German type, blonde and fair-haired, with the
piquant contrast of a pair of beautiful dark eyes with which she
surveyed the stranger with surprise and a pleasing embarrassment
which brought a wave of colour over her pale face. Framed in
the bright light of the open doorway, it seemed to McMurdo that
he had never seen a more beautiful picture; the more attractive
for its contrast with the sordid and gloomy surroundings. A
lovely violet growing upon one of those black slag-heaps of the
mines would not have seemed more surprising. So entranced was
he that he stood staring without a word, and it was she who
broke the silence.
"I thought it was father," said she with a pleasing little touch
of a German accent. "Did you come to see him? He is
downtown. I expect him back every minute."
McMurdo continued to gaze at her in open admiration until
her eyes dropped in confusion before this masterful visitor.
"No, miss," he said at last, "I'm in no hurry to see him. But
your house was recommended to me for board. I thought it might
suit me -- and now I know it will."
"You are quick to make up your mind," said she with a
"Anyone but a blind man could do as much," the other
She laughed at the compliment. "Come right in, sir," she
said. "I'm Miss Ettie Shafter, Mr. Shafter's daughter. My
mother's dead, and I run the house. You can sit down by the stove in
the front room until father comes along -- Ah, here he is! So you
can fix things with him right away."
A heavy, elderly man came plodding up the path. In a few
words McMurdo explained his business. A man of the name of
Murphy had given him the address in Chicago. He in turn had
had it from someone else. Old Shafter was quite ready. The
stranger made no bones about terms, agreed at once to every
condition, and was apparently fairly flush of money. For seven
dollars a week paid in advance he was to have board and
So it was that McMurdo, the self-confessed fugitive from
justice, took up his abode under the roof of the Shafters, the first
step which was to lead to so long and dark a train of events,
ending in a far distant land.