As the Great War raged in Europe, a small one was fought on the hills and plains of rural Oklahoma.
The three men wore blue overalls and dark flannel shirts and cloth caps pulled low over faces blackened by coal dust. In the moonless hours before dawn, under the phosphorescent glow of starlight, they appeared as no more than smudges against a landscape of shadows, suggestions of shape and motion in the elusory night.
“Where d’ya reckon that night watchman is?” asked one of the three. He craned his neck as he spoke, as if moving his head a few inches would give him a better view of the town below.
“We been over all that, Boone,” said one of the others.
“A hunnert times,” said the third.
“Yeah, but Jesus Christ, if we get caught they’ll send us to the pen,” said the one named Boone.
“No one’s goin’ to the pen,” said the second man. Something about the way he said it made Boone more rather than less uneasy.
“Hab,” the second man continued. “You keep that dynamite clear of the water while we’re crossin’ the creek. We damn sure don’t wanna get down there and have a bag full a wet sand.”
Habakkuk Neal shifted the rucksack slung over his right shoulder.
“No sweat,” he said. “The water’s not more’n a foot deep here anyway.”
“Just keep that dynamite out of it.”
“I sure hope Jim Malloy is where he’s supposed to be,” said Boone. His name was Boone Fletcher, and unlike the other two he had grown up in the town below. He had friends there – acquaintances, anyway. And his sister and her family lived there. They rarely spoke anymore, but they were blood kin all the same.
“Goddamit, Boone, shut up about that damn cop,” said the one giving the orders.
“As long as he follows his usual schedule there won’t be a problem.”
“But what if he doesn’t stick to his schedule? What if he decides to have his coffee and biscuits a half-hour early? What then, Joe?”
“Get movin’,” said Joe Turk.
There was no more discussion. The men filed down the embankment to the creek, shallow but swift and spring-fed through fissures in the underlying limestone. Boone Fletcher led, followed by Hab Neal with his rucksack full of dynamite and blasting caps and primer cord, and then Joe Turk. Fletcher and Neal each carried pistols; Neal in his rucksack, Fletcher in his right hand. Turk, in the rear, cradled a 1906 Springfield rifle as if he expected to use it. A Model 1911 forty-five automatic was holstered on his right hip.
The stream was called Wildcat Creek. Boone Fletcher had gigged frogs here as a boy and fished for perch in shallow pools the stream scooped out and filled back in with the seasons. The town was above them now, on a low bluff cut by a long arcing bend in the creek. Boone had been born up there, in a two-room shanty long torn down and replaced by a two-story Federal style house with a flower garden and picket fence. It was called Carterville and back then it had been just a whistle stop between McAlester and Tulsa. Now, in the spring of 1917, it had more than a thousand people, four scheduled trains a day, paved streets and running water. All the businesses and most of the houses were hooked up to electricity generated by the town’s own coal-fired steam turbine.
The three men crossed the creek and followed the curving base of the bluff for a hundred yards. Here it was darkness itself, shadow within shadow, the embankment cutting off even the starlight. The men stepped in holes and tripped on roots, biting their lips to stifle the grunts and curses rising automatically to their lips.
“Goddamn, Boone, I thought you knew this ground!” Hab Neal whispered savagely.
“Quiet!” barked Joe Turk
Neal said nothing more; didn’t have to. Boone Fletcher knew what Neal was thinking. Fletcher himself had a few things he wanted to say. He wanted to say he might not know where every hole and washout and tree root was, but he did know where Betsy Creek cut through and into Wildcat Creek; he knew the new power plant, the steaming behemoth lighting Cartersville’s houses and streets and stores, sat just above the spring that gave rise to Betsy Creek.
“Here,” he said softly when they had gone another fifty yards. He turned up the draw and heard the other two clamor after him.
The draw was narrow and steep-sided, the stream small but brisk even in July. Once, as a boy, Boone Fletcher had stumbled onto a fox den in this draw. He had watched it, off and on, for weeks, staying upwind and out of sight, sometimes lying in the grass for hours without seeing a thing. His patience had been rewarded when two kits poked their noses out of the hole at dusk. Fletcher tried to remember the den’s exact location, wondered what became of the kits.
They had reached the patch of marshy ground where Betsy Creek seeped to the surface. Fletcher wiped sweat from his face with a big blue bandana that he then folded and returned to the hip pocket of his overalls. The air was thick, fetid; Fletcher slapped at mosquito boring through the left sleeve of his shirt. He looked at Turk and Neal and signaled with his thumb, indicating it was time to climb the embankment. Turk nodded.
Dynamiting the Carterville power plant had been Boone Fletcher’s idea, one he immediately wished he’d kept to himself. There were just of five of them that night, meeting in Philo Watts’ milking shed, talking about how to wake up the countryside to what was going on, the war and the draft and the bankers, always the Goddamn bankers. And Boone had blurted it out, just like that.
“We could blow up the electric plant at Centerville.”
They all looked at him, even Joe Turk – especially Joe Turk – and Fletcher blushed, thinking why couldn’t he leave his mouth shut just once.
Turk’s dark eyes gleamed.
“That is exactly what we need to do,” he said.
“Oh, well, now Joe, it wouldn’t be easy,” said Fletcher. “Carterville has a night watchman. And he’s not some old rummy pensioned off from the railroad. I know him. He’s a real hombre.”
“You know him?” asked Turk.
The other three – Philo Watt, Jas Stowall and Hab Neal – watched silently, intently, mesmerized by the audacity of such an undertaking.
“His name’s Jim Malloy,” said Fletcher, eyes downcast. “We all know him.”
“I don’t,” said Philo Watt.
“I know who he is,” said Jas Stowall, “but I can’t say I ever met him.”
“What about you?” Turk asked Hab Neal. “Do you know this man Malloy?”
Neal turned away and spat tobacco juice beyond the halo of their single lantern.
“I’ve met him a few times.”
Turk turned back to Fletcher.
“How do you know him?”
“We were kids together. Played ball together. Used to go fishin’. But I ain’t really talked to Jim in years.”
An ill-concealed smirk played at Hab Neal’s hard, thin mouth. He had pegged Boone Fletcher as the sort who liked to talk about what ought to be done but pissed down his leg when the time came to actually do it.
“Do you know this Malloy or not?” Turk demanded.
“Yeah,” Fletcher finally conceded. “I know him.”
And so here they were, blowing up the Centerville power station.
The brick power plant glowed with the light and heat generated inside it. Smoke from the coal fire rose through the long, thin chimney stack in black, sulfuric billows invisible against the night sky except where they blotted out the stars. The noise almost overwhelmed them. Even Joe Turk, a man to whom the din of the industrial age was not unfamiliar, stopped dead, disoriented by the whine of the steam turbine and general clatter of the machinery. Light and shadows flickered across an open doorway, the door itself propped open by a stone, and as the significance of the figures thus outlined registered, Turk covered his lower mouth and face with a dark bandana. Neal and Fletcher did the same.
The gun barrels in their backs were the first the two men minding the boiler knew of the intruders. The pair were blindfolded and gagged, taken outside and tied to a tree.
“We could have killed you but we didn’t,” one of three masked men, bending close, said in a throaty whisper. “Remember that.”
Ten minutes later the people of Centerville were rocked from their beds by an explosion so concussive it shattered windows on Main Street and set the bell of the Methodist Church to ringing.
The War to End All Wars is available in an e-book edition here.