I was pruning Mrs. Woodward’s shrubs when the first men walked past. It was springtime, and the new shoots were coming on so fast that the old widow couldn’t keep up with them, especially with her rheumatism. That’s how it is with plants–they just keep growing no matter what. If I could eat dirt and sunshine I reckon I would, too.
The boys didn’t look like much to me, just more tramps making their way down the road in search of work, probably on their way to Pittsburgh. I wanted to tell them that there weren’t anymore jobs there than wherever they came from, but I wanted to mind myself, too. It was none of my business what the fellows were doing to find a meal, just like it was none of theirs what I did. I paid them no mind and just kept at Mrs. Woodward’s shrubs.
The sun kept on climbing and the men kept on coming. I hadn’t seen so many men marching since I was a boy and the Great Army tramped right across our fields on their way to Shiloh. I swear I saw General Grant riding Cincinnati right through our corn patch, but some say he didn’t get that horse until Vicksburg. I know what I saw, though.
The soldiers wiped out our entire crop. They say that’s what made Grant such a great general: He knew how to live off the land. Daddy said it was like a biblical plague, but that it had to be done. “Some things are bigger than us,” he told me. When the Great Army broke camp, Daddy went with them. We didn’t see him again for two years.
Hundreds of tramps shuffled past me–hungry, threadbare, dirty, tired. “Hey, friend, where are you coming from?” I shouted.
“Ohio,” one shouted back. “Are we still in Pennsylvania?”
“Yes, you are. Where to?”
The fellow stepped out of the crowd and approached me. “Washington,” he said.
“Mighty long walk from Ohio to Washington. There another war on?”
“I wish to the Lord Christ Almighty there was a war on. Least then I could enlist and get me something to eat,” the tramp said.
“My daddy said he ate nothing but hardtack for the duration,” I said.
“Hardtack is better than no tack, I reckon.”
We chewed the rag for a good ten minutes, and the tramp army just kept coming. They stretched as far as I could see up and down the road running in front of Mrs. Woodward’s house. Jacob, the fellow I was talking to, explained that all they wanted was work, which is all any of us wanted after the crash in ’93. If it weren’t for the widow I would’ve starved to death, never mind having a couple of greenbacks to call my own. Some fellow named Locke got up a little caravan to march to the capital and demand jobs. “He says there’s roads to build, bridges, levees,” Jacob said. “He says we don’t want a handout, we just want to work. I was sleeping in a dugout when they walked past me, wondering if it was going to be my grave, so I reckoned I may as well follow them.”
“When was your last meal, friend?” I asked him.
“Tuesday. What is today?” Jacob said.
“Friday.” We stared at each other for a moment, and then I handed him the clippers. “Her name is Mrs. Woodward. She can’t pay you, but she’ll see that you get fed.” Jacob’s eyes watered up a little bit, but I didn’t stick around for a thank you. I just turned around and started walking.
“How much further you think we have to go?” I asked the fellow walking beside me. I’d been at it for four days. My thighs trembled and my feet throbbed. I don’t know how many of those tramps had been at it for weeks.
“Another hundred miles I reckon,” the old boy said.
“Long way yet.”
“I reckon it’s like sailing. Once you get out so far there ain’t no turning back.”
“You’re a sailor?”
“Bargeman, least I was. Always wanted to take to the sea, though. Maybe that’s the kind of job I’ll ask for.”
“You think we’ll be able to pick our jobs?”
“Word in the caravan is that they’re waiting for us up to the capital with jobs and shoes and a hot meal. This is the greatest nation in the history of civilization, son. She takes care of her own. Don’t you forget it.”
“I want one of those conductor jobs,” I said. “Can you imagine me riding the rails across the prairie, flying past the savages and the Conestoga wagons with the sunlight glinting off my gold watch fob?”
The old fellow laughed. “Ain’t nothing wrong with dreaming, but I reckon you’ll be lucky to get on as a gandy dancer.”
About that time shouts of “Ho!” rippled through the caravan. The men stopped where they were and took to the open field on the side of the road. Some erected tents in the dusky twilight, others gathered wood for campfires. Most just stretched out on the hard ground with nothing but stones for pillows. When the sun disappeared, all the little fires lit up the valley like church candles. I watched them flicker and tried to ignore the rumbling in my belly, and I wondered if this was what is was like for my daddy all those nights that he was off fighting the rebels, and that was the last thought I had before I drifted off to sleep.
I don’t know why I woke up just like a deer don’t know why it freezes in its tracks. Maybe there’s a scent in the air that your brain smells but your nose can’t, or some leaves rustled but only your mind hears them. They call that instinct, and people got them just as well as animals do.
When my eyes popped open the field was still and all the sleeping bodies were barely visible in the shadowy morning light. I laid there still as a deer, and then I saw him squatted low, barely moving, a big stick clutched in his right hand.
I tried to figure whether I could get to my jackknife before he swung that branch at one of the sleeping fellows. He crept forward another half step, so I followed his route with nothing but my eyes. Sitting not three feet from him was a fat squirrel. The fellow brought the stick down fast, and with one crack he had his breakfast. The look of delight on his face changed to frustration, though, when he realized he had fresh meat but no way to dress it.
“Hey, friend,” I whispered. I held up my blade in hopes that it would catch the dawn, and I waved him over. “I’ll clean that for half.”
“I’ll give you a leg,” he whispered.
“Fair’s fair. I’ve got the knife.”
“But I got the squirrel,” he said.
“Okay, two legs and the backstrap.”
“That’s the whole damned squirrel. Two legs.”
“Deal,” I whispered, and we shook on it. I had the squirrel dressed in a flash. We buried the meat beneath the last glowing coals of the nearest campfire and hoped the smell didn’t wake anybody. It didn’t. There was nothing left but bones and offal by the time the tramps started rising, but they were welcome to it. It wasn’t Mrs. Woodward’s cooking, but it was the first meal I’d had in days.
We walked 30 miles that day, the highlight being a steel town that was mostly boarded up. Many of the men were out of work, so they joined our caravan. It was something to do, I guess. By the time I came through the ladies in town were handing out moldy potatoes, but the rumor in the caravan was that the first tramps through got whole pies, roasted chickens, and loaves of bread fresh out of the oven. I didn’t believe it, but I decided to get closer to the front anyway.
The only bad moment was the mill owner and his bulls. I don’t know if they were Pinkertons, but they were big fellows with blackjacks and billy clubs. “Disburse this mob at once,” the mill owner yelled from behind the safety of the bulls. “The Harrison Steelworks will not be intimidated by your thuggery! Disburse at once!” None of us were even paying him any mind. We were just making our way down the road.
Being a bull seemed like a good job. Those fellows had broad chests, clean suits, and new hats. Somebody was taking care of them, and all they had to do is stand there slapping blackjacks against their palms. “This is an unlawful assembly! You are threatening private property! Disburse at once!” the old man shouted. His job looked to be harder than theirs. I didn’t think I had the sand to be a Pinkerton, but I thought about my squirrel hunter friend. He was quick with that stick.
We were a good ten miles outside of town when the shouts of “Ho!” rang through the caravan. There was just enough daylight left for all the fellows to find a piece of land for the night. I lay there for a bit, rolling the moldy potato over in my hand trying to decide whether to eat it or save it. Eventually the sandman decided that question for me.
A bolt of lightning struck me on the side of the head, at least that’s what I thought it was when my slumber lit up with bright colors and confusion. Something struck me hard in the ribs and further stirred me from my sleep. “Get up, bum,” I heard a voice say. I opened my eyes to see a Pinkerton towering over me, billy club in hand. “You vagrants need to walk on down the road while you are still able.” All around the camp the fellows were running in the moonlight, covering their heads, some even responding with fisticuffs as the bulls swung their sticks and their blackjacks.
I scrambled to my feet. “We just want jobs,” I said.
“The Harrison Steelworks owes you nothing,” the Pinkerton said, and he raised his billy club again. I raised my hands, turned and joined the other bruised tramps making their way down the darkened road. Being a Pinkerton didn’t seem like such a good job.
Rockville greeted us like heroes. Brass bands played and ladies waved their handkerchiefs from the windows of neat homes. Children lined the road, waving Old Glory and tossing fresh fruits and vegetables our way. A grandstand covered in bunting stood in the town square. One of the fellows mounted the steps looking proud as a peacock. “Who is that?” I asked the tramp standing beside me.
“You been in the sun too long? That’s Moses. That’s the man who led us out of the wilderness. That’s Mr. Locke.”
Mr. Locke held up his hands to quiet the crowd. You could see the whole march in the deep creases of his sunburned face. His clothes were dusty but neat, his wide-brimmed hat lending him the appearance of an itinerant preacher. His eyes flashed and his baritone voice carried to the far reaches of the crowd gathered around the grandstand. “Friends,” he began, “the Constitution of this great land promises us the right to assemble and speak our minds, and that’s all we want to do. The great men whom we have elected to represent us seem unwilling to hear our concerns. They bellow about prosperity while our families starve. They have forgotten that the American dream applies to all of us, not just those who travel in gilded carriages but to those whose shoe leather is their means of conveyance across this vast land.”
A loud huzzah rose from the crowd. Mr. Locke raised his hands again to quiet the throng. “They call us bums, vagrants, criminals, locusts. They fill our neighbors’ heads with poppycock, make them tremble in fear that an army of tramps is coming to take what is not theirs. Friends, all we want is jobs. This is the greatest nation that the world has ever seen. Surely that is not too much to ask of her.” The crowd erupted in cheers and men tossed their hats into the air. Some of the fellows hoisted Mr. Locke upon their shoulders and passed him across the heads of the appreciative audience.
The last twenty miles to the nation’s capital was one long parade. The waves and cheers made my heavy legs feel light as feathers. “Boy, that Mr. Locke is something on the stump. An orator like that could be a preacher, a politician, anything he wants,” I said. The fellow beside me nodded his agreement. “Put him in a pair of striped trousers, a boiled shirt, and a Prince Albert coat and I bet he’d even be welcome at President Cleveland’s dinner table.”
At this the old tramp chuckled. “Don’t matter what any of us do,” he said. “All they see is bums, animals. We may as well be colored or Oriental.”
“That’s not true, friend. Look at all of the well wishers cheering us on,” I said.
“They don’t have no more power than we do,” he said. “It’s the ones with the power that could care less if we live or die.” The old tramp waved back to the crowd lining the road. “There’s nothing waiting for us at the end of this journey but more walking.”
“If you really believe that then why did you walk all this way?” I asked.
“I could stay where I was and starve to death or walk with you fellows and hope for the best,” he shrugged. “Same as you, I reckon.”
The dome of the Capitol building emerged. It was so big and glorious, like all of America’s beauty, power, and grace reaching to Heaven. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I hurried through the crowd of tramps and well-wishers, trying to get as close to that great building as I could. I pushed my way all the way to the curb, where a long line of police officers stood between the heaving crowd and the lush green lawn leading to the Capitol. Their unblinking eyes betrayed no more emotion than that of the brass buttons on their blue uniforms. Mr. Locke stood not five feet from me.
“That is the people’s building,” he told the sergeant. “We have marched all the way from Ohio to deliver this message, and by God we are going to deliver it.” The tramps within hearing distance responded with a cheer, but the sergeant remained stone-faced.
“You will proceed no further. All of you, return to your homes,” the officer said.
“They have no homes,” said Mr. Locke. “They have no food, no jobs, nowhere to go. The men in that building are our representatives. They must hear what we have to say.”
“I understand, son. Times are tough for everyone, but I have a job to do.”
Mr. Locke set his jaw and balled his fists, and then he said, “I am going into that building. We will be heard.” He took a step forward and the sergeant grabbed his wrist.
“You are under arrest for trespassing, boy-o. You lot move on now, this is all over,” the sergeant said.
We stood and watched as Mr. Locke was escorted to the paddy wagon, and we watched some more as the horses slowly clopped away, wagon wheels creaking behind them. And still we stood, staring at that glorious white building, hoping to see some sign of life inside, a compassionate senator maybe who would listen to the tale of our journey, or even a lowly page who might trot a message from the dusty street to the dark, secret chambers of power inside. We stood and waited, but nothing ever changed. The onlookers drifted away, and then so did the tramps. I don’t know where they got to.
A couple of years later Mr. Locke was killed during a worker protest at a rail yard somewhere out west, shot by a Pinkerton. They said he thought Locke was drawing his weapon, but all he had in his hand was a few pamphlets.
I never returned home, but I imagine Mrs. Woodward has long passed, too. After that day at the Capitol, I hopped a freight and headed west. I saw the Indians and the wagon trains, just like I imagined, and I got on at a logging camp just above Frisco. That’s where I worked until they put me out to pasture, an old mule who couldn’t pull his weight anymore.
I never got that gold watch fob but I reckon my leather one has done the job just as well, and I never took nothing from nobody. I worked hard for that bit of leather, for the food on my table, for this humble cabin that I call home. That’s all any of us wanted, all Mr. Locke was trying to tell them. We weren’t tramps, bums, trash, criminals. We just wanted a chance to work. I suppose when you view the world from a gilded carriage you can’t see that’s all the American dream is to most folks. Mrs. Woodward knew what all those fancy gentlemen in striped trousers never could. She was an angel.
Note: This was a work of fiction, but back in 1894 there was a real Locke who led a group of protestors from Ohio all the way to the very first march on Washington. His name was Jacob Coxey, and you can read more about him here.