Disclaimer: I don't own any characters except some random extras; everything else is Marvel's only.
6. 1912, March
The sky was speckled with bright little stars, sparkling as coldly as the air felt, down on the Earth. Logan looked up and almost smiled when the moment of recognition hit him. He knew those stars. He saw them up in the sky almost every night that wasn't clouded. True, they were constantly moving around the sky through the night, and also from season to season. But he remembered that that group of stars, twinkling over there, above that birch out in the field, used to be swallowed by the sun before actually dropping out of sight, the year before, just after the snow had finished melting.
And the snow had just finished melting, this year. 'One hour more, maybe,' he thought and returned to his work even more energetically.
He'd be on time, though. He smiled as the sweat trickled down his forehead. It had been fortunate that he had caught the wolf which had wandered about the Estate throughout the winter early at night. Of course, it had helped that Logan had spent that same winter following its tracks and learning its tricks and vices. He was so pleased with his hunt, he didn't even thought of the previous nights, when he had spent hours stalking the animal in vain. Tonight, however, he had risked it all and let some of the mares with foals to stay the night out. The wolf had bitten the bait, and now there it was: a beautiful grey furred hide all cleaned and stretched to dry.
Logan wiped his sweating forehead with the arm and decided it was time to return. He looked back at the stars. They had already disappeared behind the tree, but the horizon was still dark. No, he looked more attentively. There was already a glimmer of dark blue threatening to overcome the distant line of the horizon. There wasn't much time.
He had already buried the animal body, to avoid attracting unwanted creatures, so he just raced through the trail, avoiding the obstacles he already knew by heart.
The sun hadn't lit the horizon yet, when Logan entered his little cabin next to the stables. He sat down on the straw mattress, his weight making the small wooden bed creak, and untied the boots he himself had made out of animal hides, the summer before. He laid back on the mattress with a happy sigh, his short hair grazing the wall while the feet dangled uncomfortably on the other end.
Outside some birds started chirping. An industrious sigh helped him getting up. He left the house wearing only the old trousers he wore when he went out into the woods, and settled down to washing himself at the water pump. Then he took off the trousers, which he had already rubbed energetically with soap to rid them of the wolf blood, and rinsed them before doing the same for his hair. He felt about his face to ascertain whether he'd need shaving that day.
He had shaved his chin and moustache only the day before, so his face was still pretty presentable. His sideburns felt a bit overgrown, though. He was sorry Mister Howlett wanted him so thoroughly shaved. He looked younger, like that, and he longed to let his sideburns grow to a manly size. Groaning at the contrariety, he went in and put the shaving blade to work. Then he put on his proper clothes, which he kept always clean and presentable.
He left the cabin in time to see the sun breeching the tree cover. He looked at it for a second and smiled. Sideburns aside, life sure was good.
By the time Logan entered the kitchen to have his breakfast; every other worker was gone and working, leaving Mrs Anselen, the cook, cleaning after them. So he grabbed his plate, which Mrs Anselen was always careful to fill to the brim the moment she heard him approaching, and sat quietly on a corner. Unlike the other workers, greedy for food before getting any work done, Logan had already done his first chore: checking that each and every horse was accounted for. He had a natural ability to distinguish and keep track of each animal, a skill he not only cherished but enjoyed, too. And because he knew the animals, he easily spotted the ones which might not be behaving naturally and fixed whatever was ailing them.
However, before leaving the stables, he had to wait for the arrival of the two boys who tended to the horses, under the guidance of the stable foreman. The kids usually got there an hour late, although always before the foreman, and he was supposed to give them their daily smacking for their lateness. He never smacked them hard, though, just a few bare handed slaps without ever as much as threatening them with the rod or the leather strap. As it was, the boys never feared arriving late, which for Logan meant having a peaceful morning start and, just as importantly, having the kitchen all for himself. That is, for himself and the old crow who played the cook.
He looked at the watch which the old man insisted to keep in the kitchen, so that the workers would have no excuse for starting their work late. It was almost eight in the morning. He went outside to wash his mouth, hands and face, and make sure both him and his clothes were thoroughly clean and presentable. He scraped any remnants of mud off his boots before re-entering and going directly for Mister Howlett's study.
He knocked twice and waited for the old man to give him leave to enter. When he did enter, the first thing he noticed was the man's deep frown and decided, glimpsing a paper that looked like a letter, that he must have received upsetting news from the East.
"Sir, shall I go 'bout my regular duties, or is there somethin' ya…" He interrupted himself to clear his throat. Mister Howlett didn't like him to 'distort the language', as he called it, and he always strived to speak properly in front of him. "Excuse me, sir. I meant, is there something you wish me to do?"
The old man's blue eyes flashed his anger for a quiet, intense moment, and then he sat back. "Sit."
Logan hesitated and looked about himself. He had never been told to sit in that room and he wasn't sure which chair he should choose. In the mean time, Mister Howlett grabbed his walking stick and limped away from the imposing desk. He approached a stately looking armchair, its back turned to a fireplace, above which stood the coat of arms of the Howlett family. He leaned heavily on the armchair with a tired sigh.
He was getting old, Logan mused. His strength was gone, his sight weakened, and his legs every day more crippled by old age. How much longer would he still cling to life? Logan didn't like thinking about it. There was too much uncertainty, to which he was not accustomed.
"What are you doing, you fool, standing there? Did I not tell you to sit?" He let himself settle on the armchair, and Logan chose a lower one, to its left. "Alcott has made a fool of himself. And worse yet, of me."
Howlett's walking stick hit the floor sharply, his eyes unfocused. Logan breathed in forcefully. He knew this would happen, he knew it! That darned day, two years ago, when Mister Howlett had told him he was selling his city house and moving into Master John's Estate, leaving Alcott in charge of the coal mines, he had asked the old man if it was a wise decision. He had got twenty lashes for that indiscretion, implying that his master didn't know what he was doing. But he had been right. Even if he was still a dumb kid, back then, he had been right.
"What has happened, sir? And what can I do for you?"
Logan had never understood why Mister Howlett had wanted to return. Personally, he hated the place. Even if he took advantage of the deep woods in and around the Estate, which didn't exist near the city house; even if he had the chance to meet with passing Indians with whom he often learnt valuable skills; even if there were less people around to gasp at his ruined face. He still hated the place. He hated all the memories he couldn't erase. He hated every rock, tree, brook, house or field where he had been with…
He just hated it! Everything!
"He was incapable of keeping the men in check." Logan snapped out of his reverie. "He has written to inform me that the men who work on the mine have organised themselves in a union and are threatening to strike if their demands are not met."
"To strike, sir? They intend to attack you?"
Mister Howlett looked at Logan and hissed exasperatedly. Logan lowered his head, ready for the scolding that a sigh prevented from beginning. He looked up, surprised but worried with the sighing that was becoming each season more frequent.
"Ah… I forget your lack of understanding." He shook his head, disheartened, and Logan bit his lip, hating to be remembered of his station in such a fashion. "No, they don't intend to attack me. Not physically, at least. A strike is when the working men refuse to work until their masters… or bosses, as they now call it, accept to submit."
Logan frowned, striving to think fast and accurately.
"What are their demands, sir?"
"To take over the authority and rule the world." He shrugged, despise darkening his words. "What else would those base fools ask for?"
Mister Howlett's answer didn't make much sense, so he guessed the man didn't mean it literally. He still couldn't fathom what the miners might want, though. Work less hours? No… surely it would have something to do with ruling. Did they intend to take over the management of the coal mines? That sounded more like it. Nevertheless, he hesitated in voicing his ideas, since he wasn't sure of them.
"When I was a young man," Logan wiggled uncomfortably as Mister Howlett's blue eyes stared past him almost tenderly. "I left Great Britain to make my fortune. Those were tough times… I enlisted in the navy and had the boy's cat open my eyes to the harsh truth of life. But I opened them, boy. I watched how the other boys were incapable of doing the same, and how they grew to taste the cat of nine tails. I did not once face such punishment from the upper hands, after my first year in the service. My prompt ability to learn and rise above the rest of the enlisted scum allowed me the good fortune of making the right acquaintances. Therefore, when I decided to abandon life at sea, which did not appeal to me even though I could have reached the higher positions, I was directed to certain gentlemen who required overseers for their estates, in the Southern States of our neighbour country, the United States of America."
Logan frowned in his effort to accompany the tale, remembering old mid-wives tales of a king George and his southern kingdom of slaves.
"The first months as an overseer at a cotton plantation were quite instructive, and I learnt quickly. The niggers, they've got to call themselves blacks, these days, I've heard. But niggers, slaves or freemen, they were, and are, the same as these base-born whites I have working for me." His eyes darkened and locked onto Logan's. "You listen closely, now, Logan, because your understanding has not been spurred and trained through your entire childhood, and therefore it is as limited as the niggers'. And as the understanding of most whites who flaunter themselves about, too. However, you have strived to rise above your blood and your limitations; you even strive to use a proper language when you report to me. Your hard work, my boy, has won my respect."
Logan straightened himself, pride bursting inside him.
"I shall explain to you, now, the one thing you must always remember when you deal with people of the lowest stations. Keep it always in your mind's eye, as difficult as you may find such task, and you shall certainly become the best foreman and trusted man your station has to offer."
"I will, sir." He pledged earnestly, his eyes burning with expectation at this secret knowledge which Mister Howlett saw fit to share with him, and him alone.
"Men like yourself, Logan, and those below you, including niggers, they cannot think properly. They see only their present wishes and whims and cannot suffer to look ahead in time, or look wider, to encompass their country and the world. But we, in the higher stations, we have had our eyes opened since the most tender age and we do see." Logan was frowning hard and opened his mouth as if to pose a question but stopped himself when Mister Howlett sighed, this time in annoyance. "Do not pester me with questions before I have finished. I shall soon produce examples that you may understand, boy. Be patient! Patience is of the utmost virtue in every man's life."
Patience, he repeated to himself, trying to curb the excitement that wanted to squirm in the cushioned seat. Patience. Just as when out stalking and hunting.
"Listen closely. The first stock of slaves I had under my supervision was a sore sight for the eyes indeed. I was instructed by their former overseer as to the best way of handling the lazy beasts and proceeded to apply his ideas. I flogged and punished those brutes until they neared death, and then one day a mere boy who had been recently bought dared to complain they could not work for want of food. I had him punished for his insolence, yet I submitted to his demand and enlarged the food given to each worker. The change was instantaneous, and they strived to work hard. Productivity doubled. Not two months had passed, though, when another slave dared new demand: the woman wouldn't suffer to have her children sold. Now tell me, what do you think should have been the most industrious way of facing this new demand?"
"Huh… flog her and allow her to keep her kids?"
"Oh, yes, and then they would demand that the whip be forgotten, that their clothes be of silk and velvet and that their men might demand white girls for themselves. Never! You must strive to open your eyes and see past the present, boy. Men at the bottom of society may be brutes, yet they are more cunning than the devil. You must see for yourself what the men require and follow your path without ever parting from the line of conduct that has been proved the most efficient."
Logan nodded his understanding and corrected his former answer, by stating the woman should be flogged and all her children sold to further the severity of her punishment.
"The best way to deal with the niggers, I discovered, was to allow them a fair portion of food, that they may have the strength to do their job judiciously. The whip and the rawhide, though, had to be used with care. Their master would not benefit if they were beaten so severely they must be excused from work, and yet too little and their natural inclination to arrogant pride and rebellion would surface and contaminate all slaves. It was a fine line, but I had the slaves walk through it with precision. Failing to fulfil all their chores, lateness, sloppiness and other light misdemeanours were met with few lashes but also confinement, less food and loss of other privileges. However, refusals to comply with their orders, ignoring curfews and laws forbidding meetings brought upon them punishments that could and would leave them incapable of working for a few days. Worst yet, attempts to run away or inappropriate behaviour towards white people were punished would such severity, the weaker of body would sometimes die or become bed-ridden for weeks."
"So, you see, my boy, I gave them what they needed, and punished their faults accordingly and severely. Not one of the slaves under my care ever ran off, and I had several begging to be bought and brought to work under my care. And do you know why?"
That was a no-brainer, and Logan answered automatically:
"Because you treated them fairly, sir," he understood it firsthand, since Mister Howlett, having beaten him much less than his Pa had, had quickly taught him obedience and industrious labour, something he had never learnt in his entire childhood. "They knew right from wrong, and knew how to avoid being punished by doing right only."
"Quite right. I'm glad to see I've been able to explain this matter to you so clearly. However, are you capable of seeing any problems when applying such wisdom to free men?"
Logan recalled rather quickly that first day when he had arrived to Mister Howlett's city house.
"Whips are for slaves and criminals, not free men."
"Indeed. And yet many free men are slaves themselves, boy. Remember that the lowest stations lack the capability of considering the future and their fellow creatures, and therefore they waste away their rightful wages with petty, childish whims that are no better than the niggers'. Do you recall the six months you laboured in the coal mines?" Logan nodded affirmatively. "What did you learn from the men around you?"
He frowned, not understanding what was being asked. He thought hard, as quickly as he was able to, and produced what he thought was an appropriate answer.
"I learnt to work fast and not complain. And not to whimper when I was tired or hurt. Or hungry or thirsty. I learnt to be a man. Sir."
"No, no; that is not what I asked of you. Did you look about you and tried to understand the workings behind those men's words and deeds? No, you did not. Why? Because you lack the natural curiosity towards your fellow men that characterises humanity. Therefore, you didn't stop to learn how they think and see the world. If you had, you would have discovered that they see only themselves and think only of themselves. And that, my boy, that natural weakness that keeps your station bound in chains is what you must strive to overcome."
"Study their deeds, study their words. Understand their faulty and imperfect reasoning. Then you will know how to plot their demise." Like stalking, Logan compared; it's just like stalking an animal. "Now, what I have learnt about that unruly mass of men is as following: they will labour for their rightful wages, but instead of using those wages judiciously, they throw them away in the lowest fashion – women, alcohol, gambling… all is an excuse for their weak minds and will. They possess no control over themselves and their animal nature. And then, once their possessions are squandered, they turn against their masters and demand higher wages. They would sooner ruin master, country and world than admit their fault."
"Excuse me, sir. But if the men in the mines are as brute as them niggers, how have you kept them in line, sir?"
"Have I not just mentioned the virtue of patience? You shall never learn anything if you are too impatient to understand what is being told to you." Logan apologised humbly and Mister Howlett continued. "It is of the utmost importance you understand all that I am telling you. The success of the task I'm about to give you rests upon that understanding. Now, I have provided the miners with houses for themselves and their families and for which they must pay a monthly fee which is quite accessible to their possessions. However, their dissolute ways mean that they often fail to pay such fees. Instead of evicting them, though, I generously offer them credit, assuming they will be able to save some money from their next wages and pay off their debts."
"I apologise for interrupting again, sir, but… how can they save money to pay the debt, if they couldn't save it before?"
"Because, to warrant the credit that will avoid their eviction, they sign a contract with me. If they overdue the term for paying off their debt, they shall be punished with a set number of lashes, according with the nature, amount and lateness in payment."
"And they allow to be whipped?" Logan blinked in amazement, although he was sure that the law itself would support Mister Howlett's right to do it, because of the contract.
"I do not intend to foster resentment. After all, they may be criminals at heart, some at least, but they usually aren't so in deed. The aim of the punishment is to induce them to control their appetites that they do not squander their possessions. Moreover, they are given the choice between a rope cat of nine tails, which is not as severe as the leather version used by the law in prisons, and a birch rod. They usually choose the cat, and I assure you that, after the first taste, they promptly control their expenditures and quite soon pay off their entire debt."
"Then… what did Alcott do wrong?"
"Alcott!" He exclaimed with exasperation. "He has not kept a close watch over those criminals whose only intent is to uproot the foundations of order."
Logan looked at Mister Howlett with a puzzled expression and the old man's temper flared, the walking stick hitting the floor a couple times.
"Have I not already told you the men have organised a union, you fool? A union created by those cunning bums who pretend to be saving the world of the unruly low station, and whose sole intent is to destroy us all! Alcott should have kept his eyes open and acted quickly against them at the first sign of trouble. Now… now I am forced to take drastic measures." His cold blue eyes settled on Logan with the fierce intensity that usually preceded a flogging. "You shall return to the mines at once. Once there, you will keep your eyes and ears open until you single out the heads behind this organization."
Logan's brown eyes opened wide in realization of what was asked of him. Yet, one doubt burdened the simplicity of his task.
"You want me to hunt these men? But… what will I do to them, once I've…"
"Hold your tongue!" The old man's eyes flashed with resolve. "I have already plotted for you all that must be done. All it awaits is your action. Once you have singled out the ringleaders, you will study their words and deeds, and you will do your utmost to understand their reasoning. Should they have family, they shall be the key to their submission. Should they have no affiliations to woman or child, then you must be particularly weary, for those are the most dangerous kind of criminals."
"Yes, sir. I understand."
"You must do more than that. Go to the desk and fetch the brown envelope. I have collected there several procedures for you to follow, predicting the various situations you may... What are you waiting for? Open it and read it! Study those plans carefully and then burn the papers. Once you have determined what the exact nature of the union is, you will choose the method which best applies." Mister Howlett became silent and watched the young man as he stood, reading attentively. "Logan, look at me. One thing you must not forget: happen what may, no death, threat or injury can ever be traced back to this house."
"Sir!" He couldn't help the grin that twisted his lips as he remembered the words of the priest at a church mass, which he always attended to, accompanying Mister Howlett. "I will hunt those wolves and put an end to their evil work. They won't ever stray more miners of yours again. I promise you."