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Hal Warner, a rich young fellow determined to find the truth for himself about conditions in the mines, runs away from home and adopts the alias Joe Smith. After being turned away by one coal mine for fear of Hal being a union organizer, he gets a job in another coal mine operated by the General Fuel Company, or GFC. In the mines he befriends many of the workers, and realizes their misery and exploitation at the hands of the bosses.
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Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2016
Copyright © 2016 Sovereign
All Rights Reserved.
Upton Sinclair is one of the not too many writers who have consecrated their lives to the agitation for social justice, and who have also enrolled their art in the service of a set purpose. A great and non-temporizing enthusiast, he never flinched from making sacrifices. Now and then he attained great material successes as a writer, but invariably he invested and lost his earnings in enterprises by which he had hoped to ward off injustice and to further human happiness. Though disappointed time after time, he never lost faith nor courage to start again.
As a convinced socialist and eager advocate of unpopular doctrines, as an exposer of social conditions that would otherwise be screened away from the public eye, the most influential journals of his country were as a rule arraigned against him. Though always a poor man, though never willing to grant to publishers the concessions essential for many editions and general popularity, he was maliciously represented to be a carpet knight of radicalism and a socialist millionaire. He has several times been obliged to change his publisher, which goes to prove that he is no seeker of material gain.
Upton Sinclair is one of the writers of the present time most deserving of a sympathetic interest. He shows his patriotism as an American, not by joining in hymns to the very conditional kind of liberty peculiar to the United States, but by agitating for infusing it with the elixir of real liberty, the liberty of humanity. He does not limit himself to a dispassionate and entertaining description of things as they are. But in his appeals to the honour and good-fellowship of his compatriots, he opens their eyes to the appalling conditions under which wage-earning slaves are living by the hundreds of thousands. His object is to better these unnatural conditions, to obtain for the very poorest a glimpse of light and happiness, to make even them realise the sensation of cosy well-being and the comfort of knowing that justice is to be found also for them.
This time Upton Sinclair has absorbed himself in the study of the miner’s life in the lonesome pits of the Rocky Mountains, and his sensitive and enthusiastic mind has brought to the world an American parallel to GERMINAL, Emile Zola’s technical masterpiece.
The conditions described in the two books are, however, essentially different. While Zola’s working-men are all natives of France, one meets in Sinclair’s book a motley variety of European emigrants, speaking a Babel of languages and therefore debarred from forming some sort of association to protect themselves against being exploited by the anonymous limited Company. Notwithstanding this natural bar against united action on the part of the wage-earning slaves, the Company feels far from at ease and jealously guards its interests against any attempt of organising the men.
A young American of the upper class, with great sympathy for the downtrodden and an honest desire to get a first-hand knowledge of their conditions in order to help them, decides to take employment in a mine under a fictitious name and dressed like a working-man. His unusual way of trying to obtain work arouses suspicion. He is believed to be a professional strike-leader sent out to organise the miners against their exploiters, and he is not only refused work, but thrashed mercilessly. When finally he succeeds in getting inside, he discovers with growing indignation the shameless and inhuman way in which those who unearth the black coal are being exploited.
These are the fundamental ideas of the book, but they give but a faint notion of the author’s poetic attitude. Most beautifully is this shown in Hal’s relation to a young Irish girl, Red Mary. She is poor, and her daily life harsh and joyless, but nevertheless her wonderful grace is one of the outstanding features of the book. The first impression of Mary is that of a Celtic Madonna with a tender heart for little children. She develops into a Valküre of the working-class, always ready to fight for the worker’s right.
The last chapters of the book give a description of the miners’ revolt against the Company. They insist upon their right to choose a deputy to control the weighing-in of the coal, and upon having the mines sprinkled regularly to prevent explosion. They will also be free to buy their food and utensils wherever they like, even in shops not belonging to the Company.
In a postscript Sinclair explains the fundamental facts on which his work of art has been built up. Even without the postscript one could not help feeling convinced that the social conditions he describes are true to life. The main point is that Sinclair has not allowed himself to become inspired by hackneyed phrases that bondage and injustice and the other evils and crimes of Kingdoms have been banished from Republics, but that he is earnestly pointing to the honeycombed ground on which the greatest modern money-power has been built. The fundament of this power is not granite, but mines. It lives and breathes in the light, because it has thousands of unfortunates toiling in the darkness. It lives and has its being in proud liberty because thousands are slaving for it, whose thraldom is the price of this liberty.
This is the impression given to the reader of this exciting novel.
THE DOMAIN OF KING COAL
The town of Pedro stood on the edge of the mountain country; a straggling assemblage of stores and saloons from which a number of branch railroads ran up into the canyons, feeding the coal-camps. Through the week it slept peacefully; but on Saturday nights, when the miners came trooping down, and the ranchmen came in on horseback and in automobiles, it wakened to a seething life.
At the railroad station, one day late in June, a young man alighted from a train. He was about twenty-one years of age, with sensitive features, and brown hair having a tendency to waviness. He wore a frayed and faded suit of clothes, purchased in a quarter of his home city where the Hebrew merchants stand on the sidewalks to offer their wares; also a soiled blue shirt without a tie, and a pair of heavy boots which had seen much service. Strapped on his back was a change of clothing and a blanket, and in his pockets a comb, a toothbrush, and a small pocket mirror.
Sitting in the smoking-car of the train, the young man had listened to the talk of the coal-camps, seeking to correct his accent. When he got off the train he proceeded down the track and washed his hands with cinders, and lightly powdered some over his face. After studying the effect of this in his mirror, he strolled down the main street of Pedro, and, selecting a little tobacco-shop, went in. In as surly a voice as he could muster, he inquired of the proprietress, “Can you tell me how to get to the Pine Creek mine?”
The woman looked at him with no suspicion in her glance. She gave the desired information, and he took a trolley and got off at the foot of the Pine Creek canyon, up which he had a thirteen-mile trudge. It was a sunshiny day, with the sky crystal clear, and the mountain air invigourating. The young man seemed to be happy, and as he strode on his way, he sang a song with many verses:
“Old King Coal was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he;
He made him a college all full of knowledge—
Hurrah for you and me!
“Oh, Liza-Ann, come out with me,
The moon is a-shinin’ in the monkey-puzzle tree;
Oh, Liza-Ann, I have began
To sing you the song of Harrigan!
“He keeps them a-roll, this merry old soul—
The wheels of industree;
A-roll and a-roll, for his pipe and his bowl
And his college facultee!
“Oh, Mary-Jane, come out in the lane,
The moon is a-shinin’ in the old pecan;
Oh, Mary-Jane, don’t you hear me a-sayin’
I’ll sing you the song of Harrigan!
“So hurrah for King Coal, and his fat pay-roll,
And his wheels of industree!
Hurrah for his pipe, and hurrah for his bowl—
And hurrah for you and me!
“Oh, Liza-Ann, come out with me,
The moon is a-shinin’—”
And so on and on—as long as the moon was a-shinin’ on a college campus. It was a mixture of happy nonsense and that questioning with which modern youth has begun to trouble its elders. As a marching tune, the song was a trifle swift for the grades of a mountain canyon; Warner could stop and shout to the canyon-walls, and listen to their answer, and then march on again. He had youth in his heart, and love and curiosity; also he had some change in his trousers’ pocket, and a ten dollar bill, for extreme emergencies, sewed up in his belt. If a photographer for Peter Harrigan’s General Fuel Company could have got a snap-shot of him that morning, it might have served as a “portrait of a coal-miner” in any “prosperity” publication.
But the climb was a stiff one, and before the end the traveller became aware of the weight of his boots, and sang no more. Just as the sun was sinking up the canyon, he came upon his destination—a gate across the road, with a sign upon it:
PINE CREEK COAL CO.
Hal approached the gate, which was of iron bars, and padlocked. After standing for a moment to get ready his surly voice, he kicked upon the gate and a man came out of a shack inside.
“What do you want?” said he.
“I want to get in. I’m looking for a job.”
“Where do you come from?”
“Where you been working?”
“I never worked in a mine before.”
“Where did you work?”
“In a grocery-store.”
“Peterson & Co., in Western City.”
The guard came closer to the gate and studied him through the bars.
“Hey, Bill!” he called, and another man came out from the cabin. “Here’s a guy says he worked in a grocery, and he’s lookin’ for a job.”
“Where’s your papers?” demanded Bill.
Every one had told Hal that labour was scarce in the mines, and that the companies were ravenous for men; he had supposed that a workingman would only have to knock, and it would be opened unto him. “They didn’t give me no papers,” he said, and added, hastily, “I got drunk and they fired me.” He felt quite sure that getting drunk would not bar one from a coal camp.
But the two made no move to open the gate. The second man studied him deliberately from top to toe, and Hal was uneasily aware of possible sources of suspicion. “I’m all right,” he declared. “Let me in, and I’ll show you.”
Still the two made no move. They looked at each other, and then Bill answered, “We don’t need no hands.”
“But,” exclaimed Hal, “I saw a sign down the canyon—”
“That’s an old sign,” said Bill.
“But I walked all the way up here!”
“You’ll find it easier walkin’ back.”
“Scared of the dark, kid?” inquired Bill, facetiously.
“Oh, say!” replied Hal. “Give a fellow a chance! Ain’t there some way I can pay for my keep—or at least for a bunk to-night?”
“There’s nothin’ for you,” said Bill, and turned and went into the cabin.
The other man waited and watched, with a decidedly hostile look. Hal strove to plead with him, but thrice he repeated, “Down the canyon with you.” So at last Hal gave up, and moved down the road a piece and sat down to reflect.
It really seemed an absurdly illogical proceeding, to post a notice, “Hands Wanted,” in conspicuous places on the roadside, causing a man to climb thirteen miles up a mountain canyon, only to be turned off without explanation. Hal was convinced that there must be jobs inside the stockade, and that if only he could get at the bosses he could persuade them. He got up and walked down the road a quarter of a mile, to where the railroad-track crossed it, winding up the canyon. A train of “empties” was passing, bound into the camp, the cars rattling and bumping as the engine toiled up the grade. This suggested a solution of the difficulty.
It was already growing dark. Crouching slightly, Hal approached the cars, and when he was in the shadows, made a leap and swung onto one of them. It took but a second to clamber in, and he lay flat and waited, his heart thumping.
Before a minute had passed he heard a shout, and looking over, he saw the Cerberus of the gate running down a path to the track, his companion, Bill, just behind him. “Hey! come out of there!” they yelled; and Bill leaped, and caught the car in which Hal was riding.
The latter saw that the game was up, and sprang to the ground on the other side of the track and started out of the camp. Bill followed him, and as the train passed, the other man ran down the track to join him. Hal was walking rapidly, without a word; but the Cerberus of the gate had many words, most of them unprintable, and he seized Hal by the collar, and shoving him violently, planted a kick upon that portion of his anatomy which nature has constructed for the reception of kicks. Hal recovered his balance, and, as the man was still pursuing him, he turned and aimed a blow, striking him on the chest and making him reel.
Hal’s big brother had seen to it that he knew how to use his fists; he now squared off, prepared to receive the second of his assailants. But in coal-camps matters are not settled in that primitive way, it appeared. The man halted, and the muzzle of a revolver came suddenly under Hal’s nose. “Stick ‘em up!” said the man.
This was a slang which Hal had never heard, but the meaning was inescapable; he “stuck ‘em up.” At the same moment his first assailant rushed at him, and dealt him a blow over the eye which sent him sprawling backward upon the stones.
When Hal came to himself again he was in darkness, and was conscious of agony from head to toe. He was lying on a stone floor, and he rolled over, but soon rolled back again, because there was no part of his back which was not sore. Later on, when he was able to study himself, he counted over a score of marks of the heavy boots of his assailants.
He lay for an hour or two, making up his mind that he was in a lock-up, because he could see the starlight through iron bars. He could hear somebody snoring, and he called half a dozen times, in a louder and louder voice, until at last, hearing a growl, he inquired, “Can you give me a drink of water?”
“I’ll give you hell if you wake me up again,” said the voice; after which Hal lay in silence until morning.
A couple of hours after daylight, a man entered his cell. “Get up,” said he, and added a prod with his foot. Hal had thought he could not do it, but he got up.
“No funny business now,” said his jailer, and grasping him by the sleeve of his coat, marched him out of the cell and down a little corridor into a sort of office, where sat a red-faced personage with a silver shield upon the lapel of his coat. Hal’s two assailants of the night before stood nearby.
“Well, kid?” said the personage in the chair. “Had a little time to think it over?”
“Yes,” said Hal, briefly.
“What’s the charge?” inquired the personage, of the two watchmen.
“Trespassing and resisting arrest.”
“How much money you got, young fellow?” was, the next question.
“Speak up there!” said the man.
“Two dollars and sixty-seven cents,” said Hal—”as well as I can remember.”
“Go on!” said the other. “What you givin’ us?” And then, to the two watchmen, “Search him.”
“Take off your coat and pants,” said Bill, promptly, “and your boots.”
“Oh, I say!” protested Hal.
“Take ‘em off!” said the man, and clenched his fists. Hal took ‘em off, and they proceeded to go through the pockets, producing a purse with the amount stated, also a cheap watch, a strong pocket knife, the tooth-brush, comb and mirror, and two white handkerchiefs, which they looked at contemptuously and tossed to the spittle-drenched floor.
They unrolled the pack, and threw the clean clothing about. Then, opening the pocket-knife, they proceeded to pry about the soles and heels of the boots, and to cut open the lining of the clothing. So they found the ten dollars in the belt, which they tossed onto the table with the other belongings. Then the personage with the shield announced, “I fine you twelve dollars and sixty-seven cents, and your watch and knife.” He added, with a grin, “You can keep your snot-rags.”
“Now see here!” said Hal, angrily. “This is pretty raw!”
“You get your duds on, young fellow, and get out of here as quick as you can, or you’ll go in your shirt-tail.”
But Hal was angry enough to have been willing to go in his skin. “You tell me who you are, and your authority for this procedure?”
“I’m marshal of the camp,” said the man.
“You mean you’re an employé of the General Fuel Company? And you propose to rob me—”
“Put him out, Bill,” said the marshal. And Hal saw Bill’s fists clench.
“All right,” he said, swallowing his indignation. “Wait till I get my clothes on.” And he proceeded to dress as quickly as possible; he rolled up his blanket and spare clothing, and started for the door.
“Remember,” said the marshal, “straight down the canyon with you, and if you show your face round here again, you’ll get a bullet through you.”
So Hal went out into the sunshine, with a guard on each side of him as an escort. He was on the same mountain road, but in the midst of the company-village. In the distance he saw the great building of the breaker, and heard the incessant roar of machinery and falling coal. He marched past a double lane of company houses and shanties, where slattern women in doorways and dirty children digging in the dust of the roadside paused and grinned at him—for he limped as he walked, and it was evident enough what had happened to him.
Hal had come with love and curiosity. The love was greatly diminished—evidently this was not the force which kept the wheels of industry a-roll. But the curiosity was greater than ever. What was there so carefully hidden inside this coal-camp stockade?
Hal turned and looked at Bill, who had showed signs of humour the day before. “See here,” said he, “you fellows have got my money, and you’ve blacked my eye and kicked me blue, so you ought to be satisfied. Before I go, tell me about it, won’t you?”
“Tell you what?” growled Bill.
“Why did I get this?”
“Because you’re too gay, kid. Didn’t you know you had no business trying to sneak in here?”
“Yes,” said Hal; “but that’s not what I mean. Why didn’t you let me in at first?”
“If you wanted a job in a mine,” demanded the man, “why didn’t you go at it in the regular way?”
“I didn’t know the regular way.”
“That’s just it. And we wasn’t takin’ chances with you. You didn’t look straight.”
“But what did you think I was? What are you afraid of?”
“Go on!” said the man. “You can’t work me!”
Hal walked a few steps in silence, pondering how to break through. “I see you’re suspicious of me,” he said. “I’ll tell you the truth, if you’ll let me.” Then, as the other did not forbid him, “I’m a college boy, and I wanted to see life and shift for myself a while. I thought it would be a lark to come here.”
“Well,” said Bill, “this ain’t no foot-ball field. It’s a coal-mine.”
Hal saw that his story had been accepted. “Tell me straight,” he said, “what did you think I was?”
“Well, I don’t mind telling,” growled Bill. “There’s union agitators trying to organise these here camps, and we ain’t taking no chances with ‘em. This company gets its men through agencies, and if you’d went and satisfied them, you’d ‘a been passed in the regular way. Or if you’d went to the office down in Pedro and got a pass, you’d ‘a been all right. But when a guy turns up at the gate, and looks like a dude and talks like a college perfessor, he don’t get by, see?”
“I see,” said Hal. And then, “If you’ll give me the price of a breakfast out of my money, I’ll be obliged.”
“Breakfast is over,” said Bill. “You sit round till the pinyons gets ripe.” He laughed; but then, mellowed by his own joke, he took a quarter from his pocket and passed it to Hal. He opened the padlock on the gate and saw him out with a grin; and so ended Hal’s first turn on the wheels of industry.
Hal Warner started to drag himself down the road, but was unable to make it. He got as far as a brooklet that came down the mountain-side, from which he might drink without fear of typhoid; there he lay the whole day, fasting. Towards evening a thunder-storm came up, and he crawled under the shelter of a rock, which was no shelter at all. His single blanket was soon soaked through, and he passed a night almost as miserable as the previous one. He could not sleep, but he could think, and he thought about what had happened to him. “Bill” had said that a coal mine was not a foot-ball field, but it seemed to Hal that the net impress of the two was very much the same. He congratulated himself that his profession was not that of a union organiser.
At dawn he dragged himself up, and continued his journey, weak from cold and unaccustomed lack of food. In the course of the day he reached a power-station near the foot of the canyon. He did not have the price of a meal, and was afraid to beg; but in one of the group of buildings by the roadside was a store, and he entered and inquired concerning prunes, which were twenty-five cents a pound. The price was high, but so was the altitude, and as Hal found in the course of time, they explained the one by the other—not explaining, however, why the altitude of the price was always greater than the altitude of the store. Over the counter he saw a sign: “We buy scrip at ten per cent discount.” He had heard rumours of a state law forbidding payment of wages in “scrip”; but he asked no questions, and carried off his very light pound of prunes, and sat down by the roadside and munched them.
Just beyond the power-house, down on the railroad track, stood a little cabin with a garden behind it. He made his way there, and found a one-legged old watchman. He asked permission to spend the night on the floor of the cabin; and seeing the old fellow look at his black eye, he explained, “I tried to get a job at the mine, and they thought I was a union organiser.”
“Well,” said the man, “I don’t want no union organisers round here.”
“But I’m not one,” pleaded Hal.
“How do I know what you are? Maybe you’re a company spy.”
“All I want is a dry place to sleep,” said Hal. “Surely it won’t be any harm for you to give me that.”
“I’m not so sure,” the other answered. “However, you can spread your blanket in the corner. But don’t you talk no union business to me.”
Hal had no desire to talk. He rolled himself in his blanket and slept like a man untroubled by either love or curiosity. In the morning the old fellow gave him a slice of corn bread and some young onions out of his garden, which had a more delicious taste than any breakfast that had ever been served him. When Hal thanked his host in parting, the latter remarked: “All right, young fellow, there’s one thing you can do to pay me, and that is, say nothing about it. When a man has grey hair on his head and only one leg, he might as well be drowned in the creek as lose his job.”
Hal promised, and went his way. His bruises pained him less, and he was able to walk. There were ranch-houses in sight—it was like coming back suddenly to America!
Hal had now before him a week’s adventures as a hobo: a genuine hobo, with no ten dollar bill inside his belt to take the reality out of his experiences. He took stock of his worldly goods and wondered if he still looked like a dude. He recalled that he had a smile which had fascinated the ladies; would it work in combination with a black eye? Having no other means of support, he tried it on susceptible looking housewives, and found it so successful that he was tempted to doubt the wisdom of honest labour. He sang the Harrigan song no more, but instead the words of a hobo-song he had once heard:
“Oh, what’s the use of workin’ when there’s women in the land?”
The second day he made the acquaintance of two other gentlemen of the road, who sat by the railroad-track toasting some bacon over a fire. They welcomed him, and after they had heard his story, adopted him into the fraternity and instructed him in its ways of life. Pretty soon he made the acquaintance of one who had been a miner, and was able to give him the information he needed before climbing another canyon.
“Dutch Mike” was the name this person bore, for reasons he did not explain. He was a black-eyed and dangerous-looking rascal, and when the subject of mines and mining was broached, he opened up the flood-gates of an amazing reservoir of profanity. He was through with that game—Hal or any other God-damned fool might have his job for the asking. It was only because there were so many natural-born God-damned fools in the world that the game could be kept going. “Dutch Mike” went on to relate dreadful tales of mine-life, and to summon before him the ghosts of one pit-boss after another, consigning them to the fires of eternal perdition.
“I wanted to work while I was young,” said he, “but now I’m cured, an’ fer good.” The world had come to seem to him a place especially constructed for the purpose of making him work, and every faculty he possessed was devoted to foiling this plot. Sitting by a camp-fire near the stream which ran down the valley, Hal had a merry time pointing out to “Dutch Mike” how he worked harder at dodging work than other men worked at working. The hobo did not seem to mind that, however—it was a matter of principle with him, and he was willing to make sacrifices for his convictions. Even when they had sent him to the work-house, he had refused to work; he had been shut in a dungeon, and had nearly died on a diet of bread and water, rather than work. If everybody would do the same, he said, they would soon “bust things.”
Hal took a fancy to this spontaneous revolutionist, and travelled with him for a couple of days, in the course of which he pumped him as to details of the life of a miner. Most of the companies used regular employment agencies, as the guard had mentioned; but the trouble was, these agencies got something from your pay for a long time—the bosses were “in cahoots” with them. When Hal wondered if this were not against the law, “Cut it out, Bo!” said his companion. “When you’ve had a job for a while, you’ll know that the law in a coal-camp is what your boss tells you.” The hobo went on to register his conviction that when one man has the giving of jobs, and other men have to scramble for them, the law would never have much to say in the deal. Hal judged this a profound observation, and wished that it might be communicated to the professor of political economy at Harrigan.
On the second night of his acquaintance with “Dutch Mike,” their “jungle” was raided by a constable with half a dozen deputies; for a determined effort was being made just then to drive vagrants from the neighbourhood—or to get them to work in the mines. Hal’s friend, who slept with one eye open, made a break in the darkness, and Hal followed him, getting under the guard of the raiders by a foot-ball trick. They left their food and blankets behind them, but “Dutch Mike” made light of this, and lifted a chicken from a roost to keep them cheerful through the night hours, and stole a change of underclothing off a clothes-line the next day. Hal ate the chicken, and wore the underclothing, thus beginning his career in crime.
Parting from “Dutch Mike,” he went back to Pedro. The hobo had told him that saloon-keepers nearly always had friends in the coal-camps, and could help a fellow to a job. So Hal began enquiring, and the second one replied, Yes, he would give him a letter to a man at North Valley, and if he got the job, the friend would deduct a dollar a month from his pay. Hal agreed, and set out upon another tramp up another canyon, upon the strength of a sandwich “bummed” from a ranch-house at the entrance to the valley. At another stockaded gate of the General Fuel Company he presented his letter, addressed to a person named O’Callahan, who turned out also to be a saloon-keeper.
The guard did not even open the letter, but passed Hal in at sight of it, and he sought out his man and applied for work. The man said he would help him, but would have to deduct a dollar a month for himself, as well as a dollar for his friend in Pedro. Hal kicked at this, and they bartered back and forth; finally, when Hal turned away and threatened to appeal directly to the “super,” the saloon-keeper compromised on a dollar and a half.
“You know mine-work?” he asked.
“Brought up at it,” said Hal, made wise, now, in the ways of the world.
“Where did you work?”
Hal named several mines, concerning which he had learned something from the hoboes. He was going by the name of “Joe Smith,” which he judged likely to be found on the payroll of any mine. He had more than a week’s growth of beard to disguise him, and had picked up some profanity as well.
The saloon-keeper took him to interview Mr. Alec Stone, pit-boss in Number Two mine, who inquired promptly: “You know anything about mules?”
“I worked in a stable,” said Hal, “I know about horses.”
“Well, mules is different,” said the man. “One of my stable-men got the colic the other day, and I don’t know if he’ll ever be any good again.”
“Give me a chance,” said Hal. “I’ll manage them.”
The boss looked him over. “You look like a bright chap,” said he. “I’ll pay you forty-five a month, and if you make good I’ll make it fifty.”
“All right, sir. When do I start in?”
“You can’t start too quick to suit me. Where’s your duds?”
“This is all I’ve got,” said Hal, pointing to the bundle of stolen underwear in his hand.
“Well, chuck it there in the corner,” said the man; then suddenly he stopped, and looked at Hal, frowning. “You belong to any union?”
“Did you ever belong to any union?”
“No, sir. Never.”
The man’s gaze seemed to imply that Hal was lying, and that his secret soul was about to be read. “You have to swear to that, you know, before you can work here.”
“All right,” said Hal, “I’m willing.”
“I’ll see you about it to-morrow,” said the other. “I ain’t got the paper with me. By the way, what’s your religion?”
“Seventh Day Adventist.”
“Holy Christ! What’s that?”
“It don’t hurt,” said Hal. “I ain’t supposed to work on Saturdays, but I do.”
“Well, don’t you go preachin’ it round here. We got our own preacher—you chip in fifty cents a month for him out of your wages. Come ahead now, and I’ll take you down.” And so it was that Hal got his start in life.
The mule is notoriously a profane and godless creature; a blind alley of Nature, so to speak, a mistake of which she is ashamed, and which she does not permit to reproduce itself. The thirty mules under Hal’s charge had been brought up in an environment calculated to foster the worst tendencies of their natures. He soon made the discovery that the “colic” of his predecessor had been caused by a mule’s hind foot in the stomach; and he realised that he must not let his mind wander for an instant, if he were to avoid this dangerous disease.
These mules lived their lives in the darkness of the earth’s interior; only when they fell sick were they taken up to see the sunlight and to roll about in green pastures. There was one of them called “Dago Charlie,” who had learned to chew tobacco, and to rummage in the pockets of the miners and their “buddies.” Not knowing how to spit out the juice, he would make himself ill, and then he would swear off from indulgence. But the drivers and the pit-boys knew his failing, and would tempt “Dago Charlie” until he fell from grace. Hal soon discovered this moral tragedy, and carried the pain of it in his soul as he went about his all-day drudgery.
He went down the shaft with the first cage, which was very early in the morning. He fed and watered his charges, and helped to harness them. Then, when the last four hoofs had clattered away, he cleaned out the stalls, and mended harness, and obeyed the orders of any person older than himself who happened to be about.
Next to the mules, his torment was the “trapper-boys,” and other youngsters with whom he came into contact. He was a newcomer, and so they hazed him; moreover, he had an inferior job—there seemed to their minds to be something humiliating and comic about the task of tending mules. These urchins came from a score of nations of Southern Europe and Asia; there were flat-faced Tartars and swarthy Greeks and shrewd-eyed little Japanese. They spoke a compromise language, consisting mainly of English curse words and obscenities; the filthiness which their minds had spawned was incredible to one born and raised in the sunlight. They alleged obscenities of their mothers and their grandmothers; also of the Virgin Mary, the one mythological character they had heard of. Poor little creatures of the dark, their souls grimed and smutted even more quickly and irrevocably than their faces!
Hal had been advised by his boss to inquire for board at “Reminitsky’s.” He came up in the last car, at twilight, and was directed to a dimly lighted building of corrugated iron, where upon inquiry he was met by a stout Russian, who told him he could be taken care of for twenty-seven dollars a month, this including a cot in a room with eight other single men. After deducting a dollar and a half a month for his saloon-keepers, fifty cents for the company clergyman and a dollar for the company doctor, fifty cents a month for wash-house privileges and fifty cents for a sick and accident benefit fund, he had fourteen dollars a month with which to clothe himself, to found a family, to provide himself with beer and tobacco, and to patronise the libraries and colleges endowed by the philanthropic owners of coal mines.
Supper was nearly over at Reminitsky’s when he arrived; the floor looked like the scene of a cannibal picnic, and what food was left was cold. It was always to be this way with him, he found, and he had to make the best of it. The dining-room of this boarding-house, owned and managed by the G. F. C., brought to his mind the state prison, which he had once visited—with its rows of men sitting in silence, eating starch and grease out of tin-plates. The plates here were of crockery half an inch thick, but the starch and grease never failed; the formula of Reminitsky’s cook seemed to be, When in doubt add grease, and boil it in. Even ravenous as Hal was after his long tramp and his labour below ground, he could hardly swallow this food. On Sundays, the only time he ate by daylight, the flies swarmed over everything, and he remembered having heard a physician say that an enlightened man should be more afraid of a fly than of a Bengal tiger. The boarding-house provided him with a cot and a supply of vermin, but with no blanket, which was a necessity in the mountain regions. So after supper he had to seek out his boss, and arrange to get credit at the company-store. They were willing to give a certain amount of credit, he found, as this would enable the camp-marshal to keep him from straying. There was no law to hold a man for debt—but Hal knew by this time how much a camp-marshal cared for law.
For three days Hal toiled in the bowels of the mine, and ate and pursued vermin at Reminitsky’s. Then came a blessed Sunday, and he had a couple of free hours to see the sunlight and to get a look at the North Valley camp. It was a village straggling along more than a mile of the mountain canyon. In the centre were the great breaker-buildings, the shaft-house, and the power-house with its tall chimneys; nearby were the company-store and a couple of saloons. There were several boarding-houses like Reminitsky’s, and long rows of board cabins containing from two to four rooms each, some of them occupied by several families. A little way up a slope stood a school-house, and another small one-room building which served as a church; the clergyman belonging to the General Fuel Company denomination. He was given the use of the building, by way of start over the saloons, which had to pay a heavy rental to the company; it seemed a proof of the innate perversity of human nature that even in spite of this advantage, heaven was losing out in the struggle against hell in the coal-camp.
As one walked through this village, the first impression was of desolation. The mountains towered, barren and lonely, scarred with the wounds of geologic ages. In these canyons the sun set early in the afternoon, the snow came early in the fall; everywhere Nature’s hand seemed against man, and man had succumbed to her power. Inside the camps one felt a still more cruel desolation—that of sordidness and animalism. There were a few pitiful attempts at vegetable-gardens, but the cinders and smoke killed everything, and the prevailing colour was of grime. The landscape was strewn with ash-heaps, old wire and tomato-cans, and smudged and smutty children playing.
There was a part of the camp called “shanty-town,” where, amid miniature mountains of slag, some of the lowest of the newly-arrived foreigners had been permitted to build themselves shacks out of old boards, tin, and sheets of tar-paper. These homes were beneath the dignity of chicken-houses, yet in some of them a dozen people were crowded, men and women sleeping on old rags and blankets on a cinder floor. Here the babies swarmed like maggots. They wore for the most part a single ragged smock, and their bare buttocks were shamelessly upturned to the heavens. It was so the children of the cave-men must have played, thought Hal; and waves of repulsion swept over him. He had come with love and curiosity, but both motives failed here. How could a man of sensitive nerves, aware of the refinements and graces of life, learn to love these people, who were an affront to his every sense—a stench to his nostrils, a jabbering to his ear, a procession of deformities to his eye? What had civilisation done for them? What could it do? After all, what were they fit for, but the dirty work they were penned up to do? So spoke the haughty race-consciousness of the Anglo-Saxon, contemplating these Mediterranean hordes, the very shape of whose heads was objectionable.
But Hal stuck it out; and little by little new vision came to him. First of all, it was the fascination of the mines. They were old mines—veritable cities tunnelled out beneath the mountains, the main passages running for miles. One day Hal stole off from his job, and took a trip with a “rope-rider,” and got through his physical senses a realisation of the vastness and strangeness and loneliness of this labyrinth of night. In Number Two mine the vein ran up at a slope of perhaps five degrees; in part of it the empty cars were hauled in long trains by an endless rope, but coming back loaded, they came of their own gravity. This involved much work for the “spraggers,” or boys who did the braking; it sometimes meant run-away cars, and fresh perils added to the everyday perils of coal-mining.
The vein varied from four to five feet in thickness; a cruelty of nature which made it necessary that the men at the “working face”—the place where new coal was being cut—should learn to shorten their stature. After Hal had squatted for a while and watched them at their tasks, he understood why they walked with head and shoulders bent over and arms hanging down, so that, seeing them coming out of the shaft in the gloaming, one thought of a file of baboons. The method of getting out the coal was to “undercut” it with a pick, and then blow it loose with a charge of powder. This meant that the miner had to lie on his side while working, and accounted for other physical peculiarities.
Thus, as always, when one understood the lives of men, one came to pity instead of despising. Here was a separate race of creatures, subterranean, gnomes, pent up by society for purposes of its own. Outside in the sunshine-flooded canyon, long lines of cars rolled down with their freight of soft-coal; coal which would go to the ends of the earth, to places the miner never heard of, turning the wheels of industry whose products the miner would never see. It would make precious silks for fine ladies, it would cut precious jewels for their adornment; it would carry long trains of softly upholstered cars across deserts and over mountains; it would drive palatial steamships out of wintry tempests into gleaming tropic seas. And the fine ladies in their precious silks and jewels would eat and sleep and laugh and lie at ease—and would know no more of the stunted creatures of the dark than the stunted creatures knew of them. Hal reflected upon this, and subdued his Anglo-Saxon pride, finding forgiveness for what was repulsive in these people—their barbarous, jabbering speech, their vermin-ridden homes, their bare-bottomed babies.
It chanced before many days that Hal got a holiday, relieving the monotony of his labours as stableman: an accidental holiday, not provided for in his bargain with the pit-boss. Something went wrong with the ventilating-course in Number Two, and he began to notice a headache, and heard the men grumbling that their lamps were burning low. Then, as matters began to get serious, orders came to get the mules to the surface.
Which meant an amusing adventure. The delight of Hal’s pets at seeing the sunlight was irresistibly comic. They could not be kept from lying down and rolling on their backs in the cinder-strewn street; and when they were corralled in a distant part of the camp where actual grass grew, they abandoned themselves to rapture like a horde of school children at a picnic.
So Hal had a few free hours; and being still young and not cured of idle curiosities, he climbed the canyon wall to see the mountains. As he was sliding down again, toward evening, a vivid spot of colour was painted into his picture of mine-life; he found himself in somebody’s back yard, and being observed by somebody’s daughter, who was taking in the family wash. It was a splendid figure of a lass, tall and vigorous, with the sort of hair that in polite circles is called auburn, and that flaming colour in the cheeks which is Nature’s recompense to people who live where it rains all the time. She was the first beautiful sight Hal had seen since he had come up the canyon, and it was only natural that he should be interested. It seemed to him that, so long as the girl stared, he had a right to stare back. It did not occur to him that he too was a pleasing sight—that the mountain air had given colour to his cheeks and a shine to his gay brown eyes, while the mountain winds had blown his wavy brown hair.
“Hello,” said she, at last, in a warm voice, unmistakably Irish.
“Hello yourself,” said Hal, in the accepted dialect; then he added, with more elegance, “Pardon me for trespassing on your wash.”
Her grey eyes opened wider. “Go on!” she said.
“I’d rather stay,” said Hal. “It’s a beautiful sunset.”
“I’ll move, so ye can see it better.” She carried her armful of clothes over and dropped them into the basket.
“No,” said Hal, “it’s not so fine now. The colours have faded.”
She turned and gazed at him again. “Go on wid ye! I been teased about my hair since before I could talk.”
“’Tis envy,” said Hal, dropping into her way of speech; and he came a few steps nearer, so that he could inspect the hair more closely. It lay above her brow in undulations which were agreeable to the decorative instinct, and a tight heavy braid of it fell over her shoulders and swung to her waist-line. He observed the shoulders, which were sturdy, obviously accustomed to hard labour; not conforming to accepted romantic standards of femininity, yet having an athletic grace of their own. They were covered with a faded blue calico dress, unfortunately not entirely clean; also, the young man noticed, there was a rent in one shoulder through which a patch of skin was visible. The girl’s eyes, which had been following his, became defiant; she tossed a piece of her washing over the shoulder, where it stayed through the balance of the interview.
“Who are ye?” she demanded, suddenly.
“My name’s Joe Smith. I’m a stableman in Number Two.”
“And what were ye doin’ up there, if a body might ask?” She lifted her grey eyes to the bare mountainside, down which he had come sliding in a shower of loose stones and dirt.
“I’ve been surveying my empire,” said he.
“My empire. The land belongs to the company, but the landscape belongs to him who cares for it.”
She tossed her head a little. “Where did ye learn to talk like ye do?”
“In another life,” said he—”before I became a stableman. Not in entire forgetfulness, but trailing clouds of glory did I come.”
For a moment she wrestled with this. Then a smile broke upon her face. “Sure, ‘tis like a poetry-book! Say some more!”
“O, singe fort, so suess und fein!” quoted Hal—and saw her look puzzled.
“Aren’t you American?” she inquired; and he laughed. To speak a foreign language in North Valley was not a mark of culture!
“I’ve been listening to the crowd at Reminitsky’s,” he said, apologetically.
“Oh! You eat there?”
“I go there three times a day. I can’t say I eat very much. Could you live on greasy beans?”
“Sure,” laughed the girl, “the good old pertaties is good enough for me.”
“I should have said you lived on rose leaves!” he observed.
“Go on wid ye! ‘Tis the blarney-stone ye been kissin’!”
“’Tis no stone I’d be wastin’ my kisses on.”
“Ye’re gettin’ bold, Mister Smith. I’ll not listen to ye.” And she turned away, and began industriously taking her clothes from the line. But Hal did not want to be dismissed. He came a step closer.
“Coming down the mountain-side,” he said, “I found something wonderful. It’s bare and grim up there, but I came on a sheltered corner where the sun shone, and there was a wild rose. Only one! I thought to myself, ‘So roses grow, even in the loneliest parts of the world!’”
“Sure, ‘tis a poetry-book again!” she cried. “Why didn’t ye bring the rose?”
“There is a poetry-book that tells us to ‘leave the wild-rose on its stalk.’ It will go on blooming there; but if one were to pluck it, it would wither in a few hours.”
He had meant nothing more by this than to keep the conversation going. But her answer turned the tide of their acquaintance.
“Ye can never be sure, lad. Perhaps to-night a storm may come and blow it to pieces. Perhaps if ye’d pulled it and been happy, ‘twould ‘a been what the rose was for.”
Whatever of unconscious patronage there had been in the poet’s attitude was lost now in the eternal mystery. Whether the girl knew it—or cared—she had won the woman’s first victory. She had caught the man’s mind and pinned it with curiosity. What did this wild rose of the mining camps mean?
The wild rose, apparently unconscious that she had said anything epoch-making, was busy with the wash; and meantime Hal Warner studied her features and pondered her words. From a lady of sophistication they would have meant only one thing, an invitation; but in this girl’s clear grey eyes was nothing of wantonness, only pain. But what was this pain in the face and words of one so young, so eager and alive? Was it the melancholy of her race, the thing one got in old folk-songs? Or was it a new and special kind of melancholy, engendered in mining-camps in the far West of America?
The girl’s countenance was as intriguing as her words. Her grey eyes were set under sharply defined dark brows, which did not match her hair. Her lips also were sharply defined, and straight, almost without curves, so that it seemed as if her mouth had been painted in carmine upon her face. These features gave her, when she stared at you, an aspect vivid and startling, bold, with a touch of defiance. But when she smiled, the red lips would curve into gentler lines, and the grey eyes would become wistful, and seemingly darker in colour. Winsome indeed, but not simple, was this Irish lass!
Hal asked the name of his new acquaintance, and she told him it was Mary Burke. “Ye’ve not been here long, I take it,” she said, “or ye’d have heard of ‘Red Mary.’ ‘Tis along of this hair.”
“I’ve not been here long,” he answered, “but I shall hope to stay now—along of this hair! May I come to see you some time, Miss Burke?”
She did not reply, but glanced at the house where she lived. It was an unpainted, three room cabin, more dilapidated than the average, with bare dirt and cinders about it, and what had once been a picket-fence, now falling apart and being used for stove-wood. The windows were cracked and broken, and upon the roof were signs of leaks that had been crudely patched.
“May I come?” he made haste to ask again—so that he would not seem to look too critically at her home.
“Perhaps ye may,” said the girl, as she picked up the clothes basket. He stepped forward, offering to carry it, but she did not give it up. Holding it tight, and looking him defiantly in the face, she said, “Ye may come, but ye’ll not find it a happy place to visit, Mr. Smith. Ye’ll hear soon enough from the neighbours.”
“I don’t think I know any of your neighbours,” said he.
There was sympathy in his voice; but her look was no less defiant. “Ye’ll hear about it, Mr. Smith; but ye’ll hear also that I hold me head up. And ‘tis not so easy to do that in North Valley.”
“You don’t like the place?” he asked; and he was amazed by the effect of this question, which was merely polite. It was as if a storm cloud had swept over the girl’s face. “I hate it! ‘Tis a place of fear and devils!”
He hesitated a moment; then, “Will you tell me what you mean by that when I come?”
But “Red Mary” was winsome again. “When ye come, Mr. Smith, I’ll not be entertaining ye with troubles. I’ll put on me company manner, and we’ll go out for a nice walk, if ye please.”
All the way as he walked back to Reminitsky’s to supper, Hal thought about this girl; not merely her pleasantness to the eye, so unexpected in this place of desolation, but her personality, which baffled him—the pain that seemed always just beneath the surface of her thoughts, the fierce pride which flashed out at the slightest suggestion of sympathy, the way she had of brightening when he spoke the language of metaphor, however trite. How had she come to know about poetry-books? He wanted to know more about this miracle of Nature—this wild rose blooming on a bare mountain-side!
There was one of Mary Burke’s remarks upon which Hal soon got light—her statement that North Valley was a place of fear. He listened to the tales of these underworld men, until it came so that he shuddered with dread each time that he went down in the cage.
There was a wire-haired and almond eyed Korean, named Cho, a “rope-rider” in Hal’s part of the mine. He was one of those who had charge of the long trains of cars, called “trips,” which were hauled through the main passage-ways; the name “rope-rider” came from the fact that he sat on the heavy iron ring to which the rope was attached. He invited Hal to a seat with him, and Hal accepted, at peril of his job as well as of his limbs. Cho had picked up what he fondly thought was English, and now and then one could understand a word. He pointed upon the ground, and shouted above the rattle of the cars: “Big dust!” Hal saw that the ground was covered with six inches of coal-dust, while on the old disused walls one could write his name in it. “Much blow-up!” said the rope-rider; and when the last empty cars had been shunted off into the working-rooms, and he was waiting to make up a return “trip,” he laboured with gestures to explain what he meant. “Load cars. Bang! Bust like hell!”
Hal knew that the mountain air in this region was famous for its dryness; he learned now that the quality which meant life to invalids from every part of the world meant death to those who toiled to keep the invalids warm. Driven through the mines by great fans, this air took out every particle of moisture, and left coal dust so thick and dry that there were fatal explosions from the mere friction of loading-shovels. So it happened that these mines were killing several times as many men as other mines throughout the country.
Was there no remedy for this, Hal asked, talking with one of his mule-drivers, Tim Rafferty, the evening after his ride with Cho. There was a remedy, said Tim—the law required sprinkling the mines with “adobe-dust”; and once in Tim’s life, he remembered this law’s being obeyed. There had come some “big fellows” inspecting things, and previous to their visit there had been an elaborate campaign of sprinkling. But that had been several years ago, and now the apparatus was stored away, nobody knew where, and one heard nothing about sprinkling.
It was the same with precautions against gas. The North Valley mines were especially “gassy,” it appeared. In these old rambling passages one smelt a stink as of all the rotten eggs in all the barn-yards of the world; and this sulphuretted hydrogen was the least dangerous of the gases against which a miner had to contend. There was the dreaded “choke-damp,” which was odourless, and heavier than air. Striking into soft, greasy coal, one would open a pocket of this gas, a deposit laid up for countless ages, awaiting its predestined victim. A man might sink to sleep as he lay at work, and if his “buddy,” or helper, happened to be out of sight, and to delay a minute too long, it would be all over with the man. And there was the still more dreaded “fire-damp,” which might wreck a whole mine, and kill scores and even hundreds of men.
Against these dangers there was a “fire-boss,” whose duty was to go through the mine, testing for gas, and making sure that the ventilating-course was in order, and the fans working properly. The “fire-boss” was supposed to make his rounds in the early morning, and the law specified that no one should go to work till he had certified that all was safe. But what if the “fire-boss” overslept himself, or happened to be drunk? It was too much to expect thousands of dollars to be lost for such a reason. So sometimes one saw men ordered to their work, and sent down grumbling and cursing. Before many hours some of them would be prostrated with headache, and begging to be taken out; and perhaps the superintendent would not let them out, because if a few came, the rest would get scared and want to come also.
Once, only last year, there had been an accident of that sort. A young mule-driver, a Croatian, told Hal about it while they sat munching the contents of their dinner-pails. The first cage-load of men had gone down into the mine, sullenly protesting; and soon afterwards some one had taken down a naked light, and there had been an explosion which had sounded like the blowing up of the inside of the world. Eight men had been killed, the force of the explosion being so great that some of the bodies had been wedged between the shaft wall and the cage, and it had been necessary to cut them to pieces to get them out. It was them Japs that were to blame, vowed Hal’s informant. They hadn’t ought to turn them loose in coal mines, for the devil himself couldn’t keep a Jap from sneaking off to get a smoke.
So Hal understood how North Valley was a place of fear. What tales the old chambers of these mines could have told, if they had had voices! Hal watched the throngs pouring in to their labours, and reflected that according to the statisticians of the government eight or nine of every thousand of them were destined to die violent deaths before a year was out, and some thirty more would be badly injured. And they knew this, they knew it better than all the statisticians of the government; yet they went to their tasks! Reflecting upon this, Hal was full of wonder. What was the force that kept men at such a task? Was it a sense of duty? Did they understand that society had to have coal and that some one had to do the “dirty work” of providing it? Did they have a vision of a future, great and wonderful, which was to grow out of their ill-requited toil? Or were they simply fools or cowards, submitting blindly, because they had not the wit nor the will to do otherwise? Curiosity held him, he wanted to understand the inner souls of these silent and patient armies which through the ages have surrendered their lives to other men’s control.
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