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Chapter 24

The train up to North Valley left very soon, and Hal figured that there would be just time to accomplish his errand and catch the last train back. He took his seat in the car without attracting attention, and sat in his place until they were approaching their destination, the last stop up the canyon. There were several of the miners' women in the car, and Hal picked out one who belonged to Mrs. Zamboni's nationality, and moved over beside her. She made place, with some remark; but Hal merely sobbed softly, and the woman felt for his hand to comfort him. As his hands were clasped together under the veils, she patted him reassuringly on the knee.

At the boundary of the stockaded village the train stopped, and Bud Adams came through the car, scrutinising every passenger. Seeing this, Hal began to sob again, and murmured something indistinct to his companion--which caused her to lean towards him, speaking volubly in her native language. "Bud" passed by.

When Hal came to leave the train, he took his companion's arm; he sobbed some more, and she talked some more, and so they went down the platform, under the very eyes of Pete Hanun, the "breaker of teeth." Another woman joined them, and they walked down the street, the women conversing in Slavish, apparently without a suspicion of Hal.

He had worked out his plan of action. He would not try to talk with the men secretly--it would take too long, and he might be betrayed before he had talked with a sufficient number. One bold stroke was the thing. In half an hour it would be supper-time, and the feeders would gather in Reminitsky's dining-room. He would give his message there!

Hal's two companions were puzzled that he passed the Zamboni cabin, where presumably the Zamboni brood were being cared for by neighbours. But he let them make what they could of this, and went on to the Minetti home. To the astonished Rosa he revealed himself, and gave her husband's message--that she should take herself and the children down to Pedro, and wait quietly until she heard from him. She hurried out and brought in Jack David, to whom Hal explained matters. "Big Jack's" part in the recent disturbance had apparently not been suspected; he and his wife, with Rovetta, Wresmak, and Klowoski, would remain as a nucleus through which the union could work upon the men.

The supper-hour was at hand, and the pseudo-Mrs. Zamboni emerged and toddled down the street. As she passed into the dining-room of the boarding-house, men looked at her, but no one spoke. It was the stage of the meal where everybody was grabbing and devouring, in the effort to get the best of his grabbing and devouring neighbours. The black-clad figure went to the far end of the room; there was a vacant chair, and the figure pulled it back from the table and climbed upon it. Then a shout rang through the room: "Boys! Boys!"

The feeders looked up, and saw the widow's weeds thrown back, and their leader, Joe Smith, gazing out at them. "Boys! I've come with a message from the union!"

There was a yell; men leaped to their feet, chairs were flung back, falling with a crash to the floor. Then, almost instantly, came silence; you could have heard the movement of any man's jaws, had any man continued to move them.

"Boys! I've been down to Pedro and seen the union people. I knew the bosses wouldn't let me come back, so I dressed up, and here I am!"

It dawned upon them, the meaning of this fantastic costume; there were cheers, laughter, yells of delight.

But Hal stretched out his hands, and silence fell again. "Listen to me! The bosses won't let me talk long, and I've something important to say. The union leaders say we can't win a strike now."

Consternation came into the faces before him. There were cries of dismay. He went on:

"We are only one camp, and the bosses would turn us out, they'd get in scabs and run the mines without us. What we must have is a strike of all the camps at once. One big union and one big strike! If we walked out now, it would please the bosses; but we'll fool them--we'll keep our jobs, and keep our union too! You are members of the union, you'll go on working for the union! Hooray for the North Valley union!"

For a moment there was no response. It was hard for men to cheer over such a prospect! Hal saw that he must touch a different chord.

"We mustn't be cowards, boys! We've got to keep our nerve! I'm doing my part--it took nerve to get in here! In Mrs. Zamboni's clothes, and with two pillows stuffed in front of me!"

He thumped the pillows, and there was a burst of laughter. Many in the crowd knew Mrs. Zamboni--it was what comedians call a "local gag." The laughter spread, and became a gale of merriment. Men began to cheer: "Hurrah for Joe! You're the girl! Will you marry me, Joe?" And so, of course, it was easy for Hal to get a response when he shouted, "Hurrah for the North Valley union!"

Again he raised his hands for silence, and went on again. "Listen, men. They'll turn me out, and you're not going to resist them. You're going to work and keep your jobs, and get ready for the big strike. And you'll tell the other men what I say. I can't talk to them all, but you tell them about the union. Remember, there are people outside planning and fighting for you. We're going to stand by the union, all of us, till we've brought these coal-camps back into America!" There was a cheer that shook the walls of the room. Yes, that was what they wanted--to live in America!

A crowd of men had gathered in the doorway, attracted by the uproar; Hal noticed confusion and pushing, and saw the head and burly shoulders of his enemy, Pete Hanun, come into sight.

"Here come the gunmen, boys!" he cried; and there was a roar of anger from the crowd. Men turned, clenching their fists, glaring at the guard. But Hal rushed on, quickly:

"Boys, hear what I say! Keep your heads! I can't stay in North Valley, and you know it! But I've done the thing I came to do, I've brought you the message from the union. And you'll tell the other men--tell them to stand by the union!"

Hal went on, repeating his message over and over. Looking from one to another of these toil-worn faces, he remembered the pledge he had made them, and he made it anew: "I'm going to stand by you! I'm going on with the fight, boys!"

There came more disturbance at the door, and suddenly Jeff Cotton appeared, with a couple of additional guards, shoving their way into the room, breathless and red in the face from running.

"Ah, there's the marshal!" cried Hal. "You needn't push, Cotton, there's not going to be any trouble. We are union men here, we know how to control ourselves. Now, boys, we're not giving up, we're not beaten, we're only waiting for the men in the other camps! We have a union, and we mean to keep it! Three cheers for the union!"

The cheers rang out with a will: cheers for the union, cheers for Joe Smith, cheers for the widow and her weeds!

"You belong to the union! You stand by it, no matter what happens! If they fire you, you take it on to the next place! You teach it to the new men, you never let it die in your hearts! In union there is strength, in union there is hope! Never forget it, men--_Union_!"

The voice of the camp-marshal rang out. "If you're coming, young woman, come now!"

Hal dropped a shy curtsey. "Oh, Mr. Cotton! This is so sudden!" The crowd howled; and Hal descended from his platform. With coquettish gesturing he replaced the widow's veils about his face, and tripped mincingly across the dining-room. When he reached the camp-marshal, he daintily took that worthy's arm, and with the "breaker of teeth" on the other side, and Bud Adams bringing up the rear, he toddled out of the dining-room and down the street.

Hungry men gave up their suppers to behold that sight. They poured out of the building, they followed, laughing, shouting, jeering. Others came from every direction--by the time the party had reached the depot, a good part of the population of the village was on hand; and everywhere went the word, "It's Joe Smith! Come back with a message from the union!" Big, coal-grimed miners laughed till the tears made streaks on their faces; they fell on one another's necks for delight at this trick which had been played upon their oppressors.

Even Jeff Cotton could not withhold his tribute. "By God, you're the limit!" he muttered. He accepted the "tea-party" aspect of the affair, as the easiest way to get rid of his recurrent guest, and avert the possibilities of danger. He escorted the widow to the train and helped her up the steps, posting escorts at the doors of her car; nor did the attentions of these gallants cease until the train had moved down the canyon and passed the limits of the North Valley stockade!

Upton Sinclair