For the most part the victims of this system were cowed and spoke of their wrongs only in whispers; but there was one place in the camp, Hal found, where they could not keep silence, where their sense of outrage battled with their fear. This place was the solar plexus of the mine-organism, the centre of its nervous energies; to change the simile, it was the judgment-seat, where the miner had sentence passed upon him--sentence either to plenty, or to starvation and despair.
This place was the "tipple," where the coal that came out of the mine was weighed and recorded. Every digger, as he came from the cage, made for this spot. There was a bulletin-board, and on it his number, and the record of the weights of the cars he had sent out that day. And every man, no matter how ignorant, had learned enough English to read those figures.
Hal had gradually come to realise that here was the place of drama. Most of the men would look, and then, without a sound or glance about, would slouch off with drooping shoulders. Others would mumble to themselves--or, what amounted to the same thing, would mumble to one another in barbarous dialects. But about one in five could speak English; and scarcely an evening passed that some man did not break loose, shaking his fist at the sky, or at the weigh-boss--behind the latter's back. He might gather a knot of fellow-grumblers about him; it was to be noted that the camp-marshal had the habit of being on hand at this hour.
It was on one of these occasions that Hal first noticed Mike Sikoria, a grizzle-haired old Slovak, who had spent twenty years in the mines of these regions. All the bitterness of all the wrongs of all these years welled up in Old Mike, as he shouted his score aloud: "Nineteen, twenty-two, twenty-four, twenty! Is that my weight, Mister? You want me to believe that's my weight?"
"That's your weight," said the weigh-boss, coldly.
"Well, by Judas, your scale is off, Mister! Look at them cars--them cars is big! You measure them cars, Mister--seven feet long, three and a half feet high, four feet wide. And you tell me them don't go but twenty?"
"You don't load them right," said the boss.
"Don't load them right?" echoed the old miner; he became suddenly plaintive, as if more hurt than angered by such an insinuation. "You know all the years I work, and you tell me I don't know a load? When I load a car, I load him like a miner, I don't load him like a Jap, that don't know about a mine! I put it up--I chunk it up like a stack of hay. I load him square--like that." With gestures the old fellow was illustrating what he meant. "See there! There's a ton on the top, and a ton and a half on the bottom--and you tell me I get only nineteen, twenty!"
"That's your weight," said the boss, implacably.
"But, Mister, your scale is wrong! I tell you I used to get my weight. I used to get forty-five, forty-six on them cars. Here's my buddy--ask him if it ain't so. What is it, Bo?"
"Um m m-mum," said Bo, who was a negro--though one could hardly be sure of this for the coal-dust on him.
"I can't make a living no more!" exclaimed the old Slovak, his voice trembling and his wizened dark eyes full of pleading. "What you think I make? For fifteen days, fifty cents! I pay board, and so help me God, Mister--and I stand right here--I swear for God I make fifty cents. I dig the coal and I ain't got no weight, I ain't got nothing! Your scale is wrong!"
"Get out!" said the weigh-boss, turning away.
"But, Mister!" cried Old Mike, following behind him, and pouring his whole soul into his words. "What is this life, Mister? You work like a burro, and you don't get nothing for it! You burn your own powder--half a dollar a day powder--what you think of that? Crosscut--and you get nothing! Take the skip and a pillar, and you get nothing! Brush--and you get nothing! Here, by Judas, a poor man, going and working his body to the last point, and blood is run out! You starve me to death, I say! I have got to have something to eat, haven't I?"
And suddenly the boss whirled upon him. "Get the hell out of here!" he shouted. "If you don't like it, get your time and quit. Shut your face, or I'll shut it for you."
The old man quailed and fell silent. He stood for a moment more, biting his whiskered lips nervously; then his shoulders sank together, and he turned and slunk off, followed by his negro helper.
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