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Chapter 15

Old Mike boarded at Reminitsky's, and after supper was over, Hal sought him out. He was easy to know, and proved an interesting acquaintance. With the help of his eloquence Hal wandered through a score of camps in the district. The old fellow had a temper that he could not manage, and so he was always on the move; but all places were alike, he said--there was always some trick by which a miner was cheated of his earnings. A miner was a little business man, a contractor who took a certain job, with its expenses and its chance of profit or loss. A "place" was assigned to him by the boss--and he undertook to get out the coal from it, being paid at the rate of fifty-five cents a ton for each ton of clean coal. In some "places" a man could earn good money, and in others he would work for weeks, and not be able to keep up with his store-account.

It all depended upon the amount of rock and slate that was found with the coal. If the vein was low, the man had one or two feet of rock to take off the ceiling, and this had to be loaded on separate cars and taken away. This work was called "brushing," and for it the miner received no pay. Or perhaps it was necessary to cut through a new passage, and clean out the rock; or perhaps to "grade the bottom," and lay the ties and rails over which the cars were brought in to be loaded; or perhaps the vein ran into a "fault," a broken place where there was rock instead of coal--and this rock must be hewed away before the miner could get at the coal. All such work was called "dead-work," and it was the cause of unceasing war. In the old days the company had paid extra for it; now, since they had got the upper hand of the men, they were refusing to pay. And so it was important to the miner to have a "place" assigned him where there was not so much of this dead work. And the "place" a man got depended upon the boss; so here, at the very outset, was endless opportunity for favouritism and graft, for quarrelling, or "keeping in" with the boss. What chance did a man stand who was poor and old and ugly, and could not speak English good? inquired old Mike, with bitterness. The boss stole his cars and gave them to other people; he took the weight off the cars, and gave them to fellows who boarded with him, or treated him to drinks, or otherwise curried favour with him.

"I work five days in the Southeastern," said Mike, and when I work them five days, so help me God, brother, if I don't get up out of this chair, fifteen cents I was still in the hole yet. Fourteen inches of rock! And the Mr. Bishop--that is the superintendent--I says, 'Do you pay something for that rock?' 'Huh?' says he. 'Well,' I says, 'if you don't pay nothing for the rock, I don't go ahead with it. I ain't got no place to put that rock.' 'Get the hell out of here,' says he, and when I started to fight he pull gun on me. And then I go to Cedar Mountain, and the super give me work there, and he says, 'You go Number Four,' and he says, 'Rail is in Number Three, and the ties.' And he says, 'I pay you for it when you put it in.' So I take it away and I put it in, and I work till twelve o'clock. Carried the three pair of rails and the ties, and I pulled all the spikes--"

"Pulled the spikes?" asked Hal.

"Got no good spikes. Got to use old spikes, what you pull out of them old ties. So then I says, 'What is my half day, what you promise me?' Says he, 'You ain't dug no coal yet!' 'But, mister,' says I, 'you promise me pay to pull them spikes and put in them ties!' Says he, 'Company pay nothin' for dead work--you know that,' says he, and that is all the satisfaction I get."

"And you didn't get your half day's pay?"

"Sure I get nothin'. Boss do just as he please in coal mine."

Upton Sinclair