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Chapter 17

Such conditions made the coal-district a place of despair. Yet there were men who managed to get along somehow, and to raise families and keep decent homes. If one had the luck to escape accident, if he did not marry too young, or did not have too many children; if he could manage to escape the temptations of liquor, to which overwork and monotony drove so many; if, above all, he could keep on the right side of his boss--why then he might have a home, and even a little money on deposit with the company.

Such a one was Jerry Minetti, who became one of Hal's best friends. He was a Milanese, and his name was Gerolamo, which had become Jerry in the "melting-pot." He was about twenty-five years of age, and what is unusual with the Italians, was of good stature. Their meeting took place--as did most of Hal's social experiences--on a Sunday. Jerry had just had a sleep and a wash, and had put on a pair of new blue overalls, so that he presented a cheering aspect in the sunlight. He walked with his head up and his shoulders square, and one could see that he had few cares in the world.

But what caught Hal's attention was not so much Jerry as what followed at Jerry's heels; a perfect reproduction of him, quarter-size, also with a newly-washed face and a pair of new blue overalls. He too had his head up, and his shoulders square, and he was an irresistible object, throwing out his heels and trying his best to keep step. Since the longest strides he could take left him behind, he would break into a run, and getting close under his father's heels, would begin keeping step once more.

Hal was going in the same direction, and it affected him like the music of a military band; he too wanted to throw his head up and square his shoulders and keep step. And then other people, seeing the grin on his face, would turn and watch, and grin also. But Jerry walked on gravely, unaware of this circus in the rear.

They went into a house; and Hal, having nothing to do but enjoy life, stood waiting for them to come out. They returned in the same procession, only now the man had a sack of something on his shoulder, while the little chap had a smaller load poised in imitation. So Hal grinned again, and when they were opposite him, he said, "Hello."

"Hello," said Jerry, and stopped. Then, seeing Hal's grin, he grinned back; and Hal looked at the little chap and grinned, and the little chap grinned back. Jerry, seeing what Hal was grinning at, grinned more than ever; so there stood all three in the middle of the road, grinning at one another for no apparent reason.

"Gee, but that's a great kid!" said Hal.

"Gee, you bet!" said Jerry; and he set down his sack. If some one desired to admire the kid, he was willing to stop any length of time.

"Yours?" asked Hal.

"You bet!" said Jerry, again.

"Hello, Buster!" said Hal.

"Hello yourself!" said the kid. One could see in a moment that he had been in the "melting-pot."

"What's your name?" asked Hal.

"Jerry," was the reply.

"And what's his name?" Hal nodded towards the man--

"Big Jerry."

"Got any more like you at home?"

"One more," said Big Jerry. "Baby."

"He ain't like me," said Little Jerry. "He's little."

"And you're big?" said Hal.

"He can't walk!"

"Neither can you walk!" laughed Hal, and caught him up and slung him onto his shoulder. "Come on, we'll ride!"

So Big Jerry took up his sack again, and they started off; only this time it was Hal who fell behind and kept step, squaring his shoulders and flinging out his heels. Little Jerry caught onto the joke, and giggled and kicked his sturdy legs with delight. Big Jerry would look round, not knowing what the joke was, but enjoying it just the same.

They came to the three-room cabin which was Both Jerrys' home; and Mrs. Jerry came to the door, a black-eyed Sicilian girl, who did not look old enough to have even one baby. They had another bout of grinning, at the end of which Big Jerry said, "You come in?"

"Sure," said Hal.

"You stay supper," added the other. "Got spaghetti."

"Gee!" said Hal. "All right, let me stay, and pay for it."

"Hell, no!" said Jerry. "You no pay!"

"No! No pay!" cried Mrs. Jerry, shaking her pretty head energetically.

"All right," said Hal, quickly, seeing that he might hurt their feelings. "I'll stay if you're sure you have enough."

"Sure, plenty!" said Jerry. "Hey, Rosa?"

"Sure, plenty!" said Mrs. Jerry.

"Then I'll stay," said Hal. "You like spaghetti, Kid?"

"Jesus!" cried Little Jerry.

Hal looked about him at this Dago home. It was a tome in keeping with its pretty occupant. There were lace curtains in the windows, even shinier and whiter than at the Rafferties; there was an incredibly bright-coloured rug on the floor, and bright coloured pictures of Mount Vesuvius and of Garibaldi on the walls. Also there was a cabinet with many interesting treasures to look at--a bit of coral and a conch-shell, a shark's tooth and an Indian arrow-head, and a stuffed linnet with a glass cover over him. A while back Hal would not have thought of such things as especially stimulating to the imagination; but that was before he had begun to spend five-sixths of his waking hours in the bowels of the earth.

He ate supper, a real Dago supper; the spaghetti proved to be real Dago spaghetti, smoking hot, with tomato sauce and a rich flavour of meat-juice. And all through the meal Hal smacked his lips and grinned at Little Jerry, who smacked his lips and grinned back. It was all so different from feeding at Reminitsky's pig-trough, that Hal thought he had never had such a good supper in his life before. As for Mr. and Mrs. Jerry, they were so proud of their wonderful kid, who could swear in English as good as a real American, that they were in the seventh heaven.

When the meal was over, Hal leaned back and exclaimed, just as he had at the Rafferties', "Lord, how I wish I could board here!"

He saw his host look at his wife. "All right," said he. "You come here. I board you. Hey, Rosa?"

"Sure," said Rosa.

Hal looked at them, astonished. "You're sure they'll let you?" he asked.

"Let me? Who stop me?"

"I don't know. Maybe Reminitsky. You might get into trouble."

Jerry grinned. "I no fraid," said he. "Got friends here. Carmino my cousin. You know Carmino?"

"No," said Hal.

"Pit-boss in Number One. He stand by me. Old Reminitsky go hang! You come here, I give you bunk in that room, give you good grub. What you pay Reminitsky?"

"Twenty-seven a month."

"All right, you pay me twenty-seven, you get everything good. Can't get much stuff here, but Rosa good cook, she fix it."

Hal's new friend--besides being a favourite of the boss--was a "shot-firer"; it was his duty to go about the mine at night, setting off the charges of powder which the miners had got ready by day. This was dangerous work, calling for a skilled man, and it paid pretty well; so Jerry got on in the world and was not afraid to speak his mind, within certain limits. He ignored the possibility that Hal might be a company spy, and astonished him by rebellious talk of the different kinds of graft in North Valley, and at other places he had worked since coming to America as a boy. Minetti was a Socialist, Hal learned; he took an Italian Socialist paper, and the clerk at the post-office knew what sort of paper it was, and would "josh" him about it. What was more remarkable, Mrs. Minetti was a Socialist also; that meant a great deal to a man, as Jerry explained, because she was not under the domination of a priest.

Upton Sinclair