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Chapter 20

Mary Burke had said that the company could stand breaking the bones of its men; and not long after Number Two started up again, Hal had a chance to note the truth of this assertion.

A miner's life depended upon the proper timbering of the room where he worked. The company undertook to furnish the timbers, but when the miner needed them, he would find none at hand, and would have to make the mile-long trip to the surface. He would select timbers of the proper length, and would mark them--the understanding being that they were to be delivered to his room by some of the labourers. But then some one else would carry them off--here was more graft and favouritism, and the miner might lose a day or two of work, while meantime his account was piling up at the store, and his children might have no shoes to go to school. Sometimes he would give up waiting for timbers, and go on taking out coal; so there would be a fall of rock--and the coroner's jury would bring in a verdict of "negligence," and the coal-operators would talk solemnly about the impossibility of teaching caution to miners. Not so very long ago Hal had read an interview which the president of the General Fuel Company had given to a newspaper, in which he set forth the idea that the more experience a miner had the more dangerous it was to employ him, because he thought he knew it all, and would not heed the wise regulations which the company laid down for his safety!

In Number Two mine there were some places being operated by the "room and pillar" method; the coal being taken out as from a series of rooms, the portion corresponding to the walls of the rooms being left to uphold the roof. These walls are the "pillars"; and when the end of the vein is reached, the miner begins to work backwards, "pulling the pillars," and letting the roof collapse behind him. This is a dangerous task; as he works, the man has to listen to the drumming sounds of the rock above his head, and has to judge just when to make his escape. Sometimes he is too anxious to save a tool; or sometimes the collapse comes without warning. In that case the victim is seldom dug out; for it must be admitted that a man buried under a mountain is as well buried as a company could be expected to arrange it.

In Number Two mine a man was caught in this way. He stumbled as he ran, and the lower half of his body was pinned fast; the doctor had to come and pump opiates into him, while the rescue crew was digging him loose. The first Hal knew of the accident was when he saw the body stretched out on a plank, with a couple of old sacks to cover it. He noticed that nobody stopped for a second glance. Going up from work, he asked his friend Madvik, the mule driver, who answered, "Lit'uanian feller--got mash." And that was all. Nobody knew him, and nobody cared about him.

It happened that Mike Sikoria had been working nearby, and was one of those who helped to get the victim out. Mike's negro "buddy" had been in too great haste to get some of the rock out of the way, and had got his hand crushed, and would not be able to work for a month or so. Mike told Hal about it, in his broken English. It was a terrible thing to see a man trapped like that, gasping, his eyes almost popping out of his head. Fortunately he was a young fellow, and had no family.

Hal asked what they would do with the body; the answer was they would bury him in the morning. The company had a piece of ground up the canyon.

"But won't they have an inquest?" he inquired.

"Inques'?" repeated the other. "What's he?"

"Doesn't the coroner see the body?"

The old Slovak shrugged his bowed shoulders; if there was a coroner in this part of the world, he had never heard of it; and he had worked in a good many mines, and seen a good many men put under the ground. "Put him in a box and dig a hole," was the way he described the procedure.

"And doesn't the priest come?"

"Priest too far away."

Afterwards Hal made inquiry among the English-speaking men, and learned that the coroner did sometimes come to the camp. He would empanel a jury consisting of Jeff Cotton, the marshal, and Predovich, the Galician Jew who worked in the company store, and a clerk or two from the company's office, and a couple of Mexican labourers who had no idea what it was all about. This jury would view the corpse, and ask a couple of men what had happened, and then bring in a verdict: "We find that the deceased met his death from a fall of rock caused by his own fault." (In one case they had added the picturesque detail: "No relatives, and damned few friends!")

For this service the coroner got a fee, and the company got an official verdict, which would be final in case some foreign consul should threaten a damage suit. So well did they have matters in hand that nobody in North Valley had ever got anything for death or injury; in fact, as Hal found later, there had not been a damage suit filed against any coal-operator in that county for twenty-three years!

This particular, accident was of consequence to Hal, because it got him a chance to see the real work of mining. Old Mike was without a helper, and made the proposition that Hal should take the job. It was better than a stableman's, for it paid two dollars a day.

"But will the boss let me change?" asked Hal.

"You give him ten dollar, he change you," said Mike.

"Sorry," said Hal, "I haven't got ten dollars."

"You give him ten dollar credit," said the other.

And Hal laughed. "They take scrip for graft, do they?"

"Sure they take him," said Mike.

"Suppose I treat my mules bad?" continued the other. "So I can make him change me for nothing!"

"He change you to hell!" replied Mike. "You get him cross, he put us in bad room, cost us ten dollar a week. No, sir--you give him drink, say fine feller, make him feel good. You talk American--give him jolly!"

Upton Sinclair