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Chapter 26

Hal kept his eye upon his new acquaintance, and perceived that he was talking with others. Before long the man tackled Old Mike; and Mike of course could not refuse an invitation to grumble, though it came from the devil himself. Hal decided that something must be done about it.

He consulted his friend Jerry, who, being a radical, might have some touch-stone by which to test the stranger. Jerry sought him out at noon-time, and came back and reported that he was as much in the dark as Hal. Either the man was an agitator, seeking to "start something," or else he was a detective sent in by the company. There was only one way to find out--which was for some one to talk freely with him, and see what happened to that person!

After some hesitation, Hal decided that he would be the victim. It rewakened his love of adventure, which digging in a coal-mine had subdued in him. The mysterious stranger was a new sort of miner, digging into the souls of men; Hal would countermine him, and perhaps blow him up. He could afford the experiment better than some others--better, for example, than little Mrs. David, who had already taken the stranger into her home, and revealed to him the fact that her husband had been a member of the most revolutionary of all miners' organisations, the South Wales Federation.

So next Sunday Hal invited the stranger for another walk. The man showed reluctance--until Hal said that he wanted to talk to him. As they walked up the canyon, Hal began, "I've been thinking about what you said of conditions in these camps, and I've concluded it would be a good thing if we had a little shaking up here in North Valley."

"Is that so?" said the other.

"When I first came here, I used to think the men were grouchy. But now I've had a chance to see for myself, and I don't believe anybody gets a square deal. For one thing, nobody gets full weight in these mines--at least not unless he's some favourite of the boss. I'm sure of it, for I've tried all sorts of experiments with my partner. We've loaded a car extra light, and got eighteen hundredweight, and then we've loaded one high and solid, so that we'd know it had twice as much in it--but all we ever got was twenty-two and twenty-three. There's just no way you can get over that--though everybody knows those big cars can be made to hold two or three tons."

"Yes, I suppose they might," said the other.

"And if you get the smallest piece of rock in, you get a 'double-O,' sure as fate; and sometimes they say you got rock in when you didn't. There's no law to make them prove it."

"No, I suppose not."

"What it comes to is simply this--they make you think they are paying fifty-five a ton, but they've secretly cut you down to thirty-five. And yesterday at the company-store I paid a dollar and a half for a pair of blue overalls that I'd priced in Pedro for sixty cents."

"Well," said the other, "the company has to haul them up here, you know!"

So, gradually, Hal made the discovery that the tables were turned--the mysterious personage was now occupied in holding _him_ at arm's length! For some reason, Hal's sudden interest in industrial justice had failed to make an impression.

So his career as a detective came to an inglorious end. "Say, man!" he exclaimed "What's your game, anyhow?"

"Game?" said the other, quietly. "How do you mean?"

"I mean, what are you here for?"

"I'm here for two dollars a day--the same as you, I guess."

Hal began to laugh. "You and I are like a couple of submarines, trying to find each other under water. I think we'd better come to the surface to do our fighting."

The other considered the simile, and seemed to like it. "You come first," said he. But he did not smile. His quiet blue eyes were fixed on Hal with deadly seriousness.

"All right," said Hal; "my story isn't very thrilling. I'm not an escaped convict, I'm not a company spy, as you may be thinking. Nor am I a 'natural born' coal-miner. I happen to have a brother and some friends at home who think they know about the coal-industry, and it got on my nerves, and I came to see for myself. That's all, except that I've found things interesting, and want to stay on a while, so I hope you aren't a 'dick'!"

The other walked in silence, weighing Hal's words. "That's not exactly what you'd call a usual story," he remarked, at last.

"I know," replied Hal. "The best I can say for it is that it's true."

"Well," said the stranger, "I'll take a chance on it. I have to trust somebody, if I'm ever to get anywhere. I picked you out because I liked your face." He gave Hal another searching look as he walked. "Your smile isn't that of a cheat. But you're young--so let me remind you of the importance of secrecy in this place."

"I'll keep mum," said Hal; and the stranger opened a flap inside his shirt, and drew out a letter which certified him to be Thomas Olson, an organiser for the United Mine-Workers, the great national union of the coal-miners!

Upton Sinclair