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Chapter 1

THE SERFS OF KING COAL

Hal was now started upon a new career, more full of excitements than that of stableman or buddy, with perils greater than those of falling rock or the hind feet of mules in the stomach. The inertia which overwork produces had not had time to become a disease with him; youth was on his side, with its zest for more and yet more experience. He found it thrilling to be a conspirator, to carry about with him secrets as dark and mysterious as the passages of the mine in which he worked.

But Jerry Minetti, the first person he told of Tom Olson's purpose in North Valley, was older in such thrills. The care-free look which Jerry was accustomed to wear vanished abruptly, and fear came into his eyes. "I know it come some day," he exclaimed--"trouble for me and Rosa!"

"How do you mean?"

"We get into it--get in sure. I say Rosa, 'Call yourself Socialist--what good that do? No help any. No use to vote here--they don't count no Socialist vote, only for joke!' I say, 'Got to have union. Got to strike!' But Rosa say, 'Wait little bit. Save little bit money, let children grow up. Then we help, no care if we no got any home.'"

"But we're not going to start a union now!" objected Hal. "I have another plan for the present."

Jerry, however, was not to be put at ease. "No can wait!" he declared. "Men no stand it! I say, 'It come some day quick--like blow-up in mine! Somebody start fight, everybody fight.'" And Jerry looked at Rosa, who sat with her black eyes fixed anxiously upon her husband. "We get into it," he said; and Hal saw their eyes turn to the room where Little Jerry and the baby were sleeping.

Hal said nothing--he was beginning to understand the meaning of rebellion to such people. He watched with curiosity and pity the struggle that went on; a struggle as old as the soul of man--between the voice of self-interest, of comfort and prudence, and the call of duty, of the ideal. No trumpet sounded for this conflict, only the still small voice within.

After a while Jerry asked what it was Hal and Olson had planned; and Hal explained that he wanted to make a test of the company's attitude toward the check-weighman law. Hal thought it a fine scheme; what did Jerry think?

Jerry smiled sadly. "Yes, fine scheme for young feller--no got family!"

"That's all right," said Hal, "I'll take the job--I'll be the check-weighman."

"Got to have committee," said Jerry--"committee go see boss."

"All right, but we'll get young fellows for that too--men who have no families. Some of the fellows who live in the chicken-coops in shanty-town. They won't care what happens to them."

But Jerry would not share Hal's smile. "No got sense 'nough, them fellers. Take sense to stick together." He explained that they would need a group of men to stand back of the committee; such a group would have to be organised, to hold meetings in secret--it would be practically the same thing as a union, would be so regarded by the bosses and their spotters. And no organisation of any sort was permitted in the camps. There had been some Serbians who had wanted to belong to a fraternal order back in their home country, but even that had been forbidden. If you wanted to insure your life or your health, the company would attend to it--and get the profit from it. For that matter, you could not even buy a post-office money-order, to send funds back to the old country; the post-office clerk, who was at the same time a clerk in the company-store, would sell you some sort of a store-draft.

So Hal was facing the very difficulties about which Olson had warned him. The first of them was Jerry's fear. Yet Hal knew that Jerry was no "coward"; if any man had a contempt for Jerry's attitude, it was because he had never been in Jerry's place!

"All I'll ask of you now is advice," said Hal. "Give me the names of some young fellows who are trustworthy, and I'll get their help without anybody suspecting you."

"You my boarder!" was Jerry's reply to this.

So again Hal was "up against it." "You mean that would get you into trouble?"

"Sure! They know we talk. They know I talk Socialism, anyhow. They fire me sure!"

"But how about your cousin, the pit-boss in Number One?"

"He no help. May be get fired himself. Say damn fool--board check-weighman!"

"All right," said Hal. "Then I'll move away now, before it's too late. You can say I was a trouble-maker, and you turned me off."

The Minettis sat gazing at each other--a mournful pair. They hated to lose their boarder, who was such good company, and paid them such good money. As for Hal, he felt nearly as bad, for he liked Jerry and his girl-wife, and Little Jerry--even the black-eyed baby, who made so much noise and interrupted conversation!

"No!" said Jerry. "I no run, away! I do my share!"

"That's all right," replied Hal. "You do your share--but not just yet. You stay on in the camp and help Olson after I'm fired. We don't want the best men put out at once."

So, after further argument, it was decided, and Hal saw little Rosa sink back in her chair and draw a deep breath of relief. The time for martyrdom was put off; her little three-roomed cabin, her furniture and her shining pans and her pretty white lace curtains, might be hers for a few weeks longer!

Upton Sinclair