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Chapter 3

Mary Burke had been suckled upon despair, and the poison of it was deep in her blood. Hal began to realise that it would be as hard to give her a hope as to rouse the workers whom she despised. She was brave enough, no doubt, but how could he persuade her to be brave for men who had no courage for themselves?

"Mary," he said, "in your heart you don't really hate these people. You know how they suffer, you pity them for it. You give their children your last cent when they need it--"

"Ah, lad!" she cried, and he saw tears suddenly spring into her eyes. "'Tis because I love them so that I hate them! Sometimes 'tis the bosses I would murder, sometimes 'tis the men. What is it ye're wantin' me to do?"

And then, even before he could answer, she began to run over the list of her acquaintances in the camp. Yes, there was one man Hal ought to talk to; he would be too old to join them, but his advice would be invaluable, and they could be sure he would never betray them. That was old John Edstrom, a Swede from Minnesota, who had worked in this district from the time the mines had first started up. He had been active in the great strike eight years ago, and had been black-listed, his four sons with him. The sons were scattered now to the four parts of the world, but the father had stayed nearby, working as a ranch-hand and railroad labourer, until a couple of years ago, during a rush season, he had got a chance to come back into the mines.

He was old, old, declared Mary--must be sixty. And when Hal remarked that that did not sound so frightfully aged, she answered that one seldom heard of a man being able to work in a coal-mine at that age; in fact, there were not many who managed to live to that age. Edstrom's wife was dying now, and he was having a hard time.

"'Twould not be fair to let such an old gentleman lose his job," said Mary. "But at least he could give ye good advice."

So that evening the two of them went to call on John Edstrom, in a tiny unpainted cabin in "shanty-town," with a bare earth floor, and a half partition of rough boards to hide his dying wife from his callers. The woman's trouble was cancer, and this made calling a trying matter, for there was a fearful odour in the place. For some time it was impossible for Hal to force himself to think about anything else; but finally he overcame this weakness, telling himself that this was a war, and that a man must be ready for the hospital as well as for the parade-ground.

He looked about, and saw that the cracks of Edstrom's cabin were stopped with rags, and the broken windowpanes mended with brown paper. The old man had evidently made an effort to keep the place neat, and Hal noticed a row of books on a shelf. Because it was cold in these mountain regions at night, even in September, the old man had a fire in the little cast-iron stove, and sat huddled by it. There were only a few hairs left on his head, and his scrubby beard was as white as anything could be in a coal-camp. The first impression of his face was of its pallor, and then of the benevolence in the faded dark eyes; also his voice was gentle, like a caress. He rose to greet his visitors, and put out to Hal a trembling hand, which resembled the paw of some animal, horny and misshapen. He made a move to draw up a bench, and apologised for his unskillful house-keeping. It occurred to Hal that a man might be able to work in a coal-mine at sixty, and not be able to work in it at sixty-one.

Hal had requested Mary to say nothing about his purpose, until after he had a chance to judge for himself. So now the girl inquired about Mrs. Edstrom. There was no news, the man answered; she was lying in a stupor, as usual. Dr. Barrett had come again, but all he could do was to give her morphine. No one could do any more, the doctor declared.

"Sure, he'd not know it if they could!" sniffed Mary.

"He's not such a bad one, when he's sober," said Edstrom, patiently.

"And how often is that?" sniffed Mary again. She added, by way of explanation to Hal, "He's a cousin of the super."

Things were better here than in some places, said Edstrom. At Harvey's Run, where he had worked, a man had got his eye hurt, and had lost it through the doctor's instrument slipping; broken arms and legs had been set wrong, and either the men had to go through life as cripples, or go elsewhere and have the bones re-broken and reset, It was like everything else--the doctor was a part of the company machine, and if you had too much to say about him, it was down the canyon with you. You not only had a dollar a month taken out of your pay, but if you were injured, and he came to attend you, he would charge whatever extra he pleased.

"And you have to pay?" asked Hal.

"They take it off your account," said the old man.

"Sometimes they take it when he's done nothin' at all," added Mary. "They charged Mrs. Zamboni twenty-five dollars for her last baby--and Dr. Barrett never set foot across her door till three hours after the baby was in my arms!"

Upton Sinclair