The talk went on. Wishing to draw the old man out, Hal spoke of various troubles of the miners, and at last he suggested that the remedy might be found in a union. Edstrom's dark eyes studied him, and then turned to Mary. "Joe's all right," said the girl, quickly. "You can trust him."
Edstrom made no direct answer to this, but remarked that he had once been in a strike. He was a marked man, now, and could only stay in the camp so long as he attended strictly to his own affairs. The part he had played in the big strike had never been forgotten; the bosses had let him work again, partly because they had needed him at a rush time, and partly because the pit-boss happened to be a personal friend.
"Tell him about the big strike," said Mary. "He's new in this district."
The old man had apparently accepted Mary's word for Hal's good faith, for he began to narrate those terrible events which were a whispered tradition of the camps. There had been a mighty effort of ten thousand slaves for freedom; and it had been crushed with utter ruthlessness. Ever since these mines had been started, the operators had controlled the local powers of government, and now, in the emergency, they had brought in the state militia as well, and used it frankly to drive the strikers back to work. They had seized the leaders and active men, and thrown them into jail without trial or charges; when the jails would hold no more, they kept some two hundred in an open stockade, called a "bull-pen," and finally they loaded them into freight-cars, took them at night out of the state, and dumped them off in the midst of the desert without food or water.
John Edstrom had been one of these men. He told how one of his sons had been beaten and severely injured in jail, and how another had been kept for weeks in a damp cellar, so that he had come out crippled with rheumatism for life. The officers of the state militia had done these things; and when some of the local authorities were moved to protest, the militia had arrested them--even the judges of the civil courts had been forbidden to sit, under threat of imprisonment. "To hell with the constitution!" had been the word of the general in command; his subordinate had made famous the saying, "No habeas corpus; we'll give them post-mortems!"
Tom Olson had impressed Hal with his self-control, but this old man made an even deeper impression upon him. As he listened, he became humble, touched with awe. Incredible as it might seem, when John Edstrom talked about his cruel experiences, it was without bitterness in his voice, and apparently without any in his heart. Here, in the midst of want and desolation, with his family broken and scattered, and the wolf of starvation at his door, he could look back upon the past without hatred of those who had ruined him. Nor was this because he was old and feeble, and had lost the spirit of revolt; it was because he had studied economics, and convinced himself that it was an evil system which blinded men's eyes and poisoned their souls. A better day was coming, he said, when this evil system would be changed, and it would be possible for men to be merciful to one another.
At this point in the conversation, Mary Burke gave voice once more to her corroding despair. How could things ever be changed? The bosses were mean-hearted, and the men were cowards and traitors. That left nobody but God to do the changing--and God had left things as they were for such a long time!
Hal was interested to hear how Edstrom dealt with this attitude. "Mary," he said, "did you ever read about ants in Africa?"
"No," said she.
"They travel in long columns, millions and millions of them. And when they come to a ditch, the front ones fall in, and more and more of them on top, till they fill up the ditch, and the rest cross over. We are ants, Mary."
"No matter how many go in," cried the girl, "none will ever get across. There's no bottom to the ditch!"
He answered: "That's more than any ant can know. Mary. All they know is to go in. They cling to each other's bodies, even in death; they make a bridge, and the rest go over."
"I'll step one side!" she declared, fiercely. "I'll not throw meself away."
"You may step one side," answered the other--"but you'll step back into line again. I know you better than you know yourself, Mary."
There was silence in the little cabin. The winds of an early fall shrilled outside, and life suddenly seemed to Hal a stern and merciless thing. He had thought in his youthful fervour it would be thrilling to be a revolutionist; but to be an ant, one of millions and millions, to perish in a bottomless ditch--that was something a man could hardly bring himself to face! He looked at the bowed figure of this white haired toiler, vague in the feeble lamplight, and found himself thinking of Rembrandt's painting, the Visit of Emmaus: the ill-lighted room in the dirty tavern, and the two ragged men, struck dumb by the glow of light about the forehead of their table-companion. It was not fantastic to imagine a glow of light about the forehead of this soft-voiced old man!
"I never had any hope it would come in my time," the old man was saying gently. "I did use to hope my boys might see it--but now I'm not sure even of that. But in all my life I never doubted that some day the working-people will cross over to the promised land. They'll no longer be slaves, and what they make won't be wasted by idlers. And take it from one who knows, Mary--for a workingman or woman not to have that faith, is to have lost the reason for living."
Hal decided that it would be safe to trust this man, and told him of his check-weighman plan. "We only want your advice," he explained, remembering Mary's warning. "Your sick wife--"
But the old man answered, sadly, "She's almost gone, and I'll soon be following. What little strength I have left might as well be used for the cause."
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