This business of conspiracy was grimly real to men whose living came out of coal; but Hal, even at the most serious moments, continued to find in it the thrill of romance. He had read stories of revolutionists, and of the police who hunted them. That such excitements were to be had in Russia, he knew; but if any one had told him they could be had in his own free America, within a few hours' journey of his home city and his college-town, he could not have credited the statement.
The evening after his visit to Edstrom, Hal was stopped on the street by his boss. Encountering him suddenly, Hal started, like a pick-pocket who runs into a policeman.
"Hello, kid," said the pit-boss.
"Hello, Mr. Stone," was the reply.
"I want to talk to you," said the boss.
"All right, sir." And then, under his breath, "He's got me!"
"Come up to my house," said Stone; and Hal followed, feeling as if hand-cuffs were already on his wrists.
"Say," said the man, as they walked, "I thought you were going to tell me if you'd heard any talk."
"I haven't heard any, sir."
"Well," continued Stone, "you want to get busy; there's sure to be kickers in every coal-camp." And deep within, Hal drew a sigh of relief. It was a false alarm!
They came to the boss's house, and he took a chair on the piazza and motioned Hal to take another. They sat in semi-darkness, and Stone dropped his voice as he began. "What I want to talk to you about now is something else--this election."
"Didn't you know there was one? The Congressman in this district died, and there's a special election three weeks from next Tuesday."
"I see, sir." And Hal chuckled inwardly. He would get the information which Tom Olson had recommended to him!
"You ain't heard any talk about it?" inquired the pit-boss.
"Nothing at all, sir. I never pay much attention to politics--it ain't in my line."
"Well, that's the way I like to hear a miner talk!" said the pit-boss, with heartiness. "If they all had sense enough to leave politics to the politicians, they'd be a sight better off. What they need is to tend to their own jobs."
"Yes, sir," agreed Hal, meekly--"like I had to tend to them mules, if I didn't want to get the colic."
The boss smiled appreciatively. "You've got more sense than most of 'em. If you'll stand by me, there'll be a chance for you to move up in the world."
"Thank you, Mr. Stone," said Hal. "Give me a chance."
"Well now, here's this election. Every year they send us a bunch of campaign money to handle. A bit of it might come your way."
"I could use it, I reckon," said Hal, brightening visibly. "What is it you want?"
There was a pause, while Stone puffed on his pipe. He went on, in a business-like manner. "What I want is somebody to feel things out a bit, and let me know the situation. I thought it better not to use the men that generally work for me, but somebody that wouldn't be suspected. Down in Sheridan and Pedro they say the Democrats are making a big stir, and the company's worried. I suppose you know the 'G. F. C.' is Republican."
"I've heard so."
"You might think a congressman don't have much to do with us, way off in Washington; but it has a bad effect to have him campaigning, telling the men the company's abusing them. So I'd like you just to kind o' circulate a bit, and start the men on politics, and see if any of them have been listening to this MacDougall talk. (MacDougall's this here Democrat, you know.) And I want to find out whether they've been sending in literature to this camp, or have any agents here. You see, they claim the right to come in and make speeches, and all that sort of thing. North Valley's an incorporated town, so they've got the law on their side, in a way, and if we shut 'em out, they make a howl in the papers, and it looks bad. So we have to get ahead of them in quiet ways. Fortunately there ain't any hall in the camp for them to meet in, and we've made a local ordinance against meetings on the street. If they try to bring in circulars, something has to happen to them before they get distributed. See?"
"I see," said Hal; he thought of Tom Olson's propaganda literature!
"We'll pass the word out,--it's the Republican the company wants elected; and you be on the lookout and see how they take it in the camp."
"That sounds easy enough," said Hal. "But tell me, Mr. Stone, why do you bother? Do so many of these wops have votes?"
"It ain't the wops so much. We get them naturalised on purpose--they vote our way for a glass of beer. But the English-speaking men, or the foreigners that's been here too long, and got too big for their breeches--they're the ones we got to watch. If they get to talking politics, they don't stop there; the first thing you know, they're listening to union agitators, and wanting to run the camp."
"Oh yes, I see!" said Hal, and wondered if his voice sounded right.
But the pit-boss was concerned with his own troubles. "As I told Si Adams the other day, what I'm looking for is fellows that talk some new lingo--one that nobody will ever understand! But I suppose that would be too easy. There's no way to keep them from learning some English!"
Hal decided to make use of this opportunity to perfect his education. "Surely, Mr. Stone," he remarked, "you don't have to count any votes if you don't want to!"
"Well, I'll tell you," replied Stone; "it's a question of the easiest way to manage things. When I was superintendent over to Happy Gulch, we didn't waste no time on politics. The company was Democratic at that time, and when election night come, we wrote down four hundred votes for the Democratic candidates. But the first thing we knew, a bunch of fellers was taken into town and got to swear they'd voted the Republican ticket in our camp. The Republican papers were full of it, and some fool judge ordered a recount, and we had to get busy over night and mark up a new lot of ballots. It gave us a lot of bother!"
The pit-boss laughed, and Hal joined him discreetly.
"So you see, you have to learn to manage. If there's votes for the wrong candidate in your camp, the fact gets out, and if the returns is too one-sided, there's a lot of grumbling. There's plenty of bosses that don't care, but I learned my lesson that time, and I got my own method--that is not to let any opposition start. See?"
"Yes, I see."
"Maybe a mine-boss has got no right to meddle in politics--but there's one thing he's got the say about, and that is who works in his mine. It's the easiest thing to weed out--weed out--" Hal never forgot the motion of beefy hands with which Alec Stone illustrated these words. As he went on, the tones of his voice did not seem so good-natured as usual. "The fellows that don't want to vote my way can go somewhere else to do their voting. That's all I got to say on politics!"
There was a brief pause, while Stone puffed on his pipe. Then it may have occurred to him that it was not necessary to go into so much detail in breaking in a political recruit. When he resumed, it was in a good-natured tone of dismissal. "That's what you do, kid. To-morrow you get a sprained wrist, so you can't work for a few days, and that'll give you a chance to bum round and hear what the men are saying. Meantime, I'll see you get your wages."
"That sounds all right," said Hal; but showing only a small part of his satisfaction!
The pit-boss rose from his chair and knocked the ashes from his pipe. "Mind you--I want the goods. I've got other fellows working, and I'm comparing 'em. For all you know, I may have somebody watching you."
"Yes," said Hal, and grinned cheerfully. "I'll not fail to bear that in mind."
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