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Chapter 8

Two days after this beginning of Hal's political career, it was arranged that the workers who were to make a demand for a check-weighman should meet in the home of Mrs. David. When Mike Sikoria came up from the pit that day, Hal took him aside and told him of the gathering. A look of delight came upon the old Slovak's face as he listened; he grabbed his buddy by the shoulders, crying, "You mean it?"

"Sure meant it," said Hal. "You want to be on the committee to go and see the boss?"

"_Pluha biedna_!" cried Mike--which is something dreadful in his own language. "By Judas, I pack up my old box again!"

Hal felt a guilty pang. Should he let this old man into the thing? "You think you'll have to move out of camp?" he asked.

"Move out of state this time! Move back to old country, maybe!" And Hal realised that he could not stop him now, even if he wanted to. The old fellow was so much excited that he hardly ate any supper, and his buddy was afraid to leave him alone, for fear he might blurt out the news.

It had been agreed that those who attended the meeting should come one by one, and by different routes. Hal was one of the first to arrive, and he saw that the shades of the house had been drawn, and the lamps turned low. He entered by the back door, where "Big Jack" David stood on guard. "Big Jack," who had been a member of the South Wales Federation at home, made sure of Hal's identity, and then passed him in without a word.

Inside was Mike--the first on hand. Mrs. David, a little black-eyed woman with a never-ceasing tongue, was bustling about, putting things in order; she was so nervous that she could not sit still. This couple had come from their birth-place only a year or so ago, and had brought all their wedding presents to their new home--pictures and bric-a-brac and linen. It was the prettiest home Hal had so far been in, and Mrs. David was risking it deliberately, because of her indignation that her husband had had to foreswear his union in order to get work in America.

The young Italian, Rovetta, came, then old John Edstrom. There being not chairs enough in the house, Mrs. David had set some boxes against the wall, covering them with cloth; and Hal noticed that each person took one of these boxes, leaving the chairs for the later comers. Each one as he came in would nod to the others, and then silence would fall again.

When Mary Burke entered, Hal divined from her aspect and manner that she had sunk back into her old mood of pessimism. He felt a momentary resentment. He was so thrilled with this adventure; he wanted everybody else to be thrilled--especially Mary! Like every one who has not suffered much, he was repelled by a condition of perpetual suffering in another. Of course Mary had good reasons for her black moods--but she herself considered it necessary to apologise for what she called her "complainin'"! She knew that he wanted her to help encourage the others; but here she was, putting herself in a corner and watching this wonderful proceeding, as if she had said: "I'm an ant, and I stay in line--but I'll not pretend I have any hope in it!"

Rosa and Jerry had insisted on coming, in spite of Hal's offer to spare them. After them came the Bulgarian, Wresmak; then the Polacks, Klowoski and Zamierowski. Hal found these difficult names to remember, but the Polacks were not at all sensitive about this; they would grin good-naturedly while he practised, nor would they mind if he gave it up and called them Tony and Pete. They were humble men, accustomed all their lives to being driven about. Hal looked from one to another of their bowed forms and toil-worn faces, appearing more than ever sombre and mournful in the dim light; he wondered if the cruel persecution which had driven them to protest would suffice to hold them in line.

Once a newcomer, having misunderstood the orders, came to the front door and knocked; and Hal noted that every one started, and some rose to their feet in alarm. Again he recognised the atmosphere of novels of Russian revolutionary life. He had to remind himself that these men and women, gathered here like criminals, were merely planning to ask for a right guaranteed them by the law!

The last to come was an Austrian miner named Huszar, with whom Olson had got into touch. Then, it being time to begin, everybody looked uneasily at everybody else. Few of them had conspired before, and they did not know quite how to set about it. Olson, the one who would naturally have been their leader, had deliberately stayed away. They must run this check-weighman affair for themselves!

"Somebody talk," said Mrs. David at last; and then, as the silence continued, she turned to Hal. "You're going to be the check-weighman. You talk."

"I'm the youngest man here," said Hal, with a smile. "Some older fellow talk."

But nobody else smiled. "Go on!" exclaimed old Mike; and so at last Hal stood up. It was something he was to experience many times in the future; because he was an American, and educated, he was forced into a position of leadership.

"As I understand it, you people want a check-weighman. Now, they tell me the pay for a check-weighman should be three dollars a day, but we've got only seven miners among us, and that's not enough. I will offer to take the job for twenty-five cents a day from each man, which will make a dollar-seventy-five, less than what I'm getting now as a buddy. If we get thirty men to come in, then I'll take ten cents a day from each, and make the full three dollars. Does that seem fair?"

"Sure!" said Mike; and the others added their assent by word or nod.

"All right. Now, there's nobody that works in this mine but knows the men don't get their weight. It would cost the company several hundred dollars a day to give us our weight, and nobody should be so foolish as to imagine they'll do it without a struggle. We've got to make up our minds to stand together."

"Sure, stand together!" cried Mike.

"No get check-weighman!" exclaimed Jerry, pessimistically.

"Not unless we try, Jerry," said Hal.

And Mike thumped his knee. "Sure try! And get him too!"

"Right!" cried "Big Jack." But his little wife was not satisfied with the response of the others. She gave Hal his first lesson in the drilling of these polyglot masses.

"Talk to them. Make them understand you!" And she pointed them out one by one with her finger: "You! You! Wresmak, here, and you, Klowoski, and you, Zam--you other Polish fellow. Want check-weighman. Want to get all weight. Get all our money. Understand?"

"Yes, yes!"

"Get committee, go see super! Want check-weighman. Understand? Got to have check-weighman! No back down, no scare."

"No--no scare!" Klowoski, who understood some English, explained rapidly to Zamierowski; and Zamierowski, whose head was still plastered where Jeff Cotton's revolver had hit it, nodded eagerly in assent. In spite of his bruises, he would stand by the others, and face the boss.

This suggested another question. "Who's going to do the talking to the boss?"

"You do that," said Mrs. David, to Hal.

"But I'm the one that's to be paid. It's not for me to talk."

"No one else can do it right," declared the woman.

"Sure--got to be American feller!" said Mike.

But Hal insisted. If he did the talking, it would look as if the check-weighman had been the source of the movement, and was engaged in making a good paying job for himself.

There was discussion back and forth, until finally John Edstrom spoke up. "Put me on the committee."

"You?" said Hal. "But you'll be thrown out! And what will your wife do?"

"I think my wife is going to die to-night," said Edstrom, simply.

He sat with his lips set tightly, looking straight before him. After a pause he went on: "If it isn't to-night, it will be to-morrow, the doctor says; and after that, nothing will matter. I shall have to go down to Pedro to bury her, and if I have to stay, it will make little difference to me, so I might as well do what I can for the rest of you. I've been a miner all my life, and Mr. Cartwright knows it; that might have some weight with him. Let Joe Smith and Sikoria and myself be the ones to go and see him, and the rest of you wait, and don't give up your jobs unless you have to."

Upton Sinclair