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Chapter 17

Toward the middle of the morning, Hal heard footsteps in the corridor outside, and a man whom he did not know opened the barred door and set down a pitcher of water and a tin plate with a hunk of bread on it. When he started to leave, Hal spoke: "Just a minute, please."

The other frowned at him.

"Can you give me any idea how long I am to stay in here?"

"I cannot," said the man.

"If I'm to be locked up," said Hal, "I've certainly a right to know what is the charge against me."

"Go to blazes!" said the other, and slammed the door and went down the corridor.

Hal went to the window again, and passed the time watching the people who went by. Groups of ragged children gathered, looking up at him, grinning and making signs--until some one appeared below and ordered them away.

As time passed, Hal became hungry. The taste of bread, eaten alone, becomes speedily monotonous, and the taste of water does not relieve it; nevertheless, Hal munched the bread, and drank the water, and wished for more.

The day dragged by; and late in the afternoon the keeper came again, with another hunk of bread and another pitcher of water. "Listen a moment," said Hal, as the man was turning away.

"I got nothin' to say to you," said the other.

"I have something to say to you," pleaded Hal. "I have read in a book--I forget where, but it was written by some doctor--that white bread does not contain the elements necessary to the sustaining of the human body."

"Go on!" growled the jailer. "What yer givin' us?"

"I mean," explained Hal, "a diet of bread and water is not what I'd choose to live on."

"What would yer choose?"

The tone suggested that the question was a rhetorical one; but Hal took it in good faith. "If I could have some beefsteak and mashed potatoes--"

The door of the cell closed with a slam whose echoes drowned out the rest of that imaginary menu. And so once more Hal sat on the hard bench, and munched his hunk of bread, and thought jail-thoughts.

When the quitting-whistle blew, he stood at the window, and saw the groups of his friends once again, and got their covert signals of encouragement. Then darkness fell, and another long vigil began.

It was late; Hal had no means of telling how late, save that all the lights in the camps were out. He made up his mind that he was in for the night, and had settled himself on the floor with his arm for a pillow, and had dozed off to sleep, when suddenly there came a scraping sound against the bars of his window. He sat up with a start, and heard another sound, unmistakably the rustling of paper. He sprang to the window, where by the faint light of the stars he could make out something dangling. He caught at it; it seemed to be an ordinary note-book, such as stenographers use, tied on the end of a pole.

Hal looked out, but could see no one. He caught hold of the pole and jerked it, as a signal; and then he heard a whisper which he recognised instantly as Rovetta's. "Hello! Listen. Write your name hundred times in book. I come back. Understand?"

The command was a sufficiently puzzling one, but Hal realised that this was no time for explanations. He answered, "Yes," and broke the string and took the notebook. There was a pencil attached, with a piece of cloth wrapped round the point to protect it.

The pole was withdrawn, and Hal sat on the bench, and began to write, three or four times on a page, "Joe Smith--Joe Smith--Joe Smith." It is not hard to write "Joe Smith," even in darkness, and so, while his hand moved, Hal's mind was busy with this mystery. It was fairly to be assumed that his committee did not want his autograph to distribute for a souvenir; they must want it for some vital purpose, to meet some new move of the bosses. The answer to this riddle was not slow in coming: having failed in their effort to find money on him, the bosses had framed up a letter, which they were exhibiting as having been written by the would-be check-weigh-man. His friends wanted his signature to disprove the authenticity of the letter.

Hal wrote a free and rapid hand, with a generous flourish; he felt sure it would be different from Alec Stone's idea of a working-boy's scrawl. His pencil flew on and on--"Joe Smith--Joe Smith--" page after page, until he was sure that he had written a signature for every miner in the camp, and was beginning on the buddies. Then, hearing a whistle outside, he stopped and sprang to the window.

"Throw it!" whispered a voice; and Hal threw it. He saw a form vanish up the street, after which all was quiet again. He listened for a while, to see if he had roused his jailer; then he lay down on the bench--and thought more jail-thoughts!

Upton Sinclair