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Chapter 18

Morning came, and the mine-whistle blew, and Hal stood at the window again. This time he noticed that some of the miners on their way to work had little strips of paper in their hands, which strips they waved conspicuously for him to see. Old Mike Sikoria came along, having a whole bunch of strips in his hands, which he was distributing to all who would take them. Doubtless he had been warned to proceed secretly, but the excitement of the occasion had been too much for him; he capered about like a young spring lamb, and waved the strips at Hal in plain sight of all the world.

Such indiscreet behaviour met the return it invited. As Hal watched, he saw a stocky figure come striding round the corner, confronting the startled old Slovak. It was Bud Adams, the mine-guard, and his hard fists were clenched, and his whole body gathered for a blow. Mike saw him, and was as if suddenly struck with paralysis; his toil-bent shoulders sunk together, and his hands fell to his sides--his fingers opening, and his precious strips of paper fluttering to the ground. Mike stared at Bud like a fascinated rabbit, making no move to protect himself.

Hal clutched the bars, with an impulse to leap to his friend's defence. But the expected blow did not fall; the mine-guard contented himself with glaring ferociously, and giving an order to the old man. Mike stooped and picked up the papers--the process taking him some time, as he was unable or unwilling to take his eyes off the mine-guard's. When he got them all in his hands, there came another order, and he gave them up to Bud. After which he fell back a step, and the other followed, his fists still clenched, and a blow seeming about to leap from him every moment. Mike receded another step, and then another--so the two of them backed out of sight around the corner. Men who had been witnesses of this little drama turned and slunk off, and Hal was given no clue as to its outcome.

A couple of hours afterwards, Hal's jailer came up, this time without any bread and water. He opened the door and commanded the prisoner to "come along." Hal went downstairs, and entered Jeff Cotton's office.

The camp-marshal sat at his desk with a cigar between his teeth. He was writing, and he went on writing until the jailer had gone out and closed the door. Then he turned his revolving chair and crossed his legs, leaning back and looking at the young miner in his dirty blue overalls, his hair tousled and his face pale from his period of confinement. The camp-marshal's aristocratic face wore a smile. "Well, young fellow," said he, "you've been having a lot of fun in this camp."

"Pretty fair, thank you," answered Hal.

"Beat us out all along the line, hey?" Then, after a pause, "Now, tell me, what do you think you're going to get out of it?"

"That's what Alec Stone asked me," replied Hal. "I don't think it would do much good to explain. I doubt if you believe in altruism any more than Stone does."

The camp-marshal took his cigar from his mouth, and flicked off the ashes. His face became serious, and there was a silence, while he studied Hal. "You a union organiser?" he asked, at last.

"No," said Hal.

"You're an educated man; you're no labourer, that I know. Who's paying you?"

"There you are! You don't believe in altruism."

The other blew a ring of smoke across the room. "Just want to put the company in the hole, hey? Some kind of agitator?"

"I am a miner who wants to be a check-weighman."

"Socialist?"

"That depends upon developments here."

"Well," said the marshal, "you're an intelligent chap, that I can see. So I'll lay my hand on the table and you can study it. You're not going to serve as check-weighman in North Valley, nor any other place that the 'G. F. C.' has anything to do with. Nor are you going to have the satisfaction of putting the company in a hole. We're not even going to beat you up and make a martyr of you. I was tempted to do that the other night, but I changed my mind."

"You might change the bruises on my arm," suggested Hal, in a pleasant voice.

"We're going to offer you the choice of two things," continued the marshal, without heeding this mild sarcasm. "Either you will sign a paper admitting that you took the twenty-five dollars from Alec Stone, in which case we will fire you and call it square; or else we will prove that you took it, in which case we will send you to the pen for five or ten years. Do you get that?"

Now when Hal had applied for the job of check-weighman, he had been expecting to be thrown out of the camp, and had intended to go, counting his education complete. But here, as he sat and gazed into the marshal's menacing eyes, he decided suddenly that he did not want to leave North Valley. He wanted to stay and take the measure of this gigantic "burglar," the General Fuel Company.

"That's a serious threat, Mr. Cotton," he remarked. "Do you often do things like that?"

"We do them when we have to," was the reply.

"Well, it's a novel proposition. Tell me more about it. What will the charge be?"

"I'm not sure about that--we'll put it up to our lawyers. Maybe they'll call it conspiracy, maybe blackmail. They'll make it whatever carries a long enough sentence."

"And before I enter my plea, would you mind letting me see the letter I'm supposed to have written."

"Oh, you've heard about the letter, have you?" said the camp-marshal, lifting his eyebrows in mild surprise. He took from his desk a sheet of paper and handed it to Hal, who read:

"Dere mister Stone, You don't need worry about the check-wayman. Pay me twenty five dollars, and I will fix it right. Yours try, Joe Smith."

Having taken in the words of the letter, Hal examined the paper, and perceived that his enemies had taken the trouble, not merely to forge a letter in his name, but to have it photographed, to have a cut made of the photograph, and to have it printed. Beyond doubt they had distributed it broadcast in the camp. And all this in a few hours! It was as Olson had said--a regular system to keep the men bedevilled.

Upton Sinclair