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Chapter 5

The mule is notoriously a profane and godless creature; a blind alley of Nature, so to speak, a mistake of which she is ashamed, and which she does not permit to reproduce itself. The thirty mules under Hal's charge had been brought up in an environment calculated to foster the worst tendencies of their natures. He soon made the discovery that the "colic" of his predecessor had been caused by a mule's hind foot in the stomach; and he realised that he must not let his mind wander for an instant, if he were to avoid this dangerous disease.

These mules lived their lives in the darkness of the earth's interior; only when they fell sick were they taken up to see the sunlight and to roll about in green pastures. There was one of them called "Dago Charlie," who had learned to chew tobacco, and to rummage in the pockets of the miners and their "buddies." Not knowing how to spit out the juice, he would make himself ill, and then he would swear off from indulgence. But the drivers and the pit-boys knew his failing, and would tempt "Dago Charlie" until he fell from grace. Hal soon discovered this moral tragedy, and carried the pain of it in his soul as he went about his all-day drudgery.

He went down the shaft with the first cage, which was very early in the morning. He fed and watered his charges, and helped to harness them. Then, when the last four hoofs had clattered away, he cleaned out the stalls, and mended harness, and obeyed the orders of any person older than himself who happened to be about.

Next to the mules, his torment was the "trapper-boys," and other youngsters with whom he came into contact. He was a newcomer, and so they hazed him; moreover, he had an inferior job--there seemed to their minds to be something humiliating and comic about the task of tending mules. These urchins came from a score of nations of Southern Europe and Asia; there were flat-faced Tartars and swarthy Greeks and shrewd-eyed little Japanese. They spoke a compromise language, consisting mainly of English curse words and obscenities; the filthiness which their minds had spawned was incredible to one born and raised in the sunlight. They alleged obscenities of their mothers and their grandmothers; also of the Virgin Mary, the one mythological character they had heard of. Poor little creatures of the dark, their souls grimed and smutted even more quickly and irrevocably than their faces!

Hal had been advised by his boss to inquire for board at "Reminitsky's." He came up in the last car, at twilight, and was directed to a dimly lighted building of corrugated iron, where upon inquiry he was met by a stout Russian, who told him he could be taken care of for twenty-seven dollars a month, this including a cot in a room with eight other single men. After deducting a dollar and a half a month for his saloon-keepers, fifty cents for the company clergyman and a dollar for the company doctor, fifty cents a month for wash-house privileges and fifty cents for a sick and accident benefit fund, he had fourteen dollars a month with which to clothe himself, to found a family, to provide himself with beer and tobacco, and to patronise the libraries and colleges endowed by the philanthropic owners of coal mines.

Supper was nearly over at Reminitsky's when he arrived; the floor looked like the scene of a cannibal picnic, and what food was left was cold. It was always to be this way with him, he found, and he had to make the best of it. The dining-room of this boarding-house, owned and managed by the G. F. C., brought to his mind the state prison, which he had once visited--with its rows of men sitting in silence, eating starch and grease out of tin-plates. The plates here were of crockery half an inch thick, but the starch and grease never failed; the formula of Reminitsky's cook seemed to be, When in doubt add grease, and boil it in. Even ravenous as Hal was after his long tramp and his labour below ground, he could hardly swallow this food. On Sundays, the only time he ate by daylight, the flies swarmed over everything, and he remembered having heard a physician say that an enlightened man should be more afraid of a fly than of a Bengal tiger. The boarding-house provided him with a cot and a supply of vermin, but with no blanket, which was a necessity in the mountain regions. So after supper he had to seek out his boss, and arrange to get credit at the company-store. They were willing to give a certain amount of credit, he found, as this would enable the camp-marshal to keep him from straying. There was no law to hold a man for debt--but Hal knew by this time how much a camp-marshal cared for law.

Upton Sinclair