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Chapter 29

Mary made Hal swear that he would not get into a fight with Cotton; then they went to Number Two. They found the mules coming up, and the bosses promising that in a short while the men would be coming. Everything was all right--there was not a bit of danger! But Mary was afraid to trust Hal, in spite of his promise, so she lured him back to Number One.

They found that a rescue-car had just arrived from Pedro, bringing doctors and nurses, also several "helmets." These "helmets" were strange looking contrivances, fastened over the head and shoulders, air-tight, and provided with oxygen sufficient to last for an hour or more. The men who wore them sat in a big bucket which was let down the shaft with a windlass, and every now and then they pulled on a signal-cord to let those on the surface know they were alive. When the first of them came back, he reported that there were bodies near the foot of the shaft, but apparently all dead. There was heavy black smoke, indicating a fire somewhere in the mine; so nothing more could be done until the fan had been set up. By reversing the fan, they could draw out the smoke and gases and clear the shaft.

The state mine-inspector had been notified, but was ill at home, and was sending one of his deputies. Under the law this official would have charge of all the rescue work, but Hal found that the miners took no interest in his presence. It had been his duty to prevent the accident, and he had not done so. When he came, he would do what the company wanted.

Some time after dark the workers began to come out of Number Two, and their women, waiting at the pit-mouth, fell upon their necks with cries of thankfulness. Hal observed other women, whose men were in Number One, and would perhaps never come out again, standing and watching these greetings with wistful, tear-filled eyes. Among those who came out was Jack David, and Hal walked home with him and his wife, listening to the latter abuse Jeff Cotton and Alec Stone, which was an education in the vocabulary of class-consciousness. The little Welsh woman repeated the pit-boss's saying, "Damn the men, save the mules!" She said it again and again--it seemed to delight her like a work of art, it summed up so perfectly the attitude of the bosses to their men! There were many other people repeating that saying, Hal found; it went all over the village, in a few days it went all over the district. It summed up what the district believed to be the attitude of the coal-operators to the workers!

Having got over the first shock of the disaster, Hal wanted information, and he questioned Big Jack, a solid and well-read man who had given thought to every aspect of the industry. In his quiet, slow way, he explained to Hal that the frequency of accidents in this district was not due to any special difficulty in operating these mines, the explosiveness of the gases or the dryness of the atmosphere. It was merely the carelessness of those in charge, their disregard of the laws for the protection of the men. There ought to be a law with "teeth" in it--for example, one providing that for every man killed in a coal-mine his heirs should receive a thousand dollars, regardless of who had been to blame for the accident. Then you would see how quickly the operators would get busy and find remedies for the "unusual" dangers!

As it was, they knew that no matter how great their culpability, they could get off with slight loss. Already, no doubt, their lawyers were on the spot, and by the time the first bodies were brought out, they would be fixing things up with the families. They would offer a widow a ticket back to the old country; they would offer a whole family of orphaned children, maybe fifty dollars, maybe a hundred dollars--and it would be a case of take it or leave it. You could get nothing from the courts; the case was so hopeless that you could not even find a lawyer to make the attempt. That was one reform in which the companies believed, said "Big Jack," with sarcasm; they had put the "shyster lawyer" out of business!

Upton Sinclair