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Chapter 33

As it happened, however, discussion of this list and the method of giving it to the world was cut short by a more urgent matter. Jack David came in with news of fresh trouble at the pit-mouth. The new fan was being put in place; but they were slow about it, so slow that some people had become convinced that they did not mean to start the fan at all, but were keeping the mine sealed to prevent the fire from spreading. A group of such malcontents had presumed to go to Mr. Carmichael, the deputy state mine-inspector, to urge him to take some action; and the leader of these protestants, Huszar, the Austrian, who had been one of Hal's check-weighman group, had been taken into custody and marched at double-quick to the gate of the stockade!

Jack David declared furthermore that he knew a carpenter who was working in the fan-house, and who said that no haste whatever was being made. All the men at the fan-house shared that opinion; the mine was sealed, and would stay sealed until the company was sure the fire was out.

"But," argued Hal, "if they were to open it, the fire would spread; and wouldn't that prevent rescue work?"

"Not at all," declared "Big Jack." He explained that by reversing the fan they could draw the smoke up through the air-course, which would clear the main passages for a time. "But, you see, some coal might catch fire, and some timbers; there might be falls of rock so they couldn't work some of the rooms again."

"How long will they keep the mine sealed?" cried Hal, in consternation.

"Nobody can say. In a big mine like that, a fire might smoulder for a week."

"Everybody be dead!" cried Rosa Minetti, wringing her hands in a sudden access of grief.

Hal turned to Olson. "Would they possibly do such a thing?"

"It's been done--more than once," was the organiser's reply.

"Did you never hear about Cherry, Illinois?" asked David. "They did it there, and more than three hundred people lost their lives." He went on to tell that dreadful story, known to every coal-miner. They had sealed the mine, while women fainted and men tore their clothes in frenzy--some going insane. They had kept it sealed for two weeks, and when they opened it, there were twenty-one men still alive!

"They did the same thing in Diamondville, Wyoming," added Olson. "They built up a barrier, and when they took it away they found a heap of dead men, who had crawled to it and torn their fingers to the bone trying to break through."

"My God!" cried Hal, springing to his feet. "And this man Carmichael--would he stand for that?"

"He'd tell you they were doing their best," said "Big Jack." "And maybe he thinks they are. But you'll see--something'll keep happening; they'll drag on from day to day, and they'll not start the fan till they're ready."

"Why, it's murder!" cried Hal.

"It's business," said Tom Olson, quietly.

Hal looked from one to another of the faces of these working people. Not one but had friends in that trap; not one but might be in the same trap to-morrow!

"You have to stand it!" he exclaimed, half to himself.

"Don't you see the guards at the pit-mouth?" answered David. "Don't you see the guns sticking out of their pockets?"

"They bring in more guards this morning," put in Jerry Minetti. "Rosa, she see them get off."

"They know what they doin'!" said Rosa. "They only fraid we find it out! They told Mrs. Zamboni she keep away or they send her out of camp. And old Mrs. Jonotch--her husband and three sons inside!"

"They're getting rougher and rougher," declared Mrs. David. "That big fellow they call Pete, that came up from Pedro--the way he's handling the women is a shame!"

"I know him," put in Olson; "Pete Hanun. They had him in Sheridan when the union first opened headquarters. He smashed one of our organisers in the mouth and broke four of his teeth. They say he has a jail-record."

All through the previous year at college Hal had listened to lectures upon political economy, filled with the praises of a thing called "Private Ownership." This Private Ownership developed initiative and economy; it kept the wheels of industry a-roll, it kept fat the pay-rolls of college faculties; it accorded itself with the sacred laws of supply and demand, it was the basis of the progress and prosperity wherewith America had been blessed. And here suddenly Hal found himself face to face with the reality of it; he saw its wolfish eyes glaring into his own, he felt its smoking hot breath in his face, he saw its gleaming fangs and claw-like fingers, dripping with the blood of men and women and children. Private Ownership of coal-mines! Private Ownership of sealed-up entrances and non-existent escape-ways! Private Ownership of fans which did not start, of sprinklers which did not sprinkle. Private Ownership of clubs and revolvers, and of thugs and ex-convicts to use them, driving away rescuers and shutting up agonised widows and orphans in their homes! Oh, the serene and well-fed priests of Private Ownership, chanting in academic halls the praises of the bloody Demon!

Suddenly Hal stopped still. Something had risen in him, the existence of which he had never suspected. There was a new look upon his face, his voice was deep as a strong man's when he spoke: "I am going to make them open that mine!"

They looked at him. They were all of them close to the border of hysteria, but they caught the strange note in his utterance. "I am going to make them open that mine!"

"How?" asked Olson.

"The public doesn't know about this thing. If the story got out, there'd be such a clamour, it couldn't go on!"

"But how will you get it out?"

"I'll give it to the newspapers! They can't suppress such a thing--I don't care how prejudiced they are!"

"But do you think they'd believe what a miner's buddy tells them?" asked Mrs. David.

"I'll find a way to make them believe me," said Hal. "I'm going to make them open that mine!"

Upton Sinclair