THE HENCHMEN OF KING COAL
It was Hal's intention to get to Western City as quickly as possible to call upon the newspaper editors. But first he must have money to travel, and the best way he could think of to get it was to find John Edstrom. He left the train, followed by Pete Hanun; after some inquiry, he came upon the undertaker who had buried Edstrom's wife, and who told him where the old Swede was staying, in the home of a labouring-man nearby.
Edstrom greeted him with eager questions: Who had been killed? What was the situation? Hal told in brief sentences what had happened. When he mentioned his need of money, Edstrom answered that he had a little, and would lend it, but it was not enough for a ticket to Western City. Hal asked about the twenty-five dollars which Mary Burke had sent by registered mail; the old man had heard nothing about it, he had not been to the post-office. "Let's go now!" said Hal, at once; but as they were starting downstairs, a fresh difficulty occurred to him. Pete Hanun was on the street outside, and it was likely that he had heard about this money from Jeff Cotton; he might hold Edstrom up and take it away.
"Let me suggest something," put in the old man. "Come and see my friend Ed MacKellar. He may be able to give us some advice--even to think of some way to get the mine open." Edstrom explained that MacKellar, an old Scotchman, had been a miner, but was now crippled, and held some petty office in Pedro. He was a persistent opponent of "Alf" Raymond's machine, and they had almost killed him on one occasion. His home was not far away, and it would take little time to consult him.
"All right," said Hal, and they set out at once. Pete Hanun followed them, not more than a dozen yards behind, but did not interfere, and they turned in at the gate of a little cottage. A woman opened the door for them, and asked them into the dining-room where MacKellar was sitting--a grey-haired old man, twisted up with rheumatism and obliged to go about on crutches.
Hal told his story. As the Scotchman had been brought up in the mines, it was not necessary to go into details about the situation. When Hal told his idea of appealing to the newspapers, the other responded at once, "You won't have to go to Western City. There's a man right here who'll do the business for you; Keating, of the _Gazette_."
"The Western City _Gazette?_" exclaimed Hal. He knew this paper; an evening journal selling for a cent, and read by working-men. Persons of culture who referred to it disposed of it with the adjective "yellow."
"I know," said MacKellar, noting Hal's tone. "But it's the only paper that will publish your story anyway."
"Where is this Keating?"
"He's been up at the mine. It's too bad you didn't meet him."
"Can we get hold of him now?"
"He might be in Pedro. Try the American Hotel."
Hal went to the telephone, and in a minute was hearing for the first time the cheery voice of his friend and lieutenant-to-be, "Billy" Keating. In a couple of minutes more the owner of the voice was at MacKellar's door, wiping the perspiration from his half-bald forehead. He was round-faced, like a full moon, and as jolly as Falstaff; when you got to know him better, you discovered that he was loyal as a Newfoundland dog. For all his bulk, Keating was a newspaper man, every inch of him "on the job."
He started to question the young miner as soon as he was introduced, and it quickly became clear to Hal that here was the man he was looking for. Keating knew exactly what questions to ask, and had the whole story in a few minutes. "By thunder!" he cried. "My last edition!" And he pulled out his watch, and sprang to the telephone. "Long distance," he called; then, "I want the city editor of the Western City _Gazette_. And, operator, please see if you can't rush it through. It's very urgent, and last time I had to wait nearly half an hour."
He turned back to Hal, and proceeded to ask more questions, at the same time pulling a bunch of copy-paper from his pocket and making notes. He got all Hal's statements about the lack of sprinkling, the absence of escape-ways, the delay in starting the fan, the concealing of the number of men in the mine. "I knew things were crooked up there!" he exclaimed. "But I couldn't get a lead! They kept a man with me every minute of the time. You know a fellow named Predovich?"
"I do," said Hal. "The company store-clerk; he once went through my pockets."
Keating made a face of disgust. "Well, he was my chaperon. Imagine trying to get the miners to talk to you with that sneak at your heels! I said to the superintendent, 'I don't need anybody to escort me around your place.' And he looked at me with a nasty little smile. 'We wouldn't want anything to happen to you while you're in this camp, Mr. Keating.' 'You don't consider it necessary to protect the lives of the other reporters,' I said. 'No,' said he; 'but the _Gazette_ has made a great many enemies, you know.' 'Drop your fooling, Mr. Cartwright,' I said. 'You propose to have me shadowed while I'm working on this assignment?' 'You can put it that way,' he answered, 'if you think it'll please the readers of the _Gazette_.'"
"Too bad we didn't meet!" said Hal. "Or if you'd run into any of our check-weighman crowd!"
"Oh! You know about that check-weighman business!" exclaimed the reporter. "I got a hint of it--that's how I happened to be down here to-day. I heard there was a man named Edstrom, who'd been shut out for making trouble; and I thought if I could find him, I might get a lead."
Hal and MacKellar looked at the old Swede, and the three of them began to laugh. "Here's your man!" said MacKellar.
"And here's your check-weighman!" added Edstrom, pointing to Hal.
Instantly the reporter was on his job again; he began to fire another series of questions. He would use that check-weighman story as a "follow-up" for the next day, to keep the subject of North Valley alive. The story had a direct bearing on the disaster, because it showed what the North Valley bosses were doing when they should have been looking after the safety of their mine. "I'll write it out this afternoon and send it by mail," said Keating; he added, with a smile, "That's one advantage of handling news the other papers won't touch--you don't have to worry about losing your 'scoops'!"
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