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Chapter 9

Billy Keating went out again, saying that he knew a man who might be willing to talk to him on the quiet, and give him some idea what was going to happen to Hal. Meantime Hal and Edstrom sat down to dinner with MacKellar. The family were afraid to use the dining-room of their home, but spread a little table in the upstairs hall. The distress of mind of MacKellar's wife and daughter was apparent, and this brought home to Hal the terror of life in this coal-country. Here were American women, in an American home, a home with evidences of refinement and culture; yet they felt and acted as if they were Russian conspirators, in terror of Siberia and the knout!

The reporter was gone a couple of hours; when he came back, he brought news. "You can prepare for trouble, young fellow."

"Why so?"

"Jeff Cotton's in town."

"How do you know?"

"I saw him in an automobile. If he left North Valley at this time, it was for something serious, you may be sure."

"What does he mean to do?"

"There's no telling. He may have you slugged; he may have you run out of town and dumped out in the desert; he may just have you arrested."

Hal considered for a moment. "For slander?"

"Or for vagrancy; or on suspicion of having robbed a bank in Texas, or murdered your great-grandmother in Tasmania. The point is, he'll keep you locked up till this trouble has blown over."

"Well," said Hal, "I don't want to be locked up. I want to go up to Western City. I'm waiting for the train."

"You may have to wait till morning," replied Keating. "There's been trouble on the railroad--a freight-car broke down and ripped up the track; it'll be some time before it's clear."

They discussed this new problem back and forth. MacKellar wanted to get in half a dozen friends and keep guard over Hal during the night; and Hal had about agreed to this idea, when the discussion was given a new turn by a chance remark of Keating's. "Somebody else is tied up by the railroad accident. The Coal King's son!"

"The Coal King's son?" echoed Hal.

"Young Percy Harrigan. He's got a private car here--or rather a whole train. Think of it--dining-car, drawing-room car, two whole cars with sleeping apartments! Wouldn't you like to be a son of the Coal King?"

"Has he come on account of the mine-disaster?"

"Mine-disaster?" echoed Keating. "I doubt if he's heard of it. They've been on a trip to the Grand Canyon, I was told; there's a baggage-car with four automobiles."

"Is Old Peter with them?"

"No, he's in New York. Percy's the host. He's got one of his automobiles out, and was up in town--two other fellows and some girls."

"Who's in his party?"

"I couldn't find out. You can see, it might be a story for the _Gazette_--the Coal King's son, coming by chance at the moment when a hundred and seven of his serfs are perishing in the mine! If I could only have got him to say a word about the disaster! If I could even have got him to say he didn't know about it!"

"Did you try?"

"What am I a reporter for?"

"What happened?"

"Nothing happened; except that he froze me stiff."

"Where was this?"

"On the street. They stopped at a drug-store, and I stepped up. 'Is this Mr. Percy Harrigan?' He was looking into the store, over my head. 'I'm a reporter,' I said, 'and I'd like to ask you about the accident up at North Valley.' 'Excuse me,' he said, in a tone--gee, it makes your blood cold to think of it! 'Just a word,' I pleaded. 'I don't give interviews,' he answered; and that was all--he continued looking over my head, and everybody else staring in front of them. They had turned to ice at my first word. If ever I felt like a frozen worm!"

There was a pause.

"Ain't it wonderful," reflected Billy, "how quick you can build up an aristocracy! When you looked at that car, the crowd in it and the airs they wore, you'd think they'd been running the world since the time of William the Conqueror. And Old Peter came into this country with a pedlar's pack on his shoulders!"

"We're hustlers here," put in MacKellar.

"We'll hustle all the way to hell in a generation more," said the reporter. Then, after a minute, "Say, but there's one girl in that bunch that was the real thing! She sure did get me! You know all those fluffy things they do themselves up in--soft and fuzzy, makes you think of spring-time orchards. This one was exactly the colour of apple-blossoms."

"You're susceptible to the charms of the ladies?" inquired Hal, mildly.

"I am," said the other. "I know it's all fake, but just the same, it makes my little heart go pit-a-pat. I always want to think they're as lovely as they look."

Hal's smile became reminiscent, and he quoted:

"Oh Liza-Ann, come out with me, The moon is a-shinin' in the monkey-puzzle tree!"

Then he stopped, with a laugh. "Don't wear your heart on your sleeve, Mr. Keating. She wouldn't be above taking a peck at it as she passed."

"At me? A worm of a newspaper reporter?"

"At you, a man!" laughed Hal. "I wouldn't want to accuse the lady of posing; but a lady has her role in life, and has to keep her hand in."

There was a pause. The reporter was looking at the young miner with sudden curiosity. "See here," he remarked, "I've been wondering about you. How do you come to know so much about the psychology of the leisure class?"

"I used to have money once," said Hal. "My family's gone down as quickly as the Harrigans have come up."

Upton Sinclair