There was one of Mary Burke's remarks upon which Hal soon got light--her statement that North Valley was a place of fear. He listened to the tales of these underworld men, until it came so that he shuddered with dread each time that he went down in the cage.
There was a wire-haired and almond eyed Korean, named Cho, a "rope-rider" in Hal's part of the mine. He was one of those who had charge of the long trains of cars, called "trips," which were hauled through the main passage-ways; the name "rope-rider" came from the fact that he sat on the heavy iron ring to which the rope was attached. He invited Hal to a seat with him, and Hal accepted, at peril of his job as well as of his limbs. Cho had picked up what he fondly thought was English, and now and then one could understand a word. He pointed upon the ground, and shouted above the rattle of the cars: "Big dust!" Hal saw that the ground was covered with six inches of coal-dust, while on the old disused walls one could write his name in it. "Much blow-up!" said the rope-rider; and when the last empty cars had been shunted off into the working-rooms, and he was waiting to make up a return "trip," he laboured with gestures to explain what he meant. "Load cars. Bang! Bust like hell!"
Hal knew that the mountain air in this region was famous for its dryness; he learned now that the quality which meant life to invalids from every part of the world meant death to those who toiled to keep the invalids warm. Driven through the mines by great fans, this air took out every particle of moisture, and left coal dust so thick and dry that there were fatal explosions from the mere friction of loading-shovels. So it happened that these mines were killing several times as many men as other mines throughout the country.
Was there no remedy for this, Hal asked, talking with one of his mule-drivers, Tim Rafferty, the evening after his ride with Cho. There was a remedy, said Tim--the law required sprinkling the mines with "adobe-dust"; and once in Tim's life, he remembered this law's being obeyed. There had come some "big fellows" inspecting things, and previous to their visit there had been an elaborate campaign of sprinkling. But that had been several years ago, and now the apparatus was stored away, nobody knew where, and one heard nothing about sprinkling.
It was the same with precautions against gas. The North Valley mines were especially "gassy," it appeared. In these old rambling passages one smelt a stink as of all the rotten eggs in all the barn-yards of the world; and this sulphuretted hydrogen was the least dangerous of the gases against which a miner had to contend. There was the dreaded "choke-damp," which was odourless, and heavier than air. Striking into soft, greasy coal, one would open a pocket of this gas, a deposit laid up for countless ages, awaiting its predestined victim. A man might sink to sleep as he lay at work, and if his "buddy," or helper, happened to be out of sight, and to delay a minute too long, it would be all over with the man. And there was the still more dreaded "fire-damp," which might wreck a whole mine, and kill scores and even hundreds of men.
Against these dangers there was a "fire-boss," whose duty was to go through the mine, testing for gas, and making sure that the ventilating-course was in order, and the fans working properly. The "fire-boss" was supposed to make his rounds in the early morning, and the law specified that no one should go to work till he had certified that all was safe. But what if the "fire-boss" overslept himself, or happened to be drunk? It was too much to expect thousands of dollars to be lost for such a reason. So sometimes one saw men ordered to their work, and sent down grumbling and cursing. Before many hours some of them would be prostrated with headache, and begging to be taken out; and perhaps the superintendent would not let them out, because if a few came, the rest would get scared and want to come also.
Once, only last year, there had been an accident of that sort. A young mule-driver, a Croatian, told Hal about it while they sat munching the contents of their dinner-pails. The first cage-load of men had gone down into the mine, sullenly protesting; and soon afterwards some one had taken down a naked light, and there had been an explosion which had sounded like the blowing up of the inside of the world. Eight men had been killed, the force of the explosion being so great that some of the bodies had been wedged between the shaft wall and the cage, and it had been necessary to cut them to pieces to get them out. It was them Japs that were to blame, vowed Hal's informant. They hadn't ought to turn them loose in coal mines, for the devil himself couldn't keep a Jap from sneaking off to get a smoke.
So Hal understood how North Valley was a place of fear. What tales the old chambers of these mines could have told, if they had had voices! Hal watched the throngs pouring in to their labours, and reflected that according to the statisticians of the government eight or nine of every thousand of them were destined to die violent deaths before a year was out, and some thirty more would be badly injured. And they knew this, they knew it better than all the statisticians of the government; yet they went to their tasks! Reflecting upon this, Hal was full of wonder. What was the force that kept men at such a task? Was it a sense of duty? Did they understand that society had to have coal and that some one had to do the "dirty work" of providing it? Did they have a vision of a future, great and wonderful, which was to grow out of their ill-requited toil? Or were they simply fools or cowards, submitting blindly, because they had not the wit nor the will to do otherwise? Curiosity held him, he wanted to understand the inner souls of these silent and patient armies which through the ages have surrendered their lives to other men's control.
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