King Coal

Upton Sinclair

Preview: Issue 1 of 41



The town of Pedro stood on the edge of the mountain country; a straggling assemblage of stores and saloons from which a number of branch railroads ran up into the canyons, feeding the coal-camps. Through the week it slept peacefully; but on Saturday nights, when the miners came trooping down, and the ranchmen came in on horseback and in automobiles, it wakened to a seething life.

At the railroad station, one day late in June, a young man alighted from a train. He was about twenty-one years of age, with sensitive features, and brown hair having a tendency to waviness. He wore a frayed and faded suit of clothes, purchased in a quarter of his home city where the Hebrew merchants stand on the sidewalks to offer their wares; also a soiled blue shirt without a tie, and a pair of heavy boots which had seen much service. Strapped on his back was a change of clothing and a blanket, and in his pockets a comb, a toothbrush, and a small pocket mirror.

Sitting in the smoking-car of the train, the young man had listened to the talk of the coal-camps, seeking to correct his accent. When he got off the train he proceeded down the track and washed his hands with cinders, and lightly powdered some over his face. After studying the effect of this in his mirror, he strolled down the main street of Pedro, and, selecting a little tobacco-shop, went in. In as surly a voice as he could muster, he inquired of the proprietress, "Can you tell me how to get to the Pine Creek mine?"

The woman looked at him with no suspicion in her glance. She gave the desired information, and he took a trolley and got off at the foot of the Pine Creek canyon, up which he had a thirteen-mile trudge. It was a sunshiny day, with the sky crystal clear, and the mountain air invigourating. The young man seemed to be happy, and as he strode on his way, he sang a song with many verses:

"Old King Coal was a merry old soul, And a merry old soul was he; He made him a college all full of knowledge-- Hurrah for you and me!

"Oh, Liza-Ann, come out with me, The moon is a-shinin' in the monkey-puzzle tree; Oh, Liza-Ann, I have began To sing you the song of Harrigan!

"He keeps them a-roll, this merry old soul-- The wheels of industree; A-roll and a-roll, for his pipe and his bowl And his college facultee!

"Oh, Mary-Jane, come out in the lane, The moon is a-shinin' in the old pecan; Oh, Mary-Jane, don't you hear me a-sayin' I'll sing you the song of Harrigan!

"So hurrah for King Coal, and his fat pay-roll, And his wheels of industree! Hurrah for his pipe, and hurrah for his bowl-- And hurrah for you and me!

"Oh, Liza-Ann, come out with me, The moon is a-shinin'--"

And so on and on--as long as the moon was a-shinin' on a college campus. It was a mixture of happy nonsense and that questioning with which modern youth has begun to trouble its elders. As a marching tune, the song was a trifle swift for the grades of a mountain canyon; Warner could stop and shout to the canyon-walls, and listen to their answer, and then march on again. He had youth in his heart, and love and curiosity; also he had some change in his trousers' pocket, and a ten dollar bill, for extreme emergencies, sewed up in his belt. If a photographer for Peter Harrigan's General Fuel Company could have got a snap-shot of him that morning, it might have served as a "portrait of a coal-miner" in any "prosperity" publication.

But the climb was a stiff one, and before the end the traveller became aware of the weight of his boots, and sang no more. Just as the sun was sinking up the canyon, he came upon his destination--a gate across the road, with a sign upon it:




Hal approached the gate, which was of iron bars, and padlocked. After standing for a moment to get ready his surly voice, he kicked upon the gate and a man came out of a shack inside.

"What do you want?" said he.

"I want to get in. I'm looking for a job."

"Where do you come from?"

"From Pedro."

"Where you been working?"

"I never worked in a mine before."

"Where did you work?"

"In a grocery-store."

"What grocery-store?"

"Peterson & Co., in Western City."

The guard came closer to the gate and studied him through the bars.

"Hey, Bill!" he called, and another man came out from the cabin. "Here's a guy says he worked in a grocery, and he's lookin' for a job."

"Where's your papers?" demanded Bill.

Every one had told Hal that labour was scarce in the mines, and that the companies were ravenous for men; he had supposed that a workingman would only have to knock, and it would be opened unto him. "They didn't give me no papers," he said, and added, hastily, "I got drunk and they fired me." He felt quite sure that getting drunk would not bar one from a coal camp.

But the two made no move to open the gate. The second man studied him deliberately from top to toe, and Hal was uneasily aware of possible sources of suspicion. "I'm all right," he declared. "Let me in, and I'll show you."

Still the two made no move. They looked at each other, and then Bill answered, "We don't need no hands."

"But," exclaimed Hal, "I saw a sign down the canyon--"

"That's an old sign," said Bill.

"But I walked all the way up here!"

"You'll find it easier walkin' back."

"But--it's night!"

"Scared of the dark, kid?" inquired Bill, facetiously.

"Oh, say!" replied Hal. "Give a fellow a chance! Ain't there some way I can pay for my keep--or at least for a bunk to-night?"

"There's nothin' for you," said Bill, and turned and went into the cabin.

The other man waited and watched, with a decidedly hostile look. Hal strove to plead with him, but thrice he repeated, "Down the canyon with you." So at last Hal gave up, and moved down the road a piece and sat down to reflect.

It really seemed an absurdly illogical proceeding, to post a notice, "Hands Wanted," in conspicuous places on the roadside, causing a man to climb thirteen miles up a mountain canyon, only to be turned off without explanation. Hal was convinced that there must be jobs inside the stockade, and that if only he could get at the bosses he could persuade them. He got up and walked down the road a quarter of a mile, to where the railroad-track crossed it, winding up the canyon. A train of "empties" was passing, bound into the camp, the cars rattling and bumping as the engine toiled up the grade. This suggested a solution of the difficulty.

It was already growing dark. Crouching slightly, Hal approached the cars, and when he was in the shadows, made a leap and swung onto one of them. It took but a second to clamber in, and he lay flat and waited, his heart thumping.

Before a minute had passed he heard a shout, and looking over, he saw the Cerberus of the gate running down a path to the track, his companion, Bill, just behind him. "Hey! come out of there!" they yelled; and Bill leaped, and caught the car in which Hal was riding.

The latter saw that the game was up, and sprang to the ground on the other side of the track and started out of the camp. Bill followed him, and as the train passed, the other man ran down the track to join him. Hal was walking rapidly, without a word; but the Cerberus of the gate had many words, most of them unprintable, and he seized Hal by the collar, and shoving him violently, planted a kick upon that portion of his anatomy which nature has constructed for the reception of kicks. Hal recovered his balance, and, as the man was still pursuing him, he turned and aimed a blow, striking him on the chest and making him reel.

Hal's big brother had seen to it that he knew how to use his fists; he now squared off, prepared to receive the second of his assailants. But in coal-camps matters are not settled in that primitive way, it appeared. The man halted, and the muzzle of a revolver came suddenly under Hal's nose. "Stick 'em up!" said the man.

This was a slang which Hal had never heard, but the meaning was inescapable; he "stuck 'em up." At the same moment his first assailant rushed at him, and dealt him a blow over the eye which sent him sprawling backward upon the stones.


When Hal came to himself again he was in darkness, and was conscious of agony from head to toe. He was lying on a stone floor, and he rolled over, but soon rolled back again, because there was no part of his back which was not sore. Later on, when he was able to study himself, he counted over a score of marks of the heavy boots of his assailants.

He lay for an hour or two, making up his mind that he was in a lock-up, because he could see the starlight through iron bars. He could hear somebody snoring, and he called half a dozen times, in a louder and louder voice, until at last, hearing a growl, he inquired, "Can you give me a drink of water?"

"I'll give you hell if you wake me up again," said the voice; after which Hal lay in silence until morning.

A couple of hours after daylight, a man entered his cell. "Get up," said he, and added a prod with his foot. Hal had thought he could not do it, but he got up.

"No funny business now," said his jailer, and grasping him by the sleeve of his coat, marched him out of the cell and down a little corridor into a sort of office, where sat a red-faced personage with a silver shield upon the lapel of his coat. Hal's two assailants of the night before stood nearby.

"Well, kid?" said the personage in the chair. "Had a little time to think it over?"

"Yes," said Hal, briefly.

"What's the charge?" inquired the personage, of the two watchmen.

"Trespassing and resisting arrest."

"How much money you got, young fellow?" was, the next question.

Hal hesitated.

"Speak up there!" said the man.

"Two dollars and sixty-seven cents," said Hal--"as well as I can remember."

"Go on!" said the other. "What you givin' us?" And then, to the two watchmen, "Search him."

"Take off your coat and pants," said Bill, promptly, "and your boots."

"Oh, I say!" protested Hal.

"Take 'em off!" said the man, and clenched his fists. Hal took 'em off, and they proceeded to go through the pockets, producing a purse with the amount stated, also a cheap watch, a strong pocket knife, the tooth-brush, comb and mirror, and two white handkerchiefs, which they looked at contemptuously and tossed to the spittle-drenched floor.

They unrolled the pack, and threw the clean clothing about. Then, opening the pocket-knife, they proceeded to pry about the soles and heels of the boots, and to cut open the lining of the clothing. So they found the ten dollars in the belt, which they tossed onto the table with the other belongings. Then the personage with the shield announced, "I fine you twelve dollars and sixty-seven cents, and your watch and knife." He added, with a grin, "You can keep your snot-rags."

"Now see here!" said Hal, angrily. "This is pretty raw!"

"You get your duds on, young fellow, and get out of here as quick as you can, or you'll go in your shirt-tail."

But Hal was angry enough to have been willing to go in his skin. "You tell me who you are, and your authority for this procedure?"

"I'm marshal of the camp," said the man.

"You mean you're an employé of the General Fuel Company? And you propose to rob me--"

"Put him out, Bill," said the marshal. And Hal saw Bill's fists clench.

"All right," he said, swallowing his indignation. "Wait till I get my clothes on." And he proceeded to dress as quickly as possible; he rolled up his blanket and spare clothing, and started for the door.

"Remember," said the marshal, "straight down the canyon with you, and if you show your face round here again, you'll get a bullet through you."

So Hal went out into the sunshine, with a guard on each side of him as an escort. He was on the same mountain road, but in the midst of the company-village. In the distance he saw the great building of the breaker, and heard the incessant roar of machinery and falling coal. He marched past a double lane of company houses and shanties, where slattern women in doorways and dirty children digging in the dust of the roadside paused and grinned at him--for he limped as he walked, and it was evident enough what had happened to him.

Hal had come with love and curiosity. The love was greatly diminished--evidently this was not the force which kept the wheels of industry a-roll. But the curiosity was greater than ever. What was there so carefully hidden inside this coal-camp stockade?

Hal turned and looked at Bill, who had showed signs of humour the day before. "See here," said he, "you fellows have got my money, and you've blacked my eye and kicked me blue, so you ought to be satisfied. Before I go, tell me about it, won't you?"

"Tell you what?" growled Bill.

"Why did I get this?"

"Because you're too gay, kid. Didn't you know you had no business trying to sneak in here?"

"Yes," said Hal; "but that's not what I mean. Why didn't you let me in at first?"

"If you wanted a job in a mine," demanded the man, "why didn't you go at it in the regular way?"

"I didn't know the regular way."

"That's just it. And we wasn't takin' chances with you. You didn't look straight."

"But what did you think I was? What are you afraid of?"

"Go on!" said the man. "You can't work me!"

Hal walked a few steps in silence, pondering how to break through. "I see you're suspicious of me," he said. "I'll tell you the truth, if you'll let me." Then, as the other did not forbid him, "I'm a college boy, and I wanted to see life and shift for myself a while. I thought it would be a lark to come here."

"Well," said Bill, "this ain't no foot-ball field. It's a coal-mine."

Hal saw that his story had been accepted. "Tell me straight," he said, "what did you think I was?"

"Well, I don't mind telling," growled Bill. "There's union agitators trying to organise these here camps, and we ain't taking no chances with 'em. This company gets its men through agencies, and if you'd went and satisfied them, you'd 'a been passed in the regular way. Or if you'd went to the office down in Pedro and got a pass, you'd 'a been all right. But when a guy turns up at the gate, and looks like a dude and talks like a college perfessor, he don't get by, see?"

"I see," said Hal. And then, "If you'll give me the price of a breakfast out of my money, I'll be obliged."

"Breakfast is over," said Bill. "You sit round till the pinyons gets ripe." He laughed; but then, mellowed by his own joke, he took a quarter from his pocket and passed it to Hal. He opened the padlock on the gate and saw him out with a grin; and so ended Hal's first turn on the wheels of industry.

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