King Coal/Book II/Chapter 7

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King Coal by Upton Sinclair
Book II Chapter 7

Hal did not look back, but turned into the company-store. "North Valley Trading Company" read the sign over the door; within was a Serbian woman pointing out what she wanted to buy, and two little Lithuanian girls watching the weighing of a pound of sugar. Hal strolled up to the person who was doing the weighing, a middle-aged man with a yellow moustache stained with tobacco-juice. "Morning, Judge."

"Huh!" was the reply from Silas Adams, justice of the peace in the town of North Valley.

"Judge," said Hal, "what do you think about the election?"

"I don't think about it," said the other. "Busy weighin' sugar."

"Anybody round here going to vote for MacDougall?"

"They better not tell me if they are!"

"What?" smiled Hal. "In this free American republic?"

"In this part of the free American republic a man is free to dig coal, but not to vote for a skunk like MacDougall." Then, having tied up the sugar, the "J. P." whittled off a fresh chew from his plug, and turned to Hal. "What'll you have?"

Hal purchased half a pound of dried peaches, so that he might have an excuse to loiter, and be able to keep time with the jaws of the Judge. While the order was being filled, he seated himself upon the counter. "You know," said he, "I used to work in a grocery."

"That so? Where at?"

"Peterson & Co., in American City." Hal had told this so often that he had begun to believe it.

"Pay pretty good up there?"

"Yes, pretty fair." Then, realising that he had no idea what would constitute good pay in a grocery, Hal added, quickly, "Got a bad wrist here!"

"That so?" said the other.

He did not show much sociability; but Hal persisted, refusing to believe that any one in a country store would miss an opening to discuss politics, even with a miner's helper. "Tell me," said he, "just what is the matter with MacDougall?"

"The matter with him," said the Judge, "is that the company's against him." He looked hard at the young miner. "You meddlin' in politics?" he growled. But the young miner's gay brown eyes showed only appreciation of the earlier response; so the "J. P." was tempted into specifying the would-be congressman's vices. Thus conversation started; and pretty soon the others in the store joined in--"Bob" Johnson, bookkeeper and post-master, and "Jake" Predovich, the Galician Jew who was a member of the local school-board, and knew the words for staple groceries in fifteen languages.

Hal listened to an exposition of the crimes of the political opposition in Pedro County. Their candidate, MacDougall, had come to the state as a "tin-horn gambler," yet now he was going around making speeches in churches, and talking about the moral sentiment of the community. "And him with a district chairman keeping three families in Pedro!" declared Si Adams.

"Well," ventured Hal, "if what I hear is true, the Republican chairman isn't a plaster saint. They say he was drunk at the convention--"

"Maybe so," said the "J. P." "But we ain't playin' for the prohibition vote; and we ain't playin' for the labour vote--tryin' to stir up the riff-raff in these coal-camps, promisin' 'em high wages an' short hours. Don't he know he can't get it for 'em? But he figgers he'll go off to Washington and leave us here to deal with the mess he's stirred up!"

"Don't you fret," put in Bob Johnson--"he ain't goin' to no Washin'ton."

The other two agreed, and Hal ventured again, "He says you stuff the ballot-boxes."

"What do you suppose his crowd is doin' in the cities? We got to meet 'em some way, ain't we?"

"Oh, I see," said Hal, naïvely. "You stuff them worse!"

"Sometimes we stuff the boxes, and sometimes we stuff the voters." There was an appreciative titter from the others, and the "J. P." was moved to reminiscence. "Two years ago I was election clerk, over to Sheridan, and we found we'd let 'em get ahead of us--they had carried the whole state. 'By God,' said Alf. Raymond, 'we'll show 'em a trick from the coal-counties! And there won't be no recount business either!' So we held back our returns till the rest had come in, and when we seen how many votes we needed, we wrote 'em down. And that settled it."

"That seems a simple method," remarked Hal. "They'll have to get up early to beat Alf."

"You bet you!" said Si, with the complacency of one of the gang. "They call this county the 'Empire of Raymond.'"

"It must be a cinch," said Hal--"being the sheriff, and having the naming of so many deputies as they need in these coal-camps!"

"Yes," agreed the other. "And there's his wholesale liquor business, too. If you want a license in Pedro county, you not only vote for Alf, but you pay your bills on time!"

"Must be a fortune in that!" remarked Hal; and the Judge, the Post-master and the School-commissioner appeared like children listening to a story of a feast. "You bet you!"

"I suppose it takes money to run politics in this county," Hal added.

"Well, Alf don't put none of it up, you can bet! That's the company's job."

This from the Judge; and the School-commissioner added, "De coin in dese camps is beer."

"Oh, I see!" laughed Hal. "The companies buy Alf's beer, and use it to get him votes!"

"Sure thing!" said the Post-master.

At this moment he happened to reach into his pocket for a cigar, and Hal observed a silver shield on the breast of his waistcoat. "That a deputy's badge?" he inquired, and then turned to examine the School-commissioner's costume. "Where's yours?"

"I git mine ven election comes," said Jake, with a grin.

"And yours, Judge?"

"I'm a justice of the peace, young feller," said Silas, with dignity.

Leaning round, and observing a bulge on the right hip of the School-commissioner, Hal put out his hand towards it. Instinctively the other moved his hand to the spot.

Hal turned to the Post-master. "Yours?" he asked.

"Mine's under the counter," grinned Bob.

"And yours, Judge?"

"Mine's in the desk," said the Judge.

Hal drew a breath. "Gee!" said he. "It's like a steel trap!" He managed to keep the laugh on his face, but within he was conscious of other feelings than those of amusement. He was losing that "first fine careless rapture" with which he had set out to run with the hare and the hounds in North Valley!