A Miner Mistake: Short Story
The boys climbed down a rope like three spiders on a single strand of silk. They passed the decaying remnants of wood and iron supports into the gaping throat of an abandoned, vertical, coal mine. They could hear water trickling down the walls, the underground continuation of the downpour that morning.
The boys and their parents were on vacation from their homes in Indiana and were camping in the mountains and forests of West Virginia's coal mining country The three had hiked out of the campground after lunch and gone exploring. That's how they had come across the shaft into which they were now descending.
Vertical Mine Shaft
"How far down did you say the bottom was?" said twelve-year-old Rodney, the youngest of the trio by three years.
"About forty-eight feet," said Tom, friend to Rodney and his brother, Rick.
"And you figured that out just by droppin' a rock and countin'? Rodney's voice halted after every other word so he could gulp down another breath of cool, moist air.
"Yep," said Tom. "Thirty-two feet per second. That's the kind of thing you learn from reading books."
"I ain't never read no book. Not a whole one anyways."
"Shhh," hissed Rick. "Stop climbin' and listen a minute. I thought I heard somethin'."
Tom pulled the flashlight out of his pocket and shined it down below. The blackness drank up the light like water on parched earth. "I can't see anything yet. Besides, what could be down there that would make a noise anyway?"
"That's the longest forty-eight feet I ever seen," said Rodney. "I think maybe that rock idea of yours...."
"Hush." Tom shined the light again, then shut it off. "Come on, guys. We're down, and there's a body on the ground."
"A body? Like a rabbit or a deer that fell in the hole up there?" Rick let go of the rope and dropped the last seven feet.
"No, not a rabbit or a deer." Tom waited on Rodney. "It was a man." Tom turned the light back on and shined it where the end of the rope dangled a foot above the floor of the mine.
"There ain't nothin' there now," said Rick. He grabbed the light from Tom and walked along the passage a few feet, then froze, his eyes fixed on the circle of light at his feet.
Tom and Rodney joined him.
"What is it, Rick?" Tom looked down and in the center of the light beam was the single imprint of a boot, a very large boot. "Whoever that belongs to was lying on the ground under the rope just a couple of minutes ago."
"Why would he do a fool thing like that? It's like he was just layin' there waitin' on us." Rick handed the light to Tom and got down on a knee to examine the print. "He's a big man."
"How do you know that?" said Rodney. "You don't read no books neither."
"Look." Rick put his own boot next to the imprint and stood on the one foot, grinding the heel into the gravel and coal dust. He lifted his foot to show that the bigger boot had left a much deeper imprint.
"Must be a size fourteen," said Tom.
"Wouldn't be hard to track him." Rick took a few steps forward.
"Yeah, and what are you going to do when you find him?" Tom turned and shined the light back toward the rope. "Let's get out of here."
Coal Mine Tunnel
Rodney started up first.
Tom shined the light on the ground beneath where the rope swung back and forth. "Oh, my gosh, look!"
Rodney slid back down. Rick turned. The light revealed something written in large letters in the black dust, something they had missed when they first came down.
"Zero, six, then a space, then o and u." Tom scratched his head and narrowed his eyes. "That doesn't mean anything."
Rodney walked around the words and looked over them at Tom. "Now who can't read? It says, no go.
"When you saw that man on the ground," said Rick, "he wasn't just layin' there, he was writin' in the dirt."
A scuffling sound, like something heavy being dragged across gravel, came out of the darkness from further down the corridor.
"I say go now," said Tom.
Rodney was already climbing and Rick was close behind.
Tom was left alone for a few seconds in the subterranean quietness. The scraping stopped, but the heavy breathing didn't. Tom grabbed the rope. "Climb! climb!" Tom pocketed the light and grabbed the rope. Using just his arms, he quickly caught up to his friends. "Faster, Rodney." He wrapped his legs around the rope and shined the light down. The dust and darkness prevented him from seeing much, but what he did see was enough to send cold shivers from his neck down his back and along both arms. Two beefy hands, each large enough to cover a dinner plate, moved up the rope, one over the other, pulling a massive bulk behind them. There was something wrong with the hands, though, but Tom wasn't sticking around to find out what it was. "Climb, Rodney, climb. He's coming for us!"
The rope swung and jerked beneath them. Tom looked but could see nothing. He dared not stop to pull the light from his pocket but climbed on as fast as little Rodney would allow.
Tom ran into Rick's feet which were not moving. "What's going on. It's gaining on us."
"My arms," said Rodney. "I can barely move them. I gotta rest for just a second."
Something touched Tom's foot. "Move!" The bellering of Tom, a voice neither of the brothers had ever heard from him before, set them in motion again.
Tom kicked and connected with something solid. A grunt and a snort followed. The smell took Tom's breath away, and his eyes watered like he was trying to escape from a giant peeled onion.
Rodney reached the top, and Tom watched him scramble onto the timber that lay across the shaft's opening with the rope tied at its center. Rick was out and it was Tom's turn. He kicked once more but struck empty air. Up and out he flew. When he hit the ground he spun around just in time to see Rick pull his hunting knife from the sheath on his belt.
A filthy, scarred hand and hairless arm with wrinkled flesh reached up toward the beam. Rick's blade sliced across the rope once, twice, then it snapped. The three boys held their breath and counted, one, two, three, four, five. But there was no sound of a body striking the floor of the mine with a bone splintering thud. They crept toward the opening until their faces hung over the chasm. There was nothing but darkness.
Modern long wall mining produces in one minute what a team of miners with picks in the 1920s produced in a week.
The next day Tom asked his mom to take him, Rick and Rodney, to the library in a small town near their campground. He told her he wanted to read about coal mining in the area.
The three boys hovered over the yellow pages of a worn volume titled Mining Catastrophes of West Virginia. It told about the days when every miner's son followed him to the shafts and tunnels beneath their villages and homes.
One day there was a mighty explosion followed by the collapse of a tunnel in which fourteen miners had been working. Man after man emerged from the shaft with reports of the son of one miner, a huge boy who had little intelligence but could move a load of coal that took five normal men to even budge. The boy was digging for survivors and sending them up one by one.
The last man to climb out of the mine had this story to tell.
The boy pulled me out and I told him there wasn't no more men down there. He had saved us all. I says to him, you's a hero boy. Let's get up top and celebrate. But he didn't look like no hero. That big monster of a boy was cryin' like a baby. He told me he had snuck around a corner while we was all busy workin' to have hisself a cigarette. He knowed that was against all the rules and common sense, but he did it anyway. He struck that match and everything around him went up in a ball of fire and the tunnel fell in. That's when I looked real close at him. He was burned bad, real bad. His face. His arms and hands. I begged him to come up. Told him he'd paid for his sins by savin' all us men. Last thing he said to me before he wandered off into the dark was, no go.
Tom closed the book. "He's still down there. After all these years, ghost or whatever, he's still haunting that mine."
"But why was he tryin' to hurt us?" said Rick. "It just don't seem like a thing he would do."
"No go is what he wrote," said Rodney. "And Tom, I bet he coulda grabbed your foot a dozen times on the way up." Rodney scratched his head and wrinkled his nose. "He wasn't tryin' to catch us. He just didn't want us to leave so soon. He's lonely down there."
© 2017 Chris Mills