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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVI
The coughing miners pulled back from the sudden fall of grit and scree. Birk covered his eyes as best he could to protect them from the dust to stagger to where Clancy was stretched out.
“Sounds bad.” Clancy said.
“Tis.” Birk found Clancy’s hand and squeezed, “We’ll get out of here.”
“I’m praying for real.” Clancy gave a dry laugh. “Yer ma’d be so happy.”
“We all are.” Birk said. “I don’t want to die like this.”
“No one does.” Clancy said pulling Birk closer to him. “We have more fish to catch.” He whispered into Birk’s ear.
Red and Ken Langley stumbled out of the shaft and onto the floor.
“Cage is jammed solid between levels five and four.” Red said. “Can’t squeeze past it.”
“What about the trap in the cage floor?” one of the miners asked.
“I couldn’t get a good enough grip on it with m’hands. We need some sort of way to pry at it and hold to the wall at the same time. Someone light enough so as I can give hold to him in place long enough.” Red said.
“He’s talking about you Birk!” Clancy muttered as he gripped Birk’s forearm.
Birk nodded but wasn’t sure he’d have the strength to do what was expected. He couldn’t picture the bottom of the cage. When he went down in it all he cared about was that it was firm beneath his feet.
“Who’s the smallest here.” Sandy asked.
“That’ll be me.” Birk let go of Clancy’s arm and stood.
“So y’are Birk Nelson, so you are. Your dad’ll ner forgive me if anything happens to you.”
“He’ll never forgive me if I don’t do what I can now either. If we’re dead there’ll be none to forgive. What’s the plan? My head is hard but not that hard.”
He knelt beside Clancy. “I’ll get us to the lake.”
He let Clancy pull him close for a moment. He hoped Clancy couldn’t feel his heart racing with fear.
“Anyone got a pick?” Red asked. “Or a better yet a crow bar. Small enough to carry up a few hundred feet.”
A couple of the miner’s dropped to their knees to feel through the rubble.
“All’s we have is these couple of shovels, Red. We dropped everything when we ran to get here.” Sandy said handing Birk one of them.
Birk took the shovel and struck it hard against the floor. The blade sparked.
“Careful boy.” one of the miners said. “We don’t can’t risk setting gas off.”
“If that was a danger we’d all be dead now.” Sandy said. “Might have been a blessin’ in the long run. Better than waiting down here.”
“I was hoping for something stronger than this.” Birk tested the wood for breaks. “But if it’s best we got, it’ll have to do. I’ll make the most of it.”
“Give me your belts boys.” Red said. “We can use them to hook on to the cage floor for safety.”
Birk strapped a couple of the belts around his chest and pushed the shovel between them at his back so his hands would be free for the climb. He hadn’t clambered up or down the cage shaft since he was a kid. Once he Geo had snuck in to the pit and without thinking began to climb down the side of what they thought was the empty shaft. When they heard the creak of the car being hauled up they panicked and didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know if they could get up before it reached them.
That time he found a shallow recess barely big enough for him where he and Geo were able to press themselves into while the cage rattled past.
Birk looked up the shaft and there wasn’t even a thin light reflection from above or below. It was darker than he could remember it ever being.
He recalled Lillian telling him it was a shame he had to start working in the mine so young. He’d told her ‘That’s how it’s done here. Schoolin’s fine for them who expect to make more of themselves. I’m happy to bring something home to keep the family fed.’ Now he’d probably die here.
He took a deep breath and reached up for the first of the hand holds in the framework and swung himself up over the pit. He could hear the drip of water from below. Once he had pulled himself up far enough for his feet to find the holds he moved faster. Red was right behind him.
Some of the holds were loose in the rock, others were tight to the frame. His eyes peered for the next one. Once he reached for one and that wasn’t there and lost his footing. “Oh God!” he gasped as he pulled himself hard to the wall with the hand that was clutching the scaffolding.
“You okay, Birk.”
“Yeh Red. Hope I didn’t piss in yer face.” He was cold and sweating at the same time. His undershirt was sticking to him and he longed to scratch his balls. “Got an itch that I can’t scratch.” He laughed and the laughing calmed him down.
“That’s the story of every man who gets married.” Red laughed a little.
They came to where the cage was jammed. The trap door was on the bottom of the cage on the side furthest from them. A slight light filtered from above. Birk could see where the slide catch was and also saw that there was rubble on top of it.
Red threaded a couple of the belts and a rope he had brought through the spaces in the iron slats of cage floor.
“Hold on to these as best you can.” He helped Birk slip his arms through the loops. “If I lose grip of ya these’ll should hold you.”
“Same as that guy in the circus.” Birk was trembling. “You got no safety thing for you?”
“M’legs’ll hold me here.” He’d squeezed one of his legs between the scaffold and the wall.
“It’s alright to be scared, lad.” He kept an arm around Birk’s waist as Birk leaned as far forward as he could and tried to pry at the catch.
Birk locked his gaze on the underside of the cage. Even though it was pitch dark beneath him he knew it was a far drop with nothing between him the the levels beneath.
He tested his weight on the belts that Red had wound around his shoulder and slotted through the bottom of the cage. They held firm enough but didn’t leave much head room to move around in. Birk angled himself as best he could and pushed at the catch with the blade of the shovel. It didn’t give.
“How’s it lookin’ lad?” Red asked.
“Doesn’t feel’s if it’s ever been opened. Stuff on top of it holding it in place. Maybe if I can reach with m’fingers I can grasp it.” He leaned a bit further. One of the belts loosened. His saw red as he abruptly lurched out of Red’s hold.
“My God!” Red pitched forward off his perch on the scaffolding.
Birk felt Red’s hands grab at his coveralls but not find a way hold. Birk twisted to see if he could help. In seconds Red was gone. A few moments later he heard a dull thud as Red’s body hit the bottom of the shaft.
Birk was dangling, held by the belts, from the bottom of cage. His whole weight thrown on it. The cage groaned and shuddered but remained where it was. He blew at the dust on his face. He was afraid to move his arms lest they slip out of the belts.
He tried to get a foot hold but his feet couldn’t reach either wall. He squinted again at the trap. Each motion caused him to sway in the dark. His eyes saw spots and he didn’t know where to look. He felt like a bean vine clinging at anything it could get a hold of as it grew. He heard Sal giggling in their garden patch.
She’d been out there every day checking on the beans she’d planted. After the looting of the company store she’d found some dried beans in ashes. She soaked them for a week or so in saucer of water and to his surprise they’d began to spout. She planted them and reported to him daily as the the sprouts became stalks that sprouted leaves and more stems that climbed up around the fence. Now it was flowering.
“Sal!” he’d told her. “They won’t grow any faster with you watching them.” She was on her back staring up at the climbers. “Come on!”
“Come on!” she said to him. “Come on Birk.”
He shook his head. The seam in his coveralls cut into the flesh between his legs. The giggle was the squeak of the cage inches from his head.
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