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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVII
He smelled his sweat. His fear. He swung the blade of the shovel at the metal grid of the trap and the sound echoed in the shaft.
He wiped the sweat from his face and peered at the underside of the floor. There were holes in the grid work, drains to keep the cage clear of water. He worked the fingers of his left hand into the furthest holes he could reach and pulled himself forward toward the catch. The belts held him back so that he couldn’t quite reach. His neck was twisted as he was pulled tighter to the cage.
With his right hand he undid the belt that was holding him back. His left arm now had barely enough give so he could reach the catch and unscrew the bolt that held it. The nut cut into his fingers. His sweat made it slippery but using all his strength he was able to turn it. He pushed the bolt up but the trap didn’t budge. He’d expected it to swing down as it opened. He paused and recollected that he had to slide the brace out of the way before the trap would open. His right hand ached holding so much of his weight. He jammed his right fingers into other drain holes closer to the trap.
He wriggled his left hand free, wiggled his fingers to bring some feeling back into the hand. The fingers were slick with his blood. He reached up and the brace bar slid out with a loud squeal.
“God get me through this.” He whispered. “I’ve been as good as I can be. You know that. This isn’t the way any man wants to die.”
He got a fresh grip with his left hand and with a burst of speed swung his feet up at the trap. It popped up a couple of inches under the blow.
“Goddamn,” he nearly laughed. “It’s goes up not down.”
With another kick he got it to open about a foot but it was blocked. Debris fell through it.
He undid the other belt that was anchoring him to the cage. Fully free his right arm could reach the lip of the trap. Gripping it best as he could he he let go his left hand’s grip and grabbed at the lip of the opening with it, missed but on the second try got a solid grip. He inched along and with a hand on either side of the door pulled himself part way through the narrow opening he had managed to create.
There was lumber and more rock debris in the car. He got his shoulder and chest firmly on the floor and pushed desperately at the debris. The cage shuddered and jolted down an inch or so sending the cage door down on his back. His feet thrashed to get a grip in the empty air beneath him.
He lay there a moment to catch his breath. He knew he wasn’t going to fall into the shaft and needed to breath while he figured out what to do next.
“Hello! Hello!” came from below him. “You okay? Birk hello!”
He recognized Sandy’s voice.
“Nearly there!” He called back as loudly as he could.
“Lost Red though.” He began to weep.
“Wasn’t sure if it was one or two of ya that fell.”
Birk heaved his shoulders, pushed up and got the trap back to the point where he’d opened it before. He reached out and grabbed onto the wall grid and pulled himself through until he was entirely in the cage. He felt the edge of the door tear his shirt as it scraped along his spine. The trapdoor had been held down by a coil of the wire cable that was used to pull the cage up and down.
If that was broken it meant they wouldn’t be able to use the cage for any rescue attempt. The hoist cable would have to be replaced before the cage could be pulled to the surface.
He sat for a minute, his knees pulled up to his chest. He shoulders ached more than they ever had before. There was a sharp pain all along his right side. He ran his hands over his face and the fingers on his right hand stung with the salt. He licked at the fingers and tasted blood.
His Dad’s advice came to him.
‘Look Birk I think it’s time you came back to the boilers with me. You were picking up on them pretty good. Once you take that test you’ll have your papers and can work bout anywhere they need boilers.’
He’d replied, ‘You know my writing’s not good enough … maybe it is now. Miss McTavish’s been helping the girls and me out with that stuff. Maybe I could manage it. I guess I can try to read it.’
‘That’s what I’ve been wanting to hear from you boy. I can bring the manuals home and we can start to go over them. Harder than reading the paper but once you learn those new words you’ll always know them.’
Doing that test couldn’t be any worse than hanging here for dear life.
“Hello Birk Nelson! Hello!” These voices sounded more distant.
“Shel Malone is that you?” He called back.
“Right lad. We’re on the level below yours. How’s it looking?”
“Cage jammed tight. Cable broken.”
“Snapped like a boot lace.”
“Jeff Harney and Frankie are on their way up.” Shel called up from his level.
For moment he thought to tell them not to send Frankie. Frankie was the biggest of the lot. He wasn’t sure how much more weight the cage could hold. He didn’t have the strength to keep shouting. He stood slowly. His knees weak but held him. He pulled what he could off the trap door and propped a chunk of lumber under it in hopes that that would keep it open.
He fished in his pockets and found a chunk of the bread he’d been eating when the collapse started. He put that in his mouth wishing he’d stuck his tea bottle in there instead.
“I’m going to keep going up.” He shouted down.
Stepping on debris he was able to get to the top edge of the cage. The scaffold hand holds were easy to find. Hand over hand he pulled himself higher. When his feet found the rungs to support him he worked his way up. Some of them were missing and some had come loose in the collapse.
He wondered why no one had started down. The rescue teams were always prompt in an emergency. Although he had no way to keep track of the time he was sure it had only been a couple of hours since the collapse had happened. He also wondered why the shaft was still so dark. There was little to block the light. He swung onto the next level.
“Hello! Anyone here?” He peered into the dark. There was answer. He reached for the nearest pit wall and walked a few steps into the seam. “Hello! It’s Birk Nelson we were on level 8.”
No reply. These miners must have already been evacuated. His foot kicked something. He reached with his hand and found a lunch pail. He flipped open hoping there was a tea can in it. It was empty except for a few sweet drops that wet his tongue.
He turned around and made his way back. Fingers brushing the wall to keep him moving in the right direction. The change in air told him he was at the shaft leading up.
He found the rungs. He kept his mind focused on what his body was doing. Hand up, find hold, up, up. There had to be a song in that for Clancy “This is the hand, this is the hold, this is the hand that finds the coal, this is the hand that finds the hold.”
Birk lost track of his progress. He’d expected to hear someone, hear something on his way up. As he got nearer to surface sounds began to become clearer. He climbed out of the shaft and onto the slanted walk that lead down to it. The coal tram cars had been pulled out of the ramp.
The daylight blinded him as he exited the entrance. He couldn’t stand. He dropped to his knees looking up at the sun.
“It’s Birk Nelson.” Someone shouted and ran down to him.
“He was on level eight.”
“How’s it down there?” Someone else asked.
Hands helped him and guided him forward to the wooden benches in the wash house. He was handed a mug of tea which he eagerly drank.
“It’s bad.” He gasped at the fresh air. “I had to climb up two levels to the cage. It’s some stuck. I climbed up from there.”
“Yeah we know that. How many hurt?”
“Can’t speak to that. Some dead on level seven. One injured that I knows of.” He had to stop to catch his breath. He wiped his eyes with his free hand and saw the blood on his fingers. The mug he held was slimy with his blood.
“Shame this had to happen as we were reopening.” Someone muttered. “Damned fool reds.”
“What?” Birk didn’t understand what he was hearing.
“Nothing b’y. Not your worry. You think you fit enough to let the medics get you cleaned up?”
“Yeah. Here’s …” he reached into his coverall pocket and pulled out his brass chit. “You can take this to Fergus he’ll know I’m up and out for the day.”
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