Saturday, November 3, 2007

Squareface Part 1: Down in the Dark

Tony led Randy, his third favorite mule, down a long drift. His flickering headlamp, and the safety lanterns placed at each room necking provided the only light. Along each side of the drift pairs of men worked coal out of the seam.

He walked with a tentative step; nose raised high to catch the whiff of gas that he was always afraid would kill him. His feet felt for each step in the dust covered railroad ties that provided his footing. Randy bobbed his head as he walked beside the boy. The movement annoyed Tony, but he had never been able to break the mule of the habit. Eventually he came to accept it for what it was, the way he did with most of the things he didn’t like.

A short, stocky miner with a face like the craggy mountains of Sweden, where he had been born, stopped Tony and his mule cart with a motion of his hands.

“Step back, boy. We’re going to make a shot.”

Tony knew this meant they were going to ignite the black powder that had been carefully placed to tumble a huge chunk of coal from the wall. He knew he would have at least twenty minutes before he would be able to finish his route down the drift bringing water to the miners.

He backed Randy around and headed down the drift a way to a mined-out room that he knew would provide shelter for them while the miners did their work. When they reached the excavation, Tony unhitched Randy from the cart and led him into the room. He strapped a feedbag over Randy’s nose to keep him out of trouble and made himself as comfortable as possible on the broken rocks of the floor.

As the mule munched his oats, Tony opened his own lunch box. He usually carried it in his cart, because he never got a regular lunch break. While the miner’s ate, Tony had to work. He would eat his lunch sometimes while he walked, but more often when he got an unexpected break like today.

Tony looked forward to his lunches, because they reminded him of Mama. No matter how little money the Stayner’s had, Mama always managed to put a filling and delicious meal on the table. Even if that table happened to be your own lap a thousand feet underground.

From his metal lunch box Tony took two parcels wrapped in paper. Opening them carefully he found a chunk of black rye bread and a thick slice of skilandis, a heavily smoked pork sausage. His mother said it was bad manners to eat his meat and bread together, but Tony liked it best that way and Mama couldn’t see him down here in the ground.

As he tore the bread in two a large crumb fell on the ground. Tony put down the sandwich he was making and quickly picked up the fallen piece of bread, kissed it and popped it into his mouth. He had been brought up to believe that bread was one of God’s greatest gifts to man and that it was far more valuable than gold. Tony thought that his Mama’s bread was especially precious. He would rather have a piece of Mama’s bread than cake from anyone else. And Mama’s cake…

Tony chewed reverently on the bread. He could see the flicker of another miner’s lamp approaching his room. After a few seconds a head poked into his room. It was Erasmus Dobbins, another driver boy.

‘Ras wasn’t the first person with black skin that Tony had ever seen, but he was the first one that wouldn’t turn white with a little scrubbing.

“Hey Squareface, you got room for one more mule in here. They’s just about to blast.”

“Come on in, ‘Ras.” Tony was already eating his sandwich and his words were clogged with bread and sausage. The strong scent of Mama’s homemade mustard filled the room.

‘Ras led a small female mule into the room and strapped a feedbag over her nose. He plopped himself down on the rocks next to Tony and opened his own lunchbox.

“Whooo hoo, your sandwiches are stinky, Squareface, but that sausage your Mama makes is good. You were just joshin’ me when you said it was wrapped in a pig’s stomach, weren’t you?”

Tony smiled around a mouthful of sandwich and ‘Ras unwrapped his own lunch and started to eat. The voices of the miners in the drift had increased a bit in volume as the explosion neared.

Suddenly there was a flat “whump” sound followed by a huge cracking. Then a shattering thump that shook the mine and a clatter as the coal started to break itself into pieces. The pressure increased suddenly and Tony’s eardrums popped. He chewed the tough pork sausage as hard as he could to relieve the pressure in his ears.

It was a few minutes before Tony and ‘Ras had enough hearing to notice the cracking sounds that were coming from behind them. They first became aware of trouble by the behavior of the mules. Randy and the female became very jittery, rolling their eyes toward the back of the room and skittering their hooves in the rubble of the floor.

Tony looked over his shoulder where Randy was staring with bulging eyes. He saw the 6 inch timbers that held the roof of the room he occupied, buckling under the weight of the roof they held.

Tony threw his sandwich into his lunch pail and slammed down the lid. He grabbed ‘Ras by the shoulder.

“’Ras, we got to get out a here, now.”

The other driver boy had already seen what Tony had and was clutching his lunch pail in one hand and grabbing his mule’s halter with the other.

Tony did likewise and the two boys scurried out of the room into the main drift with their mules bolting behind them. Three or four miners had taken the blast as an excuse to rest their aching muscles and stood in the drift watching the miners breaking and loading the fallen coal. When they saw the driver boys running with their mules they began to laugh.

“Look at Squareface and the jungle bunny run. What happened, boys, did you see a mouse?”

Tony didn’t like to talk much around the older miners. He pointed into the room from which the two boys had run. ‘Ras spoke up.

“It’s a cave-in.”

This made the miners laugh harder.

“What do you know about cave-ins, boy?” A red-headed Italian miner with a wooden peg where his lower left leg used to be barked derisively, “I’ll tell you about the cave-in back in ’03…”

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