Today I’m posting Chapter 19 of High Pocket. In this chapter, an accident at the mine and a late night visit by Robert changes everything for Jake and the retrieval plan.
I swear to God no sooner had Ben come into my mind then exactly at the same moment I felt something or thought I heard something coming from the direction of the Yates Shaft. I shut off the forklift and listened.
It was an alarm bell, ringing in the distance, coming from the ramp! Ben! Ben! Ben! His name rang in my head as I ran across the asphalt, threw open the doors to the ramp, and ran to the Yates Cage!
It was the same chaos scene of every accident underground. A madhouse. Alarms are blasting crazy loud. Miners are yelling, and I’m pushing my way through them to the Control Panel to verify the accident site. But like I said, I just knew it was Ben’s level, and when I reached the Panel, the Red Indicator light was flashing the 4100 Level. Ben’s level.
“Get out of my way! Out of my way!” I yelled, pushing myself through the men, driving forward to the cage.
It didn’t have to be Ben who was being hauled up the shaft. Many men were working on that level. Who said it had to be Ben? The words repeated in my head. But as the rumble of the cage coming up the shaft shook the ramp, I knew it was going to be Ben. Now I just prayed with every second he got closer that he was still breathing, still alive. Just let him get next to me alive I said out loud. Let him come up alive!
The vibration increases and finally the cage doors open and the rescue team pushes out a gurney. I know instantly it’s Ben, even though his face is covered with an oxygen breather. And I know that’s a good sign. He’s still breathing. Thank God, he’s still breathing. How bad is he rushes next through my mind as I grab onto the rail of the gurney.
“Ben! Ben! Can you hear me?”
“Hey, out of the way!” the rescue guys were yelling. “He’s going to be okay! Move aside! Move aside!”
I grabbed onto Ben’s hand and he squeezed mine hard and turned to me. He was in a hell of a lot of pain I could see that in his eyes, but he nodded, agreeing with the rescue guys that he was going to be okay.
“Sure you are, Ben! You just stubbed your toe is all!” I tried to laugh it off.
But I could already see the horrible damage that had been done to his left leg. It was busted up, bloody and skewed at a bad angle. Part of his boot had been cut off and there was enough blood on it that maybe his foot was gone with it. I couldn’t tell for sure, and I didn’t want to know anyway. I just wanted to help get him to the ambulance as fast as possible. I yelled like a madman for the ramp to clear and we pushed the gurney outside where the ambulance was waiting.
I learned in the next week what had happened as Ben went through his surgery to put his foot back together as much as possible. He was druggy and mostly out of it but he wanted to tell me it was his fault. This accident was his stupid fault for pushing and pushing, for not thinking but just bullheadedly banging forward. From what he said, I guess the crew was making good progress. He was working in a four man team with a miner name Eddie, the two of them paired at the lead, drilling cores along the fissured face of the rock. Eddie was fighting with a Jumbo Drill rig that started squealing and burning up until it just stopped dead, stuck in the rock face. Eddie was trying to free it, but Ben grabbed a five-pound sledge and tromped through puddles of water to get up next to it.
“I just pounded on that bit. Pounded on it like a crazy man. And it came free. Hell, yes it did,” Ben laughed, shook his head. “Yeah, came free with a Goddamn explosion of rock. Knocked me over and put me under about two feet of heavy debris. Dumbshit! Lucky my crushed foot is all I got as payback for using a sledge on a burned-up bit!”
I tried to laugh with him and to agree with how lucky he was, but to look at his leg and foot suspended in some kind of traction device and to see my mom’s red eyes and Gena’s worried face, he didn’t seem lucky at all. He was just another miner injured for what seemed like nothing. ‘Course I felt grateful that he was alive, don’t get me wrong. That was the most important thing, and he was lucky to be in this hospital bed with his family sitting around listening to him tell his story. We all were lucky for that.
But the edge of fear had come back into me. Deep into me. My nightmares were coming on more regularly since Ben’s accident. Timbers falling. Rocks crashing down. Men crying out in terror. Then the silence, worse than screaming. The dead silence of dead men.
I sat up fast in my bed last night. I shook my head. I heard something. Was someone knocking on my backdoor? Yes, there it was again. Louder. Someone knocking for sure. It was 2:30 a.m. I looked through the window and saw my dad standing there, his hair a mess and jacket pulled over a tee-shit. Dead drunk. I opened up and let him in.
“What is it? Is mom okay?”
“No. Yes. Fine as can be expected.”
He walked into the living room and sat on the couch.
“I wouldn’t turn down a shot of JD,” he said taking off his coat.
“You got it, pop.”
I brought the bottle and a couple glasses and poured us both a healthy shot. He took a good swig. He settled into the couch. I could see he had something to tell me. He waited a bit more. I said nothing, just sipped my drink and waited with him. He leaned a little forward and refilled his glass. Took a drink. Now he was ready.
“I told you I was the foreman, but I didn’t tell you everything.”
I didn’t say a word. I didn’t even want to move.
“There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about those men left behind.”
He looked over at me, into my eyes.
“It was my fault,” he said, “all of it. We barely got Sandy out alive. We had to parallel drill a separate bore hole from the 3700′ to reach him. I took a skip bucket all the way down to the 3800′ myself. I didn’t want no one else volunteering. I had enough blood on my hands already.”
He stopped there and refilled his shot glass.
“The place caved in again the minute I pulled him out. There was no going back after that. I padlocked a steel cap on the escape shaft, and painted a white cross on it for those left behind.”
He stood up then, wobbly, and started to walk away from the couch, but he was so unsteady that he thought better of it and sat back down.
“I called off the rescue. Me! Nobody upstairs. Me alone. I couldn’t risk more men going back down. Is that quitting? Then call it quitting. Truth is, I should’ve closed down production weeks before. The rock was fissured and shifting daily. We had warning, water seeping in, plenty of warning. I ignored it…the bonuses, management on my back…I’m responsible for those men who died down there…”
“It was an accident, dad…” I couldn’t keep quiet no more.
“You sound like your mother. She tells me what happened to Ben was just a terrible accident.”
“Well, it was,” I said, though I knew what he was getting at.
“It was my Goddamn fault! I should never have let Olner reopen the 4100!”
He slammed his fist down on the table.
“And now that bastard’s risking more men in that Godforsaken pit. If there is a workable vein down there, it don’t belong to the likes of him.”
He stood up.
“I came here to tell you that. You deserve to know that.”
“I understand, dad.”
I got up and took his arm as he walked to the back door. I pushed it open and helped him get in his car.
“You all right to drive?” I asked but he ignored me, leaning out the window.
“I hope you and Mary get out of this Goddamn town, get away from the mine clean, and Sandy, too.”
He drove off then, slowly, winding his way down the hill.
It must have been a hard decision for him to come over here tonight. To come over here and tell me what he did, not so much about his responsibility in Sandy’s accident. Sure that was hard to say out loud, but that wasn’t the hardest thing he decided to say tonight. No, not by a long shot. The much harder thing was telling me about the parallel shaft down to the 3800’. He told me there was a way to keep our crazy scheme going. That must have been a damn hard thing to do. I thanked him for it quietly as his tail lights got lost in the snow that had started falling. I thanked him for letting me take my own chances with my own dreams.
The booming of the rock crushers seemed to grow louder as the snow clouds held their sound close to the hills. Boom…Boom…Boom. I charged over to my woodpile, grabbed my axe and threw down a log on the chopping stump. Crack! I brought down the axe hard. Crack! I brought it down again and again, Crack! Crack! Crack!
“Bang on, you sonofabitch!” I yelled out to the crushers, “Bang on! But I’m coming in after you. You hear me? I’m coming in.”
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