This story is by Donald Robinson and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Down The Hole
As Jake walked toward the mine shaft he heard a gravelly voice behind him: “hey kid, you belong to me today.” His heart sank! He knew that voice; it was old Tom, the crankiest miner on the crew. This would be the third day in a row he had to be Tom’s helper. He turned and saw Tom’s toothless grin. Tom was carrying two bags, one with tools and one with drill bits. Jake knew they were both heavy, and as helper, he would get the heavier one to carry. Without saying a word he went over and offered his hand to take a bag, and as expected, he was handed the heavier tool bag.
After a few minutes of waiting, the “cage” arrived, which would lower them down the shaft to the mining areas. Within minutes the cage was filled with men and they started the rapid descent “down the hole” as the men liked to say. The crowded cage rattled and shook its way down hundreds of meters below the surface. It was dark and wet, and the glow from the miner’s cap lamps on their hardhats gave an eerie appearance to everyone’s face.
With relief Jake felt the cage slowing, and a soft glow from the lights at the station could now be seen shining up the shaft. The cage stopped with a lurch and they filed into the station, 650 meters below the surface. This area was well lit, but Jake knew they would soon be walking down tunnels in the pitch black, with only their cap lamps to guide them. They had a 45 minute walk carrying the bags to get to the drill site. “Okay”, Jake said with a grin, “let’s get started before we lose daylight!” The sarcasm wasn’t lost on old Tom and he chuckled. “That’s what I like about you kid; you have a sense of humor.” That was the closest Tom had come to saying anything civil, so Jake took it as a good sign.
Jake’s mind wandered as they trudged down the dark tunnel. He had been working here a month and had hoped things would be better by now. He had never worked in a mine before and had only gotten the job because he knew someone high up in the company. This made him a bit of an outcast in the crew and as the new guy he was assigned to the jobs no one else wanted. Like working with Old Tom he thought wryly. As a top producer Tom would normally have a steady partner, but he was so cranky no one wanted to work with him. On top of it all, the mine was located in a very remote area so they had little contact with friends or family. Jake found each day a little harder.
Jake’s shoulder was burning from carrying the heavy bag. He was relieved when they came around a bend in the tunnel and the lights from the drill rig could be seen. They arrived at the drill a few minutes later and Jake dropped the heavy bag near the drill rig. “Okay kid, get your butt in gear and check the oil levels on the drill rig.” “Yea, I know the routine” Jake replied irritably. He walked around to the other side of the drill and got to work. He knew Tom would be checking the walls for loose pieces of rock that could fall and injure them. This was a regular routine when entering the work area.
Soon Jake could hear the tap, tap of the steel pry bar Tom was using to poke and pry at the walls. Jake heard a loud crack and then the sounds of a substantial rock fall. He was concerned but unprepared for the sight that met his eyes when he came around the back of the drill. A large piece of the rock wall had given away, and Tom was pinned under a small mound of rubble.
Jake began digging through the rock, trying to get Tom free. He was still conscious but was obviously in pain. It was hard work and Jake was soon in a sweat, but he knew he couldn’t stop. He managed to get everything clear but one large piece on top of Tom’s leg. It was too heavy to lift and Jake started to panic, not sure what to do. “Get it off me” Tom cried with a grimace. Thinking quickly, he grabbed the pry bar and was able to lever the heavy piece off Tom’s leg.
Blood had started to pool under Tom’s leg and Jake knew he had to act fast. With shaking hands he opened the first aid kit from the drill rig and began working on Tom’s leg. As he cut the pant leg away the severity of the wound became obvious and he knew Tom was in trouble. He glanced up and noticed Tom was very pale and going into shock. Doing his best to keep his voice steady he said, “I’m bandaging your leg, you’ll be fine”. He wished he was as confident as he sounded.
As he was wrapping the wound he started thinking about what to do next. There was no way Tom was walking out of here. Their supervisor was required to check on them every two to three hours but as it was the beginning of the shift it could be three hours before they saw anyone. Looking at Tom, he didn’t think they could wait that long. He didn’t like the idea of leaving Tom alone, but it seemed to be the best option. It looked like he had managed to stem the bleeding at least. It was cool and damp so Jake brought the halogen drill lamp over and pointed it down onto Tom. The lamp put out a lot of heat and Tom nodded appreciably. “Ok Tom, I’m going for help”.
Jake started out at a trot down the tunnel but soon realised he would not be able to keep up the pace. He slowed to a fast walk and found he was making steady progress and soon was around the first bend in the tunnel. He was now in total darkness and had to rely on his cap lamp to light his way. He was making good progress but was having difficulty seeing the puddles and rocks lying on the road. He soon realized why. His Cap lamp was getting dimmer! They were designed to last 12 hours, but occasionally a fault or improper charge would cause them to go dead.
He could barely see now and stopped, trying to decide what to do. Unfortunately, he hadn’t had the presence of mind to check the time when he left Tom and as a result had no idea how long he had been walking. How could I be so stupid he thought to himself? He could go back to the drill site and replace his cap lamp with Tom’s, or continue and try and make it to the main haulage tunnel, where he would find help. Knowing how long he had walked would have made the decision a lot easier, and again he chastised himself for the oversight.
He shut off his cap lamp to conserve power and was immediately enveloped in darkness. He was struck with fear and indecision and remained rooted to the spot, trying to calm down. There was a third option he thought, stay here and wait for help. It would be the safest and easiest option for him, and made the most sense.
Wasn’t that the way he had lived most of his life? Taking the safest and easiest options and thinking only about himself? He thought of Tom lying there, alone and bleeding, and knew it was time he stepped up to the plate. So, go back or continue? If he went back to get Tom’s cap lamp, it would be at least a fifteen minute walk back to the drill site. That would mean losing 30 minutes in total. Carrying on seemed to make the most sense, although he wasn’t sure how far he was to the haulage tunnel. Would his cap lamp make it? Drawing up every ounce of courage he had, he switched his cap lamp on and started to continue in the direction of the haulage tunnel.
A short time later his light went dead and once again he was in total darkness. Panic started to set in and he stopped. Keep going, he told himself and reached for the wall. Using the wall for guidance, he continued, making sure he had firm footing with each step. He was progressing slowly but steadily and his confidence started to build.
And then he heard it! The sound of heavy equipment trundling down the haulage way. His heart jumped as he realized he was much closer than he had thought. A few minutes later he could see the headlights of the big trucks as they passed by. Of course, they couldn’t see him yet, but he knew it wouldn’t be long.
Once he had flagged down a truck, things happened in a blur. The operator had sent out an alarm on his radio, and it wasn’t long after that the paramedics arrived. His supervisor Eric arrived with a stretcher on the back of his Jeep. Together they were able to get in and pick up Tom in a matter of minutes. They arrived at the station and loaded Tom into the cage, still strapped to the stretcher. Jake watched as the cage disappeared up the shaft.
A lot of the crew were standing around the station. As they began to go back to work many of them came over and gave Jake a pat on the back or a thumbs up sign. Eric came over and told Jake he would have to go to surface and fill out a statement for the Safety inspector. Before leaving he turned to Jake and said, “you did a good job this morning, well done!” Jake swelled with pride and thought to himself, this must be the silver lining I keep hearing about!
An hour later he was finished filling out his statement and was getting ready to leave when the inspector came over to him. “We just got word, Tom is resting comfortably. He lost a lot of blood but there doesn’t seem to be anything broken and it looks like he will be okay. You can go and see him for a minute if you would like”. “Oh ok, thanks” Jake replied and walked over to the clinic.
Walking in the door, he could see Tom propped up with pillows, his leg heavily bandaged. “Hey, how are you doing?” “I guess I’m gonna live” Tom Replied. An awkward silence ensued. Not knowing what else to say, Jake turned to leave. As he was walking to the door he heard Tom’s voice from behind, “hey partner!” Not “hey kid”, but “hey partner.” Jake turned and looked at Tom questionably. “Thanks”. A single word that spoke volumes. Jake nodded his acknowledgment. He turned and was walking to door when he heard “but next time, don’t take so goddam long!” In spite of himself, Jake started to laugh as he left the room. The last thing he heard was “yup, that’s what I like about you partner, you have a sense of humor.”