No sooner had he set down his chisel and glance at his lunch pail than Tom Rushton realized the side wall of the mine was about to cave in on him. Small rocks began falling, a prelude to the quake of the underground. He’d seen it too many times in his twenty-seven years of mining to believe it would happen any differently now; the dirt was giving way, sending plumes of coal dust up in billows. Rock and earth rattled like castanets in rapid motion. He tried to shout, but grit and dust assaulted his senses.
Covering his mouth with his sleeve, he spun around, lunging desperately to get clear, but the wall faltered too fast, and the boulders utterly failed him as they split into shards and came apart. Although he was the only one beneath the ledge, he removed his mouth from his sleeve once more to cry out to the miners nearest him in the tunnel, “It’s coming down!”
The words barely escaped his throat as he realized, with knowing panic, that it was too late. The wall had already pillared down over him and now trapped him like a mouse in a trap. He tried to ignore his pervading sense of doom and his thundering heart, not wanting to believe he was capable of such fear. Yet as he felt the dust rise in layers over his face, he had no choice but to reckon with his fleeting mortality. Squeezing his eyes tight, he summoned a prayer over and over in his mind, Please don’t take me now.
With a fighter’s spirit swelling within him, he tried to ply himself from the trenches, but realized it was no use; he was trapped, completely. He suddenly felt like he was caught in the throes of a nightmare, trying to awaken but unable to open his eyes. His left leg was pinned beneath the decrepit wall, and not only that, he knew it was crushed, rendered useless. If he tried to move it another inch, he would further destroy it.
Although he heard urgent voices around him, those he recognized even in the midst of mind-splitting pain, he thought it might be over for him. He yelled out, “I’m right here. It’s not good. I’m trapped.”
Wincing in pain, he ground his teeth together and thought of them, thought of his dear family he might never see again. Noreen, Evie, Callie, Will, Stevie, Charlie. Their faces rose before him at once, and he prayed again, Please don’t take me now.
Their names at the base of his throat compelled him to reach out his hand to whoever would take it and say, “My leg is busted pretty good, but I’ll live if you get me out of this hellhole.”
Tom clamped his teeth into his tongue, not wanting to bellow his waves of pain aloud. It was about time something like this caught up to him; just how many years had he been swinging that lunch pail in his hand and toting his chisel and pickaxe in the left while others succumbed to explosions, cave-ins, asphyxiations, and the like?
Suddenly, he felt strong hands at his back and heard the comforting words of his closest ally, his partner, Sam Jacobson. “We’ll get you out of here safely, my friend,” he said, patting Tom on the back. “Jerry here is going to help me lift you. We’ll do it slowly because of that leg. You’re not as trapped as you think.”
Tom voiced his thanks and closed his eyes against the pain as the men, smelling their dust and sweat merge with his own as they eased him from the dank floor of the mines. Once he was free from the collapsed wall, several others came to his side and carried him out from the No. 9. He heard their staggered breaths and knew their throats were parched as they carried him to safety.
Even as gratitude coursed through his veins and he once again breathed redemptive air, he felt a different heaviness in his chest. He knew he was done for, that in good conscience he could never return to the mines, not this one or any of them. His confirmation came from a throat that exuded a deep cough and a leg that was all but crushed. Tom knew he should hate the descent into darkness and the risk resting on his shoulders every day, but he wanted nothing more than to go back, to tunnel back down the shaft so he could mine black diamond; it put bread on the table for his family, and Lord knew they needed more of that now.