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    Frank had been summoned to the working face. A few hours earlier, the entryway had passed the nine hundred foot mark, but Wiggins the senior foreman and face boss had called a halt to the digging and ordered the mine evacuated. Only a handful of experienced men were allowed to remain in the tunnel. When he entered the portal, Hershel Wade was waiting for him with an ore car containing lumber.

    "Hop in, Mr. Montague. I'll push you out to the face. "

    "Morning, Wade. Are those timbers needed out at the face?"

    "They sure are. There's a bunch of nervous miners waiting for you to join them."

    "I won't need a ride, then, but the men need the wood. Grab one side, I'll take the other. We'll be out there in less than five minutes."

    With two men pushing, the car rolled smoothly down the tracks. At the one hundred foot warning marker, Wade motioned for Frank to let go, then jumped on the rear support frame and applied the brakes. The ore car eased to a halt twenty feet from the knot of men standing at the working face. Frank trotted forward to join them while Maurice Cheek helped Wade unload the wooden beams.

    "Morning, men. What's the problem, Herbert?"

    Wiggins pointed his davy lamp at the ceiling where a long jagged crack twisted across the overhead to the face and continued down the developing wall. "Jeb and Isador here just finished auguring blasting holes when they noticed the length of this fault line. I'm afraid a blast on the face will bring down the overburden. Our shoring is the only thing holding it up now."

    Frank considered this serious news carefully. "What do you recommend?"

    "Well, I'd rather test the ceiling now when we can control the damage and prevent injuries. I say we reinforce our upright supports, keep them tight together, almost like a covered bridge, and set off a series of incremental blasts from a distance; fifty feet away should be safe. What's going to come down later will come down now. Then, we'll clean up the rubble and decide what comes next."

    Frank looked around at the group, his eyes moving from one man to next. "Anyone disagree?"

    Saunders did. "I say we don't blast. There's no telling how far upward that crack runs  under the rock. There's no way to control the amount of material that could fall down. Instead, we can isolate the ceiling crack with timbers, built a kind of box around it and collapse the face with hand tools. It should be safe afterward to advance beyond the crack line to a stable face and ceiling."

    Frank looked over in Isador's direction without making eye contact. He nodded his head slightly enough for Frank to see. In terms of longevity, Isador was one of the most junior employees, but Frank was beginning to appreciate his sound judgment; he trusted him more than most of the older miners.

    "Well, Herbert, what do you think of that plan?" Frank asked, turning his attention back to Wiggins.

    "It's worth a try. Okay, let's do it without explosives."


    The men began sawing and nailing lengths of lumber in place, boxing in the cracked area on the ceiling. Frank picked up a sledge hammer and cold chisel, knelt down near the floor, and began to undercut the wall, slicing a horizontal line, about two or three inches deep, along the bottom of the fresh face. When he reached the end of the face, at the far corner of the entry, he stepped back while Jeb Roberts and Richard Saunders loosened the wall with powerful blows from their long hammers. The face begin to fracture. Everyone stopped and looked upward. The ceiling still held. Wiggins moved forward and slammed his pick into the wall, once, twice, a third time. Another pause followed; so far nothing had fallen. Then Jeb and Saunders resumed their pounding of the face until it crumbled and fell. No one needed to be persuaded: as one, the entire group moved back another ten feet away from the cracked ceiling.

    "It's holding," Wiggins remarked, a fact that everyone confirmed, nodding their heads and audibly exhaling the breaths collectively held.

    Frank left his tools resting against the coal rib and leaned in toward Wiggins to keep his comment private. "Give it an hour, Herbert, before resuming work on the face. To be certain. I'll be in my tent."

    When Frank emerged from the portal, a miner was waiting for him. "I think you have a visitor, Mr. Montague," the worker said, tilting his head in the direction of the mouth of the valley. A tiny figure was slowly riding along the stream toward the entrance to the mine. "I can't quite make out who it is," the miner said.

    But Frank could. He could recognize Cameron Healey from a half mile away. He mounted and rode out to meet his friend.


    Twenty minutes later, the two men were climbing the steps to the first wood frame building completed on the grassy plateau. It was in the early stages of construction when Cameron last visited the mine. Now it was completed, though not yet occupied, and a similar structure was being erected, opposite the first, thirty feet away. In the future, the buildings would face each other along a village street. "You're looking at the future Montague Village, our company coal town," Frank explained.

    He guided Cameron inside the building where an assortment of tables and chairs used by the carpenters to study blueprints were scattered around the front room. A moment later, Chung entered bearing a tray of sandwiches and a bottle of whisky. Frank sat and poured a drink for both of them. "Great God, it's good to see you, Cameron. How are things at Winston and Summers?" That was the law firm that brought Cameron to Morgantown. He had been working there since Christopher's baptism.

    "All right, I suppose. Not as nearly as exciting as things out here, though."

    "Ah, yes, but you get to keep your fingernails clean and stay in town." Then he became more serious. "We haven't talked yet, you know." Frank had brought Bevens and Cameron out to the mine to get their advice. He had received guidance from Bevens, a flood of observations and suggestions, much of it technical, dealing with engineering designs. But Frank had sought out Cameron as well to help him untangle the legal vines before they smothered his mining venture. After Bevens left, neither one of them had managed to find time to meet. "No, we haven't. I suppose both of us have been too busy. But I decided to take the time today. That's the reason for my visit."

January 2012

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