Frank stood beside the cold running stream watching Cameron, man and horse, riding steadily down the valley corridor, ever growing smaller, until finally the mounted figure, no longer recognizable, disappeared beneath the horizon.
He stood alone for another ten minutes, gathering himself and feeling relieved. Before Cameron's visit, he felt abandoned by his friends, isolated from other men except for the formal, impersonal exchanges necessary with his employees at the mine. Nightly visits with Rebecca and Christopher were his only connection to a normal life, a life among those he loved, a life of social interaction with friends and neighbors, a life that seemed, during recent weeks, to be rapidly vanishing. And in truth it was, for his nights at home were growing less frequent; as his worries grew, he increasingly tried avoiding others, ashamed of his self-inflicted failures. He was spending more time at the mine than ever, behavior that had begun to create noticeable strain upon his marriage.
Bevens had deserted him, that was obvious. Why else had he chosen someone else to spread the news about his broken engagement? Why else had he failed to write? Frank knew that he was wallowing in self-pity; Bevens had troubles of his own. If Frank were the tower of strength, the protector of wife and child, that he liked to think he was, then he would stop feeling sorry for himself and find a solution to his problems. Life moves on, and only the weak refuse to follow.
Now Cameron was back, and that would make all the difference in his fortunes. Cameron would help raise money and guide the mine through the labyrinth of legal corridors confounding its progress. That would free Frank to concentrate on the daily operation of the mine itself, to extend the entryway faster, to ship more coal to market. But if only Bevens were here, he mused, how much more could be accomplished, in even less time.
But Bevens was not here, so Frank would have to go it himself. Well, not exactly by himself. Cameron would be here beside him: Cameron, whom he could trust; Cameron, the only person beside Rebecca in whom he could confide. Frank glanced at his pocket watch. It was almost four. He should be getting back to the mine.
When he reached the entrance to the newly completed building on the plateau, the same building in which he and Cameron had conduced their review of the mine's legal and financial worries, he hesitated a moment before opening the door. A chill was rising on the early evening air; it would be dark in another hour. And with the chill passed a premonition; something was moving down the valley. He looked around the perimeter of clear vision: only the lengthening shadows shifted position, stirred by a lazy breeze. He held his breath and tried to concentrate: the only sounds audible were the crackling of camp fire and snatches of conversation from men entering and leaving their tents.
Frank went inside to retrieve his jacket. He had slung it over a chair when he ran after Cameron. The bottle was still on the table where they left it. He walked over and poured himself another drink, his last of the day he promised. He would take a moment to relax and savor the first good news, Cameron joining his venture, that he had received in weeks.
He took a small sip and swallowed. Before he could lift the glass again, three shots, unmistakably gun shots, rang out, reverberating between the valley walls. Frank dropped the glass immediately and hurled his body out the front door. From the threshold he jumped to the ground, quickly mounted, and galloped down the valley floor toward the mine. Three shots, fired rapidly in succession, were a signal of distress in coal mines.
Halfway to the mine, he turned his mount across the stream. The footing was easier along the northern bank, firmer; he could ride faster without risking a fall. Lashing his reins from side to side, urging his horse onward, he leaned forward over its mane, squinting through the gathering darkness, trying to make out any details. The portal was still too far away, but Frank could see orbs of light bouncing about, probably torches carried by running men. And then he could hear them yelling as well, fearful cries and frantic calls mixed together in an incomprehensible chorus.
As he approached the portal, men were running everywhere about the area, waving torches, carrying equipment or personal belongings, some responding to directions, others attempting to flee.
One man, carrying a sack over his shoulder, ran over when he recognized Frank. "Mr. Montague, sir, we've got to get out of here. The whole mine is collapsing!"
Frank dismounted and grabbed the frightened miner by his shoulders. "Get a hold of yourself, man. Who's in charge?" He glanced quickly around the area, looking for foremen, but when he turned back to the miner, he was gone.
Dropping his reins, Frank ran toward the mine entrance. Clouds of dust and debris were pouring from the portal. Over his left shoulder, he heard the sound of racing horses, skittering wheels, and a man's voice: "Out of the way! Out of the way!" He turned his head: Chung was feverishly driving a team of horses pulling the first aid wagon. To his front, a staggering column of men were emerging from the mine, bleeding, covered with soot and dirt, their clothing disheveled and torn.
Isador Cheek stood next to the entrance, helping men out, separating the injured from the able, directing those needing medical aid toward the make shift infirmary that Chung had hastily established next to the foreman's tent, telling the others to gather by the steam bank; they would be joining a rescue party.
Frank ran over to the entrance, slowing to assist a stumbling miner. "Isador, what's happened?"
"A breakdown. Near the seven hundred foot marker. I was leading an ore car outby when the ceiling behind me, not twenty feet away, suddenly collapsed," he explained.
"I couldn't determine the extent of the damage," he continued, not interrupting his efforts to help the injured and give orders to the able, "but I think it started much further in, maybe near the face, and spread outward toward the entrance. My guess is that the overcast near that fissure we boxed in earlier gave way and fell. The rest of the ceiling buckled in reaction and started to drop. If we're lucky, we've seen the last of it. There were about fifty men inside when it happened. Most of those who can walk are outside, but we've got to get the horses out before they panic and trample someone."
"Who's left inside"
"The men working the face: Foreman Wiggins, my brother, Dick Saunders, Steve Reynolds, Jeb Hines, Wade, maybe a few others. I can't speak for their safety. Maybe they're okay and maybe they're buried. All I can do is pray."
"All right," Frank thought quickly. "Let's get he horses out first. Then we'll organize a rescue team."
The seven hundred foot marker, he thought, my God! if Isador is correct about the length of the cave-in, then almost half the mine has been buried.
"Frank!" someone shouted, his identity obscured by the layers of dust still blowing about.
As Frank squinted in the direction of the voice, trying to shield his eyes from the swirling debris, Cameron Healey, followed by three riders and a wagon team, rode up and dismounted. "I heard the shots from the river. These men were hauling goods along the bank and explained to me what it meant. All of them have spent time in the mines and volunteered to help. Where do you want us?"
"Cameron, thank God! Isador and I are going in to get the ore car horses. First take a look at the injured. Chung is doing what he can, but the serious cases should be carried to the wagons and taken to town as soon as possible. Then start organizing a rescue party from the men gathered by the stream bank. Choose anyone, so long as they can walk. The experienced men will know what to do. I should be back by then."
Cameron nodded and began calling out instructions to the others. As he disappeared into the dust, Frank and Isador took lighted torches and started into the mine.
The debris was starting to settle, but their forward visibility was still limited to ten or fifteen feet. Most of the davy lamps were still functioning, but their low luminosity was more obstacle than help; they added haziness to the dirt laden air, further reducing the field of vision. The two men moved as quickly and quietly as possible, not running less they alarm the horses who were somewhere ahead, presumably uninjured.
Isador found the first horse and ore car near the three hundred foot marker. He had the foresight, before leaving the mine to assist others, to cover the animal's head with a swath of cloth. Now he softly stroked the horse's shoulder, trying to keep him calm. He nodded to Frank and started leading the animal toward the entrance. Frank waited a moment to make certain that Isador kept the horse under control, then turned away and continued inward, in the direction of the breakdown area.
The second horse, also hooded with a piece of cloth, was standing on the tracks next to a huge pile of rubble, crushed rock and broken timbers near the seven hundred foot marker. He had hardly budged since Isador left him at the time of the collapse. Frank unbuckled him from the overturned ore car, slowly picked up the reins, and started moving back toward the portal. He thought about calling out to any survivors beyond the wreckage but soon dismissed the notion. Keeping the horse from bolting was his first priority.
Just beyond the five hundred foot marker, Frank noticed a lump of black material partially obstructing the left hand rails, probably equipment dropped by the fleeing miners. For some reason, he missed it on the way in. He reined in the horse and walked over to push the blockage out of his way. When the lump moaned, Frank ran forward. It was a miner, apparently still alive. He carefully rolled the man on his side. He was still breathing but badly hurt. Frank thought he recognized him, a recent hire named Matt Duncan. Under ideal conditions, it would be better to leave him and return with help, but any mine should be considered dangerous and unstable after a breakdown. He made a quick decision. Using as much care as possible, Frank moved his arms under Duncan's twisted body and lifted him upward. Straining under the load, he lurched toward the waiting horse and managed, with the last of his fading strength, to swing Duncan across its back.
When Frank emerged from the mine, about fifty men were standing near the entrance, holding torches and carrying equipment. Isador had divided them into teams of five, alternating carpenters and excavators. Several men came forward and helped lower Duncan. They fashioned a make shift litter and carried the stricken miner, seriously injured but still alive, to Chung's medical station.
Cameron was helping men into the waiting wagons when Frank and the other bearers arrived. "Cameron, this is Matthew Duncan. He's in terrible shape. I don't know if he can make it, but put him into the first wagon available. They should leave immediately for the hospital in Morgantown. As soon as you've finished here, join me by the entrance. We're going back in for the others."