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17.

 

    The following afternoon, exactly as Bevens had foretold, Isador and his cousin Steve Reynolds appeared at Frank's front door. He led them out to the veranda and asked Berry to serve lunch. Rebecca stopped by briefly; she had a doctor's appointment and could not join them, but she expressed her condolences to their families, warmly and sincerely, as only Rebecca could.

    It was obvious to Frank that the mine closing was on everyone's mind. He expected a tense, heated discussion, one that everyone clearly wanted delayed until after the food could be digested. Once the dishes had been cleared away, the silence lingered. Then Reynolds began, in a circuitous way. "You have a wonderful view of the River from here, Mr. Montague."

    "Yes, I do, Steven. Mrs. Montague refused to sleep in a tent in the valley, so I had to build a house near town," he chuckled. "She picked out the site herself with the view in mind. None of you boys are married yet, but when you do, you'll find as the rest of us have that the women make most of the decisions."

    "How's Mr. Wiggins mending?" Isador asked.

    "Oh, he's coming along nicely, but I've been told that he'll be laid up for another two months. How are Maurice and Hershel doing?"

    "Just fine," Isador replied, "but getting ornery. Both of them are itching to get black to work.

    "Mr. Montague, rumor has it that you're closing the mine. Is that true?"

    It was typical of Isador to come directly to the point, Frank thought. "Well, right now, since the accident, we've kept a skeleton crew out there, tending to chores and keeping out any vagrants that might wander by.

    "But it is true that I have thought about closing the mine; there's been a terrible loss of life, particularly in your family. But nothing's been decided yet."

    "I see," Isador commented while Reynolds just nodded. It was an awkward moment for everyone.

    As if by unspoken agreement, the three men rose together and started through the house toward the entrance. Reynolds was descending the front steps when Frank laid a hand on Isador's arm, delaying his departure. "Isador, I'd like you to take over as Acting Foreman. Once Herb returns, we'll see about something permanent."

    "All right. Thank you for your confidence, Mr. Montague. Shall I notify the men to return to work?"

    '"Yes." And no more was ever said about closing the mine.

 

    In the morning, Frank left Morgantown earlier than usual, but when he entered the valley, expecting to find a trickle of men reporting back to work, he was surprised to see a dozen or more columns of smoke rising from the tent city on the plateau. Further in, he recognized the familiar figure of Isador Cheek directing a parade of men carrying heavy timbers into the mine, Cameron Healey and Henry Bevens amongst them, each supporting an end of a long beam. They had started without him, he thought with amusement, the three of them, conspirators all

    Frank dismounted and approached Isador. "What's the plan?"

    "Mr. Bevens wants us to taper down the ceiling from the breakdown toward the entrance and finish shoring to the face. Once we've gotten that far, the rest of the rubble will be removed."

    Frank nodded and waited for Bevens to return. He wanted a fuller explanation.

   

    He was talking to Quo Chung about setting up a commissary tent near the mine entrance when Bevens appeared at this side.

    "We decided to get started without you. Everyone was here, and none of us saw the wisdom of waiting for you to show up. The men know their jobs."

    "Yes, apparently," Frank said dryly."By the way, Isador mentioned something about tapering the ceiling."

    "Yes. The ceiling should be no more than seven feet high, as we agreed, what, a year ago?  Well, right now, the height is closer to fifteen feet over much of the breakdown area, a run of almost five hundred feet. A lot of material came down; that accounts for the discrepancy in height, but the change is too abrupt. To insure stability, we should first smooth the surface of the higher ceiling, removing any loose aggregate, and then gradually taper the height of the two transition areas that are adjacent to the breakdown from seven to fifteen feet, so there are no radical changes.

    "Next, I want to build a platform seven feet high, a second roof really, extending along the length of the breakdown. We'll support it with beams and posts anchored to the ground. Then we'll duplicate the same pattern of support from the top of the platform to the true ceiling eight feet above. That much reinforcement should guarantee that we'll never see another collapse in the area. Once we get the working face moving again, we can maintain new emerging areas at a seven foot height. In reality, then, the entire entryway will be seven feet in height, according to plan, but one long section will have a wooden roof and a void above it."

    "How long would you expect this to take?"

    "At least two weeks, maybe more, but we don't have many options here, Frank. We have to establish stability before we can proceed."

    "All right. I'd like to speak with the men. Please ask them to assemble by the portal.  You, Cameron, and Isador should join me, as well."

 

   With Cameron, Isador, and Bevens by his side, Frank stood on a wooden box  and looked out over the gathering of workers before him. Some still wore bandages from the collapse two weeks earlier; importantly, none bore expressions of fear. He noticed a smattering of unfamiliar faces. At least another twenty men looking for work had followed the others to the mine. Cameron estimated that a hundred and twenty men had reported that morning.

    "Can everyone hear me clearly?" he began.

    A murmur of affirmation rose from the crowd, accompanied by a few nodding heads.

    "I dislike speech-making, so I'll be brief.

    "As you may have heard by now, Matthew Duncan and Thomas Stewart died in hospital as a result of injuries sustained during the cave-in two weeks ago. That same day, Richard Saunders and Jeb Hines were also lost. Those men were our brothers, our friends, our neighbors. I'd like all of us to observe a minute of silence in their memory. They will be missed."

    Frank bowed his head and closed his eyes; most of the others joined him, but even those without religious convictions stood quietly, participating in personal ways with the solemnity of the moment.   

    "Herbert Wiggins and several other men were injured and are recuperating at home. Until they rejoin us, Isador Cheek will act as foreman. You'll take most of your orders from him. Some of you may already know Mr. Healey, standing to my right, from the mine rescue. He and Mr. Bevens, the gentleman next to him, have agreed to help me operate the mine. You should consider them as much in charge as I am.

    "A few of you are still nursing injuries. I want you to report to Mr. Healey. He'll arrange for any further medical care that's needed. I also see some new faces out there. If you've come for work and have the heart and strength for it, you'll find a place in this mine. But we don't hire transient workers on a daily basis. We keep detailed records of all our employees. If you'd like a job, arrange for an interview with one of us four. That's the way it's done here.

    "Now I know that rumors have been circulating that the mine will be closed. I'll accept responsibility for getting them started, so I'll end them as well. The mine will not close. Not so long as the four of us can handle pick and shovel.

    "A coal camp is being built on the plateau further down the valley. The tents presently there will be struck and replaced by homes and other structures: churches, stores, schools, and so forth. I expect the first block of buildings to be ready in six months; more will soon follow. You can start moving your families in as soon as they're completed. See Mr. Healey and get your names on a waiting list. First come, first served, as they say.

    "How much will you charge for rent?" one of the men in the rear shouted.

    "I haven't decided yet," Frank replied. "You can expect it to be reasonable. We're not in the landlord business. We're coal miners.

    "Now, the first thing we're going to do is heal our mine. She's been wounded by a cave-in. Then we'll start digging again and bringing out the coal the rest of Virginia needs. If there are any questions, see me later. I've talked long enough. Now get back to work."

 

    As it turned out, Henry Bevens was overly optimistic in his estimates of the time needed to install the new ceiling over the breakdown. It took three weeks rather than the two he allocated for the strenuous work to be completed. Another week was needed to shore up the undamaged area from his new roof to the face, and two more weeks were spent removing all the rubble that still remained scattered along the entryway. All told, six weeks had passed without any significant production of coal; the only coal extracted during that time was painstakingly retrieved from the car loads of ceiling ruins which rolled constantly out of the mine.

    But the six weeks consumed by reconstruction was not the only time lost; the mine had remained inactive during the two weeks immediately following the cave-in. In total, they were now almost two months behind schedule. They had survived this far only because of the spells cast by their financial wizard Cameron Healey, who miraculously introduced new transfusions of cash into their depleted treasury, enough to meet their weekly payrolls, purchase supplies, and begin to pay back a few of the oldest loans.

    No one, especially Frank, questioned the source of the funds. A portion of the money flowed north from South Carolina, where Cameron's reputation as the scion of a respected and influential family could attract new investors and new creditors. More money was raised when old debts were called in and political favors were exchanged for cash. Cameron invested his own future in their join venture as well. Checks were written against his personal accounts, once substantial but increasingly diminished as the bills in the Virginia mine mounted. Even greater contributions were drawn from his family's wealth, presumably, Frank hoped, with his family's knowledge.

    But wherever the money originated, Frank thought the transactions originating in the deep South were probably more legal than not. He was less certain about other sources, involving even greater amounts, that had been procured from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and other points north. On the rare occasions when he had touched upon the state of their finances, however delicately, Cameron had simply changed the subject, leaving in its wake his assurance that the bills were being paid. Frank should focus his attention on running the mine, he advised; he, for his part, would dispose of their financial woes.

    In truth, money was being pumped into the mine's coffers through a bewildering network of legal and financial arteries, paths taken not always in strict accordance with the law. Loans were being negotiated with liens upon imaginary collateral, and shares of interest were being sold for substantial sums when there was actually nothing left in which to share. Frank had great confidence in Cameron's ability to pilot them through these financial storms, but he could not dispel a persistent suspicion that all of them would end their days in prison.

 

    Two months had been lost, but the repair work was finally behind them. It was time to begin moving the active face forward. Everyone pitched in, Quo  Chung and his kitchen staff included, swinging picks and axes, drilling holes for blasting, loading coal into ore cars, and pushing them to the portal. All three mine proprietors worked along side the men, performing the same tasks, and within the entry, receiving their orders from Acting Foreman Isador Cheek.

    They were losing sleep but making astonishing progress, more than twenty feet a day. After two and a half months, they passed the fifteen hundred foot mark, the point Bevens had designated as a signal to begin drilling the central shaft from the Montague Mountain summit.

   

    He was able to rent the drilling rig from an anthracite mining company in central Pennsylvania, but he had to buy the hammer-like drill bits separately from the manufacturer in Lexington, Kentucky. His most immediate problem, however, was how to move the equipment from the railroad uphill to the location near the summit he had so carefully selected. First, of course, he had to bribe the train engineer to make an unscheduled stop at the trailhead where the path led up the mountain.

    As the train disappeared around the wide curve leading toward Osage, Bevens grimly surveyed the huge mount of complex machinery piled along side the right-of-way. There would be no simple, direct way to accomplish this undertaking, he reluctantly decided. He thought of Hannibal moving his elephants across the Alps into Italy, the Egyptians dragging huge blocks of stone from the quarries to the Pyramids. And with those reveries ended, he grabbed a wrench and began bellowing instructions to his inexperienced crew.

    Eight hours later, the drilling rig had been disassembled into a dozen components, each burdensome by itself but light enough for a handful of strong men to lift onto a wagon. They rested that evening; the next day would require as much energy as they could muster.

    In the morning, Bevens sent a mounted messenger into Osage to summon the team of wagons he had previously hired. When the four wagons pulled up three hours later, the men began laboriously hoisting their loads aboard and leading the teams up the long incline. Most of the day was needed for the transfer, but as the sun settled beneath the northwestern Virginia woods, the most arduous part of the task had been completed.

    Reassembling the rig upslope was another question entirely. It proved to be far more difficult than merely tearing it apart. By the time Bevens recognized the error of his ways, it was too late to do any good. He should have taken detailed notes during its disassembly, but he was too impatience to harbor any further delay, too self confident in his ability to jiggle everything back into its proper place. Naturally, there were no written instructions to guide him, and no one among his crew had any experience with the machinery. Bevens walked angrily away from his men, uphill to the summit. He approached the edge of the headwall and emitted a steady flow of profane epithets directed toward himself; he had unnecessarily compounded a difficult task and wasted valuable time. The only alternative was to fit the pieces together intuitively, fitting a piece here and there, a tedious procedure that would require many additional hours.

    In the end, it took him two and a half days to reassemble the rig, lay a foundation, and start framing the building around it. The installation of the rig had taken more time than he had allowed, extravagantly more, but at last they were ready to begin sinking their shaft into the mountain. 

    A wooden trough was configured along the slope directing water downhill from the summit spring to the engine boiler. Once it was full, the furnace was loaded with fresh coal and ignited. Everyone stepped back a safe distance and waited.

    Twenty minutes later, a belching column of steam soared upward from the headframe as the rig's rotary piston began turning in a clockwise direction, raising the drill arm to its maximum height. The piston seemed to pause momentarily at the apex of its cycle, then suddenly, violently, it plunged downward, the arm descending with a powerful thrust, smashing against the ground, the bit demolishing the wooden stake inserted by Bevens to mark the exact spot for the central shaft.

    Montague's men were now digging in two directions simultaneously: on a downward drift from the valley floor, extending the existing entry into the mountain's interior; and vertically downward from its summit. If all went well, the two teams would meet at the center within two months.

 

    On top, Bevens divided his work force. Once drilling had begun, a crew of five men could service the machinery, but three eight hour shifts were necessary: except for periodic bit replacement, the drilling was continuous around the clock. Everyone else not occupied with headframe maintenance was assigned to a railroad section gang, laying track from the summit to the Baltimore and Ohio right of way, nearly a mile down the slope.

   

    In the meantime, Cameron was sent to Baltimore to obtain permission from the Railroad to build turnouts and a freight platform where the summit spur and sidings would connect with the main line. The Railroad executives were surprisingly magnanimous; they agreed to build the turnouts themselves, not for nothing of course, but only for the cost of labor and materials. Cameron supposed that it was all a matter of insurance. Work done by an amateur mining crew would likely violate the terms of their coverage. He was also successful in convincing the Railroad to schedule a regular freight stop at the junction once the track work was completed.

    He had accomplished all he set out to do and was anxious to return home, but he traveled to Morgantown by an indirect route, stopping first in Richmond, the state capital. He planned a little surprise for his fellow partners, something that would be revealed at the right moment.

January 2012

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