Outside the night was pitch dark, and the rain raced by in successive charges, driven by the howling wind that caught and tore the gusts of phosphorescent steam above the engine-house at the mine, and sent the fragments streaming and curling away amongst the complaining trees like maddened wraiths. The driver in the well-lighted, rain-tight engine-house whistled contentedly over his work, and the battery boys, under comfortable shelter, rather delighted in the storm, the howling of which could be heard even above the thunder of the stampers; but the unfortunate braceman, crouching in the lee of one of the poppet-legs beneath the misty yellow glow of his lantern, cold, soddened, and more than half afraid of the tempest, that shook the brace vigorously under its bare poles, muffled the chattering of his teeth with a big quid, and heartily envied the facemen in the warm stopes and drives below.
Sleep was long coming to the weary “skipper;” he lay awake for hours, feeling the rheumatism like rats gnawing. in his old bones, and swearing quietly but with the emphasis of a devout “Geordie.” At length, whilst listening intently for the four o’clock whistle, oblivion fell upon him, and a deep organ note mingled with the tinkling of the raindrops in the scattered tins.
Mack imagined he had not slept twenty minutes when he was roughly awakened. He felt himself being energetically shaken, and heard a voice with a decided note of terror in it mixed up with the march, march, march of the rain and the long shrill cries of the wind in the dead gums. A shower of water rained upon his face from wet oilskins as he turned, and the voice of Tom White called again:—
“For God’s sake, boss, tumble up! The ‘big blow ’ has caved in, and the old shaft is choked with reef.”
The manager was out on the sloppy floor in a moment, groping for his clothes.
“An’ Brierly, Brierly——D——n it all, man! what about Brierly?” he gasped.
“He is trapped like a rat.”
“Lord, Lord!” groaned M‘Fie, “an’ there hasn’t been a man near the cursed hole for months before tonight.”
Mack discovered the matches, but they were like mush in his hand, and he was compelled to tear his way into his clothes in the darkness. Presently he rushed after White towards the mine. The whistle was piping piteously against the storm, which still thundered in the gully.
A hasty examination served to inform the manager of the extent of the disaster, which troubled him all the more for the fact that it was not quite unforeseen and might have been avoided. About forty yards from the working shaft of the Old Pioneer mine was another and a smaller shaft, one that had been sunk by the discoverers of the reef. At the lower-most level of the latter hole the two shafts were connected by means of a drive for the purpose of improving the air in the workings. Within about fifty feet of the surface the original workers had opened out and struck a big blow of quartz, the very richest of the lode, and in taking out the stone had excavated a great irregular chamber, reaching in places to within twenty feet of the surface. This chamber they eventually stowed full of loose reef from the lower workings, with the dual object of saving hauling and holding up the ground. It was a bad job from a miner’s point of view, but when a small independent party is on rich stuff that is not expected to hold out the members rarely waste time on fancy mining. Long since the surface over the excavation had settled down, leaving a large hollow place. To-night the great pressure of the many tons of earth, combined with the force exerted by the swelling of the reef, caused by the moisture that percolated through, had crushed out the timbers that walled up the mouth of the old drive, and sent the broken reef pouring into the pit, like the waters of a cataract, filling eighty feet of shaft in the winking of an eye.
If this were all the accident might not have been very serious, but at 12 o’clock M‘Fie had sent Bill Brierly to put in a shift in a small drive leading from the air-shaft towards the Old Pioneer, and about thirty feet from the bottom of the former. Scarcely any work had been done in this drive since it was opened out, and now the shaft was choked, and Brierly was penned in that tiny chamber, with air enough, Mack reckoned, to last a man five hours, provided he had sense enough to put out his candles, and sit and wait for death in the dark—a hair-bleaching, marrow-freezing experience men say who have so sat and waited.
“Stop the battery!” roared M‘Fie, after his cursory inspection. “Send the boys to knock up the men at the Piper an’ up at Mother Murty’s. They’ll never hear that penny whistle agin this wind. White, you take Harry an’ Bricky an’ a couple of others when they come, an’ rig a win’las over the air-shaft, an’ pull reef till all’s blue! Ben, go below—I expect Evans an’ Castro are already on the job. Chuck it down the winze, stow it anywhere, an’ work—work like fiends. If we don’t get at Brierly inside five hours I’m a done man, an’ so is he!”
The manager remained on top a few minutes longer, giving orders to the brace-man and the engine-driver, and then went below with a couple of volunteers who had come out of the black bush, half-dressed and puffing like engines. In No. 3, which drive ran into the old shaft, three silent men, stripped to their flannels, reeking in the faint, ghostly light of the candles, worked desperately upon the broken reef that had gushed into the drive.
M‘Fie and the others “took a hand,” more men came down in the next cage, and the next, and next, and presently wherever there was room for a man to plant a shovel or push a truck a man was toiling with the magnificent energy with which the meanest miner is endowed when the life of a mate is at stake. On the brace three or four men handled the trucks as the cages leapt to the landing. The engine throbbed, groaned, and strained like a living thing, and the eager volunteers, stoking vigorously, kept steam up to a dangerous pressure, while the safety-valve fairly shrieked under it. At the mouth of the air-shaft a brawny contingent whirled the windlass, pulling dirt from the top of the heap below, where two men toiled like heroes. Six or seven others, waiting to relieve exhausted mates, gathered in the red glow before the boilers, and talked of the imprisoned man in low voices and with a newborn respect, telling all the best they knew of him; and two or three frightened, curious women, with shawls drawn over their heads, peered with white faces out of the surrounding darkness.
At daybreak the struggle was still going on with undiminished zeal, and every handy place that would hold a truck of dirt was choked with reef, and the cages sprang up with the full trucks or rattled down with the “empties” swiftly, and with scarcely a pause.
Manager M‘Fie worked with the best of them. Drenched with perspiration, bruised and cut by pieces of falling reef, he faced the mass of dirt in the old shaft, careless of danger and ignorant of fatigue. As fast as the reef was shovelled away more rolled into the drive out of the shaft, but at length Mack uttered a sharp exclamation of joy and pointed to a dark open space showing below the cap-piece of the first set. Enlarging this with a few strokes of the shovel, he seized a candle and examined the shaft beyond; then, staggering back in the drive, bellowed a cheer that was caught up by the men and echoed on the brace.
The unexpected had happened. The choked pit was a ladder-shaft; a stout ladder, well stayed, ran up the side of the shaft, past the drive in which Brierly was immured; between it and the slabs lining the shaft was a space about 18 in. wide; large lumps of reef had jammed between the rungs, and now, right up the side to the mouth of the drive, was a clear passage, large enough to admit of the escape of a slight man like Brierly.
“Steady lads—easy does it!” said Mack, as the men attacked the reef again. “A wrong stroke might bring the stuff down again. Clear a way, an let’s see what can be done.” Mack put his head into the shaft and called, but no answer came back. He called louder, again and again. Still there was no reply, and the old manager turned away, and looked meaningly into the blank faces of the men, and his own cheeks were grey with dread.
“I’ll chance it, boss!”
A young fellow stepped forward—a trucker, a boy merely—with a plain, strong face and glowing eyes, luminous with resolution.
“No, no, lad! it might mean death.”
But young Stevens pushed by the extended arm and seized the ladder. Somebody stuck a lighted candle on his hat with a scrap of moist clay, and he went up the shaft on the under side of the ladder, climbing gingerly, conscious that the least vibration might bring the reef rushing in upon him. Mack watched him from below, and no man spoke a word. The boy reached the drive, paused only a moment, and started down again. Half a minute later he was dragged from the ladder by M‘Fie’s eager hands, and the same instant the reef rushed in, and filled up the place where he had been, and poured into the drive with a vibrant roar like thunder. Stevens stood with his back to one of the legs for a moment, a superstitious fear transfiguring his face, his limbs trembling painfully.
“He is not there!” he gasped in a choked voice.
The boy shook his head.
“Then,” murmured M‘Fie, “he is there;” and he pointed towards the filled-in shaft with a despairing gesture. “He must have made a rush for the ladder when she started to run, and he’s under the reef. It’s all UP, boys!”
Something like a groan broke from the lips of the men, but they seized their shovels and went to work again—all but one man. Graham turned away and walked towards the working shaft. He went up on the cage, and in less than five minutes returned and drew M‘Fie aside. He whispered a few words in the manager’s ear, and Mack followed him with an amazed look in his face. The two men got on the cage, and Graham pulled the knocker, signalling to the engine-driver to drop them at No. 2.
Graham led the way along No. 2, in which drive no work had been done for some months, and presently stopped and threw the light of his candle full upon the recumbent form of a man sleeping heavily upon a few slabs, his head pillowed on his arm. Mack turned the face towards the light, and beheld Bill Brierly, the supposed dead man. Graham, and M‘Fie stared at each other for a moment. Graham grinned feebly but Mack breathed a mighty oath. Brierly’s tea-flask lay near. The manager picked it up and brought it to his nose.
“Drunk!” he ejaculated, kicking the sleeping miner.
“As a jackass,” responded Graham, tersely.
Ten minutes later the brace-man called to the men below to knock off and come up.
“We have got Brierly. He is alive!” he cried.
The men rushed the cages, cheering, and wondering. On top a circle of disgusted miners stood round Bill Brierly, who lay sprawling on the floor before the boilers, grinning inanely in his drunken sleep. The truth was told in constrained whispers. Brierly was probably “half-screwed” when he went on at 12; he had made his way to No. 2, the driest and warmest drive in the mine, early in the shift, taking his flask of rum with him, and intending, no doubt, to “do a comfortable loaf” up there; and there he had lain, stupidly drunk, throughout those dreadful hours of anxiety and toil. The men thought of their long struggle and their wasted sympathies, of the reef piled everywhere about the workings, yesterday so orderly and correct, and each man glanced into his neighbour’s face, but none spoke; no one even ventured to swear, and they could not laugh—the situation was too tremendous for any form of expression of which they were capable.
One by one the worn-out miners dragged themselves away towards their huts and houses, but M‘Fie remained, sitting on a log, glowering at the drunken man, his mind full of the choked winzes and drives below, and of young Stevens cheek by jowl with death on the buried ladder.
“Ain’t you going to turn in, boss?” someone asked.
“No,” he said, angrily. “No. I’m goin’ to sit here till Bill Brierly sobers up, an’ then, by thunder, I’m goin’ to kick him from here to the Piper, an’ back again!”
“But, man, this is better than having to fish him from under the reef.”
“I dunno, I dunno!” snarled Mack, striking his knee fiercely with his great gnarled fist, “but I must kick that man or blow up!”