The two lollygaggers hear the explosion and the crash and the cries
of their comrades farther up the shaft. The two men stop, stare at
Before they can move or decide what to do, Devil's Backbone gives a
great shake, as if trying to rid itself of some pest. The support
frame over the first man buckles and then crashes.
The second man falls to the ground, clasping his helmet. Rocks,
dirt, and splintered wood fall on his hands and back. He sits up,
slowly, gingerly. His right arm throbs. It is broken in two places,
just above the elbow and again at the wrist.
But he can breathe. He can breathe.
He gulps in great gasps of air, staving off nausea triggered by
waves of pain.
He calls for his friend. No answer. Calls again. Silence.
He realizes his lamp is gone. With his shaking left hand, he reaches
into the pocket of his bibbed overalls, feels past his cigarette,
the one he'd carefully rolled at break time for smoking at the end
of the workday. A flick, and the lighter's flame is sufficient to
reveal that behind him, too, is a cave-in. He doesn't see the lamp.
Likely it was crushed. This tiny flame is his only light, but it is
sufficient to reveal that he has about a five-foot circumference
The light burns steady, unwavering. There is no fresh air coming
through this new chamber.
For a moment, he considers standing up, leaning against the wall,
and smoking his cigarette. No use dying while wishing for tobacco.
There is, he reckons, maybe two hours of good air left. It's gonna
take longer than that for help to reach him. And by then he'll be
suffocating on his own exhaled fumes.
But then—though it is bad luck for a woman to come into a mine—he
conjures the image of his wife. Sees her smiling at their son,
spooning up ice cream.
He flicks off the lighter. He sits down, breathing shallowly and
slowly as possible, trying not to waste precious breath with gasps
of pain. He closes his eyes. Somehow the darkness behind his closed
eyes—not a shade different from the dark around him—is better. He
can just pretend he's sleeping, that his own shallow breaths are
hers, sleeping next to him.
On the other side of the rubble, his friend lies still, too, but
he's already dead, his legs and spine crushed by fallen rock, his
arms splayed forward, his skull split on the floor.
Farther up, near the collapsed mouth of the mine, three other men
are also already dead. But the crew leader, nearest the front, sees
pinpricks of light in the tumbled entry, like stars. Then he hears
one of the men outside, calling that they will go for help.
Outside at the bottom of Devil's Backbone, just as the squirrel
reaches the bank of Coal Creek, the hawk finally swoops, talons
outstretched, and snatches her prey.
'Six Months Later—March 25, 1925'
Lily sweeps the jail cell for the next prisoner, set to arrive in a
few hours. There's so much to do on this fine March day. Besides
readying this cell, she needs to turn the garden soil, beat the
rugs, and clean the sooty glass shade of the hanging coal-oil lamp
in the dining room.
Her side stitches—sudden, hard. Lily gasps, forgetting her list of
spring- cleaning chores. She steadies herself with the broom and
swallows, fighting back a wave of nausea.
Queasiness has found her early this time around. 'At twenty-six,
carrying a child is harder than when you're young!' That's what Mama
would say—if she knew. Lily has yet to share the news of this child
with anyone other than Daniel.
"Hey, lady, gimme more coffee afore you keel over!"