Six minutes and thirty-three seconds. That was the amount of time it took a spark to wind its way down and around the forty-inch fuses attached to the nine cherry-red two-stick dynamite charges that Frank Rasmussen was carrying in his dusty leather satchel. Frank had been excavating mines long enough to develop a keen sense for the timing, and a persistent case of tinnitus.
His current project had brought him to the – in his mind, rightly named – Death Valley, California. Death Valley was a fine name for it. The heat was oppressive even before he descended into the mine. It weighed on him something fierce, beating down on him, wringing him out for sweat. Up on the surface, he wondered if he might had done something to get on the sun’s bad side. Down in the dark, condensation-slick tunnels, he was sure he had.
And so, he sweated a lot and toiled a little. It weren’t bad work, especially for a man his age. He didn’t have to swing a pickaxe much, didn’t have to shovel dirt much. There was hazard pay, and he reckoned he deserved it, lugging around the ol’ rock chewers as he was. But truthfully, he didn’t feel there was no real cause for concern in the work, long as the proper pre-cautions were took.
Course, mines were fraught with peril, as most miners who had taken up the profession by choice and not by necessity knew. There weren’t no shortage in the ways an unsavvy cave crawler could meet their maker. There was your cave-ins, your frayin’ descent ropes and rickety buckets, and that constant threat of the invisible, deadly gas that was as likely to strangle you quietly down in the bowels of the Earth as it were to light you up and blow you back out the way you came.
So, naturally, Frank took pre-cautions. He always carried backup rope. He carried a so-called ‘Davey’ lantern that kept the flame from touching the air. Someone had explained to him once how that worked but he had just nodded like he got it. He never worked alone neither, that was an important rule. If you take a tumble out a lopsided bucket and knock your noggin on a stalagmite it’s better to have a friend around, even if it means you gotta cut ‘em in on the profits.
And so Frank, the vigi-lant man he was, had a partner. His name was Harry Boyer, which would of been a fine name on anybody else, but the gangly young man already looked younger than he was. The grime, dirt and scraggly attempt at facial hair hid it, but underneath he still looked younger than he wanted people to think he was. Frank had poked fun at him about it once, asked for identification before they had shared shots of whiskey. Harry hadn’t complained outright, just got real quiet. Frank reckoned then that he might ought to leave him alone about it.
Every morning the two would get up just as the last of the coyotes and the bobcats and all those other creatures with more sense than them were nestling down and that bastard sun was peeking out over the mesas. Frank would stretch until something cracked or popped, check his boots for any snakes who didn’t mind the odour, and start gathering the tools for the day. Meanwhile Harry would make some kinda breakfast for them, which was almost always some kind of bean-based dish, with wild game if they were lucky. They’d share a soot-black pot of coffee so foul Harry joked it could raise the dead. The fire would crackle and their joints would pop in response. Finally, with a mess of groaning, they’d shake off the remains of the evening chill, and head towards the mine while the desert was still quiet and blue.
It was naturally formed, or had at least started that way. At first it had been little more than a fissure with ambition. Harry had called it the Bland Canyon. The man who owned the land, some big chuckle-y fella with a red face and a blue tie, got the notion the little crevice might be hiding some gold. And so Frank and his protege were hired, and supplied with enough explosives to make the A-bomb blush.
The two of them fought a slow war against the Earth. After a while they had fought enough to make a shaft. That shaft got deeper as the days went by. Once they had gotten about forty feet down, which Frank advised was the shallowest depth you could start looking for them precious metals, they started spreading out horizontally. They’d been there about a month and a half when everything went to shit.
It was Frank’s turn to set the dynamite. It was usually Frank’s turn to set the dynamite, being the easier part of the job. Harry came up in the bucket, all black dust but for his teeth and knuckles, sitting atop of a fresh pile of excavation. He dumped it with the rest, then collapsed onto the soft mound of dirt and pulled his helmet down low over his eyes.
‘Ye all done then?’ Frank called from the shade of his tent. ‘Well, naw but… hell it ain’t going anywhere. And besides, don’t we get paid by the day?’
‘I get paid by the day, yeah. You get paid on your merits, which right now ain’t looking all that impressive.’
‘Don’t them Mexicans take naps at noon? How come we hadn’t adopted that yet?’
‘It’s called a siesta and it ain’t just Mexico. And I think the point is to get back up and work afterwards, not just lay around all day. Shit, it’s probably too damn hot to work at noon down there anyway.’
‘It’s hotter’n hell up here too. I’m taking me a siesta,’ Harry said, pulling his helmet down further and settling deeper into the dirt.
‘You’re taking a pay-cut is what you’re taking.’ Frank muttered to himself.
It was a game they played. They both knew Harry did the heavier lifting, and when he needed a break from the labour Frank would always gripe and grumble about the work ethic of his generation, but ultimately take over and let the boy rest.
And so Frank climbed into the now empty bucket. They called it a bucket, but it was really a large barrel with a well-knotted rope drilled through the bottom. With the rounded bottom, and the support being in the middle, it wobbled and shifted for the entire descent. Frank rode it down expertly, descending inch-by-inch into the waiting darkness.
He had his satchel of explosives. He had his extra rope. He had his Davey lantern and pickaxe. He stepped out of the barrel once it clanked against the bottom of the shaft. It took Frank’s eyes a few minutes to adjust to the darkness. He coughed in the dusty darkness. The sound echoed down the spiraling tunnels that spiderwebbed their way down and away from the central cavern.
There was no quiet like being below the Earth. Frank always felt different down in the mines. Down there beneath the living world. Down further than the dead. No matter which cave, mine or tunnel he was in, they possessed the same strange air of holiness. He was reminded each time of the churches he would attend in his youth. Only the stained-glass windows had been replaced with black portals that led to more winding corridors. The pews had been replaced with rows of stalagmites that jutted from the earth.
He set the first charge.
He stood, pausing for just a moment to stare down at the little red stick that could break rock to dust. He made his way down each of the tunnels while the soft light from his lantern summoned shadows to dance upon the walls. There was little movement or sound down there. He could hear only his footsteps, see only the flickering shadows.
He set the second charge.
The dark had scared him, when he was still getting used to these expeditions. His eyes and ears would make up stories of their own, seeing and hearing things that weren’t really there. Fig-ments. His head lit up the spots his lantern did not. Frank wondered if Harry felt this way down here. If he did, the boy didn’t show it.
But why was Frank afraid now? And he had to admit to himself then that he was. He looked around, almost instinctively, for the source of his fear. This was silly, there was nothing to be afraid of down here. Well, aside from the variety of natural ways a miner can meet his end. He saw nothing ’round him but the dust that drifted along lazily in the void, sparkling in the dim light. Still, the hair on the back of his neck raised. Still, he felt the goosebumps prickle their way up his sweat-soaked arms. Still his heart beat faster.
Frank went about his work more quickly, stopping only when he saw shadows race toward him, disappearing when he turned. The smothering silence had been replaced now with the beating of his heart in his ears. Four charges were set, four little red snakes curled up, waiting. The holiness was gone. The walls seemed to press in on him. The air tasted rotten on his tongue. The gravestone stalagmites now looked like teeth. The teeth of the world, ready to chew him up and turn him into a precious metal himself. He wondered if Hell was real after all, and how much further down it waited.
Terror took the form of adrenaline. His pupils dilated in the dark, his ears keen for the sounds of the hooved Devil that would drag him the rest of the way down. He stumbled, scraping his trembling hands on unforgiving rock. He righted himself, and felt his hand grow warm and wet. Blood smeared the last twin-stick of dynamite as he placed it.
They were set. He just had to light them. He had to light them before whatever was down here found him. Then he’d leave. Then he’d go back out and up and into the sun and eat a bean-based dinner and drink foul coffee and let Harry know how lazy he was. And with luck, the dynamite would kill whatever the fuck was down here. Frank grinned.
The lamp went out. Darkness swallowed him. He wondered for a moment if he had died. His ragged, shaky breaths were the only evidence to the contrary. There was a rattling sound in the dark as Frank tried to slap life back into the thing. It was no use. The walls whispered to him. The ground roiled beneath his feet. He felt himself cry out, but heard no sound but the pounding of his doomed heart and the whispering voices of stone.
Frank, to his credit, did not panic completely. His body was frozen, but his mind raced. Matches, he had matches. He fumbled through the satchel, feeling with blood-slick hands for something that felt like a matchbox. After a few heartbeats his fingers closed around it. He dropped the first match, it fell forever into the abyss. He took a breath to steady himself and lit another. He could see nothing but his own crimson hand, clutching a burning splinter of salvation.
As the light in the lantern sputtered back to life, he expelled a long sigh of relief. The mine still felt wrong, menacing, but at least he could see again.
Six minutes and thirty-three seconds. After he lit the first pair of dynamite, he’d have that much time to light each of the remaining eight pairs and get back in the bucket. He could keep the time perfectly in his head. Maybe after this he’d take up a job as a metronome checker, he reckoned.
He lit the first of the dynamite charges.
‘A-one and a-two and a-three…’ he started to count with marching-band precision. And turned to make his way towards the second charge. The lit charge hissed softly behind him, and the sound followed him along even as he left the tunnel. It was a strangely comforting sound. He made his way briskly through the bending tunnels, too busy counting time now to be afraid, and kicking himself for getting so worked up. What had come over him?
He lit the sixth charge.
As he was making his way toward the seventh pair of red explosives. The cave was alive now with six faint red lights, and hisses echoed around the cave walls. Something struck him as odd. He stopped for a moment, his count interrupted, as he tried to understand what. One of the hisses had stopped. ‘Could be a dead fuse,’ he reckoned, ‘but that don’t make no se-’
For the second time that day, Frank found himself surrounded by blackness. The world became unbearably loud the instant before it left him.
His ears resounded with a piercing whine, like a hundred tuning forks whining a gospel in his skull. He blinked and saw that the lantern, miraculously, was still lit. That was good. His head pounded, his vision swam. Pain shot through his leg. He looked down to see it badly mangled, bending the wrong way around a stalagmite. His eyes rolled back into his head.
‘Frank? You alright?’ A voice shouted from somewhere far away. A voice from the living world, up above. Not a voice meant for Frank. Frank was dead, he was buried, down there in the depths of the Earth. He could feel its heart beating for him, beckoning him. And soft hissing.
‘Frank? I’m coming down there! You better be alright you sunuva bitch!’ A voice shouted over the hissing. Frank imagined a great fire burning away a knotted tangle of writhing serpents. How long until those serpents burned? Six minutes and thirty-three seconds. Minus… how many? How long was he out? Realisation came over him in a wave. He tried to shout back at the voice but choked on dust.
‘Don’t come down here boy,’ he managed to croak, ‘it’s not safe!’
The red serpents continued to hiss. Frank heard something somewhere that sounded like a barrel hitting dirt. The lantern and the voice seemed to get farther and farther away.
When asked about the event, both men agree that Frank died down in that mine. Fortunately, if there exists one thing that can bring a dead man back to life, if for nothing other than pure spite, it is the foul coffee of Harry Boyer.
When Frank awoke to that bastard sun shining down on him, he was sure he’d done something to get on its good side. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light, and lifted his head to see Harry reclined against a mound of fresh excavation, helmet pulled low over his eyes.
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