We had not exactly fallen into an abandoned mine.
At least, not in the same way as little Timmy, who’d recklessly stumble into this kind of trouble, only to be saved by Lassie, then be given a gentle scolding by his mother and taught a lesson about the dangers of derelict underground excavations and inadequate mining regulations — and why children might be safer sitting quietly at home in front of a screen, perhaps watching old TV shows like Lassie.
Instead, we had taken the creaky and disused elevator down the shaft and were now stuck at the bottom of this mountainside mine. I pressed the button several times to go up, with no luck. The cage would rise an inch, then get pulled back down.
“The power’s sporadic,” you offered as explanation.
“No, look. The little light’s been staying on.” I adjusted my hardhat, which kept slipping sideways. “We should have brought a collie along and left her at the top of the shaft so she could go run for help. And maybe fetch sandwiches.” It was past lunchtime.
“I thought we were finished here,” you said. “We checked the overall status of things, looked for signs of bat colonies, drew a map of the tunnels — everything we were supposed to do.”
“Apparently the mountain doesn’t want us to leave. We should find out why.”
“Okay,” you said. “Battery check.” We looked at the lamps on our hardhats, which had power indicators. “I’ve got maybe thirty minutes left.”
“About the same for me. We’d better hurry if we want to convince this mountain to let us out.”
We slid the door open and stepped out of the cage, back onto the hard dirt floor.
Our assignment here had been to assess the old mine in Weathersteen Mountain, just to see how things stood. A clearly-stated task, contract signed, get the job done, collect a check — easy enough, or so we’d thought. Nature, it seems, has other plans whenever we step into the picture.
“Let’s go back and search the passages we missed,” you suggested.
“That’s most of them.” I pulled out the map we had drawn, which showed about thirty side passages. We hadn’t had enough time to completely explore them all.
We jogged along the main corridor, looking into the smaller dead-end tunnels, a few of which were merely carved-out storage rooms. In one of these we found a pile of old tools and a wooden box labeled Dynamite. We left it alone.
“Everything looks pretty normal,” I said. “I can’t see anything wrong.”
“We’ve still got a few more places to check.”
“If our batteries last.”
We came to a branching tunnel that went deep into the mountain. The light from our headlamps disappeared into the gloom and showed no end. We plunged in to see how far it went. Too far, it turned out.
A few hundred yards in we found the problem. The walls oozed a red, crumbly substance that emitted a pungent odor of inflammation and decay. You touched it and the earth around us shuddered in pain.
“This is a wound,” you said. “The whole tunnel is like a gash where they tore into a tender part of the mountain.”
“It’s still open to the air. That’s probably why it never healed.”
Mining is all right when done properly. But extra care and surgical precision are needed when drilling inside mountains — many have sensitive nerves and easily-damaged veins. And there’s always the risk of exposing something best left buried.
“If they dug too deep,” I said, “they might have unearthed some subterranean monster — all fire and darkness, flaming sword, disagreeable temperament.” I was thinking of the Balrog or a creature of that ilk. “Maybe that’s why they had to abandon the mine.”
“No,” you said, “it was for economic reasons. The market changed.” I preferred my Balrog theory.
“Well, I guess we know what we have to do.”
You scoffed. “Sure. Just seal up an entire tunnel” — you looked at my battery gauge — “in less than ten minutes. We’ll simply grab a pickax and… No, wait. There’s all that dynamite. Come on.”
“I’m not sure if that’s the best—” but you were already running back to the tool room, so I followed after, catching up just as you were lifting the lid on the wooden box.
“This should work,” you said. Inside were about twenty eight-inch sticks of dynamite, several detonators, and a coil of safety fuse. Some of the sticks already had short pieces of fuse attached.
I crouched down and shone my headlamp on the explosives. “What if little Timmy — after falling into the mine — had found these and thought they were candles, then lit one of the fuses? Lassie couldn’t have saved him then.”
“What would he be doing with matches?” A good point, but who can tell with that kid?
Then it occurred to me: “Do we have matches?”
“I thought you could start a fire with flint.”
“Right. I suppose that’s the only reason you bring me along.”
“Not the only reason,” you said, leaning closer and putting your hand on my arm.
“Also to carry things.”
I picked up the box and we hurried back to the passage where the mountain’s injury was festering. We stopped at the entrance, since the only way to heal the mountain would be to collapse this end of the tunnel and seal the wound with dirt and stone.
I set down the box and took a closer look. “It says on the crate that each stick provides the equivalent of a megajoule of energy. Also, keep out of reach of children.”
You pondered half a second. “That’s like the kinetic energy of a one-ton car going a hundred miles an hour. Roughly.”
I tried to imagine such a car slamming into the rock at that speed. It would do some damage, but not enough. “I think we’d need three or four cars’ worth. Roughly.”
“We’ll round it up to five.” You pulled out the sticks and tied them into a bundle, shoved a detonator into one of them, and attached a piece of fuse about two feet long.
“Your uncle teach you that?” I asked.
“Mm-hmm. This should give us about a minute to get away.” You finished wedging the dynamite into the rock above the tunnel’s entrance. “Ready when you are.”
“Okay.” I struck my knife against the piece of flint I carried for such a purpose, aiming the sparks onto a short length of fuse. I had sliced open one end to expose the black powder inside. It lit on the third try.
You grabbed it and held it like a match up to the long fuse hanging from the dynamite. Once that ignited we sprinted toward the exit shaft a few hundred yards away and arrived, gasping for breath, with only seconds to spare.
The explosion sounded like a boom of thunder which shook the mine and rattled the elevator cage. It was followed by a brief fit of rumbling as the rock collapsed above the injured tunnel. We braced ourselves for the pressure wave from the blast, but the air just whooshed by like a sigh of relief expelled by a grateful mountain.
The elevator opened on its own, so we hopped inside and let it take us to the top. Weathersteen Mountain was showing its thanks by making sure we got out safely.
“Well,” I said, once we were outside, “we managed to escape without Lassie’s help.”
You ignored me and opened our map, then crossed out the tunnel we had just destroyed. “How are we going to explain this?”