It’s a dangerous thing, the human spirit. It drives men to achieve things never before possible and brings woe to the fool who tries to stand in its way.
The human spirit can get a man many things, some stronger than others. But the strongest of all, at least in the opinion of a few, is the will to survive. Don’t matter what you been through or where you are or who you’re with. If you find yourself in a place where the only choice is live or die, nothing else is important.
That situation, live or die, that’s what twelve men found themselves in, between sixteen tons of rock and rising water. Half of them were silver miners, and the others were common townsfolk. All of them had been properly made into fools.
The events that led to them being buried alive were rather unimpressive compared to what came after, but a proper tale ain’t made by leaving out details.
The town’s name was Silver Dollar. It was situated in the heart of the marvelous and horrid western frontier. Many a man sought his fortune. Some found it in a silver mine and built a little town called Silver Dollar.
This mine was cursed, so they said. Folks disappeared in it, and many a miner got hurt. It came to a point where the townspeople found themselves mighty divided. Some believed the mine was more hassle than it was worth, while others believed it could be conquered.
The heads of these opinions, respectively, were Sheriff Avery Turner and Jeremiah “Iron” Malone. Good Sheriff Turner had a heart that took it some kind of personal whenever his fine folk went missing or came back without a limb. It was his job to keep the people safe, and they kept on throwing themselves into the unforgiving maw of that cursed mine.
Jeremiah Malone earned his moniker well. “Iron,” they called him. They said he had one fist of iron and the other of steel. “If the left one don’t get ya, the right one will,” they said. He was the boss of the miners and respected by them. He thought it a righteous crusade to conquer the mine and harvest its riches, and by golly, did he enjoy his time doing so. One wouldn’t expect a man of his stature to enjoy good singing, but it was always him starting his boys a-singin’ a mining song.
For a time, the town held itself in a tense impasse regarding the mine. Most of the silver was gone, and folks were starting to consider greener pastures.
Then a stranger came to town. Said his name was Cole. Just Cole, no other name to go by.
He brought a map with him, but it weren’t no traveling map. It was a map of that very silver mine. He didn’t give a hint as to how he got that map, but it led directly to, as Cole put it, “the richest vein of silver any man would ever hope to find.”
Well, it stirred up the town all right. In the few days since Cole’s arrival, he’d started poking around in that mine by his lonesome, saying he needed to make sure his map was accurate.
Meanwhile Jeremiah and his boys were rarin’ to go, while Sheriff Turner told them not to run out on a silver goose chase. “It’s too dangerous,” said the sheriff, “and too many of you good boys have been lost in it already. We don’t owe that mine any more of us, ’specially not for this stranger. Besides, something ain’t right with this Cole fella. I done swear I seen him before.”
Cole played coy.
“Aw, come now, Sheriff. These fine folk deserve one last hurrah, don’t they? Besides, if the vein is down there, wouldn’t it be a plumb shame if we just left it?”
By then even the regular townsfolk were being lured in by Cole’s silver tongue. “And you know what?” Cole continued. “I bet I can get these boys safely to the vein. So safely, in fact, that they don’t even have to be miners. Don’t some of you fine citizens want to see it for yourselves? Feel that rush of striking it big? Feel the muscles burning as you haul riches from the earth? Ain’t that a thrill like no other?”
Well sir, that got the crowd up and excited. Sheriff Turner, realizing he couldn’t stop anyone from going, relented. His gut kept twisting in knots, though. Something weren’t right with Cole, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Oh well. So long as they all came back in one piece.
Cole, six miners including Jeremiah, and six regular townsfolk were chosen for the expedition. Jeremiah and his boys were eager to have the greenhorns with them, even if they were only good for gawking at whatever they found. They brought along anything a good miner would need: shovels, picks, lanterns, helmets, and a hand-crank drill.
How they found the silver vein isn’t important. They found it, and boy, was it glorious. A solid wall of raw silver lay before them, and the men were eager to start picking away at it.
However, Cole insisted that it wasn’t the fullest of the vein and led them further.
Cole led them to a natural cave carved out by groundwater. It was about the size of an opera theater with a ceiling about twenty feet high, and a spring was settled at the far end. There was only one usable entrance; the space the water flowed through was too narrow for anything other than minnows.
And here we come to the inciting incident of this tale: the moment that found twelve sad men under sixteen tons of Mother Earth.
In the days Cole had been in town and poking around the mine, he’d already found the silver vein and the cave.
Now, Cole was a snake. He’d found the biggest deposit of raw silver he ever did see, and by his left boot he wanted it for himself. The man was a bit of a lunatic too and prone to believing in ghosts and specters where there weren’t none to be found. Well, he never truly did respect the ground he walked on and thought pacifying it needed some red liquid iron. Blood, that is. He had it in his brain that so long as the ground was given man, then man could take what was in the ground.
And this vein was worth at least twelve men.
So in the days he was poking around, he got sticks of dynamite and set them into the wall around the cave’s one entrance.
He made sure everyone was snug and distracted in the cave, then slipped out and lit the fuse.
Oh, that blast did a number on our unfortunate party. None killed by it, but the ones closest to it never did quite have the same good hearing. Everyone ’bout had their teeth rattled out of their skull.
Well, the blast did as intended. Sixteen tons of cold solid rock came crashing into the one exit. The ceiling got a marvelous new crack split into it that ran itself all the way to where the spring was situated.
Jeremiah made about cussing a blue streak about Cole and his hurt men. He didn’t lose his head, though, no sir. He realized right away that he was no longer in charge of getting metal out of rock, but getting eleven men out of a cave alive.
Unfortunately, not everyone kept their heads as well as Jeremiah. Accusations started flying.
“It’s all ’cause of you greedy lot! Draggin’ us underground to make a new bone orchard!”
“We were all suckered into this. Cole made a flying fool outta all of us.”
“Anyone got a cloth? His ears are bleedin’!”
“No one asked you to come along. There’s a reason normal folk don’t go into mines.”
“You got us into this, you get us out!”
Jeremiah put a hand to his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. “Enough! All of you!”
“Yeah, listen to the big bug,” said one of the miners. “He’ll get us outta here.”
One of the townsmen grabbed him by the shirt. “We wouldn’t be in here in the first place were it not for—”
“Pull your horns in, Greg,” Jeremiah ordered. “We got enough trouble as it is to being wastin’ air on insults.”
Greg released the miner but kept a harsh glare. The room was divided between the miners and the citizens.
“There ain’t no reason to pick sides when we’re all on the same horse.” Jeremiah ran a hand over his head and sighed through his nose. “If ya want to throw blame, throw it at Cole. Now he might’ve gotten us into this, but he ain’t gonna pass the buck. ’Cause we’re gonna get outta here one rock at a time, find Cole, then drag his sorry chaps straight back to the sheriff.”
The men seemed to agree with that plan.
“Now, here’s the kicker. We don’t got a lot of air in here, and half of us ain’t never held a pick.”
One man, a business tycoon hardly anyone tolerated, raised his hand. “Are you suggesting we all . . . dig our way out? I was under the assumption you mine moles were going to do all that.”
One of the miners, a wiry guy nicknamed Kicks, lived up to his name and planted the toe of his boot into the idiot’s shin. “I don’t care a continental ’bout whatever ‘assumptions’ you got; you’re going to dig your way out like the rest of us. Either that or you can go drown yourself in that puddle ’cause that’s the only way you’re gonna get out of it.”
“Might be for the better,” said another miner. “Less air to go around.”
“Mudsill!” cried the tycoon, now on the ground and holding his shin.
Jeremiah added injury to injury and clocked the idiot on the head. “Don’t insult my boys.”
“Yeah, you tell ’im, boss!”
“And you stop egging them on!”
Jeremiah pinched the bridge of his nose. “All right. Here’s what’s gonna happen. This here cave’s big enough for ’bout a day or so of air. We got twelve”—he glanced at the idiot on the ground—“eleven able-bodied men who can help clear out this rock. All we gotta do is work steady, same as we always done.”
He looked pointedly at his usual crew. “Gonna need your help to show the new boys how to swing a pick.”
One of the miners grinned. “Heh! Fine time to break in a bunch o’ rookies!”
“And as for you folk.” Jeremiah looked over the others, noticing the fear in their eyes despite their best efforts to hide it. “I ain’t gonna lie. You’re gonna go through the mill here. But you’ll get through this. We all will.”
Greg, one of the citizens, shook his head with a sharp glare. “The sheriff was right about you. You’re reckless. Only carin’ about the next cart full o’ shiny rock. Well, guess what, ya big metal-fisted, flannel-mouthed blowhard. Some of us got proper lives up where the sun still shines.”
Kicks spoke up. “You really that blockheaded? Just can’t reason with no brains, huh?”
“Kicks,” Jeremiah warned. Kicks backed off. “Now listen here and listen good,” said Jeremiah. “We’ll work in shifts to spare as much air as possible, three of my boys and three of you folk.” He approached the fallen rock and gave it a good knock. “Figure there’s about sixteen tons here.”
“Only sixteen?” echoed one of the miners. “Shoot, we get through thrice that in a good day!”
“Maybe so, but we had double the number of experienced guys,” Kicks added. “Even with the greenhorns, it’ll take a while.”
“At least we’ve got water?” offered one of the townsfolk, a younger man called Jake. Several heads nodded in agreement. The spring would be good for them.
Some moments of silence passed as the men looked between each other. The flickering light from their lanterns made their faces look like they were made of stone. The miners kept their eyes on their boss while Greg’s jaw worked side to side. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll work with you. But I ain’t apologizin’ for nothing until we get out.”
“Deal.” Jeremiah offered his hand to shake. Greg took it, and his knuckles learned why folks said Jeremiah had hands made of steel.
So, a quarter mile underground, eleven men got working to move sixteen tons of stone from their impromptu tomb. After a time even the business idiot started swinging a pick.
They worked steadily, picking apart the boulders, shoveling away the rocks, and sometimes pausing for a drink from the spring. After about three hours, Jake set down his shovel and backed away from the others for a drink. However, his heel met water sooner than he was expecting.
He looked down. “Uh, fellas?” A few heads turned. “Was the water out this far before?”
“No,” said Kicks. “It weren’t.” He skirted around the water to take a closer look at its source. “It’s leaking in,” he said. “This crack overhead, it probably opened the rock and is letting more water in.”
The business idiot wedged a pick under a heavy rock. “Well, easy fix, then.” He levered the rock loose, and it rolled through the puddle and into the wall, sealing the little water source.
“Idiot!” Kicks shouted. “If you build up the pressure, it’ll make the crack bigger and let in more water!”
As he spoke, the rock seam split further, and water started flowing over the rock faster than before.
The idiot found himself on the receiving end of eleven glares.
“Well, don’t just stand there like a bunch of roaches!” Jeremiah snapped everyone to focus. “Get moving!”
Jake punched the idiot in the arm. “Nice going, genius.”
“I was trying to help!”
“You want to help, then put that pick to . . .” Jake glanced at the rising water. Were the walls always that close together? “To good . . . use.” The walls were getting too close. Were they running out of air already? Why was the water so loud?
Jeremiah noticed Jake and nudged one of his men. “Doc. Go help him.”
Doc had no degree, but he took charge of most situations where someone wasn’t acting or moving right. At the very least he made a darn good impression that he knew a thing or two about medicine, though there wasn’t a medicine for this particular ailment.
Doc pulled the shovel out of Jake’s hands and held his shoulders. “Jake. Hey. It’s okay, pal. You’re okay.”
“I can’t breathe,” Jake wheezed. “Th-the walls!”
“Ah. Walls are closing in, right?”
Jake nodded, his eyes blown wide open.
“Jake, I need you look at me, okay? Don’t look at the walls or ceiling or nothing, just me. Can you do that?”
Jake followed the instructions and stared Doc square in the eye.
“Good. Now, I need you to focus on my face like you were memorizing it for a test. Notice anything and everything. Can’t leave out a single eyelash, or you ain’t gonna pass.”
Jake did so. After a few minutes the walls returned to normal, and he found it much easier to breathe. Doc helped him to his feet. “Sorry ’bout that,” said Jake.
“Don’t be,” said Doc. “You ain’t no mine mole, and this is quite the daunting scenario. You’re doing good, kid. Let’s show this dirt who’s boss, right?”
Jake smiled. “Right.”
Another hour passed. As the water rose, so did the pile of broken rock. Another round of explosives rumbled through the ground, and they figured Cole was trying to make off with the silver.
Another hour. Bellies started growling. The water was two inches deep at its shallowest end.
As the sixth hour passed, most everyone had shed what they had of clothing save for pants and shoes. The water was up six more inches.
About that time the water was high enough that it didn’t flow over anything and didn’t make any noise on its own. One of the citizens said he liked the sound of the water and was sad it was gone.
Jeremiah chuckled at that. “How’s about another type of sound?” His men perked up and smiled. Jeremiah then cleared his throat, hummed a few notes, then belted out the start of a mining song. His men joined in immediately.
The citizens, who never would have imagined “Iron” Jeremiah a singer, glanced first at each other with curious smiles and watched the odd show, then let themselves join in the revelry.
Well, sir, if that didn’t send morale through their stony roof. It didn’t matter if their bodies ached or if their feet were wet or if the air was running out. They were gonna go out singing with their spirits bright and hard as diamond!
Another hour passed. The water was at their knees. Another hour, almost to their hips.
The water was rising faster, and there was still about two tons of rock left. They’d managed to bore out a tunnel about five feet high down the length of the fallen rock, but with the water it left them about half submerged.
Freedom was tantalizingly within reach. The drill took turns with picks and shovels.
The ninth hour passed. Everyone was painfully aware of how little time they had left, panic held back by a hair’s width of hope. The water reached their stomachs.
Nine hours, twenty minutes. Water at their ribs, and half a ton to go.
Nine and forty. Almost to their armpits.
Ten hours. Greg’s pick broke through the rock.
Fresh air flowed in through a hole about the size of a fist. Jeremiah moved to the back of the group. Since they’d been digging slightly upward, the water reached his chin where the cave opened.
Greg and Kicks huddled side by side in the cramped tunnel, picks chipping at the hole. The fresh air blowing in chilled them, but their shivering was from excitement.
Another ten minutes, and the hole was barely big enough to wiggle through.
Kicks’s wiry self was able to squeeze through, but he was still a tight fit and scraped his skin up. He didn’t proper care, though. Once out, he took a deep breath, stretched, picked up his pick, and swung at the hole from the other side.
With proper leverage the rock fell apart quickly. Two more men came through and also started widening the hole.
Water and bodies spilled out of the cave, helped along by Jeremiah bringing up the rear. However, when it was finally his turn, the hole was still too small. The men kept picking at it, but Jeremiah was just too plumb big.
“Back up, boys,” he said. They did.
Jake glanced over at Kicks, who was grinning. “What’s going on? What’s he going to do?”
Kicks laughed and held up his fists. “Ain’t you heard? ‘One fist of iron, the other of steel.’”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than a massive fist piled through the rock, followed by another. The rock fell to pieces and “Iron” Malone came barreling through in a shower of water and mud.
Well, sir, they were out. They didn’t relax just yet, oh no. The water was still rising and they were still in its path. Using what strength they had, they hurried up toward home.
They got a good distance to not be at immediate risk of drowning when it all got to Jake again. His legs wilted, and he folded to the ground. The others bent down to help him, but they found him laughing.
He was helped to his feet, and then he took a deep breath of that fresh, open air and let out a loud, joyful shout.
A few others picked it up and joined it. Yes sir, those men was happy. They hollered the biggest holler any man covered in sweat and mud and ten hours of nail-biting terror could ever holler. A good many moments of laughing, hand shaking, back slapping, and hugging ensued.
Though, of course, all good things must come to an end. This particular one was ended when Greg brought up an important question. “Where’s Cole?”
Oh, those exhausted men’s minds brought up a few terrors at that question. Was that snake still lurking around? Would he try again to be rid of them?
Jeremiah picked up a shovel and blew across his fists. “We’ll be fine. He can’t catch us off guard again.” Now, weren’t that the truth.
They marched back to the big vein and lo and behold, there was Cole. He had a minecart already filled with the ore and was whistling to himself, entirely oblivious to the posse of peeved men behind him.
Jeremiah cleared his throat. Cole jumped and turned around. His face stretched with surprise. “Ah. Well, this is an interesting situation, isn’t it? How did you—”
“You left a bunch of miners in a cave,” said Kicks dryly. “We dig for a living.”
Jake nudged the businessman. “He’s almost a bigger idiot than you.”
A pair of stirrupped footsteps came echoing down the tunnel from the entrance. Cole was in sight, and his demeanor instantly changed. “Sheriff Turner!” He ran to the sheriff, all smiles and grave pleas. He walked backward in front of the sheriff as he kept yacking. “Good Sheriff, there’s been a horrible mishap. As you can see, we found the silver, but there was an accident with the dynamite. You know how these things happen. The men were trapped in a cave with little time to spare and—”
The sheriff pulled out his revolver and leveled it at Cole’s head. “Shut up.” He tilted his head to glance at Jeremiah and the drowned rats of men behind him. Then his attention returned to Cole. “Turn around and put your hands on your head.”
“Really Sheriff, what on earth—”
“Arthur O’Nelson, by order of the law, turn around and put your hands on your head.”
Cole—Arthur—clammed up real quick. He did as told, and the sheriff made quick work of tying his hands. “You’re under arrest for multiple counts of embezzlement, fraud, second-degree murder, and evading the law.” He sat Arthur down and went over to Jeremiah. “Sorry I couldn’t do much else before now. Took a while to get this.” He held up a wanted poster with Arthur’s face. “He’s wanted in twelve states, the lunatic. I didn’t want to send anyone else in case he was armed.”
Jeremiah smiled. “Thanks for your help, Sheriff.”
“Right, then.” Sheriff Turner hauled the perp to his feet. “Let’s go home, boys. Home with a mighty good story, I imagine?”
Jeremiah let out a hearty laugh. “More like the makings of a good song!”