Once There Was a Mountain
Charles C Cole
Once upon a time there was a mountain shaped like a hug that separated a small community from the rest of the world. By dint of circumstance, including isolation and hunger and a dearth of traditional food sources, the locals had evolved to eating fine-quality soil seasoned with pulverized rock. Little chewing was involved; lap with sticky tongue, swallow, repeat.
The beloved mountain was largely undeveloped, decorated with tall redwoods and a sprinkling of ice-age boulders. At its core, however, the mountain held a working mine, deep and vast, from which the community harvested delicious, edible, one-of-a-kind dirt nicknamed “chum,” that tasted similar to molasses, but grittier.
One year, after an aggressive winter with historical amounts of snow, spring thaw came fast and bold and brought heavy rain, leading to a landslide which blocked the only exit from the mine. For the miners, time was ticking. The best of the earth-moving machinery was under the landslide. The mayor proposed everyone, young kids to retirees, stand close together, bend down, and “Eat as you go.” The children were especially enthusiastic.
Inside the mine, all electric service was dead. Men navigated by battery-powered headlamps. Communication with the surface was impossible. Semi-retired former foreman Clay Caswell, who knew the mine better than anyone, did some quick calculations. He approached the current foreman, Vinnie Barnes, a man half his age and with half his experience. Vinnie was consulting with a couple of his supervisors.
“I’m still in charge, Caswell. Nothing changes because of an emergency.”
“You want the deaths of these miners on your legacy, fine.”
“Say what you came to say. I’d rather you work through me than behind my back.”
“I figure it’d take two weeks, minimal, to dig us out the way we came in, assuming our friends are trying to meet us in the middle. And we don’t have two weeks’ worth of oxygen.”
“But you have an idea?”
“Ten years back we cut too close to the river on the other side of the mountain. You could hear it like a jet engine. Your father’s ‘experts’ insisted science told them there was a motherlode just beyond where we’d stopped. Calmer heads prevailed; we closed the shaft.”
“And we’ve been struggling to keep up with demand ever since!” snarled Barnes.
“I think we can get to the river in two days.”
“And then it floods the mine, and we drown.”
“We squeeze up the side tunnels, out of the way. The water burrows by us and opens the entrance for us.”
“And if it backs up, we drown. If anyone’s waiting for us at the entrance, they drown. And where’s the water going to go?”
“Back to the river, below town. We’ll probably need a new road to the mine. It’ll be messy, but nobody’ll get hurt.”
“Says you about something we’ve never tried.”
“I’ll lead the team. Maybe we lose three guys instead of eighty. You’ll finally get to know if your father’s experts were right.”
“Do it. The other two have to be volunteers and no relation to you, even by marriage. I don’t want the news to say the Corporation wiped out a family.”
“You and I aren’t related,” said Caswell.
“Fine. And the third guy best be single, not living with his momma, with no girlfriend or kids.”
Barnes reviewed the setup. “What do we need a third man for? The two of us can do it.”
“While we dig, he’ll be listening and watching. If we’ve got time, he can radio everyone as we break through. We’ll anchor him to the ceiling. He might make it.”
Caswell “volunteered” Jasper Tatro, a ginger-haired anti-social loner with bad acne. “You’re gonna be a hero, son. Girls’ll fight over you. Men will buy you drinks for the rest of your life.”
“I don’t drink,” said Tatro.
While the other men huddled quietly up the side tunnels, Caswell and Barnes dragged “Big Bertha” to her last job. Bertha was the loudest, oldest, and most aggressive drill in the mine. She wasn’t pretty and she leaked oil like a bi-plane years past retirement.
Tatro, in dirt-smeared khaki coveralls, bolted by wrists and ankles close to the ceiling, looked like a 3D cave painting of WWI. He wore a gasmask over his face, being above the fumes, and kept an ear cocked to the wall. “I’m watching,” he grumbled, “but I can’t hear crap!”
Caswell and Barnes, meanwhile, were swimming in sweat, bodies trembling from holding BB in place, glasses on to protect them from flying debris and ear-plugs to tamp the noise. And so the first day went, loose soil piling behind them (which would ordinarily be carted away).
During a rest break, Caswell scooped up a small handful of chum, smelled it, rubbed it on his lips, then ran his tongue over it. “The experts were right: it’s damn delicious!” he said. “Best unprocessed chum I ever tasted!”
Barnes, who heard everything “muffled,” placed a pinch between his teeth and gums, like trying chewing tobacco. “I’ll be!” he said. “Maybe we could start a second blend, like coffee. You know, regular and premium.”
In the quiet calm, Jasper Tatro heard, or felt, a train closing in on their location. He yelled but was unnoticed. He spat down on the two men, mostly being deflected by their hardhats. Barnes caught some against his cheek and looked up. Tatro’s chin was bouncing like a Bobbleheaded Jesus on a school bus dashboard.
Barnes removed his ear protection and elbowed Caswell to do the same.
“We’ve got to keep going,” said Caswell. Barnes agreed.
“Let ‘em know!” said Barnes to Tatro. Tatro pressed his radio on: “This is not a drill! This is not a drill!”
Barnes started to put his ear protection back on, but Caswell laughed at him: What’s the point?
According to Tatro, “One moment they were drilling, and the next moment they were gone.” The river did not disappoint. At the tunnel’s entrance, the townspeople were on a break on a hillside with full tummies, overwhelmed. Then the mountain started moving below.
Did the dirt picnic help? Probably not, but the miners were appreciative of the community’s efforts and the kids talked about it for years.