The Long Shift

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The Long Shift  (1907) 
by Eugene Manlove Rhodes

From McClure's Magazine, Aug 1907. Illustrations omitted.

There was no chance that they could clear away the shaft in time—not if they were eighty instead of eight. To tear away that tangle of shattered rock was a matter of weeks; the air supply in the living grave beneath was a matter of days or hours. They knew, too, that their comrades were even then speaking hopefully of "the boys"; that to the last the prisoners would hold unfaltering trust—in them!




ECHOES of the explosion still volleyed from cliff to cliff—a thin cloud of smoke and dust hung heavily over the shaft mouth. They huddled together on the dump—the four men of the night-shift, peacefully asleep a moment since; the young manager, still holding a pen in his nerveless fingers; the blacksmith, the cook, and the Mexican water-carrier—all that were left of the Argonauts.

No one spoke—there was no need. The dynamite, stored in the eighty-foot cross-cut, had exploded—none knew how or why. The shaft walls had heaved and crushed together; the dump had fallen in for yards; the very hillside had slipped and closed over the spot where the shaft of the "Golden Fleece" had been. The eight men of the day-shift were buried alive. Working in the further stopes and cross-cuts of the deeper levels, they could hardly have been killed outright. Remained for them the long, slow agony of suffocation—or the mercy of the fire. For there was scarcely room to hope that the explosion had not fired the timber work, They knew this, these silent men at the pit mouth; knew there was no chance that they could clear away the shaft in time—not if they were eighty instead of eight. To tear away that tangle of shattered rock was a matter of weeks; the air supply in the living grave beneath was a matter of days or hours. They knew, too, that their comrades were even then speaking hopefully of "the boys"; that to the last the prisoners would hold unfaltering trust—in them! And one fell on his face and cried on the name of God—Ivers, the pale, half-invalid manager.

"No hope, no hope, no hope!" he sobbed. "We can't save 'em. They wouldn't let me put in the ventilator shaft! They will wait for us—wait—wait—O God! God! God!"

A moment—He sprang to his feet, his face new-lighted with hope and energy.

"The old Showdown tunnel! We can break through from there! I wanted them to connect it with Gallery Four on the last level, and save hoisting. I surveyed it then—We can tear out some kind of a hole—Come on, men! Oh, by God, we'll do it yet!"

They clambered down the steep, boulder-strewn mountain side, bearing drills, hammers, "spoons," picks, shovels, powder, fuse, caps, water, candles,—all needful to begin work. Near the face, far back in the winding tunnel, Ivers drove a gad into the hanging wall. "Start from here. Keep an angle of forty-five degrees from the course of the tunnel, and a twenty degree dip. It is twenty-four to twenty-five feet in, and seven feet below us."

"Go!" said Evans, holding the starter in place. White began another hole above him. Ivers raised his voice to be heard above the beating hammers. "Jones will sharpen steel now and help you later. The work will fall on you five—Charlie and I are out of it. The Mexican boy could do more work than either of us. We three will rig up some sort of makeshift ventilator, move the forge and cook outfit down, muck away for you, cook your meals. Save yourselves for the drills. Tell us what you need, and we will get it. Jones will work our steel bars up into the longest possible set of drills. We'll shoot out till the longest drill will reach and then drive a hole right through. We can pump in fresh air to them, pour down coffee and soup, and break out the balance afterwards. If we only had more men—Had we better send some one to town for help?"

"It's fifty miles," said Lone Miller. "The boy couldn't do it afoot—we can't spare a man. By the time they got back, it might be too late—and the man's work here might make all the difference." He swung his hammer savagely. "Doc Hughes is only five miles from here," he blurted out at last. "He's at the Nymyer Copper Claim—and another Welshman with him. We can do it with them. He's a dirty mutt—a low-down camp-robber. I'll get him yet, the damned scoundrel, ... Not now. He can break more rock than any one man that walks. Not now ... You know me. Send for him. Maybe he'll come," he sneered. His face was livid in the candle-light, working with mortal hate. "Tell him it's our only chance for help—that we can't break through in time. Tell him I said so—me, Lone Miller!"

"That's a whisky-bloat's job," said Charlie, the cook. "Keep your men for men's work." He was gone.

"The other monkey is good, too," said Miller. "Not so good as Caradoc Hughes, but a miner. Trust Cousin Jock for that."

Two of the night-shift were Welshmen. "Goeslong, my son," said one, well pleased. Swiftly the hammers fell, square and true; slipping so easily that the work, seemed as effortless as driving tacks. But back and shoulders were in each blow—the tough ash handles bent, the drills sank steadily into the rock. No ordinary toil—their best, and better than their best.

Without, the blacksmith beat brave tattoo on the glowing steel, sharpening set after set of drills. The starters were a foot long, each succeeding drill five or six inches longer than the preceding one and slightly narrower at the bit, so that it would follow in the hole. Seven or eight drills made a set, the longest four or five feet. Carefully he wrought, and watched with anxious eye as he plunged the hissing points into the water and, holding them up, saw the temper draw steel-blue and white-specked to the edge. For if a piece broke from one of the bits, no more could be done in that hole. The broken particles of steel would be ground into the rock. If other drills were put in, they would batter or break at once.

Meantime the Mexican lad and the manager worked on their improvised ventilating rig—lengths of pipe laid down the tunnel, screwed together, and connected with an extra bellows set up on the dump. Before they were done, the first shots were fired. Ivers set Clovis to pumping and went in. The candles smoldered faintly through the sickly smoke, where Miller and White worked on a new hole. Williams, on his hands and knees between striker and holder, threw the broken rock to Evans, who carried it further back.

"That's it—that's good!" said Ivers, screwing a length of hose on his pipe-line to carry the fresh air quite to the front. "Whew! this powder is rank! I'll have fresh air pumped down in a jiffy. You two boys go back to the air till it's your time to drill. I'll get a wheel-barrow and muck away. Don't make the mistake of making the drift so small you can't work to advantage,—and don't waste time pounding dull steel."

Henceforward to the end Clovis, Charlie, or Ivers pumped in fresh air steadily. Ivers, at the bellows, in the gathering dusk glimpsed two speeding forms black against the sky-line. "Oh, good work! Good work, Cooky!" he cried exultingly. "Ten miles, and over that trail! He must have run all the way over!"

A shout went up in the tunnel when he told his news. Fortune had smiled on the forlorn hope—powerful allies had joined them. "I was afraid something would happen," said Miller. "They might have been away—hunting maybe. Sundown's the best time for deer. Or ... Why should I lie?" he demanded fiercely. "I thought he wouldn't come. I was wrong. So much the better."

A burly giant came puffing down the tunnel: Caradoc Hughes, huge, brutal, broad-chested, red-faced, red-haired, bull-necked, thick-lipped. He bellowed strange greetings and shouldered the striker aside—"Le's see, moi son! Taper off a bit!"

"Taake foive," said Davis, following quietly, as he took the drill from the holder. Caradoc grinned villainously at Miller. "Halloo! Hast thy gun, lad? Spaare moi life a bit, wilt'ee? Have no time for scrappin' now."

"You're more useful alive, Taffy—just now," replied Miller, without looking up. Doc, chuckling coarsely, "polished" the drill-head with wicked, smashing blows. "Whoosh!" he grunted, expelling his breath violently at each stroke, as he brought the hammer down with all his bulk behind it.

Far behind, the cook limped painfully in. Later he brought steaming coffee and great Dutch ovens full of beef and beans. The bellows worked unceasingly, the wheelbarrow carried the broken rock away. At the front they paired off, changing at frequent intervals, holding and striking alternately. They worked.... But the shots were frequent, the charges heavy; the giant-powder fumes, sluggish, stupefying, poisonous, hung in the air in spite of the ventilator, dragged on the men's energies, dulled the onset. Their heads ached relentlessly. As each relay came off, they hurried out to the blessed pure air; and, thinking of the hapless prisoners slowly suffocating, stumbled back to strike with all their manhood behind each blow.

Ivers, when they went out in the air, made them wrap up warmly lest their tortured muscles should stiffen. Ivers sent Charlie to them with food and hot coffee. Ivers brought water. He was here, there, and everywhere, pumping at the bellows, mucking away, keeping the drift true. The little man of brains anticipated every need; brought powder or fuse already cut and capped; saving a minute here, half a minute there. He loaded and fired the holes, sparing his men so much of the labor and powder smoke. He praised them, cheered them on, kept their hearts up, voiced their pride; till each man nerved himself to utmost effort, thrilled to know that solid rock and stubborn granite were less enduring than his own unchanging will.

And, when he crept back with Charlie and Clovis, it was Ivers who despised himself, whose heartsick thought was that his feeble body unfitted him to do a man's work on the firing-line.... So the night wore on; and ever the hammer rang, the drills bit deep; slowly, steadily, inch by inch, foot by foot, they tore the prison wall away.

As he rested, Caradoc goaded his disdainful enemy with taunt and slur—"Little pot, soon hot"—and such ancestral wit. For long, Miller made no answer to these rude sallies, but the insults festered. "You know the old saw, Doc," he said at last, with ominous quiet. "The Almighty made some men big and some small, but Colt evened things up. Best think it over."

After each shot the crews went to the drilling, leaving the muckers to work out rock loosened by the previous shots with pick and gad, straightening the uneven walls and roof as best they could. Their desperate haste invited disaster. It came before daylight. White was holding for Williams, when a heavy rock jarred from the roof and fell on the striker's shoulder. The hammer, glancing from the drill head, crushed the holder's hand to mangled flesh. The work stopped. White rose unsteadily. "Keep a-hummin'—keep the hammers going," he said, as he started out, dizzy and sick. Williams, in scarce less distress for his unlucky blow, followed him.

"Bide a bit!" bellowed Caradoc. "Harken! I hear summat! God's love, hear that! There's salve for thy hurrt, lad! They're alive, they're alive, I tell 'ee! Happen the heat's drivin' 'em down bottom by way o' the winze!"

A faint tapping from the rock before them. Doc snatched his hammer and thundered on the drill head. "They livin'!" he roared. "Seven foot an' more we've made this night, an' fair gettin' limbered up a bit!"

"I'll eat a bite and go to town after help," said White, as Ivers bandaged his hand. "I'm no good here, but I can walk. I tell you these men are fagged. I ought to know. If you get close enough and drill that hole through, 'twill be all. The strain will be over, and every mother's son'll drop in his tracks. I'll send enough men to tear out that last ten feet by the roots."

"You can't, man. You're tired out and suffering. There are three bones broken in your hand. You'll give out."

"I—I wasn't aiming to walk on my hands, you know. Run along, now. I'm twenty-one past. If you look across the desert about dark, there'll be a big light on Lomitas to let you know I got across. So long!" He filled a canteen and went to do his part: not the least where each did well.

The Mexican lad loaded his patient burros with kegs and went to the spring for water. The sun climbed up an interminable slope—the long, weary day dragged as they toiled at their endless task. Before noon Ivers was on the verge of collapse. The others forced him to stop. "Else will us bind 'ee hardfast," observed Caradoc. "Happen us'll need thy brains yet, lad. Will be there with t' brawn,—do 'ee keep care o' the only head here that's worth owt." So Ivers, cursing and shamed, cleaned out the holes when "mud" clogged them, picked out the "followers," loaded and fired the holes, and sometimes took a short spell at pumping; while Charlie and Clovis stacked up no more rock, for lack of time, but wheeled it far down the tunnel and dumped it.

The incessant clangor of steel on ringing steel. Hammer and hold, hold and hammer—mud! Clean—change drills, hammer! Load, fire—clean away—room for the hammers! The air was hot, foul, and intolerable, from candles, exploded shots, steaming breath and dripping bodies, dust and powder fumes. Hour after hour they drove home the assault; stripped to the waist, caked and streaked with dust and sweat; with fingers cramping cruelly from gripping on hammer and drill, with finger joints that cracked and bled, wrists bruised and swollen from jarring blows. The tough and calloused hands were blistering now; eyes were red-rimmed and sunken, faces haggard and drawn; back, muscles, and joints strained and sore; worse than all, the "powder headache," throbbing at their temples with torture intolerable. ... But the brave music of clashing steel rang steadily, clear, unfaltering, where flesh and blood flung itself at the everlasting hill.

A muffled roar came from the heart of the rock. The prisoners were working toward them.

"That's bad," said Ivers. "They'll make the air worse with every shot—and they can't hit our drift short of a miracle. They are lessening their chances."

"I don't rightly know that," said Caradoc. "Was on the last shift in Gallery Foar, myself. Was a horse there, I mind; hard as the Gaates o' Hell. Happen they'll smash that up and save us mony the weary blow."

The terrible strain began to tell. But Caradoc and his indomitable foe kept the heart-breaking pace hour after hour. Evans was deadly sick, bleeding from nose and mouth; Williams' shoulder stiffened till striking was out of the question for him. So these two held. The others kept on pluckily, but their strength was leaving them. Inexorable Nature was extorting punishment for her outraged laws. An end was near—of men or task. The shifts were timed no longer. Each man kept up the savage hammering till he felt his strength fail; and as he stepped back, breathless, a silent specter behind him rose up and took his place.

From the steel bars Jones fashioned a set of twenty-four drills, with all his cunning and loving care on every point; a hair's-breadth difference between bits, the longest twelve feet, its bit barely wider than the octagonal steel; and welded rods of iron for spoons of suitable lengths. They made the last few feet of the drift wider and higher than the rest, to have ample room for double drilling. At sundown they set off the last shots. They had torn out fourteen feet; they must drill a hole through the eleven-foot wall that remained. They had scarcely started, when Clovis came, pouring out a torrent of voluble Spanish. A fire blazed on Lomitas; help was coming.

One thing was left to fear. Thrice they had heard the muffled blasts from within. Since then there had been no sign. Were the prisoners dead, or had they seen the unwisdom of further exhaustion of the air?

"They'll be too far gone to work, hours before they actually suffocate," said Ivers. "We'll be in time, please God!"

They called up every reserve that pride or hope or fear could bring. Two men struck at once, the hammers following each other so swiftly that it seemed impossible for the holder to turn between blows.

"Scant mercy on beasties this night," said Evans. "They'll coom to t'hill-foot in foar hours. Near two they'll need to win oop t'hill—'tis mortal steep, an' they beasties'll be jaded sore. Will be in season for t' Graveyard shift." (Eleven o'clock.")

"Not so—coom midnight will be full soon. 'Tis a sandy desert and a weary hill by night."

"Be't midnight, then. Williams, moi son, canst hold t'drill alone? I be fair rested oop by now, and can pound a bit. Us'll burn no more powder, an' t'air will clear oop ere long."

"Good for you, Cousin Jock," said Miller heartily. By tacit consent, Miller and Caradoc worked together. It depended on them—and they knew it. Shoulder to shoulder, blow for blow, they set their faces grimly to such work as few are ever called to do.

Neither Charlie nor Ivers could be trusted to hold—for them to strike would be simply loss of time. The hole must be driven absolutely true, or the drill would "bind," and they would have to begin again. At intervals one of the others would hold, giving Williams a few minutes' respite to straighten his aching back and his cramped and stiffened fingers. Ivers cleaned the hole and called out the depth. Ten inches, twenty—thirty—fifty—"Sixty inches!" he called exultingly. "An inch every two minutes, after all these hours! The world can't beat it!"

The drill "jumped" with crash and jar; Miller's hammer just missed Williams' hand, and Doc's, closely following, was checked in mid-air by a violent effort. The holder drew the drill and turned the point to the light. An inch was broken from the bit; the hole was lost.

A despairing silence, followed by smothered groans. Williams fell against the wall and hid his eyes. Doc's head dropped over on his breast. Miller's face was ghastly.... Ivers rose weakly, picked up the "starter," sank on one knee, with his face to the "breast"; holding the drill in place beside the lost hole, just above his shoulder, his eyes on the bit, he waited. A second—and Miller's hammer crashed down. Clang! Clang! Clang!

"God's blood!" Red with shame, the giant sprang up and showered down blow on mighty blow. A murmur ran round the circle; the little band closed grimly to the final test. Jones shaped the broken drill again and hurried back to bear his part in the renewed attack. The two enemies were doing the work. The others worked gallantly,—but the leaders were making five inches to their two. What matter, where each gave his best? Five inches—ten—thirty—forty!

At fifty inches, Ivans gave way, totally unable to do more. Jones and Davis tapped away doggedly as Caradoc and Miller stepped back, breathless,—but there was no force to their blows.

The Welshman had bitten his lip; blood trickled from his mouth as he grinned at his mate. "'Tis oop to us now. A rare team we make—and good for them beyond!"

Miller nodded. There was no contempt in his glance now. Truly, this was a man; fit to stand at a king's back, though he fought for his crown—strong of heart and arm—this man that he had dared despise. Foot to foot, blow for blow, unyielding, unswerving, they stood up to the tremendous task. For a breathing-space, the others made a last desperate spurt and fell back, exhausted, utterly forspent. Sixty—seventy—seventy-five!

They planted their feet firmly and looked into each other's eyes as they began again. Miller's hammer kept the appalling pace, gave no sign that his strength was failing—ebbing away with every blow.... Somewhere, out in a far-off world, there was music and light and laughter. Perhaps he, too, had known pleasure, running streams that laughed in the sunshine, the free winds of heaven—youth—love—rest. It might have been so—long, long since. He did not know. Life had dwindled to these narrowing, flinty walls, this dim-litten circle, with its wavering center of steel where they must strike—strike! He and Doc—good old Doc—brave Doc!.. Something stirred in the shadows behind—far-off, meaningless voices reached him over the rising danger of steel.... Men, perhaps. If they would go away.... They drew his reeling senses from the shining steel, that he must strike—strike hard! Eighty—eighty-five—ninety!

Without warning, Miller pitched over on his face, unconscious. Their best was down. What lay in the silence beyond that granite wall?

Caradoc leaned heavily against the wall while they bore his fallen foe away. "Look to him—'tis a man!" he said. There was no triumph in his tones. He staggered forward. "Whoosh!" he said, as he struck out. "Whoosh!"

His eyes were sunken in his head, his blotched and purple face fallen in; his sobbing breath whistled between his clenched teeth, his breast heaved almost to bursting; but his mighty shoulders drove home the drill. Ninety-five inches!—a hundred! And still that tireless hammer rose and fell!

"Easy—mud—mud!" yelled Evans, at the drill. "It's done! We've struck their drift!"

A dozen light taps, and the drill leaped through. The incredible had happened. They had struck the side wall of the drift made by the prisoners on pure guess. They pulled out the drill. A rush of foul, sickening air followed. Evans shouted down the hole. A mumbled response came back. Ivers thrust the nozzle of the hose into the hole, stuffed his handkerchief around it to keep it tight, and ran down the tunnel. Half way out he met Charlie.

"Run!" he gasped. "We're through—they're alive! Pump—pump hard!"

Any Tularosa man will tell you the rest. Except this:

"Miller," said Caradoc, "wast roight. I robbed thy camp. Will take nowt o' thine—nor no man's, if so be I can think betoimes. 'Tis an old habit wi' me. But 'tis a shameful thing to do—for him as stood in moi shoes this noight. Lad wilt shake hands wi' a thief?"

"You can steal nothing of mine, comrade—Mine is yours. God! How you worked—and were good for more, when I fell over like a baby."

"Toosh! Goeslong, moi son! Didst thy part, little Hop-o'-moi-thumb. Pounded steel two hours afore e'er I began. Shouldst ha' been a Welshman!"

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1934, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.