The man-train rattled and shrieked through the underground darkness taking the dayshift crew into the mine. Frank slouched deep in thought on the hard bench, back to back with the other miners. They all sat in their yellow slickers, hard hats and high rubber boots with raised steel toes encrusted with the dirt of previous shifts. Their head-lamps were detached and dangled around their necks bouncing and swaying, creating mad flashing patterns of light and shadow around them.
Frank took a long breath and exhaled slowly, his mouth set firmly with determination as he committed to his plan. “Today is the day,” he thought grimly.
Frank Kerlak was a lean, wiry hardrock miner. For almost fifteen years he had been earning good money working underground. But he was not a happy man. He kept his thoughts to himself, but his dark brow and tight jaw made it clear they were not happy thoughts. Even in the presence of his attractive and good-natured wife, Carole, his melancholy mood was prevailed. They had known each other since high school in a Northern Ontario mining town and although they were quickly married when they thought she was pregnant, there was never a child. They were not in love, but loyal to each other. Frank could be fiercely jealous and had changed jobs because he was easily tormented by the idea of another man eyeing his wife. They had already moved several times from one mining town to another. The last move was from Yellowknife on the barren rocky shores of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories to Haley in the rugged mountains of southern British Columbia.
For the first few weeks in Haley, he had been more relaxed as they remained isolated and anonymous. That changed after he was partnered with that “big, blond bastard,” Arnie Sandersson. It was not a good match. Arnie was a good experienced miner, but he was entirely too friendly and cheerful for Frank to ever feel comfortable around him. Beyond that, Arnie’s wife Pattie, had become close friends with Carole. “Too damn close,” thought Frank, as he had been coerced into frequent socializing with them and noticed Arnie was even more charming and friendly on those occasions, especially with Carole. He was convinced she was paying too much attention to Arnie.
Frank began to despise Arnie and it was difficult to tolerate working with him for five long shifts a week. Mining partners depend on each other for their earnings and for their safety in the dangerous underground workplace. It was an unquestioned working relationship. As time passed, however, Frank’s suspicions grew and his distress increased. It weighed darkly on his mind whenever he was near either Arnie or Carole. “I trust him with my life,” thought Frank, “but not my wife, dammit.”
The previous weekend he had been pushed to his limit. Carole had been pressing him to come to the party Saturday night at the Union Hall. He wasn’t interested and exasperated by her coaxing, he snarled, “Go yourself if you want, but I’m not going.” She had looked at him for a long moment, persuading herself to accept the dare, then said “OK, I’ll go with Arnie and Pattie.” Frank was stunned.
After she left, he sat in front of the TV staring at the hockey game, sipping on a vodka and orange juice. Then it was just vodka, no orange juice. Straight vodka. He was still there glaring at a late night talk show when Carole returned. That was when she forced his decision. She looked at him in his familiar fuming state, and said, “Loosen-up, Frank. You know, you could be a lot more fun to be around, if you were just more like Arnie.”
This had to end. He turned off the TV, staring at the blank screen and tapping the empty glass slowly on the arm of his easy chair as jealous thoughts pounded his pride toward an evil plan.
Usually Frank could escape his jealous thoughts on the job where constant vigilance was required to avoid injury, or even death. It was hazardous work in a dangerous environment. Their workplace was a series of underground tunnels called production drifts that followed the ore body. Each shift was a routine of advancing the drift and removing the ore by mucking out the broken rock blasted by the previous crew. As they entered the drift after each blast, they first had to check for loose rock broken away from the roof or walls and scale it off to make the workplace safe. They used six-foot long steel scaling bars to pry off any loose pieces of rock.
Frank and Arnie operated two diesel scoop-trams to haul ore from the drift face to the ore pass where it was dumped into a gravity system down to the lower level where it was hauled out by train on the same rails that the men had come in on. Sometimes large pieces buried in the broken rock would hang-up in the four-foot diameter ore pass and have to be pried loose or blasted before they would fall down a hundred feet or more to the lower level. The men usually had two or three faces to muck out with the scoop-trams before the next crew came in to drill and blast to advance the drift face on the following shift. As soon as their work was done they returned to the lunch room near the elevator shaft and waited to go back down to the man-train at the end of the shift.
Today, Frank had a different plan for the end of the shift. They had each made several trips to the ore dump and were nearly finished, but on the final haul, Frank was standing by his scoop-tram with a scaling bar near the ore dump as Arnie’s scoop-tram roared down the drift with a full load and pulled up behind him. “Arnie, give me a hand with this hang-up,” he hollered over the noise of fans and diesel engines. Arnie nodded and brought another scaling bar with him as he walked past Frank and stepped up on the edge of the ore dump to look at the hang-up. He looked straight down into the ore pass and saw nothing but the black hole.
“Seems all right now,” Arnie said and turned just as Frank’s swinging scaling bar crashed into his shoulder and knocked him violently over the edge. The pain and terror twisted his face as he flailed at the empty space and fell screaming into the darkness. His hard-hat fell back beside Frank, but the headlamp jerked forward and smashed against the rock wall before it followed him out of sight. Frank snatched up the hard-hat and quickly threw it down the ore pass after Arnie. He collapsed to his knees with wild eyes and heart racing and leaned forward on the ore dump. “My God, what have I done?”
Then startled into momentary panic, he thought, “Fingerprints!” and looked at his murderous hands, but no, it was OK, he was wearing gloves. He looked furtively up and down the drift and saw no one. His head lamp flashed on the two idling scoop trams and the walls of the drifts. His mind was racing to the consequences of what he had just done, but he anxiously pulled himself back to the scene in front of him. “Dammit,” he thought, “I didn’t plan beyond doing it!”
“Wait, wait, yes I did. Now stay calm. Concentrate on the plan.”
He got to his feet and climbed onto his own scoop-tram to drive it aside. Then he drove Arnie’s up to the ore dump and emptied the scoop down the black hole, trying not to imagine the rock landing on Arnie’s body down below. He lowered the scoop onto the edge of the dump and left the machine running there. It would look as if Arnie had been alone working on a hang-up and then fell down the ore pass with it.
It was near shift end, so he parked his own scoop-tram by the maintenance station and headed for the lunch room to wait and go out with the rest of the crew, as usual. “When they find Arnie missing, I’ll be just as surprised as anyone else. He must have tried to clear a hang-up after I left. Right?”
Alone with his thoughts, Frank dropped his head lower and walked slowly from his parked scoop tram toward the shaft. His thoughts went back to the terrible thing he had done. He started thinking of Carole and Pattie and how they would react to the, …, the accident. He was sitting there alone on a bench outside the lunch room, lost in thought, when someone yelled at him, “Frank, you staying for another shift?” He looked up with fear and confusion in his eyes. Nobody noticed the state he was in as they gestured him into the shaft cage to go down to the man-train.
Back at the surface, he almost stumbled off the man-train and walking slowly in a daze toward the change rooms. He didn’t notice the crowd of miners standing in solemn discussion near the shift-bosses’ counter. The quiet buzz stopped as he approached and his shift boss turned to see him, stepped forward and said, “Frank, come into my office will you?”
Frank followed him into the small office with a blank stare and grim expression fixed on his face. The shift boss turned and looked in pain as he said, “Frank, there’s been a terrible accident. We just pulled Arnie’s body out of Number 3 ore-pass.”
Frank dropped into the chair by the desk and his body sagged with a long sigh. He sat quietly as if digesting the news, then without looking up he said, “I know, I’m sorry.”
“You know? You saw him fall?”
Frank continued, breathing deeply with each phrase, “I couldn’t help myself.”
“I’m so tired of it. I had to do it.”
“I had to kill him. It was him or me.”
The shift boss was stunned. “What are you talking about?”
Then he realized. “Just a minute,” he said as he turned and shouted out the door to his foreman, “Peter, get in here. You better hear this.”
Copyright September 2016