The man-train rattled and shrieked through the dark tunnel taking the dayshift crew into the mine. Frank Kerlak slouched on the wooden bench deep in thought, back-to-back with the other miners. They all sat in yellow slickers with their hard hats and high rubber boots, raised steel toes encrusted with mud from previous shifts. Their headlamps were detached and dangled around their necks, bouncing, and swaying and creating mad flashing patterns of light and shadow inside the rattling railcar that rolled on into the darkness. The entrance portal to go underground was built into a rockface near the surface buildings located about three kilometers up the valley from the townsite and mining camp. It was enclosed in a white concrete and surrounded by tall pine trees on the slopes that ran up the mountainside to the ugly open wound above that was the open pit mine, torn out of the mountainside to provide access down spiraling ramps along the sides of the pit into the ore body from above.
The man-train brought crews and equipment in from the surface to access the fingers of the orebody that extended deep into the hard rock below. It rattled and rolled on the same narrow-gauge single track that was used to haul broken ore out to the concentrator for processing. Frank sat oblivious to the rocking movement and distracting clatter, alone with his thoughts. He took a long breath and exhaled slowly; his mouth was set in firm determination as he committed to his plan. Today is the day, he thought.
Frank was a lean, hardened 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 sullen grimace made it clear they were not happy thoughts. Even in the presence of his attractive and good-natured wife, Carole, his melancholy mood was evident. They had known each other since high school and although they were quickly married when they thought she was pregnant, there was never a child. They remained loyal to each other, and Carole had moved with him four times as Frank changed jobs from one mine to another. The last move was from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories to Haley in the mountains of southern British Columbia.
For the first few weeks in Haley, Frank had been more relaxed and comfortable with his life even as he remained isolated and anonymous from the other miners and from their neighbours in the camp. That changed after he was partnered with that big, blond bastard, Arnie Sandersson. It was not a good match. Arnie was also a good, experienced hardrock miner, but he was entirely too friendly and cheerful for Frank. 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 he noticed that Arnie was even more charming and friendly on those occasions, especially with Carole. Frank had changed jobs in the past when he got sick of those other bastards eyeing his wife. This time it was worse than that; he was convinced Carole was returning the attention from Arnie. He began to despise Arnie, but he had to work with him for five long shifts every week. Mining partners depend on each other for their production bonus earnings and for their safety in a hazardous workplace. It was an unquestioned relationship. I trust him with my life, thought Frank, but not my wife, dammit. As time passed, Frank’s suspicions grew and his distress increased. It weighed darkly on his mind whenever he was near either Arnie or Carole.
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 was not interested and exasperated by her coaxing, he snarled at her, “Go yourself if you want, but I’m not going.”
She had looked at him for a long moment, as if 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. Absolut Vodka. He was still there glaring at a late-night talk show when Carole returned. That was when she forced him to 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.”
Usually, Frank could escape his thoughts on the job where safety required constant vigilance. It was hazardous work in a dangerous environment. Their workplace was a series of production drifts –– underground tunnels that followed the sprawling high-grade ore body and allowed access for mining and extraction. Each shift presented the same routine of advancing the face at the end of the drift by mucking out the broken rock blasted by the previous crew and preparing to blast out another eight feet of advance. As they arrived at the face of the drift filled with blasted broken rock, they had to check the roof and walls first and scale off dangerous hanging pieces to make the workplace safe. They used long steel scaling bars to pry off any loose pieces and then haul them away.
Frank and Arnie each operated a diesel scoop-tram vehicle to haul ore from the face to the ore pass and dump it down the gravity system to a lower level where it was hauled out by train on the same rails that the man-train had come in on. Sometimes, large pieces of blasted ore buried in the broken rock would hang-up in the four-foot diameter ore dump and had to be pried loose or broken up to allow continued use of the ore-pass. The men usually had two or three faces to muck out and dump down the ore-pass with their scoop-trams before the next crew came in to drill and blast for the following shift.
Today, Frank had a different plan for ending their shift.
On his last trip to the ore dump, he remained standing by his scoop-tram with a scaling bar as Arnie’s scoop-tram roared down the drift with a full load and pulled up behind him. The roar declined as the two diesel engines idled in the dark tunnel beside the ore pass and the screaming ventilation fans become the dominant background noise. Clouds of diesel fumes floated forward into the bright headlights of the scoop-trams before being sucked away into the exhaust system.
“Arnie, give me a hand with this hang-up,” Frank hollered over the noise of fans and diesel engines.
Arnie nodded and brought his scaling bar with him as he walked past Frank and stepped up onto the front ledge of the ore dump to look down 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. He turned back, just as Frank’s swinging scaling bar crashed into his back and knocked him violently over the edge. The pain of the blow and the terror of going over the edge showed in his agonized look back at Frank as he flailed at the empty space and fell into the ore pass. His hard-hat fell back on the ground beside Frank. His headlamp jerked forward and smashed against the rock wall before it followed him down the ore pass and out of sight.
Frank snatched up the hard-hat and quickly threw it down the black hole after Arnie. Then he saw Arnie’s scaling bar lying beside the ore dump. He reached forward to grab it through that down the dark hole, too. He was gasping for breath as he fell to his knees, wild eyes scanning the surroundings, heart racing. He reached out and leaned on the front ledge of the ore dump.
My God, it’s done.
Then, startled in momentary panic, he thought fingerprints! He looked where he had thrown the hard-hat and scaling bar then at his hands, but no –– it was OK, he was wearing gloves. He looked furtively up and down the drift past the two idling scoop trams, peering under the bright headlamps. He saw no one.
Dammit! I didn’t plan beyond doing it!
Wait … wait. Yes, I did.
Stay calm … concentrate on the plan.
He got to his feet and climbed onto his scoop-tram to drive it to the side of the drift. Then he drove Arnie’s scoop-tram up to the ore dump and emptied the scoop full of broken rock into the black hole, trying not to imagine the load landing on Arnie’s broken body at the bottom of the ore pass. He lowered the scoop onto the edge of the ore dump and left the machine running. It would look as if Arnie had been alone working on a hang-up and accidentally fell down with it. As he stepped off Arnie’s scoop-tram he could hear the swoosh and rumble of rock from the ore dumps on higher levels joining the pile at the bottom. He shuddered away the image of Arnie’s body obliterated by broken rock in the ore-pass.
It was near shift end, so Frank parked his own scoop-tram by the maintenance station and headed towards the lunchroom and man-shaft to go down to the main level and out with the rest of the crew as usual. He walked slowly, head down, lost in thought.
I’m sure they’ll think it was an accident. When they find Arnie, if they find Arnie, I’ll be just as surprised as anyone else. He must’ve tried to clear a hang-up on his last trip to the ore dump, right?
They’ll never know I killed him …
But … I know I killed him.
Alone with his thoughts, Frank dropped his head lower and continued slowly toward the shaft. He was slouched alone on a bench outside the lunchroom, lost in thought, when someone yelled at him, “Frank, you staying for another shift?” He looked up with fear and confusion in his eyes, as the miners gestured for him to get into the elevator shaft so they could start their descent to the man-train and go back out to the surface to end their shift.
“Where’s Arnie?” somebody asked.
“Ah … He’s coming, I guess,” said Frank. “He made one more trip to the ore dump after I left.”
He leaned against the wall as the gate closed and the cage descended, averting his eyes and focusing on the dark, wet, exposed rock walls slipping past in the elevator shaft. Back at the surface he got off the man-train with the other miners rushing on to the change rooms for their lockers and the showers. Frank almost stumbled, walking in a daze in the middle of the crowd.
Have they found him yet?
He avoided the image of Arnie’s crushed and mangled body mixed with broken ore at the bottom of the ore pass. Maybe he’s already been pulled out the chute into an ore car and sent down the rails to the concentrator.
He shuffled on into the change room and had a long, hot shower before hanging up his work clothes and changing into a clean shirt and jeans. The shower and clean clothes did not change his mood or his distraction into thoughts of what he had done.
Carole will know. She knows I’m capable of losing control of my rage and she knows how I hate Arnie. She’ll know it was no accident.
Frank didn’t notice the crowd of miners standing in solemn discussion by the counter in front of the shift-boss offices beside the exit. The quiet buzz stopped as he approached and they turned to look at Frank with concern. His shift boss stepped forward and said, “Frank, come into my office, will you?”
Frank followed him into the small office with a grim expression fixed on his face. The shift boss sat on the edge of his desk and looked in pain.
“Frank, there’s been a terrible accident. We just pulled Arnie’s body out of the Number 3 ore pass.”
Frank dropped into the chair by the desk and sagged forward with a long sigh. He stared at the floor for a long moment.
“Frank? Are you OK?” The shift boss peered at him. “Did you hear me? It looks like Arnie had an accident and fell down the ore pass. He’s dead.”
Frank was nodding slowly and said quietly, “I know, I’m sorry.”
“You know? You saw him fall?”
Frank continued, breathing deeply with each phrase.
He mumbled, “I couldn’t help myself. I’m so tired of it.”
He closed his eyes and lowered his head in his hands, elbows braced on his knees.
“I had to do it. 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.”