Prologue to Something

Davis awoke to the sound of the single ply house creaking in the early morning, with gratitude in his heart.

Still half asleep, he kept his eyes shut, hearing the bell ring from the colliery signaling it was time for dayshift to rise. He savored the warmth of his wife beside him, still sound asleep. She had needed time to build her strength back, for she had lost much of it in the previous months that he was trying to forget. Rolling over, he put his arms around her and pulled her close, placing his face in her hair. He had poorly slept the previous night, struggling to get restful sleep between the nerves and his baby, his son waking up and crying to be held. I must get up, he thought, redirecting his mind to the source of his nerves. It was the first day of work for Davis Murray and he longed to make a good impression. This job had saved his life.

Davis stood up, hair shaggy from bed head. Sleepily, he rubbed his eyes for a moment and walked through the darkness to where the baby lay in his crib. His baby. He peered with pride inside to see his son, Samuel, fast asleep and comfortable. I pray to the Lord to provide for you, Davis thought. If I can do one thing, it’s seeing you have a chance in this life. And the generations after you. But first, I must get to work.

He walked loudly as there was no other way on the wooden floors in the house, to the kitchen where some bacon he’d prepared the night before lay covered. He took a piece and allowed the salty flavor to envelop his mouth. This was probably to be one of the few times he would eat today. He had not yet been allowed the credit to purchase food from the company store. Once he lasted a shift, they would give him access. “Helps to keep the drifters away”, they had said at the store. Desolate, he and his new family had no choice but to take their word for it and try to find their house. He usually would have fought for it, but he was already indebted enough to the company.

He finished his third piece of bacon and made his way to the hallway, where his boots, overalls, coat, shirt and cap hung, waiting for him, placed carefully by his wife. The months of hard living had nearly taken her and his unborn son from him, but even after such terrible times, she had found the energy to lay his clothes out for him. He enjoyed a moment of inspiration as his eyes watered. What a blessing she was! He lingered at the thought of Louise for a moment. Then, he experienced the nerves come back with the pressure to provide. The promise and delivery of a roof had distracted him from the fact that the dark terrified him and Davis was headed to a place of perpetual darkness.

He opened the door and stepped out onto the small porch with the stairway down to the road, the muddy slope frozen from the early December cold. Fog rose off the river, the water shining in the moonlight, racing past under the railway trestle below. Men, dressed the same as he, strode past him in groups. Some talking and laughing, some quiet and solemn as they made their way to the mines. He couldn’t see faces in the dark from the porch. Davis had never had exemplary eyesight, but he wouldn’t have known the men, anyway. It was his first night in Moonshine Hollow as a miner for the Cleveland Partners Coal Corporation. Davis would be the newest hire in the mine. With a deep breath, said a prayer for strength and courage, he walked onto the path down the hill towards the tracks with the others.

House after house passed by that looked identical to his. These were houses provided by CPCC, all of them were merely renters at the mercy of the company. He had heard mutters at the store of unfair treatment and subjective rent agreements, but he paid it no mind. He and his new family had been living rough for 5 months. Davis was only 18, 17 when he had found that Louise was with child. That was in 1898. He had promptly been thrown out of his house by his father, a man who couldn’t decide between the bible and the bottle and chose the worst of both. He said he would have no bastard grandson in his home and that Davis was a rotten sinner who would never enter the Kingdom of God. Stumbling drunk, he had held a gun at Davis and ordered him, with only the clothes he had on, out of the house. Louise’s parents had been of the same mind, and they had met together, crying, trying to create a plan.

But Davis knew the perils of grudges and malice, and he said a quick prayer for his father and the strength to forgive him. Many nights under the stars, he had scavenged and begged for food. He’d even, Lord forgive him, stole to keep Louise healthy while their child grew inside of her. His soul had nursed his hate for his father under the poplar trees as they slept, the cool West Virginia air causing him to shiver in the fall. He held Louise close to him, her belly ever-growing, and made a vow. Davis promised that this baby, be it girl or boy, would always have a loving father to turn to, one free of the curse of the bottle and sin. He had given up the booze that night, and with the strength of the Lord, he’d kept free of the vice.

Carefully stepping off the porch, as it was icy, he slowly made his way along with the other men to the railroad tracks. They gathered around those with lamps, so they could watch their steps as they marched towards their underground home for the next 12 hours. As his hands shook from nerves, he attempted to steel his focus and resolve. He could not fail Louise and Sam. He couldn’t get hurt, he couldn’t be fired. His mind raced through a hundred possibilities of failure. The chance of a return to living outside in the winter, relying on charity, terrified him. Part of him would rather die than beg again. But, another part would beg until kingdom come if that meant his son and wife could eat. This second thought gave him a warm sensation that he had something worth sacrificing for, something counting on him. And the Lord would provide.

The mine came into view, carved into the hillside, and illuminated like some sort of mechanical city. Chutes and conveyor belts led from inside of the hill down to the railroad track, where they would load the rail cars that traveled along the Tug Fork to the Big Sandy to the Ohio River, and from there, back to Cleveland. Faces, better illuminated now, strode past Davis, dirty and glum. I wonder how dirty I will be today? he thought. He’d have to scrub and scrub to get a fraction of the soot off. Would he ever be clean again? Louise had promised to love him, no matter how dirty he was. As long as little Sam stayed clean, Davis would sleep in squalor. Louise would love him, as she always had. And he loved her back from the moment they met.

From their first meeting in town in Wheeling, they had been eternally linked, he thought. They had danced on the holiday of the state’s birth celebration, swinging back and forth to the sound of the fiddle playing in the civic hall. Then, the pair snuck outside during an intermission, and she had taken charge and kissed him, with purpose, on the mouth. This was his first outing outside his religious house, and it was only because he had snuck out once his father was properly drunk and asleep on his chair. He’d heard gossip from boys he’d spent time around, just what a kiss would be like. It hadn’t prepared him as his eyes had shot open when he had discovered her tongue was in his mouth. What a woman!

He followed the men, warm from the memory of meeting Louise, to the lift from where the dayshift would descend underground. The man who’d hired him said to the find the office at the mine before descending so he could get his shovel. He scanned the around the entrance to the lift, finding the small office building to the right, illuminated by a lamp inside. The door swung open, and he saw a rotund man sleeping sitting up by the shovels. His anxiety rose; he had never talked to strangers. His father sheltered him from the outside world, and he thought it hamstrung him in every facet of his life. The Lord will provide, he reminded himself again. He took a deep breath and spoke up.

“Excuse me, sir.”

The fat man remained asleep, his breathing interrupted by snorts and irregular exhales. What quality of sleep does he get breathing like that?, Davis wondered.

“Sir! Excuse me, sir.”

He awoke slowly and blinked his eyes. Turning his weight in the chair around, he eventually found Davis and gave him a once-over. “Whaddaya want, pup?”

Davis resented being treated as a youngster. He had a man’s responsibilities now. He resolved to maintain his patience.

“I need my shovel, sir. Please.”

“Name?” He pulled a list from under the desk.

“The name is Murray. Davis Murray.” Davis watched as the man scanned the list with a pen, holding a monocle up to his eye. He laid the book in front of Davis and pointed.

“This you?” His finger laid on the page and he pointed at a name on the page.

Davis’ humiliation swelled to the surface, and rage filled his heart. His father’s greatest punishment, he had never taught him to read. He knew what his name looked like, but he didn’t know for sure in a tense moment. His tongue tied up, and he stammered.

“Uh it’s, uh,” He closed his eyes. The Lord will provide.

“Yes, that’s me.”, he said, unsurely, praying that it was.

The mound of a man looked a bewildered, and Davis, conscious he’d created a scene, knew he’d embarrassed himself. “Right then.” The man said as he walked through a door into a room that Davis couldn’t see. His eyes darted back and forth around at the office. Books and records were all over the place, along with parchments and maps and drawings and things he couldn’t understand. He felt miniscule when the man returned from the room with a shovel in hand.

“If you break or lose it, it will come out of your paycheck. Keep track of it, these shovels have a mind of moving on their own.” The man looked at him with a mix of pity and disregard. “Try to come out with all your limbs, son.”

That isn’t very comforting, Davis thought. “Thank you.” The man shook his head and sat back on the stool and closed his eyes. He made his way out of the office and headed towards the lift where men were waiting for the lift to arise. A mass of them had gathered around, with shovels in hand and some with lamps in the other. No one was laughing or joking now, and it was eerily quiet as the wheel to bring the elevator to the surface spun. A tall, gaunt man stood beside Davis and he could sense the man’s eyes boring a hole into him. He tried to avoid looking back at the tall man, but he could smell the booze emanating from his direction.

“Ay, this one's clean as a whistle.” The man said aloud to the group. Some of the crowd turned to look at Davis and others ignored it. The ones looking at him laughed and Davis recoiled inside, fearing he was part of some joke he wasn’t aware of. “We’ll see how long that lasts, worm.” He belched and turned his attention from Davis.

Worm was a word used to describe the new hires. This much Davis knew. He also knew that there was always a chance he’d never come back once he descended into the depths, new hires were often the most at risk. He prayed again to fight the nerves. Father, bless me as I begin this trial, he said. He fought another voice that asked him to pray that if something were to happen, that he would die rather than be an invalid so he wouldn’t be forced to live to see his child and wife starve.

Nothing bad has happened yet, he thought. The Lord will provide.

The lift came to the surface and streaming off it came soot-coated, sweaty men came out, black from head to toe. At first glance, Davis couldn’t tell the difference between the black and the white men. Everyone’s shirts and caps and faces were covered in the black coal dust as they made their way past the group waiting to go on shift. Mostly silent, a few of them said good luck as they walked back to their homes and families and warm beds. I’m sure I’ll be ready for bed after this, he said to himself. He joined the other men as they made their way onto the lift. The men got into their place and the gate was closed. There was no going back as the descent began.

Darkness consumed the men as they stood silently, shaking along with the lift as it made its way down. The lamps interspersed through the space fought some of it back, but it couldn’t keep the fear of out of Davis’s mind. I’m such a weakling, he thought. What a fool Louise was to cast her lot with a man like me, a coward.

He thought back to the night that had shaped their destiny, the way her naked body cast a silhouette upon him in the moonlight in the grove outside of his house. A firm believer in the word of the Lord, Davis knew that premarital sex was a grievous sin, but the temptation had been too great to fight. Afterwards, he struggled with his faith. How could something so fulfilling be so forbidden? He had thought of little else after besides her, hungry like a man in the middle of famine.

Two months later, they knew she was pregnant.

Two months after that, they were married in a courthouse, unkempt and dirty. But married.

Five months after that, Samuel Murray was born under an autumnal night sky on a soft bed of orange oak leaves. A healthy boy. Louise had bled as he worried and prayed, but she had survived. The Lord had provided.

And He will provide again, Davis reminded himself.

The sound of a sing-song Scottish voice shook him out of his reverie, ringing out in the elevator. He looked around to find the source and found a portly younger man standing near the corner to his right.

“My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea, my Bonnie lies over the ocean, so bring back my Bonnie to me, to me.” He smiled, half singing, half laughing. He had a jovial face and the makings of a beard around his chin. The men smiled, some shaking their heads. Davis could hardly believe the gall of a man to be singing like that so early in the morning. Loudly he sang, “Bring back, bring back, bring back my Bonnie to me, to me!”. The men in the elevator were laughing now, and someone shouted, “Come on now, shut up Joe, you tone deaf bastard! My ears are bleeding.” The whole elevator laughed in unison. Davis allowed himself a chuckle. Quite a character, this man, he thought.

The mood died down as they reached their destination at the bottom of the shaft. It was pitch black except for the light provided by the various lamps. He saw, in all directions, extending from the shaft like tributaries from a river, shafts illuminated by lamp light with tracks on them for the mine carts to roll to and from the weigh station to be unloaded. The men dispersed, following said tributaries and those with lamps. Without his own and fearing the darkness and solitude, he followed a group of men to his right. As he walked, he tried to remember the current direction and counted his paces, in case he should have to go back on his own with no light.

His group stopped at a dark black section of the wall, and the men with lamps set them down and pulled their shovels. Davis heard what sounded like explosions echo through the shafts, each making him jump on account of his nerves. The tall man who had called him a worm, illuminated by the lamp light, pointed a gnarled finger at Davis.

“You there! Worm!” He had a smirk on his face. Davis stood at attention and looked back at him. “Get to diggin’!” He pointed at the ground underneath the black seam of coal. Davis was no stranger to hard work, tending his drunk father's farm all his life. He set the shovel down immediately and set to digging. The sound of the shovel penetrating the ground, scraping, and dumping the access dirt gave him a rhythm. He dug and dug until he felt a hand grab him by the shoulder. A hand collided with Davis’s face, sounding out a slap. Davis was taken aback and turned to see the entire group of 7 men staring at him. The tall man looked down at him and Davis felt a fire well up inside him.

“Is that all ya got, young buck? You dig like a damn daisy. You call yourself a man?" Davis held a hand to his face where the slap made contact and saw his hand was covered in coal dust. The tall man offered the shovel back and Davis hesitated for a second, then grasped the wooden handle of the shovel and began digging. Think of your child, think of your wife, you can’t lose this job to fighting, not yet, he thought to himself. With deep breaths, he went to work.

The cool moisture clung to him as sweat poured off his brow, soaking through his shirt. To counter the extra resistance from harder rock, he put muscle from his shoulder into the shovel to penetrate the ground and more muscle from his back into the lift. He felt callouses on his hands develop and the beginnings of a blister on his palm. He was in rhythm with the two other men beside him, also young, digging into the seam. The tall man sat on the cart track, observing a long rod he had produced and a bag beside him. Davis speculated on what they were for. He figured they might have something to do with the ‘booms’ and strange echoes through the shaft.

About an hour into the task, the tall man stood up surveyed the trench they had dug under the seam. “Right, right, right, move out of the way y’all.” Another man that Davis had not seen come into the group appeared with a large auger, which he pressed into the coal seam and turned. The drill man had broad shoulders, chiseled with muscle from turning and turning the auger. I could do that job one day, Davis thought, sure would be better than digging. The tall man pointed the boys to another section of coal, showing for them to continue the work.

He loathed the tall man, whom he had not seen lift a shovel or break a sweat of any sort. Davis made his way over to the less illuminated section and dug his tool into the ground. One of the younger men to his left looked him up and down. Longing for small talk with another man his age, which had been missing from his life for a long time, Davis asked him, “Is he always like this?”

As he lifted his head and crossed his arms on his shovel, Davis saw he was only a boy. He couldn’t have been over 15. “I reckon it’s one of his worser days, but yes, foreman Duvall can be a mean sonofabitch. It’s a test for you, since you're a worm.” He shrugged his shoulders in a “what can do you?” manner and went back to shoveling. So, this is my boss, Davis thought. The sooner I’m used to this, the easier it will be. He stopped for a moment and glanced back at the man with the auger. He was nearly done with the third hole he’d drilled, and Duvall was watching another skinny man inspect the long rod and bag on the ground. The skinny man stood up as the auger man sat down, taking black powder from the bag and packing a fuse. The rod was skinny to one end, to which he packed fuse and pushed it to the end of the bored hole in the seam. Twice more he repeated the packing and once done, he made his way back towards the lift whence they came.

Duvall stood up, with a match in hand, and looked around to find all in the group. “Fire in the hole!” he yelled, and all the men except for Davis put hands over their ears. Davis looked around wildly for a second and, realizing what was about to happen, copied them and squatted down, tensing up. He felt how tightly his jaw was clenched and tried to relax.

Davis felt a quick vibration in his feet, the explosion bringing down rocks and debris into the trench the men had dug minutes earlier. The man who had used the tamping rod came back pushing an empty cart along the tracks and parked it beside the newly made rock pile. “ Alright,” said Duvall. “Get to loading! Quick, now. More coal to be dug!” Duvall sat back and watched as the men made their way to the filled trench to begin the loading the process. Following suit, Davis struck his shovel into the trench and loaded alongside the other 5 men as the tamping rod and auger men watched along with Duvall.

Davis felt the stare of the men watching him, judging him. He cursed himself for being so self-conscious and resolved to dig faster and harder. His shoulder aching from lifting the coal into the shoulder high cart, he loaded pile after pile until his shovel struck a more silver batch of debris. Thinking nothing of it, he went to lift the rocks into the cart whenever a hand caught his shoulder and spun him around. It happened so quickly there was no chance to move, as a fist from Duvall collided with his jaw. Davis fell to the ground, head spinning. He felt his around his mouth and his teeth and realized one was missing. He heard nothing as the men fell silent, no one coming to his aid or offering any protest.

The silence was broken by Duvall. “I don’t know where the hell else you worked or who for, or if you’re just the dumbest bitch that I’d ever seen in these mines. Or maybe you think I’m the dumb one and don’t respect me. But we mine coal in here, son, not bullshit rocks. You got me? Load rocks, and I’ll dock everyone’s pay on this crew for the day, and you and your degenerate progeny can chew on leather. You understand me?”

Davis thought he could kill the man. Duvall had the reach, but Davis knew he was faster. He could bash his head on the rocks and be done before anyone could step in. He rose and took a step forward when suddenly a chubby man, back turned to Davis, stepped in front of him.

“Ah, Duvall, I reckon you taught the boy his lesson. I don’t see him makin’ the same mistake twice, especially with a hook as tough as yours.” Davis recognized the voice of the man singing from the elevator. “D’ya ever tire of beating on the new boys like that? I’m ‘prised ye have any unbroken fingers yet from punching everyone in the face, ya bully.” Some men snickered, and Duvall looked around angrily.

“He’s your charge now, Montgomery.” Duvall said with disdain. “He fouls up and I dock all pay on this crew and your crew? We clear there?”

“Aye, clear as day. Now if you don’t mind foreman, we have some coal to mine and we’d like to have enough scrip for some dinner tonight.” Duvall rolled his eyes and headed down the shaft to another group of men.

"A piece of work, that one." Joe remarked as Duvall walked away. “Now, you,” Montgomery had turned around to look at Davis. His jovial face caught Davis off-guard. How’d a man stay so upbeat in a place like this? “I figure I just saved you from doing something stupid, my friend.” He said. Davis wouldn’t argue there. His anger had subsided, and he realized the trouble he’d have been in if he had roughed up his boss. “Can I get your name, lad?”

“Davis, Davis Murray.”

“Pleased to meet you, sir. I’m Joe, Joe Montgomery. We might make a miner out of you yet.”

They shook hands and, together, loaded the coal into the cart. The day went much better with Joe around.

Covered in coal dust, the pair made their way from the mine after their shift back to their company homes on the hill. Joe had proven to be an invaluable friend. He had given Davis tips and tricks all day, like watching for sour smells, evidence of a gas called firedamp which could be the precursor to explosions. He taught him foreman rotations, so he knew when he could catch a break. Davis felt grateful but not as pleased to learn about the practice of short weighing, where a company man would undersell the miners’ loads to dock their pay while reaping the benefits of the full load. “These are just the way things are, at least for now.” Joe had said.

Some of his statements had been cryptic and cloaked, like he knew more about “the way things are” than he would divulge. Deciding not to press the issue, Davis took what he could get. More than anything, he was grateful to have a friend.

They had parted ways outside of Joe’s house, his first on the way back through the housing section. The sun was had a late afternoon shine to it, rays coming through the smog of the valley and reflecting off the river into Davis’s eyes. He was taken aback once emerging from the mine, his vision trying to adjust to the flood of sunlight topside. The Lord has provided, as he always did, Davis was still alive, although a tooth short.

He shook Joe’s hand and glimpsed his wife, a vibrant redhead, standing in the doorway with a toddler of about 2. She had a vigorous look to her, which made Davis laugh inside. It probably took a vigorous woman to keep Joe in line. They would walk to work together tomorrow, which elated Davis, as he did not wish to repeat the nerves of the previous morning alone the next day.

Davis took his leave and walked towards his own home. Outside, baby in arms, was his wife, ever beautiful in the afternoon glow. Her cheeks seemed less hollow, pleasing to Davis that she had gained some weight back after the horrors of the last year. Things might work out after all, he mused. He kissed her cheek and looked into his son’s green eyes. The baby smiled back at him, laughing and giggling. Davis felt his heart fill with joy. A job, a house, a loving wife, and child. He counted his blessings as he smelled dinner cooking on the stove.

“They gave me a line of credit, at least for dinner tonight.” Louise said, bouncing the baby in her arms. Davis thanked her with a kiss and fantasized about sitting down and getting a bite, as he was starving. She handed him Sam and made her way inside to set the table. He turned and looked back at the valley, surrounded by steep hills, like a sort of gentle ravine. The river rushed under the railroad trestle as a train traveled across, smoke blowing from the engine. Men and women and children traversed the hill to and from the company store, socializing, mingling, living along the way. Davis took a deep breath and looked at his baby.

“I’ll provide for you, the way the Lord has for me.” An eastern wind brushed against his coal coated face; his eyes closed to enjoy the embrace. The aroma of cooked meat shook his senses as he followed his love indoors with his son in his arms with heavy eyes, aching to rest before another day underground.

40 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All