Today's Reading

'PROLOGUE'

'September 20, 1924'

A hawk soars over Devil's Backbone. Her sharp eyes peer through the
softening light of dusk down to the old Rossville Cemetery, closed a
decade past, when the dead had filled every apportioned spot.

There: a chipmunk scuttling among the gravestones, some still
upright and tended by descendants, some cracked and broken, like
scattered teeth.

The red-shouldered hawk spots it, but a thunderstorm is rolling in,
great coal-dark clouds churning across the sky from the west. Rain
comes sudden, hard. And so she veers east, toward the entry to Ross
Mining Company's Mine No. 9, nicknamed the Widowmaker after the 1888
cave-in killed forty-two men.

Six weeks ago, though, the mine was reopened, for deep in the
western slope of this Appalachian foothill, in her seams and
fissures and walls, rests anthracite coal of the highest grade, coal
that will command the best market price. A select portion of the
company's coal miners labor to reopen the Widowmaker, building
tracks for mule-pulled wagons, and supports for walls and ceilings.

Now the miners trudge out after a nine-hour day. Theirs is a good
weary, born of the ache and pull of hard work done well. Since the
start of the project they've each received an extra ten cents per
day of company scrip—issued instead of good old U.S. cash, and the
only tender the company will accept for rent or in its company
stores. In a few days, the additional scrip can buy yeast at the
company store. In a week, tinned milk. In a few weeks, cheese.
Enough that men who labor away in the company's other mines closer
to Rossville are envious.

But what the men don't know, what no one knows, is that methane
gas—nonodorous, undetectable—is building up near the newly
reopened entry, just as it had in 1888.

Now the hawk soars above the entry.

There: a squirrel scuttling among the brush near the man-made mouth
into the mountain.

Three men emerge, heading toward the donkeys and wagons that will
take them back to Rossville proper. Most of the others, seeing the
light, pick up their pace, eager to get home.

Two miners, though, lag so deep in the shaft that they still use
their coal-oil lanterns to light their way through the dark, as
deep and still as midnight.

"You lollygagging for a purpose?" asks the one farthest along. It is
not like his friend to dally. He knows his friend's baby's been
sick. He wonders if there's bad news to share that his friend
doesn't want the others to hear.

The second man does have a reason, but not about the baby—she's
taken a turn for the better. Another subject presses on his heart
and mind and he's not sure how to broach it. Still, if he doesn't
speak up now, he's not sure he'll ever get the courage. "John
says—"

"Don't go tellin' me about John!" The first man waves his hands as
if to fend off the very mention of the organizer who'd helped
unionize the Mingo Mines up in northeastern Ohio and was now working
among the men at Ross Mining. "My woman's got a chopped steak
waiting, for my supper, first one in a month of Sundays. I ain't
risking decent pay for once."

The second man thinks how his wife and their four-year-old son were
delighted by their first tastes of ice cream at the company store
just a few days ago. He'd had a taste, too.

But he presses on: "Good for now, but what about a week from now, a
year from now? They ain't paying us extra for easy work."

Outside, the squirrel scurries down the slope, away from the mine's
entrance, oblivious to the hawk circling above. The squirrel is
simply following its instinct to prepare for winter, one acorn at a
time, and for a moment the squirrel is lucky.

Lightning strikes near the entrance to the Widowmaker. The strike
ignites the methane, and the explosion demolishes the entrance.
...

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