You can’t know darkness until you’re trapped deep in a mine, on the wrong side of the tangle of rock and timbers blocking you in with your crew.
After the thunderous wave of dust and panic settled, half a dozen of us wound up in an abandoned side shaft, unused for decades. As lucky as we were to escape the collapse, our flickering headlamps would only burn so long. Mitch shared around the dregs of coffee from his thermos, and we each accepted a lint-covered butterscotch from Old Bill’s pocket.
We shied away from mentioning the stale-tasting air in this section of tunnels. Instead, we joked and sang songs, and teased young Raul about his upcoming wedding night. Silas told the same old yarn about how he escaped a bear, and no one complained.
But once the last lamp died, so did much of our hope as the blackness pressed in. We slumped against the rough walls, our ears straining for searchers calling our names. Waiting for picks striking stone, or the caress of air moving freely once again.
“Hey, Gus, do you think they’ll even know to look in here?” The voice belonged to Robbie, and it shook a little. “They might just clear the main shaft.”
“Nah, they’ll find us in time to be home for supper,” I answered.
But the silence was broken only by a cough from one of us, or a snore from Old Bill. I was dozing off myself when I felt something furry nuzzle my hand.
I gave a shout of “Rats!” and we all scrambled to our feet. Rats were the bane of the miner’s lunchpail, with the beasts fouling our sandwiches and nibbling our pies and leaving us hungry for the rest of the shift.
As I stood with the blood pounding in my ears, I felt a nudge again. But this time I recognized the nose from when it pokes me on the ankle like that, demanding a bit of my cheese. I reached down and a blocky head pushed against my hand; a sturdy body leaned against my leg.
“It’s just Kipper! Mooching instead of catching rats, as usual.”
Glad cries sounded as the old foreman’s mutt made the rounds to all the men. The dog used to come down with Dan every shift, but since the old man retired they’d both settled into the easy life and went fishing most days. Or more like, they napped while a worm drowned.
Silas said, “He and Dan haven’t been down the mine in a while. How’d Kipper get in here? If he found a way in, maybe we can get out!
“Come on, boy, show us the way!” we urged.
Kipper gave two sharp barks and I looped my belt around his neck. Silas grabbed my sleeve and the others held on in a line, shuffling in step like a family of shrews as Kipper led us further into the dark.
It seemed like years passed underground before something changed: a scent of soil and roots and sky. Without the dog’s help, we would have missed the break in the rock, opening as it did onto a moonless night.
With the frantic efforts of twelve hands plus four paws, the gap widened enough to let us clamber out. Kipper tugged us onward, the tall brush stinging our faces as we hurried to stay with him.
Finally, lights blinded us as we stumbled into a circle of our would-be rescuers. In the flurry of dusty handshakes and backslaps, I didn’t notice the belt in my hand go slack. By the time I did, I figured Kipper had slipped away to the tables covered with food. I looked for him there and found Dan instead.
“Thank you for sending Kipper after us, Dan. He knows those mines better than any man.”
Dan frowned. “What do you mean? Kipper passed away last month.”
I gaped at him before blurting, “But he — Kipper came and found us!”
Dan stared back, mouth and eyes wide open, frozen in shock.
“Kipper — dead?” I blurted.
Then, Dan’s guffaw flushed Kipper from his spot under the table, and the dog grinned as if he was in on the joke.
“Your face!” Dan howled as he fed his mutt a sausage. “Fellas, Gus here thought a ghost dog led them out of the mine!”
I took the ribbing in good fun, and took the beer Dan handed me too.
“To Kipper!” I cried, and poured a dribble for our four-legged hero.
Angelica R. Jackson, in keeping with her scattered Gemini nature, has published articles on gardening, natural history, web design, travel, hiking, and local history. She shares a home in California’s Gold Country with a husband, a rescued Basset Fauve de Bretagne dog, plus a Miniature Pinscher/Nibblonian mix, a reformed-feral tabby, and far too many books (if that’s even possible). She is the author of the award-winning Faerie Crossed young adult urban fantasy series, and her photos are collected in Capturing The Castle: Images of Preston Castle (2006-2016).