Always on the Spot
My daddy was John Spotter. I must look something like him because mum gave me his name. Here in Dancer Creek people call me johnnyspot. I don’t much care for it. When you’re thirteen years old and live in a mining town, a puny sounding nickname makes life tough.
Momma always tells me not to worry. “One day you will grow bigger and stronger than even Jumbo,” she says.
Jumbo Searle is the biggest man in our town. Three summers back, he carried my daddy all the way home after the cave-in. Jacco figures folks called me johnnyspot because I am always near the mine. “You are Dancer Creek’s johnny-on-the-spot,” he teases.
Arlo Todd spits tobacco juice past my ear and tells a different story. “It’s because you ain’t no bigger than this spot on my boot,” he says with a sneer. Tom is sixteen and works as a digger. Him and me don’t talk much. Until today.
The sun is settling behind Hostler’s Peak when Arlo shows up at the boarding house. Momma is in the kitchen serving up rabbit stew and biscuits. I’m sitting on the porch, carving a whistle.
Arlo slouches against a rough-cut post. “Bet you never seen Hitch Benton’s ghost,” he says.
I just keep whittling, which makes Arlo laugh.
“Expect you’d wet yourself,” he taunts.
I shoot him a look. “Jumbo says people see what they want. Like when you saw that bear…except it was just an old stump.”
Arlo stiffens, then lifts his shoulders about an inch. “I did see Duncan’s ghost. Last night at Cole’s Store.”
“Hitch Benton? You sure?” Hitch died in a brawl six years back. Some folks say he haunts the general store, but I’ve got my doubts.
Arlo nods. “Seen a light in a window. Snuck a look and seen a man next to the whiskey wall.” He pauses, shivering. “Looked just like Benton.”
I snort. “Seems like a tale.”
“If it weren’t him, then who?”
“Thief, I guess. Mr. Cole’s been complaining about disappearing socks and cigars.”
“Bet we could catch him.”
“Best leave it to Constable Evans,” I say.
Tom leans in close. “If we caught us a thief, bet they’d give me a crew. Might even let you be a blaster. That’s what you want.”
For once Tom is right. More than anything I want to be a blaster like my dad and help strip the rich silver vein out of the mine. Maybe catching a thief would make the miners treat me like a grown man.
I slip the pocketknife and whistle into my coat. “Let’s go,” I say.
Dusk is sneaking in so we grab a couple lanterns and head across the flats. When we arrive at the general store the windows are dark. I jiggle the padlock on the door.
“How do we get in?”
Arlo shines his lantern at a small hole in the wall. “Constable Evans caught a drunk prying out planks for firewood. Bet you can skinny through.”
I finger the rough edges of the wood, wincing as splinters drew blood.
“Go on, johnnyspot,” Arlo urges.
I shrug off his hand and ease through the gap. Inside, moonlight dusts the floor like flour. I dart across the room and unlatch the window to let Arlo in.
“Spooky enough for a ghost,” he says.
Raising the lantern above his head, he lets the light splash over a glass-topped case. “Give your knife here, johnnyspot.”
I hesitate. That knife is the only thing my dad left me.
“C’mon. Only be a second.”
“It’s pretty sharp,” I warn, pulling the pocketknife from my coat.
“I ain’t no baby,” Arlo scoffs. He grabs the knife and ducks behind the display case. Seconds later the back panel slides open. Arlo reaches inside and grabs a handful of cigars.
“Hey, put those back!”
Arlo slaps my hand away.
“You ain’t big enough to–” Suddenly he blows out the lantern and crouches low. “Somebody outside.”
We stay quiet as mice in a cat barn.
Arlo whispers, “Hide in the coal chute. I’ll get behind them flour barrels.”
I yank open the chute and wedge inside. Pressing my ear against the steel door, I listen hard. At first I don’t hear a thing and then loud footsteps thump across the wood floor. My heart jumps so hard it nearly breaks my ribs. Lord, don’t let that dirty thief open the door…
Iron rasps against the door, startling me. I suck a mouthful of air. In the tiny space, the noise seems louder than a dynamite blast.
“Sorry about that, johnnyspot. Bolt’s rusty,” Arlo says, his voice muffled. “Expect you’ll have some explaining to do when Dempsey opens up tomorrow.”
The floorboards creak and I hear him climb out the window. I bang hard against the locked door, yelling at him to come back.
His laugh sounds ugly. “You won’t get out of this spot so easy.”
I pound on the door until my hand bruises up. Then I lay quiet for a time, staring at a gray ribbon of space that rims the door. Maybe if I slip my knife through that crack, I can shift the bolt and…I remember that Arlo stole my knife and use most of the words Preacher Thomas warns us about on Sunday.
It isn’t until the sun’s coming up, turning the ribbon round the chute door white, that I remember the whistle in my pocket. I yank it out, shove it against the seam, and blow. A piercing noise echoes in the store. I blow harder, praying that somebody hears—even if it’s the preacher.
Just when I feel my breath give out, the chute door clangs open and Constable Evans looms in front of me. “Johnnyspot…what the blazes? We’ve been looking all over for you.”
I try to explain, but he heaves me out of the chute and marches me straight over to the boarding house. Coal dust clogs my ears. I only catch snatches of words passing between him and momma, but she’s crying hard so it isn’t anything good. I run upstairs and fall flat out on my bed. When the wailing starts hours later, I think momma’s crying again and bury my head under the pillow. But the wails grow louder and I recognize the mine siren.
Grabbing my boots, I stumble down the stairs. Men crowd the front door, shouting and cursing.
Trailing after them I hear talk of a cave-in and trapped miners. I spot Jumbo at the mouth of the tunnel. His shirt and pants are streaked black and sweat drips from his hair.
“Is it bad, Jumbo?”
Jumbo never lies to me.
“Men are trapped beyond the third section,” he says flatly. “There is little air.”
Section five is located near the end of the tunnel. The miners won’t last long without fresh air.
Jumbo claps me hard on the shoulder. “We move rock,” he says.
Air in the tunnel is as suffocating as a wool blanket on a hot, wet summer day. Miners race ahead of us, chasing the beams cast by helmet lamps. I stay close to Jumbo.
The men attack the rocks with picks, sledges and pry bars. Sweat pours off bodies, creating small pools on the tunnel floor. An hour later, plum-faced and gasping for breath, Jumbo calls a halt.
“We must move this devil,” he says, pointing at a wagon-size boulder that blocks much of the tunnel. If we can move it, the other will come free, too.
He fingers the tiny cross that hangs against his chest and leans into the massive rock. The muscles bulge under his shirt, rippling like a heavy current in a stream. Other men join him, grunting and straining. The rock seems to shift, but Jumbo stops and sinks to the ground.
His big shoulders hunch. “We cannot move it, johnnyspot. And we cannot blast. Too dangerous.”
I kneel beside him. Blasting from this side may force the rocks onto the trapped miners. We must tunnel. But it will take hours.
Miners’ headlamps throw light at the rock pile. I move closer and spot a shadowy crack beneath the wagon boulder, too small for a man, but…
“Maybe we can blast from the other side.”
Jumbo’s eyes follow my finger. “I cannot say that it goes through,” he mutters.
“Then I’ll turn back,” I promise. “No one else is small enough.”
Jumbo stares into my eyes. After a long minute, he nods and yells for a miner to bring dynamite and fuse cord.
I swallow hard, remove my boots and crawl into the dark crack. Sharp rocks rake my back and shoulders, but I inch forward, holding my breath. The crevice narrows and I’m forced to squirm and contort my body, using only figures to pull and toes to push. After what seems like days, I squeeze out of the crack and fall into open space.
I struggle upright and flick on the helmet lamp.
The beam stabs into the darkness, trapping three bodies against the tunnel face. Moving closer, I recognize two of the men who board with us at the house. The third is Arlo.
I check his breathing first. It is a whisper in his chest. The other men are no better.
Back at the rock fall, I dig blast pockets into the rubble. Slowly, then more quickly, I place the half-charges into the pockets. When the last charge is in place, I gather the long detonator cords and twist the ends together. Then I begin to inch feet first into the crevice, crabbing backwards. The opening seems tighter than before. My heart thuds as the cord snags.
One. Breath. Two. Breath. Free the cord. Easy. Breath. Move. Move.
Moments later, hands grab my ankles and ease me free of the rock pile and into the main tunnel. Jacco carefully pries the cords from my white knuckled grip. He touches match to cord and the snake hisses back into the gap.
I crouch next to Jumbo and the other miners, safely away from the rock face. The blast, when it comes, feels like the rumble of a loaded mine cart. A dust cloud washes over us then sucks back through hazy gaps that have appeared between the rock pile and the tunnel ceiling and walls. Shadowy figures of miners climb over the rocks to rescue the trapped miners. Weak, I sink back against the wall, only to be hauled to my feet.
Jumbo crushes me in a fierce hug. “You are johnny-on-the-spot for sure,” he shouts, pounding my back. I barely hear him, my ears ringing from the explosion. Other men shake my hand.
Later, when Arlo is carried out of the mine, his face is twisted with pain. But he manages to stretch out a dirty hand.
“Think this is yours,” he says. His fingers uncurl and I see my pocketknife. “Thanks…John Spotter,” Arlo whispers.
At that moment, my dad’s name fits me just fine.
© 2017 Parsons & Roth