Season of Sacrifice Excerpt

Ben! Come here!”
Benjamin Perkins dropped his chisel and ran toward the urgent sound of his father’s voice. In the dim light of the coal mine, he could barely make out William’s features. “What is it?” he asked.

William reached out and grasped his son’s shoulder. “There was an accident at the mine in Blongloha. They need us to help rescue any survivors.”

Ben followed his father through the tunnels, his mind racing. An accident in a mine could only mean one thing—death. The mines weren’t friendly to those who tunneled them.

They reached the mine entrance where the foreman stood, marking down all the workers who were volunteering. He wrote down William’s name, but grunted when he saw Ben.

“He shouldn’t go with you.”

“He may be only fifteen, but he’s one of the best men we’ve
got,” William said.

“Please, sir,” Ben spoke up. “I want to help.”

The foreman shook his head. “I wouldn’t be sending my son, but I can’t tell you what to do.” He made a mark on his sheet and waved them on.

The miners piled into the back of a wagon and rode the six miles to Blongloha. The constant vibration of the wheels on the road might have lulled Ben to sleep if he hadn’t been afraid of what they would face when they reached the scene of the
accident.

The mines were nothing more than tunnels burrowed through dirt, the walls and ceilings held in place by timbers. If one of those timbers broke, thousands of pounds of dirt would fall on the miners beneath, burying them alive as they worked. Each collier knew to move slowly, place his chisel deliberately, or his life might be forfeit.

When the wagon pulled to a stop at Blongloha, Ben and his father dashed to the opening of the still and silent mine. Not even an echo of voices sounded from inside. One worker sat on the ground near the entrance, head in his hands. He raised his
face when he heard the rescuers approach.

“Where are the others?” William asked.
The man shook his head, despair streaked across his face, along with the grime. “Hundreds . . . trapped.” He didn’t say more, but pointed at the mine.

Without hesitation, Ben and the others walked directly in, locating the cave-in within minutes. Ben’s stomach clenched as he looked at the task ahead of them. He didn’t see how anyone could have survived. The other men paused a moment as well,
then got to work. They plunged their shovels into the dirt time and time again,
carting out piles of rubble in wheelbarrows and coal carts. The farther in they got, the darker it became, but they lit their Davy lamps and kept on digging.

“Here!” William Perkins yelled. He threw his shovel over his shoulder and began digging with his hands. Ben came to his side and worked with him, his heart racing. They uncovered a man’s legs, then torso, and finally his head. Ben winced when he saw that the man’s skull had been bashed in by the falling debris.

“Let’s drag him out and keep digging.” William took hold of the man’s arms. “Ben, get his feet.”

Ben couldn’t move for a moment. The corpse’s eyes were open, and his face wore an expression of surprise. The miner clearly had not anticipated the collapse.

“Ben!”

At the sharpness in his father’s voice, Ben stooped down and picked up the man’s feet. They carried him out to the mine entrance, then turned around and went back in. Two of the other miners passed them, also carrying a body. Ben worked feverishly with his shovel, wanting the nightmare to end. The dust in the air was becoming unbearable, the heat stifling, and he was surrounded by death on all sides. He
pulled his handkerchief out and tied it over his nose and mouth, wishing he could also tie something over his eyes and heart.

The rubble near the entrance was completely cleared away and moved outside, along with the hundreds of bodies that had been trapped within. The rescuers proceeded farther in to the mine. Sections of the wall and ceiling had come down in chunks through each of the tunnels. Arms and legs could be seen protruding from the debris all around them.

Ben had believed that once they cleared the main blockage, the death would be over. But there was no escaping it.

He had always hated the dark of the coal mines. He didn’t mind the work itself—it lulled him into a state of mental numbness where he didn’t have to think beyond the placement of his chisel or the angle of his next blow. The weight of the tools and the coal sometimes caused his muscles to ache, and he was frequently sore from the strenuous labor. He took the dark home with him at night, where it haunted his dreams.

Ben closed his eyes for a minute, and his memories assailed him. His parents had joined the Mormons when Ben was a small boy, and the people in their small Welsh community had turned on them. Ben’s father lost his own job in the mines and could find work nowhere else, so they were sent to the poor house—a shoddily constructed hall of cement and rotten wood where those who couldn’t pay their bills were placed. Men and women were separated, and Ben was taken from his mother. His three-year-old mind couldn’t understand his father’s words, that it would all be over soon and that he would see her again. For six long months he stared at concrete walls of stark, heartless gray, and wondered why she had left him.

The authorities at the poor house eventually figured out that the Perkins’ were not lazy and would take any job they were offered. The mine officials were forced to give Ben’s father back his job, and they were released from their prison. Ben’s mother
nearly fainted with relief when she saw her young son again. Those six months had been just as hard for her as they had for him. They clung to each other for hours.

The fear of abandonment still remained bottled up deep in Ben’s heart, and although he had tried to overcome those fears as he grew into a youth, they sprang up and mocked him, most often while he was in the dark.

But this dark was worse than any other because of the fear it carried. Even as he walked through the tunnels, he could hear the dirt around him shifting. What if it came down again and he became one of the trapped, one of the dead?

Around one of the corners he saw another heap of dirt—with another hand sticking out of it. But this time the fingers were moving. Ben shouted for help and began moving the rubble, yelling to the man inside that help was on its way. It only took a moment for three workers to uncover the man. They dragged him out and laid him on the ground to check him over for injuries. A Davy lamp was brought, and as soon as its light landed on their survivor, Ben could see that his legs were completely crushed.

“Ben, you stay here,” his father directed. “I’m going to get a wheelbarrow.”

Ben crouched down and touched the man’s forehead. “What’s your name?”

“Andrew Morgan,” he gasped.

“You’ll be all right, Andrew,” Ben said. He felt completely useless. He didn’t know what to say to a man who was at least crippled for life, and might die even yet. Andrew bled heavily, and Ben didn’t know if he could stand to lose that much blood.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Andrew asked. “I can’t feel my legs.”
Ben couldn’t lie to him. “It doesn’t look good.”

Andrew put his hand over his eyes. “I can’t die. I can’t. My wife needs me. I have children.” He started to moan, shaking his head back and forth as his voice rose in pitch. “You can’t let me die!”

Ben grasped Andrew’s shoulder, trying to give comfort, but he had no words. He heard his father wheel the cart up behind him, and they worked together to lift Andrew up and over the side. “I can’t meet God this way,” Andrew wailed as they pushed the barrow up into the fresh air.

Ben pressed his lips together to keep them from trembling. They placed the cart a distance from the mine and went back inside, leaving Andrew alone. Ben felt bad for abandoning him, but who knew how many others might still be inside, alive and waiting for help.

Hours later, the rescuers felt they had done all they could. So few survivors had been found, in comparison to the hundreds of bodies they had retrieved. Ben felt tired to the core as he and his father climbed into the wagon that would take them back to the
mine in Treboeth.

“What will happen to them? To the bodies?” Ben asked his father as Blongloha faded in the distance behind them.

“The families will be notified. They can come to collect their dead,” William replied.

“What about Andrew?”

“He died.” William’s voice was curt. “They sent for the doctor, but he could do nothing. He’s a man of medicine, not a magician.”

Ben leaned back. Andrew wasn’t ready to die—he’d said so himself. He had children. Tears began to course down Ben’s cheeks. He pulled his knees up to his chin and hunkered down against the side of the wagon.

“I shouldn’t have brought you here,” William said. “You’re a good worker, and we needed your help, but you’re still a child, Ben. I should have protected you from this.”

Ben couldn’t reply. In his mind he still saw bodies with open eyes, arms and legs broken and sticking out at odd angles.

“I pray those men will find peace on the other side.” William’s words were almost a whisper against the noise of the wheels on the road.

Ben’s parents, William and Jane Perkins, believed in the restored gospel with a fervency that sometimes intimidated him. They looked at life with faith and focus. Ben felt more skeptical. He had put off his own baptism, doubtful if he wanted
to tie himself to any religious group—let alone the Mormons, the victims of so much taunting. Andrew’s words kept ringing in his ears. I can’t meet God this way. Several hundred men had died right along with him. Were any of them ready to meet their
Maker? Was Ben?

He remembered the persecution his family had endured when his parents joined the church so many years ago, and he didn’t know if he could go through that again—especially with himself as the target. But as he thought about the men caught in the
explosion, buried under thousands of pounds of coal and dirt, he realized his life needed to have purpose. He counted on God every day to keep him safe in the mines, to shelter him from the oppressive layers of earth that could, at any moment, collapse
and crush him beneath the staggering weight.

He looked over at his father. William sat looking straight ahead, his face lined with dirt and sorrow.

“Do you believe it, Father? Do you believe Christ is there to meet those men on the other side?”

William turned and gave his son his full attention. “Yes, Ben, I do. And He’s not just there for the men who die, He’s there for those of us who still live.”

Ben settled back. His heart still ached so much, it was a wonder it still functioned. But underneath that pain came peace from his father’s firm conviction—a peace he hoped he would someday have for himself.

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About Nyx

Author, baker, zine maker.

Posted on September 4, 2008, in Book Excerpt. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Season of Sacrifice Excerpt.

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