Nothing could soften the sun's harsh glare. An occasional ragged cloud streamed high in the sky's blue deeps, and a whispering cool breeze sometimes drifted silently across the ugly black gash of the Karringa open cut mine. Neither helped hold back the eighty-four degree bite, and it was only eleven o'clock. Hands clasped behind his back, polarized shades over his eyes, Ferguson stood tall outside the drab, gray fibro prefab hut of the temporary admin office. With a black glazed meerschaum pipe locked firmly between his teeth, his steel gray eyes were fixed on the overburden wall that hung sixty feet above the freshly exposed bench some two hundred yards on his right.
The sub-bituminous coal layer he was after lay a farther forty feet below the bench. That's why he stood there, stoically sweating under his blue hardhat and open-neck white shirt, waiting for the cast blast that would heave a seventy-yard section of overburden into the pit floor now denuded of coal. Dozers would then push the remaining overburden and the thin lignite layer that sat atop the Upper Smith Seam, onto the resulting cast pile. The exposed coal bed would then be ready for extraction.
Opposite him, working in the shadow of the looming north-south running overburden wall, two tracked bucket wheel excavators were chewing at the open coalface, feeding coal to enormous Caterpillar 797B rear dump trucks with a capacity of 380 short tons, which they took to one of four storage silos for washing and blending before being flood loaded into rail cars from the loop silo, then transported to coking processors or ever-hungry power stations round the state. Ninety-five feet below the open seam, a dwarfed excavator worked the main prize, the Lower Smith Seam of anthracite, a dense, lustrous coal hard as rock; deep and costly to get at, but well worth the expense.
Karringa was a new mine in the Powder River Basin working the Fort Union Formation bed, already crowded by over a dozen operators of various sizes around Gillette. Ferguson had stood here, watching when the first group blast was drilled into the open plain. When the dust settled, the dozers moved in to clear the virgin soil, making way for further deeper blasts until they hit the Roland Seam, enabling the excavators and trucks to take over while finishing touches were done to the holding silos and rail line. It was a tough eighteen months for everybody getting this far, but the sweat and curses were paying off. He didn't give a toss about the other mines, inasmuch as they were taking away coal that should properly belong to him, or at least his Relans Mining Corporation parent. He only cared about Karringa and his extraction quotas, always going up.
He often contemplated dragging Stanton from his comfortable Gillette office and show the hardboiled general manager what it took to meet his ridiculous quotas. He threatened, but never carried through on his promise. An old coal hand himself, Stanton knew very well what it took, and that's how the game was played. Ferguson grumbled and wouldn't have minded having Stanton on the receiving end of today's cast blast, but he went on with his job anyway. There were never enough men, equipment, time or money for either of them to satisfy the head office. Once the new sixty-five million-dollar dragline excavator was installed, its ninety cubic meter bucket eliminating the slower dozer push key pass, it would enormously speed up pre-production. In two months the monster dragline would be assembled and ready to do some paid work--excavating virgin overburden, always the messiest part. Stanton might ease off then, however dubious the prospect. Probably issue another quota increase. Despite their squabbles, the two of them got along. While Stanton remained buried in his Gillette office worrying about capacity expansion and takeovers, Ferguson would keep Karringa producing.
Even with his ongoing operational problems, he had nothing to complain about. He might bitch about Stanton's unreasonable demands, but that was nothing compared to what the pitmen called him. 'Mustard' Ferguson, mustard the bastard, and he relished the accolade. Getting coal out of unforgiving ground not willing to give it up for the asking, took determination and tough, no-nonsense men who shunned all forms of subterfuge and obfuscation. Anyway, damn them, they got paid, and paid well for what they did. Too bad Katarina hadn't been as understanding, if only a little. Things might have been different then. But he was a miner who loved his job more than he loved her. At least that's how she put it. There was no way to explain the fire burning in him when he worked his mine, not in words she would accept or understand. Then again, she had always been a big city girl, and he hoped New York would make her happy. The fire of love that burned for her within him still burned, but without her to fan it, he feared it would eventually smolder away. Life was shit.
He sucked on his pipe and puffed out a gray cloud of aromatic rum-flavored tobacco smoke. Anytime now, he thought comfortably. Strictly speaking, he shouldn't be out here at all, but this was a distraction from cold figures, charts and paperwork, a reminder of what the whole thing was about. He could never afford to lose that connection, or he would end up like Stanton. Besides, as mine manager, he could stand wherever he damn well pleased.
On queue, a wall of dust rose fifty feet directly behind the overburden bench face, followed by a sharp crack of high explosive core charges going off. In a ripple of blasts, dust and debris walked back along the bench toward the burgeoning overburden wall, the effect bodily heaving the bench layer onto the worked pit floor. He waited for the dust to clear, then nodded with satisfaction. A fair amount of overburden still showed, but it was mostly the useless soft Roland Seam lignite layer, a characteristic of this formation. It would not take the dozers long, two days at most, to clear the rubbish and expose the main seam. As usual, Cower had done a good job, but he expected nothing else. Blast casting was an art as much as it was a science, and Cower was one of the best. Considering the time, effort and money consumed by a blast, this was not a job for an amateur.
Chewing on his pipe, Ferguson walked into the prefab, nodded to Sandra clicking away on her keyboard, and strode toward his office tucked against the back wall. The faces behind the arrayed desks never looked up from their work. The administrative building next to the new car park near the mine entrance wouldn't be ready for another two weeks at least, no matter how hard he badgered the construction project manager.
Inside his cramped office, he emptied the pipe into an ashtray, sat down and absently glanced at the wall-mounted air-conditioner, wondering what a properly equipped office looked. Getting out of this prefab would be a welcomed change, and not only for him. The men also looked forward to having a proper canteen, relaxation and service facilities. Karringa was not a UMWA shop, thank God, something he and Stanton firmly agreed on, resisting any attempt by smooth talking greasy reps to make it into one; troublemakers, all of them. There would be no strikes, walkouts or protracted wrangling because the game room walls were painted beige rather than blue, or the cutlery wasn't the right shape. In his view, the best thing a Union rep could do for the men and the mine was to stand in front of a cast blast.
Bruster revved the hundred-ton dozer and drove the angled blade into the broken nine-foot lignite bed, separated from the sub-bituminous layer by two feet of rock, shale and compacted sand. The huge Caterpillar D11 dozer-ripper hardly paused as it bit into the layer, pushing a fifty cubic yard bite of sandstone, shale, crystalline rock, rooted siltstones and brown coal toward the already cleared overburden spoil that now covered the pit floor. He reversed the dozer, swung it around and lowered the blade. A dozer on either side of his machine belched black diesel smoke as they worked to clear the overburden the cast blast left behind. It was exacting work, but repetitive. Still, better than driving a dump truck. The only thing he had to worry about was driving his dozer over the lip of the bench. It wouldn't do anything for his bonus or Mustard's humor.
Wishing for a cold beer and a smoke, he engaged the drive and the dozer lurched forward with a bellow from the powerful engine. He was about to push into the exposed lignite when a flash of light made him blink. He stepped on the brake and tilted his head, staring at the exposed face, but there was nothing there except a seam of soft coal and broken gravel. He stepped off the brake and something glinted again. Muttering an obscenity, he put the dozer into neutral and climbed out of the cabin. Jumping off the thick metal track, he walked toward the coalface.
Peering at the wall, he quickly found what caused the flash of light. Embedded in the coal two feet from top of the layer, protruded a black bone. Smudged, but still bright, a partially exposed ring of twisted yellow metal formed a bracelet round the bone. He leaned forward and reached up to poke the fragment with a stiff forefinger. There was no give, of course, the bone lying solidly encased in the seam.
He placed his hands on his hips and shook his head.
"Well, if that don't beat all."
Staring at the bone, he figured the thing had to be ancient, buried this deep below ground. The boys often came across curiosities, which they kept or sold at one of the Gillette curio shops, but a worked bracelet this deep? Maybe he should take the thing and sell it. It could be gold and the money would come in handy. But if he got caught, he would likely lose the bracelet, his job, and possibly end up with a fine or prison term for his trouble, not counting getting blacklisted. It simply wasn't worth the hassle. Besides, he had a wife and family to think of to risk petty theft over a lousy few bucks. The curio shop owners always underpaid. His old lady wouldn't be amused if he got caught, either. No, better do this right. Maybe Mustard would give him an added bonus for the find; if the bastard was feeling generous, that is.
He tilted back his yellow hardhat and ear protectors, and pulled out a cell phone. Selecting a listed number from the menu, he pressed the call button. Dozers rumbled around him, but he hardly noticed them.
"What is it, Bruster?" Cower answered after two rings, his voice distracted. Bruster figured the man was probably evaluating the effectiveness of the last cast blast.
"I got something here you should see, chief."
"I see you taking a break beside your dozer instead of clearing away that shit like you're supposed to."
Bruster's mouth twitched with bleak humor. Cower wasn't a bad guy to get along with, for a company staff puke, provided you did your job. He had little time for idlers, at least on mine time anyway, until you got him to Sanford's Grub & Pub in Gillette. There, old Cower could tank up and mix it with the best of them. He wasn't really old actually, but that's what everybody called him. On the job, though, the man had no sense of humor at all.
"Ain't taking no break and you really should see this."
There was a moment of silence followed by a long sigh. "Okay, five minutes," Cower said and the line went dead.
Bruster smiled, waved to Gulio working the dozer on his left and started walking toward the belching machine. The dozer stopped.
"What's up?" Gulio asked in a chesty voice, leaning out from his seat.