Dawn was just sneaking over the lower slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountain as we stood the next morning outside a large white tent on the edge of the miners’ camp. “Nobody gets on the mountain without the Grishams say so,” Clarence had warned us and this was the place we came to plead our case. The tent was sturdier and brighter than all the others round about but I was still inclined to feel that whoever had hammered a broad plank of wood bearing the legend, ‘Grisham Mining Corporation Headquarters’ into the ground before the entrance was guilty of a touch of aggrandisement.
Once we had presented our credentials to a sour-faced lackey we were left to shiver awkwardly outside until the Grishams were ready to acknowledge our presence. In the meantime a gap in the canvas let us sneak a first look at the men destined to decide our fate. Two large braziers enveloped the interior of the tent in a warm fug. Seated between them I caught a glimpse of a portly man shrouded in a cloud of tobacco smoke. “That’s old Joe Grisham, eldest of the brothers,” hissed Clarence. “He’s said to be the brains of the outfit, so far as an operation of this kind requires any brains.”
In the centre of the tent a clerk sat at a makeshift desk, scribbling furiously, whilst a dark-haired young man of about twenty prowled about with a shotgun over his arm and a scowl upon his face. “And that’s Grisham Jnr,” added Clarence. “He’s son of one of the original Grisham brothers, though nobody seems quite sure which. Word is, he’s being groomed to one day take over the family business.”
Finally the lackey returned and, beckoning us through the entrance, directed us to line up in front of the clerk’s desk. “Name and purpose of business?” demanded the clerk briskly without looking up.
“We’d like to apply for a permit to enter the mines,” said Clarence.
The clerk looked up with a start. “Clarence, what on earth are you doing here?” he said in surprise. It took me a moment before I was able to place his familiar features as belonging to the bespectacled participant in the poker game of the previous day. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of taking up mining,” he added disbelievingly.
“Well, er, yes I am,” replied Clarence, tugging nervously at his open collar. By way of adopting a suitably labouring appearance he had deigned to discard his cravat for this expedition.
The surly figure of Grisham Jnr ceased prowling and glared aggressively at us. “Fancy yourselves as miners, do you?” he challenged.
Clarence swallowed hard and nodded in reply. I couldn’t help shifting awkwardly under the younger Grisham’s belligerent glare. We had done our best with our meagre means to acquire the previous evening at least some of the paraphernalia of the mining fraternity. But I was uncomfortably aware that even festooned as we were with lamps, picks and shovels the four of us made for a fairly unlikely company of miners. Grisham Jnr smirked unpleasantly at us.
Colonel Pendlebury took an unexpected exception to this. “We’re a perfectly credible collection of prospectors young man,” he asserted sharply. “So you can wipe that silly grin off your face.”
Grisham Jnr’s smirk twisted into a vicious scowl. “You wanna be careful in them mines Gramps,” he snarled. “Accidents can happen.”
“Nonsense,” barked Colonel Pendlebury. “Mining is a perfectly safe activity if carried out correctly. And I should know, I’ve travelled the mines of the Howling People of Walloon… Or were they the Wailing People of Howloon?” He paused. “An interesting people nonetheless. It was their custom to eat their offspring on public holidays… Or was it Spam?” Colonel Pendlebury tailed off, lost once more in a forest of confused reminiscences.
Grisham Jnr, who had listened to this little speech with an increasingly baffled expression, finally gave a snort of derision. “Why, the old coot’s madder than a box of frogs.”
“Arrogant young pup!” muttered Colonel Pendlebury. “I could show you a thing or two.”
Grisham Jnr raised the barrel of his shotgun threateningly. “You reckon, do you Gramps?”
Colonel Pendlebury made to take a step forward but Michael and I, stationed on either side, instinctively grasped him by each arm and held him in place. “Now there’s no need for any unpleasantness,” said Michael lightly.
“No offence meant, I’m sure,” I soothed.
The tension that continued to hang thickly in the air was only broken when the portly figure of Old Joe Grisham heaved himself up from his chair and stepped forward to inspect our company. “This is all very interesting I’m sure,” he remarked in a deep gravelly voice. “But what I really want to know is just what might convince the elegant Clarence Hayward to come slumming it on my mountain.” He stopped in front of Clarence and gave him a firm stare. “Cos I heard you’ve been saying in town some none-too-complimentary things about my mines and the folk who work in them.”
Clarence swallowed hard and shook his head fervently. “No, I…”
“You wouldn’t, for instance, have had a tip for where you might find yourself a nice rich seam of gold down there, would you?” purred Old Joe, thrusting his face even closer to Clarence’s. “Cos you know everything in that mountain belongs to me and my brothers. So you’d better not think of trying to take out anything without paying us our due.”
I couldn’t resist clutching the straps of my backpack, containing Ratty McCulloch’s map, a little tighter. Clarence gulped. “Of course not Mr Grisham, we know the rules,” he replied nervously.
Old Joe held his gaze for a few moments more before slowly making his way back along our line. Michael and I kept a firm hold on Colonel Pendlebury to forestall any further outbursts. Eventually Old Joe Grisham turned contemptuously to his clerk. “Give ‘em their permit,” he instructed with a sniff before ambling back to his chair.
With Grisham Jnr continuing to glower at us from the sidelines the clerk hurriedly assembled the necessary papers. Details were taken, notes made and signatures provided. “Please note, the Grisham Mining Corporation accepts no responsibility for any accident or injury occurring within the mines and no liability will be accepted, regardless of death, disability or decapitation,” the clerk parroted brightly as he finally handed over our fully stamped and approved permit to Clarence.
We had barely chance to offer a hasty thanks before the sour-faced lackey emerged as if from nowhere and ushered us from the tent. As I filed out, last in the row, I glanced back over my shoulder to see the elder Grisham beckoning his young protégé over for a few words. Noting the grim looks on both their faces I could only hope their consultation related to something other than us and our unlikely expedition.
A narrow path snaked up from the camp around the mountain, eventually flattening out onto a rocky plateau and there, half shrouded by wisps of low cloud, we found the entrance to the mines. It certainly didn’t look much like the gateway to great riches, being just a narrow dark opening crudely hacked into the rock. The entrance was flanked by two thick-necked goons with rifles slung over their shoulders who insisted on inspecting our permit before we could enter. Judging from their blank expressions I very much doubted whether either of them could actually read but fortunately the Grisham Mining Corporation stamp was distinctive enough and secured our passage.
For the first few hundred yards we were forced into single file along a narrow cutting in the rock which swiftly shut out all sense of light or air. But the passage soon opened out into a large natural cavern, well lit by lamps. This seemed to be the central meeting point from which tunnels ran off in several different directions. Miners, uniformly pale and gaunt, scurried to and fro. Several were settled around a large fire in one corner, silently consuming a thin watery soup whilst in other places small alcoves had been chiselled into the rock in which miners could be spotted curled up beneath ragged blankets, fast asleep. There was undeniably something faintly magical about the place, a hint of a vast underworld kingdom stretching off in every direction. And yet it was all permeated with a sense of hunger, fear and grinding labour, making it not unlike an episode of Fraggle Rock as directed by Ken Loach.
We hesitated just a moment in order to get our bearings before making off down a broad shaft running away to the left. We’d each made an effort to memorise a section of Ratty McCulloch’s map in order that we might refer to it as sparingly as possible once we were below ground. There was a simmering undercurrent of desperation about the sombre, mournful figures that glided through the mine shafts which made it seem wisest not to draw too much attention to ourselves. “Best keep to ourselves and keep moving,” Clarence had suggested and it seemed sound advice.
So we pressed steadily on in solemn single file. The shafts through which we passed had been dug over many years and by many hands and were in varying states of repair. In places they were wide and spacious, well supported with timber struts and beams. But then suddenly the passage would narrow and the roof lower, the rough jagged walls closing in alarmingly for a stretch before they opened out again once more. All along the main tunnel we passed slender openings and narrow off-shoots where workers hurried up and down. And just occasionally we would pass a lone spectral figure hacking grimly at the rock-face. Most stopped and regarded us with a wary eye as we went by but fortunately no-one made any effort to bar our passage.
All the way the mines were alive with noise. Shouts and cries echoed constantly through tunnels and the clang of pick-axes and shovels sang through the stone. I found that the acoustics of the twisting tunnels created a strange disorientating effect. On several occasions I was convinced that I could hear footsteps following close upon our heels but when I swung my lamp around to identify the owners of the feet in question I found there was nobody there. We’d been plodding through the dark for almost half an hour when we were brought to a standstill for the first time by an immense thunderous growl that reverberated along the tunnel and sent a shower of dust down upon us.
“What on earth was that?” I asked in alarm.
“They must be blasting a new tunnel somewhere,” replied Clarence uncertainly.
“Is that quite safe?” asked Michael anxiously.
Clarence could only shrug unhappily in reply.
So we pressed on, doing our best to ignore the unnerving rumbles that continued to punctuate our progress at steady intervals. As we doggedly continued onwards in single order it became noticeable that the tunnels were becoming progressively darker and more rough-hewn the deeper we went. The spacious, well-timbered sections were fewer and far between, by-ways and secondary shafts more distant. As the number of miners to be glimpsed in the darkness dwindled significantly we allowed ourselves to consult with the map periodically in secluded spots to check we were on the right track.
Eventually we came upon a fork in the road. On Ratty McCulloch’s map two distinct small caverns were marked for exploration and this appeared to be the point at which their paths diverged. As it was quite some time since we had seen a living soul it seemed safe enough to slip the map out of my backpack for a further consultation.
“He could be just as easily down one shaft as another,” I remarked wearily after a quick inspection.
“Then I guess we’ll have to check both,” said Michael.
Clarence peered unhappily down each dark path in turn. “Which one first?”
There didn’t appear to be much to choose between them. Both tunnels, as far as I could see, appeared low and roughly sculpted. Michael, who by dint of being first in the line appeared to have been accorded the role of expedition leader, wandered a few yards down the left hand tunnel. He paused, peered intensely into the pitch black distance and sniffed the air. Then he returned, wandered up the right hand tunnel and did the same. Leaving Colonel Pendlebury and Clarence standing at the crossroads, studying the map with a puzzled air, I ambled along to see what Michael was up to.
“Alright then Redgrave,” I said. “What does your nose tell you?”
“That both tunnels smell like a pair of old socks,” replied Michael, wrinkling his nose in distaste. I had to admit the air down here did possess a particularly stale quality that had a far from pleasant effect on the olfactory organ.
Michael held up his lamp and peered into the gloom. “Though I thought perhaps I could see…” He turned and called out, “Clarence, you’ve got the brightest lamp. Come and see whether you think these might be footprints in the dust.”
Clarence trundled up and held out his lamp to allow all three of us to survey the dusty floor up ahead.
“Well, ain’t Old Joe right about just about everything.” The unexpected drawl from somewhere behind caused us all to whirl around with a start. “He said you folk must be onto something.” My stomach plunged as I saw the snarling figure of Grisham Jnr emerge from the shadows of the main tunnel behind us. His shotgun was cocked casually over his forearm and a particularly gaunt miner accompanied him, lighting his way with a lamp.
Grisham Jnr’s eyes were fixed greedily upon the map in Colonel Pendlebury’s hands as he advanced. “Seems like you got yourselves a nice little guide to a fortune there,” he drawled. Colonel Pendlebury looked up at him with the politely baffled look of the host of a cocktail party who has come upon a guest he isn’t quite able to place.
Michael took a step back towards them but Grisham Jnr instantly raised his shotgun in our direction. “Oh no you don’t,” he snapped. “You can stay right where you are.”
“Look, whatever it is that you want,” I interjected nervously, “would you mind not waving your shotgun around in here. You never know what might happen.” For a salutary lesson on the dangers of mixing firearms and confined spaces I could have regaled the unhappy story of Karl the secret agent and the corridor of the express train to Constantinople but I didn’t think Grisham Jnr was in quite the right mood for a full lecture.
Indeed, he fixed me with a particularly unpleasant glare. “What I want Missy,” he growled, “is that there map. So hand it over Gramps.”
This last instruction was directed at Colonel Pendlebury who merely continued to regard Grisham Jnr with his customary air of mild bafflement.
“Give me that map now!” barked the young Grisham, swinging his shotgun abruptly in Colonel Pendlebury’s direction.
“Actually boss, the lady might have a point,” piped up his companion, nervously eyeing the shotgun himself. “These low shafts ain’t always that well supported and you never know…”
“You stay out of this,” snapped Grisham Jnr.
“What do you want our map for anyway?” complained Clarence. “Even if we did find gold you’d be guaranteed 75% of it.”
“Well, y’see the mines ain’t been paying quite so well lately. Seems all the best seams were tapped years ago,” answered Grisham Jnr with a sneer. “So Old Joe and me have introduced a new statute. Any time we get wind of a good seam we step in and take over. Seems to me taking 100% of the gold is a better deal than taking 75%.”
Grisham Jnr smiled in satisfaction at his own plan. And, to be fair, it was hard to argue with his maths. “So give me the goddamn map Gramps!” he finally yelled.
Impatient of waiting, he reached out to grab the map from Colonel Pendlebury. At which point I caught a look of recognition finally dawn upon the old man’s face. “Why it’s you, you impudent young sprat!” he exclaimed.
Grasping one edge, Grisham Jnr gave the map a violent tug. Holding on to the other edge, Colonel Pendlebury tugged right back. As the two men grappled, Grisham Jnr made a grab for the shovel hanging from Colonel Pendlebury’s shoulder. In retaliation Colonel Pendlebury made a grab for Grisham Jnr’s shotgun.
“Look out!” I cried out almost simultaneously with Michael, Clarence and the miner with the lamp.
It was quite possibly the most futile warning cry ever issued. Of course, the inevitable naturally happened. After a few seconds of struggle the shotgun went off. Fortunately, the barrel was pushed upwards at the moment of firing and, somehow avoiding all flesh, the cartridge struck the roof of the tunnel a few metres in front of where Michael, Clarence and I were standing.
At least, it seemed fortunate for about half a second. For that was how long it was before a great thunderous roar, far louder than anything we had heard previously, began to rumble through the rock and the tunnel all around began to shake violently.
Both Colonel Pendlebury and Grisham Jnr had frozen at the sound of the shot and both were gawping open mouthed in the direction of the impact. So a view of the look of complete surprise on both of their stunned faces was the last thing that I saw before the roof began to fall and a sizeable portion of the mountain seemed to crash down between us.
To be continued…