The makeshift saloon in "downtown" Blacksand had seen better days -- and it was only a few months old. Already three chairs and two tables were smashed to firewood, if not to kindling, the one remaining hand-turned leg among them now serving as a club in the hands of the man who most, but not all, would later agree had started the fight.
"I said I don't know nothing about it," the man, bellowed. The chair leg made an audible whooshing sound as he missed his target. His opponent had seen the blow coming and taken an easy step back, even taking the time to spit to one side as the wood missed his jaw.
"I would never go so far as to accuse you of knowing anything," the spitting man, a drifter who claimed to have come through the settlement seeking employment, said.
This insouciance just made the man with the club even angrier.
"Clinton Ellison Wayne, don't you bust up this place," a woman anxiously watching the developing brawl called out, reaching with one hand to grope blindly behind her for a whiskey bottle before it toppled over the cards the two men had so hastily abandoned.
"Who let that woman in here?" someone demanded over the sound of a punch finally connecting. “Is nowhere sacred?”
"Who let you in here?" The woman sipped daintily from her rescued prize.
"Get out of here before someone gets hurt!"
"I would say the same to you," the woman said, spinning around to fix the speaker with a severe and unfriendly squint. Her voice was very soft and very calm, which, had the object of her attention thought about it at all, would have signaled to him that he was in trouble.
"Donald, if you please," she said.
Without further ado, Donald and another dirty, muscled old-timer seized the loudmouth by the arms and hustled him out of the saloon.
"Mr. Johnston is going to hear about this, be assured," the woman called out after them. “Won’t he, boys?”
"Shore thing, Miss Louise," came a voice from the other side of the swinging doors.
"Oh, and clear out of the..."
The fight spilled abruptly out of doors on the heels of the ejection.
"Way..." the woman -- Miss Louise -- murmured. She sighed, set the bottle back down on the card table, and picked her way around the wreckage of the room's other furniture.
"I told grandpa he was a fool to open this place up like this," Louise said, dusting herself off and smiling at the man tending bar. "I suppose we'd best fetch him."
The bartender touched his hat and headed out the door, through which the sounds of fighting could still be heard.
Louise sighed, cast a long-suffering glance at the shambles left in the fight’s wake, and followed everyone else out of the building.
The action was nearly impossible to see, lost in clouds of dark dust that stung the eyes and coated the skin. The settlement of Blacksand had been founded to exploit a seam of coal near the surface that a degree promised prosperity as soon as the railroad came through this part of the territory. The handful of workers harvesting this bounty had come out on promises of minerals more lucrative than coal, but made do with what they found after no gold or silver turned up, gladly accepting Louise's grandfather's offers of employment when their own, often pitiful, resources ran out.
It was usually a peaceful town, the miners too tired after long shifts to cause much trouble and, Louise had to admit, too poorly paid to have much to cause trouble with.
Which was why Louise was making no great effort to break up the fight between Clinton and the newcomer whom even she suspected of having cheated at cards.
"You big dummies," she screamed into the dust. "You’re all in big, big trouble!"
"No you're not," a bystander told her.
"Is that a threat?"
"No, just... ain't you heard?"
"The Blacksand's on fire, ma'am."
"Oh god, it's true," Louise said, hat twisted up in her hands as she watched enormous clouds of black smoke billow forth from the air shaft where dozens of her grandfather's employees were gathered. "Does Grandpa know yet?"
"Oh, he knows," a miner said. He took a quick look at his hand, decided it was too filthy to put on Miss Louise's shoulder and ruin her pretty new blouse. She may wear britches, the miners said to each other, but she's still a lady.
Louise kept looking at the smoke. "He's down in it, isn't he?" she said. No emotion showed on her face or in her voice, but her hat was nearing irreparably crumpled, would have been torn to pieces if it were the kind of lacy bonnet most of her contemporaries favored.
"'Fraid so, miss."
"Trying to rescue his men."
"Weren't too many down there, at least."
"Thank god for that," she said, but she didn't sound especially thankful. "And what are we doing about it up here?"
"What can you do, miss? Wait for it to burn out, I reckon."
"That could take years, you fool! Do you know how much coal is down there? " Her laughter was brittle. She moved to approach the mine. This time the man standing next to her did reach out, filthy hands and all, to stop her. The shock of it brought her momentarily to her senses, but he held on to her as she surveyed the scene.
"They're not too deep down, are they? I've never... I've never been," she said.
"Naw, that seam's up purty close. Hundert feet or so, maybe two."
"We need a head count as soon as possible. We have to find out how many people are down there."
"Yer grandpaw said there was eight."
"Eight plus him makes nine," she corrected.
“Here come some!” someone shouted, and it was true. First one man, then another, and then what might be the rest stumbled out of the mine entrance, coughing, clutching their chests, tripping over sage brush. Then at last came two more.
Louise tore herself out of the miner's restraining arms and ran toward the shaft, from which the last man had just emerged. Louise flung her arms about him and all but lifted him off the ground.
“Let me go, girl!” Thomas Johnston was not a demonstrative man.
“You’re all right?”
“Of course I am.”
Louise was unwilling to let go of her grandfather completely, and escorted him from the mineshaft with a loving arm over his shoulders. Around her, the rest of the men who had nearly been trapped fell to the ground. One struggled mightily to breathe, coughing up huge gouts of sooty phlegm. Another seemed unconscious.
“How bad is it?”
“Bad. Whole damn mine is burning up.”
“Oh god, what are we going to do?”
“What can we do. Pray and plan and pack up.”
“What?” Louise stopped walking, stunned. It was not like him to give up.
“No, there has to be something. Suffocate it somehow…”
“We dug seven big ventilation shafts, girl,” her grandfather waved her off. “No. We’re done.”
They resumed walking away
“It was that fool Sutton. Drunker’n a two-peckered billy goat and knocked over a lantern. Stupid ass can’t hold his firewater.”
Louise stopped short again, casting her eyes over the landscape. She tugged at her grandfather’s sleeve. “What did you say?”
“Can’t hold his firewater.”
“That’s it!” she let go and took several strides to the south on her own. Unktehi Creek was running bankful, swollen with spring runoff. Louise snapped her fingers. “That’s it! Hey, you guys, grab all the shovels you can. Pickaxes too.” She ran toward the water’s edge.
“The hell you on about?” her grandfather shouted.
“We’re going to put out the fire, grandpa. Come on, you bastards! Get over here.”
Her grandfather, still spry, ran coughing to her side.
“Just what the hell are you planning, young lady?”
“Look at all this water,” Louise said.
“Yeah, and?” there was a warning edge to her grandfather’s voice. He knew what she was thinking, just wanted her to say it.
“All we have to do is divert it.”
“And drown the mine? How will that make things better?”
“It will put the fire out, for starters. It will save all that coal.”
“By submerging it completely?”
“Well, yes, in the short run.”
“And the long. You think all that water will just go away once the fire’s out?”
“Shh. I’m thinking about that.”
“This is tomfoolery.”
“Walk with me, grandpa.”
Louise surveyed the banks, looking for a lower point, looking for a path. “We just have to dig a trench and divert some,” she said softly, distracted by her thoughts. “We don’t have to re-route the whole creek.”
“You dig a channel deep enough to let the water run, you’re getting the whole creek. Forever.”
“Not if it’s shallow enough. We just want a little of the extra runoff.”
“Louise, I love that you’re trying.”
“Don’t you patronize me.”
“I’m not. But it’s my mine and I’ll make the decisions. Where’s Powe? Powe! Get over here!” Obie Powe was the mining engineer Thomas had hired out of West Virginia the year before.”
“He’s still out cold, sir!” a man shouted from where the rest of the rescued were still gathered.
“Wake ‘im up and get ‘im over here!”
“If he agrees with me, we’re doing this. Right?” Louise insisted.
“If he agrees with you, I’ll dig the damn trench myself. But!”
“But what? Your fortune’s going up in smoke.”
“It’s yours too, my dear, don’t forget that.”
“Don’t you ‘grandfather’ me, girlie.”
“Sorry. But what’s your ‘but’?”
“But… you still haven’t told me how we’re gonna rescue the mine after we flood it.”
“I’m still thinking on that. And maybe Obie will have an idea too.”
From the chaos near the mine entrance came two men, one supporting the other’s weight. They were as filthy as Grandfather, coughing and covered in soot.
“You wanted me, sir?” Powe said, leaning heavily on his friend.
“Yes. You feeling better, boy?”
“I’ll live. Thanks for getting us out, sir. You saved all our lives. Still got a fine set of lungs on ya.”
“Well, look. My granddaughter here has an idea about putting the fire out.”
Powe cast a sour look at Louise. New to the operation, he’d still not learned to respect her or her opinions.
“Hear me out, Obie,” she said. “Look at the creek here.”
“What if we dug a shallow trench, right about there,” she began, pointing, “And –“
“And what, flood the pit? Wait…” All the scorn had left Obie. “Wait, yes. If we keep it shallow and just get the overflow, yes, that could work.”
His look was one of awe.
“That’s our girl,” his partner, young Andrew Gardner, said proudly. “Almost as smart as her pappy.”
“Almost too smart for her own good,” her grandfather said. “And as crazy as her damn father.”
“Why would you say that?” Louise said. Her father had blown himself up excavating the very mine they were now trying to save.
“I apologize. But tell me, Powe. This damn idea of hers – any good?”
“Actually, yes, Mr. Johnston. Been did before.”
“Done,” Louise whispered.
“What was that?” her grandfather asked.
“But so, what do we do after?”
“Grandpa, I think I know…” Louise said. “You still got that Montgomery Wards catalog we got last month?”
“Some of it, yeah. What we haven’t wiped with yet.”
Louise made a face at this.
“Well, I think there was an ad in it…”
“It’s all ads, my girl. That’s what it’s for.”
“…For steam-driven pumps.”
Her grandfather began to laugh, quickly, nervously joined by Powe and Gardner.
“What? I’m serious.”
“Ho ho ho, I know you are, m’girl,” Thomas said, hugging her. “You’re brilliant. Isn’t she brilliant, Obie? Brilliant!”
“Was what I were fixin’ to suggest,” Obie said, spitting up a gob sooty phlegm.
“Well, what the hell are we standing around for?” Thomas demanded. “You lot, get your asses over her and get to diggin’. We’re burning daylight. And coal.”
They dug until dusk, starting from the edge of the nearest ventilation shaft and working toward the edge of the creek. The men who had been rescued were excused from this labor, all except for Sutton, who had been told he could either dig or find other employment.
The Johnston mine was the only employment – the only settlement of any kind – for a good hundred miles in either direction.
Louise stayed up far into the night, poring over the remains of the last Montgomery Wards catalog anyone had received with Obie Powe, figuring out how many pumps they would need and penning a letter to place the order.
“These should do us a treat,” Powe said. “And, to be honest, we should have had some on hand anyway. Vital equipment, for a mine like this, back east.”
“Back east, the water table is a few inches underground,” Thomas snapped from his bed at them. “I don’t know how you people get anything out of there.”
“Which is why you hired me,” Powe said.
“Miss Louise, you’d make a fine engineer, if you was…”
“If I was a man?”
“Times change, Mr. Powe. Times change.”
At dawn the next morning, Thomas Johnston roused his entire crew except for one badly injured man whom all suspected of having irrevocably singed his lungs – Thomas said later Shane Quenzer had been the last man out, had stayed behind to make sure there were no stragglers – and, true to his word, had grabbed a shovel himself.
No one protested when Louise, tall as a man and nearly as strong as some, joined in the effort.
By midday, the crew broke through the last crust of earth separating their trench from the creek. The last strokes of the pick were difficult and muddy, as the water gushed forth on its way to the mine.
By sundown, the thick black smoke that had poured nonstop from the mine entrance and its ventilation shafts had mostly changed to steam.
They had done it.
“Now we’ve just gotta wait for the Pony Express to send off our order, I reckon,” Powe said, standing with Thomas and Louise and admiring their handiwork.
“The hell we do. Sutton! Sutton!”
The woebedraggled miner had stayed close to his employer since the trouble had started.
“Rest good, boy. You’re a-riding east in the morning.”
“You’re not in Deadwood and mailing Miss Louise’s letter in three days time, you in a whole heap o’trouble, boy.”
“Yes sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
“You’ve said that about a thousand times already. Time to prove it.”
Sutton said nothing more and retired to the shack he shared with a dozen others.
“Now, grandfather,” Louise said sweetly. “About that stupid saloon of yours…”