Endrick stood there, 40 feet below dust devils and the hot sun, in one hand the rope, in the other a lantern — turned low, for the moment, to save oil. He stood on a rudimentary lift — a round wooden platform so small, to fit the narrow shaft, that there was room enough, barely, for his feet. Tied to a ring in the middle of the platform was a rope which rose upward, out of the shaft, over an iron crossbar, and around a spool which, turned via a crank one way or the other, raised the platform, or lowered it.
The rope. Holding it tightly with one hand, Endrick wished that it was only a little thicker, and not so frayed, in places. It was, after all, the only thing that kept him from plunging another 40 feet to the bottom of the shaft.
And men did fall. Very rarely, Endrick was told. But something about the way Paddys, the old man, had said this — lowering his voice a little, and his eyes — caused Endrick to wonder. He nearly asked his employer what happened to the men who did fall, but checked himself. It was better not knowing.
Endrick and the platform had been still for nearly a minute, as Paddys, locking the crank, took a midway break essential to his age. But now, his rest over, the creaking of the spool resumed, and the platform again began to lower. Soon Endrick could see nothing but the lantern itself, and beyond that the odd crystal glimmer of quartzes that was so much like the twinkling of stars that he felt, for a moment, that he must be in an open field, with the whole night sky spread before him.
The shaft was 80 feet deep, and it would take, according to Paddys, twice as many turns of the handle to deliver Endrick to his destination. Indeed, a second or two after hearing his employer’s shout of close, the platform struck the ground with a jolt.
The darkness deepened as Paddys leaned over the mouth of the shaft and cried: “All’s well, friend?”
“And you need nothing?”
“No. No, I don’t think so.”
“Then I’m off. Some business, in the village. Eleven, I’ll come wind you up. We’ll go for a drink, ah? And you’ll show me your treasures.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Endrick was sure he heard Paddys say, “I’m counting on it,” after his silhouette vanished.
Though the shaft itself was narrow, at a distance of 10 feet from the bottom it broadened, so that it had, on the whole, the shape of a long-necked chemical flask. There was a cavity on one side of the flask, which proved (Endrick thrust his lantern within it) to be a tunnel of considerable length. This was the Jewel Room, as Paddys called it, a new excavation that was to be the focus of Endrick’s attention.
The young man swung the bag from his back and retrieved from it a clawed instrument similar to a hand tiller. His objective wasn’t to dig — all the debris that could be removed from the shaft had been — but merely to scratch at the walls, scanning these for a telltale azure gleam: sapphires. It was tedious work, and dirty. The Room narrowed with distance, and Endrick knew he’d soon have to crouch, then kneel, and at last sit, as he moved from one end to the other.
Endrick set to work. Nearly three hours later, the fruit of his labor was a single diminutive blue stone. He dropped this into the drawstring pouch in his pocket, retrieved his water jar, and sat a minute drinking in the dirt, peering at the unexplored end of the Jewel Room, and wondering if his luck there would be any better.
At the extreme end of the Room — it was difficult to make out — was a scattering of rubbish (cigarette ends, empty jars) and a heap of rags that looked almost like the body of a man.
No … It was the body of a man.
Endrick crawled forward — for the ceiling here was low. He held out the lantern.
Yes. A man’s body. A lean man, and tall, and covered as much by dust as clothing. His wide-open eyes seemed almost to gaze back at Endrick.
“Hello,” said the man.
Endrick’s heart bounded out of his mouth, nearly.
“Hello,” he said back, at last.
“How long have you been down here?”
More silence. And then:
“Three days,” said the man. “Three hundred days.” He gave a low chuckle.
Endrick looked the man over. His left leg was resting at an unnatural angle. His trousers … They were saturated with blood.
“Are you — broken?” Endrick asked, gently.
“I’m not broken,” said the man, with a laugh. And then: “I’m broken. All over, I expect.”
The man showed his teeth.
“Can you move?”
He nodded. “I dragged myself. Back here. Can you guess why?”
Before Endrick could answer, the man turned his head to one side and rubbed his tongue against a broad, smooth stone embedded in the wall. The stone was beaded with moisture.
“I’ll get you out of here.”
“What you’ll do,” said the man, “if you have any brains in your head, is go about your business. Is” (wincing, lifting a finger) “to take my own stones, and then go. There’s a dozen here,” tapping his pocket, “that I gathered on the last day. He knows. It’s why he sent you.”
Endrick stared at the man for a minute, then said: “I think that if I took you by the waist, I could drag you to the lift and — ”
“Get away from me!”
The man kicked at Endrick with his right leg and a shout — of pain or rage, Endrick was uncertain. “Just leave me.”
“I won’t leave you.”
“Let go,” said the man, kicking first with his good, and then his injured leg, the scream of pain from the last shooting through the tunnel like a nerve.
Endrick listened this time, though not for his own sake. He crawled backward until there was room enough to sit upright.
“It’s simple,” he said, breathing heavily. “You lie still, and I drag you to the lift and — ”
“And what? There’s room enough, barely, on the lift, for one man. I can’t stand.”
“I’ll help you,” said Endrick.
The man shook his head.
“What’s the good of it? If I could stand, even then, if we could squeeze ourselves both onto the platform, the balance, the weight must be just so, or we’ll both fall. The board’s thin. The rope would never hold.” Grinning, “It’s a long way down.”
“Something could be done.”
The man only laughed.
“Even if he could,” he went on, stopping Endrick before he could speak, “if he wished to, he’d never have the strength, not at his age, to lift the two of us. And he wouldn’t wish to.”
The man again showed his teeth, the only clean part of him.
Endrick got onto his hands and knees. He crawled a few paces. “Whether you like it or not,” he said, “I’m going to help you.”
The man laughed. He swore. He laughed again — and was silent.
Dragging the man from the tunnel was a difficult enough task, and one not lightened any by his screams, his lapses into resistance, the occasional kick. In time, though, the two of them cleared the mouth of the Jewel Room and reached the middle of the main shaft, where the platform lay in a dim circle of light.
They rested a while, in silence. Then:
“Can you sit up?” asked Endrick.
“No,” said the man. “I don’t think so.”
“You were sitting when I found you.”
“Do it anyway.”
With assistance from Endrick, who held his shoulders, the man did, at last, with a long moan, sit up.
“Good. Your right leg. Is that one good enough to stand on?”
“Have you tried?”
The man only glared.
“Try it now.”
He did — and roared.
“I won’t do it,” he said. “It’s murder.”
But Endrick only positioned himself behind the man and, grasping him under the arms, lifted him upright.
“Now grab the rope,” he said, once the groaning and the dust had settled together. “Grab the rope, and I’ll help you onto the platform.”
The man groaned a little more, but obeyed, collapsing against Endrick’s chest.
“What now?” he rasped in Endrick’s ear.
“We wait. It’s past eleven. Paddys will be back soon.”
“Paddys,” Endrick repeated.
The man shook his head. “He won’t come back.”
“He will. Any minute.”
Five minutes passed. Another five. Another ten.
“I don’t know your name,” said Endrick.
“Your name,” the man repeated, dreamily. He’d lost, Endrick surmised, a great deal of blood. He considered jostling the man, but didn’t want to aggravate his pain. They needed to hold still, besides. To keep their balance.
They waited, it felt, forever. There was occasional talk — vague questions, on Endrick’s part, answered always, it seemed to him, in riddles — but this grew more and more scant, and lapsed, at last, into silence.
The man’s eyes were closed now. He’d grown so heavy. Endrick was considering the wisdom of sitting, when —
“All right down there?” came a voice from above, as a shadow passed over the men.
“Yes,” cried Endrick. “I’m ready.”
“On the platform?”
On Endrick’s shoulder, the man either laughed, or whimpered.
“I’m ready,” was all Endrick said.
“All right,” said Paddys, backing away from the hole. “Hold on.”
The rope quivered. At last, though slowly, it began to move.
“You’re heavy,” said Paddys, grunting.
“Fool,” whispered the man. “Foolish. Fool.”
They were ascending, Endrick guessed, at less than half the usual rate. The spool yelped with every crank.
A cry from above: “I can’t hold it! You’re too heavy! I can’t hold.”
With his free hand, the man reached down, retrieved something from his pocket, then stuffed it into Endrick’s.
“No,” cried Endrick.
The man showed his teeth.
“I can’t hold!” cried Paddys again.
The man relaxed his grip on the rope. It became difficult, now, to support him, to keep balanced. The platform began to tip.
“You’re too heavy!”
Endrick looked into the man’s eyes. There was light enough, now, to see them. They were so full of dust … Endrick couldn’t discern their color.
He let go of the man’s waist.
A moment later, far below… a soft sound.
Endrick very quickly found his balance.
“Better,” came the voice of Paddys, above. “Much better. It’s easier, now. It’s easy.”
Endrick held very still. In a minute, there would be sunlight on his face.
Featured image: Illustrated by Rolli.
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