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Burnham Breaker by Homer Greene

Part 7 out of 7

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"Ah, man! but ye're foolish. Ye'll be losin' your own life, I warrant,
an' ye'll be doin' no good to the boy."

But Billy had already started from the door.

"I might be able to do a bit toward savin' 'im," he said. "An' if he's
beyon' that, as mos' like he is, I s'ould want to get the lad's body
an' care for it mysel'. I kenned 'im best."

The two men were walking up through the narrow street of the village.

"I hear now that it's Mrs. Burnham's son he is," said Andy. "Lawyer
Goodlaw came yesterday wid the news."

Billy did not seem surprised.

He trudged on, saying simply:--

"Then he's worthy of his mither, the lad is, an' of his father. I'm
thankfu' that he's got some one at last, besides his Uncle Billy,
happen it's only to bury 'im."

The fresh, cool air seemed to have revived and strengthened the
invalid, and he went on at a more rapid pace. But he was weak enough
still. He wavered from side to side as he walked, and his face was
very pale.

When the two men reached the site of the burned breaker, they went
directly to the opening to learn the latest news concerning the
search. There was not much, however, for them to hear. The shaft was
entirely cleaned out and men had been down into the mine, but they had
not been able to get far from the foot, the air was so very bad.

A rough partition was being built now, down the entire depth of the
opening, a cover had been erected over the mouth of the shaft, and a
fan had been put up temporarily, to drive fresh air into the mine and
create an atmosphere there that would support life.

It was not long after the arrival of the two men before another party
of miners stepped into the bucket to be lowered into the mine.

Bachelor Billy asked to be allowed to go with them, but his request
was denied. They feared that, in his present condition, the foul air
below would be fatal to him.

The party could not go far from the foot of the shaft, no farther,
indeed, than the inside plane. But they found nothing, no sign
whatever of the missing boy.

Others went down afterward, and pushed the exploration farther, and
still others. It seemed probable that the lad, driven back by the
smoke and gas, had taken refuge in some remote portion of the mine;
and the portion that he would be apt to choose, they thought, would
be the portion with which he had been most familiar. They therefore
extended the search mainly in that direction.

But it was night before they reached those chambers which Ralph had
been accustomed to serve with cars. They looked them over thoroughly;
every entrance and every corner was scrutinized, but no trace of the
imprisoned boy could be found.

Bachelor Billy had not left the place. He had been the first to hear
the report of each returning squad, but his hope for the lad's safety
had disappeared long before the sun went down. When night came on he
went up on the bank and sat under the tree on the bench; the same
bench on which he had sat that day in May to listen to the story of
Ralph's temptation. His only anxiety now was that the child's body
should be brought speedily from the foul air, so that the face might
be kept as fair as possible for the mother's sake.

Conway, who had gone down into the mine with the first searching
party, had been overcome by the foul air, and had been brought out
insensible and taken to his home. But he had recovered, and was now
back again at the shaft. It seemed to him, he said, as though he was
compelled to return; as though there was something to be done here
that only he could do. He was sitting on the bench now with Bachelor
Billy, and they were discussing the lad's heroic sacrifice, and
wondering to what part of the mine he could have gone that the search
of half a day should fail to disclose his whereabouts.

A man who had just come out from the shaft, exhausted, was assisted up
the bank by two companions, and laid down on the grass near the bench,
in the moonlight, to breathe the fresh air that was stirring there.

After a little, he revived, and began to tell of the search.

"It's very strange," he said, "where the lad could have gone. We
thought to find him in the north tier, and we went up one chamber and
down the next, and looked into every entrance, but never a track of
him could we get."

He turned to Conway, who was standing by, and continued:--

"Up at the face o' your chamber we found a dead mule with his collar
on. The poor creature had gone there, no doubt, to find good air. He'd
climbed up on the very shelf o' coal at the breast to get the farthest
he could. Did ye ever hear the like?"

But Conway did not answer. A vague solution of the mystery of Ralph's
disappearance was dawning on him. He turned suddenly to the man, and

"Did ye see the hole in the face when ye were there; a hole the size
o' your head walled up with stone-coal?"

"I took no note o' such a thing. What for had ye such a hole there,
an' where to?"

"Into the old mine," said Conway, earnestly, "into old No. 1. The boy
saw it yisterday. I told 'im where it wint. He's broke it in, and
crawled through, he has, I'll bet he has. Come on; we'll find 'im
yet!" and he started rapidly down the hill toward the mouth of the

Bachelor Billy rose from the bench and stumbled slowly after him;
while the man who had told them about the mule lifted himself to his
elbows, and looked down on them in astonishment.

He could not quite understand what Conway meant.

The superintendent of the mine had gone. The foreman in charge of the
windlass and fan stood leaning against a post, with the light of a
torch flaring across his swarthy face.

"Let me down!" cried Conway, hastening to the opening. "I know where
the boy is; I can find 'im."

The man smiled. "It's against orders," he responded. "Wait till Martin
comes back an' the next gang goes in; then ye can go."

"But I say I know where the boy is. I can find 'im in half an hour.
Five minutes delay might cost 'im his life."--

The man looked at Conway in doubt and wonder; he was hesitating
between obedience and inclination.

Then Bachelor Billy spoke up, "Why, mon!" he exclaimed, "what's orders
when a life's at stake? We _mus'_ go doon, I tell ye! An ye hold us
back ye'll be guilty o' the lad's daith!"

His voice had a ring of earnestness in it that the man could not
resist. He moved to the windlass and told his helpers to lower the
bucket. Conway entreated Bachelor Billy not to go down, and the
foreman joined in the protest. They might as well have talked to
the stars.

"Why, men!" said Billy, "tha's a chance as how the lad's alive. An
that be so no ither body can do for 'im like me w'en he's foond. I
wull go doon, I tell ye; I _mus'_ go doon!"

He stepped carefully into the bucket, Conway leaped in after him, and
they were lowered away.

At the bottom of the shaft they found no one but the footman, whose
duty it was to remain steadily at his post. He listened somewhat
incredulously to their hasty explanations, he gave to them another
lighted lamp, and wished them good-luck as they started away into the

In spite of his determination and self-will, Bachelor Billy's strength
gave out before they had reached the head of the plane, and he was
obliged to stop and rest. Indeed, he was compelled often to do this
during the remainder of the journey, but he would not listen to any
suggestion that he should turn back. The air was still very impure,
although they could at times feel the fresh current from the shaft at
their backs.

They met no one. The searching parties were all south of the shaft
now, this part of the mine having been thoroughly examined.

By the time the two men had reached the foot of Conway's chamber,
they were nearly prostrated by the foul air they had been compelled
to breathe. Both were still feeble from recent illnesses and were
without the power to resist successfully the effects of the poisoned
atmosphere. They made their way up the chamber in silence, their limbs
unsteady, their heads swimming, their hearts beating violently. At the
breast Conway clambered up over the body of the mule and thrust his
lighted lamp against the walled-up aperture.

"He's gone through here!" he cried. "He's opened up the hole an' gone

The next moment he was tearing away the blocks of slate and coal
with both hands. But his fingers were stiff and numb, and the work
progressed too slowly. Then he braced himself against the body of the
mule, pushed with his feet against Ralph's rude wall, and the next
moment it fell back into the old mine. He brushed away the bottom
stones and called to his companion.

"Come!" he said, "the way's clear an' we'll find better air in there."

But Bachelor Billy did not respond. He had fallen against the lower
face of coal, unconscious. Conway saw that he must do quick work.

He reached over, grasped the man by his shoulders, and with superhuman
effort drew him up to the shelf and across the body of the mule. Then,
creeping into the opening, he pulled the helpless man through with him
into the old mine, and dragged him up the chamber out of reach of the
poisoned current. He loosened his collar and chafed his wrists and the
better air in there did the rest.

Bachelor Billy soon returned to consciousness, and learned where he

"That was fulish in me," he said, "to weaken like that; but I'm no'
used to that white damp. Gi' me a minute to catch ma breath an' I'll
go wi' ye."

Conway went down and walled up the opening again. When he came back
Bachelor Billy was on his feet, walking slowly down the chamber,
throwing the light of his lamp into the entrances on the way.

"Did he go far fra the openin,' thenk ye?" he asked. "Would he no'
most like stay near whaur he cam' through?"

Then he tried to lift up his voice and call to the boy; but he was too
weak, he could hardly have been heard across the chamber.

"Call 'im yoursel', Mike," he said; "I ha' no power i' my throat,
some way."

Conway called, loudly and repeatedly. There was no answer; the echoes
came rattling back to their ears, and that was all that they heard.

"Mayhap he's gone to the headin'," said Billy, "an" tried to get oot
by the auld slope."

"That's just what he's done," replied Conway, earnestly; "I told 'im
where the old openin' was; he's tried to get to it."

"Then we'll find 'im atween here an' there."

The two men had been moving slowly down the chamber. When they came to
the foot of it, they turned into the air-way, and from that they went
through the entrance into the heading. At this place the dirt on the
floor was soft and damp, and they saw in it the print of a boy's shoe.

"He's gone in," said Bachelor Billy, examining the foot-prints, "he's
gone in toward the face. I ken the place richt well, it's mony's the
time I ha' travelled it."

They hurried in along the heading, not stopping to look for other
tracks, but expecting to find the boy's body ahead of them at every
step they took.

When they reached the face, they turned and looked at each other in

"He's no' here," said Billy.

"It's strange, too," replied Conway. "He couldn't 'a' got off o' the

He stooped and examined the floor of the passage carefully, holding
his lamp very low.

"Billy," he said, "I believe he's come in an' gone out again. Here's
tracks a-pointin' the other way."

"So he has, Mike, so he has; the puir lad!"

Bachelor Billy was thinking of the disappointment Ralph must have felt
when he saw the face of the heading before him, and knew that his
journey in had been in vain.

Already the two men had turned and were walking back.

At the point where they had entered the heading they found foot-prints
leading out toward the slope. They had not noticed them at first.

They followed them hastily, and came, as Ralph had come, to the fall.

"He's no' climbit it," said Billy. "He's gone up an' around it. The
lad knew eneuch aboot the mines for that."

They passed up into the chambers, but the floor was too dry to take
the impress of footsteps, and they found no trace of the boy.

When they reached the upper limit of the fall, Billy said:--

"We mus' turn sharp to the left here, or we'll no' get back. It's a
tarrible windin' headin'."

But Conway had discovered tracks, faintly discernible, leading across
into a passage used by men and mules to shorten the distance to the
inner workings.

"He's a-goin' stret back," said Billy, sorrowfully, as they slowly
followed these traces, "he's a-goin' stret back to whaur he cam'

Surely enough the prints of the child's feet soon led the tired
searchers back to the opening from Conway's chamber.

They looked at each other in silent disappointment, and sat down for a
few moments to rest and to try to think.

Bachelor Billy was the first to rise to his feet.

"Mike," he said, "the lad's i' this auld mine. Be it soon or late I
s'all find 'im. I s'all search the place fra slope to headin'-face. I
s'all no' gae oot till I gae wi' the boy or wi' 'is body; what say ye?
wull ye help?"

Conway grasped the man's hand with a pressure that meant more than
words, and they started immediately to follow their last track back.
They passed up and down all the chambers in the tier till they reached
the point, at the upper limit of the fall, where Ralph had turned into
the foot-way. Their search had been a long and tiresome one and had
yielded to them no results.

They began to appreciate the fact that a thorough exploration of the
mine could not be made in a short time by two worn-out men. Billy
blamed himself for not having thought sooner to send for other and
fresher help.

"Ye mus' go now, Mike," he said. "Mayhap it'd take days wi' us twa
here alone, an' the lad's been a-wanderin' aroun' so."

But Conway demurred.

"You're the one to go," he said. "You can't stan' it in here much
longer, an' I can. You're here at the risk o' your life. Go on out
with ye an' get a bit o' the fresh air. I'll stay and hunt for the
boy till the new men comes."

But Bachelor Billy was in earnest.

"I canna do it," he said. "I would na get farther fra the lad for
warlds, an' him lost an' a-dyin' mayhap. I'll stan' it. Never ye fear
for me! Go on, Mike, go on quick!"

Conway turned reluctantly to go.

"Hold out for an hour," he shouted back, "an' we'll be with ye!"

Before the sound of his footsteps had died away, Billy had picked up
his lamp again and started down on the easterly side of the fall,
making little side excursions as he went, hunting for foot-prints on
the floor of the mine.

When he came to the heading, he turned to go back to the face of the
fall. It was but a few steps. There was a little stream of water
running down one side of the passage and he lay down by it to drink.
Half hidden in the stream he espied a miner's lamp. He reached for it
in sudden surprise. He saw that it had been lately in use. He started
to his feet and moved up closer to the fall, looking into the dark
places under the rock. His foot struck something; it was the oil-can.
He picked it up and examined it. There was blood on it; and both can
and lamp were empty. He looked up at the face of the fall and then
the truth came slowly into his mind. The boy had attempted to climb
through that wilderness of rock, had reached the precipice, had fallen
to the floor, had spilled his oil, and had wandered off into the
dreadful darkness, hurt and helpless.

"Oh, the puir lad!" he said, aloud. "Oh, the puir dear lad! He canna
be far fra here," he continued, "not far. Ralph! Ralph!"

He waited a moment in silence, but there was no answer. Then, hastily
examining the passage as he went, he hurried down along the heading.

At one place he found a burned match. The boy had gone this way, then.
He hastened on. He came to a point where two headings met, and stopped
in indecision. Which route had Ralph taken? He decided to try the one
that led to the slope. He went in that way, but he had not gone ten
rods before he came upon a little heap of charred rags in the middle
of the passage. He could not understand it at first; but he was not
long in discovering what it meant. Ralph had burned his jacket to
light up the path.

"Ah! the sufferin' child!" he murmured; "the dear sufferin' child!"

A little further along he saw a boy's cap lying in the way. He picked
it up and placed it in his bosom. He brushed away a tear or two
from his eyes and hastened on. It was no time to weep over the lad's
sufferings when he expected to find his body at every step he took.
But he went a long distance and saw no other sign of the boy's
passage. He came to a place at last where the dirt on the floor of the
heading was wet. He bent down and made careful scrutiny from side to
side, but there were no foot-prints there save his own. He had, in his
haste gone too far. He turned back with a desperate longing at his
heart. He knew that the lad must be somewhere near.

At one point, an unblocked entrance opened from the heading into the
air-way at an acute angle. He thought the boy might have turned into
that, and he passed up through it and so into the chambers. He stopped
at times to call Ralph's name, but no answer ever came. He wandered
back, finally, toward the fall, and down into the heading where
the burned coat was. After a few moments of rest, he started again,
examining every inch of the ground as he went. This time he found
where Ralph had turned off into the air-way. He traced his foot-prints
up through an entrance into the chambers and there they were again
lost. But he passed on through the open places, calling as he went,
and came finally to the sump near the foot of the slope. He held his
lamp high and looked out over the black surface of the water. Not far
away the roof came down to meet it. A dreadful apprehension entered
the man's mind. Perhaps Ralph had wandered unconsciously into this
black pool and been drowned. But that was too terrible; he would
not allow himself to think of it. He turned away, went back up the
chamber, and crossed over again to the air-way. Moving back a little
to search for foot-prints, he came to an old door-way and sat clown by
it to rest--yes, and to weep. He could no longer think of the torture
the child must have endured in his wanderings through the old mine and
keep the tears from his eyes. He almost hoped that death had long ago
come to the boy's relief.

"Oh, puir lad!" he sobbed, "puir, puir lad!"

Below him, in the darkness, he heard the drip of water from the roof.
Aside from that, the place was very, very still.

Then, for a moment, his heart stopped beating and he could not move.

He had heard a voice somewhere near him saying:--

"Good-night, Uncle Billy! If I wake first in the mornin', I'll call

It was what Ralph was used to saying when he went to bed at home. But
it was not Ralph's voice sounding through the darkness; it was only
the ghost of Ralph's voice.

In the next moment the man's strength returned to him; he seized his
lamp and leaped through the old door-way, and there at his feet lay
Ralph. The boy was living, breathing, talking.

Billy fell on his knees beside him and began to push the hair back
from his damp forehead, kissing it tenderly as he did so.

"Ralph," he said, "Ralph, lad, dinna ye see me? It's your Uncle Billy,
Ralph, your Uncle Billy."

The boy did not open his eyes, but his lips moved.

"Did you call me, Uncle Billy?" he asked. "Is it mornin'? Is it

"It'll soon be daylight, lad, verra soon noo, verra soon."

He had fastened his lamp in his cap, placed his arms gently under the
child's body, and lifted him to his breast. He stood for a moment
then, questioning with himself. But the slope was the nearest and the
way to it was the safest, and there was no time to wait. He started
down the air-way on his journey to the outer world, bearing his burden
as tenderly as a mother would have borne her babe, looking down at
times into the still face, letting the tears drop now and then on the
paper pinned to the boy's breast.

He stopped to rest after a little, holding the child on his knees as
he sat, and looking curiously at the letter, on which his tears had
fallen. He read it slowly by the light of his lamp, bending back the
fold to do so. He did not wonder at it. He knew what it meant and why
the boy had fastened it there.

"Ye s'all gae to her, lad," he said, "ye s'all gae to the mither. I'm
thankfu', verra thankfu', that the father kenned the truth afoor he

He raised his precious burden to his heart and began again his

The water in the old sump had risen and flowed across the heading and
the air-way and far up into the chambers, and he was compelled to go
around it. The way was long and devious; it was blocked and barred;
he had often to lay his burden down and make an opening through some
walled-up entrance to give them room for passage.

There were falls in his course, and he clambered across rough hills
of rock and squeezed through narrow openings; but every step brought
him nearer to the slope, and this thought nerved him to still greater
effort. Yet he could not wholly escape the water of the sump. He had
still to pass through it. It was cold and black. It came to his ankles
as he trudged along. By and by it reached to his knees. When it grew
to be waist-deep he lifted the child to his shoulder, steadied himself
against the side wall of the passage and pushed on. He slipped often,
he became dizzy at times, there were horrible moments when he thought
surely that the dark water would close over him and his precious
burden forever. But he came through it at last, dripping, gasping,
staggering on till he reached the foot of the old slope. There he sat
down to rest. From away back in the mine the echoing shouts of the
rescuing party came faintly to his ears. Conway had returned with
help. He tried to answer their call, but the cry stuck in his throat.

He knew that it would be folly for him to attempt to reach them; he
knew also that they would never trace his course across that dreadful
waste of water.

There was but one thing to do; he must go on, he must climb the slope.

He gave one look up the long incline, gathered his burden to his
breast and started upward. The slope was not a steep one. There were
many in that region that were steeper; but to a man in the last stage
of physical exhaustion, forcing his tired muscles and his pain-racked
body to carry him and his helpless charge up its slippery way, it was
little less than precipitous.

It was long too, very long, and in many places it was rough with
dislodged props and caps and fallen rock.

Many and many a time Bachelor Billy fell prone upon the sloping floor,
but, though he was powerless to save himself, though he met in his own
body the force of every blow, he always held the child out of harm's

He began to wonder, at last, if he could ever get the lad to the
surface; if, within fifty rods of the blessed outer air, he would not
after all have to lie down and die with Ralph in his arms.

But as soon as such thoughts came to him he brought his tremendous
will and magnificent courage to the rescue, and arose and struggled

The boy had not spoken since the journey began, nor had he opened his
eyes. He was still unconscious, but he was breathing; his heart was
beating, there was life in his body, and that was all that could be
asked or hoped for.

At last! oh, at last! The straight, steep, dreadful half mile of slope
was at Bachelor Billy's back. He stood out once more in the free and
open air. Under his feet were the grass and flowers and yielding soil;
over his head were the shining stars, now paling in the east; below
him lay the fair valley and the sleeping town clothed lightly in the
morning mist; and in his arms he still held the child who had thought
never again to draw breath under the starry sky or in the dewy air.
There came a faint breeze, laden with all the fragrance of the young
morning, and it swept Ralph's cheek so gently that the very sweetness
of it made his eyes to open.

He looked at the reddening east, at the setting stars still glowing in
the western sky, at the city church spires rising out of the sea of
silver mist far down below him, and then at last up into the dear old
face and the tear-wet eyes above him, and he said: "Uncle Billy, oh,
Uncle Billy! don't you think it's beautiful? I wish--I wish my mother
could see it."

"Aye, lad! she s'all look upon it wi' ye, mony's the sweet mornin'
yet, an it please the good God."

The effort to look and to speak had overpowered the weary child, and
he sank back again into unconsciousness.

Then began the journey home. Not to the old cottage; that was Ralph's
home no longer, but to the home of wealth and beauty now, to the
mansion yonder in the city where the mother was waiting for her boy.

Aye! the mother was waiting for her boy.

They had sent a messenger on horseback shortly after midnight to tell
her that the lad's tracks had been found in the old mine, that all the
men at hand had started in there to make the search more thorough,
that by daylight the child would be in her arms, that possibly, oh! by
the merest possibility, he might still be living.

So through the long hours she had waited, had waited and watched,
listening for a footfall in the street, for a step on the porch, for
a sound at her door; yet no one came. The darkness that lay upon the
earth seemed, also, to lie heavily on her spirit.

But now, at last, with the gray light that told of coming day, there
crept into her heart a hope, a confidence, a serenity of faith that
set it quite at rest.

She drew back the curtains and threw open the windows to let in the
morning air.

The sky above the eastern hilltops was aglow with crimson; in the
zenith it was like the color of the sweet pale rose.

She felt and knew that her boy was living and that very soon he would
be with her. Doubt had disappeared wholly from her mind. She threw
open the great hall doors that he might have a gracious and a fitting
welcome to his home.

She went up once more to the room in which he was to lie until health
should return to him, to see that it was ready to receive him.

When she again descended the stairs she saw the poor, bent figure of
a man, carrying a burden in his arms, staggering weakly up the walk,
laboring with awful effort at the steps of the porch. He was wet and
wretched, he was hatless and ragged, but on his soiled face was a
smile befitting one of God's angels.

He kissed his burden tenderly, and gave it into the lady's arms.

He said:--

"I've brought 'im to ye fra the edge o' daith. His title to your luve
is pinnit on 'is breast. I'm thankfu'--thankfu' for ye--both."

Bachelor Billy's work was done. He had lived to place his dearest
treasure in the safest place on earth; there was nothing left for him
to do. He sank down gently to the floor of the broad hall. The first
sunlight of the new day flashed its rays against the stained-glass
windows, and the windows caught them and laid them in coverlets of
blue and gold across the prostrate form of this humblest of earth's

Under them was no stain visible, no mark of poverty, no line of pain;
he lay like a king in state with the cloth of gold across his body,
and a crown of gold upon his head; but his soul, his brave, pure,
noble soul, ah! that was looking down from the serene and lofty
heights of everlasting life.

* * * * *

Yes, he lived, Ralph lived and became well and strong. He took his
name and his estates and chose his mother for his guardian; and life
for him was very, very beautiful.

The summer passed and the singing birds grew silent in the woods and
fields. The grain stood golden, and the ripe fruit dropped from vine
and tree. October came, with her frosty nights and smoky days. She
dashed the hill-sides with her red and yellow, and then she held her
veil of mist for the sun's rays to shine through, lest the gorgeous
coloring should daze the eyes of men.

On one of these most beautiful autumnal days, Ralph and his mother
went driving through the country roads, gathering golden-rod and
purple aster and the fleecy immortelle. When they returned they passed
through the cemetery gates and drove to one spot where art and nature
had combined to make pleasant to the living eye the resting-places
of the dead, and they laid their offering of fresh wild-flowers upon
the grave of one who had nobly lived and had not ignobly died. Above
the mound, a block of rugged granite rose, bearing on its face the
name and age and day of death of William Buckley, and also this

"Having finished his work, by the will of God he fell asleep."

As they drove back toward the glowing west, toward the pink clouds
that lay above the mountain-tops behind which the sun had just now
disappeared, toward the bustling city and the dear, dear home, Ralph
lifted up his face and kissed his mother on her lips. But he did not
speak; the happiness and peace within him were too great for words.

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