Ridenhour slid from the bar stool and stumbled outside onto the sidewalk. The street was empty and the early morning air bit into his exposed face as he staggered homeward.
He had become the town drunk in less than three years. That was the same amount of time he’d spent trying to drown his sorrow without success.
The Lady Luck was promising – the dirt the five men had pulled from the 300 foot shaft showed a lot of color. While they’d struck a silver vein, they’d also tapped into a gold ledge running parallel with the vein.
For nearly five months they toiled to bring out the dirt and rock for their three-piston stamp mill. They knew they were on the verge of striking it rich – that’s when disaster struck.
A massive collapse left four of the five men buried at the end of the tunnel. Only Ridenhour survived and he was now certain that it was more of a mistake then luck on his part.
He had returned to the small shack that doubled as an office and storage. Ridenhour had forgotten to call his wife Sally before heading into the mine.
But that was three years ago. And now Ridenhour had nothing left — no wife and no home save the small shack that remained a couple of hundred yards from the Lady Luck’s entrance.
Ridenhour wanted nothing more than to flop down on the rusty metal framed bed with its lump-filled and odor-ridden mattress to sleep off yet another drunk. But it wasn’t to be.
Noise and voices disturbed his unfit sleep. And by the time he pulled his boots on and made it outside the sun had already been up an hour.
Amassed near the mines gaping mouth was a collection of official cars and trucks. The town’s police chief, the county sheriff and his deputies and every fire truck in the region.
Ridenhour considered returning to his uncomfortable bed but curiosity got the better of him and he decided to walk over and find out what was going on.
Perhaps it was out of memory or some sort of premonition but Ridenhour grabbed his hard hat with its carbide battery lamp before heading to where several of the towns people had gathered to watch the goings-on.
He leaned more than stood as he listened. The state patrol car was nearly the perfect height for him to rest against as the world still lost its equilibrium form time-to-time.
Though he mind was still heavily laced with booze from the all-night and early morning bender, he understood that a child had disappeared from her backyard and her foot steps lead into the long-unused tunnel. And now those in charge were determining the best approach to entering the ink-black opening without getting and of the rescuers injured or killed.
Ten minutes passed, then half an hour, followed by more than 45 minutes and still not a single rescuer had started into the mine. It became too much for Ridenhour to witness.
“Well, enough of this crap!” he said aloud though no one was listening to him, “I ain’t waiting’ ‘round for this damned hole to take another soul!”
Without permission or intervention, Ridenhour walked the few steps from the hood of the car he’d been leaning against and into the darkness of the once prosperous mine. As he did, he donned his helmet and switched the headlamp on – disappearing into the ink-like blackness.
Behind him he heard the angry and concerned shouts of disapproval. But he knew that there was very little they could do to stop him, so he ignored the threats of arrest and physical abuse from the group of would-be rescuers.
Much of his drunk wore off within minutes of his decision to take action. It was the clearest his mind – his soul – had felt since the collapsed killed his friends, co-workers and employees.
Moving carefully between the rough-hewn walls, he felt a real sense of purpose for the first time in ages. He knew this mine, this deadly Lady Luck, and he had grown determined not to allow it to take even one more life than it already had.
Soon he found who he was looking for: the small girl-child, huddled against the far wall near the collapse, an unlit candle in her hand. At first she didn’t move as his lamp’s light broke across her face.
Her deep blue eyes seemed unfocused and her cheeks had the rosiness of carbon monoxide poisoning. This gave Ridenhour a pause as he feared the worst.
That fear lasted but a second as the child jumped up and ran to him. Without hesitation he scooped her in his arms and turned back towards the entrance.
Minutes later the pair emerged from the old mine shaft to shouts of joy and happiness. He placed the child in the arms of her waiting mother and continued heading towards the shack.
“What’s the big idea risking that girl’s life by walking in there like that?!” barked the sheriff.
“Got tired of waiting for you pansies to go in and get her!” he hollered without looking back, “Besides, I still gotta bit of drunk to sleep off!”