It was fucking hot. Hotter than hell. Maybe this was hell. The handsome boy ran a rough and dirty hand over his clammy forehead and let out a hopeless sigh. He was the new man on the night crew, working in the mines after school. They had him driving loader now, carrying enough filthy coal to light a thousand Harlans for years to come from the continuous miner to the conveyor belt for cleaning and sorting. Being 600 feet below the earth's surface, helmet scraping the top as he drove through the labyrinth of tunnels and breathing the stifling hot, black and stale air for hours was tough. Hearing the roar of machinery and the temperamental rumble of the earth as she swallowed up the men and watching the light run out of the hole to escape the coal dust, leaving those men behind was tougher. He hated this job, but it was better than being home when Arlo got there. Almost anything was better than being there when that man was drunk and looking to fight.
As he deftly maneuvered the heavy machinery through the tight turns toward the belt, he listened to the noises of the mine. Top bolters were down one cut, laughing with each other as they worked beneath the unsecured weight of the world. Rock dust machine operators were in the cut with the continuous miner, spraying down the walls to improve the air quality. If the cave-ins, machinery and poisonous gasses didn't steal your soul in the hole, Black Lung would choke the life from you with it's bony, inked fingers later. In the third cut were the brattice builders providing them all with ventilation. He wedged the loader into a corner to allow a mantrip to whiz by in the compact quarters. In total, there were a dozen men in the hole that day. A dozen brave, hard working, honest, family men.
He saw the smoke snake into the beacon of his headlamp light, thick and white, before he felt the heat or smelled the flames. His trembling fingers fumbled until the loader shuddered to a halt and it's engine went silent. He stiffened upright, slamming his head into low ceiling. He swung a long leg off the vehicle and shuffled towards the belt. A jammed pulley was the culprit, causing unrelenting heat and friction. The mechanical parts glowed a soft amber red in the pitch black of the hole. Raylan put a hand to the wall to steady himself and find his way in the compromised visibility. He groped blindly for the emergency phone. He called the foreman on the surface to report the fire and pulled the alarm.
His back ached from scurrying through the hole like a rat in the sewer. He was starting to feel claustrophobic. It was a sickening feeling, like the hole was going to crush him beneath the tons of earth around him. The walls were closing in. Being unable to stand upright and tweak his back to the side bothered him. It was too hot. He started to hyperventilate; thin air, dust and carbon sticking in his nostrils. He duck-walked toward the loader as his vision blacked from the outside in. The sounds of machinery and the blaring alarm blurred in the distance as he lost his balance. His fingers sifted the dirt as he swam through the pitch darkness trying to right himself. It all went silent, save the sound of his pulse throbbing in his head, then it, too, disappeared into the darkness.
He woke with a start as cool air swirled around him. His eyes shot open and tried to focus in the glaring Kentucky sun. Starved for air, he gasped, open-mouthed and delighted in the crisp, fresh air flowing into his lungs. A soft shape slowly formed as it cast a shadow over his face. Blinking his bleary eyes toward it he found the powder man, Boyd Crowder, staring down at him, eyes glittering in the sun. They were bright liquid pools in the blackness of his face, inky and shimmering with coal dust. His unkempt hair blew wildly in the breeze. Raylan looked down at his chest and found Boyd's calloused hands leaving black smudges on his exposed skin. His savior had peeled his helmet, vest and overalls off to let him breathe and his skin cool.
"Welcome back to the land of living, son!" Boyd laughed in a flash of startlingly white teeth and southern panache. He patted Raylan roughly on the sternum, causing the boy to jump and his lungs to seize. Raylan sat up, running a paw down over his darkened face and leaving some smudges of his own on his naked arm. He searched the worried, sooty faces of the rest of the crew, checking off the attendance list in his head. He was glad, for once, that his face was so dirty they couldn't see his flush of embarrassment.
"Well, shit," said the boy with a nervous chuckle, looking at his boots and dragging a hand over the grit on the nape of his neck. "Maybe mining ain't for me after all."
"Happens to the best of us. Being that far down in the bowels of the earth has odd effects on the human body. See, the focus is already coming back to your eyes. You'll be right as rain faster'n you can say medic."
It took a full week and an entire bottle of Arlo's Jim Beam for Raylan's muscles to unwind, the tremors in his fingers to stop and his nightmares to subside.