From the editor:
Johnny Barstowe is new to the mines, and still has much to learn about this close-knit, close-lipped group. But when the tunnel becomes blocked and “murderer” starts to echo through the caverns, old secrets will come to light.
Born in Nottingham, England and now living in Northern Virginia, Jennifer R. Povey is a versatile author of several novels and short stories, as well as tabletop RPG supplements.
From the author: The mine is a dangerous place. It is even more dangerous when the dead start to walk. This is another older story. It was published by Arkham Tales in October 2010, three days before the publisher went out of business. Very few people have read it. (As a note, I was never paid for this story, so any tips would be especially appreciated)
The Men Who Go Under The Ground
by Jennifer R. Povey
Beneath the hills lie veins of zinc, and, rarely, silver. Beneath the hills the men have always gone. The men who go under the ground. A dark and dangerous life, theirs, hidden from the eyes and minds of respectable folk. A hard life, and one that relies on the fickleness of Mother Earth, for when they have taken it all from the ground, then what will they be but ghosts and shadows.
Halloween was just another day. Halloween, 1930, and the only thing on their minds was whether the mine would stay open another year, another month, another week. It was morning, a crisp fall day with leaves drifting to the ground. The mountains brooded above, keeping their eyes on the town.
It began as it always begins. The cage rattled into the bowels of the earth. Down there, it did not matter what the weather was like, or what day it was, what time in the world above.
The cage stopped, and the men stepped out. There were but six of them, including young Johnny Barstow on his first trip under the ground. He was sixteen, little more than a boy, and his eyes, wide in the darkness, stared at the tunnel walls. They stared at the cage, and off into the darkness. The other men picked up their tools, and after a moment, Johnny gathered up his own, his metal lunch tin banging against his hip. The route to the face was long and broad, a hand propelled cart ran on rails to carry them further within.
He had been lucky to get this job. His luck another's misfortune. There was death under the ground, there always was, always had been. For a moment, death closed around him with the walls, but he shook his head and it was only the mine and the men and the rails leading off into the darkness.
They piled into the cart, which began to move, slowly at first then quicker, to the light of its head lamp and theirs. Beams flickered and crossed each other, revealing the route only a short distance ahead. The drip of water could be heard, falling from ceiling to floor, running down the walls. It was never quite enough to flood, but it was enough that the men became damp, their hair sticking to their skulls under the helmets they wore. The cart squeaked a little, as if rust had touched it.
To Johnny, it attained a faintly dream-like quality. Nuggets of zinc too small to be worth removing glittered as they caught the light. It was a small mine, only this one route to this one face, a small mine under Bartland Hill. It was small and poor and ill-equipped, but it was theirs and it survived when many larger were closed and boarded against better times.
Almost to the face, and the cart slowed and then stopped, hitting the wooden buffer with a faint thud and an ominous creak. The men grabbed their picks and shovels, and began to clear away the slight falls that had developed overnight, when no men worked. Once there were three shifts, then two, then one, for depression had broken the market for the ore these men tapped out of the ground. Loving, they handled it in the darkness, each nugget treated with the value of a child. They have worked together much, these men, and with ease they worked still, picks and hammers tapping against the rock in an easy rhythm.
Johnny Barstow watched, not yet trusted with such precious tasks. It was silent down there, except for their voices, lowered against the echo, and that constant drip drip drip. A sound that bid fair to torment his mind for the ten hours of the shift. In the silence and darkness, it seemed that shadows flickered just beyond the range of their light. That range was not far. What few lights had been strung here were cold and uncertain against that midnight. Despite the damp, it was warm, not cold, warm enough that he stripped off his shirt not long after they did, bare chested in heat that had no place to go.
Drip, drip, drip. Jackson Dunne raised his voice, calling for Johnny to lend him a hand. He walked over to the older, rougher man, helping him ease the ore from the rock, and then carry it to the cart. Their footsteps echoed oddly. Echoed, and then it seemed that there were indeed other footsteps, when they knew none were down here save only them.
No, it was only echoes, and a young man's overactive imagination. Echoes of raucous laughter as Tony Parks told a joke not meant for the company of ladies, knowing there could be none in this place. Johnny did not laugh, he blushed, thankful they could not see that. It was beyond him, this company of men, he felt unready for it. He felt as if they held some secret that he could not yet discover. They belonged to one another and to the mine.
Time crawled. He could barely see his watch in the darkness, and he was still trusted to do little. Above the mountains, the fall sun, no doubt, filtered down onto the town, where Johnny's widowed mother kept her house and looked towards the mines that had claimed her husband and might yet claim her son. Johnny wanted to be with her, but he told himself he had to do this. He was with good men, those good enough to keep their jobs when the rest had been dismissed. Good men. There were no words now, only the sound of their tools and their footsteps, as if even men as close as these could run out of conversation. Or as if they needed none.
Yet, his mind began to create monsters in the dark. He saw in the flickering shadows dragons and deities and dark things of the earth. His imagination could not quite be roped within its bounds. He heard, he thought, a voice in the distance, a voice that laughed the laugh of the madman. A voice that murmured in the falling waters. "Murderers. Murderers."
Did Mart Holloway turn, did he too hear that voice? For sure and certain he turned at something. His pale face might have been for a moment paler, then he shook his head and returned to his work, piling the ore onto the cart. They piled it higher and higher until it seemed no more would fit. Burt Goodenough hopped onto the cart. He reached to release the break.
"Murderer," came again that imagined voice. There was now a light in the rail tunnel, where there should be none.
Burt saw it. The other cart. It was coming down the track, out of control, not slowing at all. He shouted a warning and the men scrambled to the side.
It struck the first cart, the force sending it through the buffer and into the space beyond, tumbling across the cavern into the face. Pieces of wood and rock flew everywhere.
Burt Goodenough fell from the cart, its contents flowing over him, pinning him in agony. His screams echoed, over and over, in Johnny Barstow's mind.
All the boy could do was force himself to breathe, as he listened to Burt's ragged breaths until they failed. He had not before faced death, so sudden and so certain. The mine was hot, but it felt chill, the water ran down the back of Johnny's neck like blood.
The men did not continue work. They could not. Both carts were smashed up, leaving them with no way to carry their treasures out. Worse still, the debris blocked the tunnel that was their one route to the surface. The five men worked now to clear it, stripped to the waist as they shifted wood and rock and iron to try to make a passage past. Only Johnny seemed to spare a thought for the dead, who could not be helped. He stopped to close his eyes, but nothing more. The living were what mattered, all that mattered. There was no way out.
An echo sounded. The same voice, that Johnny did not know, yet paled Mart's face to pasty white. It sounded like he was screaming, screaming that he was trapped, screaming that there was no way out, no way out.
There was no way out. Rising panic began to envelop Johnny Barstow. He looked to the others, to those he trusted to get him out of this. He saw only their pale faces, streaked with grime. He saw that they were as afraid as he, as trapped as he, and he went back to trying to move the wreckage of the broken carts. He got a splinter in his hand, but he could not stop.
The roof seemed to creak. The men worked faster. All of them could hear it now, the screaming. Tony Parks whispered something to Jackson Dunne. Something about collapses and deaths and the day of the Dead. Johnny could not hear the exact words.
Johnny remembered now that it was Halloween, when old wives said that the veil between the living and the dead thinned and ghosts walked. Angry ghosts. There was anger and hatred in the voice, and then it seemed to him that a pick jumped from the ground and hit the back of Jackson Dunne's head, striking him down with no hand to hold it. Tony Parks saw it, and he reached to snatch it from the air, yet he was not close enough. He could do nothing but watch.
Nothing but watch and then the two men rounded on him, for from where they stood it must have seemed that Parks' hand was the one on the pick. "Murderer!" was added to the echoes, this time in the voice of Mart Holloway. The face seemed to take it and throw it back to them in a different voice.
"Murderers! No way out!" The words echoed and echoed, now behind, now in front, but the two men acted as if they did not hear. They held Tony Parks against the wall, imprisoned him. There was still no path out.
Alone, Johnny tried to dig one as Tony protested his innocence in tones made shrill by panic and despair. Then he fell silent, his body limp, Mart Holloway's knife sticking out of his chest. Mart lowering him to the ground, a look given to the others that dared them to say anything, do anything. Nobody spoke, although Stephen Crooks looked away for a moment, into the darkness. Johnny could not see the look in his eyes.
The three men returned to digging, but between them now a new shared secret, a shared pain. A secret that burned in Johnny, his fear growing, for would they trust him to keep the truth hidden, to leave it underground, beneath the hills.
He barely knew them, these men, in truth. Mentors, but not friends. So much older than him, pale from days spent underground, stooped from bending through low tunnels. They coughed, sometimes, from the dust, their eyes were dazzled when they did step out into the sun. He could fancy in his fear that they were no longer men, but mountain gnomes. Transformed by many years of labor, they were as ghosts and shadows themselves. Not solid, not real.
He saw in them his own future. Yet, he could do nothing to prevent it. His father had been a miner, his grandfather. His son would be, he conceived of no other life. There was no other life, not for those men. Then he thought he heard the voice again, but a distance away.
It was Halloween. It was the time of ghosts, and the ghost was coming after all of them. There was a light again, this time along the face. A light at the height of a miner's lamp, bobbing and weaving. A man came along the face, towards them. And a man's voice spoke their names. "Burt Goodenough. Jackson Dunne. Tony Parks. Stephen Crooks. Mart Holloway." The same voice, it hissed a little, rasped as if drawn through some veil.
He did not say Johnny's name. The boy let out the breath he did not know he was holding, and then he ran the only way he could. Further along the face in the other direction, knowing he was now trapped, but he could do nothing else. For Johnny Barstowe now saw the ghost's face. Grey and bloated and rotten it was, rotten with all the years underground. It carried with it a corpse-stench, an unholy cross of the smell of the butcher's midden with that of a stagnant pool. Skin hung off it, and it wore the rags of miners' clothes, a rusted pick strapped across its back. It was not transparent or ghostly, it seemed entirely solid and real.
The three men were trapped, frozen. They could do nothing but watch the ghost come. His lamp was greenish, off-color, it cast everything into a sickening glare. Johnny Barstowe wanted to scream. He bit it back, some pride growing within him. He could hear the rough breathing of the others. Stephen Crooks did scream, perhaps realizing that the ghost gave those names in the order in which the men had died, and his name was next.
He backed up against the wall, his eyes on the ghost, and then he made a break for it. He ran back towards the tunnel, trying to squeeze past the apparition. There were loose rocks still below the face. He stepped on one and fell, headlong, and did not get up. Blood pooled around his head, then stopped, for he was dead. Killed by his own attempt to escape.
The two men stood in the darkness. Johnny could hear his own breathing now, his own heartbeat loud in the sudden silence that followed Stephen's fall.
Mart Holloway ignored him. He faced the ghost in utter, absolute, defiance.
"Murderer," hissed the voice.
Could he deny it, when his knife was still sheathed in Tony Parks' flesh and bone? "He killed Jackson Dunne," was Mart's spoken defense, his voice no louder than the spirit's, so quiet it might almost be a whisper were it not for the echoes that followed it. Dunne. Dunne. Done.
Johnny flattened himself against the wall. His name had not been spoken. The ghost seemed to care nothing for him. It stepped towards Holloway. "You murdered me," it accused in hissing tones.
"It was an accident," Mart tried to insist, but the knife hilt remained, an accusation of its own. A revelation of what this man, this man who was senior to them all, trusted, was truly capable.
A ghostly hand reached out. Almost gently, it caressed Mart's cheek, and the man simply crumpled to the ground, as if his strings had been cut.
Johnny did not check to see if Mart lived. He stayed where he was, frozen in the cold. His eyes met Eldon Harkwell's.
For a moment, he saw not that corpse's visage but one of flesh and blood. He saw a man not unkindly, a being trapped by revenge, but seeking not to harm him. Then he saw the shimmering images of the five men. They were that same green of ghost-light, and utterly silent. He heard nothing from them, and they did not move. Each one glowed a little brighter, then flickered out. He could see that they were screaming as if in deadly agony. As if, perhaps, the ghost was dragging them with him to Hell.
Johnny Barstowe ran. He squeezed between the broken cart and the wall through a gap one would have thought only a small dog could manage. He ran back to the cage, he hit the button at the bottom once, twice, three times.
The cage was still there. He entered and it rattled to the surface, where the light of day hit his eyes, blinding him for a moment. He was a huddled heap, now, everything hitting him like a blow. They had to help him from the cage, to the office where they could give him hot chocolate spiked with whiskey.
Only the foreman remembered how, six months before, he watched six men descend under the ground and only five return.
The six men were Jackson Dunne, Tony Parks, Mart Holloway, Burt Goodenough, Stephen Crooks, and Eldon Harkwell.
The boy babbled, accusing the others of murder. There was, of course, no proof, but all six now lay dead beneath the ground.
The foreman told the story to all who would listen. Of how Eldon Harkwell had died under the ground and how his ghost, for such it must have been, had returned on Halloween to slay those who had left him to his fate. Yet, none knew what had truly happened under the ground those six months before. Only Johnny knew what had happened now, and he listened to the foreman, shaking and pale, and swore never to go again under the hill.
Johnny Barstowe never set foot in the mine cage again. Indeed, he left the town, never to return. None of his children ever again went under the ground, to become ghosts and shadows.
This story originally appeared in Arkham Tales.