(Ink illustration by Buck O’Donnell in 1967; public display, World Museum of Mining, Butte, Montana, USA)
This story is by William W. Hawkesworth and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Marty celebrated the anniversary of his heroic deed and subsequent retirement at the early age of thirty in a quiet fashion. No nightlong party to cheer on the hero of Butte, Montana. Marty made do with a quiet night at home.
He was a genuine hero. He had saved eleven men. Now on this anniversary, his fame had faded, and his deed was nothing more than a fond memory.
Like many before him, and everyone else in Butte, in the early 1900’s, he went to work for the Anaconda Mining Company. The company provided everything he needed; work, meals and a warm place to sleep. In return, he worked his ass off.
He was a rugged fella, broad chested, a fine specimen, he came from good stock and had good genes. But in the end, he was simply good ole Marty, a fun-loving free-spirited jokester that loved to get into lunch boxes and eat the other miners’ pasties.
The years of toil were catching up with him. He was aching, sore and just plum worn out. He meandered through the lush meadows enjoying the warm spring day. He could not help smiling, as he reminisced about his mining days, his best friend Willie and the day that everything changed.
He had worked hard every day for over eight years, deep underground, in the dark, hot Butte mines. Never leaving. Never complaining, just doing his job. It was hard work and he never saw the light of day. It took its toll on him. Marty went blind.
The yellow flowers swayed in the wind and Marty was amazed he was able to see them. Although, it seemed as if he was looking at them through a fog. Slowly, images were starting to come into focus. It reminded him of his youth and romping through fields in Missouri. This past year had been good to him, and he was slowly regaining his eyesight.
Marty was born in Pike County Missouri. He was a handsome fella at birth. And won the heart of Mary his care giver. There were many living at the farm, but Marty soon became Mary’s favorite. She took a special interest in him. She saw how big and strong he was, and yet a gentle, fun loving soul. She saw the potential in him and decided to send him off to school.
When Marty was four, he left his home in Missouri. It was a sad day because he would have to leave Mary. She was so kind and nurturing and loving and had built the foundation for a successful life. While the world around him seemed mean and scary. He did not want to go. He was afraid of the mean men in the fields.
He first heard men using profanity in the fields at an incredibly early age. The constant frustration of men erupting into a cascade of cursing had an impact on him. The yelling and screaming were unnerving to a young fella. He would get worked up and excited. It scared him.
He went off to the mining school in Bisbee Az, where he learned his craft. Marty mastered his skills quickly and was an excellent student. He learned the intricacies of the track, its ascensions and descensions, its twists and turns and when to stop. He did it with brute force and finesse. He graduated with the dubious honor of being the strongest and most stubborn in his class.
Next, he was off to the mines. He was selected to go to Butte and work in the Granite mine. This is where he experienced the scariest moment of his life. He was lowered into the copper mine 1000 feet underground. He was terrified.
Once in the mine he met Willie. They both had a fondness for goofing off and playing practical jokes. Willie became Marty’s best friend.
Once paired together they were inseparable. Willie was a storyteller. And when anyone would listen, they told the story of how he and Marty met and how Willie had caught Marty getting into a miner’s lunch bucket trying to eat a pasty. But he kept it a secret.
Willie was always cheerful. Man, he never stopped talking. Marty did not mind, especially since he always had food to share. Marty looked forward to each morning when Willie would come bouncing in with a treat hidden in his overalls. Marty would pin him against the ore car and not release him until he gave up the treat. He never stopped talking but never whistled. It was an unwritten law that the miners never whistled. They cursed a lot. Cursing was the miner’s language.
It became an art form and oh my God, could Willie swear. He was a true artist. His profanity laced rants were so vivid and poignant that it made the hair on your neck stand up. Willie was tall and skinny, wore a checkered shirt, a derby hat with trousers to match. His clothes were as colorful as his language.
Marty was a loner and never got along with most men. But Willie was different. He had never seen another man like Willie. Most people just misunderstood him and treated him poorly. Willie was different, he got him. When he first heard Willie’s voice something inside of him came alive. It was a familiar sound. A sound from his youth. The voice was comforting in an odd way, it reminded him so much of home.
He thought to himself my God he must be a Pike. He took an instant liking to Willie.
Marty grew to love Willie. He was so proud of Willies cursing. He was indeed a Pike and a damn good one. They worked together for years hauling the muck and misbehaving. They had a knack for playful pranks. And never missed an opportunity to pull one on another miner. Then everything changed on that fateful day.
First there was a creaking noise and then a slow churning and cranking and then suddenly the mine started to cave in. Rocks and timber were falling everywhere. Miners were scrambling for cover. The mine was caving in but had not completely collapsed. As the dust settled there was an eerie stillness in the air. The track was clear.
Men were screeching and screaming out in pain. Marty looked back and saw that Willie had been hit by a rock. He was unconscious and dangling on the side of the ore car. Oh my God thought Marty, Willie is dead, now what am I going to do. Marty froze for a moment.
In an instant he made the decision to keep on going. He did not know what else to do. It was what he was trained to do. It was his job. So, he kept moving forward, pulling the ore car and worrying about Willie.
As he came around the turn and ducked his head as usual, he noticed that two wooden beams had fallen onto the track and crossed each other directly in front of him. They had formed a big X in the middle of the track. Marty paused for a moment, ducked his head and with his broad shoulders wedged himself under the beams. He grunted and pushed and threw his head up. He kept trying to move the beams, but they were stuck. He just could not move the beams.
He was ready to give up. When he heard this boisterous bellowing cry of a wild man. It was Willie. He was alive.
Willie had regained consciousness and was clinging to the side of the ore car shouting orders. It was the harshest nastiest profanity laced ballad he had ever heard.
He looked back and noticed that men had climbed into the ore cars. They were all depending on Marty to pull them to safety and Willie was in command.
Willie was getting louder and louder in his cursing. Marty was getting pumped up, it was seeping into his soul. It was such a relief to hear his friend’s voice. It was a defining moment. He began to dig deep inside to find the inner strength to break through the beams. He could not let Willie down.
With a deep breath Marty summoned all the strength he could. While Willie was hitting the crescendo of his cursing there was a loud snap and cracking sound as the beams split in half. Marty lunged through the opening just in time as the mine caved in behind them. Willie jumped for joy, as the ore cars full of men ascended the rails to safety.
Marty had done it. He was a hero. To this day, he never understood what all the fuss was about. He was just doing his job.
That night as the men celebrated their victory over death, drinking shots of whiskey, chucking beer, singing songs and cheering each other on, Marty relaxed in his stall, ate his oats and relished the special treat Willie had left him. Three big pasties.