By Claire Wolfe
May 21, 2007
I’d rather not write about those hours in the tunnels. We burrowed into the earth — using old and unstable runs opened by earlier burrowers. We struggled to make our way from the far reaches of Nat’s ranch to a vent shaft somewhere near — we hoped — the commune’s homes and greenhouses. From his boyhood adventures (involving a larger-than-usual quotient of “Hey, I’ll bet you can’t beat the speeding train” kind of dares), Nat recalled the ancient mines, cut a bare generation after Hezekiah Lyons and Sean Brendan McCarty founded Hardyville.
Nat remembered one vent shaft that opened next to a certain rock outcrop. The outcrop bore a petroglyph, left by wandering Indian tribes long ago. If he remembered right — if — it might be on the hillside just below the commune.
But exactly where Nat’s rock was in all that vast nothing, we didn’t know. Would we have to run half a mile after emerging from the ground, with snipers and night-vision equipment trained on us? Or would the gods who watch over daredevils and fools allow us to surface somewhere near dwellings, where we might creep unobserved toward the targets of our rescue? Jasper Clarke, who walked — and sometimes crawled or slithered — alongside me remembered no petroglyphs from his months on the property. But then, he wasn’t exactly the casual ramble-through-the-sagebrush type. So we still had hope.
It was our only hope, really. So what do you do? You take it.
Concerns about where we would arrive were only an afterthought. The big question: With these crumbling mine shafts would we arrive anywhere at all? (Any of you who think it’s just a bit too convenient for these miles of old tunnels to appear in this location in this story probably can’t picture how terrifyingly inconvenient these tunnels really were.)
LED lights on our heads, flashlights in our hands, and spare batteries in our pockets or backpacks, we entered the tunnel complex standing tall. The opening of the shaft was cut horizontally into the bottom of a hill and was more than high enough to accommodate the biggest of us. There was a lot of bravado in our walks. Now that we’d decided to do it, none of us wanted to show how scared we were.
I would have given anything to beg off. Going underground, into the grave-dark, into the domain of the rats, the bats and the crawly things (and perhaps large, hairy, big-toothed mammalian things) well, … I’d have rather attended a Hillary Clinton rally.
But as the various assignments of what we began to call Operation Santa were parceled out, it became clear that the job of tunnel rat was — this is going to sound strange — women’s work. And work for young boys.
Women’s work because if those gods were favorable, we wouldn’t be involved in any fighting, “merely” a rescue. Women’s work because small people were more versatile for this part of the action than bruisers with shoulders like tanks. Women’s work, Carty said, because women were needed to steady men who might be inclined to panic. In front of women, they wouldn’t dare. And it was young boy’s work because … well, who else would get a thrill from delving into old, collapsing tunnels, having no idea where, or if, they’ll surface? The same kind of people who think it’s amusing to try to reach the railroad crossing before the freighttrain. Boys.
We walked. At first. Then a side tunnel Nat said he thought was the right one was so damaged we had to crawl over the rubble hills at its opening.
Nat led the tunnel-rat party, feigning confidence. With him went Carty.
Yes, Carty was the commander of all parts of Operation Santa, our General Eisenhower. It might seem risky, even stupid, for him to be out of touch, underground, during crucial deployment and decision-making for an operation that had other aspects than this tunnel-crawl. But there were plenty of good Hardyvillians out there on the hills, ready and able to make decisions. Carty’s final orders of the operation would depend on what happened right around that hoped-for vent shaft. If we came out of the earth in some sagebrush exile a thousand yards from the commune, Carty would be there to help us.
Besides, I think he just wanted to do what commanders used to do in the days before We the People let them get away with riding desks far from the action. He wanted to show us he’d do the hardest, scariest job to earn our respect.
So we walked. Then we crawled. Then we waited in tense terror as the stronger men cleared an earth-fall blocking our path. Would the roof hold, as they pulled the fallen boulders and dirt from underneath it? The old mine timbers were remarkably stable in our dry climate. Nevertheless, many were bowed and cracked. A few hung like the shards of a compound fracture. Under those, we faced our rubble-crawls. Even with gloves and kneepads (which some of us had thought to bring from our shooting kits) it was painful.
I felt the weight of the unstable rock, bulging inward from every direction, under unimaginable pressures. I thought of the land, ever moving (even if on a geologic time scale). I thought of wandering lost without a horizon. Down here, there was no east, no west — none that we could feel or see. What if we took a wrong turning and were submerged for days? (Never mind the Day-Glo markings Nat sprayed on the wall with each turning. Never mind the feel-our-way blazes, carved with a pocketknife, that accompanied them.) I thought of the unbearable pitch of the darkness, should we be trapped and our lights fail. I thought of mine disasters and earthquakes …
But I said I didn’t want to write about that.
I’ll make this short. Carty was right about the “women’s work.” At the very moment I was about to start screaming uncontrollably from claustrophobia, Marty Harbibi (the next ahead of the 30 mine-crawlers) let out a whimper. Then another. As we crawled from a single-file tight spot into a wider area, I saw that he was shaking uncontrollably and breathing in gulping, hyperventilating gasps. The man was about to shatter into a million pieces.
I considered putting my arm around him and giving him comfort. It was the kind, womanly thing to do and it would have uplifted my own morale, perhaps more than Marty’s. But behind me, Jasper Clarke — who we all expected would have become a babbling baby half an hour ago — was pale and grim, but soldiering on. So I did my “women’s work.” I leaned forward until my LED headlamp bumped Marty’s skull. Then I whispered, “Hey, Marty. The broad and the wimp can take it. Why not you — wuss?”
Marty shot me a foul look. But he straightened his back and trudged on. In a moment, I could hear his raspy breath smoothing.
* * *
And lo and behold, after several horror films worth of fear, a faint scattering of moonlight sprinkled onto our path. We stumbled ahead — and soon we could see Nat and Carty’s faces, barely gray in the dappled light of the outside world.
Had our mouths been moist enough to manage it (and if Carty hadn’t sternly cautioned us about making unnecessary sounds near the vent shaft), we’d have cheered.
We doused our lights. We didn’t know how much we might to be shining to the outside. Lord. Don’t even ask me to think about that moment of dousing. Those tiny spots of moonlight were no more than fireflies in the pitch, illuminating bare inches. Turning off our lights plunged us into the dreaded grave-darkness until our eyes adjusted and we gratefully embraced the comfort of seeing shadows within the shadows.
Tonio Carolina and Christian Goodin — skinny boys — began hammering rungs into the old vent shaft, which was just wide enough to accommodate one worker climbing hand-over-hand, then swinging a mallet. First they balanced on the shoulders of other volunteers as they hammered their makeshift iron rungs. Ultimately, they had to stand on the lower rungs to hammer the higher ones, still taking turns. All the while we didn’t have the slightest idea whether this was even the right vent shaft. Or, if it was the right one, whether we were too far from the commune or too close to the feds — so close they might hear us and send a greeting party. For all some of us knew, we weren’t even in Hardy County anymore.
The hammering reverberated so loudly that I almost hoped we weren’t in the county — at least not that part of the county occupied by DEA ears or sensing gear.
Christian finally reached the top, pushed his hand up, and found himself touching old rotted boards of some cover that had been laid above the vent shaft, probably to prevent cattle from stumbling in. Through those gaps the moonlight had fallen.
With effort, bracing his feet hard against the newly planted rungs, pushing upward with all his miniature might, Christian shifted the old cover away. Gouts of sandy dirt showered on everyone near the vent shaft. Slowly, he raised himself through the opening and looked around.
“Outcrop,” he whispered back down the tunnel.
But no petroglyph. At least not that he could see from the opening.
“Go ahead out. But stay low,” Carty .
Christian pulled himself out of the tunnel onto his belly. He slithered a few yards to the left, so he told us later. Then he slithered a few yards to the right, looking around the small rock outcrop.
Then a voice at the top of the tunnel called softly, but triumphantly, downward: “I see Thunderbird. I see buildings. About 50 yards.”
Fifty yards. It was a long way to be exposed. But at least the gods weren’t playing their worst tricks on us.
Carty and two of the militiamen slithered out of the tunnel next, creeping around the rock outcrop with their rifles and their night-vision goggles (used sparingly to avoid detection).
Then it was Jasper’s turn. Lucky Jasper to escape the tunnels so early. Poor Jasper; he would be the first to run and creep and dodge across that 50-yard No Man’s Land. He knew the locations of everything in the commune. He was the one they’d recognize and not fear. He had a better chance than any of us to get his friends to go along with the rescue plan.
He and Carty crept off together, weaving through the sagebrush, avoiding the low, unpredictable patches of prickly pear, grateful for the dense, wide junipers that could give them real concealment from any watchers in the surrounding hills.
And the rest of us waited, deep in the dark, with only that nearly-invisible ribbon of moonlight to encourage our hope.
* * *
I wonder if the trek, exposed to snipers’ eyes in the moonlight, felt as long to Carty and Jasper as the hours in the tunnels? But no one must have been watching in that sleeping hour. On they crept, apparently undetected.
Beneath the last juniper of No Man’s Land and the complex of buildings, Carty and Jasper paused, crouching low. Carty got his bearings as Jasper pointed out landmarks. Greenhouses on the left. Earth-shelter dwellings on the right. A pump-house and a power shed between us and them. The two gazed around. Everything was silent and still. Not even a dog stirred.
Taking a deep breath, Carty and Jasper stepped out of the brush, upright and walking as slowly and calmly as if they were communards going about routine business. If there were night-enhanced eyes on them, they hoped at least that their calm matter-of-factness might give a sniper pause. Maybe they were just communards who’d been out for a secret smoke or a tryst.
They approached the first dwelling.
The commune being a pot farm, I’d like to tell you that Jasper tapped on the door and called, “Hey, let me in! It’s Jasper!” and someone on the inside had at least the passing thought to reply, “No, man. Jasper’s not here.” But that’s not what happened. Before they could knock, a voice whispered out of the darkness:
Carty and Jasper dropped to a crouch (although it might be more accurate to say that Jasper fell into an attempted crouch). Carty raised his Bushmaster and scanned the clearing.
“This way!” the voice cried more insistently. And a pale arm waved from the doorway of the second dwelling.
They strolled — going back to faux casual — toward the doorway — where arms reached out of darkness to pull them into the lightless structure.
“Jasper, my man!” “You’re back!” “They didn’t bust you — thank God!” A dozen or more voices greeted the returning communard. Jasper found himself dragged into the center of the room, victim of a serial hug. Even the commune’s dogs, brought inside to avoid notorious paramilitary puppy-killers, leaped and yipped about him. No one approached Carty, who stood just inside the doorway. Only one voice addressed him.
“Well it’s about time,” Dora snapped. “Where’ve you been?”
Before Carty could frame choice words to describe where we had been, Dora came forward and explained. “I promised them Hardyville would come for us. But some of my friends here …” — she waved her arm in a gesture that included, most emphatically, the scowling countenance of former Hardyville city councilman and Dora’s current main squeeze, Dan White — “… didn’t believe me. They wanted to surrender. But I got everybody to agree to stay dressed, ready, and gathered in two houses to wait for you, just for tonight. So here you are — finally.”
“Jeezus you’re an arrogant broad,” Carty said.
“And you are a hyper-macho chauvinist pig,” she shot back. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck, pulled his sand-dusted head down, and gave him — right in front of Dan White and all the rest of the world — one big, huge, sloppy, and (given the urgent need for split-second timing in Operation Santa) obscenely extended kiss.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB — saving writers from themselves one typo at a time.