Kirk Munroe.

Derrick Sterling; a story of the mines online

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In the burning breaker

"Here, lad, lead this mule down the rest of the way, will ye?"

Suddenly there came a blinding flash, a roar as of a cannon

Good-by to the colliery




"Fire! Fire in the breaker! Oh, the boys! the poor boys!" These cries,
and many like them - wild, heartrending, and full of fear - were heard on
all sides. They served to empty the houses, and the one street of the
little mining village of Raven Brook was quickly filled with excited

It was late in the afternoon of a hot summer's day, and the white-faced
miners of the night shift were just leaving their homes. Some of them,
with lunch-pails and water-cans slung over their shoulders by light iron
chains, were gathered about the mouth of the slope, prepared to descend
into the dark underground depths where they toiled. The wives of the day
shift men, some of whom, black as negroes with coal-dust, powder-smoke,
and soot, had already been drawn up the long slope, were busy preparing
supper. From the mountainous piles of refuse, of "culm," barefooted
children, nearly as black as their miner fathers, were tramping homeward
with burdens of coal that they had gleaned from the waste. High above
the village, sharply outlined against the western sky, towered the huge,
black bulk of the breaker.

The clang of its machinery had suddenly ceased, though the shutting-down
whistle had not yet sounded. From its many windows poured volumes of
smoke, more dense than the clouds of coal-dust with which they were
generally filled, and little tongues of red flame were licking its
weather-beaten timbers. It was an old breaker that had been in use many
years, and within a few days it would have been abandoned for the new
one, recently built on the opposite side of the valley. It was still in
operation, however, and within its grimy walls a hundred boys had sat
beside the noisy coal chutes all through that summer's day, picking out
bits of slate and tossing them into the waste-bins. From early morning
they had breathed the dust-laden air, and in cramped positions had
sorted the shallow streams of coal that constantly flowed down from the
crushers and screens above. Most of them were between ten and fourteen
years of age, though there were a few who were even younger than ten,
and some who were more than sixteen years old.[1]

[Footnote 1: A law of the State of Pennsylvania forbids the employment
of boys less than twelve years old in breakers, or less than fourteen in
mines. This law is not, however, strictly enforced.]

Among these breaker boys two were particularly noticeable, although they
were just as black and grimy as the others, and were doing exactly the
same work. The elder of these, Derrick Sterling, was a manly-looking
fellow, whose face, in spite of its coating of coal-dust, expressed
energy, determination, and a quicker intelligence than that of any of
his young companions. He was the only son of Gilbert Sterling, who had
been one of the mining engineers connected with the Raven Brook
Colliery. The father had been disabled by an accident in the mines, and
after lingering for more than a year, had died a few months before the
date of this story, leaving a wife and two children, Derrick and little

For nearly five years before his father's death Derrick had attended a
boarding-school near Philadelphia; but the sad event made a vast
difference in his prospects for life, and compelled his return to the
colliery village that he called home.

Mr. Sterling had always lived up to his moderate income, and though his
salary was continued to the time of his death, the family then found
themselves confronted by extreme poverty. They owned their little
vine-covered cottage, at one end of the straggling village street, and
in this Mrs. Sterling began to take boarders, with the hope of thus
supporting her children. Her struggle was a hard one, and when one of
the boarders, who was superintendent of the breaker, or "breaker boss,"
offered Derrick employment in his department, the boy was so anxious to
help his mother that he gladly accepted the offer. Nothing else seemed
open to him, and anything was better than idleness. So, after winning a
reluctant consent from his mother, Derrick began to earn thirty-five
cents a day, at that hardest and most monotonous of all forms of
youthful labor, picking slate in a coal-breaker.

He had been brought up and educated so differently from any of his
companions of the chutes that the life was infinitely harder for him
than for them. He hated dirt, and loved to be nice and clean, which
nobody could be for a minute in the breaker. He also loved the sunlight,
the fields, and the woods; but no sunshine ever penetrated the thick
dust-clouds within these walls. In the summer-time it shone fierce and
hot on the long sloping roof, just above the boys' heads, until the
interior was like an oven, and in winter they were chilled by the cold
winds that blew in through the ever-open windows.

Here, and under these conditions, Derrick must work from seven o'clock
in the morning until six in the evening. At noon the boys were allowed
forty minutes in which to eat the luncheons brought in their little tin
pails, and draw a few breaths of fresh air. During the first few weeks
of this life there were times when it seemed to Derrick that he could
not bear it any longer. More than once, as he sat beside the rattling
chute, mechanically sorting the never-ending stream, with hands cut and
bruised by the sharp slate, great tears rolled down his grimy cheeks.
Over and over again had he been tempted to rush from the breaker, never
to return to it; but each time he had seemed to see the patient face of
his hard-working mother, or to feel the clinging arms of little Helen
about his neck. He would remember how they were depending on his two
dollars a week, and, instead of running away, would turn again to his
work with a new energy, determined that, since he was to be a breaker
boy, he would be the best in the colliery.

In this he had succeeded so well as to win praise, even from Mr. Guffy,
the breaker boss, who usually had nothing but harsh words and blows for
the boys who came under his rule. He had also been noticed by the
superintendent of the colliery, and promised a place in the mine as soon
as a vacancy should occur that he could fill. In the breaker he had been
promoted from one seat to another, until for several weeks past he had
occupied the very last one on the line of his chute. Here he gave the
coal its final inspection before it shot down into the bins, from which
it was loaded into cars waiting to carry it to cities hundreds of miles
away. Above all, Derrick was now receiving the highest wages paid to
breaker boys, and was able to hand his mother three big silver dollars
every Saturday night.

The first time he did this seemed to him the proudest moment of his
life, for, as she kissed him, his mother said that this sum was
sufficient to pay all his expenses, that he was now actually supporting
himself, and was therefore as independent as any man in the colliery.

It was a wonderful help to him, during the last few weeks of his breaker
boy life, to think over these words and to realize that by his own
efforts he had become a self-supporting member of society. It really
seemed as though he increased in stature twice as fast after that little
talk with his mother. At the same time his clothes appeared to shrink
from the responsibility of covering an independent man, instead of the
boy for whom they had originally been intended.

Beside Derrick Sterling, that hot summer afternoon, sat Paul Evert, a
slender, delicate boy with a fine head set above a deformed body. He did
not seem much more than half as large as Derrick, though he was but a
few months younger, and his great wistful eyes held a frightened look,
as of some animal that is hunted. He too had been compelled by poverty
to go into the cruel breaker, and try to win from it a few loaves of
bread for the many little hungry mouths at home, which the miner father
and feeble mother found it so hard to feed.

For a long time the rude boys of Raven Brook had teased and persecuted
"Polly Evert," as they called him, on account of his humped back and
withered leg, and for a long time Derrick Sterling had been his stanch
friend and protector. While the even-tempered lad used every effort to
avoid quarrels on his own behalf, he would spring like a young tiger to
rescue Paul Evert from his persecutors. Many a time had he stood at bay
before a little mob of sooty-faced village boys, and dared them to touch
the crippled lad who crouched trembling behind him.

On this very day, during the noon breathing-spell, he had been compelled
to thrash Bill Tooley, the village bully, on Paul's behalf. Bill had
been a mule-driver in the mine, but had been discharged from there a few
days before, and taken into the breaker. He now sat beside Paul, and
during the whole morning had steadily tormented him, in spite of the
lad's entreaties to be let alone and Derrick's fierce threats from the
other side.

That Derrick had not escaped scot-free from the noon-hour encounter was
shown by a deep cut on his upper lip. That Bill Tooley had been much
more severely punished was evident from the swollen condition of his
face, and from the fact that he now worked in sullen silence, without
attempting any further annoyance of the hump-backed lad beside him. Only
by occasional glances full of hate cast at both Derrick and Paul did he
show the true state of his feelings, and indicate the revengeful nature
of his thoughts.

This was Paul's first day in the breaker, where he had been given work
by the gruff boss only upon Derrick Sterling's earnest entreaty. Derrick
had promised that he would initiate his friend into all the details of
the business, and look after him generally. He had his doubts concerning
Paul's fitness for the work and the terrible life of a breaker boy, and
had begged him not to try it.

Paul's pitiful "What else can I do, Derrick? I have got to earn some
money somehow," completely silenced him; for he knew only too well that
in a colliery there is but one employment open to a boy who cannot drive
a mule or find work in the mine. Therefore he had promised to try and
secure a place for his crippled friend, and had finally succeeded.

Paul was struggling bravely to finish this long, weary first day's work
in a manner that should reflect credit upon his protector; but the hours
seemed to drag into weeks, and each minute he feared he should break
down entirely. He tried to hide the cruel slate cuts on his hands, nor
let Derrick discover how his back ached, and how he was choked by the
coal-dust. He even attempted to smile when Derrick spoke to him, though
his ear, unaccustomed to the noise of the machinery and the rushing
coal, failed to catch what was said.

While the crippled lad, in company with a hundred other boys, was thus
anxiously awaiting the welcome sound of the shutting-down whistle, at
the first blast of which the torrents of coal would cease to flow, and
they would all rush for the stairway that led out-of-doors, the air
gradually became filled with something even more stifling than
coal-dust - something that choked them and made their eyes smart. It was
the pungent smoke of burning wood; and by the time they fully realized
its presence the air was thick with it, and to breathe seemed wellnigh
impossible. Then, just as the boys were beginning to start from their
seats, and cast frightened glances at each other, the machinery stopped;
and amid the comparative silence that followed they heard the cry of
"Fire!" and the voice of the breaker boss shouting, "Clear out of this,
you young rascals! Run for your lives! Don't you see the breaker's

As he spoke a great burst of flame sprang up one of the waste chutes
from the boiler-room beneath them, and with a wild rush the hundred boys
made towards the one door-way that led to the open air and safety.

Obeying the impulse of the moment, Derrick sprang toward it with the
rest. Before he could reach it a faint cry of "Derrick, oh, Derrick,
don't leave me!" caused him to turn and begin a desperate struggle
against the mass of boys who surged and crushed behind him. Several
times he thought he should be borne through the door-way, but he fought
with such fury that he finally won his way back out of the crowd and to
where Paul was still sitting.

"Come on, Polly," he cried, "we haven't any time to lose."

"I can't, Derrick," was the answer; "my crutch is gone."

Surely enough, the lame boy's crutch, which had been leaned against the
wall behind him, had disappeared, and he was helpless.

At first Derrick thought he would carry him, and made the attempt; but
his strength was not equal to the task, and he was forced to set his
burden down after taking a few steps towards the door.

He called loudly to the last of the boys, who was just disappearing
through the door-way, to come and help him. At the call the boy turned
his face towards them. It was that of Bill Tooley, and it bore a grin of
malicious triumph.

The next instant the great door swung to with a crash that sounded like
a knell in the ears of Derrick Sterling, for he knew that it closed with
a powerful spring lock, the key of which was in Mr. Guffy's pocket.

The crash of the closing door was followed by a second burst of flame
that came rushing and leaping up the chutes, and above its roar the boys
heard shrill voices in the village crying, "Fire! Fire in the breaker!"



As Derrick and Paul realized that they were left alone in the burning
breaker, in which the heat was now intense, and that they were cut off
from the stairway by the closed and bolted door, they remained for a
moment speechless with despair. Then Derrick flung himself furiously
against the heavy door again and again, with a vague hope that he might
thus force it to give way. His efforts were of no avail, and he only
exhausted his strength; for the massive framework did not even tremble
beneath the weight of his body.

Still he could not believe but that somebody would open it for them, and
he would not leave the door until tiny flames creeping beneath it warned
him that the stairway was on fire and that all chances of escape in that
direction were gone. He tried to make himself seen and heard at one of
the open windows, but was driven back by the swirling smoke. Then he
turned to Paul, who still sat quietly where he had been left. The
crippled lad had not uttered a single cry of fear, though the eager
flames had approached him so closely that he could feel their hot
breath, and knew that in another minute the place where he sat would be
surrounded by them.

As Derrick sprang to his side, with the intention of dragging him as far
as possible from them, he said,

"The slope, Derrick! If we could only get to the top of the slope,
couldn't we somehow escape by it?"

"I never thought of it!" cried Derrick. "We might. We'll try anyhow, for
if we stay here another minute we shall be roasted to death."

Stooping, he lifted Paul in his lithe young arms, and with a strength
born of despair began to carry him up the long and devious way that led
to the very top of the lofty building. He had scarcely taken a dozen
steps, and was already staggering beneath his burden, when he stumbled
and nearly fell over some object lying on the floor. With an
exclamation, he set Paul down and picked it up.

It was the crutch, Paul's own crutch; and it was so far above where they
had sat at work that it seemed as though it must have been flung there.

The boys did not pause to consider how the crutch came to be where they
found it, but joyfully seizing it, Paul used it so effectively that they
quickly gained the top of the building and stood at the upper end of the
long slope.

It was a framework of massive timbers supported by high trestle-work,
that led from the highest point of the breaker down the hill-side into
the valley, where it entered the ground. From there it was continued
down into the very lowest depths of the mine. On it were double tracks
of iron rails, up which, by means of an immensely long and strong wire
cable, the laden coal cars were drawn from the bottom of the mine to the
top of the breaker. As a loaded car was drawn up, an empty one, on the
opposite track, went down. The angle of the slope was as steep as the
sharply pitched roof of a house, and its length, from the bottom of the
mine to the top of the breaker, was over half a mile.

This particular slope was provided with a peculiar arrangement by which
a car loaded with slate or other refuse, after being drawn up from the
mine to a point a short distance above the surface, could be run
backward over a vertical switch that was lowered into place behind it.
This vertical switch would carry it out on the dump or refuse heap. The
top of the dump presented a broad, level surface for half a mile, on
which was laid a system of tracks. Over these the waste cars were drawn
by mules to the very edge of the dump, where their contents were tipped
out and allowed to slide down the hill-side. During working hours a boy
was stationed at this switch, whose business it was to set it according
to the instructions received from a gong near him. This could be struck
either from the bottom of the mine or the top of the breaker, by means
of a strong wire leading in both directions from it. One stroke on the
gong meant to set the switch for the mine, and two strokes to set it for
the dump. A flight of rude steps led up along the side of the slope from
the mouth of the mine to the top of the breaker.

Derrick and Paul thought that perhaps they might make their way down
this flight of steps and thus escape from the blazing building; but when
they reached the end of the slope, and looked down, they saw that this
would be impossible. Already the steps were on fire, and the whole
slope, as far as they could see, was enveloped in a dense cloud of
smoke. Through it shot flaming tongues that were greedily licking the
timbers of the tall trestle-work.

If Derrick had been alone he would have made the attempt to rush down
the steps, and force his way through the barrier of smoke and flame; but
he knew that for his companion this would be impossible, and that even
to try it meant certain death.

As he hesitated, and turned this way and that, uncertain of what to
attempt, an ominous crash from behind, followed by another and another,
warned them that the floors of the building were giving way and letting
the heavy machinery fall into the roaring furnace beneath. They knew
that the walls must quickly follow, and that with them they too must be
dragged down into the raging flames.

Paul, sitting on the floor, buried his face in his hands, shutting his
eyes upon the surrounding horrors, and prayed.

Derrick stood up, gazing steadily at the rushing flames, and thought
with the rapidity of lightning. Suddenly his eye fell upon an empty
coal-car standing on the track at the very edge of the slope, and he

"Here's a chance, Paul! and it's our only one. Get into this car, quick
as you can. Hurry! I feel the walls shaking."

As Paul clambered into the car in obedience to his friend's
instructions, though without an idea of what was about to happen,
Derrick sprang to one side, where a brass handle hung from the wall, and
pulled it twice with all his might; then back to the car, where he cast
off the hooks by which the great wire cable was attached to it. Again he
pulled furiously, twice, at the brass handle.

He had done all that lay in his power, and was now about to make one
last, terrible effort to escape. The red flames had crept closer and
closer, and were now eagerly reaching out their cruel arms towards the
boys from all sides. Beneath them the supports of the building tottered,
and in another moment it must fall. Down the slope the shining rails of
the track disappeared in an impenetrable cloud of smoke, and Derrick
could not see whether his signal to the switch-tender had been obeyed or

As Paul crouched on the bottom, at one end of the car, his companion

"I'm going to push her over and let her go down the slope, Polly. If the
trestle hasn't burned away she'll take us through the fire and smoke
quick enough. If there's anybody down there and he's heard the gong and
set the switch, we'll go flying off over the dump. I guess I can stop
her with the brake before she gets to the edge. It's half a mile, you
know. If the switch is open, we'll go like a streak down into the mine
and be smashed into a million pieces. It won't be any worse than being
burned to death, though. Now good-by, old man, if I don't ever see you
alive again. Here goes."

"Good-by, dear Derrick."

Then the crippled lad closed his eyes and held his breath in awful
expectation. Derrick placed one shoulder against the car, gave a strong
push, and, as he felt it move, sprang on one of the bumpers and seized
the brake handle that projected a few inches above its side.

In the mean time the two boys had been missed in the village, and as it
became known that they were still within the breaker, the entire
population, frenzied with excitement, gathered about the blazing
building, making vain efforts to discover their whereabouts, that they
might attempt a rescue.

No men on earth are braver in time of danger, or more ready to face it
in rescuing imperilled comrades, than the miners of the anthracite
collieries. Had they known where to find Derrick and Paul, a score of
stalwart fellows would willingly have dashed into the flames after them.
As it was, no sign that they were still in existence had been
discovered, and the spectators of the fire were forced to stand and
watch it in all the bitterness of utter helplessness.

One man indeed ran up the blazing stairway, and with a mighty blow from
the pick he carried crashed open the door against which Derrick had so
vainly flung himself. Only a great burst of flame leaped forth and drove
him backward, with his clothing on fire and the hair burned from his
face. He was Paul Evert's father.

Upon receipt of the tidings that her boy was shut up in the burning
breaker, without any apparent means of escape, Mrs. Sterling had fallen
as though dead, and now lay, happily, unconscious of his awful peril.
Little Helen sat by her mother's bedside, too stunned and frightened
even to cry.

In Paul's home a crowd of wailing women surrounded Mrs. Evert, whose
many children clung sobbing to her skirts.

Suddenly two sharp strokes of a gong rang out, loud and clear, above the
roar of the flames and the crash of falling timbers. The crowd of
anxious spectators heard the sound, and from them arose a mighty, joyous
shout. "They're alive! They're alive! They're at the top of the slope!"

But what could be done? The trestle was already blazing, and the upper
end of the slope was hidden from the view of those below by dense
volumes of ink-black smoke.

Again the gong rang out, "one, two," and one man of all that throng

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Online LibraryKirk MunroeDerrick Sterling; a story of the mines → online text (page 1 of 13)