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Jerry Brant was out inspecting the mines. He had a lot to think about and he wanted to be alone.
His father had come over the America from Germany, not knowing language, the customs and especially not knowing anyone who could help him. He'd signed up to work in a mine, not even understanding the word "scab" and not realizing he was in a strike-breaking crew.
For that he had been beaten by union activists and thrown into a pit. His father had black streaks on his face for the rest of his life from where the coal dust had penetrated his wounds.
Brant's father had become rabidly ant-union, and in when it came time for his son to work in the industry, he had followed his father's example.
But it was more complicated than that. Brant knew that now, after a lifetime of working in the mines. He'd seen a few mines do better with union presence, but he'd seen many more mines close under union intransigence. He'd seen mines where the union leadership worked in collusion with management.
The Centerville mines had a horrible safety record. It was clear to Brant that Horn Mining would never allow a union in, so he'd signed up a few years ago and became a thorn in the side the corporation about safety. In return for his insistence on safety, they knew he was a reliable non-union vote -- and that he had enough clout to swing most of the other miners to his side.
Lately he'd been having second thoughts about unionizing. He'd watched the solidarity of the western gold miners. Their offer had been generous and in good faith. Against company wishes, he'd allowed them to make their pitch.
That had angered Mr. Horn, who had flown in one weekend and torn him a new asshole.
He was inspecting the open mining operation on the far side of the hill -- well, what had once been a hill but was now a slightly higher elevation pit. It offended Brant's sense of order -- but he had to admit the open air mining was safer. In exchange for lesser quality coal, they had vaster quantities of the stuff.
His father would have said, don't worry about the destruction of Mother Nature. "Mother Nature will outlast us all!"
Like so many of his father's saying, Brant was having his doubts.
Most of his men still worked in the bowels of the earth -- and in
another day or so, he was going to approve deep mining again. He
always worried that he wasn't being careful enough, that he was sending his men into great danger --
but Horn was pressuring him, and the equipment -- while not
perfect -- was adequate.
He heard helicopters and frowned. Horn wasn't in the habit of unannounced visits, but it wasn't unheard of either. Inconvenient that, what with the westerners still here. He'd tell the gold miners to stay out of sight and maybe they'd get lucky.
Three helicopters rose up over the top of the leveled hill. Brant could see Horn in the lead, looking as angry as he'd ever seen him, which was saying something since Horn always looked angry. He was waving at the other two helicopters toward the other mines.
Something told Brant to take cover. He was near the edge of the bit, where the forest tumbled into the wasteland. He grabbed one of the exposed roots and pulled himself up and behind the big leaning tree.
Horn's helicopter hovered over the hole -- and Brant saw him lighting something. He tossed whatever it was into the center of the hole. The helicopter rose quickly, but even so it was caught by the blast and sent sliding on its side through the air before recovering. It hovered a while longer while Brant saw Horn looking down in satisfaction.
A fire had started.
Somewhere under the pit a hole had opened and the coal was ignited.
In the distance, he saw the other two helicopters landing near the entrances of the existing active deep mines, and heard more explosions.
Brant started running back to Centerville.
The whole countryside was a maze of old mines. The town was built right on top of the earliest ones. A fire started on the edges, would quickly work its way to the center of Centerville.
Brant was running as hard as he could, but he still had a sudden thought.
It was time he joined a union.