|Descent Of A Horse Down A Mine-Shaft|
The single bell signaling the cage to be lowered sounded at the wrong time of day; it would be hours until the coal miners' shift would be finished. Multiple rings announced the unscheduled visit of an important personage, and so those below could only surmise that the rumoured pit horse was making its descent into the netherworld.
Old John, the stableman, summoned several of the youths working in a nearby gallery to stand by. They were more than eager to drop their tools and steal a moment of respite, not to mention experiencing the excitement of seeing whether the animal would arrive half-dead from shock, or even expired, as various legends maintained. The pit ponies already occupying the stables 1500 feet down had been there when the boys first "went down" and likely would remain there until retired, when they were hauled back to the surface to go mad with sudden freedom.
The unfortunately named Liberty, bound and netted for safety, thus passed through the seasons of the shaft, having lost those from the earth above. Winter during the first cold, drafty 500 feet; Spring and its showers while passing through the water table; Summer with its breathless heat in the bowels of the earth; and finally Autumn, as he arrived at the stable platform, redolent with its scent of cut hay and livestock. The horse was unfastened and lay, for a moment, in stunned lethargy; then climbed to his feet, trembling and with rolling eyes. He was led off peaceably enough by Will, the stableman's son, who was lucky in that a crooked spine and damaged foot had ordained that he be deemed unfit for mining coal or working in the haulage tunnels.
Man and beast toiled in the bowels of the earth, day in and day out; and while Liberty learned to accept his work in dumb obedience, he never ceased to greet each new shift of men with a trumpeting whinny and several well aimed kicks at whatever was near. Perhaps in some sense he was capable of resenting his enforced bondage, or it might have been the few wisps of sun-soaked herbal scent that clung to the clothes of the men and stirred some long buried memory. No one was surprised the morning Liberty's call echoed through the veins, but the fact that it went on for some time, and that he refused to drag his cart beyond a certain point, did cause consternation. Even Will could not get the horse to budge. The foreman cajoled and finally dealt him a smart slap on the rump, only to be rewarded with a sly shifting of hindquarters which pinned him up against the rocky wall.
His curses were drowned out by a long, low rumble, echoing at first and then increasing as though a freight train was headed toward them. Men poured like ants into the loading area, sweat-soaked and black with the coal dust, calling out for comrades, and scrambling for the loading cages. Clouds of choking dust rolled toward them, and the miners hastily put out all lamps but one for fear of explosion, standing then in the gloom and waiting their turn to go up.
At long last there were only four men left. There had been no other movement of the earth, and it was deemed necessary to leave the pit ponies down below; they had fodder for several days, and once the mine engineers had deemed it safe, the men would either return to work below or try to bring the animals up. The horses were treasured mates of the miners, and it broke their hearts to leave them behind, but they seemed content enough in their stable.
All but Liberty. He had seemingly made up his mind that he was not going back, balking and biting at them every time they tried to lead him away from the cages. The three grown men, desperate to get to the surface, were all for leaving him to his own devices; especially the foreman, who now bore a certain grudge against the beast. But Will was now determined to save him or to stay below with his friend, having learned the hard way that the animal was far kinder and trustworthy than many of the villagers. When it became apparent that the boy's determination was "as hard as the rock around 'em", they debated the best means of getting all of them out at once. Old John struck on the idea of binding the horse and securing him to the bottom of the cage, thus allowing men, child and horse to ascend together. The foreman was unconvinced, exclaiming that the struggling animal would interfere with the cage guides, sending them all crashing back down to the bottom. But Will had his own idea; he stroked and whispered to the now compliant horse, soothing him as they fixed the rig and attached it to the bottom of the cage. The men stepped in, and as Will twined his arms and legs into the harness and hung onto the horse like a monkey, the foreman sounded the signal and the cage began to rise.
Up through the mine shaft they rose, the boy unmindful of the precariousness of his ride, the deathly plunge that awaited him should he slip or the horse struggle and pin him to the side. He sang quietly in the horse's ear and recited the prayers he'd learned in Sunday school. And Liberty, in the way that some animals do, seemed to sense what it was that was demanded of him and hung quietly during the long dark journey to the surface.
They were greeted with hurrahs as they came above ground; and since it had been ascertained that the far off cave-in had not cost a single life, the jubilant miners were given three days holiday to enjoy as they chose. Liberty, who had never fully accepted his underground sentence and spent a scarce six months there, was overjoyed to return to the sun and open skies. As the hero who predicted the cataclysm, perhaps saving lives in the bargain, he was given a place of honor in the miner's village, permitted to roam freely, help himself to their gardens and shelter wherever he chose. But it was to Will that he always returned, thrusting his head into the boy's window to his mother's consternation, clomping into the kitchen when the door was left ajar, and generally making a genial pest of himself. And it was Will, as a grown man, who buried him under a favorite mulberry tree and painstakingly carved his name into a giant piece of coal.