Jewels For Your Fingers
A geologist looking for scheelite learns to take nothing for granted - not even the girl from across the street
SALLY ALDER didn't know which was worse: the blackness that squeezed in behind them as they moved deeper into the abandoned gold mine, or the bright desolation which Jim’s cap-lamp hollowed out from ahead.
The way led sharply up in places and sharply down, following the worked-out vein. There were places where the hissing two-inch flame revealed dark pits in the tunnel roof; and directly under each pit a pile of rock lay heaped. Sometimes a small pile, sometimes a large one that had to be clambered over.
Sally concentrated on repressing a shudder. Suppose at the precise instant they were walking under it the roof should take a notion to build another rock pile!
She walked as close to Jim as she could—as though that could help, she scolded herself. All her life she had been walking close to Jim, and it had never helped. When she was The Pest, and he was the big boy across the street; toddling after him then, holding to his hand—when he would let her.
And later in the grades, languishing dreamy-eyed in the hard wooden seat during history lessons, making up stories in her mind about Jim putting his coat down in mud puddles and things for her to step on. And right now, this minute, still walking as close to him as she could. And he, as always, swinging along, not needing her, or even noticing.
Back for summer vacation from the School of Mines after finishing his first year on the teaching staff. Leaving tomorrow for the Army, where some girl around the camp was sure to get him.
Sally wasn’t fooling herself; the only reason he had let her tag along today was because she had managed to convince him she was interested in geology and just dying to see how he worked it, prospecting in the modern manner with an ultraviolet light instead of a pick and shovel. What she was really dying of was love. She could convince him of one, which wasn’t true, and she couldn’t convince him of the other, which was. Alen were the dumbest things!
She had thought that surely this time he would see that she was different, grown-up. Alore than that; desirable.
Her hair used to straggle. Now, à la Veronica Lake, it flowed as smooth as cream to her shoulders. She could say things like, “Do you think so rally?” and “Don’t let it throw you, pilgrim,” with the same provocative tone of voice as Katherine Hepburn. She did the same things for sports togs
that Lana Turner did, and she could have doubled for Dietrich in sheer hose.
She could even make up her eyes to look like Lamarr’s, and her mouth to look like Lamour’s. But did Jim Harrigan kiss her mouth? No. For all the effect any of it had on Jim, she might as well still be that colty kid across the street. Of course, a battered sombrero, an orange and green buckaroo shirt, a pair of scuffed riding boots, and worn blue jeans were bound to detract some from Hollywood glamour. But Jim had seen her in the organdy too, under the wide-brimmed lavender hat. It hadn’t done any good.
PLOWING along through the clutter of broken rock in this old Dutch oven mine, they came to a place where Jim stopped and opened a black leather case he carried, and took out something that looked like a French telephone receiver with one end squashed as though it had been sat on. There were wires that led from the case to the French telephone thing.
Jim pressed a button and Sally blinked as violet light spread out in eerie gloom. Jim started moving again, combing the tunnel walls with the ghastly light. He claimed that a lot of metals
necessary to the war effort had been passed up in the old lush days when nothing counted but gold and silver. He had spent his whole summer vacation exploring the worked-out diggings within hoof range of town.
“Our last chance, Pest,” he told her. “I’ve already flashed the rest of the mine.”
She asked sceptically: “You just shine that violet light around and you can tell where the gold is?” “Not gold, Pest. What we’re hunting is worth a lot more than gold.”
Sally could think of only one thing more precious than gold.
But Jim named another. “Scheelite.”
“Sounds awfully silly to me.”
“It’s a tungsten ore,” Jim explained. “War metal hardener for high-speed steels. We’re using thousands of tons of tungsten a year. Producing far short of that. With foreign sources cut off we’ve got to make up the balance from new discoveries inside our own borders.”
His voice went through a hardening process of its own. “I mean got to. Machines will win the war. But machines need machine tools. And the tools need tungsten.” He grinned. “That ought to give you a rough idea, Pest.”
It made her furious to have him take that depreciatory attitude. But one of them ought to act grown-up, so it was she who did, saying nothing, just putting her chin in the air and clumping along in his wake.
The going became rougher as they progressed, with more of those ragged pits in the roof where loose rock had fallen out. But Sally’s first apprehension about the mine was gone. She had seen no movement anywhere. They seemed to be in an utterly dead world. Still and remote, like the moon, with the rock time-mortared in its place.
A cave-in blocked their way at last. Jim stopped, streaming a swath of violet light over the debris that sloped from floor to roof. He clicked off the light, started stowing the fluorescent lamp away in the black case.
“No luck,” he said. “The ultraviolet’s a positive detector. If there were any scheelite in here it would blaze up and knock your eye out.” He shrugged. “Anyhow, it’s been fun fishing.”
“I like to catch things,” Sally said.
Jim grinned, and when he did that he was so warmly exciting he made her wilt. He had on a grey flannel shirt, open at the neck. A tight-fitting miner’s cap covered most of his crow-black hair, and a little brass lamp clung to the cap like a bur. All she wanted was this long and lanky Jim Harrigan, just as he was, with his face smutched, and not a cent in the world, and only an assistant’s job in a geology laboratory to come back to after the war.
Some of Sally’s woeful hurt must have shown on her face, because Jim, jumping to conclusions fifty miles off the mark, said: “I know how it is, Pest. This treasure hunting gets in your blood and you can’t help feeling disappointed when you don’t find what you’re looking for. I feel a little sunk myself because I turned up good indications on the tailings dump outside. I know there’s tungsten ore somewhere in the mine, but I’ve flashed the whole place with the fluorescent lamp. Chances are the vein’s caved in somewhere in a side drift. We can’t dig the whole mine out to find it.”
“You and your old mine,” she said, and stamped her foot. Her foot turned under her on a loose piece of rock. Her ankle hurt like fury for a few seconds, made her sound more violent than she felt. “Let’s get out! I don’t think I can stand it in here another minute.”
JIM NODDED wisely. “Touch of claustrophobia. Remember the time I locked you in the closet—” “Claustrophobia, my eye! You were hurting my finer sensibilities.”
“You kicked and screamed—”
“I could go for some of that right now, and it wouldn’t prove a thing except-—” She bit her lip.
Oh, why couldn’t he see what it proved? Gloomily contemplating a future as dark and empty as this gold mine, she leaned dejectedly against the wall.
A trickle of rock ran down to the floor. Another followed it.
“Careful,” Jim admonished. “Some of this is new fall. There’s more loose stuff in the roof, and it’s touchy. Your first idea was a good one. Let’s get out of here, Pest, before you pull the rest of the mine in on top of yourself.”
That was exactly the way he had talked to her when she was five. Well, she might as well act like five then. “I wouldn’t think of quitting yet,” she told him. “This looks to me like a place where some gold ought to be.”
Pushing out from the wall, bobbing around in the beam of his lamp, she started clambering like a wild goat over the heaped rocks.
“Quit it, Sally,” Jim said sharply.
She paid no attention. She only called back excitedly, “I’ve found something, Jim. I really have. An opening. I think we could squeeze all the way through—”
“Don’t try it!” Jim warned. “Just once, take my word for something. It’s dangerous, Sally. It really is.”
Maybe it was a little dangerous, but it was certainly getting her more attention than she had had all day. She could see Jim moving up resolutely and before he could reach her she edged through between two slabs of rock. “Come on,” she urged. “Put your light in here.”
“You little fool !” he called after her. “Come out of there. And come easy”
Muffled in the rock, his voice held a frightening urgency. She started to back out and felt her shoulder brush against some sharp projection; and the rock that had been so long encased in darkness, the rock that in her mind had been relegated to timeless immobility, came alive ! She felt the breath of its downward rush, she heard its sodden clatter.
At her low quick moan that struck from the darkness, Jim shouted hoarsely: “Sally! What’s happened? Are you all right? Sally!”
“Some—some big rocks slipped.” All life was squeezed from her voice. “They knocked me down. They’re holding me. They won’t let me go either way.” He didn’t answer. His silence caught at her with claws of dread.
“Jim. .. Jim!”
Low, infinitely comforting, she heard his voice waft through the rock and the darkness at last. “Don’t move. Not even one little finger. I’m coming to you.” He was coming to her. She could understand his silence now. He had been fighting for a voice that would be wholly under control, knowing that if her terror should break through her thin restraint—It must be that a wrong touch could dislodge more tons of rock at this place!
She didn’t move. She lay there silently screaming; waiting; with the rock crouched in unseen balance over her body. Her flesh so soft, the rock so everlastingly hard. She could feel it against her, touching her, as the darkness touched, with deep insinuating presure. Not hurting, but constricting horribly, and torturing with its threat of final violence.
She bit at the air, pulling it in with small quick bursts because a full breath hurt her, made the rock cut cruelly across her. She wondered how long she could endure it, lying there, not moving. Already her fingernails dug at her palms, and there was a taste of blood on her lips w'here her teeth had gnawed. The next second or the next she would have to scream and fight the rock. It would crush her then...
Jim’s lamp shone in, eating up the darkness around her, leaving only the solid menace of the rock. She could see him. Flat in the rubble of the floor, his lanky body came scraping c'oser. His back was scraping loo —scraping at death in the loose rock above him.
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Seconds stretched to tortured eternities, and then he was close beside her, kneeling.
“Are you hurt?”
She shook her head.
He took the lamp from his cap and wedged it between two pieces of rock, his strong young face shadow-pooled, shown in uncompromising planes and angles.
He spared her a tight hard grin. “Relax, Pest. Everything’s under control.”
She believed him—at first.
His lamp made a low steady hiss, flooding the air with the sweetish reek of carbide while the white flame licked the place to appalling brightness. The wrench of his breathing sounded as he strained prodigiously, moving rocks around. Sweat rolled down his face and fell and spattered.
“What I’m doing,” he told her, “is building a crib of rocks to hold
the roof up when I start prying at this slab that’s got you pinned.”
She held back a hysterical impulse to laugh. It was like being strapped in a dentist’s chair. Jim was the dentist, explaining what he was going to do to the tooth, diverting a nervous girl’s thoughts from herself to the process. Leading up to: “Now this is going to hurt a little.”
She lay there watching him, trusting him, for the full time it took him to shore the rocks. She saw him hesitate then, and she could tell he was shrinking from the next task at hand. She had an absurd impulse to say:
“Go right ahead and pull it, doctor. I don’t mind a little pain, really.”
Then she saw his eyes, feverbrilliant, and black as his crow-black hair. His eyes were stabbing little glances at her, with a fear in them he couldn’t hide. And suddenly she knew.
Jim wasn t a dentist about to say: “This might hurt a little.” What he
would say if he told the truth was: ‘This might kill !”
Because now this wasn’t a dentist’s chair she was strapped in. This was an operating table. Somebody had forgotten the ether, and Dr. Jim Harrigan had to operate anyway.
What did a surgeon think about just before he operated? “What are you thinking about, Jim?” She didn’t ask it out loud, only silently. And just as silently: “I love you, Jim.”
He was soaking wet everywhere. Except his mouth. That must be dry, because his words creaked out: “Don’t let it throw you, pilgrim.”
She guessed she wasn’t as brave as he. She couldn’t talk. She gave a jerky little nod instead. She wished he would touch her. He must have read it in her face. He reached out and put his hand over hers. His hand was hot and wet; hers cold.
Suddenly she found her fingers gripping with steely strength as the twin terrors of rock and darkness attacked again. There was a close splintering sound, strangely like pond ice cracking. Then the rock came in, burying the little lamp that had burned so staunchly.
The blackness that engulfed them was thick, cloying, like no blackness above the earth. A shuddering silence crept in with the last rolling clatter of rock on rock.
Then Jim’s dear voice broke through, firmly insisting: “Everything’s all right, pardner. We’ve still got the ultraviolet.”
He pulled his hand away, and she could hear him moving in the dark. There was a click, and their cubbyhole of space was eerie with the violet light. Jim went to work promptly, repairing the damage, shoring up the rocks again.
To calm her shrieking nerves, Sally concentrated on the hospital idea. Now more than ever, with the fluorescent lamp fingering its rays into every cranny, the place was like an operating room. And Jim was like a surgeon. In prying away the big slab which held her pinned he would have to move gently and surely, like a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one where a single uncalculated slip of the knife could bring death. To them both.
That was where he stopped being like a surgeon and became just Jim. He was risking his life for her! She screwed her face into a mirthless grin. “Go ahead, doctor. I can take it.”
But Jim couldn’t. Not looking at her. He had to turn his head away.
She said it then. Out loud. “I love you, Jim.”
“I love you, Sally,” he answered her.
Then in workmanlike fashion he did what had to be done. He began to pry at the slab. Alarmingly, a kind of electrical crackling ran through the rock over their heads, and the roof commenced to settle. It found its balance though—and held.
Sally found she could take a full breath without feeling the menacing pressure of the rock against her. After an unconscionable time she heard Jim say:
“You can move now.”
WHEN THEY came blinking out of the black tunnel, and the roof went up a million miles into a sky shot through with sun gold, and the tight walls fell away into tawny green mountain vastness, Sally looked searchingly at Jim. Her face was streaked, her jeans were grimed, her buckaroo shirt was torn, and her Veronica locks were every which way—and she didn’t know it.
Jim’s eyes, though, held a curious restraint, and a panicky doubt was forced upon her. Back there in the darkness that lay under a mountain had it been Jim Harrigan saying he loved her, or merely the doctor humoring the patient?
“Close your eyes and hold out your hands,” Jim said now.
She did, and he put something in them. It wasn’t a ring. Of course it wouldn’t he. Probably nothing that Jim Harrigan ever did would he what anyone expected.
“Now open your eyes.”
She did. Her disappointment was hitter. “Why, they’re just some old pieces of rock.”
“No,” he contradicted gently, “they’re jewels for your fingers.” She looked again, gave a wry little laugh. “Still rocks.”
Sober as a judge, he said: “I’ll have to wave my magic wand.” He led her a little way back into the gold mine murkiness and opened his black box and turned on the violet light again. And he was right! The rocks were jewels! Under the fluorescent light they blazed with a cold blue-white radiance, as over their surface, unceasingly, a tiny witch flame seemed to ripple.
“Scheelite!” Jim said, in the same hushed way a man might say gold. “Scheelite—from back in the mine where you got caught and I had to pull you out. I saw the ore glowing under the ultraviolet while I was shoring up the last rocks. I grabbed up a few pieces before we left.”
“You mean,” Sally marvelled, “we’ve made a strike? And the Government’s got a lot more gold— I mean tungsten—to fight the war?” “That’s how it looks.” He pulled her close. Surprisingly, she could feel him tremble through his whole lean length. “Sally,” he said, “I meant it, back in there, when I said I loved you.” She could feel the firm strength oi his fingers digging her shoulders. “Did you—mean it too?”
Her moment! The one for which, all her life, she had planned what to say and how to say it. And now she found herself blurting defensively, “You mean you think I’m still such a kid I don’t know my own mind?”
She could feel the tension ease from his fingers as he chuckled. He said: “It’s debatable. But I know for sure you need somebody to watch after you now as much as when you were five.”
“Oh, Jim,” she said. This wasn’t in her Hepburn voice either. But without even trying her voice came shivery soft.
Jim kissed her first on her Hedy Lamarr eyelids, gently. Then long and hard on her Dorothy Lamour mouth. He held her out and looked at her.
“You’ve changed,'' he said.