A week passes as the workers sullenly do their jobs and wait for the “coming battle.” This fortnight promises to be especially tension-filled for the Maheus, as they have little money and Catherine stays out all night and comes home sick and cannot work. Chaval threatened violence and would not let her leave, certain she was being forced by her family to share Lantier’s bed.
Two days later, Jeanlin skipped work for two days, running and thieving with Bebert and Lydie. When La Maheude catches him, she thrashes him in the public square as a warning to all children; in her poverty, she can only see her children as future breadwinners.
The coal-face the Maheus are mining is hard to work and is growing wetter each day. One day a distant rumble of thunder shakes the miners and Maheu screams that it is a fall and they need to run.
In another part of the mine, Jeanlin (his bottom still red from his thrashing) is at work as he is supposed to be. He and Bebert are working with the horses, and one of them suddenly refuses to move forward through the ventilation door, sensing something is wrong. Jeanlin notices more water than usual and looks through the door, raising his lamp to see that the timbers are sagging under the weight of a seeping spring. Another minor, Chicot, walks by, anxious to get home because his wife is in labor. He also stops to look at the sagging timbering when suddenly there is an “almighty crack” and both man and the boy are buried under the rock-fall.
Miners begin working their way to the disaster through thick clouds of dust, choking as they come. Groups of workers arrive on both sides of the rock pile and it is obvious that only about ten meters of the roof have collapsed. Bebert exclaims that Jeanlin is under the rubble and Maheu is “beside himself with despair and helplessness.”
Catherine, Lydie, and La Mouquette arrive and begin screaming in terror, their screams getting louder with each groan they hear from under the rock pile. Neither Negrel the engineer nor Dansaert are down in the pit, so Richomme the deputy assumes control and determines they are the groans of a man, not a boy; there is no answer when anyone tries to talk to the two victims.
Richomme organizes the rescue quickly, and miners attack the rubble furiously from both sides. Chaval works silently alongside Zacharie, Maheu, and Lantier. Levaque reluctantly goes to tell everyone above ground the details of the disaster. Maheu works in an unstoppable frenzy and soon they have to be careful as the groaning is growing louder.
The first one they uncover is Chicot. His head is unscathed but his spine has been broken by a rock. His body is still warm, but he is dead. Next they find Jeanlin; he is unconscious and his legs are broken, but he is breathing. It is a long, muddy slog by a...
(The entire section contains 781 words.)
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