Collapse; the one thing that all miners fear.
In Columbia’s Muzo Mine, every couple months the word collapse would echo through the tunnels like an earthquake, shaking all of the Columbian emerald miners—because when a tunnel cave-in did happen, it always took miners with it.
Mining wasn’t safe, nor was it extremely profitable. But with no alternative way of making a living—even a meager one—the miners faced the threat daily.
And collapses used to be something that Manny was terrified of. At only nine, he started working early, and like most emerald miners, he lived in abject fear that the mountain would take him too, which was why he left sacrifices to the Devil’s idols in the caves. He held to the common belief that the Devil was responsible for all deaths in the mountain.
But then everything changed for Manny. On one of the few days that he didn’t work, Navidad, he walked the streets amongst great festivities with a miner who everyone called ‘Jefe’, or ‘Chief’, Milo. That day, Milo walked with his favorite dog, wore his favorite red coat, and had his optimistic smile on as always did when he took Manny to Iglesias. Unlike the majority of Columbians, Milo wasn’t a Catholic. He didn’t attend Mass or pray to Saint Mary. He was a Christian.
And now, so was Manny.
Ever since he gave his life over to Jesuschristo, the darkness of the mines, the tight squeezes, and the image of the Devil hadn’t scared Manny. He found courage in knowing that God gave strength to all who asked.
One day in the Muzo mine, Manny was picking through a pile of dynamite rubble with his pick when he felt the ground quake beneath him, signature of dynamite work. Manny wiped his forehead on his dust caked sleeve and shifted his crouching position.
Less than a year earlier, when Manny’s father had died of lung disease caused by the subterranean dust and rugged conditions of the mine, Manny had become—at nine years old—the man in his family. So, he’d begun gambling with fate and time for a chance to find a pea-sized emerald before the mountain collapsed or the dust killed him.
But chance had been unforgiving. He’d found no emeralds of any size and what money his family did have was dwindling with every meager meal.
So, Manny was growing desperate.
The boy slammed his pick down, cracking another stone in half. He fervidly ran his eyes over the surface of the stone, holding it up to his dim headlight and praying to see the glint of a rough emerald.
Manny heard shouting and scurried out of his branch of the tunnel, interested to see what had caused such commotion.
A miner scurried past him, fell to his knees and hacked up dust until tears started to run from the corners of his eyes. Wisps of dust tendrilled out of the tight tunnel from which the miner had come.
“What is it?” Manny asked.
“Muy mal. Very bad.” The man turned to Manny, his eyes glittering. “A collapse. Not good. Jefe Milo and his team were in there.”
“Jefe Milo?” Manny asked. He felt the foundation of his life shake like the mountain. Milo was like a father to Manny. After caring for Manny’s spiritual health, the man was seeking to help Manny and his family financially, swearing that the next time he found an emerald, it would be Manny’s. But now, the ‘Jefe’ was gone.
“Can you be sure?” Manny asked, wiping his eyes.
Manny felt tears start to slip down his cheeks. “Jesus, please help them.” He prayed.
“You have a big heart for un hermanito.” The man said, turned around and watched the dust slowly follow him up. “We need to move or else the dust will catch us.”
“What if they aren’t dead? What if the collapse just trapped them?” Manny inquired.
“We’ll find out later. There is nothing we can do right now.”
“Jesus will help el jefe.”
After waiting two days for the clouds of dust to dissipate, Manny and his fellow miners surveyed the damage done to the narrow tunnels. They found the rubble that marked the collapse—tons of stone and snapped wooden supports piled up against the passageway. And beyond that blockage perhaps the jefe and his miners lived yet.
The miners began to debate whether or not the collapse was limited to just what they were seeing. Many expected that more had collapsed further on. Those familiar with the section began to draw out what came next, and others added in, and before Manny knew it, he could no longer follow along with the rapid-fire jargon. It was clear to him that Milo’s part of the mine had been somewhere down there, though he’d never gone down to see it. In the end, the men decided that it was indeed possible that Jefe Milo and his men could still be alive but sealed off.
With an attitude full of hope, all the miners took to removing the rubble—a tedious process in which care was needed to avoid stirring up a cloud of dust.
Soon they had removed all the loose pieces to reveal a small dark crevice. It wasn’t big enough for anyone to fit though. Anyone but Manny.
All eyes turned to him.
Manny stared at the hole. It was a tight squeeze even for him.
Fear rose like bile in his throat. Then he remembered a verse that he had learned in Iglesias last Domingo, a verse that Milo had told him that it was his favorite verse in the entire Santa Biblia.
Those who wait upon the LORD shall mount up with wings like eagles. Manny thought. He then dropped to his knees outside the squeeze. “I will go.”
A miner, his eyes wide, and his eyes red, put a hand on Manny’s shoulder. “You do not have to do it.”
“God will be with me. If el Jefe is alive, I want to save him.”
The miner smiled, his blackened teeth showing. “You have a big heart, being such a small chico.”
Manny put his arms into the hole, got onto his stomach and started to worm forward.
The men behind him cheered.
He wiggled forward, his light barely piercing the darkness ahead of him, and he wondered how far or how long this little crack would last.
The crevice grew smaller as he went on, the light of the miners fading behind him. Manny pressed his body into the bowels of the mountain and pushed along with his feet. His head got through but his shoulders stuck.
With the coils of the rock around him, Manny felt panic set in.
“I will mount up on wings like eagles.” He grunted and set his feet into the stone. With a final push, he made it out of the clutches of the mountain.
And then, the tunnel was clear again. He carefully pulled himself from the small orifice and followed the tunnel which dug deeper into the mountain. He was filled with excitement. Milo and his team might be very close to him now.
His jubilance was quickly cut short by more evidence of the cave-in. But there was more than that. The tunnel split off three different ways; Manny didn’t know which tunnel was Milo’s.
All hope he had was gone completely. There would be no time to dig all of the tunnels out. If Milo was alive, it would take all Manny had to get him out—and he couldn’t afford any mistakes.
There, beneath the Columbian mountain, the chico curled up, crying and praying.
“God? Jesus? Will you help me? I love Jefe Milo. He told me where to find you, God. But the mountain has taken him, and I don’t know which tunnel is his.”
After some time passed, Manny stirred and looked again at the impossible barricades that lay against the tunnels, letting his light pass over each, one at a time.
And then he found something he’d missed before. Carved in the stone beside the tunnel to the right, wings spread wide, eyes clear and piercing, was a bird. It was an eagle. And beneath the strong talons, etched in the stone, were the words ‘with wings like eagles.’
Jefe Milo’s tunnel! He had marked it with his favorite verse.
With sudden fury, Manny attacked the pile of stones that blocked that entrance.
Pain and exhaustion grew to be an afterthought as the small, bent child worked for hours and hours without ceasing. Eventually, the pile of rocks flattened out, and Manny found himself clawing like an animal at the top of the pile close to the top of the small tunnel, throwing stones behind him.
“Jefe Milo!” He called into the darkness when he broke through. “Jefe!”
“Jefe! It’s me, Manny!”
But still nothing came from within.
Manny felt tears begin to fall from his eyes again. He shoveled more and more rocks out of the way until he could twist through. He pulled his gaunt and dusty body over the pile of debris and yelled into the cave.
“Manny?” A voice came from the darkness.
Manny scurried forward. “Milo?”
A man—not Milo—came into the light, his eyes wearied and strained. The chalky dust on his forehead was streaked with sweat and his pupils were wide.
“Little Manny?” The man laughed in joy. “I am saved!”
“Is there anyone else here? Where is Jefe Milo?”
The man sobered. “Yes, yes. Come. Come.”
The two scampered along the tunnels until they came to another part that had also caved in. Most of the mining team was there, looking starved and desperate, lights dim and growing dimmer and there was el jefe in his red coat, with his lower body pinned under a pile of rocks. The men, all growing weak, were pulling at the confining rocks with what energy they had left.
The man’s weary eyes looked up and all the men turned to see Manny. Raucous yells of joy rang out from among the group. “We’re saved! It’s Manny! Whoo-hoo!”
Manny ran to Milo and took his hand. “God saved you!”
“Yes, yes, he did. I shouldn’t be alive.”
With Manny’s help, the miners uncovered the rest of el jefe’s body. Dragging Milo forward, they propped him up against a wall.
“I have to go get some food.” Manny said and then began to explain their predicament. “There is no way for you to get out. It is a small crack, only big enough for me. But there is much hope. We will dig you out.”
Manny left the group there and retraced his steps all the way back to the others. After the last squeeze, he relayed the good news to the elated miners and, an hour later, he was back with supplies for the starved miners.
After he ate and drank, Milo pulled Manny close to him and whispered in his ear.
“We almost died.” Milo said, tears forming in the wrinkled corners of his eyes. “And I almost gave up hope. And then God told me that you would come. I held onto that hope when the pain was the worst because I knew that I had to see you again.”
“You waited on the Lord and mounted up on wings like eagles.” Manny said. “Without your verse written on the wall, I would have never found you.”
“It’s the Lord’s hand. Now, I had to see you because I had to give something to you. Look what I have found.” Milo, in the glow of his headlight, opened his knotted fingers—white with dust—and revealed an uncut chunk of emerald.
“I had to give this to you. It will keep your family for many, many years.”
Manny took the green stone into his hands, staring in unbelief. “This emerald has saved me. You… you have saved me and my family.”
“And you have saved me.” Milo smiled. “You are my little emerald in the dust.”