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A Lady in Boomtown: Miners and Manners on the Nevada Frontier - Page 59

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The first tap of the hammer is soft, just enough to give the drill a straight push, for the hole must be started straight. The next blow is a bit harder, and by the fourth blow, or the fifth, the hole is on its way, and the man’s body bends to the blows as they grow more and more powerful. A slow- running hose attached to a barrel pours water into the hole as the man crouching over the drill moves it skillfully up and down and around after each hammer blow. At all costs the steel must be kept from sticking in the rock. If a drill sticks - “ fitchered,” they call it - precious seconds are lost, for it must be tapped loose before it can be struck again. If it does not spring loose, the spectators know it will break off, and the unlucky pair must start a new hole. Every thirty seconds the partners change places. When the moment approaches for the change, the man holding the drill grasps his own hammer with one hand and gives the drill one last turn with the other, while the timer, watch in hand, touches the standing partner on the shoulder. At the signal the man flings his hammer aside, then crouches down and grabs the drill with both hands as his partner springs to his feet ready to deliver the next blow. The new man on the hammer comes down without missing the rhythm of a stroke or the fraction of a second. As the depth of the hole increases and a longer steel is necessary, the first drill must he jerked out and the new one inserted without breaking the rhythm of the hammer. This is easy when the drills are short, but when a three- foot steel must be yanked out and a four- foot one dropped unerringly into the inch- wide hole, the maneuver must be accomplished with unerring precision. If the drill is lifted a fraction of a second to slowly, a stroke can be lost, which can mean a half inch at the finish. Listen to the crowd! Cheers, catcalls. Bets are yelled out. “ Lean on that stick there!” “ Two to one on this team!” “ We got our money on ya, Bill!” “ I’ll take ya!” “ Put ' er down, boys!” Twelve minutes. Thirteen, fourteen! The timer lifts his hand above the bending backs. The hammer blows quicken. The crowd sways and murmurs. Fifteen minutes! The hand descends. The drillers stand panting while every drop of water is sucked out of the hole, and the officials insert the measuring rod. The crowd is still. The official straightens up and bellows: “ Thirty- nine and one- half inches!” More cheers, a few groans, more betting. By this time, the next team is in place, and their followers are cheering for them. A drilling contest has everything: technique, beauty, endurance, speed, and danger. If the hammer descends a fraction of an inch out of line on the tiny head of the drill, a man’s hand may be crushed.



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