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Will Jamison and The Black Swan Mine Chapter 1 A Fight In The Schoolyard

Story ID:1750
Written by:Nancy J. Kopp (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Fiction
Location:Medlin Iowa USA
Year:1895
Person:Will Jamison
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Author's Note: I'm beginning a new project at OurEcho today. I will be posting a juvenile novel one chapter per week. The story is fiction but based on facts. My grandfather was taken from school at age 9 and sent to work in the coal mines. My mother grew up in a little mining town in southeastern Iowa, and she told many stories about the people there, the mines and her father's career as a miner. This story evolved from all the things she told me. It bothered me all my life that my grandfather's education stopped at age 9. I would very much appreciate any comments on the individual chapters as the weeks go on. Tell me what you liked and also what you didn't like.

The novel is geared toward 9-12 year old kids, but grown-ups will find something in it for them, too. I wanted to show the life of immigrant coal mining families in the late 19th century.


Chapter 1
A Fight In The Schoolyard

Will flicked a blue and white marble with his thumb and followed its path with one eye closed. Before the marble found the target, a loud voice interrupted his concentration.

“What’re ya doing, limey?”

Limey? Only one person would use a term like that—Leo.
Leo Fenton leaned against the trunk of a big cottonwood tree, one corner of his mouth turned down in a sneer. Leo was only three years older than Will, but nearly twice his size. Tufts of dirty red hair stuck out in odd spots beneath his cap. His ragged clothes, hands, and face were blackened with the coal dust that coated everyone who worked at the Black Swan mine
.
Will snatched up the circle of marbles, one by one. “I’m as American as you are, Leo.”
“Your old man came here from England, same as him next to you. That makes both of you limeys!” Leo spat toward Will’s friend, Mike Riley. The spittle landed on Mike’s hand.

Anger flashed in Mike’s eyes, and he jumped to his feet, scattering his marbles in several directions.

Will grabbed Mike’s jacket sleeve. “Leave it. He’s not worth it.”

Mike shouted at Leo, “I’m no limey anyway. Me dad was born in Ireland, but I came into this world right here in Iowa, the same as Will and you.”

“Ireland, is it? You’re right. Limey’s not the word for you. Mike the mick, that’s what you are.”

Will stepped between the two boys. “Cut it out, Leo.”
Leo continued his taunt. “Yeah, he’s an Irisher, and you’re a limey. Worse than that is your mother, limey. Strange woman who has no past, at least not one you can talk about.”

The last jab hit like a fist aimed at his middle. Will sprang toward the bigger boy. Here was Goliath, the giant, in front of him and no slingshot in sight. “You went too far, Leo. Don’t you talk about my mother—ever!” His fist connected with Leo’s nose.

Mike grabbed the bill of Leo’s cap and pulled it over the older boy’s eyes. “Will’s mother is none of your business. Didn’t anybody ever tell you not to speak ill of the dead?”

The surprise of the attack passed quickly, and Leo fought back, getting the upper hand in no time. Noah Heaton and Henry Rollins joined the fracas, and the four wrestled Leo to the ground. Students of all ages flocked to the fight. They formed a large circle and cheered as fists flew.

“Stop! Stop this instant!”
The thunderous cry halted the brawl, and those cheering on the sidelines fell silent, as well. Will lay among a tangle of arms and legs. He peered between Mike’s freckled arm, exposed by a torn sleeve, and Henry Rollins’ wool-stockinged leg. Will squeezed his eyes closed when he discovered the voice belonged to Miss Gillwooley. Every student knew her hard rules and severe punishments. They were in for it now.

“Get up, you hooligans,” Miss Gillwooley shouted.
The boys unwound themselves and lined up in front of the rotund teacher. Shirt-tails trailed from grass-stained pants. Twigs and dried leaves adorned their hair. Chests rose and fell as they gulped the chill March air.

Leo wiped the blood from under his nose with a dirty hand and sauntered away from the group.

Miss Gillwooley ran after him, huffing and puffing. “Come back here, Leo Fenton.” She grabbed his ear and twisted it.

“Ow! Leave me alone. I’m on my way to get Doc Pettle. There’s been another accident at the mine.”

“Then what were you doing in the schoolyard?” She twisted Leo’s ear again.
With effort, Leo pulled away from Miss Gillwooley and ran, dust clouds swirling behind him.

Miss Gillwooley narrowed her eyes at the disheveled boys lined up like ducks in a row. “I’ll deal with the four of you now.” Her double chin wobbled when she spoke. Will kept his eyes on his feet and bit his lip. It would never do to laugh now.

Will’s teacher, Miss Duncan, slipped quietly behind Miss Gillwooley. “I believe these boys are my responsibility, Miss Gillwooley, and I will deal with them.” Her soft words cut off the angry teacher’s threat as neatly as a sharp knife slices through newly churned butter.

Miss Gillwooley whirled around to confront the younger teacher. “What do you mean? I was here when this happened, and I’ll deal with these hooligans.” Miss Gillwooley folded her arms and tapped her foot, raising little puffs of dust with each beat but said no more.

Miss Duncan remained very still, her usual smile nowhere to be seen. Will shivered, but he didn’t know if a cold gust of wind had caused it or concern for Miss Duncan. Would the two women stand there until the dismissal bell rang?

Finally, Miss Gillwooley stomped toward the school, muttering to herself and shooing children into the building.

Miss Duncan said, “You boys brush your clothes off and meet me in the cloakroom immediately.” She strode across the schoolyard, her long skirt swishing with every step.
The four boys tucked in shirts, brushed off pants, and swiped at their hair with dirty hands and followed their teacher.

The scent of chalk-dust greeted Will when he entered the classroom, and the wooden floor squeaked under his feet. He glanced at the large slate board. Written at the top was today’s date, March 9, 1895. Beneath the date Miss Duncan had written the Thought For The Day. “Speak softly and use kind words.” Maybe Miss Gillwooley might benefit from reading it. Will knew the advice worked for Miss Duncan every day. The boys hung their jackets and scarves on large hooks which lined the walls of the narrow cloakroom. Will and Mike folded their arms and waited. Henry and Noah stood near them, shuffling feet and clearing their throats until their teacher joined them in the cloakroom. Suddenly, silence filled the air.

“I’m disappointed in all four of you boys. Miss Gillwooley spoke the truth. Perhaps you truly are hooligans.” A slight smile crossed her face. “But perhaps you were only defending yourselves. Maybe you should tell me what happened.”

Three boys stared at Will until he cleared his throat and told Miss Duncan about Leo’s taunting. “He kept at us and kept at us and finally went a step too far. That’s when I punched him. He shouldn’t have been at the schoolyard in the first place, Miss Duncan. He’s a miner now. He drives mules in the mine same as my brother, Freddie.”

“You boys all have fathers and brothers who work in the mine. Tonight I want each of you to write a paper about the responsibility your father has in the mine, and when you write the paper, think about what might happen if they spent their time below ground fighting like you have done today.” She gestured for the boys to return to the classroom.

Miss Duncan grasped Will’s arm. “Will, wait a moment, please. I have some good news for you.”

He could use some good news right about now, but what bit of information could make Miss Duncan’s eyes sparkle so? Will gazed down at his shoes. “Ma’am?”

“Your essay on “What School Means to Me” has placed first in the school contest. There were many good essays, but yours was rather special for an eleven year old boy.”

Will’s cheeks grew hot as the blood rushed to his face, and he ducked his head. Miss Duncan put her finger under his chin and lifted gently. “Don’t be embarrassed, Will. You earned the award. You’re my best student. It’s obvious that school is of great importance and learning is a joy in your life. Be proud of that. Be proud when you read your paper at the Spring Festival in May.”

He was going to read at the Spring Festival? Will wanted to shout, to throw up his hands and yell Hooray! Instead, he smiled at his teacher and put his hands in his pants pockets, wiggling all the fingers under cover.

“Keep up the good work, Will, and you’ll be off to Iowa City some day to attend college.”

“No worries about that, Miss Duncan. I’ll be here working hard every day.” School was the best part of the day. Why his brother Freddie and other boys like Leo quit to work in the mine was a real puzzle.