|Written by:||Nancy J. Kopp (bio, link, contact, other stories)|
|Location:||Medlin Iowa USA|
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|Written by:||Nancy J. Kopp (bio, link, contact, other stories)|
|Location:||Medlin Iowa USA|
The First Day
Shivering, Will walked between his dad and Freddie in the murky predawn darkness. He put one foot in front of the other, wishing with every step that he was at home getting ready for school. Never had he dreaded anything like his first day at the mine. Even the long pants Gran laid out for him that morning didn't ease the sadness. He'd much prefer wearing his knee-length pants and long stockings to school.
The farther they walked, the more he felt like crying. Slamming his fist against something hard might feel good, but he maintained his silence and did a little hop-step every so often to keep up with the men's longer strides.
Gran had been up early filling their tin lunch buckets, but she was nowhere to be seen when they were ready to leave. Was she too ashamed to watch him march to his doom?
Tom Scott, Emily's father, marched alongside Will's father. He glanced at the silent Will. "So, it's Will's turn, is it?"
"That's what I'm told. Never asked, mind you, just told." Da set his mouth exactly like Gran's had been the day before, in a firm line.
Tom reached around Da and patted Will on the shoulder. "Well now, you already know the way after all the times you and Emily came out to meet us."
The two miles passed quickly. Will found himself face to face with Zeb Rollins all too soon. The mine manager’s office was a small wooden building near the mine entrance. Miners called him Rolly. The mine boss’s thick eyebrows and down-turned mouth made his round face appear angry most of the time, but he spoke kindly enough to Rob.
"Here's another Jamison for the Black Swan." Rolly turned to Will's father. "Your mother talked to me, Rob. Said it was time for the lad to start working. You in agreement with that?" The overweight man hooked his thumbs behind his suspenders and waited.
Rob answered with only one word. "Yes." He walked away without a backward glance. Will’s stomach muscles tightened, and his knees threatened to give way. Had Da given up? Was Gran’s word so strong his father refused to fight for him?
"O.K., Jamie," Rolly said, "come on over here and sign this paper."
“My name’s Will." He straightened his shoulders and met the man's eyes. Was it only yesterday that Rolly's son, Henry, helped Will and Mike in the fight with Leo?
The mine boss opened his eyes wide and chuckled. "So it is, so it is. No new nickname for you.”
Will scanned the paper Rolly handed him. 'This says I'm twelve years old, but I'm not. I just turned eleven. I can't sign this." Maybe this was a way out. He could still make it to school.
Rolly waved his hand through the air. "Oh, don't worry about that. You'll be twelve one of these days. Sign here underneath the part that says you’re starting your employment here on March 10, 1895."
Feeling defeated once again, Will grabbed the pen out of the inkwell on Rolly’s desk and, using his very best penmanship, signed Will Emerson Jamison.
"Leo, come in here," Zeb called out. "I know you’re out there wasting good time."
Will clenched his fists at his sides when Leo Fenton sauntered through the door. The boy's clothes were stiff with dirt, and the loose sole of one of his workboots slapped the wooden floor.
"Yeah? What ‘cher want me for?" He directed his words to the mine boss, but the small eyes studied Will.
"Pick up a hard hat for Will and take him down the shaft when you take the new mule down. Show him around the stable. I’ll be down later." Rolly’s eyes looked as hard as the coal in the mine below.
Leo ignored Will and ambled slowly out the door, bottom lip thrust out, hands jammed in his pockets. Will plodded silently behind. His stomach felt like someone squeezed it over and over. Was Leo going to pick another fight?
Leo grabbed the reins of a lone mule tied to the back wheel of a wagon. The animal reared and skittered backwards. Leo jerked the reins, "Come on, Stupid."
Which one of them did Leo mean? Will wasn't about to ask. Instead, he stayed a few paces behind them.
Leo maneuvered the mule into the cage at the top of the mine shaft and stepped into the elevator. Will turned for a last glimpse of the newly risen sun and huddled into a corner, away from the restless animal and the bigger boy.
Paying no attention to Will, Leo patted the mule and whispered softly into its twitching ear as the cage moved below the earth.
When they reached bottom, Will waited while Leo led the mule off. Then he shuffled to the front of the cage, took a step, ran into Leo’s outstretched leg and fell flat on his face.
"You tripped me!”
"I never!" Leo’s eyes narrowed. "If I was you, I wouldn't try to blame other fellows fer yer own clumsiness. I know yer going to be on that pretty face a lot. Go on, wait over there for Rolly. I got to see to this here mule."
“Hey!” Will called. “You’re suppose to show me around down here.”
“Fat chance!” Leo’s laugh echoed down the dark tunnel.
Will's eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light. He was in a wide, open space. Off to the left half a dozen mules were stabled in a fenced-off recess, and to his right, coal cars had been shoved onto a spur. Steel tracks beneath his feet disappeared down a dark tunnel. Muffled voices and the echo of metal on rock drifted towards him. The light on his hard hat barely lit the ground in front of his feet, and were it not for the gas torches anchored to the cavern walls, Will wouldn't have been able to see five feet.
His nose twitched in the rank air. He breathed in short gasps. Was there enough air underground? He sensed someone nearby. Will stepped back toward the cage but surveyed the entire stable area, as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. He stopped in his tracks when he spied eyes staring at him from the wall. He gasped when the eyes spoke.
"Watch out for that Leo. He's trouble if there ever was."
On closer look, a boy, about Will's age, hunkered cross-legged in a niche in the wall. He wore a miner's hat and held a greasy rag in one hand. He dipped the rag into a large pot of a vile- appearing substance, black and gooey.
"Who are you?" Will asked.
The boy grinned and raised thin arms over his head, one hand still clutching the dirty rag. “I'm Artie, the Greaser."
"Greaser? What do you grease?"
“Don't know much, do ya?" Artie twirled the greasy rag above his head. "When the drivers bring the cars by, I grease the wheels on my side. When the empty cars circle and go back to the tunnels, I grease the other side. Keeps things running smooth as cream." Artie put his arms down, and his shoulders sagged. The smile vanished when the clatter of the descending cage intruded.
"All day?" Will said.
Before Artie could answer, Rolly stepped out of the cage and beckoned Will to his side.
The rest of the morning passed in a blur. The things Rolly showed him whirled in his head—where the brooms were kept, how to sweep the debris with only a little dust raised, how to stay away from the mules hind legs, to flatten himself against a wall when a coal train entered the stable area. And he hadn't even gotten back into the tunnels yet. There would be more to learn deep within.
The mine boss’s words rolled through his mind again. "Listen carefully, lad. You listen with both your ears and your head. There's danger here--gas and slate falling and even cave-ins. Men can be hurt; some get killed. Your own grandfather was a victim of the Black Swan. Accidents happen with little warning. You need to stay on your toes all the time. Those who act like know-it-alls seldom make it. One minute things are fine, but that can change faster than a mule can spit. If you’re going to be a good miner, watch the old-timers. They're survivors. Some of these young sprouts will never make it."
Will nodded, thinking of the grandfather he’d never met. He carried his grandfather's lunch bucket to the mine that morning. He choked on every inhaled breath. He’d feel better if he could only get a little fresh air. How many more hours before that would happen?
When the lunch whistle blew, Will ate only a little of the thick slices of bread and cheese in his bucket. He gave the rest to Artie, whose big appetite didn't match his lean frame.
Freddie passed by in the afternoon, but the brothers had no time to talk. Freddie guided his team of mules pulling several open cars filled to the brim with coal. He stopped near the cage where he uncoupled each car and sent them, one by one, to the top. Freddie winked at Will when he rode by, and Will raised his hand in acknowledgement before returning to sweep again. Sweep? He swept the dirt and debris into a pile and scooped it into a bucket. That was all he'd done since early morning.
He scurried around a mule, being careful of its hind legs. Freddie had warned him that a kick from a mule could maim him. He lowered his head over the broom when Leo drove by later in the day. Freddie avoided Leo, and so would he.
With each stroke of the broom, Will thought about Miss Duncan. What was she telling the class? What new thing were they learning? What did Emily and Mike think when he didn't show up at school? Both his arms and his heart felt heavy. Was he to spend all his days far below ground sweeping up after mules? There must be a way out!