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Will Jamison and The Black Swan Mine Chapter 8 Leo's Warning

Story ID:1973
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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Chapter 8
Leo's Warning

Tom Scott pulled on Will's sleeve. "Come on there, lad, step it up. A glorious day at the Black Swan awaits!"

Will kept his face stony as they walked to the mine. He was in no mood for kidding around. If he were walking to school with his friends, he’d have been the first one to make a lighthearted statement like Emily’s father had done but not now.

Laughter from the men and boys walking in small groups answered Tom’s statement. The miners were dressed alike in dark colored, coal-blackened clothes, and each carried a lunch bucket. Some of the men were bent over from long years lying hunched-up in cramped positions while using pick-axes to loosen the coal.

The crowd swelled when it reached a group of boarding houses at the edge of town. Miners who had no family, or had left them behind in some other coal mining town, rented rooms in these shabby places. A bed and a meal were all they were sure of in the boardinghouses.

Leo Fenton joined the men and boys walking to the Black Swan. He and his father lived in a tiny house, no more than a shack, behind Bloomer's Boarding House. Leo swung his lunch bucket high and wide coming dangerously close to, but never touching, several boys. There were no greetings or friendly gestures when he passed by.

Will watched Leo being snubbed by the others. So he wasn’t the only one who wanted nothing to do with Leo.

Leo marched so fast it appeared he could hardly wait to get to work. His clothes were worn thin, so maybe the cold morning air caused him to move quickly. Will was grateful for the heavy shirt Gran insisted he put on under his wool jacket.

Da patted Will on the back when the mine boss's shack was near. "Off you go, lad. Go on in, and we'll meet at the day's end. Rolly will tell you where to go today."

Will raised a hand in farewell when his father and brother headed to the cage. He didn’t want to spend another day sweeping below ground. His feet stayed rooted in the same spot until Freddie turned around. His older brother cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted "Go!"

Will kicked at the dirt and entered the shack. Rolly glanced up from his bookwork. "About time you showed up. Go on down with Sam here." He waved an arm indicating a boy about Freddie's age. "Sam's a driver who likes to go a little too fast. Drives those mules like they were race-horses at the fair. Caught up with him the other day, and he had a little accident." Rolly glared hard at Sam. "He won't be driving for a few days while his leg heals. He'll take you through the tunnels and show you what a trapper does. Yep, I think we'll make a trapper of you."

Will had no idea what a trapper did, and his stomach clenched tight. Were there animals to be caught down in the mine? Tales of rats in the mines were common, but he'd always thought they were just stories. He followed Sam to the cage. The older boy limped and moved slowly.

They rode below ground in the cool darkness. "What happened to you, Sam?"

"Aw, I was havin' a great run. Mules were moving at top speed. Then something spooked the lead mule, and the cars jumped the track. I hurt my leg jumping clear. Wasn't my fault. Might have been a miner's ghost, might have been a bat, but something spooked those mules. Rolly hollered worse than my ma!" He grinned at Will and slid the cage door open.

The boys passed the stable area where standing mules sniffed at them. Animal odors mingled with the stale air. They waved at Artie, who was already sitting in his niche in the wall, and headed down the first tunnel.

"Watch these props," Sam told Will, pointing to the nearest one. "They hold up loose parts of the slate roof above us. Knock one of these old wooden props out, and you'll get a piece of slate down on top of you. Then you'll have more than a sore leg. But, don't worry, that doesn't happen too often."

Will carefully by-passed the props and followed Sam along the tracks. Sam stopped and pointed to a small room off the tunnel. "This here's a miner's room. Top miners get their own room to work the coal out. They fill a car like this one, or they get a kid like you to shovel it in for 'em. The miner puts his number on top of the coal. Rolly marks it down in his book when the coal gets to the top. The miners are paid by how much coal they get while the rest of us get paid by the hour."

"So, the more a miner picks, the more money he makes?" Will asked.

"Yep," Sam answered. "But it ain't good like it sounds. I see 'em laying on their sides or hunched over with their muscles yellin' back at them. Sometimes they have to wait for a shot firer to come.

Will interrupted. “What’s a shot firer?”

“He's the entry man who puts explosives into the wall to loosen the coal. All the time the miner's waiting for that, he's losing money. Entry man makes more money, too, but he puts his life at risk every time he sets the dynamite. Give me driving any day."

Sam pointed to a door that sealed off part of the tunnel. "Here's where you'll be working. We need a trapper at each door to open and close it when the drivers come through."

"Can't you leave the door open all the time?"
"A mine has two openings, kind of like a house has a front door and a back door. It lets fresh air pass through. Directs the air-flow all over the mine, so you sit here, and, when a driver's coming, you jump up fast and open the door. You close it when he goes through. Think you can handle that?" Sam grinned at Will but grimaced when he put his sore foot down too quickly.

There was no answering smile from Will. He couldn’t believe what he’d heard. "You mean that's all I'm going to do all day, every day? It's worse than being a greaser like Artie!"

"Yeah, but it's important. You listen carefully for the drivers. If you don't hear the mules coming along, the driver will whistle or holler when he gets close. Nothin' makes me madder than a trapper who doesn't get that door open fast." Sam started down the tunnel but called back "Stay where you are 'til the whistle blows at the end of the day."

Weakness settled into Will's legs, and a cold sweat broke out on his brow. He breathed in short gasps. He'd never been this alone in his life. His only companions were puddles formed by the water that dripped and oozed from the walls. The gas carbide lamp in his hat gave him enough light to make out his immediate surroundings but not much more. He found a spot by the wall and sat down heavily. How was he going to get through the long day?

Muffled noises drifted from down the tunnel. Miners were in their rooms picking the coal with tools and hands. Da was in one of those rooms. He had never before known exactly what his father did all day. Now that he knew, he wished he didn't.

He listened for the mules and a driver, but before long, his mind wandered. He thought about Mike and Emily and Miss Duncan. He pictured Mike bent over a paper at his desk. His friend's tongue would be between his teeth as he concentrated on putting the letters in the proper order. Emily might be gathering papers, and Miss Duncan would be walking down the aisles checking papers. He sighed deeply.

"Trapper! Trapper!"

The shout jarred Will out of his daydream. He jumped up and pulled the big door back against the wall, flattening himself the best he could. The mules lumbered through the doorway pulling loaded coal cars.

Leo Fenton stood with one foot on the bumper of the first car and the other on the chain that connected the mules to the coal car. One hand rested on the rear mule's rump while the other held onto the front of the car. Now it was clear to Will how drivers were thrown so easily, and his admiration for his brother grew a notch.

Leo spied Will when he passed by and brought the train to a sudden halt. He jumped off and walked back to Will. "So, Wee Will is a trapper. Just remember this--you get that door open fast when you hear me comin'. You're nothing, ya know. It's us drivers who have the important job." He wiped a filthy sleeve across his nose. "Did they tell ya what could happen to ya here?"

Will didn't answer, but Leo didn't seem to expect one. Might as well let the bully blow off some steam.

Leo paced back and forth while he talked. "All kinds of stuff can happen down here. Slate can fall, gas can get ya. Sometimes there's a warning, sometimes not. Then there's just bodies laying around."

"You're only trying to scare me, Leo," Will said.

Leo ignored him and continued his warning. “The worst, I think is the flood. Yeah, the flood is bad. You could be sitting here, and a wall of water might come out of nowhere. See?" Leo stopped pacing and bent down so his dirty face was close to Will's. "Course, a cave-in's pretty bad, too. Lots and lots of things can happen in a mine."

Leo straightened up and headed back to the coal train. He climbed on and yelled back to Will. "You're doomed, Wee Will, you're doomed!" He rode off laughing.

Before Leo had gone far, Will ran down the tunnel and shouted, "Can't be too bad, Leo, you're still here, aren't you?"

Left alone once more, Will thought about all that Leo had said. Maybe that sweeping job in the stable area might not be so bad, after all. There, Artie was nearby, and the cage that led to safety was in sight. Tears that had threatened all morning spilled over and left tracks on his cheeks. He sat with his head on his knees while he waited for the next driver.