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Will Jamison and The Black Swan Mine Chapter 11 A Sad and Rainy Day

Story ID:2073
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 11
A Sad and Rainy Day

Will and Freddie were soon soaked from the steady rain as they trudged towards the Black Swan the next morning. The brothers walked side by side, caps pulled down and coat collars up in a futile effort to stay dry.

"Gran put pie in our buckets this morning. It'll be something grand to have pie for lunch, won't it?" Freddie said.

"Don't you think of anything but food?" Will shivered, despite his heavy jacket.

Freddie punched Will on the arm and winked at him. "Maybe girls. What else is there besides good food and a pretty girl?"

Will laughed at his brother. "You're hopeless."

"Mules are going to be skittish today. Stormy weather bothers them."

"Why?" Will asked. "The poor creatures seldom come above ground, they live down in the mine night and day. A mule wouldn't even know it's raining."

"Oh, they know, all right. Same way they know when it's not safe to enter a tunnel. Mules possess a sixth sense. That's why we use mules instead of horses," Freddie said.

"Why would they be afraid of going in one of the tunnels or anyplace else?"

Freddie increased his pace when thunder rolled overhead. "Somehow they seem to be aware if the slate roof is loose or if the air isn't good to breathe. They're smarter than a lot of our drivers, especially old Leo Fenton." With a hearty laugh he left Will and headed to the blacksmith's shed. He called over his shoulder, "See ya after the shift."

The morning dragged for Will. He opened and closed the ventilation door for the drivers and daydreamed in the darkness. Water dripped and oozed from the walls, creating puddles. He tried to avoid stepping in the water even though his feet were already wet. He shivered in his damp clothes.

Muffled voices beyond the closed door alerted him that a miner was loading coal cars. A driver's voice continued in a soothing tone, quieting the mules. Freddie was right. The mules were nervous today.

Picks and shovels slammed into the hard coal, pumps moved water away from low spots, and a man tapped on the wooden props, which held up the slate roof. The sounds of a mining operation were becoming familiar, but those to be heard in the schoolroom would have been more to his liking.

Chains that connected the mules to the coal cars rattled. Will jumped up and splashed through the puddles to open the door before the driver could holler "Trapper! Trapper!" Mules and coal cars hurtled through the door, faster than any Will had seen before.

Leo Fenton shouted at his mules. "Move, move!" He clenched his teeth and narrowed his eyes at Will. "Still here, wee Will?"

Will glared at Leo, but before he could respond to the taunting, shouting and a lot of commotion from far down the tunnel turned his attention. Voices were raised, but the words were jumbled and difficult to distinguish.

A miner ran through the still open door, breathing hard, pick-axe clutched in his hand. "Slate's down on a man."

Will's heart pounded as though he'd been the one running. Without a word, Leo moved his mules to follow the distraught miner.

Being alone is worse than having Leo here. Why did Leo leave so suddenly? One minute he was making my life miserable, and the next he was off like a scared rabbit. Will closed the door, shutting off some of the noise coming from farther down the tunnel. Even though he had never been told, his own sixth sense warned him to shut the door and stay put. The dangers Leo had pointed out to him rolled through his mind--flooding, men being overcome by gas, slate falling. He drew his knees up, put his head on them, and squeezed his eyes shut. Why didn't someone come and get him?

The whistle began to blow, three sharp blasts, a pause, and three more. Like all miners' children, he knew it was the signal that an accident had occurred below ground. When the whistle blew in that pattern, work stopped above and below, and the miners rode the cage to fresh air and safety.

Will sprinted down the tunnel. He stopped when he reached Artie, who had left his grease pot and stood rooted to the tunnel entry.

"What happened?" Artie's eyes were wide open and darted rapidly from Will to the dark tunnel and back to Will again.

"Don't know. I heard slate was down in a miner's room. Maybe it's all right, maybe it was little pieces." Will reached out for Artie's arm. Touching a warm being steadied Will's churning stomach a little.

Artie shook his arm free and headed towards the cage which had returned with Zeb Rollins and three other men aboard. "And maybe you're dreaming. Come on, we have to get up top on the next man trip.” He took two steps and stopped. “Will, it was an accident. That’s all, just an accident.” Artie’s hands shook so much he could barely open the door to the cage.

Will followed Artie and squeezed into a corner. He wanted to help Artie stop shaking, but he didn’t know what to do.

By the time Will and Artie and some of the men reached the top, townspeople had gathered near the mine entrance. The shrill whistle continued to blow its warning, three blasts at a time. The growing crowd consisted of mostly women and small children. They waited in the cold rain for word of their men and boys. The women were silent, even the little children remained quiet.

Will spied Gran and Amanda Scott standing with Mike's mother. Three children clustered around Mrs. Riley's skirt like baby chicks hugging close to a mother hen. Did anyone know who had been hurt? Don't let it be Da, Will prayed silently.

The whistle ceased, but the awful silence that followed frightened Will more.

Zeb Rollins stepped out of the cage, scanned the crowd, and walked with hurried steps to Mrs. Riley. He reached out and placed his hand on her shoulder before he spoke.

Mrs. Riley's hands moved toward the mine boss, then up to cover her face. She began to wail and shake her head back and forth. Gran and Emily's mother took turns holding the crying woman, the woman Will liked because she laughed so often and always found joy where few others could.

Will turned to a group of men. "What happened?" The words trembled when he forced them out.

Da stepped forward. "It's Big Mike, Will. The props in his room were no good. They were rotten. When they rot out, they can't hold the slate. A huge chunk of it fell. He never knew what hit him, I'm sure. Wouldn't have felt any pain."

Before Will could say anything, one of the miners stepped forward. "Might not have been a rotten prop. Could be somebody did something to weaken it. Boardman will call it an accident. You'll never hear the word murder said out loud."

"You mean, he's--" The words stuck in Will's throat. His face was wet from the rain. Would rain always remind him of this sad day? Accident? Murder? What was going on here?

He felt Da’s arms around him. "Things happen, lad, and there's nothing to be done about it. Oliver Boardman will deny that the props should have been changed sooner. He'll deny it like he's done before." There was bitterness in his father's voice.

Will leaned against his father. "It was an accident, wasn't it? It had to be. Leo told me accidents happen all the time in a mine." Leo! He'd fled the mine as soon as trouble erupted.

They waited without speaking further until Big Mike's body was brought to the surface. There would be no more work today. No lunch would be eaten from the metal lunch buckets. Each man and boy walked silently home to mourn the big man who had made them laugh with his jokes and chatter.

Will stopped in the middle of the muddy road. Who would go to the school and tell Mike his father was dead? Who was going to take care of Mike and his family now?