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Will Jamison and the Black Swan Mine Chapter 21 Zena's Secret

Story ID:2603
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 21
Zena's Secret

The gray-haired shopkeeper shouted. "Out! Out! Get out of here!"

The loud, angry words bounced across the town square as Will and Emily walked home from school. Will’s breath caught in his throat when Mrs. Wilkin chased Zena through the door of her shop. What had Zena done to make the woman so angry? The storekeeper held a broom over her head like a club.

Zena shielded her head with her hands while she backed away. She shouted at Mrs. Wilkin. "Nothing. I took nothing. I buy what I want. I don't steal!"

Fingers of fear grabbed at Will as he raced across the grassy area in the middle of the square. He skirted the empty bandstand in the center of the park. By the time he reached the two women, curious onlookers had gathered.

Will stepped between the women, his back to Zena, his arms outstretched before him. "Stop! Please stop this, both of you.” He moved closer to the shopkeeper. "Mrs. Wilkin, I know this woman. Zena would never steal."

"Don't you defend her, boy," Mrs. Wilkin yelled. "She was going to take anything she could get her hands on. That's a fact!" The storekeeper lowered her broom and surveyed the crowd that surrounded them. "Never trust a gypsy. Should be run out of town, I say." She hit the wooden walk with her broom, sending puffs of dust into the air. When several onlookers voiced their agreement, she smiled.

Zena pushed Will gently to the side and stepped closer to her accuser. She raised both hands and shook them at Mrs. Wilkin. "A curse on you, old woman."

Mrs. Wilkin gasped and stepped back, still clutching her broom.

Will tugged Zena's hand. He had to get her away from this angry woman. "Come on, Zena, let's go for a walk. Look, Emily's here, too."

Emily breathed hard, but she reached for Zena's other hand. She pulled along with Will. "Please Zena, please come away." Emily's eyes glistened with tears that threatened
to spill over.

Zena's body relaxed when they moved farther away from the shop. The three held hands and walked in silence, despite the stinging words the bystanders hurled after them. Zena's mouth clamped shut, her eyes darker than normal. Her bracelets jangled, and she breathed hard. Will prayed they could get Zena safely away.

The crowd fell back, and they made it to the edge of town safely.

As they reached the cemetery, Zena said, "All right. You can let go. No one will bother us here.”

Will released her hand. "What happened back there? You wouldn't steal anything. I know you wouldn't." His heart beat faster than normal, but he tried to remain calm on the outside.

"Of course, she wouldn't," Emily said before Zena could explain. "That old Mrs. Wilkin has eyes that only track bad things. She's mean to everyone."

Zena frowned. "She's a strange old woman. I don't like being accused of something I did not do. She made me so angry I lost my temper and cursed that old woman."

"I thought you said there was no such thing as a gypsy curse," Will said. "You told
me that a long time ago."

Zena cocked her head to one side and grinned. "You're right, I did tell you that, and it's true. Gypsies can't put a curse on anyone—no more than any other person can. I just got carried away, and besides, that old woman will believe there really is a curse. It will serve her right if she has to worry a bit, don't you think?" She threw her head back and laughed aloud. Will and Emily joined in.

When the laughter ceased, they strolled in and out among the gravesites of the cemetery. Will pointed out Big Mike Riley's grave, where no headstone yet rested and no grass grew yet in the dirt that had been used to fill in the grave.
They stopped at a stone that said Alice Jamison 1858-1888. "This is my mother's grave," Will said.

Zena folded her hands at her waist. "Yes, I know. You must miss her."

"Sometimes I can't remember her face. I was only four when she died."

"I remember," Zena said softly.

Emily frowned. "Why would you remember Will's mother? You didn't know her."

Zena said, "Come over here under this tree. Let's sit and talk. I have a secret, and it's time for Will to know it."

Emily and Zena scurried to a large shade tree, but Will followed with slower steps. "What's the secret? Is it something awful?" Part of him wanted to hear it, and another part wanted to turn and run, but he sat down next to Zena anyway.

"Oh no," Zena said, patting Will's arm. "Where shall I begin?" She closed her eyes for a moment. "I was the one who brought your mother to Medlin."

"You brought her here?" Will's mouth fell open, but no more words emerged. How could Zena have been involved with his mother? She’d never said a word about it before.

"She was about the age you are now when we left her near Medlin. But some years before that, our caravan was moving south for the winter when we came upon an overturned wagon. The oxen that had been harnessed to it were still alive but down and bellowing something awful. Such a terrible racket they made. A man and a woman had been thrown from the wagon. They were both dead, their possessions scattered around them. My people picked things up and prepared to dig two graves, when a noise came from behind some big boulders. I found a small girl cowering there. She didn't cry, but the dreadful sounds she made spoke of grief."

"Was it Will's mother?" Emily whispered.

Zena smiled at her. "Yes, but she was only a little girl then. I rushed to her and held her close. She was shaking from head to toe, and I tried to get her to talk, but she was so afraid. I brought her to my husband. He was still alive at that time. After we buried her mother and father and gathered her belongings, we took her with us."

"Didn't you try to find someone who knew her?" Will asked. The story Zena told filled him with wonder and joy and also some sadness. All the feelings swirled round and round in his head, but he hungered for more of the tale.

"We talked to her later when she wasn't so afraid, but we never could find out if she had any family anywhere. She seemed content to travel with us."

Zena clapped her hands, and a bright smile lit her face. "I was so happy. We had no children of our own, and she seemed like a gift to us." Then the gypsy woman sat quietly, and neither Will nor Emily interrupted her thoughts with more questions.

Zena continued her story. "She was so beautiful. Her hair was the color of a golden wheat field, and her eyes were the blue of a cornflower. Her skin was like ivory, not dark like mine.” She reached out and touched Will’s blond hair. “You are so like her, Will," Zena said. "After she had come to know us, she became like our own child. But I started having little doubts that nagged at me over and over again. It seemed like a voice in my ear said Alice needed more than we could give her. She hadn't been to school in all the time she was with us."

Will drew in a loud breath but said nothing. He knew too well what it was like to give up school.

"Go on, go on," urged Emily.

"Patience, Emily." Zena moved a bit closer to her audience. "When spring came that year, we returned to this area. I knew it was time to let her go, to find a new home for Alice so she could grow up the way her own mother would have wanted. We found a childless old couple who farmed near Medlin. They were willing and happy to take her, but our Alice wasn't happy to go. She cried and carried on for a long time, and I promised to visit her every year-- forever."

Zena leaned back against the rough bark of the tree. "I did come, too, every year. When she lived out on the farm, it was easy, but when she grew up and married your father, they lived in town. Then a visit became more difficult. Most people don't understand why anyone would want a gypsy for a friend. Your grandmother would never have stood for that, would she?"

Will shook his head, and his bottom lip trembled. "Did my dad know about you?"

"I think so, but he never came to meet us. On the other hand, he never stopped Alice coming or bringing Freddie and you with her."

Emily sat up straighter. "You mean you've known Will since he was born? And Freddie, too?"

“Yes, I knew them all. I even knew Fergus Fenton.” Zena whispered. “He loved your
mother, too, Will, but she had eyes for your da and no one else. That’s why Fergus watches

your family all the time. I think he pines for her in his own strange way. Maybe seeing you and
your family helps him.”

"Why didn't you ever tell me this before?" Will asked. "And why didn't you become
friends with Freddie, too?"

"I watched both of you from afar, but you resembled your mother more, so you were the one I wanted to know better. Freddie is more like your father. Besides, you helped me the day we met again, three years ago." Zena raised her eyebrows when Will grinned.

"You mean," he said, "you really didn't hurt your ankle that day? You tricked us into
thinking you were hurt?"

"I'm glad you tricked us," Emily said. "I think Zena is really another grandmother to you."

Will scrambled to his feet. "I think you’re right," he said. He liked the idea of another grandmother, a softer grandmother—one that might be easier to be around than Gran.

Zena rose slowly to her feet. "You may think of me that way, but you call me Zena. This has got to be kept a secret between the three of us. The people of Medlin wouldn't take kindly to you having a gypsy grandmother."

"They can't stop us from having you for our friend," Will said.

Zena held her head high. "I would be proud to be your grandmother or your friend, now and always, but let's get back to town. It will soon be suppertime for you two, and I think you both left your schoolbooks back on the square."

“Wait! Remember what you told me a few weeks ago?" Will asked. "Remember you said
there was no crystal ball, no magic, and I would find a way to get out of the mine and back to school?"

"I remember."

Will moved closer and grasped Zena’s hand. "You were right. I have a plan I think will work. I can go back to school, and I won't have to look over my shoulder for Leo any longer."