I glanced at the big clock on the wall. Not much time left to finish the test before school lets out for the day. I pushed my pencil faster across the paper and finished only seconds before Miss Palmer called, "Stop."
Before she could say more, a loud whistle broke the silence in our classroom. With the second blast of the whistle, most of us were on our feet rushing to the cloakroom for our coats.
Miss Palmer raised her voice above the racket. "Wait, school's not over. Sit down immediately."
I grabbed my coat and cap, pulling it on as I ran out the door. Tom Peterton flew past me. "New teacher doesn't know that whistle means trouble at the mine. Go back and explain it to her."
Why me? I turned back and nearly knocked Miss Palmer off her feet since she stood right behind me.
"Something's wrong at the mine, Miss Palmer. We can't stay here."
I didn't give her a chance to ask any questions. I wrapped my scarf around my neck on my way down the steps. Kids ran in front of me and beside me, their frosty breaths spewing from open mouths. My father spent his days digging coal at the Red Dog Mine. Nearly all of us had someone working there. The short blasts of the whistle drew us like flies to honey.
People rolled by us in wagons. They shook the horses' reins urging them to go faster. I caught up to Tom and some other boys from my class.
The damp cold of an Iowa winter slips through warm clothes and works its way into your bones. Worse than the cold, fear curled around my heart. The last words Da and I had spoken were harsh ones. I'd yelled at him before he stormed out the door this morning. Now, I ran across snow-packed roads, slipping and sliding but staying upright. When I got close to the mine, I slowed down and scanned the crowd gathered there. I found the one I sought and hurried to her side.
"Ma! What happened?" I held onto her arm, gasping for breath.
She paced back and forth, pulling me with her. "It's a cave-in. They don't know yet who's trapped, but I'm sure your da is down there."
I didn't want my mother to cry. I held her arm with both my hands. "Maybe he's on the other side, one of the rescue team. Sure, that's where he'll be, Ma." My bottom lip quivered as I finished.
Ma stopped in her tracks, and a puzzled look crossed her face. "Rob, when did you get here? Why aren't you in school?"
"I came as soon as the whistle blew, Ma. We all did. Miss Palmer's here, too. Look around you. The whole town's gathered." It scared me to see Ma so befuddled.
Ma pulled her shawl closer. "They're all waiting to know if it's their man or dad or brother who's trapped. No different than you or I. We want our own back, want him home eating a bowl of stew and patting the dog in front of a warm stove."
Winter dusk crosses Iowa early, and the darkness of night soon crept slowly around us. Torches appeared, and someone started a bonfire near the edge of the mine yard. Ma and I stayed in our spot by the entry. We watched men go in and out, and we listened to the noise the cage made each time it descended deep below the frozen ground carrying men and equipment.
Someone handed me a steaming mug. For once, I'd been offered strong coffee laced with milk with no question. It tasted bitter, but I drank it in gulps, grateful for its warmth. Da uses sugar in his coffee. I'd like to try it that way. I'd like to have a mug with Da tomorrow morning before school and tell him I'm sorry for the stinging words I hurled at him today. Would I have a chance to make up with him? I blinked hard to keep tears from slipping.
Ma's soft voice interrupted my thoughts. "Rob, what brought about the shouting between you and your dad this morning? He ran off to the Red Dog so fast I couldn't catch up with him. What happened with you two?"
The words stuck in my throat. How could I tell her I'd ordered him not to meddle in my life? To stop asking me about every little thing that happens at school and with my friends. "Not much, Ma. Don't worry." Shame rose with the falsehood.
Ma patted my shoulder. "Your dad loves you, Rob. Never fear that he doesn't. He's so proud of your grades at school, but he worries about you, too."
"Worries? About what?"
"He's afraid you might start running around with the wrong boys and forget about working hard in your studies. He wants you to make something of yourself. He hopes you'll aim to be a doctor or a teacher. Anything but a coal miner." Ma shivered and edged closer to me.
I swallowed another gulp of the now-lukewarm coffee. Guilt crept from belly to brain.
Why hadn't Da told me why he questioned me so much? What if I never see him again?
A gruff voice interrupted my agony. "Boy, c'mere. You can be of some help to us. How old are you?"
"Fifteen." I didn't add that I'd only been fifteen for four days.
"Are you man enough to go down in the pit?" the mine boss asked.
Ma grabbed hold of my jacket. "No, he'll not go down there. I won't lose both of them."
I pried her hands away and followed the mine boss. His steps were hurried and his stride long, so I moved fast to keep up with him. He stopped when we reached the cage and stuffed bare hands in his coat pockets.
"There's a narrow opening at the site of the cave-in. I can't get a man in there, but a skinny kid like you might squeeze through."
My knees trembled and my voice shook. "What good will that do? How will it help the men on the other side?" My stomach tightened while I waited for his answer.
"You can describe the other side to the rescue team, tell them what props are left shoring the ceiling and where the men might be. You'll have to do some exploring once you're in, then come back to report. Can you do it, lad?"
I swallowed twice before I could get any words out. "I can do it." I hoped I told the truth, hoped I wouldn't come crying back to admit defeat.
The mine boss handed me a hard hat and led the way to the cage. My mouth felt dry, and a pounding thundered in my ears. The cage creaked its way to the bottom, and I followed the mine boss through a long, dark tunnel. Only the carbide gas lamp on the hard hats we wore lit our way. We splashed through water, and I stumbled on the tracks that carry the coal cars. Voices murmured farther down the tunnel but grew louder as we neared the rescue team.
I spied the narrow opening at the blocked tunnel entry immediately. The men's voices stilled when they noticed me, and they stepped back to allow us closer access.
I turned sideways to go through and sucked in my breath as if it might make me smaller. I slipped through slowly while rocks and coal fell around me. On the other side, I turned, afraid to see if bodies lay nearby, but all I found was another tunnel. I moved carefully, picking my way among the debris scattered on the ground. Small rooms where the miners pick coal branched off on either side of the tunnel. In one of them, a man moaned, and I kneeled by his side. His face was blackened with coal dust, but I could tell it wasn't Da. I patted him on the shoulder. "Help is coming. Soon."
I moved farther down the tunnel finding more men, some moving and some very still. The tears that threatened ever since the whistle blew hours earlier spilled over and trickled down my cheeks. I brushed them away with the back of my hand and returned to the blocked entry.
I described my side to the rescue team in detail. Their grunts of acknowledgement served to calm me, and my ears tuned in to the scrapes and thuds as they moved the fallen timbers and rocks, one by one. It seemed to take forever, and I wanted to go back to the i men, but I remained rooted to my post and continued to tell the team how things looked as each new section emerged.
Finally, they broke an opening big enough for a grown man. They pushed through one by one and followed me to the injured miners. One at a time, the men were carried or helped to the entryway. Some moaned with pain, and others cried with relief. I studied each man they brought by. None proved to be tall and thin like Da. He wasn't there. Maybe he's buried deeper in the tunnel. I headed into the darkness, a prayer on my lips.
A figure appeared in the gloom, crawling on hands and knees. The light on my hard hat played on the man, and I listened as he coughed and muttered,
"Gotta get out of here, see my boy
My heart leapt, and I fell to my knees. I knew that voice, would know it anywhere.
"Da! It's me. Rob." The tears fell again, but I couldn't wipe them away for I had both arms around my dad. My head rested on his shoulder. Soon, his arms circled me and drew me close.
"It's all right, Rob. I'll get us out of here."
I felt him trembling.
"No Da, you don't understand. They've opened the entry. It's only a little farther down the tunnel. We're fine. We'll both be out of here in a few minutes. I'll help you."
Da couldn't stand, so we progressed at a snail's pace until two men from the rescue team found us. They carried Da, and I followed them to the cage. We moved slowly to ground level.
At the top, a rising sun spread its rays across the snow-packed ground. Ma ran toward us, her face lit with joy. There'd be time later to tell Da I'm sorry for our argument. Maybe we'll discuss it over a cup of coffee laced with sugar. Like two men.
Nancy Julien Kopp is a former teacher, mother, and grandmother. She writes for both children and adults. Her work can be found in three of the Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies as well as magazines, e-zines and newspapers. Nancy draws on her growing-up years in Chicago and many years of living in the Flint Hills of Kansas for her stories. She thinks writing fiction for kids is a lot of fun.