A Bird on Water Street, page 1
Copyright © 2014, 2019 by March 4th, Inc.
Cover and internal art by Elizabeth O. Dulemba
Cover and internal design © 2019 by Sourcebooks
Sourcebooks, Little Pickle Press, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks.
All rights reserved.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Images from the Copper Basin used by permission of Ducktown Basin Museum © 2019. All rights reserved.
Published by Little Pickle Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567–4410
Originally published in 2014 by Little Pickle Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file with the publisher.
The Copper Basin
About the Author
Grace Postelle (June 25, 1926–October 29, 2010),
Doris Abernathy (November 27, 1927–),
the citizens of the Copper Basin,
and Stan (always).
The copper bosses killed you Joe
They shot you Joe said I;
Takes more than guns to kill a man,
Said Joe I did not die.
Joe Hill ain’t dead he says to me,
Joe Hill ain’t never died:
Where working men are out on strike,
Joe Hill is at their side.
—excerpt from “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”
Written by Alfred Hayes, published 1934
Sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock, 1969
Living in Coppertown was like living on the moon. The whole area was raw ground, bare and bumpy from erosion ditches cuttin’ through every which way. As far as the horizon, it looked like a wrinkled, brown paper bag. There weren’t any bushes, nor grass neither—no green things weaving through to settle our homes into the land and make ’em look like they belonged. So why did Miss Post bother teaching us about trees when we didn’t have any?
Miners used ’em all up when they started mining copper here a hundred years ago. They cut down the trees to feed the open smelting heaps where they roasted the ore. The smoke from those stacks made acid rain, which killed off everything else. They don’t do it that way no more, but nature never did come back.
Even so, Miss Post said we should all know what a tulip poplar, the Tennessee state tree, looked like, and be able to tell it apart from a pine, oak, sassafras, or maple. She said it wasn’t normal to not have trees, though it seemed normal to us.
She showed us slide after slide of trees on the pull-down projection screen—thick brown trunks with leafy green tops, or long, slender branches with brushlike needles. She might as well have been showing us spaceships for all that we knew about ’em. Outside our classroom window, all we saw was what the locals called the Red Hills—land that was only good for mining copper and riding BMX bicycles.
Not that I had one.
My first bike was cheap and got busted up from me zooming down dirt roads and jumping erosion ditches—catching air, like a bird in flight. I’d had it since I was ten, so it was too small for me anyhow. I kept hinting to Mom that I needed the real deal for Christmas, a new BMX racer like the one in the Company store window. But she kept saying it was too expensive and dangerous, which made no sense at all. If I’d had a bike, after all, I wouldn’t a been walking with Piran that day back in August when we ran into Eli and his friends, and I might not have broken my arm.
Bein’ named after the patron saint of tin mining, you’d think my best friend would be some sort of angel. But he got us into more trouble than the devil himself. It was his fault I crossed the trestle bridge—I wouldn’t a done it if he hadn’t dared me.
It was still the hot days of summer then, when the air sat heavy and everything looked sort of golden. Eli Munroe and his gang, a bunch of high-school boys, were hanging out smoking at the end of the trestle bridge when we hiked by on our way to the Old Number 2 Tailings Pond.
“Look at the sweet babies,” they said, and laughed. “Bet yu’uns is too chicken to cross the bridge.”
“Gimme a break.” I rolled my eyes and kept walking, but Piran grabbed my arm.
“C’mon, Jack, let’s do it,” he said. His face warped through the edge of his thick glasses as he looked at me sideways.
“We’ll be in high school after next year, and some of those guys are gonna be seniors then. You want them callin’ you coward? Best to prove up now,” Piran whispered. “I dare you. I’ll even go first.”
Piran didn’t wait for an answer. He stuck out his chin and stepped onto a railroad tie. Eli and his gang whooped and cheered. I worried Piran’s asthma would kick in like it usually did when he was scared or stressed out, but he stayed cool as a cucumber as he balanced from beam to beam. He made it all the way across, jumped to the ground, and turned back to face me with a wide grin.
Sunlight reflected off the windshield of Eli’s old jacked-up Jeep, and I shaded my eyes. It wasn’t the tallest trestle bridge in Polk County, but it was tall enough. At its base, amber water had nearly dried up from the last rain, leaving a yellow mud thick around the bridge’s tarred beams. From end to end, it was probably no farther than running from first to second base, but I’d never run on beams spaced too close together for normal steps and so high off the ground.
Down in the basin, even though we didn’t have trees, the hills that surrounded us hid things well enough. I listened for the train, but it was quiet—Coppertown quiet—no bugs or birds. No wind neither, which made me sweat all the more.
There was no way out of it. If I didn’t cross, not only would I never live it down with the likes of Eli, but Piran would probably never speak to me again.
I took a deep breath, rubbed the lucky rabbit’s foot in my pocket, and followed.
I was only halfway across the bridge when the train chug, chug, chugged into view.
“Run, RUN!” everybody hollered. But there was no way I could make it to the other side in time, and it was too far down to jump. The railroad ties stuck out like hangers beyond the tracks, which gave me an idea. I kneeled
For a moment I kicked, my feet seeking purchase on something, anything. But all they hit was air. My stomach turned upside down and my head spun. I pressed my cheek against the hot, sticky tar on the beam as I held on. It stunk like burning tires up so close.
Stay away from Company property, Jack, I remembered my dad saying. It’s dangerous. But the Company owned nearly everything around and there wasn’t much left to do in Coppertown without some sort of danger involved. What was I supposed to do, stay inside all summer? I was old enough to take care of myself. Still, right then I was wishin’ I’d listened.
The train roared toward me, its whistle shrieking so loud my head rang. From where I hung barely below its path, it looked like an enormous iron monster with a front grill full of metal teeth rushin’ to chew me up—fierce and hungry.
I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore, let alone the rest of me. Later, I claimed the vibrations shook me loose—but to tell the God’s honest truth, I let go.
I dropped a hundred feet into the mud below. Okay, maybe it was just fifteen feet, but I remember the squish! and splat! of all that mud, which probably saved my life, right before the crack!
Pain shot through my arm.
Eli and his gang couldn’t get out of there fast enough. They climbed over each other, piling into his beat-up old Jeep, and took off in a cloud of dust. But one of ’em was slow and got left behind.
“Will McCaffrey!” Piran shouted. “That’s Ray Hicks’s son in that ditch and yer dad works at the mine. Do I need to spell out what’ll happen if you don’t get help, and fast?”
I didn’t know whether to hate Piran or love him at that moment, but I didn’t have much time to think about it. I blacked out.
When I came to, Piran was sitting next to me sucking on his inhaler and crying about how sorry he was for gettin’ me into that fix. I was crying because I hurt so bad. He wedged himself underneath me so his leg was a pillow for my head. It was awkward, but we were such a blubbering mess, I didn’t care. When the tears dried up and Piran’s breathing calmed down, he told me jokes to keep my mind off the pain I was in.
Of course, I’d already heard all his jokes before.
“Don’t you have any new material?” I gasped.
“Dang, I don’t know. I’m sorry, Jack.” Piran teared up again. “My pa is gonna kill me when he hears about this—especially that we was headin’ to the old tailings pond…”
We weren’t supposed to be there either. It was where the Company dumped water they used for separating out the last of the minerals from the ore. When they closed a pond, they’d stop pumpin’ water into it. So, despite the name, the Old Number 2 Tailings Pond didn’t look like a pond at all. It was all dried up, with nothing but white, crusty silicate dust in its place, which blew all over Coppertown on windy days. The tailings pond looked like a desert with copper-colored water seepin’ around the edges and covering rocks in mustard-colored iron slime. The acres and acres of the tailings pond looked even more barren than the rest of Coppertown, which is why we thought it was cool, I guess. It looked like another planet, so we pretended we were on Star Trek out there and zapped each other with invisible ray guns.
“You don’t have to tell him,” I choked out.
“Why else would we be out this far? My dad may not be a miner, but he’s not stupid.”
“Heck, he might be the smartest of ’em all,” I struggled to say. The sun beat down on us like an oven. I was so thirsty, my tongue swelled to baseball-size. “He doesn’t have to go underground for his job.” Piran’s dad was the town’s postmaster. It seemed like it embarrassed him sometimes.
“But underground is where the big money is,” he said. “If it weren’t for my asthma, I’d be a miner.”
I had to be hallucinating. “What? Why?”
“Are you kidding?” Piran replied. “It never rains or snows down there, stays the same temperature all year. The whole town treats you like royalty and you get a discount at the Company store. I want to be a miner like you someday.”
Like me? I tried to swallow, but my throat was too dry.
I wanted to love mining like Piran did, like my dad did—the hard hats, the strength, the camaraderie. But then I’d think about all the people I knew of who’d been killed or injured in the mines—all the explosions and collapses. How Dad had to scrub at the end of each day but never did come all the way clean.
None of that seemed to scare my dad. His father, my grandfather Hicks, was killed ’fore I was born, and my dad wore his death like a badge of honor.
We’re miners, Jack, he’d say. It’s in our blood.
One thing I was sure of, mining was not in my blood. Dad was expecting me to follow in his footsteps and I’d have to tell him I didn’t want to before long. It made my stomach hurt. He went to work in the mine at seventeen, and his brother, my uncle Amon, at fifteen—just two years older than me.
“Maybe you could put in a good word for me once you get in there,” Piran said.
I moaned. Partly to shut him up but mostly because I hurt so bad and the thinking was makin’ me hurt even worse.
It took forever for help to come, but it finally did. The paramedics had to carry me out on a stretcher—a space-age, orange skateboard-looking thing. I thought I’d never get out of that ditch with them panting like they’d never climbed a hill in their lives. It was almost a good thing when they nearly dropped me and I blacked out again. It spared me the pain of half the journey up the crumbling, rocky slope.
I was still wearin’ the cast when we went back to school in September. Piran made the story bigger and bigger with every retelling until I was positively famous. The whole class signed my arm, including my entire Miners baseball team.
My cousin Buster said, “I would’ve killed you if you broke it during baseball season.”
Like breakin’ it over summer vacation was any better? I guess it was Buster’s bass-ackward way of saying he cared. Or not.
I stuck a pencil under the edge of my cast and tried to scratch an itch that was…just out of reach. I could hardly wait to get the danged thing off.
“Jack Hicks, are you paying attention?” Miss Post snapped. “What is special about this tree?” she asked as she pointed her yardstick at the projection screen and another bushy-topped tree.
“It’s green?” I said, and everybody laughed. But I thought it was a good answer. In my world of brown earth, yellow mud, and dirty arm casts, anything green seemed special to me. In fact, I’d have turned all of Coppertown green if I could.
“Anybody else? What are trees good for?” Miss Post asked.
“Climbin’?” Piran said. It was the all-American-boy pastime, according to the TV shows we watched. Although, I knew for a fact Piran had never climbed a tree in his life.
“Shade,” Buster mumbled like it was obvious. But shade was something we didn’t get much of around here.
“Yes, good!” Miss Post jumped on his response since Buster rarely said anything in class. She switched to the next slide. It was a diagram, a cutaway view of the ground with rainwater digging in and forming deep crevices. “And their roots hold the soil in place. Without roots, you get erosion like what we have in Coppertown—”
Suddenly, a sharp whirring sound cut her off. Siren!
Books flew. Chairs fell. Desks crashed against each other. We took off running straight down Water Street to the Company—all of us. Miss Post couldn’t a stopped us if she tried. Our legs just took over.
The Company siren meant something bad had happened in the mine. Somebody’s dad might be hurt, or worse.
Please not my dad, p
Over a rise, the Company came into view like a black scab on the horizon. Its rusted metal pipes wove up, down, over, and through each other like a giant tangle of snakes. The red-and-white-striped smokestack soared out of the center. The whole structure of small buildings and sulfuric acid tanks sat on its own mountain of slag—the leftover molten rock they poured down the hillside. It cooled to a rusty black shade, the same color as the iron train, the train, the same train from the trestle bridge incident, which sat waiting for its next shipment at the bottom of the hill. In the yard, in front of the elevator lift, I could already see the commotion.
Piran caught up with me as we slammed against the chain-link fence that surrounded the plant. He gasped large breaths and nodded my way. I glanced at the sign hanging next to the gate: “No copper mine injuries in 28 days. Let’s make 1986 our safest year!”
Had that number ever gone over thirty?
Inside the chain-link fence that surrounded the Company, the ambulance’s back end faced the elevator lift with its doors open wide. Two men rushed out of the ambulance holding a stretcher, just like the one they’d carried me on. Heck, it mighta been the same one. I gulped.
The paramedics squeezed into the small metal box and we watched the tops of their heads disappear as they sank into the mine shaft. The truck’s flashing lights burned spots on my eyes as I stared at the miners, trying to make out what was going on.
What was it this time—roof fall, cave-in, explosion?
Suddenly, a white Ford sped through the gate and skidded to a stop beside the ambulance. I knew that car. Aunt Catherine jumped out and pushed her way to the lift as the wind whipped her hair over her face.
My stomach tied in a knot and I tore away from my classmates to run inside the gate. Instead, I hit the wide chest of a soot-covered miner. He was dressed in dark denim overalls, with a flannel shirt and a hard hat. He smelled of sweat and sulfur, bitter, like scratched metal. It made my teeth ache. “Yu’uns best stay outside the fence,” he said in a gruff voice.