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Kids@Work

MULE TENDER. USA, 1913

This is Lucy, she is my best friend.

We spend more time together than I spend with anyone else. We haul the coal to the lift. Momma always puts somethin in my lunch for Lucy. Once, a rat got into my pail and ate everything. Lucy wouldn't work until I borrowed a treat from Lefty to feed her. I inherited Lucy from Lefty, she once was his mule. Back then his name was Stush, but when he went to brake the coal car with his sprag, his right hand went into the spokes, so now he's called Lefty. He went back to being a trapper boy, and I got Lucy.

This chunk of wood is a sprag. Mostly, it's for stopping the coal car. There ain't no brake. You jam it in the wheel, and don't get your hand caught like Lefty. Also, if I must get past Lucy, I keep the sprag between her and the mine wall, so she won't shift over and crush me. She don't want to hurt me, but she wouldn't know. Sometimes rats chew at Lucy's feet, and I beat 'em with my sprag. The miners say I mustn't kill the rats, 'cause if they all start running and squealin', we know bad trouble is coming, maybe a gas explosion or cave-in. I use the sprag to push things around too. There ain't no privies down here. You don't want to touch what you can't see.

Four years ago, when I was nine, I was a breaker boy. I lied about my age to get the job, 'cause Pa got maimed in a rock fall. Nobody really cared about my age anyhow. We'd sit over the coal chutes and pick slate out of the coal. Slate don't burn, but it cuts your fingers bloody. Kids pee on their fingers to make them tough. After a while, they're hard as wood. If you don't work fast, the boss will take a whip. Sometimes old men work with the breaker boys. It's the only job they can do, and they need the money.

Then I was a trapper boy. I'd sit for hours in the dark, minding a door that controls air in the mine. Being a trapper is better than breaker work. It has responsibility, and you ain't all hunched over. It isn't so fearful hot in summer, nor freezing cold in winter, and you don't have coal dust in your mouth all day. Sometimes it's hard to keep awake. The boss will beat you if you nap, but I never did.

When Lefty got hurt, they said, "We need a new boy. That boy is steady, but small.  Maybe he ain't fast or strong enough." I showed them I was. Ma needs every extra penny I can make. They said, "You take care of this mule. She's worth more than you are."

That's easy, I love her like a pet. At day's end, I go home, but Lucy don't ever leave the mine, or see daylight. Maybe she never will. So I tell her about the sun, and dandelions and snowflakes, and that smiling girl I used to see at school.

I tell her about apple blossoms. She likes apples.

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