The Mining Bird


“Slow down, Tobias,” cautioned Mrs. Thornock.

Obediently ten-year-old Toby ate more slowly. “Papa,” he said, “I’ve done my chores and homework. May I go see Saffron now?”

“Who is Saffron?”

“Well, Saffron is … uh … one of the canaries, Papa.”

“One of the canaries!” Papa shook his head. “What have I told you about getting attached to those birds? You know how hard it is on you when we have to choose one for the mine.”

It was 1843, and at thirty-six, Mr. Thornock was the youngest foreman ever to work for the Pennsylvania coal mine. Hard work and self-education had gained him the position, and he wanted to keep it. He went on, “You also know that the birds will die eventually because they are needed to monitor the safety of the air in the mine. In fact, we will need one on Monday when we open a new tunnel. Have you forgotten that they belong to the mine owner? Besides, the time that you spend with the canaries prevents you from studying. You had a test today. How did you do? Did you study?”

Toby hung his head as he answered, “I didn’t do very well, Papa.” Raising his head again, he continued hopefully, “But Saffron is different, Papa. Can’t I please keep her? What’s one bird? The mine owner doesn’t have to know.”

“Mr. Mallory certainly would know, Toby. You know that I have to account for all expenditures, including the money spent for the canaries and their upkeep. Besides, keeping even one bird is dishonest, and your education is more important than any bird. You must spend more time with your studies.”

“That’s right, Tobias,” Mother agreed. “When will you learn how lucky you are? It took Papa a long time to get Mr. Dawson to allow you to attend his school. How would you like to have to go down into the mine as other boys your age do and as your father did when he was younger? He had to work very hard just to become a foreman. Papa and I want more for you than that.”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Come on, Son. Let your mother do the dishes, and we’ll go choose the bird for Monday.”

Father and son went out together, but Toby’s reluctance was undisguised. More than anything else, he hated choosing a canary for the safety test.

In the building where the canaries were kept, Papa moved among the cages, commenting about this one or that one. Toby was not really paying attention, and when his father finally stopped in front of one of the cages, Toby bumped into him. When the boy lifted his head, he was horrified to see that his father was in front of Saffron’s cage.

Toby poked his father’s arm and pointed to a bird farther down. “How about that one, Papa?”

Not looking at his son, Mr. Thornock said, “No, I want this one. That other one isn’t big enough yet.” Hearing Toby gasp, he turned and looked steadily into his son’s eyes. Then he looked again at the bird. “So this is Saffron. She’s a fine bird. I’m sorry, Son, but she’s the one that I’ve chosen, and you know that I don’t change my mind once I’ve chosen a bird.”

Feeling tears come to his eyes, Toby turned and ran. His father shook his head, tagged the cage, then went back to the house.

After receiving an “I don’t know” from his wife as to his son’s whereabouts, he decided that Toby was off crying somewhere and left it at that. Sometime later Toby came home and went to his room.

The next morning was Saturday, and Toby was up and gone before his father. Because Toby had already done his chores, his father went unconcernedly to the mine.

That evening at dinner Toby was quieter than usual, and Papa finally said, “Toby, this has gone on long enough. I’m as sorry as you that we have to use those gentle birds for testing, but the men must be protected. Now, what did you do today?”

“Nothing, Papa.”

“Nothing! You must have done something.”

“No, Papa. After my chores, I just went to the creek and watched the birds and fish.”

Toby would say no more, and Papa gave up, deciding that maybe it was best to let his son talk about it when he was ready.

Sunday passed quietly, but as Toby ate his breakfast Monday morning, Papa went to get Saffron to take with him to the mine. Soon he came back into the house. “Tobias,” his father said, trying to control his anger, “where is the canary?”

Toby was afraid to look up but managed to answer him clearly. “In my secret place, Papa. I had to take her. I couldn’t let you have her.”

Glancing at the clock on the mantle, Mr. Thornock said, “I don’t want you to be late for school, so this evening you and I will have a serious talk. For now, I’ll have to choose a different bird.”

“Yes, Papa,” Toby whispered and fled the house.

All day Toby wished that school would never end. When it did let out, he slowly started home. Mrs. Wickstead, the postmistress, stopped him and gave him a letter for his father. The letter took his mind off his problems until he read the return address. It was from Mr. Mallory, the mine owner! Toby hoped that it wasn’t bad news and that maybe, because of the letter, his father would forget about Saffron.

“Well, that does it,” his father said that evening when he read the letter. “Tobias, you must bring the bird back. Mr. Mallory will be here in a few days to check on things. He says that expenses are too high and that I must cut back. I have to account for everything—even the canaries and their food. He says that if I can’t, I’ll no longer be a foreman.”

“Please, Papa. I can’t. Couldn’t you say that the bird died?”

His mother was shocked. “Tobias! You know that your father doesn’t lie.”

“Tobias, get the bird.”

“No, Papa. You can’t make me.” Tears streamed down Toby’s cheeks.

“If I can’t get through to you one way, it’ll have to be through another. Tomorrow you won’t go to school; you’ll go to the mine with me instead.”

Eyes wide and wet, Toby turned to his mother, who only lowered her eyes. The boy swallowed hard and looked again at his father. “Yes, Papa.”

Down in the mine the next morning Mr. Thornock introduced Toby to a few of the miners. He asked one of them, Mark Grayson, to show Toby around.

Mark took Toby to the newly opened tunnel and explained what Toby already knew—that when the tunnels were opened, sometimes there were poisonous gases that could kill because, having no odor, they were undetectable. “The birds are affected by the gas before we are,” Mark explained. “If the birds die, we have enough time to get everyone away so that the gas can thin out and mix with the less harmful air until it is safe to breathe. I like those birds, but I’d rather have a dead bird than be dead myself.”

That evening as Toby walked home with Papa, his thoughts were in a turmoil. He pictured Saffron down in the mine, dead from the gases. Then he imagined his father and all the miners dead in the mine. What if it actually happened! Toby loved his father very much.

After supper Toby said to his father. “Papa, I’ve put Saffron back with the other birds. And from now on I’m going to work really hard in school because I’ve decided that I want to be a scientist. I’m going to find a way so that we won’t have to use canaries.”

His father looked at him, opened his arms, and, when Toby went into them, hugged him tightly.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh