Birk Nelson Gets A New Rake Man
The sun was rising over the steaming mounds of slag coal. The mound never got any smaller no matter how much was carted away to the wash plant. Coal was already being loaded into a rail car to be transported to the dock.
They went into the change room and lowered their work clothes from the overhead hangers.
“Birk Nelson!” Red Mac, the shift foreman, called to him.
“Yeah.” Birk grabbed for his brass counter.
“Birk,” the foreman nodded for him to come over to the small office. “This is Clancy Sinclair. He’ll be your rake man.”
“Manny was doing okay.” Birk squinted at Clancy.
Clancy looked to be a head taller than him, a lot wider in the shoulders with blond almost brown hair.
“Not my say so,” Red Mac shrugged. “Orders from above. Manny’s moving on to the scuttle yard.”
“Fuk,” Birk spat. He had hoped to get that position. Scuttle yard was where the coal was loaded into the rail cars. It was as hard work as being under in the mines but it was above ground. All the miners longed to work above ground.
“I know you wanted it but yer too good. Yer a lucky chap Clancy. Birk Nelson is one the best we got.”
“Yeah sure. Sticking me with this skinny rat. He must disappear down there.”
“Whose yer father?” Birk asked.
“The Bras D’Or Sinclair’s?” Birk said.
“Main lander?” Birk said.
“What of it?” Clancy replied.
Birk grabbed Clancy’s left hand. Clancy pulled it away.
“What you up to?”
“Checking to see how tough your hands is. Skin’s too soft this job.”
“Least we’ll know when my hair ‘s clean. You black as coal already.” he sniffed the air. “You sure you washed ‘for you came here?”
“Mac, you stick me with puddin’ boy here and I won’t make enough to pay for a pint let alone our tic at the pluck me.”
“Soft! Least I’m full size.” Clancy stood as tall as he could. “Not some half-sized hairy mine monkey.”
“Who you callin’ a monkey, you soft arse.” Birk launched himself at Clancy and landed two solid punches in quick succession. One to the side of Clancy’s head and the other to his stomach.
Clancy staggered back and was ready to punch back when Red Mac pushed stepped between them.
“Nuf of this. You want beat the dust out of each other do it out of my yard.”
“Then stick this soft arse with someone else ‘cause only one of us is coming back up and you know it’s me.”
“Both of you will come back. Listen and listen good Birk Nelson. You have sisters who need what you put on the table. Next time to want to take a swing at someone keep that in mind, ‘cause the next time you take a swing at me you’re out of here. You understand that.”
Birk snatched his lunch pail and rammed it under his arm.
“And you Clancy. You’re new here. You gotta learn to mind your tongue. This isn’ a place to run off at the mouth with guys you don’t know. Some here wouldn’t be as gentle wid ya as Birk here was.”
“No one calls me soft.”
“Who is to say.” Red Mac pulled himself up to his full height – a head taller than Clancy, two heads taller than Birk. “Only a soft arse would let himself get riled up this easy. And that goes for the two of you. Birk you take him down to the face with you. I’ll be down soon enough to make sure you’re acting the way men should and not school kids. Understand.”
“Yes sir.” Birk glared at Clancy. “Follow me.”
“I’m not taking orders from him. You’re not paying enough for that.”
“You want to work or not. I git plenty looking for work here me son. Plenty. You can go back to …”
“Christ! I’ll give it a try.” Clancy cut Red Mac off.
“Come along then,” Birk grunted and added under his breath, “soft arse.”
“What you say?” Clancy snapped back.
“I said come along we got a long way to go. Level Ten.”
They got into the cage with a dozen other miners. Adjusted their head lamps as it rattled down the shaft. The shift car pushed the men back and forth. Each time Clancy was forced up against Birk, Birk roughly shoved him away.
The smell of earth got stronger as the cage descended. Earth and coal. The dampness increased. As the cage passed some levels Birk could hear water dripping, or blasts as new seams were opened. The levels spread out from the elevator shaft. Some for a few hundred yards, others went for miles. Some, such as the one on Level 10 went under the ocean. Birk still expected his pick would punch right through to the sea bed above.
Total blackness quickly enveloped the men but not all of them turned on their lamps. It was better to let the eyes adapt to the dark as quickly as possible. Birk could find his way to the face he was working on without light.
“Stick close now or yer arse is going get hard fastern than you want it.” Birk said when they got off the cage. He took a deep breath. “Better take a breath while you can. That’s the last of the fresh air you’ll get till we’re ready to head up.”
“Get moving.” Clancy give Birk a slight shove.
Knowing his way Birk moved quickly over the uneven surface to the crease where he was working. He could hear Clancy stumbling behind him. That’d teach the big mouth who was the big man.
“Watch yer head here.” He muttered as they came to the final turn. He ducked down and then up avoiding the staving joist that was holding the ceiling.
“Y’d think y’d never been in the dark before.” Birk chuckled as he heard Clancy bump the rafter.
“Never down this deep.” Clancy was trying to catch his breath.
“Better get used to it quick, as yer going t’be spending most yer awake time in the dark, same as in your sleep time. Day light’ll not be your pal again.” He stored his lunch can behind the upright paling that helped to support the weight of the ceiling.
“Thanks.” Clancy gasped.
Birk stopped and Clancy stumbled into him.
“Watch it.” Birk pushed him back. “Tight nuf in here ya know. Here’s yer rake. You know how to handle one.”
“Christ yeh. I rake, pile and when pile is big nuf we shovel it in into the cart, when the cart is full we get it to the line to dump it into the shuttle.”
“Trick is to keep up wid me boy.”
Birk tied his face rag around his mouth and nose, tuned his headlamp on and starting hammering with his pick axe at his crease. As the shards and chunks of coal loosened he pushed them behind him for Clancy to rake away.
After a few minutes his shoulder muscles loosened and his mind stopped thinking about anything except what he was doing, how fast he was doing it. Steadily he deepened the vein as he followed it along. He could feel the change in vibration in his pick as hit different types of rock, sulphur, granite, different strata of the vein, even different hardnesses of the coal itself. He had no sense of time but of quantity. Once he had dislodged enough coal to fill the hopper he wriggled out to help Clancy push the cart to the main line. Before they dumped into the shuttle he relived himself on the coal.
Clancy was about to do the same. Birk took Clancy’s free hand and peered at in the light of his headlamp. The skin on the hand was rubbed raw, bleeding along the thumb.
“Just as I thought soft. Piss on it.”
“What?” Clancy tired to pull away.
“Yeh it’ll help toughen the skin faster. Took me a week before m’hands could take it.” He watched as Clancy rubbed his hands in his own urine.
“Christ feels okay.”
“Don’ think I forget what ye called me up there but don’t want you to slow me down any either. You un’stand.”
“Do ya think ya can keep up wid me by?” Birk muttered.
“Nothing to it.” Clancy wheezed.
“You gotta learn to breath down here.” Birk said. “You breathin’ too deep.”
All they could make out of each other in the dim light of their head lamps was their eyes. Their face coverings were coated with black dust.
“I’ve been keepin’ a bit slow. Two more of these and we take a wee break for eatin.” He began to shove the cart back to where they were working.
“Oof.” Clancy bump hard into the low rafter.
“Listen an learn. Not goin to warn you every time m’boy.”
“I’m not yer b’y.” Clancy snarled. “Keep goin’ ya damned monkey.”
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