Coal Dusters – Chapter X

Chapter X

Birk Meets Lillian

The noon whistle sounded. “Time for lunch.” Mac said with a laugh. “Or you can head for home.”

Birk didn’t see how any one could joke at a time like this. They went to the change room. The men were silent as they hoisted their work clothes above them. 

“No much washin’ up today.” Clancy sighed. “Though your boots could use it.”

Birk tossed his brass tab to the clerk who put it back on its hook. Clancy did the same.

His mother and Maddy were at the gate when they left.

“How bad is it?” she asked. “Any one we know?”

“Not sure yet Ma. Blackie says Geo safe though. But I know that Dave Homolka is gone. Brought him to the infirmary m’self.”

“So young. So young.” His mother dabbed at her eyes with her apron.

“Geo’s okay,” Maggy peered up them. “He’s not …”

“Geo’s fine. He’ll be by tonight I guess.” Birk said.

They walked the lane home.

“Least with the coal damp you don’t have to worry about living forever with lost limbs, broken bones an’ blood.” Birk said.

“I dunno. With blood you know something’s happened. These guys look they’re asleep.” Clancy said. “Guess they don’t suffer much. They die fast.”

“Good thing you caught me when you did. I could a been one of them.”

“You’d’ve done the same for me.” Clancy said.

“Not sure as I would have knew to do what you did. You got more learning that you let on?”

“Remembered what I read somewhere about coal damp. About how deadly and fast it is. said best thing it keep you moving so as to keep your lungs breathin’ it out.”

“Yer not such a bad sort after all. Hope my punches didn’t … ”

The two men stopped at the corner of Pitt St. that lead to the lane Birk lived on. His mother and sister kept going.

“You mean that, don’t you?” Clancy asked.

“Shamed to say I do … I mean I did.” Birk stooped to scrub at his boots with dirt.

“I figured you were playing.”

“Oh no, b’y those punches were meant to hurt. No playing there.” He stood up. He flexed his left hand. “Almost broke my hand on you.”

“I know.” Clancy rubbed his rib. “Still got a bruise there. But if ya think that harsh of me I can work something else out.”

“I meant it when I said you weren’t such a bad sort. That coal damp did something to my mind as I don’t think I’m goin’ to mind you as much as I did yesterday. We can try it out.”

“Excuse me, is the the way to the colliery?” A young woman carrying a heavy basket stopped beside them. She put the basket down. “I was following along Victoria looking for Pitt but there’s no signs.”

“Yes tis ma’am.” Clancy said.

“Father Pat asked me to bring some things for the families. Were you … I … You don’t look …”

“We were there ma’am but it wasn’t a cave in or something where people got harmed.” Clancy explained.

“No, it was the coal damp that killed the men.” Birk said.

The woman paled. Birk reached out to steady her.

“I’ll be fine.” She pulled away from him.

“Haven’t seen you before miss?”

“Ah, no, I’m Father McTavish’s niece. Come here from Boston to house keep for him.” She stooped to pick up the basket.

“I can carry that for you.” Clancy offered.

“No. I’d rather do it myself.” She hoisted the basket, balanced it on her hip and continued down the lane way.

“Those micks. They smell the orange in your blood, I’m sure.” Birk spat.

“Or maybe it was yer feet.”

Birk stepped back and glared at Clancy. He looked down at his work boots and they were still  covered with his vomit he’d been trying to clean off them. He started to laugh. 

“Look as we got some time. Why not bring your stuff from Mrs. Franklin’s to our place. Or do you want one more of her suppers?”

“Fighting over the bread with ten others! No thanks.”

They went to Mrs. Franklin’s. 

Mrs. Franklin had a large three story house that was built as a hotel in the 1890‘s when there hopes Castleton Mines would be thriving industrial town but with more extensive coal seams found in other spots with better harbour facilities the boom never happened. Before Prohibition the first floor boasted one of the most popular drinking spots but since then room and board for transient miners, salesmen was its prime purpose. She also had a washhouse that offered ceramic tubs, fresh hot water and clean towels for those who found the mine wash up wasn’t enough and could afford the cost. 

Clancy’s possessions were already stuffed into two canvas bags stowed under a table in the front hall of the boarding house. He hefted one on his back and handed the other to Birk. “Lead on McDuff.”

“Huh!” Birk almost shoved the bag back. 

“Shakespeare.” Clancy explained. “You can manage. It’s the lighter one.”

“Yeah. I guess after you saving me I can return the favour.”

They walked passing families coming and going to mine. Some were crying others were grim as if being happy that their Dads or brothers were safe would be out of place.

“You got some education?” Birk asked.

“A little schooling.”

“Not yer first time below either is it?”

“How so?”

“To pick up on damp that fast.”

“Yeah … well … I guess … your nose is used to the smells down there you didn’t notice.”

“True enough. In that case you’ll stop noticing the smell of m’feet soon enough.” 

Clancy nearly dropped the bag of his shoulders laughing.

When they got to the house Birk took him up the room.

“Just cus we’re goin’ to stuck in this room together doesn’t mean I have ta care for it.” Birk stretched out of the side of the bed farthest from the window. It was the side Geo always slept on to avoid the drafts. “But as I said I’m willin’ to give it a try. Even though you no kin of mine”

“That’s clear enough to anyone. I’ll make sure no one mistakes us for kin.”  Clancy sat on the free side of the bed. “Thanks for givin’ me the side with a view of the world.” He pushed his heavy work boots off.

Birk sat and did the same. He wiped the vomit off with this work socks.

“What’s that smell.” Clancy mocked. “Yer folks never teach you to wash yer socks. Or is that how yer feet usually smell.’

“Try working, and I mean actually working in the pit for a week or two and you’ll know how a hard-working man smells when he gets home.”

Clancy chuckled and unpacked his canvas bags. The room was barely large enough to walk around the bed. There was a small nook with hooks that filled the role of a closet. He hung a couple of wrinkled white linen shirts on one of the hooks on the wall. A small dresser in the corner had three drawers. One of which held Birk’s socks and underwear. The other two where empty now that Geo was gone. Clancy used those for his underthings, socks and a small jewelry box.

There was space for his two pairs of pants, brown woollen for work the other black tweed for special occasions. He put a silver framed picture on the dresser.

“Yer mother?” Birk asked.

“Yes and my sister Clara.”

“No Dad?”

“He died. He worked on the trains till he slipped under the wheels.”

“I’m sorry.” Birk feared his father passing away. It would make him responsible for his mother and sisters.

“Yeh. He was a drunk. We were better off without him.”

“Sister looks pretty in this picture.”

“I suppose but not as pretty as that gal we saw.”
“Who?”
“Didn’t she say she was the priest’s niece. His house keep.”

“I didn’t hear.”

“What! Was she so pretty you couldn’t hear her talk?” Clancy tossed one of his boots at Birk.

“Nah. But she’s a lady. That much I could tell. Not one of the local girls. Can’t look at them for long either, you know. That’s a good man’s duty.”

“Duty?”

“Ma’s been pretty clear ‘bout that with me. Bible says we have to respect those weaker than us. Keep them safe, even from us.”

“So you didn’t take a true look at her?”

“Not me. You best not let Ma hear you talk that way. She don’t allow coarse talk in the house. I have sisters you know.”

Clancy shook his head in dismay.

“Speaking of which, time you met Sal. She’s been ailing for the past few months but there’s hope with warm weather she’ll be better soon.”

They stepped across the narrow hall to the room on the other side of the stairs. His sisters’ room was slightly larger than his. There was room in it for two small beds and a large dresser.

“Hello Sal.” Birk said gently. “Meet Clancy Sinclair, our new boarder. He’s taking Geo’s place our my bedroom.”

Sal looked up from the tattered book of A B C’s she was reading. 

“Hello,” she smiled up at them. “Clancy … that begins with a C.”

“That’s right. Sal begins with a …. K?”

‘NO! Silly … an S. S a l l y. Can’t you spell at all?”

“C l a n c y” Clancy pointed to himself. “B i r k” then pointed to Birk.

“Mama says I might go outside today. Sunny enough, isn’t it? There was some fuss down at the colliery though and she had to go there. She’s back now. I heard her come in. Some men died didn’t they?”

“Yes.” Birk answered. 

“Not Geo!!” Tears welled up in her eyes.

“No, he’s fine.”

“Good.” she yawned and put her book down. “Think I’ll rest till Mama comes for me.” She pulled well-worn blanket around her shoulders as she lay back on the bed.

“I’ll let Ma know yer ready to go out.”

They went down the stairs. 

“You boys got nothing better to do than hang around the house?” his mother asked.

“We wasn’t planning to take the afternoon off Ma. You know that.”

“There’s lots of work to be done around here. Never seems to be enough time to keep things proper. We’ll need staves for the tomatoes when they sprout, and the sweet peas as well. That back fence needs mending. Branch fell on it over the winter. Good thing it missed the shed though. The bench needs a new a leg. You might want to get at that first to give me someplace to set with Sal when she’s outside.”

“She seems better today.” Birk said.

“Yes. Praise the Lord.”

“Pretty little thing.” Clancy said.

“Tools in the shed?” Birk pushed the back door open.

“Should be ‘less Blackie moved them.”

“Follow me.” Birk nodded to Clancy.

“Lead on McDuff.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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