Chapter XXIX – Birk to the Rescue

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXIX

Birk to the Rescue

When Birk and Clancy got to St Agatha’s that night the meeting hall was jammed. Men were standing squeezed in all around the room. The windows had been opened to allow for some air. But the breeze barely moved the cigarette smoke that hung over their heads. There wasn’t room for the tea trolly even if the men had wanted tea in the heat. Some were drinking and sharing from their own bottles of refreshments. 

Alf Landen, the MLA was there once again, so every one knew this was to be more important than the last few meetings. He was talking quietly with William Gregory, Father Patrick and Reverend Brown in the front row. There were no company representatives there. 

Gregory stepped to the small stage. “Men I think you all know Alf Landon.”

“Yeah,” came a shout from the back “Some of us were made drunk enough to vote fer him!”

There was laughter and cat calls.

“Save it.” Gregory motioned for them to be silent. “He has some news for us from the cabinet.”

Alf stepped up to the stage. He hooked his thumbs under his suspenders and cleared his throat. “Thank you Will. First I want to reassure you that I am on your side, men. I think the way the coal corporation is treating you is shameful. But I am only one voice in the house. Not everyone agrees with me. Also, let me say how pleased I am that the strike has remained peaceful.”

“Not fer much longer.” someone shouted.

“I wish I had better news for you but we, at the provincial level, are at an impasse with both the union and the mine management. In cabinet we discussed the issues and after heated augments I can assure you we can see no way to force a change in company policy. We’ve taken it to the federal level as well.”

“We know how the feds deal with unions.” someone shouted.

“How?” someone else called out.

“They send in the troops to trample the miners and their children.”

There were more cat calls from the audience.

“Men!” Father Patrick got to the stage. “This isn’t going to help your cause in any way. If both sides remain … unmoved … ”

“Yeah! What will help?” someone shouted over him. “Praying to the Lord Jesus only hurts m’ knees worsen workin’ in the mine for twelve hours.” One of the miners walked up to face Father Patrick. “At least I sees some coal for that.”

“Men. Men.” Alf stood on a chair. 

They silenced.

“There is something you can do. You can go back to work on the company’s terms. That has to be better than letting your families suffer. ”

“That isn’t goin’ to happen.” Someone shouted. “They was suffering on what we were making before, anyhow.” Another of the men said.

“Okay. Okay.” Gregory got the men’s attention. “Alf you know that is unacceptable.” He pulled Alf off the chair and got up on it himself. “There will be a march in Glace Bay on Saturday next. That’s eight days from now. We have union members coming from the mainland to show their support. The steel plant will be closed down for the day when our brother members there put down their tools and join us. We have to show them we mean business.”

“What we been doing these past weeks?” Birk asked. 

“You should talk,” one of the them men said. “Yer pa Blackie still goin’ in there, isn’t he. Shutting down them boilers will show them we mean business, too. Won’t it?”

“Men!” Alf said. “Damaging the pits themselves won’t do you any good. You won’t have anything to to go back to if the mine closes down because you did something foolish to the boilers and let the mines flood.”

“Easy for you say,” someone shouted. “You don’t have a wife and three kids at home with nothing to eat.”

“I knows one place where we can something to feed our families.” Jim McKlusky said. “We all do! The Pluck Me.”

“The Pluck Me.” The men took up the phrase and started to leave the hall.

“Wait! There’s decisions to be made.” Alf shouted.

“We made em. Answer is no.” one of the men said. “No! No! No! To same work for less pay.”

“The Pluck Me. The Pluck Me.” The men chanted as they left the hall en masse. They marched in a ragged mob along Chestnut Avenue to the company store.

Clancy and Birk followed at the back of the shouting men. McKlusky was pounding on the front door of the company store. Two other men had gone around to the back to make sure the manager, Daniel Seldon, didn’t slip away, down the outside side stairs. The front windows had been boarded over the week before. The only light came from a window on the second floor.

“He ain’ going anywhere.” Birk muttered. “Too much stuff inside. He’d never step away from a profit.”

“Open up, Seldon. Man, we know you’re in there.” McKlusky shouted. “We don’t want to harm you. We know it ain’ your fault wha’s goin’ on but we have families to feed too you know.”

The window on the second floor opened. It was to the left of the front door. A woman’s head stuck out. “Dan’l t’ain’ here.”

It was his wife.

“He’s gone up to the big office. He was sent fer at supper time. He ain here.”

“Then let us in mussus.” McKlusky stepped back to call up to her. “We means no harm to you and yours.”

“I canna let you in. It’d be the end of me. He dinna want this to happen. But he’s got no choice He’s sorry he ever let his brother talk him inta runnin’ the cump store. Swore it was easy money. But it isn’t. It isn’t. We has to pay for everything same as you do. Even if it don’ get bought and goes bad we still has to pay for it.”

Birk had never heard Mrs. Seldon talk for so long.

“In that case we’ll have to ….” McKlusky reached along the edge of a piece of the wood that boarded up the windows and gave it a strong heave. It creaked and started to come loose.

The other men joined him and the boards were quickly all torn off. The windows behind were then shattered. Three men kicked in the door and they streamed into the shop.

Birk glanced at Clancy to see if they were going to join in the pillaging. Clancy grinned and muttered, “Well, guess we might as see what tea they got stashed there, eh? Or you enjoying that lilac leaf tea?”

“I don’t know. Don’t feel right to me.”

He looked up and saw Manny O’Dowell struggle out of store clutching packages of cigarettes.

“If the mick’s are doin’ it I guess we might as well too.” Birk said.

“Stop! Stop!” Mrs. Seldon was screaming as she rushed down the stairs into the store. She was pulling at the shoulders of the men to get them to stop. “Please stop.”

Some of the wives had joined the men in going through the shelves. One of them went to Mrs. Seldon and smacked her and shoved her to the front door.

“You had that comin’ for a long time.” she said to Mrs. Seldon. “Be quiet or we’ll tie you up and leave you.” 

“There’s more in the root cellar.” The woman turned to the crowd. “That door is over here.” Two of the women yanked the door open and one of them went down and began handing up sacks of potatoes.

Birk and Clancy pushed their way to the section of dry goods, beans, flour. Things Birk knew his mother could make use of. With their arms full they shouldered their way back outside. There was a flicker of flame near the rear of the store. The flicker quickly got larger.

Men where pushing and shoving each other out of the store.

“Watch my beans.” Clancy put his arm load of cans down and dashed back into the building. 

Flames spurted out of the roof. A baby was crying loudly. Dogs were barking. 

Clancy came stumbling out in a billow of smoke. He was clutching two jars of penny candy under one arm and a can of tobacco under the other.

“Something for yer sisters. Something for us.”

“You …” Birk had been fearful that Clancy wouldn’t get out of the fire. “You got a nerve Clancy Sinclair. True nerve.”

He saw a woman dash up the side stairs of the store that lead to the second floor and into the building. She appeared moment later holding something and trying to shelter it from the flames. Her skirt got caught on the door jam and she couldn’t get it loose.

Without thinking Birk bolted up the stairs, tore her skirts free and rushed her down the stairs. Sparks showered on them as the roof began to collapse into the building. He could smell his hair burning as it was singed in the heat. There was some applause as he got her safely into the crowd.

She thanked him repeatedly staring into his face. Even darkened by soot he knew it was the priest niece. She insisted on getting his name. He told her. When she was waving her uncle over he slipped away.

“Didn’t think you had that in you Birk.” Clancy brushed ashes off Birk’s face.

“Think I’d stand here and watch someone burn up?” 

They gathered the stuff they had taken.

The crowd stood silently and watched the flames destroy the company store. Mrs. Seldon stood to one side sobbing as she rocked her baby.

The fire was still going when they went back to Birk’s house. 

“Say nothing of what happened.” Birk said.

“You mean you playing the hero? It was a good thing.”

“I don’t care. There’ll be no end of it once Ma knows.”

In the kitchen they laid out what they had grabbed in their haste. Mrs. Nelson sorted through the various cans and stuff they had.

“I don’t know Birk Nelson. I didn’t bring you up to be … a… hooligan who’d take advantage of people in this manner.”
“But Mrs. N. what good would it have been to let this food go up in flames. Ashes don’t do anyone any good.”

“Wise words Clancy. Rest assured those ashes aren’t going to do any one any good when word gets back to the coal company what was done.”

“Yes Ma’am.” 

“Best wash off that soot before you go to bed. Yer almost as black as ya are after coming from the pits.” She smiled and rubbed Birk’s forehead.

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


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