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Coal Dusters – Chapter XXXVIII
Birk Picks Pears
Walking along Chestnut Avenue, Birk puzzled over what had happened.
“What was it she asked you not to forget?” he asked.
“Not to forget to share the biscuits with Sal.” she said. “And to ask Ma if she can come over to help fix those big trousers.” She started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“I was just remembering me and Sal jumping around in ‘em.”
“I hope you didn’t tell her about that?”
“She asks a lot of question though, don’t she. You aren’t going to up and go like Geo did?”
“Don’t worry. I’m not lookin’ to do anything like that.”
Some of the Mudside gals had teased him about settling down but he never payed much heed to them. They mostly made fun of him being too short or too hairy to ever be a husband. He usually replied “Who said anything about husband to you?”
Knowing his duty to his family made it easy to ignore them. He figured they weren’t serious in their love play. Getting married seemed something he’d have to face one day but it wasn’t something he wanted to hurry. Even if what Clancy had explained to him was true about the rubbing his little feller between a woman’s legs to make a baby. He knew that it was something that disgusted most of them. If the gals that teased him knew the truth they wouldn’t be so easy about it.
His Ma had made it clear the nature of that shame. That those who might enjoy it are shameful creatures, as she called them, and not fit to be seen with.
“You still thinkin’ about her, aren’t you.” Maddy said.
“You keep asking about her so hard not to think abutter.” Birk tired to sound casual. “She just wants to know how we minders think. Studying us to tell her folks back in Boston.”
On top of which Lillian was a Catholic. But that kiss of hers was so sweet. Her lips with so soft and she smelled better than any female he’d ever known.
“That’s what left of the pluck me?” Maddy stopped them on Pitt St. by the iron mongers across the street from the remains of the company store.
“You weren’t scared where you?” she asked.
“Not too much. It was so fast I didn’t have to be scared until I was safe again.”
Mr. Seldon and two men were pulling away the charred remains.
“What yer looking at?” Mr. Seldon shouted to him.
“Nothing, sir.” Birk flushed recalling the goods he and Clancy had gabbed without a second thought.
“We’re clearing out anyway. I suppose you’ll all be happy to see the last of us.”
“Company won’t be building a new store here soon. Even after the strike is settled. You can thank your stupid selves for that now’ll you be going to North Sydney to get a bag of flour. Didn’t think of that do you?”
“No. Sorry for your trouble, sir.”
“Ma’s waiting.” Maddy tugged on his hand.
He kept on his way. Thou shalt not steal. Yet they had. They all had. Once they got back into the mine he’d make sure the Seldon’s got paid back for what he had taken.
He followed Maddy as she rushed into the house with the biscuits and then out to the back garden where his Mother and Sal were tending to the tomato plants. They were plucking bugs away from the leaves. After the rain it had been hot and dry. Everything in the garden had burst into life seemingly over night.
Was Maddy right? Did Lillian fancy him? He tried to reason it out as he went up to his room to change out of the clothes she had sent him.
He hung them on the hooks on the wall. The shallow closet was empty without Clancy’s shirts and jacket hanging there. He opened the drawers in the dresser and Clancy had emptied his few things out of them too. Even the picture of his mother and sister was gone.
His head began to ache. He’d thought he and Clancy were friends. He never felt as close to his own brother as he had to Clancy. How could he have been such an idiot. A ‘hairy stupid idiot’ is what Clancy had called him. Clancy must have been right because he didn’t suspect Clancy even thought he was a ‘hairy, stupid idiot.’ That all the time he was there that he found it so hard to tolerate Birk.
Wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t read as fast as Clancy or understand Bible verses. Clancy could’t fish as good as him though. Wasn’t near as fast either. Wasn’t his fault that he had been the one to rush into the fire to save Lillian. If they had left when Birk wanted to that wouldn’t happened anyway. Now she was confusing him with her attention. Not even him Ma has asked about his hopes except a hope the strike would end soon. She has never suggested he might look for a helpmate.
“You comin’ to help.” Sal came into the room. “Ma says we need some ’un strong to cart the baskets of pears.”
“Sure.” he followed her downstairs.
“What that lady want with ya,” she asked.
“She wanted to know about my pretty little sisters. That’s all she talked about.”
“For true?” Sal’s eyes opened wide. “Next time you can take me and not Maddy with you? Can you?”
“We’ll have to check with Ma first. She’s not our kind. They’s micks over there.”
“Micks! I hear they poison your mind against the true faith.”
“True faith? Where did you hear talk like that?” Birk asked.
“Laura says so. Her Dad tell her.” Laura was one of Jim McKlusky’s daughters. “In the mick church they drink blood, too.” she shuddered.
“May haps they do. But I doubt it’s real blood.” Birk had never thought through what he knew about the Catholic mass. He’d heard they’d drink wine as the blood of Christ and eat some wafer as His body but figured that was only words, not acts. Catholics drinking blood was as foolish to him as Jews eating Christian babies. “I’m pretty sure it’s old wives tales.”
They went through the field behind the houses to a small orchard of apple and pear trees. His mother was on a ladder passing pears down to Maddy who was putting them in a basket.
“Looks to be a good crop this year.” He said as he hefted a full basket on to one shoulder. “They’ll ripen over the next few weeks.”
After he emptied it he reached up to one the lower branches on one of the trees and pulled himself up into the tree.
He pulled off a pear and bit into it. It was green and hard. The juice was sweet as he chewed the pulp.
“Not quite ripe enough for eating.” He said tossing the core as far as he could.
“Careful Birk.” His mother said.
He laughed carefully dropping pears into his basket. As basket filled he gout of the tree and took the pears back to the storage shed. He was tipping them into the bin for the third time when Jake Malone came breathless into the side shed.
“Word is BritCan are going to bring in bastard workers from the Mainland.”
“So that’s what Bowen was talking to Father Mctavish about?” Birk stood.
“Yep. Troops will be here tomorrow along with them to protect ’em. Worsen that is they’re going to pay ’em more than they want to pay us.”
“How’s that?” Birk wiped sweat off his face with his shirt.
“That’s how they hope to bust up this strike and the union too.”
“Bastards.” Birk punched the side of the shed. Tools rattled on the walls.
“Save it. There’s be a meeting over at St Agatha’s tonight. We have to make plans. Make sure you bring that pal of yers.”
“Clancy done gone.” An unexpected lump came to Birk’s throat. “His mother took sick.”
“Too bad. He had a good head on his shoulders.”
“Yeh.” He swallowed the lump down. Why’d that happen because he’d said Clancy’s name?
“Gotta get to the others. If ya see McKlusky let him know.”
He took the empty basket back to the orchard.
“Bigger trouble brewing Ma.” he told her.
She got off the ladder. “Rains, it pours. Bad has to get worse before it gets better.”
“The mine’s bringing in scabs to bust the strike.”
“How soon.” She brushed her hands on her apron.
“Jake Malone says they’ll be here tomorrow. Troops too.”
“Buggers. Business and government always go hand in hand. T’hell with the workers and their needs.” His mother grabbed for a full basket and knocked it over. Pears spilled out over the ground.
“Ma!” Birk had never heard his mother swear.
He sisters quickly refilled the basked.
“That’s enough for today girls.”
Birk hefted the final basket they had filled.
St. Agatha’s hall was over-crowded once again. Several men asked after Clancy and each time he was heart-sick telling them that Clancy wasn’t there. He didn’t let on that Clancy had moved out of their house though. That was no one’s business but his own.
The information that the union had was that the scab workers had already be billeted in North Sydney and would be brought over to New Castleton on a special ferry in the morning. The limits was garrisoned in Sydney. The miner’s plan was to be on the pier when the scabs arrived. They would make sure the Dingle Dandy couldn’t dock.
“You’re sure it’s our colliery their goin’ ta bust first?” McKlusky asked.
“Torching the pluck me sure got their attention.” someone said.
“Yeh. It was the first to go, ya know. Two of the others went up since then, too.”
“Best as we can tell, we’re to be the example.” William Gregory said. “We’ll have men on hand at all the mines to make sure they don’t bust any of them.”
“What gives them the right to step in at all?” someone asked.
“They never respected the unions did they. Takes money out of their pockets to put back into ours. Simple as they. If they could get away with not paying us they would, you know.” McKlusky said.
“That’s damn sure.” Jim Malone said.
“Sounds same as Bolshie talk to me.” Manny O’Dowell said.
“Bolshie talk! What you think you know about that.” McKlusky grabbed him by the arm.
“N… nothing.” Manny tried to wriggle free. “Something my father said.”
McKlusky let him go with a shove. “Figures them that got enough already, act so innocent. I’m thinking you best get out of here O’Dowell anyhow.”
“Don’t want word getting of our plans getting’s out. If you understand what I mean.” McKlusky grabbed Manny roughly by the arm.
“Shut your trap little man.” McKlusky continued. “I knows someone squealed about the pluck me.”
“Father McTavish says you had it planned.” Birk said.
“Where you hear that?” McKlusky turned to him.
“From his very mouth when I was there this day. Bowen paid him a visit too.” Birk said.
“Bowen!” one of the other miners said.
“So the good Father already knows what’s coming. Guess he’s a company man after all.” Malone said. “You micks certainly picked the right one to trust. Don’t any of you be going to confession after this to tell him our sinful plans.”
“No secret that we’ll put up a fight if they tries anything anyway.” one of the miners said.
“Yeah but we don’t want them knowing that we know what they’re up to.”
The meeting broke up after groups of the miners had been assigned different positions to protect. Birk was in the group set to keep look out at the colliery entrance.
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