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Coal Dusters – Chapter XLV
Birk was taking clothes off the line to bring in the laundry for his mother when Maddy came running out to the back,
“There’s officers here for you Birk Nelson.” she shouted.
“Officers?” Birk stopped folding the sheet he had just taken off the line.
“Yes. You better come quick. They are asking for Birk Nelson. You must be in big trouble.” She began to cry. “I’m scared.”
“Don’t be.” He said. “I’m a big boy I can look out for myself.”
He followed her through the kitchen and to the front door. There were two of Colonel Strickland’s officers standing there. One was laughing and chatting with Karen Dunlop from across the lane. When the two of them saw Birk their faces became much sterner.
“Birk Nelson.” one of them said.
“Colonel Strickland would like to a have word with you. Come with us.”
Since the ambush Strickland had been investigating the supposed shooting murder of one of the scabs. Word had already spread that, in fact, the worker had not been shot but was scared and fainted. Birk knew that neither he nor Clancy had been armed. He hadn’t seen the other strikers carry guns. Unless there was one in the crate that had held the kerosene fire bombs. Several of the strikers had been brought in for questioning.
As the they marched with him between them Birk nodded and waved to his neighbours. Clancy was at the corner.
“So they finally caught you.” Clancy said. “Like they finally caught me.”
“No talking to the prisoner.” one of the soldiers warned Clancy away with his rifle.
“He’ll have a much to say as any one us.” Clancy laughed and winked at Birk. “They’ll have to arrest every man in Castleton.”
The solider kept Birk moving.
“See you at the colliery gate.” Clancy said as they passed by him.
They took him to Mrs. Franklin’s Inn. Colonel Strickland had commandeered the house for military use rather than travel back and forth from the barracks in Sydney.
There were posters for the upcoming election, some with Steven O’Dowell’s picture on them and others with David Preston’s picture on them. When they took him into the house one of the soldiers knocked at the parlour door.
“Bring Mr. Nelson in.” A voice responded.
The other soldier opened the door and motioned for Birk to enter.
Furniture in the parole had been pushed to the walls to make a clear space in the middle of the room. There was a sort of desk at one end with kitchen chairs in front and in back of it. Colonel Strickland was sitting in the chair behind the desk.
“Sit.” Strickland pointed to the other kitchen chair. “Forgive appearances. I would rather a real desk than this …. I think it was once a side table?”
“Mr. Nelson. Birk, isn’t it? Odd sort of name, isn’t it?”
“Can’t say. I’ve had it all my life, I’m used to it.”
“Right. I’ve heard a fair bit about you these past few days. I know you were one of the men involved in that shooting the other night. Accessory to murder is what you are. You realize that don’t you. You can be put behind bars for life.”
“Won’t be any worse than being underground digging coal to make other men rich.”
“Folks tell me you are a decent man though. Prison is no place for decent men. If you help me find the others involved I could make things easy for you. We need to know who made those incendiary bombs. As well as who pulled the trigger.”
“I wasn’t there.” Birk kept his focus on the wall then looked Colonel Strickland directly in the eyes. “Your informant is wrong.”
“Informant!” The Colonel stood. “What makes you think we have an informant?”
“None of the men around here would tell such tale unless it was to mislead you.”
“Mr. Nelson, we aren’t that easily mislead. Several miners saw you go off with the group of .… insurrectionist. All I need is the names of who they were. One of them was your friend Clancy Sinclair.”
“He wasn’t …”
“Wasn’t what?” The Colonel came from behind the desk and stood facing Birk. “From around here?”
“That’s no news to anyone.”
“You know if you cooperate I can help get you enlisted with the service, you know. We are always looking for strong young men like yourself. Good pay, a steady job, fresh air, maybe learn a skill more useful than digging in the dirt.”
“And make war on my neighbours?”
“I can get you a posting somewhere else.”
“I got nothing I can tell you. I was there when the scabs was brought to the gate. We were all there. I had no part in anything else that went on.”
“Of course. Of course. I didn’t expect anyone to tell the truth. You all cover up for each other. Even the Catholic men have no idea who it was that tried to delay the convoy.”
Birk stood. “I’m free to go?”
“Not so fast.”
Eye-to-eye with Strickland Birk saw that they were almost the same height.
“I want to you know that I know who was involved but without collaboration we may have to charge the union itself with inciting you men into criminal actions.”
“Send us all to prison!” Birk was puzzled. He wasn’t sure he understood just what Colonel Strickland actually knew or even thought he knew. But he knew the less he said the better off he would be.
“That isn’t in my hands.” Strickland said. “Help me and I can make less trouble, resist and things will get worse.”
“Children are dying Colonel Strickland. I don’t see as how you could make things anywise than that.”
“Think it over Mr. Nelson. You miners are on the losing side. It isn’t too late for you to change your lot in life.”
There was no one in the hall when Birk left the parlour. There were no militia when he walked down to the street. Was taking him there with guards all just show to impress the miners? As he glanced back to make sure he wasn’t being watched he saw that the O’Dowell posters had moustaches drawn over the moustache that was already there.
It was nearing the end of his shift at the colliery gate with Clancy. They were as close as they were allowed be after the court had granted an injunction prohibiting the strikers of interfering with the emergency relief workers. Some days the only people Birk and Clancy saw where the militia guards and their union representative.
“What we need is a trap for some of them deer over by Blue Lake.” Clancy said.
“Easier with a shotgun.” Birk laughed.
After the ambush incident most of the Mudder families had been questioned, their houses searched for unwarranted supplies of kerosene. Some had had their firearms confiscated.
“You know what would happen if either of us was caught with a rifle. You trying to get us both arrested? We could dig a pit.” Clancy said. “You could dig while I practice raking the dirt away.”
“With a sign to warn off any one else out in forest.”
“Deer can’t read. You have any better ideas. Rabbit is fine when we can get a couple.”
“Duck flying soon.” Birk said.
“How we goin’ to catch them? Lasso? Sticks and stones as they fly over head?”
They been over these ways of getting game many times.
“We could catch them in jars.” Clancy said. “If’n there are any left.”
“I didn’t think those soldiers, or whatever you want to call them, could act any stupider. You saw how that Strickland acted when saw all those jars Ma had been saving up for preserves.”
“He sure learned a respect for the wooden spoon fast enough.” Clancy laughed.
“I did I tell you when he got me for questioning he offered me to join up.”
“Me too! Asked if I could help on the sly because I wasn’t a local and had no family loyalties around here.”
“You turn him down?”
“Of course. You turn him down?”
“What do you think! I couldn’t stand guard over m’own here. That’s what I told him. He said I could do my service somewheres else. Told him wasn’t fixing to leave my folks and get shot up in some war any time soon.”
“No war coming soon other this one.” Jim McKlusky arrived. “Time for us take over for a spell.”
“Much going on?” Tommy Driscoll asked.
“A couple of them inside asked if we had tobacco and papers for them.” Clancy said. “When I said no, they asked if wanted to sig up because they had an endless supply thanks to His Majesty.”
“Buggers.” McKlusky spit on the road. “They been trying to get us all to sign up. Army pays regular, one of ‘em told me.”
“Me too,” Driscoll nodded. “Was tempted but because I’m smarter than them I couldn’t see myself taking orders from them.”
“They don’t know the difference between a huntin’ rifle and a shotgun.” McKlusky said. “And better learn to keep their hands off the women or some of them will be found with their under-drawers around their necks.”
“You votin’ for Steven O’Dowell’s running for election.” Clancy asked as they walked back to Birk’s house.
“For a mick he talks some sense. After all it is time for a change. A big change. Armstrong’ll never talk back to BritCan. We need someone who will.”
“Going to his rally tonight?”
“I hear there’ll there’ll be food.“ Birk said.
“Best way to a voters heart, right.”
“All the candidates have been doing that but …”
“The O’Dowell’s have better biscuits, right?”
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