Coal Dusters: Chapter XLVIII – Birk at thePower Plant

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Coal Dusters

Chapter XLVIII

Birk 

at the

Power Plant

Birk’s father read aloud from the morning Post “miners instigate conflict with legally deputized constables.” He shook the paper. “From what I hear the legally deputized constables attacked the people leaving Mount Carmel Church with no cause at all. No cause.” He read further. “No wait! Here it is! They malicious scared the horses.”

There was knock at the back door and Jake Malone barged in.

“Blackie, we’ve had it. The union has had it.” He pulled a chair out and sat at the table. “The union met last night to discuss what had happened at Mount Carmel, we’re pullin’ everyone, including you.”

“But you ….”

“Yes, we know what that’ll mean. There’ll be no maintenance at any of the mines. Or at the power plant in New Waterford either. The BritCan goons can’t get away with this.”

“There’ll be a march this afternoon soon as the word gets out. We’re to meet at the arena. You with us?”

“Yes!” Birk’s father announced. “I’ve had it up to here. Scaring the horses! Next, they’ll be arresting us for being awake.”

While the men were meeting on the dock to take the ferry over to North Sydney word came that the company had already shut down the power plant, cut off electricity and water to the area. Those that had running water now had none.

“Who do those bastards think they are!” one of the men said.

“Time we show them that we’re not going to give in, no matter what.” Someone else said as they clambered aboard the ferry.

“I hear it was them getting even for that attack last week on them sneaking in scabs.” Jim McKlusky said.  

When they got to the other side they were met by Ivor Gillis head of the local police. He had over a dozen of the company security force with him.

“Lads, we’re going have to make sure you aren’t carrying any arms or such. We don’t want any further trouble here.”

“What about them buggers? They are the ones with cudgels and guns. Not us.”

“We have to protect our town.” Ivor went on.

“Yeah whose goin’ to protect us from them.” One of the miners shouted. “We’re not leaving a church looking to scare the horses after all.”

The miners laughed.

“Men, don’t make things worse than they are.” Ivor pleaded. “Get back on the Dingle and go to your homes.”

“We aren’t going anywhere Ivor Gillis. Not till the DuBois ferry sets out to New Waterford. So get out of our way.”

“What is to be problem?” Bill McLean, one of the union spokesmen came from behind Ivor Gillis. 

“Do you know …” Ivor started.

“Yeah we know BritCan’s got you in it’s back pocket.” Jim McKlusky stopped him. “But they don’t give a pinch of coal dust about you. Power’s off at your home same as everyone else’s. No water either. How long your sick’uns going to survive without water? Any of you think about that?” he turned to the constables. “That is those of you with family here.”

He stared at each of the men on horseback. “You might to take a look around you fellas.”

Miners from other parts of the area had gathered along the sidewalks across the road from the dock.

“You don’t mind if we join our friends.” Bill said. “Come on Blackie let’s a little talk while we wait for the DuBois.”

The constables reluctantly separated as the new group of miners pushed through them.

Birk didn’t understand the cold stares the constables gave them as they walked through. He knew some of them had grown up in Castleton. Some of the unformed men slapped their palms with their batons and smirked; others merely sneered.

“Move along. Move along.” Two of the constables pushed their horses at the men. “Can’t block the sidewalks.”

“The same law that says you can ride horses on these sidewalks?” Clancy asked.

The miners followed Blackie and Bill McLean down to board the DuBois that was ready to depart. Once on board of the men compared their crude weapons, short iron bars, wooden handles and even shovels. When disembarked at New Waterford there were men ready to direct them to through the town to the road that lead to the power plant.

“Someone has been busy.” Bill McLean remarked as they approached the plant. “That fence weren’t there yesterday.

There was a heavy, barbed-wire fence set up a few hundred yards from the plant, that encircled it. The there was another division of horsemen that followed them from the dock. They picked up their pace and rode though the men swinging their batons randomly.

“This is private property.” Colonel Strickland rode up to the inside of the gate. “Clear off BritCanada property now, or pay the consequences.”

“Clear off yerself, you fucking mainlander.” One of the miners shouted as he leapt up and grabbed a horseman off his horse. He wrested that man’s truncheon away from him and knocked him to the ground and began kicking him.

“Any one else want more the same?” The miner shouted.

“Yeah!” a horseman rode over and swung his truncheon at the miner. The sound of the truncheon as it crushed the miner’s head stopped them all for a moment. Blood oozed from the man’s mouth as he sank to the ground.

It was like a signal for the others on horses to take action. Forcing their horses to rear up and trample the miners. 

Clancy handed Birk an iron rod about a yard long. Birk looked at it not sure how to handle it but as a horse came charging at him he swung out at the horse. Slashing the horse across the forelegs. The legs buckled sending the rider sprawling to the ground.

Rapid gun fire was heard coming from behind the barbed wire.

“They’re using machine guns!” Jim McKlusky shouted.

Birk and Clancy kept pushing forward. Swinging their iron rods at the horses, at the constables who fell. As Birk swung all he could see was his sister Maddy weak with hunger while these uniformed fuckers were fat and well-fed.

His hands and arms were quickly spattered with blood. He never thought himself capable of such violence against anyone. What right did these bastards have to get paid to keep him from getting paid?

He glanced at Clancy as they helped some men dig a trench under the fencing. 

“Almost like being in the pit.” Clancy grinned wiping dirt off his face.

They crawled under the fence and over the gravel till they were behind one of the machine gun nests and jumped in to the surprise of the gunners. They tied the gunners up while Jim McKlusky and another miner made their way over the other machine gun nest. It quickly fell silent. Jim came out pushing two men tied up in front of him. None of them knew how to operate the guns but their intent had been to stop them not use them. Birk and Clancy rushed to the gate, beat the lock off with their iron bars and pushed it open.

The miners cheered and rushed on to the power plant. Within an hour they had restored running water and electricity.

When he and Clancy returned home that night they was elated. Everyone was encouraged by their successes of the day. Encouraged and saddened at the same as men had died.

“This has to be what war is like,” he told his father. “Crawling under barbed wire, on yer belly.”

“Birk this is closer to any war than you want to be.” His father rubbed his temples. “But worse. At war a bullet kills fast. BritCan’s ammunition is our hunger and they aim to make us kill ourselves so they don’t have to get their hands dirty.”

“You boys, no I guess you aren’t boys anymore,” Birk’s mother said. “You men better wash up and get some sleep. Never meet trouble with a dirty face.”

“Yes, ma.”

In the morning Jake Malone came over with the news that the company had taken the power plant back and shut it down once more. He had heard that they were now was sure to get the feds to send more troops because the miners were endangering industrial property.

“Nothing about the company endangering miner’s lives though.” his Dad said.

“According to the Post the union’s fallen prey to communist ideals. They claim there are outside agitators behind the whole strike business.”

“It weren’t no agitators who decided to cut wages. That was BritCan. They want profits for their share holders.” Blackie said.

“Right and the province wants those coal royalties, too. As long as we’re out they aren’t getting anything of that to feed themselves.” Clancy said.

“So what do think is next?” Birk asked.

“Hard to say,” Jake answered. “The men are right frustrated by this set back. Even the press that was with us isn’t so much now. Those guys in Montreal don’t give a crap about us down here, and they’ll make sure the feds stay out of it. King ain’t no friend to us. No more than Armstrong is.”

By the end of week two battalions of federal troops arrived to reinforce the company calvary. According to the Post they had been brought in to quell the violent miners under the influence of radicals. An uneasy peace settled in as the miner’s maintained their distance from any of the company properties.

“We can’t go on this way much longer.” Blackie sat at the kitchen table. “Winter coming on and we’re going to need to keep warm somehow.”

“I’m thinkin’ we might as well up and move to Alberta with Geo. Miners there gettin’ a decent wage.” Birk said. He knew desperate times call for more than grumbling.

“What!” his mother said. “Leave the life we know?”

“Ma this ain’t to life. Lots of the miners have already left. You know that. The Jones, the Babbington’s, even Joseph Franklin and they was here to help found Castleton. What’s holding us here.”

“We can’t let BritCan get away with this. Driving us out of our homes, out of …. of our right to live decent.”

“Starving isn’t living decent.” Birk said. “What can we do. They can wait us out. You see that, don’t you. Even with so many with us we aren’t getting anywhere with them.”

“Go then!” his father stood. “Pack yer things and head out west if that’s what you want to do. You and your pal Clancy. ”

“It’s not what I want to do, but what else is there. What is there for me here, even if they open the mines again?” Birk said.

“That’s that mick girl. She’s put notions in your head hasn’t she.” His mother accused him.

“Ma! She’s showed me some about reading and writing. Things I never had time to learn while I was in the pits.”

“Things you never needed either.”

“Even Pa can read the paper. He can write his name on a piece of paper. What’s wrong with me having learned to do those as well.”

Fuming Birk jumped up and rushed out of the backdoor. What was he to do? All he’d ever known was the coal dust of the mines, the mud of mudside. He’d been fairly content with it till the strike happened. About enough to eat most of the time. 

It was as if this nothing was what his life had been all along. Grubbing about for something to keep the family going. Griping about things that couldn’t be changed. Had he ever been happy? 

That day at Blue Lake when he first took Clancy fishing had been a good day. It seemed years ago. The first time he sank into one of those bathtubs at Mrs. Franklin. The first time he had actually felt clean and how they laughed at the dirty water he’d left behind. It took them an hour to clean the tub out again.

Sure he had worries then but there was something to enjoy to. Now there was nothing but no food tomorrow. Soldiers with guns ready to use them. 

What would there be for him if they settled the strike even at the company’s terms. There were fewer men now so perhaps he’d get more shifts.

That Lillian had asked him about having a family someday. That was the last thing he’d ever want. It broke his heart seeing his sisters growing thinner every day. The only days they showed any life was when she came to teach them. Lording her cleanliness over them most of the time. Acting as if she cared when all she did was show them up, show them how stupid they were. So now he could write his name. Signing his name wasn’t going to feed his sisters or feed himself either.

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

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