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Coal Dusters – Chapter L
In the evening Lillian returned to the O’Dowell’s after making sure her uncle was comfortable at the manse. Although he was grateful for her attentions earlier he made it clear that was a matter of circumstance. His distrust of her remained as firm as it had been.
The O’Dowell’s living room was crowded with union men, a couple of the more outspoken miners and Alf Landon their local Member of the Legislative Assembly. She stood at the door as unobtrusively as she could.
“They have to go back to work.” One of them was saying. “After this violence they have no other choice.”
“But the union didn’t hire those goons from the mainland!” another man said.
“Yes, but you know how this will read. That the unreasonable miner’s instigated the military …”
“Yeah. The fat, over-fed louts in uniform with guns were forced to defend themselves from the miners who haven’t a decent meal in months.”
“You tell ‘em Neddy. It was those Godless Catholic whipped into a righteous frenzy in d’church who came charging out with candles to set fire to those poor soldiers who happened to ridin’ their horses along the street by the church to enjoy the Sunday sun.”
“Don’t forget them outside agitators.” one of the miners said. “Wantin’ to eat is now a Bolshie plot.”
“It’s never any one’s fault but ours for wanting a decent wage.”
“Your points are well taken.” Alf stood. “But I have news for you that none of you are going to be happy to hear.”
“What? Coal Company is pulling out of the fields here!”
“Our prayers have been answered.”
“No, boys, no. Worse. There’ll be a bill proposed in Ottawa first thing tomorrow that’s to force you back to work.”
“Proposed.” Steven said. “More like pushed though, then shoved down our gullets.”
Lillian backed away as the men exploded in profanity.
She went up to her room. She was happy to shut the door at last to the noise, to the day. She slipped off her pretty blue shoes. They weren’t so blue anymore. They were covered with dust, mud, horse dung and what she suspected was dried blood. With a damp cloth she wiped them off. Most of the grime came off easily but the leather had deep scratches she knew would never be removed. Another layer of her old life in Boston had been removed. There was knock at her door.
“Come in Clara. I was washing the dust of the day off.”
Clara came in followed by Aileen with a tea tray.
“I thought you might enjoy a cup of tea before you turned in.” Clara nodded for Aileen to put the tray on the vanity. “That will be all Aileen.”
“Yes, Miss Clara.”
Once Aileen had left Clara poured them both a cup of tea.
“My mother would sometimes do this with me. Come to my room with tea and biscuits.”
Clara picked up one of Lillian’s damaged shoes. “these have seen better days. Did you go dancing in them?”
“No. They were too plain for the ball room.” Lillian sipped her tea. It was weak. Her uncle preferred it as strong as she did. The O’Dowell’s always served weak, watery tea with hardly any color.
“You still missing that life?”
“Some of it.” Lillian sighed deeply.
“When I was your age I had a whole life ahead of me but then when our mother died in the Spanish flu I had to take over running the house. Looking after father was no easy task. I used to resent my mother so much. It was as if she had died to get out of all that work. I was grateful she’d only had us three children.”
“We had a younger brother Charles who also died during the Spanish flu.”
Once again Lillian saw how little she knew of life outside her own troubles.
“I do know what it is to lose control of your life.” Clara settled back on the armchair between the bed and the window. “Steven has asked my permission to propose to you.”
“What!” Lillian hoped she sounded surprised.
“My dear girl don’t play coy with me. I know you didn’t come here with that in mind but you must be aware of Steven’s interest in you.”
“From the outset but …”
“Yes. He was foolish and forward but has come to accept you aren’t a girl to be trifled with. He has come to see you as a woman who would be an asset to his life.”
“Asset? How romantic.”
“Now, Lillian we aren’t mining families making brats but adults building lives. Would you consider such a marriage?”
Lillian sipped her tea. “Yes. He would be an asset to my life.”
The two women laughed.
“I’m happy that you approve of me. You do realize though he asked asked me already?”
“Oh!” Clara put her cup and saucer down. “I am not surprised. He was never one to waste time.”
“Rest easy, Clara, we haven’t set a date if that’s what you are thinking. We will wait until after the election. There’ll be enough to deal with the campaign.”
“Of course. Pending marriage makes a perfect plank in his platform. Vote me in and I’ll invite you all to the wedding of the century.” She laughed. “You’re family will be thrilled to have you off their hands. They’ll be coming to the wedding?”
“No invitations until we’ve set a date.”
“Nothing until after the election.” Lillian said. “I don’t want my engagement announcement to turn into a campaign speech.”
“My dear you already understand Steven.”
The next afternoon Lillian was preparing the pans for baking the bread when there was a pounding at the front. Aileen went to answer.
“Miss, miss, you must come quick.” A boy pushed past Aileen. It was one of boys often used to run messages.
“What is it?” She asked as the boy caught his breath.
“Men is hurt.” He blurted out. “Dr. Drummond says for you to come quickly.”
“Where?” She pulled her shawl over her shoulders.
She followed him to front door. Clara was on the porch talking with Dr. Drummond and two other men.
“Has something happened to Steven?” she asked
“No.” Dr. Drummond said. “There’s been more foolishness with the miners and the company security.”
“Machine guns aren’t foolishness.” One of the men said.
“I’m on my way to deal with the wounded.” Drummond said. “I need to round up some volunteers to help. The hospital is refusing them because they are company militia. ”
“After Mount Carmel, I’m not surprised.” Clara asked.
“Then let the company look after them.” Clara said.
“That’s what … I can’t ignore them. I’ve had some of taken to my clinic but it’s more than I can cope with on my own.”
“What can I do?” Lillian took him by the arm. “Clara does it matter. If it was one of ours that was injured would you …”
“They aren’t one of ours though. Perhaps you aren’t either, Lillian.” Clara said.
“Let’s go Dr. Drummond. I’ll help as best as I can.”
In the car Lillian wondered if she was doing the right thing. Defying Clara wasn’t going to make her marriage to Steven any easier. It wasn’t part of her plan to play Florence Nightingale, but then again neither was this life in Cape Breton. For once she was grateful to be an outsider with no family loyalties to the Islanders.
As they drove one of the men ranted about what he called the workers revolt. The miner’s had attacked the power plant in a misguided effort to end the strike.
When they pulled into Dr. Drummond’s yard there was a truck with two of the wounded men on stretchers on the back of it. The blood around was already wet with blood.
“Have you been here long?” Drummond asked.
“No sir. About five minutes.” A man tending to the wounded said.
“Bring them …”
“I don’t think it’s good to move them any more that necessary.” The man said.
“Get my bag Lillian. You know where I keep it.”
“Yes. Come with me.” She said to the men who had been with Dr. Drummond. She walked quickly inot the house. “Here.” she grabbed the bag and gave it to one of them. “Take this to the doctor.”
“You,” she said to the other. “Bring some water into the kitchen. There’s a pump by the back door. We’ll have to have lots of hot water.”
Lillian lost track of time as she sterilized instruments, tore old bedding into bandages. One of the men on the truck died. The other was resting on the sofa in the doctor’s sitting room. Another truck arrived with more injured men. Some had severe head injures, others had been shot.
She held the hand of one while Drummond removed a bullet from his biceps. She closed her eyes and looked away as the doctor sewed the wound closed.
“Lillian!” A man called out to her.
“Steven!” She looked up.
“I don’t know what to say.” Steven reached out to push her hair away from her eyes. “You are a much braver woman than I would have expected.”
“You’re not angry with me.” She felt the patient’s hand relax its grip on hers. She looked to Dr. Drummond.
“The worse it over for him.” The doctor said. “He’ll recover.”
She started step down from the truck when Steven swept her into his arms and set her feet on the ground. For once his bay rum was a comforting smell.
“When Clara told me you were here I couldn’t believe it. I am …”
“You aren’t angry with me. Siding with the … the … I don’t know whose side this is. These could be miner’s for all I know.”
“Some of them were, Miss McTavish.” one of men said.
“Angry?” Steven tilted her face up to his. “No. More convinced than ever that marrying you will be one of the best things I’ll ever do.”
“Lillian,” Dr. Drummond dipped his hands inot a tub of fresh water. “You should consider becoming a nurse. I’ve rarely seen someone so natural and … shall I say … calm under such extreme circumstances.”
“Trust me, she’ll have her hands full tending me, Dr. Drummond.” Steven said.
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