Chapter Lii – Birk Back Underground

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Coal Dusters – Chapter Lii

Birk

Back

Underground

Birk woke with a start. Clancy was at the foot of the bed, shaking the frame gently until he woke.

“You know strike’s over b’y.” 

Birk pushed himself up, not sure if he was dreaming. “Wha?”

“We gets to go back today. Election’s over too. Winning don’t change a thing.” Clancy tossed his rucksack on the dresser.

“I knows that.” Birk sat up and put his legs over the side of the bed.

“You sleepin’ as if there’s nothing to do.”

“I’m sleeping the way someone who don’t have to share his bed with someone who tosses like a … a shirt on the line on a windy day.”

“And smells as fresh.”

“Yeh, freshly fished out of a net.” Birk tossed his pillow at Clancy. “So you’re back?”

“Had to check up on my mother before going back to the colliery here. Nothing better to do.”

“I was getting use to having all this bed to myself.” He pulled his work pants on and pushed his feet into his work boots. “Been a while since I wore these. Kinda stiff.”

He stood facing Clancy. He’d forgotten how blue Clancy’s eyes were. He grinned not know what else to do or say. He thought of grappling with Clancy, wrestle him to the floor but reached out and mussed his hair instead.

“Time’s a-wasting!” A shout came from the bottom of the stair.

“Yer Ma hasn’t changed.”

“Good things never do.” Birk laughed.

 

No management was to be seen when the miners gathered for their first day in the mine. Father Patrick was there to to bless their efforts so that the town could be rebuilt in the light of God.

The first days in the pits where spent making sure the shafts and stavings were sound enough for the mine to be worked. After the endless weeks of inaction it was good to be back at the work but at the same they would only get paid for the coal they produced. There was no pay for replacing, reinforcing the hoardings, for doing all the maintenance work that had gone undone during the strike. The scabs that the company had trucked in lacked the skills to do more than sweep and shovel so they only worked the first tunnels.

“You’d think they’ve cleaned out the carts at least.” Red grunted as they went down for their first maintenance shift.

“Least they ventilated the shafts. Inspector went through ‘em already to make sure.”

“They don’t want to kill us that fast. At least not before we reopen.”

No one was happy about the way the strike had been settled. Everything forced on them by the management, the government, who didn’t appear to care about the miners but only about their taxes and dividends. The newly elected provincial government couldn’t undo what the Feds had done despite their promise to do so.

Birk was too focused on getting things ready to be bothered talking much with Clancy beyond quick grunts of agreement as they did their tasks. When he got back at night after their shift he was too tired to talk. Sometimes they both fell asleep during dinner. But he could sense Clancy’s restlessness.

Even as he tried to keep his distance in the bed, their shoulders or hands would brush briefly in the night. Clancy had something on his mind but Birk couldn’t get him to talk about more than the mines.

“What did you make of what the men of the cloth had to say before they let us go down today.” Birk asked Clancy as they walked home after their shift.

“They mean well but that Father Pat always acts as if he’s judging us and not happy with what he sees. Father Browne acts as if he knows how hard it is to be as good as we aim to be.”

“Too bad he didn’t give us all that other prayer.  Mac was always fond of one that went  ‘Each dawn as I rise, Lord, to face a pit filled with hell. To scratch out a living as best that I can. But deep in m’ heart is the soul of a man. My black covered face and calloused hands, rides the dark tunnels.’ When I was small Mac’d sing that and then chase with his hands stretched trying to tickle us boys.”

“I can see that now.” Clancy laughed. “My Dad was never around much to play with us. When he was it more shouting as us to keep quiet and sit still.”

“The dark tunnels used to scare me some. I’d have nightmares about them and the black faces trying to eat my soul.”

“That I can understand. Can’t imagine even a mick’d be thankful to be made a miner though.” Clancy said.

“Least ways they came to bless us without making the micks stand on the side the rest of us on t’other.”

 

Birk and Clancy joined the miners who were massed in the work yard around the opening to the colliery.

“What’s going on?” Clancy asked.

“Steve O’Dowell is here to wish us well on our first paid day back to work.” someone said.

“That explains the reporters from the Post and the Herald.” someone else said.

“Can’t say as I’d hold that against him,” Red Mac said. “He’ll do a good job getting us back a decent contract. Armstrong wanted us to settle for nothing.”

“Where’s  O’Dowell? We want get down there before lunch break.” someone said.

“Up in the office with James Bowden. Waiting on final word from the inspectors it’s safe to go down.” Someone else said. “Otherwise Bowden would send us down.”

Scotty Sullivan, the assistant manager, came out of the management building. Red Mac, the shift foreman, walked over to him.

“Much longer?” Red asked.

“Nah, you can start down now if you want. Inspectors say all but bottom level’s been okay’d.”

“You know we can’t start until all have been given the okay.” Red said.

“We won’t send any shifts down to that level.” Sullivan replied.

“You know we can’t do that?’ Red said firmly.

“I’ll let the press know that on the first day the mine’s were opened that the union was refused to go back to work after signing the contract. Suits me fine.”

“You bastard.” someone shouted. “So it starts already!”

There was grumbling amongst the miners.

“If you fellas have done as good job down there as you claim to have done on the other levels what are you afraid of. BritCan didn’t ask for a rush job half-assed done by you qualified miners.”

“You were told it would take either more men or more time.” Red said.

“Not my problem. Today is when we are to open and either we open, or your union face the consequences.” Sullivan walked over to the the boxes upended to make a low stage. He stepped up, “If any of you men are unsure about the safety of the mine after you’ve been the ones to do the repairs you are free to leave. There are those who are eager and willing to do an honest work for reasonable pay.”

Birk turned to Clancy. “What do you think?”

“I think we’re ready to work. They push us around now to prove they are still in control.”

Steven O’Dowell and Gus Murphy came out of the office with James Bowden, Father Patrick and Reverend Browne and walked through the men. Steven was wearing miner’s coveralls, carrying a pick and one of the helmets. He could have passed for one of them except for the white shirt and tie he had on under the coveralls.

He stepped up on the overturned boxes. The miners cheered and applauded.

“Men. Friends. I call you friends because I am one of you and will be even more so after this day.” There was more cheers and applause. “I’ll be going down into the mine to work with you. Something my predecessor never did.”

“When’s the date?” someone called out.

“Date?” Steven asked. “Oh! My wedding. Funny you should ask that as we set the date this morning before I came here. It’ll be two weeks from today at St. Teresa’s in Sydney. She’s over to O’Dowell’s in Sydney this morning to pick out a wedding dress. You are all invited to come.”

The men stomped and whistled.

“Now before we go down Father Patrick and Reverend Browne are here to offer blessings. Father Patrick.”

Steven stepped off the box and Father Patrick stepped on it.

“Parishioners, men, it is with great happiness that I see you finally getting back to your calling. I’ll offer two short prayers. First the Ave Maria. 

Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Dominus tecum
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus
fructus ventris tui, Iesus
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae
Amen.”

Several of the miners joined in while others of the Catholics mumbled along as best they could.

“The other is one that, with a small change of my own, suits all men. “O My God, I adore Thee and I love Thee with all my heart. I thank Thee for having created me, for having made me a miner and for having watch over me this day. Pardon me for the evil I have may done; and if I have done any good, deign to accept it. Watch over me while I take my rest and deliver me from danger. May Thy grace be always with me. Amen.’ God bless and God speed you all.”

The men applauded politely.

“Now for the rest of you Father Browne will offer some words.”

Father Browne stepped on the box. “Those of you who know me know I’m a plain spoken man. My father was one you and died in the mines. I’ve seen trials and tribulations and I’ve seen brave miners rise to them and to help each other as best as they. I’ll use no fancy words,” he glanced at Father Patrick, “but I’ll offer one I heard often from my father.

“Look at these hands, Lord, worn and rough. A face scarred with coal marks, and my language is tough. But you know in the heart, Lord, is the soul of a man that toils at a living few men can stand. Sulphur, coal dust and sweat on my brow. If you’ve got a corner after my work is through, I’d be mighty proud to live, neighbours with you.”

Most of the miners joined him from the first line. They stomped and roared as he finished. He stepped off the box.

“Who’s ready to go to work.” Steven pulled on his helmet, hefted the pick-ax over his shoulder and hopped off the box. He went into the crowd shaking hands with the miners. “I may have to borrow a lunch form one of ya. Got so rushed to be here I forgot to pack a lunch pail.”

A couple of the miners lifted him up on to their shoulders and lead the way to cars that would take them to the cages down. He went down with the first group of miners.

Birk and Clancy went down the with second group.

They got off at their level. Red was waiting as their shift crew got off.

“Where’s our fair haired boy go to?” One of them asked.

“Down to next level. Said he wanted to see how they did a blast. Virgil’s as good a blaster as any we’ve got. He’ll make sure O’Dowell gets a good show.”

“There’ll be campaign speeches out of this for his next run, sure.” Someone said before they headed down to the various staging areas where they were working. “Least Father Browne knows the work the way that Papist bastard ever will.”

“Least he speaks English.” Another of them laughed.

“I’m surprised that priest don’t crawl down to scatter holy water on the seams for luck.”

“Nah we’ll do that with our own holy water.” one of the miners joked.

“Don’t be pissing down on me ‘cause if you do he’ll down to give you the last rights.” Another said.

“Be careful boys or you’ll slipping someone’s shit before you know it.”

“Won’t be yours. We know that stink anywhere.”

The miners laughed.

“Everything look good?” Birk asked letting his lantern play over the joists.

“Given the time we had, things looking great.” Red said. “Try to pace yourselves some though. We’re not going to make up for all that money lost in the first day.”

Birk and Clancy made their way to the face they were assigned to work.

“You think O’Dowell’s going use that pick much?” Clancy asked.

“Only on his teeth.”

“That is if they’re his own.”

“Best hope there’s no gas down there, they’ll never smell it over that perfume he’s wearing.”

“Didn’t smell half bad to me. Better than most of stench when we’re down here. Wonder if she picked it for him?”

“Nah, that’s what he stunk of before she ever showed up. You could always tell when O’Dowell had been anywhere.” Birk laughed.

They came to where they were going to be working. The first severals blows with the pick numbed Birk’s hands then he stopped feeling anything expect the way the point connected with the coal. When he stopped to catch his breath he could hear Clancy raking behind him and singing.

“This is the way we pay

This is the way we pay

for the right to die this way”

After an hour or so Birk stopped to wipe sweat off his face.

“Feels good.” He said to Clancy.

“Whatever you say boss.” Clancy replied.

“Forgot how it smelled down here though.” Something scurried over his boot. “The rats must be happy to have us back again.”

“Useless buggers probably gnawing away at the joists. Do more damage than the water.”

Birk pulled his rag back over his mouth and went back to clawing at the coal.

“Hush.” Clancy plucked his pant leg.

Birk stopped and they listened. There was low brief rumble beneath them.

“O’Dowell getting his little tap o’blast.” Birk said. “I can tell the size by what we hears. Didn’t get much out of that one.”

“It’ll give him something to tell the missus when he gets home!”

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

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