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Coal Dusters – Chapter LIV
By the third day the faces were fully ready to be worked. Birk found that he and Clancy were back into their old routine. Joking in the mornings and focused when they started to work. Birk was happy to hear Clancy singing behind him as they got back to the grind of hacking the coal out of the seam. He slipped back into his physical digging and everything that had happened in the past few months vanished as he sweated.
“Com’on by. Time for a slurp of tea.”
“Wha?” Birk pushed himself out of the crevice he was working in.
“Can’t make up for lost time that way Birk.”
“Feels good though to be doing sumthin’ ”
They put their tools in a safe spot, got their lunch cans and scuttled along to a level spot on the floor to sit.
“Where you get to when you take off?” Birk asked expecting the same answer.
“Back to my Ma’s. How many time’s do I haf to tell you? I figured your family have enough to do keepin’ fed without my extra face to feed. Not much to do here with out getting pulled into that spineless union’s foolishness. Ya can’t trust them.” Clancy slurped his tea. “Still smells the same down here.”
“No more ‘an you can trust the owners.”
“That’s for sure. I hear you kept yourself busy in a pretty way.”
“Wha?” Birk nibbled at his bread.
“You and the nun. Steven O’Dowell’s betrothed.”
Birk could see Clancy smirk in the dim light.
“That lass’s only been trying to teach us how read and write proper. Don’t see as I’m going to do much with that. I could read figures well enough. But now I can sign my name pretty good. But …. ”
“She’s was getting to you, wasn’t she?”
“Yeah, but not is that way.” Birk was eager to have someone to talk to about Lillian. There were things he didn’t he could tell his mother. “Everyone thought I’m …. sweet on her. Asked me how I felt about her getting hitched to him. As if I would be bothered by that. But t’isn’t so. Sure she’s pretty and that but she makes it hard to breathe when she’s around. It was as if she’s trying cover me up with whatever scent she’s wearing. Always looked at me as if she wanted something more than an answer to what the numbers add up to.”
“She must have had her eye on you.”
“I wish she didn’t. Ma gets so burned up about her being a Catholic girl. She thinks Lillian wants to turn me mick too. I wished I knew what she was after.”
“What most women want Birk m’boy. To land a decent man who’ll look after them.”
“She was living at the O’Dowell’s then anyway so she had him. He’s more the decent man. I’s surprised to see him coming down everyday with us too.”
“Politics. He aims to be premier. He can brag how he knows what common folks have to do to get by. I don’t know what she saw in you, less she needed hairy chimney sweep.” Clancy’s laugh echoed in the shaft.
“Yeh. I’m glad yer back … that … Clancy, I never had a mate I much took too … not even m’brother.”
“Yeah. I missed you too monkey.”
Birk resisted the temptation to reach out and touch Clancy.
Back at the face they were working he was happy to hear Clancy singing the familiar ‘shovel and pick, pick and shovel,’ then, ‘rake and hustle, hustle and rake.’ He stopped mid-word.
“Hush,” Clancy whispered. “Stop for a minute.”
Birk leaned away from the wall. “What is it?”
They stood holding their breaths. A distant rumble could be heard. Then the ceiling over them groaned and a long, thin, flat shard of it shook free and fell with a dusty thud.
Birk pushed Clancy toward the wall. “We better high tail it.”
“Right. That’s what happens when you only have inspectors come to check the air. Not the shoring of the faces.”
They made their way to the main shaft that was crowed with the other men on the shift. They were grousing about how the management had pushed to get things started and how the union didn’t make any difference or even care about the possible unsafe conditions. Another heavier rumble overhead stopped their nattering.
“At’s a big one.” Jake Malone called across from where he was working.
Part of the ceiling collapsed ahead of them.
“Shite.” Clancy swore as he crawled into the now narrowed shaft. “Come b’y before it gets worse.”
There were men scrambling in front and behind them. More than once Birk got a solid kick in the side or face. He was pushed out onto the rough floor. Other men tumbled out after him.
“Clancy!” He called out. He choked on the thick gritty dust.
The miners pushed him along to the cage that would take them up. There was another even louder crack followed by a rumble and the ceiling behind him came thundering down amidst the shouts of men trapped under it.
“Clancy! Me buddy’s back there.” Birk stopped and pushed his way back to the rubble, fell to his knees and began to pul at the chucks of rock. Some crumbled in his hands.
“Come away lad.” Hands pulled at his shoulder. “There’s nothing we can do for them as got caught.”
It took two of the miner’s to pull Birk to his feet.
“We all lose someone to the coal one way or t’other.” one of them put an arm around his shoulder and led him away.
“No!” Birk muttered. “I can’t give up.”
He pushed them away and went to where he had been digging and began to pull the rocks away again. “I know he’s alive. I can feel it. I can’t give up that easy.”
It was the same feeling he had before Clancy showed up at Sal’s burial. Something in his chest told him Clancy was near then and that something told him Clancy was here now. Alive.
One of the miners who had pulled him away came back to him with two shovels and handed one to him. “This’ll make it easier. One things as I know is to never ignore that feeling.”
They were joined by some of the others in shifting the debris. They came to the canvas air flow flaps. There was someone trapped under that. Part of the frame for the ventilator had crumbled to offer some protection to those men.
“There’s men under this.” Birk shouted as his hands tried to get a purchase under the thick edges to peel it back. It was too dark to see exactly who it was though.
Red and two of the men left the bodies they had found and brought them to the less dim area of the shaft by the cage entrance. One of them was dead. The other moaned as he was being moved.
The injured man reached out and grabbed Birk by the wrist. “Monkey is that you?”
“Shush, Clancy. It is. We’ll get out of here soon.”
They laid Clancy on one of the coal trams. In the flicker of his lamp Birk saw a thin ooze of blood around Clancy lips and ears.
“I can’ feel anything.” Clancy whispered. “Are my … “
“Yes Yes yer legs is there. They look okay.” Birk ran his hands lightly over Clancy’s body feeling for any breaks, no bones were sticking out. “You’re all there.”
“Even my little fella?” Clancy tried to laugh but coughed some blood.
“Pretty sure. Maybe a bit worse for wear after that.” Birk wiped a tear away.
Red came over. “How’s he doing.”
Birk stood up. “He’s making jokes about his little feller, that’s a good thing.”
Red kneeled beside Clancy.
“You going to be fine son.” He put his ear to Clancy heart. “That’s still beating. How’s it to breathe?”
“Not so easy.” Clancy wheezed and coughed up more blood.
“Suspect you broke a couple of ribs back there. Good thing the manifold fell atop you.” He stood brushing his hands off. He turned to Birk. “Masters wasn’t so lucky.”
“I got the count for you Red.” Ken Langly, one of the miners came over. “Feenie, O’Conner, Slake Jim, French Dan and Dark Sammy unaccounted for. A few cuts but none as is hurt that bad.”
“Something to thank the good Lord for.” Red signed deeply. “Air’s not too bad. Ventilator shafts must still be clear enough.”
The cage shaft echoed with the screech of mental on mental. The harsh sound grated on Birk’s ears.
“They tryin’ to move the cage up and down. She must a got stuck somewhere when the … collapse shifted things.”
Without the cage the miners would have to either wait near where they were, or start to climb up the sides of the shaft. They were more than a mile below the surface and they was the risk some of the handhold stavings had come loose if the shaft was twisted out of shape enough.
“I’m going to start up.” Ken Langly announced. “One of us has to make a try. I’ve done it more than a few times.” He laughed. “You know, to get a breath of fresh air.”
“I’ll go with ye lad.” Red said. “They’ll be wanting to know who’s survived and who’s hurt down here. So far only young Clancy here. Busted a couple of ribs.”
They started up the sides of the shaft. Every so often some debris would come down.
“How you doing?” Birk sat on the floor by the tram where Clancy was lying.
“Only hurts when I talk about it.”
“Go on with ya.” Birk leaned back, his head against Clancy shoulder.
“You know when that slab fell on me all I could think was that I’d never get out to Blue Lake again. You done any fishing out there?”
“Took my sisters out a few times but not same as the last time we was out there. Too far for them to walk anyway. I ended up carrying Sal, the fish and everything else too on the way home.”
“At’s all right and you were learning how to read and write the way a proper Boston boy would.”
“Sure while you was playing nurse maid to yer old mother.”
“She not as fine as that one though.”
“Why you keep harpin’ on about that gal. She’s all yours Clancy if she’ll have you. That is if O’Dowell can’t keep her happy. I told you before I don’t care none for her fine ways. Sure they can grow on you after a time but that doesn’t mean I want to … spend anymore time with her than I have to.”
“Gives me something to think on besides us dying down here.” Clancy said.
A mass of rocky debris and some lumber fell through the shaft and down to the bottom of it.
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