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Coal Dusters – Chapter LV
The next morning Birk went to the colliery infirmary. Dr. Drummond carefully removed the bandages. The skin on his hands was torn and rubbed away along his knuckles but otherwise he was uninjured.
“The swelling has gone down considerably.” Drummond said.
“Too bad this had t’happen.” Birk said to the doctor washing the medicated ointment off his hands. “Things getting back to the way they used be.”
“Still some splinters here. I’ll have get them out before they get infected.”
“Do what you have to.” It was odd to Birk to have a man handle his hands so gently then so firmly as the doctor used tweezers, sometimes needles to pull out the splinters.
“Not sure I’m goin’ to get all of them today though.”
Birk’s father came into the infirmary.
“How’s he looking Doctor.”
“He’ll pull though but it’ll be a few weeks before he’ll be pulling anything else.”
The two men laughed at something that Birk didn’t understand.
The last of the miners were being brought into the infirmary.
“We’re getting them up from the levels that were blocked by the cage.” One of the rescue team said. “Someone did a good job to get that trap open.”
“Some times good things happen when a miner opens his big trap.” Birk’s father said..
Dr. Drummond had one of his nurses do the final work on Birk’s hands so he could attend to the other men. The nurse rubbed a salve on Birk’s hands then wrapped them both in fresh gauze.
“You’ll need to leave this on for a day. Keep it as clean as you can. Come back tomorrow and we’ll check to see if all the splinters are cleared out and make sure no infection has set in.” The nurse left to attend to the recent arrivals.
“You been home yet?” He asked his father. “Ma was wondering?”
“I’ve had to keep an eye on the ….”
A woman’s shout cut him off.
“Who is it?” Birk stood and walked toward were the woman was.
“It’s Lillian McTavish.” One of the rescue workers said.
“Christ!” He had forgotten that Seven O’Dowell had gone down with the second group of men.
“They did bring him up alive.” His father said. “But died in her arms.”
Birk didn’t know if he should offer condolences. “She was kind to us, you know, Mac. Very kind.” He began to cry.
“It’ll be hard for all of us.” He father put his arm around Birk’s shoulder. “They were wed before he drew his last breath.”
“Not much we can do about that is there.” Birk didn’t know how to respond. “Married?”
Birk watched as Lillian was taken out of the infirmary and lead to the manager’s office.
“Ah, Birk, sure is good to see your face again.” Clancy said from behind him.
“Only been a couple of hours.” Birk tried to smile.
“Ah, Mr. Sinclair.” Dr. Drummond walked over and put his stethoscope to Clancy’s chest.
Clancy coughed and spat up coal dust and blood. “That’s a pain I never expected to feel.” he tapped the bottom of his rib cage. “Right close to m’young heart.”
“You been spitting up much blood?” Drummond asked Clancy.
“Some but not every time.”
“Take as deep a breath as you can.”
Clancy breathed in. Pain flashed across his face as he coughed again. He spit onto a cloth a nurse handed him. The doctor examined it.
“A bit of blood but if it was worrisome it would be a lot redder. Any in your urine?
“Not that I’ve noticed.” Clancy said.
“To be safe you should go the hospital for an X-ray.” The doctor said. “There’s some other’s going shortly. You can go along with them.”
Once they saw that Clancy was on his way to the hospital Birk and his father started to leave for home. He saw Lillian being taken to the back of the infirmary where the bodies were kept. Her screams and sobs started him weeping again as his father lead him away.
“There’s nothing to be done. She has …”
“She has no family here. Nothing.”
“She has those who’ll look for her. Trust me Birk.” He father said. “The O’Dowell’s are good people.”
Birk broke away from his father and stepped through the door at the back of the infirmary. The smell made him dizzy.
“I …” he started unsure if what to say.
“You!” Lillian screamed and rushed at him flailing at him with her fists. “You miners killed him. He did his best for you minders and now you’ve gone and killed him. Murderers. Butchers.” She struck his chest and shoulder several times before being pulled away. She sagged sobbing into the arms of one of the nurses.
“Come on Birk.” His father pulled him out of the room by the arm. “I told you we weren’t wanted here.”
“What did she mean by murderers?” He asked as they exited the colliery.
“When you got out of the cage did you get a good look at the cage cable.”
“I was working to get up and out of there nothing more.” Birk thought for a moment. “It was fair snapped.”
“Clean break or frayed? You know, frayed as if it had worn through.”
“It was some dark down there Blackie. Felt more of a clean break though.”
“Yeah, that’s what they found. Management’s saying someone tampered with the cable.”
“Looks that way but we won’t know till those inspectors take a closer look at things.”
“The ones as said it was safe for us to go down in the first place?”
Birk woke the next morning and dressed for work without thinking. His bandaged fingers couldn’t manage his buttons or his boot laces but Maddy would be happy to do that for him again. When came down to the kitchen Clancy was already there.
“They didn’t keep you then?” he asked.
“No. They found a pulse but no heart.” Clancy half-laughed. “Can’t laugh though, hurts too much.” He lifted his shirt to show bruises that spilled over the bandaging around his ribs. “Gotta keep still and not press on my chest for a few weeks. One rib broken but not going to move too much. The other moved a bit but still where it’s supposed to be. How’s your hands?”
“Feel okay but will get them checked again by Doc Drummond later this morning.”
“You have to go to the parish hall for that.” His mother said. “Colliery is done for. Closed up tighter than it was before.”
“Closed!” Birk said. “Over night!”
“Yep. The sab – o – tage,” she pronounced each syllable. “Gives them the perfect excuse to shut down another mine. Plus proof positive there are dangerous sub- vers -ive Reds who don’t care about anyone’s property.”
“Reds! Ha!” Clancy said. “Word at the hospital yesterday was that they done it themselves.”
“The BritCan? Why??” Birk said.
“They wanted to shut it down all along and now they can and blame the one’s that needed the work the most. They get to collect the insurance. More money in insurance than in the coal profits.”
“Could be.” his mother said. “You know how they collected when all the company stores were done in. I hears it was more than the goods in the stores was worth. They made a profit on that while we struggling to put food on the table.”
“Wouldn’t put that past them.” Birk found himself agreeing. “But to do that to the pits?”
“Who else?” Clancy asked.
“Maybe they are right. Maybe there is some Bolishi element here that wants to see to it.”
“What? Who’d go along with Bloshi’s after that. Destroying our chance to work isn’t going to bring anyone to their way of thinking.”
“Either way there’ll be hell to pay what with Steven O’Dowell getting killed because of the collapse.” His mother said.
Birk and Clancy went down the colliery gate and sure enough it was locked. Hoardings were already up around the various building. Posts on either side of the gate had notices about the closing of the mine till further notice.
“They were mighty quick to get things shut down.” Clancy said. “That hoarding some sturdy for a hasty job.”
“Almost as if they had planned it already.” Birk nodded. “Wonder who they payed to put that up?”
Jake Malone man joined them.
“Further notice! At’s what they said about the number six last year while they sold off what they could and let it fill with water. Same’ll happen here.”
“My hands was finally getting back in to shape.” Birk held up his bandages. “I wouldda been happy to stick with it.”
“Even when we was willing to settle they weren’t happy. Guess we learned our lesson.” Jake laughed bitterly.
“Which is?” Birk asked.
“Fucked if you do and screwed if you don’t.” Jake laughed again. “I’ll probably be packing it in now. Nothing now to keep any of us here is there. I should have gone with your bother Geo when he left.”
There weren’t too many at the parish hall infirmary. The doctor peeled the wrapping off Birk’s hands.
“Good. No infection has set in. No splinters have worked their way up so we put have gotten them all.”
Birk flexed his fingers. They were still sore from all the climbing he had done in the shaft.
“It’ll be another week or so before the skin’s healed up enough for you to put them to much use. You can lift a spoon if you need to but best get the missus to do up your fly.” The doctor grinned. “That is if you can afford a missus. How’s the ribs Mr. Sinclair?”
“Okay if I don’t laugh or roll over in my sleep.” Clancy answered. “Or don’t push me out of the bed.”
“You’re still boarding with the Nelson’s?” The doctor asked.
“Wonder what’ll happen to the houses?” Birk said. “Company owns ‘em.”
Outside they talked with a couple of the other miners. There was to be a meeting that night to discuss what to do next.
“Not much we can do.” One of them said. “They got us over a barrel and they want us to pay for the barrel to boot.”
“Least ways none of the other mines is going to be closed.” The other miner said.
“Course not.” Clancy said. “This one had the strongest union support for one thing. Get rid of us and they get rid of the ones they called trouble makers. No need for a black-list when you chop everyone out of the picture.”
The union meeting was being held at the usual hall in New Waterford. The men sat in a sullen silence on the ferry over to New Waterford. Some smoking. Some sipping from flasks.
“Shame about Steven O’Dowell.” One of them said.
“Yeah. When had someone willing to stand up fer us this has to happen.”
“BritCan going make sure the inspectors point the blame away from them.” another said.
The union meeting offered nothing new for the men. There were no job opportunities unless they wanted to move out of the province and even then they wouldn’t be assured of work where they went. There was no money left in the union coffers to help them financially.
The only good news was that BritCan would let them stay in the company houses until they decided what to do about the colliery.
As they walked back to the wharf a sense of what the future was going to be dogged Birk’s steps. He’d never thought of being anything other than what he was. Never thought of being a miner anywhere else except here where he had grown up.
“What you thinking?” Clancy asked.
“When I was a kid all you need to worry about was getting up and goin’ to school or the mines. Not that I ever took to goin’ to the pits but I knew it was was I supposed to do. Then when I was old enough I did what m’dad and bother did. Now that’s gone.”
“There’s a whole world outside of there, you know?” Clancy said.
“I can’t imagine going away the way my brother did. Least ways Geo had some one with him. I’d be on my own without a family to fall back on.”
“I’d go with you, you darn idiot.” Clancy said. “You should know that much.”
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