Chapter LVII – Birk Sees the Light

Coal Dusters: Book 1 is now available as as PDF – this covers the first 35 chapters – 65540 words – send $1.99 to  paypal.me/TOpoet

Coal Dusters – Chapter LVII

Birk

Sees

the Light

He smelled his sweat. His fear. He swung the blade of the shovel at the metal grid of the trap and the sound echoed in the shaft.

He wiped the sweat from his face and peered at the underside of the floor. There were holes in the grid work, drains to keep the cage clear of water. He worked the fingers of his left hand into the furthest holes he could reach and pulled himself forward toward the catch. The belts held him back so that he couldn’t quite reach. His neck was twisted as he was pulled tighter to the cage.

With his right hand he undid the belt that was holding him back. His left arm now had barely enough give so he could reach the catch and unscrew the bolt that held it. The nut cut into his fingers. His sweat made it slippery but using all his strength he was able to turn it. He pushed the bolt up but the trap didn’t budge. He’d expected it to swing down as it opened. He paused and recollected that he had to slide the brace out of the way before the trap would open. His right hand ached holding so much of his weight. He jammed his right fingers into other drain holes closer to the trap. 

He wriggled his left hand free, wiggled his fingers to bring some feeling back into the hand. The fingers were slick with his blood. He reached up and the brace bar slid out with a loud squeal.

“God get me through this.” He whispered. “I’ve been as good as I can be. You know that. This isn’t the way any man wants to die.”

He got a fresh grip with his left hand and with a burst of speed swung his feet up at the trap. It popped up a couple of inches under the blow.

“Goddamn,” he nearly laughed. “It’s goes up not down.”

With another kick he got it to open about a foot but it was blocked. Debris fell through it.

He undid the other belt that was anchoring him to the cage. Fully free his right arm could reach the lip of the trap. Gripping it best as he could he he let go his left hand’s grip and grabbed at the lip of the opening with it, missed but on the second try got a solid grip. He inched along and with a hand on either side of the door pulled himself part way through the narrow opening he had managed to create.

There was lumber and more rock debris in the car. He got his shoulder and chest firmly on the floor and pushed desperately at the debris. The cage shuddered and jolted down an inch or so sending the cage door down on his back. His feet thrashed to get a grip in the empty air beneath him.

He lay there a moment to catch his breath. He knew he wasn’t going to fall into the shaft and needed to breath while he figured out what to do next.

“Hello! Hello!” came from below him. “You okay? Birk hello!”

He recognized Sandy’s voice.

“Nearly there!” He called back as loudly as he could.

“Okay.”

“Lost Red though.” He began to weep.

“Wasn’t sure if it was one or two of ya that fell.”

Birk heaved his shoulders, pushed up and got the trap back to the point where he’d opened it before. He reached out and grabbed onto the wall grid and pulled himself through until he was entirely in the cage. He felt the edge of the door tear his shirt as it scraped along his spine. The trapdoor had been held down by a coil of the wire cable that was used to pull the cage up and down.

If that was broken it meant they wouldn’t be able to use the cage for any rescue attempt. The hoist cable would have to be replaced before the cage could be pulled to the surface.

He sat for a minute, his knees pulled up to his chest. He shoulders ached more than they ever had before. There was a sharp pain all along his right side. He ran his hands over his face and the fingers on his right hand stung with the salt. He licked at the fingers and tasted blood.

His Dad’s advice came to him. 

‘Look Birk I think it’s time you came back to the boilers with me. You were picking up on them pretty good. Once you take that test you’ll have your papers and can work bout anywhere they need boilers.’

He’d replied, ‘You know my writing’s not good enough … maybe it is now. Miss McTavish’s been helping the girls and me out with that stuff. Maybe I could manage it. I guess I can try to read it.’

‘That’s what I’ve been wanting to hear from you boy. I can bring the manuals home and we can start to go over them. Harder than reading the paper but once you learn those new words you’ll always know them.’

Doing that test couldn’t be any worse than hanging here for dear life.

“Hello Birk Nelson! Hello!” These voices sounded more distant.

“Shel Malone is that you?” He called back.

“Right lad. We’re on the level below yours. How’s it looking?”

“Cage jammed tight. Cable broken.”

“Broken?”

“Snapped like a boot lace.”

“Jeff Harney and Frankie are on their way up.” Shel called up from his level.

For moment he thought to tell them not to send Frankie. Frankie was the biggest of the lot. He wasn’t sure how much more weight the cage could hold. He didn’t have the strength to keep shouting. He stood slowly. His knees weak but held him. He pulled what he could off the trap door and propped a chunk of lumber under it in hopes that that would keep it open.

He fished in his pockets and found a chunk of the bread he’d been eating when the collapse started. He put that in his mouth wishing he’d stuck his tea bottle in there instead.

“I’m going to keep going up.” He shouted down.

Stepping on debris he was able to get to the top edge of the cage. The scaffold hand holds were easy to find. Hand over hand he pulled himself higher. When his feet found the rungs to support him he worked his way up. Some of them were missing and some had come loose in the collapse.

He wondered why no one had started down. The rescue teams were always prompt in an emergency. Although he had no way to keep track of the time he was sure it had only been a couple of hours since the collapse had happened. He also wondered why the shaft was still so dark. There was little to block the light. He swung onto the next level.

“Hello! Anyone here?” He peered into the dark. There was answer. He reached for the nearest pit wall and walked a few steps into the seam. “Hello! It’s Birk Nelson we were on level 8.”

No reply. These miners must have already been evacuated. His foot kicked something. He reached with his hand and found a lunch pail. He flipped open hoping there was a tea can in it. It was empty except for a few sweet drops that wet his tongue.

He turned around and made his way back. Fingers brushing the wall to keep him moving in the right direction. The change in air told him he was at the shaft leading up. 

He found the rungs. He kept his mind focused on what his body was doing. Hand up, find hold, up, up. There had to be a song in that for Clancy “This is the hand, this is the hold, this is the hand that finds the coal, this is the hand that finds the hold.”

Birk lost track of his progress. He’d expected to hear someone, hear something on his way up. As he got nearer to surface sounds began to become clearer. He climbed out of the shaft and onto the slanted walk that lead down to it. The coal tram cars had been pulled out of the ramp.

The daylight blinded him as he exited the entrance. He couldn’t stand. He dropped to his knees looking up at the sun.

“It’s Birk Nelson.” Someone shouted and ran down to him.

“He was on level eight.”

“How’s it down there?” Someone else asked.

Hands helped him and guided him forward to the wooden benches in the wash house. He was handed a mug of tea which he eagerly drank. 

“It’s bad.” He gasped at the fresh air. “I had to climb up two levels to the cage. It’s some stuck. I climbed up from there.”

“Yeah we know that. How many hurt?”

“Can’t speak to that. Some dead on level seven. One injured that I knows of.” He had to stop to catch his breath. He wiped his eyes with his free hand and saw the blood on his fingers. The mug he held was slimy with his blood.

“Shame this had to happen as we were reopening.” Someone muttered. “Damned fool reds.”

“What?” Birk didn’t understand what he was hearing.

“Nothing b’y. Not your worry. You think you fit enough to let the medics get you cleaned up?”

“Yeah. Here’s …” he reached into his coverall pocket and pulled out his brass chit. “You can take this to Fergus he’ll know I’m up and out for the day.”

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Chapter LVI – Birk Dreams of Beans 

Coal Dusters: Book 1 is now available as as PDF – this covers the first 35 chapters – 65540 words – send $1.99 to  paypal.me/TOpoet

Coal Dusters – Chapter LVI

Birk Dreams

of

Beans 

The coughing miners pulled back from the sudden fall of grit and scree. Birk covered his eyes as best he could to protect them from the dust to stagger to where Clancy was stretched out. 

“Sounds bad.” Clancy said.

“Tis.” Birk found Clancy’s hand and squeezed, “We’ll get out of here.”

“I’m praying for real.” Clancy gave a dry laugh. “Yer ma’d be so happy.”

“We all are.” Birk said. “I don’t want to die like this.”

“No one does.” Clancy said pulling Birk closer to him. “We have more fish to catch.” He whispered into Birk’s ear.

Red and Ken Langley stumbled out of the shaft and onto the floor.

“Cage is jammed solid between levels five and four.” Red said. “Can’t squeeze past it.”

“What about the trap in the cage floor?” one of the miners asked.

“I couldn’t get a good enough grip on it with m’hands. We need some sort of way to pry at it and hold to the wall at the same time. Someone light enough so as I can give hold to him in place long enough.” Red said.

“He’s talking about you Birk!” Clancy muttered as he gripped Birk’s forearm.

Birk nodded but wasn’t sure he’d have the strength to do what was expected. He couldn’t picture the bottom of the cage. When he went down in it all he cared about was that it was firm beneath his feet.

“Who’s the smallest here.” Sandy asked.

“That’ll be me.” Birk let go of Clancy’s arm and stood. 

“So y’are Birk Nelson, so you are. Your dad’ll ner forgive me if anything happens to you.”

“He’ll never forgive me if I don’t do what I can now either. If we’re dead there’ll be none to forgive. What’s the plan? My head is hard but not that hard.”

He knelt beside Clancy. “I’ll get us to the lake.”

He let Clancy pull him close for a moment. He hoped Clancy couldn’t feel his heart racing with fear.

“Anyone got a pick?” Red asked. “Or a better yet a crow bar. Small enough to carry up a few hundred feet.”

A couple of the miner’s dropped to their knees to feel through the rubble. 

“All’s we have is these couple of shovels, Red. We dropped everything when we ran to get here.” Sandy said handing Birk one of them.

Birk took the shovel and struck it hard against the floor. The blade sparked. 

“Careful boy.” one of the miners said. “We don’t can’t risk setting gas off.”

“If that was a danger we’d all be dead now.” Sandy said. “Might have been a blessin’ in the long run. Better than waiting down here.”

“I was hoping for something stronger than this.” Birk tested the wood for breaks. “But if it’s best we got, it’ll have to do. I’ll make the most of it.”

“Give me your belts boys.” Red said. “We can use them to hook on to the cage floor for safety.”

Birk strapped a couple of the belts around his chest and pushed the shovel between them at his back so his hands would be free for the climb. He hadn’t clambered up or down the cage shaft since he was a kid. Once he Geo had snuck in to the pit and without thinking began to climb down the side of what they thought was the empty shaft. When they heard the creak of the car being hauled up they panicked and didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know if they could get up before it reached them. 

That time he found a shallow recess barely big enough for him where he and Geo were able to press themselves into while the cage rattled past.

Birk looked up the shaft and there wasn’t even a thin light reflection from above or below. It was darker than he could remember it ever being. 

He recalled Lillian telling him it was a shame he had to start working in the mine so young. He’d told her ‘That’s how it’s done here. Schoolin’s fine for them who expect to make more of themselves. I’m happy to bring something home to keep the family fed.’ Now he’d probably die here.

He took a deep breath and reached up for the first of the hand holds in the framework and swung himself up over the pit. He could hear the drip of water from below. Once he had pulled himself up far enough for his feet to find the holds he moved faster. Red was right behind him. 

Some of the holds were loose in the rock, others were tight to the frame. His eyes peered for the next one. Once he reached for one and that wasn’t there and lost his footing. “Oh God!” he gasped as he pulled himself hard to the wall with the hand that was clutching the scaffolding.

“You okay, Birk.”

“Yeh Red. Hope I didn’t piss in yer face.” He was cold and sweating at the same time. His undershirt was sticking to him and he longed to scratch his balls. “Got an itch that I can’t scratch.” He laughed and the laughing calmed him down.

“That’s the story of every man who gets married.” Red laughed a little.

They came to where the cage was jammed. The trap door was on the bottom of the cage on the side furthest from them. A slight light filtered from above. Birk could see where the slide catch was and also saw that there was rubble on top of it.

Red threaded a couple of the belts and a rope he had brought through the spaces in the iron slats of cage floor.

“Hold on to these as best you can.” He helped Birk slip his arms through the loops. “If I lose grip of ya these’ll should hold you.”

“Same as that guy in the circus.” Birk was trembling. “You got no safety thing for you?”

“M’legs’ll hold me here.” He’d squeezed one of his legs between the scaffold and the wall.

“It’s alright to be scared, lad.” He kept an arm around Birk’s waist as Birk leaned as far forward as he could and tried to pry at the catch.

Birk locked his gaze on the underside of the cage. Even though it was pitch dark beneath him he knew it was a far drop with nothing between him the the levels beneath.

He tested his weight on the belts that Red had wound around his shoulder and slotted through the bottom of the cage. They held firm enough but didn’t leave much head room to move around in. Birk angled himself as best he could and pushed at the catch with the blade of the shovel. It didn’t give.

“How’s it lookin’ lad?” Red asked.

“Doesn’t feel’s if it’s ever been opened. Stuff on top of it holding it in place. Maybe if I can reach with m’fingers I can grasp it.” He leaned a bit further. One of the belts loosened. His saw red as he abruptly lurched out of Red’s hold.

“My God!” Red pitched forward off his perch on the scaffolding.

Birk felt Red’s hands grab at his coveralls but not find a way hold. Birk twisted to see if he could help. In seconds Red was gone. A few moments later he heard a dull thud as Red’s body hit the bottom of the shaft.

Birk was dangling, held by the belts, from the bottom of cage. His whole weight thrown on it. The cage groaned and shuddered but remained where it was. He blew at the dust on his face. He was afraid to move his arms lest they slip out of the belts.

He tried to get a foot hold but his feet couldn’t reach either wall. He squinted again at the trap. Each motion caused him to sway in the dark. His eyes saw spots and he didn’t know where to look. He felt like a bean vine clinging at anything it could get a hold of as it grew. He heard Sal giggling in their garden patch.

She’d been out there every day checking on the beans she’d planted. After the looting of the company store she’d found some dried beans in ashes. She soaked them for a week or so in saucer of water and to his surprise they’d began to spout. She planted them and reported to him daily as the the sprouts became stalks that sprouted leaves and more stems that climbed up around the fence. Now it was flowering.

“Sal!” he’d told her. “They won’t grow any faster with you watching them.” She was on her back staring up at the climbers. “Come on!”

“Come on!” she said to him. “Come on Birk.”

He shook his head. The seam in his coveralls cut into the flesh between his legs. The giggle was the squeak of the cage inches from his head.

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Chapter LIV: Birk in the Rubble

Coal Dusters: Book 1 is now available as as PDF – this covers the first 35 chapters – 65540 words – send $1.99 to  paypal.me/TOpoet

Coal Dusters – Chapter LIV

Birk

in the

Rubble

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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