Coal Dusters – Chapter IX

Chapter IX

Clancy Saves Birk 

By the end of the week Birk’s hand wasn’t as stiff. He was relieved that it hadn’t slowed his work enough for Clancy to notice. It took all he could do to be civil with Clancy. He didn’t want Blackie on his back again about fighting even when it wasn’t him who started things. Anything Clancy said was to him a challenge so the less he said to Clancy the less they would rub each other the wrong way.

In the change room they avoided even looking at each other. Which suited Birk fine. He wasn’t sure what it was about the other man that riled him this easily. Clancy had turned out to be a good worker. He didn’t have to told or shown anything a second time. Didn’t chatter constantly the way Manny did about his important relatives. 

He did wish Clancy would stop humming and singing. It was enough to hear his mother singing hymns in the morning. But Clancy’s tuneless scraps of words were getting harder to take. If it wasn’t ‘shovel and pick, pick and shovel,’ it was, ‘rake and bustle, bustle and rake.’ To Birk work was something you did not something you sung about.

Blackie didn’t mind Clancy much either and his Dad was a good judge of men’s reliability. Yet there was something in Clancy, besides him being a mainlander, that made his blood boil. Something in the the way he’d laugh as if he was laughing at Birk because he believed he was better than Birk because he was taller, not as dark or because he wasn’t as hairy.

As they approached the cage Clancy said. “Tell your folks that I’ll be there in the morning. My week at Mrs. Francis is done and I haven’t paid her for any more.”
“Never too late to find another spot. I can help.” Birk was almost crushing his lunch can under his arm as his fists clenched and unclenched. 

“Not with a family though. Sharing a room with another person, even if it is a …. you …. is better than four other guys. Some of whom don’t know how to sleep without snoring or coming in drunker’n hell from Dan’s and cursing us who is sleeping for telling them to hush.”

Dan’s was a bootlegger at the edge of town who’d let the men hoist a few in his home because most of them didn’t have homes of their own. For the right price a man could also have a wife for of his own an hour or so. 

“Ma I’d kill me if I came home drunk.” 

“Yah I know. Suppose I miss my own ma more than I knew.”

The cage rattled up.

“Don’t get used to her. If you can’t pay she’ll put you out if Blackie doesn’t.”

As the first into the cage they were squeezed into the back of it. As it went down Birk began to feel dizzy. He’d spent a restless night knowing that his time to enjoy the bed and the room alone was coming to an end. He was getting used to no complaints about him ‘shedding worse’n’ a cat’ or how his feet stank. He didn’t smell any worse than Geo did most of the time. Geo didn’t care much about his personal stink till he took up with Sheila. The smell of the scented water he’d started to use made Birk feel as dizzy as he felt now.

The cage bumped to a stop and the first miners stepped off. They walked a few steps and collapsed.

Birk stumbled forward to help them. Clancy gabbed the collar of his work shirt and pulled him back hard.

“Gas.” he shouted. “Get us up. Up.”

The operator collapsed as the door began to close. Clancy reached though the other men and pushed the lever to get the cage moving back up. He hit the alarm and it got louder as they came to the surface. Birk’s vision blurred and he was gasping to breathe. 

He leaned heavily on Clancy as they stumbled up the slope to the surface. There were men milling around. Someone helped Clancy carry him away from the pit entrance.

“Get them to air.” Red Mac shouted. “How many’s down there?”

Clancy put Birk’s arm over his shoulders and pulled him further away as more unconscious men were brought up and out of the mine.

“You gotta keep breathin’ b’y.” He leaned Birk against the wash up shed wall. 

Birk was dazed. His eyes remained unfocused. He threw up on his work boots. He gasped for air.

“That’s right. Deep breathing.”

“Wanna sit.” Birk weakened, as if he had been suffocating.

“No! Birk keep moving. That’ll get air into ya, keep the blood flowing.”

Wives and children were arriving at the colliery gates.

Red Mac stood on a box to talk to them.

“There’s been a gas leek into levels nine and ten. The mine is being evacuated as quickly as possible.”

“How many are dead?” a woman called out.

“It’s too early to tell.”

“My Larry was on the night shift. He isn’t home. He was level nine.” Another woman began to cry.

“Try to be calm and …”

“Calm.” Someone called out. “It’s not your kin down there.”

“My son is down there.” Red Mac said quietly. 

The crowd became quiet.

More men were brought up from below. Wives pushed through the crowd to greet their husbands, mothers greeted sons. 

Birk breathed deeply. His vision cleared.

“Here drink a bit of this.” Clancy offered him some tea from his lunch pail.

Birk sipped it. “Tis sweet.”

“Mrs. Francis always has sugar for us. A pinch of sugar is cheaper than strong tea she says.”

“Where’s me lunch can.” Birk looked around, patting his pockets at the same time. His mother had baked some little meat pies with the rabbits he had trapped earlier in the week. He’d been looking forward to them for his supper.

“Must a dropped it coming up.”

“How many lost?”

“Don’t know. Dave Dance and Frank stepped off at our level and went down fast. The rest got brought back up. Some of you caught a whiff.”

“The Draeger men here yet?”

“Haven’t seen ‘em. Takes a while for them to suit up.”

Birk stepped away from the wall. He wasn’t feeling as unsteady on his feet. “What can we do, I wonder?”

Three Draeger men came from the Infirmary behind the boiler shed. Walking clumsily in their heavy gear. Each carried his helmet under one arm till they got the cage to go down.

The first time Birk has seen the men in their body suits he wondered how heavy the suits they were. He got a chance to try one on, as did all the miners, to understand what was involved. The body of the suit was heavy canvas, water-proofed and air-tight so anything in the air couldn’t get in. The helmets had been fashioned after deep sea diving gear and would be clamped on with secure seals. On their backs they wore canisters of oxygen to breathe while they rescued downed miners. A single canister would last for about twenty minutes. As one was emptied they could switch to another. The empty canisters would be left to lighten their load as they worked. But the time they had was limited. 

He and Clancy went back the the slope to see what assistance they could give. When the cage came up empty another three of the Draeger team were ready to descend. Clancy darted past them and onto the cage and then off again.

“Here” he thrust Birk’s lunch can at him. “Don’t say as I didn’t do you a favour, b’y.” he laughed.

Birk was recovered enough to get active helping move the men injured in their panic. 

When the cage came up with the first of the downed miners he and Clancy got the victims on stretchers and took them to the infirmary. Some were breathing shallowly. At least one wasn’t breathing at all.

“Don’t seem much point bringing them here.” Dr. Drummond, the mine doctor, shook his head. “Can’t bring them back to life.”

“So what are we supposed to with ’em?” Birk asked. “Leave ’em for the rats?”

“No, no. This is the right place for them. We’ll see that they get sent to the right mortuary. Father McTavish will be here shortly.”

“Reverend Brown is already here.” said one of the doctor’s aides. “He’s taking to some of the wider’s now.”

Birk and Clancy returned to the cage exit with the empty stretcher for the next man.

“Jez it’s Dave Homolka.” Birk said. “Lives up the lane from us. His missus pretty far along.”

“Lodge’ll look after her.” He turned and his dad was there. “Your bother Geo is fine.”

“I was fearful.” Birk said. “Didn’t want get too washed with worry though. We’ve been doin’ what we can.”

“Glad to see you doing fine.” Blackie nodded. “Best go to the gate and let yer Ma know. Seems we get nothing but weddings followed by funerals.”

“You men get a move on.” Red Mac called to them “Blackie you best be keeping an eye on them boilers. Gotta keep the ventilation system working to clear that gas as fast as we can.”

“It’s under control Mac. I have as much right to check on my sons as anyone here does.”

“Yeh well keep in mind no tonnage, no pay.”

“We’ll see about that.” Blackie muttered. 

“Guess you boys’ll have the rest of the day off once they get everyone out.” Red Mac shrugged. “Can’t let anyone down till the inspector comes to give the all clear. Should be ready for work tonight’s shift.”

“How many did we lose?” Father McTavish walked over to them.

“About a dozen I’d say. We’ll know when all the tabs are turned in. You men better turn yours in too.” Red Mac said to them. 

Each of the miners was assigned numbered brass tag about the size of a twenty-five cent piece. He picked it up when he went down into the pits and put it back when he was leaving. They’d know who hadn’t been brought up.

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