Chapter LIV: Birk in the Rubble

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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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Chapter Lii – Birk Back Underground

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 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!”

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Chapter LI – Lillian Picks a Tie

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 LI

Lillian

Picks

a Tie

“You see if you can talk some sense into him!” Clara said. “He sure isn’t going to listen to me.”

“Clara, I’ve been talking to these men all my life. I know what they want to hear and how they expect a man to look.” Steven stood in front of the mirror and adjusted his bright yellow silk tie. “This tie will make sure they look at me.”

Clara rolled her eyes. Lillian laughed. 

“Steven,” Lillian said, “That tie would be perfect if you were in line for secretary of the local union.”

He turned to her with a slightly hurt look on his face. “You disapprove?”

In the weeks since he had proposed Lillian had enjoyed bringing some of her Boston social experience to use as Steven campaigned in the district. Under her gaze he had toned down some of his appearance. He was starting to look successful and confident in his decisions as opposed to a brash young man dressing flashily to sell his opinions.

“Not entirely.” she reached out and undid his tie and slipped it from around his neck. “But this would be more suitable for signalling a train to stop than directing people to vote for you.”

“Gus McLelland said …”

“I don’t care what Gus McLelland said, Steven.” Gus was his campaign manager. “Trust me it isn’t the men who vote for you. I’ve told you that before. Sure, you can sell yourself to the men with a brassy tie, but it’s the wives you want to appeal to.”

“Most of them don’t vote, even though they can.” Steven complained. “They aren’t the ones in the front seats whenever I speak.”

“That’s because they are in the back talking about what you wear.” She went to his dresser and took out a couple of ties, a dark blue one and a brown one. “That yellow is fine for barroom stumping but if the wives see you as another drunk they’ll make sure their men don’t vote for you.” She held each of the ties against the lapels of his suit jacket. “Here put this one on.”

Frowning he slid the blue one under his collar and began to tie it. “If it’ll make you happy.”

“Here let me.” Lillian smiled as she recalled doing this for her bothers when they had an important function to go to. She leaned into Steven to smell him. One of the things she had found so difficult to abide when she first met him was the overpowering scent he wore. 

“You are wearing the scent I suggested.” she patted his shoulder. “It suits you.”

“Just a little on my moustache.” He smiled as he smoothed the moustache out and twirled the ends lightly.

That was the one thing he had refused to alter, so far. She had gotten him to lessen the amount of pomade he used so that his hair looked less patent leather. It would take a fair bit more work before he was truly presentable but once they were married she would be able to give him more polish. It would take more a lot more polish if he was to become Premiere but she was sure she could to it.

“I’m happy that you are coming with me tonight dearest.” He said to her as he looked at himself in the mirror. “No matter how good you make me look I always look better with you by my side.”

“Steven, you’ve become quite a charmer.” Clara said from where she had been sitting. “Lillian has worked more than a miracle with you.”

Lillian blushed. Getting Steven to propose hadn’t been too difficult but winning Clara fully over to her side had proved to be a challenge because of her assisting Dr. Drummond after the unsuccessful power plant take over. The letters of commendation from both the union and the Colonel Strickland helped repair that dissension between them.

Lillian decided to concentrate on Steven and not to worry about Clara. His run for the election was the perfect opportunity to see how much potential Steven actually had. 

“You have your notes ready?” she asked him.

“Right here in my pocket.” He tapped one of his suit jacket pockets. “But I don’t plan to use them unless I have to.”

“Put your charm to use when to speak to them.” Lillian said. “They are more important to you than flattering me.”

One of the things Lillian quickly discovered about Steven was that he was an accomplished orator. He could speak at the drop of a hat and frequently say exactly what the people wanted to hear. Even when he practiced a speech for her there was little for her to polish.

“Just remember, no matter how many of your cronies are present, no racy jokes.”

“But it always helps to start by getting them to laugh.” Steven said.

“How many times do I have to tell you it’s the wives who’ll get them to vote. What gets you drinks in a barroom isn’t going to get you votes at the polling station.”

“I know. I know.”

“You can save those for after the rally when the wives aren’t there.”

Invariably after every one of his campaign rallies he would disappear with Gus and several of the men while she and Clara would make their way back to the house. She knew that giving him his way now on some matters would make it easier for her to be even more demanding once they were married.

The door bell rang. A few moments later Aileen called up the stairs.

“It’s Mr. McLelland with the car for you.”

When the car pulled up by the arena to let him out Lillian told herself that for the first time she was where she deserved to be. There was a cheer from the men outside as they got out of the car. There were photographers from the Sydney and Halifax papers. She and Steven stopped to have their pictures taken as they chatted with miners, their wives and children.

Inside they had some time before the rally was to officially begin so she went to the table where the refreshments were served and allowed her picture to be taken pouring cups of tea. The stresses of the past few months vanished. Even if she didn’t feel love for Steven she had love for this life that was opening up to her.

“Time to go, Lillian.” Clara came over to her beaming. “It’s nearly seven.”

She and Lillian walked quickly over to the change room under the bleachers and when the nearby church bells rang seven o’clock, Steven stepped into the arena quickly followed by Gus and then she and Clara stepped out. It had been decided that until they were married it was best that Lillian not appear as these rallies on his arm but always with Clara. The applause was deafening.

Men were tossing their hats in the air, stomping on the floor, standing on their chairs.

They mounted the low stage. The crowd stood and continued to applaud till Lillian and Clara sat down. 

Gus introduced Steven to more cheers and Steven took the microphone. He silenced the crowd and gave a variation on the speech she had heard him give several times. He always hit ‘standing the gaff’ as hard as he could.  The actual words of the BritCan management’s taunt had given him all the fuel he needed for his campaign’s platform. 

As he mentioned Montreal, Toronto, London she could see herself in those cities attending similar events with her husband as his political star rose and rose.

He let them know how their resistance demonstrated clearly to all levels of government and BritCan that Cape Bretonners weren’t going to take being bullied. Once again he repeated his promise not to marry till the mines were open. This had been her suggestion, at first because he had pressed her for a date and she wasn’t ready to rush into it, then because she knew it would allow the public to see that he was willing to sacrifice his plans for theirs, that he considered their personal concerns of greater importance than his own. 

“In conclusion when you go to the polls Monday you know know to vote for. And if you forget I know your wives will make sure you do the right thing by then and your families. Let’s end the BritCan strangle hold on the mines and shrive the gaff where the sun don’t shine.”

The arena erupted in cheering and stomping so strong dust floated down from the ceiling.

As expected, once the rally was over, Steven had to, as he put it, take council with his campaign committee.

On their way to the car a reporter stopped her and Clara.

“Miss McTavish might I have a few words with you.”

“Yes,” she glanced to Clara.

“Not too many David,” Clara clearly know the Post reporter.

“Miss McTavish, you are of the Boston’s McTavish’s?” he asked.

“Yes, I am.” Lillian was unsure of what to tell the reporter. Facts about who she was wouldn’t be too difficult to ascertain.

“What is it about Cape Breton that brought you here?”

“I can’t answer that but what has kept me here has been the spirit of the people. Always welcoming and accepting of an outsider such as myself. Even during the difficult times of this strike they have been resolute and strong in their convictions.

“One of the few … positive things, for me, about it has been the opportunity to meet and help all families, regardless of faith, education or social standing. I’ll never regret helping the children of Castleton’s Mudside with their ABC’s. I deeply regret the damage that BritCan has allowed this strike to … inflict on these families.”

Applause from the people gathered around caught Lillian off guard.

“Thank you Miss McTavish.” the reporter said. “I’d be reluctant to oppose you if you should ever chose to run for office.”

“Have no fear of that. I know a woman’s place is in the home not in politics.”

In the car Clara patted Lillian on the hand. “That was very well said my dear. You share Steven’s ability to charm without over-stating your case. Your family would be proud of you. Very proud.”

When the results of the election were announced Tuesday came as no surprise that the party had won nearly every seat they had candidates for. What was unexpected was that the labour party failed to make a showing. 

“Fat lot of good labour has done the miners these past few years.” Steven explained. “All BritCan has to do is accuse them of being Reds. New premiere will be here tomorrow and we’ll face off against BritCan at last.”

“So soon?” Lillian said.

“We can’t give them time to think. We have to show them that we are firm and prepared to take the hardline to get these miner’s back to full pay. If they had their way we’d be waiting for a few months till they asked to negotiate. No, we’re telling them to get to the table now whether they want to or not.”

“And if they decline.”

“We’ll deal with that eventuality should it arise. But they’ve already indicated a willingness to negotiate. Besides everyone knows what the ultimate reward will be.”

“A raise in pay?”

“No! A wedding date for us. I can’t tell you the number of people who have been clambering for that. The sooner coal comes out of the ground the sooner we can seal our vows.” He smiled.

“Very well. As long as I have enough warning to get a suitable dress.”

“No worries there, O’Dowell’s in Sydney has an excellent selection. At a good price too. Don’t worry about invitations, Clara has already ordered the blanks from our supplier in Montreal. They will be printed here.”

“Doesn’t leave much for me to do. You best not have ordered a cake too!”

“No! Clara said was going to be your department. Too bad we can’t break tradition and have a wedding pie.”

“Now who would want to put pie under their pillow?”

“True. Whatever you decide upon, remember we want a piece saved for our daughter when she weds.”

“What!”

“An O’Dowell tradition I suppose. One I won’t break. Clara has a piece of our mother’s wedding cake. Or is it our grandmother’s?”

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Coal Dusters – Chapter XLVI – Lillian Gets A Proposal

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Coal Dusters

Chapter XLVI

Lillian Gets A Proposal

After an afternoon of giving lessons to the miner’s children Lillian let herself in though the back of the O’Dowell’s house. The house was very different from the parish manse. Two-and-half stories it was always warm and well-lit, not the dark and damp cool she found her uncle’s place. She hung her coat in the back porch and went directly to the kitchen.

“Anything need doing, Aileen?” she asked.

“Not a thing Miss McTavish.” She sniffed at Lillian. “But you better change out of them clothes before we sit to supper.”

“They were clean this morning.” Lillian hated this sly disparagement of the mudders. It was one of the ways in which Aileen showed her disapproval of Lillian’s working with the miner’s children.

“Whatever you say, Miss.”

Lillian went up the backstairs to her small room at the rear of the second floor. This stairway let her avoid passing the living room where Clara spent most of the day when she wasn’t out with, or in entertaining, one of her various ladies societies. Lillian had joined ‘Ladies Sewing For Orphans Guild’ and ‘The Young Women For Temperance.’

Her room overlooked the garden. Once she removed her blouse, she sat on the chair at the foot of her bed that looked out over the yard. She could smell the lilacs. Since leaving her uncle’s house she had kept as busy as possible so as not to dwell on what had happened. 

The bruises on her back and legs were fading but were still visible. Dr. Drummond has assured her there would be no scarring. He had checked with the Regional Registry and had found no record of her death. He felt certain that Steven’s government connections could help her but she wanted to wait until she had a cleared plan of action.

She poured some cool water from the ewer into its bowl. It was a luxury to do something so simple. She wiped her face with a cloth dampened with the water and a dash of rosewater. Her hands were still rough and she didn’t foresee them improving quckly.

To be less of burden to the O’Dowell’s she had made herself useful around their house, helping with the wash, in the kitchen and particularly in the garden which had been neglected for many years. Much to her, and Clara’s surprise, there were hardy patches of sage and lavender. It had been too late in the season to plant vegetables but she had found an area where tomatoes had been reseeding themselves over the years.

The bell for dinner tinkled. She wiped the dust off her shoes with her damp cloth and put on a fresh blouse. As long at Steven was still on the mainland they would have a sedate supper.

Walking softly down the main stairway she strained to hear who, if anyone, was at the dinner table. The only sound was of cutlery, as food was being served. She sat at her place at the table.

“Good evening Clara.”

“You’ll say grace, my dear, and we can begin.”

“God, for food and health and the end of the strike, please receive our gratitude and praise.” Lillian looked up to make sure Clara had found this suitable to the occasion. She had been called upon to say grace a few times and was always at loss for words.

“Quite right Lillian. Quite right.”

They ate in silence till desserts was brought out.

“These are your pies, are they not?” Clara asked.

“Yes Clara. The rhubarb and strawberries are from your own garden.”

“Lillian, it’s time we discussed your situation.”

Lillian put her fork down as gently as she could. “Of course.”

“As much as we’re happy to offer you our hospitality it can’t go on indefinitely.”

“I understand that.”

“We have no need of addition domestic help in the house and you are too refined to be contented with that type of position.”

“Under the circumstance I find myself in I’m content to be occupied in useful ways. Teaching the children is more rewarding than I expected.”

“I’m glad to hear you are aware of these things. I have spoken with Sister Claire from St. Margaret’s Covent.”

“Ahh.” Lillian’s heart sank.

“She agrees with me that you would be a fine teacher. She’s heard about you tutoring the miners and the children. She also admires your tenacity in being useful without … being resentful toward them.”

“They aren’t responsible for the position I’ve found myself in, that’s …”

“We’ll say nothing of the good Father. Having you out of his house is a wise thing regardless. We knew who you were, of course, but still it was troublesome to many have a young woman under the same roof as him, even a close relative. Unseemly in fact, especially when the particulars of your being here were revealed to us.”

“You know about …. ” Lillian wondered how many others of the village knew of her past.

“Yes. I knew that before I invited you to reside with us. I understand how these things can happen in a city as large as Boston. But understanding doesn’t mean I approve.”

She stopped talking when Aileen came in to clear the table.

“Aileen, we’ll take tea on the front veranda. Might as well use it while the weather allows.”

Lillian went into the kitchen with Aileen and brought the tea tray out to the front veranda. Miss O’Dowell was leaning against the rail and looking out over the street.

“Father wanted a house with lovely views everywhere.”

“He certainly managed to do that.” Lillian set the tea service on a table between two wicker chairs.

“He was always pushing us to do what was right even if it didn’t feel the most convenient thing to do at the time. I always resented that as a child.” she sat and poured herself a cup of tea. “I thought he meant sacrificing what I wanted to do for something I didn’t want to do at the time.” She motioned for Lillian to sit.

“Clara events have been moving too fast for me to stop long enough to tell what is right or what is best. All I want is to get my life under my own control. Not someone else’s. I want to be able to make my own decisions. A decision not based on what would be best for the reputation of my family.”

“I realize that Lillian. But here, as with your uncle there is still the question of propriety. An unmarried young women living under the roof of an unmarried man.”

“You are suggesting I get married?” Lillian put her teacup down. “To …”

“Dr. Drummond.”

“Dr. Drummond!” Lillian had been hoping the suggestion would be Steven. “But … he’s Presbyterian.” 

She had visited the Doctor’s home where what he called what was his clinic, was in the front parlour of the house. The miner’s homes were cramped and untidy enough but to live in one that also smell of medicines was more that knew she could bare.

“I have seen the way he looks at you Lillian.” Clara said.”You could be of great help in his life. Sometimes we all to have make sacrifices for to better servers those around us.”

“Such as you have made?” Lillian stood. “I’m sorry Clara, I didn’t mean to sound so … ungrateful. I will give this some consideration.”

 

Lillian was awoken in the morning by shouting from the living room. She recognized Steven O’Dowell’s voice. He must have arrived home sometime during the night. She couldn’t make out what was being said but there was anger in his voice.

She sat up in the bed straining to pick out the words but she couldn’t. She put on her silk house coat and tip-toed to the bedroom door, opened it a crack and put her ear to it.

“I will run for the office if I so choose.” It was Steven.

“Not if I don’t sign those cheques you won’t. You know what papa said about politicians. That they look after their interests first.”

“He’s been dead too long now to have a valid opinion Clara and you will let me have the trust fund money or …”

“Or what!”

Over the few weeks Lillian had been at the O’Dowell home she had been told directly or over-heard things that filled in some of the family situation. When their father had died he left the estate in trust with Clara as the sole authority to disburse funds for her or Steven’s use. As much as she found Steven difficult she understood his chafing under the control of his family. 

She sat at her vanity and shook her hair loose from the cloths she used to hold in during the night. After brushing it she began to plait into a braided bun to pin it up out of her way for the day. 

She wondered how she could free herself from her family. They had severed all ties as far as he could tell. As Clara had pointed out she was stranded here with nothing to fall back on. She had little money of her own. Few possession outside of what was her trunk. There was no way to make much use of them.

She went over to the trunk and opened it up. She shook her head at the girl who had packed these things a few short months ago. Where did she think she was going wear any of these dresses? How could her mother have let her pack these useless items. Not even a useful pair of shoes. Her uncle was right when he dismissed her clothing as pointless finery.

Still wrapped careful in tissue was the beaded bag she had been given for her last birthday. She’d had a birthday since but by then her life had been torn away from her by a family that was determined that her dreams weren’t going to come true. It was a life she had lost. 

Yes that birthday had been magical. To make up for coming between her and David Henderson it had been extra lavish. A new dress with a sparkly beaded belt that matched her dainty shoes and this little bag. Its thin silver chain allowed to dangle so delicately on her wrist. Not designed to hold much more than a handkerchief she was so proud and pleased with it she couldn’t keep her eyes off it as she was whisked around the dance floor as it dangling and reflected in the light. 

She had been so eager and excited for that party. Now here she was with no future and a past that was no longer hers at all. She slipped the bag over her wrist. It didn’t look as if it could belong to someone with such rough hands. Anguished she pulled it off hoping to break the chain.

Squeezing it in her hand she felt something paper crumple inside it. Had she slipped some little love note in it, a list of of the men who filled her dance card. She opened it. It was money!

She pulled out what had been folded to fit in the bag. She opened it up and it two war bonds valued at $200.00 each dawn on the Exchange Bank of Boston.  How had they gotten there? What could she do with them here and now? Would any bank be able to cash them for her? Or were they only of value in Boston?

She pulled photo album from the bottom of the trunk to put the bonds into until she could decide what to do with them. As she opened the album newspaper clippings of her birthday gala fell out. Several of them included the portrait her father had done by Fairway Photographers. In the photo her hair had been pulled back to show off her forehead. There was her name under each ‘Miss Lillian McTavish celebrates her birthday and her beauty at the Fairmount Hotel.’ If she needed proof of who she was they certainly would do the trick.

A knock at her door broke her revere.

“Lillian are you awake?”

“Yes Aileen. I’ll be down in a moment.”

She folded the bonds put them in the back of the album. Perhaps the bonds had been gift from her Godfather Jackson Burns who was on the board of directors at the Exchange Bank.

She took the back stairs down to the kitchen. She didn’t want to be drawn too quickly into whatever discussion Clara and Steven were having. She needed time to think. This changed so many things. Why hadn’t she found that money sooner! She wouldn’t have wasted so much time with those miners or her misguided plan to teach her uncle a lesson by marrying any of those unwashed coal blackened men.

She went into the dining no longer feeling that she had to behave subservient to anyone. She regretted putting her beautiful hair up in such a tight bun. How she would love to toss her head, her hair in distain at these people. 

“Good morning, Clara.” She sat at table before Steven could offer to pull a chair out for her. “Steven how are things in Halifax? I hear there maybe a by-election soon.”

“Yes. Alf Landon is stepping down. After dealing with those communist miners he was disheartened and disillusioned by their total lack of gratitude.”

“He thought they could be happy if they were to be forced back to work?” Lillian laughed lightly.

“They should be grateful they might get their jobs back at all.”

“Enough.” Clara tapped her tea cup with her spoon to get their attention. “There will be no further discussion of politics at this table. Not at breakfast.”

“Yes Clara.” Steven reached for the teapot and gave Lillian a sheepish glance. His hand missed the handle of the teapot and tipped it over.

“See!” Clara glared at him, “too hungover to pour a cup of tea, let alone run for office. Aileen!”

“Yes, Miss Clara,” Aileen came into the dining room wiping her hands on her apron.

“There’s been a little accident. We’ll be wanting a fresh pot of tea.”

Aileen picked up the pot and patted at the spilled tea with a dishcloth. “Sure hope it doesn’t stain that good table cloth. I put it on fresh this morning.”

Lillian found it difficult to refrain her laugher. “Here, Aileen, let me help you with that.” She took the teapot and went quickly into the kitchen. How was she going to get out of this house? How?

Aileen came into the kitchen with the rest of the breakfast china on a tray, “They won’t be wanting a fresh pot after all Miss Lillian.”

“Right. I’ll get that table cloth and see if we can keep it from staining too much. Get me the baking soda.”

“Oh miss you are a good’un. I’d never have thought of that.”

Lillian peeked into the dining room to make sure it was empty. No one was there. She rolled up the table cloth and brought to the wash tub at the back of the kitchen. She wet the damp area and sprinkled some of the baking soda on it and left it to set without rinsing it. She turned around and Steven was standing at the door.

“Oh! Mr. O’Dowell!”

“I didn’t mean to startle you Lillian. There’ something I’ve been meaning to ask you. I’ve enjoyed our brief walks and seeing how well you manage to be helpful round and how you handle yourself and also how my sister is disposed towards you I was …”

“Yes, Mr. O’Dowell?” Lillian took her kerchief off and loosened hair.

He took both her hands to pull her toward him.

“Steven!” she pulled away form him.

“I … Will you marry me?”

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Coal Dusters – Chapter XLV – Birk Gets Questioned

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Coal Dusters – Chapter XLV

Birk 

Gets 

Questioned

Birk was taking clothes off the line to bring in the laundry for his mother when Maddy came running out to the back,

“There’s officers here for you Birk Nelson.” she shouted.

“Officers?” Birk stopped folding the sheet he had just taken off the line.

“Yes. You better come quick. They are asking for Birk Nelson. You must be in big trouble.” She began to cry. “I’m scared.”

“Don’t be.” He said. “I’m a big boy I can look out for myself.”

He followed her through the kitchen and to the front door. There were two of Colonel Strickland’s officers standing there. One was laughing and chatting with Karen Dunlop from across the lane. When the two of them saw Birk their faces became much sterner.

“Birk Nelson.” one of them said.

“Yes.”

“Colonel Strickland would like to a have word with you. Come with us.”

Since the ambush Strickland had been investigating the supposed shooting murder of one of the scabs. Word had already spread that, in fact, the worker had not been shot but was scared and fainted. Birk knew that neither he nor Clancy had been armed. He hadn’t seen the other strikers carry guns. Unless there was one in the crate that had held the kerosene fire bombs. Several of the strikers had been brought in for questioning.

As the they marched with him between them Birk nodded and waved to his neighbours. Clancy was at the corner.

“So they finally caught you.” Clancy said. “Like they finally caught me.” 

“No talking to the prisoner.” one of the soldiers warned Clancy away with his rifle.

“He’ll have a much to say as any one us.” Clancy laughed and winked at Birk. “They’ll have to arrest every man in Castleton.”

The solider kept Birk moving.

“See you at the colliery gate.” Clancy said as they passed by him.

“Right.” 

They took him to Mrs. Franklin’s Inn. Colonel Strickland had commandeered the house for military use rather than travel back and forth from the barracks in Sydney. 

There were posters for the upcoming election, some with Steven O’Dowell’s picture on them and others with David Preston’s picture on them. When they took him into the house one of the soldiers knocked at the parlour door.

“Bring Mr. Nelson in.” A voice responded.

The other soldier opened the door and motioned for Birk to enter.

Furniture in the parole had been pushed to the walls to make a clear space in the middle of the room. There was a sort of desk at one end with kitchen chairs in front and in back of it. Colonel Strickland was sitting in the chair behind the desk.

“Sit.” Strickland pointed to the other kitchen chair. “Forgive appearances. I would rather a real desk than this …. I think it was once a side table?”

Birk sat.

“Mr. Nelson. Birk, isn’t it? Odd sort of name, isn’t it?”

“Can’t say. I’ve had it all my life, I’m used to it.”

“Right. I’ve heard a fair bit about you these past few days. I know you were one of the men involved in that shooting the other night. Accessory to murder is what you are. You realize that don’t you. You can be put behind bars for life.”

“Won’t be any worse than being underground digging coal to make other men rich.”

“Folks tell me you are a decent man though. Prison is no place for decent men. If you help me find the others involved I could make things easy for you. We need to know who made those incendiary bombs. As well as who pulled the trigger.”

“I wasn’t there.” Birk kept his focus on the wall then looked Colonel Strickland directly  in the eyes. “Your informant is wrong.”

“Informant!” The Colonel stood. “What makes you think we have an informant?”

“None of the men around here would tell such tale unless it was to mislead you.”

“Mr. Nelson, we aren’t that easily mislead. Several miners saw you go off with the group of .… insurrectionist. All I need is the names of who they were. One of them was your friend  Clancy Sinclair.”

“He wasn’t …”

“Wasn’t what?” The Colonel came from behind the desk and stood facing Birk. “From around here?”

“That’s no news to anyone.”

“You know if you cooperate I can help get you enlisted with the service, you know. We are always looking for strong young men like yourself. Good pay, a steady job, fresh air, maybe learn a skill more useful than digging in the dirt.”

“And make war on my neighbours?”

“I can get you a posting somewhere else.”

“I got nothing I can tell you. I was there when the scabs was brought to the gate. We were all there. I had no part in anything else that went on.”

“Of course. Of course. I didn’t expect anyone to tell the truth. You all cover up for each other. Even the Catholic men have no idea who it was that tried to delay the convoy.”

Birk stood. “I’m free to go?”

“Not so fast.”

Eye-to-eye with Strickland Birk saw that they were almost the same height.

“I want to you know that I know who was involved but without collaboration we may have to charge the union itself with inciting you men into criminal actions.”

“Send us all to prison!” Birk was puzzled. He wasn’t sure he understood just what Colonel Strickland actually knew or even thought he knew. But he knew the less he said the better off he would be.

“That isn’t in my hands.” Strickland said. “Help me and I can make less trouble, resist and things will get worse.”

“Children are dying Colonel Strickland. I don’t see as how you could make things anywise than that.”

“Think it over Mr. Nelson. You miners are on the losing side. It isn’t too late for you to change your lot in life.”

There was no one in the hall when Birk left the parlour. There were no militia when he walked down to the street. Was taking him there with guards all just show to impress the miners? As he glanced back to make sure he wasn’t being watched he saw that the O’Dowell posters had moustaches drawn over the moustache that was already there.

 

It was nearing the end of his shift at the colliery gate with Clancy. They were as close as they were allowed be after the court had granted an injunction prohibiting the strikers of interfering with the emergency relief workers. Some days the only people Birk and Clancy saw where the militia guards and their union representative.

“What we need is a trap for some of them deer over by Blue Lake.” Clancy said.

“Easier with a shotgun.” Birk laughed.

After the ambush incident most of the Mudder families had been questioned, their houses searched for unwarranted supplies of kerosene. Some had had their firearms confiscated. 

“You know what would happen if either of us was caught with a rifle. You trying to get us both arrested? We could dig a pit.” Clancy said. “You could dig while I practice raking the dirt away.”

“With a sign to warn off any one else out in forest.”

“Deer can’t read. You have any better ideas. Rabbit is fine when we can get a couple.”

“Duck flying soon.” Birk said.

“How we goin’ to catch them? Lasso? Sticks and stones as they fly over head?”

They been over these ways of getting game many times.

“We could catch them in jars.” Clancy said. “If’n there are any left.”

“I didn’t think those soldiers, or whatever you want to call them, could act any stupider. You saw how that Strickland acted when saw all those jars Ma had been saving up for preserves.”

“He sure learned a respect for the wooden spoon fast enough.” Clancy laughed.

“I did I tell you when he got me for questioning he offered me to join up.”

“Me too! Asked if I could help on the sly because I wasn’t a local and had no family loyalties around here.”

“You turn him down?”

“Of course. You turn him down?”

“What do you think! I couldn’t stand guard over m’own here. That’s what I told him. He said I could do my service somewheres else. Told him wasn’t fixing to leave my folks and get shot up in some war any time soon.”

“No war coming soon other this one.” Jim McKlusky arrived. “Time for us take over for a spell.”

“Much going on?” Tommy Driscoll asked. 

“A couple of them inside asked if we had tobacco and papers for them.” Clancy said. “When I said no, they asked if wanted to sig up because they had an endless supply thanks to His Majesty.”

“Buggers.” McKlusky spit on the road. “They been trying to get us all to sign up. Army pays regular, one of ‘em told me.”

“Me too,” Driscoll nodded. “Was tempted but because I’m smarter than them I couldn’t see myself taking orders from them.”

“They don’t know the difference between a huntin’ rifle and a shotgun.” McKlusky said. “And better learn to keep their hands off the women or some of them will be found with their under-drawers around their necks.”

“You votin’ for Steven O’Dowell’s running for election.” Clancy asked as they walked back to Birk’s house.

“For a mick he talks some sense. After all it is time for a change. A big change. Armstrong’ll never talk back to BritCan. We need someone who will.”

“Going to his rally tonight?”

“I hear there’ll there’ll be food.“ Birk said.

“Best way to a voters heart, right.”

“All the candidates have been doing that but …”

“The O’Dowell’s have better biscuits, right?”

“Right.”

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Chapter XLIV – Lillian Sets Her Sights Anew

Coal Dusters – Chapter XLIV

Lillian 

Sets Her Sights 

Anew

Lillian considered her options as she walked toward the O’Dowell’s house. Since her unexpected arrival there she had only seen Steven O’Dowell in passing. Her previous encounters with him had made shy away from unnecessary contact with him. One thing she had learned from her father was sometimes a man’s faults were worth overlooking for his uses. 

“Good evening Miss McTavish.” It was Steven O’Dowell. “You lost in another world?”

“Not exactly Mr. O’Dowell. I’ve just returned from Castelton to pay my condolences to the Nelsons. One of their children passed away. It’s a hard life for them. For all the miners. Even the Catholic families have lost children over the past month.”

“I’ve told you many times to call me Steven.” He offered her his arm.

Since she had come to reside at the O’Dowell’s house his actions towards her had changed. Even when they had been together for meals he’d been much more circumspect, as if his sister were always present with them. Of course she still found his Bay Rum to be pungent to the point where she couldn’t wait to escape it and get to her room.

She wasn’t sure how to start but this was too good an opportunity to let slip. Out in the open air his cologne wasn’t so overwhelming.

“Not too long ago you mentioned a Mr. James Dunham?” She hadn’t forgotten how he had caught her off guard with his knowledge of what had happened to her in Boston. Or at least of knowledge he implied he had. 

“I regret those remarks, Miss McTavish. James Dunham proved to be most untrustworthy in his business dealings. Quite distasteful in fact.”

“By business dealing you mean gambling?”

Lillian wanted to laugh at his discomfort. She recognized in Steven the same recklessness her older brother had when it came to quick money.

“I know we got off on the wrong foot. Henceforth I intend to be as honest as I can with you. So, yes it was a gambling debt he owed me.”

“Thank you, Mr O’Dowell. But your vices are of no concern to me.”

“I gather from Clara that you had been instructing some of the Mudder brats.” 

“Yes. They don’t have the benefits of the good Sisters that our children are so lucky to have. If we want to lead them out of their ways they need to be taught.”

“Lead them!” He gave a half-laugh. “You think of yourself as a missionary.”

“Quite right. If we can make socks for the children of Africa, who as far as we know have no religion at all, or even a need for socks, in hopes of leading them to salvation why shouldn’t we do it here, when there are children right under our noses who need those socks badly.” She a bit taken aback at the vehemence of her own words.

“Well said. Clara was right that there was more to you than good pies and tidy needlepoint.”

Lillian didn’t trust his aspect of Steven. She instinctively knew the face he had shown her the first few times they had met was a true one. He had the quick mind and language of a politician. The sort, her father taught her, who would find what it took to appear he was being honest, when in fact he was waiting merely to get what he wanted. Whether that was your vote, your money or … she shuddered to think of giving her heart to him.

“Thank you, Mr. O’Dowell. Do you think there’ll be a break soon in this dead-lock between the miners and the BritCanada Coal Company?”

“No. The BritCanada Coal Company’s agent Gerald Foxing won’t even talk with the minister of labour. As far as they’re concerned there is nothing to discuss. Either miners accept their terms or find work elsewhere. Why, he even refused to discuss matters with the Federal Minster of Labour. Told the Prime Minister’s office, that as far as he was concerned the miners weren’t as bad off as they claimed. It was all a play for public sympathy. Something those Bolshevist agitators have conspired to do in their plot to take down the nation.”

“Take down the nation? These men? These people?”

“Sounds ludicrous but when Foxing wants to shut the government up that’s all he has to say. That and his bottom line.”

“Is there a solution?”

“Not one that’ll undo the damage done, I’m afraid. These miners don’t trust the government or even their union anymore. Can’t say as I blame them. Change is in the air though. Elections coming up. I’m pretty sure Armstrong won’t get back in.”

Lillian wasn’t interested in the political situation. As much as she had pity for the miners she only wanted to find some way to get herself out of where she was, off this God-forsaken island and back to civilization. If listening to his platter would help then she’d do it. 

“Thank you for walking with me Mr. O’Dowell.” They had come to the front walk of the O’Dowell home. “Thank you, also for taking me in when you did.”

“I am grateful that I have a way to atone to you for my ungentlemanly behaviour when we first met Miss McTavish. I know now that I was mistaken about the nature of your character. Even if what James Dunham said was true he was sorely mistaken about you.” He opened the door for her and followed her in.

“Thank you again Mr. O’Dowell.” She went into the house and up to her room. As much as she had been resisting it, she was being to feel at home in Castleton. The local’s had never failed to extend a hand of welcome to her, even though it was not always returned. She hadn’t expected to forge any bonds with with anyone while she was here because she wanted to believe she was only here temporarily. 

If she could find a way to leave she would without a moment of regret. She couldn’t think of a soul she would miss or who she expected would miss her either.

She looked at herself in the mirror. Other than her hands she had maintained her looks. She had wasted her attentions on Birk Nelson, perhaps she was better off trying for a man whom she knew found her attractive and was not so bound up in his mother’s apron strings to act on his feelings. Steven had just made no secret of that he still found her attractive, he had been quite gentlemanly when apologized for expressing his interest.

He wasn’t unattractive and his glad-hand manners weren’t that disagreeable. Her mother had told her that everyman needs a woman to make man out of him. Steven certainly had potential and what he father might call ‘good prospects.’

She loosened her hair and let it down. The evening sun behind her turned it into a small blaze in the mirror. It was slightly snarled from being coiled in a braid for the day. She rarely wore it down outside of her room. She brushed it slowly. The curl would need a hot iron to flatten out but the curl suited her. She put a small dab of rosewater pomade in her hands and with her fingers brushed it through the curls. She shook it out. The pale green shawl would be ideal.

She washed her hands, put the shawl around her shoulders and made sure her hair lay on it perfectly. She went down to the living-room. Steven and Clara were sitting opposite each other deep in a conversation which ended when she came into the room.

“Lillian!” Clara smiled. “Your hair! I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in it’s full glory.”

“When I was at St.Agatha’s I’ve always found it best to keep it covered when I was working in the kitchen or the garden or out of the house.” she glanced at Steven to see his reaction.

“A shame to hide it.” Steven’s eyes shone with appreciation.

“Thank you.” Why had she ever considered marrying one of the miners? That would only have discomforted her uncle for a short time but leave her anchored here in this miserable place forever. Steven travelled to Halifax, sometimes to Montreal and even to Boston. 

“You’ve spend a pleasant day Lillian?” Clara asked.

“In some ways. One of the miner’s children I’ve been teaching died.”

“It’s always sad when a child dies.” Clara shook her head.

“Yes. Sadder is how accustomed to such death the families have become.” Lillian let her head droop a little so her hair would fall off her shoulders. Pushing it back as she straighten up. “I don’t think I could ever bear to lose a child.” 

She caught Steven’s eye and held it for a moment, then looked away as if shy. Her heart was racing.

“Hopefully you never will.” Clara stood and stepped between them.

Lillian stood and went to the door of the living room. She quickly coiled her hair, took a couple of hair pins out her pocket and pinned it up. “I’ll go and see if Aileen needs any help in the kitchen.”

She went part way down the passage to the kitchen and leaned against the wall. Her spirits soared. She was sure now that she had found the solution to everything.

Steven came into the foyer. He saw her leaning against the wall.

“Miss McTavish!”

“Oh, Mr O’Dowell!” She leaned into his shoulder crying. “It has been a most difficult day. Most difficult. I don’t think I could have faced these past few weeks without the kindness you and your sister have shown me.”

The first thing she would do is have him stop wearing that over-powering bay rum of which he was so fond.


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Chapter XLII – Birk Hides in the Bushes

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Coal Dusters – Chapter XLII

Birk

Hides

in the Bushes

Birk pushed the piss jar back under his bed. By the shadow of the moonlight he figured it was about midnight. With the colliery closed there was no hourly reminder of the time. He rolled back into the bed and found the comfortable rut that held his body like a grave. 

A grave! That was what his bother Geo would say when they rolled into each other in the bad. ‘Get back to your grave!’

The door to the bedroom squeaked open.

“Birk!” Clancy whispered. “Are you awake?”

“Yes.” His sleepiness disappeared. Had Clancy snuck  into the house to get into bed with him? “They kick you out at Franklin’s?”

“Get yer pants on. There’s trouble brewing down at the colliery.”

“What?” Birk pushed off the bed and groped for his trousers.

“I overheard that Strickland talk with Bowden, the mine manager and they are going to sneak in the scabs tonight. I’ve already told Gregory. He’s getting some of the men together to give them a proper welcome.”

“Those bastards.” Birk laced up his boots and started for the door.

“Might put a shirt on though.” Clancy laughed under his breath.

“This’un will do.” He grabbed the work shirt that had been singed in the fire.

Outside there was a dozen or so men milling around at the corner of Birk’s lane and the Pitt Road. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness. He recognized Jake Malone, Jim McKlusky, and the cigar-puffing, union rep Willam Gregory.

“I’ve been in touch with the men in North Sydney and the scabs is coming by bus along the number 6 road. They have troops with them too.” Gregory told them. “They left about an hour ago so they should be here pretty soon.”

“None coming by the ferry?” Jake asked.

“Not as far as we know. After that face-off t’other day the Dingle doesn’t want to take the risk of their boat being scuttled.”

“He’ll take us from side to side but he ain’t taking sides.” One of them said and the others laughed.

“Guess the navy has enough sense to stay out of this.” One of the miners said.

“Quiet now.” Birk said. “If they want to surprise us we better extra quiet so we can surprise them.”

“Right.” Gregory said. “Here’s what I’m thinking. Some of us can take the ridge trail over to the turn off from Number Six road.”

“There’s that maple outcrop along there. We can block the road with some trees.” one of them suggested.

“Not have enough time for that much chopping.” McKlusky said. “How about we scatter broken glass. Cut up the tires.”

“Good plan, if we can get enough broken glass. What did you have in mind Mr. Gregory?” someone asked.

“I think if we make a show of force there to delay them, we can get ready for them here at the gate. Or maybe they’ll turn back once they see there’s no surprise.” He said.

“They’ll have troops with them.” Clancy said. “Least ways that’s what I heard.”

“Let’s burn em up.” McKlusky suggested. “We can make some kerosine bombs and toss them.”

“We just want to stop them,” Birk said. “Not kill them.”

“Speak for yourself little man.” McKlusky said. “We gotta show them we really mean business.”

“Okay. Okay.” Gregory said. “Six of you head over that turn off and do what you can to delay them. The rest of us will go to the colliery gate to reinforce our guys there.”

“Alright.” McKlusky said. “I’m for the turn off. Who’s coming with me. Tommy Driscoll?”

“Yep. We can handle ‘em.” Tommy raised his fists.

“Fists and flat iron.” Another miner shook an ax over his head. 

“Good man Davy.” Tommy Driscoll shook Davy’s hand.

Birk and Clancy stepped forward. 

“I know the Ridge Trail.” Birk said. “Stick close to me and we can get there without using lights at all.”

“Good lads. We’ll show them Cape Breton miners are as tough as they come.” Tommy Driscoll said. 

They set off up Pitt St. with Tommy Driscoll in the lead.

“Wait here men.” McKlusky said. “Tommy and I have to pick up something from m’place.”

They returned shortly. Each with an ax and carrying wooden crate between them.

“That’s kerosene.” Birk said.

“Yes it is. We made these bottle bombs a while back in case we had a use for them.” Tommy said pulling out a bottle half filled with kerosene with a rag stuffed into it.

“Okay Birk lets get a move on.” McKlusky said.

Birk lead them toward the trail to Blue Lake but took a different path that ran at a right angle off it. The smell of the kerosene made him nauseous. 

“Careful here.” He slowed them down. “We’re almost at the culvert by the road. The earth is loose along here.”

“You couldn’t find a better way.” McKlusky said. “Shit.” He lost his footing, let go of his side of the crate and slid down the embankment.

“Good thing there hasn’t been much rain.” Birk said helping Tommy hold the crate. “We all might as well take the McKlusky short cut.”

They slid down and Birk made his way up to the road. He reached out to help Clancy up.

“There’s a spot on the other side where we can watch who’s coming up or down the road.”

They dashed across the road to a hillock of bramble bushes. 

“You think we’ll have long to wait?” Tommy asked. “Must be near three bloody o’clock in the morning.”

“Ye missing getting your piece of fun?” Davy said.

They all started to laugh.

“Shh.” Birk said. “I think I hear something.”

The men stilled and held their breath.

“Sounds like motors.” Clancy whispered.

“More than one.” McKlusky said.

The noise got louder. Lights appeared on the road as the vehicles approached.

“That has to be them.” McKlusky stood to look over the bramble.

Birk crept carefully around to get a clear view. He saw at least two set of headlights, then a third.

“What was the plan?” He asked McKlusky. “We jump out and say …”

“This.” McKlusky lit the rag in one of the bottles and tossed into the road in front of the first truck. It arched up and landed at the side of the road, shattered & burst into flame. The three trucks stopped as the flames burned lower and lower.

The tarp cover on the first truck flipped open and troops climbed out.

Another bottle flamed over from the opposite of the road and smashed on the roof of bus in the middle of the cortège. As the kerosene flames spread there was shouting inside the bus. Men shoved each other out the doors. some climbing out the windows.

Birk looked beside him and saw that Tommy wasn’t there. He must have run dashed to the other side while the troops were debarking.

Another bottle flew into the air and landed on the tarp covering the first transport. Two of the soldiers shot in the direction the bottle had come from.

“I said not to shoot.” One of the militia said. He stepped into the headlights of the transport. “This is Corporal Stevens. We are armed and have orders to do what we have to get these men to the colliery.”

“Turn back if you value your lives.” McKlusky shouted back.

“You have been given fair warning.” Stevens signalled his men. “In the air.”

The men discharged their guns into the air. Another bottle arched down on to them. A spotlight on the roof of the first transport’s cab went on and began to play across the trees on either side of the road. A similar light shone from the roof of the third transport.

“Get back in the bus.” Stevens ordered the men. “Nothing more is going to happen.”

Birk kneeled and felt on the ground beneath him and found a stone. He stepped briefly into the light and threw it at the spotlight. It hit the bulb and it flickered out.

“Lower aim.” Stevens ordered.

The troops fired into the bushes on both sides of the road. 

Birk heard a ragged cry from the woods near him. 

“They must have hit Davy Rudenko.” McKlusky said. “You two get to the colliery and tell Gregory what’s happened here.”

“What about Tommy?” Clancy asked.

“He’s already hightailed it back the way we came. I’ll check on Davy.”

There was another round of shots. Bullets hit the dirt at Birk’s feet.

“Let’s get.” Clancy grabbed Birk by the shoulder and started to the wood behind them.

“This way.” Birk nudged him into a different direction to a well-used path that took them directly to Chestnut Street. 

When they got to the colliery Birk quickly explained what had happened. 

“You and Clancy best get back to your place Birk.” Gregory said. “You both stink of kerosine. Wash up as best you can when you get home.”

 

Birk woke to voices at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the second floor. At first he thought it was his mother talking with Sal then he remembered Sal was no longer with them. He rolled to get out of the bed and Clancy was there beside him. When they had gotten to the house it was too late for Clancy to go back to the boarding house without drawing attention to himself.

He got out of the other side of the bed and tip-toed to the door to listen. He recognized Mrs. Franklin’s voice.

“It’s best that you tell anyone who asks that Clancy Sinclair has been boarding with you since he returned.” she was saying. “If they find out it was him who alerted the miners there’ll be hell to pay.”

“Yes. I understand Mrs. Franklin.” he heard his mother say.

Birk got dressed silently and went down stairs.

“She gone?” He asked his mother.

“Yes. She brought Clancy’s kit bag over. That Colonel Strickland is convinced Clancy was spying on him. Davy Rudenko is dead, you know.”

“Yes’m I was there when it happened.” He quickly told her about trying to delay the cortege. 

“That’s why your clothes are hanging on line.” she said. “Yours and his.”

“Yeh. We must have got splashed with those kerosine bombs Jim McKlusky was tossing. We never handled them, Ma.”

“It’s all made a mess more trouble that it avoided.” she poured him a cup of tea. 

“I better take this up to Clancy.” Birk hefted the kitbag, “Or he’ll be coming down the stairs naked.”

“You mean you boys snuck in the house like that!”

“Yep. We were too tired to think beyond making sure our clothes was airing.”

He took the steps to his room two at a time. Clancy was still asleep.

“Getting near 10 m’boy.” Birk shook Clancy by the shoulder. 

“Like old times.” Clancy sat up.

“Here’s your gear. Mrs. Franklin brought over. Colonel Strickland is on your trail. So as of now,  you’ve been here since you got back from the mainland, right?”

“Sure. Any other news from last night.”

“Only what we know already. Davy Rudenko is dead.”

“You decent?” Blackie came into the room

“Yes Da.” Birk stood the closet door way to make room for his father.

“Thanks to the militia those scabs got into the colliery. There was a face off though. Father McTavish come down to try and get the strikers to see sense but he got bashed good on the head. That shut him up.”

“Bashed? That all.” Clancy said. “By one of his own parishioners.” 

“No one know for sure.” Blackie said. “There’s talk of murder though.”

“You mean Davy Rudenko?” Birk said.

“No. One of the new miners was shot out on the road.”

“What!” Clancy pulled a pair of pants out of his kit bag. “None of us had guns. Must have been one of the soldiers that shot him.”

“Don’t matter to BritCan, now does it? They’ll blame the union for everything.”

“Shit.” Clancy said.

“Except the fact that the miners they brought in don’t know what they’re doing. Most of them have never been near a mine in their lives. Most of them were recruited off the street in Halifax and Montreal.”

“Figures.” Birk shook his head.

“They’re sweeping up the yard until the company can get someone in who can teach’em how to wield a pick and rake underground.” 

“And set a blast.” Birk said.

 

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Chapter XLI:  Birk Reads From The Bible

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

Chapter XLI 

Birk Reads

From 

The Bible

“Can you see her?” Birk’s mother called from the front of the house.

“No sign Ma.” Birk called back from the corner of their street. “Miss McTavish is usually here by now.” He walked back to the house.

“I hope she hasn’t come down with what Sal has.” she went into the house. “You best stay here in case she arrives. We can’t let her in the house until Doctor Drummond has checked to make sure Sal hasn’t the flu.”

“Right Ma. Not as if I have anything better to do anyway. Should I change of m’good clothes?” 

“Not until after the doctor has been.” She went into the house and came out with a chair. “You can sit here. Don’t want you sitting on the stoop in those pants.”

“Thanks Ma.”

“They look as if they were bought special for you I did a good job of getting them to fit. They look better on you than they ever looked on the priest uncle of hers.”

Reverend Browne arrived with Dr. Drummond.

“Is it that serious?” Birk asked the Reverend. “I mean to bring you here.”

“Not that I know Birk. I ran into the doctor as I was heading over here anyway. Your mother wanted to to have word with you.”

“With me?”

“She’s worried about you and Miss McTavish.” Browne said.

“You haven’t heard?” Doctor Drummond said. “Miss McTavish has left Castleton. Yesterday it was. She’s convalescing at the O’Dowell’s in North Sydney.”  

“What!” Birk said.

“She had a … she suffered an injury.”

“She’s teachin’ us to read better.” Birk wasn’t sure what else to say.

Dr. Drummond went into the house.

“Birk, you didn’t fancy her.” Browne asked.

“She’s a fine lady. Pretty.”

“So you …”

“But I know my place. I know she has her’s too. It wasn’t as if I set out to rescue her from that fire.”

“I heard that was how you came in contact with her.”

“Yes, sir. Then Father Patrick had me to their house to thanks me. Gave me these clothes.”

“Decent of him.”

“I thought so too. So did ma. So when she, I mean Miss Lillian offer to teach us all some, Ma said we couldn’t rightly shut the door in her face.”

“Your mother is concerned. She’s afraid you might get … infatuated with Miss McTavish.”

Birk’s knee twitched. “I got nothing to offer a fine lady. Nothing.”

“Sadly, that doesn’t stop most men.” Reverend Browne shook his head. “They …”

A harsh, broken shriek came from the house. Birk and the Reverend rushed in. Dr. Drummond was helping his mother down the stairs.

“What is it?” Browne asked the doctor.

“There is nothing to be done.” He helped Birk’s mother sit at the kitchen table. “She might last a week.”

Two days later Birk stared down at the two coffins in the grave. One fresh pine and the other partially rotted and collapsed maple wood. The old one was the brother who died decades ago. The family plot wasn’t expected to be filled so soon so they were burying Sal beside her brother in the same grave.

“You want a hand with that?”

Startled Birk whirled around. “Clancy! Where’d you spring from.”

“Your Ma said you’d be here. Sad day.”

“It came on sudden. She was feeling sort of hot and in the afternoon and went to her bed. When Maddy went to get her for supper she was … gone already.”

“Poor Maddy. Never find as sweet a sister to replace her. They were such good playmates. So close. No other word for it but sad.”

“Sad times.” Birk picked up one of the shovels. “Heard BritCan is really sending troops rather than settle up proper by us. That Colonel Strickland isn’t such a bad sort after all. He tells us what BritCan doesn’t.”

“Cavalry to Calvary.” Clancy said.

“Huh? You not back no time at all and making fun of me already?”

“Sorry. Forgot how little that Bible stuff means to you. Calvary was where Christ was put on the cross.”

“And it was the horsemen who did it! Same as they are trying to do to us, you mean?”

“Yeh so they are.”

Birk was flooded with conflicting emotions. Happy as he was to see Clancy back again he didn’t want to always feel he wasn’t as good, as smart talking as him.

“Stop gawking at me and grab that shovel.”

Birk tossed a spade full of the heavy clay dirt into the grave.

“You’d think the soil up here would be more sandy, being so close to the sea.”

“Nope. BritCan picked this spot cause the soil wasn’t apt to have coal running through it.”

“Not for the view.” Clancy stopped for a moment to shade his eyes.

The cemetery was on a low hillock that give a partial view of the harbour.

“I suppose. The miners didn’t want a view of the pits. After years of working in’m no one wanted to spend eternity looking down on them.” Birk sighed deeply.

“What is it?”

“Sal didn’t get many years to work at anything. We buried her with that doll of hers that she was always dragging around. Sometimes I think it’s good to die young rather than go on living this way.”

“You’re turning to a thinker Birk Nelson. Life can sour one on life. That’s for sure.”

“So what is that brings you back?”

“My Ma didn’t need my help and there was nothing going on the railroad either. When there’s no coal or steel to sell and ship, then there’s no money to spend. When there’s no money to spend on goods that have to be shipped and sold. What hurts one thing eventually hurts everything. I heard Sydney Mines went bankrupt. The town ran out of money because there was none coming in, they had to close the schools with no money to pay the teachers.”

“You coming back to stay with us or what?”

“Nah. I’m tossing in at Franklin’s, for now. Even with those militia men there, I’ll get a room to myself. Least ways I won’t wake up with you kicking me in the shins.”

“Or you pulling the blankets off a me.”

“You been fishing much?”

“Took my …” Birk swallowed back the tears that suddenly came to him, “ …. took the little ones over a few times. Made them feel useful to catch some for us to eat. Didn’t tell’em they were nearly small enough to toss back in.”

“It was a fine spot to fish.” Clancy grinned.

“If you sun on the rocks.” Birk knew that Clancy was talking about the times they had spent near each other.

“We’ll have to do that again soon.”

“I’d welcome that.”

“That’s done it.” Birk levelled the dirt and packed it down. “When it rains we have come back to make sure it stays level.”

“You think you can make a leap at that?” Clancy nodded at the iron arch that spanned the entrance to the graveyard. It was about seven feet at either end.

“Don’t know. Been a while since I’ve wanted to clamber around for fun.”

“You mean it’s too tall for you?”

“You’ll eat those words.”

Birk brushed the dirt off his hands, adjusted his stance and ran the few yards to the gate and jumped the lower end. He grabbed a handhold on the top of the column. A simple flex and he spun up to straddle the gatepost. Without hesitation he stood on it.

“Nothing to it.” He said standing on one foot.

“Comes natural to you monkeys.” Clancy laughed.

Birk flipped over to his hands and walked across the arc, flipped back to his feet and walked back again then dropped lightly to the ground.

“I should do that more often.” He rubbed his hands on his coveralls. “Makes me feel I’m my old self for a minute. Someone without a care in the world. That was one of the things Sal always laughed to see. Me walking on m’hands.”

They headed back to Mudside.

“You ever heard anything from Geo?”

“Nary a word but takes time for mail. General delivery’s at Franklin’s since the pluck me was burned down.”

“I keep hearing how much better things are in other places.”

“Pa says it’s the same all over. Sure they may pay you more but underground is underground. When you get paid more you get charged more.” Birk said.

“You seen any of the McTavish lass.” Clancy asked.

“No much and yet more than I want. She did come to pay her respects when she heard about Sal.”

“Mrs. Franklin tells me she’s gone to North Sydney.”

“That’s what I heard too but we go another of our own here to occupy me. Good to see Clancy.” He reached out to shake Clancy hand.

“Same here Birk.” Clancy let Birk pull him closer. “I didn’t know how much I’d come to … miss Castleton.”

When Birk got home the house was silent. His mother was sitting alone at the kitchen table. On the chair beside her were some of Sal’s things. Tattered dresses and stockings.

“Not much to anyone now.” She flattened one of the dresses on the table. “Can’t even make a decent wash cloth out it yet we was right proud to let her wear it. A hand-me-down that the Rev gave us. I never thought I’d have to dress my children in hand-me-downs let alone bury them in them.”

“Ma, you did the best. That’s all we can do.” Birk ached to say something that would make her feel better. “Want me to read to you from the good book?”

“Yes! Something from the Psalms. The one about loving kindness. Which is that?” She got up and went the living-room.

Birk followed her and sat beside her as he flipped through the Bible to find the verses she wanted.

“Here it is number 103.” She handed him the book.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases.” He read slowly and didn’t find himself stumbling over words as much as he used to. As he read his wondered what had happened to the good things that were supposed to satisfy, to merciful graciousness that the verse talked about.

“Read that part about his children’s children,”

“This part? ‘But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them. The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all.”

“Yes. A throne in heaven for my children. All my children. I’m sure that’s what he has for Sal and Charles.”

Although Birk didn’t fully understand what the verses were saying he was pretty sure it his mother didn’t know either. It was clear that God didn’t pity them at all but rather enjoyed letting the miners struggle without any sign of mercy.

“I sure hope so. I doubt if anyone will forget we are dust though. A handful of coal dust.”

“Coal dust to dust.” His mother laughed. “At times you are funnier than you know Birk.”

“I sure don’t aim to be ma. Mayhaps we don’t fear the Lord enough, as it says here. ‘For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.’ ”

“I don’t think it says we have to be scared, the way you would be of a ghost or that the mine’ll fall in on you. It means to be more in awe of Him. To be aware.”

“Maybe that’s it, Ma. Oft times when we’re in the pits I never think or worry about the mine fallin’ in on us. I do my work and gets though the day.”

“You check to make sure the braces are set proper?”

“Always.”

“That’s fear. That’s being aware. Those braces are your prayers. Once they are in place you don’t have to keep saying them you get on about your day in faith.”

“I see.” Birk didn’t see but accepted what she was saying. Maybe if he had prayed more this wouldn’t be happening? He rarely said prayers the way he saw his sisters do at the side of their bed every night. He knew some would say them before going into the mines but thought that foolishness.

The prayers his sisters said didn’t keep Sal alive. Her dying so sudden couldn’t have been God answering anyone’s prayer.

“You must be gladdened to have your old pal back.”

“You mean Clancy? Yeah, he come over to the graveyard to give me hand putting Sal to rest. He’s staying at Franklin’s.”

“He told me. He’s a good’un though. Your Pa and I were happy when you two started to along some. Better than you and Geo every did.”

“Maybe that’s cause Clancy wasn’t told to torment as much as he could to make a man out of me the way Geo was.”

“Where you hear that foolishness?” His mother got up.

“From Geo. Told me that before he left for Alberta. How’s it was your idea.”

“My idea was that he not to be soft with you. He took that in his own way.”

“I know that Ma. I’m not getting at you. Not even sure why I told you that.”

“I’m trying to do the best for you as I can.” She wiped a tear away. “By all my children.”

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Chapter XL – Lillian Leaves Castleton

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 XL

Lillian Leaves Castleton

When Lillian returned to the manse she appreciated the cool silence of the house. It was as if she had gone deaf as she stood in the stillness of the kitchen. No shouting, no children rushing around her, no bullets being fired over her head.

She cleared the ashes out of the kitchen stove. This was one of the jobs she hated and one which she was already grateful to have Father Patrick do but he was no where to be seen when she got back to the house. After the incident at the wharf the union was meeting at the Hall so she knew he was there. 

Once the fire was going she put the kettle on. Even if they were having a cold dinner her Uncle always enjoyed a fresh cup of tea with his evening meal. As she was in the pantry she heard him coming in the back door.

“Is that you Father Patrick?” she called.

“Who did you think it was?” came his gruff reply. “One of those empty-headed miners you’ve been convortuing with behind my back?”

She stepped into the kitchen to confront him. “Behind your back? Yesterday you said how much you admired me for helping the striker’s children.”

“Children, yes.” He grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. “You weren’t seen walking down the street holding hands with children. Flaunting it. Mrs. McIssac was all too eager to say how good the women thought you are but I know she wanted to make it clear was they there talking about you. About you and those dirty mine rats. ” He shoved her hard against the wall.

“Mine rats? Mrs. McIssac? They were walking me home. Seeing that I was safe.” She struggled to get out of his grip.

“She was all too eager to tell me all about you and that Franklin strumpet. Visiting her at the brothel she runs.”

“Brothel?”

“Was she hoping to entice you into becoming one of her house maids? I see through your innocent act my child. I can see the evil conniving behind your eyes. I can see fear there. Fear that you have been caught once again trying to inveigle some unsuspecting man into the mire of your carnality.”

He loosened his grip to grab the wooden plunger she used to wash the clothes. She turned to get out of the kitchen but he hit her across the back before she got to the door. The blow sent her sprawling on to her hands and knees into the back pantry. Before she could get up he struck her repeated until she was on her stomach.

“I should have beat the evil out of you the last time my child but that interring O’Dowell harridan got in the way. This time there is no one to hold back the wrath of God.”

Each time she tried to raise herself up he pushed her back down with his foot.

“You want to cavort with those …. unwashed animals you might as well get used to living at their level.”

With a groan Lillian rolled on to her back. She could taste blood in her mouth. She wiped her lips with the back of her hand her eyes holding her uncle’s eyes.

“Do not look to me for mercy.” He said. “There is none for wonton females of your sort who are nothing more than the evil that leads men away from the will of God.”

She reached up to the edge of the counter to pull herself to her feet with taking her eyes away from his.

“I said do not look to me for mercy.” He reach up to her face to shield her eyes from his. 

She flinched back.

“I won’t mar your face. Not this time my child.”

Bracing herself against the wall she moved unsteadily from the pantry without taking her eyes from his.

“Take your eyes off me you … witch. I will not fall under you spell.” Pulled the rosary out his vest pocket and held it up between them. “Leave my house.”

“Gladly.”

She steadied herself firmly against the counter.

“I said to stop glaring at me.” He raised his arm and stepped toward her.

Pushing away from the counter she parried his arm with hers and shoved him with all her might with the other. Her sudden attack caused him to slip and fall back hitting his head against the lower cabinets. He slid down until he was sitting on the floor. Without hesitation, using what strength she had left she slapped him in the face with all her might.

“The Lord is my shield …” he began.

“Turn the other cheek Father.” She said as he slapped him again. 

Using the railing she pulled herself up the stairs to her room. Each step was agonizing. She was in tears by the time she got to the top and had brace herself firmly to keep from falling backwards.

In her room she longed to sit long enough to catch her breath but she was unsure of what her uncle would do next. She bent to reach for her carpet bag and momentarily lost consciousness.

Dazed she thrust her hair brushes from the top of the dresser along with some underclothes and her other house shift into the bag. The house was quiet as she walked down to the front door.

“Uncle Patrick?” she asked.

The noise of a creaking chair came from the living-room.

“I will return to collect the rest of my things tomorrow. I will not be alone.”

“Satan will always find those willing to his biding.” he said.

She walked unsure of where to go. Mrs. Franklin’s boarding house was the nearest thing to a hotel in Castleton Mines. She was sure Rose would understand her need for a room? All she needed was temporary lodgings. How would she pay? Thee were a few items of value in her trunks. Perhaps she could trade them. She stopped at the gate to catch her breath.

The front rooms of the house were well lit. She walked up the steps, glanced in the parlour window and saw Colonel Strickland standing with his back tot he window regaling the men in the room.

She knocked on the door. Mrs. Franklin opened it and caught Lillian as she collapsed.

The sun was streaming across the foot of the bed when she awoke with a start. She had been undressed and put into the bed. Her dress was laid across the back of a chair by the bed. Her back throbbed as she pushed herself up and swung her feet to the floor.

It took her a few minutes to understand where she was. Her last memory was of a group of men looking down at her once floor. Mrs. Franklin must have put her to bed. 

There was a timid knock at the door. “Miss McTavish?”

“Yes.” she answered. “Mrs. Franklin?”

“No ma’am.” the door opened wide enough for a head to appear. “T’is Aileen from the O’Dowell’s. Might I come in?”

“Yes. Please.” she pulled a shawl around her shoulders.

“Mrs. Franklin sent a boy over to tell us you were here.  Dr. Drummond said you weren’t to be disturbed. We’ve all been mighty worried about you.”

“Dr. Drummond?”

“Yes ma’am. Miss O’Dowell saw how … harmed you were. She knew who had done it. That uncle of yours. Some priest he’s turned out to be. So kind to all who sees him but when no one sees him he’s … sorry ma’am.”

“That’s quite alright Aileen.”

“She’s been to his house, if’n you don’t mind, and had all your things removed.”

“How long have I been asleep?”

“All day yesterday. Doctor says not to worry but you will be sore for a bit.”

Mrs. Franklin strode into the room. “Aileen you were to let us know if Miss McTavish had awakened, not tire her with conversation.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Franklin, but when i saw she was sitting up I forgot.” Aileen pulled at her fingers.

“That’s quite alright.” Lillian said. “I could do we a cup of tea though Aileen. If there’s some brewed that is.” She glanced to Mrs. Franklin.

“The kettle just boiled in Aileen. There’s a tea pot where you can see it. Let it steep a few minutes before you bring it up.”

“The tea things?” Aileen asked as she backed to the door.

“I’ll be down shortly to get them.”

“Yes mum.”

“And shut the door when you leave.” 

“Yes mum.”

“Some of these girls have to be told everything.” Mrs. Franklin moved Lillian’s dress and sat on the chair. “So how are you feeling Lillian?”

“I’m a bit dazed. have I really been asleep for two days?”

“Asleep … more like unconscious. Do remember arriving here?”

“Yes. Colonel Strickland was here?”

“Yes. He still is, along with a couple of his men. He was talking with Mr. O’Dowell when you arrived. It was Steven who forbad us to move you at all until Dr. Drummond had examined you.” 

“I see. I don’t want to be any more trouble to you.” She tested the floor with her feet as she stood up cautiously. Dizzy she sat on the bed.

“Dr. Drummond is here now. He wanted to speak with you once you were awake. Shall I let him come up?”

“Have you a mirror, Rose?”

“Of course.” Mrs. Franklin went to the dresser and brought Lillian a mirror and a hair brush.

“Oh! These are mine!”

“Yes I took a few things out of your bag.”

Lillian realized she was wearing one of her own nightdresses.

“You robe is here too.”

Lillian was relieved to see that her face showed no signs of her ordeal. Her hair however was quite tangled. She started to brush it out but the brush pulled at her scalp. Her back ached the harder she tried. She began to cry.

“It’s hopeless.” she said.

“There! There! Lillian.” Mrs. Franklin took another brush off the dresser and began to help. “It isn’t that bad.”

“I really don’t know what to do, Rose. I can’t go back to that man’s house. I can’t go back to Boston.”

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way, Lillian.”

“Of course. Do I look presentable?”

“Under the circumstances you look fine.” She went to the door. “Dr. Drummond, Miss McTavish can receive you now.”

A few moments later the doctor came into the room. He was much younger than Lillian had expected.

“How is my patient today?” he asked putting his bag on the dresser and taking out a stethoscope.

“Sore.” Lillian said. She felt faint as he put his hands on her. She was accustomed to much old doctors. Men as old or older than her father. 

“Understandable. Umm … I don’t want to seem indelicate but I must examine your back.”

“Oh!” Lillian blushed.

“Of course Mrs. Franklin will remain in the room. Would you like Aileen to be here as well?”

“Yes. If you don’t mind?” Lillian said.

“No, not at all.” He went to the door. “I’ll send her in and once you are ready have her call me back in. You needn’t disrobe completely if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“Thank you.”

 

After the doctor had listened to her breathing and heart, he gently felt her back.

“Is this painful?” he asked.

“I don’t feel anything.” she said.

“Not even this?” he asked.

“No.”

“I see. Very well you can get dressed.” He turned his back to her as he looked through his bag.

“Is it serious.” Lillian asked.

“Nothing feels broken, if that’s what you mean. There is of course bruising but it is the lack of sensation that is worrisome.”

“It will return as the bruising subsides?” Lillian attempted once again to stand.

“Yes.” Dr. Drummond held his arm out for her to hold as she took a few tentative steps.

“I … I don’t want to be an invalid.”

“No, that is unlikely.”

With his help and with Mrs. Franklin near at hand she walked around the room.

“Can I tell her now ma’am?” Aileen asked.

“Tell me what?” Lillian asked.

“Miss O’Dowell says you are to come live us in North Sydney once you are well enough to come.”

“That’s very kind of her but …”

“I don’t want to sound inhospitable Lillian,” Mrs. Franklin said. “But this isn’t a … fitting place for a single. young lady to reside.”

“She is right, Miss McTavish.” Dr. Drummond said. “I would say you are fit to travel.”

“Thank you. Yes, tell Miss O’Dowell I’d be happy to accept her kind invitation.” Lillian was grateful but knew she had no viable alternative either.

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Chapter XXXIX – Lillian Joins the Mob

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 XXXIX

Lillian Joins The Mob

Back sore from the uncomfortable train ride, yet excited, Lillian stood at the gate to her home in Boston. It hadn’t changed at all since she had departed several months ago. The white house with its yellow shutters looked freshly painted in the warm afternoon sun. The shutter on the upper right windows needed repairs. She didn’t understand how her father could allow that misaligned shutter to mar the perfect facade of their house.

The gate opened soundlessly when she pushed it. She nodded to the train porter behind her to follow her up the stairs. He put her travel bag beside her at the front door. She sorted the coins in her change purse to make sure she was giving him American, not Canadian, money.

“Thank you.” she said dropping a dime in the palm of his hand.

She watched to make sure he had gone before she turned and knocked at the door. She was disappointed that she even had to knock, she had fully expected Sarah, or any of the other housemaids, to have seen her and to have thrown the door open wide to welcome her home.

Her first knocks with her knuckles could hardly be heard. She pulled off her travel gloves to rap soundly at the door. There was no sound from inside. No hurried footsteps to answer her knock.

She tried the door handle and it was locked. Reluctantly she used the brass knocker in the middle of the door. No response. She knocked again. No response.

Surely they weren’t up at the summer cottage? Even if they were, there was always house staff on duty when they were up at the lake. She stepped to to peer in one of the side windows. She could see Sarah in the foyer dusting the stair railings. Her knock on the window to get Sarah’s attention.

When Sarah didn’t respond she went back to the front door. It was just shutting and her travel bag was gone!

She tried the door handle again, pushed against it with all her weight but it refused to budge. She pounded the door with both her hands and all her might. She could hear the pounding echo from the houses in the square behind her. The door suddenly opened and she fell hard on the floor. Momentarily dazed she painfully turned herself over and found herself on the floor beside her bed in Castleton.

The pounding continued. It was someone knocking on the front door of the manse. She grabbed her wrap, slipped on her shoes and rushed down the stairs to answer the door.

“Father Patrick!” she called out as she ran. “Father Patrick!”

She opened the door and it Mrs. McIssac from across the street.

“Sorry to be bothering you Miss Lillian.” She was breathing heavily. “I was told to gather as many of the women as I could to go down to the pier to be with the miner’s when the Dingle Dandy gets here.”

“Oh yes.” She pulled her wrap closer. “I must have overslept. I was up later than usual getting some things ready for the strikers.”

“We all do what we can. Castleton is now your home as much as any of us.”

“I’ll join you as soon as I can. But don’t wait on me if you are ready to go now.”

Lillian shut the door and leaned her back on it to catch her breath. She tried to remember her dream of Boston. She could feel that morning sun on her skin as she walked up the steps to her house. Her true home.

She went to Father Patrick’s room and knocked on the door. It swung open at her touch. The bed hadn’t been slept in.

Twenty minutes later she latched the kitchen door behind her. Mrs. McIssac, Mrs. Danvers and several other women from nearby were at the Upper Chestnut corner talking amongst themselves. There were several of their children with them.

“I’m saying we shouldn’t have the children underfoot.” one of the women was saying.

“We can’t lock them up Marg.”

“I certainly wouldn’t leave mine alone in the house.” one said.

“Or anyone else’s.” Another replied.

The women all laughed.

“Outdoors has been good enough for them so far this summer.” Mrs. Danvers said.

“For sure but there hasn’t been troops to worry about.”

“Might we put them in the Hall?” Mrs. McIssac asked.

“Ah … I don’t know.” Lillian said. “I don’t have … authority to give permission. You would have to ask Father McTavish. He’s not here.”

“He’s probably with the men already.” One of the women said.

“I’m going there what ever you say,” one of the boys said. He looked at his buddy and the two of them scampered down the road.

One of the smaller girls began to cry. “They gonna kill Daddy. I know it.”

As the women and children marched toward the dock they were joined by more of the wives of the miners. Lillian nodded to the few she had met already and to some who were familiar to her from their attendance as the various services at St. Agatha’s.

“It’s good for us to have an opportunity to show our numbers to them.” Mrs. Franklin was walking beside Lillian. “The men can’t stand alone all the time with us women folk hiding behind them. It’s time we were in the front ranks.”

“I doubt if it’ll much difference.” Lillian said. “But it is better than waiting.”

A distant horn tooting quieted them.

“That’s The Dandy leaving North Sydney.” One of the women said. “It’ll be here soon.”

“You children stay behind. You hear.” Mrs. McIssac made them form a row. “We’ll have enough to do without keeping an eye on you. You understand.”

“Yes ma’am.” one of the older girls said.

“I’ll keep watch over them.” Lillian took the smallest girl by the hand. “You’ll be good, won’t you?”

“Yes Miss McTavish.” the child said.

As they rounded the corner the dock came into view. Lillian could see the ranks of miners already there surrounding the dock. In the distance she could see the Dingle Dandy approaching. She could make out several men on board.

The miner’s began to shout. “Back to the mainland.” “Respect us workers.” “This ain’t yer fight.” “Don’t cross our picket lines.”

As the ferry got closer they miners began to stomp their feet. Lillian was afraid the dock might gave way under the pounding. She could feel the vibration in her feet.

As the boat was about to dock it was clear that there was a dozen or so men on board. Three in suits, the others in uniforms with varying shades of brown. 

“Not real uniforms.” Mrs. Franklin said to her. “Probably ex-militia. Putting on a front for us.”

“That’s Mr. Bowden?” Lillian shaded her eyes.

“Yes and I think that’s Baldwin with him.” Mrs. Franklin said.

“Baldwin?” Lillian asked.

“The Premiere. At least for now. With the election coming up he’s not going to miss this chance to campaign.”

As the ferry tied up to the wharf, the miners began to chant repeatedly, “You can’t stand the gaff. You can’t stand the gaff.” 

Lillian was stunned to see that the first person to step off the ferry was her uncle. He raised his hands and the men fell silent.

“Thank you for the enthusiastic greeting.”

The men laughed.

“I have spent the night in discussion with Premiere Baldwin, Mr. Bowen and Colonel Strickland.”

“Which of them did you give final unction to?” One of the miners shouted out. The other miners laughed.

“What did they confess?” Another called out.

“Men. Friends. Parishoners. ” Father McTavish stepped closer to the line of miners. “I have convinced them that we are civilized enough to conduct ourselves like adults, not like a bunch of hooligans. No one wants things to escalate any further.”

“We aren’t the one trying to bust up the strike with outsiders.” William Gregory stepped out from the crowd of miners.

“We have no intention of busting up the strike but BritCan can’t let the mines remain idle. We have the legal right to mine the coal there, regardless of the union’s stance.” Bowden answered.

“They have the rights to their coal.” The Premiere took a document out of his overcoat pocket. 

“Not worth the paper it’s printed on.” Someone called out. A clod of grass flew from the back to the crowd and landed directly on the Premiere’s chest and scattered dirt over the document.

“We want to come to amicable agreement.” Baldwin continued. “These are difficult time for everyone. There has to be compromise on your part if …”

“Here’s a compromise,” Gregory looked around the men behind them before continuing. “Pay the miner’s what you are going to pay the scabs, including the bonus you’ve guaranteed them.”

“I’m not here to negotiate.” the Premiere said. “I wanted to tell you directly that either you comply with the BritCan conditions or the province will step in with full support from Ottawa, I might add.”

“We will use what force is necessary.” Colonel Strickland said. “We would rather not have to go to that extreme.”

“Tell that to your wife.” Mrs. McIssac pushed through the crowd to face the colonel. “Tell that to your children.”

“My wife and children obey the law.” He said.

“I hope you are proud of yourself.” She turned to the Premiere. “It’s the law of money you obey not of the people who elected you. Remember that when the election comes around.”

“I’m asking you all to disperse.” Colonel Strickland said. “Go back to your homes and stop interfering with the lawful business of the BritCan Coal Company.”

“Or what?” one of the miners shouted.

The Colonel nodded to one of his men who was still aboard the DingleDandy.

“Attention.” The man shouted. A dozen, fully armed men came up from below deck and marched off the boat.

There were boo’s from the miners as stones, bricks and bottles flew through the air. The Colonel signalled Premiere Baldwin, Mr. Bowen and Father McIssac to step behind the soldiers.

“Arms.” He commanded.

“They aren’t going to fire on us, are they?” Lillian asked. 

“Women and children move back.” Gregory shouted. 

“Aim.” The Colonel said.

The soldiers brought their rifles to their shoulders.

“Fire.”

They discharged their weapons over the heads of the crowd. 

The children and some of the women scattered. Some were screaming, others were crying.

Lillian was pulled back by a couple of the children.

“Come Miss we have to get safe.” 

Lillian looked down and one was Birk’s sister Maddy.

“That was merely a warning.” The Colonel shouted over the noise of the crowd. “The replacement company workers will be arriving soon. My men will remain here to make sure no one … I repeat … no one interferes with them doing their lawful work. Now disperse before we take further action.”

Premiere Baldwin and Mr. Bowen boarded the Dingle Dandy and it started back to North Sydney. The crowd dispersed into grumbling factions.

Birk and his father Blackie appeared from out of one of the factions.

“Maddy there you are.” Blackie tugged her hand out of Lillian’s. “I’ll look after her.”

“You’re okay?” Birk asked.

“Yes.” Lillian replied.

“It was just a show of force.” Blackie said.

“Looked more like a declaration of war on the miners.” Lillian shook her head.

“Miners have been at war with the company for generations. Some years it feels like a losing battle but … there’ seems no other way.”

“You safe to get home?” Birk asked.

“Oh yes.” Lillian said nodding to Mrs. McIssac and the other women. “I should be getting back to the manse. Father Patrick looks famish.”

Her uncle was talking with some of his parishioners as he walked away from the dock with them. As he passed her, he glanced at Lillian.

“There was no need for you to be here Lillian.” He said.

“I was asked by Mrs. McIssac to help mind the children.” she said. “Excuse me Mr. Nelson. I’d best get these children back to their families.”

She reached out for two of the parish children she recognized and took them by the hand. “Come along now. Heather, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Weren’t you scared when the guns went off?” Heather asked.

Lillian resisted saying. “You can’t kill the dead.”

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