Chapter LXIX – Birk Leaves Castleton

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LXIX

Birk

Leaves

Castleton

Once Reverend Browne left, Birk and Clancy went out to the back porch.

“Been a long couple of days.” Clancy said.

“Things changed so fast at times I don’t know what’s going on. Was what we were doing such an evil thing?”

“I don’t know, Birk. There are some who think so. Maybe t’was all my fault for coming back.”

“How’s that?” 

“I wanted to be with you.” Clancy said softly. “I missed you.”

“I missed you too Clancy. It was the same as when Barky died.”

“Barky?”

“Yeah. A mutt I’d found out back of here when I was a kid. Sure was a friendly dog. He’d wait for me at the colliery gate to go home with me. When he died I was so … heart sick.”

“You loved that dog.” Clancy said and gave a playful bark.

“I sure did. I’m not calling you a dog!”

“No more than I was calling you a monkey.”

“Yeah.”

“Though monkey’s is less hairy.” Clancy laughed, got up and walked to the end of the garden.

Birk followed him.

“What’s all this mean Clancy. We’re pals, right? Isn’t this how pals is supposed to feel. In the mines looking out for each other. That don’t end down there.”

“No, it doesn’t. But I don’t know any more than you about … could be we take to each other too much. A man takes a wife not another man.”

“I know that! I will one day cause that’s what Ma wants.”

“Is that what you want?”

“Not, if gals are like Miss McTavish. All proper and acting they know better.”

“There are some that is and plenty that are like your Ma and mine, too. You never know what you’re going to get with women.”

“Why are they such devious things?”

“That’s the way they are made. You’re asking the wrong man anyway.”

“You not looking to married?” Birk asked.

“Yes, but I agrees with you. I’m no hurry for that, I need a reliable job to plan for sort of future.”

“You don’t have family to worry about the way I do.”

“Yeah, but same as you I don’t see the need for it, yet. I want be settled as something. What would I have to offer besides the clothes on my back. Don’t even have a place to call my own.” Clancy sighed.

“You always got a home with us, you knows that.”

“Yeah but that’s not the same as having a place of my own. Takes more scratch that I’ve earned to get that.” He kicked at the ground.

They headed back to the house.

“What’s buggery, Clancy?”

“Why you asking that?” Clancy give a little laugh. “What do you think it is?”

“I hear it around the mines often enough, about the union being run by useless buggers. I thought it had something to do with the rats as we always call’em useless buggers too.”

“You got that right.” Clancy laughed again. “Let see how I can tell you.”

“It’s what that Father Patrick called us at the police station, remember?”

“Yeah I recollect that. You know how a baby gets set don’t you?”

“Pa explained that. You put yer little guy into the woman’s little slipper, between her legs.” Birk said. “Only the gals don’t encourage that sort of thing but they do as a duty. Husbands enjoy it though but a gentleman don’t bother no lady with that business less she makes it known she wants to make babies.”

“Mac told you pretty good all you need to know on that account.”

“What’s that got to with mine rats?”

“I’m getting to it. It’s when a man puts his little feller up the arse of another man.”

“What!” Birk stepped back, his stomach churning. “In the shitter?” The image made him sick to his stomach.

“‘Fraid so.”

“You ever …”

“No.” Clancy said loudly. “When we was called abominations that was what they was talking about, though.”

“I …” Birk was looking for the words. “Where they get that notion from in the first place.”

“Something in the Catholic good book. I don’t know it well enough to tell you were they get it from. All I know is the ten commandments and that sure isn’t one of them.”

“What about what we was doing? Lettin’ our little fellas rub. That was pleasuring each other, wasn’t it?”

“So what if it was. It weren’t no one business if we were.”

“But it became their business when Miss McTavish caught us at it.”

“She done didn’t catch us at anything except being naked.”

 

The next morning Birk left Clancy helping the family pack up their possession for the move to Sydney. He caught the ferry to New Waterford and walked the mile or so to the millworks. 

His mind kept returning to the conversation he’d had with Clancy the night before. He wondered if anyone thought of him and Clancy the way Father Patrick did. Calling them unnatural. All he wanted to do was … what? That first time on the rocks with Clancy, naked together was so natural. Something he couldn’t have done if Clancy had been a girl. Was that good feeling what the priest was going on about. Was it a sin to feel that good feeling? 

His first day at the mill was simple hard work. Stripping branches off trees, keeping an eye out for boles that might trip up the saws, keeping the saw blades oiled proper.

The boilers were similar to the ones at the colliery. He showed them what he knew and they were impressed. Dan’l made it clear he’d have to get his proper papers before he could do more than check the dials with T Jean.

At the end of that day he was covered with sawdust and wood shavings.

“Nice change from the coal dust.” He said to T’Jean as he shook the dust off his overalls.

 

When he got back to Castleton Mines the second cart load of their possessions was packed and ready to go Sydney. His mother was leaning against the sink in the empty kitchen and crying.

“Never thought I’d leave this house alive.” she said wiping tears from her eyes. 

“It’s BritCan’s problem now.” His father said.

“No more winter winds to warm us in the night Ma.” Birk said.

“No more garden for us in the summer either.” She replied. “No apples in the back orchard.”

“We can always come back for ‘em when we wants.” His dad said. “No one’s going to be buying this property up in a hurry. These half fallin’ down shacks’ll be full fallen by the time the snow flies.”

“The house’ll be so cold without us.” Maddy said.

“I’ll come back to light a fire.” Birk consoled her.

“How did things go at the mill?” His father asked.

“About as hard as the mine only more daylight. They had me hauling trees around, digging some for the new water main that’s coming through. Least I still know how to use a pick.”

“Hands okay?” His mother asked.

“No trouble.” he showed his palms and waggled fingers. “Healed up pretty well.”

“Guess all the holy moaning over where you put’em did them some good.” She gave a little laugh.

“Put’em?” he asked.

“She means all that foolishness by the good Father.” His father said lashing down the last of the furniture.

“At’s a man who needs to keep his own flock in order, if you ask me,” His mother said. “At least two unweds on Carter Street. Those nuns can’t keep their own legs closed. Then bringing his dirty minded ideas over here to plague us.”

“T’wasn’t m’fault though Ma.” Birk shrugged. 

He clambered onto the back of the cart with Maddy. His mother sat in the front next to his Dad. 

“Look Birk any full-grown woman who is so shocked at the site of a naked man isn’t in her right mind. It may not be something we see often but when we do it’s something we have to abide and keep our … distaste in check.”

“You see Clancy at all?” He asked.

“He’s in Sydney at the new place. Getting some things sorted out for us and then going to see about work for himself.” His father said. “May not be much for him though. The steel plant’s been cut back since the war.”

Birk lay back on the sofa cushions as comfortable as he could and watched the clouds and sky go by over head as the cart bumped onto the ferry. On the other side they reloaded their possession on the millworks truck to drive it to Sydney. His Dad took the cart and horse back to Castleton for the last of their furniture.

“A lot of changes for us, eh Ma?” Birk said.

“Good for you at your age Birk. More opportunity for you outside of Mudside. Might be time for you to meet someone. More gals in Sydney.”

“Yeah Ma.” Birk answered. “Thought you was saving me for your old age?”

“At this rate I’m probably not going to make it.” She laughed bitterly. “There will be a decent school for Maddy. More kids her age.”

“If’n I stay on at the millworks I may want to live nearer to them.” Birk said. “I have to get my boiler man papers soon.”

“You think you can handle all the reading and writing?” He dad asked.

“I can try. When I spoke with Magistrate Doucet at the courthouse he said closing the mines might be a good thing as it’ll force us out of the ground and into the world. No more hiding down there where all I have to do is figure if I got enough dug out for one day.”

They pulled up to the new house.

“A paved street!” He hopped out of cab and lifted his mother out. “No more sinking to our knees in the mud.”

He helped unload the rest of furniture into the house. It didn’t feel as large as their old place but it was cleaner and the walls had corners that met, with level floors and electricity. Maddy had to be stopped from pressing the lights on and off.

By the time Brik was ready to go to bed Clancy hadn’t returned.

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Chapter LVIX – Birk In Shackles

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVII

Birk

In

Shackles

Birk and Clancy came back to the Nelson’s with their fish. 

“What is it?” his mother asked. “I can tell by the look on yer faces that something happened.”

“That Miss Lillian caught me and Clancy horsing around. We was bare naked.” He blushed as he told her.

“Why did you do that with her there?” Maddy asked.

“We didn’t know she was there.” Clancy said.

“That stretch of Blue Lake empty most of the time. Even more so this time of the year.” Birk said. “It was warm enough and we wanted to cool down.”

“We had been in for a swim when she came up over the path and spotted us.” Clancy said.

“Started in screaming at us. Calling us Godless and then ran off as if she had seen something awful.”

“Guess a naked, hairy, thing such as yourself might scare a young Catholic gal.” Birk’s mother started to laugh. “She’s been through enough as it is without seeing you two.”

“She wasn’t scared.” Clancy said. “She was in a true rage about how about it wasn’t right for men to be together the way we was. Playing around as if we were kids in the sun.”

“We got dressed as quick as we could but she was gone before we could …”

“Could what?” his mother asked. 

“I don’t know.” Clancy said. “Explain.”

“She didn’t want to hear anything from us once she’d made her mind up. So, we come back here with the fish.” Birk put the fish into a wash basin.

“That’ll teach you.” His mother hit him with her wooden spoon. “You aren’t children anymore. Stop behaving that way.”

“Yes Ma.” Birk flinched.

“And you Clancy Sinclair. I figured you being a bit older would have enough sense. Neither of you are children anymore. You are men. Keep that in mind. It’s not as if the lake is the miner’s wash up room. Now is it?”

“Yes ma’am.” Clancy said.

 

Birk and Clancy were in the back orchard gathering dead wood when Maddy came out to them.

“There’s policemen at the house come looking for you two.”

“What!” Birk said wiping sweat of his brow.

“Ma says to come directly.”

“We’re coming.” He pulled on his shirt.

“What you think it is?” He asked Clancy.

“Fishing out of season? Maybe this is what that priest’s niece said she’d get us in trouble.”

Birk shook his head. “You think she’d do something that mean? I figured she’d go to her uncle, the way she went on about the scriptures.”

“Perhaps’n he got the the police after us then. I wouldn’t put that past him.”

When they got to the house there were three constables waiting for them.

“Birk Nelson? Clancy Sinclair?” The tallest of them asked sharply.

“Yes.” They each answered.

The other two constables stepped forward and grabbed them roughly by the arms.

“You will come with us. Peaceably.”

“What is this about?” Birk’s mother said.

“These bastards know well enough what they’ve done. Ma’am. I can’t want to speak of it in front of children.”

“Maddy you go up to your room.” She stood at the bottom of the stairs till Maddy was in her room. “Now shut your door.”

Birk and Clancy glanced at each other but kept still.

“We done nothing wrong, officers.” Clancy said. ‘Cept get caught by the female with our drawers off to take a swim.”

“That’s not how she tells it.” The tall officer spoke directly into Birk’s face. “Putting your disgusting hands on the good Catholic girl. You got your nerve.”

“We didn’t touch her.” Birk tried to pull away.

“You’ll regret what you did.” One policeman pushed Birk’s face to the wall and shackled his arms behind him.

Birk struggled to get free.

“Keep that up boy. Resisting will only take use more force to keep you in line.”

The officers did the same to Clancy.

They pushed Birk and Clancy along the street. There was another pair of constables waiting at the corner.

“They give you any trouble?” One them asked.

“Not enough. Sarg.” The one with Birk said.

“They fess up?”

“What do you think?”

“You two take the tall one to the ferry. While we have a word with this one.”

The two officers pushed Clancy onto the boat.

“Now. So its Blackie’s son is it?” Sarg said pushing his face close to Birk’s. “Your Da’s a mighty superior man.”

“How’s that?” Birk asked.

“Engineer, that’s how. Working when the other’s isn’t. He was too busy to teach you the difference between right and wrong though. I know what you did to that Boston gal. Filthy Christers like you aren’t above the law. Now you are going to find that out.”

“We didn’t do nothing to her.” Birk had barely finished when the Sarg punched him hard in the face.

“You saying that girl is a liar. Her with her uncle a priest.” He punched Birk again sending him staggering.

“She’s …”  Birk’s mouth was full of blood.

“She’s got us now to defend her honour now. So don’t think you can play innocent.”

Sarg shoved Birk toward the boat, kicking him in the hip. “Keep moving.”

Birk struggled to get his hands out of the handcuffs. 

“Keep still boyo.” Sarg whacked Birk across the ear with the palm of his hand. “Resisting arrest and tryin’ to escape is all we need. Keep that up and there’ll be no need for a trial.”

“The sight of him is making me sick.” Sarg said to the other two officers. “Take him over there out of my sight.”

The officers shoved Birk past Clancy to the other side of the ferry. In passing Birk saw that Clancy’s nose was busted and bleeding over the front of his torn shirt. He sat on a bench and glared out over the water.

The constables escorted Birk and Clancy to the police station in New Waterford and put them each in their own cell in the holding rooms and left them.

“What you think she’s gone and told them?” Clancy asked quietly.

“I don’t know. She didn’t come near enough for us to even talk to her. Maybe she saw more than we know.”

“Saw more? What more, us sporting in the water. She was too far away to see much o’that anyway.”

“She called us things I don’ understand half of what she said about us being unwholesome. Being forna – something?”

“She’s more educated than sensible, if you ask me Birk. I don’t know what she was trying to say except she didn’t much approve that we were having a good time while she was being unhappy about her husband dying like he did in the mines.”

“The constable said that we interfered with her. That means we … put our hands on her.” Birk reddened.

“That was what she meant. That we had forced our attentions on her, on her body.”

“What! She never even came that close to us. Why would she say that?”
“To get us here. She promised to make us as unhappy as she is.”

The door opened and Lillian came in followed by two of the policemen, Father Patrick and Clara O’Dowell.

Birk grabbed the bars of his cell. “Tell them Miss, that we didn’t interfere with you in anyway. Tell them!”

“Interfered?” Lillian asked.

“That’s right ma’am.” The constable that had bloodied Birk’s nose said. “These are the boys you said attempted to have their way with you when you was at the lake.”

“I see you’ve already taken into your hands to punish them.” Clara said. 

“No ma’am.” Another of the officers grinned. “They was tossed around by the waters as we brought them over.”

“I regret you have been mislead constables. I said nothing of that sort of anyone. They did my person no harm but what I saw will be forever burned into my memory.”

“But you said they were naked.” The constable said.

Birk backed away from the bars.

“You see.” She gloated. “He knows what they were doing.”

Clancy explained, again, about the pissing on his hands. Birk showed them his damaged palms and fingers. He kept his eyes on Lillian’s face hoping her looks would make more sense to him than her words. The words were angry with that undercurrent he’d heard in his sister’s voices when they found something that they didn’t approve of, like the time they came across a dead dog out back of their house.

His eyes went from face to face as they talked more to each other than to him and Clancy. They were trying to find out exactly what it was that got Lillian so distressed.

“Buggery?” Father Patrick glared at him then Clara. “Forgive me for saying such a thing in your presence, Miss O’Dowell.”

Birk didn’t know what the priest was talking about. He felt even more lost as Father Patrick became red-faced as he began to quote scripture. 

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Chapter LVI – Birk and Clancy Go Fishing

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVI

Birk

and Clancy

Go Fishing

The unusually mild fall day warmed Birk and Clancy as walked along the lane that passed behind St. Agatha’s manse. Leaves had changed and were starting to gather on the laneway.

“Sad about her.” Birk stopped to look at the garden.

“Yep. Strange how things happen. Who would have thought what her future was going to bring her.”

“She was pretty one.” Birk said.

“Guess that isn’t enough to make a happy life. Good thing that isn’t your problem.” Clancy started back up the lane.

“What you saying?” Birk gave him a playful shove.

“Birk, let’s face it no one is ever going to call you pretty or even handsome.”

“Goes for you too.” He took off running keeping a grip on the fishing poles.

Clancy followed suit.

Birk ran a few hundred feet then stopped to see how far Clancy was behind him. Clancy had stopped running only after a few yards and was walking and breathing hard.

“The ribs won’t let me keep up with you.” 

“Didn’t think. When you can’t see the hurt you forget that it’s there.”

“When I breath too heavy I know it’s there.” Clancy touched his ribs.

“Mac’s taking that job at the steel plant in Sydney.” Birk said. “We’ll be moving there. He thinks probably something there for me too.”

“Yeah, so I heard. I figure I’ll go back to my Ma’s for awhile and then decide what to do. Go west I suppose. Sudbury perhaps.”

“Many have.” Birk said. 

Over past few weeks while they both recovered from their injuries they had spoken often about what lay ahead. Birk didn’t see himself leaving the island the way his brother George had.  With the mine officially closed many had already moved out of Castleton Mines. Some went to relatives else where on the island. Those that could were going back to school or looking to get trained in other trades. The Vocational School in Glace Bay offered courses in auto repair, electric engineering that Birk had considered. But the small size of the print in the their material scared him.

They came to the cliffs that led down to the beach along Blue Lake.

“I’m not sure I can hop down as easy you can.” Clancy stopped a few feet away from the first one.

“There is another way, you know.” Birk laughed.

“What!” Clancy said. “You never told me that, you bastard.”

“Yeah, but this one is faster. But we’ll take the t’other one this time.” He lead Clancy around the thicket and there was rocky path that coiled through the firs and down to the bottom of the drop. 

When they got to the bottom, Clancy stopped to catch his breath and to look back the way they had come. “You never said a thing! I’d never seen it either. Not from here anyhow and it is right in front of me.”

“Forest can be that way. You ready to keep going. Not much further.”

The walked up a sandy hillock and stood facing the lake.

“There’s the rocks over there?” Clancy pointed to a low shelf of flat rock near the lake.

“That be them. Last time I was here was with Maddy and Sal.” He had a lump in his throat. “Was hard to say no to Maddy today. She sure wanted to tag along. She’s been that way since Sal passed.”

Clancy reach over and put his arm around Birk’s shoulder. “It’s been tough times for everyone hasn’t it.”

“We can stand the gaff.” Birk tried to joke.

“Sure we can, but that don’t mean we have to enjoy it.” Clancy hand slid down Birk’s arm and he took one of Birk’s hands his own and lifted it to look at it. “This is healing pretty good. Sort of soft though.”

“What you expect.” Birk pulled his arm away. “That medicated stuff don’t harden the skin none.” He flexed his fingers. “But the ache is pretty much gone from what I put them through.”

“There’ll be scars, too.”

Ma says I’ll have man’s hands.”

They went down to the shore, baited their hooks and cast them into the water.

“You never say much about what happened.” Clancy said.

“Happened?”

“When you climbed up to the cage.”

“Don’t hardly want to remember that much.” For a moment Birk could feel that help[less sensation of hanging in the air, nothing but a black bottomless pit beneath his feet.

“Weren’t nothing to put m’feet on. When Red dropped so sudden I was dangling there same as …. the last leaf on a tree in the wind not knowing when it was going to be pulled off. My heart about stopped and I thought I was going to throw up.”

“Jez but I’d a crapped my pants for sure.”

“Not sure I didn’t do that myself. My coveralls were pretty much a mess when I did get up. Mud and grease from the cables and blood from who knows where.”

They cast their lines again.

“Worse moment was when I saw the the damn trap had to be pushed up, not dropped down. I had no way to get a grip to push it.”

“You could’a used your head. It’s hard enough.”

“Not as hard a something I can think of.” Birk nodded at the rocks where they had dried in the sun before.

“So what did you do?” 

“For some reason I thought of Sal’s bean plants, How they’d cling to anything and pull up and up. I acted a monkey and swung me feet up at it. A couple of swings and it popped open enough for me to crawl though. That’s what ripped me fingers up so bad. The grate was made to stand on not hold on to.”

“Christ! I wish I could have seen you from down there. When you went up we didn’t think we’d ever see you again, you know. Some thought you was brave and other’s thought you was a damned fool.”

“Not much choice. Did I want to die down there, waiting to be plucked up or do what I could? You know it was thanks to you I finally made it up.”

“Me?”

“Yeah. I began to sing-song to myself the way you would when we were working.”

“This is a pole, this is the fish, this is a wish, soon a trout for my dish.” Clancy sang.

“It was more this way, ‘This is the hand, this is the hold, this is the hand that finds the coal, this is the hand that finds the hold.’” Every word of the song came back to Birk.

Clancy put down his fishing rod, reached over and took Birk’s free hand in both of his and sang the song back to him. “ ‘This is the hand, this is the hand I hold, this is the hand that found the light, this is the hand that finds the hold.’” He gently pressed Birk’s fingers open and kissed the palm of his hand.

“What the …” Birk yanked his hand out of Clancy’s.

They looked into each other’s eyes. Birk broke the gaze.

“This isn’t catching us much fish.” he said.

“Then let’s get to it.”

They re-baited and cast and over the next hour caught several sizeable fish.

“Ma’ll be happy with these.”

Clancy cleaned two and put them on branches to roast over a small fire.

“Won’t be doing this much once we move.” Birk said. “Too far a hike from where we’ll be in Sydney.”

“You Dad already found a place?”

“They showed him a few when he was over to do what paper work had to be done. He says the windows are properly caulked. No more winter breezes. Plumbing too.”

Clancy walked over the the flat rock and laid down on it.

“A little warm from the sun.” He stretched his arms and legs out as far as he could.

“Usually is.” Birk stretched out beside him. “The sky sure is blue today. Not a cloud. I wonder how far I’m seeing when I look right up into it.”

“As far as you do a night. No stars to catch your eyes.” He slid his arm under Birk’s neck.

“There could be something for you at the plant too, Clancy.”

“Might be, but I’m for one of those mechanics courses. I’d want some job that is not dark and wet all day, like the pits, nor hot and burning all night the steel plant is.”

“That makes some sense. I’m not sure about all the readin’ though.”

“I can help some with that, if you’ll let me.”

“I figured you would.” Birk rolled to his side so he was facing Clancy. “How the ribs?” He swung himself straddled over Clancy with his arms extended and on his toes so their noses almost touching.

“Try.”

Birk lowered himself.

“Ow. Off.” He pushed Birk away. “I can’t take that much weight, yet.”

“How about you on me?”

Clancy rolled on top of Birk. “Not as bad” 

They moved their groins together.

“No!” Clancy winced and gingerly moved off Birk. “We’re going to have to wait a bit longer before we can do anything.” 

“Least ways we can have that bit of fish.” Birk pushed himself up to his feet and helped Clancy stand up.

“Yer little fella says it be wanting for something.” He playful brushed his hand over the bulge in Clancy’s pants. He let it linger there.

“Yours too?” Clancy squeezed the bulge in Birk’s pants.

“Swim?” Birk stepped back and quickly shed his clothes and splashed into the lake. “Water isn’t too cold.”

“I’ll be right there.” Clancy moved the cooked fish away from the fire, then pulled off his clothes to chase after Birk.

“It’s freezing!” Clancy shouted splashing Birk.

They swam away from the shore to a point where the water was about neck deep for Birk. They splashed, shoved and pulled each other under the water. Brushing closer and closer, stopping at times to press against each other from the front, from behind.

“Ribs hurting?” Birk asked with Clancy hugging him around the shoulders from behind.

“Not a bit in this cold water.”

“Birk reached behind and grabbed Clancy’s privates by the root. Clancy pushed himself in and out in the the tight grip and quickly exploded. As Birk felt the small warm jet on the back of his hand his own flashed out into the water.

They swam back to the shore.

“Think the fish’ll enjoy that?” Birk asked.

“Not as much as we did. Didn’t hurt your hand much?”

“Nay.” Birk opened and closed his hands. “I … we never did anything such as that before.” 

“Such as what?” Clancy pulled the fish off the spit and handed one to Birk.

“I never held your little fella. Never felt it in my hand.”

“You mind?”

“Nah. Shh … look!” Birk said.

A doe with two fawns came out of the wood around the curve from them.

“Beauties.” Clancy said. “True beauties.”

They watched in silence while the deer drank from the lake and then suddenly scampered back into the woods.

“They must heard something?”

“Yeah, you breathing.” Birk said. “Best be heading back.”

Birk stood and went back to the edge of the water. “Got leave a little something behind.” He held his hands in front of him and pissed on them

“You still doing that!” Clancy said.

“Have to get ‘em toughened up after being so medicated.”

“Here let me give you a little more.” He stepped beside Birk and pissed on Birk’s hands as well.

Birk splashed some of his piss at Clancy. Clancy stepped back.

“Hey.”

“Good for you, too!” He rubbed the urine into his hands then kneeled to dipped his hands in the water.

“As good as this.” Clancy aimed the last of his urine to Birk’s face.

“You bastard.” Birk jumped up and splashed Clancy with water he had cupped in his hands.

Clancy was laughing. “You should have seen the look on your face.” He reached out and took Birk’s privates in his hand. “I’ve never done it before either. I’ve handled my little feller enough times but never another one.”

“Your hands are cold.” Birk said. He cupped Clancy’s privates in his hand. 

“So are yours. But your member is warming up fast.”

“Yours too!”

“What are you men doing?” A woman shouted down at them.

Birk stepped away from Clancy looking around to see where the voice had come from.

It was Lillian McTavish coming toward them from the part of the path that was hidden from their view.

The two men gabbed for their clothes and quickly got dressed.

“Indecent. Shameless animals.” She was nearly shrieking. “Fornicators. Abominations.”

“We were swimming, ma’am.” Birk said.

“Decent God-fearing men don’t swim unclad.”

Birk had never seen a look so piercing in anyone’s eyes before. 

“No harm in it.” Clancy said.

“No harm! You weren’t swimming. You were … in contact with each other … you were touching each other in the most unwholesome, unnatural way. I saw … disgusting. How could you …”

She turned from them and started back to the path.

“Ma’am!” Clancy said. “I don’t what you think you saw but it was … it’s an old miner’s trick for the hands. To use piss to toughen them. That’s what you saw.”

 

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LV – Birk Faces The Future

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LV

Birk

Faces

The Future

The next morning Birk went to the colliery infirmary. Dr. Drummond carefully removed the bandages. The skin on his hands was torn and rubbed away along his knuckles but otherwise he was uninjured. 

“The swelling has gone down considerably.” Drummond said.

“Too bad this had t’happen.” Birk said to the doctor washing the medicated ointment off his hands. “Things getting back to the way they used be.”

“Still some splinters here. I’ll have get them out before they get infected.”

“Do what you have to.” It was odd to Birk to have a man handle his hands so gently then so firmly as the doctor used tweezers, sometimes needles to pull out the splinters.

“Not sure I’m goin’ to get all of them today though.”

Birk’s father came into the infirmary.

“How’s he looking Doctor.”

“He’ll pull though but it’ll be a few weeks before he’ll be pulling anything else.”

The two men laughed at something that Birk didn’t understand.

The last of the miners were being brought into the infirmary.

“We’re getting them up from the levels that were blocked by the cage.” One of the rescue team said. “Someone did a good job to get that trap open.”

“Some times good things happen when a miner opens his big trap.” Birk’s father said..

Dr. Drummond had one of his nurses do the final work on Birk’s hands so he could attend to the other men. The nurse rubbed a salve on Birk’s hands then wrapped them both in fresh gauze.

“You’ll need to leave this on for a day. Keep it as clean as you can. Come back tomorrow and we’ll check to see if all the splinters are cleared out and make sure no infection has set in.” The nurse left to attend to the recent arrivals.

“You been home yet?” He asked his father. “Ma was wondering?”

“I’ve had to keep an eye on the ….”

A woman’s shout cut him off.

“Who is it?” Birk stood and walked toward were the woman was.

“It’s Lillian McTavish.” One of the rescue workers said.

“Christ!” He had forgotten that Seven O’Dowell had gone down with the second group of men.

“They did bring him up alive.” His father said. “But died in her arms.”

Birk didn’t know if he should offer condolences. “She was kind to us, you know, Mac. Very kind.” He began to cry.

“It’ll be hard for all of us.” He father put his arm around Birk’s shoulder. “They were wed before he drew his last breath.”

“Not much we can do about that is there.” Birk didn’t know how to respond. “Married?”

Birk watched as Lillian was taken out of the infirmary and lead to the manager’s office.

“Ah, Birk, sure is good to see your face again.” Clancy said from behind him. 

“Only been a couple of hours.” Birk tried to smile.

“Ah, Mr. Sinclair.” Dr. Drummond walked over and put his stethoscope to Clancy’s chest.

Clancy coughed and spat up coal dust and blood. “That’s a pain I never expected to feel.” he tapped the bottom of his rib cage. “Right close to m’young heart.”

“You been spitting up much blood?” Drummond asked Clancy.

“Some but not every time.”

“Take as deep a breath as you can.”

Clancy breathed in. Pain flashed across his face as he coughed again. He spit onto a cloth a nurse handed him. The doctor examined it. 

“A bit of blood but if it was worrisome it would be a lot redder. Any in your urine?

“Not that I’ve noticed.” Clancy said.

“To be safe you should go the hospital for an X-ray.” The doctor said. “There’s some other’s going shortly. You can go along with them.”

Once they saw that Clancy was on his way to the hospital Birk and his father started to leave for home. He saw Lillian being taken to the back of the infirmary where the bodies were kept. Her screams and sobs started him weeping again as his father lead him away.

“There’s nothing to be done. She has …”

“She has no family here. Nothing.”

“She has those who’ll look for her. Trust me Birk.” He father said. “The O’Dowell’s are good people.”

Birk broke away from his father and stepped through the door at the back of the infirmary. The smell made him dizzy.

“I …” he started unsure if what to say.

“You!” Lillian screamed and rushed at him flailing at him with her fists. “You miners killed him. He did his best for you minders and now you’ve gone and killed him. Murderers. Butchers.” She struck his chest and shoulder several times before being pulled away. She sagged sobbing into the arms of one of the nurses.

“Come on Birk.” His father pulled him out of the room by the arm. “I told you we weren’t wanted here.”

“What did she mean by murderers?” He asked as they exited the colliery.

“When you got out of the cage did you get a good look at the cage cable.”

“I was working to get up and out of there nothing more.” Birk thought for a moment. “It was fair snapped.”

“Clean break or frayed? You know, frayed as if it had worn through.”

“It was some dark down there Blackie. Felt more of a clean break though.”

“Yeah, that’s what they found. Management’s saying someone tampered with the cable.”

“Sabotage?”

“Looks that way but we won’t know till those inspectors take a closer look at things.”

“The ones as said it was safe for us to go down in the first place?” 

Birk woke the next morning and dressed for work without thinking. His bandaged fingers couldn’t manage his buttons or his boot laces but Maddy would be happy to do that for him again. When came down to the kitchen Clancy was already there.

“They didn’t keep you then?” he asked.

“No. They found a pulse but no heart.” Clancy half-laughed. “Can’t laugh though, hurts too much.” He lifted his shirt to show bruises that spilled over the bandaging around his ribs. “Gotta keep still and not press on my chest for a few weeks. One rib broken but not going to move too much. The other moved a bit but still where it’s supposed to be. How’s your hands?”

“Feel okay but will get them checked again by Doc Drummond later this morning.”

“You have to go to the parish hall for that.” His mother said. “Colliery is done for. Closed up tighter than it was before.”

“Closed!” Birk said. “Over night!”

“Yep. The sab – o – tage,” she pronounced each syllable. “Gives them the perfect excuse to shut down another mine. Plus proof positive there are dangerous sub- vers -ive Reds who don’t care about anyone’s property.”

“Reds! Ha!” Clancy said. “Word at the hospital yesterday was that they done it themselves.”

“The BritCan? Why??” Birk said.

“They wanted to shut it down all along and now they can and blame the one’s that needed the work the most. They get to collect the insurance. More money in insurance than in the coal profits.”

“Could be.” his mother said. “You know how they collected when all the company stores were done in. I hears it was more than the goods in the stores was worth. They made a profit on that while we struggling to put food on the table.”

“Wouldn’t put that past them.” Birk found himself agreeing. “But to do that to the pits?”

“Who else?” Clancy asked.

“Maybe they are right. Maybe there is some Bolishi element here that wants to see to it.”

“What? Who’d go along with Bloshi’s after that. Destroying our chance to work isn’t going to bring anyone to their way of thinking.”

“Either way there’ll be hell to pay what with Steven O’Dowell getting killed because of the collapse.” His mother said.

Birk and Clancy went down the colliery gate and sure enough it was locked. Hoardings were already up around the various building. Posts on either side of the gate had notices about the closing of the mine till further notice.

“They were mighty quick to get things shut down.” Clancy said. “That hoarding some sturdy for a hasty job.”

“Almost as if they had planned it already.” Birk nodded. “Wonder who they payed to put that up?”

Jake Malone man joined them.

“Further notice! At’s what they said about the number six last year while they sold off what they could and let it fill with water. Same’ll happen here.”

“My hands was finally getting back in to shape.” Birk held up his bandages. “I wouldda been happy to stick with it.”

“Even when we was willing to settle they weren’t happy. Guess we learned our lesson.” Jake laughed bitterly.

“Which is?” Birk asked.

“Fucked if you do and screwed if you don’t.” Jake laughed again. “I’ll probably be packing it in now. Nothing now to keep any of us here is there. I should have gone with your bother Geo when he left.”

There weren’t too many at the parish hall infirmary. The doctor peeled the wrapping off Birk’s hands.

“Good. No infection has set in. No splinters have worked their way up so we put have gotten them all.”

Birk flexed his fingers. They were still sore from all the climbing he had done in the shaft. 

“It’ll be another week or so before the skin’s healed up enough for you to put them to much use. You can lift a spoon if you need to but best get the missus to do up your fly.” The doctor grinned. “That is if you can afford a missus. How’s the ribs Mr. Sinclair?”

“Okay if I don’t laugh or roll over in my sleep.” Clancy answered. “Or don’t push me out of the bed.”

“You’re still boarding with the Nelson’s?” The doctor asked.

“Yeah.”

“Wonder what’ll happen to the houses?” Birk said. “Company owns ‘em.”

Outside they talked with a couple of the other miners. There was to be a meeting that night to discuss what to do next.

“Not much we can do.” One of them said. “They got us over a barrel and they want us to pay for the barrel to boot.”

“Least ways none of the other mines is going to be closed.” The other miner said.

“Course not.” Clancy said. “This one had the strongest union support for one thing. Get rid of us and they get rid of the ones they called trouble makers. No need for a black-list when you chop everyone out of the picture.”

The union meeting was being held at the usual hall in New Waterford. The men sat in a sullen silence on the ferry over to New Waterford. Some smoking. Some sipping from flasks.

“Shame about Steven O’Dowell.” One of them said.

“Yeah. When had someone willing to stand up fer us this has to happen.”

“BritCan going make sure the inspectors point the blame away from them.” another said.

The union meeting offered nothing new for the men. There were no job opportunities unless they wanted to move out of the province and even then they wouldn’t be assured of work where they went. There was no money left in the union coffers to help them financially.

The only good news was that BritCan would let them stay in the company houses until they decided what to do about the colliery.

As they walked back to the wharf a sense of what the future was going to be dogged Birk’s steps. He’d never thought of being anything other than what he was. Never thought of being a miner anywhere else except here where he had grown up.

“What you thinking?” Clancy asked.

“When I was a kid all you need to worry about was getting up and goin’ to school or the mines. Not that I ever took to goin’ to the pits but I knew it was was I supposed to do. Then when I was old enough I did what m’dad and bother did. Now that’s gone.”

“There’s a whole world outside of there, you know?” Clancy said.

“I can’t imagine going away the way my brother did. Least ways Geo had some one with him. I’d be on my own without a family to fall back on.”

“I’d go with you, you darn idiot.” Clancy said. “You should know that much.”

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Chapter LIV: Lillian Tends Steven’s Wounds

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LIV

Lillian

Tends

Steven’s Wounds

Lillian lost track of time while the recuse workers brought the men from the lower faces up. Other than some cuts, scrapes and broken arms none of the injures were that serious. 

Clancy Sinclair from Level 8 had a couple of broken ribs. She assisted Dr. Drummond as he wrapped a bandage around Clancy’s rib cage.

“Nothing we can do to set your ribs Mr. Sinclair.” The doctor explained. “This is just to hold them in place while they knit properly. At your age they’ll be fine quickly.”

“No sweet hugging for me.” Clancy winked at Lillian.

“I should hope not.” Birk said from behind them.

“I thought you went home?” Lillian said.

“I did, but there was nothing for me there with all the worry. I couldn’t rest wondering. I can’t do anything to help.” He held up his bandaged hands. “But I had to be here. How is he Dr Drummond.”

“He’ll be fine in a week or so.”

“I … when you went up that shaft I was afraid that was the last I’d see of you or anyone.” Clancy tried to sit up.

Lillian teared up thinking of Steven trapped under tons of coal.

“I promised I’d get you out of there.” Birk went over to off a shoulder to help Clancy stand. 

“We’re even now.” Clancy said.

“How so?”

“You saved my life this time. I saved your life before.”

“When?”

“That gas build up.” Clancy said.

  “Is it okay if he walks.” Birk asked.

“Yes. His legs are fine. Best thing for him to move around.” Dr. Drummond said.

Lillian came over to help as well. She remembered seeing Steven looking so brave in his Draeger suit as part of the rescue team at the gas build up. Was the the first time she realized he was more than bravado?

While Clancy was standing Dr. Drummond pressed along his back and spine.

“How does that feel.” He asked. “You can feel my touch?”

“Yes.” Clancy was unsteady as he took a few steps.

“There doesn’t appear to be any nerve damage.”

“I can take him home?” Birk asked.

“I’ve only checked him for visible injures.” Dr. Drummond said. “He could have internal damage. Promise that if there’s blood in your spit or such you get over to the hospital in Sydney as fast as you can.”

“If’n the roads don’t kill me.” Clancy winced as he tried to laugh. Oh! My ribs are some sore.”

“To bad they aren’t half as hard as your head.” Birk said.

“Don’t make me laugh.” Clancy bent over in pain holding his ribs at the same time.

“Ma’ll keep an eye out on both us.” Birk said. “You look after the ones as is really hurt. Thank you Miss McTavish.”

“Lead on McDuff.” Clancy put his arm over Birk’s shoulder.

Lillian watched them disappear into the dark. Dear God, let Steven’s injures be as gentle as these, she prayed, so he can continue to play a role in the men’s lives. Thank you. 

Lillian was dozing on one of the infirmary cots when a shout woke her.

“They are bringing up the men from level nine now.”

The rescuers had spent the past few hours clearing the debris away so they had access to the final level. The first body they brought up was completely shrouded which meant it was dead. 

“Is it?” she asked Dr, Drummond as he lifted the cover off the face of corpse.

“Nope. It’s Red Mac.”

“There’s another coming up.” One of the rescuers said. “In bad shape.”

The next was Steven strapped to the stretcher hoist. His face was uncovered so Lillian knew he was alive. She took his hand and squeezed it. His eyes flickered briefly as they looked at her. She wiped the dirt off his face as best she could.

Dr. Drummond gently undid the straps that held Steven to the gurney.

“He’s lost a lot blood.” Drummond said as he did his preliminary check. He lifted back the blankets that covered Steven’s torso and quickly dropped them.

“Lillian, perhaps you should wait outside while I check him completely.”

He nodded to one of the orderlies to accompany her.

Steven grip on her hand tightened.

“No. Lillian stay.” Steven said hoarsely. “I ….”

“I’ll stay Dr Drummond. You know, I saw worse after the power plant attack.”

“Yes.” Dr. Drummond nodded. “Please look away, if you can.”

Lillian kept her eyes on Steven’s while the doctor lifted the blankets away from Steven’s torso. She could smell the blood, the muck of the coal mine. Steven’s grip on her hand loosened and tightened.

“Okay.” Dr. Drummond said once he’d finished his examination

“How does it look?” Steven asked. “Hope it isn’t as bad as it feels.”

“Steven, both your legs have been crushed. I doubt if I could save them even if I had the best of equipment. We’ll do what we can to staunch the bleeding but you have lost a lot of blood already.”

“I see.” Steven sighed. “Lillian will have to be brave for both of us. That is if she’ll still have me.” He smiled faintly.

“Of course I do Steven.” Lillian said. 

“We’ll have to work fast.” Dr. Drummond said. “Bring him into the operating area.”

Steven released Lillian’s hand and he was taken into the infirmary.

“Lillian, I’d rather you wait here while I do what I can. I have to tell you there is little hope he’ll survive even if I can stop the bleeding. His legs will have to be amputated.”

“My God!” Lillian leaned heavily against the wall. 

“I’ve given him something for the pain.”

“He’s asking for Miss McTavish.” One of the orderlies came out the room. 

She followed him into the room.

“Lillian,” Steven tapped his jacket over his heart. “In here. Take … out.”

Dr. Drummond nodded his approval.

Lillian slid her hand into his inside pocket as gently as she could. The cool of Steven’s body chilled her. She pulled out a thin packed wrapped in canvas.

“My good luck.” Steven said. “Open.”

She unfold the canvas and inside was their wedding licence. There was also a manila envelope.

“Read later. Please.” He struggled to sit up.

“Yes. You must rest.” She put hand on his forehead to keep him in place.

“Not yet. No rest for the wicked.” He laughed. “Is Father McTavish here?”

“No, but Father Dunlop is. Yes.” Lillian said. “But you won’t need him for unction, yet. Will he, Dr Drummond? He’ll pull through. Won’t he?”

“There’s a good chance.”

“Bring Dunlop here.” Steven said. “Is Clara here?”

“She was but she went to Mrs. Franklin’s to rest.” Lillian tried not to cry. 

The orderly returned shortly with the priest.

“Father Dunlop I have a service for you to perform.” Steven said.

The priest opened his kit and took out the oil for final unction.

“No! No!” Steven whispered. “Give him the license. We are to be married.”

“Married!” Father Dunlop took the license from Lillian. 

“Dr. Drummond and his orderly can be witnesses.” Steven said.

“I …. I’m not prepared to … the ceremony …”

“It doesn’t have to be the whole service Father. Do the legal part. You can do that can’t you?”

“Yes, I suppose I can.” The priest flipped though his handbook of rituals. “Here we are.”

“Steve McTavish and Lillian McTavish, have you come here to enter into marriage without coercion, freely and wholeheartedly?” He read from the book.

“Yes.” They replied in unison.                   

“Are you prepared, as you follow the path of marriage, to love and honour each other for as long as you both shall live?                        

“Are you prepared to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?”

“Yes.” they both replied 

“Steven, do you take Lillian to be your wife? Do you promise to be faithful to her in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love her and to honour her all the days of your life?”

“I do.”

“Lillian, do you take Steven to be your husband? Do you promise to be faithful to him in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love him and to honour him all the days of your life?

“I do.”

“The rings?” Dunlop asked.

“Here.” Steven tugged at a piece of ribbon around his neck. 

Lillian pulled it out and their wedding rings were suspended on it. 

“It pays to be prepared.” Steven smiled.

The priest said a blessing over the wedding rings. They placed the rings on each other’s fingers.

“I now pronounce you man and wife.”

There was brief silence. 

“You may kiss the bride.” The priest said.

There was some applause as Lillian bent to kiss Steven. As their lips met his body shuddered and his head fell limply to one side.

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Chapter LVIII – Lillian Tends Birk’s Wounds

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVIII

Lillian

Tends

Birk’s Wounds

The distant ring echoed closer and was joined by an even nearer series of deeper toned whistles.

“What can that mean?” Lillian asked.

“Four blasts means something had happened at one of the mines.” Karina said. “The steel plant is using its whistle to spread the alarm.”

“So that’s how can we hear it here.”

“They relay a distress signal.” Clara explained.

“Can you really tell where it’s from?” Her heart was racing. She knew were it was from without being told.

“Not always.” Clara hesitated. “When it gets relayed here it means they need volunteers for the rescue crew.’

“It’s from Castleton Mines direction, isn’t it?” She pulled off the veil, grabbed her purse and headed to the stairs. 

“We have a phone here.” Clara headed to the mangers office on the main floor. “I’ll call to see if I can find out more. It has to be serious to get these signals. There’s been an an accident.” 

Clara raced down the stairs, Lillian following close after.

Several of the clerks were gathered at the door of the manager’s office. One was crying into a handkerchief.

The manager hung up his phone and came to the door.

“What is it?” Clara asked.

“There’s been a major cave-in at the Castleton colliery.” He said.

“Is anyone hurt?” One the clerks asked.

“They’re all dead. All dead.” The crying clerk said as she sank to the floor. 

“We don’t know that.” Clara helped the clerk to her feet.

“There’s nothing more I can tell you.” The manager said. “I called as soon as I heard the first alarm bells. No one knew how serious it is.”

“We have to go.” Lillian grabbed Clara’s hand. “Steven is …” she could speak.

“Have you heard anything?” Clara asked their driver as they got into the car.

“Not too much ma’am.” he replied. “It was sudden like. Everything was inspected afore they went down. Twas lower level though. Some on first faces are already up.”

“God!” Lillian was afraid to breathe. “Let Steven be alright.”

 

Once the car arrived in North Sydney Lillian had it stop at the church.

“We all must light candles.” She said.

Clara and the driver followed her into the church. There were already several people in there doing the same thing. Votive candles flickered in the rack.

The priest came over to them.

“Miss McTavish.” He whispered.

“Father Dunlop.” She nodded to him. “Have you any news?”

“Nothing definite.” He said.

Lillian lit her candle, put into a spot on the votive rack and genuflected to the cross over the altar.

She stepped outside with Father Dunlop while Clara and their driver lit their candles.

“You must be very concerned about Steven.” The priest said to her. “He is a Godly man.”

“Thank you Father. If all turns out well we’ll continue our pre-marriage talks with you.”

“Certainly. If you don’t mind I would like to accompany you. With Father Patrick away I am the nearest priest. I have to get my last rights kit.”

When they got to the dock they were informed that only emergency vehicles and personnel were being allowed to cross to Castleton.

“We can take Father Dunlop only I’m afraid.” The deckhand in charge said.

“Dr. Drummond will be expecting me.” Lillian declared. “Us.” She added, nodding too Clara. “We have assisted him before.”

“Very well.” The deckhand reluctantly let them aboard.

The small boat was crowded with two ambulance vans and various rescue volunteers. 

Lillian paced to the far end of the boat.

“Lillian that was very bold of you.” Clara stood beside her.“But I’m sure Steven will be okay. Lillian it is nothing. It has to be nothing.” Clara tired to calm her.

“No. It isn’t nothing.” Lillian exploded. “I can feel it. Don’t ask me how, but I can feel it.”

 

When they arrived at the colliery gate Lillian asked. “Where is Mr. O’Dowell? Has he been found yet?”

The General Manager came over to her and Clara.

“No he hasn’t. We don’t know when either Miss McTavish. Rest assured we’re doing everything we can to find him and the others.”

“I don’t care about the others.” Lillian saw all her hopes and dreams turning to dust before her eyes. “This can’t be happening. It can’t.”

“There. There.” Clara tried to calm her. “You must be strong.”

“I’m tired of being strong.” Lillian sank to a bench outside the infirmary.

“We’re doing everything we can. The first five levels have been cleared and all the men are safe.” The manager explained.

“What about the others?” she said.

“The cage has been jammed in the shaft. We can’t go lower till we are sure it’s safe to go down.”

“Cage?” Lillian didn’t understand.

“A sort of elevator that brings the men and coal up and down.” Clara said.

“Why don’t they pull it up.” Lillian said.

“The cable broke.” The manager said. “It had been tampered with.”

“What! Who would do such a thing.”

“Radicals, miss.” The manger dropped his voice. “There’s labour elements amongst the men who’d stop at nothing to …”

“To what! Kill each other in pursuit of some ideal even they don’t understand!” 

“We are working at removing the cable now. We don’t want to send men down in case the cage can’t hold their weight.”

“Then I’ll go down.” she pushed him aside. “I’m not that heavy.”

“Now, Miss McTavish.” The manager restrained her.

“We have to let them look after this.” Clara said. “Everything will be okay.” 

“Lillian!” Dr. Drummond came over to her. “I so glad you’ve come.”

“I had no choice. Steven is down there. somewhere. I have to be here when they bring him up.”

“Of course. The rescue is being hampered by the cage. They’ll have men cutting away the floor of the cage once they get the shaft clear. Much of it collapsed down with the cave in.”

“So there’s been no word from the lower levels?” Clara asked.

“Nothing.”

“There’s someone coming up.” a miner rushed over to tell the manager.

“I have to go ladies. Trust me we are doing everything we can.”

Lillian watched him run over the the mine entrance. A miner staggered out into the sunlight. His face was smeared with coal dust and blood. His shoulders were scraped raw and his hands were bloody pulps.

“It’s Birk Nelson!” someone shouted.

“Level seven.” someone else shouted. “He was down at level seven.”

Lillian held herself back as the rescue workers went to Birk. She stepped into his line of sight but his eyes were blinking as they adjusted to the sunlight. Someone handed him a cup of tea. She teared up as his bloody hand clung to the mug. He couldn’t seem to hold it tight enough, As he drank from it tea spilled over this chin and onto his shirt. Lillian followed as Dr. Drummond guided Birk to the dim wash house. 

He had her fill a basin with hot water to soak Birk’s bleeding hands. The water quickly blackened. Birk shuddered and try to pull his hands out. One of the workers held his shoulder still while the doctor rinsed Birk’s fingers gently.

“More clean water Lillian.” The doctor said.

She brought another basin of hot water over. She had dipped a clean rag into the water and while the doctor worked on Birk’s hands she wiped off some of the dirt and blood from Birk’s face.

“Ah, Miss Lillian, it is you.” Birk blinked his eyes as he focused on her face. “I thought I was dreaming. I haven’t been practicing my handwriting as much as you wanted, I have to confess. Sal keeps reminding me. I have been studying them boiler books though. Sal is proud of her beans. They are growing higher than the house now. You must come over to see’m. Sal will be so happy if you do.”

“Yes, yes.” Lillian was confused, she knew that Sal had died a few months ago.

“He’s in shock.” Dr Drummond said quietly to her. “Let’s take him to the infirmary. Now that his hands are clean I can check how serious the damage it. Not enough light in here for that.”

He started to lead Birk out of the wash house when Birk began to sag to the ground. With the help of a couple of miners they laid him on a stretcher and brought him to the infirmary.

“There’s more down there. You have to get the, Red dropped like a shoe out of my hands. I couldn’t help him though.” Birk hands reached up trying to grab something out of the air.

“We’ll get them.” one of the stretcher bearers said as he gently helped Birk onto one of the tables in the infirmary.

“How many were with you?” Lillian asked Birk.

“Many?” Birk shook his head. “Can’t say as I recollect now. It was so fast. Me and me mate Clancy were talking when …” He shuddered. “Clancy took a real liking to you Miss. He was always going on about your … Clancy! He’ll be down there now. The staving collapsed right on him. I … I did what I could then I had to climb out of there.”

“Be still Birk.” Dr. Drummond ordered. “They are working at getting the rest of the men out of there.”

“Red just fell. I couldn’t do a thing. He was holding to me than he was gone. So fast. So fast. I heard his fall stop at the bottom of the shaft.”

“Was … was Mr. O’Dowell with you?”

“Oh, no, Miss he was keen on being where the the blast was. Below us. He’s a brave’un you know. You will be married soon. He told us all. Right proud he was of it too. Better for you than …. ouch …”

Birk shuddered as Dr. Drummond was pulling splinters out the palms of his hand.

“Keep talking with him Lillian. The distraction will help him with the pain.” Dr. Drummond nodded to her.

“Did you hear anything from below you?” Lillian asked.

“Can’t recall. Sal sure enjoyed you visiting us. Mag too but Sal especially. She wanted to grow up to be a proper lady like you, you know. She won’t now …” Birk teared up. “Her beans done so well. It was if she was still with us as they grew and grew.”

“I look forward to seeing them soon Birk.” She said.

“I think that’s the worse of it Birk.” Dr. Drummond said. He coated Birk’s hands with a milky ointment. “Wrap his hands with this gauze. I’ll check the other injured miners. His mother is waiting at the front gate. Once you’ve done that you can let her take him home.”

As night fell Lillian sat exhausted one of the benches. 

“Ah here you are.” Clara handed her a mug of tea and sat next to her.

“Where have you been?” Lillian asked sipping the tea.

“Getting some of injured to their homes. Talking with wives. Talking with management too. The engineers are working on the cage itself. They’re afraid that removing it will cause the shaft below it to collapse.”

“How long can those men survive down there?” Lillian asked.

“That depends on how seriously they are injured.”

“We’ve managed to stabilize the cage.” The general manager came to explain to them. “It can’t be pulled up or down the way it is caught in the shaft but we have secured cables to it so that if it should come loose it won’t fall any further.”

“Thank God. So the rest of the miners can be brought up?” Clara asked.

“Yes. The top and the floor of the cage have been cut open wide enough so we drop a hoist down to the remaining levels to bring the rest of the men. It’ll be a slow process mind you as we can only bring them up a few at a time.”

“See, Lillian,” Clara said. “There’s hope. Let’s go to the …”

“I’m not going anywhere. I want to be here when they bring Steven up.”

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Chapter LVII – Birk Sees the Light

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVII

Birk

Sees

the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He recognized Sandy’s voice.

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

“Okay.”

“Lost Red though.” He began to weep.

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

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

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

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

His Dad’s advice came to him. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cage jammed tight. Cable broken.”

“Broken?”

“Snapped like a boot lace.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He was on level eight.”

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

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

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

“Yeah we know that. How many hurt?”

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter 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

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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

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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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