Chapter XXXIX – Lillian Joins the Mob

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Coal Dusters – Chapter XXXIX

Lillian Joins The Mob

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can’t lock them up Marg.”

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

“Or anyone else’s.” Another replied.

The women all laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A distant horn tooting quieted them.

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

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

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

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

“Yes Miss McTavish.” the child said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Baldwin?” Lillian asked.

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

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

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

“Thank you for the enthusiastic greeting.”

The men laughed.

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

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

“What did they confess?” Another called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or what?” one of the miners shouted.

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

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

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

“Arms.” He commanded.

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

“Women and children move back.” Gregory shouted. 

“Aim.” The Colonel said.

The soldiers brought their rifles to their shoulders.

“Fire.”

They discharged their weapons over the heads of the crowd. 

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

Lillian was pulled back by a couple of the children.

“Come Miss we have to get safe.” 

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re okay?” Birk asked.

“Yes.” Lillian replied.

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

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

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

“You safe to get home?” Birk asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter XXXVII – Birk Pays a Call

Coal Dusters – Chapter XXXVII

Birk Pays a Call

Holding Maddy loosely by the hand Birk stood at the corner street. He stared down at the door of the rectory. His mother had pressed the shirt and finally stitched the cuffs of pants Lillian had sent to him but he thought he still looked unkept. His borrowed belt made the pants bunch out around his behind. That was a tailoring job his mother said would take more than a few stitches to do. He was already sweating from his walk there. His face itched from shaving it twice in the same morning. His hair refused to stay down no matter what he tried. He looked down at his work boots wishing he had shoes more fitting to wear. 

The boots, even when they were new, didn’t hold any kind of shine. There weren’t meant to. His sisters had tried to clean them but there was nothing to be done about the scrapes on the toes. The crease of the pants made the boots look even more unsuitable. His mother wouldn’t let him go in bare feet.

“We going to stand here all morning?” Maddy asked. She was wearing her Sunday dress with a new piece of lace sown around the neck. There was a yellow satin bow in her hair that she kept pushing back into place.

His mother had insisted he take his sister along so she could see how those outside Mudtown lived. He was sure it was to make sure he acted proper. He wished Clancy could have been with him but after the scrap they got into yesterday that wasn’t going to be. 

When Birk had woken that morning it took a few minutes for him to remember that Clancy was gone and not sleeping on the floor where it was cooler in the summer.

He walked to the front door of the house and knocked. No answer. Knocked again a little harder. Maddy kicked at the door but her shoes did make much of a sound. 

“You sure you got the right day?” she asked.

“It’s the day Clancy read to me from her note.” Did he have the wrong day? Wrong time? Clancy had read those things to him off the note. Was that his idea, to send him there at the wrong time to make an even a bigger fool of himself. Maybe the note didn’t ask for him to lunch. “You read it too, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” She stood on tiptoes to see through the side  window.

He turned to leave.

The door opened.

“Mr. Nelson.” Father Patrick said. “You have to knock louder than that.”

Birk turned back to the door. “Sorry.. uh … Father McTavish. I wasn’t sure how ….”

“Come in, please.” Lillian appeared behind Father Patrick and pushed past him.

“Thank, ye, Miss. You remember my sister Maddy.” He was awed at Lillian’s appearance.

“Hello.” Maddy curtsied. 

Previously Birk had only seen Lillian dressed in dark green pinafores with darker green aprons around them, a black kerchief of some sort covering her hair. So similar to a nun he had assumed that she was one.

Today she was wearing a light blue shift with a pleated skirt that ended directly below her knees. A row of blue buttons along the back went from her neck to her waist. How did those buttons get done? He had enough trouble with ones that went up the front of his shirt. She was wearing black shoes with small heels and with straps across the top of her foot.

He took this all in with a couple of rapid shy glances as they followed her into the parlour. She continued through the parlour to another room.

“How is your family faring during the strike?” Father Patrick asked him. He gestured to a chair for Birk to sit. Maddy sat on chair by the fire. Hey eyes wide as she looked around the room.

“We gets by.” Birk looked briefly at Father Patrick. “We have … a little garden… we hunt some and …. fish in the lake.”

The room wasn’t much bigger than the parlour in his house. The furniture was more ornate. The window panes were so clean as to be nearly transparent. The lace curtains barely held back the sun.  He was nervous with the crucifix on the wall that loomed over his shoulder.

“Very enterprising.” Father Patrick said. “How are you doing is school.” The priest asked Maddy.

“Good. How do you get the windows so clean? The curtain are so white. My sister Sal wasn’t feeling strong today so she couldn’t come with us. She supposed to help Ma with picking pears, which means finding any that fall from the tree.”

“Pears?” Lillian asked. 

‘Yes ma’am.” Birk said. “There some pear trees and apple trees in behind our lane.”

“Very nice. I’ll get the tea things.”

Lillian retuned with a tray on which was a tea service. Birk had never seen such a set. The tray was highly polished silver. The whitish ceramic tea pot had a thick gold braid along the base, the cups had saucers that matched and weren’t cracked. The gleaming ivory of the china glowed in the sunlight that came through the window. He was afraid to handle it.

“Tea? Mr. Nelson.” Lillian asked him.

“Why thank ‘er miss.”

She handed him a cup and saucer. 

He quickly put them on the table beside him before they could notice how much he was shaking. Maddy went to the tea service and brought the milk over and poured some into Birk’s cup.

“Thank you.” He said as she stirred for him. He tired to pick the cup up by the handle but his fingers could barely hold it. He sipped trying not too look too clumsy.

“Father Patrick, my uncle, and I wanted to express our gratitude for your daring rescue. Your brother is very brave.” She put a cup and saucer on the table beside Maddy and poured her a cup tea.

“T’wasn’t me who saved that babby, it was you miss. That took a brave heart to do that. I only helped when I had to.”

“Be that as it may, I wanted to thank you in person.” She handed Birk a plate with a couple of biscuits on it. “I made these fresh this morning.”

Birk looked directly at her face for the first time. Her dark auburn hair shone in the light that came through the window. The light gave it a reddish tinge. Her skin was clear. No sign of the bruise remained. She smelled of flowers. He didn’t know what kind. Lilacs or roses. A delicate clean smell.

“This is thanks enough for me.” He touched the shirt she had sent to him.

“A little large on you.” She laughed lightly.

“True miss but it’ll wear well.”

“Not those trousers through.” Father Patrick said. 

Maddy started to giggle. “Me and Sal each fit in a leg of them.”

“Stand so I can see how they fit you.” Lillian said.

Birk blushed as he stood. Some of his mother’s hasty stitch work had come loose. The cuffs were unrolled and caught beneath the heels of his boots. The waist was bunched by the belt he had borrowed from Blackie to cinch it. They had tried suspenders but the pants drooped so he looked as if he was wearing a cloth barrel.

“I am much taller than you, my lad.” Father Patrick grinned. “But I think Lillian can alter them to fit you somewhat better.”

“Yes. Thank you …” Birk blushed that they were going do those alterations right away.

“I can bring them over another day.” Maddy said. “Ma’d’ve done them but she was busy tending to Sal.”

“Yes.” Lillian laughed. “We aren’t going to do it now, if that’s what you feared.”

“I like your biscuits.” Maddy said. “Can I have one to take home to Sal?”

“Of course.” Lillian turned to Birk. “Do the men think the strike will last much longer?” She asked.

“Can’t say miss. We have the … demonstration at the end of the week.”

“The attack on the company store was not a wise action.” Father Patrick said. “I’ve sure troops will be brought in soon to make sure order is maintained.”

“Not as if that at the pluck me was planned. Happened so fast none of us was ready for it.”

“Not from what I hear.” Father Patrick said. “It has been brewed up by a couple of the men for a few days. They were waiting for an opportunity. You know Jim McKlusky?”

“Sure. He lives next door to us in Mudside.” So Jim was the ring leader of that pack.

There was knock at the door. Lillian went to answer it. She brought Mr. Bowen, one of the mine managers, into the room

“It’s Mr Bowen, Father Patrick.”

“Sorry to barge in on you this way Father but ….” he caught sight of Birk. “Oh, I see you have company.”

“Yes. This is Birk Nelson. The young miner who  saved my niece from the fire the other night.”

“Least he could do. It was them bastards that started it.” Mr. Bowen glared at Birk. “You men should know better.”

“I didna’ have anything to do with that.” Birk said. 

Mr. Bowen give a dismissive snort and turned to Father Patrick. “Father I have some urgent business that I must speak to you about. In private.”

“Why don’t we step out into the garden Mr. Bowen.” Father Patrick said. “It won’t take up too much time will it Mr. Bowen?”

Father Patrick lead Mr. Bowen out through the kitchen to the back garden.

“The garden is where we first saw you a few weeks back.” Birk said.

“I was not very happy that day. You were going fishing with your brother. I envied your freedom.” Lillian got up and leaned against the fence.

“Clancy’s no brethren to us.” Maddy said sharply.

“Oh I see.”

“They fights like brothers though.”

“Sush Maddy.”

“It’s true! You and Clancy were as bad and you and Geo t’other day punching away at each other.”

“He’s had some schoolin’ mor’n me and thinks he’s better n’ me ‘cause of it. Same way as so many mainlanders, you see. I jus’ got tired of him lordin’ it over me.” Birk said.

“You do want to improve your mind, don’t you.” Lillian looked at Birk, “You don’t want to be a … an uneducated miner for the rest of your life, do you?”

“Twas good nuf for my father, his father, good enough for me.” Birk shifted uneasily on his chair. Each move of his caused it to squeak.

“The mines can’t last forever you know.”

“Long nuf for the sorts of me, ma’am.”

“Is it such a bad thing, I mean, to improve your mind.”

“No ma’am. But I jus don’t see the point in it, for me. Fir my sister’s it’s different. Ma wants them to leave here one day.” Birk stared up at her. “There’s isn’t much else for me. Not that I care for the coal but …”

“Don’t you have any dreams, Birk.”

“Dreams, miss. Sure but they are dreams not life.”

“You don’t want, say a wife, someone to look after you and someone you can look after.”

“Got me ma to look after me and I got my sisters to look out fer. My family’s enough family for me.” He nodded at Maddy.

“The right wife could be a helpmate in that though, wouldn’t she?”

Birk was confused and unsure what she was getting at. He didn’t want to ask her because he knew Maddy would be telling his Mother everything she heard here. He stood. “I thank you miss, for taking the time to talk with me. We best be on our way though.”

“Wait a moment and I’ll give Maddy some of the biscuits to take home.” She took Maddy by the hand and they went to the kitchen.

He looked around the room. He couldn’t picture Lillian living anywhere else. She would never be suited to a life in Mudtown.

Maddy and Lillian were laughing when they returned from the kitchen.

“I’d be happy to come by to visit with Sal.” Lillian said to Maddy. 

“She would never believe how nice you are.” Maddy said. “She’s gets better and better, so our ma tells us.”

“I’m sure she is.” Lillian smiled. “Don’t forget what we talked about.” She adjusted Maddy’s hair ribbon.

“I won’t. Thank you kindly for the biscuits.” She curtsied. “We can go now, Birk.”

She took Birk by the hand as Lillian opened the front door for them

“Thank you again for rescuing me.” Lillian kissed Birk quickly on cheek.

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Chapter XXXVI

Coal Dusters – Chapter XXXVI

Birk and Clancy 

Fall Out

Since the start of the strike Birk had been going to the Sunday morning service with his mother and sisters. This morning he had spent a good part of the morning getting the pants Lillian had sent to fit him better. His mother said she would make alterations but he didn’t want to wait.

The striped shirt didn’t look too bad to him. The collar was okay as long as he didn’t button it all the way. He rolled the cuff one fold so his hands could be seen. But the cuffs needed studs to hold them closed

The pants refused to cooperate. The legs took three folds to get them to ankle height. The waist left five inches slack around his waist.

“That uncle of her’s must have a belly bigger than a cow.” Birk said as he cinched it with a rope. 

“Guess he was fully grown. Not half-sized the way you grew.” Clancy said. “You’ll look an idiot going anywhere in those clothes. Ya look a kid trying on his Dad’s clothes.”

Birk took the pants off. “Here. Ya try ’em on then.” He threw them at Clancy. He was able to pull the shirt off over his head without unbuttoning it.

“She sent them to you not me.” Clancy threw the pants into Birk’s face. “Besides they already stink of you.”

“Says who?”

“Says me you … you … runt. At least I finished growing up. The only part o’you that’s man sized is between yer legs. And you didn’t even know what to do with it till I showed ya!”

Birk shoved Clancy into the wall as hard as he could. “These fists are man sized too. In case ya forget.” He punched Clancy in the stomach with his right hand and in the ear with his left.

Clancy walloped Birk in the side with his right fist.

Birk yelped.

“Hope I broke something. I’ve been wanting to that for a long time.”
“Me too.” He swung and hit Clancy in the nose. Blood spurted.

They grappled with each other and fell on the floor at the foot of the bed.

“You boys stop fightin’ or I’ll get Ma.” Sal poked her head in the room.

Birk stood and hauled Clancy to his feet by the front of his shirt. Clancy stomped on Birk’s foot and pushed him back and out the bedroom door.

“When I came here that first time. Saw that it was you lived here. I almost changed my mind.” He hit Birk in the chest. “But it was cheaper than Mrs. Franklin’s.”

“Too bad you didn’t.” Birk connected again with Clancy’s jaw. “Ya soft arse know-it-all mainlander. You should’ve been paying me to put up with you.”

“I couldn’t sleep proper till I got you sort of washed up. I’d wake up and think I was stuck in some … Hell that stank of feet and … pig shit.”

Birk had Clancy in a headlock and lost his footing at the top of the stairs and they tumbled down over each other. They pulled away from each other when they landed.

His sisters were screaming for them to stop fighting.

“These feet ya mean.” Birk pushed his bare feet into Clancy’s face as they lay on the floor.

“Pigs’ i’d smell better.” 

“I’m sure you’d know that.”

Clancy bit Birk on the instep.

“Ow.” Birk pulled his foot back then slammed it into Clancy’s shoulder as Clancy was pushing himself up.

“Birk! Clancy! What’s got into the two of you.” Birk’s mother was trying to come between them.

“He’s had this comin’ calling me stupid, a runt.”

“I thought you guys had become good pals.” she said.

“Me too.” Birk wiped blood from his mouth. “Me too.”

“The last puss I want to see most mornings is this one.” He swung at Birk and missed. 

Birk pushed him through the kitchen and out into the back yard.

“Watch those tomaters.” His mother shouted.

Clancy stumbled and fell. Birk kicked him in the side. Clancy grabbed at the dirt and threw it into Birk’s face as he got up. They lunged at each other. Heads locked on each other’s shoulder and hitting at each other’s sides and stomach.

“Ya can always go back to Mrs. Franklin.” Birk gasped into Clancy’s ear.

“You can go to Hell you stinkin’ mine rat.”

Birk braced himself and gave Clancy a shove with both arms. Clancy reeled back against the shed and slumped to the ground.

“Soft arse.” Birk spit a gob of blood on to Clancy’s face and went back into the house.

“I’ll be ready for church in a bit Ma.” He splashed cold water on his face. Rinsed the blood out of his mouth.

Up in the bedroom he carefully folded the pants and shirt. He’d get his mother to alter them later in the day.

He passed Clancy coming up the stairs as he went down to join his mother and sisters for church. 

On the way home after the service his mother asked. “What was that dust up?”

“Nothing Ma.”

“I knows better. That weren’t no horseplay. Neither of you were holdin’ back.”

“He told me it made him sick to look at me. That  ‘cause I wasn’t tall, I wasn’t a full man and would never be one.”

“Hurtful words.” She shook her head. “How he feel about the gal as sent you the pants and shirt.”

“He think’s she’s pretty and such.”

“Could be he’s sore she sent you something nice and he got nothing.”

“But I don’t give a care about her. Could have been anyone caught in the fire and I’d ’av done the same thing.”

“I know.”

“I know my duty to you and the girls. Besides she’s practically a nun.”

When they returned to the house from the morning service he found that Clancy was gone. All his clothes and other belongings had been removed from the bedroom. On the bureau was a note:

“Seeing as you can’t read writing I’ve printed this note to tell you I got word that my mother was poorly and I have gone to tend to her. Clancy.”

He tucked the note into his pants pocket. Picked up the shirt and pants that Lillian had sent him and took them downstairs.

“Ma you think you can fix these so they fits me better.”

She shook the shirt out. “That’s quality.” She held it to her face then studied the seams. “Don’t want to tamper with it. Look at that stitching. It’s a blessed art. I could never sew that that fine.”

“Look! We fit yer pants, Birk.” His sisters had pulled on the pants, each standing in one of the legs and holding them up by the waist. They hopped toward him.

“Get outta there.” He laughed.

“Priest’s a big man.” His mother said. “These wouldn’t even fit Blackie.”

The girls got out of the pants and Birk pulled them on over the pants he was wearing.

“Even if ya can fix the cuff some.” He folded the hem several times so that it rode at the hight his present pants did. “Even if they too big around the waist I won’t be stepping on them when I wear them.”

“Your waist will always grow.” His mother laughed. “Give ‘em here. I can do a a few stitches to keep them from dragging along.”
“Thanks Ma.”

“Where’s that Clancy gotten too?”

“Gone.” Birk said. “Packed his things and gone.”

“Yer joking.” she went up to the room and came back down. “So he is.”

He gave her the note.

“I knowed his Ma was ailing.” She said. 

“He say anything to you about goin’ to see her?” Birk looked at the note.

“Yes but didn’t say when.”

“I’m sure he’ll be back for that union march at the end of the week.”

“Depends on his Ma.” His mother said.

After supper Birk went out to check his rabbit traps. There was one caught but he left it there as he continued on his way to his favorite sitting spot. He climbed up high in a branch of the oak tree.

His Ma was right, the things Clancy had said were to him mean. It was same as his first months in the mines where he had to prove himself everyday. The men all riding him for being so small, then for being so hairy but he showed them. Showed Clancy too that he wasn’t going to take that from him either. 

But how could Clancy have been hidin’ those thoughts the past months. Acting as if they were friends. Making him feel he was …. someone he wanted to be with. But foolin’ him all the time. 

Getting him to talk about his hopes and making him think about the future. All that was a big show, a sham. Birk rubbed his head against the bark of the tree. 

When he got the rabbit on his way home he remembered showing the trap line to Clancy, showing him to skin the rabbit easy and where the salt was to treat the pelt.

He sat on the garden bench. He didn’t want to go into the house. He didn’t want to go up his empty room. He didn’t know what he wanted to do. He couldn’t figure out why this had happened to him. That someone could become such a part of his life that when they were gone it was if he had no life ahead of him.

He heard men talking in the road in front of the house, the McKlusky’s arguing next door. 

“I’m going out.” He heard Jim yell. “Where to is none of your business.”

“Don’t be late. I know it isn’t union this time o’ night.” His wife shouted back. “It’s to that Dan’s you’re going.”

“I’ll go where I want and I’ll stay out as late as I want.”

A gate slammed and Birk half hoped it was Clancy coming back but it wasn’t their gate. It was Jim on his way to the bootlegger’s. 

What was his life before Clancy showed up? Him and Geo eating at the table in the morning. Shovelling coal into the carts. He missed that. Doing things with his hands kept his mind from thinking about anything. He wanted to stop thinking. 

His mother came out of the house with a couple of mugs of tea.

“Sweet summer night,” she handed him a mug and sat beside him. “Before you kids came along me and Blackie ‘d sit out here. Then you could smell the hay.”

“You ever want to get out of here? The mines I mean.”

“Before I wed Blackie I thought about teaching or even nursing but once I had Geo those were a girl’s dream. Never can get ahead with the company. You buys from the company store, owes them money. You pays the company a fair price for a house, too, as long as you working there, but the house never gets to be yours.”

“It would nice to have something that was yours.” Birk sighed heavily. “Think I’ll take a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Clancy ‘d do that to get away and think a bit. Yeh something to do.”

Birk headed along their lane and to Pitt St and along to Chestnut Avenue. The smell of the burned company store was still in the air. He nodded to a few folks as he passed them. We went out of his way to pass Mrs. Franklin’s. There were boarders laughing and smoking on the veranda but none of them was Clancy.

He went along the pier and sat on a piling staring out at the reflection of lights on the water. The last drop off by the Dingle Dandy had been half-an-hour ago.

He’d never had this much free time. Time with nothing to do except worry about when the strike would be settled; what had he done to rattle Clancy so; what was he going to do at lunch with Lillian and Father Patrick. 

If this was what a man of leisure had to do, he wasn’t interested. He’d rather be worked to the bone and back sore from the pits than have time to think about things he didn’t understand and problems he didn’t know how to solve.

The Reverend Brown once said that God makes each man to his purpose. All along Birk figured his purpose was to work, to crush coal, bring his pay home to the family, sleep and do it again. Cut and dry so he didn’t have make any decisions himself.

“Taking the air?” someone said from behind him.

Birk started and almost fell off the piling and into the harbour. 

“Oh, Jim, you about knocked me over.”

“Saw you and that mainlander having a go at each other earlier.”

“Got in one another’s way. Gave him a good what for though. Sort of thing I never could get away with Geo.”

“That Geo used to love to torment you some.”

“Ma says it was what brothers were supposed to do.”

“Never had a brother. All sisters. Thought getting married wud be an escape from that. Trouble is sisters is women and I married  a woman. Them ‘s the breaks.”

“How long you think this strike is going to go on?” Birk asked.

“Not too much longer after us burning down the pluck me.  Sort of thing the Corporation won’t stand for. There’ll action and not the kind of action we’re going to appreciate much.”

“You ever think o’ getting out of the mines?”

“And do what? I suppose I could try for the Steel Plant, or that iron foundry in North Sydney. But this is what I know. You want to try your hand at something else?”

“Clancy said future’s black underground. He got some schoolin’ though he could get on. Oh … I dunno … I was pretty happy doin’ what we all do …”

“But you feel there’s something more? I know that feelin’. When I was your age I wanted something more too. Sure wish I done something about it then. What did I do? I changed shifts in the mines. That’s what I did. Come on I’ll spot you a tip at Dan’s.”

“Ma ’d kill me if she finds out I went to the bootlegger.”

“You only die once.” Jim laughed. 

“Sure why not. I’m wanting to do something different. Maybe this is it, eh?”

Dan’s house was at the edge of the end of Castleton Mines past St Agatha’s hall. Birk knew that after the recent union meetings some of the men would end up there drinking their strike pay.

“If it’s not Blackie’s boy.” Dan greeted him. “Thought you tea-total same as yer old man.”

Birk grinned. He recognized several of the men there. There was also a couple women there. Wearing not much of anything. The place smelled of beer, cigarette smoke and sweat. He peered around afraid he’d see Clancy there.

“Aren’t you the hairy beast.” one of the women brushed up against him and put her hand into his shirt. All she was wearing was an untied silk robe. He saw that she was naked underneath it. He moved back.

“Look ladies we got a virgin here?” she laughed hoarsely.

Birk continue to back away. 

“Don’t be afraid, little man. I won’t hurt ya.” She touched his face and moved to kiss him.

“No … n … no … thanks Ma’am.”  Her perfume made it hard for him to breathe.

He turned and rushed out of the house and ran all the way home. Was this were McKlusky spent his time? Was this what men did? 

He took his boots off on the back porch of the house and went in quietly.

His mother was at the kitchen table.

“Where you been?” she asked.

“Down the dock. Thinking.”

She leaned over and smelled his shirt. “All this time?”

“I got took over to Dan’s. Ma it was … I never been in there … you gotta believe me. I was so afraid I’d find Clancy there. There was women. I didn’t know what to do so I bolt out of there fast as I could.”

“Who took ya?”

“I don’t want to say. Don’t ask me. I wanted to see what went on in those places. That’s all.”

“I believe you Birk. I do.” She shook her head. “You go to bed. You got to meet that nun tomorrow.”

“Nun?”

“The priest’s niece.”

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Chapter XXXV – Lillian Makes A Friend

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXXV

Lillian Makes A Friend

Lillian made her way along the rutted lane back to Pitt St. She stopped to look back at the houses on either side of it. How could she ever live under such conditions?  How could families live under such circumstances. If Birk was enterprising enough, with her encouragement, he could make more of himself than this. She would see to that. She strode along Pitt St. purposefully.

She had never spent this much time in the homes of any of the miners, not even her uncle’s parishioners. The houses were so … unkempt. That must be the result of children she figured. How many did Mrs. Nelson have? Four that were alive now and was it another four lost. Eight! No wonder she looked so worn down. When she married she wouldn’t let herself go like that. Pride of self wasn’t something she’d sacrifice easily.

“Miss McTavish! Miss McTavish!”

She stopped to see who was calling her. It was Mrs. Seldon.

“I was hoping to speak to you before we left.” Mrs. Seldon said.

“Left. So soon!”

“Without a roof over our heads what else could we do? At least the company isn’t going to hold us responsible for the goods that were destroyed by the fire.” 

“I see. Where will you be moving to?”

“We’ll be in North Sydney until the company finds a new position for husband. He hopes to know where within the month. Of course that also depends on when this strike comes to an end. I hear they may be legislated back to work.”

“Hardly seems fair. To force then to accept no change in their work conditions.”

“How fair was it for them to do what they did. It’s not as if BritCan broke into the store and set it on fire. Castleton’s a nice place but I’ll be glad to be out of here. We never felt at home here. Though I will miss our times together.”

“As will I.”

“Will you be staying her much longer? Doesn’t your family back in Boston miss you?”

Lillian wanted to blurt out that to them she was already dead and buried. 

“Yes, but things have changed between us since I’ve been here. I don’t feel that my future lies with them or in Boston any more.”

“The future? It is impossible to know where it lies for anyone. Last week we were looking forward to fixing that spare room so as Charles would have his own room to grow up in.  And now … We’re at Mrs. Franklin’s boarding house for the moment but it’s not a place for a family, if you understand me. Not that there have been many salesmen or travellers since the strike. I’d much rather be doing my own cooking.” She said.

Lillian had met Mrs. Franklin a few times at the company store and had found her to be an eager gossip about things in Castleton and sometimes beyond. The frequent travellers who stayed at her boarding house brought her information that never found its way into the local news papers.

“Oh, speak off the saints here she is now!”

Mrs. Franklin was walking up from the dock with two shopping baskets laden with groceries. She stopped to put down her baskets.

“You’ve been to North Sydney?” Mrs. Seldon asked.

“Yes, well, with the company store gone I needed to get some essentials before those shops in North Sydney hiked their prices. Not that anyone around here could afford their regular prices.”

“Business must good for you?” Mrs. Seldon said glancing though what Mrs, Franklin had bought.

“I’ve had some of the union men saying here and that company representative as well. It’s enough to keep me going for now, but they are particular about the food they eat. I don’t mind as long as the pay extra for it. Though having to do nearly everything myself is a chore.”

“You have no girl working for you?” Mrs Seldon asked.

“No, I can’t afford help. If it weren’t for that Clancy and Birk I’d have no hot water either.”

“Birk Nelson?” Lillian asked.

“Yes. I heard about what he did for you, Miss McTavish, at the fire the other night. Right good young man he is. Quiet though.” she picked up one of her baskets with a heavy sigh. “You’ll be heading to Sydney today?”

“Yes. I was just on my way to the dock to join John. I better get going before  the ferry departs.”

“Let me help you with this,” Lillian picked up the other basket.

“It’s not too much for a wee thing like yourself?” Mrs. Franklin said. “I be obliged for your assistance. You take care now,” she kissed Mrs. Seldon quickly on the cheek.

“I will.” Mrs. Seldon walked down toward the dock.

“Have you lived here long?” Lillian asked picking up the other basket.

“Oh yes. My grandfather was who originally owned much of this when it was farmland. It was my father that built the monstrosity. That’s what I came my house.” she gave a little laugh. “Now most of the land belongs to BritCan. My house too, if things keep going as they have.”

“You must have seen many changes over the years. Families coming and going.”

They came to Mrs. Franklin’s house. Lillian had passed it many times and had admired the porch than ran along the three sides of the house that faced the street. She longed to sit on one of the comfortable chairs there. She followed Mrs. Franklin up the stairs.

“Oh my yes. Some as we’re glad to see the end of too, mind, you. Take the Murphy’s, they were a mess of trouble from the very start. They lived along Upper Victoria, not too far from you. The boys were hellions, pardon my language Miss, but no other word will do. The pa was a drunk and those boys of his took after him. Tried to set fire to St. Agatha’s one Christmas. This was before your Uncle came to the parish.” Mrs. Franklin opened the front door and nodded for Lillian to go in first.

“Not all the families have been so troublesome. The Nelsons seem like good folks.”

“Oh, my, you are right about them. Lost some of their young un’s in the flu a few years a go. Heartbreaking so many were lost then. War was bad enough but this was right in front of you.” 

Lillian followed Mrs. Franklin into the kitchen. The house was so unlike the Nelson’s or even the rectory. The hallway walls were a white wall paper with floral details painted in along the lower edge corners and with birds in the upper corners. The kitchen was large, spotlessly clean. She put her basket on the table.

“I was just visiting with them. To thank Birk for his bravery last night. Is it usual for a man his age to not have … ” Lillian wanted to find out for sure that Birk wasn’t encumbered with a local girl.

“Man!” Mrs. Franklin broke in. “He’s barely past eighteen or perhaps it is nineteen.”

“Oh!” Lillian had assumed Birk was closer to her own age. She took things out of the basket and handed them to Mrs. Franklin to put on one shelf or the other.

“Yes. That hairy face of his adds the years. First time I saw him fresh shaved here, I didn’t recognize him. Honestly. He looks like he was no more than fourteen. I had to laugh but I guess it’s the parents to blame.”

“Blame?”

“He never learned how to shave proper. Neither his father or brother George were so blessed by hair. I guess the Good Lord was saving it for Birk. Took Clancy a few soaks to get that face properly shaved.”

“I see.” Lillian was a little embarrassed to hear such personal details about Birk. 

“His mother is some protective too. Perhaps you got a sense of that. Catholic families have a boy they are dedicating to the priesthood.” Mrs. Franklin filled the tea kettle and put it on her stove.

“The Nelson’s aren’t Catholics.” Lillian sat at a table between a pair of corner windows with pale yellow curtains. 

“No, but to some families a child to look after them in their old age is the same thing. I know their Ma was some upset when Geo started kept company with Shelia McPherson. I’m sure you’ve heard all about that anyway?”

Lillian shook her head ‘no’.

“It came as no surprise to any of us at the time.” She took a tea pot out the cupboard, poured some boiling eater into it, swished it around & poured the water back into the kettle. “They’d been hand holding for a few months and when Old Jim McPherson had that accident that killed him the company wanted them out of the house. Didn’t even give them a week after the funeral before sending that notice. Imagine! So to keep their house Geo moves in as border. Before you know it Shelia is indisposed.” She poured water into the tea pot and got a couple of mugs our another cupboard.

“Indisposed?” Lillian asked.

“Sorry dear I keep forgetting you’re the priest’s girl. I hope this doesn’t shock you but Shiela was … with child. Any one could have told this was bound to happen. So George did the right thing and married the girl.” She pour Lillian a mug of tea. “I hope you don’t mind the cup, dear, but I found that the good china couldn’t stand up to the usage of my boarders.” 

“I see.” Lillian sipped her tea. 

“So as I was saying, Mrs. Nelson has been even more watchful over Birk. Not that she wasn’t always protective of him, him being so little and all. Better than some of those Mudtown families who let little’ns run around like a pack of dirty dogs.”

“So Birk hasn’t been keeping company with anyone.”

“Oh no! Not that I’ve heard of at any rate. He’s a bright lad mind you. His pa Blackie has taught him all about the boilers. That’s probably the next step for him, once this strike is over, to get his papers and move out of the mine.”

“Engineer?” Lillian wondered what the pay difference might be. An engineer’s wife sounded better than a miner’s wife.

“Yes. A trade that can travel you know. Boiler’s is boilers no matter where they are.”

A clock from somewhere in the house chimed four. 

“Oh it is getting late.” Lillian stood. “I really have to get back to the rectory to get supper for Uncle Pat.”

“It’s been good to get to know you better, Miss McTavish.”

“Lillian, please Mrs. Franklin.”

“Only if you call me Rose.” Mrs. Franklin said.

“Of course, Rose. It has been a pleasure to become better acquainted with you as well.”

They walked to the front door. 

“Did you do this?” Lillian pointed to the birds above the corners of the door frames.

“Oh yes. My winter pastime.” 

“Thank you again.”

It started to rain as she shut the Franklin’s gate behind her. She pulled her shawl over her head and ran to the rectory. She darted along the side to the back door to void tracking mud into the front hall. She dreaded going back into the dark kitchen. Even on this mild day it was cool. It was so unlike the bright, cheerful kitchen she had just left. Even the Nelson’s house felt more like a home than the rectory ever did.

Inside she leaned against the frame of the back door to knock the mud off her shoes. Had Mrs. Franklin noticed them? Shame flooded her at the state her appearance had come to over the past few months. 

Through the open door she could smell the earth of the back garden. To her it was the smell of the grave. No! She wasn’t going to die here even if her family had already buried her there.

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Chapter XXXIV – Lillian Pays  a Visit

Chapter XXXIV

Lillian

Pays 

a Visit

As Lillian walked along Chestnut Street she stopped to look at the remains of the company store. Some men were removing the charred remains of the flooring. 

Under her arms she carried the package of the shirts and pants she was giving to Birk Nelson. 

Mrs. Birk Nelson. Mrs. Lillian Nelson. The names sounded good to her. Nelson had such a soft sound to it, unlike McTavish with its harsh ‘c’ followed by an even harsher ’t.’ Nelson had a sweet flow to it. How long would it be before she was Mrs. Nelson?

It had taken her most of the morning to decide what to wear. She knew that her Bostonian visiting clothes would be inappropriate. So there would be no dainty gloves with pearl button fastenings on the wrist, no satin afternoon dress with the perfect hat to go with it.

She understood that that sort of attire, even if she had it here, would be too much for this family. It would certainly impress them but definitely wouldn’t allow them to see her as one of them, as someone to be welcomed as opposed to a …. to what, she wondered, a rich, flighty, show off?

Instead of the perfect hat she had a clean bandana to cover her hair and hold it back from her face. The pale blue would make the red of her hair even redder. She hoped her work shift, freshly washed, made her look domestic, practical, like the sort of woman who would make a good daughter-in-law. Not that she’d be so blunt as to bring that up. But that it would ingratiate her into the family.

Finding out where the Nelsons lived wasn’t a simple as she expected. She had asked Mrs. McIssac if she knew. Mrs. McIssac knew in a general way but wasn’t sure which house it was on one of the lanes off Pitt St. that was the Nelsons.

With loss of the company store there was no longer a post office in Castleton. Most the village picked up their mail from general delivery at the store. She was sure Mrs. Seldon would known where every family in the village lived.

Holding her package under her arm a little closer, she walked carefully along the rutted road of Pitt St. She stopped at some children playing in front of a house to ask them. They pointed out the lane and told her the Nelson’s lived in the last house at the end before you get to the fields.

None of the houses had numbers but all looked in good repair. Most needed fresh paint and some had never been painted. All faced directly to the street with no front yards. She came to the last house and knocked at the door. 

She leaned to the door to listen and could hear a woman singing. 

“Bring us to the river, bring us to the river, so we can lay our burdens down.”

She knocked louder. The flour-smudged face of a little girl appeared in the window, she was joined by another little girl. Then they disappeared.

The front door opened a crack and the face of the first looked out at her.

“Is this where the Nelson’s live?” she asked.

The little girl was wearing ragged dress that came to her dirty knees, that didn’t cover legs that needed washing, with no shoes or stockings 

“Yes.” the child replied. “But our Pa isn’t here. He’s at the boilers.”

“I’m looking for Mr. Birk Nelson.” she said. “I have something for him.” she pointed to the package she was carrying.

“No Mr. Birk here.” the child started to laugh.

“He’s no mister.” The second girl appeared and opened the door wider. “No one calls him mister. Birk. Plain old Birk. I’ll get Ma.” She shut the door leaving Lillian standing there. The second child had been as sloppily dressed as the first.  

The first girl’s face was staring at her from the front window.

The door opened and a heavy-set woman stood there, wiping her hands on her apron. “Ah tis you Miss McTavish. I’m Birk’s mother.”

“You know who I am?” Lillian took a step back. 

Mrs. Nelson wasn’t quite what Lillian had imagined. She was tall, almost what her mother would call ‘a lanky lass.’ Her dark hair was pulled back in a loose bun. Her dress was well fitted though, unlike many fo the village she had met who preferred the loose shift that she herself wore most often. Like her girls she was barefoot.

“Most everyone in Castleton Mines know who you are miss.”

“I …” Lillian had expected that Birk would answer the door. She had planned what she would say to him but wasn’t ready for meeting his mother so soon. “I brought these for Birk.”

“There’s no need to thank him for doin’ what was right, Miss.” 

“It’s not so much to thank him but to replace the shirt that was burned so badly when he … rescued me.” She thrust the package into Mrs. Nelson’s hands and turned to go.

“Perhaps you would like to come in for a cup of tea.” Mrs. Nelson stepped away from the door so Lillian could enter. 

The house was very dark and smelled of cooking and something she couldn’t name. St. Agatha’s hall  always had this lingering smell after the miners had been there. She thought of it as the smell of unwashed working people. Could she live in a house like this? 

“As you might tell we weren’t expecting visitors.” Mrs. Nelson said leading Lillian to the side parlour. She quickly dusted an armchair for Lillian to sit in.

“These are my daughters.”

The two girls stood at the doorway. Both had changed into cleaner dress that made their brown legs look even dirtier.

“Maddy, say hello to the lady.”

“How do you Miss McTavish.” Maddy did a clumsy curtsy. “How is your babby? The one that Birk saved from the fire.”

“Oh no! That wasn’t my baby. It was Mrs. Seldon’s.”

“Weren’t you scared?” Maddy asked.

“Of course I was. When your brother got me down the stairs I was so thankful. He was very very brave.”

“He’s too hairy.” Sal said. “Not brave at all. He knew he wouldn’t burn up with all those airs all over him.”

“I doubt that.” Lillian said. She undid her hair. “You see here when I almost caught on fire myself.” She showed them the ends of where the fire had burned her hair.

“Ohh.” Sal began to tear up as she touched Lillian’s hair.

“But I’m safe now, thanks to Birk.” She hugged Sal.

“Now Sal, the lady is a guest not a dolly for you. I go and put the kettle on.” 

“If it isn’t too much trouble.” 

“None at all. Come with me Maddy.”

“Aw. I want to talk with the pretty lady.”

“I have other thing for you to do. Come.” Mrs. Nelson took Maddy by the shoulder and pushed her gently out of the room. “Twill only take a a few minutes, Ma’am.”

Lillian looked around the the small room. Her chair was in the corner beside the window the girls had been looking out. There was a dingy lace curtain covering the window. In front of her was a low table with a doily on it. Along the wall was a settee that had seen better days. a bit of carpet was under the low table. On the wall beside door was a painting of a lake.

“I can read to you Miss. If you’d like me to to?” Sal said. “I’ll go get my a b c book.”

Lillian heard Sal’s footstep run up the stairs and then back down.

“Here tis.” She sat in Lillian’s lap and opened the book. “‘A is for apples. Apples are for pie.’ We have apples in the back field. Ma bakes pies with them but mostly she makes apple sauce because that keeps better over the winter and pie crust doesn’t last that long and the sauce isn’t as much trouble in the long run because all it needs is big pot and some lasses to help it set as it boils and turns into the apple sauce. Have you ever made apple sauce Miss. I can show you if you don’t know how. Ma says I stir it right right even though I needs to stand on the stool to reach the pot and I had to be careful not to get burned. I did get burned once. She pulled back her sleeve to show Lillian a scar along the inside of her arm. “That hurt so much I couldn’t stop crying. That’s why I’m so glad Birk saved that babby from burning up. That would have hurt something terrible. You didn’t get burned beside you hair did you?”

“Sit over here, Sal.” Mrs. Nelson put a tray with a teapot, some tea cups with matching saucers on it. “I hope she wasn’t bothering you.”

“No not at all. She was telling me about apple sauce.”

“I hope you don’t mind the tea black, Miss McTavish. With all that going on it’s been hard to get decent milk. I sent Maddy to see if the next-doors had some to spare.” She poured tea into the cup closest to her guest.

“No! No! This will be fine.” Lillian took a sip. “As I said I brought some shirts for Birk. He isn’t here, is he?”

“No Ma’am, he want fishing with our border. Clancy Sinclair. Clancy’s not from around here but is fitting in with ease. Must be hard for you though. I mean coming from far away to here.”

“It has presented some challenges but a little hardship is what God uses to grace us with strength and gratitude.”

“Ah, quite right you are. I was afraid you were one of those who felt we were … savages … you know, set themselves on high over us because we’re miners.”

“Not at all. You have other children?”

“Not at home. Our eldest George has gone to Alberta with his wife to start a life where there are more opportunities. There was another after him who died, then Birk, then another two who didn’t make it through their first winters.”

Maddy came into the room with a small pitcher. Her knees and legs had been washed but she was still shoeless. “Mrs. Malone said she could spare this when I told her that we Miss McTavish here.” She put the milk on the table. “But she’ll be wanting her pitcher back.”

“I’ll see to it.” Mrs. Nelson said. “Why don’t you take this up to Birk’s room for him. It’ll be nice surprise for him when they get back from fishing.”

Maddy put the package to her face. “Smells like flowers. You giving him flowers too?”

“No! It must be from the other clothes the shirts were with. I picked them from our donations.” She didn’t want to admit that she had put a drop of her rosewater on the note she had inclosed.

“Maybe you could find us some dresses.” Maddy said, tugging at the edge of the dress she was now wearing. 

“Maddy!” Mrs. Nelson said. “Take that package up to where I told you. You go with her too, Sal.”

“Don’t mind them.” Lillian laughed. “I can remember plaguing my mother once for a dress I saw another little girl wearing. I never did get it.”

“Yes, well, miss, we aren’t in the habit of accepting such from folks. We learn how to make do.”

“Sorry I didn’t mean to offend you. I must be going. My uncle, Father McTavish, will be expecting me home.” She stood. This was a sufficient start. When she met Birk the next time it wouldn’t seem so unexpected. “It has been a pleasure to meet you and your sweet girls. It is clear where Birk gets his strength of character.”

Mrs. Nelson went to the door with her. “I’m sure Birk will be sorry him missed you.”

“Thank him for me once again.”

“You best hurry dear. It’s clear it’ll rain soon.”

“You are very pretty.” Sally said. “I pray that I’ll be as pretty as you when I grow up.”

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Chapter XXXIII – Birk Gets A New Shirt

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXXIII

Birk

Gets A

New Shirt

They got their fishing rods & a net basket for holding their catch from the side shed. 

“Think we’ll try the Blue Ridge Trail to the lake this time. We can check the rabbit traps on the way.”

“Faster?” Clancy asked.

“About the same but avoids the town.”

“Don’t want to see the damage, eh?”

“There’ll be time enough to see that m’sure.” Birk wanted to skirt the town to avoid possibly running into Lillian. “Sides I … Ya saw how my sisters acted.”

“You mean about you playin’ hero?”

“Yeh. I don’ need people comin’ up to say anythin’ to me about that. It was something any man’d do.”

“What’s wrong with people taking notice of ya in a good way.”

“That’s not why I did it. When I get a good word about my work in the pits don’t want it. I hate to think people are watching me. Not that I want to be cussed out. The less notice I get the better.”

“Yeh I see what you’re gettin at.”

Even though of the snares had been tripped there was nothing in any of the rabbit snares other that bits of fur. 

“There’ll be more when they start to have babies.” Birk adjusted the snares. “In a few weeks we’ll have more than enough.”

The ridge took them through the fields of the near by farms. They bypassed one that had a black and white bull in it. The bull walked over and stopped a few feet from the fence to paw the ground and snort at them.

“Smell that.” Birk took a deep breath. “Cow shit.”

“Yeh.” Clancy took a deep breath. “Almost gets rid of that smoke smell.”

“Must be in our clothes. Same way the coal dust is. It’ll take a day or so for it to go. Unless it rains.”

“I’d rather smoke than mud.”

The less-used ridge trails were overgrown as they hiked though them to the lake.

“Good sign.” Birk said. “Means not many’s been up here.”

Low lying branches whipped at their faces as they made they way through the woods. Brambles caught at their pant legs. Every now and then a flock of startled pheasants flew up to their left echoing through the trees.

“Too bad we didn’t bring a rifle.” Clancy said.

“Yeah. I’ll remember where they were for the next time.”

“Y’ sure y’ know where yer going’?”

“Pretty sure.”

They came to a low hill clearing and stopped.

“Take another good breath” Birk said. “I can smell the water. Can’t you?”

“No. I can still smell that cow shit though.” He rubbed the soles of his boots on the ground. “You got a better nose than me I suppose.” Clancy said.

“Jus’ through here.” Birk lead Clancy through another thicket of maples and alders until they came out at a rocky outcrop about halfway beside a waterfall.

“These the Blue River Falls. This is where the the river makes that turn. Over there’s where we fished the first time.”

The elevated ledge gave them a clear view of the expanse of the lake. 

“You can follow along t’other side to where it narrows again.”

The descent along the rapids involved two drops. The first was about three feet but the second was nearly ten. At the top of the second Birk tossed the rods down, handed his lunch tin to Clancy and jumped.

“Drop the tin down to me. Gentle. Don’ want to break that bottle o’tea, do we?”

He caught his pail and then Clancy’s.

Clancy stood at the edge of the drop.

“Come on b’y, s’not that far. Yer taller ‘n me so you don’t have to far to go either.”

“Easy fer you to say.” Clancy paced along the the rocky ledge. The shale was solid underfoot. One side was splashed by the rapids. The other hooked back sharply into the wooded area and then became even steeper.

“Come on Clancy b’y. I’ll catch yer.”

Clancy sat on the rock edge of the precipice. He turned so his belly hugged the rock and he lowered himself with his arms. His feet got what grip he could on the uneven rocky face of the drop. The rocks under his left hand gave way and he fell into the air. 

Birk caught him around the waist and they both collapsed to the ground.

“Oof. Man yer eatin too much of ma’s cookin.” Birk said pulling himself out from under Clancy.

“Yeh.” Clancy stood and brushed debris from his pants. “You’re making a habit of savin’ people.”

“I suppose so. You only had a few feet to fall anyway. More important to save this though. Them cookies are precious cargo.” He picked up his lunch tin. “We’re almost there.”

The rapids fed directly into the pool that then flowed into the lake. They took off their boots and socks and waded along the shore to were they had been fishing before. From there one couldn’t see the rapids.

“Looks as if no one else has been here since us.” Clancy toed the dark ashes of their previous fire. “Not even that rain washed it all away.”

Birk baited his hook, pulled off his shirt and pants and waded into the lake in his underpants. He cast his line.

Clancy followed suit. 

“I thought this would be a popular spot for fishing.” Clancy said.

“Most don’t think to come over them bluffs the way we did last time. None cares for that climb down along the rapids either. Fishermen keep good spots secret.”

“Land belong to anyone?”

“County as far I know.”

“Ever thought of owning a piece of property?”

“A farm?”

“Yeh. Where you didn’t have to worry about where yer food was comin’ from. You could go into your own field and pick what you wanted to eat.”

“Like them apple trees behind our place?”

“Sure why not. That’ ad be grand.”

They caught a dozen or so fish each over the next couple of hours before they stopped for lunch.

“Sure is getting warm.’ Birk said. “Guess that rain’s holdin’ off fer now. Think I’ll set for a spell in the sun.” He rolled his pants into a pillow, pulled off his under-drawers and stretched out on the warm rocks.

“That orchard all you thinkin’ about.” Clancy said as he did the same.

“Nope.” Birk said softly. “I think about what we did the last time here. Rubbin’ on each other.”

“We did that to avoid the sins of self-pollution.” Clancy teased.

“Yeh. Only this time I don’ want no rock scrapes on my knees and elbows. I get enuf of them in the pits.”

“Happy to oblige.” Clancy lay on top of Birk.

“Uh.” Birk gasped. “You a mite heavier than I was.”

“Don’ want to hurt you.” He began to roll off

“S’fine though.” Birk put his hands on Clancy’s behind to keep him in place. He tried to respond with hip movements to Clancy’s grinding. The hard rock under him made it awkward.

He turned his head to face away from Clancy. Clancy was breathing in Birk’s ear. They pressed at each other for several minutes. Each trying to anticipate movements by the other.

“I’m going to …” Clancy gasped. He raised himself with his left arm and with his right hand he forced Birk to look him in the eyes.

“Me too.” Birk tried to resist looking Clancy in the eyes but Clancy held his head firm. Clancy’s warm spurt oozed around his member. He spent himself seconds afterward. 

“You closed your eyes.” Clancy said. “When you spewed.”

“So did you.” Birk replied. 

“Wonder why that is?” Clancy continued to hold Birk’s gaze.

“So as we won’t see what’s in t’other soul.” He returned the gaze even though Clancy had let go of his head. “Ma say the eyes are windows to the soul.” 

They lay a few moments with eyes locked. 

Clancy licked his lips and pushed himself off Birk and rolled on to his back.

“Yer not so heavy after all.” Birk said. “I think’s time we did something about that bed at home though.”

“Get rid of the squeak, you mean?”

“I’m thinkin.” Birk rolled to his side, head propped on his elbow. “We don’t want to keep waiting till we come up here. Not when the snow flies, at any rate.”

“Or till we’re both covered with rock scrapes!’ Clancy jumped up and ran into the lake.

“That’s right.” Birk followed, leapt on Clancy to push him under the water.

They dried off and fished until the rain clouds darkened the sky.

“Let’s get these fish cleaned. We can take the town trail home.” Birk said. “It’ll be a lot faster.”

They were passing St. Agatha’s rectory when the rain started. Light drizzle at first and then a heavy downpour. They were drenched by the time they got to Birk’s house. 

“Don’t bring that wet in here.” His mother said as he handed her the fish they had caught.

“Can’t come bare skin into the house Ma.”

“Go on with ya.” She handed them two of her aprons. “These are big enough for ya till ye can get decent again. I’ll keep yer sisters in the parlour till yer upstairs.”

They stripped down to their under drawers and hung their clothes on the clothes line. 

“That’ll save us having to wash’em.” Birk said.

“Hope the rain takes that smoke out of them.” Clancy haded Birk of of the aprons.

They tied them around themselves, went into the house and rushed up to their room.

“We’re in Ma.” Birk shouted down.

“Barely covers yer arse.” Clancy laughed.

“Lest my little feller isn’t nosing about.” He pointed to Clancy privates. He’d put his apron on so hasty that the hem had been caught in the waist of his under drawers. 

“Thought it was a might breezy when I rushed up here.”

“Want to come out and play some more?” He reached out and touched Clancy’s member.

“Hey.” Clancy pulled back. “Not till we fix that squeak.”

“What’s this?” Birk noticed a package in brown paper on the bed. His name was printed on it. He tore it open and it was a couple of white shirts with a pair of dark grey pants under them. On top of the shirts was a handwritten note.

He glanced at the note and handed it to Clancy and put on the pants and one of the shirts.

“What’s it say.”

“I th’ot you could read?” Clancy squinted at the note. The handwriting was frilly.

“I can when ‘tis printed but this writing stuff I can’t make head nor tails outta it.’

“You know whose it from don’t ya.” Clancy sniffed the letter.

“No!” Birk buttoned the shirt. The white dazzled him. It was a large on him. He’d never touched such a fine linen.

“It’s from her who you plucked out of the fire last night.”

“What?” The pants were too large. The waist would need a belt and the legs were so long there was a good three inches beyond his toes. He sat on the edge of the bed and rolled the cuffs up.

“Dear Mr. Nelson,

Please accept these items to replace the clothing of yours that was damaged in the fire last night. They are apparel of my uncle’s that no long suits him. I trust they will fit you. If not I will be happy alter them.

My uncle, Father Patrick and I dearly wish to express our gratitude in person if you would kindly join us for a luncheon this Monday at the rectory. 

Sincerely

Miss Lillian McTavish.”

“I’ll be fused!” Birk said. “She wants to meet with us?”

“Just you.” Clancy grunted. “Shame you don’t fancy the gal as much as I do.”

Birk bounded down the stairs to show his mother the clothes.

“When that package come? Who brung it? Did you speak to her?” He blurted before answers could be made.

“I answered the door when the lady come.” Sal said. “She had a pretty face but dressed no better’n Ma. Called you Mister.”

“Made us laugh.” Maddy said. “Told her there was no Mister Birk living here only a plain old Birk.”

“She asked us our names.” Sal said. “I read to her from the good book too. Ma made me to do that.”

“I had to ask her in for a cup of tea.” His mother said. “Not every day we get one of them calling on us. Told us how you have been so brave at the fire. Very pretty she is.”

“I think she’s sweet on you.” Sal teased. “But that babby isn’t hers.”

“Sweet on me! You know ma’d kill me if I ever took up with some girl when I have the two of you to look after.”

“Yeh particularly a Catholic.” Clancy said. “The priest’s niece she is.”

Birk paraded around in his new clothes. 

“This is how I’d look if I were a priest.” He crossed himself. The pant cuffs refused to stay rolled up. “Guess the Father counts on God to keep his pants up.”

“Birk!” his mother laughed as she swatted at him with her wooden spoon. “Show some respect.”

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Chapter XXXII Birk Changes Shirts

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXXII

Birk Changes Shirts

The acrid smell of smoke hung in the humid morning air when Birk woke up. He lay on top of the bed to enjoy the gentle breeze that came through the window. Even in just his undershirt and underdraws it had been another night where it was too warm to sleep with covers on. He had woken a couple of times feeling the floor give way beneath his feet. Clancy, with just a pillow case over his behind, was still sleeping on the other side of the bed with his back to Birk.  

Birk could hear his mother in the kitchen downstairs singing, “Bringing in the sheaves. Sowing in the sunshine.” Her voice getting louder each time she sang ‘sheaves’ and ‘sunshine.’ His sisters would join in on ‘sunshine.’

Through the open window he heard people talking on the street. He caught small bits of conversation as they passed. 

“Terrible about that fire.” 

“What ya think the company will do?”

“She run up them stairs faster than a cat on fire.”

He sat up, swung around and reached for his shirt. Even though he had rinsed it before he went to bed it still smelled strongly of the fire. He’d have to leave it on the clothes line for a day or two to let the wind blow the smouldered stench away. The shirt was spotted with little holes where the scattered embers of the fire had showered on him when he ran up and down the stairs to rescue Miss McTavish. Most of the burns were along the shoulders. A few of the holes were large enough for his little finger to poke through.

“Ruin’t” he whispered. He took a clean shirt from the ones hanging on hooks along one wall. He had three other shirts, an old white, dressy one with thin black pinstripes, that Blackie out-grew, which Birk wore for only special occasions; the final one was his usual canvas mine work shirt. It was also hand-me-down from George. The once dark blue canvas was soft and faded pale from all the washings it had had and the patches on the elbows would soon have to be replaced. What was left of the cuffs was beyond repair. At least it didn’t smell so strong of the fire. He put it on and started to do up the mismatched buttons. 

“Come on lazy arse.” He gave Clancy a playful push. 

Unlike Birk, Clancy was happy to sleep in the nude. He was also not shy about being seen completely nude. Clancy rolled to his back. 

“Another day and no dollars.” Clancy stretched his arms to the ceiling.

“Don’t we know it.” Birk pulled on his pants.

“Fishin’s today?” Clancy reached up and pulled Birk on top of him.

“At’s right.” he half-heartedly pushed himself up.

“Feels as if your little feller’s ready to catch something.”

“Yers too.” Birk grinned sheepishly as he rubbed against Clancy. “But we … “ he didn’t want his sisters coming in to find them this way. Bad enough that Clancy was naked. “… better get crackin.”

“Didn’t we bring home enough last night?” Clancy got out of the bed and got dressed.

“Needs something to go with it.”

When Birk came down to the kitchen with his damaged shirt his two sisters sat wide-eyed and silent, staring at him.

“What is it?” he asked them. “I grow anudder head?”

“Mrs. Malone was here.” Maddy said.

“She says you saved a babby from burning up the fire.” Sal said rocking her doll in her arms. “No fire going to burn you up my little one.”

“You said nothing about that last night.” His mother pushed the loaf of bread toward him. 

“Didn’t think much of it.” Birk cut off a slice of the bread and sat at the table. “I ruin’t my shirt in the fire though.”

He handed it to his mother. “You think it can be fixed.”

She took the shirt and held it up the sunlight coming through the window. “I guess I could put a patch on these two big holes but not on all them little ones. Might just as well make a new shirt. Pity as it was good shirt.”

Blackie took the shirt. “Good thing you didn’t catch fire yourself.”

“You think I wants to hear things about my son from folks next door?” His mother twisted his ear.

“Ow! Ma I didn’t think much of it. I had enough of m’mind getting myself in and out of the company store with stuff you. Wasn’t that flour and such enough for you?”

His sisters grabbed at the shirt and each of held a sleeve to her nose to smell it.

“You wore this when you saved that babby?” Sal asked as her eyes grew big.

“Of course he did.” Maddy said looking though the burn holes. “I can see the flames now as they come down on me. Ow! Ow! Ow!” She ducked under the table.

“Ow! Ow! Ow!” Sal echoed as she ducked under the table.

“Let me check your back.” Blackie said. “Time’s I’ve been caught in a flare from the boilers and not seen how burned I was till I laid on m’back.” He began to help Birk unbutton his shirt.

“Not in my kitchen.” His mother pushed them to the back door. “Take him out back. There’ll be sun enough to see better, anyway.”

Before they could go out Clancy came into the kitchen.

“I suppose you know’d all about it, too?” his mother said to Clancy.

“Bout what. Mrs. N?”

“Birk saved a babby.” the two girls said almost in unison. Then began to dance around the kitchen singing. Each holding one the the sleeves of the shirt. “Saved a babby. Saved a babby.”

“Maddy! Sal! Quiet down.” Birk’s mother took the shirt from them. “If’un you tear this up there’ll be no way to fix it.”

“That’s not all he did.” Clancy helped himself to some of the bread. “He saved a gal too. You know, that one from away. Boston.”

“One that lives with the priest, that Father Patrick?” Birk’s mother asked. “That sort always looks to be the centre of things.” She sniffed derisively. 

“Same one.” 

  “Din’ matter to me who she was.” Birk pushed the backdoor open. “Caught her apron skirt on th’door tryin’ to get that babby out of the fire. That’s all. She done the saving. I only got her away from the fire. Let’s go out, Pa I do feel something on m’ shoulders.” 

“Birk, sometimes I feel you have a whole life outside these walls I know nothing about.” His mother said as Birk and Blackie went into the back garden. “Here take this salve out with you. It’ll help with the burns.” She took a glass jar out of the cupboard. She handed it to Clancy. “I uses this when I get a little burn tending the stove.”

Out in the sun Birk fidgeted while his father examined his arms and back in the light. 

“See much?” he asked.

“Lot’s a hair.” Chancy gave a little laugh.

“Yer not too bad.” His Dad said. “A few blisters though …”

“Where the embers didn’t bounce off your hair.” Clancy opened the jar and took a gob of the lotion out. He rubbed it along Birk’s neck. “Worse along here.”

“I’ve had worse sun burns.” Birk flinched as Clancy rubbed the lotion into him. The lotion was a thick petroleum grease that had a slight camphor smell to it. He could feel it cooling his skin here it was rubbed in. 

“Some along here too.” Blackie said, rubbing some of goo into Birk’s forearms. “Sometimes I get so used to the heat I don’t even feel it burn me.”

“I didn’t feel anything at all.” Birk said. “There a spot along here?” He gestured to his lower back.

“Felt nothing? Not even her kiss?” Clancy asked as he rubbed lotion where Birk had indicated. 

“Kiss?” Blackie said.

“That priest’s niece was sure happy to be rescued.” Clancy said. “She threw her arms around Birk and kissed him right on his mouth.” He put the lid back on the jar of salve.

“And crushed the baby?” Birk’s mother was standing on the porch with the two girls.

Sal had wrapped her doll in Birk’s shirt.

“Kissed a girl.” They broke into a song. “Birk kissed a girl.”

“Nothing of the sort happened.” Birk pulled his shirt back on. “She was grateful but the baby’s mother was right there and that Father McTavish. There was no kissin’. Her uncle shook my hand.”

His sisters kept up their chant. “Birk kissed a girl.”

“You stop that.” Birk swung his open hand playfully at them. “Or next time there’s a fire you won’t be getting no candy.”

“Don’t be scared.” Sal said to her doll. “He’s trying to save you.”

“They’re having you on b’y.” His father said.

“Now, here’s something t’eat while you are up there fishin’” His mother plunked his lunch tin on the porch rail. “There tea in the jar. Made fresh with what you saved from the company store.”

Birk flipped the lunch tin open and there was more of the bread, some cheese and a couple of cookies, still warm.

“You ever sleep. Ma?” He bit into one of the cookies.

“This hot, only time to cook is at night. Here’s for you Clancy.”

“Yeh, but you don’t ever sleep Ma.” Birk said. “I can never remember seeing you on the bed.”

“That’s enough of that talk.” she pulled her wooden spoon out of her apron pocket and shook it at him. “I gets rest enough in m’chair in the parlour.”

His mother had an over stuffed armchair in the parlour with a foot stool where she would sit when she had done her chores or when she was waiting for something to finish cooking. The flowered print had worn off from her hands smoothing the sides and the pillows before she sat in it.

His sisters sat on the back porch bench giggling and whispering to Sal’s doll about Birk kissing a girl.

“We best be off.” Clancy said.

“Sky’s clouding over so keep an eye for it.” Blackie warned.

“Yeh. We’ll try to be back before the streets are mud.” Birk said. “Then we can fish for mud suckers.”

“Bring us back a babby if you catch another one.” Maddy said.

“Bet those burns are where her kisses burned you.” Sal said and the two girls burst into laugher.

Birk’s face flushed. “There was no kissin’” He shouted at them and glared at his mother and father.

“Means nothing if there were.” His mother said gently. “Birk they mean nothing by it.”

“Yeah.” Maddy piped up. “Who’d want to kiss a hairy monkey like you anyway.” She grabbed Sal by the hand and the two of them darted into the house. The tail of the shirt caught in the door as it swung closed. His mother frowned as it tore as it was yanked divot the house.

“I know that Ma but still … it was bad enough with George makin’ fun of me. I was doing the right thing, wasn’t I.”

“Of course you were,” Blackie said. “Don’t think we are aren’t proud of you for doin’ it, while others stood around watching.”

“It happened so fast I can scare remember what I did. I saw her up there strolling. I can’t even say if she screamed for help. Did I run up them stairs?” he asked Clancy.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t paying that much attention to you, until I saw you up there with her. Could be you jumped up there from the ground for all I know.”

“Maybe m’ sisters are right that I did let that gal kiss me.”

“She did get your name though. I remember that. Asked who you were after she smothered you with kisses for recusing her.”

“Sounds like your sore because she did ask who m’friend with the bags of flour was?”

“Candy. I had those jars of candy.”

“Doesn’t matter now.” Blackie said. “Today’s another day. We have to figure out what to do now that there’s no store in Castleton to deny us credit.”

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Chapter XXXI – Lillian Has A Dream

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXXI

Lillian

Has A Dream

The remaining people stepped back as the fire truck from the mine pulled up. The water pressure was much stronger than the hand pump the men had been using and the remaining flames were quickly doused.

The fire did spread slightly to both buildings on either side of the company store but the men managed to keep the damage to a minimum. As the fire cooled there were abrupt pops and small explosions from the charred debris of the store.

“Canned goods.” her uncle explained.

He left her and went to talk to the men who were containing the blaze. All that remained of the store was a portion of the front under where the windows had been and the metal front door frame. 

“Where will you go?” Lillian asked Mrs. Seldon.

“I … I hadn’t thought of that. I’m sure Mr. Bowden will be able to find accommodations for us.”

“And after this?” Father Patrick asked.

“We lost everything in the fire.” Mr. Seldon wiped soot and sweat off his face. “So packing our possessions to move won’t be one expense we’ll have to face. I don’t mean to sound bitter, Miss McTavish, but it’s not as if I’m responsible for company decisions. The place they should have set fire to isn’t even on this continent.”

 

Fatigue washed over Lillian. More than anything she longed to go up to her bedroom in Boston, draw a hot bath and wash off the grime of the day. 

“I will return to the rectory now Father Pat.” she told her uncle.

“Yes, do so my child. Your fortitude impresses me when I least expect it to. We will have much to talk about in the morning. Can you manage to get home on your own?”

“I’ll see to it that she gets back safely Father Pat.” Manny O’Dowell approached them dabbing at his face with a kerchief he pulled from his back pocket. All it did was move the grime around his eyes. 

Similar to most of the men around her Manny was smeared with soot. His clothes were wet from helping with the pumper that had doused the flames. The fire was contained now.

“Sorry about m’appearance ma’am.” Manny said.

“Lillian?” Father Patrick asked nodding at Manny. 

“Yes uncle he’ll do fine, that is if you aren’t too tried from helping here.” Lillian took a clean rag from her apron and wiped some of the soot off Manny’s face.

“No ma’am. It isn’t that far, really.” He grinned.

She and Manny walked along Chestnut Avenue to the turn that would take her home.

“That a mighty brave thing, miss, that you done.”

“Thank you, Mr. O’Dowell.”

The sky was cloudless above them.

“The stars look so close.” Lillian said stopping to looking up. 

“Yes, miss. But a clear sky is often a sign of a storm coming soon.”

They continued on their way.

“You can tell?” she asked.

“Something you learn to see.” Manny explained. “Some can read signs in their bones. The way they ache moments before a thunderstorm.”

“I expect there’ll be a many aches tonight after what’s happened.”

“Too true there miss. But the color of the sky … ”
“How long have you been in the mines Mr. O’Dowell?”

“A few years now Miss. Pa said I had to know how the men earned their money so I could value it more when they spent it in our stores.”
“Do you know a … Birk Nelson?” she asked.

“Sure Miss. His pa, Blackie is in charge of the boilers at the colliery. Blackie’s a decent man but that Birk is a true Christer. Sorry miss … sorry about my language.”

“We’re all a bit tired from the day, Mr O’Dowell.”

“That’s no excuse. Why you asking about that ch … I mean … Birk. He thinks with his fists, if you understand what I mean. He acts reckless but he’s a decent sort, I suppose, for an orange bast … for a Protestant, I mean.”

“It was he who rescued me from the fire.”

“Wished it was me, miss.”

“He lives in the … “

“Bloody Mudder … I mean Mudside. That’s what we call their area Miss, cause it turns to mud when it rains. Yes, he lives there.”

“I suppose he’s one of the one with two kids already, too.”

“Oh, no miss. Lives with his folks. His brother Geo got hitched a some … a few months ago. Moved to Alberta for real work. Things so bad they had to take in a roomer too. Clancy … not sure what his last name is. He’s a mainlander, so I don’t even know who is father is.”

“Works in the mines too? Clancy, I mean.”

“Yes miss. He got my old job workin’ as Birk’s rake man. Birk as some sore about that. Me getting out from under the ground. His sport was born a mine rat and will stay a mine rat forever, if you ask me.”

“Mine rat?” Lillian hadn’t heard that expression before. 

“Yes miss. The mines is full of vermin that gets born down there. Sometimes they are born blind, they don’t need to see anyhow just smell.”

Lillian shuddered. “Not an easy life for them. From what I’ve heard the miners never had enough of anything.”

“Those in Mudtown gets what they deserved does them orange bast … sorry miss.”

They were at the front door of the rectory. The church hall doors were still open and the lights were on.

Lillian didn’t feel it was her duty to worry about these matters. She wanted to rest. Perhaps finish that letter to her brother. She had so much to tell him. The fire, the daring rescue. Then she remembered she was dead.

“Thank you for seeing me home Mr. O’Dowell.”

“Manny, if you please.”

“No, for the present I think it will remain Mr. O’Dowell.” Lillian recognized that look in his eyes. What was it about men that even a casual conversation with a woman would lead them to believe any further familiarity was invited or even wanted?

“Yes Miss McTavish.” His shoulders slumped. “It’s been a great pleasure to … have a … conversation with you.”

He shook her hand and walked into the night. She forced herself to go into the hall to turn the lights off and close the doors. There were papers, empty bottles, cigarette littering the floor but she would leave those for the church’s clearers to tend to. She left the windows open to allow the night breeze to clear away the smell of cigar smoke.

In the rectory she went up to her room intending to rest a moment before washing for bed. Her shoes smelled of smoke as she pushed them off. She lay on the bed and fell asleep immediately.

She dreamt that she had taken the train back to Boston. One off the train she ran from he station to her house but it wasn’t on the street where she remembered it was. She asked strangers where number 56 was and they looked at her blankly.

She up and down the street but there was no number 56. She saw people she recognized but none of them knew her. Over the shoulder of one of them she saw across the street to the front steps to her house. She rushed dupe the steps and put her key inot the door.

When door swung opened she was greet by the familiar smells of fresh cut flowers from the sitting room, the smell of cooking from the kitchen. She called out that she was home from Cape Breton, That she’d brought gifts of bread and jam for every. She’d baked the bread herself. 

Her mother appeared from the living-room dressed in black.

“Lillian is that you or is it a ghost?” Her mother stepped back fearfully.

“No Mother it is Lillian. I’m very much alive. Learning to bake bread didn’t kill me after all.” She reached out to embrace her mother.

“What do you think you are doing Lillian McTavish.” The figure of her mother had become Father Patrick. She was no longer in her Boston home but in front of the alter at St. Agatha.

Father Patrick was addressing the congregation from his lectern and pointing to her. All the parishioners were looking at her.

“She that has tasted of sin will never receive the life everlasting.” Her uncle was shouting. Spittle flew from his mouth, dribbled down his chin. Smoke rose around her. 

She woke gasping for air and pulling at the neck of her night-gown. She sat up in the bed and saw where she was. It was her room in the rectory. The smell of the fire on her clothes was strong. She got up and opened the window to let in some fresh air. Back in the bed she fell back to sleep.

The morning light was coming through her window when she awoke with a start. The clothes she had slept in itched. The room still smell of the fire.

She could hear noises from below. By the quality of the light she knew it was well past her uncle’s breakfast time. 

She shoved her feet into her shoes. The backs of her hands where slightly burnt. She hadn’t noticed that in her excitement during the fire.

She went downstairs to the kitchen. Her uncle was seated in his usual chair at the kitchen table.

“I’m sorry Father Patrick … I …”

“That’s quite all right my dear. After the ordeal of yesterday anyone would need a good night’s sleep. The people of Castleton Mines have been expressing their gratitude for your daring act last night. Sit.” he vacated his chair for her.

She sat. 

“Let me express my own gratitude by serving you.” He place a cup of tea before her. “It is the English, which I know you prefer over the Ceylon. Your egg will be ready in a moment, as well.”

“Father Patrick!”

“Your actions last night have made me aware that my judgements of you may have been harsher than necessary. You have changed greatly from the sullen, silly girl who arrived here some months ago. The Mother Superior believes you have all the qualities needed to be a fine nun. At first I wasn’t so sure but now I am convinced. Your brave willingness to sacrifice your life in order to save that child is what true martyrs are made of.”

“Martyr!” Lillian blushed. She wasn’t interested in becoming a martyr. “I didn’t do that to be a martyr but to … I want to be seen as a person, not as a burden. Not a daughter whose innocent indiscretion is such a family shame she is dead to them. I want to be free to be myself.” She gulped her tea.

“Granted, but one can only truly find themselves though the intercession of Our Saviour.”

Lillian wanted to laugh, to scream but contained herself.

“Yes Father Patrick. The way is becoming clearer to me.”

“As I prayed it would. I have tended to the water heater so there will be ample hot water if you wish to avail yourself of it before you attend to your household chores.”

“Thank you Father Patrick.”

She went into the bathroom and filled the tub. While it was filling she went to her room for clean underthings and a fresh pinafore. She unwrapped the last of the Castile rose soap she had brought from Boston. Another tie to her past now washed away.

She sat in the tub and undid her hair. She lay back allowing it to float on the water. 

The water quickly darkened with the soot from the fire, with the oils of her hair. When had she last washed it? Weeks? Months? She had no reason till now. She was sure that Birk Nelson would enjoy the smell of her hair.

One she was dry she rubbed lotion onto her burned hands. Refreshed she luxuriated in clean clothes. She went to the bin of cast-off clothing collected for the miner’s families. On the top of it were some shirts and trousers of her uncle’s. Clothes she had recently repaired even though they no longer fit him. She selected a shirt and a pair of dark grey pants. 

She wrapped them in brown paper with a note. One the package she wrote “Birk Nelson.” Finding his house shouldn’t be too hard for as brave lass as her.

 

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Chapter XXX – Lillian to the Rescue

Chapter XXX

Lillian

to the Rescue

From the front parlour window Lillian watched the men gathering at St. Agatha Hall for the union meeting. She wondered why it was only men who went into the Hall. Why were their wives made to wait outside at such times? After all the decisions made here would effect their lives as much as the men’s. 

She hoped to see the hairy miner in the crowd but didn’t notice him. Her memory of him was vague at best. She had been unwilling to actually focus on him the few times they had met in passing. It wasn’t fitting for her to pay much heed to any of the Protestants in Castleton. His dark eyes and unshaved face made her shudder. What if he was too … animalistic for her purposes. Perhaps the Convent would be a better option. No! That decision could wait until she’d had a good look at the man himself.

Without changing out of her apron she left the rectory and went around the back of the Hall to a spot near one of the open windows of the Hall to hear what was being said. She couldn’t see over the heads of the man leaning on the inside sill. She recognized voices. Her uncle’s, that union man. If Birk spoke up she doubted if she’d recognize him. It was clear they wouldn’t be going back the mine that very night or in the near future. She hoped the rectory had enough fuel for the hot water heater. 

After confused, angry shouting the men began to move en masse. They went from being a disorderly but listening crowd to a mob. She joined some of the wives who had been stationed outside, to follow at a safe distance. A few men at the edge of the mob were drinking, shoving and fighting among themselves.

Father Patrick and Reverend Brown stood at the hall doors calling for the men to come back to finish the meeting. 

The men were chanting. “The Pluck Me. The Pluck Me.”

The mob gathered in front of the company store. She had been in the store several times before the strike began but only once since. Mrs. Seldon, wife of the store manager was also from off-island and had never gelt the local had accepted her. She had given Lillian a much needed listening ear when she first arrived in New Castleton. If there was some new patterned fabric she would send for Lillian in hopes of selling her some. Lillian loved to look at and handle the material but could only afford to dream.

They had spent evenings going through the Eaton’s catalogue looking at and longing for the various shoes, dinner wear and household items. They both were taken by the new washing machine that would reduce the amount of work needed to wash and wring out the clothes. With the birth of her son, Charles, Mrs. Seldon said she could use two of those machines to keep up with dirty nappies.

She felt a surge of powerless as she saw Mrs. Seldon shout from the second story window to discourage the men from taking any violent actions. When the men began to tear the boards protecting the plate glass windows she was faint. The men had gone from humans to animals as they attacked the front of the store.

  Boards were quickly pulled loose, the windows broken and the men clambered into the store through the sills, heedless of the crunch of glass underfoot. They were ants swarming over an apple core in the garden. First one, then two, then what seemed like hundreds of them. Like the ants with crumbs, the men were departing with bags of flour, bolts of fabric, barrels of things; carried in their arms, on their backs. The women joined in the clearing tins of food off of the shelves of the store.

She could hear Mrs. Seldon weeping and pleading with them. A couple of the wives dragged her out of the store and shoved her into the lane between the buildings opposite the store. The Seldon’s new born was wailing from the upstairs room. A fire broke out in the back of the store. The men were heedless of danger as they continued to pull out goods and disappear into the night with them.

She could no longer see Mrs. Seldon. The wails of the baby got louder. 

“You have to do something!” she grabbed one of the miners. “There’s a child up there.”

“Not my look out.” The man pushed past her. “I didn’t leave it behind.”

Lillian scrambled up the outside stairway that led to the rooms above. The unlocked door opened into the living-room. Smoke had filled the room. It stung her eyes. She covered her mouth with her apron and made her way to the corner where the crib was. She grabbed at the writhing child, wrapped him in a swaddling blanket and got him into her arms. The baby kicked and cried even louder.

Flames were now spurting through the floor boards around the edges of the carpet. As she got to the door, the floor began to collapse under her feet and into the store beneath. She prayed at least one of the miners would be caught in the inferno. The thought made her shiver with guilt.

Her apron caught on the door frame and she couldn’t pull it loose. She couldn’t let go her hold of the child as she tried to protect it from the sparks that rained on them. The smoke and heat made it impossible for her to see where the apron was caught. Her heart raced. She feared this was her doom. The landing where she balanced on the outside stairs began to smoulder. Another section of the floor in the room behind her crashed into the store. 

Clutching the baby in one arm she fumbled at the apron to see where it was caught. Maybe if she could untie it she could get loose. Struggling she began to mutter, “Our Father who art …”

A man appeared beside her out of the smoke. She couldn’t see his face.

“Oh! Thank God. My apron …” 

He reached behind her, ripped the apron free and dragged her down the stairs while trying to shield her and the baby from a new barrage sparks that fell on them as the roof collapsed into the building.

She glimpsed flames darting through the very stairs and around their feet as they stumbled down. The hem of her skirt began to smoulder. Flame burned her ankles. As they leapt from the next to last step the stairway collapsed and was swallowed by flame.

Hands grabbed them the moment they were off the stairs. The man kept her close to him until they were in the crowd. There was a scattering of applause as the mob parted to let them make it to safety. They were steered to a bench in front of the iron foundry across from the company store.

“Thank you. Thank you.” Lillian said to the man as she sat down. “I was preparing to meet God.” She gasped for air and coughed as she breathed in the smoke around them.

She set the baby on the bench beside her and opened the covers to make sure it was alright. It starting kicking and giggling as the swaddling was loosened. She picked it up and began to rock it gently.
“As was I, miss, as I ran up those steps. The closest I ever wants to come to the mouth of Hell.”

She rubbed her eyes with the sleeve of her free arm. They were clear enough for her to look at the man who had rescued her. His soot streaked face was familiar to her. It was her hairy miner.

“Thank you again.” She paused trying to recall his name. “I … we’ve met before, I think?”

“Think nothing of it, Miss. If it weren’t me, one of the others would have done the same.”

“What is your name? Please, so …. my uncle will be anxious to thank you himself, I’m sure. Father Patrick.”

“We have met a few times afore Miss, but were never prop’ly introduced. M’name is Birk Nelson.” He shook cinders out of his hair onto the ground. 

“I’ll most probably need a hair cut after this.” He grinned foolishly. “Thought it was going to burn off my head for a bit there.”

The very man she had been thinking of earlier in the day had rescued her! Was this God’s answer to her prayers for a way out of her situation? What clearer sign could one ask for? Moses had his message written in flames for him, too. Here was her’s. A commandment to marry.

She saw her uncle at the edge of the crowd. She waved to him.

“You must let me …” 

“Miss, I must be going. I sees that you and the babby are safe. I’ll let your kin look after you now.”

“No. Where … ”

He was gone before she could find out where he lived. She knew it had to Mudside. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find him there.

“Lillian!” Her uncle put his arm around her shoulders and helped her stand. “Are you all right?”

“I had to … to save Charles, the baby.” She loosened her hold on the infant. The child began to cry. “It is the Seldon’s.”

The Seldon’s weren’t parishioners of her uncle’s so she had kept her friendship with them to herself till now.

“You mean you went into that inferno to save their child?”

“Yes, Uncle. I was caught myself on the door by my apron and was in need of rescue. One of the miners risked his life.”

“Considering this was all their doing, it was the least one of them could do. I can’t imagine they wanted to add your death to their ill-considered actions.”

“Lillian!” Mrs. Seldon pushed Father Patrick aside. “Charles! You have saved Charles. I was so afraid he had been trapped in the fire.” She began to weep. “I tried to get back in but they held me back.” She took her child and began to rock it. 

Most of the mob had dispersed, satiated by their stolen goods. Some remained to bask in the glow of their handiwork. Lillian found it hard to breathe in the smoke and heat.

Mr. Seldon arrived with several other men. Lillian recognized one as Mr. Bowden, one of the mine managers.

Another group of men appeared pushing a large cart with a some sort of pump apparatus. A hose ran from it to the harbour. They began to pump and water trickled out in spurts to put out the flames.

“The best pumper is on company property.” Her uncle explained. “The miners won’t cross their picket lines to get.”

More men appeared with pails of water that they were throwing on the walls of the buildings on either side of the company store. Mr. Bowden motioned two of the miners over and they ran to the colliery with him.

“With the strike no one has been able to get to it.”

“Too late. Too late.” Mrs. Seldon sobbed. “We lost everything, for what! No one can make a profit from destruction.”

“It’ll be all they can do to keep the fire from spreading.” Mr. Seldon said. 

“How could men do something of this nature?” Lillian asked. “To make things worse solves nothing.”

“Often human passion can even drown out the voice of our Creator.” Father Patrick said.

“Some of these were men I’ve seen at Mass. I would never have imagined them capable of this kind of action.”

“Hunger, Miss McTavish.” Mr. Seldon said shaking his head sadly. “Can’t say as I can blame them but this isn’t going to help there cause.”

She watched in dismay as the back wall of the store wavered then crumbled in on the fire. 

The air hung heavy with the smells of burning mixed with the odd sweetness of things that had been incinerated in the store as it burned. 

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Chapter XXIX – Birk to the Rescue

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXIX

Birk to the Rescue

When Birk and Clancy got to St Agatha’s that night the meeting hall was jammed. Men were standing squeezed in all around the room. The windows had been opened to allow for some air. But the breeze barely moved the cigarette smoke that hung over their heads. There wasn’t room for the tea trolly even if the men had wanted tea in the heat. Some were drinking and sharing from their own bottles of refreshments. 

Alf Landen, the MLA was there once again, so every one knew this was to be more important than the last few meetings. He was talking quietly with William Gregory, Father Patrick and Reverend Brown in the front row. There were no company representatives there. 

Gregory stepped to the small stage. “Men I think you all know Alf Landon.”

“Yeah,” came a shout from the back “Some of us were made drunk enough to vote fer him!”

There was laughter and cat calls.

“Save it.” Gregory motioned for them to be silent. “He has some news for us from the cabinet.”

Alf stepped up to the stage. He hooked his thumbs under his suspenders and cleared his throat. “Thank you Will. First I want to reassure you that I am on your side, men. I think the way the coal corporation is treating you is shameful. But I am only one voice in the house. Not everyone agrees with me. Also, let me say how pleased I am that the strike has remained peaceful.”

“Not fer much longer.” someone shouted.

“I wish I had better news for you but we, at the provincial level, are at an impasse with both the union and the mine management. In cabinet we discussed the issues and after heated augments I can assure you we can see no way to force a change in company policy. We’ve taken it to the federal level as well.”

“We know how the feds deal with unions.” someone shouted.

“How?” someone else called out.

“They send in the troops to trample the miners and their children.”

There were more cat calls from the audience.

“Men!” Father Patrick got to the stage. “This isn’t going to help your cause in any way. If both sides remain … unmoved … ”

“Yeah! What will help?” someone shouted over him. “Praying to the Lord Jesus only hurts m’ knees worsen workin’ in the mine for twelve hours.” One of the miners walked up to face Father Patrick. “At least I sees some coal for that.”

“Men. Men.” Alf stood on a chair. 

They silenced.

“There is something you can do. You can go back to work on the company’s terms. That has to be better than letting your families suffer. ”

“That isn’t goin’ to happen.” Someone shouted. “They was suffering on what we were making before, anyhow.” Another of the men said.

“Okay. Okay.” Gregory got the men’s attention. “Alf you know that is unacceptable.” He pulled Alf off the chair and got up on it himself. “There will be a march in Glace Bay on Saturday next. That’s eight days from now. We have union members coming from the mainland to show their support. The steel plant will be closed down for the day when our brother members there put down their tools and join us. We have to show them we mean business.”

“What we been doing these past weeks?” Birk asked. 

“You should talk,” one of the them men said. “Yer pa Blackie still goin’ in there, isn’t he. Shutting down them boilers will show them we mean business, too. Won’t it?”

“Men!” Alf said. “Damaging the pits themselves won’t do you any good. You won’t have anything to to go back to if the mine closes down because you did something foolish to the boilers and let the mines flood.”

“Easy for you say,” someone shouted. “You don’t have a wife and three kids at home with nothing to eat.”

“I knows one place where we can something to feed our families.” Jim McKlusky said. “We all do! The Pluck Me.”

“The Pluck Me.” The men took up the phrase and started to leave the hall.

“Wait! There’s decisions to be made.” Alf shouted.

“We made em. Answer is no.” one of the men said. “No! No! No! To same work for less pay.”

“The Pluck Me. The Pluck Me.” The men chanted as they left the hall en masse. They marched in a ragged mob along Chestnut Avenue to the company store.

Clancy and Birk followed at the back of the shouting men. McKlusky was pounding on the front door of the company store. Two other men had gone around to the back to make sure the manager, Daniel Seldon, didn’t slip away, down the outside side stairs. The front windows had been boarded over the week before. The only light came from a window on the second floor.

“He ain’ going anywhere.” Birk muttered. “Too much stuff inside. He’d never step away from a profit.”

“Open up, Seldon. Man, we know you’re in there.” McKlusky shouted. “We don’t want to harm you. We know it ain’ your fault wha’s goin’ on but we have families to feed too you know.”

The window on the second floor opened. It was to the left of the front door. A woman’s head stuck out. “Dan’l t’ain’ here.”

It was his wife.

“He’s gone up to the big office. He was sent fer at supper time. He ain here.”

“Then let us in mussus.” McKlusky stepped back to call up to her. “We means no harm to you and yours.”

“I canna let you in. It’d be the end of me. He dinna want this to happen. But he’s got no choice He’s sorry he ever let his brother talk him inta runnin’ the cump store. Swore it was easy money. But it isn’t. It isn’t. We has to pay for everything same as you do. Even if it don’ get bought and goes bad we still has to pay for it.”

Birk had never heard Mrs. Seldon talk for so long.

“In that case we’ll have to ….” McKlusky reached along the edge of a piece of the wood that boarded up the windows and gave it a strong heave. It creaked and started to come loose.

The other men joined him and the boards were quickly all torn off. The windows behind were then shattered. Three men kicked in the door and they streamed into the shop.

Birk glanced at Clancy to see if they were going to join in the pillaging. Clancy grinned and muttered, “Well, guess we might as see what tea they got stashed there, eh? Or you enjoying that lilac leaf tea?”

“I don’t know. Don’t feel right to me.”

He looked up and saw Manny O’Dowell struggle out of store clutching packages of cigarettes.

“If the mick’s are doin’ it I guess we might as well too.” Birk said.

“Stop! Stop!” Mrs. Seldon was screaming as she rushed down the stairs into the store. She was pulling at the shoulders of the men to get them to stop. “Please stop.”

Some of the wives had joined the men in going through the shelves. One of them went to Mrs. Seldon and smacked her and shoved her to the front door.

“You had that comin’ for a long time.” she said to Mrs. Seldon. “Be quiet or we’ll tie you up and leave you.” 

“There’s more in the root cellar.” The woman turned to the crowd. “That door is over here.” Two of the women yanked the door open and one of them went down and began handing up sacks of potatoes.

Birk and Clancy pushed their way to the section of dry goods, beans, flour. Things Birk knew his mother could make use of. With their arms full they shouldered their way back outside. There was a flicker of flame near the rear of the store. The flicker quickly got larger.

Men where pushing and shoving each other out of the store.

“Watch my beans.” Clancy put his arm load of cans down and dashed back into the building. 

Flames spurted out of the roof. A baby was crying loudly. Dogs were barking. 

Clancy came stumbling out in a billow of smoke. He was clutching two jars of penny candy under one arm and a can of tobacco under the other.

“Something for yer sisters. Something for us.”

“You …” Birk had been fearful that Clancy wouldn’t get out of the fire. “You got a nerve Clancy Sinclair. True nerve.”

He saw a woman dash up the side stairs of the store that lead to the second floor and into the building. She appeared moment later holding something and trying to shelter it from the flames. Her skirt got caught on the door jam and she couldn’t get it loose.

Without thinking Birk bolted up the stairs, tore her skirts free and rushed her down the stairs. Sparks showered on them as the roof began to collapse into the building. He could smell his hair burning as it was singed in the heat. There was some applause as he got her safely into the crowd.

She thanked him repeatedly staring into his face. Even darkened by soot he knew it was the priest niece. She insisted on getting his name. He told her. When she was waving her uncle over he slipped away.

“Didn’t think you had that in you Birk.” Clancy brushed ashes off Birk’s face.

“Think I’d stand here and watch someone burn up?” 

They gathered the stuff they had taken.

The crowd stood silently and watched the flames destroy the company store. Mrs. Seldon stood to one side sobbing as she rocked her baby.

The fire was still going when they went back to Birk’s house. 

“Say nothing of what happened.” Birk said.

“You mean you playing the hero? It was a good thing.”

“I don’t care. There’ll be no end of it once Ma knows.”

In the kitchen they laid out what they had grabbed in their haste. Mrs. Nelson sorted through the various cans and stuff they had.

“I don’t know Birk Nelson. I didn’t bring you up to be … a… hooligan who’d take advantage of people in this manner.”
“But Mrs. N. what good would it have been to let this food go up in flames. Ashes don’t do anyone any good.”

“Wise words Clancy. Rest assured those ashes aren’t going to do any one any good when word gets back to the coal company what was done.”

“Yes Ma’am.” 

“Best wash off that soot before you go to bed. Yer almost as black as ya are after coming from the pits.” She smiled and rubbed Birk’s forehead.

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