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.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2019’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

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.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2019’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

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.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2019’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

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.

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2019’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

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. 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2019’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

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.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License


Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2019’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

Chapter XXVIII – Birk Does Nothing

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXVIII

Birk Does Nothing

Even though they didn’t have their routine of work shifts to get to, Birk’s mother made sure he and Clancy were up at the usual time in the morning. The strike was entering its fourth week with no progress in negotiations.

“We goin’ ta have the best garden ever.” Birk wiped the sweated off his biceps.

He and Clancy were turning earth in the back garden. After the rain stopped in the first days of the strike Birk’s mother saw the soft wet earth as ripe for being worked proper. Potato eyes had been planted in a row along one side of the yard. Tomatoes were seeded in another row. 

Blackie had gotten cow dung from one of the farms and they were now working it into the soil between the potato rows. The potatoes had sprouted within days of being planted and Birk’s mother expected a good crop.

“Hope it grows fast. We’ll be eating soup made of boiled flour sacks soon.” Clancy said.

Over the past weeks they had, as had most of the miners, been looking after household repairs that had been let go of for some time. Even though the company owned the houses all maintenance was the responsibility of the miners. Miners who often had no time or energy after their shifts to do much more the eat and sleep.

Roofs were repaired, draughty windows stuffed with rags, broken glass replaced with thin wooden shingles, leaks plugged, eaves straighten, wells drug deeper or cleaned out, outhouses cleaned out. Things that could be done without spending money. The row of company houses Birk lived in were in the best condition than they had been in years. All they needed a coat of paint. Now idleness was setting in.

Birk and Clancy had been gone hunting with Jake twice and brought home some venison which was a welcome change from the rabbits that Birk trapped. But food necessities were dwindling in all the homes. Salt, sugar, molasses, flour and tea were slowly becoming scarce.

Birk’s mother made sure the Sal and Maddy were fed but even the portions for them were getting smaller. The girls went foraging with Birk for berries and dandelion greens. The greens were bitter to Birk but better than nothing.

One of the neighbour women showed them how to make a tea from the dandelion roots, how to dry certain wild flowers for tea, what mushrooms were safe to eat. The pickleweed from the saltwater marsh proved to a reasonable substitute for salt.

Birk and Clancy went to North Sydney to see if they could get part-time work on the fishing boats for a couple of days but there was no work for them there either. There were enough miners with actual sea experience who had taken what positions might be available. The fishermen were sympathetic but had be known to take matters into their own hands when any idle miners set out on their own to fish.

Clancy was able to get Mrs. Franklin to allow them to use the bath house once a week in return for keeping it clean and stocking the boiler room with wood and coal for the hot water. With the men not bringing in money she didn’t have many paying boarders left and was suffering financially because of that.

The young men showed up at the colliery for their daily strike shifts. To make sure management knew they were there, the miners would bring their fiddles to sing and dance to pass the time. Often with their children there as well to give their wives a break.

“Getting by on your dollar a week?” Jake Malone asked Birk.

The strike fund pay was a dollar a week for single men, a dollar and fifty cents for a married worker without children, those with children would get two dollars, regardless of how many children they had.

“Pays for milk but that’s about all.” Birk said. “How’s by you.”

“We’re stretchin’ it as best we can.” Jake replied. “Beth gets some from her folks. They have that farm out by Lake Ansley. Eggs this week. Yer welcome to a couple if you want.”

“We bagged some deer,” Clancy said. “Could swap you for what you may got to spare.”

“I’ll get Beth come over later. Good thing she’s not with … you know. This not a time to bring a child into this world.” He coughed and spat, toed the sputum. “Even m’spit is turning to water. Don’t look right without a heap o’ black in it.”

The church bells rang. 

“Time for us to knock off.” Birk said.

“See you at that meetin’ t’ night?” Jake asked. “About time the union had some news for us.”

Once again the union meeting was at St Agatha’s hall. There had been some informal ones at the Protestant church but the Catholics refused to come over to Mudside for union business.

“We’ll be there.” Clancy said. “Not much else to do these days.”

They headed back to Birk’s house.

“Doin’ nothing all day is making me want to … I don’t know … it’s like I’m hungry for something and don’t know what it is? Race you the back pasture.”

Birk knocked Clancy off his feet and started running over the uneven dirt lane that lead to the house. 

“You bastard. When I catch you …”

Clouds of dust rose from the dried out mud as Birk ran. The heavy thump of his boots on the roadway echoed off the houses. When he reached the side fence he stopped to see where Clancy was. He was no where to be seen.

“Ya give up that easily.” Birk grasped for air. 

Clancy darted out from the side of house, He dove head first into Birk and they tumbled though the gate into the garden.

“Get yer fat behinds outta my garden.” Birk’s mother burst out of the house with her wooden spoon held over her head.

“Sorry Ma.” Birk said pushing Clancy’s face into the dirt. He jumped up, leapt over the back fence and kept running through the field. He stopped at the oak tree and slumped against the base of it. He was tugging his boots off when he was showered by a handful of dirt.

“I guess you right Birk. We needs to get doing something besides nothing. But rolling in the dirt isn’t it.”

“I know. I know.”

“I could get used to this though.” Clancy tugged off his shirt and shook dirt out of it. “No coal dust and the life of leisure.” He rolled the shirt up and put it under his head as he laid on the ground beside Birk.

“Not me. I get this itch to do something. Used to feel so worn out from workin’ in the pit all day that I can’t wait to rest. Now I feel too rested.”

“We haven’t been fishin’ for awhiles now.” Clancy reminded him.

“True. Rocks don’t squeak loud as that bed o’ mine.” He caught Clancy’s eye briefly.

They had tried to rub on each other once but the bed rocked and squealed so loud they stopped before it woke anyone. 

“Don’t know how Geo managed that bed. Never made that much noise when he was on t’ other side o’ me.”

“One body movin’ isn’t the same as two.” Clancy said rolling over to his side to face Birk.

“Could be. So may be it’ll be fishin’ tomorrow. Depends on what Ma wants us to do.” His eyes met Clancy’s.

“I think we repaired every stick of future in your house already.” Clancy turned away.

“Except the bed.” Birk laughed.

“Hopes we catch another glimpse of that gal though. Nice of her to come by with bread for us at the gate there that once.”

“Could be she’ll be there t’night at the meetin’ ” Birk elbowed him.

“Could be.” Clancy grinned.

“That how you keeping your mind busy? Thinkin’ on her?” Birk shoved Clancy’s shoulder playfully with his foot.

“What of it.” Clancy grabbed Birk’s foot and pull him over on top of him. “She’d still smell a whole lot better than that foot of yours.”

They began to wrestle as they rolled over each other down the slope behind the tree. Each attempting to pin the other to the ground. Clancy stop resisting to let Birk sink on top of him.

“You giving up.” Birk asked.

“Nope. Just giving over. This ground don’t squeak. I feel you little fell’s ready ready.”

“So it yours.” Birk giggled.

“Stop horsing around you two. Ma’s be calling for you.”

Birk rolled off Clancy. It was Maddy.

“There’s some supper ready for you. Or would you rather play like kids in the muck?” She shook her finger at them. “You best wash up some before you come in the house.”

“Yes Ma.” Birk said. “I mean yes Maddy.”

He stood and helped Clancy stand. 

“You’ll need the broom to clean up properly though.” Maddy said as they followed her back to the house. “It’s either that or the spoon.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2019’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

Coal Dusters: Chapter XXVII – Lillian’s Letter

Coal Dusters

Chapter XXVII

Lillian’s Letter

Since arrive in Cape Breton Lillian had received several letters from her Mother that kept her informed of family matters, of the parties she was going to and her brother’s upcoming nuptials in the fall. Letters that her Uncle had read first to make sure she wasn’t be contacted by suitors. This was wasn’t addressed to her but to her uncle.

“It’s my mother handwriting.” She eagerly opened the envelope then stopped. “It must be bad news. Otherwise you wouldn’t be giving it to me. Has my father died?” Tears came to her eyes.

“No. Someone even closer.”

In the envelope were two newspaper clippings. The first was an obituary for Lillian McTavish’s death.

“On the 20th day of June, 1925, the death angles visited Lillian McTavish when she succumbed to influenza while visiting her uncle, Father Patrick McTavish, at St. Agnes Parish in New Castleton, Cape Breton. She had gone there to join Father McTavish in his work the parish. Father McTavish found her to be always kind and good to each and everybody.”

Lillian looked up from the notice to wipe her eyes after skimming the family details. Then she continued to read.

“It was sad and hard for her loving family to give her up. But weep not loved ones for she cannot come to us, but we can go to her. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh, and His will must be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

“This is not God’s will,” she burst out. She then read aloud from the obituary. “‘Her voice is hushed, her foots steps still, her chair is vacant the can never be filled!’ This is a fabrication.”

The other clipping was an announcement of a Boston memorial service, to be held at the Holy Cross Cathedral, as the body had been interred in Cape Breton.

“What? I don’t understand. I am not dead.” She was trying to make sense of this. She looked in the envelope there was no letter.

“You are to them.” Sister Claire said gently.

“Why? What I did wasn’t my fault! Was it so shaming that they would …” She covered her face with her hands and wept.

She heard Sister Claire pour a cup of tea.

“Here my child. Drink this.”

Lillian pushed the cup away from her. She knocked it out of  the Sister’s hands to the floor. She hoped it had broken. She wanted to jump up and go the china cupboard and break all those dishes. All those reminders of a life that now rejected her.

“This came as a great shock to your uncle as well. He thought, as I am sure you did, that your stay here would only be temporary. He does care for you but he admits that he isn’t prepared to take on the task of raising you.”

“Raising me.” Lillian stood. “I am a woman! Not a child. I’m twenty-three years old.” She paced the room. “I will not go into your convent Sister Claire, or any other. I do not have that calling. My family may be willing to sacrifice me for their sense of propriety but I am not ready to make any further sacrifices of my own.”

“Be that as it may, Father McTavish wishes you elsewhere.”

“And he has brought you here to do what he didn’t have the courage to do! If this were God’s will my uncle would have no reluctance though, would he? He knows this is wrong.”

Sister Claire picked up the cup and saucer and poured Lillian another cup of tea.

“Sit, Lillian. Sit. He wanted you know there were clear alternatives.”

“The clear alternative is that we contact my father to tell him that I am alive!”

“Father McTavish has tried to do so but your family has refused any contact from him.”

Lillian sat and drank her tea.

“I’m not surprised you are upset, that you would feel this strongly. Perhaps once you have had time to consider what has happened you will be more prepared to accept the conditions of your circumstance. Many girls welcome the opportunity to find a new life in Christ.”

Lillian’s mind raced with revenge. Her family would pay for this. Her uncle would suffer as well. The thought of returning to her Boston life was the only thing that made what she had been going through in this house bearable. Now that return was impossible. What would her family do if she showed up at their door? 

“You have no other friends or family here?”

“No, Sister Claire. Miss O’Dowell did offer me a place in her home but that is not a solution.”

“No marriageable men amongst the congregation?”

“Marriage! To a miner?” At one time she had anticipated marrying a man of considerable means, of wealth. “Me, in one of those squalid little company houses stinking of cabbage and turnips. Barking dogs and unwashed children underfoot. A crying baby and a drunken husband stumbling home reeking of sweat and mud.”

“I see your uncle is right one account. You haven’t learned enough humility. There comes a point in life where we must learn to adjust ourselves to things as they are Lily, and not let things as we wish them to be get in the way.”

“Yes Sister.”

“Not all the men are miners either. Perhaps if you had socializes outside of Castleton you might seen brighter prospects.”

“Socialize!” Lillian laughed derisively. “I have been a veritable prisoner in this house. My uncle has seen to that. Opening my mail, restricting what I am allowed to wear, accusing me of … deliberate allure when any man acknowledges my presence in the room.”

“It is understandable, considering your past actions.” 

“Sister Claire as far as I can tell there are no men here capable of the sort of … No, this is pointless. I was sent here, as you apparently know, to be kept out of the sight of eligible men. Not to enter into the social whirl of Cape Breton.” Lillian took a deep breath. “If I agree to go into the convent how soon would that happen?”

“We could find a place for you by the first of next week.”

That was sooner than Lillian had anticipated.

“Could I have time to make a prayerful decision. I don’t want to be forced into some rashly that all may regret later.”

“How long?” Sister Claire picked at clumps of mud on the hem of her skirts.

As long as my uncle will abide Lillian thought. “I’m not sure. With the miners on strike I feel I should remain here at St. Agnes. I’d rather Father Patrick didn’t have to cope with keeping up the house and attending to his parishioners in this time of difficulty. I have been gathering and distributing food stuff for them.”

“You may not be aware Lily, you are heeding some calling. You are more … maternally caring than even you think. I’ll speak with Father Patrick. If  I assure him that you are seriously considering joining us he will be satisfied. It would be more suitable for our purposes if you joined in the fall which is when two of the sisters will be leaving to work for the Catholic Missionaries in Africa. Their departure would make the way for you more natural. I would not have to male a place for you.”

“Thank you Sister Claire.” That should give her enough time to find a husband. If she was going to a bride it wouldn’t be of Christ.

“I will go and inform Father Patrick of the good news.”

“Thank you, Sister Claire. But before you go, will you pray with me.” Lillian took out her rosary. She knew this would convince the Mother Superior of a sincerity she did not feel.

“I’d be honoured Lily.” 

The two women knelt holding their rosaries and facing the crucifix. Sister Claire started and Lillian joined:

“Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Sister Claire added “Christ thank you for bringing your lost lamb closer to the fold of your everlasting arms. Amen”

When Sister Claire left Lillian cleared the parlour and washed the dishes. In the heat of summer Father Patric only wanted a simple cool evening meal. It usually consisted lightly buttered sandwiches with cold meat and whatever greens were available.

She set the table in the dining room then went to her room. Staring out her window that overlooked the garden she leaned against the frame to still her trembling. So this is why her father had been so eager to get her out of Boston. Out of sight of anyone who knew her. How many of her family knew that his was his plan? Were they all complicit in it? 

No, she couldn’t see her mother knowing the truth. It had to be her father’s plan to rid himself of his troublesome child. He had never understood why women wanted to vote, wanted to work, wanted to be free of the domineering hand of superior men. 

On her desk was a letter she had been writing to her brother. She took his last note to her from the desk. The date was the same as her memorial service yet there was no mention of it in his letter which was concerned with preparations for his nuptials and how his bride, Margaret, was looking forward to having Lillian at the wedding as her maid of honour. This was a letter from someone who thought his sister was alive. 

She checked the envelope Sister Claire had given her for a letter or a note, there was none, then she examined the newspaper clippings carefully. They were, as far as she could tell, actual newspaper clippings. There was no way her uncle could have something of this nature forged so well. There were portions of advertisements on the backs of each clipping. One for silk blouses. For a moment she thought of asking her brother if he could send her some silk blouses. She shook her head to bring herself back to reality.

She began to add to the letter she had started but words didn’t come to her. She wanted to know how they could do this to her. Why was he pretending things were going on as normal? Could her father not have told anyone in the family? Would he father merely intercept any letters from Canada?

No, the next time she wrote them it would be to invite them to her wedding. First she needed a husband. Someone who would be an affront. Mr. O’Dowell was merely a dullard and he would fit too well in with her family. 

The hairy imp! Yes! Who could be better for her purposes. A mixed marriage would be sure to offend not only her uncle but the entire congregation that did nothing when they saw how her uncle had mistreated her. 

He was man she knew she would have no problem controlling. The marriage wouldn’t have to last for that long. Just long enough for a Boston honeymoon. Show him off to all her friends and family and vanish. He was so unintelligent he’d probably not feel anything once she left him anyway. All she had to was find a way into his life. What was his name? B … Brian, Bradly something.

She had spoken with him and his friend a few times when they were on strike duty at the colliery entrance. Next time she would be sure to get his name. Find out where he lived in Mudtown. She’d prove that even if her family deemed her dead she wasn’t going to be that easy to bury.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2019’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

Chapter XXIV –  Birk Steps Up

Coal Dusters 

Chapter XXIV 

Birk Steps Up

Birk and Clancy stopped to chat with the miners gathered out side St. Agatha’s hall. There were various groups of them from the different pits in the area. Some had their wives and children with them. None of them were eager for a strike and some expressed that it was downright foolishness and were there to make sure their voices were heard.

“Is your Da going to be here Birk?” Jake came over.

“Depends on when get away from the boilers.” Birk said.

“Loves them more than anything else.” Jake offered Birk his tobacco pouch and papers.

“Nah.” Birk said. 

Clancy reached over and accepted it. “Thanks. Might as well enjoy a smoke when we can.” He spread a thin line of the tobacco and studied it and glanced at Jake before rolling the paper around it. “Looks a bit stretched.”

“Yeah well there’s some ground up hay in there. Something my pa used to do. Don’t taste it much though.”

Clancy lit the cigarette and took a tentative draw on. “If the strike goes on long well have to get used it.”

William Gregory, the union rep, opened the hall doors. “Not much space in here so I’ll have to ask the women to wait outside.” 

Birk and Clancy were separated as the men pushed in rushing to get seats. Birk ended up sitting with Jake Malone near the back with another of their laneway neighbours Jim McKlusky. 

Father Patrick started meeting with the Lord’s Pray. Not all the men knew all the words and Birk mumbled along as best he could. The moment it was over Jim started O Canada and the men got louder as they went along. he could hear the women outside singing too. 

The men sat and began talking amongst themselves. Birk was never at ease when there were so many people talking at the same time. Seeing all these men here and not in the colliery wash up was like seeing some of them for the first time. So Digger Johnny didn’t always wear that same denim coverall and canvas coat all the time. He was a different person in a clean white shirt and grey trousers, held up by striped suspenders. If it weren’t for the heavy work boots Birk would have taken him for a store clerk.

  Two of the union men were going along the aisles and talking to miners quietly. 

“Good to see you here tonight b’ys” one of them shook Birk’s hand. “We’re feeling that this time we can make a difference.”

“We’ve heard that before.” Jim McKlusky said. “Birk here might be too young to remember the strike of 1918. What the fluenza didn’t kill starvation nearly did.”

The meeting got started with William Gregory reading off the contract demands, none of which, he claimed, the management was willing to discuss. “As far as BritCan is concerned there is nothing to discuss.”

The men in the back row around Birk whispered furtively back and forth with comments about what was being said on stage. Having Alf Landon there added to the seriousness of the situation. No one was pleased to hear that there’d be no government support for strike action. 

The air in the hall was thick with the smoke from the miners’ cigarettes and the cigars the union men where puffing on. His eyes were watering. He looked around for Clancy but didn’t spot him through the haze. His side of the room was the most restless and resistant to the fact that the strike would commence at midnight that night.

“Let’s get some fresh air.” Clancy suddenly appeared behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

They went out to the front steps of the hall and there were several men out there smoking. and passing a bottle around. He and Clancy shared the last of the Manny cigarettes.

“No hay in these.” Clancy took a long drag on his.

“You know what burns me up?” said one of the miners outside the hall. “The fact that we have to meet here in this Papist hall.”

“Not as if we have anything this size over our side of the town.” one of them said. “Fraid they’ll get their boots dusty in Mudtown.”

“Can’t expect to do this at the pluck me either.” another said passing the bottle to Birk.

Birk took a fast swing and nearly spit it out. It was some of the home made beer he’d tried at Geo’s wedding. He wiped the bottle neck and passed it back.

The men laughed. “If’n they did they would dock our pay for the wear and tear on the floor boards.”

“Yeh, I know that but it’s not as if we get anything from Rome to keep up appearance the way the good Father does.” the first man said.

“Or that niece o’his. Looks good even with that bump on her face.”

“Who you think did that t’her.”

“Maybe she did to herself.” Clancy said.

“Yeh. Tripping in the church on those things they kneel on and hitting her face on one of Jesus’s bleedin’ feet.”

The men laughed.

“I know a smack when I sees one.” Another of the men said. “Gives my missus enough of them.” He added knowingly. “Only way to keep ‘em in line.”

“Shows you care enough for ’em, too.” Another said. “They makes out that there isn’t enough for food ‘cause we stop for a pint or two on the way home from work.”

“So you think she’s … got some bloke from around here?” Clancy asked.

“I heared she has a past, you know, from Boston. Maybe the good Father had to keep her from going back. Y’ know bring the hand of God to bare.”

“The priest? Nah.”

“Remember Father Peterson. Coached us in hockey one year. Man, he wouldn’t hesitate to give any of a good kick in the arse if we didn’t do what we was told. He didn’t care if was orange or mick either. We have more bruises from him than we ever got on the ice.”

“Yeh, but that was b’ys.”

“Doesn’t matter to me now. Who cares how they treat their women. I only want them at the mine to play fair by us.” the first guy said. “No more playing favourites with the micks. Right Birk.”

“What?” Birk had been listening but not paying heed. From where he and Clancy stood they had a clear view through the window of Lillian standing by the tea trolly.

“You happy getting left in the pit while that Manny O’Dowell gets set up in the rake yard?”

“No!” Getting above ground was the hope of many of the miners. Didn’t matter where they worked or even the work was harder.

“Better get back inside.” Clancy said. “They’re finally getting to the important stuff.”

“Only important stuff is how much strike pay we can expect when we goes out.”

“An if there’s enough tea left for us.” 

When they went back in Birk saw that Blackie had arrived. Men were standing to ask questions about the strike or make statements of their particular concerns.

Jim jabbed him the ribs and whispered. “Say something about playing favourites.”

Birk stood. All eyes the room where on him. He feet got hot and he was slightly dizzy. He didn’t recognize his own voice as he spoke and when he finished he didn’t even know what he had said.

“Good on ye, lad. That’ll get those micks in a stir.” Jim said.

There were angry responses from the other side of the room. If there was an answer from any of the speakers to what he said he didn’t hear them. He did hear Seldon from the company store say there’d be no credit if they wasn’t working. When Father Patrick forced them to say the Our Father again he got up walked out with Blackie and Clancy.

The rest of the men followed shortly.

“Blackie!” one of the men shouted out. “You better be careful walking to work these mornings. Man could slip in the mud and hurt hisself.”

“Gerry Dunlop, if you show yourself on our side of town I’m not the only one’ll beat the crap out of you.” Blackie replied to the laugher of some of the men. “That is if there’s any o’you left that wife gets through beatin’ you.”

“We have to stand together.” someone else said.

“If you want a mine to come back to when this strike is settled you better stay out of my way and let us engineers do our job.” Birk and Clancy followed Blackie as he walked on.

A handful of dirt showered them. It was quickly followed by rocks and clods of grass. The three men stopped and turned to face the whom ever was behind them.

“Manny didn’t you get enough on the Dingle t’other time?” Birk raised his fists.

Manny was with several of the Catholic miners. The gang took a step back.

Blackie pulled Birk’s arms down. One of the men stepped past Manny to take a swing. Blackie reach out and the the man’s fist and held it in his hand.

“Look son.” Blackie said as he squeezed the man’s fist. “This isn’t how we stand together. Same goes for the rest of you.” He let go of the man’s hand

The man stepped away rubbing his fingers.

“Any of you on the midnight stand?” Blackie asked. “You best sober up some .”

The men turned and walked away grumbling.

As Birk walked past the company store he saw that windows had been boarded over. 

“They must have put those up while we were at the meetin’” he said.

“Seldon’s not taking any chances.” Blackie knocked lightly on one of the boards. “Last time we broke in and emptied the place. Casey Thomas was running it in those days. Mean cuss was only to happy to cut us off. The women dragged him out, tore his clothes off and chased him off the pier. Coldest February we remember. Bastard deserved it.”

“What?” Birk said. Blackie was always fairly calm around the house. Nothing his sisters, or even he, ever did unsettled him.

“Yep. Cut off credit, then cut off even selling to those who had cash to pay. Five weeks we’d had enough of no food, no coal to heat our houses in February. After we smashed into the store they brought in the troops.”

“From where. The base in Sydney?”

“Some, but mostly from the mainland. Too many in Sydney had kin here.”

“Y’ went to back to work with rifles on you?” Clancy asked.

“Pretty much. We didn’t get what we wanted and had to go back with less than we started out with.”

“Same as now?” Birk spat.

“Uh huh. Not before we did a bit of damage mind you. But not as much as they did riding their horses into the crowds in the Bay. We were marching on the mine office and they charged at us. Snipers on the roofs picked off a couple of guys, wounding them. Then church was getting out at the same time so those got caught up in things too.”

“The micks?” Birk snickered.

“Some. Most of the people that got hurt had nothing to do with the strike. That ended it. Priest then told all his congregation they better get back to work or go to Hell. They went and the rest of us had no choice but to follow.”

“This time’ll be different.” Clancy said.

“How’s that.” Blackie asked.

“What I hear is the the guys in the steel plant might go out in sympathy with us. That’ll bring things to a halt.”

“Don’t count it.” Blackie said. “Government won’t stand for that for long.”

“Lest we don’t have to worry about keeping warm.” Birk said pulling off his jacket and unbuttoning his shirt. “Can’t remember a hotter summer.”

They came to the lane that lead to their house.

“I’m goin’ to drop down to the boilers before I go to bed. All this talk makes me a little fearful.”

“You think they’d so something to them do ya?”

“Nah, but best to be sure or I won’t sleep right tonight.”

Blackie kept on his way. 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2019’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet

Coal Dusters – Chapter XV  Birk Rides the Dingle Dandy

Chapter XV 

Birk Rides the Dingle Dandy

At the dock a ferry, The Dingle Dandy, was ready to set out to cross the small bay to North Sydney. The Dingle Dandy plied a small circuit around the area starting in New Waterford with stops here, then over to North Sydney and Sydney Mines. There were about a dozen men waiting to board. Tonight it was doing a couple of special runs between Castleton Mines and North Sydney for the fight.

“Ever think of goin’ out of the boats.” Clancy asked.

“The sea don’t call to me. Too wet. Too tr’cherous.” Birk replied.

“You saying coal damp isn’t tr’cherous?”

“Not the same.” Birk took a few running steps and pushed up reaching for the spar that stretched over the wharf. He missed it with his left hand but caught it with his right hand. He swung there for a moment – let go and grabbed with his left hand as he turned to face the others.

“You are more monkey than I thought.” Clancy shouted over the laughter of the others.

Birk let go and dropped lightly to his feet.

“How did you learn to do stuff that that?” Clancy asked.

“Don’t know if I learned ever. It was something I could do.” He stepped away from the group and did a quick back flip.

“What! You didn’t even move. You must be part …”

“Monkey is right!” one of the guys said. “You should see him on the pipes around the coal yard.”

“You should be in some circus Birk.” Another of the guys said.

“Ma’d never let me go.” Birk grinned foolishly.

“That all you got?” Clancy nudged Birk’s shoulder.

“So, there’s finally something you can’t do?” He pushed Clancy back. It felt good to know he had some ability that Clancy didn’t have.

“No denying that. At least what I can do serves some use. Not as if you can hop around the mine that way and get more coal out of the seams.”

“Fine by me.” Birk flipped over to his hands and walked to the edge of the dock then somersaulted back to his feet. “But I can save a bundle on shoes if I have to.”

“You mean something other than those work boots of yours?” one the guys flipped dirt onto Birk’s boots.

“Hey!” Birk shook the dust off, “These are my going to town boots. M’work boots is at home.”

“On the back stoop airing out I hope.” Clancy chided him.

“Right next your drawers.” Birk replied and backed away for the men. 

“Don’t let’em get to you.” Clancy said. “It’s all in fun.”

“Maybe.” Birk tucked his  faded blue shirt into his pants wishing he had a real belt instead of the woven burlap cord he used that tied in the front. 

The bell clanged for boarding.

When they disembarked in North Sydney it was a short walk up from the dock to the street car stop. The car filled quickly.

“Almost same as being jammed into the cage to go to the face.” Clancy said.

Birk watched the stores and people flash by as the street car rolled along. It stopped and started smoothy to let people off, take more people on.

“This how taking the train feels?” He asked Clancy.

“No. Train seats more comfortable and don’t stop often either.”

At each stop it clanged and the conductor called out where they were stopping.

“Arena.” he shouted out. “Fight tonight.”

The car emptied and started back.

“Such a waste to send it back empty.” Birk said.

Birk was glad they had sprung for these tickets before the shifts were cut. All they could afford was the standing room tickets. 

There were posters of the boxers pasted up outside the arena. Jamaica Jackson was so dark that his eyes were popping out of his head in the fighting stance he was pictured taking. There was no photo of Bodak only a woodblock drawing. The posters promised the fight of the decade between the mainland great and the hometown favorite.

“Is this Jackson a black man?” Birk asked.

“Sure looks it.” Clancy said.

Inside the North Sydney arena there was lots of talk among the men about the fighters but mostly about the troubles in the mines. Castleton Mines’s wasn’t the only colliery caught up in unrest and unhappiness about the way both management and the union was treating the miners. Shift cuts and tonnage cuts were being implemented in all the mines. Since the war the demand for steel had declined which forced the Sydney Steel Plant had gradually cut back on production and as a result needed less coal. Worse yet was the fact that for the same reasons the plants in Ontario and Quebec also need less coal.

Being in the crowd of rowdy men made Birk restless. The men in the pits he knew, here he saw very few faces he recognized. Seeing them smoking, some swigging from bottles even though Prohibition meant they weren’t supposed have access to booze at all, put him on the alert. The over-made up women around the doors and the men drinking made him feel this was the den of iniquity his mother warmed about even though he wasn’t sure what iniquity meant.

All the prime seats where already bought, by what Clancy referred to as the ‘upper muckers.’ The the standing room view they had barely allowed Birk to see the head and shoulders of Jamaica Jackson. Being taller Clancy could see a little more but not enough for him to get caught up in the fight. It only lasted four rounds with Jim Bodak’s knock-out and the crowd disappointed dispersed.

Birk and Clancy decided to walk back along Commercial Street to the harbour checking out the store windows on the main street. Hotels, tea rooms and O’Dowell and South’s recently opened department store. Three stories high in alternating dark and pale red brick. The display windows were filled with stoves, gleaming kitchen wear, clothing for men women and children, sports equipment, bicycles.

“All this in one place.” Birk was amazed. “How’s anyone afford such things.” 

He stopped at a window of manikins wearing what a sign proclaimed as “The Latest Thing For Modern Men.” at their feet were tidy arraignments of hats with gloves, motoring caps with car glove, a colourful pile of suspenders & three tiers of shoes for “True Gents.” What’s Argyle socks?”

“Which?”

“The one’s here with the weird patterns. Almost looks like a tartan.”

Clancy stepped beside him to take closer look.

“It’s a tartan alright. Not big enough cover what a kilt covers through.” Clancy laughed.

“No, but surely would cover what hides under the kilt.” Birk shook his head. “Where would one wear the likes of this.” He looked at the middle dark-grey suit with a “Hundred Percent Mohair” notice pinned under the breast pocket. 

“Funeral. Most likely.” Clancy said. “Sure not anyone at the colliery. Not even the office.”

“A shirt that white wouldn’t stay white long around here. Why’s there a piece of tie in his pocket?”

“Very smart to match your tie with your hanky.”

“Hanky? You mean they’d blow their nose in that?” Birk began to laugh.

“Yeah. Too many buttons on the sleeve to whip your nose on.” Clancy wiped away a tear as he double over laughing.

“He’d have to use his Argyle socks.” Birk stepped back to steady himself on the streetlamp. 

“You ever have anything like that?” He asked Clancy as they continued on their way.

“Can’t say as I have. Ma knitted all my socks.”

“You ever have anything store bought, I mean, besides food.”

“Those shirts of mine I bought new. Rather my ma bought new from Eaton’s catalogue.”

“Lucky guy. I can’t remember having something to wear that wasn’t a hand-me-down. Ma’d remake Geo’s old clothes to fit me. Even his wedding suit was borrowed.”

“What did you wear?”

“Clean white shirt. Even my work boots were a pair of … Jake Malloy’s … they had been re-soled for me after he died in the mine.”

“Not afraid to wear a dead man’s boots.”

“Gotta make use of everything to get by. But I wonder what that’d be like.”

“What?” They stopped at the path down to the pier. “To be dead?”

“No. To have something store-bought new that one else ever owned or wore. I think even all the dishes at home came from Ma’s family. I got nothing to really call my own.”

“There’s those that can afford new and then there’s us working folk, that breaks our backs for the coal they sells so they can buy new goods while they make sure we never can.”

“You talk same as those union guys.”

“I suppose I am but even those union guys can’t afford to shop here. We can’t and probably never will.”

They waited on the dock for The Dingle Dandy to return after taking its first load of passengers over to New Castleton.

“Look who it is.” Manny O’Dowell came along the dock with a couple of other miners Birk recognized. 

Birk could tell they had been drinking from the careless way they walked. Manny flicked the cigarette he was smoking into the water.

“Sometimes I get out from underground.” Birk said.

Manny took a step closer to him and sniffed. “You don’t stink o’the pits either. That was the best part of getting that promotion. Getting away from the stink of you.”

Birk’s fists clenched.

Manny turned to his friends. “Sometimes I wondered if he ever wiped that hairy rat’s ass of his.”

Manny and his friends laughed.

“Or if he wiped with one of the rats.”

“You fat …” Birk fist darted out and sent Manny sprawling into his friends.

Manny got up and came at him, flailing his arms. He was too drunk to put much force behind his blows.

His pals began to laugh and pulled him back.

“Manny you certainly isn’t no Jim Bodak.”

Manny reeled around to his friends. “I suppose you guys think you can do better?”

The Dingle rang it’s departure bell and they got on.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Hey! Now you can give me $$$ to defray blog fees & buy ice-cream in Washington at 2018’s capfireslam.org – sweet,eh? paypal.me/TOpoet