Coal Dusters – Chapter LV – Birk Faces The Future

Coal Dusters: Book 1 is now available as as PDF – this covers the first 35 chapters – 65540 words – send $1.99 to  paypal.me/TOpoet

Coal Dusters – Chapter LV

Birk

Faces

The Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birk’s father came into the infirmary.

“How’s he looking Doctor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve had to keep an eye on the ….”

A woman’s shout cut him off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some but not every time.”

“Take as deep a breath as you can.”

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

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

“Not that I’ve noticed.” Clancy said.

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

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

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

“She has no family here. Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sabotage?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Closed!” Birk said. “Over night!”

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

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

“The BritCan? Why??” Birk said.

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

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

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

“Who else?” Clancy asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jake Malone man joined them.

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

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

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

“Which is?” Birk asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What you thinking?” Clancy asked.

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

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

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

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

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Chapter LIV: Lillian Tends Steven’s Wounds

Coal Dusters: Book 1 is now available as as PDF – this covers the first 35 chapters – 65540 words – send $1.99 to  paypal.me/TOpoet

Coal Dusters – Chapter LIV

Lillian

Tends

Steven’s Wounds

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you went home?” Lillian said.

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

“He’ll be fine in a week or so.”

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

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

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

“We’re even now.” Clancy said.

“How so?”

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

“When?”

“That gas build up.” Clancy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can take him home?” Birk asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope. It’s Red Mac.”

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded to one of the orderlies to accompany her.

Steven grip on her hand tightened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course I do Steven.” Lillian said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She followed him into the room.

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

Dr. Drummond nodded his approval.

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

“My good luck.” Steven said. “Open.”

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s a good chance.”

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

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

The orderly returned shortly with the priest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.” They replied in unison.                   

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

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

“Yes.” they both replied 

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

“I do.”

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

“I do.”

“The rings?” Dunlop asked.

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

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

“It pays to be prepared.” Steven smiled.

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

“I now pronounce you man and wife.”

There was brief silence. 

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

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

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Chapter LVIII – Lillian Tends Birk’s Wounds

Coal Dusters: Book 1 is now available as as PDF – this covers the first 35 chapters – 65540 words – send $1.99 to  paypal.me/TOpoet

Coal Dusters – Chapter LVIII

Lillian

Tends

Birk’s Wounds

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

“What can that mean?” Lillian asked.

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

“So that’s how can we hear it here.”

“They relay a distress signal.” Clara explained.

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

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

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

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

Clara raced down the stairs, Lillian following close after.

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

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

“What is it?” Clara asked.

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

“Is anyone hurt?” One the clerks asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“We all must light candles.” She said.

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

The priest came over to them.

“Miss McTavish.” He whispered.

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

“Nothing definite.” He said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lillian paced to the far end of the boat.

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

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

 

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

The General Manager came over to her and Clara.

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the others?” she said.

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

“Cage?” Lillian didn’t understand.

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

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

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

“What! Who would do such a thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

“It’s Birk Nelson!” someone shouted.

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

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

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

“More clean water Lillian.” The doctor said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was … was Mr. O’Dowell with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As night fell Lillian sat exhausted one of the benches. 

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

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

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

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

“That depends on how seriously they are injured.”

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

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

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

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

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

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Coal Dusters – Chapter pending

Coal Dusters: Book 1 is now available as as PDF – this covers the first 35 chapters – 65540 words – send $1.99 to  paypal.me/TOpoet

Coal Dusters

Chapter pending

No chapter this week. As I work through this draft I’ve come across sections that were not fully developed in the first Nanowrimo on rush. The aftermath of the mine cave-in is one of those sections. I merely sketched in a few things for Lillian as she deals with the disaster & the possible death of Steven.

I left her in chapter LV trying on wedding veils when the alarm for the cave-in was heard in Sydney. The following chapters are about Birk climbing to the surface & they essentially wrote themselves & the rest of his story arc was clear in my mind & needs no bridging. Lillian’s narrative was clear to me as well but I hadn’t developed enough of a bridge for her after the disaster,

I love this part of revision but this is a major addition that I don’t want to rush through. The 800 words I originally wrote about her immediate response to the disaster are good but she’ll need maybe another 2200 to carry her to what happens next in her story arc.

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Chapter LVII – Birk Sees the Light

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVII

Birk

Sees

the Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He recognized Sandy’s voice.

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

“Okay.”

“Lost Red though.” He began to weep.

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

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

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

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

His Dad’s advice came to him. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cage jammed tight. Cable broken.”

“Broken?”

“Snapped like a boot lace.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He was on level eight.”

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

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

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

“Yeah we know that. How many hurt?”

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter LVI – Birk Dreams of Beans 

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVI

Birk Dreams

of

Beans 

The coughing miners pulled back from the sudden fall of grit and scree. Birk covered his eyes as best he could to protect them from the dust to stagger to where Clancy was stretched out. 

“Sounds bad.” Clancy said.

“Tis.” Birk found Clancy’s hand and squeezed, “We’ll get out of here.”

“I’m praying for real.” Clancy gave a dry laugh. “Yer ma’d be so happy.”

“We all are.” Birk said. “I don’t want to die like this.”

“No one does.” Clancy said pulling Birk closer to him. “We have more fish to catch.” He whispered into Birk’s ear.

Red and Ken Langley stumbled out of the shaft and onto the floor.

“Cage is jammed solid between levels five and four.” Red said. “Can’t squeeze past it.”

“What about the trap in the cage floor?” one of the miners asked.

“I couldn’t get a good enough grip on it with m’hands. We need some sort of way to pry at it and hold to the wall at the same time. Someone light enough so as I can give hold to him in place long enough.” Red said.

“He’s talking about you Birk!” Clancy muttered as he gripped Birk’s forearm.

Birk nodded but wasn’t sure he’d have the strength to do what was expected. He couldn’t picture the bottom of the cage. When he went down in it all he cared about was that it was firm beneath his feet.

“Who’s the smallest here.” Sandy asked.

“That’ll be me.” Birk let go of Clancy’s arm and stood. 

“So y’are Birk Nelson, so you are. Your dad’ll ner forgive me if anything happens to you.”

“He’ll never forgive me if I don’t do what I can now either. If we’re dead there’ll be none to forgive. What’s the plan? My head is hard but not that hard.”

He knelt beside Clancy. “I’ll get us to the lake.”

He let Clancy pull him close for a moment. He hoped Clancy couldn’t feel his heart racing with fear.

“Anyone got a pick?” Red asked. “Or a better yet a crow bar. Small enough to carry up a few hundred feet.”

A couple of the miner’s dropped to their knees to feel through the rubble. 

“All’s we have is these couple of shovels, Red. We dropped everything when we ran to get here.” Sandy said handing Birk one of them.

Birk took the shovel and struck it hard against the floor. The blade sparked. 

“Careful boy.” one of the miners said. “We don’t can’t risk setting gas off.”

“If that was a danger we’d all be dead now.” Sandy said. “Might have been a blessin’ in the long run. Better than waiting down here.”

“I was hoping for something stronger than this.” Birk tested the wood for breaks. “But if it’s best we got, it’ll have to do. I’ll make the most of it.”

“Give me your belts boys.” Red said. “We can use them to hook on to the cage floor for safety.”

Birk strapped a couple of the belts around his chest and pushed the shovel between them at his back so his hands would be free for the climb. He hadn’t clambered up or down the cage shaft since he was a kid. Once he Geo had snuck in to the pit and without thinking began to climb down the side of what they thought was the empty shaft. When they heard the creak of the car being hauled up they panicked and didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know if they could get up before it reached them. 

That time he found a shallow recess barely big enough for him where he and Geo were able to press themselves into while the cage rattled past.

Birk looked up the shaft and there wasn’t even a thin light reflection from above or below. It was darker than he could remember it ever being. 

He recalled Lillian telling him it was a shame he had to start working in the mine so young. He’d told her ‘That’s how it’s done here. Schoolin’s fine for them who expect to make more of themselves. I’m happy to bring something home to keep the family fed.’ Now he’d probably die here.

He took a deep breath and reached up for the first of the hand holds in the framework and swung himself up over the pit. He could hear the drip of water from below. Once he had pulled himself up far enough for his feet to find the holds he moved faster. Red was right behind him. 

Some of the holds were loose in the rock, others were tight to the frame. His eyes peered for the next one. Once he reached for one and that wasn’t there and lost his footing. “Oh God!” he gasped as he pulled himself hard to the wall with the hand that was clutching the scaffolding.

“You okay, Birk.”

“Yeh Red. Hope I didn’t piss in yer face.” He was cold and sweating at the same time. His undershirt was sticking to him and he longed to scratch his balls. “Got an itch that I can’t scratch.” He laughed and the laughing calmed him down.

“That’s the story of every man who gets married.” Red laughed a little.

They came to where the cage was jammed. The trap door was on the bottom of the cage on the side furthest from them. A slight light filtered from above. Birk could see where the slide catch was and also saw that there was rubble on top of it.

Red threaded a couple of the belts and a rope he had brought through the spaces in the iron slats of cage floor.

“Hold on to these as best you can.” He helped Birk slip his arms through the loops. “If I lose grip of ya these’ll should hold you.”

“Same as that guy in the circus.” Birk was trembling. “You got no safety thing for you?”

“M’legs’ll hold me here.” He’d squeezed one of his legs between the scaffold and the wall.

“It’s alright to be scared, lad.” He kept an arm around Birk’s waist as Birk leaned as far forward as he could and tried to pry at the catch.

Birk locked his gaze on the underside of the cage. Even though it was pitch dark beneath him he knew it was a far drop with nothing between him the the levels beneath.

He tested his weight on the belts that Red had wound around his shoulder and slotted through the bottom of the cage. They held firm enough but didn’t leave much head room to move around in. Birk angled himself as best he could and pushed at the catch with the blade of the shovel. It didn’t give.

“How’s it lookin’ lad?” Red asked.

“Doesn’t feel’s if it’s ever been opened. Stuff on top of it holding it in place. Maybe if I can reach with m’fingers I can grasp it.” He leaned a bit further. One of the belts loosened. His saw red as he abruptly lurched out of Red’s hold.

“My God!” Red pitched forward off his perch on the scaffolding.

Birk felt Red’s hands grab at his coveralls but not find a way hold. Birk twisted to see if he could help. In seconds Red was gone. A few moments later he heard a dull thud as Red’s body hit the bottom of the shaft.

Birk was dangling, held by the belts, from the bottom of cage. His whole weight thrown on it. The cage groaned and shuddered but remained where it was. He blew at the dust on his face. He was afraid to move his arms lest they slip out of the belts.

He tried to get a foot hold but his feet couldn’t reach either wall. He squinted again at the trap. Each motion caused him to sway in the dark. His eyes saw spots and he didn’t know where to look. He felt like a bean vine clinging at anything it could get a hold of as it grew. He heard Sal giggling in their garden patch.

She’d been out there every day checking on the beans she’d planted. After the looting of the company store she’d found some dried beans in ashes. She soaked them for a week or so in saucer of water and to his surprise they’d began to spout. She planted them and reported to him daily as the the sprouts became stalks that sprouted leaves and more stems that climbed up around the fence. Now it was flowering.

“Sal!” he’d told her. “They won’t grow any faster with you watching them.” She was on her back staring up at the climbers. “Come on!”

“Come on!” she said to him. “Come on Birk.”

He shook his head. The seam in his coveralls cut into the flesh between his legs. The giggle was the squeak of the cage inches from his head.

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Chapter LV: Lillian Tries on a Wedding Dress

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LV

Lillian

Tries on a

Wedding Dress

“Lillian, it won’t matter what trousers I’m wearing down into the mine. The miner’s overalls will cover all I’m wearing.” Steven tried to joke. “This is the last day I’m joining them. It has been an education.”

“Yes, so you’ve told me every night.” She handed him a pair of brown serge pants.

“I’ve grown up here and yet never knew much about how they lived and worked.”

“Yes, yes. You’ll be able to represent them even better in Ottawa when you run for the Federal seat.”

“When I win!” He snapped his suspenders.

“When you are premier.”

“No! When I’m Prime Minster.”

“Oh, ho! Your dream get bigger every day.”

“With you at my side I have every reason to dream big.”

“Not now!” Lillian avoided his kiss. “They will be taking your picture before you get into the mining gear. You have to keep in mind that people’s eyes will now be on you, more than ever before.”

“I want them to see that I am one of them not some … shop display manikin of …”

“You want to look how the workers want to look themselves someday.” She interrupted him. “These clothes are dressy but simple enough at the same time. Now that things are getting back to normal, the miners will be ready to improve themselves.”

“I do wish you would be coming with me.”

“A woman in the mines!” Lillian laughed. “Worse than a woman on board a ship. No!”

“At least come with me. Be there when I go down with them. The other wives will be there everyday so far to celebrate their men returning to work. There’ll be those cameramen, too.”

“Dressed this way!” Lillian pointed out her housecoat and slippers. “By the time I’m prepared to go anywhere, they’d have hauled up the first ton of coal.”

A car horn tooted outside the house.

“There’s Gus now to take you along. Be sure to send him back with the motor directly, so me and Clara can go to Sydney.”

“Sydney?”

“That’s right. To your store there. They have some new wedding dresses for …”

“Wedding dresses.” Steven broke into a wider smile. “You mean …”

“That’s right you can confirm that the date is two weeks from today.”

The car horn tooted again.

Lillian went to the porch with him. As he got into the car she leaned in to remind Gus to bring the motor back.

She took Steven’s breakfast plate to use herself and was eating toast when Clara come down to breakfast.

“You’ve seen Steven off?”

“Yes. He’s looking forward to the official reopening of the mines more than the miner’s are.”

“No doubt. He only has to go down once more. They have to go down everyday.”

“He wanted to know enough to answer any questions the reports might have.”

Lillian dabbed a piece of her toast in the egg yolk on the plate.

“I see you’ve eaten.”

“Only some toast.” She glanced down. “Oh goodness! I’ve used Steven’s plate! Uncle Pat lived so simply he only had one plate, one cup for his breakfast. I’d wait till he was finished before having my own. It did mean less washing up. Strange how a habit starts and sticks with you.” 

She put the plate on the sideboard.

“I’ll get dressed for the drive while you have something to eat.” Lillian said.

Once she had changed her clothes she made sure her two war bonds where in her purse. She hadn’t told anyone about finding them and planned to deposit them in a bank in Sydney. Knowing she had a something to fall back on when she needed it made her fell more secure. Ready cash could come in handy.

The road to Sydney was fairly smooth though Lillian did have to hold to her hat a few times. Sydney wasn’t nearly as large as Boston but after spending so much time in Castleton it appeared to be  huge a metropolis. There were more cars than she’s seen anywhere else on the island. 

She had Gus drop her off at a corner a couple blocks away from O’Dowell’s.

“I’ll take a little walk to see more the shops.” She explained to Clara. “I’ll meet you at the store.”

She watched until the car was out of sight and went onto the Bank of Montreal which she knew was not the one the O’Dowell’s used. 

It took her longer than she expected to open an account of her own. Luckily the manager recognized her from Steven’s campaign so establishing her identity wasn’t an issue. It would take two weeks at least for the funds for the bonds would be in her account.

O’Dowell’s Sydney store was a three-floor building on Charlotte Street corner. Even though it was several years old it still had the feeling of newness to it. The name was in gold letters in arcs on all of the front windows. Over the main entrance there was stained glass with the name illuminated so the sun appeared to shining through it always. 

On the first floor was housewares. Lillian admired the gleaming stove and refrigerators.

“Eyeing possible wedding presents?” Clara asked.

“I was thinking this was the type of gift my family would never give. Too practical. They’d be more inclined to send something of this sort.” Lillian walked over to the fine china department. “A large, fancy, floral set of chinaware that could only be used once or twice a year, if that often.”

At the back of the first floor was a Toys and Children’s Furnishings department.

Lillian looking longingly at the line of dolls standing on a shelf on one wall. 

“Planning children?” Clara asked.

“Yes. But I was wondering what had become of my doll collection.” She’d left so much behind when she came to Cape Breton. Being in O’Dowell’s reminded her painfully of the many things she’d lost.

They took the lift up to the second floor. It was Men’s and Women’s Wear. When she stepped off the lift the first thing she saw was a mannequin in a short, pale green, one-piece dress. The skirt was pleated and the top had a loose beaded fringe around the neck.

“Oh.” Lillian sighed. “That is so pretty.”

“Pretty yes.” Clara touched the hem. “Too short to be practical.”

“It’s not meant to be practical Clara. It is meant to be pretty.”

Clara lead her to the back of the store to the bridal area.

“Missus O’Dowell.” A small woman with a strange accent scurried out from a side room. “What a great pleasure it is to see you.
“Thank you Karina.”

“Ah, and this must be Miss McTavish. Let me look at you.” She stepped back to gaze at Lillian. “Such a waist. In old country girls would be fattened up before being married. Here, ach, they want them skinny as boys.”

“You have something to show us.” Clara asked.

“Yah. Yah. You wait here. I get.” She went into the side room and came back out with two boxes. “Now the lace isn’t as good as we’d make back in Koniakow but I haven’t forgotten how. This first one is very traditional.” Karina took out a full bodied, white dress with a neck high top, long lacy white sleeves and full wide bottom. “Some crinolines will make you appear to be a queen. The veiling is quite simple though.”

She held it up against Lillian. Lillian pressed the dress’s shoulders to hers and stepped back. It was  similar to ball gowns of her mother’s she had envied. The bodice had seed pearls in an arc across the breast bone. She kicked out the bottom so it bounced lightly in the sun. She did a twirl so that it wrapped around her legs before falling away as she stood in front of the mirror.

“Lovely.” Clara said wiping a tear away from her eye. “The sort of dress I would have loved to have been married in.”

“Oh, yes. The young lady looks radiant even holding such a dress. It’s been so long since anyone has wanted such a gown. Things being as they have been.” Karina shook her head. “But perhaps that will change now.”

“It is more than words can say.” Lillian stared at herself in the mirror. Could this be the same girl who was cowering in fear as her uncle struck out at her?

“This other is much … plainer. Miss McTavish insisted we order it as it is more … modern.”

“You make modern sound more of a disappointment than an improvement.” Lillian replied, reluctantly handing the gown back to Karina.

The other dress was a simple sheath with a similar high neck but shorter sleeves. The white satin had a green and gold sheen to it as it caught the light. It had a small hat of the same fabric with a simple veil attached to it.

“It is lovely.” Lillian knew this was the one for her. She held it up to herself and stood in front of the mirror. The color complimented the red of her hair while the length would allowed some of her calves to show. “I’ll try this on, if you don’t mind.”

She saw Clara’s look of disappointment.

“How long would alterations take, of either?” Lillian asked.

“This one a few days. The beautiful lace one a week or more.”

Lillian stood in front of the mirror in the sheath dress. 

“This one won’t need alterations at all.” She said with a smile. “I do think it conveys the right message as well. After the hardships of the summer the other one is too …”

“Opulent.” Clara said. “You only get married once.”

“Yes.” Lillian teared up as she looked at her reflection.

“Perhaps one for the wedding and the other for the reception?” Clara suggested. “Do try it on. For me?”

  “Of course.” She took the larger dress. It weighed much more than the simpler one. The hem fell below her feet so she had to lift it up as she walked from the dressing room.

“It is …” Clara walked around her. “It is stunning.”

Lillian didn’t recognize herself in the mirror. The wedding dress was all she could see. 

“I do prefer the other dress.” Lillian said. “It is something I could wear again, but this …. No, it is too stunning for me.”

Lillian came out of the dressing room and handed the elaborate dress back to Karina. “The simple one is perfect. Perhaps a more elaborate veil with it would be in order.”

“Yes.” Karina’s face lit up. “I can have something. How soon.”

“Two … ?” Lillian said.

She was interrupted by alarm bells.

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Chapter LIV: Birk in the Rubble

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LIV

Birk

in the

Rubble

By the third day the faces were fully ready to be worked. Birk found that he and Clancy were back into their old routine. Joking in the mornings and focused when they started to work. Birk was happy to hear Clancy singing behind him as they got back to the grind of hacking the coal out of the seam. He slipped back into his physical digging and everything that had happened in the past few months vanished as he sweated.

“Com’on by. Time for a slurp of tea.”

“Wha?” Birk pushed himself out of the crevice he was working in.

“Can’t make up for lost time that way Birk.”

“Feels good though to be doing sumthin’ ”

They put their tools in a safe spot, got their lunch cans and scuttled along to a level spot on the floor to sit.

“Where you get to when you take off?” Birk asked expecting the same answer.

“Back to my Ma’s. How many time’s do I haf to tell you? I figured your family have enough to do keepin’ fed without my extra face to feed. Not much to do here with out getting pulled into that spineless union’s foolishness. Ya can’t trust them.” Clancy slurped his tea. “Still smells the same down here.”

“No more ‘an you can trust the owners.”

“That’s for sure. I hear you kept yourself busy in a pretty way.”

“Wha?” Birk nibbled at his bread.

“You and the nun. Steven O’Dowell’s betrothed.” 

Birk could see Clancy smirk in the dim light.

“That lass’s only been trying to teach us how read and write proper. Don’t see as I’m going to do much with that. I could read figures well enough. But now I can sign my name pretty good. But …. ”

“She’s was getting to you, wasn’t she?”

“Yeah, but not is that way.” Birk was eager to have someone to talk to about Lillian. There were things he didn’t he could tell his mother.  “Everyone thought I’m …. sweet on her. Asked me how I felt about her getting hitched to him. As if I would be bothered by that. But t’isn’t so. Sure she’s pretty and that but she makes it hard to breathe when she’s around. It was as if she’s trying cover me up with whatever scent she’s wearing. Always looked at me as if she wanted something more than an answer to what the numbers add up to.”

“She must have had her eye on you.”

“I wish she didn’t. Ma gets so burned up about her being a Catholic girl. She thinks Lillian wants to turn me mick too. I wished I knew what she was after.”

“What most women want Birk m’boy. To land a decent man who’ll look after them.”

“She was living at the O’Dowell’s then anyway so she had him. He’s more the decent man. I’s surprised to see him coming down everyday with us too.”

“Politics. He aims to be premier. He can brag how he knows what common folks have to do to get by. I don’t know what she saw in you, less she needed hairy chimney sweep.” Clancy’s laugh echoed in the shaft.

“Yeh. I’m glad yer back … that … Clancy, I never had a mate I much took too … not even m’brother.”

“Yeah. I missed you too monkey.”

Birk resisted the temptation to reach out and touch Clancy.

Back at the face they were working he was happy to hear Clancy singing the familiar ‘shovel and pick, pick and shovel,’ then, ‘rake and hustle, hustle and rake.’ He stopped mid-word.

“Hush,” Clancy whispered. “Stop for a minute.”

Birk leaned away from the wall. “What is it?”

They stood holding their breaths. A distant rumble could be heard. Then the ceiling over them groaned and a long, thin, flat shard of it shook free and fell with a dusty thud.

Birk pushed Clancy toward the wall. “We better high tail it.”

“Right. That’s what happens when you only have inspectors come to check the air. Not the shoring of the faces.”

They made their way to the main shaft that was crowed with the other men on the shift. They were grousing about how the management had pushed to get things started and how the union didn’t make any difference or even care about the possible unsafe conditions. Another heavier rumble overhead stopped their nattering.

“At’s a big one.” Jake Malone called across from where he was working.

Part of the ceiling collapsed ahead of them.

“Shite.” Clancy swore as he crawled into the now narrowed shaft. “Come b’y before it gets worse.”

There were men scrambling in front and behind them. More than once Birk got a solid kick in the side or face. He was pushed out onto the rough floor. Other men tumbled out after him.

“Clancy!” He called out. He choked on the thick gritty dust. 

The miners pushed him along to the cage that would take them up. There was another even louder crack followed by a rumble and the ceiling behind him came thundering down amidst the shouts of men trapped under it.

“Clancy! Me buddy’s back there.” Birk stopped and pushed his way back to the rubble, fell to his knees and began to pul at the chucks of rock. Some crumbled in his hands.

“Come away lad.” Hands pulled at his shoulder. “There’s nothing we can do for them as got caught.”

It took two of the miner’s to pull Birk to his feet. 

“We all lose someone to the coal one way or t’other.” one of them put an arm around his shoulder and led him away.

“No!” Birk muttered. “I can’t give up.” 

He pushed them away and went to where he had been digging and began to pull the rocks away again. “I know he’s alive. I can feel it. I can’t give up that easy.”

It was the same feeling he had before Clancy showed up at Sal’s burial. Something in his chest told him Clancy was near then and that something told him Clancy was here now. Alive.

One of the miners who had pulled him away came back to him with two shovels and handed one to him. “This’ll make it easier. One things as I know is to never ignore that feeling.”

They were joined by some of the others in shifting the debris. They came to the canvas air flow flaps. There was someone trapped under that. Part of the frame for the ventilator had crumbled to offer some protection to those men.

“There’s men under this.” Birk shouted as his hands tried to get a purchase under the thick edges to peel it back. It was too dark to see exactly who it was though.

Red and two of the men left the bodies they had found and brought them to the less dim area of the shaft by the cage entrance. One of them was dead. The other moaned as he was being moved.

The injured man reached out and grabbed Birk by the wrist. “Monkey is that you?”

“Shush, Clancy. It is. We’ll get out of here soon.”

They laid Clancy on one of the coal trams. In the flicker of his lamp Birk saw a thin ooze of blood around Clancy lips and ears. 

“I can’ feel anything.” Clancy whispered. “Are my … “

“Yes Yes yer legs is there. They look okay.” Birk ran his hands lightly over Clancy’s body feeling for any breaks, no bones were sticking out. “You’re all there.”

“Even my little fella?” Clancy tried to laugh but coughed some blood.

“Pretty sure. Maybe a bit worse for wear after that.” Birk wiped a tear away. 

Red came over. “How’s he doing.”

Birk stood up. “He’s making jokes about his little feller, that’s a good thing.”

Red kneeled beside Clancy.

“You going to be fine son.” He put his ear to Clancy heart. “That’s still beating. How’s it to breathe?”

“Not so easy.” Clancy wheezed and coughed up more blood.

“Suspect you broke a couple of ribs back there. Good thing the manifold fell atop you.” He stood brushing his hands off. He turned to Birk. “Masters wasn’t so lucky.”

“I got the count for you Red.” Ken Langly, one of the miners came over. “Feenie, O’Conner, Slake Jim, French Dan and Dark Sammy unaccounted for. A few cuts but none as is hurt that bad.”

“Something to thank the good Lord for.” Red signed deeply. “Air’s not too bad. Ventilator shafts must still be clear enough.”

The cage shaft echoed with the screech of mental on mental. The harsh sound grated on Birk’s ears.

“They tryin’ to move the cage up and down. She must a got stuck somewhere when the … collapse shifted things.”

Without the cage the miners would have to either wait near where they were, or start to climb up the sides of the shaft. They were more than a mile below the surface and they was the risk some of the handhold stavings had come loose if the shaft was twisted out of shape enough.

“I’m going to start up.” Ken Langly announced. “One of us has to make a try. I’ve done it more than a few times.” He laughed. “You know, to get a breath of fresh air.”

“I’ll go with ye lad.” Red said. “They’ll be wanting to know who’s survived and who’s hurt down here. So far only young Clancy here. Busted a couple of ribs.”

They started up the sides of the shaft. Every so often some debris would come down.

“How you doing?” Birk sat on the floor by the tram where Clancy was lying.

“Only hurts when I talk about it.”

“Go on with ya.” Birk leaned back, his head against Clancy shoulder.

“You know when that slab fell on me all I could think was that I’d never get out to Blue Lake again. You done any fishing out there?”

“Took my sisters out a few times but not same as the last time we was out there. Too far for them to walk anyway. I ended up carrying Sal, the fish and everything else too on the way home.”

“At’s all right and you were learning how to read and write the way a proper Boston boy would.”

“Sure while you was playing nurse maid to yer old mother.”

“She not as fine as that one though.”

“Why you keep harpin’ on about that gal. She’s all yours Clancy if she’ll have you. That is if O’Dowell can’t keep her happy. I told you before I don’t care none for her fine ways. Sure they can grow on you after a time but that doesn’t mean I want to … spend anymore time with her than I have to.”

“Gives me something to think on besides us dying down here.” Clancy said.

A mass of rocky debris and some lumber fell through the shaft and down to the bottom of it.

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Chapter Liii – Lillian Has Something To Prove

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Coal Dusters – Chapter Liii

Lillian

Has Something

To Prove

Lillian was working in the herb patch in the O’Dowell’s back garden when Aileen called to her from the back porch.

“A gentleman to see you Miss Lillian.”

Lillian stood and brushed the dirt off her hands onto her apron. “Gentleman.”

“Father Patrick, ma’am.”

Aileen held the door open for her as she continued to wipe her hands clean.

“He’s in the small study.”

Lillian had been in the small study once. It was a room off the front foyer that Steven’s father had used to store his hunting equipment which Steven had converted into an office when he ran in the election.

When she went into the room her uncle was standing with his back to her facing the desk. There were two armchairs in front of it and a bookcase on one wall. There was only one small window near the ceiling, more to allow ventilation in the room than light. The room smelled of cigar and pipe smoke.

“Father Patrick?” she said.

He turned. “Lillian how good to see you looking so well.” He sat in one of the arm chairs. She sat in the other. “I have been in Boston.”

“Ah. Steven was wondering why you hadn’t shown up during his campaign.”

“Sometimes politics and religion don’t need to mix. He did well enough with any show of support from me.”

“Yes.” She wondered what he wanted.

“I also understand you and he are to be wed.”

“Yes.”

“You know I can’t allow that. That union will not happen in any Catholic church in this parish or any other I can contact.”

“Perhaps you should take that up with the Bishop. He’s already agreed to perform the ceremony.”

“That will be changed. Have you told Mr O’Dowell about James Dunham? I’m sure …”

“He has, in fact, met James Dunham in Halifax.”

“And that didn’t dissuade him?”

“Not in the least,” Lillian wanted to laugh.

There was a knock at the door.

“Yes?” Lillian said.

The door opened. Aileen entered with a tea tray.

“Miss Clara said you may want the tea served.” She put the tea service on the desk.

“Thank Miss Clara for me.”

“That won’t be necessary.” Clara stepped into the room. “I didn’t want to barge in on what could be private conversation.”

“For the moment it is.” Father Patrick said. “If you don’t mind.” He stood and attempted to show her out of the room.

“If we are discussing the wedding I feel I should in included in the conversation.” Clara said.

“My uncle feels it’s an unwise decision on my part.” Lillian said. 

“Not exactly unwise, my dear.” Her uncle said. “I think it’s a very calculated decision on your apart. Devious. Eve would have been in awe. I have no objection to Miss O’Dowell hearing our conversation. Do you?”

“If it entails sordid rumours you have about Lillian past rest assured I have heard them.”

“They are not mere rumours, are they Lillian.”

“Don’t bother answering him Lillian. I am aware of Mr. James Dunham and of his ungentlemanly conduct with Miss McTavish. In fact I have met with him myself and spoke to him directly. I know the full story.”

“Apparently you are not as concerned about your family’s reputation as her family was about theirs.”

“This is not Boston Father Patrick.”

“Quite true. Quite true. But Mr. James Dunham is not what brings me here today. I will repeat what I told Lillian. This wedding will not take place.”

“You can’t stop it.” Clara said.

“One cannot marry the dead!”

He took a newspaper clipping out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Lillian.

She read it. It took her a few moments to comprehend its full import.

“Well, what does it say?” Clara asked.

“There was a memorial service in Boston for me last week. I died here some months ago of influenza.” she handed the clipping to Clara.

“The service was presided over by her grieving uncle, Father Patrick McTavish. What is the meaning of this Patrick?”

“I think it is pretty clear.”

“But I am alive. People know that.”

“The death certificate says otherwise. Signed by me.” He took a piece of paper out his inside pocket and haded it to Clara. “You have no proof of who you are, my dear. None at all.”

“Proof!” Clara exclaimed. “This has been signs only by you. There’s no doctor’s signature.”

He snatched it back from Clara. “A mere formality.  Also you can’t get married without proof  of identity in the Catholic Church. Lillian, do you have your baptismal record? Your confirmation certificate? You don’t even have a family to say you are you. The memorial was very emotional. You mother wept. A Mr. Henderson was heart broken.”

“David Henderson?” Clara said glancing at Lillian.

“He went to Europe when I was fifteen and he was not a beau, merely a boy I knew.” Lillian wanted to jump up and strike her uncle. “Why are you doing this?” she asked as calmly as she could.

“You must reap what you sow my child.” He said gently. “Her father said she was a willful, spiteful, conniving child and she had grown up to be even more so. Do you think I would let you ruin yet another family to satisfy your need for depraved comfort. When I was forced to drive this … this …. harlot from my home I was stunned to see her be taken into your bosom Miss O’Dowell. I feared she would be an asp. A snake in the grass.”

Lillian stood slowly. “Have you had your say uncle? Have you done your worse?”

“Lillian I mean no harm. Forgive me.”

“Forgiveness is not mine to give.” She looked him in the eyes. “If this is the consequence of my not bending to your depraved carnal desires then I am willing to suffer this consequence for keeping my honour intact.”

She opened the door to leave the study. “If you’ll excuse me Clara I have something in my room that may help clarify things. If they don’t satisfy the Church.”

“No one will have you.” her uncle said. “No one.”

“Father Patrick.” Clara stopped Lillian. “You have said more than enough. You have perhaps revealed more about yourself than you have about Lillian.”

“How can you remain so … indifferent to this hussy’s actions.”

“Whatever her actions may have been, and I assure you, I know she is no innocent babe, she has not displayed such an evil devious mind as you have. To revenge yourself is this way leaves me speechless.”

Lillian dashed up to her room and found the photo album and news paper clippings. She brought them down and presented them to Clara.

“This marriage will happen.” Clara said sternly. “Her family will be informed of your callous actions.”

“You think they banished her here on a whim?”

“They banished me because their reputation was more important to them than their child. Oh! It was all right for my brothers to get caught up in gambling, drunken galavanting behaviour.” Lillian found herself shouting.

“But let their precious daughter show a bit of spirit and out she goes. When they thought I had lost any value as a marriage pawn to enhance their precious social standing they disposed of me as if I were … a … a tea service that had gone out of fashion.”

She turned to Clara. “If I am a calculating harlot looking for the best possible marriage then I learned it from them. It runs in the family apparently. Doesn’t uncle?” She wanted to slap the stunned look on his face. “Falsifying my death to suit your ends is no better. Runs in the family.”

She pushed Clara aside nearly knocking over Aileen who had been hovering near the door listening. She stood in the foyer resisting the temptation to run up to her room, slam the door and throw herself on her bed to cry. That’s what the woman in books did. Cry till some man came up the stairs to make things better for them.

“Aileen.” she said.

“Yes Miss?”

“If anyone wants me, I’ll be out in the garden. Those climbing roses need to be cut back.”

On her way through the kitchen she grabbed the gardening sheers and headed directly to the climbing roses. She’d been intending to remove the dead branches for weeks now and she attacked them with a vengeance.

She lost track of time as her anger dissipated. Why was every path she took caught in these unforeseen and unforeseeable brambles. David Henderson turning out to be unsuitable because of a Jewish grandmother, Mr. Dunham a trifler, Birk Nelson so fearful of displeasing his mother and now this. If only she could cut these brambles as cleanly away from her path as the ones from the climbing bush.

With each clip she thought to herself ‘what can I do.’ ‘what can I do next.’ 

“Lillian!”

There was a hand on her shoulder. It was Clara.

“Lillian, I have been calling you for a few minutes.”

Lillian stood and wiped the sweat off her brow. “I couldn’t hear you over these.” She snipped at the air in front of her with the sheers.

“Then perhaps we’ll get them oiled properly so they won’t be so noisy in the future.” Clara smiled. “You uncle is certainly a man of actions and opinions.”

“Another of the McTavish bad traits.”

“Do you love my brother?”

“Love? I don’t know. If you mean that flood of blinding adoration, then, no, I don’t.” If that put the final touch on the end of this path she was ready to face it.

“That’s what I was hoping to hear. I’ve seen how you’ve dealt with him this past month. You know I wasn’t happy of this match but Steve would brook no argument with me. I didn’t want to distract him from his ambitions and I figured you would fall by the wayside.”

“Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Oh I wasn’t disappointed. He was willing to listen to you on matters of appearance and even of how to present himself to the public that he would never had heeded from me. If anyone won the seat it was you being by his side making sure he said the right things at the right time. Someone who was flooded with adoration couldn’t have been so … objective.”

“Thank you, Clara. This is the last thing I expected to hear you say.”

“Perhaps you’ve wondered why I never married?”

“Yes, but you did have your father to look after.”

“We had money and could have afforded to hire help but my father, much as yours did, I suspect, wanted to keep a protective eye on me. I never had the opportunity to meet a James Dunham. A few men courted me but none ever found the approval of my father. Those that did were ones he deemed suitable because of their social status, their financial potential and for no other reason.”

“I had never thought we might have that in common.”

‘But you have more determination than I ever had.”

“So does Father Pat.”

“It’s not you he’s striking at but your family. He told me about your father’s reaction to the death certificate. He may not have known it but your father’s grief brought the good Father great …  I want to say pleasure but that’s not it at all. It gave him an opportunity to castigate your father for being such a Godless parent. For being indulgent and permissive.”

“Permissive!”

“Oh yes, allowing you opportunities to enjoy life that he himself had not had. Your family’s wealth and social position become more important to them than their faith and as a result you were their downfall and punishment.”

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Chapter Lii – Birk Back Underground

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Coal Dusters – Chapter Lii

Birk

Back

Underground

Birk woke with a start. Clancy was at the foot of the bed, shaking the frame gently until he woke.

“You know strike’s over b’y.” 

Birk pushed himself up, not sure if he was dreaming. “Wha?”

“We gets to go back today. Election’s over too. Winning don’t change a thing.” Clancy tossed his rucksack on the dresser.

“I knows that.” Birk sat up and put his legs over the side of the bed.

“You sleepin’ as if there’s nothing to do.”

“I’m sleeping the way someone who don’t have to share his bed with someone who tosses like a … a shirt on the line on a windy day.”

“And smells as fresh.”

“Yeh, freshly fished out of a net.” Birk tossed his pillow at Clancy. “So you’re back?”

“Had to check up on my mother before going back to the colliery here. Nothing better to do.”

“I was getting use to having all this bed to myself.” He pulled his work pants on and pushed his feet into his work boots. “Been a while since I wore these. Kinda stiff.”

He stood facing Clancy. He’d forgotten how blue Clancy’s eyes were. He grinned not know what else to do or say. He thought of grappling with Clancy, wrestle him to the floor but reached out and mussed his hair instead.

“Time’s a-wasting!” A shout came from the bottom of the stair.

“Yer Ma hasn’t changed.”

“Good things never do.” Birk laughed.

 

No management was to be seen when the miners gathered for their first day in the mine. Father Patrick was there to to bless their efforts so that the town could be rebuilt in the light of God.

The first days in the pits where spent making sure the shafts and stavings were sound enough for the mine to be worked. After the endless weeks of inaction it was good to be back at the work but at the same they would only get paid for the coal they produced. There was no pay for replacing, reinforcing the hoardings, for doing all the maintenance work that had gone undone during the strike. The scabs that the company had trucked in lacked the skills to do more than sweep and shovel so they only worked the first tunnels.

“You’d think they’ve cleaned out the carts at least.” Red grunted as they went down for their first maintenance shift.

“Least they ventilated the shafts. Inspector went through ‘em already to make sure.”

“They don’t want to kill us that fast. At least not before we reopen.”

No one was happy about the way the strike had been settled. Everything forced on them by the management, the government, who didn’t appear to care about the miners but only about their taxes and dividends. The newly elected provincial government couldn’t undo what the Feds had done despite their promise to do so.

Birk was too focused on getting things ready to be bothered talking much with Clancy beyond quick grunts of agreement as they did their tasks. When he got back at night after their shift he was too tired to talk. Sometimes they both fell asleep during dinner. But he could sense Clancy’s restlessness.

Even as he tried to keep his distance in the bed, their shoulders or hands would brush briefly in the night. Clancy had something on his mind but Birk couldn’t get him to talk about more than the mines.

“What did you make of what the men of the cloth had to say before they let us go down today.” Birk asked Clancy as they walked home after their shift.

“They mean well but that Father Pat always acts as if he’s judging us and not happy with what he sees. Father Browne acts as if he knows how hard it is to be as good as we aim to be.”

“Too bad he didn’t give us all that other prayer.  Mac was always fond of one that went  ‘Each dawn as I rise, Lord, to face a pit filled with hell. To scratch out a living as best that I can. But deep in m’ heart is the soul of a man. My black covered face and calloused hands, rides the dark tunnels.’ When I was small Mac’d sing that and then chase with his hands stretched trying to tickle us boys.”

“I can see that now.” Clancy laughed. “My Dad was never around much to play with us. When he was it more shouting as us to keep quiet and sit still.”

“The dark tunnels used to scare me some. I’d have nightmares about them and the black faces trying to eat my soul.”

“That I can understand. Can’t imagine even a mick’d be thankful to be made a miner though.” Clancy said.

“Least ways they came to bless us without making the micks stand on the side the rest of us on t’other.”

 

Birk and Clancy joined the miners who were massed in the work yard around the opening to the colliery.

“What’s going on?” Clancy asked.

“Steve O’Dowell is here to wish us well on our first paid day back to work.” someone said.

“That explains the reporters from the Post and the Herald.” someone else said.

“Can’t say as I’d hold that against him,” Red Mac said. “He’ll do a good job getting us back a decent contract. Armstrong wanted us to settle for nothing.”

“Where’s  O’Dowell? We want get down there before lunch break.” someone said.

“Up in the office with James Bowden. Waiting on final word from the inspectors it’s safe to go down.” Someone else said. “Otherwise Bowden would send us down.”

Scotty Sullivan, the assistant manager, came out of the management building. Red Mac, the shift foreman, walked over to him.

“Much longer?” Red asked.

“Nah, you can start down now if you want. Inspectors say all but bottom level’s been okay’d.”

“You know we can’t start until all have been given the okay.” Red said.

“We won’t send any shifts down to that level.” Sullivan replied.

“You know we can’t do that?’ Red said firmly.

“I’ll let the press know that on the first day the mine’s were opened that the union was refused to go back to work after signing the contract. Suits me fine.”

“You bastard.” someone shouted. “So it starts already!”

There was grumbling amongst the miners.

“If you fellas have done as good job down there as you claim to have done on the other levels what are you afraid of. BritCan didn’t ask for a rush job half-assed done by you qualified miners.”

“You were told it would take either more men or more time.” Red said.

“Not my problem. Today is when we are to open and either we open, or your union face the consequences.” Sullivan walked over to the the boxes upended to make a low stage. He stepped up, “If any of you men are unsure about the safety of the mine after you’ve been the ones to do the repairs you are free to leave. There are those who are eager and willing to do an honest work for reasonable pay.”

Birk turned to Clancy. “What do you think?”

“I think we’re ready to work. They push us around now to prove they are still in control.”

Steven O’Dowell and Gus Murphy came out of the office with James Bowden, Father Patrick and Reverend Browne and walked through the men. Steven was wearing miner’s coveralls, carrying a pick and one of the helmets. He could have passed for one of them except for the white shirt and tie he had on under the coveralls.

He stepped up on the overturned boxes. The miners cheered and applauded.

“Men. Friends. I call you friends because I am one of you and will be even more so after this day.” There was more cheers and applause. “I’ll be going down into the mine to work with you. Something my predecessor never did.”

“When’s the date?” someone called out.

“Date?” Steven asked. “Oh! My wedding. Funny you should ask that as we set the date this morning before I came here. It’ll be two weeks from today at St. Teresa’s in Sydney. She’s over to O’Dowell’s in Sydney this morning to pick out a wedding dress. You are all invited to come.”

The men stomped and whistled.

“Now before we go down Father Patrick and Reverend Browne are here to offer blessings. Father Patrick.”

Steven stepped off the box and Father Patrick stepped on it.

“Parishioners, men, it is with great happiness that I see you finally getting back to your calling. I’ll offer two short prayers. First the Ave Maria. 

Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Dominus tecum
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus
fructus ventris tui, Iesus
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae
Amen.”

Several of the miners joined in while others of the Catholics mumbled along as best they could.

“The other is one that, with a small change of my own, suits all men. “O My God, I adore Thee and I love Thee with all my heart. I thank Thee for having created me, for having made me a miner and for having watch over me this day. Pardon me for the evil I have may done; and if I have done any good, deign to accept it. Watch over me while I take my rest and deliver me from danger. May Thy grace be always with me. Amen.’ God bless and God speed you all.”

The men applauded politely.

“Now for the rest of you Father Browne will offer some words.”

Father Browne stepped on the box. “Those of you who know me know I’m a plain spoken man. My father was one you and died in the mines. I’ve seen trials and tribulations and I’ve seen brave miners rise to them and to help each other as best as they. I’ll use no fancy words,” he glanced at Father Patrick, “but I’ll offer one I heard often from my father.

“Look at these hands, Lord, worn and rough. A face scarred with coal marks, and my language is tough. But you know in the heart, Lord, is the soul of a man that toils at a living few men can stand. Sulphur, coal dust and sweat on my brow. If you’ve got a corner after my work is through, I’d be mighty proud to live, neighbours with you.”

Most of the miners joined him from the first line. They stomped and roared as he finished. He stepped off the box.

“Who’s ready to go to work.” Steven pulled on his helmet, hefted the pick-ax over his shoulder and hopped off the box. He went into the crowd shaking hands with the miners. “I may have to borrow a lunch form one of ya. Got so rushed to be here I forgot to pack a lunch pail.”

A couple of the miners lifted him up on to their shoulders and lead the way to cars that would take them to the cages down. He went down with the first group of miners.

Birk and Clancy went down the with second group.

They got off at their level. Red was waiting as their shift crew got off.

“Where’s our fair haired boy go to?” One of them asked.

“Down to next level. Said he wanted to see how they did a blast. Virgil’s as good a blaster as any we’ve got. He’ll make sure O’Dowell gets a good show.”

“There’ll be campaign speeches out of this for his next run, sure.” Someone said before they headed down to the various staging areas where they were working. “Least Father Browne knows the work the way that Papist bastard ever will.”

“Least he speaks English.” Another of them laughed.

“I’m surprised that priest don’t crawl down to scatter holy water on the seams for luck.”

“Nah we’ll do that with our own holy water.” one of the miners joked.

“Don’t be pissing down on me ‘cause if you do he’ll down to give you the last rights.” Another said.

“Be careful boys or you’ll slipping someone’s shit before you know it.”

“Won’t be yours. We know that stink anywhere.”

The miners laughed.

“Everything look good?” Birk asked letting his lantern play over the joists.

“Given the time we had, things looking great.” Red said. “Try to pace yourselves some though. We’re not going to make up for all that money lost in the first day.”

Birk and Clancy made their way to the face they were assigned to work.

“You think O’Dowell’s going use that pick much?” Clancy asked.

“Only on his teeth.”

“That is if they’re his own.”

“Best hope there’s no gas down there, they’ll never smell it over that perfume he’s wearing.”

“Didn’t smell half bad to me. Better than most of stench when we’re down here. Wonder if she picked it for him?”

“Nah, that’s what he stunk of before she ever showed up. You could always tell when O’Dowell had been anywhere.” Birk laughed.

They came to where they were going to be working. The first severals blows with the pick numbed Birk’s hands then he stopped feeling anything expect the way the point connected with the coal. When he stopped to catch his breath he could hear Clancy raking behind him and singing.

“This is the way we pay

This is the way we pay

for the right to die this way”

After an hour or so Birk stopped to wipe sweat off his face.

“Feels good.” He said to Clancy.

“Whatever you say boss.” Clancy replied.

“Forgot how it smelled down here though.” Something scurried over his boot. “The rats must be happy to have us back again.”

“Useless buggers probably gnawing away at the joists. Do more damage than the water.”

Birk pulled his rag back over his mouth and went back to clawing at the coal.

“Hush.” Clancy plucked his pant leg.

Birk stopped and they listened. There was low brief rumble beneath them.

“O’Dowell getting his little tap o’blast.” Birk said. “I can tell the size by what we hears. Didn’t get much out of that one.”

“It’ll give him something to tell the missus when he gets home!”

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