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

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 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

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

Coal Dusters – Chapter Lii

Birk

Back

Underground

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

“You know strike’s over b’y.” 

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

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

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

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

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

“And smells as fresh.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yer Ma hasn’t changed.”

“Good things never do.” Birk laughed.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“What’s going on?” Clancy asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Much longer?” Red asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was grumbling amongst the miners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The men stomped and whistled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The men applauded politely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birk and Clancy went down the with second group.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The miners laughed.

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

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

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

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

“Only on his teeth.”

“That is if they’re his own.”

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

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

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

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

“This is the way we pay

This is the way we pay

for the right to die this way”

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

“Feels good.” He said to Clancy.

“Whatever you say boss.” Clancy replied.

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

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

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

“Hush.” Clancy plucked his pant leg.

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

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

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

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Chapter LI – Lillian Picks a Tie

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LI

Lillian

Picks

a Tie

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

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

Clara rolled her eyes. Lillian laughed. 

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

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

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

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

“Gus McLelland said …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” she glanced to Clara.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applause from the people gathered around caught Lillian off guard.

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

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

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

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

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

“So soon?” Lillian said.

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

“And if they decline.”

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

“A raise in pay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What!”

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

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Chapter L – Lillian Nurses The Wounded

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Coal Dusters – Chapter L

Lillian

Nurses

The Wounded

In the evening Lillian returned to the O’Dowell’s after making sure her uncle was comfortable at the manse. Although he was grateful for her attentions earlier he made it clear that was a matter of circumstance. His distrust of her remained as firm as it had been. 

The O’Dowell’s living room was crowded with union men, a couple of the more outspoken miners and Alf Landon their local Member of the Legislative Assembly. She stood at the door as unobtrusively as she could.

“They have to go back to work.” One of them was saying. “After this violence they have no other choice.”

“But the union didn’t hire those goons from the mainland!” another man said. 

“Yes, but you know how this will read. That the unreasonable miner’s instigated the military …”

“Yeah. The fat, over-fed louts in uniform with guns were forced to defend themselves from the miners who haven’t a decent meal in months.” 

“You tell ‘em Neddy. It was those Godless Catholic whipped into a righteous frenzy in d’church who came charging out with candles to set fire to those poor soldiers who happened to ridin’ their horses along the street by the church to enjoy the Sunday sun.”

“Don’t forget them outside agitators.” one of the miners said. “Wantin’ to eat is now a Bolshie plot.”

“It’s never any one’s fault but ours for wanting a decent wage.”

“Your points are well taken.” Alf stood. “But I have news for you that none of you are going to be happy to hear.”

“What? Coal Company is pulling out of the fields here!”

“Our prayers have been answered.”

“No, boys, no. Worse. There’ll be a bill proposed in Ottawa first thing tomorrow that’s to force you back to work.”

“Proposed.” Steven said. “More like pushed though, then shoved down our gullets.”

Lillian backed away as the men exploded in profanity. 

She went up to her room. She was happy to shut the door at last to the noise, to the day. She slipped off her pretty blue shoes. They weren’t so blue anymore. They were covered with dust, mud, horse dung and what she suspected was dried blood. With a damp cloth she wiped them off. Most of the grime came off easily but the leather had deep scratches she knew would never be removed. Another layer of her old life in Boston had been removed. There was knock at her door.

“Lillian?”

“Come in Clara. I was washing the dust of the day off.”

Clara came in followed by Aileen with a tea tray.

“I thought you might enjoy a cup of tea before you turned in.” Clara nodded for Aileen to put the tray on the vanity. “That will be all Aileen.”

“Yes, Miss Clara.”

Once Aileen had left Clara poured them both a cup of tea.

“My mother would sometimes do this with me. Come to my room with tea and biscuits.”

Clara picked up one of Lillian’s damaged shoes. “these have seen better days. Did you go dancing in them?”

“No. They were too plain for the ball room.” Lillian sipped her tea. It was weak. Her uncle preferred it as strong as she did. The O’Dowell’s always served weak, watery tea with hardly any color.

“You still missing that life?”

“Some of it.” Lillian sighed deeply.

“When I was your age I had a whole life ahead of me but then when our mother died in the Spanish flu I had to take over running the house. Looking after father was no easy task. I used to resent my mother so much. It was as if she had died to get out of all that work. I was grateful she’d only had us three children.”

“Three?”

“We had a younger brother Charles who also died during the Spanish flu.”

Once again Lillian saw how little she knew of life outside her own troubles.

“I do know what it is to lose control of your life.” Clara settled back on the armchair between the bed and the window. “Steven has asked my permission to propose to you.”

“What!” Lillian hoped she sounded surprised.

“My dear girl don’t play coy with me. I know you didn’t come here with that in mind but you must be aware of Steven’s interest in you.”

“From the outset but …”

“Yes. He was foolish and forward but has come to accept you aren’t a girl to be trifled with. He has come to see you as a woman who would be an asset to his life.”

“Asset? How romantic.”

“Now, Lillian we aren’t mining families making brats but adults building lives. Would you consider such a marriage?”

Lillian sipped her tea. “Yes. He would be an asset to my life.”

The two women laughed.

“I’m happy that you approve of me. You do realize though he asked asked me already?”

“Oh!” Clara put her cup and saucer down. “I am not surprised. He was never one to waste time.”

“Rest easy, Clara, we haven’t set a date if that’s what you are thinking. We will wait until after the election. There’ll be enough to deal with the campaign.”

“Of course. Pending marriage makes a perfect plank in his platform. Vote me in and I’ll invite you all to the wedding of the century.” She laughed. “You’re family will be thrilled to have you off their hands. They’ll be coming to the wedding?”

“No invitations until we’ve set a date.” 

“Very sensible.”

“Nothing until after the election.” Lillian said. “I don’t want my engagement announcement to turn into a campaign speech.”

“My dear you already understand Steven.”

 

The next afternoon Lillian was preparing the pans for baking the bread when there was a pounding at the front. Aileen went to answer.

“Miss, miss, you must come quick.” A boy pushed past Aileen. It was one of boys often used to run messages.

“What is it?” She asked as the boy caught his breath.

“Men is hurt.” He blurted out. “Dr. Drummond says for you to come quickly.”

“Where?” She pulled her shawl over her shoulders. 

She followed him to front door. Clara was on the porch talking with Dr. Drummond and two other men. 

“Has something happened to Steven?” she asked

“No.” Dr. Drummond said. “There’s been more foolishness with the miners and the company security.”

“Machine guns aren’t foolishness.” One of the men said.

“I’m on my way to deal with the wounded.” Drummond said. “I need to round up some volunteers to help. The hospital is refusing them because they are company militia. ”

“After Mount Carmel, I’m not surprised.” Clara asked.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Then let the company look after them.” Clara said.

“That’s what … I can’t ignore them. I’ve had some of taken to my clinic but it’s more than I can cope with on my own.”

“What can I do?” Lillian took him by the arm. “Clara does it matter. If it was one of ours that was injured would you …”

“They aren’t one of ours though. Perhaps you aren’t either, Lillian.” Clara said.

“Let’s go Dr. Drummond. I’ll help as best as I can.”

In the car Lillian wondered if she was doing the right thing. Defying Clara wasn’t going to make her marriage to Steven any easier. It wasn’t part of her plan to play Florence Nightingale, but then again neither was this life in Cape Breton. For once she was grateful to be an outsider with no family loyalties to the Islanders. 

As they drove one of the men ranted about what he called the workers revolt. The miner’s had attacked the power plant in a misguided effort to end the strike.

When they pulled into Dr. Drummond’s yard there was a truck with two of the wounded men on stretchers on the back of it. The blood around was already wet with blood.

“Have you been here long?” Drummond asked.

“No sir. About five minutes.” A man tending to the wounded said.

“Bring them …”

“I don’t think it’s good to move them any more that necessary.” The man said.

“Get my bag Lillian. You know where I keep it.”

“Yes. Come with me.” She said to the men who had been with Dr. Drummond. She walked quickly inot the house. “Here.” she grabbed the bag and gave it to one of them. “Take this to the doctor.”

“You,” she said to the other. “Bring some water into the kitchen. There’s a pump by the back door. We’ll have to have lots of hot water.”

Lillian lost track of time as she sterilized instruments, tore old bedding into bandages. One of the men on the truck died. The other was resting on the sofa in the doctor’s sitting room. Another truck arrived with more injured men. Some had severe head injures, others had been shot.

She held the hand of one while Drummond removed a bullet from his biceps. She closed her eyes and looked away as the doctor sewed the wound closed. 

“Lillian!” A man called out to her. 

“Steven!” She looked up.

“I don’t know what to say.” Steven reached out to push her hair away from her eyes. “You are a much braver woman than I would have expected.”

“You’re not angry with me.” She felt the patient’s hand relax its grip on hers. She looked to Dr. Drummond.

“The worse it over for him.” The doctor said. “He’ll recover.”

She started step down from the truck when Steven swept her into his arms and set her feet on the ground. For once his bay rum was a comforting smell.

“When Clara told me you were here I couldn’t believe it. I am …”

“You aren’t angry with me. Siding with the … the … I don’t know whose side this is. These could be miner’s for all I know.”

“Some of them were, Miss McTavish.” one of men said.

“Angry?” Steven tilted her face up to his. “No. More convinced than ever that marrying you will be one of the best things I’ll ever do.”

“Lillian,” Dr. Drummond dipped his hands inot a tub of fresh water. “You should consider becoming a nurse. I’ve rarely seen someone so natural and … shall I say … calm under such extreme circumstances.”

“Trust me, she’ll have her hands full tending me, Dr. Drummond.” Steven said.

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Chapter XLIX – Birk Drunk in the Trees

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Chapter XLIX

Birk

Drunk

in the Trees

The O’Dowell rally to protest the back-to-work legislation was at the North Sydney arena. After what one newspaper called ‘an armed insurrection’ an emergency sitting of the federal government had been called and a bill ending the strike was passed. BritCan had been granted all its conditions for reduction of tonnage payments. Most of the miners had returned to start the work getting the collieries ready for use. 

The stands at the area were three-quarters full when Birk and Clancy arrived.

“Not many left to show up for the other candidates’ rallies tonight.” Clancy said looking around. “O’Dowell knows how to play his cards.”

They got some free cheese sandwiches and tea and pushed as close as they could to the raised stage area in the middle of the auditorium.

“I hope he’s stronger than this tea.” Birk said pouring his paper cup out before crumpling it to toss it away.

“Tea’s never right in anything but a mug.” Clancy said. “I hope he’s stronger than the bunch that caved in to BritCan.”

The near by church tower rang the hour and at the last of the seven peals Steve O’Dowell came out from beneath the stands to rousing applause. He was followed by Gus McLelland, his campaign  manager, his sister and Lillian McTavish. As they walked through the crowd he, or Lillian, stopped to shake hands with various people.

When Steven got to the stage, the audience stood and continued to applaud. Gus went to the microphone. “Thank you all for coming out. It’s been a short but hard fought campaign and from the turn out here tonight I’d say we’ve already elected our new member of the legislative assemble. Steven O’Dowell.”

Another roar of approval came from the crowd.

Steven stepped up to the microphone, adjusted his tie and motioned for the silence. “I don’t want to count my votes before they are cast. All I want to say is that we proved we can stand the gaff. Once the tories are in power we’ll see if the BritCanada Coal Company can stand the gaff when we force them to listen to us, to listen to the people who live and die here and not to their fat board members in Montreal and Toronto and London. Strike breaking laws have no place this country.”

The audience was back on its feet, stomping on the floor boards, whistling and yelling their approval.

Steven unbuttoned his vest and signalled for silence again. “I have to thank Gus for all he’s done, for my sister whose faith in me has kept me going and my fiancee, Lillian McTavish, whose promise of marriage as given me another goal to aim for.”

“When’s the date?” someone called from the audience.

“A week after the mines fully open again and you take home your first pay packs. Only then. Once you’ve had your just reward then I’ll deserve mine.”

“She sure looks fine up there.” Clancy said to Birk.

“More than she ever did before.” Birk hardly recognized the Lillian on the stage. He was used to seeing her in her plain shifts, her hair tucked away under a hat or a shawl. Here she wore a form-fitting dark blue dress with a hat that allowed her hair to fall to her shoulders.

“Sorry you didn’t fall for her.” Clancy nudged him.

“No! Us poor miners could never give her the things she deserves.”

“When BritCan said let’em starve we won’t negotiate because the workers can’t stand the gaff, we proved them wrong. We’re going to take the gaff and shove it into their faces. I’ve learned from the mistakes of my my worthy opponent. I’ve seen where he’s refused to change, to actually listen to the people and do what has to be done. 

“He’s done a valiant job but he’s trapped in a party that won’t listen. The Tories have listened and have already promised you to put an end to this strike breaking legislation. That is their first matter of business once they are elected. And mark my words we will be elected.”

Brik and Clancy pushed their way out while the cheers continued. 

“You going back to your ma’s on the mainland to vote?” Birk asked as they walked back to the ferry dock.

“Haven’t given it much thought. Neither of us can cast a vote for O’Dowell, no matter how good his sandwiches are.”

“Old enough to starve but not old enough to vote.” Birk said.

They sat on the railing of the Dingle Dandy back to Castleton Mines.

“Steven sounds like he’ll get things done.” Birk said lightly tapping the deck with the heel of his boot. “Blackie says it’ll make little difference who wins the feds hold the cards.”

“Yeah, the cards BritCan dealt them. Here take a tug of this.” Clancy pulled a flat bottle out of his coat pocket.

“Where you come by that?”

“While you was taking the piss behind the arena.” Clancy unscrewed the top and took a swing before passing it to Birk.

“Not sure if I ought to.” Birk took a small sip. It had a sour apple taste that burned as it went down. He shuddered, took another swallow and passed it back to Clancy. 

“A bit strong for ya?” Clancy took another gulp and put back in his pocket.

The ferry docked and the passengers exited.

“Warming up.” Birk said as they walk up the short rise that lead to the main street.

“That happens in June.” Clancy said. “This’ll warm it up faster.” He took another swig and passed it to Birk.

Birk glanced around to see if anyone was paying them any attention.

“Go on! No one cares. Birk it’s as if your ma was always hovering around you somewhere.”

Birk moved into a shadow between two buildings and took a bigger swig. He coughed as it went down. He took another one before handing it back to Clancy.

“You’re getting the hang of it.”

“Not old enough to vote, but old enough to drink bootleg.” Birk said.

“Old enough to fight and die for your country too, if you had to.”

“Dodging that machine-gun fire was enough war for me.” Birk said. The moonshine made his head spin a little. “I was never so scared in m’life.”

“Not even when the little nun first smiled on you.”

“Not even then. That weren’t fear anyway.” He swung his fist playful at Clancy. “She got what she wanted and it sure weren’t me.”

“Sure weren’t me either.” He grabbed Birk in a headlock.

Birk slipped out of it and darted up the lane that lead to his house. Clancy followed. The street light didn’t go as far as Birk’s house at the end of the lane. 

Birk hid in a shadow and his eyes adjusted to the dark. He saw Clancy stop to peer around for him. He skirted behind two houses till he was at his own. Peeking out from around the corner he gave a little whistle to let Clancy know where he was.

“Got you my slippery one.” Clancy grabbed him from behind. “Two can duck around in the dark you know.”

Birk elbowed Clancy into letting loose his grip. He scrambled to the back of the house and out into the field behind it. He stopped by the tree where he did his thinking.

The sky was clear.

“You out here?” Clancy said quietly.

Birk gave another little whistle. Clancy made his way over to the tree.

“Nice view of things from here.” He sipped from his flask.

“Yeah.” Birk took the flash, took the last swallow and tossed as far as he could. “There’s that empty.” 

They leaned against each other shoulder to shoulder.

“We should go fishin’ again soon.” Clancy slurred. He grabbed Birk in another headlock.

“Hey!” 

Birk grabbed Clancy around the waist to break free and they fell to the ground. Even when Birk broke free of the headlock neither was willing to let go their hold. They rolled in the grass attempting to get the other to submit.

“Say uncle.” Birk grunted as his pinned Clancy beneath him.

“Not until you do.” Clancy heaved and pushed till he was on top once again.

“You may not want to,” Birk wrapped his legs around Clancy and held him between them. “But your little fella sure feels he’s ready to give up the battle.”

“Yours too.” Clancy muttered.

“Not as much as yours.” Birk stopped squeezing with his legs.

He sagged on top of Clancy, enjoying the closeness, the urge of the hardness trapped in their pants.

“Quick.” Clancy pushed him away, kicked off his shoes and yanked off his trousers. “Don’t want to muss these up anymore than need be!”

Birk did the same, tossing his overalls and shoes in opposite directions. “Ma’s got enough washing up to do with me adding these to the pile.” 

Flesh to flesh. Face to face. Clancy spit on his hand and slicked their members as he pulled Birk to press on him.

In a few moments it was over.

They rolled away from each. Clancy’s hand rested on Birk’s hip.

“What do think of?” Birk asked

“When? Now?”
“Yeah. When we was … rubbing?”

“Can’t say as I think of anything ‘cept what we’re doing. How good it feels and that I want it to last longer.”

“The … spark at the end you mean? I try to hold off but I can’t.”

“Not only that but all of it. The wrestling, the holding, the …. the closeness of us. Even when you needs a good wash up I don’t mind.” Clancy moved his hand along Birk’s rib cage.

“You saying I stink?”

“When was the last time you were in the tubs at Mrs. Franklins?”

“Last time we was there. That Colonel Strickland won’t any but him use the tubs. ” Birk stared up at the stars. It was as if he could count them individually. 

He dozed off till Clancy’s snores woke him. His back ached from where he had fallen asleep in the grass. It was still night. He wiped himself as clean as he could with a handful of grass and put his clothes back on while he watched Clancy sleep on the ground. Clancy’s shirt was open and his nearly naked body glowed in the darkness.

“Clancy?” He whispered, then repeated louder. “Clancy” He gently toed him in the soft of his belly. “Clancy.”

Clancy woke with a start. “Wha!”

“It’s Birk, you drunken fool. Get yer pants on afore it rains and washes your little fella away.”

“You taking advantage of me in my sleep.” Clancy joked as he reached for his clothes.

“No more ‘an you do when I’m awake.”

“Were are m’boots?” Clancy pulled on his pants.

“I think I heard one of them hit the tree over there. Don’t know where t’other one ended up though.”

“You’r ma mind if I kip over tonight.” Clancy put on the shoe he had and hopped over to find the other one by the tree.

“You must be some drunk.” He put his arm around Clancy shoulder and pulled him close. “You’ve been kipping since I don’t know when.”

“Good drink that.” Clancy said. “M’name’s Clancy, innit?”

 

The next day Birk accompanied his father when he went to the poll to cast his ballot.

“You comin’ Ma?” Birk asked his mother.

“No. It’s not fittin’ a woman should cast her vote.”

“But it’s allowed. Mrs. Mc.” Clancy said.

“What’s allowed and what fitting are two different things Clancy. I was not one of those who wants women to be able to do everything and anything a man can do. Politics is no place for a woman. No place.”

“Can’t say as I blame you.” Clancy said. “Sometimes it doesn’t aim to be a fitting place for men either.”

Outside the polling station miners were gathered, smoking and talking about who they were going to vote for. 

“Even if wasn’t going to vote for O’Dowell I sure wouldn’t say so in front of these guys,” Birk said to Clancy.

“At least you could read which one he is on the ballot.” Clancy joked. “I hope his soon-to-be missus must have taught you to read that much.”

Mac went in and came out ten minutes later.

“It’s pretty simple boys. There I was thinking I’d have to write me name down somewhere at least or even his but all I had to do was mark an X and put it in the box.”

“Let’s pray that X makes a difference.” One of the miners said. “Sometimes out with the old doesn’t mean much if the new broom can’t sweep what the old broom couldn’t sweep.”

“New broom might it hard to sweep this mess up.” Clancy said.

The next afternoon word was out that it had been a clean sweep of the old government. Birk hoped the new broom would do some good.

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Coal Dusters: Chapter XLVIII – Birk at thePower Plant

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Coal Dusters

Chapter XLVIII

Birk 

at the

Power Plant

Birk’s father read aloud from the morning Post “miners instigate conflict with legally deputized constables.” He shook the paper. “From what I hear the legally deputized constables attacked the people leaving Mount Carmel Church with no cause at all. No cause.” He read further. “No wait! Here it is! They malicious scared the horses.”

There was knock at the back door and Jake Malone barged in.

“Blackie, we’ve had it. The union has had it.” He pulled a chair out and sat at the table. “The union met last night to discuss what had happened at Mount Carmel, we’re pullin’ everyone, including you.”

“But you ….”

“Yes, we know what that’ll mean. There’ll be no maintenance at any of the mines. Or at the power plant in New Waterford either. The BritCan goons can’t get away with this.”

“There’ll be a march this afternoon soon as the word gets out. We’re to meet at the arena. You with us?”

“Yes!” Birk’s father announced. “I’ve had it up to here. Scaring the horses! Next, they’ll be arresting us for being awake.”

While the men were meeting on the dock to take the ferry over to North Sydney word came that the company had already shut down the power plant, cut off electricity and water to the area. Those that had running water now had none.

“Who do those bastards think they are!” one of the men said.

“Time we show them that we’re not going to give in, no matter what.” Someone else said as they clambered aboard the ferry.

“I hear it was them getting even for that attack last week on them sneaking in scabs.” Jim McKlusky said.  

When they got to the other side they were met by Ivor Gillis head of the local police. He had over a dozen of the company security force with him.

“Lads, we’re going have to make sure you aren’t carrying any arms or such. We don’t want any further trouble here.”

“What about them buggers? They are the ones with cudgels and guns. Not us.”

“We have to protect our town.” Ivor went on.

“Yeah whose goin’ to protect us from them.” One of the miners shouted. “We’re not leaving a church looking to scare the horses after all.”

The miners laughed.

“Men, don’t make things worse than they are.” Ivor pleaded. “Get back on the Dingle and go to your homes.”

“We aren’t going anywhere Ivor Gillis. Not till the DuBois ferry sets out to New Waterford. So get out of our way.”

“What is to be problem?” Bill McLean, one of the union spokesmen came from behind Ivor Gillis. 

“Do you know …” Ivor started.

“Yeah we know BritCan’s got you in it’s back pocket.” Jim McKlusky stopped him. “But they don’t give a pinch of coal dust about you. Power’s off at your home same as everyone else’s. No water either. How long your sick’uns going to survive without water? Any of you think about that?” he turned to the constables. “That is those of you with family here.”

He stared at each of the men on horseback. “You might to take a look around you fellas.”

Miners from other parts of the area had gathered along the sidewalks across the road from the dock.

“You don’t mind if we join our friends.” Bill said. “Come on Blackie let’s a little talk while we wait for the DuBois.”

The constables reluctantly separated as the new group of miners pushed through them.

Birk didn’t understand the cold stares the constables gave them as they walked through. He knew some of them had grown up in Castleton. Some of the unformed men slapped their palms with their batons and smirked; others merely sneered.

“Move along. Move along.” Two of the constables pushed their horses at the men. “Can’t block the sidewalks.”

“The same law that says you can ride horses on these sidewalks?” Clancy asked.

The miners followed Blackie and Bill McLean down to board the DuBois that was ready to depart. Once on board of the men compared their crude weapons, short iron bars, wooden handles and even shovels. When disembarked at New Waterford there were men ready to direct them to through the town to the road that lead to the power plant.

“Someone has been busy.” Bill McLean remarked as they approached the plant. “That fence weren’t there yesterday.

There was a heavy, barbed-wire fence set up a few hundred yards from the plant, that encircled it. The there was another division of horsemen that followed them from the dock. They picked up their pace and rode though the men swinging their batons randomly.

“This is private property.” Colonel Strickland rode up to the inside of the gate. “Clear off BritCanada property now, or pay the consequences.”

“Clear off yerself, you fucking mainlander.” One of the miners shouted as he leapt up and grabbed a horseman off his horse. He wrested that man’s truncheon away from him and knocked him to the ground and began kicking him.

“Any one else want more the same?” The miner shouted.

“Yeah!” a horseman rode over and swung his truncheon at the miner. The sound of the truncheon as it crushed the miner’s head stopped them all for a moment. Blood oozed from the man’s mouth as he sank to the ground.

It was like a signal for the others on horses to take action. Forcing their horses to rear up and trample the miners. 

Clancy handed Birk an iron rod about a yard long. Birk looked at it not sure how to handle it but as a horse came charging at him he swung out at the horse. Slashing the horse across the forelegs. The legs buckled sending the rider sprawling to the ground.

Rapid gun fire was heard coming from behind the barbed wire.

“They’re using machine guns!” Jim McKlusky shouted.

Birk and Clancy kept pushing forward. Swinging their iron rods at the horses, at the constables who fell. As Birk swung all he could see was his sister Maddy weak with hunger while these uniformed fuckers were fat and well-fed.

His hands and arms were quickly spattered with blood. He never thought himself capable of such violence against anyone. What right did these bastards have to get paid to keep him from getting paid?

He glanced at Clancy as they helped some men dig a trench under the fencing. 

“Almost like being in the pit.” Clancy grinned wiping dirt off his face.

They crawled under the fence and over the gravel till they were behind one of the machine gun nests and jumped in to the surprise of the gunners. They tied the gunners up while Jim McKlusky and another miner made their way over the other machine gun nest. It quickly fell silent. Jim came out pushing two men tied up in front of him. None of them knew how to operate the guns but their intent had been to stop them not use them. Birk and Clancy rushed to the gate, beat the lock off with their iron bars and pushed it open.

The miners cheered and rushed on to the power plant. Within an hour they had restored running water and electricity.

When he and Clancy returned home that night they was elated. Everyone was encouraged by their successes of the day. Encouraged and saddened at the same as men had died.

“This has to be what war is like,” he told his father. “Crawling under barbed wire, on yer belly.”

“Birk this is closer to any war than you want to be.” His father rubbed his temples. “But worse. At war a bullet kills fast. BritCan’s ammunition is our hunger and they aim to make us kill ourselves so they don’t have to get their hands dirty.”

“You boys, no I guess you aren’t boys anymore,” Birk’s mother said. “You men better wash up and get some sleep. Never meet trouble with a dirty face.”

“Yes, ma.”

In the morning Jake Malone came over with the news that the company had taken the power plant back and shut it down once more. He had heard that they were now was sure to get the feds to send more troops because the miners were endangering industrial property.

“Nothing about the company endangering miner’s lives though.” his Dad said.

“According to the Post the union’s fallen prey to communist ideals. They claim there are outside agitators behind the whole strike business.”

“It weren’t no agitators who decided to cut wages. That was BritCan. They want profits for their share holders.” Blackie said.

“Right and the province wants those coal royalties, too. As long as we’re out they aren’t getting anything of that to feed themselves.” Clancy said.

“So what do think is next?” Birk asked.

“Hard to say,” Jake answered. “The men are right frustrated by this set back. Even the press that was with us isn’t so much now. Those guys in Montreal don’t give a crap about us down here, and they’ll make sure the feds stay out of it. King ain’t no friend to us. No more than Armstrong is.”

By the end of week two battalions of federal troops arrived to reinforce the company calvary. According to the Post they had been brought in to quell the violent miners under the influence of radicals. An uneasy peace settled in as the miner’s maintained their distance from any of the company properties.

“We can’t go on this way much longer.” Blackie sat at the kitchen table. “Winter coming on and we’re going to need to keep warm somehow.”

“I’m thinkin’ we might as well up and move to Alberta with Geo. Miners there gettin’ a decent wage.” Birk said. He knew desperate times call for more than grumbling.

“What!” his mother said. “Leave the life we know?”

“Ma this ain’t to life. Lots of the miners have already left. You know that. The Jones, the Babbington’s, even Joseph Franklin and they was here to help found Castleton. What’s holding us here.”

“We can’t let BritCan get away with this. Driving us out of our homes, out of …. of our right to live decent.”

“Starving isn’t living decent.” Birk said. “What can we do. They can wait us out. You see that, don’t you. Even with so many with us we aren’t getting anywhere with them.”

“Go then!” his father stood. “Pack yer things and head out west if that’s what you want to do. You and your pal Clancy. ”

“It’s not what I want to do, but what else is there. What is there for me here, even if they open the mines again?” Birk said.

“That’s that mick girl. She’s put notions in your head hasn’t she.” His mother accused him.

“Ma! She’s showed me some about reading and writing. Things I never had time to learn while I was in the pits.”

“Things you never needed either.”

“Even Pa can read the paper. He can write his name on a piece of paper. What’s wrong with me having learned to do those as well.”

Fuming Birk jumped up and rushed out of the backdoor. What was he to do? All he’d ever known was the coal dust of the mines, the mud of mudside. He’d been fairly content with it till the strike happened. About enough to eat most of the time. 

It was as if this nothing was what his life had been all along. Grubbing about for something to keep the family going. Griping about things that couldn’t be changed. Had he ever been happy? 

That day at Blue Lake when he first took Clancy fishing had been a good day. It seemed years ago. The first time he sank into one of those bathtubs at Mrs. Franklin. The first time he had actually felt clean and how they laughed at the dirty water he’d left behind. It took them an hour to clean the tub out again.

Sure he had worries then but there was something to enjoy to. Now there was nothing but no food tomorrow. Soldiers with guns ready to use them. 

What would there be for him if they settled the strike even at the company’s terms. There were fewer men now so perhaps he’d get more shifts.

That Lillian had asked him about having a family someday. That was the last thing he’d ever want. It broke his heart seeing his sisters growing thinner every day. The only days they showed any life was when she came to teach them. Lording her cleanliness over them most of the time. Acting as if she cared when all she did was show them up, show them how stupid they were. So now he could write his name. Signing his name wasn’t going to feed his sisters or feed himself either.

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Coal Dusters Chapter XLVII – Lillian Goes to Church

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 XLVII

Lillian Goes to Church 

Lillian stood on the front walk of the the McFadden’s home. The O’Dowell’s had come over to New Waterford for the night on Saturday so they could attend the special service at Mount Carmel. The strike was nearing its fifth week with no sign of ending. The Monseigneur had called for a special service on Sunday to bring the Word of God to the parishioners of the area. Her uncle was one of the priest asked to speak to the men.

Clara had insisted on her and Lillian spending the night so they wouldn’t be rushed in the morning to get across the bay to New Waterer in time for the service. She plucked a stray thread off of her dark coat. She was pleased at the opportunity to wear some of her Boston clothes. Even more pleased to have her lace gloves to cover her hands. Her eyes kept going down to her pumps. How dainty her feet looked in the dark blue shoes. Probably two years out of style by now, she thought, but still looking better than anything she had seen anyone wearing here.

“Ah Lillian, there you are.” Clara came out of the house followed by the McFadden’s and their two daughters. “You are looking quite well turned out today.”

“Thank You Clara. I haven’t gotten much opportunity to dress my best.”

They walked the few blocks to the church.

As she with Clara, Lillian noticed a large number men in uniform along the street. They were smoking and laughing. Some appeared to have been drinking.

“Who are they going to protect.” Mr. McFadden said. “The choir?”

The extra militia had been brought in to New Waterford at the demand of the coal company. The management had pressured the local police to beef up security around the mines after many of the company stores had been ransacked. It was as if they had been hoping the miners would take that more militant action after the ambush hadn’t succeeded. Any action so the company could escalate things in their own way.

Lillian and Clara passed through the main part of of the town. Off to one side street were more men on horseback. There was also some artillery on a wheeled cart. Colonel Strickland stood there with his hands behind his back watching the men inspect the artillery. 

“What do they expect the miner’s to do?” Lillian asked Clara.

“They are sure there are agitators working to undermine the company’s influence.”

“Agitators?”

“Men whose only intent to disrupt lawful business under the guise of making things better for the workers. Communists.” Clara waved to her brother. “Steven, any word from BritCanada Coal?”

He crossed the street to join them. “Good morning.” He kissed his sister on the cheek and shook Lillian’s hand. They had decided to keep their engagement a secret for the time being. The assembly is in full agreement with Wolvin’s statement that the men can end all this simply by returning to work. They are willing to open the mines so the men can start earning their keep. As general manager he has no ability to negotiate. He’s only a messenger but the men feel he’s the one keeping the company from giving in.”

“Their keep!” Mr. McFadden said. “They were being paid barely enough to keep house and family together under the old contract and now they have to settle for less?”

“Mr. McFadden, in order for the company to remain competitive in the market they have to have the coal for less, that means paying the men less. The alternative is to close down more of the mines. Is that what you think the miners want?”

“You know as well as I do that the miners want an end to this starvation. BritCanada Coal is letting the miners’ children pay the price of their profits.”

“BritCanada Coal can’t be held accountable for the ….” Steven glanced apologetically to Lillian and the other ladies, “… the propagation habits of the miners. If you can’t afford children don’t bring more into the world.”

“Steven!” Clara snapped. “What a thing to say!”

They were at the church steps. In the foyer the Monseigneur was greeting parishioners as they arrived. Father Patrick was at his side. She hadn’t seen him since he had ‘cast her forth into the wilderness’ as it was reported to her by Aileen. She didn’t offer her hand to him but merely nodded as his glance went quickly to Mrs. McFadden beside her. 

Seeing him again made her bruises throb. She had kept Clara from seeing how severe they actually were. She had made Dr. Drummond swear not to mention the severity of them to anyone. The few long hot soaking baths which she had over the past week had eased the pain considerably. Aileen had insisted she try a poultice of comfrey and mustard which reduced the swelling and discolouration.

She followed Clara to the pew they were to use for the service. On the way she was stopped by Hanna Seldon.

“Miss Lillian, it’s good to see you looking well.”

“You too Hanna. How’s the baby.”

“Poorly miss. He has that flu so many of the children have had the past few months. Least we have been able feed him to keep his strength up. The doctor says there’s a good chance he’ll pull through.”

Lillian shook her head in dismay. As the strike progressed and food became scarce many families had less and less to eat. Gardens had helped stave of some of the hunger but many of the children were weak from lack of proper nutrition. This weakness made them more vulnerable to colds and recently a flu. There were funerals daily.

“I wish there was more I could do.” Lillian said.

“Knowing your prayers are with us is more than enough. At least we have a roof over our heads. There’s now many that doesn’t. When they closed the Lingan mine those families were forced out of the company houses. No mine no home. Where is a person to go?”

“There’ll be help I’m sure.” Lillian kissed Hanna on the cheek and joined Clara. She was more grateful that ever for having been given a haven when she needed one, but how long could even the O’Dowell’s  manage with things getting worse for everyone around her.

The service washed over her without her paying attention to it. She heard bits and pieces of the various rituals and the sermon. Other parishes were sending money. The Monseigneur had spoken to the Premier to no avail. The Bishop had spoken to the some cabinet misters but was told this was a provincial not a federal matter and so they would do nothing. The conclusion appeared to be that God helps those who help themselves, which in this case only the BritCanada Coal Company had pockets deep enough to help themsevels.

“What does helping themselves mean?” Lillian asked Mr McFadden as they made their way out after the mass.

“Pray and listen to the guidance one gets from the Lord.” 

“What if the Lord tells some helping themselves is to strike for better working conditions and tells others that accepting any working condition is better than not working at all?”

“Miss McTavish your words are dangerously similar to those of the Communists.”

“They … they are?” Her face flushed. “Perhaps I’ve been listening too much what Steven has to say about all this.”

“Miss McTavish you are in many ways still an outsider here. This isn’t Boston.”
“I comprehend that but …”

“The folks here don’t think logically. They have no idea of a future only of their stomachs in the now.”

They were in the foyer once again. The crowd was stopped at the doors.

Screams and shouts came from outside.

“Father,” one of the parishioners shouted. “They are charging with horses as we leave the church.”

The Monseigneur and her uncle pushed through the crowd.

The parishioners pushed back and she fell against the wall. An elderly women stumbled back into the church helping her husband. He was bleeding from a blow to the head.

“They rode up as we were walking down the street. Swinging their batons and hitting anyone they could reach.” The woman gasped. “Anyone! We’re not miners!”

Over the shouting she could hear the horses. Then gun shots. There was brief silence.

The miners who were still in the church rushed out. Some pulling up the picket fencing around the church lawn to give them something to use in self-defence.

Lillian cautiously went to one of the side exit doors to peer out. She saw a mass of men with wooden pickets flailing at the militia on horses wielding thick black clubs. Both sides were shouting accusations at each other.

“BritCan doesn’t even want us to go to church in peace. They have no respect for the God.”

“Commie rabble. Papist scum. Pray to your God now.”

“I knows you father Billy Davis.”

“Get off the streets now or …”

“These are our streets, ya goddamned company bastard.”

Another shot rang out. The fighting stopped a moment. The miners fell back to the church grounds. The militia pulled back a few yards to regroup.

A runner dashed up to one of the horsemen with a message.

“A man is dead because of you.” The lead horseman said. “How many more have to die before you learn your place.”

“Who?” several men shouted at once.

“Daniel Jenkis!” the horseman shouted back. “You ready to leave peacefully.”

“We was till you charged as us with no cause.” someone yelled back.

The horseman nodded and all the troops stepped forward. “If that’s how you want it we’ll trample the lot of you.”

“Kill a child. Is that what you want?”

“Not us. You behave and there’ll be no trouble.”

Lilian’s uncle pushed through the men and stood alone in front of them. “How can we disperse with you blocking the streets and sidewalk?” he asked quietly. He puts hands out palms up.

One of the horses reared and the front hooves hit her uncle. He fell forward under the horse. Lilian darted out to drag her uncle out of the horse’s way.

“Get out of the way you Catholic biddy.” One of the other horsemen laughed and Lilian glanced at him as he swung his baton at her.

“That’s it!” a male voice from the other side of that horseman shouted as the horseman was yanked backwards off the horse. She caught a glimpse of Steven O’Dowell wresting that rider to the ground.

The rider of the rearing horse had it under control and had pulled it away from the prone body of her uncle.

She knelt beside him. He was on his stomach and she wasn’t sure if she should turn him over.

“Uncle Pat can you hear me.” she said squeezing his hand.

“Yes child.” He turned his head toward her.

She saw that he was bleeding from a gash on his forehead. He pushed himself up painfully with his right arm. She struggled with his weight to help him stand. Two miners came over to take his weight from her.

“Thank you. I’m a bit winded. When I saw the beast rear before me it was the horsemen of the Apocalypse come to life to warn me. But this one was only an animal, not a messenger.”

“Lillian …” Steven came quickly to her brushing dust off his coat. “You haven’t been harmed in any way have you?”

“No, Steven I haven’t. Father Pat has been injured sorely. We must get him some medical attention.”

They helped her uncle back into the church. Inside on the benches were several others who had been assaulted by the militia. 

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Coal Dusters – Chapter XLVI – Lillian Gets A Proposal

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 XLVI

Lillian Gets A Proposal

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

“Anything need doing, Aileen?” she asked.

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

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

“Whatever you say, Miss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good evening Clara.”

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

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

“Quite right Lillian. Quite right.”

They ate in silence till desserts was brought out.

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

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

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

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

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

“I understand that.”

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

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

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

“Ahh.” Lillian’s heart sank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Father wanted a house with lovely views everywhere.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Dr. Drummond.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Or what!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A knock at her door broke her revere.

“Lillian are you awake?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh! Mr. O’Dowell!”

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

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

He took both her hands to pull her toward him.

“Steven!” she pulled away form him.

“I … Will you marry me?”

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Coal Dusters – Chapter XLV – Birk Gets Questioned

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 XLV

Birk 

Gets 

Questioned

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Birk Nelson.” one of them said.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The solider kept Birk moving.

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

“Right.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birk sat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He wasn’t …”

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

“That’s no news to anyone.”

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

“And make war on my neighbours?”

“I can get you a posting somewhere else.”

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

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

Birk stood. “I’m free to go?”

“Not so fast.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Easier with a shotgun.” Birk laughed.

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

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

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

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

“Duck flying soon.” Birk said.

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

They been over these ways of getting game many times.

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

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

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

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

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

“You turn him down?”

“Of course. You turn him down?”

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

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

“Much going on?” Tommy Driscoll asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Going to his rally tonight?”

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

“Best way to a voters heart, right.”

“All the candidates have been doing that but …”

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

“Right.”

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