Chapter LXIX – Birk Leaves Castleton

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LXIX

Birk

Leaves

Castleton

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

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

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

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

“How’s that?” 

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

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

“Barky?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

Birk followed him.

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

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

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

“Is that what you want?”

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

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

“Why are they such devious things?”

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

“You not looking to married?” Birk asked.

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

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

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

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

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

They headed back to the house.

“What’s buggery, Clancy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that got to with mine rats?”

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

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

“‘Fraid so.”

“You ever …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hands okay?” His mother asked.

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

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

“Put’em?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“You see Clancy at all?” He asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They pulled up to the new house.

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

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

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

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Chapter LXIII – Lillian’s Frustrations Increase

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LXIII

Lillian’s

Frustrations

Increase

After her meeting with the magistrate Lillian went to St. Teresa’s to collect her thoughts and pray. While she was there it began to rain heavily. She regretted not bringing her umbrella with her as she walked briskly back to the courthouse for two o’clock. She paced back and forth in the lobby checking the time on the clock there each time she passed it. At 3:15 a clerk came out.

“Miss McTavish. Magistrate Doucet will see you now.”

She went into his office and sat in one of the arm chairs in front of his desk. 

He made notes for a few moments before looking. “Thank you or coming back Miss McTavish.”

“Is no one present to record what I have to say?” she asked.

“Not at this point Miss McTavish. The case, as it were, is almost settled. We may not have to waste any valuable court time on it. I’m merely getting the details to see if there is enough to warrant taking it trial. I’ve spoke with the two lads in question.”

“They denied everything I suppose?”

“On the contrary they confirmed much of what you suspected. But I do want to hear what it was exactly you saw.”

“They were naked and touching each other’s private parts. Smiling while they enjoyed …” she shuddered at what she had seen. “Unnatural expressions in their eyes.”

“Where were you when you saw this.”

“Blue Lake on the south shore side.”

“Yes, I know the area. Good fishing at times. Sun was in your eyes at all?”

“There was a slight glare from the water but my vision was clear.”

“About how far from them where you?”

“I … I don’t know.” Was he doubting what she saw? “I know what I saw. It was a clear as …” she glanced out the window and peered across to the other side of the street, “the lace on the curtains in that window across the street.”

“I see,” he answered without looking where she was looking. “Miss McTavish as an outsider you have been quick to adapt our Island life. But you know that in some matters of decorum we are quite different. We tend to be less formal, less concerned with appearance. For example swimming in the nude amongst men in what is usually a private setting, is not at all unusually. I even did it myself often in my youth.”

“They were not swimming when I saw them” Lillian said firmly.

“You did observe them in the water didn’t you?”

“Yes.” Lillian blushed at the momentary pleasure she had taken in watching them in the water.

“Have you seen many men in the nude?” He asked gently.

“Never!” she exploded. “But this was more …”

“I can easily see how a young, delicate, lady such as yourself would be flustered by such a sight. It would have offended your refined sensibilities. Quite rightly so.” He chuckled. “But to impute more to what you saw than that is a gross overstatement. An over-reaction to the situation. But given recent events in your life. After the death of Mr. O’Dowell, I can see where your mien could be unsettled by such an unexpected and unwelcome sight.”

“It was not their nudity …” Lillian stood to make her point.

“Mrs. O’Dowell, I am dismayed that a female of your breeding would even countenance such thoughts as you have hinted at. An awareness of such unspeakable acts does not reflect well upon you or your family. Now sit down.”

She sat glaring at him

“Now, even if what you say is true, let me tell you now, nothing more will be done about this matter. Any attempts by you to besmirch these men will only sully the memory of the late Steve O’Dowell and the other men who died in that tragic accident.”

“Sully?” Lillian said. “Sully?”

“Yes, sully. This sort of sordid stain will taint memory forever. Birk Nelson was instrumental in that rescue. Leave it be.” He said forcefully

“I refuse.” She stood again. “You may not have the moral fortitude to take action …”

“Mrs. O’Dowell!”

“These people cannot be allowed to live such a way!”

“I see no evidence of that in this case. It is more case of a silly, grief stricken, woman being alarmed by a naked man.”

“It was more than that. Much more.” She slammed the palms of her hands on the desk. “Don’t these people care at all?”

“Mrs. O’Dowell.” He said quietly. “After working twelve hours in a dark, dank, wet, lightless hole they have little time or energy to care for much more than getting food, sleep and back to work another day. How they might seek even a small bit of pleasure is of no great importance. To other men, or to God. Good day Miss McTavish.” He went to the door and opened it for her.

“I will speak to the Bishop about this matter.” she said as she passed him.

“Consult with whom you wish.”

“They cannot be let off scot-free.”

“They haven’t been. Public nudity is an offence, as is creating a public mischief. They have both been charged and pled guilty to those charges.”

Lillian wanted to slap the tight smirk off the magistrate’s face. Treating her as if she were merely a hysterical female was bad enough but to indulge these men in their behaviour was too much.

She fumed all the way across the bay and back to the O’Dowell house. The windows in her room rattled as she slammed the door behind her. She sat heavily on the chair in front of her vanity table. Her face was drawn and pale. Her forehead and eyebrow muscles ached, her jaw was sore from being clenched. She tanked off her hat, took the pins out of her hair and began to brush it relishing the sharp pain on her scalp as she tugged at the snarls.

She heard the front door open and close.

“Are you in Lillian?” Clara called from the bottom of the stairs.

“Yes, Clara.” She shook her hair out and wrapped it in a quick braid as she went down the stairs.

“That scowl tells me things didn’t go as you expected.” 

“No Clara, they did not. Not that I’m surprised. The spiritual laxness of these people is a bottomless pit.”

“It is a struggle we all deal with in one way or the other.” Clara agreed. “Some sins are more visible than others. It’s those unseen ones we must be particularly vigilant about. Pride leads the list.”

“Pride! These people have no pride!” Lillian exploded. “If they had any pride they would not live as they do.”

“It’s not their pride or lack of it that I’m speaking of, but yours, my dear.”

“Mine!” Lillian was shaken.

“Yes, yours. When I first met you at Father Patrick’s I saw that in you. You felt you were better than the circumstance into which you had fallen. In some ways that was justified and I admired your stubbornness in refusing to let yourself be humbled by it.”

“I was humbled.” Lillian said.

“No! Humiliated but not humbled. Then when you came to us even your gratitude had an element of ‘look how I’m lowering myself to be of help to you. I may be refined but I’m willing to be a garden drudge.’ You demanded to have your sacrifice  recognized, acknowledged.”

“I did not!” Lillian said.

“Never in words. Even with Steven you sometimes acted as if you were doing him a great favour when you appeared with him. Never did it appear that you were there because you loved him but because it was duty.” Clara stopped to sip her tea.

“I married him for …”

“Don’t say for love. How could you deny a dying man his final wish?” Clara said.

“I … didn’t know he was about to die.” Lillian wiped a tear from her face. “Are you quite finished?”

“I might ask you the same question. Are you quite finished?”

“If by that you do I know what I’m going to do. The answer is no. I have limited resources and clearly no options, but I’m not finished.” Lillian sighed then cried bitterly. “I don’t what to do next.”

“Look to your heart Lillian not to your head or your pride. What do you truly want?”

Lillian stood. “More than anything I’d want to feel that  I have a future. To be free.”

 

She went out the garden. The rain had stopped and the plants were eager to turn to face the setting sun. Some of what Clara had said was true but she was wrong about one thing. Lillian had never felt she was a drudge in the garden. There she was in control. She had made it possible for some plants to thrive, to come back to life after years of neglect. She had seen the results of her efforts in the fresh herbs they had for salads, the ripening tomatoes, the new shoots that had formed on the climbing rose. 

With her own hands she had shaped and encouraged and had be rewarded amply. 

She pulled off some sage leaves and crushed them. The aroma was of the earth, of life and she had to find a way to be free to be a part of it. Here all she could do was crush it between her fingers or be crushed by it.

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Chapter LXII – Birk Faces Father Patrick

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LXII

Birk

Faces

Father Patrick

It was raining as Birk walked away from the court house. He peered around for Clancy but didn’t see him. He’s been to Sydney many times but never on his own. It was clear walking was the only way he would be getting home. He had no money for bus fare. He hoped he was walking in the right direction.

When he got to the corner of Charlotte St. and Pitt St. he was reassured. He could smell the harbour front from there and kept going in that direction. One of the ferries often stopped here and if he could find one to take him to New Waterford getting the rest of the way was simple enough. That is if he didn’t catch cold from getting drenched in the rain.

By the time he walked the length of the docks he was colder, wetter and disappointed. He hadn’t spotted any boat that might be headed where he needed to go. 

The hustle of men around him unloading, loading made him miss the noise and activity of the mines. Men working. He watched them and saw that he could easily do what they were doing. Work that took muscle and not thinking.

“Birk!” a voice called from behind him. “Birk Nelson?”

He turned around to where it came from. A tall thin man, about fifty, in long tight fitting black coat strode toward him, hand stretched to shake his.

“Dan’l Patterson.” The man said as he shook Birk’s hand.

“Of the Inverness Patterson’s?” These were the only Patterson’s he knew.

“Quite right. Pity them closing another of the mines.”

“They’d rather save money than pay money to make money.” Brik said.

“I’m here with another load of lumber from the mill.”

“Wet day for wood.” Birk finally placed Dan’l. He and his brother ran a lumber millworks outside of New Waterford.

“You here looking for work?”

Birk quickly recounted the incidents of the past few days. Dan’l chuckled and shook his head a few times.

“That’ll be story to pass on to yer kids when you’av ‘em. Some women take great joy is making the misery of men worse ‘an it is already.”

“So I’m learning. Not as if I set out for this lesson though. I’m fixing to find a way back to Castleton Mines.”

“Give us a hand unloading and you can come back with us after we collect for the wood.” He reached out to shake Birk’s hand again. “Deal.”

“Thanks.”

Their wood barge was the far end of the wharf where local boats with small loads would tie up to unload. The planks were lifted off with rope-and-pulley hoist and Birk guided them to the back of a truck.

“You can wait here below while we take these to the lumber yard. Or you can come along for the ride.”

“I’ll wait.”

“There’s a bite to eat on board. Help yourself but leave something for us, eh?” Dan’l said getting into the front cab of the truck.

Birk grabbed the hoist and swung over to the deck of the boat and dropped down on deck. The deck smelled of pine. Clean and different from the smell of the mines, or the pine they used in the mines. That pine always had a tar tang to it from the creosote. This pine had a clean sea salt bite to it. The smell comforted him.

He flexed his fingers to see if handling the boards had done any damage to them. They were a bit red but otherwise fine. No bleeding, meant they were healing up properly.

He sat at the enclosed end of the barge and ate one of the sandwiches he found in the lunch box. It looked a good life to work in lumber. Perhaps if the needed another couple of pairs of hands he and Clancy might be in luck. It would it be a change to work in daylight, in fresh air.

The lumber yard truck pulled and Dan’l hopped out.

“Another days’ work done.” He said walking down the pier to the dock. “You ready to cast off?”

“Sure.” Birk relied.

Dan’l unwound the ropes that held the scow to the pier then clambered down the ladder to get on board. 

“Over here.” He nodded to pier side hoarding. “We give a good shove and she’ll float away on her own.”

Birk braced himself against the rail of the boat and pushed hard away from the wet piling of the dock. The boat moved so quickly he nearly fell over board.

“Haha.” Dan’l laughed. “Don’t know yer own strength eh b’y. Then ’tis hard to know what someone is cap’ble of by lookn’ at them. Who’d think small you could cause such a ruckus.”

“Ruckus?” Birk asked.

“Talk of the town for too many. You and that Boston gal.”

“People taking about that?” Birk’s face was hot.

“Not as any one’d blame for taking a poke at her.”

“T’weren’t that way at all?” Birk balled his fists. “Not a bit.”

“Rest easy Birk Nelson I know how stories become something they never was. There’s always some truth to’em though.”

“I dunno know what to tell you. I’m sorry I ever met her for one thing.”

“Story of many men and women. People’ll forget it whatever it was in a few weeks. We all got enough to deal with.”

“I sure hope so.”

New Waterford came into sight.

“Might as well run you over Castleton Mines while I’m out.”

“Thanks.”

“I hear your Da’s going to the steel plant.”

“Yeh. They always need good boiler men there. He figures he can find something for me too.”

“We could always use some eager at the millworks. Mac show you much about boilers?”

“I know my way around them but I don’t have my papers.”

“Good enough. Come by tomorrow. Lonnie could use a hand as he’s gettin’ on and we could use you around the yard too. Not much by way of pay but better than nothing.” He stuck his hand out. “Deal?”

“Deal.”

They edged up to the Castleton Mines dock and Birk got off. Even though the rain had turned the Mudside streets to mud he had more hope than he had since the strike had started. 

Night had fallen by the time he was back at his house.

“Where you been?” His mother met him at the door. “Clancy’s been here for hours.”

“He has?” He squeezed past his mother to find Clancy at the kitchen table.

“Yeah the coppers drove me back in their wagon when Doucet was finished with me.”

“No such luck for me. I got brought over by Dan’l Patterson.”

“What did Doucet say to you?” His mother asked. “We thought for sure you had been shipped off to Dorchester.”

“What! He gave me what for letting my bare self be seen but that was it. I sure expected worse from the way Miss McTavish had been going on. Everyone was taking her side and so serious they were too.”

“There’s always those who are quick to believe the worse of the Mudsiders.” his Dad said.

“I went down to the Sydney docks to find a way back and met up with Dan’l Patterson of the mill. He brought me back across. “Says they’re lookin’ for help with the boilers at the mill yard.”

“The Lord at work.” His mother said. “Out of every time of hardship He brings good.”

“Might be …”

Birk was interrupted by a pounding at their front door. Before it could be answered someone shouted.

“Birk Nelson come out here and face your Maker.”

“Me Maker?” Birk said.

His father opened the door. Father Patrick pushed his way in with three men behind him. The hem of his cassock was spatted with mud.

“Take him.” he commanded the men with him.

Before he could react the men lifted him up and carried him out of the house into the street. They dropped him face first in the mud and stepped away.

“You Protestant abomination.” Father Patrick shouted at the top of his voice.

Birk felt a sharp blow across his back. The mud held his arms so he couldn’t turn over quickly. There was some scuffling behind him. When he got turned around, sitting in the mud, he saw his dad grappling with Father Patrick.

“No man whips my son in public.” ise Dad wrenched the whip out of the priest’s  hand. “What gives you the right!”

“See!” Father Patrick turned the men who had come with him. “This is how the Godless protect one another. How they chose to rut the way animals do, no better than pigs in the mud.

“You foul beasts.” He pointed at Birk, then Clancy. “Who flaunted their unnatural proclivities in daylight … in front of my niece. ” He gasped for air.

Most of the neighbouring families had come out to see what the commotion was.

“Go back to your church Father.” Someone shouted. “Tell the Pope wipe your arse.”

“I will not allow your kind to get away with treating our women in this way.” The priest said.

“Yeah, only you have that right.” Someone answered him back.

A clod of mud flew through the air and hit Father Patrick on the back.

“Take him.” The priest ordered the men with him.

“You’ll take no one.” Reverend Brown stepped out of the crowd and helped Birk back to his feet. “You Catholic hypocrite. You help your own in bad times, ignore those who don’t deem pure enough then dare to come here to punish the very one who didn’t think twice to save the lives of your precious parishioners. I’m sure that when Birk struggled up that shaft he wasn’t saying to God ‘Now God make sure only the orange get rescued.’ Did you Birk!”

“No Reverend Brown I wasn’t.”

“You were there when Miss McTavish told them that we hadn’t touched her.” Clancy said.

“It was her spirit you stained by the vision of what you two were engaged in.”
“And what might that be Father Patrick? Something you learned about behind those sanctified monastery walls from your brothers.”

Father Patrick’s face paled as he glared at Reverend Browne.

“How dare you impugn the purity of those righteous men.”

“How dare you think you can come here with your high-handed righteousness and think we would grovel, that we would let you get away with it.”

“We can’t allow these … beasts to get away with their depravity.”

“A depravity that exists only in your mind Father Patrick. And you men with him. That’s you isn’t David McInnis?”

“Yes Reverend Browne.”

“You were one of them working with Birk when the collapse happened?”

“Yes Reverend. We’ve been working together for years.”

“You have any reason to question his moral fitness as a man? Anyone here have any reason? I know this boy’s family. You all do. They’ve been good faith church goers as long as I can remember.”

All that could be heard was the squish of people’s feet in the mud.

“I suggest you all go home and have a good night’s sleep.” Reverend Brown said.

“You haven’t heard the last of this.” Father Patrick said evenly. “My niece …”

“You niece needs to mind her own business.” Brown said. “She’s an outsider. You too, I might add, Father Patrick. I’ve been here in Castleton Mines for over twenty years. You’ve only been here for three. I’m sure the Africans will appreciate you more than we have.”

“You haven’t heard the last of this.” The Priest looked to the men who can come with him but they had disappeared into the crowd.

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Chapter LXI – Birk at the Courthouse

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LXI

Birk

at the

Courthouse

“What are they accusing us of?” Birk asked though the bars between their cells.

Before Clancy could answer one of the officers came and and took Clancy out of his cell. 

“Chief Constable does wan’t you two fancy boys too close to each other.” The constable sniggered as he took Clancy away. “We’re putting you in the infirmary lock up. No one there for you to bother.”

Birk paced his cell. He was as alone as he had ever been. The holding cells stank of urine. There was a bucket with a board over it in one corner for doing that sort of business. The bed was the only thing to sit on in the room. It was barely wide enough for him to lay on, with a hard thin straw mattress that didn’t soften the boards on the bed. No pillow and a thin grey sheet. At least sheet smelled clean.

He took his shoes off and lay on the bed. The wall was covered with various scratching and writing. Dates and names. 

“Willie Campbell – lost a hand for his country now jailed in reward.” One of them said.

The ceiling overhead was mottled with mold and cobwebs in the corners. Some of plaster had cracked and fallen in one corner.

The one narrow window was high on the wall and let some light through. This is what he had come to.

The respect he had gotten the days after he crawled up out of the mine wasn’t going to keep him warm tonight. He wondered how it was he’d been so happy one day and now was here in a cell and not even understand why.

Buggery? He’d heard the men say that often enough in the pits. Calling someone an “old fart” “useless bugger” when you wanted to say something worse. But no one ever explained what bugger meant. He’d always thought it had to do with the rats as they were most often called “useless buggers.” When you said that about someone else you were calling them rat.

But the way that priest, Father Patrick, had said it it had to mean more than saying he and Clancy were mine rats. Then the copper calling them “fancy boys” because they weren’t as well dressed as he was. The only way he’d ever heard that before was to make fun of a miner getting too dressed up or not bothering to get dressed up for something. He was never one to put on airs, though Clancy did get a bit too cleaned up at times.

All that washing up at the tubs at Mrs. Franklin’s always seemed to him he was trying to be someone he wasn’t. They certainly weren’t acting like someone they weren’t now. Even at Blue Lake they were doing what they usual did. Horsing around. Expect for that moment when they touched each other’s privates. The moment when Lillian spied them.

Was that what she was going on about? Was that the pleasuring that got her so distraught. Not as if it was the sort of thing any man would think to let a lady do, to touch his little guy. Having her see it was bad enough, but to touch it. That wasn’t right. There had to be something in the scriptures about that. Yet she did see them naked. That she had caused him shame. That was an affront, he knew that even though he hadn’t done it to offend anyone. If he had known she was near he wouldn’t have let that happen. 

He signed deeply accepting this was a consequence for his being so thoughtless. He drifted off wondering if he knew Willie Campbell.

 

In the morning a guard brought him a tray with a mug of tea and some toast and an apple.

“Here.” he pushed the tray though an opening at the bottom of the cell door.

“Thanks. More’n I usually get in the morning.” He sat with the tray on the bed. “What’s going to happen to me next?”
“You and your mate’ll be taken to Sydney, where Magistrate Doucet will see you this afternoon. Usually they don’t take cases that fast but that Miss McTavish got some pull I guess. She sure wants to see you and your mate get what for.”

“I wish I knew what got her so wound up.” Birk ate his toast.

“If’n you ask me she got too much time on her hands and not enough children to keep her occupied. That’s the trouble with some people not enough business of their own so they gets into the business of peoples that they have no business bothering with in the first place. Children is woman’s business.”

“Could be.” Birk finished his breakfast and slid the tray back.

“How’re your hands?” The officer asked as he picked the tray up.

Birk flexed his fingers and look at them.

“Getting better.”

“How you damage them so much.”

“Climbing up out of the mine that time.”

“Oh! That was you! I was going to offer to piss on em fer ya.” The officer laughed as he left the holding cells.

He returned some time later and unlocked the cell door.

“Time to transport you to Sydney.” He took Birk firmly by the arm and out to a truck in back of the police station. Clancy was already in the back of the enclosed back cab. There was wooden bench across each side of the cab.

“You here!” The officer pushed Birk sitting opposite Clancy.

“Feed you well?” Clancy asked.

“Good enough. You.”

“Yeah. Tea a bit weak but the milk sure was sweet.”

“At’s enough out of you two.” a couple of officers clamber in the back with them.

Birk and Clancy sat in silence as the truck drove to Sydney. The two officers talked non-stop about their families and about how the station had been swamped with out-of-work miners looking for work.

The truck bumped up and down on the road. The road underneath gradually smoothed.

“Comin’ into Sydney lads.” One of the officers said. “The streets may not be paved with gold but they sure are smooth.”

The truck came to a stop and the back door opened. They were lead directly into the back of a large building and up a flight of stairs to the second floor.

The officer opened a door with a frosted glass transom. “Clancy Sinclair, you’ll wait in here” Clancy went into the room. The officer locked it.

“You Birk Nelson, you’ll wait here.” He indicated a bench further along the wall.

 

Birk sat and had to plant his feet firmly to keep from sliding off the slippery bench. He lost track of time till a near by church rang for noon.

The door opened and Clancy stepped out and was taken away by an officer before Birk could make eye contact with him.

“Birk Nelson, You can go in now.” The other officer nodded to Birk.

There was no one in the room. There was desk with a chair, then a window behind it. The barred window overlooked the area behind the building. The only chair in the room was behind the desk.

There were some book shelves along one wall and pictures of Queen Victoria and another of George V. A door between the bookshelf and the window opened into another room. Birk wasn’t sure where to sit.

“Sorry to keep you waiting.” Magistrate Doucet came in from the side door. “You are young Mr. Nelson. Mac’s son?”
“Yes.” Birk stood holding his hands behind his back.

“I know your father. He worked with my uncle for many years. Jean Doucet.”

“T’Jean?” Birk smiled. “Yes. He’d play fiddle whenever we needed one.”

“Yes, that’s him. I understand you are the young man who did the dangerous climb out of the pits.”

“Yes.” Birk blushed. “I only did what anyone would have if he had to.”

“Modesty. A nice trait in a man.”

“Modesty?” Birk asked.

“Not one to brag.”

“I see. I suppose that’s me alright.”

“But we were none too modest yesterday. Letting your naked self in the air for all to see.”

Birk was trying to make the connection between not bragging and being seen naked.

“You don’t deny that do you?”
“No. No. We had been fishing at Blue Lake.”

“Yes. Yes. I have the story pretty clear in my head Birk. You strike me as being a good lad.”

“Thank you sir. I try.” 

“How much schoolin’ have you had.”

“Some. I left at twelve to work the mines. So not much since then. Though Miss Lillian did help us some.”

“Miss Lillian? Then you knew here before the trouble at Blue Lake?”
“Yes sir. She had come to the Mudside to help teach those that had no school to go to. She’d visited my sister and I’d sit in too to make my writing and reading better.”

“Interesting. I didn’t know this. Did you have affections for her?”

“She was pleasant enough, Sir.”

“You weren’t interested in her? As a wife perhaps”

“Never. Not a bit of it. She was a proper Catholic gal with a priest uncle. My mother would never allow that sort of thing. No, I wasn’t keen on it. Never was.”

“Was she interested in you? Beyond teaching you?”
“Can’t say as I know. She did ask what hopes I had of getting married some day but I don’t see any sense it it.”

“Birk in my business I hav etc be a good judge of character and strike me as being a good sort of young man.” The magistrate leaned back in his chair.

“Thank you, sir.” He shifted from foot to foot.

“One way to do that is to keep your pants on when you’re out and about.” The magistrate laughed. “You never know when some gal with get the wrong idea about you.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You can go.” The magistrate stood and went to open the door to the hall.

“Sir, can I ask you a question?”

“Certainly.”

“Father Patrick said something about buggery? I heard that used around in the mines, but what does it mean?”

“Birk, my boy,” The magistrate patted Birk on the shoulder. “That is something you don’t need to know. I’ll say that it is a vile degrading business that no decent folks, let alone a man of the cloth, should know anything about. Don’t concern yourself with it. I have met those that have indulged in that sordid filth and you aren’t of their ilk. Not a bit.”

He walked Birk down to the street.

“You can get yourself home I trust?” The magistrate shook Birk’s hand.

“This the end of it?” Birk asked.

“Oh, yes.” The Magistrate said. “The young lady clearly is a touch hysterical after the death of her husband.”

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Chapter LX – Lillian Makes Accusations

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LX

Lillian

Makes

Accusations

“Those men … naked …” she gabbed at the air in front of her,

“You are alright my dear.” Clara said.

“Where?” Lillian looked around. She was in the O’Dowell’s sitting room.

“The officers brought you here. They didn’t want to to be at the station when they brought those creatures in.” Clara explained. 

Lillian sank back on the couch. “They have been arrested?”

“Oh yes.” Her uncle said. “They were at the Nelson residence. They’ll regret what they’ve done to you.”

“Yes. Yes.” she said. “Father Patrick! When did you …”

“Dr. Drummond is here to examine you.” A policeman stepped into her field of vision.

“Examine me!” 

“To see the extent of …” the policeman hesitated and drop his voice. “… your violation.”

“My violation!” Lillian pushed herself upright and swung her feet to the floor. “It’s my sense of decency that has been assailed not my person.” She stood. “Where are they?”

“In the jail.” The policeman said. “But you claimed they had interfered with you.”

“No, not me, but they have affronted the laws of God. Take me to them. Let them deny that to my face.” She gently pushed Clara aside and went to the front door.

As they walked back to the police station Lillian barely listened as her uncle spoke to her.

“You’re leaving your parish?” she asked him.

“Yes. I had been summoned to Montreal by the Bishop. He had been … informed of the confusions around your death.”

“Confusions which you were complicit in.” Clara said.

“Yes, well, be what that may. We, he and I, decided it would in the best interests of all if I went to Africa.”

Lillian stopped and laughed aloud. “Africa! You are going to be an African Missionary!”

“It will be blessing for me to carry the word of God where it takes me.” He replied.

“I’ll pray for the souls of those savages.” Lillian said as they went into the police station.

They followed the officers to the cells where Birk and Clancy were being held.

Lillian was startled when Birk jumped to the bars of his cell. “Tell them Miss that we didn’t interfere with you in anyway. Tell them!”

Lillian stepped back. Clearly the constables had misinterpreted her distress. 

“I regret if you have been mislead.” She turned to the officers. “They did my person no harm but what I saw will be forever burned into my memory.”

“But you said they were naked.” One of the officers said.

“We were swimming.” Clancy said. 

“They were doing more than that. Weren’t you.” She glared at Birk. His face reddened.

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

“What?” the officer looked from Lillian to Birk. “You were not interfered with Miss McTavish?”

“We …” Birk showed his scarred hands through the bars.

“We were pissing on his hands.” Clancy said. “To help them toughen up after what happened in the mines.”

“Birk Nelson is the lad that climbed up, ma’am.” another of the officers said. “If it weren’t for him many more might have perished.”

Lillian’s ire rose to hear the young man defended. “A good deed does not wash a soul clean. It may allow for mercy but he, they, must not be given permission by any brave deed to act the way base animals do. They were pleasuring one another.” She shouted. “Behaving the way abominations do.”

“They were …” Clara said.

“Buggery?” Her uncle gasped and blushed. “Forgive me for saying such a thing in your presence Miss O’Dowell.”

“What is he talking about.” Birk looked blankly at Clancy.

“This has gone far enough. You can go the chief constable and make a full statement to clear up this misunderstanding.” The office in charge said. “We’ll leave these boys to contemplate the consequences of their heedless actions.”

Lillian was taken to the chief constable’s office. She was given a hard, armless chair to sit on.

“Sorry, Miss McTavish, but this chair is usually reserved for prisoners. We don’t want them too comfortable for questioning. Now tell me exactly what happened. What was it you think you saw.”

“I was walking along on the trails that lead to Blue Lake. I wanted solicitude to collect my thoughts. Since the death of my husband I have been making plans for my future.” Lillian paused. “I came over a small rise and could see the lake. I saw those animals cavorting. Naked. Touching one another’s privates. Beastial animals.” She shuddered. 

“What exactly did you see ma’am? How close were you when you first saw them?” The chief Constable asked.

“I’ve told you what exactly I saw. Are you doubting my word?” Lillian stood. “Their lack of decency is appalling. To think I tried to elevate his mind while they were …”

“Yes, ma’am. But you’ve heard what they have said.”

“They are abominations.” Her uncle shouted. “You have no right to defend what they were doing. You’ve heard what my niece has said. What more do you want from her.”

“Father Patrick,” The chief constable said. “I am doing my duty as an policeman. I have no evidence of what this lady claims to have seen.”

“What more evidence do you need.” Father Patrick said. “They have admitted to being naked in public.”

“That is hardly a crime.” the Constable replied. “They were in a rather deserted area. It was perhaps inconsiderate of them to have removed their under drawers to swim.”

“They weren’t merely swimming.” Lillian said. “I saw with my own eyes. I know what I saw. Something must be done.”

“Yes.” Her uncle said.

“What are you going to do?” she demanded.

“It had already  been arraigned that they’ll appear in Sydney tomorrow afternoon before the magistrate for interfering with Miss McTavish. I’ll inform the court that the charges had been changed to something less dire.”

“Less dire! To interfere with a lady is unconscionable but not unexpected of undisciplined young men but what they were doing is unnatural.” 

“They should be horsewhipped for behaving as they did in front of a lady.” Clara said.

“If this was in fact an indecent assault in anyway they will be dealt with severely once sentenced.” the Constable said. “But that is not in our hands.”

The next morning Lillian set out directly after breakfast to go to Sydney in hopes of having an opportunity to speak with the magistrate before he sat in session with Birk and Clancy. She had met Magistrate Doucet a few times while with Steven.

She asked after him at the courthouse and was told he usually lunch at the Island Hotel on court days. She found him there.

“Magistrate Doucet,” she stood by his table. “Might I have a word with you?”

“Of course Miss McTavish. Please sit down.” he indicated empty chair on the other side of his table. “If it’s about the two lads I can assure they will be sternly taken to task for this behaviour.”

“I had no doubts about your judgement. You must be aware of what it says in the scriptures about such matter.” She had spent part of the night, with her uncle, going over the sections of the the Bible that spoke of such things. From her purse she took notes she had made of the the appropriate passages. “This is what it says in the good book.” She placed her notes on the table.

“Thank you.” The magistrate nodded without looking at them. “I will take all this account once I have heard what these lads have to say. You must be aware, Miss McTavish they haven’t had the advantages you have had in growing up. The education and opportunities for experiencing the world. They aren’t as … sophisticated as the men you know in Boston.”

“That’s no excuse. Morality has nothing to do with education.”

“It is all learned, Miss McTavish. What I am saying is that it is unfair to judge these men by the standards that you might use judge those with whom you grew up.” He held his hand up to keep her from speaking out. “However if they have broken a law they will faces the consequences. Ignorance of the law is not permitted.”

“Thank you Mr. Doucet.” Lillian stood to go. “I will be in court to testify to what I saw.”

“I will be seeing them in chambers Miss McTavish. If what you allege is true I will not allow such matters to be heard of in public. There is no need to affront any more people than necessary with such unpleasantness. I may seek to question you, say, at … ” he took out his pocket watch and consulted it. “At 3 pm.”

“Yes, I see.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t want to be seen publicly as someone aware of such distasteful knowledge.”

“I understand.” Lillian was disappointed when she left. She was longing to have these men shamed in front of as many people as possible.

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Chapter LVIX – Birk In Shackles

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVII

Birk

In

Shackles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Could what?” his mother asked. 

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

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

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

“Yes Ma.” Birk flinched.

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

“Yes ma’am.” Clancy said.

 

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

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

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

“Ma says to come directly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.” They each answered.

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

“You will come with us. Peaceably.”

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

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

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

Birk and Clancy glanced at each other but kept still.

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

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

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

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

Birk struggled to get free.

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

The officers did the same to Clancy.

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

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

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

“They fess up?”

“What do you think?”

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

The two officers pushed Clancy onto the boat.

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

“How’s that?” Birk asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birk struggled to get his hands out of the handcuffs. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interfered?” Lillian asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Birk backed away from the bars.

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter LVIII – Lillian Rips Her Coat

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVIII

Lillian

Rips

Her Coat

Lillian stepped off the Dingle Dandy. The sun was warm on her face. The sky was as clear a blue as she had seen since coming to the Cape Breton. She began to walk, aimlessly at first. There was no where she had to be, nothing she had to do. There were no emotional holds to her here. 

She walked along Castleton’s main street nodding to people she had become acquainted with during Steven’s campaign. Some knew her name, she knew some of their names, but they meant nothing to her now. To them she was an extension of Steven O’Dowell, his tragic widow, if anything at all.  To her they weren’t even votes anymore.

She stood on the dock to stare across the bay. New Waterford on the other shore looked so small and distant. Was her future small and distant? 

She walked to the gates of the colliery. The notices of its closing now tattered by the wind and bleached white by the sun. The grounds that she could see look as if everyone had that morning stepped away for a moment.

“Good morning Miss McTavish.” 

“Lovely day, Mrs. Seldon.” Lillian leaned over the pram that Mrs. Seldon was pushing. “I see little one has recovered.”

“Yes Miss. The service for Mr. O’Dowell was powerful good.”

“Yes. The Bishop spoke quite eloquently, if a bit long.”

“Oh, Miss.” Mrs. Seldon began to cry. “You are so strong. To put on a smile in your trying times.”

“Strong? No I’ve come to see that tears aren’t going to change what’s happened.”

“Quite rightly so. What brings you here?”

“Nothing in particular. I had to get out of the house for awhile.”

“Never good to sit still for too long. I’m meeting Mr. Seldon here. He’s to get the last of what was owed him. Then we’re leaving same as so many.”

“Where to?”

“Depends on how much he gets. And here he is now. Looking none to happy.”

Mr. Seldon came through the gate. “Miss McTavish.” He doffed his cap to her.

Lillian didn’t bother to correct him. Her marriage to Steven had become more trouble to explain that it was worth.

“So what’s to be done?” his wife asked.

“They says another week. We can stay in the house no charge until they are ready to give my full discharge. They’ve been too busy with the government inspectors and such to look after the books for us little people.”

“Do they still think it was sabotage?” Lillian asked.

“T’isn’t clear.” he replied. “The lower levels were where they think it began have flooded so quick they can’t go down to check ‘em. No one as was down there survived. Of course you know that.” He look away from Lillian. “Sorry to remind you of that Miss. He was a brave’un he was and always stood up for everyone.”

“Thank you Mr. Seldon.” Lillian looked forward to the day when people would stop offering their pity to her.

“Mrs. Seldon says you plan to leave?” she asked.

“Yes Miss. I have kin in Winnipeg so we is goin’ to try our luck out west. And you Miss, you plannin’ to stop here much longer.”

“I haven’t given it much thought Mr. Seldon.” There had been so much to deal with over the past weeks she had given her own future only slight thought. During the days leading up to the service she had helped Clara gather Steven’s clothing to donate through the parish. She had no interest in his jewelry or any other memento. The only thing she had kept was the bottle of the cloying bay rum he was prone to use before she discouraged him.

“You can always go back to your family in Boston.” Mrs. Seldon suggested.

They walked back to the main part of town.

“I suppose I could.” Lillian answered. She could imagine the look on her mother’s face if she turned up at the door. No first she would be greeted by Mable, who would probably scream and faint to see her dead mistress return. Then she would face her mother who would not know right away what to say. Perhaps comment on Lillian’s dusty, dirty shoes or her rather plain attire. “No, I think not, after my time here, Boston holds no promise or appeal for me.”

They came to the town square.

“Nice to see you again Miss.” Mr. Seldon said.

“I know there is plan for you.” Mrs. Seldon said. “If we don’t see you again before we leave you’ll always have a place in my heart for saving ‘the little one’ that time in the fire.”

“Thank you” Lillian kissed Mrs. Seldon on the cheek and continued on her aimless way.

Without the sounds of the mine Castleton was quiet. There was no train shunting coal back and forth, no periodic whistles for change of shifts, no warning clanging of coal about to be loaded into a scow. She couldn’t hear any children or dogs. Castleton Mines was dying all around her. 

There was nothing to keep her here. Not that there had even been anything to keep her there except her own uncertainty and fear.

She had married Steven but lost him before she had a firm foundation to … to what? Get back at her uncle? At her family? They know she was alive after all but to what end? A letter from her father made it clear she was not welcome back to their home. All he would do was print a retraction notice of her death.

Her steps took her along the ridge that lead to Blue Lake. She had walked there a few times with Birk and his sisters. She was amazed at how blue the water was. Not quite sky blue but very clear. She had also been delighted by how happy and excited the little girls had been by something so simple as a lake.

The things that pleased her as the most a child were gifts at Christmas. Dolls, intricate doll houses, and as she got older it was  jewels, paste copies of things her mother wore. She could still see that dainty pair of shoes with the sparkling ruby buckles. 

As she walked the winding path she saw the lake horizon rise and fall before her. It was as if the lake was playing hide and seek with her. The ribbon of blue dipping behind the dune, the rocks, then coming into view again.

She stopped to catch her breath in the last of the dips. She knew that once she walked up the lake would reveal its entire self in one glance. 

She measured her pace to save that view for as long as possible. She she came up she first heard, then saw the young men frolicking in the water.

She blushed when she saw they were naked. She stopped transfixed. She had never seen a man naked. Not even her brothers when they were younger. She had never even seen them bare-chested.

When James Dunham had interfered with her, they had, for the most part, remained fully clothed. Her skirts pulled up and her underthings stretched to allow him entry. 

She stepped back not wanting to be seen. How would Steven have treated her? They both had assumed they would have children.

She inched forward to watch the men again. She recognized them as Birk and Clancy. Birk’s torso was as hairy as his forearms. Clancy’s was pale and hairless expect for hair around his … She closed her eyes then forced them open. She stared at the male members of the two men.

The men jostled and shoved each other too much for her to see more than the fleshy bobbing of their privates. Then they stopped and Birk went to the edge of the lake and made water on his hands. Clancy stood facing him and did the same. Making water on Birk’s hands!

Her eyes opened wider as they reached out to grasp one another privates in their hands. They were grinning foolishly at each other. Pleasuring each other! 

She look around frantically for a stick of sort sort, something to use as switch to teach them, to stop them. There was nothing. She couldn’t let this go on.

“What are you doing?” She shouted down at them.

The men stepped away from each other as Lillian charged down the path to confront them.

They gabbed for their clothes and quickly got dressed.

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

“We were swimming ma’am.” Birk said.

“Decent God-fearing men don’t swim unclad.” Lillian raged Birk with all the scorn she could muster. Was this unnatural proclivity why he was so fearful of her.

“No harm in it.” Clancy said.

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

She turned from them and started back to the path.

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

“I know what I saw.” Lillian stopped to glare at them. “The constables will hear about this. The scriptures are clear about this sin and I’m certain the laws of this land don’t allow it either.”

She rushed back up the path, stumbling in her outrage. Her brothers had sniggered about one of the men in their circle who was more interested in the players on the field than playing the field. She hadn’t quite understood what they meant but now she saw it clearly.

To think of the time she had sacrificed to Birk to try and guide him into a better life and yet he had chosen to lower himself into this sort of degradation. To do it where anyone could see! 

Out of breath she found herself back at the town square. Her dress had been torn by branches when she had made her day through the woods. Who would she tell. Who could do what needed to be done to deal with this? Would Clara know? No! What she had witness was something she couldn’t tell another woman. It was bad enough that she had seen it now she had to recount it.

Her Uncle? No! Yes. But more than him. No. She would have to go to the constabulary in New Waterford. That would take time. Time that those unclean creatures would use to escape. They would … where could they go. Into the woods?

She ran down the the dock as the ferry was pulling out.

“Got on in the nick of time Miss McTavish.”

“Yes I have urgent business in New Waterford and God was with me to insure I did it.”

She paced the decks the boat crossed over to New Waterford. Once on the other side she ran as fast as she could up to the main street and to the police station. Out of breath she couldn’t stand and collapsed on a bench.

“Why it’s Miss McTavish.” one of the police men came over to her. “Bring a glass of water for her. What is it miss?” He kneed in front of her.

“Two men.” she gasped for breath. “by the lake. They …”

“They bothered you miss?” He stood.

“They … naked.” she said.

“Who were they Miss. Do you know who they were?”

“Birk Nelson and … and ..”

“Clancy Sinclair?” he supplied. 

“Yes. They …”

“What is it Constable Jeffers.” another policeman asked.

“Two men attempted to infer with Miss McTavish. I know who they are. Have no fear ma’am.”

“Not …” she reached for the glass of water and fainted.

When she came to she was in the foyer of the Victoria Hotel. Clara was patting her hand. Her Uncle hovered in the background.

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Chapter LVII – Lillian Faces The Future

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVII

Lillian

Faces

The Future

Lillian turned Steve’s face back to hers. The weight of his head was heavy in her hands.

“He’s lost consciousness.” Lillian looked up to Dr. Drummond. “All that blood he’s lost has made him weak. He’ll be alright now, won’t he Dr. Drummond?”

She leaned to kiss Steven again. “My husband! I didn’t realize how proud I would be to say those words, Steve. My husband.”

“I think he should rest now.” Dr. Drummond gently removed her hands from around Steven’s head. “You need some rest too.” He helped her stand. “It has been an ordeal for both of you.” He took her out of the infirmary.

“Yes. Yes.” She held her hand up to look at the wedding ring. “Married. I’m actually married.”

She glanced back and saw the orderly pull the sheet over Steven’s face. “No! He’s not …”

She couldn’t stand. Dr. Drummond signalled to one of the nurses to help lead Lillian out of the infirmary. 

The nurse helped Lillian sit on one of the benches in the wash area. 

“Would you like some water? I could get you a cup of tea, if you’d like, Miss McTavish.” 

“It’s Mrs. O’Dowell now.” Lillian replied savouring the words. “Mrs. Steven O’Dowell.”

“I’ll be back in a bit with a nice cup of tea for you Mrs. O’Dowell.” The nurse left.

Restless Lillian walked aimlessly around the wash house. She stepped out and went toward the main gate. The cramped feeling of walls and roofs was suffocating her. She wanted to be able to breathe deeply without the smell of coal in the air.

Her steps took her up the road that lead away from the colliery. One rather side she saw dark shuttered houses. Some had light flickering in various rooms. People with homes. At least homes for now until he company made the move.

How many of them had lost husbands fathers to the mines? A second story curtain flashed white in the dark. She saw the white sheet being pulled up over Steven’s face. Was he actually dead?

She felt the ring on her finger. Yes, they had been married. She felt his head in her hands. His face smudged with coal dust and blood. His eyes so full of love for her. 

She stopped and began to weep. She couldn’t stop her sobs and she let herself give out a howl of grief, anger and fear. Wiping her face on her shawl she stopped  at the steps to St. Agatha’s. She found the key where it was hidden in a nook under a window sill and let herself in.

Her eyes quickly adjusted to the dark.  A few steps to her to the votive rack. She found a candle and lit it before genuflecting and going into the church. 

The air was still and clean. It was silent.

She knelt, took out her rosary and prayed aloud.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

After each amen she moved to the next bead sometimes visualizing Steven transcending out his pains. At other times she reaffirmed her trust that Mary would be lead her to do what was right for her. after the last prayer was said she remained still for a few moments before slowly standing.

Dizzy she sat on the pew. She turned so she could lay flat and stretched her legs out, pushing her back against the firm wood of the bench. How many parishioners has sat here over the years. She fell asleep.

 

She woke with the sun streaming through the windows. Straightening out her skirts she left the church, locked the door and put the key back in its nook. She went to the manse and went in though the back door.

While she started a fire in the stove to make herself a cup of tea she wondered if her uncle was back. All she knew was that he had been summoned by the Bishop. Perhaps he had been reassigned a new parish with this sure to be closed thanks to the strike and now the disaster. She caught her breath. Steven was a victim of that disaster too. What would become of her?

Everything was where it had always been in the kitchen. There were some biscuits in the back pantry but little else. So her Uncle had not yet returned.

After going to the mine infirmary to see Steven’s body to convince herself that he was in fact dead she collected the the marriage licence and other papers he had had in his coat pocket. She kept the blood- stained ribbon he used to tie their wedding rings around his neck. 

Back at the O’Dowell house she gave the  envelope to Clara to open.

Clara sat and quickly went through the papers. 

“I think the most pertinent, to you, at this time are these two letters.”

Lillian took the two single page letters. The first was from the American Consulate in Ottawa. It affirmed that Lillian Patrinella McTavish was alive. There was no legal record of her death registered with the authorities. The other was a letter from her father saying that he had been misinformed of her death by his brother and that he regrets any distress this may have caused his daughter.

“Lillian, I have seen these documents already.” Clara said. “Steven used his Federal connections to make sure that his marriage to you would be … legitimate. They were to be his gift to you after the ceremony. Which I guess in a way they are.”

Clara patted her eyes with her handkerchief.

The next few weeks moved so quickly Lillian often longed for the cool silence of the manse that morning which seemed like another world. After the funeral she remained unsure of her position in the O’Dowell household.

As she went down the stairs she could hear a babble of female voices coming from the living room. This was the day the Women’s Association for Catholic African Missionaries met at the O’Dowell house. After attending two of the meetings, solely to please Clara, she didn’t feel at ease with these women. All of whom were ten or more years older than her. They talked more about their neighbours than the plight of the African Missionaries.

Lillian ducked into the kitchen.

“You’re looking better to day Miss Lillian.” Aileen said.

“I wasn’t aware I wasn’t looking well?” Lillian joked. “Can I help with anything?”

“No, Miss. You join the others I can tend to this.” Aileen was pouring water into the tea pot.

“I’ll take that in Aileen. You can set a spell.” Lillian took the tea tray and went into the living room. “Good afternoon ladies.”

“Ah Lillian,” said Mrs. Donaldson. “We were talking about you and your future.”

“You are thinking I’d make a good missionary to Africa?” Lillian poured tea into their proffered cups.

“Oh dear no!” said Mrs. Murphy. “Rather we were discussing how happy we’ve been to have you here in our midst.”

“And how much they’d hate to see you leave.” Clara said.

“Yes!” came in a chorus from several of the ladies.

“What we offer to propose,” said Mrs. Murphy, “is that you teach our daughters proper etiquette.”

“The Sisters at the school are good for educating them,” said Mrs. Murphy, “but that doesn’t prepare them for being in society at large.”

Lillian looked at them. She wanted scream, ‘Look at me! Look at the society my fine upbringing has brought me to. You want your daughters to be cast aside the way we would a piece of furniture that has lost its use because it has some insignificant damage!’

“I’m sincerely flattered.” Lillian took a deep breath as she considered her reply. “I’m sure you mean well but …”

“Hear our offer first Lillian.” Mrs. Murphy said. “I’ve talked this over already with Mrs. Prentis and Mrs. Donaldson.”

Those two ladies nodded their heads.

“This came a pleasant surprise to me too Lillian,” Clara said. “I had no idea that you had made such an impression.”

“How could she not. Being at Steven’s side …” Mrs. Murphy paused to hold back her emotions. “during his campaign we all saw what a refine and practicable person you were. Even then it occurred to me that I would love to have daughter exactly like you.”

“Again I am flattered. But what exactly is it you want me to teach?”

“How to comport yourself.” Mrs. Donaldson said. “Too many of these young Catholic girls are becoming …. too modern. They talk about getting a job, not raising a family.”

“That’s right. It’s one thing to want to be a clerk at O’Dowell’s but to want to learn short-hand and typing and work in an office.” Said Mrs. Murphy. “That’s a step too far. That might be fine for Protestant girls but well … you know the morals of that sort.”

“I understand your concerns ladies but fail to see how I can impart anything to them of that nature. There are no books to fall back on. I might instruct them in needlepoint but that isn’t going to strengthen their morals as you imply.”

“But your example …” Mrs. Murphy started.

“No, ladies I don’t see what I can do.” Lillian shrugged.

“She is right.” Clara said smiling. “After all the way Lillian comports herself was learned in her own home. Right Lillian?”

“Yes, Clara.” she again resisted the temptation to lecture these women. “ It is probably more advantageous for your daughters to learn practical things that they can use in the world. Needlepoint and how to set a proper table won’t take you as far as short-hand. In fact, I’m sorry I never got the opportunity to learn it myself. Do you want your daughters to be so dependant on a husband that she can’t fend for herself in the world.” Lillian sighed deeply.

“We were looking for ways to be helpful to you.” Mrs. Murphy said taking Lillian by the hand and patting it. 

“I know that Mrs. Murphy.” She leaned and kissed Mrs. Murphy on the cheek. “I’m not that helpless. The Lord has made clear my path thus far and He will continue to do so. I don’t need a crystal ball to be sure of that.”

“Shall you be wanting another pot of tea?” Aileen came into the living room.

“No, Aileen.” Clara said. “The meeting is about to adjourn.”

“I’ll help clear these things away Aileen.” Lillian busied herself with the cup and saucers to avoid any further conversations with the women.

She knew her first step would be get out of the reach of these well-meaning women. Perhaps though it might be wise to heed them after all her own plans had so far not worked out as expected. Each solution had produced yet another trial for her to face. 

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Chapter LVI – Birk and Clancy Go Fishing

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVI

Birk

and Clancy

Go Fishing

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

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

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

“She was pretty one.” Birk said.

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

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

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

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

Clancy followed suit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Many have.” Birk said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’ll be scars, too.”

Ma says I’ll have man’s hands.”

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

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

“Happened?”

“When you climbed up to the cage.”

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

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

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

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

They cast their lines again.

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

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

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

“So what did you do?” 

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

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

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

“Me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then let’s get to it.”

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

“Ma’ll be happy with these.”

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

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

“You Dad already found a place?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Try.”

Birk lowered himself.

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

“How about you on me?”

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

They moved their groins together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not a bit in this cold water.”

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

They swam back to the shore.

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

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

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

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

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

“You mind?”

“Nah. Shh … look!” Birk said.

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

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

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

“They must heard something?”

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

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

“You still doing that!” Clancy said.

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

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

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

“Hey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yours too!”

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

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

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

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

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

“We were swimming, ma’am.” Birk said.

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

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

“No harm in it.” Clancy said.

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

She turned from them and started back to the path.

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

 

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LV – Birk Faces The Future

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LV

Birk

Faces

The Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birk’s father came into the infirmary.

“How’s he looking Doctor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve had to keep an eye on the ….”

A woman’s shout cut him off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some but not every time.”

“Take as deep a breath as you can.”

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

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

“Not that I’ve noticed.” Clancy said.

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

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

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

“She has no family here. Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sabotage?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Closed!” Birk said. “Over night!”

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

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

“The BritCan? Why??” Birk said.

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

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

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

“Who else?” Clancy asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jake Malone man joined them.

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

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

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

“Which is?” Birk asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What you thinking?” Clancy asked.

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

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

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

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

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