Coal Dusters: Book 1 is now available as as PDF – this covers the first 35 chapters – 65540 words – send $1.99 to paypal.me/TOpoet
“Can you see her?” Birk’s mother called from the front of the house.
“No sign Ma.” Birk called back from the corner of their street. “Miss McTavish is usually here by now.” He walked back to the house.
“I hope she hasn’t come down with what Sal has.” she went into the house. “You best stay here in case she arrives. We can’t let her in the house until Doctor Drummond has checked to make sure Sal hasn’t the flu.”
“Right Ma. Not as if I have anything better to do anyway. Should I change of m’good clothes?”
“Not until after the doctor has been.” She went into the house and came out with a chair. “You can sit here. Don’t want you sitting on the stoop in those pants.”
“They look as if they were bought special for you I did a good job of getting them to fit. They look better on you than they ever looked on the priest uncle of hers.”
Reverend Browne arrived with Dr. Drummond.
“Is it that serious?” Birk asked the Reverend. “I mean to bring you here.”
“Not that I know Birk. I ran into the doctor as I was heading over here anyway. Your mother wanted to to have word with you.”
“She’s worried about you and Miss McTavish.” Browne said.
“You haven’t heard?” Doctor Drummond said. “Miss McTavish has left Castleton. Yesterday it was. She’s convalescing at the O’Dowell’s in North Sydney.”
“What!” Birk said.
“She had a … she suffered an injury.”
“She’s teachin’ us to read better.” Birk wasn’t sure what else to say.
Dr. Drummond went into the house.
“Birk, you didn’t fancy her.” Browne asked.
“She’s a fine lady. Pretty.”
“So you …”
“But I know my place. I know she has her’s too. It wasn’t as if I set out to rescue her from that fire.”
“I heard that was how you came in contact with her.”
“Yes, sir. Then Father Patrick had me to their house to thanks me. Gave me these clothes.”
“Decent of him.”
“I thought so too. So did ma. So when she, I mean Miss Lillian offer to teach us all some, Ma said we couldn’t rightly shut the door in her face.”
“Your mother is concerned. She’s afraid you might get … infatuated with Miss McTavish.”
Birk’s knee twitched. “I got nothing to offer a fine lady. Nothing.”
“Sadly, that doesn’t stop most men.” Reverend Browne shook his head. “They …”
A harsh, broken shriek came from the house. Birk and the Reverend rushed in. Dr. Drummond was helping his mother down the stairs.
“What is it?” Browne asked the doctor.
“There is nothing to be done.” He helped Birk’s mother sit at the kitchen table. “She might last a week.”
Two days later Birk stared down at the two coffins in the grave. One fresh pine and the other partially rotted and collapsed maple wood. The old one was the brother who died decades ago. The family plot wasn’t expected to be filled so soon so they were burying Sal beside her brother in the same grave.
“You want a hand with that?”
Startled Birk whirled around. “Clancy! Where’d you spring from.”
“Your Ma said you’d be here. Sad day.”
“It came on sudden. She was feeling sort of hot and in the afternoon and went to her bed. When Maddy went to get her for supper she was … gone already.”
“Poor Maddy. Never find as sweet a sister to replace her. They were such good playmates. So close. No other word for it but sad.”
“Sad times.” Birk picked up one of the shovels. “Heard BritCan is really sending troops rather than settle up proper by us. That Colonel Strickland isn’t such a bad sort after all. He tells us what BritCan doesn’t.”
“Cavalry to Calvary.” Clancy said.
“Huh? You not back no time at all and making fun of me already?”
“Sorry. Forgot how little that Bible stuff means to you. Calvary was where Christ was put on the cross.”
“And it was the horsemen who did it! Same as they are trying to do to us, you mean?”
“Yeh so they are.”
Birk was flooded with conflicting emotions. Happy as he was to see Clancy back again he didn’t want to always feel he wasn’t as good, as smart talking as him.
“Stop gawking at me and grab that shovel.”
Birk tossed a spade full of the heavy clay dirt into the grave.
“You’d think the soil up here would be more sandy, being so close to the sea.”
“Nope. BritCan picked this spot cause the soil wasn’t apt to have coal running through it.”
“Not for the view.” Clancy stopped for a moment to shade his eyes.
The cemetery was on a low hillock that give a partial view of the harbour.
“I suppose. The miners didn’t want a view of the pits. After years of working in’m no one wanted to spend eternity looking down on them.” Birk sighed deeply.
“What is it?”
“Sal didn’t get many years to work at anything. We buried her with that doll of hers that she was always dragging around. Sometimes I think it’s good to die young rather than go on living this way.”
“You’re turning to a thinker Birk Nelson. Life can sour one on life. That’s for sure.”
“So what is that brings you back?”
“My Ma didn’t need my help and there was nothing going on the railroad either. When there’s no coal or steel to sell and ship, then there’s no money to spend. When there’s no money to spend on goods that have to be shipped and sold. What hurts one thing eventually hurts everything. I heard Sydney Mines went bankrupt. The town ran out of money because there was none coming in, they had to close the schools with no money to pay the teachers.”
“You coming back to stay with us or what?”
“Nah. I’m tossing in at Franklin’s, for now. Even with those militia men there, I’ll get a room to myself. Least ways I won’t wake up with you kicking me in the shins.”
“Or you pulling the blankets off a me.”
“You been fishing much?”
“Took my …” Birk swallowed back the tears that suddenly came to him, “ …. took the little ones over a few times. Made them feel useful to catch some for us to eat. Didn’t tell’em they were nearly small enough to toss back in.”
“It was a fine spot to fish.” Clancy grinned.
“If you sun on the rocks.” Birk knew that Clancy was talking about the times they had spent near each other.
“We’ll have to do that again soon.”
“I’d welcome that.”
“That’s done it.” Birk levelled the dirt and packed it down. “When it rains we have come back to make sure it stays level.”
“You think you can make a leap at that?” Clancy nodded at the iron arch that spanned the entrance to the graveyard. It was about seven feet at either end.
“Don’t know. Been a while since I’ve wanted to clamber around for fun.”
“You mean it’s too tall for you?”
“You’ll eat those words.”
Birk brushed the dirt off his hands, adjusted his stance and ran the few yards to the gate and jumped the lower end. He grabbed a handhold on the top of the column. A simple flex and he spun up to straddle the gatepost. Without hesitation he stood on it.
“Nothing to it.” He said standing on one foot.
“Comes natural to you monkeys.” Clancy laughed.
Birk flipped over to his hands and walked across the arc, flipped back to his feet and walked back again then dropped lightly to the ground.
“I should do that more often.” He rubbed his hands on his coveralls. “Makes me feel I’m my old self for a minute. Someone without a care in the world. That was one of the things Sal always laughed to see. Me walking on m’hands.”
They headed back to Mudside.
“You ever heard anything from Geo?”
“Nary a word but takes time for mail. General delivery’s at Franklin’s since the pluck me was burned down.”
“I keep hearing how much better things are in other places.”
“Pa says it’s the same all over. Sure they may pay you more but underground is underground. When you get paid more you get charged more.” Birk said.
“You seen any of the McTavish lass.” Clancy asked.
“No much and yet more than I want. She did come to pay her respects when she heard about Sal.”
“Mrs. Franklin tells me she’s gone to North Sydney.”
“That’s what I heard too but we go another of our own here to occupy me. Good to see Clancy.” He reached out to shake Clancy hand.
“Same here Birk.” Clancy let Birk pull him closer. “I didn’t know how much I’d come to … miss Castleton.”
When Birk got home the house was silent. His mother was sitting alone at the kitchen table. On the chair beside her were some of Sal’s things. Tattered dresses and stockings.
“Not much to anyone now.” She flattened one of the dresses on the table. “Can’t even make a decent wash cloth out it yet we was right proud to let her wear it. A hand-me-down that the Rev gave us. I never thought I’d have to dress my children in hand-me-downs let alone bury them in them.”
“Ma, you did the best. That’s all we can do.” Birk ached to say something that would make her feel better. “Want me to read to you from the good book?”
“Yes! Something from the Psalms. The one about loving kindness. Which is that?” She got up and went the living-room.
Birk followed her and sat beside her as he flipped through the Bible to find the verses she wanted.
“Here it is number 103.” She handed him the book.
“Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases.” He read slowly and didn’t find himself stumbling over words as much as he used to. As he read his wondered what had happened to the good things that were supposed to satisfy, to merciful graciousness that the verse talked about.
“Read that part about his children’s children,”
“This part? ‘But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them. The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all.”
“Yes. A throne in heaven for my children. All my children. I’m sure that’s what he has for Sal and Charles.”
Although Birk didn’t fully understand what the verses were saying he was pretty sure it his mother didn’t know either. It was clear that God didn’t pity them at all but rather enjoyed letting the miners struggle without any sign of mercy.
“I sure hope so. I doubt if anyone will forget we are dust though. A handful of coal dust.”
“Coal dust to dust.” His mother laughed. “At times you are funnier than you know Birk.”
“I sure don’t aim to be ma. Mayhaps we don’t fear the Lord enough, as it says here. ‘For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him.’ ”
“I don’t think it says we have to be scared, the way you would be of a ghost or that the mine’ll fall in on you. It means to be more in awe of Him. To be aware.”
“Maybe that’s it, Ma. Oft times when we’re in the pits I never think or worry about the mine fallin’ in on us. I do my work and gets though the day.”
“You check to make sure the braces are set proper?”
“That’s fear. That’s being aware. Those braces are your prayers. Once they are in place you don’t have to keep saying them you get on about your day in faith.”
“I see.” Birk didn’t see but accepted what she was saying. Maybe if he had prayed more this wouldn’t be happening? He rarely said prayers the way he saw his sisters do at the side of their bed every night. He knew some would say them before going into the mines but thought that foolishness.
The prayers his sisters said didn’t keep Sal alive. Her dying so sudden couldn’t have been God answering anyone’s prayer.
“You must be gladdened to have your old pal back.”
“You mean Clancy? Yeah, he come over to the graveyard to give me hand putting Sal to rest. He’s staying at Franklin’s.”
“He told me. He’s a good’un though. Your Pa and I were happy when you two started to along some. Better than you and Geo every did.”
“Maybe that’s cause Clancy wasn’t told to torment as much as he could to make a man out of me the way Geo was.”
“Where you hear that foolishness?” His mother got up.
“From Geo. Told me that before he left for Alberta. How’s it was your idea.”
“My idea was that he not to be soft with you. He took that in his own way.”
“I know that Ma. I’m not getting at you. Not even sure why I told you that.”
“I’m trying to do the best for you as I can.” She wiped a tear away. “By all my children.”
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