Chapter LVIII – Lillian Tends Birk’s Wounds

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Coal Dusters – Chapter LVIII

Lillian

Tends

Birk’s Wounds

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

“What can that mean?” Lillian asked.

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

“So that’s how can we hear it here.”

“They relay a distress signal.” Clara explained.

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

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

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

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

Clara raced down the stairs, Lillian following close after.

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

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

“What is it?” Clara asked.

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

“Is anyone hurt?” One the clerks asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“We all must light candles.” She said.

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

The priest came over to them.

“Miss McTavish.” He whispered.

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

“Nothing definite.” He said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lillian paced to the far end of the boat.

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

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

 

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

The General Manager came over to her and Clara.

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the others?” she said.

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

“Cage?” Lillian didn’t understand.

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

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

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

“What! Who would do such a thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing.”

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

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

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

“It’s Birk Nelson!” someone shouted.

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

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

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

“More clean water Lillian.” The doctor said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was … was Mr. O’Dowell with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As night fell Lillian sat exhausted one of the benches. 

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

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

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

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

“That depends on how seriously they are injured.”

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter XXX – Lillian to the Rescue

Chapter XXX

Lillian

to the Rescue

From the front parlour window Lillian watched the men gathering at St. Agatha Hall for the union meeting. She wondered why it was only men who went into the Hall. Why were their wives made to wait outside at such times? After all the decisions made here would effect their lives as much as the men’s. 

She hoped to see the hairy miner in the crowd but didn’t notice him. Her memory of him was vague at best. She had been unwilling to actually focus on him the few times they had met in passing. It wasn’t fitting for her to pay much heed to any of the Protestants in Castleton. His dark eyes and unshaved face made her shudder. What if he was too … animalistic for her purposes. Perhaps the Convent would be a better option. No! That decision could wait until she’d had a good look at the man himself.

Without changing out of her apron she left the rectory and went around the back of the Hall to a spot near one of the open windows of the Hall to hear what was being said. She couldn’t see over the heads of the man leaning on the inside sill. She recognized voices. Her uncle’s, that union man. If Birk spoke up she doubted if she’d recognize him. It was clear they wouldn’t be going back the mine that very night or in the near future. She hoped the rectory had enough fuel for the hot water heater. 

After confused, angry shouting the men began to move en masse. They went from being a disorderly but listening crowd to a mob. She joined some of the wives who had been stationed outside, to follow at a safe distance. A few men at the edge of the mob were drinking, shoving and fighting among themselves.

Father Patrick and Reverend Brown stood at the hall doors calling for the men to come back to finish the meeting. 

The men were chanting. “The Pluck Me. The Pluck Me.”

The mob gathered in front of the company store. She had been in the store several times before the strike began but only once since. Mrs. Seldon, wife of the store manager was also from off-island and had never gelt the local had accepted her. She had given Lillian a much needed listening ear when she first arrived in New Castleton. If there was some new patterned fabric she would send for Lillian in hopes of selling her some. Lillian loved to look at and handle the material but could only afford to dream.

They had spent evenings going through the Eaton’s catalogue looking at and longing for the various shoes, dinner wear and household items. They both were taken by the new washing machine that would reduce the amount of work needed to wash and wring out the clothes. With the birth of her son, Charles, Mrs. Seldon said she could use two of those machines to keep up with dirty nappies.

She felt a surge of powerless as she saw Mrs. Seldon shout from the second story window to discourage the men from taking any violent actions. When the men began to tear the boards protecting the plate glass windows she was faint. The men had gone from humans to animals as they attacked the front of the store.

  Boards were quickly pulled loose, the windows broken and the men clambered into the store through the sills, heedless of the crunch of glass underfoot. They were ants swarming over an apple core in the garden. First one, then two, then what seemed like hundreds of them. Like the ants with crumbs, the men were departing with bags of flour, bolts of fabric, barrels of things; carried in their arms, on their backs. The women joined in the clearing tins of food off of the shelves of the store.

She could hear Mrs. Seldon weeping and pleading with them. A couple of the wives dragged her out of the store and shoved her into the lane between the buildings opposite the store. The Seldon’s new born was wailing from the upstairs room. A fire broke out in the back of the store. The men were heedless of danger as they continued to pull out goods and disappear into the night with them.

She could no longer see Mrs. Seldon. The wails of the baby got louder. 

“You have to do something!” she grabbed one of the miners. “There’s a child up there.”

“Not my look out.” The man pushed past her. “I didn’t leave it behind.”

Lillian scrambled up the outside stairway that led to the rooms above. The unlocked door opened into the living-room. Smoke had filled the room. It stung her eyes. She covered her mouth with her apron and made her way to the corner where the crib was. She grabbed at the writhing child, wrapped him in a swaddling blanket and got him into her arms. The baby kicked and cried even louder.

Flames were now spurting through the floor boards around the edges of the carpet. As she got to the door, the floor began to collapse under her feet and into the store beneath. She prayed at least one of the miners would be caught in the inferno. The thought made her shiver with guilt.

Her apron caught on the door frame and she couldn’t pull it loose. She couldn’t let go her hold of the child as she tried to protect it from the sparks that rained on them. The smoke and heat made it impossible for her to see where the apron was caught. Her heart raced. She feared this was her doom. The landing where she balanced on the outside stairs began to smoulder. Another section of the floor in the room behind her crashed into the store. 

Clutching the baby in one arm she fumbled at the apron to see where it was caught. Maybe if she could untie it she could get loose. Struggling she began to mutter, “Our Father who art …”

A man appeared beside her out of the smoke. She couldn’t see his face.

“Oh! Thank God. My apron …” 

He reached behind her, ripped the apron free and dragged her down the stairs while trying to shield her and the baby from a new barrage sparks that fell on them as the roof collapsed into the building.

She glimpsed flames darting through the very stairs and around their feet as they stumbled down. The hem of her skirt began to smoulder. Flame burned her ankles. As they leapt from the next to last step the stairway collapsed and was swallowed by flame.

Hands grabbed them the moment they were off the stairs. The man kept her close to him until they were in the crowd. There was a scattering of applause as the mob parted to let them make it to safety. They were steered to a bench in front of the iron foundry across from the company store.

“Thank you. Thank you.” Lillian said to the man as she sat down. “I was preparing to meet God.” She gasped for air and coughed as she breathed in the smoke around them.

She set the baby on the bench beside her and opened the covers to make sure it was alright. It starting kicking and giggling as the swaddling was loosened. She picked it up and began to rock it gently.
“As was I, miss, as I ran up those steps. The closest I ever wants to come to the mouth of Hell.”

She rubbed her eyes with the sleeve of her free arm. They were clear enough for her to look at the man who had rescued her. His soot streaked face was familiar to her. It was her hairy miner.

“Thank you again.” She paused trying to recall his name. “I … we’ve met before, I think?”

“Think nothing of it, Miss. If it weren’t me, one of the others would have done the same.”

“What is your name? Please, so …. my uncle will be anxious to thank you himself, I’m sure. Father Patrick.”

“We have met a few times afore Miss, but were never prop’ly introduced. M’name is Birk Nelson.” He shook cinders out of his hair onto the ground. 

“I’ll most probably need a hair cut after this.” He grinned foolishly. “Thought it was going to burn off my head for a bit there.”

The very man she had been thinking of earlier in the day had rescued her! Was this God’s answer to her prayers for a way out of her situation? What clearer sign could one ask for? Moses had his message written in flames for him, too. Here was her’s. A commandment to marry.

She saw her uncle at the edge of the crowd. She waved to him.

“You must let me …” 

“Miss, I must be going. I sees that you and the babby are safe. I’ll let your kin look after you now.”

“No. Where … ”

He was gone before she could find out where he lived. She knew it had to Mudside. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find him there.

“Lillian!” Her uncle put his arm around her shoulders and helped her stand. “Are you all right?”

“I had to … to save Charles, the baby.” She loosened her hold on the infant. The child began to cry. “It is the Seldon’s.”

The Seldon’s weren’t parishioners of her uncle’s so she had kept her friendship with them to herself till now.

“You mean you went into that inferno to save their child?”

“Yes, Uncle. I was caught myself on the door by my apron and was in need of rescue. One of the miners risked his life.”

“Considering this was all their doing, it was the least one of them could do. I can’t imagine they wanted to add your death to their ill-considered actions.”

“Lillian!” Mrs. Seldon pushed Father Patrick aside. “Charles! You have saved Charles. I was so afraid he had been trapped in the fire.” She began to weep. “I tried to get back in but they held me back.” She took her child and began to rock it. 

Most of the mob had dispersed, satiated by their stolen goods. Some remained to bask in the glow of their handiwork. Lillian found it hard to breathe in the smoke and heat.

Mr. Seldon arrived with several other men. Lillian recognized one as Mr. Bowden, one of the mine managers.

Another group of men appeared pushing a large cart with a some sort of pump apparatus. A hose ran from it to the harbour. They began to pump and water trickled out in spurts to put out the flames.

“The best pumper is on company property.” Her uncle explained. “The miners won’t cross their picket lines to get.”

More men appeared with pails of water that they were throwing on the walls of the buildings on either side of the company store. Mr. Bowden motioned two of the miners over and they ran to the colliery with him.

“With the strike no one has been able to get to it.”

“Too late. Too late.” Mrs. Seldon sobbed. “We lost everything, for what! No one can make a profit from destruction.”

“It’ll be all they can do to keep the fire from spreading.” Mr. Seldon said. 

“How could men do something of this nature?” Lillian asked. “To make things worse solves nothing.”

“Often human passion can even drown out the voice of our Creator.” Father Patrick said.

“Some of these were men I’ve seen at Mass. I would never have imagined them capable of this kind of action.”

“Hunger, Miss McTavish.” Mr. Seldon said shaking his head sadly. “Can’t say as I can blame them but this isn’t going to help there cause.”

She watched in dismay as the back wall of the store wavered then crumbled in on the fire. 

The air hung heavy with the smells of burning mixed with the odd sweetness of things that had been incinerated in the store as it burned. 

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Damsel Not In Distress

 

Damsel Not In Distress

there was danger

sure I could have died

but what away to go

at the hands of the creature

yes I value my life

but it is my life

who asked you to butt in

what compelled you

to rescue me

if I had been another man

then what would you have done

would you let the creature 

destroy him

rather than appear to be gay

because only a man who loves men

would go to all the trouble

or rescuing another man

 

so you rescued me 

from the jaws of excitement 

it’s not that I’m not grateful

but if you expect 

some sexual gratification

for your efforts then toss me back 

I didn’t ask to be rescued

 

all I really had to lose

are those cultural bonds

of weak women   strong men

no one can be released from

the tentacles of that monster

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