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Coal Dusters – Chapter XXXIX
Lillian Joins The Mob
Back sore from the uncomfortable train ride, yet excited, Lillian stood at the gate to her home in Boston. It hadn’t changed at all since she had departed several months ago. The white house with its yellow shutters looked freshly painted in the warm afternoon sun. The shutter on the upper right windows needed repairs. She didn’t understand how her father could allow that misaligned shutter to mar the perfect facade of their house.
The gate opened soundlessly when she pushed it. She nodded to the train porter behind her to follow her up the stairs. He put her travel bag beside her at the front door. She sorted the coins in her change purse to make sure she was giving him American, not Canadian, money.
“Thank you.” she said dropping a dime in the palm of his hand.
She watched to make sure he had gone before she turned and knocked at the door. She was disappointed that she even had to knock, she had fully expected Sarah, or any of the other housemaids, to have seen her and to have thrown the door open wide to welcome her home.
Her first knocks with her knuckles could hardly be heard. She pulled off her travel gloves to rap soundly at the door. There was no sound from inside. No hurried footsteps to answer her knock.
She tried the door handle and it was locked. Reluctantly she used the brass knocker in the middle of the door. No response. She knocked again. No response.
Surely they weren’t up at the summer cottage? Even if they were, there was always house staff on duty when they were up at the lake. She stepped to to peer in one of the side windows. She could see Sarah in the foyer dusting the stair railings. Her knock on the window to get Sarah’s attention.
When Sarah didn’t respond she went back to the front door. It was just shutting and her travel bag was gone!
She tried the door handle again, pushed against it with all her weight but it refused to budge. She pounded the door with both her hands and all her might. She could hear the pounding echo from the houses in the square behind her. The door suddenly opened and she fell hard on the floor. Momentarily dazed she painfully turned herself over and found herself on the floor beside her bed in Castleton.
The pounding continued. It was someone knocking on the front door of the manse. She grabbed her wrap, slipped on her shoes and rushed down the stairs to answer the door.
“Father Patrick!” she called out as she ran. “Father Patrick!”
She opened the door and it Mrs. McIssac from across the street.
“Sorry to be bothering you Miss Lillian.” She was breathing heavily. “I was told to gather as many of the women as I could to go down to the pier to be with the miner’s when the Dingle Dandy gets here.”
“Oh yes.” She pulled her wrap closer. “I must have overslept. I was up later than usual getting some things ready for the strikers.”
“We all do what we can. Castleton is now your home as much as any of us.”
“I’ll join you as soon as I can. But don’t wait on me if you are ready to go now.”
Lillian shut the door and leaned her back on it to catch her breath. She tried to remember her dream of Boston. She could feel that morning sun on her skin as she walked up the steps to her house. Her true home.
She went to Father Patrick’s room and knocked on the door. It swung open at her touch. The bed hadn’t been slept in.
Twenty minutes later she latched the kitchen door behind her. Mrs. McIssac, Mrs. Danvers and several other women from nearby were at the Upper Chestnut corner talking amongst themselves. There were several of their children with them.
“I’m saying we shouldn’t have the children underfoot.” one of the women was saying.
“We can’t lock them up Marg.”
“I certainly wouldn’t leave mine alone in the house.” one said.
“Or anyone else’s.” Another replied.
The women all laughed.
“Outdoors has been good enough for them so far this summer.” Mrs. Danvers said.
“For sure but there hasn’t been troops to worry about.”
“Might we put them in the Hall?” Mrs. McIssac asked.
“Ah … I don’t know.” Lillian said. “I don’t have … authority to give permission. You would have to ask Father McTavish. He’s not here.”
“He’s probably with the men already.” One of the women said.
“I’m going there what ever you say,” one of the boys said. He looked at his buddy and the two of them scampered down the road.
One of the smaller girls began to cry. “They gonna kill Daddy. I know it.”
As the women and children marched toward the dock they were joined by more of the wives of the miners. Lillian nodded to the few she had met already and to some who were familiar to her from their attendance as the various services at St. Agatha’s.
“It’s good for us to have an opportunity to show our numbers to them.” Mrs. Franklin was walking beside Lillian. “The men can’t stand alone all the time with us women folk hiding behind them. It’s time we were in the front ranks.”
“I doubt if it’ll much difference.” Lillian said. “But it is better than waiting.”
A distant horn tooting quieted them.
“That’s The Dandy leaving North Sydney.” One of the women said. “It’ll be here soon.”
“You children stay behind. You hear.” Mrs. McIssac made them form a row. “We’ll have enough to do without keeping an eye on you. You understand.”
“Yes ma’am.” one of the older girls said.
“I’ll keep watch over them.” Lillian took the smallest girl by the hand. “You’ll be good, won’t you?”
“Yes Miss McTavish.” the child said.
As they rounded the corner the dock came into view. Lillian could see the ranks of miners already there surrounding the dock. In the distance she could see the Dingle Dandy approaching. She could make out several men on board.
The miner’s began to shout. “Back to the mainland.” “Respect us workers.” “This ain’t yer fight.” “Don’t cross our picket lines.”
As the ferry got closer they miners began to stomp their feet. Lillian was afraid the dock might gave way under the pounding. She could feel the vibration in her feet.
As the boat was about to dock it was clear that there was a dozen or so men on board. Three in suits, the others in uniforms with varying shades of brown.
“Not real uniforms.” Mrs. Franklin said to her. “Probably ex-militia. Putting on a front for us.”
“That’s Mr. Bowden?” Lillian shaded her eyes.
“Yes and I think that’s Baldwin with him.” Mrs. Franklin said.
“Baldwin?” Lillian asked.
“The Premiere. At least for now. With the election coming up he’s not going to miss this chance to campaign.”
As the ferry tied up to the wharf, the miners began to chant repeatedly, “You can’t stand the gaff. You can’t stand the gaff.”
Lillian was stunned to see that the first person to step off the ferry was her uncle. He raised his hands and the men fell silent.
“Thank you for the enthusiastic greeting.”
The men laughed.
“I have spent the night in discussion with Premiere Baldwin, Mr. Bowen and Colonel Strickland.”
“Which of them did you give final unction to?” One of the miners shouted out. The other miners laughed.
“What did they confess?” Another called out.
“Men. Friends. Parishoners. ” Father McTavish stepped closer to the line of miners. “I have convinced them that we are civilized enough to conduct ourselves like adults, not like a bunch of hooligans. No one wants things to escalate any further.”
“We aren’t the one trying to bust up the strike with outsiders.” William Gregory stepped out from the crowd of miners.
“We have no intention of busting up the strike but BritCan can’t let the mines remain idle. We have the legal right to mine the coal there, regardless of the union’s stance.” Bowden answered.
“They have the rights to their coal.” The Premiere took a document out of his overcoat pocket.
“Not worth the paper it’s printed on.” Someone called out. A clod of grass flew from the back to the crowd and landed directly on the Premiere’s chest and scattered dirt over the document.
“We want to come to amicable agreement.” Baldwin continued. “These are difficult time for everyone. There has to be compromise on your part if …”
“Here’s a compromise,” Gregory looked around the men behind them before continuing. “Pay the miner’s what you are going to pay the scabs, including the bonus you’ve guaranteed them.”
“I’m not here to negotiate.” the Premiere said. “I wanted to tell you directly that either you comply with the BritCan conditions or the province will step in with full support from Ottawa, I might add.”
“We will use what force is necessary.” Colonel Strickland said. “We would rather not have to go to that extreme.”
“Tell that to your wife.” Mrs. McIssac pushed through the crowd to face the colonel. “Tell that to your children.”
“My wife and children obey the law.” He said.
“I hope you are proud of yourself.” She turned to the Premiere. “It’s the law of money you obey not of the people who elected you. Remember that when the election comes around.”
“I’m asking you all to disperse.” Colonel Strickland said. “Go back to your homes and stop interfering with the lawful business of the BritCan Coal Company.”
“Or what?” one of the miners shouted.
The Colonel nodded to one of his men who was still aboard the DingleDandy.
“Attention.” The man shouted. A dozen, fully armed men came up from below deck and marched off the boat.
There were boo’s from the miners as stones, bricks and bottles flew through the air. The Colonel signalled Premiere Baldwin, Mr. Bowen and Father McIssac to step behind the soldiers.
“Arms.” He commanded.
“They aren’t going to fire on us, are they?” Lillian asked.
“Women and children move back.” Gregory shouted.
“Aim.” The Colonel said.
The soldiers brought their rifles to their shoulders.
They discharged their weapons over the heads of the crowd.
The children and some of the women scattered. Some were screaming, others were crying.
Lillian was pulled back by a couple of the children.
“Come Miss we have to get safe.”
Lillian looked down and one was Birk’s sister Maddy.
“That was merely a warning.” The Colonel shouted over the noise of the crowd. “The replacement company workers will be arriving soon. My men will remain here to make sure no one … I repeat … no one interferes with them doing their lawful work. Now disperse before we take further action.”
Premiere Baldwin and Mr. Bowen boarded the Dingle Dandy and it started back to North Sydney. The crowd dispersed into grumbling factions.
Birk and his father Blackie appeared from out of one of the factions.
“Maddy there you are.” Blackie tugged her hand out of Lillian’s. “I’ll look after her.”
“You’re okay?” Birk asked.
“Yes.” Lillian replied.
“It was just a show of force.” Blackie said.
“Looked more like a declaration of war on the miners.” Lillian shook her head.
“Miners have been at war with the company for generations. Some years it feels like a losing battle but … there’ seems no other way.”
“You safe to get home?” Birk asked.
“Oh yes.” Lillian said nodding to Mrs. McIssac and the other women. “I should be getting back to the manse. Father Patrick looks famish.”
Her uncle was talking with some of his parishioners as he walked away from the dock with them. As he passed her, he glanced at Lillian.
“There was no need for you to be here Lillian.” He said.
“I was asked by Mrs. McIssac to help mind the children.” she said. “Excuse me Mr. Nelson. I’d best get these children back to their families.”
She reached out for two of the parish children she recognized and took them by the hand. “Come along now. Heather, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Weren’t you scared when the guns went off?” Heather asked.
Lillian resisted saying. “You can’t kill the dead.”
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