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Coal Dusters – Chapter XLII
in the Bushes
Birk pushed the piss jar back under his bed. By the shadow of the moonlight he figured it was about midnight. With the colliery closed there was no hourly reminder of the time. He rolled back into the bed and found the comfortable rut that held his body like a grave.
A grave! That was what his bother Geo would say when they rolled into each other in the bad. ‘Get back to your grave!’
The door to the bedroom squeaked open.
“Birk!” Clancy whispered. “Are you awake?”
“Yes.” His sleepiness disappeared. Had Clancy snuck into the house to get into bed with him? “They kick you out at Franklin’s?”
“Get yer pants on. There’s trouble brewing down at the colliery.”
“What?” Birk pushed off the bed and groped for his trousers.
“I overheard that Strickland talk with Bowden, the mine manager and they are going to sneak in the scabs tonight. I’ve already told Gregory. He’s getting some of the men together to give them a proper welcome.”
“Those bastards.” Birk laced up his boots and started for the door.
“Might put a shirt on though.” Clancy laughed under his breath.
“This’un will do.” He grabbed the work shirt that had been singed in the fire.
Outside there was a dozen or so men milling around at the corner of Birk’s lane and the Pitt Road. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness. He recognized Jake Malone, Jim McKlusky, and the cigar-puffing, union rep Willam Gregory.
“I’ve been in touch with the men in North Sydney and the scabs is coming by bus along the number 6 road. They have troops with them too.” Gregory told them. “They left about an hour ago so they should be here pretty soon.”
“None coming by the ferry?” Jake asked.
“Not as far as we know. After that face-off t’other day the Dingle doesn’t want to take the risk of their boat being scuttled.”
“He’ll take us from side to side but he ain’t taking sides.” One of them said and the others laughed.
“Guess the navy has enough sense to stay out of this.” One of the miners said.
“Quiet now.” Birk said. “If they want to surprise us we better extra quiet so we can surprise them.”
“Right.” Gregory said. “Here’s what I’m thinking. Some of us can take the ridge trail over to the turn off from Number Six road.”
“There’s that maple outcrop along there. We can block the road with some trees.” one of them suggested.
“Not have enough time for that much chopping.” McKlusky said. “How about we scatter broken glass. Cut up the tires.”
“Good plan, if we can get enough broken glass. What did you have in mind Mr. Gregory?” someone asked.
“I think if we make a show of force there to delay them, we can get ready for them here at the gate. Or maybe they’ll turn back once they see there’s no surprise.” He said.
“They’ll have troops with them.” Clancy said. “Least ways that’s what I heard.”
“Let’s burn em up.” McKlusky suggested. “We can make some kerosine bombs and toss them.”
“We just want to stop them,” Birk said. “Not kill them.”
“Speak for yourself little man.” McKlusky said. “We gotta show them we really mean business.”
“Okay. Okay.” Gregory said. “Six of you head over that turn off and do what you can to delay them. The rest of us will go to the colliery gate to reinforce our guys there.”
“Alright.” McKlusky said. “I’m for the turn off. Who’s coming with me. Tommy Driscoll?”
“Yep. We can handle ‘em.” Tommy raised his fists.
“Fists and flat iron.” Another miner shook an ax over his head.
“Good man Davy.” Tommy Driscoll shook Davy’s hand.
Birk and Clancy stepped forward.
“I know the Ridge Trail.” Birk said. “Stick close to me and we can get there without using lights at all.”
“Good lads. We’ll show them Cape Breton miners are as tough as they come.” Tommy Driscoll said.
They set off up Pitt St. with Tommy Driscoll in the lead.
“Wait here men.” McKlusky said. “Tommy and I have to pick up something from m’place.”
They returned shortly. Each with an ax and carrying wooden crate between them.
“That’s kerosene.” Birk said.
“Yes it is. We made these bottle bombs a while back in case we had a use for them.” Tommy said pulling out a bottle half filled with kerosene with a rag stuffed into it.
“Okay Birk lets get a move on.” McKlusky said.
Birk lead them toward the trail to Blue Lake but took a different path that ran at a right angle off it. The smell of the kerosene made him nauseous.
“Careful here.” He slowed them down. “We’re almost at the culvert by the road. The earth is loose along here.”
“You couldn’t find a better way.” McKlusky said. “Shit.” He lost his footing, let go of his side of the crate and slid down the embankment.
“Good thing there hasn’t been much rain.” Birk said helping Tommy hold the crate. “We all might as well take the McKlusky short cut.”
They slid down and Birk made his way up to the road. He reached out to help Clancy up.
“There’s a spot on the other side where we can watch who’s coming up or down the road.”
They dashed across the road to a hillock of bramble bushes.
“You think we’ll have long to wait?” Tommy asked. “Must be near three bloody o’clock in the morning.”
“Ye missing getting your piece of fun?” Davy said.
They all started to laugh.
“Shh.” Birk said. “I think I hear something.”
The men stilled and held their breath.
“Sounds like motors.” Clancy whispered.
“More than one.” McKlusky said.
The noise got louder. Lights appeared on the road as the vehicles approached.
“That has to be them.” McKlusky stood to look over the bramble.
Birk crept carefully around to get a clear view. He saw at least two set of headlights, then a third.
“What was the plan?” He asked McKlusky. “We jump out and say …”
“This.” McKlusky lit the rag in one of the bottles and tossed into the road in front of the first truck. It arched up and landed at the side of the road, shattered & burst into flame. The three trucks stopped as the flames burned lower and lower.
The tarp cover on the first truck flipped open and troops climbed out.
Another bottle flamed over from the opposite of the road and smashed on the roof of bus in the middle of the cortège. As the kerosene flames spread there was shouting inside the bus. Men shoved each other out the doors. some climbing out the windows.
Birk looked beside him and saw that Tommy wasn’t there. He must have run dashed to the other side while the troops were debarking.
Another bottle flew into the air and landed on the tarp covering the first transport. Two of the soldiers shot in the direction the bottle had come from.
“I said not to shoot.” One of the militia said. He stepped into the headlights of the transport. “This is Corporal Stevens. We are armed and have orders to do what we have to get these men to the colliery.”
“Turn back if you value your lives.” McKlusky shouted back.
“You have been given fair warning.” Stevens signalled his men. “In the air.”
The men discharged their guns into the air. Another bottle arched down on to them. A spotlight on the roof of the first transport’s cab went on and began to play across the trees on either side of the road. A similar light shone from the roof of the third transport.
“Get back in the bus.” Stevens ordered the men. “Nothing more is going to happen.”
Birk kneeled and felt on the ground beneath him and found a stone. He stepped briefly into the light and threw it at the spotlight. It hit the bulb and it flickered out.
“Lower aim.” Stevens ordered.
The troops fired into the bushes on both sides of the road.
Birk heard a ragged cry from the woods near him.
“They must have hit Davy Rudenko.” McKlusky said. “You two get to the colliery and tell Gregory what’s happened here.”
“What about Tommy?” Clancy asked.
“He’s already hightailed it back the way we came. I’ll check on Davy.”
There was another round of shots. Bullets hit the dirt at Birk’s feet.
“Let’s get.” Clancy grabbed Birk by the shoulder and started to the wood behind them.
“This way.” Birk nudged him into a different direction to a well-used path that took them directly to Chestnut Street.
When they got to the colliery Birk quickly explained what had happened.
“You and Clancy best get back to your place Birk.” Gregory said. “You both stink of kerosine. Wash up as best you can when you get home.”
Birk woke to voices at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the second floor. At first he thought it was his mother talking with Sal then he remembered Sal was no longer with them. He rolled to get out of the bed and Clancy was there beside him. When they had gotten to the house it was too late for Clancy to go back to the boarding house without drawing attention to himself.
He got out of the other side of the bed and tip-toed to the door to listen. He recognized Mrs. Franklin’s voice.
“It’s best that you tell anyone who asks that Clancy Sinclair has been boarding with you since he returned.” she was saying. “If they find out it was him who alerted the miners there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Yes. I understand Mrs. Franklin.” he heard his mother say.
Birk got dressed silently and went down stairs.
“She gone?” He asked his mother.
“Yes. She brought Clancy’s kit bag over. That Colonel Strickland is convinced Clancy was spying on him. Davy Rudenko is dead, you know.”
“Yes’m I was there when it happened.” He quickly told her about trying to delay the cortege.
“That’s why your clothes are hanging on line.” she said. “Yours and his.”
“Yeh. We must have got splashed with those kerosine bombs Jim McKlusky was tossing. We never handled them, Ma.”
“It’s all made a mess more trouble that it avoided.” she poured him a cup of tea.
“I better take this up to Clancy.” Birk hefted the kitbag, “Or he’ll be coming down the stairs naked.”
“You mean you boys snuck in the house like that!”
“Yep. We were too tired to think beyond making sure our clothes was airing.”
He took the steps to his room two at a time. Clancy was still asleep.
“Getting near 10 m’boy.” Birk shook Clancy by the shoulder.
“Like old times.” Clancy sat up.
“Here’s your gear. Mrs. Franklin brought over. Colonel Strickland is on your trail. So as of now, you’ve been here since you got back from the mainland, right?”
“Sure. Any other news from last night.”
“Only what we know already. Davy Rudenko is dead.”
“You decent?” Blackie came into the room
“Yes Da.” Birk stood the closet door way to make room for his father.
“Thanks to the militia those scabs got into the colliery. There was a face off though. Father McTavish come down to try and get the strikers to see sense but he got bashed good on the head. That shut him up.”
“Bashed? That all.” Clancy said. “By one of his own parishioners.”
“No one know for sure.” Blackie said. “There’s talk of murder though.”
“You mean Davy Rudenko?” Birk said.
“No. One of the new miners was shot out on the road.”
“What!” Clancy pulled a pair of pants out of his kit bag. “None of us had guns. Must have been one of the soldiers that shot him.”
“Don’t matter to BritCan, now does it? They’ll blame the union for everything.”
“Shit.” Clancy said.
“Except the fact that the miners they brought in don’t know what they’re doing. Most of them have never been near a mine in their lives. Most of them were recruited off the street in Halifax and Montreal.”
“Figures.” Birk shook his head.
“They’re sweeping up the yard until the company can get someone in who can teach’em how to wield a pick and rake underground.”
“And set a blast.” Birk said.
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