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Authors: Dayle Furlong

Saltwater Cowboys

BOOK: Saltwater Cowboys
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For B & B

Chapter One

eptember 9, 1985

Jack McCarthy's crooked foot scuffed along in the gravel as he walked slowly down the hill from the mine site. Strands of black hair, fuzzy from the yellow hard hat, hung over his arctic-blue eyes. His sweaty knuckles were seared with black and grey muck after a long shift underground. A crumpled piece of pink paper, curled like dried shrimp, was held tight in his slender hand.

This morning he'd lost his job.

He hadn't told his wife.

I could go have a drink at the Hall before supper,
he thought.
Or have a game of darts or cards. I should go straight home and tell Angela.
He would go straight home and tell his wife — but after the way Mooney's wife had reacted, he didn't know how to tell his.

“Mooney, my god, what's wrong,” Jack had asked him this morning as he passed him on the hill. Mooney had just finished a night shift and stood wilting under the weight of the news — his whole body brittle against the shadow of the large, indomitable shaft behind him: black paint peeling, rusted iron girders garish and bold. He was a mucker like his father — and his father before him — and he was constantly dirty. He'd wiped his nose on his tattered red plaid shirt.

“It's happened, Jack, to a whole bunch of us, me, Tom, and Gary. We were laid off this morning. I gotta get home to me wife, let her know what's happened.” Panic pinched Mooney's tired, dirty skin. His first baby was due next month.

Jack knew at once it would happen to him, too, and tried not to let his fear show. He stood facing the mine and squared his shoulders, all the while knowing that the land was dry and not one of them was skilled at working the sea. They'd all have to go to the mainland or America, perhaps Alberta, or Manitoba and even northwestern Ontario, where gold and nickel mining companies were just starting up.

He'd heard about a family that had gone to Alberta — Ron Evilly and his wife and three children — to work in a rural northern gold-mining town. The homesickness, the isolation, and the low wages had gotten to him. He'd wanted to come home, even if it meant coming home to nothing. But he hadn't — couldn't — come home, and was stuck, miserable, lonely, and weary, far from everyone and everything he'd ever known.

“Get in there and check your mailbox, Jack,” Mooney had said. He held his hard hat in his shaking hands and pressed his thumbs on the rim, spinning it nervously. Mooney loved to bake; at every softball tournament or figure skating carnival, Mooney would have his pies set out, some still bubbling blueberry juice through the hole in the middle. He looked like he was kneading dough right now, needing money, reverting to his hobby out of habit. Jack glumly watched him pressing, shaking, and spinning his hard hat, his way of earning dough ripped from his hands this morning, leaving him with only a battered grey and dirty hard hat to fumble with nervously.

“There's nothing we can do when the ore dries up, not a blessed thing, you and I both know that.” Mooney put on his battered hard hat and marched away from the mine site toward the little yellow clapboard house fifty feet away from where they stood.

His pretty young wife opened the door. Her belly emerged first, her arms cradled — muscles tight from lugging home big bags of flour and sugar for Mooney's baking — around her swollen abdomen. Everyone teased her about her unfailing support and hours spent shopping for her husband's baking, but she shrugged it off. She would haul lumber for her husband if she had to.

He had handed her the separation slip. She pulled her woolly cardigan tighter around her, brushed wisps of brown hair from her sharp cheekbones, and then looked up at the mineshaft with hard black eyes. Fat tears fell and her chest heaved spasmodically. Mooney gently put his hand on her belly. She brushed his hand away and with paper clenched fiercely raised a shaking fist at the mineshaft. Quiet and obdurate it stood, as if the people who gave it life were condemned or had fallen out of its favour.

“For the love of God, what will we do?” she screamed.

“I'll find work,” Mooney said.

Jack had turned away quickly and continued to walk up the small hill to the mine site, his head hanging glumly. He could only imagine how Angela, his wife of five years, would react. She'd do more than shake a fist. She'd grow cold, hover in silence, and then charge. Take charge, as if her will and her will alone could — and would — be the only outcome. Jack knew he'd have no say in the matter. His will would be crippled under the weight of her fiery temperament. It bothered him, this inability to make any sort of claim in influencing even the most minor of decisions. He often wanted her to concede to him so he could show her that he was a competent man, a man worth trusting, a man like his neighbour and best friend since childhood, a mining mucker himself, Peter Fifield.

Peter and Jack had met in kindergarten. Peter started school two weeks late. He was wilful and wily, and his mother couldn't get him out the door. He'd wanted to stay home and play with his trucks, guard them from his younger brothers, who would destroy everything he had once his back was turned. When Peter finally came to class in mid-September, the teacher presented him at the front.

“Now children, we have a new student.”

The children were told to lower their heads and pray to welcome the newest class member. Jack looked up, and Peter was pulling faces at the chubby nun with the prune face — purplish skin, bloated and wrinkled — perched over fingers glazed with remnants of the soda biscuits and butter she snacked on throughout the day. When Peter caught Jack's eye, the ginger-haired, bucked-toothed, freckle-faced scallywag stuck out his cleft tongue. Jack flushed with surprise at the dent. He thought Peter was part snake. He wanted to befriend this reptilian boy.

Later that day Jack made a paper airplane and threw it at Peter's head. Peter stopped ordering the other kids around in the dollhouse, where the play kitchen, nursery, and living room were, and ran after the perpetrator of the paper plane assault. They became tangled in a wrestling match so snarled, it took two nuns to pry them apart. They'd been inseparable after that.

Jack, walking slower than ever to work, had approached the security gate and said good morning to the guard, Brian Gulliford, who nodded slowly, his eyes heavy, forcing a smile. The man had sensed Jack's weariness and averted his eyes. Gulliford had been there for almost twenty-five years, a rebellious teen who stayed out all night, drinking at the swimming hole, drag racing on the road to the lake. His parents and the mine foreman thought it would be wise to give him some authority; if he couldn't follow it, they might use the force of his will for some benefit. He looked as if even his strong will had buckled under the pressure of company layoffs as he'd sat in his glass box, head sagging on a weary neck, back doubled over and strewn limply on his desk.

Jack had passed through the security gate and climbed the steps to the men's dry. Within its steamy walls, a group of men, finishing or starting a shift, were either showering or changing.

“I won't go, I won't. There's six more years of work to go at least, and I won't go without a fight,” said Johnny Moriarty, a driller, shaking his fists as coils of black hair bounced heavily over his flat forehead.

“You can't fight them,” Bernie stated dully. “When money for exploration stops, so do we.”

“All the shareholder money in the world don't know this rock like we do. We know what's left in the mine and we know how many people they need to work it. And let me tell you, they're making a big mistake letting too many go at once,” Jack said and slammed his fist into his palm.

“They're not making a mistake,” Bernie said dully.

“But some of us will get five more years at least,” Jack said tightly.

“And some of us won't,” Bernie added flatly, “and we'll have to accept it,
like men.

“Well, I won't accept it; I'll fight this all the way. They won't get rid of me and my family without a fight. Our grandfathers started this town, and my youngsters are going to enjoy it, that's for sure,” Jack said.

“There won't be anything left for the children. They'll start with the pool, then the bowling alley, then the stadium and cinema. You gotta think about your children's future,” Bernie said.

“We'll stay in Newfoundland,” Jack said desperately. “There's no way we're going to the mainland. What's losing a pool when you could lose the whole ocean?”

Several high-pitched whistles signalled the start of the shift. The men cleared out of the dry quickly. Jack stood alone in the change room, unbuttoning his jeans, slowly putting on his work boots, afraid to check his mailbox at the end of the hall, more worried now about the other men. What would they do? Some of them were single and would be fine to roam, but what about the men with children? Peter himself had been laid off five months ago and still hadn't found work. Jack could only imagine what Pete's wife Wanda was feeling.
She must feel so alone
, he thought. She looked so vacant lately, like she wasn't even inside her own skin, missing Peter as he hunted for jobs in St. John's. Jack was surprised at how easily she'd changed. She'd gotten so big after the baby was born. She was the prettiest girl in Brighton Catholic School and had married the captain of the hockey team, but now she looked like someone's nanny in old housedresses and slippers as she carried her pudgy baby over her shoulder, all the while wiping drool and grainy white spit-up from her chest.
What will come to pass
, Jack thought,
for us all,
and he sighed heavily.

The mine site will be here longer than any of us
. He cursed the loud, dangerous, rough mine, with its cantankerous moods and accidental rock slides that snuffed out human life in seconds, explosions gone awry, and toxic gases that scratched and tore at a man's lungs. Jack never stopped worrying about making it home to his children. He rarely took risks at work, exhibited great care around heavy machinery, and settled disputes between the miners on shift calmly and fairly, but that didn't stop the worry. The worry that someday this place, full of rock that loomed above his head like a thick, sharp guillotine, would snap him in half.

fter dropping Katie off at school, Angela walked the hundred yards across town and opened the door to Moira Moriarty's hair salon. The sharp smell of ammonia singed her nose. Dusty mirrors encased in gold filigree adorned the walls. Moira looked up and smiled vacantly at Angela. She was trimming Bernie's wife Wavey's mushroom cut. Nanny Harnum sat under the hair dryer, rollers squeezed tight against her plastic cap, a dark plastic cape draped over her rotund frame. She looked like a clay doll.

Moira's wispy strawberry-blonde hair hung limply. Her face was grey and withdrawn. “Johnny came home from his shift this morning with a layoff notice,” she said.

“Bern, too,” Wavey said.

Angela's face fell, and she shifted Lily to her other hip. “I'm so sorry.”

Nanny Harnum reached out to ruffle Maggie's hair, and over the din of the hair dryer she yelled, “Your time will come, no use feeling sorry for anyone.”

Angela nodded glumly.

Moira brushed Wavey's small face with a thick white brush. Her eyes were squeezed shut. “Bern figures Jack got his notice today.”

“He hasn't called,” Angela said.

“Angela —” Wavey began to say as Moira wiped the brush forcefully over her mouth.

“Leave it between the two of them, Wave,” she whispered.

Wavey picked bits of hair from her lips and remained silent.

“He would tell me straight away,” Angela said to a room suddenly gone silent, save for the weak roar of the hair dryer and the crackle of Nanny Harnum's newspaper. “Wouldn't he?”

ater that evening, his crumpled lay-off slip lay tucked underneath the front door mat, the only place he could think to put it so Angela wouldn't find it. He couldn't tell her what had happened, not just yet. He couldn't tell her about what made him feel so powerless, this situation that rendered him incapable of providing for his family. That was the worst, he thought, not being able to give his wife and children what they wanted.

After Angela had bathed and dressed the children for bed, Jack knelt beside his two daughters, Katherine and Maggie — Lily, the baby, was asleep in the crib beside them — wrapped in wool blankets and snug in bed, and told them a ghost story. “There's a bright-light spirit, way deep down in the black rock, that lives underground. He keeps dark places full of light so men can find their way home.”

They shivered nervously under the brittle wool blankets as Jack rose to turn out the light. He whispered good night as Katherine, the eldest daughter, asked if the spirit would light up their room after their father turned out the light. Jack laughed and ruffled her hair.

Jack went to run a bath. As he sat in the tub, his knees bent to his waist, coils of brown and red chest hair were matted with suds. He ran a bar of cracked soap, streaked with grey dirt, over the curled slugs of dirt under his fingernails. His blue eyes were red-rimmed and glassy. What would he say to Angela? How could he tell her what had happened today? She would know exactly what she wanted to do — whether or not Jack agreed. As he sat in the tub, he had a strong sense of what she would do. He wanted to ignore it, this sense. He tried to stifle his instincts but the thoughts festered, throbbed like a cut covered with a tightly wound bandage — the point when the tear in the skin isn't the problem anymore but the pressure of the solution is, because it's worse, far worse than the original problem. He wasn't ready for her to know yet. For her to have a solution before he had a chance to decipher what the problem meant for him. He knew he wouldn't want to do what she said, but it didn't matter what Jack wanted.

BOOK: Saltwater Cowboys
7.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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