Two sisters climb the mine road that disappears into the hills above Cumbola, Pennsylvania. Their breaths smoke in the early light as they struggle through waist-deep snowdrifts. The wind tears at their coiled hair, causing tears to stream down flat cheeks from wide-spaced eyes.
“Why do I always have ta carry the bucket?” Gert complains
“Quit yer gripin’,” Julia replies. “Mama put me in charge, and besides, I’ll be carryin’ it home when it’s fulla coal.”
Halfway up the slope they stop to brush snow from their mittens. Below them, the bells of Saint Anthony’s announce the end of sunrise mass. They hurry onward. In a short while they too are expected to kneel in their Sunday best for communion.
At the top of the ridge, the road drops into a stream-cut valley. In places, the maples and oaks have been cleared, exposing abandoned mineshafts and water-filled stripping pits to the leaden sky.
“What about around that strippin’?” Gert points.
“Nah, we picked ’er clean weeks ago – and the last time ya fell in and almost drowned.”
“I hardly got wet. You worry too much… just like Mama.”
Julia glares at her younger sister and pushes past the black pool, partly covered with dirty ice. “There be nobody about at the Number 8. We’ll try there.”
“But the watchman?”
“He’ll be too drunk to catch us. Come on.”
At a massive black oak, still clutching its dead leaves, the sisters take off through the woods and creep to the edge of the colliery. The camp is deserted. But smoke pours from the chimney pipe of the watchman’s shack next to the washhouse.
“He’s in there,” Gert whispers, “will see us for sure.”
Julia frowns and thinks about their brother, just a year older than she and fighting the Boche somewhere in France. Chester would have come with them to help. Before the war, Papa and he dug hard coal from the seam in back of their house and didn’t need to scavenge from the culm banks. Then the black lung and a Black Maria took Papa away.
“Come on, and be quick about it,” Julia orders.
“You go first. I’ll wait here till you’re inside.”
Julia’s face splits wide with a grin, showing strong teeth. “You’re such a sissy.”
“Just be quiet. I’m the one that watchman will come after.” Gert turns up her nose and looks away.
Julia sighs, knowing her sister is right. At sixteen, Gert’s trim waist and well-proportioned figure far outshines Julia, who is built like a tough little teapot, short and stout. She dashes from the trees, skirts an iced-over strippin’, and runs full tilt into the black mine entrance. Turning, she peers across the clearing at the watchman’s shack. Something moves behind one of its windows, at least she thinks it does. She waits in the shadows, her heart thumping. A cardinal calls loudly from the trees, a spot of brilliance in the winter gloom.
Smoke drifts upward from the shack. The cold settles into Julia’s shoulders. She steps to the opening and waves Gert on. Her sister moves forward with a hip-swinging gait that cuts a trough through the powdery snow.
“Ya walk like some Philadelphia harlot,” Julia says when Gert reaches her.
“How would you know? You’ve never been beyond these hills.”
“Chester has…told me stories.”
“Let’s just fill this darn bucket and get home. I can hardly feel ma feet.”
Julia pulls a candle from her coat and lights it. The sisters follow the tracks into the mountain, stopping to retrieve rocks fallen from the coal cars on their way to the breaker. As a little girl, Julia used to take her father his lunch in a tin pail. She knew the other Polack miners, remembers their exhausted faces and dark staring eyes, the hopelessness of their coal-cracker families. She dreams of escaping to New York City, to work as a cook, to buy a train ticket west, far from these freezing winters, coal, and the company store.
“Whatcha moonin’ about?” Gert asks.
“Oh, nothin’. Did ya ever think about leavin’ this place?
“No. Mama needs us now more than ever.”
“I mean, after Chester comes home.”
“I figure, there’s plenty of good men in these parts to marry. Why should I leave?”
“Well, I don’ want no man of mine gettin’ kilt working for the companies.”
“Man of yours? Hah.” Gert chuckles and dumps a fist-sized lump into the almost-full bucket. Julia staggers under its weight but keeps moving. They work fast, the effort warming their bodies.
Stopping to catch her breath, Julia notices that the light from the mine entrance momentarily dims. “Hush, now. Someone’s there,” she whispers.
“It’s the clouds blockin’ the sun.”
“No, it ain’t. I just…”
Footsteps advance toward them. Julia blows out the candle and they slip into a black side room. Crunching steps move nearer.
“I know you’s in here,” a man’s voice calls.
Gert grabs Julia’s arm and squeezes hard. Julia puts a hand over her sister’s mouth and whispers in her ear, “Quiet.”
The footsteps stop. The watchman strikes a match, lights a lantern, and sets it on the ground. He’s no more than a dozen paces away, a grizzled figure hunched in heavy wool. Julia sees his narrow eyes focus, then widen. “Hey you two, come over here.”
“Run!” Julia hollers and dashes past the man with her sister following.
The watchman whirls and grabs onto Gert’s arm. “Not so fast, darlin’,” he says, snickering.
“Let her go,” Julia cries.
“Not before I teach her a lesson.” He bends and mashes his greasy face into Gert’s. She screams.
“Leave her alone,” Julia mutters. “Ya can have me.”
The watchman stares at her and laughs. “What would I do with a stumpy little girl like you?”
Without speaking, Julia slowly raises her skirt to expose white winter bloomers. The man releases Gert and advances.
“Run Gert, get outta here,” Julia snaps.
Her sister whimpers and dashes for the mine entrance.
Julia smells him, his breath strong with hooch, his body stinking of coal dust mixed with old sweat. He reaches for her. Julia swings her left arm and smacks him alongside the head with a chunk of anthracite. The watchman yelps. She sprints down the tracks toward the light, her high-laced boots slamming against the crossties. Outside in the blinding snow, she heads for the trees. He catches her at the edge of the strippin’.
“You’re a feisty little thief, aren’t ya,” he says, laughing. He surrounds her with his arms and pulls her body to his.
“Leave me alone, you…”
From behind him, Julia sees Gert’s slender hands grasp a huge lump of coal and bring it down on the watchman’s head. He grunts, his arms go slack and he staggers backward. Without hesitation, Julia shoves him over the edge. He falls headfirst into the strippin’, breaking through its thin ice. He surfaces once, hands clawing at air, at ice shards, at the last vestiges of his life. Then he’s gone and the pond’s surface quiets once again. In her mind, Julia sees his body settle into the muck where the bluegill and catfish will feed on this unexpected meal. She shudders and covers her face with her hands.
“Come on,” Gert pleads, sniffling loudly. “Let’s get home.”
“Yes, yes… but the bucket.” Julia races back into the mine and returns with their costly prize. The sisters stagger up the road, clutching the handle between them. They don’t pause until reaching the ridge top. Below, windswept Cumbola is quiet in its Sunday reverie.
“You gonna tell Mama?” Gert asks finally, her voice small in the cold air.
“Only if they come for us. We best hurry to church. I need to confess before communion.”
“What we done weren’t no sin,” Gert says through tight lips.
“Maybe not. But I can chance it with the law, not with God.”
“They’ll find him tomorrow.” Gert sighs and pulls her coat tight.
“No they won’t. That pond ’ll freeze over tonight and by spring he’ll be…”
The sisters go silent and slowly hobble downhill, the coal bucket cutting a furrow between them in the soft white snow.
Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California. Since 2005, his short stories, poems, and essays have been accepted by more than 260 literary and popular journals, magazines, and anthologies. Terry is also an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.