When he emerged from underground after hours of sweat-inducing toil, David Burnett couldn’t deny the protest of his back any longer. But two years over thirty, and his body gave him pain that he didn’t think he’d feel until he clamored out of bed as an old man. He knew the men who worked below ground beside him felt the same: not all tried to hide their cursing; others couldn’t hide deep, throaty coughs that demanded relief against brisk mountain air. He shook his head, having long since realized that the opportunity to mine in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t as promising as that earnest labor recruiter had said when they’d shaken hands in Illinois.
He’d inclined an ear, as had hundreds of other colored men, since this recruiter knew something of the grit and perseverance required of them since he too had lived as a slave. David endured the rattling ride over the mountains in the cattle cars with other hopeful miners easily enough; it was their arrival in Montana that snuffed out the light of their candles. For it was there they were told that not only would they be miners; they’d be strikebreakers. Soon enough armed guards set foot in the cattle cars, and the laughter and the optimism shared by the men silenced like a canary down the pit.
Though told they could return to their previous lives, their labor recruiter had known they wouldn’t request departure when their former lives hadn’t afforded them much. David winced at the not so long-ago memories of their reception to the region: how the feuding first miners had chased their train to the outskirts of Roslyn, wielding their rifles even as the Pinkerton guards kept watch over the black miners. How they’d been provided with inadequate lodging, spending their first weeks in a drafty church building instead of their own homes with running water or pot-bellied stoves. How the superintendent of the mine was so hated for his decision to bring them here that striking miners tied him to the train tracks and would have let him perish were it not for the mercy of one miner with a conscience.
David’s eyes required some adjusting, for while the sun had long since slipped beneath its pocket in the evergreens, there was nothing so dark and oppressive as the night-shade of the underground. But breathing in the cool, cleansing mountain air again, and his thoughts turned to them: his beautiful wife, Georgina. His five-year-old daughter, Liliana. He thought of the spark in the little girl’s chestnut eyes whenever she said “Daddy” and wrapped her arms around his neck. He smiled in spite of the ache that went deeper than anything he felt in his physical being: they hadn’t come here yet, not when all the other wives and children touched down on Washington soil three months after their men. He’d been waiting for the reunion with his girls for so long that it felt like glass when he swallowed. After the snow is done falling, Georgina promised in her last letter. We miss you and love you so much.
David’s thoughts of them fled when he felt a large hand clasp the back of his shoulder. He braced himself, wondered why he’d stopped carrying a rifle and prepared to knock the man out before hearing a familiar, warm voice. “Davie, my man. What do you say about heading over to the Brick and ordering up a whiskey after we wash up?”
Were it not for the low, brazen quality of his new friend’s voice, he wouldn’t have recognized him at all. Gerald’s work clothes were doused with such a thick layer of dirt that he doubted several washes would render them clean. Even the bowler hat he’d set on his head looked world-weary and tattered. David imagined he looked the same.
He tried to let the adrenaline dissipate so that Gerald wouldn’t see the aggression piercing his eyes, but his friend knew it and understood it. Instead of addressing it, Gerald let out his breath, watched the white plumes spiral around him. “Let’s go; the first drink’s on me.”
David smiled sadly and shook his head. “Not tonight…” Sensing his friend’s disappointment, he said, “Maybe after tomorrow’s shift…I need to finish my letter to my daughter, make sure it’s in the postman’s hand by tomorrow…”
Seeing as he couldn’t rightly argue with that, Gerald nodded and said, “Tomorrow night, my friend. I’m holding you to it. You write that letter to your little girl. Lily, did you say her name was?”
David’s jaw was working hard. “Liliana,” he said, grateful that the dark hid his misting eyes. He wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve. “But I call her Lily. Can’t help myself from shortening it, though her mother says that’s not what we named her.” He smiled.
Gerald gave a nod to their right. “I was out walking behind the church the other day….and couldn’t believe some of the flowers still growing. They looked like lilies. Thought about picking some for Mrs. Johnson’s kitchen, but I let them be…”
The wheels in David’s mind began to turn. He reached out a hand to Gerald, said he needed to shower and cast his work clothes in the bin. Before he turned in at their boardinghouse-where he and five other men lived-he took the extra bends and turns required to reach their house of worship. And though the sky was deepening yet, he turned on his headlamp as he reached the church’s meadow. A lump surged in his throat, and he blinked back tears. He didn’t take it as happenstance that Gerald mentioned the wildflowers still bursting through the grass.
When he finally made it out back, hope surged in his heart, lent him such an energy that he momentarily forgot the ache and protest of his back. His eyes scanned the green for the luminescent flower, and he found several of them near a fallen tree. He smiled in spite of himself and plucked up a few for the taking. He’d press one into her letter, save the others for the next time he wrote her. And when he’d run out of lilies, he’d draw out the likeness for one. Yes, it would be an emblem they shared, until next she ran into his arms and gave him that white, gapped tooth smile of hers, such contrast to her coffee-colored skin.
He could almost hear her whisper, “Daddy,” as he stood to his feet and righted the headlamp, heavy now that he walked above ground.
“It won’t be long, Liliana,” he said to himself as he clutched ahold of the flowers, their slight presence in his hand, a blooming promise.