When he emerged from underground after hours of toil, David couldn’t deny the protest of his back any longer. But two years over thirty, his body gave him pain that he didn’t think he’d feel until he was 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 from the brisk mountain air. He shook his head. He’d long since realized the opportunity to mine in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t as promising as the earnest labor recruiter had said when they’d shaken hands in Illinois.
He’d listened along with hundreds of other colored men to Mr. Simonson. The recruiter knew something of the grit and perseverance required of them. Mr Simonson had once been a slave. David endured the rattling ride over the mountains in the cattle cars with other hopeful miners; it was their arrival in Montana that snuffed out his hopes. For it was there he was told that he wasn’t a mere mining recruit: he was a strikebreaker. Pinkerton guards set foot in the cattle cars, and the laughter and the optimism shared by the men silenced like a canary down the pit. And yet, what good was there in turning back to mediocre labor or sharecropping?
David winced at the memories of his reception to the region: the striking miners who chased their train to the outskirts of Roslyn, wielding their rifles even as the Pinkerton guards lent the colored men protection. Their first weeks spent in shanties instead of homes with running water or pot-bellied stoves. The day the strikers tied the mine superintendent to the train tracks and left him to die. The mercy of one miner who untied the ropes at the last minute. David blinked. The sun had long since slipped into its pocket in the evergreens, but there was nothing so void of light as the underground. He breathed the cool, cleansing mountain air again, and his thoughts turned to them: his beautiful Georgina. Precious 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, even though most of the other wives and children touched 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 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 voice. “David Ward, my man. What do you say about heading over to Simonson’s Club and ordering up a whiskey?”
He turned to see the form of a large man. Were it not for the low, brazen quality of his 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 several washes wouldn’t render them clean. Even his hat was dented, marred with dust. David imagined he looked the same. David tried to soften the aggression in his eyes, but his friend realized he’d startled him and took a step back.
Gerald let out his breath, watched the white plume spiral around him. “Let’s go; the first drink’s on me.”
He smiled sadly and shook his head. “Not tonight…” Sensing his friend’s disappointment, he said, “Maybe after tomorrow’s shift…I want to finish a letter to my daughter, make sure it’s sent out tomorrow…”
Realizing 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 swallowed. “Liliana,” he said, grateful that the darkening sky hid his 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.”
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 out this early in the season. Lilies. Thought about picking some for the kitchen, but I let them be…”
David smiled, “I’ll take a look. See you tomorrow, Gerald." He turned on his headlamp as he reached the church property.
A lump rose in his throat. He didn’t take it as happenstance that Gerald mentioned the unexpected lilies he’d found.. When he finally made it out back, he forgot the protest of his back. He scanned the still ground for the flower, and immediately saw several of them near a fallen tree. He’d heard “lily” and expected to find them white and delicate. But the ones he beheld weren’t that variety. Yet these were equally beautiful in their orange-red boldness. Their glory. He smiled in spite of himself and plucked a few. He’d press one into her letter, save the others for the next time he wrote her. Yes, it would be something they shared, until next she ran into his arms and gave him that white, gapped tooth smile of hers. 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 a hold of the flowers, their slight presence a blooming promise.