The men carrying the coffin trudged up the hill, heads bent, faces red and wet with perspiration and shoulders hunched under the weight of their burden, the steady tromp of their feet raising clouds of dust. A little crowd of mourners followed in their wake, women and children and a few old men. The harsh cry of a crow echoing like the scrape of chalk on a board grated against the wailing of the women and the crying of the children.
Below them, at the base of the hill, hovered the black shacks of the miners with the steeple of the church and the dark hulk of the breaker rising above them. Beyond, green forested hills shimmered in the hot glare of the sun. The colliery whistle blew and Father Paul Delaney wondered who was left in town to work.
Delaney leaned against the fence, his hands clutching at the iron bars, watching as they came. The hot sun beat down upon the balding dome of his head and he felt the sweat running in rivulets down his back. His hands clenched on the bars but it did not stop the shaking of his body. He glanced back over his shoulder at the little clutch of men behind him. They stood in a tight little formation, quiet save for the shuffling of their feet and the nervous smacking of the cudgels they held against open palms. Father Delaney trembled. He tried to spit but his mouth was too dry.
The cortege came up to the fence. Breathing heavily, the men sat down their burden.
“Open the gate,” McHugh said.
“I will not,” Father Delaney told him.
McHugh stepped closer, spat an amber stream of tobacco juice off to the side. “Open the fuckin’ gate, fath-er.”
“You cannot bury him here.”
“Sean, you know he’s excommunicated.”
“Open the gate!”
Father Delaney smelled a mix of beer and tobacco on the man’s breath, felt the heat of his anger. He took a little step back. The situation was even worse than the priest had imagined that morning when he’d warned his congregation of what might happen when the Mollie Maguires tried to bury McHugh’s brother, Daniel, in consecrated ground.
McHugh beckoned and another man came forward with an iron bar. He stuck the bar through the gate, heaved once and the lock snapped off. McHugh yanked the gate open, seized Father Delaney by the shoulder and thrust him out of his way. The priest stumbled forward, fell on his knees in the dirt. “C’mon,” McHugh said, stepping past him.
Father Delaney turned his head and watched as the men with the coffin and the others went around him and into the cemetery. His eyes shut and his lips moving in prayer, the priest grunted as someone kicked him hard in the side. He felt a hard stab of pain and imagined he heard an audible snap of rib and Delaney fell face down, sobbing with his mouth in the dirt.
Behind him came a rushing sound like the roar of an approaching storm as the two mobs met and clashed, cudgels and fists smacking against flesh, shouts and screams shattering the stillness that had prevailed moments before. The cortege bearing the coffin took the brunt of the first attack by defenders of the faith and it fell from their grasp, rolled down an incline and broke open. Daniel McHugh’s corpse spilled out onto the grass. A woman screamed.
Father Delaney tried to get up and the surge of the two gangs knocked him back again as they rushed at one another. He lay in the cool grass, clenching his teeth, fingering his rosary, wondering what had become of Captain Llewellyn and his men.
Those defending the sanctity of the cemetery had the advantage only for the initial assault. They were greatly outnumbered and soon fell back as the Hibernians pressed them. A few stood their ground and took their lumps despite the odds. The majority fled, licking their wounds.
Then, just as McHugh and his bullies were anticipating victory, a single shot rang out.
The roar of the mob palled.
McHugh came erect over the man he had been pummeling. Swiveling round, he flicked a clot of blood from beneath his pug nose with one finger and spat out a broken tooth.
“That’ll be about enough, lads,” came a gravelly voice they all recognized.
Father Delaney sat up, hugging his knees for support as he turned to face Captain Rhys Llewellyn and his squad of Coal and Iron Police just emerging from the woods on the perimeter of the cemetery.
Llewellyn was not a large man but he had a commanding air about him that gave him stature. Stepping forward, he fixed his gray eyes on McHugh and shook his head. “Such behavior will not do, boys,” he said.
McHugh and his boys stood glaring at the police and the remnant of Father Delaney’s defenders halted their retreat and slowly started back toward the place where he sat.
Snuffling, Delaney breathes in the scent of crushed grass, earth and blood. He notices the string of his beads has broken and they are scattered in the grass. He plucks them up, one by one.
"Should have known you’d be along sooner or later,” McHugh said as Llewellyn came up, drawn pistol in his hand. Other members of his squad leveled rifles and pistols at the Mollies.
“Defiling a cemetery,” Llewellyn said. “Does it get any worse?”
“Just tryin’ to bury a good man.”
“I think there’s some who might dispute that opinion. You boys are under arrest.”
"Disturbing the peace will do for starters.”
“Sit still fer crissake,” Doctor Baskin said, hitching the cloth strips tighter round Father Delaney’s midriff.
Delaney grimaced, holding his breath against a sharp stab as he felt his rib pop back in place. “It hurts,” he said between clenched teeth.
“You’ll live,” Baskin said. “Just be glad you don’t have to wield a pick and shovel like most of the poor bastards around here. There, I think that should hold you together till it knits.”
Baskin sat back, rubbing his palms on his woolen pant legs. He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Christ, beatin’ up on a priest! Wouldn’t see a Protestant doin’ that to his preacher,” he said.
Father Delaney stretched until he felt the nagging reminder of his injuries. He sighed. “They’re desperate men, not bad men,” he said. “They feel the church has betrayed them. Maybe it has.”
“Does it make sense to you?” the doctor asked, pulling out a blackened briar pipe from his coat pocket. “I mean, I understand they’re poor and would like more money. Who wouldn’t? But what they have is more than they would if the mines weren’t here to give them work.” He stuffed the bowl of the pipe with shag tobacco from a pouch. “Do you have a match?”
“Over there,” the priest said, pointing. “On the table by the lamp.” He waited until the doctor had lit his pipe and returned to his seat. Then: “You know as well as me, their lives are mean and tragic. They live in squalor, bound to the owners as much as a black man in the south before the war.”
“It’s not the same,” argued the doctor. “The owners look after them. They pay a decent wage. They provide housing. It’s the unions have stirred up discontent.”
“Aah, you’re daft, man! Have they bought you as well that you can not see their plight? These rich men sit off in their mansions away from this blighted land. They get fat on the toil of these poor souls while their agents do the dirty work.”
“I think we both need a good stiff drink to induce talk of more pleasant subjects. Do you have a bottle?” the doctor asked. “Didn’t your own bishop speak out against the doings of these Mollies? Wasn’t it him what said to excommunicate them.”
Delaney squirmed in his chair. The acrid smoke from Baskin’s pipe burned his eyes. His bruises pained him and he didn’t want to talk any more to this fool.
“Do you have anything to drink?”
Father put his hands on the arms of the chair and pushed himself up. The man showed no inclination to leave. If he had to abide his company, he might as well drink. Annoyed, he voiced an opinion previously only thought. “Bishop Wood is English and he was born a Protestant.” Delaney regretted the words as soon as he had said them. Still, he mused as he procured a bottle from his closet, a few drinks and this fool won’t remember what’s been said.
He poured two glasses of whiskey, handed one to the doctor and resumed his seat. Nursing his drink, Father Delaney recalled the controversy stirred when James Frederic Wood, Bishop of Philadelphia, first spoke out against the Mollies in 1864 and how his pastoral letter was taken by many later as authority to excommunicate those involved in such secret organizations. Some who opposed such drastic measures believed Bishop Wood conspired with the hated Franklin B. Gowen, the Caesar of the coal lands.
“Give you credit for one thing,” Doctor Baskin said, slouching in his chair and holding his half empty glass up to the light, “you appreciate good whiskey. Wouldn’t get any this quality from the Congregationalist preacher. Hell, wouldn’t get no whiskey at all from him.” And he laughed.
“Maybe you wouldn’t have had this trouble today if you hadn’t excommunicated Danny McHugh for bein’ a Mollie,” Baskin said.
“I didn’t do it because of that,” Delaney said. “It was his criminal activities got him excommunicated.”
“Same thing, haint it? No offense to your origins, but it seems to me these Irish hooligans and their secret organization are responsible for all the criminal activities around here.”