Chapter 5 continues

The story so far: Katka gets her first taste of the Iron Range.


The main strip was flanked by brick buildings, the windows lit with lanterns. When nightfall came in full force, the strip would be lit with electricity fueled by a generator donated ten years ago by the Oliver Mining Company. The lights would entice men from all over the Iron Range to enter the bars and brothels.

“See there,” Anton said. The names on the storefronts were painted with words written in two, sometimes three, languages. “Workers come from all over the world. Over thirty languages spoken here.” Dozens of men came in and out of the buildings. Anton tipped his hat to a few and exchanged greetings with others. A woman locked the door to a building marked Cerkvenik’s Mercantile. “Evenin’ Helen!” Anton called.

The woman turned. “Anton!” she cried. “That your niece?”

“Is there anything you don’t know, Helen?”

“If I don’t know it, it ain’t worth knowing,” she said with a smile. She waved to Katka. “Welcome, dear. Lily’s been on pins and needles awaitin’ on you. ’Spect she might have near exploded with excitement by now. You go straight home, Anton.”

“Yes, sir.” He saluted and whispered to Katka, “Biggest gossip in town, that one is. But she got a good heart.” Buggies, carts, single horses and even a few automobiles lined the dirt road outside the shops and bars. Wooden sidewalks ran the length of town, and streetcar tracks went as far west as Katka could see. They passed Crooked Neck Pete’s Scandinavian Saloon, Timo and Simo’s Saloon and Sauna, Colvin Lumber Company, Jackson Hardware and Gornik’s General Store. “School’s up on the hill,” Anton said. “Got over sixty kids now. When I got here, weren’t no more than ten.” Rows of neatly arranged houses, identical in every way, were lined up behind the shops on either side of the street. “Company houses,” her uncle said. “Leased by the mine for a king’s ransom. May not look like much, but compared to the location shacks, each house is a czar’s palace.” The town was surrounded on three sides by giant hills of red dirt. Anton turned his buggy around and headed east, toward home.

As they drove through Biwabik the second time, two men ambled out of a tavern. One was screaming at the other in a language Katka did not recognize. Anton deftly maneuvered his buggy out of their way as one man tackled the other. “Oh my!” Katka said.

“Ain’t unusual to see a skirmish there. Vince Torelli runs the worst bucket-of-blood saloon in town. Best to avoid that place.” Katka would remember that.

They drove east past the last building in town, Sherek’s Butchery and Meat Market, and kept traveling for a little more than a mile and a half. The house was on the left side of Blood Red Road. To the right was a tree-lined lake, named for the Merritt brothers who had been among the first white men to find iron hibernating under the trees and rocks.

“This is it, Katka,” Anton said. “Home sweet home.” The horses stopped in front of a tall, imposingly beautiful log house. Out back, there was a barn, a chicken coop, a pigpen, a smoke house and a small fenced field where four cows were grazing. A dense forest of pine stood majestically to the north of the farmhouse.

“Big,” Katka said, looking at the two and a half stories.

“I married above me,” Anton said, laughing. “And I tell you, Lily don’t ever let me forget it, neither. Her father made some money in the newspaper business in Minneapolis. He was a smart man, with an education. When he heard about all the prospectors coming up here, he sold his paper, rode up here with a team of sled dogs and bought up as much land as he could afford.

“Had no interest in mining. No he did not. But everyone who did had interest in him. He’d sell, on occasion. Bit by bit. Eventually, he built this house and sent for the rest of the family. Wife never forgave him for it. I tell you, she hated it here. Said she’d rather live in the prisons in Siberia. But truth be told,” he said with a wink, “her husband probably wished she did too. Before they went back to Ljubljana, they sold two thousand acres at top dollar to the Oliver Mining Company. Went back richer than before. Good for us, he left seven hundred acres and this house to me and Lily.

“This is the main entrance,” Anton said, pointing. Anton’s Slovenski Dom was hand-painted in elaborate script on the canvas awning above the door. “We have boarders and a bar. Helps us make a go of things. It’s a safe and peaceful place, mostly. Not to say we haven’t had an exception or two. Most nights, it’s calm as church. Even so, Lily wants us using the back door. Can’t say I agree, but it’s never worth it to argue with Lily. Save it for the real fuss. That might be a good tip for you, Katka.” Anton smiled. “Don’t go ruffling her feathers.” He helped her descend from the dusty carriage, and then he grabbed her trunk and swung it to the ground. “Wait here. Lily will have heard the horses. She’ll be out before I get back from the barn.”

Anton’s wife emerged seconds later, from the “proper” door, wiping her hands on her apron and smiling. Her yellow-orange hair was pulled into a bun that was perhaps tight in the morning, but had yielded to gravity. The ringlets that escaped framed her youthful face like wildflowers. This aunt, whom Katka had never seen, was at least ten years younger than Anton. She wore a simple dress, light pink and faded, with a floor-length apron stained with flour and eggs, tied high above her curvy belly. She looked to be about seven months with child.


Tomorrow: Chapter 5 continues.