The story so far: Lily heals from losing her baby; Katka takes up her pen.
Milo continued to work in the mine. He despised every minute, but he stuck with it, putting money away a little bit at a time to buy his encyclopedias. He stored the money in an envelope that he kept hidden under the mattress in his room at the Kovich house.
Although he sometimes had an ale with the other boarders at the Slovenski Dom, he mostly stayed clear of the tavern. Instead, each night after dinner, he grabbed his guitar, walked across Blood Red Road to Merritt Lake and sat by the shore, strumming out melodies.
He was propped at his usual spot, under a red pine near the rocky shore, guitar in hand, when he heard a voice. “Onionhead!”
Milo turned around quickly. In the distance, he saw Old Joe, with his stooped back, walking slowly toward him. “What you doin’ out here?” Old Joe asked. He began to cough. It was a deep-throated miner’s cough. He took off the handkerchief that was covering the bottom part of his face and blew his nose. Black mucus filled the cloth. He walked to the shore and dipped the handkerchief in the water, then wrung it out and tucked a corner into his pocket. He wiped his hands on his pants.
“Playing,” Milo said. “I like to write songs here. To clear my mind.”
Old Joe nodded. “Pretty out here.” He pulled out some tobacco and stuck a wad in his lower lip.
“You wanting something from me?” Milo asked.
“Come to get you.”
“Why for? I ain’t done nothing. I just playing my songs to the frogs and the trees.”
“Why do you come way out here to play? We got a whole lot a men who appreciate a little music.”
“Think you’re too good for us?”
“No, old man.” After a long day in the clamor of the mine, with his ears ringing from the drilling and the blasting, there was nothing he craved more than the quiet of the lake and forest.
“Come on up to the Slovenski Dom. There a grand mess of people up there.”
“I prefer to stay here. I got into some trouble at the last place.”
“I heard what happened to you at Torelli’s. Brina told me. She said you were brave and I believe her. I don’t believe the talk. Anton don’t believe it neither. Said it wouldn’t make no sense for you to avoid the bar if it was true.”
“If what was true?”
“You’re a company spy.”
“They’re everywhere you know,” Old Joe said.
“I heard,” Milo said, remembering his conversation with Johan Koski. “Just because I don’t drink at the tavern every night, they think that?”
“The Slovenski Dom ain’t just a bar. Even the Finns, they come in sometimes. Don’t see that in this town, do you?”
“I don’t see much in this town.”
“I see the magazines you reading. From Gino and Koski. Them is Wob mags. They speak the truth. You know what our people did in ’07?”
“I know some.”
“Immigrant Slavs broke the strike. Finns were in charge. Never forgave us.”
“I don’t blame those Finns.”
“Those Slavs that came over,” Old Joe said, quietly, “they were hungry just like you were. Didn’t know what they were doing, taking those jobs. All they knew was what their bellies told ’em. Ain’t no feeling stronger than hunger. Hunger changes a person.”
Old Joe looked thoughtfully at Milo. “There are no more workers coming in now, Milo. And the steel is more valuable than ever. If we strike now, there will be no scabs to break it. And we got word that the IWW will help us organize.”
Milo didn’t want any trouble. But he was intrigued. The Industrial Workers of the World was the only labor union in America that welcomed everyone, from all trades. It recruited blacks, Asians and immigrants of all kinds. It even allowed women. Their goal was for every wage laborer to unite in one big union and support each other regardless of trade. They aimed to give a voice to the poorest workers in the country, so that they could fight to earn a decent living. Members of the IWW were called Wobblies. If his father ever escaped Siberia and moved to America, Milo was fairly certain he would join the IWW.
“You think you the only miner who hates their job?” Old Joe said. “I used to be able to stand up straight. I sure weren’t born this way. The time is ripe to make some changes.”
“Is the Slovenski Dom a Wobbly tavern?”
“Who told you that?”
“Well. I stand before you now and tell you it ain’t. Anton ain’t a miner, you know. He’s a businessman. Just because there’s a Wob or two in his tavern don’t mean nothing.” Old Joe winked. “Or do it? You better come see. Make up yourn own mind. Besides, they’ll kick you out of the boarding house if you don’t at least make an effort to educate yourself. You ain’t missing Leppe, are you?”
“I sure ain’t.”
“Well, then. Giddyup.”
The two men, one young and one old, walked steadily back to the Kovich land. Old Joe pointed to Milo’s guitar. “You any good?”
“I am fair.”
“Can you read music?”
“More than words.”
“We might have a job for you.”
Tomorrow: Chapter 18 continues.