Chapter 19 Continues

The story so far: The accident whistle blows.

 

When the whistle blew, all Iron Rangers within hearing distance froze, holding their breath for only as long as it took to recognize the deafening sound. Soon, the church bells began to toll; their solemn chime carried fear and despair to the far reaches of town, past the mine locations to those who could not hear the whistle. The women ran to the mine, dragging small children behind them. The schoolteacher tried to keep the children inside, attempting to block the exit with her body, but she could not. The older children got through first, followed by the little ones. Finally, she too walked slowly toward the mine. When she arrived, Katka and Lily were already there.

The townsfolk watched as the body of a Latvian miner was carried out and laid gingerly on the hard red ground. Next, the limp body of an Italian worker was brought up. Both were dead. Two other men, panting, muddy and sopping wet, followed closely behind.

A murmur, like a ground vibration, flowed from the front of the crowd to the back. The names of the victims floated on the vibration. As the names were recognized, women sighed, unconsciously, with relief. “Not mine,” they thought. “My husband, my brother, my cousin, my papa — he is safe.”

The Latvian was unmarried, alone, with no family here to mourn his passing. The Italian had a brother who worked at the Sparta mine, a few miles away.

The foreman appeared and glanced at the dead bodies. He addressed the two men who had surfaced alive. “Dead?” he asked.

“I told you that ceiling weren’t safe!” one of the two survivors shouted. His entire body was caked with slick mud. A woman handed him a handkerchief and he wiped his face.

The foreman tried to calm him down. “Nobody is more sorry about this than me,” he said. “Horrible accident.” And he did look sorry, Katka thought.

The other miners were slowly coming out of the mine. Some had come up the cage; others had crawled up the tunnels via ladders.

“Accident, it weren’t,” the Finn said calmly. “Bloody murder, it is. I tell you and I tell you, the ceiling is leaking water. I tell you yesterday, I tell you this morning.” He watched as the crowd gathered, holding a collective breath of anger and despair. The survivor began to scream. “I say, ‘not safe, not safe, not safe!’ Do he care? He don’t give a damn!”

The men and women in the crowd encouraged him. “You tell him Aino!” Somebody yelled.

“Now two good men are dead. And Sam and me, barely alive, we are. I told you there’d be a mud run, but you don’t listen. There’s blood on your hands.”

The foreman’s face went ashen. The men began to advance toward him. As they stepped forward, the miners began to chant, “Murder, murder, murder!”

Some of the miners were clutching their pick-axes. Others bent down, grabbed some rocks and continued walking toward the foreman. “Murder, murder …”

“Oh God,” the schoolteacher said to Lily and Katka. “A lynching. We have to get the children out of here.”

Katka made a move to help, but Lily clutched her arm.

“Let them watch,” Lily said. “Let them see how brave their papas are.”

“There’s nothing brave about a mob! Are you mad?” The teacher tried to corral the children. She yelled for them to follow her back to the schoolhouse, but her calling was drowned out by the chanting. Many of the children had found their mothers anyway, among the crowd. The mothers and children took up the chant. “Murder, murder, murder!”

Someone threw a rock at the foreman. It hit him hard, on the forehead, and he lurched back but did not fall. “I didn’t do nothing!” he yelled. “I was just following orders!”

“Murderer!”

Another rock landed squarely on his jaw and blood seeped slowly out of his mouth.

“We should stop this,” Katka said. “That man didn’t do anything.”

“Exactly,” Lily said. “He didn’t do anything. Don’t you fathom it, Katka? They care more about the dollar than the lives of those two men. It has to change.”

A small child threw another rock and missed. Within seconds, rocks were being hurled from all directions. The miners were throwing rocks. The women. The children. The foreman fell to his knees just as rifle shots rang out.

Katka and Lily backed up. They saw eight men approach on horseback. The man in front fired his rifle into the air. They galloped quickly to the side of the foreman. One of the managers dismounted and grabbed the wounded foreman, hoisting him onto the horse. The rest of the managers spread out, pointing their rifles at the crowd. Following closely behind was Sheriff Turner.

 

Tomorrow: Chapter 19 continues.