Chapter 25 continues
The story so far: The accident whistle blows again.
They heard the sound of horses approaching, slowly, from behind them, heading toward town. They moved to the side of the road and turned to see who was coming. Adeline Sherek, the midwife, was at the reins. She waved broadly with one hand. She was pulling a cart full of men and women, all of them old, pregnant or lame. The cart slowed to a stop. “You heard the whistle?” Mrs. Sherek asked gravely.
The women nodded. “Lily, get in the buggy. Kat, sorry puddin’ pie. You’ll have to walk. I’m only carting around those who cannot run.”
“Run?” Katka asked mortified. “Was it a cave-in?”
“What could be …?”
“We got two more stops. Now help your teta get up here.”
When Mrs. Sherek was gone, Katka ran toward Biwabik and to the St. James mine. When she reached the creek, she turned off the main road and into company property. She ran through a field, hiking up her skirts to increase her speed.
When Katka arrived at the mine, overheated and out of breath, more than five hundred people had gathered outside the entrance. Everyone was talking at once, but even so, the town seemed eerily quiet. She looked around, trying to decipher what was so different. Then it dawned on her. There were no tractors hauling, no ore carts creaking, no trains moving. There were no blasts, no dull thuds of axe hitting rock. The silence was unsettling. Although it was unseasonably warm, Katka shivered. Something terrible was about to happen.
Katka inched her way into the crowd. The men were at the front and the women and children were behind them, in the perimeter. Katka felt someone squeeze her shoulder. It was Helen Cerkvenik, from the Mercantile. “Katka!” she said. “I couldn’t get away from the store until just now. I had to lock everything up and then I came quick as I could. What happened?”
“Just got here myself.”
“Milo started it,” another voice said. It was Ana Zalar, from the Belgrade location. She had a six-year-old boy at her side and a little girl in her arms.
“Milo?” Katka repeated. “Is he … safe?”
Ana pointed toward the front of the crowd. “I tried to get him, dress the wounds, you know? But they tell me he ain’t hurt that bad. What that mean, ‘ain’t hurt that bad?’ Here, everything is badder than people say. But what do I know? The mens, they formed a circle around him, see? To keep him protectioned, they say.”
“What did he do, Ana?”
“Story goes, Milo takes one look at his paycheck, he does. And there ain’t hardly nothing left, after supplies and whatnot. He curses the whole lot of them. Walks out all in a huff. As he walked out, he starts calling for the others to join him.”
“And?” Katka asked, impatiently.
“You got eyes,” Ana said. “Look at ’em all.”
A woman with dark hair joined the conversation. “How do you know this, Mrs. Zalar?”
“My husband. Forgot his lunch for second day in a row. Yesterday, he went hungry and was mad as hell. Tells me, ‘Ana, if your man forget his lunch, it your job to bring it.’ I tell him it his job to remember it, mine to pack it. But he real particular. Not hisself. He talk to me like bringing his lunch is most important thing. ‘Lunch is at 11:15 sharp,’ Leo, he tells me. ‘You be there 11 a.m. and argue with the man in the front room until they agree to bring it to me. Raise Cain or they won’t do nothing but eat it themselves. If the baby cries, no problem.’
“Sure enough. Today. He forgets his lunch again, like it was on purpose. I had the clothes to wash, the wood to chop. But I brung it to him anyway and I did as he said. I argues with that foreman. Say I’m not going nowhere till my man gets his lunch. While we are arguing, another man, he come running in. Say a miner’s making trouble. The foreman is annoyed, he is. ‘Fire him,’ he says. ‘Can’t,’ the man said. ‘He already quit. But he’s causing a bloody stink.’ Foreman says, ‘Fine. Take Davenport’s men. Take care of it and get back to work.’ After that, the foreman made us leave. But I sensed something big. I tell Danko here, ‘let’s just wait out here a spell.’ Sure enough, not ten minutes later the first crew of ’em is coming out the door, singing those Wobbly songs. When Milo and his crew get up to the cage opening, a few mining guards were waiting for him. How many? I don’t know. I heard the scuffle. There was yelling and punching. But the miners come out okay. Bloody, but all of ’ems, they walking. They singing something. What it is, ‘Solidarity forever … the union make us strong.’ The mens, they linked arms and walked out of the mine together. A little banged up, but like I say, walking.”
“How did the rest of the men get out?” Katka asked.
“Pretty soon, the next group of men exited from the cage, almost twenty-five crammed in like sardines. The Oliver men sent some more guards with guns, but they were outnumbered. A few of the miners got hit with the butts of rifles, but there were too many men to stop. They kept coming. My Leo was one of the first out. Not hurt a bit. They’ve been filing out ever since.”
“Why didn’t they shut the cage down?” Katka asked.
“They did. See? You can’t hear it now. But a lot of men got out first. The rest of them, they are climbing out on foot. Up the ladders. See the doors? Men still coming out. Milo and his men are waiting for them. Then, I think, he will speak.”
“Like I say, he start it. His ma and ata, they were great leaders in our country. Made many sacrifices for the people. Tried to change things. Milo gots it in his blood whether he want it or not.”
Tomorrow: Chapter 25 continues.