Chapter 26 Continues

The story so far: An emboldened Milo takes a leadership role.

 

Milo sang a few more verses. As each chorus grew in strength and volume, the presence of the mining guards multiplied. They seemed to appear out of nowhere, materializing from the humid air like ominous spirits from beyond, each with a rifle slung against his shoulder. By the end of the song, the Oliver guards had almost surrounded the workers and their families. The crowd kept singing the chorus, long after Milo had handed the guitar to the Bulgarian, who handed it to an elderly man in the crowd, who passed it back to the owner who had supplied it. The men linked arms and fanned out their bodies to become more of a presence. The women, children, merchants and elderly men in the crowd followed suit. The Oliver guards took a step back.

Katka scanned the situation, counting heads. She jotted on her paper: “Oliver guards outnumbered at least ten to one, but every guard was armed.” Katka noticed some movement in the crowd around her. Items were being passed, from person to person, making their way up to the miners. A woman tapped Katka’s shoulder and said something in a language she did not understand. She handed Katka a copper spike. Katka passed it forward.

There were not many weapons. Mostly pipes, crude knives and arrowheads made by the Ojibwe, found by the new settlers. Not many guns. She counted. One, two, three ... Katka looked back and saw Adeline Sherek was poised like a drill sergeant on her buggy. She was back from another trip. More elderly and crippled people were being unloaded from the cart she pulled.

Katka noticed that all the passengers had blankets draped around their shoulders, even though the weather was steamy. This was peculiar. She jotted a few notes on her notepad, then edged toward them to get a closer look. She watched as the passengers, despite their alleged infirmities, assimilated quickly into the crowd. Then she heard a clunk. One of the passengers, an old man with hair the color of a snow rabbit, had dropped something. It was a revolver. The person standing next to him nonchalantly picked it up and passed it forward. She kept counting. Nine, ten, eleven.

“Katka!” Mrs. Sherek yelled when she saw her. “Come up here. We will need some precious items stored in Anton’s cellar. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“I do.” The rifles. “But I need to stay here, to cover the story. Lily is at the house.”

“Why?”

“Anton sent her back. She will help you.”

Adeline called to two boys, Andy the soda pop distributer’s twin sons. They climbed up. Then Adeline grabbed the reins, gave the horses a slight prod and took off toward the Slovenski Dom.

The miners stood behind Milo and Paul, their backs to the mine. They were arranged in makeshift rows, like ill-equipped soldiers. Their denim overalls had no protective armor and their hats were tattered and grimy. They stood close to one another. The townspeople — business owners, women and children, and land toilers alike — gathered across from them, separated by the red dirt road that led from Biwabik to the mine. To Katka, the situation was unreal. It was as if the workers were on stage and the townspeople were about to either watch a much-anticipated play or a hanging. To the east, the nine armed mine guards kept the crowd from entering the main office where the shift supervisor worked.

Katka positioned herself on the west side of the crowd, about fifty yards off, where she was slightly obscured by a giant piece of metal equipment that had been dumped outside the mine, waiting to be scrapped. She had a good view of Milo and Paul, and thought she might even be able to hear from where she was standing. She recorded a few observations in her notebook while she waited for the men to speak. “As the tension rose,” she wrote in her notebook, “the temperature followed suit.” It was downright hot, especially for the beginning of June. She dabbed her forehead with the side of her long sleeve and undid the top button on her high-necked blouse.

Her gaze kept drifting back to the small opening next to the cage, where up to five minutes would pass between miners surfacing. She observed Milo, Paul and the Bulgarian man, Andre Kristeva, watching the small opening too. Paul and Milo both held guns now, but Andre was empty-handed. She saw them whispering to each other. Every once in a while they would point to someone in the crowd or gesture toward one of the men standing behind them. Furtively, they looked into the distance.

Katka heard hoof beats from the west and looked behind her. Two men dressed in fine clothes approached the crowd. It grew quiet. Collectively, the gathering turned to stare at the new, and most unwelcome, arrivals. Katka stepped instinctively back toward the safety of the crowd. As she backed up, several people stepped forward. Katka witnessed that same eerie sense of movement. Rifles, shotguns, pipes and rocks were being shuffled from the front of the crowd where Milo, Paul, and Andre stood, to the perimeter of the crowd where the fancy-clad men approached. “Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three,” Katka said to herself. Even some of the older boys, standing next to their mothers, had guns now. “Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine.” Katka’s vantage point was close to that of the men on horseback. From the west, it clearly looked as if the entire crowd was armed. Of course, that was not true, but she knew the men were surprised. Never would these men have imagined that the thirty or forty guns visible from the west were the only guns the miners had. They just kept shifting them around.

“I ain’t afraid to shoot you!” A worker on the perimeter yelled. “Not one bit!”

The men on horses stopped. A short man, dressed in a fancy yellow suit, spoke. “Who the hell’s in charge, here? For your sake, it better not be you.”

“Think I ain’t good enough to kill the likes of you?” the miner asked. He cocked his rifle and pointed it at the man in yellow.

 

Tomorrow: Chapter 26 continues.