Chapter 26 continues

The story so far: Tensions rise; threats are exchanged.

 

The workers began to chant. “Strike! Strike! Strike!”

A child threw a rock that grazed the top of Turner’s forehead. “Blazes!” he yelled. “One of those fresh-off-the-boats tried to kill me!” He aimed his pistol at Andre’s head.

At least fifteen men holding weapons stepped forward and quickly surrounded the men on horseback. They withdrew their guns and held them at their sides.

“I don’t want them to kill you,” Andre said, quietly. “If you value your life at all, I suggest you drop your weapons and hold your hands in the air.”

Stone and Turner said nothing. Then Stone dropped his gun and held first one, then the other hand in the air. “Both of you,” Milo said. When Turner also raised his hands, the workers chanted again: “Strike! Strike! Strike!”

Paul motioned for the crowd to be silent. Someone moved the sugar crate and propped it in front of him. He stood on it. Before he spoke, Katka noticed that certain men were being called out from the crowd. They were interpreters. Paul waited until five men came forward. Then he began to speak, in English. The speech was not long, but he paused after each sentence, allowing his words to be translated into Croatian, Slovenian, Swedish, Finnish, Italian and Norwegian.

“This robber baron,” he yelled, pointing to Mr. Stone, “whose company earned over two million dollars in profits last year, has treated you like animals, when in fact, you are men. He has let your children go days without food while you waited for that payday that only comes once a month. He has housed you in tin shacks with leaky roofs. He has forced you to work double shifts, with no extra pay, so he can keep up with demand for the ore.”

Katka knew this was true. At the boarding house, it was not unusual for a miner to miss two, possibly three, meals and then come home to fall into bed, dog tired. Some miners sought out the extra shifts. But if a miner refused, he was fired on the spot. If he quit or was fired before payday, he was not compensated for previous days worked.

Paul continued. “Mr. Stone lines his pockets with gold. Mr. Stone lives in a fancy house. Mr. Stone has servants who wait on his wife and daughters. I ask you, who waits on your wife? Who waits on your daughters? He enjoys every luxury imaginable. Why? Because he works?”

“No!”

“In truth, he does work. But does he work harder than you? Why does he earn fifty times your salary? He profits from your labor. I ask you, do you profit from his?”

“Not me!” someone shouted. “I sure don’t.”

“He bought the mine. It is fair that he get back his investment. We are not disputing that. But he is filthy rich, while you … you are filthy and poor. It is not greed to ask to be paid fairly for the work you do. It is not greed to ask for two days off per week, so that your bloody knees can scab over and your back can get a rest. It is not greed to ask him to share more profits with those who do the work that make him rich.”

“Lynch him!” Someone yelled.

“No!” Paul yelled.

Turner and Stone exchanged terrified glances. “Let us go,” Turner said.

“Are you afraid?” Milo said. “No need. We seek no violent activity. No one will harm you. We will not deprive you of your lives. Instead, we will take from you the only leverage we have: our bodies. We will not work another day under these circumstances. You should stay. You have work to do. Who’s going to earn your profits? Stone, you can be a mucker! Sheriff Turner, you can light the dynamite without a spotter. Stone’s wife can pick up after the blind mules!”

“Strike! Strike! Strike!”

Andre gathered a small group of armed men around him and gave what appeared to Katka to be instructions. Then he stood up and yelled to the crowd. “We three will lead. The rest of you workers will follow. We will leave these cowards in peace. We wish no violence, for they are the violent ones, not us. Do not bring your weapons!”

“No weapons?” Doubt reverberated in the mutterings of the crowd.

“Show the courage they lack. Keep your hands in your pockets and shame the company!” This mantra was translated many times. Katka saw people in the crowd nodding, slowly understanding the logic behind it. Katka wrote it down and underlined it. “Keep your hands in your pockets and shame the company.”

Andre, Paul and Milo began to walk, slowly. The other laborers, still dirty from working underground, fell in line behind them, loosely organized in rows of three or four. Those who had weapons passed them back to the crowd. As they walked by the Oliver men, Katka noticed that one or two men spit at the ground, but all of them kept their hands at their sides.

Katka and the other townspeople lined the two sides of the street. Because it was hot, some of the men discarded the warm, long-sleeved shirts they were wearing under their overalls and handed them to their wives. The wives took them, along with candles, matches and other items the men wanted held for safekeeping. The women also held the weapons. “It was a parade like no other,” Katka wrote.

 

Tomorrow: Chapter 26 continues.