The Uninvited Wedding Guests

The day started as most summer days high in the Elk Mountains. The early hours featured blazing sun, then sparse clouds arrived for lunch. Today was the day that Rudy Triglavic would marry Irene Sulek. Relatives from Baldwin, Pittsburgh, Elkton and parents from Croatia and Slovenia were in town. The night before was filled with merry making and the following morning everyone was moving slow.

At 1 pm the families met at Queen of All Saints for the ceremony, the I dos and the you dos and then the rice…and another party. The reception was held at the home of Hugo Prespa, superintendent at the Daisy Mine. Guests included miners and their families from the Keystone, the Standard, Jokerville and Smith Hill Mines. Although competitive underground and in the taverns (with names like the Bucket of Blood Saloon and Kochevar’s) most were having a great time listening to polkas, to tunes on the gusle. They stopped mid-sentence to watch as the bride and groom engaged in the traditional wedding dance. There was prase roasting on hot ash, cevapcici and culbastija and lots of wine. Thoughts of the Sava ran through the heads of the more recent immigrants to North America.

It was quite the scene that July day in 1899, just months before 1900 would come calling. Rudy Triglavic had arrived in Crested Butte three years before. He was a quiet man who worked hard. His family ties to the old country had been tarnished by political conflict. In a country divided into distinct regions ruled by the Byzantines, the Austrians, then by the Ottoman Turks it was not hard to make enemies. The Triglavic family had been staunch supporters of Francis Joseph in the hopes that the Austrians would create a Slavic nation like the Magyars of Hungary had won some years before.

Josip Triglavic, Rudy’s father, had even talked of leaving Slovenia. Things were not so good there for the supporters of the Hapsburgs in the dawn of nationalism. The anarchists were busy, the climate was ripe for what would be World War I. Josip had been mocked by fellow villagers because he insisted that the Austrian monarchy should be recognized as legitimate rulers of his country. There were threats on his life and on the life of his son, Rudy, who had served in Italy with the army and had even attended the university at Innsbruck. When Rudy left Europe, rumors were the residue. Had he informed on a Croatian nationalist in Zagreb? Someone had. Rudy was gone. He was a monarchist. Conclusions were drawn.

A contingent of nationalists, comprised of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes had sought to throw off the Hapsburg yoke and create a new country. They were led by a man named Draza Petrinja, a charismatic Croat from Dalmatia. Seeking to take advantage of the weaknesses of the Austrians, who had recently been defeated by the Prussians, the French and the Sardinians, the movement flourished. Along the Adriatic, especially in cities like Trieste, nationalists were openly hostile to anything Austrian. With promises of aid from Italy, they plotted a full scale revolt in the fall of 1896. Suddenly, in August, without further provocation, Austrian troops swarmed along the coastline forcing all of Dalmatia to heel. Petrinja and others were arrested and imprisoned in Carinthia. The revolt was crushed.

The entire Triglavic family, along with other supporters of the Hapsburgs, was suspect. People had looked for a scapegoat. But that was years ago. Surely the family could find reprieve from old world struggles in the Rockies.

Two cold men stood at the fringe of the reception. Each had a glass of wine in his hand. They smiled cordially although nobody knew them. Each family thought the two were guests of the other. Maybe they were friends of the bride from Ljubljana, where many Suleks still lived. Maybe they worked in the mines. Were they cousins from Pueblo? Maybe they were the caterers. At any rate, they spoke the right language and were welcomed graciously by both families.

“Which one is he?” whispered the taller of the two men.

“I can’t tell from this photograph,” was the answer. “We’ll have to wait him out. Someone will drop his name, then we’ll do our business and be gone.”

“Watch the wine,” smiled the first. “We don’t want to miss. Let’s just take it slow and strike when the party is in full swing. Surprise is our best weapon. It shouldn’t be long before most of the men are well on their way to a good drunk.”

The party went on all afternoon with much dancing and drinking. Then, at about 4:30 there was a toast from the father of the bride, Amill Sulek. The cake was cut. The band played on. It was at that moment that the two intruders first realized which guest was Rudy Triglavic.

“He’s the groom!” gulped the first. “He’s the damn groom. They didn’t say anything about shooting a groom…”

“Just relax,” whispered the second man, biting down on his lower lip then swallowing a healthy slug of wine. “We haven’t made ourselves known and there’s still time to finish our business. It’s not like we’re going to shoot the traitor at the altar.”

Both men stood silently, confused as to what action to take. This turnabout had taken the wind out of their assassin sails. They had no way to consult with the people who had sent them all this way to kill Rudy Triglavic. The powers in Dalmatia had no way to know they had sent two executioners to dust off a bridegroom.

“We can’t just leave,” offered the second gunman. “If we go back without completing our mission we could end up dead too. You know how much they want this Triglavic. We have no choice. We have to give them their pound of flesh, satisfy the vengeance.”

The assassins took a seat, smiled sweetly to someone’s grandmother and were presented with a piece of wedding cake. They ate quietly until the band struck up another polka.

“The powers back home want revenge,” started the first man. “They order us to retaliate for what was a betrayal. They give us steamship passage and pistols. They give us a picture…It doesn’t even look like this Triglavic. They tell us to shoot him. They didn’t say it would be on his wedding day.”

The second gunman smiled, “They wouldn’t know the bridegroom from Archduke Ferdinand. They just want vindication. All we have to do is provide them with a body. I’m not about to shoot the groom. What do you think?”

After pushing the last piece of cake into his mouth the first man sighed, “Then let’s give them one.”

After further consultation the two decided that they would pick out an acceptable victim, one different from the groom. They scanned the reception looking for the proper target. After several circles the taller man nudged the other and gestured toward an irascible crank of a man who was disrupting his corner of the festivities by arguing with his wife.

“He’s just about the same size,” quipped one of the gunmen.

“Cantankerous looking fellow,” winked the other. “Who’s gonna miss him.”

The two plotted the attack and their escape as the wedding party grew more merry. They wanted to wait until they had a clear shot, for the right time. When several of the ladies herded the children into a nearby pasture for games, they drew their pistols and fired. At first the party was not interrupted. The guests turned and thought the noise was part of the celebration. When the victim fell to the ground it became apparent that something was very wrong.

The assailants calmly holstered their pistols and disappeared as the crowd gathered around the mark, who was propped up on one elbow, talking to himself. A doctor was summoned and the victim was pronounced quite healthy with the exception of a bullet wound in the forearm and a bump on the head, suffered in the fall.

“Did we get him?” said the first man to the second as they rode furiously up Kebler.

“I aimed low, you aimed high. He must be dead,” said the second.

*       *       *       *       *

Weeks later the two gunmen returned to Dalmatia and announced that they had concluded the business at hand. Everyone seemed satisfied that a score had been settled. There would be more revolts, more trouble in the Balkans, a World War to distract them. The matter was considered settled.

Five months later as winter began its occupation of the East River Valley the Triglavic family received a small card. Josip, who had stayed in the United States to avoid the troubles in his country and to see his grandchildren born, opened the letter. He didn’t recognize the handwriting or the first names on the card.

“It says these people here are sorry for interrupting the wedding reception,” he frowned. “Do you really think it’s from the same men who shot your cousin in the arm? Why would they send a sympathy card? They never even brought a gift.”

– Rex Montaleone


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