He sighed. From below, the noises of the bar drifted up to them muffled by the floorboards, by the wool rug that lay, heavy and dusty, against the floor. He smiled, his hand playing at hers. She cast a furtive glance at the door before looking back at him and smiling faintly, nervously.
“Are you all right?” he asked quietly, his hand hesitating, nearly withdrawing.
“Fine,” she smiled. Her smile flickered slightly. “Are you–”
“Fine,” he said quickly. He felt his cheeks flush as the heat rushed into them. “I hope this is all right.” He hesitated, glancing down at her small, slender hand.
“Fine,” she said again.
On the other side of the room, a needle scratched its way across the grooves of a phonograph record. The rasping static was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a piano followed by a singular voice. His smile widened and his hand tightened around hers as the tenor captured within the grooves of the record began to sing.
I hear you calling me
you’ve called me when the moon had a veil of light
before I went from you into the night
do you remember?
back to you
for one last kiss
beneath the kind stars’ light…..
“What do you suppose he’s doing up there?” Jessup asked as he turned from the bar, picking up a shot of whiskey and tipping it back quickly. His companion laughed quietly.
“Probably the same as he always does,” Tin replied, smiling, as he turned back to the bar and put up a finger, signaling his readiness for another shot. His gaze wandered unsteadily up toward the clock above the bar. “But he’d better come down soon. We need to get back before we’re missed.”
Jessup laughed mirthlessly. “They don’t own us, Tin.”
Tin’s fingers closed around the shot glass and he hesitated before he drew it toward him and off the bar. “Don’t they, Jess?”
Jessup’s eyes darkened. “No, boss” he growled suddenly.
The barmaid drew back abruptly, the smile slipping from her face as Jessup continued to glare at Tin. Tin’s eyes softened first. “They don’t own you,” he agreed quietly. He smiled briefly at the barmaid and nodded her away.
Jessup nodded brusquely and looked away. “He’d better get a move on.”
“I miss you,” he said quietly, hesitating before pressing her soft hand more firmly into his work-roughened hand. He smiled almost apologetically.
Jenny let herself smile at the thought, but it faded into the reality. “I miss you, too.”
Toby felt his heartbeat quicken at the words. He barely dared to breathe. “I–”
Toby hesitated as the sound of footfalls against the floorboards in the hallway reached his ears. His hand instinctively tightened around hers. It was her turn to smile apologetically.
“That’s probably your friends,” she said simply, not withdrawing her hand. “It’s getting quite late.”
“I know,” he admitted, not withdrawing his hand. “Jenny.” He smiled, his voice wrapping affection around her name. She smiled. “I don’t know when I’ll be back,” he continued. “We’re headed up into the South Adit in the morning.”
Jenny nodded. “Be careful.”
Toby smiled. He knew she meant it.
The footfalls creaked unsteadily against the hallway boards. The sound stopped before the door. Toby looked down at the slender hand he held and sighed. Jenny watched as he lifted her hand and gently kissed it. The rasp of his whiskers tingled against the back of her hand. He drew back, his blue eyes smiling sadly at her. “I love you,” he offered quietly.
Jenny hesitated as he looked expectantly at her. She let herself smile.
“You don’t have to say it,” he started.
“I love you, too,” she said quietly.
Toby rose and moved toward the chair in the room, pulling his coat from the back of it and slipping it on before turning back to her. “I’ll see you soon.”
She nodded. “Soon.”
Toby cast Jenny one last smile that slipped suddenly as the sound of a hand against the door handle startled him from his thoughts. Toby turned and moved quickly toward the door as it opened abruptly. A man he recognized only in passing stood there, obviously drunk, unsteady on his feet. He swayed slightly as his eyes attempted to focus on the young man who stood in front of him. He leered as his gaze switched back to Jenny.
“I don’t mind dressed neither, boy,” he jeered as he leaned heavily on the jamb. Toby stiffened suddenly, attempting to will his feet to walk from the room. “You done then?”
Toby felt his guts twist as the man pushed by him into the room. Toby’s hand closed on the door handle as he heard the sound of coin being slapped against the top of the bureau. The man’s laugh was mirthless as his hands went for his belt. “Flip over there, girlie, and hold on,” he laughed drunkenly as he pushed down his pants and stumbled toward her.
Toby walked quickly from the room, pulling the door closed quickly behind him. The sound of the headboard banging against the wall punctuated by the man’s insistent groans followed Toby down the hallway, down the steps back to the bar.
Tin slapped at Jessup’s shoulder as Toby descended the stairs quickly, distractedly, and did not stop in the bar, but pushed through into the frosty night. Jessup swore softly under his breath as he quickly downed the last shot and grabbed up his coat, swinging his arms through it before he fished out some coin and slapped it down beside his glass. He strode quickly from the bar.
“Toby!” Tin started, the suddenly cold air tearing momentarily at the warmth of his whiskey-soaked throat. He cleared his throat with a cough. “Toby!” he barked again as he jogged to catch up to the younger man who continued to stride away from him, up the dirt road that would take him out of Brennan. Tin finally caught Toby and took him by the arm, turning him. Toby looked away. Tin’s eyes softened. “Son of a bitch, boy,” he said, his voice softening, his breath condensing in the cold December chill. Toby shook his head and tried to shrug his arm from Tin’s grasp.
“Don’t, boss,” he said quietly with a shake of his head.
Jessup slowed his pace as he reached the two men, his dark brown eyes switching between them. He set his teeth. “Why you do that, boy?” Jessup growled not unkindly. He shook his head. “What the hell you thinkin’?” Jessup did not shrink as Tin shot him a warning look.
“I think a lot of things,” Toby replied evasively as he looked away from Jessup.
“Granted,” Jessup continued recklessly, “Jenny’s the prettiest two dollar whore in Brennan, but, Tob, she’s still–”
“Shut it, Jess,” Tin said abruptly.
“What the hell does he expect?” Jessup persisted, gesturing to Toby with a wave of his hand. “That’s three months in a row. What the hell you doin’ up there with her?”
“Just,” Toby started and bowed his head. “Just talkin’.”
Jessup drew back, his eyes widening. “You’re payin’ to sit and talk to a–”
“Beautiful girl,” Toby cut across Jessup harshly. “I sit and talk to a beautiful girl.” Tin looked sadly at Toby as he turned away and began to walk down the street, dodging frozen puddles and stuffing his over-cold hands into his coat pockets as he shuffled away.
Jessup opened his mouth to speak, but the look on Tin’s face silenced him immediately. Jessup bit his lip and followed Tin and Toby.
“Soul of a poet,” Tin said conversationally as he fell into step beside Toby.
Toby did not reply, but kept walking, stepping gingerly over the train rail as they reached the edge of Brennan and the roadbed became the train bed that would take them up toward the Kupfer Mine.
“At least we don’t have to worry about bears in December,” Tin continued, his voice still light and conversational as he and Jessup matched Toby’s steps. Together, they began to walk from tie to tie as the rail began to climb higher away from Brennan.
This last part of the rail truly was the last part of the rail in that part of the country. The railroad ran from the mine’s processing mill, past the town of Brennan with its bars and brothels, along the bluff above the river until it reached the Copper River where it dove south toward the coast. Trains ran infrequently in the winter, owing to the trouble the crews had had keeping the line clear of avalanches.
Train schedules, however, were of little consequence to the three men who continued to climb the grade back to the company town of Kupfer, Alaska. They worked the mill, worked the mines. Tin was the crew boss, Jessup and Toby were his men, along with five others. They would be heading up into the South Adit the next morning, one of the hardest and most remote areas of the mining landscape. The prospect of an hours’ long ride in an ore bucket, the preparations once they had reached the Upper Ridge Bunkhouse, and the actual travel to South Adit was enough to send the five to bed early, to contemplate the biting cold of winter mining in interior Alaska.
“Never worried about bears back in St. Louis,” Jessup offered gruffly for lack of anything else to say. He fell silent as he matched Toby’s and Tin’s steps. Jessup had been in Alaska a scant six months, drawn, as they had all been drawn, by the lure of what was spoken of as easy money in the Lower 48. A train from St. Louis and a packet from Seattle had dumped William Jessup unceremoniously upon the docks at Cordova where he found passage on the train to Kupfer. What he found at the end of the rail in 1913 had astounded him. A massive company town, complete with a store, bunkhouses, a recreational hall, a hospital, and more, rose out of the Alaskan wilderness. It was a place bustling with men, chaotic and controlled, a pure company town run by company men for their employers far away on the East Coast of the United States. No booze, no women, save for the management wives, no children, save for the management children, a town of men and dirt, diggings and copper. The first thing that had struck Jessup was the noise, the ceaseless grinding of the concentration mill’s machinery, the ball mills, the shaker tables, they ran 24 hours a day and the noise was relentless. Jessup’s ears rang still in the silence as he and his companions had made their way toward Brennan.
But, as Kupfer was a company town, it benefited the company to have a work force confined to the company town. Jessup felt his lip twist into a wry smile. A full 50% of his wages were paid in scrip, only good at the company store. The other 50% were subject to what the company deemed “fees.” Fees for his food, his clothing, his gear, his kit, his housing. Everything had some sort of fee attached. The money he was able to send home to his wife and children back in St. Louis was precious little, hardly the untold wealth he’d been promised by those in the Lower 48 who recruited for willing souls.
Tin smiled. He had been a company man for two years. That fact alone made Tin an anomaly in the company, which saw nearly 110% of its workforce turn over annually. Most lasted no more than a few months, but Tin had outlasted most; he could even claim that he had outlasted some of the higher level bosses. His stability, his wit, and his brains had won him the respect of the supervisors. His easy-going nature had won him the praise of the bosses’ children, and his almost genteel deference had won him the adoration of the bosses’ wives.
Tin hailed from somewhere in Minnesota. It was the only point of origin he offered, so confident in the obscurity of the place that he had never bothered to name it. His grey eyes were still bright, his blond hair untouched by grey. He had a quick answer to those who wondered at this miracle of youthfulness–that the local spring in Brennan had the power of the Fountain of Youth, and he always made a point of visiting the pool whenever his feet could take him the five miles down the tracks from Kupfer to Brennan.
Tin cast a furtive glance at Toby. Toby Caddock had been a company man for four months, having arrived in the relative warmth and light of August. Tin had watched the younger man’s mood shift with the light, shift with the cold, begin to shift as the isolation and relative loneliness of the town began to bear down upon him. Toby had claimed his hometown as Grand Junction, Colorado. He was no stranger to starkly beautiful landscapes, but Tin realized quickly that he was a stranger to sub-Arctic cold and the changes shifts in light wrought in a man. Toby had no wife nor children at home awaiting his pay. He was a man on his own, looking for a bit of adventure before deciding to settle down.
Three months earlier, Tin had decided to take Toby into his confidence, to invite him along on his and Jessup’s clandestine trip down to Brennan. It was there, that night, in the Rosewood Bar that Toby had first seen Jenny. Tin bowed his head and stepped around a spike that protruded from one of the ties. He sighed. Toby had been smitten immediately by Jenny. Tin’s lip twisted. Only the hardest man or a right son of a bitch would not have been smitten immediately by Jenny. She was willowy thin, with strikingly auburn hair and eyes the color of jade. Her voice, when she laughed, which was often around the men in the bar, was light and melodic. Toby had not gone up to her rooms that first night. He had sat away from the circle of men who laughed with her, who pinched at her, who gave her all their attentions. No. Not Toby.
Three weeks later, with coin warm in their pockets, the three had ventured down to the Rosewood Bar again. Once more, Jessup and Tin had consoled themselves in a shared bottle of whiskey while Toby had sat apart from them, his eyes only on Jenny. One of the men left her side, and Jenny sat, looking furtively around the bar, as she sipped at a glass of wine. Toby’s hand gripped his bottle of beer as if for dear life as he rose from his seat and moved hesitantly toward her. He felt his heart race, his palms sweat, felt his breath catch as she turned suddenly and smiled at him. She had cast an appraising eye at him, looking him up and down, surprised by how young he seemed, charmed by how awkward he seemed, and suddenly delighted by how innocent he seemed.
She had taken his hand, had led him up the stairs. He had followed her unsurely, stiffly, casting a glance back at Tin who watched, his expression unreadable, as Jenny pulled him up the stairs after her. Jenny had thought he would try to seduce her, that he would try to impress her with some kind of false bravado. She was mistaken.
“You can do more than just talk, sweetie,” she had offered.
“Toby,” he had said quickly.
Jenny smiled. “Toby,” she said.
“I can?” Toby hesitated, his eyes following her as she sat on the bed beside him.
“What do you want to do, lover?” she purred.
Toby felt his breath catch, felt his heart beat so hard against his chest that he was sure he would faint. “I,” he started and felt his throat go dry.
Jenny watched slyly as Toby’s hand began to move. A smile twisted her lip and she closed her eyes. He was shy, but she knew what would happen next. Jenny held her breath.
Her eyes blinked open and she looked down before looking up into his eyes. He had taken her hand, twining his fingers around hers. He cast her an awkward smile. “Is this all right?”
And so, every three weeks since, Jessup, Tin, and Toby had made their way down to the Rosewood Bar, Jessup and Tin sharing a bottle of whiskey, and Toby disappearing for an hour at a time into Jenny’s upstairs rooms.
“Five dollars?” Jessup’s voice was incredulous when Toby disclosed the sum of money he left with Jenny every time he had ventured to see her. Jessup shook his head. “Five dollars to hold a whore’s hand–”
Jessup regretted the words before they had a chance to spin out into the universe. He found himself on the connecting end of a right cross as Toby laid him out, sprawling across the ties and rail on their walk back to Kupfer.
“Toby!” Tin had barked and grabbed at the young man.
Toby’s blue eyes had flashed dangerously. He had struggled against Tin’s grip.
“Enough!” Tin snarled as his grip had tightened. He glanced down at Jessup. “It’s Jessup, for Christ’sake. You got no business haulin’ off an’ clockin’ him.”
“She’s not–” Toby’s eyes had filled with tears. He jerked suddenly, pulling against Tin’s grip as it faltered. “She’s not,” Toby’s voice broke.
Tin leaned down and extended a hand to Jessup who regarded it warily. “Get up, Will,” he said quietly.
Jessup made a noise in the back of his throat before he grabbed at the proffered hand and rose to his feet. He felt Tin slap reassuringly at his back. He looked away from Toby. “Sorry,” he offered lowly.
Toby hesitated. He looked down at Jessup’s hand as it came toward him. Toby nodded awkwardly and grabbed at Jessup’s hand. “Sorry,” he had agreed.
“Get ready for eight weeks of frozen Hell, boys,” Tin continued conversationally as they continued to pick their way up toward Kupfer. The rail bed rose and curved seductively around the mountain. Through the trees to the west, mountains of another kind rose up, the moraine of a glacier, its lofty height improved upon with tailings from the mine. The tailings were everywhere, used for fill beneath and around the buildings, the leftovers spilling over and toward the top of the glacier. “Starting with that ore bucket ride.”
“I hate that,” Jessup conceded as he kept pace with Tin. “I hate bein’ up in the buckets like that.”
“At least we’re not heading to North Adit,” Toby offered. “I hate that one ’cause the towers are too far apart.”
“Not too far,” Tin said with a shrug, “just….further.”
Jessup and Toby smiled.
Tin pulled a watch from his pocket and, with a bright snap, released the cover. He gazed down at it silently, reading the numbers in the darkness, using what little light reflected around them on the snow. It was half past two in the morning. Tin sighed and closed up the watch. “Just a few more hours, boys,” he said as he began to walk again.
Toby stopped, startled. “What the hell,” he whispered as he looked up suddenly.
Tin and Jessup stopped and followed Toby’s gaze up into the sky. It sounded like a firework, it streaked and crackled across the sky in an explosion of color. Curtains of light dripped and danced above them. Red and green, they rippled across the darkness.
“That’s good luck,” Tin said with a smile.
“Spirits lookin’ out for us,” Jessup agreed before he bowed his face away from the cold and continued up the grade.