“This is gonna take frickin’ forever,” Nils grumbled as he rolled at a cigarette.
“No smokin’ in the mill,” Jessup growled, his eyes flashing.
Nils hesitated. He leaned precariously over the side of the bucket, causing Jessup to grab hold of the side to steady himself on the slick metal. “We ain’t in the mill,” Nils told him. He chuckled. “We ain’t even over the mill.” He eyed William Jessup carefully as he drew his tongue across the paper, wetting it, sealing it. “I think I’m fine with this.”
Jessup lapsed into a moody silence as he looked away to the north, looking anywhere than at the smug expression on Nils’ face as he took a drag on the cigarette before blowing the smoke away from them.
“You gonna be okay?” Toby asked quietly as Quinn gasped and grabbed at the sides of the bucket as the line lurched again. Quinn screwed his eyes shut, tried to control his breathing as his heart raced inside him. “It helps if you stay low,” Toby offered quietly.
“How the hell would you know?” Quinn shot harshly at him, his feet scrambling beneath him as the line jerked again.
Toby hesitated. “Jessup told me,” he replied simply. He looked up and around as the tramline began to bob slightly in the gathering wind. The bucket swayed before it moved again. “He said,” Toby continued, trying to make his voice sound soothing, “stay low, Toby. That’s the way to make it easier goin’ up and down that damn mountain.”
Quinn opened an eye and regarded Toby carefully. Toby shot him a reassuring smile. Quinn chuckled. “Nice to know I’m not the only who doesn’t like—“ Quinn’s voice and breath caught as a wind gust slapped the side of the bucket, rocking it before the line jerked again.
It was Toby’s turn to chuckle. “Day like today? I’m thinkin’ no one likes it.” Toby watched as Peter Quinn slid to the bottom of the bucket as the line jerked again.
“Kansas?” Tin Hansen’s voice was incredulous as he smiled across the bucket at Gunnar Isberg.
Gunnar chuckled. “You think maybe Minnesota?” he replied.
“Why Kansas?” Tin wondered. “I mean, all the way from Sweden to end up in…Kansas?”
“Lots of open land in Kansas, boss. Lots ofopportunity.”
“But still, you’re here,” Tin observed quietly.
“Better opportunity,” Gunnar laughed, his hands closing again on the edge of the bucket as the line jerked. “What about you?”
Tin’s lip twisted. “Minnesota,” he replied.
Gunnar nodded. “With a name like Hansen,” he observed and nodded. “Family?”
Tin’s smile faltered. “Everyone’s got one,” he replied as lightly as he was able.
Gunnar’s smile faded, but reappeared quickly. “That’s true.”
Toby stuffed his glove-covered hands under his armpits to warm them as he bowed his face more tightly into his scarf. The bucket continued to lurch and pause, lurch then pause. They were rising higher; not only up the mountain, but higher into the air as they approached the first of twenty tram towers they would pass on their way up to the Upper Ridge Bunkhouse. Above the alarming creaking of metal and the intermittent wind, Toby began to realize that Peter’s breathing became more ragged with every movement of the bucket.
“You okay, Quinn?” Toby hazarded again, lifting his head only slightly, willing his breath into his scarf to warm his face. Toby hesitated. Quinn did not reply. Toby unfolded his body slightly and looked down into the bucket. He tried to keep his voice calm. “Quinn?”
Peter Quinn was cowering in the bottom of the bucket, his arms over his head, his body trembling. Toby realized suddenly that the sound he had taken for ragged breathing was actually sobbing. Toby waited for the next lurch of the bucket and slid toward the bottom. Quinn let out a strangled yell as the bucket rocked.
“Quinn,” Toby said again. “Peter.”
“I can’t do this, Caddock!” Peter’s voice was an urgent, terrified cry.
Toby set a hand on Peter’s shoulder. Peter tensed, his entire body going rigid.
“Caddock! Don’t!” Peter wailed.
Toby’s grip tightened. “Where you from, Quinn?” Toby asked suddenly, quietly.
“Boston,” Quinn replied, his voice still trembling.
“Never been to Boston,” Toby continued lightly. “They got rattlesnakes there?”
Quinn chuckled in spite of himself. “Maybe in the zoos. Not much stuff like that there.”
Toby nodded. “That’s good. I’d probably like it there.” The bucket lurched. “I hate snakes.”
Quinn hesitated. “No snakes in Alaska,” he said suddenly. Toby kept his hand on Quinn’s shoulder. He felt Quinn begin to relax slightly.
“Only the two-legged kind,” Toby replied. Quinn laughed.
“We got them in Boston,” he smiled. Quinn hesitated. “You got family, Toby?” he asked quietly.
Toby glanced up. He could see the shadowy edge of the first tram tower in the darkness; the large, spoked driver wheels slipped slightly before they spun. Toby timed his reply.
“Yeah!” Toby began more loudly than was necessary, his hand tightening on Quinn’s shoulder as the bucket lurched sharply and the metal screamed its protest as it ran up against the cold structure of the tower. “I got family!” Toby fought to maintain his balance as the bucket bumped rigidly across the top of the tower—the structure providing the momentary sensation of stability before the tramline ran out from the tower and the bucket dipped slightly in the slack.
“That’s good!” Quinn’s voice sounded panicked, but clear. “I got family, too!”
Toby smiled. “I got my mom and dad at home in Colorado. I got a younger brother back there, too.”
“I got a wife and new baby girl,” Quinn said as the bucket lurched again. He took a shuddering breath. “They’re in Seattle with her mama.” Quinn’s voice faded. “I’m just tryin’ to make some money so we can get our own place with some more land.”
Toby nodded. “Colorado’s nice.”
“You said there were rattlesnakes.”
The bucket lurched.
“Anyways,” Quinn went on, his voice sounding calmer, “we got the land we want. I mean, Annie’s daddy died. They had a nice place out in Montana.” Quinn took a series of rapid breaths as the bucket swung in the wind. “I need the money for the taxes so Annie and me can own it free’n’clear. Her mama will live with us. It’ll be the place we raise our kids.”
The bucket lurched through the next tower’s mechanism. Quinn held his breath.
Toby hesitated. “What’ll you do out there?” he ventured.
“Annie’s daddy ran sheep,” Quinn replied, his voice calming more the more he spoke.
Toby nodded. “You know anything about sheep, Quinn?” he asked.
“I got to work with Neil for a couple of years before he died. That first year, I was out lookin’ for work. I’d bummed my way across the country. He gave me a job.” Quinn hesitated.
Toby smiled. “And his daughter.”
Quinn lowered his arms and sat up. “Annie.”
Toby’s smile widened, recognizing the same affection that wrapped her name when Quinn said it as his voice wrapped Jenny’s.
“She’s a jewel, Caddock,” Quinn’s voice was suddenly breathless for a different reason. “Raven black hair and deep brown eyes.” Quinn shook his head. “There’s no luckier man on Earth than me, Toby.”
Toby patted at Quinn’s shoulder as he released it.
“I have to do this for her. For her and our little Nellie.” Quinn’s lip twisted. “Spittin’ image of her mother, that little baby is.”
The bucket lurched.
“Your shotguns will never be so clean as when the boys start callin’ on Nellie years from now,” Toby grinned.
Quinn laughed. “I reckon they won’t.”
The bucket jerked through the third tower.
Dutch’s brown eyes darkened further as they caught a glimpse of the bright blue eyes of Nils Bergdahl illuminated briefly in the light of a struck match in the bucket ahead of him. John Donovan raised an eyebrow.
“What’re ya frettin’ ‘bout?” the Tennessean drawled as he shifted his weight and looked back at Nils. Donovan saw the red-hot nub of light. Nils blew away a breath of smoke that the wind caught and carried off. Donovan sighed and turned back. “Leave it, Dutch,” he said quietly.
“Hate his guts,” Dutch replied shortly.
Donovan shook his head and started to speak, but Dutch cut across him abruptly.
“Son of a bitch is up to somethin’,” Dutch said darkly. He pulled at his hands, the warmth of his palms inside his gloves causing the wool to cling stickily to the edge of the ore bucket.
Donovan chuckled. “He cain’t git yer goat if he don’t know where it’s tied up, Dutch,” he laughed.
Dutch shot Donovan a filthy look. The younger man’s hazel eyes danced. He leaned forward with a conspiratorial smirk.
“Bad for you—you got it tied out in the open.”
“Shut it, Donovan,” Dutch snapped before he set his eyes back to Bergdahl.
Donovan glanced over his shoulder before turning back to Dutch. “What is it vexes ya, Dutch?” he ventured.
Dutch bristled. “Everything about him,” he growled before he leaned over the bucket and spit toward the ground more than seventy-five feet below them.
Donovan chuckled again. “No redemption for that one, then,” he smiled. His smile faltered as he met Dutch’s gaze.
“No redemption,” Dutch agreed darkly.
Donovan hesitated and shifted his weight slightly in the bucket. They ran over the ninth tower. “You owe him money or somethin’?” he asked carefully.
“What makes you say that?” Dutch replied, an edge of a demand to his voice.
Donovan shrugged. “Seems a man don’t like another for one of two reasons,” he said conversationally. Dutch watched as Donovan leaned over the side and spit tobacco juice down to the ground, leaving a dark stain on the shadowy white snow. Donovan drew back, still smiling. “Either he owes the man money or the man is doin’ his gal.”
“There are other reasons,” Dutch grumbled as he watched Donovan pull a tin of chew from inside his coat and dip into it.
“Variation on a theme,” Donovan said quixotically as he stuffed more tobacco firmly between his jaw and cheek before he closed up the tin.
“Attitude,” Dutch conceded.
Donovan shrugged. “So, he’s an arrogant son of a bitch—“
“That’s the point,” Dutch cut across him. “He’s been here six weeks and he acts like he knows how to do everything better than those of us who’ve been doin’ this for—“
“You’ve been here three months, Elias,” Donovan interrupted quietly. Dutch did not flinch at the use of his Christian name. Donovan smiled sardonically. “Nils is doin’ your gal…”
“Shut it, John,” Dutch snarled.
“I’d better watch my back,” Nils said flippantly to Jessup who did not look at him. Bergdahl turned his head and blew smoke in the direction of the murky forms of snow-covered spruces below them as the bucket ran heavily over the twelfth tower. Niles leaned forward with a cocky smile. “Dutch don’t like me ‘cause I’m from Chicago,” Nils confided with a low laugh. “New York boys hate Chicago men as a matter of principle.”
Jessup turned a bored eye to Nils. “It ain’t ‘cause you’re from Chicago,” he started quietly before turning his gaze back to Toby and Quinn’s bucket. He strained his eyes, watching for any movement within the ore bucket ahead of them. He straightened up suddenly. “Caddock!” he barked into the darkness. He smiled as a head popped up from inside the ore bucket.
“What the hell, Jess?” Toby called back.
Jessup chuckled. “Makin’ sure you boys ain’t froze to death!” Jessup shot across the distance as Toby’s bucket rolled over the thirteenth tower.
There was a grinding of the mechanism and the line stopped suddenly.
“Som’bitch,” Jessup muttered as he turned and glanced into the darkness behind him. He could make out the shadows of the other men in the waning dark. “I wonder what’s the time?” Jessup muttered. He turned back at the sound of a bright click. He saw Nils, his features illuminated in the light of a single match as he raised a heavy pocket watch and gazed impassively at the face.
“Nine o’clock,” Nils said, his voice unconcerned as he snapped the watch closed and stowed it in his pocket before blowing out the match.
Jessup hunkered down in the bucket and pulled his cap down tighter over his ears.
“A problem, maybe?” Gunnar ventured as he watched Tin lean over the side and look down. “Not a long delay, I hope,” he continued after a slight hesitation.
“No tellin’, Gunnar,” Tin replied distractedly. He turned to look behind. Far away and below, the lights of the Mill Town glowed through the gloom. They were too far away to make out movement, but that there was no movement of the tramline, there was no doubt. “Hodgson’s crew was stuck on the tramline for six hours once,” Tin started. Gunnar’s eyes grew wide.
“Six hours?” he echoed, his voice incredulous. “We’ll be froze stiff!”
“That was in July,” Tin continued as if he had not heard Gunnar. He hesitated.
“Why?” Gunnar wondered aloud.
Tin cast another glance back down the line toward the mill. “There was an accident,” he replied quietly.
© 2010 A.K. Marshall