(My 2010 NaNo is In Dark Places. Set in an interior Alaskan copper mine and mill town in 1913, In Dark Places follows Tin Hansen and his crew to South Adit where they continue tunneling in through the mountain during the coldest and darkest parts of winter. It’s a deeply atmospheric psychological horror, and the weather, the light, and the effects of long shifts and exhaustion play an integral in the story. This is an excerpt from the earliest part of the book. More to come soon.
Toby reached down and cinched his duffle with a tug before turning from his bed and gazing around the sparsely furnished room in the Lower Creek Bunkhouse he shared with one other man. A naked incandescent bulb hung from a wire in the center of the room. The white painted bead board paneling reflected bits of the light back to him, looking yellowed in the lightless dawn. Sunrise was hours away, even though it was seven o’clock in the morning. Toby sighed. If he were lucky, he would see the sun put in the weakest of appearances beginning around eleven thirty, only to see it slip low across the horizon and fade from view a scant four hours later. He turned as a banging sound startled him from his thoughts. The radiator against the far wall, beneath the paned window banged to life as steam from the mine’s power plant snaked its way through the lines to reach the bunkhouse. Toby felt his toes curl inside his boots, inside the heavy wool socks that provided some measure of warmth against the brutal cold.
“I’m off,” he said quietly to the man hunkered beneath the blankets in his own bed. Toby reached for his duffle, not expecting a reply. It wasn’t that the man was surly or sour, just that he was bone-tired from a ten hour shift among the noisy shaker tables in the mill. The noise and movement became more of an assault than a job as a man’s shift progressed. By the end, all a man wanted was to bury himself beneath a blanket, only wishing that he could bury himself somewhere warmer, softer, and more understanding.
“Be careful,” the man grunted unexpectedly as he shifted beneath the blanket. Toby hesitated. A grin slid across his face briefly.
Toby swung his duffle over his shoulder and headed toward the door, opening it quietly and closing it with the softest of snaps behind him. He hoisted the bag higher and began to make his way down to the dining hall that made up the main floor of the bunkhouse. He knew that, once there, he would easily find Tin Hansen and the rest of their crew. Toby absentmindedly rubbed at the sleep that clung to his eyes as he scuttled down the stairs, turning halfway down and feeling his duffle scrape the wainscotting as he continued down to the main level.
“Coffee,” Jessup growled blearily, kindly, as he held out a mug to Toby. Toby took a moment to drop his duffle before taking the mug.
“Thanks, Jess,” he said simply as he cupped his hands around the mug before taking a sip. The hot ceramic stung away the cold of his hands and Toby smiled. “Boss here?”
Jessup gestured across the room with a toss of his head before lifting his own mug to his lips. “Over there. Goin’ over details with some of the boys.”
Toby hesitated. “Shouldn’t we be listening, too?” he ventured, feeling himself move instinctively toward Tin.
Jessup shrugged and took another sip. “He ain’t sayin’ nothin’ he didn’t already tell us on the way to Brennan last night.”
Toby stopped and nodded. “Oh.” He felt himself smile as Tin looked over at him. He nodded. “Hey, boss,” he said by way of acknowledgment. Tin raised a hand in greeting before turning back to the five who had gathered around him, waiting for instructions.
Jessup nodded at the mug around which Toby’s hands slid. “Better drink up and get a move on. We’re supposed to be at the top of the mill to catch our ride at seven thirty.”
Toby looked around, his eyes drawn to the clock on the wall above the door. He raised an eyebrow before raising the mug quickly and gulping down what little coffee remained. It stung and burned, but he knew it was protection against what was waiting for them once they left the relative warmth of the bunkhouse. It was as if Jessup had read his thoughts. He followed suit and set his mug down on a long, low, nearby table.
“Time to go, I reckon,” he said simply, and Toby watched as Jessup moved away from him, toward the other end of the dining hall, to retrieve his own duffle. Tin watched him and nodded.
“Okay, boys, I’ll tell you more when we get to the top of the mill. Grab your kits and let’s beat feet,” Tin said easily as he turned away from the group, his own hand closing around the strap of his duffle before he lifted it and set it against his shoulder.
The blast of cold that met the crew as Jessup pulled open the bunkhouse door nearly knocked the breath out of them. Toby pulled his coat tighter around him, pulled his wool cap down a little lower, and was glad he had thought to wrap a scarf around his neck before leaving his room. The wind nipped and bit, and even in the darkness, they could see the gathering of snow clouds that snaked their way across the moraine and began to settle over the town.
“Not the weather I’d have chosen,” a man named Gunnar Isberg muttered as he pushed himself out the door. Toby smiled. Isberg was from what he called “The Old Country.” In his case, that meant Sweden. His voice lilted when he spoke. It was, in Toby’s opinion, the most hopeful voice among the men on the crew.
Toby pulled his scarf tighter across his face as he shuffled down the steps of the bunkhouse and allowed himself to be drawn along by the tide of men on the boarded walkway, some moving toward the mill, some moving away. All the men were bundled against the cold, all the men had their eyes set on their destinations, all the men were quiet in their own thoughts. The lamps swayed slightly in the gathering breeze, their stark light throwing rings of yellow-white between which the men moved. Toby walked carefully on the slick boards as they headed toward the rail bed that ran through the center of the mill town. He walked automatically past the depot, did not bother with the handrail that lined the footbridge beside the trestle they crossed as they continued on toward the concentration mill. Toby glanced up momentarily before bowing his head against the blowing cold.
A blast of steam-warmed air hit him suddenly as Tin wrenched open a door withim the engine shed. He started, unaware and so lost in his thoughts that he did not realize they had arrived at the concentration mill, that he had climbed the steps toward the door that would take them into the very bowels of the mill.
“In ya go,” Tin said gruffly, but good-naturedly as he ushered his crew into the warmth and noise of the mill. The men entered and stopped just past the entrance, taking the time to loosen their scarves and shrug away the cold.
Toby hesitated, breathing in the dusty air of the processing mill. He re-shouldered his bag and followed as the men turned and began to climb the steps up to the top of the mill. Huge timbers, cold metal, stark electric light, and the pounding of machinery defined the space. The grinding of the ball mills, pulverizing the ore as it came down through chutes from the ore buckets undercut the general cacophony of the place. The shaker tables vibrated rhythmically, their human tenders playing at the knobs that directed the flow of water across them, separating out the copper from the dross. The men’s eyes stayed focused to their tasks. No one gave any notice to the eight men who trudged up the steps toward the top of the mill, toward the top of the process. Toby was brought up short as the man in front of him, a man named Nils Bergdahl, stopped and yawned heavily. The man behind Toby, a man named Elias “Dutch” Boedeker, did not stop fast enough. He shoved at Toby.
“Som’bitch, Caddock,” Dutch growled. Toby stumbled forward into Bergdahl.
“It ain’t me, Dutch,” Toby replied shortly as he pushed gingerly at Bergdahl. “It’s Nils.” He looked up at Bergdahl. “What the hell, Nils?”
Nils yawned heavily again. “Sorry,” he said as he shook his head, his feet beginning to move up the steps once again. “Must’ve been a late night last night.”
Dutch Boedeker shook his head and continued to climb the steps as Nils and Toby began to move again.
They reached the top of the mill. Beyond, to the East, the tramlines snaked away from the mill. One tram shot off to the North–toward North Adit and the Staney Ridge Bunkhouse. Toby looked up. The tram they wanted drove straight up the mountain, straight up to the Upper Ridge Bunkhouse and the South Adit beyond it. The mountain above him was covered in snow that blew lazily away in places as all the indications of a storm building began to manifest themselves. Toby stuffed his free hand in his pocket and looked around for Tin who had moved away from the group toward a small shack perched on the side of the tram deck.
“He must be looking for Lennart,” Nils said conversationally as his fingers rolled gingerly against a cigarette. He paused, his bright blue eyes watching for movement beyond the shack as his tongue slid across the paper, wetting it, sealing the tobacco inside. He jammed the cigarette in his mouth. “Need a smoke?” he asked Toby conversationally.
“I’m fine,” Toby replied, his eyes trained on the shack, waiting for Tin to emerge. Nils chuckled and lit the cigarette in an unconcerned fashion, the breeze tousling his short, straw blond hair.
“You’re gonna be beggin’ me for one of these an hour in. We’re about to freeze our–”
“Where were you last night?” Dutch asked suddenly behind them. Toby and Nils turned. Dutch stood his ground, his brow furrowing at the two.
“Who wants to know?” Nils asked as he pulled the cigarette from his mouth, his eyes flashing at Dutch.
“I do,” he replied steadily.
Nils cupped his hand around the cigarette and regarded Dutch Boedeker carefully. He took a heavy drag against the tobacco and smiled as he let the smoke curl from his mouth for a moment. “Out,” he said with a smirk and a toss of his head.
“Out where?” Dutch persisted.
Nils’s eyes darkened. “You ask too many questions,” he growled suddenly.
“Bergdahl! Boedeker!” Tin barked from the tram deck. The two men turned.
“Looks like the boss wants us,” Nils said in an unconcerned voice as he dropped the cigarette and ground it into nothing with his foot. He looked up at Tin who crossed the tram deck quickly, his eyes flashing. Nils Bergdahl drew back slightly.
“You know the rules, Nils,” Tin Hansen hissed lowly as he placed himself nose to nose with the younger man. “No smokin’ in the mill. You tryin’ to get us killed?”
“Or fired?” Dutch’s lip twisted into a sardonic smile.
“Shut it, Dutch,” Tin fired back harshly. Dutch drew back at the look on Tin’s face. Tin’s eyes snapped back to Nils who met his gaze coolly.
“Sorry, boss,” he said with a smile. “I forgot.”
Tin stayed in Nils’s face for several moments more before he drew back and nodded. “Don’t forget again,” he threatened lowly.
Bergdahl’s lip twisted. “No, boss,” he assured Tin. “I won’t.”
Tin nodded, his eyes still darkening as he drew back slightly. He shot a glance toward the shack from which Lennart emerged, wrapped in coat, scarf, hat and gloves. “I’ll be making sure you don’t,” Tin said lowly. Bergdahl continued to gaze impassively at Tin as the crew boss turned to the rest of the men. “Lennart here is going to give you the low down on riding the buckets up to Upper Ridge,” he said simply.
“Olaf!” Lennart called gruffly before leaving the door of the shack.
“Here, boss!” called out a boy who looked no more than 15. He slipped and slid across the decking toward the tram operator. Lennart’s lip twisted into a smile and he chuckled.
“In ya go,” he said as he stepped away from the door. He indicated the interior of the shed with a toss of his head. “Keep the controls steady and the buckets movin’. I’ll be right back.”
“Yes, boss,” Olaf replied and ducked his blond head into the shed, the door banging shut behind him.
Toby’s eyes were drawn to the buckets that continued to move down the tram line, stopping at the chutes where men with large metal poles horsed them and tipped them into the chutes, the tumbling of rock and dirt momentarily overshadowing the grinding of the machinery below before the buckets jerked and swung out and around, headed back up the mountain.
“Tin tells me none of you have done this before,” Lennart started. He cast his gaze at Jessup. “‘Cept you, Jess.”
Jessup shot Lennart a lopsided grin.
“Yes, well,” Lennart continued conversationally. Toby drew back instinctively as Lennart turned and gestured with the stump of a left arm toward the buckets as they swung around empty before heading back up the tram. “Two in a bucket with your kit. Try not to rock it too much or you’ll be regretting it for more reasons than a tumble down the mountain.” Lennart stopped and smiled sardonically as he noticed Toby was not the only one who had drawn back from him. He glanced at his lack of arm and chuckled. “This?” he laughed quietly. His voice dropped lower. “This is what happens when you let your concentration slip for even a moment, boys,” he said darkly as his right hand pulled up his left coat sleeve. Lennart’s arm was missing just below the elbow. He glanced at Tin who continued to meet his eyes unflinchingly. “Caught in the machinery. Ripped it off pretty cleanly.” He nodded toward the white painted hospital building on the other side of the creek. “They were able to sew it up, but my arm was a mangled mess of pulp.” He smiled as Peter Quinn and Gunnar exchanged worried glances. Lennart laughed darkly. “Forewarned is forearmed.”
Toby laughed nervously. Lennart’s eyes snapped to him, and Toby looked away quickly.
“You think that’s funny?” he started harshly.
Toby’s grin faltered. “Well,” he started uneasily, “yes.”
Lennart’s gaze continued to bore into Toby for another few moments and Toby shifted more uneasily on his feet. Lennart suddenly laughed aloud, walking toward Toby and clapping him, hard, on the back with his right hand. “Good man!” he laughed appreciably. “I’ve been tellin’ that joke for years and no one laughs.”
Tin chuckled and shook his head.
“Grab your gear, boys. I’ll stop the buckets long enough for ya to get in. It’ll take awhile to get up the mountain.”
Toby reached down and picked up his duffle, swinging it around his shoulder and turning, nearly knocking in to Tin. “Boss–” he started, startled.
“I want you in with Quinn,” Tin said quietly as he cast a glance at Peter.
Peter Quinn had been in Kupfer for only two weeks. He had come up from Montana and had little mining experience. He had fumbled through several long shifts in the mill, and had been put with Tin in an attempt to make a miner out of him. He was maybe two years older than Toby, quiet like Toby, but more nervous than Toby. He had strawberry blond hair, bright green eyes, and traces of freckles across his nose and cheeks. He was short, standing only about five foot seven inches, and was wirey-built. Toby nodded.
“Sure thing, boss,” he said with a nod. Toby turned his smile to Quinn. “Alright there, Quinn?” he asked.
Peter smiled nervously. “Sure, Caddock,” he replied, but his voice was tentative, nervous.
Tin gestured toward the first ore bucket with a nod of his head. It had swung around and Lennart and Olaf had pulled it to a stop. The men working the chutes had turned to see what the delay with the next bucket was, and finally laid eyes on the crew of eight that began to shuffle toward the far side of the tram deck. The men sighed and leaned on their poles, relieved to have a bit of a break from tipping endless buckets of ore down the chutes into the process.
“I’ve got your duffle,” said a voice beside Toby. He turned to see Olaf smiling at him.
“Thanks,” Toby said as he shrugged the bag from his shoulder and handed it to the teenager.
“Good luck up there,” Olaf continued eagerly as Toby steadied his hands against the side of the ore bucket and the hanger that attached it to the tramline. Toby hesitated before he swung himself into the bucket and settled against the side.
“Thanks,” he said, the bucket swaying with his weight, his hand outstretched to Olaf to take the bag. Toby set the bag at his feet and reached up to steady himself against the bucket hanger. “C’m on, Quinn,” Toby grinned and watched as Quinn clambered aboard, taking his bag from Olaf and dropping it to his feet. Quinn’s knuckles whitened against the sides of the bucket as it rocked chaotically.
“I’m hating this,” Quinn said under his breath as he shifted his weight in an attempt to stop the bucket’s swinging.
Toby braced his hands against the side of the bucket and pushed his weight lower as Lennart nodded at the signal from Tin letting him know the first two were aboard. Quinn’s hands grabbed wildly at the sides of the bucket as the tramline jerked abruptly and moved them a little way up the line, allowing another bucket to bump into the end of the tram, its contents dumped before it was sent around empty, ready to take the next two of the crew.
Jessup’s expression soured as Tin gestured toward Bergdahl, jerking his thumb to indicate that Nils and Will would be riding to the top of the mountain together.
“Son of a bitch, I’ll get you for this,” Jessup snarled under his breath as he practically vaulted into the ore bucket, causing it to swing chaotically, causing a fleeting look of alarm to pass across Nils’ face as he grabbed at the sides. Jessup made a self-satisfied growl in the back of his throat, satisfied that he had managed to unnerve, even for a moment, his least favorite member of the crew.
“That’s two, Lennart!” Tin called over to the shack.
The line moved with a jerk.
John Donovan, a thirty-year-old father of two little girls and husband of a pretty little thing back in Tennessee climbed inexpertly into the next bucket. He slipped on the slick metal and went down, bruising the back of his head against the side of the bucket. His hands slapped up at the side of the bucket as he pulled himself upright.
“You okay?” Olaf’s voice, full of concern, shot at him across the deck as he carefully handed John his bag. John felt his face redden.
“Fine,” he said, his voice carrying the drawl that identified his place of origin. “That’s a damn sight slick.”
“You’re not used to ice an’ snow,” Dutch said conversationally as he heaved himself into the bucket.
The line moved with a jerk.
“Guess it’s you and me, Isberg,” Tin said with a smile.
Gunnar’s lip twisted. “My pleasure, boss,” he lilted.
As Gunnar climbed aboard, Tin walked back to the shed and opened the door. He watched as Tin shook Lennart’s hand and clapped him on the back. The two men laughed together briefly before Tin walked back to the bucket and climbed aboard. He took his duffle from Olaf.
“See you in two months,” Tin said with a smile.
It was a smile Olaf returned. “You bet, Mr. Hansen,” he replied. Olaf stepped back as the gears began to grind.
The line moved with a jerk.
© 2010 A.K. Marshall