Authors: Eowyn Ivey
A red fox darted among the fallen trees. It disappeared for a minute but popped up again, closer to the forest, running with its fluffy tail held low to the ground. It stopped and turned its head. For a moment its eyes locked with Jack’s, and there, in its narrowing golden irises, he saw the savagery of the place. Like he was staring wilderness itself straight in the eye.
He faced forward in the wagon, shook the reins, and let the horse gather to a trot, both of them eager to put the fox behind them. For the next hour, he rode hunched and cold as the wagon bumped along through miles of untouched forest. As he neared town, the horse picked up its pace, and Jack had to slow it to keep the crate from spilling out of the wagon.
Back home, Alpine wouldn’t have been called a town at all. It was nothing more than a few dusty, false-fronted buildings perched
between the train tracks and the Wolverine River. Nearby, several homesteaders had stripped the land clear of trees before abandoning it. Some went off to pan gold or work for the railroad, but most had hightailed it home with no plans of ever returning to Alaska.
Jack carried the crate of pies up the steps to the hotel restaurant, where the owner’s wife opened the door for him. Well into her sixties, Betty wore her hair short and mannish and ran the place like a one-woman show. Her husband, Roy, worked for the territorial government and was rarely about.
“Good morning, Betty,” Jack said.
“It’s ugly as far as I can see.” She slammed the door behind them. “Colder than hell, and no sign of snow. Never seen anything like it. Got some of Mabel’s pies?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He set them on the counter and unwrapped them from the towels.
“That woman sure can bake,” she said. “Everybody’s always asking after them pies.”
“Glad to hear it.”
She counted a few bills from the till and put them on the counter beside the crate.
“So I know I’m risking losing a few customers, Jack, but I’m afraid we won’t be needing any more after today. My sister’s come to live with us, and Roy says she’s got to earn her keep by doing the baking.”
He picked up the bills and put them in his coat pocket as if he hadn’t heard what she’d said. Then it registered.
“No more pies? You sure?”
“Sorry, Jack. I know it’s poor timing, with winter coming on, but…” Her voice trailed off, and she seemed uncharacteristically embarrassed.
“We could cut the price, if that would help,” he said. “We need every penny we can get.”
“I am sorry. Can I get you a cup of coffee and some breakfast?”
“Coffee would be fine.” He chose a table by a small window that looked out over the river.
“It’s on the house,” she said as she set the cup in front of him.
He never stayed when he brought the pies into town, but this morning he wasn’t eager to get back to the homestead. What would he tell Mabel? That they had to pack up and go home with their tails between their legs? Give up, like all those before him? He stirred some sugar into the coffee and stared out the window. A man with scuffed leather boots and the dust-beaten air of a mountain camp walked along the river’s edge. He wore a bedroll on his backpack, led a shaggy husky by a rope tether and in his other hand carried a hunting rifle. Past him Jack could see a white haze shrouding the peaks. It was snowing in the mountains. Soon it would snow here in the valley, too.
“You know, they’re looking for help up at the mine.” Betty slid a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him. “You probably wouldn’t want to make it your profession, but it might get you all through a tight spot.”
“The coal mine up north?”
“Yep. Pay’s not bad, and they’ll be at it as long as they can keep the tracks clear. They feed you and bunk you, and send you home with a little extra money in your pocket. Just something to think about.”
“Thanks. And thanks for this.” He gestured toward the plate.
A godforsaken job, coal mining. Farmers were born to work in the light and air, not in tunnels through rock. Back home, he’d seen the men return from the mines with their faces
black with coal dust and coughing up dirty blood. Even if he had the will and strength, it would mean leaving Mabel alone at the homestead for days, maybe weeks, at a time.
Cash money is what they needed, though. Just a month or two might be enough to pull them through next harvest. He could stand most anything for a month or two. He ate the last bite of bacon and was ready to head out when George Benson came noisily through the restaurant door.
“Betty, Betty, Betty. What have you got for me today? Any of those pies?”
“They’re fresh off the homestead, George. Have a seat and I’ll bring a slice over.”
George turned toward the tables and spotted Jack.
“Hello there, neighbor! I’ll tell you what—your wife bakes a mean apple pie.” He threw his coat over the back of a chair and patted his round belly. “Mind if I join you?”
“Not at all.”
George lived about ten miles the other side of town with his wife and three boys. Jack had met him a few times at the general store and here at the restaurant. He seemed a good-natured sort and always spoke as if they were confirmed friends. He and George were about the same age.
“How’s it coming out at your place?” George asked as he sat across from him.
“You got any help out there?”
“Nope. Just working away on it myself. Got one or two good fields cleared. Always more to do. You know how it goes.”
“We should swap a few days here and there—me and my boys come over to your place with our draft horses, and then you lend a hand our way.”
“That’s a generous offer.”
“We could help you get some work done,” George continued, “and your wife could come over and get some girl time with Esther, talk about baking or sewing or whatever it is they talk about. She gets tired of all us men. She’d be thrilled to have you all over.”
Jack didn’t say yes or no.
“Your kids all grown and gone?” George asked.
Jack hadn’t seen that coming. He and Mabel were that old, weren’t they, that their children could be grown and having families of their own. He wondered if he looked the way he felt, like someone had stuck out a foot and tripped him.
“Nope. Never had any.”
“What’s that? Never had any, you say?”
He watched George. If you said you didn’t have children, it sounded like a choice, and what kind of craziness would that be? If you said you couldn’t, the conversation turned awkward while they contemplated your manliness or your wife’s health. Jack waited and swallowed.
“That’s one way to go, I suppose.” George shook his head with a chuckle. “Heck of a lot more quiet around your place, I’ll bet. Sometimes those boys of mine like to drive me to drink. Hassling about this or that, dragging out of bed in the morning like the pox was on them. Getting a good day’s work out of the youngest one is about as easy as wrestling a hog.”
Jack laughed and eased, drank some of his coffee. “I had a brother like that. It was almost easier to just let him sleep.”
“Yep, that’s how some of them are, at least until they’ve got a place of their own and see what it’s all about.”
Betty came to the table with a cup and slice of pie for George.
“I was just telling Jack they’re looking for help up at the
mine,” she said as she poured hot coffee. “You know, to get them through the winter.”
George raised his eyebrows, then frowned, but didn’t speak until Betty had gone back into the kitchen.
“You aren’t, are you?”
“Something to consider.”
“Christ. You lost your ever-loving mind? You and I—we’re no spring chickens, and those hell holes are for young men, if anybody at all.”
Jack nodded, uncomfortable with the conversation.
“I know it’s none of my damned business, but you seem like a good fellow,” George went on. “You know why they’re looking for men?”
“They’ve had trouble keeping crews on since the fires a few years back. Fourteen, dead as doornails. Some burned up so bad you couldn’t tell ’em apart. A half dozen they never found at all. I’m telling you, Jack, it’s not worth the pennies they’d pay you.”
“I hear you. I do, but… well, I’m backed up against a wall. I’m just not sure how to work it out.”
“You need to make it through until harvest? You got seed money for the spring?”
Jack gave a wry smile. “As long as we don’t eat between now and then.”
“You’ve got carrots and potatoes sacked away, haven’t you?”
“You get yourself a moose yet?”
Jack shook his head. “Never been much of a hunter.”
“Well, see here—that’s all you need to do. Hang some meat in the barn, and you and the wife will be set till spring. It won’t be cake and caviar, but you won’t starve.”
Jack looked into his empty coffee mug.
“That’s how it goes for a lot of us,” George said. “Those first years are lean. I’m telling you, you might get sick of moose and potatoes, but you’ll keep your neck safe.”
As if it were all settled, George finished off his piece of pie in a few huge bites, wiped his mouth with the napkin, and stood. He reached a hand down to Jack.
“Better get going. Esther will accuse me of pissing the day away if I don’t get on home.” His handshake was steady and friendly. “Don’t forget what I said, though. And when it comes to getting those fields cleared, we’d be glad to come over and help you out. Can make the day go faster to have company.”
Jack nodded. “I appreciate that.”
He sat alone at the table. Maybe it was a mistake isolating themselves the way they had, Mabel without a single woman friend to talk with. George’s wife could be a godsend, especially if he went north to work at the mine and Mabel was left alone at the homestead.
She would say otherwise. Hadn’t they left all that behind to start a new life with just the two of them? I need peace and quiet, she’d told him more than once. She had withered and shrunk in on herself, and it began when they lost that baby. She said she couldn’t bear to attend another family gathering with all the silly banter and gossip. But Jack remembered more. He remembered the pregnant women smiling as they stroked their bellies, and the newborn infants wailing as they were passed among the relatives. He remembered the little girl who had tugged at Mabel’s skirts and called her “Mama,” mistaking her for another woman, and Mabel looking as if she had been
backhanded. He remembered, too, that he had failed her, had gone on talking with a group of men and pretended he hadn’t seen.
The Bensons’ oldest son was about to be married, and soon enough there would be a baby toddling about the house. He thought of Mabel, that small, sad smile and the wince at the inside corners of her eyes that should have made tears but never did.
He nodded at Betty as he picked up the empty crate and walked out to the wagon.
he leaden sky seemed to hold its breath. December grew near, and still there was no snow in the valley. For several days, the thermometers held at twenty-five below zero. When Mabel went out to feed the chickens, she was stunned by the cold. It cut through her skin and ached in her hip bones and knuckles. She watched a few dry snowflakes fall, but it was only a dusting, and the river wind swept it against exposed rocks and stumps in small, dirty drifts. It was difficult to discern the scant snow from the fine glacial silt, blown in gusts from the riverbed, that coated everything.