Of Muck & Men

Abstract Christmas Greeting CardYukon Territory, 1904

The bottle slipped from Elizabeth’s fingers and landed with a thud at her feet. She stooped to pick it up, trying unsuccessfully to contain the gold liquid that spilled through a fracture in the glass. Whiskey cascaded through her fingers, staining her dress and seeping into the cracks between the floorboards she had just cleaned. She grabbed a dishtowel and pressed it to the bottle while she searched for a more permanent solution.

The glass lanterns lining the wall flickered and the Arctic wind sent shivers up her spine as the door to Bailey’s Hotel & Saloon opened. “We’re closed.”


This time when the bottle fell, it shattered.

“No one calls me that anymore.” Elizabeth turned and brushed a strand of brown hair behind her ear while she inspected the man who stood before her. He was wearing a parka; the fur framing his face was crusted white with frost. Even his eyelashes were white. He pulled the hood down and removed his scarf, his blue eyes unblinking as he took her in.

The dark stubble on his chin was flecked with grey. Had it been so long?

“Everett, I thought you were dead,” she whispered. She wanted to run to him. Instead, she glanced away as he approached, trying to hide what she knew he’d see.

“I said I’d come back for you.” His voice was low. A whisper. “And you said you’d wait for me. Imagine my surprise when I ran into my ex-partner at the Savoy Theater and found out you were here instead of Seattle—”

The wind howled and the glass windowpanes rattled against the frames. Elizabeth blew hot air onto her fingers. It was so cold in this cursed land, even inside. She couldn’t escape it, no matter how much she stoked the fire in the Pot Belly stove beside the bar. As if it began in her bones and worked its way outward.


Everett removed a mitten and placed a calloused finger under her chin, drawing her face upward. He traced his thumb across her cheek and gently caressed the remnants of the bruise beneath her eye.

“You have to go. If Bailey catches you here, he’ll kill you,” her chin quivered.

“Come with me. I have two tickets over the White Pass to Skagway and just enough dust to book two tickets home. Six years in the Klondike and nothing to show for it. Don’t let me lose you too.”

“I can’t.”

“Liza, you’re wearing a wedding ring—it isn’t a noose coiled around your neck, but it will be if you let it. Dawson City is bust. The mines are played out and there’s nothing for us here. I was wrong. I was wrong about everything, but I was never wrong about you—”

“Then why did you leave me?” She took a step back, hot tears streamed down her cheeks. “Do you know what it’s been like? Being married to him? All this time, thinking you died knee-deep in the muck? You broke us when you chose a dream, Everett. You’d rather have gold in your pocket than love in your heart.”

“Christ! You’re a woman, not an invalid. The Liza I knew would have dragged me back from Hell before she saddled up with a man like Bailey. He and I broke ties in Skagway. How long did you wait before you married him? Two months? Three?

“He told me you died in a landslide.”

Everett clenched his fists until they went white. “That bastard. I swear to God if I see him again I’ll—”

“Everything’s broken.” The words were so quiet she wasn’t sure if they came out at all. She grabbed a birch broom from the corner and swept up the broken glass, spreading whiskey across the floor with the wiry bristles. Outside, a pack of wolves howled. “I was lucky to find him in Skagway. I was lucky Bailey asked for my hand at all.”

Everett placed his hand on her shoulder and drew her close. “It doesn’t feel lucky to me,” he said. His breath was hot on her neck. “It feels like hell.”

“I hate it here,” she said as she turned to look him in the eye. “I hate everything about this wretched land. I haven’t been warm since Seattle. Since you.”

He embraced her, wrapping her in a hug so tight she could feel his chest rise and fall with each breath beneath his parka. “Let me fix it,” he whispered. “Let me make it right. It isn’t too late for us.” His lips were familiar on hers. She kissed him back, her mouth as hungry as the wolves outside.

“Mama?” a voice called from the top of the stairs.

Elizabeth broke from Everett and turned to her daughter. “Alice, get your winter clothes. It’s cold outside.”

Everett’s breath hitched in his throat. “She looks like my sister.”

Elizabeth handed him a coffee tin, rattling with the weight of the few precious nuggets she’d been able to save over the years. “It isn’t enough for me to join you, but it’s all I have to give. You want to make it right?” she asked as she wiped a tear from her eye, “Then get your daughter home safe. Give her what I can’t. I’ll be here when Bailey is finished with the whores at the Savoy. It isn’t much, but I can buy you enough time to catch the train to Skagway. Once I scrape together the funds, I’ll leave him. I’ll do whatever it takes and I’ll find you in Seattle when it’s done.”

The lie rolled easily off her tongue. They both knew Bailey would sooner kill her than set her free. “Promise me you’ll love her as you love me.” She crumbled against him, her heart as heavy as gold dust.

He pressed his lips against her forehead and whispered, “I already do.”

Hylan Baines is an avid reader and new writer. She lives in Portland with her family. She enjoys traveling, Oxford commas, and the local food scene.