The December snowfall bedecked the trees in white lace. Rust and golden yellow leaves mingled with the snow as they fluttered in gusts of wind. Anchorage was the boomtown of the north. Hotels swelled with eager visitors. Cruise ships, sightseeing trains, and touring buses zoomed across the unforgiving, wild territory, searching for glaciers, wildlife, and mountains. Languages of all varieties filled the crowded restaurants, and merchants bulked up their inventory and tripled their staff to cater to the legions of travelers.
The Golden Eagle Steakhouse, situated on the northwest fringe of the city, was a famous destination. Listed in several tourist books as the "best booze and beef in America," the restaurant bulged with hungry strangers willing to part quickly with their money. The bar occupied more than half the restaurant with lighted shelves displaying bottles of whiskey, scotch, gin, vodka, rye, and specialty cocktails named "The Meanest Mule" and "The Belly Up." The bartenders tossed bottles in the air, sprayed each other with water, and poured out compliments to any woman in sight.
Huske sat in a back booth, hardly visible in the dim light. It was one of his many stakeouts. From the corner booth, he scrutinized the line of people entering the front and back doors of the bar. He'd have a beer or two, listen to the music. One of ‘em will show up soon enough, he thought, just gotta wait ‘em out. A man on the dance floor was swaying back and forth, each time circling nearer to the floor. Huske watched him stagger and fall face down with a thwack. The crowded dance floor swallowed him up as the couples stepped over him, hooting and howling. The bartender smiled and waved at him. Guess I'm one of the regulars, he thought, waving back. At the bar, a young couple held hands, foreheads touching, smiling at each other. The man leaned toward her every few minutes and kissed her on the cheek. An enormous gold-embossed clock over the bar struck 10:00 PM. Huske drummed his fingers on the tabletop until a jolt of pain struck. His blackened thumb had enough nerves to remind him of the treacherous trek to Anchorage after being abandoned by Cyrus and T-Bone. Without gloves, headlight, coat, rifle, snowshoes. They left him behind with his wood toboggan. They'd have taken that, too, if it fit in the bird, he thought. When he arrived in Anchorage, his thumb and two toes were frostbitten, and his left nostril would never draw a breath again. The first time he looked in a mirror at the hospital, he shrieked at the sight of the black spots on his cheeks and his nose, a black monstrosity.
“I brought you another beer. Roughneck Stout, right?
Huske looked up, startled by the sudden appearance of the stranger. He'd seen her before, always with a gaggle of other women. "Uh … uh … thanks.”
She slid the bottle toward him. She yanked her fuchsia, sequined shawl over her shoulder. “Looks like I disturbed your reverie,” she said, smiling. Red lipstick like a neon sign and heavy mascara outlined her wide, gray eyes, obscuring her eyelids.
“Yeah, uh, I guess," Huske grunted.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it.” She leaned over the table toward him and slid the bottle right to the edge of the table in front of him, her heavy full breasts partially exposed through the lace blouse. Huske reddened and looked away. She smiled. “My name’s Zella, just in case you want to know.”
Huske watched her walk away, her bulky hips swinging in the tight dress. She disappeared into a group of women standing next to the bar.
Hope she leaves me alone, Huske thought. I don't need complications. They gotta show up here sooner or later. Get some booze in ‘em, and they'll be bragging louder than the music. Huske studied his black thumb, rubbed his hands together to ease the numbing pain, and wriggled his toes inside his shoes to keep the circulation. The second beer soothed his throat, and he tilted his head back against the booth and closed his eyes. When he opened them a moment later, Cyrus was standing at the door.
Huske jolted upright, his eyes fixed on the figure. His stomach somersaulted, and he swallowed a few times to push the sensation back. Cyrus was alone. He was wearing a leather vest over a dressy pale blue shirt. A canvas cowboy rested unevenly on his head. His beard was gone, exposing a bulldog jaw and hollow cheeks. Close-set, sunken eyes peered out from under the brim of his hat, scanning the room. Cyrus lit a cigarette, wandered through the crowd to the bar, and ordered a drink. He leaned back on the bar counter, watching the dancers. Huske craned his neck to keep him in sight. Suddenly, the woman was standing in front of him, blocking his view of Cyrus. Before he had a chance to speak, she plopped down in the booth across from him. An odor of sweat and musk oil trailed her. Silver ring earrings touched the top of her shoulders. She shook her head, releasing the musky smell as she pulled several hairpins out of her triple-stacked hair. She flung them on the table as one bounced into Huske’s beer.
“Oh my, that feels better already,” she purred. “Hope you don’t mind if I relax a bit and keep you company. My friends over there talk too much.” She pointed to the group of women at the bar.
“Well, ma’am,” he said abruptly, “I ain’t looking for no company. Just killing a little time and listening to the music.
“Wanna dance? She winked.
“Umm, no ma’am, thank you.”
“OK,” Zella replied in a velvety voice. She turned her body as if to leave but settled back into the booth. She winked again.
“Why you winking at me?” Huske asked gruffly.
Zella barked out a laugh. “Well, aren’t you something,” her feet below the table searching for his. “Where on earth did you come from?” Another wink as she scrutinized Huske’s face. She made no sign of leaving.
Huske furrowed his brows, his eyes narrowed. "Look," he said, exasperated, "I'm trying to be nice and neighborly, but …" Before he could finish, Cyrus slid into the booth next to Zella. She recoiled in surprise.
“Hello, Huske," Cyrus said in a sinister voice. "Didn't expect to see you here." He grinned with stretched lips that distorted his face into a grimace. His ferret eyes glared at Huske. "Your face is even uglier than last time I saw it."
A wave of terror surged through Huske’s bloodstream. He saw Zella’s frightened expression as Cyrus put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her against him with a violent thrust.
“Leave the lady alone,” Huske said quietly. “She’s got nothing to do with you and me.”
"Now, why would I do that? She's taken such a liking to me." Cyrus wrapped her scarf around her neck and tightened it like a noose.
“Zella,” said Huske quietly to her, “don’t be afraid. He won’t hurt you. Me and him gonna leave and you’re gonna go about your business, OK?”
Zella nodded. Tears and mascara dripped in dark lines down the sides of her face.
Oh, I dunno about that,” whispered Cyrus in her ear. “I think the three of us should get some fresh air. Beauty of a night, clear as a mountain lake, stars all over. Perfect for romance.” Cyrus spun a hairpin around two fingers and shot it at Huske. It landed on his shirt and fell. "Besides, I can't strangle her to death right here." Cyrus flicked another hairpin. It struck Huske in his neck, bounced off, and landed back on the table.
Huske was watching Zella. She was crying, gulps of panic, trying to catch her breath. Cyrus laughed, still holding Zella against him but watching Huske.
“Don’t be afraid, Zella,” Huske said calmy. “You’ll be alright. I promise.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Huske,” Cyrus muttered. “You should know better than that. But then, you’re dumb as a rock, always have been, always will be.” He clutched Zella’s hair and shoved her to the end of the booth. She cringed and huddled against the wall. “Like I said, me and you and this sacked lady are leaving here, nice and quiet." He slid out of the booth, grabbed Zella's arm, dragging her behind him like a ragdoll.
“Take your hands off her, Cyrus.” Huske’s body tightened, and he pounded the table lightly with his fist. "I ain’t leaving this bar with you till you let her go.”
Cyrus tightened his grip on Zella's neck. He jerked his head toward her and spit in her face. She started trembling but didn't move. Cyrus grabbed her chin and held her face close to his. "You like this misfit, do ya? Got nothing upstairs.” Cyrus sneered, his eyes darting back to Huske.
“Let the woman go.” Huske rose slowly out of the booth and stood within inches of Cyrus. “Take your hands off the lady.” Huske towered over Cyrus and doubled him in bulk and muscle. “Zella, you go nice and quiet now. And Cyrus, me and you can have that talk. I could use a little fresh air about now.”
Cyrus spat in Huske’s face, the warm mucous dribbling down Huske’s cheeks and beard. In a flash, Huske grabbed Cyrus' wrist and tightened his fingers like a vise. Cyrus yelled and let go of Zella. One of her spiked heels broke off and fell under the booth. She scurried away, half-hopping across the room. Cyrus wrung his wrist out of Huske’s grip, plunged his hand into his pocket, and drew out a switchblade. Huske anticipated the move; he knew Cyrus’ habits from their years together. Always carried a knife, usually a gun too, and quick to use either. In a flash, Huske knocked the switchblade out of Cyrus’ hand. It sailed through the air, landing a few feet from the pool table. Cyrus, surprised by Huske’s quickness, punched him in the face. His fist grazed Huske’s left cheek. Huske ducked, circled his fingers around Cyrus' neck, and lifted him off the ground by his throat. Cyrus coughed, his feet dangling, wriggling to get free. Huske held him in mid-air. Cyrus gagged and raised his hands frantically in surrender. Huske let go. Cyrus dropped to the ground.
Huske was holding Cyrus’ knife. “I’ll hold on to this,” he said quietly. “Still want to have that talk?”
“No,” mumbled Cyrus, leaning on the table, rubbing his neck.
“Hand me one of those over there,” Huske pointed to a stack of napkins, “I’d like to wipe your spit off my face.”
Cyrus, hunched over the table, still clutching his neck. He handed a napkin to Huske without looking at him.
“And pick up those hairpins. “You’re gonna return them to the lady with your apology.”
Cyrus collected the hairpins and glared at Huske. “Do it yourself, misfit,” Cyrus mumbled, grabbing the edge of the table to stand up. He threw the hairpins in Huske’s face. In an instant, Huske circled his neck with his gigantic hand. Feet off the floor again. Cyrus squirmed and groaned, gesturing surrender.
Huske dropped him. “Pick ‘em up, give ‘em back to the lady, and apologize." He leaned down, grabbed Cyrus by the front of his jacket, and stood him back on his feet. Cyrus picked up the hairpins scattered around him. Huske followed Cyrus to the end of the bar near the restrooms. Zella walked out, her head down, hair falling over her shoulders, covering her face. The mascara trails were gone. She looked up, startled at the sight of them.
“Ma’am, Cyrus here has something to say to you, if you don’t mind.” Huske positioned himself between them.
"Here, these are yours," sputtered Cyrus. He handed her the hairpins. “Sorry.” He grimaced at Huske. “You’ll regret this, I promise you.” He straightened his coat and started for the door.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Huske shouted after him. He watched Cyrus stagger to the door and considered following him. Still holding Cyrus' knife in his hand, Huske dropped it in his pocket and turned back to Zella.
“Wanna sit for a few minutes? Huske asked.
“Alright,” she whispered. “I'll be right back." Zella pulled off her shoe and threw it in the garbage can next to her. "One heel isn’t much use.” She turned back to the bathroom. “I'll just be a minute. Want to wash my face again."
”The bartender was grinning as Huske sat down at the bar.” My name’s Sam. Want another beer?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Huske felt shaky, beginning to feel the impact of the encounter with Cyrus. He was worried about the woman. He looked toward the bathroom. “Hope she’s OK.”
“You talking about Zella Blue,” asked Sam.
“That her last name?”
Yep, married name. Don’t know what it was before that.” Sam looked away. “I’ll get you that beer. I know what Zella drinks.”
“I wouldna guessed she was married,” Huske said, disappointed without knowing why. “Seemed mighty friendly to me.” Huske blushed.
“Zella’s friendly to everyone. People love her around here.”
“I can see why,” replied Huske, feigning indifference.
The bartender returned with a beer and a pink drink in a frosted martini glass. “Tell Zella this one’s on the house.”
“Sounds like you know her pretty well,” said Huske, keeping the conversation going.
“Yep.” He leaned forward toward Huske. "Husband died about three years ago. Motorcycle accident on Seward Highway, a truck drifted into his lane on a curve. He never saw it coming.” Sam sighed and put both hands, flat-palmed, on the bar. "Both drivers dead on impact."
“That’s terrible. Huske rubbed his head with both hands. “Just terrible.”
Sam poured whiskey into a small glass and handed it to Huske. “Yeah. He was a good man. They’d just finished building a cabin in the mountains when it happened.” Sam stopped for a moment, staring vacantly past Huske. “Zella didn't come out of her house for a year, didn't go near the new cabin. Then one day, she walked in here, said it was time she got on with her life. None of us talked about the accident again.”
Huske twirled knots of hair in his beard, shaking his head. “Terrible.” He belted down the whiskey in one gulp.
“Yeah.” Sam wiped the counter with a wet rag, then poured another drink for Huske. "Think it's helped, though, getting back to work here. People were sure happy to see her again.”
Huske slid the glass back and forth in front of him. “She sure seems nice, mighty friendly.”
“Hey, Zella, there you are,” shouted Sam. “Sit down here with our new friend and have a drink.” He set the cocktail in front of her.
“Thank you, Sam, I’ll buy for both of us,” she said, looking at Huske’s empty whiskey glass.
“Your money’s no good here, Zella.” Sam patted her hand.
Zella smiled. “Don’t know what I’d do without you, Sam.” She turned to Huske. “Can we sit in that booth over there?” Her voice sounded timid and muffled. She picked up her glass by the stem and walked to the booth. Huske followed her and sat down across from her.
‘You OK?" he asked in a hushed voice.
“I’m really sorry about what happened,” he continued. “I didn’t figure on you getting in the middle of that.” Huske pulled on his beard. Zella glanced at him for a moment, her eyes wet with tears. She looks prettier without all that make-up, he thought. She was holding her hoop earring in her hand, her fingers trembling as she spun the other one on the table.
Sam was back, hovering over the table, studying Zella. "I'll bring you some water since you haven't touched that drink." He leaned over and kissed the top of her head. He came back with two glasses of water and placed them both in front of Zella, glancing warily at Huske.
Huske took one of the glasses and slid it closer to Zella. She took a sip. He glanced around the emptying bar. A couple on the dance floor was slouched over, rocking slowly to the music. Two drunk men were throwing darts at a wall without a dartboard. The pool table was abandoned but for beer bottles and cocktail glasses along its edges. When he glanced back at Zella, she was looking straight into his eyes.
“Nothing like that’s ever happened to me,” she said softly. “The guys here watch out for me.”
Huske’s eyes brimmed with tears, and words lodged in the bottom of his throat. He choked and looked away from her, wiping his cheeks hurriedly with his sleeve.
“Zella,” he said, bowing his head and putting his face in his hands. “I’m so sorry what happened tonight. It was all my fault.”
“What’s your name?” Zella asked in a gentle voice.
“Huske," she repeated. It fell on his ears like a prayer. He looked up at her. Her face was pale and calm. The corners of her mouth turned upward into a soft smile. She reached across the table toward his face. Her long slender fingers with bright turquoise nail polish drifted gently across his forehead, then down to the hardened dead black skin on the side of his nose. “What happened?”
“A snowstorm on Baker.”
She took his hand, kissed his blackened thumb, and rested her forehead in his open palm.