The Timberline Crew
EMMETT plucked at the glittering plastic stud, working his short nails around the edge and finally prying it loose from the nylon fabric of the blue sports bag. He stuffed it through the small opening where he’d unzipped the bag a fraction and it dropped it with the rest. The pile was growing, but not nearly fast enough.
The other men in the crummy were looking at him like he just arrived from Mars, the bulk of their attention on his “pretty” bag, all decked out with mock diamond studs arranged in lovely heart and flower patterns. Emmett did his best to avoid their critical stares and close his ears to the snickers and snide remarks. It had been with great dismay when he had dragged himself out of bed at four O’clock that morning to discover that Peyton and her little friend had taken it upon themselves to bejewel his bag. Why they would think this would help him fit in on his new job, he hadn’t a clue. But then, they were eight year old girls; to them if it was pretty, it was a good thing. It wasn’t.
The crummy jounced over potholes and thick, sharp rocks that he supposed passed as gravel but felt more like small boulders pushing under the rig’s heavy treaded tires. Emmett grabbed the edge of the window to his right, caked in dust and splatters of dried mud. Had the window been spic-n-pan clean, he wouldn’t have been able to see outside with the choking plumes of dust blasting up from the roughly hewn road.
When he’d climbed on the crummy a couple hours ago down at the Rock Creek work station, he’d never seen so many male bodies garbed in hard hats, hickory shirts, suspenders, riggin’ pants and work boots congregated all in one place before. The workmen had looked like they were headed to a lumberjack convention, with the accumulation of chain saws, axes, gas jugs and tool kits filling up the back space of the rig. The stench of gasoline, bar oil, tobacco and alcohol had clogged the airspace inside the crummy, and now heavy dust added to it, making it hard to breathe.
About time his ass had dropped into the seat, he’d begun to wonder if this would turn out to be the biggest mistake of his life. He stuck out like a sore thumb and kind of felt like a babe in the woods – literally. When he compared his new prison blues jeans and bright red, very clean t-shirt, and spiffy white NIKE’s to the men’s stained, worn hickories, riggin’ pants caked in layers of grease and dirt, and scuffed lace up work boots dropping chunks of dried mud all over the floor of the vehicle – Emmett didn’t need anyone to tell him he was far out of his element.
And his pretty boy looks with a face as smooth as a baby’s butt didn’t assist in lending to a shred of masculinity. Had he been wearing his work garb, even then he wouldn’t have blended. His work clothes were brand new, his hard hat shiny clean right out of the saw shop. The freshly polished black leather work boots sitting on the seat beside him hadn’t a single scuff on them. In fact, except for trying them on once at home, they hadn’t even been worn.
He glanced discreetly through the hoard of gruff, unshaved faces and wondered if any of them would be on the same crew as him. There were four crews up here though, so they could just as easily be a part of any of the other three. When he took in the long, unkempt and slightly greasy locks straggling out beneath old billed caps that either sported logos of machinery companies, Logging outfits, or some lewd remark towards women – Emmett’s little fantasy he’d conjured up of hot sweaty shirtless men, muscles popping as they wielded their chain saws and axes…well, that fantasy crumbled into a pile of disappointed rubble at the bottom of his gut. He supposed he’d spent a little too much time admiring those sexy models merely posing as workmen, getting it into his head that that was reality. Glancing around, he groaned silently; it so wasn’t reality.
Even the younger men on the crummy whom he was certain had decent bodies beneath those grimy clothes, and whose hair was clipped short in crew cuts, just didn’t hold appeal to him. Maybe, ultimately, it was that glaring “pussy lover” look in their eyes that killed it for him. He was pretty sure if he made a pass at any one of them – rather than being “attended” to, it was a safe bet his ass would be hitting dirt and gravel as he was left behind in a plume of dust, rocks spitting in his face.
The two men in front of him were talking incessantly about previous jobs, the various close calls they had experienced, their conversation shifting disjointedly between work chat and how many women they had fucked, what the women did to them, the number of orgasms they had inspired in the women. Emmett was sure that most of what came out of their mouths was heavily embellished. The braggart of the two twisted a little in the bench seat and flopped his arm across the back, a cigarette hanging loosely between his fingers that had long since developed a permanent grime stain to them, the filth creeping like veins through the skin pattern of his fingers and hand. His nails were dirty, the thumb nail longer and chipped at the edge creating a sharp jagged claw-like barb.
His thumb flicked the butt of the cigarette which rained ashes down on Emmett’s clean blue jeans. Emmett glanced at him but said nothing as he simply brushed at his pant leg, the ashes smearing and leaving a dull gray streak on the denim. When another deliberate flick of the cigarette dumped more of the deposit down on him, Emmett looked up. The man brought his hand to his mouth and took a long drag then blew the smoke back into Emmett’s face, and smiled dryly.
Emmett looked away but it didn’t discourage the man from speaking to him. “What the fuck you doing up here?” he smirked, and the guy next to him twisted around and hung his arm over the back of the seat and stared at Emmett. “You lost?”
His friend snorted.
“No,” Emmett mumbled and glued his eyes to the dirty window. He’d hoped to make it all the way to the landing without any direct interaction with these guys. He’d almost made it.
“I’m Bill.” He stuffed the cigarette between his lips then shoved his hand towards Emmett and tossed a nod at the other, younger guy. “This is Brad.” The guy just nodded.
Emmett shook his hand and the guy squeezed a little too tight, causing him to wince, his lips twitching around the cigarette. “Emmett,” he spoke low and pulled out of the man’s grasp, his hand aching.
“Nice boots,” Bill observed with a short snort.
What the fuck was wrong with his boots?
“Have you even fucking worn them yet?” Brad’s brow arched skeptically.
Emmett glanced from one to the other and frowned. “No,” he murmured, “Not really.”
“Fuck,” Brad rolled his eyes and shook his head. “You’re in for a world of pain. Only a dumb ass motherfucker wears brand new boots out on the job without breaking them in first.”
Bill shrugged. “He’s right,” he said, “Your feet are gonna be so blistered by the end of the first day, you ain’t gonna be able to walk to the toilet to take a shit – much less get back out there and work.”
Was that true? He tried to tell himself they were just fucking with him, trying to make him feel stupid. But when he recalled how stiffly the boots had hugged his feet, and the hard rear ridge had rubbed the back of his heel, he feared they were right. He was a dumb ass. Why hadn’t he thought of that? He’d had new shoes hurt his feet when he initially wore them – and those were regular sneakers, and he had been walking around on smooth pavement for the most part. Heavy boots out in the brush, traipsing across uneven ground, climbing all over fallen trees, his feet twisting every which way inside the boots. He’d be lucky if his feet weren’t bleeding after the first day.
Fuck. Great way to start things off. He didn’t reply and stared at the floor as the men turned back around, leaving him with a snickered – “Good luck” – as the crummy jerked and crawled up over one last rise before rumbling out onto the Rock Creek landing.
Emmett looked around the cleared landing. Giant piles of limbed timber were stacked high over three quarters of the landing. Log trucks idled and blew black smoke, some equipped with self-loaders and stacking logs on their rear end, while others waited their turn. Caterpillars and skidders rumbled around the edges of the landing, clearing off added ground to make room for more log piles.
Gazing out at the activity, Emmett was thrown forward when the crummy came to a sudden, hard stop. He smacked against the seat in front of him with a grunt and Bill and Brad glanced at him and snorted before leaving their seat and shuffling out of the rig with the other men. Emmett remained seated for a moment, looking out of the filthy window. The noise of the trucks and machinery reverberated against the side of the crummy, the ground trembling beneath the heavy big rigs jockeying for position.
“This is the worst fucking idea you’ve ever had,” Emmett muttered uneasily, his stomach suddenly hurting and feeling a bit queasy.
At one corner of the landing, near a line of Cedars, a small building had been erected and served as a bar and eatery. Nothing fancy; wood blank bar with wooden benches. Alcohol seemed to be the only available drink, and there was no evidence of liquor being sold. Apparently whoever was in charge was smart enough not liquor up the workers before sending them out on the job. Even the alcohol was limited except to those coming off work and who were staying on the landing.
Emmett shouldered his sparkling bag, trying to shield his little sister’s handiwork behind his body, clutched his new work boots in his left hand, and weaved his way through a sea of thick bodies. Someone shifted at the wrong moment and a cork boot came down on Emmett’s sneaker, the corks digging through his shoe and into his toe. “Fuck,” he hissed and jerked his foot loose then limped to the bar and grabbed the very end spot on the last bench. He dropped his boots and bag on the floor at his feet, kicking the bag under the bench a little to hide the decorative gems.
The bartender was a thick guy with a scruffy face, looked to be in his early forties. Bushy eyebrows hovered above dull brown eyes too small for his head. He planted his meaty hands on the bar before Emmett and looked him over skeptically. “You take a wrong turn somewhere, son?” His voice had gravel in it, and his tone wasn’t overly friendly. “’Cause if you’re looking for Hollywood, this ain’t it.”
Emmett’s tongue slid slowly across his lower lip. His mouth was dry and throat parched from the dusty ride up the mountain. “Can I get a beer?” he mumbled.
The man didn’t budge, his thick fingers flexing against the rough surface of the bar. “Sure you’re old enough to drink? You look a bit wet behind the ears.” He smiled but it didn’t comfort Emmett. “Maybe I should card you.”
The dryness in his throat was beginning to make him feel even queasier than his anxiety. “Can I get a beer? Please?”
A dull chuff puffed up the guy’s throat and he reached below the bar and grabbed a bottle, popped the cap off on the edge of the plank slab then set it before Emmett. It wasn’t nearly as cold as he’d hoped it would be, and wondered if the man had deliberately given him a warm beer when it looked like the other men’s bottles were chilled and secreting condensation. Not wishing to pick bones with this guy, Emmett thanked him and downed half the bottle. Warm or not, it felt damn good wetting his whistle.
He set the bottle on the bar and twisted it slowly then checked his watch. The crew chief should be there soon to pick him up. He willed the man to hurry it up. As in the crummy, he was beginning to draw attention – not without the help of Bill and Brad. The two men and a couple of their buddies took up residence on the bench just down from Emmett.
Brad snorted and spoke to the others just loud enough for Emmett to hear. “I’d bet my left nut he’s part of the Timberline crew.”
The guy was right, but why would he just assume that was Emmett’s crew?
“You know why they gave the timberline job to that crew, don’t ya?” One of the others sneered. “’Cause those guys can just fly down into the ravines.”
The others burst out laughing though Emmett really wasn’t picking up on what the man was talking about. Apparently his buddies got it though.
“No,” Brad piped up, “I think they sent them up there hoping they would all take a tumble off the cliffs. Like anyone gives a fuck if they make it out of there in one piece. There’s already too many of them stinking up this world.” Hostility hardened the guy’s voice and Emmett grew uncomfortable as he felt the men’s eyes jumping to him much too often.
“Yeah,” Bill scoffed and tipped up his beer, then wiped his mouth. “He’s gotta be one of the timberline boys. Ain’t no other respectable crew would take him.”
Emmett ducked his head and turned his eyes the other way, though there was only a bare wall to look at. Even so, it was better than meeting their stares and seeing the contempt, rather than just hearing it.
Wyatt’s hand shot back as he started up the steps to the bar, his palm catching Cash hard in the chest, halting the young man rather suddenly. “What?” Cash stared at him.
His flat hand transformed into a fist and one jabbing finger that stabbed the guy between his pecs. “Don’t be stirring up shit, you got it?” Wyatt warned. “We’re just here to grab the new guy and then we’re gone.”
Cash shrugged and grinned. “Me? Cause trouble?” The corner of his mouth quirked and he tried for an innocent look he could never quite pull off.
Wyatt just looked at him. His cockiness might be amusing up on the ridge, but the men down here didn’t find him funny at all. In fact, every trip down to the landing was akin to playing Russian roulette. Wyatt knew what the other loggers thought of him and his crew, and it was only a matter of time before they encountered the wrong group of men at the wrong time.
And Cash was no help. The boy delighted in ribbing the men, making sexual innuendos. And the straight lumberjack did not appreciate being hit on by the same sex.
“Just keep your mouth shut,” Wyatt ordered stiffly. “We’ll just get in and get out. And be on our way.”
“Get in and get out,” Cash smirked, “didn’t know you were into quickies, Chief.”
“Don’t make me punch you,” Wyatt said dryly.
“Sorry.” He wasn’t.
A hard exhale of breath pushed up Wyatt’s throat and he turned around. “Come on.”
The door was a single one inch sheet of wood with hinges securing it to the doorway. Wyatt shoved through with cash ambling in at his heels. He ignored the looks and murmurs, snickers and snide remarks, and searched for his guy. No one here looked “new” but for the kid at the end of the bar and that couldn’t be him.
“Is that him?” Cash leaned close to Wyatt’s shoulder, lips twitching. “He’s purdy.”
Wyatt looked at him then shook his head; the guy was incorrigible. “No,” he said and turned his attention back to the kid. “It can’t be.”
What the hell a kid like that was even doing up here was beyond him, but he surely couldn’t be there to work. His eyes darted around the bar in search of their new recruit; had the guy even shown up? They didn’t have all day. He was supposed to meet them here.
“How’s it goin’ up on the timberline?”
Wyatt glanced briefly at Bill. The guy was a prick. “Fine,” he muttered and let his eyes pass over the man.
“Speaking of fine,” Cash smiled.
“Don’t,” Wyatt warned. But the guy couldn’t help himself.
“Mister Bradly there is looking damn fine.” He winked at Bill’s friend.
Brad scowled. “Fuck you.”
“Is that an invitation?” Cash cocked an eyebrow. “’Cause you know, I got a few minutes. And I’m not opposed to a quickie up against a tree.”
Brad jumped to his feet. “Look, you faggot-”
“Calm down,” Wyatt growled then grabbed Cash by the arm and shoved him the opposite direction. “And you knock your shit off.”
“Aw come on, Wyatt,” Cash grinned, “We were just playing.”
“Oh yeah?” Wyatt hissed low, “You’re gonna play yourself into a bashing if you don’t learn to keep your mouth shut.”
“Are you Wyatt?”
His head snapped up and Wyatt’s stare locked with a pair sapphire eyes as the kid was suddenly standing before him and Cash. He quickly took in the young man’s short brown hair, just a little long in the bangs, long dark lashes that accented his piercing blue eyes, perfectly straight nose, prominent cheeks bones and finally…his soft, pale pink lips. Wyatt’s heart began to pound too fast and too hard as he stared at the young man. A bout of shakes tried to grab him and he fought them off. “Yeah,” he rasped.
“The timberline crew chief?” the kid confirmed.
“Yes,” Wyatt said tightly. No, this kid couldn’t be the new guy. He couldn’t be.
“I’m…” The kid shifted anxiously, eyes darting uneasily towards the other men as they chuckled and made jokes among themselves, but with just enough volume for Wyatt, Cash and the kid to hear. “I’m Emmett. I just joined your crew.”
“Emmett,” Cash surged forward and grasped the kid’s hand. “Great to have you on board. I’m Cash.” He cleared his throat and grinned, “The handsome, sexy one of the crew.”
The boy smiled for the first time and the urge to turn and flee was strong in Wyatt. Is this some kind of twisted joke, God? He growled silently, bitterly as the pain he’d spent the last three years putting down came rushing back to the surface, you haven’t fucked with me enough? You got to throw it back in my face?
“Grab your stuff and let’s get going,” Wyatt muttered gruffly without looking at the kid. “It’s a long way back up to the ridge.”