Butte, Montana, present day, mid-December
Cold didn't bother him anymore, but he remembered how it felt: the sharp bite of winter on toes, fingers, nose and ears. Even with modern adaptations, ten degrees below zero wouldn't be pleasant. Neither the temperature or falling snow kept people out of the streets for the Christmas stroll, however. Hot apple cider, freshly made sausages, and abundant cookies under the streetlights strove to make up for the nasty weather -- none of which were useful sustenance for him. He passed them by with scarce a glance.
Well, then, he thought impatient with himself, what are you doing here? He had no more answer now than he'd had two nights ago when he'd arrived.
The people who lived in the old mining town had always known how to party. In a hundred years that hadn't changed. Brutal climate, hard and dangerous work brought a certain clarity to the need for pleasure.
His Chinese face garnered a few looks -- curiosity, no more. A century ago, Butte had had a large Chinese population. Then, the looks he'd garnered had been dismissive up on the street level -- but full of eagerness or fear down in his father's opium den in the mining tunnels where Thomas had been both guide and enforcer.
It was not just the looks that had changed. The streets were not cobbled, there were no trolleys, no horses. Steep streets had been somewhat tamed and the town -- once a bustling, busy place -- had a desolate air, despite the festive decorations. Buildings he remembered had were abandoned or gone altogether, replaced by parking lots or parks. The few restored or well-kept buildings only made the rest look worse.
Some of the changes were vast improvements. The smelters and ore processing plants long closed, meant that the sulfurous fog that had made it difficult to see across the street was gone. The air was immensely more pleasant to breath. The night was free of the constant noise of the machinery that churned day and night.
The crowd who moved beside him on the sidewalks was a respectable size, though much smaller than the ones who had filled the streets of his memories. He hadn't decided to count that on the good side or the bad side of the changes.
He put his hands in front of his mouth and blew, a gesture to blend in, no more. Even had his hands been frozen, his breath wouldn't warm them.
He didn't know why he'd come back here. Just in time for the Christmas Stroll no less. He wasn't a Christian despite the nuns who had ensured he could read and write: an education for her children was the only thing his quiet, obedient mother had ever stood up to his father for.
If . . . if he did believe, he have to believe he was damned, and had been since his father had brought him to the old man.
Butte, Montana 1892, April
“Here is the son,” his father said, his voice less clear than usual. It was hard to talk with a mouth that had been hit so many times.
Last night his father had been set upon by a group of miners who wanted opium and had not wanted to pay for it. They had beaten Father and tied him up. It had been Thomas's day to protect the shop, his older brother away on other business. Thomas had been shot in the arm and while he tried to staunch the blood, one of the miners had cracked his skull with a beer bottle.
When Thomas awoke, his mother had bandaged his hurts and was crying silently as she sometimes did. From his brother, because his father would not look at him nor talk to him, he learned that his father had given the men what they wanted and more -- arsenic in the opium would ensure that they thieved from no one again. But despite the ultimate victory in the fight, his father felt that his honor and that of his family had been impinged. He made it clear that he blamed Thomas for the shame.