The sounds of the river and the birds, the wind and the crickets, all seemed to fade into the background over time, but the clang of hammers and anvils never did, even in the still of the afternoons. While the animals took shelter from the hot sun, the workers labored on.
Calls split the air and the man at a coal furnace straightened up briefly to look at the structure spanning the river. Behind a thick, canvas apron and long work gloves, his skin rippled with corded muscle, holding a sheen of sweat and a liberal coating of grime.
Without taking his eyes from the structure, he pulled one hand out of a glove and wiped his brow quickly. Blue eyes, far from unusual amongst the Quebecoise workers, stood out startling and clear against soot-streaked skin.
A huge team was accompanying a section of the bridge as it was moved into place to be lifted. Horses strained and men hooked the carrying cables around it. This was as much an art as a science, hard-won lessons in safety mixing with an intuition of which cable might be a bit weak, which specific place on the beam might be best for the cable. The men shouted to one another without looking up, the language of the jobsite and their familiarity with one another helping them move as one unit.
The man at the furnace slid his hand back into the glove and rotated one shoulder with a wince before reaching into the furnace with tongs. Amongst the flames, rivets were heating, and he selected one of just the right shade.
He cast a glance over his shoulder before tossing the glowing rivet through the air. It whistled in a neat arc before it was snatched out of the air by a Catcher with an expert maneuver of an ash-lined leather bucket. The boy flashed a smile before turning to hold the bucket out to a Holder-on, who set the rivet in place on one of the steel beams.
As the Holder-on steadied the rivet, another man gave it several heavy strikes with a hammer, flattening it permanently in place.
By the time the head of the rivet was flattened, the whole operation was beginning again, another rivet already in the air. There was no time for rest at this worksite—or for rubbernecking, no matter how impressive the feats as men hauled great pieces of steel skyward.
On a hill overlooking both the river and the site, a large man stood with his hands in the pockets of his suit pants. His eyes were fixed on the bridge, and there was a frown on his face. He shifted slowly but continuously: crossing his arms, then putting his hands back in his pockets, shifting his weight.
The man with the hammer wiped at his brow with one sleeve and took a sip of water from a nearby jug before looking up. He frowned as well when he saw the man in the suit, and waited for the other to look at him.
When the man in the suit cocked his head in a silent question, the hammerer looked around the worksite. Evidently reassured by what he saw, he gave a nod back to the man in the suit, who relaxed slightly. He wandered away in a slow circle, watching his shoes, lost in thought.
Behind him, a temporary building served as the office for the construction site. Inside lay piles of documents and sketches that never could be kept neat—this wasn’t some city office, after all, but one on an active site, where any set of schematics might need to be pulled out at any time.
The clop of a horse’s hooves sounded, and a whistle split the air.
The suited man looked up to see a young telegram boy on horseback, both horse and rider sweaty from the ride.
“Can I help you?” The man cleared his throat; between the dust and the heat, it was dry.
The boy held up an envelope. “I have a telegram for the site engineer.”
“That’s me.” The man strode over to take the telegram, and, as he tore it open, looked over to where the beam was now being lifted.
The groan began so slowly that it seemed to come from inside the bones of those present. Men began to turn and look before they knew what they were looking at, and the site engineer -scanning the telegram- lifted his head like a deer listening for footsteps. The horse pranced nervously, and the boy reined it in sharply.
There was a pause while the world seemed to hang in complete stillness…and then the groan rose to a metallic screech, accompanied by the indrawn, horrified breath of every man on site. The site engineer burst into motion and sprinted for the slope, but even as he was moving, so was the bridge: sliding, twisting, toppling—