There was no one at the station to see him off.
Steve paused on the platform, looking back across the station. People jostled him on all sides, crowding into the train, and past the noise of the crowds and the locomotive engines was the noise of the city. Brooklyn--like most of the North--was burgeoning after the war, flooded with new immigrants, new-minted citizens, new opportunities. And he couldn’t bear it. Slamming doors woke him up every night, gasping alert with memories of gunfire and blood. His lively, vibrant city was flourishing, and Steve only felt trapped.
He’d participated in the reconstruction as long as he could, but it wore on his broken heart as the mess worsened and the atrocities stacked. A year after the war he had gone home, only to find that Brooklyn had moved on without him. Steve still felt like the war had never ended.
Lips tilting in a sad smile, he finished his one last glance over his hometown, and stepped onto the train.
Every compartment was filled with bickering adults and chattering children, and Steve made his way through them politely, offering smiles here and there but mostly just trying to find a single empty seat. Finally, in one of the cars near the front, he found an open seat by a window, neglected because the aisle seat next to it was occupied by a very plump gentleman leaning across the aisle to talk loudly to his family on the other side.
“Excuse me,” Steve said, touching him on the shoulder. “May I?”
“What? What? Oh, right you are, lad.” With some grunting and puffing, the gentleman got to his feet and stepped out of the way. Steve slid in against the window, tucking his sad little bag of possessions under the seat. As soon as he was in, the gentleman seated himself with a thud that shook the car. “Broad-shouldered thing, aren’t you?”
“You’ll have to forgive me for that,” Steve said, grinning sheepishly. He was crammed against the window and dwarfed by the man next to him, who promptly resumed his loud conversation with his wife and three children. Across from him was seated a sharp-faced woman on the aisle who cleared her throat indignantly every time someone brushed her with their bag in passing. After the third time this happened, Steve started fighting a smile at the way her tone increased in pitch every time, and he found himself trying not to wonder how high her harrumphs could get. The gentleman next to her wore a flawless dove-gray top hat with a silk band. As Steve sat down, the man lowered his newspaper just enough to take in the sight of Steve squashed in against the wall of the train, shared an amused grin with him, and raised his newspaper back up to continue reading.
The mass of people exchanged itself in Philadelphia as more than half the train scuttled out and was replaced by a new set, just as noisy. A mother and her fourteen-year-old daughter convinced Steve to move so that they could sit side by side. He settled down next to the man with the newspaper, who handed it over to him once he’d finished reading.
“Thanks,” Steve said, appreciative of the gesture, even though from the man’s shrug he supposed it was just as likely that he just didn’t want to hold it anymore. When the teenage daughter started shooting Steve big, flirtatious smiles, he turned red and hid gratefully behind the newspaper, noticing that the man next to him grinned when he did so.
In Pittsburgh, Steve reclaimed his seat next to the window, and passed off the newspaper to a grateful matron. Either the new throng of humanity was smaller, or Steve had simply gotten used to the noise. Fishing his sketchbook out of his bag, he started drawing the lively family of Irish immigrants sitting in a catercorner set of seats.
“Where to?” the man in the top-hat asked when the light outside was growing dim and Steve had to put down his sketchbook.
Steve looked up, considering him anew. His suit was impeccably tailored, but donned sloppily, with his necktie slightly askew. Steve smiled slightly at that, wondering if he’d still have a chance to draw him. “West.”
“Big area,” the man commented.
Steve sensed that he was being teased for not being more specific, but also that the man was willing to let the question go if he was wary of answering it. He smiled a little, feeling a sense of camaraderie. “Figured I’d go for as far as the tracks will take me, and then find work. I thought I might take up with the railroad.”
“Lot of soldiers working the railroad these days.”
Gaze locking on the stranger for a moment, Steve nodded. “That obvious?”
“We all fought in the war, in our own ways,” the man said. “I know the look on people who saw more of it than most.”
He didn’t offer sympathy, just acceptance. Steve appreciated that.
“Trains go as far as North Platte, Nebraska Territory,” the man said. “You can apply for work at the station there.”
Steve nodded his understanding. “Thanks.”
“Or you could take a stagecoach southwest into Colorado.”
Intrigued, Steve’s brows pulled together. “What’s in Colorado?”
“Gold, if you read the papers.”
Steve watched him, interest rising. “But you’re not after gold.”
“No. I have an interest in other minerals that can be pulled from the ground.”
The man held his gaze, pausing a moment too long. “Silver.”
It wasn’t what he had initially meant to say. Steve was sure of it. “Silver,” he repeated, wondering what was more valuable than silver or gold that was under the ground in Colorado.
“There’s a little town in the Rocky Mountains, called Leadville. Richest silver deposits anyone has ever seen.”
Steve found himself smiling just a little. “Then why’d they name it Leadville?”
“Silver is mined in lead carbonate, smart alec.”
That smile widened a little further. He liked this man, and he was curious about Leadville. “And what kind of work might a man find in Leadville?”
“Depends. What was your rank, soldier?”
“Captain. 107th Infantry Division.”
The stranger considered him, and then nodded. “I have a sheriff who needs a deputy. You might be a decent candidate. And if that doesn’t pan out, there’s plenty of construction work, or I could always use able hands in the mines.”
Feeling hope start to return to its place in his chest, Steve held out his hand in greeting. “Steve Rogers.”
The gentleman in the top hat shook his hand neatly. “Tony Stark.”
Steve was startled. “Son of Howard Stark?”
“The same. Although I hope you’ll base your opinion off of my accomplishments rather than my father’s.”
Nodding, Steve gave him his best big, hopeful smile. “I’m sure I will.”
“Then we’ll get along just fine.”
With the lull in the conversation and the darkening sky outside, Steve leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, settling in to sleep where he was. He’d barely closed his eyes when Tony smacked his knee with a book.
Blinking, Steve lifted confused eyes to study his new friend’s face.
“Come on. There’s a spare bunk in my sleeping cabin.”
Steve opened his mouth to offer polite protest, but Tony was already up and walking away, so Steve had to grab his bag and follow after him. “You have a private cabin?”
“Of course I have a private cabin. Why would I ever not have a private cabin?”
That was a sensible question, and Steve found he had no answer. Of course the son of the renowned inventor and industrialist Howard Stark would have a private cabin. “I really can’t impose…”
“And yet here you are, following me. Ah, this is us.” Tony opened the cabin and looked around, nodding once in acceptance of what he found.
It was a tiny little compartment, but still an improvement on the military bunks Steve had slept in. “Fight you for the top bunk,” he said, teasing.
“Surely. Battle of wits?”
Steve put up his hands, grinning. “I surrender.”
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d smiled for this long. Tucking his bag under the bunk, Steve collapsed onto the thin mattress, grateful for his new friend and the relief that he wouldn’t have to spend the next week sleeping upright in a stiff railway seat.
“Don’t you dare snore,” Tony warned.
Steve faked one, just for that.
They switched trains in Chicago, and then again in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the shining new Union Pacific line stretched out west toward the horizon.
“Beautiful sight, isn’t it?” Tony asked, from where they were sitting in the expansive and mostly empty new railway station.
Steve gazed off down the tracks, cutting through the fields into Nebraska Territory. “The tracks of progress? I’m not sure. I heard those tracks evicted a lot of people from their farms and their homes.”
“There’s always a price for progress. They were compensated.”
“What’s the price for progress in Leadville, Mr. Stark?”
Tony turned his head to consider him, dark eyes scanning his face. “I suppose you’ll have to make up your own mind on that.”
“And who are you in this new town? The mayor?”
“Me? God have mercy. No, I’m just the financier. I come up with the crazy ideas and I trust the mayor, sheriff and my head of industries to find ways to implement them.”
That made Steve smile, and he had to admit he was reassured to know that there at least wasn’t a town in Colorado Territory somewhere missing its wayward industrialist mayor. “Why finance a town?”
Head tilting with interest, Steve watched him closer, wondering if that was what he’d not said when he’d answered ‘silver’ earlier. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is.”
“Rarest mineral on Earth. And we found some of it, in the Climax mine. I will dig that mountain to the ground if there’s more.”
Steve’s brows lifted at that statement. “What is it used for?”
“It absorbs vibrations. Incredible stuff. We haven’t even figured out half the ways to implement it yet.”
“Huh.” Steve leaned back in his seat, wondering what kind of arrangement he’d gotten himself into. He needed a job, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about mining mountains to the ground for profit.
“There’s molybdenum, too. Not quite the easy money of the silver in Leadville, but the market for it is growing.”
“Molyb—“ Steve grimaced, bemused. “I really would have lost that battle of wits to you, wouldn’t I?”
“Molybdenum. Used in steel alloys.”
“And you’re going to use it for?”
“Steel alloys. And a few toys I might be developing. I’ll have to show you my workshop. I’m trying to use a vibranium-molybdenum alloy to build armor, but at the current juncture I have mostly just created the lack of explosions.”
Steve felt completely lost in this conversation, but he was somehow enjoying it despite that. “Isn’t the lack of explosions a good thing?”
“No, because things still get destroyed, it’s just that the vibranium dampens the actual explosion.”
Relieved when the train came to rescue him from this, Steve hopped to his feet. He still wondered, though, what Stark was up to with his odd little frontier town.
The train ended in North Platte, Nebraska. The tracks went on past that, seemingly to the horizon, but somewhere off in the distance they ended without a station.
“Still want to join the railroad, Rogers?” Tony asked, as they descended from the station steps along with a flurry of Union Pacific personnel and the few scattered passengers who had come with them to the end of the line.
Steve glanced over with a half smile. “Maybe if I don’t like Leadville.”
They chartered a stagecoach to Denver, which took them south through seemingly endless fields of long, dusty grass and herds of dark buffalo that seemed to be nearly as endless. Each animal seemed like it was near as big as the stagecoach, and when the herd moved across the road around them the horses made skittish noises and the whole stagecoach shifted while the buffalo pushed past. Once they saw an indian tribe crossing along a distant ridge, and the stagecoach men made a big deal of holding their guns across their laps so that the long dark barrels gleamed in the prairie sun.
Tony just frowned without a word, so that Steve wondered if it was the indians that bothered him or the stagecoach men. A few natives lingered back, looking across the plains at the stagecoach, but all of them eventually disappeared over the ridge, leaving the prairie to the possession of the stagecoach and the buffalo.
“That war tore this country apart in more ways than one,” Tony said some time later, and Steve pulled his head out of his heat-daze and blinked at him. “All of us have scars on our hearts from that war. But not them. It wasn’t their war. The war they’ve been fighting has been going on for centuries.”
It wasn’t the sentiment Steve had been expecting, and he felt an ache in his gut at the thought that there was a worse war in the world than the one that had destroyed their country’s hope and innocence and left the South in ruins. A war that was quietly, viciously ongoing, and had been for more than three centuries.
The July heat buzzed across the Great American Desert, making the air shimmer wetly. They stopped by a stream that was flanked on both sides by a stand of cottonwood, the only green trees they’d seen in two days, and Steve tried not to laugh as Tony spent the entire day sneezing.
When there weren’t buffalo, there were prairie dogs living in communities that went on for miles; fat little rodents who sat up on their hind legs and folded their paws politely as the stagecoach went by. Now and then one of them would raise up and seem to bow, in some gesture known only to it, but the motion seemed so peculiarly religious that Steve couldn’t help laughing. Then they’d all dart into their holes and Steve learned to look up at the sky to see a great hawk or eagle circling above, fat and sleek from prairie dog feasts past.
But they kept on, west and south, until the sharktooth blue smudge of the mountains finally broke the seam of the horizon.
“They’re snowcapped,” Steve said, leaning out the stagecoach window.
“What’s your point?”
“Yes, and we’re going right up to those snow caps. You up for a snowball fight in July, Rogers?”
Steve shot a grin at him, feeling like a kid again with the sense of freedom and exploration that he got from all this space. “I’d be willing.”
“You’ve never been out west, have you?”
“Never. Born and raised in Brooklyn. Only ever traveled for the war.”
“Well, you’re going to see some real mountains now. Better get used to them.”
Settling back into his seat but keeping an eye on the window, Steve tried to stop grinning like an idiot. “Your town, it’s in the mountains?”
“And how. Right up at the top. It’s the highest elevation for any town in the United States.”
Tony just shot him a cheeky grin, so Steve wasn’t sure whether or not he was jesting about building a town on top of a mountain.
The Rockies loomed higher as they moved further south and west, until they came to a dusty little town right where the land started to slope. It was made up of tiny one- or two-room cabins that all seemed to be trying to stack on top of each other in the midst of a barren plain, many of which seemed to have been damaged recently by fire and flood. Around the edges—and in some of the more badly damaged areas in the center—the town was made up more of tents than houses.
“Welcome to Denver,” Tony said.
“This is Denver? This can’t be Denver.”
“I can’t believe you’re questioning me.”
Steve frowned out the window again, taking in the disheveled campground of a settlement around them. “I thought Denver was a city.”
They stayed in a ramshackle little two-story inn alongside Cherry Creek, sharing a room with two beds. Steve stood by the window, watching the city meander around repairing and improving itself. Some squabble broke out further down the creek, ending in a group of men throwing punches. Steve itched to intervene. The people closer to them seemed unconcerned, laughing and strolling in the twilight. He saw a pair of young men leaning against trees down by the water, talking softly and then falling silent as a brightly-dressed woman approached them to offer her services.
Steve pushed away from the window, feeling like a voyeur no matter how that interchange turned out. “I wasn’t expecting this.”
Tony shrugged. “Denver wasn’t expecting this, either. Fire, flood, the war, and they haven’t even been here a decade. Leadville’s not so bad off, but we only started building it after the war.”
“I saw Atlanta after the war,” Steve said, crossing his arms and sighing. “More fire, less flood.”
“More to burn than Denver ever had.”
Puzzled, Steve glanced over at him. “The war never came here.”
“No, but the fire and flood did. And then the grasshoppers.”
“Pray you never see a grasshopper swarm that can devastate every plant for miles around, Rogers, that’s all I’m saying.”
Steve looked back out the window, where the big prairie sky was painted in colors of midnight and rose. He’d come west looking for hope and a fresh start. So had Denver, it seemed. “Tell me about your town.”
“We have good people,” Tony said, a grin crossing his face. “I’d be glad to tell you about it. Can we at least go get a drink instead of standing around the room like a pair of idiots?”
“Sure.” Steve followed him downstairs to where a surly barman served them barely-potable whiskey.
“We have better in Leadville,” Tony said, grimacing once the barman had turned his back.
“Everything’s better in Leadville,” Steve teased him.
“It is. We have good people, like I said. Hill, Carter, Wilson, Foster, even Odinson, although god only knows what he actually does other than drink heavily and then disappear for a week at a time. Banner acts as our town doctor, although he likes to spend his time complaining that he’s a physicist and therefore unappreciated. Foster runs the assay office and helps me identify the rocks that come out of our mines along with helping me figure out what to do with them. Wilson’s building an inn, and it helps that he owns the only piano in town, so every night the whole town crams into the front room to listen to Darcy’s godawful singing.”
Smiling again, Steve tried to picture that. “How big is your town?”
“Barely two hundred, but we’re growing fast.”
“What were you doing in Brooklyn?”
“Business. Now you’re snooping.”
Steve swirled his alcohol in his glass and then tried to knock back the rest of it without pulling a face. He didn’t succeed, and had to watch Tony fight laughter. Steve coughed, feeling his eyes water. “You have a lot of secrets.”
“I’m an open book. I told you about the vibranium, didn’t I?”
Tony shrugged. It seemed he thought ‘eventually’ was more than good enough for some upstart former Union soldier headed out west looking for something to renew his faith in humanity.
In the morning, Tony took him to a stable where they knew him and handed over two horses and packs of supplies without question.
“Tell me you can ride, Yankee,” Tony said, giving him a look over the withers of his horse.
Steve returned it as good as he got. “I was an army captain. I can ride.”
“You said infantry.”
“I can ride.”
Tony continued giving him skeptical looks until Steve swung up into the saddle, and then shrugged and got on his own horse.
“Saddle’s a bit different,” Steve allowed, watching Tony closer than he wanted to admit in order to pick up differences in handling between western horses and army horses.
“Yeah, well, cavalry saddle’s not the best thing for heading straight up a mountainside.” Tony shot him a grin as they rode out of town.
“How far to Leadville?”
“Hundred miles, and just the other side of the Continental Divide.”
Denver was still situated on the level plains that they’d been crossing for what felt now like weeks, but as soon as they got west of town the terrain steepened sharply; tumbling into hills, taller hills, and then the sky-stretched mountains behind.
Steve looked back as they crested the pass between two of the taller hills. They’d come so far since that conversation on the train. He could scarce fathom what awaited him in Leadville.
Ahead of him, Tony rode on steadily, face lifted to the unfathomably blue sky. “Why me?”
“It eventually becomes depressing when I only have myself around to sass,” Tony answered, flippant as ever.
Steve smiled. “I’m serious. You traveled two weeks to Brooklyn on some kind of mysterious business, and on your way back you picked up a war-weary stray. You said you were looking for workers—you could have two dozen with you, easily, from Brooklyn. But instead you just chose me nearly at random from the train.”
“It wasn’t at random. You were the only one on the train who made me smile.”
“That’s your criteria for employment?”
Steve shook his head, grinning again to himself. “One of these days I will figure out when you are and aren’t jesting.”
“I hope to delay that day as long as possible.”
They stopped for the night in an eyeblink of a town called Evergreen, and the next night in a busy mining town called Idaho Springs, which seemed to have an entire population of surly male miners with beards that threatened to engulf their heads. The third night they camped out under the stars, on just the thin packrolls that they’d received with the horses.
Steve’s breath caught as the sky darkened into night. Leaning back on his bedroll, he watched the sky flood with the milky way. He’d never seen it like this before—the lights of Brooklyn and the fires of military camps had always drowned out the watery light of the stars. But in the Colorado mountains, with no settlements within miles and the atmosphere stretched thin across the altitude, the stars glowed bright and pure.
“Can you see the stars in Leadville?” Steve asked, wishing that he had the capacity to draw this.
Tony shifted on his bedroll. “What? Of course you can see the stars in Leadville.”
“Like this, I mean.”
“Surely. It’s not like we have the infrastructure for street lamps.”
“I’ve never seen them like this. I get why they call it milky.”
Tony grunted sleepily, and then went quiet. Steve assumed that he’d fallen asleep until he spoke again. “I should probably tell you that we have a bandit problem.”
“A bandit problem?”
“Surely,” Tony replied, and then his tone shifted into the dry sarcasm that Steve was beginning to recognize. “Band of raccoons keeps stealing anything that’s not tied down. Darcy’s taken to calling them the Mitchells gang, although no one knows why. She insists that all raccoons are named Mitchell.”
“Who is Darcy?”
“As far as anyone can tell, she works as an assistant in the assay office. Functionally, she keeps the town’s spirits up. She’s also the only woman in town willing to sing when Sam Wilson plays the piano, so that makes her popular even though her talent is questionable.”
Steve found himself smiling, the way he always did whenever Tony started talking about the people of Leadville. He didn’t know them yet, but they all seemed so familiar. Mayor Hill. Sheriff Carter. Banner, Wilson and Odinson.
“We have a real bandit problem, too.”
“Worse than the raccoons?”
“I have a problem with your sarcasm, Rogers.”
“Tell me about the bandits,” Steve said, offering a temporary truce in their jesting.
“Frontier towns always have problems. Hostile tribes, wild animals, bandits. The bandit problem has gotten worse across the West in the past two years. Lots of disenfranchised Confederate soldiers who no longer have homes and are looking for a war to fight. We have some of those. They’re not particularly good at what they do, so the ones in our area tend to bounce in and out of jail, but there are exceptions.”
Tony fell silent, and Steve glanced over at his form in the darkness. “Exceptions?”
“There’s one group that calls themselves ‘Russian Winter’. At least two of them are Russians, and there are at least three in the gang, including a woman. That’s all we know, except that they’re very good. They’ve been terrorizing towns from Breckenridge to Fairplay for a year now. Leadville’s mostly been spared, but we don’t exactly have much to take just yet.”
“But you do. With your molybdenum and vibranium.”
“Maybe. You ever known bandits to be interested in anything but gold and silver, Rogers?”
Steve remembered a time in the war when he’d entered a town in the south only to bump into a trio of Union soldiers leaving, arms full of valuables and laughing. Steve had stopped in his tracks, words going dry in his throat as he looked out across the burnt town, with the wail of a woman sobbing somewhere nearby. That laughter still haunted his heart and his dreams.
“Yes,” he answered, although he wasn’t thinking of precious metals.