by Matthew Sanborn Smith
A hotter day I think I had never seen. Listening to old Martin, not being able to get away, well it was like sitting in a pot of Sarah's stew the way she talks to it to coax out the flavor. I decided right then and there to buy the old man a dog so's he'd leave me be for once.
"Ah, Jacob," he says, "You should be mighty proud of yourself, what with the boys working so hard and all. And on their free day! You're sure to get that promotion once Portly Porter hears about this."
It was the same thing over and over again. Of what a fine man I was and how pleased they'd all be to see me as their boss. Soon he'd be spit-polishing my boots to tie up his future with me. I changed my mind and decided to save my money on the dog. Martin would be the first man I fired.
Still, for today, while we were peers, his honey-soaked droning went on and on. And so you can imagine my relief as the boys came around, swathed in clots of filth and sweat.
"Well, we're half-a-ways there now , Jake," Thorn said to me. He was a thin, dark-haired man. His muscles were stretched across his knobby frame just a little too tight, like they'd snap at any time.
"Just so long as you can make it through the other half," I said, throwing them the waterskin. "And see that Daniel gets some of that too."
Big yellow-bearded Kelly licked the dirt from his teeth, waiting for his turn at the skin. He threw the shovel into the ground so that it stood upright (he was a strong one, all right) and plopped himself down onto the dirt.
"Yeah, he'll get his fair share for the work that he's done."
I pointed a snot-sticky finger at him (I'd forgotten my rag at home). "Now, Kelly, Daniel's duties for today are just "
I stopped short, for I talked of the Devil and he had come.
"I believe Mr. Barlay is starting to stir, Mr. Lawton," the young boy said, almost out of breath.
Thorn cursed. "I'd hoped he wouldn't wake till this was over and done with."
"It'll be better this way, you'll see," Kelly spat.
I slapped Daniel on the shoulder without taking my eyes from Kelly. "That's a good lad, Danny, watching the overseer for us. I'll see to him now."
Barlay lay on his side when I pulled the blanket away. His head rolled about like it was ready to twist off the shoulders. He was heavier than I'd expected from such a slight man. But then in his condition he was practically dead weight.
"There now, Mr. Barlay. Yes, it is awfully bright, isn't it? Come and let's get you out of the sun. It's somewhat cooler down here also, I should say."
I generally like to think of myself as a strong man, but I'm ashamed to say I cringed when I saw the size of the lump on his head.
"Lord the pain must be unbearable! Here, let me give you something to bite down on."
I dug down into my pockets and came up empty. For a second time I swore for forgetting my rag, and then remembered I'd forgotten the man's blanket too. But then, inspiration! I pulled at my boot to shuck off a sweat-soaked stocking and stuffed it full into his mouth.
"No need, Mr. Barlay, sir. The least I could do. And don't worry about a thing. We'll be done with our work soon, and I'd be more than happy to fill in for you at Porter's tomorrow morning."
I slipped back into my boot, more aware now of the hole in the side, and stretched my weary bones.
"Thorn! Kelley!" I shouted, straining my dry throat. "Come and cover this poor man up!"
The finishing went much faster than the starting, I'm pleased to say. Though it wasn't the type of work we were used to, the boys threw themselves into it with a ferocity that was as uncommon as the heat, and with Daniel now putting his back into it, we were done in time for a pint before supper. We cut through the woods on the way back and old Martin stopped at the spring to fill his waterskin. I dug into my remaining stocking and fished out two bits. It was five cents a head at Riley's. I had just enough for all of us. "You'll want to hold up on that skin," I said to Martin. "The pints are on me."
This got me a couple of whoops, the loudest being from Daniel, whose mother strongly believed in temperance. Their pace had markedly picked up from that point and they all laughed when I pointed it out.
"Ah, but you've certainly earned it, men, for a good day's work. It was as fine a burial as I've ever seen."