Charlie didn’t mind the sun beating down because his hat saved the back of his neck. Anyway, soon enough it would change into a gray, damp chill. He didn’t mind the humidity; he was raised in it and hardly noticed. He didn’t even mind the bone-tiredness at the end of a hard day. But the thing he did mind – the thing that didn’t change, day in or day out, year in or year out – was the never-ending bellyaching of the men. He got sick of that.
They were good men, most of them, crowded on the motorcar along with the shovels and picks and sledge hammers. Not that it mattered. His crew had completely turned over more than once. The men had changed, but not the griping. A new fella could be counted on to start up complaining within a month, even in these times. Like it was some kind of working man’s birthright, passed on from one to the next without a word. It was an interesting thing when he thought about it.
They were quiet now, not being able to talk over the grind of the motorcar’s engine and the rapid clackity, clackity, clackity of the steel wheels over the rail joints. Charlie allowed himself the luxury of daydreaming.
Along about mid morning, they got to the spot they had flagged the day before, where a gullywasher had started to erode the earth under the tracks. Charlie had seen the smooth courses the water made in the dirt, with the gravel leaking down them in long fingers. He’d studied the angle of them, and the depth. Overnight he’d worked out in his mind exactly how they would shore up the weak area and save themselves repairing it again and again. Davis and Reynolds loaded up some long ties this morning for just that purpose. Charlie cut the motor and braked the car.
The eight men jumped down, their heavy work boots crunching in the gravel. “Whooeee! What’s that stench?” hollered Reynolds. He stuck his scrawny forearm up under his nose.
“Sump’n dead,” said Leroy.
“Think so?” answered Reynolds sarcastically.
“Leroy, go check on it,” Charlie felt the air move on the left side of his face. “It’s comin’ from up the tracks. Make sure it ain’t human.”
Leroy started up the right-of-way. He spat on the dirt as he passed by Reynolds, not close enough that he was spitting at him, but near enough to make his point.
“Reynolds! You and Palmer get a couple of shovels and start us a trench to set these ties in. The rest of us’ll unload.”
Charlie didn’t like seeing Reynolds stop beside Dave and whisper something that made them both guffaw like hyenas. Dave was a good kid, but dumb as a box of rocks the way he saw it. Else why would he hang on every word of a smart aleck like Reynolds? Even so, now wasn’t the time to make any more of it than had been made already.
They’d scarcely got the motor car unloaded when Leroy came running back, panting about a dead mule on the right-of-way about a quarter mile up the tracks. The men had been griping nonstop about having to work downwind of the stench, and Charlie figured he’d rather break off the work than listen to it the rest of the morning.
“Let’s go on up there and bury it. Then we’ll come back here,” he told them. “Get some shovels and we’ll take the motor car.”
The mule had been there more than a couple of days from the look and the smell of it. Whatever train killed it had knocked it thirty feet from the tracks into a clump of Johnson grass where its belly had swelled up in the August heat. Charlie shook his head over the waste.
Palmer whistled, “Man, that ‘un’s ripe!”
Dave thumped the carcass’s taut gray hide. “Sounds just like a ripe melon.”
Reynolds grinned, “Cut ya off a slice, Davey.”
This brought a round of laughter from the men.
“Yea, somebody bring me a knife and I’ll carve it up for us,” laughed Dave.
Charlie ignored all this and kicked at the ground near the mule with his boot heel. “This here ain’t too hard. We’ll just dig a hole right close to it and roll it in.”
The men took turns digging three at a time, so that nobody got too worn out. They got used to the smell and it wasn’t so overpowering as at first. Charlie pulled out his pocket watch and clicked it open. They were still working with plenty of time before the three o’clock Texarkana came through.
Every one of them misjudged the size of the hole. Truth to tell, it was big enough for a plow horse, but that mule was mighty bloated. Charlie saw their mistake the minute they rolled the carcass over. The rounded gray belly stuck up a foot, but by then it was too late to dig any deeper.
“Well, that’s a fine how-do-you-do,” Charlie tipped back his hat and studied the hole.
“Let’s just mound the dirt on top of it,” suggested Dave.
“Rain’ll wash it off and leave a mess,” answered Palmer.
“Let th’ air out of it,” said Leroy.
Charlie looked at him.
“Yeah,” agreed Palmer, “We can punch a hole in the carcass and let the gas out.”
There was a lot of discussion about who would do the punching, with no one too eager to take the job. It finally fell around that it was Leroy’s idea so he ought to be the one.
“What do you think, Leroy?” asked Charlie.
“Well, I reckon they’s right. I’m the one what thought it up.”
“Yea, but that don’t mean you have to do it, less’n you’re willin’.”
Leroy looked at the carcass, “Well, I reckon I’s done plenty worse. I’m willin’.”
“All right, then.” Charlie went to the motor car and fetched a long spike out of the spare parts box. He walked back to the cluster of men and handed it to Leroy, who knelt down beside the pit.
“Here goes nothin’,” he said. He raised his arm high up over his head and drove the spike into that dead mule’s stretched-tight gut with all his strength. The pressure tore the puncture open the minute the spike broke the skin. Everything inside blew out in a gush of putrification right into Leroy’s face. The boy Dave got sick on the spot. Everybody else backed up, some laughing and others turning away in disgust.
Leroy spit and gagged and wiped with his shirtail, but what he needed was water and a lot of it.
Charlie held his handkerchief to his nose against the vicious odor. “Leroy, take the motor car. There’s a creek a couple of miles up the track where you can wash off. Go on!”
Reynolds turned his head sideways as Leroy passed by, but Charlie could still make out “stupid” and something else.
It was after dark by the time the section gang unloaded in the yard. They were all bone-tired and anxious to get home to supper and their families. Charlie asked Reynolds to wait up for him while he signed in the motor car and logged their hours for the day.
Reynolds was just a shadow standing over against the yard gate. “What is it, Boss?” he asked when Charlie strode up to him.
Charlie pulled out his wallet and unfolded two twenty dollar bills. He handed them to the gaunt man.
“It’s your pay for this week.”
Reynolds made no move to take the cash. “But it’s only Wednesday,” he said.
“I want ya t’ clear out, Bill.”
“You cain’t fire me. I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”
“I’m lettin’ ya go.”
“I got a fambly t’ feed.”
Charlie pursed his lips, then looked Reynolds in the eye. “Yeah, I know you do. An’ I reckon I know about how much o’ that paycheck them children see with you comin’ in here whisky-soaked ever’ mornin’.”
“You listen to me. I got friends won’t like this. Them’s th’ kinda friends you don’t want for enemies. No sir!”
“You can take this now, or you can come by on Friday and pick up a half-week’s pay. Your choice.”
Reynolds snatched the money from Charlie’s hand. “You ain’t heard th’ last of me, Charlie Stockman! No sir, you ain’t heard th’ last of me! Not by a long shot!”
Charlie walked to the car with Reynolds standing there cussing him.
He jerked the door wide, then leaned on it and faced the angry man. He opened his mouth to say something, but changed his mind and closed it. “T’ain’t worth it,” he muttered as he climbed inside. He slammed the door and drove home to Ada and the girls.
© 1996 Melissa Kay Simonds