1872 - The Fence
Sweat has saturated the band of my straw hat, so I take it off and mop my forehead as best I can with an equally soaked handkerchief. The action gives me a brief respite from the labor, but there's no shelter from the heat, waxing wrothful even in the midst of September. I turn my attention back to the wooden handle of the soil auger, which sticks waist-high out of the ground. My grunts become louder as the drill churns forth mounds of burnt orange clay, each twist requiring more and more of my strength. Thick calfskin gloves protect my hands from splinters, but do nothing for the blisters that have raised and burst across the surface of my palms, weathered though they may be.
"Luther, get the tamping bar ready," I say to the prone figure laying under the shade of a nearby tree.
The lanky ten-year old hustles to my side, with the tool firmly grasped. It's taller than he is, and drags the ground, bouncing in time with his thick brown mop of hair. With a couple of swift tugs, I lift the auger from the hole. It spills the last of the red dirt from its coil. Luther waits patiently as I heft a six-foot post and drop it into the earth. The boy kicks large clods about, breaking them up before dropping them back into the hole. His little arms work meticulously to pack the soil around the pole.
Luther's breath comes in bursts when he asks, "Daddy, why doesn't Avery have to help us with the chores?"
I lean up against the post to steady it, peeling off the gloves to examine the day's damage. "Well son, your Uncle Peter is learnin' him to read."
"I wanna learn to read." The boy says in a voice next to a whisper.
Acting like I don't hear the agitation in his tone, I answer, "If you really wanna learn, ask Avery before bedtime. I'm sure he'd be more'n willing to show you. He looks up to you, y'know?" I wipe the weeping, yellow-tinged fluid onto my pants and blow gently on my calloused palms. The gloves should stay off for a bit longer. The open air feels comforting on the raw, new skin.
"T'ain't right. I'm older, I should be showin' him things. Maybe I could learn him how to tamp dirt?" Luther protests.
"I told ya once, Avery don't need to know nothin' bout our work. I know it don't sound fair, but there's a reason we do things this way."
"I know, Daddy. Grandpa Clive and the Cartwright Fallout."
I look at the boy with a grimace of empathy. "Just because you heard somethin' don't mean you understand it. You will one day. I promise."
Luther's packing down the last few inches of sod at the top when he lets out a shriek. He's managed to scrape his knuckles across the post, leaving a ragged trail on tender hands. I pull a flask from my back pocket and unscrew the lid. Holding my son's hand, I pour a few nips of whiskey out onto the scratches. His face reddens as he yelps in pain.
Letting go of his arm, I say, "Go'wn and blow on it some. That'll help. If it still hurts in a bit, grab some a that fresh-turned dirt and rub it on. It's nice and cool. Heal ya up right quick."
The boy sniffles and rubs the snot from his nose with a forearm. "I'm not fallin' for that again. It hurts."
"See? You can learn plenty ain't in a book." I smile at him, and look back down the row, through the turns. We've installed thirty-three bracers since morning. In front of me stand the remaining few markers left to dig. I clap my son softly on the back and say, "C'mon. Five more and we're done for the day." He follows without further complaint.
Olivia ladles out servings of beef stew into four bowls, setting them in front of us each in turn. Avery, 8, and Evelyn, 5, have joined me and their older brother at the table. Olivia fusses over my wounds. "Joshua, you let me tend to your hands when you're finished here. You as well, Luther."
"Yess'm," the boy answers quickly. I mumble assent around a mouthful of stew.
Finishing up the last of his dinner, Luther asks timidly, "Avery? What are you reading with Uncle Peter?"
"We're reading The Leatherstocking Tales. It's about a huntsman named Hawkeye who goes on frontier adventures with the Mohicans."
"Ummm, do you think you could teach me to read something like that?"
"Oh, well, I'm not very good at it yet." Avery notices his brother's dejection and adds, "But I can try when I get better! It's good enough to read twice."
Olivia slides her arms around my neck and rests her cheek against mine. "We have some very thoughtful boys, Joshua." I close my eyes and exhale deeply. When I breathe in, her feminine scent overwhelms me, making me feel as lucky a man as could be. A loving wife. Strong, smart sons and a doting daughter. All of them bear Olivia's chestnut hair and warm personality.
As if summoned by the thought, Evie climbs into my lap and lays her head against my chest. She plays with my beard, twirling the dark curly strands between her fingers. Her azure, almond-shaped eyes gaze into the distance, hypnotized by the soothing action of stroking my scruff. That comfort stays with me when Olivia applies a salve to my broken blisters, even as I suck my teeth when she touches my skin. The muscles in my forearm flex involuntarily, cut in the manner of a field-born man.
My mind goes back to a time when Peter and I were around the same age, raised to always be mindful of each other. Our father used to say, "Ain't matter how many possessions you gather in life. Cain't take 'em past the grave. But when you stand in front of the Lord, what he'll judge ya on is that you treat your kin and fellow man most kindly." Then, when we reached the age of accountability, our kin and fellow man drug my brother and I to that broke-down manor, and changed us forever. It took me a long time to understand why they did what they done. I imagine it took Peter even longer. And I thank God he doesn't hate me with every fiber of his being.