Adam watched the other three as they staggered back, their bodies tight with pain and drenched in sweat. They’d worked together throughout the day, shunning him to do his own work. Keeping an eye on their progress proved to be a far greater challenge than the actual work. Doing more than three men would raise more questions that he was prepared to answer, especially now with a promise of food.
They walked into the house, casting wary eyes upon him from time to time. They wouldn’t even offer their names to him that morning, and Adam doubted that after a long day of work – at least for them – that they’d be any more loquacious. He sighed. He’d grown used to being viewed as an outcast, but that didn’t mean it was something he enjoyed.
“Can I share a word?”
Adam blinked. There was a figure lounging on the porch, smoking from a long-stemmed pipe. It was a small figure, but there was something menacing about the way it was poised. It reminded him of watching the prairie lions on the hunt. He regarded the figure with care.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
“Who are you?” Adam responded.
“I could ask the same of you,” said the figure, and Adam saw the face of a woman beneath the hat. She was young and beautiful, though some sort of scarring twisted the right side of her face along her jaw. Her eyes regarded him with brutal calculation. “I already talked to them three. They kept staring at my face the way you are now, but what they had to say made some sense. Laborers tend to travel in packs if they gotta. But you? You’re all alone.”
“Being alone isn’t always a choice, miss.” Adam gestured toward the house. “If you don’t mind, I’m hungry. I’m not getting paid any money until after the crop is brought in, so the vittles inside is what I’m due.”
She stepped between Adam and the door, and Adam noticed the steel against her hip. She smiled at his acknowledgement. “I’m not one to let things go, stranger. You’re a queer sort in the midst of all of this. I’d like to know about you.”
“And this can’t be discussed over dinner?” he grinned.
“Well, all’s I can tell so far is you think you’re funny,” she said with a razor of a smile. “But you’re not.”
“My name is Adam,” he said, exasperated. “Okay? I’m not badgering you for your name. I just want to eat.”
“You got no reason to need my name, Adam. I’m a member of this household. This household employed you.” She blew a ring of smoke in the air. “And the household tells you when it’s time to eat and when it ain’t. Right now? It ain’t.“
He failed to hide his frustrated expression. He could see through the window that the other workers were already seated and eating at the table. Ms. Ruth was there, too, but she was too caught up in conversation to notice that the last worker was still outside, stranded by a gun-toting she-devil.
“What do you want to know?”
A triumphant smile crossed her features. “Where you from, Adam?”
“You gotta do better than that.”
“Near Ashbourne.” He’d practiced the lie more times than he could count. “My family used to work near Ashbourne.”
She exhaled another plume of smoke. “Ain’t no work near that dead place. Folks steer as clear as possible from Ashbourne. They’re afraid of the evil spirits there, though I reckon that’s why you picked such a place. After all, who could deny it seein’ you in a place they wouldn’t never want to go anyway?”
“There was work a long time ago.” He chewed on the inside of his mouth. Elaborating upon the lie was a challenge he hadn’t faced yet, and he grew fearful of tripping up. He glanced toward the window again and sighed. “Look, you asked where I came from, and I told you. I’ve been all over since then, and I’d really like to eat.”
“All over?” Her eyes widened. “Like where?”
“Devil’s balls, wherever I could find work!”
She laughed. “Well you had to have found some work. Who was the last person that hired you?”
The door creaked open, and Ms. Ruth peeked out. “Anna? God’s sakes, girl, get in here and eat. And quit giving this fella so much grief! He worked hard today and it’s past time he sat down and ate something.” She gestured toward Adam and gave the woman – Anna – a hard stare. Adam walked past Anna, looking away from her piercing gaze, and walked into the house, never so thankful for the aroma of a home-cooked meal.