Padric slumped over against the hot wooden barrel, just grateful to be able to sit down. The heat from the sunbaked wood was lessened by the sweat soaking his shirt. Most of the other rail workers were resting under whatever shade they could find. It was a hot July day, and there wasn’t a cloud in sight to offer relief. Dust clung to his face and dried out his lips.
Most of the native workers had taken the best spots in the shade and the few Irish workers in the group didn’t expect to get much for their troubles. Padric didn’t even feel quite welcome among his countrymen. They all had been in one of the big Irish regiments during the war. At night they would swap war stories and share tobacco. It was close-knit group and Padric had missed the big event.
At least the Irishmen were kind enough to ignore him. The Americans were even less friendly. Civilian pups like Padric were only a small step above the Celestials who worked on the bridges and dug through the mountains.
His eyelids were almost closed when he heard the footsteps and commotion of the foreman and his gang leaders coming down the track. Padric’s muscles groaned at the approaching punishment.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” the foreman said through his bushy blond mustache. The workers mumbled a half-greeting which was equal parts animal grunt and profanity. The gang leaders’ glares were visible even in the harsh sunlight.
“Company B had an accident. Something involving loose picks or some such tomfoolery,” The foreman continued. According to what Padric had picked up from the camp, the foreman was some numbers man from down South. He had lost his profession and home after the war and found work with the Union Pacific. A decent enough man, but ill-suited to the types who made up the work companies.
“We need two workers to fill in their casualties,” Everybody went silent. Their shift began at dawn and they still had a long day ahead. B company was ahead of them on the track and on harder terrain. Driving ties and spikes was one thing but making railroad cuts was even tougher.
The foreman looked over everybody in view, careful not to stop on the senior men. Picking the wrong man could spark serious trouble in the camp. Padric knew the outcome from the moment he heard the mustache talk. Every eye settled on him.
With a grunt and pang of pain running from his feet to his shoulders, Padric hoisted himself up and adjusted his cap.
“Thank you Mr. Connelly” There were some muffled laughter and sniggering from the workers. It wasn’t the work that wore him down so much. Not even his countrymen would stand up for him. “Anyone else?”
There was silence again. Men turned their heads away or looked to the ground.
“I’ll go with the boy,” a lone voice said, powerful enough to be heard by everybody. Even Padric was stunned. Normally the foreman would pick someone or the gang leaders would drag away the man they liked the least.
The volunteer was a bear of man, a good head taller than anybody. He was broad and bulky, with a great black beard. He walked up to the foreman and stood before the whole work company. Everybody looked surprised.
“…Thank you Mr. Shore” The foreman took down the names and then directed the two of them up the track. The bear lifted two picks and a shovel onto his shoulder like they were matches and they started walking.
As they walked along some of the American veterans gathered parallel to them.
“Sergeant! Can’t get enough of the work?” One quipped.
“Taken a fancy to the potato-eaters?” Another mocked.
“Why, Shore?” A third one asked.
The bear didn’t look at them nor did he break stride, “Something I learned from ole’ Uncle Billy. You can make ‘em dig a shithole but you better be diggin’ one next to ‘em” The Americans scoffed and lost interest. A few glared before returning to the shade. Padric looked up at the bear who caught his glance and winked.
“Don’t worry boy-o. You’re in for some good hard punishment. But you ain’t gonna face it alone,”