The sweat dripped into my eyes, burning them closed when I heard a high-pitched ping. The hoe had struck something. Slowly, I lowered onto my knees to dig with my hands, a posture I had assumed several times that day when the rocks proved too big for my simple tool. I pulled on the hard dirt form, but it did not budge. I started to excavate down its side and was surprised by its depth. Whatever it was, it was round, long, and thin, like a cylinder. I tugged again. Suddenly loosened, I found myself on my back clutching the object with a large, hairy, black spider crawling up my arm. I screamed, brushing the black bug with my glove while the dirt-encrusted object rolled across the cleared patch to rest under a withered mum plant.
The back door opened, and Mrs. McKenzie was standing over me, hat in hand, critically eyeing the situation.
“You all right?”
“Sure.” My voice struggled to be strong as I tried to brush away my embarrassment with the dust covering me. I lied, “I slipped.”
Her expression didn’t change as she looked around. “Well you’ve done quite a bit for now. More than I expected. Why don’t you just call it a day and get a fresh start tomorrow. Sun will be cooler and ground a bit softer.”
Wiping the sweat from my forehead, I left a streak of mud that caked on my face. Shifting, I prepared myself to tell her there would be no tomorrow. I was sorry, but this was really not the job for me.
“Look at you,” she slapped her hip, bracelets jangling, and cackled with glee. “Damn if you don’t remind me of me. Jake McKenzie would have taken a shine to you. Yep, I’ve made a good choice.” She coaxed me toward the door. “Now run on in and clean up before you head out. Don’t fret. This yard isn’t going anywhere.”
A mirror is a bad liar. I looked like hell. Dirt clung to the sweat that pressed damp brown curls against my forehead and down my neck. My face was a shade darker with its new coat of dust. I could barely lift my arms. The cool water made my blisters tingle and burn.
A feeling of complete helplessness and failure overtook me as I watched a single tear clear a path down my cheek. I could not return. I must tell Mrs. McKenzie immediately.
Gathering my strength, I emerged from my wash. It was only one day’s work. It would mean nothing to her. She would understand, see my weakness, and dismiss me.
The big-brimmed hat could not hide the twinkle in those incredibly blue eyes. She rocked forward onto her toes. “You’ve done a fine job. Just fine. Now run on home and get some rest. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow.” Her hand waved through the air, bringing her words with it, “You’ve given me a gift. You’ve breathed new life into these old bones of mine, and I’m very grateful.”
I looked at her smile and the practiced speech disappeared into jumbled words, “Yes, but I—”
“No, Jean. You’ve taken this job, and you’re doing fine. We’ll go slower tomorrow.”
Her happiness tore into my guilt. I had taken the job and now was going to let her down. I could work one more day I reasoned.
“All right,” my shoulders sagged as I gave in. “See you tomorrow.” I started down the path toward the road. As I worked my legs past the partially exposed patch, I noticed the tools were gone and so was the dirt-encrusted cylinder-shaped object.
“You do good work,” her words followed me. “We would have welcomed you on board. Now there’s a job I think you would have loved. I did. And you would have had a hell of a lot more fun than teaching. A lot more dangerous too. But exciting.”
I turned back to look at her, the big brim shadowed her expression. But nothing could have prepared me for what came next.
“You see, my dear Jean,” her voice was low and calculating, “rum running was the highlight of my life.”
She turned and was gone before my mind digested the full meaning of her words.
Chapter 1, pages 12 and 13