Martha bit back a cry of pain as she dropped the dull knife and half peeled potato into the pot of water in front of her. She drew her hand to her mouth to suck on the small gash the slipped knife had caused. She sat back on the log she was using for a stool and shut her eyes, blocking out the flickering candlelight.
The previous night had been a disaster. With Franklin on guard duty, the three miners had started drinking and ignored her calls to dinner, insisting she keep it warm until they were ‘done’. It was, of course, overcooked and burnt by the time anyone tasted it. Drunk and with nothing to eat until Walt returned except for potatoes and a bit of salt, the miners were furious with her for wasting their meagre supplies. Of course all of them ignored that Earl had ordered her to use them in the first place.
She felt a wet nose nudge her elbow and heard Sniffly whining in concern. That small act of kindness by a fellow creature cracked the dam of her pride that the past week’s injustices had failed to penetrate. She hugged the dogs neck and silently loosed into his shaggy mane the tears that she had refused to cry for any of her tormentors.
Hearing a key in the door’s keyhole, she sat up straight and recomposed herself. Her eyes were dry by the time the solid oak mass at the caves’ entrance had scraped open. Bart was the miner who had fallen asleep closest to the door and a shaft of sunlight fell across his face. He groaned and rolled so his back was to it.
Franklin slipped in, and quickly closed the door behind him. He avoided eye contact with her as he hung the leather strap, with the two keys, on the peg beside the door. Then he bent down and pushed the chest along the dirt floor, to barricade the door as they had been taught the night previous. The noise was causing the sleeping miners to become more restless and Martha glared at Franklin, furious with him for speeding them toward wakefulness.
She fished out the knife and returned to her task. Soon she was hefting a pail full of sliced potatoes over to the ‘fireplace’. The fireplace was really only three large stones that a pot or skillet could be balanced on beneath a rock fissure. Building a fire underneath the pot still put off more smoke than was comfortable with the low ceiling, but eventually most of it wound it’s way up and out the natural ‘chimney’.
Working quickly Martha just managed to have the first load of fried potatoes ready by the time Bart wobbled over. With one hand scratching at his beard, and the other holding his tin plate outstretched, he waited in silence as she dished out his breakfast. The miner then found a stone ledge to sit on as Earl rolled off his cot and lit a lantern, adding it’s glow to the light from Martha’s candle and the fireplace.
“Come on Arny up and at em, days begun and all.”
Arny drew his cloak over his face and cradled his head in his arms as he huddled down and mumbled an incomprehensible reply. Earl gave him a kick in the side that resulted in a somewhat more comprehensible stream of swearing but still no movement. Earl shook his head and walked over to an empty rum barrel that had been converted to hold water. He drew out a ladleful, half of which he drank and half of which he splashed over his face and neck. Martha redirected her attention to Bart. She wasn’t sure if she was more afraid Earl might disrobe for a further cleaning right in front of her, or that he might consider himself fully bathed with the majority of his filth and stench never having come into contact with water. Bart, on the other hand, seemed like a pretty safe place to leave her gaze. While drunk, he’d been bragging about how every summer he’d have a bath. Whether he needed it or not.
“Ug. This is worse than last night. Even Earl can make a better hashbrown than this.”
Martha glanced back to the miner Bart had referred to. Still clothed, he was carrying a second ladleful of water over to Arny. He nudged him again with his boot.
“Last chance Arny.”
Martha returned her attention to the potatoes on the skillet as Earl drenched the foul mouthed miner to alertness. How was she supposed to be able to stand thirty years of this? The best case scenario for her youth had degraded from dancing with royalty, to feeding uncouth drunks. If she could evade being fed on by the local infected.