Cheng stared down at Li. Moments ago they were breaking ground, throwing their pickaxes into the hardened earth. Then his friend collapsed. He lay there, eyes open, flies walking across his face.
Above, the desert sun sank lower towards the horizon but offered no relief from the heat. The other laborers began to wander over, gawking at the body.
“What the hell is going on here? I didn’t say anyone could take a break.” Boss rode up on a chestnut quarter horse, shouting at the crowd. He dismounted and demanded an explanation.
Cheng stepped forward, and searched his rudimentary English for the right word. “Dead,” he said, pointing at Li.
Boss noticed the body for the first time. He removed his hat and pondered the corpse before him. “Leave him,” he finally drawled. “We’re already behind, and they’re coming to lay track first thing in the morning.” He turned around towards his horse, and the workers started back toward their stations.
“No.” Boss looked back to see Cheng still standing over the body. “Dead. Bury,” Cheng said, pantomiming a shoveling movement.
Boss shook his head and wiped the sweat from his brow. “I don’t have time for this. Get back to work!”
Cheng stood still and let his pickaxe slide from his hand. The laborers stopped at the sound of the metal tool bouncing from the ground, and turned to watch.
Boss and Cheng stared at each other across the patch of dry earth, each acutely aware of the crowd gathering around them. Boss finally stomped back to his horse and pulled a bullwhip from the saddlebag. “You want to put on a show, fine. We’ll have a show,” he yelled, and raised the whip into the air for everyone to see. He walked back towards Cheng. “Unless of course, you’re ready to pick up that axe and start back to work.”
Cheng lifted his chin and stared into Boss’ eyes. “No.”
In one smooth motion the whip unfurled and came down across Cheng’s chest, ripping through his shirt and drawing a line of blood from his shoulder to stomach. Cheng screamed and bent forward, his arms wrapped protectively around his torso.
“Let’s try this again,” Boss said softly, slowly rotating his hand with the whip. “How ‘bout you pick up that axe now, and I don’t have to make an example of you.”
Cheng looked up and bared his teeth, spitting out ‘No’ once again.
“Have it your way.” The whip flashed down again, this time across Cheng’s back. He fell to his knees. Before he could regain his balance, it hit a third time. Cheng put his hands on the ground ahead of him, and watched a line of blood trickle down his left arm until it dripped from his elbow.
Boss stopped and rested the whip over his shoulder. “Ready to go back to work?”
The whip came down with fury, repeatedly, tearing into Cheng’s back. “Pick… Up… That… Axe!” Boss hollered, the whip punctuating each word. Cheng fell prone to the earth, howls turning into whimpers. Feeling around on the ground, he found his axe. He weakly wrapped his hand around the handle and held it up in a sign of surrender; the beating stopped. The crowd stared silently at Cheng, his shirt ripped from his skin, blood pouring from the wounds.
Satisfied, Boss walked back to his chestnut quarter horse, wrapped the whip back over his saddlebag and climbed up. “All of you, back to work,” he yelled to gathered laborers, who quickly dispersed. He pointed at Cheng, who lay still in the dirt, gasping for breath. “Somebody fix him up and get him back on line.” He turned and rode away.
Ju-long, a young man who had arrived just the week before, carried the water bucket over to Cheng. Cradling his head, Ju-long held the ladle of water to Cheng’s mouth while he drank. “You are a brave man. Nobody else would have stood up to the boss,” he said in his native Mandarin.
“No, I’m weak.” Cheng spat back. “Weak, and stupid. I let him break me.” He pushed himself up and walked towards Li.
“I’m going to bury my friend. You’re welcome to join me,” he said to the young man.
“What if boss comes back?”
“Next time, I don’t drop my axe.”