The dust was kicked up a sandy brown into the air as the horses were moved out of the barn, fresh hay tossed down from the loft above, coloring the air with straw yellow. It was this that stung his eyes as he worked, coated on the patches of bare skin on his face, arms, and neck by sweat.
Squinting against the flying grit, he spotted two figures moving toward where he and the other men worked. Taking his hat from his head, he swiped the fresh sweat from his brow and moved over toward them. The man he knew, tall and equally roughened by work around the edges, lines worn in around his eyes. At his side was a stranger. A very small stranger.
He didn't look much more than a schoolboy, barely coming up to the chest on the man beside him, looking even smaller as he hunched his head down, as if expecting a cuff to the head. Furtive brown eyes flicked toward him and away as he approached, never standing still long enough to make contact with his own, not that the scraggly hair falling in his face helped matters.
From what could be seen, he was hadn't seen a day's work or sunlight in his life, pale as the shirt on his back, a bit of color added by the brown vest hanging open over it and the pale blue denims half-covering the dark, brown leather Southerns on his feet.
As he drew nearer, the hand could've sworn he heard the kid wheezing. A hand clapped the boy's back, nearly sending him sprawling in the dirt. He moved back to his former position, one leg lagging slightly behind the other.
"Well, here's our newest appointee. What'd you say your name was?" The two looked at him. "C'mon, speak up now." A hand on his shoulder, earning a startled squeak.
"Today would be nice," the dusty man snapped.
"Y-yessir," was the stammered, slow response. "S'--"
"There! Told you he could speak. Damn good English too for immigrant parents and a St. Louis boy." Another squeak that was more a choked yelp as the heavy hand landed on his back again. "Go on, show 'im around, Billy." The two were left alone. Billy looked down at the boy and shook his head, sighing and pinching the bridge of his nose, rubbing a little to clear out the beginnings of the headache he knew this was going to be.
"Y'were sayin'?" The boy lowered his head, hands stuffed into his pockets.
"N-nothin'... S'..." Teeth gnawed on his lower lip, voice dying back into his throat again.
"Oh, Lord," the tall hand sighed. What use was a boy who couldn't even work his tongue, much less looked like he'd snap off his arms trying to lift anything heavier than a good-sized twig? "Ya earned y'self a nickname or three then. C'mon, Squeaker. We got work that needs t'get done." Turning, he moved off, not waiting for the boy, who followed after him at as quick a pace as he could.
"Y'ever mucked out a stall?" No answer. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw Squeaker shaking his head. "Cleaned tack?" Shake, shake. He pointed to the opening to the loft above their heads. "Think you can get up there?" The boy looked and nodded. "Well, get on up there."
Looking up at the entrance to the loft, the boy pushed his hair away from his eyes, planted a foot on the edge of the empty stall, and pushed himself up onto the narrow lip of wood. Reaching up higher for the beam just below the entrance, he fixed the toe of one boot into the previous handhold, the other pressed to the wall. The man below leaned against the stall, watching him. Maybe he should've called him Squirrel instead of Squeaker.
The schoolboy was stuck there, it seemed, looking for a way to get up that last stretch into the loft. Now that he was still, mostly, anyway, Billy could see what he was working with. There wasn't much to his chest from the looks of it, the same with his arms. There was a little paunch to his belly he could spot easily now from the side and his legs were a little beefy too. The man tore his eyes away when he realized his gaze was fixed on the climber's backside.
Then he was gone, up into the loft. Moving to the spot, Billy began the climb himself, almost losing his grip as he startled, a small, thin-fingered hand reached down to him, so pale he could see the veins beneath the skin. Looking up, he found the schoolboy's face and realized it wasn't quite a boy's face as he'd thought.
Brown eyes were hemmed in by what looked like heavy bruises. It took him a minute to realize it was just heavy shadow, his eyes were so sunken in, giving him a racoon-like mask. A few black, curling hairs could be spotted beneath his chin and grayish fuzz turning to thicker black at the corners of his lips graced his upper lip. Freckles spotted his nose, a few spots of blood on his chin, forehead, and cheek where he'd picked at the spots there. His face was flushed dusty pink, breath back to that wheezing he'd heard earlier.
Taking the offered hand, he pushed himself up into the loft. Walking to one side of the loft, he took one of the small, square sections of the bale and tossed it down to the other men below. Looking over at the quiet man behind him, he folded his arms and waited for some sort of response.
Moving over to one of the square bales, the man--what should he call him? This was getting annoying. Squeaker? Squirrel? Tubby?--took hold of the hemp holding it together and yanked backward, yelping and surely almost taking his arms clean from the socket as the thing dropped to the floor of the loft, almost catching the toes of his boots.
Taking a tighter hold on it, he shuffled his way sideways to the door and dropped it down. Billy felt his breath catch in his throat as, for a split second, it looked like the idiot was going to crash down with the thing right in front of him. The smaller one's head whipped around and looked up at him, hair falling in his eyes again, one of the workman's rough hands gripping his belt.
"Look where y'goin', Squeakers," he managed to say, the lump still stuck in his throat. The tip of a tongue flicked out, wetting the smaller man's lips, the corners turning up a little, dimpling his cheeks.
"Sorry. Thanks." Moving away from the edge, he went to the bales again.
"Hey, hey, hey, hey!" Blinking, Squeakers looked over at him, reaching up for another of the bales, the stack suddenly seeming more than liable to come crashing down on top of him. "Jus' pass me the bales'n'I'll throw 'em down."
"I can throw 'em."
"Yeh, an' yerself right out the damn door. Broken neck's no good to anybody, least of all you, so listen when somebody tells ya t'do somethin'! Y'hear?" Seeing the schoolboy flinch, he felt a pang of guilt roiling in his gut. But he handed the bale over.
They worked together in silence until one of others below called up that it was enough. Hearing the boards creak, Billy turned to see the schoolboy heading for the hole down. Reaching out a hand, he touched the smaller man's arm. Squeakers sucked in a breath, whirling around, putting his foot into the hole. Flailing, he managed to fall on his back beside the hole instead of through it.
"Jesus Christ, boy, the hell's the matter with you?" Billy snapped when he could find his voice again. Moving to him, he reached down and pulled him up. "You do this every day or is it just to me?" The other looked away.
"Sorry." Keeping his grip firm on his arm, he turned his chin back to him, thumb brushing against the soft growth underneath.
"You gonna say why you did somethin' so fool stupid just now?" he asked softly.
"I didn't see you. Didn't realize it was you."
"Boy, who else is up here?" When no answer was forthcoming, he shook his head and straightened, keeping his hands on him. Sighing, he said, "Fine. We're both tired. No sense in arguin' over it. Y'not hurt." Reaching up, he ruffled his hair gently. "Lemme go down first in case you decide to fly down, all righ', Squeakers?"
Laughing, he climbed down to the stall below, calling up, "You're more trouble than any damn mouse'd ever be, y'know that?"