by Randy Reynolds

"H.R., build a far."

"What time is it, Pa?"

The big man gave the boy an extra-rough shake. "Don't give me no sass, boy! Go build that far!"

As Fert Appling went back to bed, the sandy-haired boy slipped into blue denim shirt and patched overalls. He took no particular care to be quiet, but the floorboards that creaked beneath his feet had no effect on the noisy sleep of the other Appling boys and the visiting schoolteacher/evangelist.

Buttoning his heavy hand-me-down coat, H.R. glanced resentfully at the older brothers and wondered what he had done to deserve the daily honor of building the fire in the boiler at the sawmill. He secretly suspected that his pa just liked the sound of the rhyming words, "H.R., build a far!"

He went into the kitchen, wolfed down two leftover biscuits and drank a dipper of water. He'd have no more nourishment until his mother sent a jar of biscuits, molasses and fatback at midday.

He took the short black shovel and dug deeply into the coals at the center of the fireplace, extracting a small mound of brightly-flaring embers to carry through the woods to the sawmill. Fert expected him to have 125 pounds of pressure built up in the saw engine's boiler by sunup so that work could commence without delay when the other Appling boys arrived.

Striking out through the woods, H.R. walked hunched over, placing each foot carefully lest his slick-soled brogans slip on an icy rock or root and cause him to tumble and lose the embers and have to go back home for more. The consequences of starting over were terrible--his pa would see to that. And so he concentrated on every step, one step at a time; concentrated so hard he didn't see the shotgun until it loomed out of the darkness dead-level with his eyes. H.R. had the fleeting urge to fling the shovel and run for home. But then he thought of facing his pa.... The shotgun or his pa? Which would he rather face?

He closed his eyes and walked straight ahead.

The bang of the shotgun was muffled and the pellets felt cold against his face. Surprised to be alive, he opened his eyes to discover that he had just walked into (and snapped) an ice-coated straight-as-a-gun-barrel limb.

At the sawmill, he placed the coals inside the boiler, stacked on some kindling and got the fire going. Once the pressure built and he had some to spare, he tooted the whistle to scare off any predators lurking nearby and to let his brothers know that a new day had begun.