Chapter 8
Honest Labor

Xiaohe (Arroyo), Jitian County, Shannanxi Province

The old man sat in his rocking chair on the back porch, taking slow drags on his pipe every time he leaned back and blowing the smoke out of his nostrils every time he came back forward. Batista didn't pay much mind to him, though. His daughter-in-law had him out on the back porch so he was out of the way. Batista had a hard time believing he could make that much trouble, but so long as he had his rocking chair and his pipe, he could be kept quiet and content for hours.
Batista lined up his swing and split the log clean through. It wasn't so easy to do one-handed, but he had his left arm in a sling so it could heal. It'd take at least a month if not two before he could safely use it, which was more time than he could afford, but the more he limited how much he used the arm when he could, the less likely he was turning the fracture into a clean break. He wanted the wood split in two, not his arm bone.
While his first instinct was to get to Lingmu as fast as possible, that was exactly what his pursuers were expecting. Not that he was heading for Lingmu, perhaps, but that he was going to be putting as much distance as possible between where he'd been and where he was going. There was sense to that line of thinking, but there's obviously a problem if everyone is thinking the same thing.
Rather than stay in the borderlands like he'd planned, they switched to the first eastbound train they could take. Once they crossed the border into a new county, he put some distance between himself and the rail lines and found this little village where they could avoid the heat bearing down on them and maybe make a little money to ease the journey.
It was for the sake of the latter that he was chopping wood, but this village didn't have much, so he couldn't expect to get much for his meager labor. It was fine. So long as they were able to get food in their bellies, a change of clothes and maybe just enough to to get a ticket for a little further down the line.
It was all about outsmarting anyone wanting to collect on that hundred dan. Any pursuer would be expecting them to hitch on third-class freight trains, so instead of that, why not take a passenger line instead? True, the more people you're around, the greater the risk someone will recognize you, but there was merit to getting lost in a crowd.
He wondered if he was overthinking it. Things were so much easier when he was with his compañía. All he had to think about was following orders and staying alive. At least in a war zone, it's not as likely anyone's gunning for you specifically. Not so much the case when you've got a hefty price on your head.
As for their current situation, it was charitable to even call Arroyo a village. It only consisted of a few houses, the general store and the inn Batista and Masako were working at. It was little more than a roadside stop along the mule trails leading to Lago, where the trains were. The tenant farmers and small-time ranchers would pass through, but that was about it. The village couldn't have had a population of more than fifty if you included some of the nearby homesteads, so outsiders like them stood out. That was why Batista was chopping wood out back while Masako was in the kitchen. No one going up to Lago would pay them much heed, but anyone coming back might've heard the news about the bounty. He was hoping that the news wouldn't reach outside of Bantian, but a hundred dan was a lot to Infernals and Coronel Obrado was bound to have cast the net as wide as he could.
While he was stacking up the wood he cut, Batista heard the sound of shattering earthenware followed by the squawking of all manner of curses in at least three languages. She did it again. Batista sighed, sank his ax in the ancient stump he was using as a stand, and headed inside.
He headed straight for the kitchen, where Masako was on her hands and knees picking up the pieces of broken plates while the proprietress was screaming at her. The proprietress was a big woman of uncertain ethnicity, capable of speaking quite a few languages but none of them all that well. Even though most Infernals grew up speaking Lingua, she had this broken speech which may have been more of a character quirk, similar to how sloppy the speech of low-ranking mercs like Batista tended to be.
When the proprietress noticed Batista, she turned her ire on him.
"Why you give me this worthless girl!?" she demanded. "Can't cook, can't clean, can't even carry dishes!"
Batista held up his hand and said, "Now calm down, Mama-san. I told ya she ain't used ta this kinda work. Why don't ya go out back an' take a look at the woodpile I been makin' ya while I talk ta her, alright?"
"Throw girl on woodpile," she muttered. "Maybe she can burn right at least."
"Aw, now don't start talkin' like that, Mama-san. Why waste a perfectly good girl?"
The proprietress gave Masako a scornful look before mocking Batista.
"Perfectly good. Where perfect? Can't do anything. Not even that pretty. No meat on her. No hips for bearin'. What taste you have, hm?"
"C'mon, I told ya it ain't like that. She ain't my type anyway. Now go on out back an' look."
The proprietress puffed out her rather substantial chest (not than any other part of her wasn't rather substantial) and grunted, "Order me 'round like you boss. Paddle you like my boys. Teach you manners."
"Alright, alright."
With that, she went off to check up on his work, granting Masako a momentary reprieve. She, however, wasn't grateful in the slightest.
"I am not your type, am I?" she asked irately. "Who are you to speak of me as your type or anything else?"
"Settle down, princess," Batista said wearily. "I'm not rated for dealin' with more'n one woman bein' bitchy at a time."
"How dare you!"
Batista held up his hand to stop her.
"Princess, ya might wanna dial back the high-an'-mighty act. Someone might get the idea you're not just another paisana like the rest a' us."
This gave her a moment of pause, but only a moment.
"Why are we doing this?" she demanded. "We should be going to Lingmu. We are wasting time."
She angrily dumped the broken bits of plate in an empty crate, making a fine racket. Batista thought he could hear the proprietress bellowing, "You better not be breakin' more of my plates!"
To answer Masako's question, Batista asked her, "Ya wanna eat, don't ya? Ya wanna wear somethin' besides what we got off those rice farmers? We'd stand out like a sore thumb any farther east dressed like that, ya know.
"We need the money. Unless ya think I should start robbin' folks. That'd jus' bring more heat down on us."
In an ideal world, that would make her reconsider her objections and graciously accept their current circumstances, but that was lot to be asking of a Celestial. Holding up her hands, all pink and splotchy from her work, Masako shouted, "Look at my hands! They are raw from scrubbing pots and pans!"
"What'd ya rather do?" Batista snapped back. "Go out in the rice paddies all hunched over knee-deep in muck plantin' seedlin's one at a time? Crawlin' on your hands an' knees cuttin' grass with a hand sickle? Shovelin' shit?" He paused. "Or maybe ya wish I hadn't saved ya. All ya woulda had ta do was jus' lie back an' take it."
The thought alone was enough for her to hold herself like she'd caught a sudden chill.
"No..." she said meekly.
Softening his tone somewhat, Batista told her, "Ya gotta work if ya wanna eat. Maybe you're not used ta that, but that's how thin's work down here. Jus' be glad it ain't any worse. Now, even if it takes more time an' Mama-san's bawlin' ya out for it, don't try ta carry so damn much at once. Everythin' ya break comes outta our pay, ya know. It'll be that much long till we came move on."
Masako didn't have anything to say to that, so Batista had to nudge her a bit.
"Yes," she said.
Batista smiled.
"Good girl. Now get back ta work. I need ta be headin' back myself."
He wasn't entirely sure why he did it, but when Masako turned around to go back to the sink, he gave her a good swat on the rear for encouragement. He got the most impressive death glare for it, too.
"Not your type, hm?" a voice said.
Batista turned to see the proprietress standing behind him with her big fleshy arms crossed.
"Ever'one needs a lil' encouragement," Batista said, trying to play it off.
"Hmph," the proprietress snorted. "Paddle both you good. Then maybe you behave. You cut wood good, though. Maybe with two hands you work twice as much."
"Hey, I didn't ask for this busted wing," Batista replied. "Anyway, you'll have enough ta keep the stoves goin' the rest a' the week by the time I'm done."
"Open more than week," the proprietress said. "I have much more work for you. Better if two hands."
"I'll make do with the one."
"Enough talk. Work, work! You too, worthless girl! Work, work!"
Batista made his way out back to resume his work. All the while, the old man kept rocking and puffing smoke while you could hear the proprietress yelling at Masako for some new offense.