W. G. White
Harlan brushed a coaxing of glue from his fingers and dipped his cloth in the polish next to him. One rub across the boot's toe cap saw its leather transform from a dull brown to a deep auburn sheen. Each crease of the leather shone proud, every scruff and flake in the skin stood brilliant in the flickering orange glow of Harlan's lamp.
Licking a callused finger, the cobbler gently began threading thick lace through the boot. Weaving it through one hole and out the next, crossing over and bringing it back around to begin the delicate dance anew. Upon reaching the final holes, Harlan tied a light bow and promptly flipped the boot on its head to get at the sole.
“It's important to sign 'em,” he said, gruff, peering over his glasses at the scruffy teen to his right. With a thin knife, he carved first a 'H', and then a 'T'. Harlan Thornes.
“Alright,” said Harlan as he flipped the boot back over and set it on the table. “I've made the right. Now yous can make the left.”
Noby, his apprentice, swallowed but nodded still. He stood, shuffling to the other end of the workshop toward stores of leathers and the tanning rack. The boy tentatively lifted a sheep's skin first, but when Harlan shot him a frown he paused. Instead, he turned back, clicking his tongue and scratching his head until he settled for a thick brown cow's hide. Harlan nodded.
That's the ticket, good spot lad. “Whatcha need next then?” Harlan said when Noby had shuffled back to the workbench.
“Pattern,” the boy mumbled, reaching for the same blueprint Harlan had used.
“Gonna use that one, are ya?”
“Sure ‘bout that?”
Noby paused, fingering the pattern in his hand before glancing up at Harlan.
“Why not?” he said.
Harlan chuffed. “Didn't realise ya had two right feet, lad...”
The boy blinked. Without a word he moved to a drawer, deposited the pattern and pulled out the left one.
“Ya won't need 'em in a month or so,” Harlan said, smiling.
The driver tipped his head. “Course. Tell him luck from me.”
Harlan turned back to Noby. “Teek sends his luck.”
“What hatchet is it?”
“Ya know what hatchet it is...”
“Er...Clicking?” Noby lifted the stocky clicking hatchet from the tool bench and met Harlan's gaze.
With a nod, Harlan stepped aside and let the boy get to work, cutting away excess leather and tracing the shapes he'd drawn until he had all the pieces roughly cut out.
“That's good work, Noby. Your Mam'll be proud, she will.”
Noby's eyes lifted. They were round, flat as the moon, and just as grey. Harlan often thought he was a difficult lad to work with at times, but he was quick to learn and seldom made the same mistake twice.
Harlan whacked a hand down on the boy's shoulder. “How many Walkers can claim they've made their own boots? You'll be saving her more cog than ya realise. Near ‘bout as important as a horse, is a good pair'a walking boots.” Harlan smiled. “Just yous wait until ya bring her home a pair'a her own. You ain't seen joy, lad. Not yet.”
Noby smiled and doubled his concentrations, smoothing out the edges of his leather pieces with a trimmer's knife.
“Have I ever told ya how your Mam and me met, Nody?”
“Don't reckon so, Mr. Thornes.”
“It's a queer tale, it is...” Harlan said as he cleared his throat and folded his arms. “I were 'bout twenty-three. A journeyman cobbler, still had a master but doing good off me own back — now don't stop there, Noby, start stitching now, just like how I showed ya...That's the ticket, good lad.” He cleared his throat again and furrowed his brow. “I were setting up shop still when this dusty looking Rider stumbles in...”
“I saw your shop across the street,” the man said, flushed.
That's a shinny cog down the bucket. Harlan sighed and dropped the hide on the counter where it landed with a squelch.
“What can I do ya for, mate?” he said, trying his best to sound sincere but wanting little more than to curse the man under a table.
“I saw your shop from across the street,” the man repeated.
“Aye? Need a boot fixing, is it?”
The man continued into the shop, staring at Harlan's fixtures with distant, glazed eyes; as though he was seeing something else entirely. He delicately lifted a hatchet, turning it over in his hands, stroking it gently.
“How much?” he asked, not looking up.
With a frown, Harlan stepped over and snatched the hatchet from the man, setting it back in its place. “I don't sell tools. I fix boots,” he growled. “Now d'ya want ya boots fixed, or d'ya want some boots made? I ain't cheap, but I make 'em good.”
He was about to speak when the man turned on his heel and said, “I'll have two please.”
Harlan’s jaw clenched. “Look, mate, I've got work to be getting on with. You can either tell me what you're after, or you can keep flapping your mouth and get out.”
Without a word, the man dropped a pair of old leather boots onto the workbench. Worn and scuffed, their heels were both peeling away at the seams. The right boot had a gash along the toe, and the left a split sole. Harlan sighed as he turned them over in his hands, assessing the damage. A part of him wasn't certain he could fix them at all, but the other part loved the challenge, and needed the money.
“I can't promise ya they'll be good as new, but I can patch 'em up and give 'em a polish. I charge two shiny cog per boot. Fair?”
The man smiled, staring past Harlan. “Oh, they're for my wife you see. We're expecting.”
“Is that so...”
“Right ya are.” Harlan moved the boots below his counter and set back to mopping up spilt glue. When he looked up the man was still there. Still smiling, staring just past Harlan's shoulder.
Harlan cleared his throat. “Come back in a couple'a days, they'll be ready for ya.”
The man shifted his gaze, looking Harlan in the eye for the first time since he had entered. He stared directly at him as if he were gazing into his soul. The smile had vanished, replaced with a stern, thin line.
When he spoke it was low and scornful. “Watch the road,” he said.
A simple suggestion, yet one that spun Harlan's blood to ice. And he didn't know why. He watched as the man turned on his heel and marched out of the room.
“Noby,” Harlan said, shaking his head. “I didn't see that bloke for another eight years...Just left his boots and all.”
“Can't see what that's to do with me Mam, Mr. Thornes,” said Noby as he worked a stitch through the upper part of his boot, connecting it to the first of the sides. He was doing good, sure work. Making certain to keep his workspace tidy as he went.
Harlan folded his arms and allowed himself a smile. “Just you hold there, I'm getting to it.”
With his legs perched on the wooden rail of his carriage's driving bench, a whisky in one hand and a cigar in the other, Harlan basked in the evening sun. He still wore his stained apron, and his back was knotted from the day's work. His eyes were strained, his head beating like hooves on stone. Even so he was enjoying the evening. He swayed with the sand ocean as his carriage dipped over a dune.
“What'd he say next, then?” Mr. Teek gave the reins a tug as he dragged on his own cigar.
Harlan coughed, learning forward. “He says, just yous wait for this, he says ‘any boy with half a shoe horn can glue a bit'a scrap leather to a rubber sole. But it takes a bloke with iron gonads to hammer a piece'a metal to the hoof of a beast ten times his weight.’”
Teek scoffed, flicking the ash from his cigar over the side of the carriage. “That Redwayne think's he's a centaur. What'd ya tell him?”
“That I'd happily hammer some metal boots to his own hooves next time he complains'a split soles!”
The men laughed heartily, rocking the carriage with their stamping feet and rolling shoulders. Harlan downed the rest of his whisky and was reaching for the bottle when Teek slapped him on the shoulder.
“Oi,” he said, nodding in front of them. “Look at this numpty...”
Stumbling, a man in a ripped, dusty suit staggered and fumbled his way through the sand. Drivers wove around him, throwing jeers and curses as they passed. He seemed ignorant to them as he wove and spun, as though wading his way upstream past a flow of invisible commuters. He was flushed, in a hurry, yet barely moving.
Bloody sands, is that... “Walker's boots...I know that sod!”
“I do. Git owes me four shinny cog, and I owe him a pair'a boots. Eight damn years overdue! Get us close, would ya.” Harlan jumped into the back of the boat where he flung open a cupboard and rummaged about until he found the boots. He set them on his workbench and fetched a pot of polish and a rag. Before long they were both a rich brown sheen once again – not new but respectable nonetheless. One last check over and he'd take them out.
The sides were fine, but the toe cap on the right boot could have been a bit neater. He'd still been a journeyman when he'd fixed them up. Even still, the man had enlisted a journeyman's efforts, and a journeyman's efforts was what he'd get.
Hastily, Harlan flipped them to check out the soles. The right boot was engraved 'H. T.'. He'd remembered smirking when he'd seen that, knowing the boot's craftsman had the same initials as him was a funny thing. The left boot, though, was marked 'N. L.'.
A pair'a boots with two makers. Queerer things have happened. He snatched them up and went back out to the front, in time to see Mr. Teek waving the strange man down.
“Sorry, officers. I'm quite late,” the man said as he glanced their way, staring past them when he spoke.
“I've got your boots, mate,” Harlan said as he hopped from the carriage and jogged to catch the man. If he knew Harlan was there, he didn't show it. He only glanced over his shoulder, weaving and spinning past nothing at all. It was such a queer sight, so strange in fact that Harlan was struggling to contain his laughter. Clearly something wasn't quite right with the poor bastard, who had undoubtedly escaped from some loony boat.
“D'ya know where ya are, mate?” Harlan said.
“She's in labor you see, I don't have time!”
“Your missus is it?”
“No, no–my wife.”
“Aye, that's what I said.”
“If you're going to arrest me, then do it!” he screamed. “Or let me go, damn you!”
“Ah just leave him, Harl,” Teek said from the boat. “He's a nutter.”
Harlan sighed and scratched his brow. He didn't feel right leaving the man alone, dancing through the Walking caravan, muddled and raving. He'd get trampled sooner or later.
“Here, come have a sit for a bit, eh? We'll get ya to your lady.” Harlan grasped the man's bicep, and a swift chill swept over him. It was icy, like a blizzard raging inside that shot to his core where it exploded. A rattled gasp escaped Harlan's lips, and he folded in on himself, almost collapsing to the sand. The man reached forward and held him up. He stared at Harlan with eyes a brilliant grey, swirling as they bore into him.
“Watch the road,” he said holding their gaze for a few seconds longer before tearing away from Harlan's grip and setting out into the sand, taking the boots with him.
“I don't reckon I noticed it then, leastways not straight away,” Harlan said as he scratched at his bearded face. “But he hadn't aged. Eight damn years and the bloke wasn't a day older than when he first wandered into the shop.”
Noby carefully glued his pieces to the sole. Mopping up as he went, and making sure not to fix the leather too rigidly. Harlan had to step in but once, when the lad was about to sew through his own finger.
“It were a week later when I met your Mam.”
Lackluster, Harlan whipped the horse's reins, watching, bored, as the carriage ahead of his own weaved around a piece of flotsam in the sand. He weaved too, yawning as he did so.
Harlan hadn't opened shop. He could do little else but sit at the helm of his boat and navigate the sand sea. It wouldn't do. Traders were meant to have drivers, always someone to helm the boat. Boots were too important to wait for Mr. Teek's hangover. They were also too important to risk losing the boat should Harlan step inside and allow his horse to navigate unsupervised.
I'm gonna kill him in ways a man ain't never been killed. More than frustrated, more than angry, Harlan was bored. Mind-numbingly bored. He had no one to talk to, nothing to do but stare forward and avoid bumps in the road. How do you do this day in and day out, Teek? Must take a special type'a brain dead to do this crap.
Another obstacle and Harlan gently eased the horse to the west, moving around a sinkhole. Half a carriage poked out the hole, the desperate cries of a horse dying echoed from below. A small fleet of boats had stopped to help the owner pull his house free. Harlan slowed to watch as they tied a rope around the carriage's rear axel.
“You folks need a hand?” he offered to be polite.
“You're kind to ask, Mr. Thornes,” said a woman watching the ordeal from a distance. “We've enough hands already.”
“Right ya are.”
He whipped the reins and continued on, watching the process as he passed them by. He was still watching when the shouts ripped through him.
“Watch the road!”
It was a man's voice, desperate and wild. “Watch the road!”
Harlan flinched and felt his stomach vanish as though stolen and dropped into a pit. He yanked back on the reins, his horse gave a startled whine before rearing and pulling to a stop.
When the sand clouds settled and Harlan had collected his nerves, he leapt from the boat and rushed around to the front. Not an inch from his horse's hooves laid a woman, bloated with child, breathing rapidly as she groped at her stomach.
“I suppose that were the first time I met you, too, Noby. We delivered ya, right there in the sand, next to that sink hole.” Harlan sighed as he slouched into a chair. “I don't know what would've happened if that bloke ain't been there to warn me. If he ain't told me to keep me eyes on the road...”
“I've finished it, Mr. Thornes,” Noby said, rubbing his hands on his apron and taking a step away from the workbench. He had a glow about him, a pride that was humbling to behold.
The boot was far from perfect. The cut was sloppy, and the stitches obvious. Glue had dribbled down to stain a portion of the rubber sole, yet it was a masterpiece all the same.
Harlan inspected it closely, turning it over in his hands and setting it back down again next to the boot he'd made earlier. They were an odd pair set next to each other. One obviously the work of a master craftsman, the other an apprentice.
“Have ya signed it yet?” Harlan put his hand on Noby's shoulder and squeezed.
“Reckon I should?”
“A'course ya should!”
Nody grabbed a knife and set to work, carefully carving a delicate 'N' and then moving on to etch an 'L'.
Harlan's chest compressed. His mouth went dry as he stared at the initials. With a shaking hand, he reached forward and flipped the boot he'd made. 'H. T.' and 'N. L.'
“No, but I...” He frowned and wet his lips. “They ain't the same, surely?”
“What's wrong, Mr. Thornes?” Noby was removing his apron and straightening himself, moving to the corner to fetch his jacket.
“Oh, it's...just a coincidence...Has to be, don't it?” I fixed them boots over twenty years ago, course they ain't the same bloody ones.
“Well, I best be off, Mr. Thornes. Thanks for the lesson, like, I'll be round again tomorrow.”
Harlan almost didn't look at the boy, he was too shaken by the boots. He only glanced up, but when he did he froze.
Sands swallow me... “That...that jacket. Noby, where did ya get that jacket?” It was a dusty blazer jacket, ripped and worn. But Harlan had seen it twice before, worn by a man that still haunted his dreams.
“Fancy ain't it? Mam gave it me this morning. Said it were me Gramps.” Noby straightened the blazer and tugged on the lapels. “Died before I were born, Mam says he were some trader up in Egress. Hit by a bike trying to make it to Mam's birth.”
There were no words that Harlan could muster. No syllable to scrap along the back of his throat, no grunt, no groan, no noise at all. He only stared as Noby hurried away, his blazer jacket whipping as he went. Harlan continued to stare for a time thereafter. Not sure of what to do with himself, whether he should cry, scream or laugh.
He found, after a moment gazing at the boots on the workbench, that he wasn't scared or confused. He was happy. With a chuckle, he untied his own apron and set it on the bench before heading out to see Teek.
“How'd he do then, Harl?” said Mr. Teek as Harlan fell down next to him.
“We'll make a cobbler out'a him yet, Mr. Teek.” He pulled two cigars from his breast pocket and passed one to the driver. They lit up, puffing wisps of grey smoke into the evening breeze.
In the not too far distance, Harlan spotted Noby making his way up the caravan. “Aye, he'll be well cared for, that one. Plenty'a folk looking out for him.” He watched until Noby, torn blazer jacket and all, wove behind a carriage and was gone.
“Watch the road, Mr. Teek,” Harlan said with a smile. “Watch the road.”