Lade Inhalt...

The Snake Den

2016 300 Seiten

Leseprobe

The Snake Den

Western by Chuck Tyrell

This book has 301 paperback pages.

Arizona, 1882. Falsely accused of theft, 14 year old Shawn Brodie is sent to serve three years in the Hellhole called Yuma Territorial Prison. Lamb to the slaughter, maybe? The Mexican Zapata wants to stick him with a knife, the warden wants him to mend his thieving ways, and the sergeant of the guard wants to get into Shawn’s pants. If he won’t do what Sergeant Tarkington wants, he’ll end up in the Snake Den, a cube of iron straps hung from the ceiling of a dark cave. If he doesn’t do what Zapata says, he’ll end up with a nail sticking out of his eye. If he can’t convince the warden that he’s not a thief, he’ll spend his days tromping Colorado River mud to make adobe bricks.

Is his young life going to be made up of beatings, rape, and incarceration in the deadly Snake Den? The odds seem stacked against young Shawn ever getting out of Yuma Prison alive. The Mexicans hate the whites, the Chinamen and blacks stay out of the way, and the whites fight among themselves. Somehow, Shawn must learn how to defend himself, and chance throws him in with Shoo Lee, a cellmate, an Oriental proficient in the barehanded fighting technique Kara Ti. Perhaps if he becomes Shoo Lee’s disciple he can endure...

“Remarkable. A page turning thriller set in a frontier prison where a boy convict learns about the tough world of survival as he grows into a man. Told with gritty courage and honesty – a surprising blend of East and West, it’s a coming-of-age story like none you’ve ever read.” – Corinne Joy Brown, author of McGregor’s Lantern, Sanctuary Ranch, and Come and Get it!

“Though young, Shawn has the strong moral fiber to survive, no matter what comes his way. Chuck Tyrell has produced a memorable hero and a grim, gritty yet very real tale of brutality leavened with kindness, despair salved with hope, and ultimately an inspiring testament to a young boy’s journey into manhood.” – Ross Morton, author of The $300 Man

"Chuck Tyrell has brought authenticity and poignancy to a western with a difference..." – Jack Martin, author of The Ballad of Delta Rose.

Copyright

A CassiopeiaPress book: CASSIOPEIAPRESS, UKSAK E-Books and BEKKERpublishing are imprints of Alfred Bekker

© by Author / Cover  by Christian Martinez Kempin/123RF, 2016

'The Snake Den' first appeared in print in 2011, published by Solstice Publishing.

© this issue 2016 by AlfredBekker/CassiopeiaPress, Lengerich/Westfalen in arrangement with Edition Bärenklau, edited by Jörg Martin Munsonius.

All rights reserved.

www.AlfredBekker.de

postmaster@alfredbekker.de

About the Author:

Chuck Tyrell is the pen name of Charles T. Whipple, an international prize winning author, he uses the pen name for his Western novels. To date, he has had 15 western novels published, as well as many short stories featured in anthologies and as stand-alone-shorts. Chuck Tyrell is also one of the authors who have taken the name Ford Fargo in writing the Wolf Creek series, published and produced by Western Fictioneers.

Born and reared in Arizona´s White Mountain contry only 19 miles away from Fort Apache, he won his first writing award while in high school, and has won several since then.

Raised on a ranch, he brings his own experience into play writing about the people of the 19th century in Arizona. Although he currently lives in japan he maintains close ties with the West through family, relatives, former schoolmates and readers of his novels. He is a member of Western Fictioneers, Western Writers of America, Western Union of Japan, Arizona Authors Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Aisan American  Journalists Association and Tauranga Writers Inc.

THE SNAKE DEN is his first novel for Edition Bärenklau/ Germany.

1

Shawn Brodie hunted whenever he could spare the time. He was short for a fourteen-year-old, but hit what he aimed at with his .22 Marlin. On his way across Seven Mile Flat, he found a Flying V cow down with a broken leg. She’d stepped in a dog hole, and the best Shawn could do for her was shoot her behind the ear. Rules of the open range said a man could take meat from a dead cow, and Shawn’s family was short of meat, so he took a hind haunch from the carcass. Besides, it seemed like a terrible waste to let the whole cow rot. But he’d just slung the meat from his saddle horn when Fen Dillard rode over the hill and accused him of thieving beef, and it wasn’t even his cow.

Shawn Brodie was good with his rifle, but he couldn’t face down a half dozen grown men with a .22 even if he had a mind to.

He told Dillard what happened. Then he told Judge Banks the same thing. The judge gave him three years in the Yuma hellhole. Shawn left Grant’s Crossing with U.S. Marshal Ness Havelock. He had the clothes on his back and a spavined roan that the marshal promised to bring back to his Ma.

“It’s only three years, Shawn,” his Ma said with tears in her eyes. “You’ll come back a grown man.”

Shawn didn’t answer. He was still dazed by what had happened, and he didn’t really come to until they slammed the gate shut at Yuma prison, stuck him in a stone-walled room, and stripped him.

“Skinny tinkle of a kid, ain’tcha?” the guard sergeant said. “How come you’re at Yuma?”

Shawn kept his head down and shrugged. The man backhanded Shawn across the face, sending him to the floor in a naked sprawl.

“I ask you a question,” the thick-set man said, rolling his shoulders, “you give me an answer.”

Shawn swiped a hand at his bloody mouth and stood up on shaky legs. “They say I took a cow.”

The sergeant laughed. “A thief.” He threw a set of striped prison garb at Shawn’s feet. “Climb into those, thief,” he said. “An’ don’t forget the hat.” He tossed a straw hat onto the mound of clothing.

Shawn looked sideways at the sergeant as he pulled on the drawers and pants and shrugged into the shirt. Then, dressed in dingy black-and-white horizontal stripes, Shawn stood as straight and tall as his five-foot one-inch frame would let him. The pant legs jumbled on the ground around his feet and the shirt was definitely meant for a much larger man.

The sergeant laughed again. He lifted Shawn’s chin with the end of his thirty-inch truncheon and leaned over to stare into his eyes. “My name’s Tarkington,” he said. “You stay on my good side and life here in Yuma can be pleasant enough. You buck me and you’ll find out why they call this place the hellhole. You’ll end up in the Snake Den.”

Shawn tried to keep looking at the guard, but his insides trembled.

“Well?”

Shawn nodded.

“Say it!”

“Yes, sir, Sergeant Tarkington!” The words tumbled over one another. “I heard you.”

Tarkington smiled, a wolf with a rabbit cornered. “For the next three years, you belong to Yuma. Yuma will feed you and Yuma will give you clothes and a bed and a job to keep you busy. And you do what I say. Get it?”

“Yes, sir!” Shawn shouted, his blond hair bobbing around his ears.

Footsteps sounded in the gravel outside, and Tarkington stepped away from Shawn. The door to the yard office swung open and a balding man with iron-rimmed spectacles walked in.

“How is the new inmate, Tarkington? I understand he’s only fourteen. Youngest we’ve ever had, I declare.”

“Yes, sir, Warden.” Tarkington spoke like a model prison guard. “That he is. And small for fourteen, if you ask me, sir.”

“Shawn Brodie, eh? Your papers say you stole a cow at Grant’s Crossing. That right?” the warden asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Bring this boy to my office after his haircut, sergeant. I want a word with him.”

“Yessir, Warden. I’ll do just that,” Tarkington said, then hollered, “Bills!”

“See that you do,” the warden said, and left.

A long skinny guard entered. He had a receding chin, a great beak of a nose, and a bobbing Adam’s apple. “Whaddaya want, Bull?” he asked with a nasal twang.

“Turkey, take this thief over to where Whiskers can cut his hair.”

Tarkington gave Shawn a shove that sent him staggering halfway across the room.

Turkey Bills grabbed hold of Shawn’s arm with a tight grip. “Come on, turd. And no sass.”

“And Turkey, hussle him up to the Warden’s office when Whiskers gets done with him. He’ll get some lessons in human kindness.”

Turkey snickered as he pulled Shawn through the door and into the prison yard. “Willy Whiskers works a barbershop in a dugout cut in the south wall of the prison yard.,” Turkey said. “Whiskers can cut a man bald with scissors and clippers before he can even turn around. But notice that he’s got the ends of his scissors ground off round so they don’t make no weapon, and I reckon nobody ain’t never been killed with a pair of hair clippers. Ol’ Whiskers, he keeps them things sharp and clean.”

Turkey shoved Shawn into Whiskers’ dugout room. “Get rid of that hair,” Bills growled. He sauntered back down the south wall toward the women’s cells.

Whiskers grinned. “Turkey Buzzard don’t get much chance to look at women,” he said as he seated Shawn on the stool. He flipped a flour sack over Shawn’s shoulders and started up one side of his head with the clicking clippers. Locks of blonde hair fell on the floor. “They’s only three ladies in them cells,” Whiskers continued. “But they’s young and only one’s nigro.”

More hair cascaded to the floor. Whiskers picked up his scissors and went to making Shawn look halfway decent. “Where ya from, son?” Whiskers asked.

“Grant’s Crossing.”

“Whereabouts is that?”

“South of Navajo Springs.”

“Apache County, then?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I ain’t no sir.” Whiskers grabbed his clippers and started them up the back of Shawn’s neck, clipping close and short. Once in a while the clippers would hang up and Shawn would flinch, but Whiskers ignored him.

Turkey came wandering back across the yard, banging his truncheon against the iron strapping that faced the dugout rooms. By the time he reached the barber room, Shawn’s hair was about a quarter of an inch long on top and almost shaved on the sides.

“Now you look fit for Yuma,” Turkey said, and cackled.

Whiskers used an old piece of towel to flick the hair clippings from Shawn’s face and neck. “Reckon the boy’s ready,” he said.

Turkey opened the iron-strap door. “Come on, kid. The warden’s waiting.” The guard gripped Shawn’s arm and marched him back into the glaring Yuma sun and up the length of the prison yard to the sallyport. “Going to the warden’s office,” Turkey said to the guards at the gate, and the heavy cross-hatched iron portal swung open.

Turkey Bills hustled Shawn around the garden plot and up the wooden steps to the warden’s office. The warden must have seen them coming, because he stood in the open door when Turkey and Shawn reached the top step.

“That will be all, Mister Bills. I’ll call when I’m finished.”

“Yessir.” Turkey retreated to the guard’s station at the sallyport.

“Come in, Mister Brodie,” the warden said.

Shawn followed him into the office.

“You may sit there.” The warden pointed to a chair directly in front of a big oak desk.

“Yessir.” Shawn sat on the edge of the chair, back stiff and straight. He kept his hands on his thighs and his eyes on the desk blotter.

The warden took his seat behind the desk, removed his iron-rimmed spectacles, pulled a rumpled white handkerchief from his pocket, and went to polishing the lenses.

Shawn waited, tense and fearful, even though the warden didn’t seem threatening. Sweat beaded on his upper lip.

The warden replaced his spectacles and looked at Shawn.

“Now, Mister Brodie,” he said. “Welcome to Yuma Territorial Prison.”

Shawn said nothing. He’d just as soon not be here at all.

“You’ve been sent here because you committed a crime against society and your community.” The warden paused to look at a document on his desk. “In your case, Mister Brodie, you were accused and convicted of shooting a cow belonging to the Flying V ranch and then removing a hind quarter from said cow, for your own purposes, which is thievery. The accuser and witness was one Fenmore Dillard.”

Shawn remained silent.

The warden removed his spectacles again and stared at Shawn. “It’s very unusual to get someone as young as you here, Mister Brodie. In fact, in more than five years since the first inmates came here, you are the youngest. Nevertheless, you cannot be shown any favoritism because of your tender years. I cannot allow that. You are here to learn the error of your ways and to leave after serving your entire sentence wiser and hopefully less inclined to repeat your error.”

Shawn hadn’t heard anything that required an answer, so he kept his hands on his thighs and his eyes straight ahead.

The warden shuffled some documents, and, finding what he wanted, spoke to Shawn again. “Mister Brodie, I’m assigning you to a cell where I think you can accomplish what is expected of you. There are three other inmates in the cell, although it was built for six. The inmates assigned are Shoo Lee, a Chinaman, Sylvester Blanchard, also known as Shark, because he’s a gambler, and Gary Pringle . . . the Kid.”

Shawn’s ears pricked up. Everyone knew of Kid Pringle, the gunfighter, and he was going to be in the same cell. Maybe I can pick up some pointers, he thought. He could shoot all right with a rifle. Lots of times his rifle was what kept meat in the Brodie pot. But he’d never had the money to get a short gun. Then he realized he was in prison, and the Kid wouldn’t have a gun to teach him with.

“Are you listening to me, young man?” The warden’s voice took on a hard edge.

“Yessir. Nossir. I mean I was thinking, sir. Beg your pardon, sir.” Shawn blurted his apology but hadn’t the slightest idea what the Warden had said.

“Very well. We’ll have you ready to rejoin society at the end of three years, son, or my name is not Justin Strickland.” The warden smiled.

Shawn kept a straight face.

“You’ll be put to work like everyone else and you’ll have Sundays off like everyone else. You can use your Sundays as you wish, but I suggest you attend services, and you might want to sample the library.

“People from Yuma come once a month to the prison bazaar. Sometimes the men put on a bout of fisticuffs for their entertainment, and others put out handmade knick-knacks so townspeople can buy them.”

Shawn wondered where the warden’s lecture was going; but then, he had nothing better to do. He was in Yuma Prison for three years . . . three long years.

At last, the warden ran down. He stood and walked to the door, which complained as he opened it. “Mister Bills,” the warden called.

“Yessir,” came Turkey’s voice. Then he appeared at the door.

“Mister Brodie is assigned to cell number eight, Mister Bills. See that he gets there, if you will.”

Again, Turkey took a strong hold on Shawn’s arm. “Come on, turd,” he said, and dragged Shawn away toward the sallyport.

“Mister Bills.”

Turkey stopped when the warden called. “Yessir?”

“Be civil with the inmates, Mister Bills.”

Turkey nodded, and resumed his march toward the sallyport. “To me you’re no more’n a little rabbit turd, boy,” he whispered. “And turd is what I’ll call you. Got it?”

Shawn nodded.

As they walked down the row of cells, Turkey ran his truncheon over the iron straps. The cells seemed to be right out in the open, though a roof stood high above them. Each row was a block of adobe and granite with the cells open on each side. Strap-iron grates covered the open ends, which measured about eight feet wide and ten feet long. Most of the cells they passed were empty, inmates out working, Shawn guessed. He heard a racking cough from a man who lay in a cell with his face to the wall. A lunger, like grandpa. Shawn decided to keep his distance from that man.

Turkey stopped before an empty cell and unlocked the strap-iron door. “Home sweet home, turd,” he said, and cackled. He shoved Shawn inside. The door clanged shut.

Then the situation came home to Shawn Brodie. He was locked in a cell in the depths of Yuma Territorial Prison, surrounded by granite walls and iron cages. The air smelled like hot rocks and there was a whiff of stale piss. There was no way out. Stuck in this hole for the next three years.

He felt a great hollow inside, in the place that would ordinarily be filled with Ma’s concern and his sister’s laughter. But here he had nobody. No one but himself. He fought to keep tears from his eyes. Here of all places he couldn’t cry. He might be small for his age, but he was fourteen going on fifteen and as tough as the next guy. No tears. No thinking about what things might be like if he wasn’t here. Gotta take everything one step at a time. Just one step at a time.

With teeth clenched and body held stiff against a great flood of fear and loneliness that threatened to engulf him, Shawn Brodie examined the eight-by-ten cell – his new home.

The cell domed twelve feet from the floor, and a tier of three iron bunks stuck out from each wall. The bunks were about six feet long, which left a bit of space between their ends and the strap-iron grates the covered the ends of the cell. No place to hide. No corners, nothing was ever out of sight.

Turkey Bills banged on the grate with his truncheon. “Turd,” he said. “Come get your possibles.” The guard opened the iron door so Shawn could exit. Turkey grabbed Shawn’s arm yet again and marched him to the laundry, where he got a thin pallet, two sheets, a threadbare towel, and an extra pair of drawers. Then they went to the bathhouse for a cake of hard soap. “You make do with those, turd. And if you can come up with a little money, there’s things you can buy.” Turkey marched Shawn back to the cell, turned him in, and locked the door. The guard gave the iron grate one final bang with his truncheon as he left.

Shawn put his little bundle of things down and sat on the floor with his back to the wall. He felt another flash of loneliness, but he bit his hand and it passed. All he had to do was wait for his cellmates.

He put his arms around his knees and pulled them up under his chin and rested his forehead on them.

Turkey’s truncheon on the iron grating, followed by the sound of shuffling feet woke him. Shawn straightened up but remained sitting against the wall, a small, almost shapeless bundle in dingy black-and-white striped garb. He sat in silence, his arms still around his knees, but with his face raised.

Turkey’s banging truncheon came closer.

Doors up and down the walkway opened as the guards unlocked them, let the inmates in, and clanged them closed again.

Finally, Turkey banged on cell number eight. Then he stood back, a shotgun held in the crook of his arm, while another guard opened the door.

2

Shawn knew right away who was who. Kid Pringle, a young man of middling size, strode into the cell like he owned the world. Shark Blanchard, tall and a little stoop-shouldered, followed like he didn’t give a damn. And Shoo Lee slipped in with no more presence than a shadow, though he was nearly as tall as Pringle.

They all ignored Shawn.

“Damn,” the Kid said, slapping his prison suit and raising a cloud of dust. “Dirty work, that rock busting.” Then he turned to Blanchard. “Who left that pile of clothes against the wall, Shark? You?”

Blanchard gave a thin smile but didn’t answer.

The Kid walked over and prodded Shawn with a toe. “M’God,” he said. “It’s alive. Must be a cootie or sumpin.”

Shawn stood up.

“You jailbirds get along together, now,” Turkey said, tapping gently on an iron strap with his truncheon. He’d put the shotgun away somewhere, but a double-action Colt Sheriff’s .45 rode on his hip in a hard black holster.

Kid Pringle didn’t answer. He just walked over and threw himself on a bunk, ignoring both Shawn and the guard.

“He’ll be all right, Mister Bills,” Shark Blanchard said quietly.

Turkey Bills nodded and twanged out his advice. “Well, you see that’s right, Shark, and don’t you teach him no gambling tricks. The warden hisself got a special interest in this rabbit turd. Him being the littlest and the youngest we ever had.”

“He’ll be all right,” Blanchard repeated.

Turkey clanged the truncheon against the strap iron once more, gave the inmates of cell number eight a long look, then wandered off.

“Come here, Button,” Blanchard said.

Shawn complied.

“Can you make it up onto that middle bunk?” Blanchard asked.

“I ain’t tried.”

“Well, try it.”

“Yessir.”

“I’m not sir, young’n. I’m just Shark.”

“Yessir . . . Shark.”

The taciturn Blanchard chuckled. “You’re just a mite, Button, but I think you’ll do. Now climb up on this bunk. I’m on the bottom.”

Shawn grabbed the chain at the end of the bunks to get up on the second one. Still, he had to step up on Blanchard’s bunk, then onto the chain that ran midway between the bunks to do the job.

“Okay, that’s your bunk, Button. Nobody’ll bother anything you leave in your bunk. That’s the rule.”

“Shawn.”

“What do you mean, ‘Shawn’?”

“My name ain’t ‘Button’. It’s Shawn Brodie.”

Blanchard laughed aloud, then looked surprised at the sound of his own voice.

“Come on down now, Shawn,” Blanchard said.

Shawn clambered down the way he got up. “Sure would be easier with a ladder,” he mumbled.

“What’s that?” Blanchard spoke sharply.

Shawn straightened into a ramrod. “Nothing, sir. Shark.”

“You said something. You see, we got another rule in here. You gotta speak out so you can be heard, unless you are telling a mate a secret, of course.”

“Yes sir. Shark. I just said it would be a lot easier if there was a ladder.”

Blanchard contemplated the boy. “Yes. You’re right. We’ll see what we can do.”

“How come you looking after that pint of piss, Shark?” Kid Pringle said from his bunk, his face still turned to the wall.

Shawn had thought the Kid would be special somehow. Now he wasn’t sure. The Kid sounded like a spoiled brat.

“The boy’s in here with no ma or pa, Kid. It’ll be tough enough without his bunkies riding his frame.”

A shadow of movement flickered in the corner of Shawn’s eye. He turned. Shoo Lee was going through a series of slow motions across the east end of the cell. Shawn watched, but the Oriental ignored him.

“What’s he doing?” he finally asked Blanchard.

“That Chinaman could kill you quick as a flick with his bare hands, Button. He’s going through all his fighting motions real slow. Says it makes his body remember what to do without needing to think about it. Does them movements every day, morning and night.”

“Don’t look so fierce.”

“Shoo Lee’s not a fierce man. Says Ti fighting is only for defense.”

Shawn watched the Oriental pivot and weave. To him, the movement looked like some kind of dance.

Blanchard stood silent for a while. Then he said, “Come over here, Button.”

“Shawn.”

Blanchard stared at Shawn, who met the gambler’s hard gaze with an unflinching stare of his own. “Son, you’re no more’n a mite,” he said in a kindly voice. “You come on hard in this hellhole, and you won’t last a week, much less a year. Leave it be. I don’t mean no disrespect by calling you ‘Button’. That’s just what you are.”

“My name is Shawn. That shouldn’t be so hard to remember.”

“Don’t get your back up, now. There’s too many things you don’t know yet. Let me do some explaining, will you?”

Shawn thought about it for a while, then nodded. “OK. But my name’s still Shawn.”

Blanchard chuckled. “Come on over here,” he said. “You gotta learn to do this thing right.” The gambler pulled a lidded bucket, along with a square of old blanket about three feet long and a pad made from rags, from under the west end of Kid Pringle’s bunk.

“The first thing you do,” instructed Blanchard, “is pin this here blanket to these iron straps.” The gambler took two wooden clothespins off a strap and pinned the blanket to the iron. “Now those jailbirds across the way can’t watch you. Some likes to, you know.

“Now, you put this pad down in front of the bucket and kneel on it. That gets your pecker closer, so’s you don’t miss. It ain’t too fragrant in here anyway, but a little stale piss really stinks things up in a hurry. Don’t you miss that bucket, hear?”

Blanchard threw a glance at the dancing movements of Shoo Lee. “The Chinaman got us doing this here stuff. He says they put shit in rice fields in his country. Every bit’s valuable, he says. Says farmers pay good money for shit. And the richer the family, the more money they get for their shit. Guess people what eat good, shit good, too.

“Anyway, you put this here rim on the bucket when you gotta shit, and you use one page of the Monkey Ward Dream Book to wipe. Put the paper in that box. Got that?”

Shawn nodded.

“You’ll wanna use the bucket only when you can’t wait to go to the latrine. We got two hours a day when we can go free about the yard. That’s when you’ll wanna go. This here bucket’s for emergencies, like when you got the runs or you gotta piss in the middle of the night or whatever. Got that?”

Shawn nodded again.

The bang of Turkey Bills’ truncheon echoed through the cellblock. He stopped at cell number eight. “Turd,” he said, pointing his truncheon through the cage at Shawn. “You come on out here. We gotta get your pitcher took. The rest of you inmates, back off. I gotta open the door and I don’t want any of you all near.”

Blanchard and Shoo Lee moved to the other end of the cell. Kid Pringle lay on his bunk without moving.

Turkey opened the door and pulled Shawn through. “Come along, turd,” he said, locking the door. “We gotta get you a number, and then Bull wants to see you in the yard office.”

Shawn said nothing. Turkey took his customary strong grip on Shawn’s arm, and marched the boy to the photographer’s den, which was two doors down from Whiskers’ hole-in-the-cliff barbershop.

Turkey stood in the doorway as the photographer lined Shawn up for his prison photograph. He sat on a chair, stiffly facing the camera. A mirror was arranged behind and to one side so the photograph would show face on and side view at the same time. A flash of magnesium seared Shawn’s image onto a gelatin-based dry plate, and he was forever identified as Yuma convict number 123. First time Shawn had ever had his picture taken. Kinda like I was rich for a minute, he thought.

“One, two, three, eh.” Turkey chuckled. “You’ll take some ribbing for that, turd. But that ain’t no nevermind right now. Gotta get your little hairless ass over to the yard office. Bull’s waiting.”

A shiver slid down Shawn’s back, pulling up gooseflesh in its wake. Tarkington. Right now, there was no one he’d rather see less of than Bull Tarkington. If he’d been heavier, he would have dragged his feet. As it was, Turkey pulled him across the yard and around the cellblock without so much as “by your leave.” Turkey rapped on the office door.

“Come,” Tarkington said.

“Brung you convict number one two three, Bull.” Turkey cackled as he opened the door and shoved Shawn in.

He remembered the stone walls from before, and the smell of old tobacco. The small window made it darker inside, too. Shawn stumbled further into the room.

“How’s it going, thief? Got any ‘butt buddies’ yet?”

Shawn didn’t know what a “butt buddy” was, so he didn’t answer.

“You hear me talking, thief?”

“Yessir.”

“Then why didn’t you answer?”

Again, Shawn had no answer, so he stood silent.

Tarkington reached out a ham hand to cuff Shawn on the ear.

The blow rocked Shawn’s head and brought a suggestion of tears to his eyes, but he continued to stand at attention. His ear felt hot as blood rushed to the place Tarkington had slapped.

Tarkington stared at the silent boy.

Shawn did not meet the guard sergeant’s gaze, keeping his eyes fixed on his tormentor’s shoes.

Tarkington drew his thirty-inch truncheon from its loop on his belt. With its hard tip, he lifted Shawn’s chin. “Let me tell you about the Snake Den, thief. ‘Cause if you don’t learn to live by my rules, you’re gonna be spending more time in there with the snakes than in your own cell.”

Shawn swallowed hard but couldn’t blink.

Tarkington glared at him for a moment. “OK. You seen that caliche hill that’s cut away to make the south wall. Whiskers’ barber shop’s in it. Well, right next to that barbershop is the door to the Snake Den. It’s so low a man has to stoop to go in, but little as you are, you can probably walk in standing straight up. We’ll see when we put you in there.”

Tarkington gloated. “That low tunnel goes back into the hill about fifty feet, and it turns a corner so no light gets in. Back in there, we had the convicts hollow out a real good cave. It’s about twenty feet across, I’d guess, and maybe a dozen and a half feet high. And it’s got one little bitty hole in the roof up to the top of the hill so whoever’s in there can get a little air.”

Tarkington kept the truncheon under Shawn’s jaw as he continued. “Now, the Snake Den’s where people go when they don’t know how to follow the rules. And inside that big ol’ cave back there’s a cage. It’s got iron straps all around, sides and top and bottom. No more’n six-inch gaps anywhere. And everywhere them straps cross, there’s a big ol’ iron rivet in ‘em. That’s the tightest iron cage you ever did see. No getting out, thief. Besides. It’s so dark in there, you couldn’t see to get out if you could squeeze through them gaps.”

Tarkington chortled, enjoying Shawn’s discomfort.

“Know why they call it the Snake Den? Hmmm?”

Tarkington jabbed Shawn’s throat with the truncheon.

Shawn was just able to shake his head.

“Well, it got that name because sidewinders and diamondbacks like to crawl down that skinny vent hole in the roof to get outta the sun. And when they do that, them snakes drop right down on top of that iron cage, and sometimes they crawl right into that cage with whomsoever’s spending time there for breaking the rules.” Tarkington watched Shawn’s face closely as Shawn tried to hide his fear of snakes. He hoped that no flicker of his eyes betrayed his terror.

“Don’t worry, thief. We’ve only had a couple of snakebites since the Snake Den opened in ‘79. And neither prisoner died. They was a greaser that lost his leg, though. Good thing we got us a good surgeon here. Ain’t it?”

This time Shawn was able to answer. “Yessir.”

“Now, I’m gonna read off a list of things you’re expected to do, thief. You don’t do ‘em, and you get a taste of the Snake Den firsthand, savvy?

“Yessir.”

“Good.” Tarkington removed his truncheon from under Shawn’s jaw, allowing the boy to stand naturally once more. He read from the list. “You don’t fight with other convicts. You don’t stay in someone else’s cell. We don’t want you cooking in the yard, and you can’t destroy someone else’s stuff or government property. You gotta act proper in the dining room; no disorderly conduct. Anywhere, for that matter.”

Tarkington looked at Shawn from under his eyebrows. “No fighting,” he continued. “No gambling. No talking back. Take a bath every week. And you gotta work.”

“Sounds like common sense,” Shawn said.

“Oh, there’s more,” Tarkington growled. “You get solitary for disorderly conduct, for going over to the women’s cells, for trying to get letters outta here without us knowing about it, and for leaving trash laying around.”

“Can I ask a question, Mister Tarkington?”

“You got a question? OK. Ask away.”

“What puts me in the Snake Den?”

Tarkington grinned, a wolf closing in on its kill. “First off, you try to escape from here and you’ll find yourself wearing a ball and chain. You get caught with opium, you go into the Snake Den. You steal, you’re in there, too.”

Shawn nodded. He’d stay outta that dark hole. The one thing he hated most was snakes. “I understand, Sergeant,” he said.

“See that you do,” Tarkington barked. He moved closer.

Shawn heard the sergeant’s heavy breathing, but didn’t dare turn around. Tarkington’s belly came up against the back of Shawn’s head, big hands grasping his shoulders.

“Thief, you be a good boy and we’ll get along just fine.” Tarkington’s voice was low and husky, and Shawn felt something poking him between the shoulder blades.

Tarkington tightened his grasp on Shawn’s shoulders and jammed his pelvis at the boy’s back. Now Shawn knew that the hard thing poking at him was the sergeant’s pecker.

Shawn cleared his throat loudly. It was all he could do in protest, but Tarkington kept shoving his pelvis up and down Shawn’s spine while pulling back on his shoulders. The guard’s breath was hard and fast. Shawn couldn’t think what to do, and he felt mighty uncomfortable.

Tarkington’s bumping picked up speed. Shawn’s senses sharpened. He could hear pots and pans clanking in the kitchen through the east wall, and he heard boots crunching on gravel. Someone was coming toward the yard office.

A rap on the door stopped Tarkington in mid-hump.

“Yeah?” he said, in a strained voice, relaxing his hold.

Shawn took a chance and escaped Tarkington’s hold. Knees shaking, he sidled to the wall and moved closer to the door. He kept his eyes on Tarkington’s twisted, reddened face, wondering what to do.

“Bull?” Turkey Bills’ voice came through the closed door. “You don’t let that turd loose, he’ll miss supper. They’re about ready to close the kitchen.”

“Oh. Yeah. Well, I’m through with him. You can take him on over there.” Tarkington worked at his crotch, resettling his softening erection to a less noticeable position, then took the bar off the door.

Turkey opened it. “Come on, turd.”

“Shawn.”

“What?” Turkey looked surprised.

“My name’s Shawn, and I ain’t no turd.” After Tarkington, Turkey Bills wasn’t so scary.

Turkey cackled.

“You be careful about talking back to a guard, thief,” Tarkington said. “First thing you know, you’ll be in the Snake Den.”

“Sorry, sir,” Shawn said. Then in a small voice, he continued, “It shouldn’t be all that much trouble to call a man by his name.”

Turkey cackled again and Tarkington snorted. “Was there a man nearby,” Tarkington said, “you’d have a point. But any way you look at it, you ain’t no more’n a button. Was I you, I’d let it slide. I can call you ‘thief’ and Turkey can call you ‘turd’ if we got a mind to. We run things around here, not you.”

Shawn ducked his head and shut up. He wasn’t gonna push the point and get himself in trouble. The last thing he wanted to do was to sit in the dark and wonder when the sidewinders would drop in.

3

Turkey Bills opened the door to the dining room abruptly and pulled Shawn through. The low buzz of voices came to a halt as the convicts realized someone new to the hellhole had entered. Shawn quickly surveyed the seated prisoners, then dropped his gaze. The glance told him a lot about the denizens of Yuma Territorial Prison on August 29, 1882.

At least half the inmates were dark, either Mexicans or Indians. Two wore long pigtails – Chinamen. Three were black.

“Hey Turkey,” a voice called from the far table. “You robbing the cradle these days? That convict ain’t had time to get off his sugar teat yet, much less grow a beard.”

“You shut your trap, Henry. This here’s a honest-to-God cow thief, name a Shawn Brodie. You boys treat him right, now.” Turkey released Shawn’s arm and gave him a little shove toward the serving line.

The cook was a sour-looking old man that surely would have been more at home with a chuck wagon and a gaggle of Dutch ovens like the ones at the Flying V. He stood over a cauldron with a long-handled ladle in his hand. Shawn approached hesitantly.

“Gitchur plate, young ‘un,” the cook said, flipping a hand at a stack of tin plates. “’N’ don’t forgitchur spoon, neither.” The cook grinned, showing the gaps in his teeth.

Tentatively, Shawn smiled back.

Suddenly, his hunger boiled. He grabbed a plate and stabbed it at the cook.

“Gitchur spoon,” the cook commanded.

Shawn got a spoon and a cup, too.

The cook splashed a huge ladle full of goulash on Shawn’s plate and topped it with a big hunk of sourdough bread. “Tea on the table,” the cook said, “or river water, whichever suits ya.”

“Stay away from the women’s table,” Turkey said.

Shawn started at the sound of Turkey’s voice in his ear. He hadn’t noticed the guard following him to the serving table.

“Number one two two,” Turkey called.

A swarthy man in black and white stripes stood up.

“This here’s convict number one two three.” Turkey snickered. “Guess he sets next to you, Zapata.”

The Mexican nodded.

“Over there, turd.” Turkey gave Shawn a little push in Zapata’s direction. There was just enough room at the end of the bench seat for Shawn. He put his food on the table and sat down next to Zapata.

“Watch yourself, gringo, or I’ll eat your guts for breakfast,” Zapata said with a bright smile.

“Sorry,” Shawn said and moved to sit half off the end of the bench so he didn’t come into contact with the Mexican. He shoveled a spoonful of goulash into his mouth and bit off a chunk of sourdough.

“Hey, gringo boy,” Zapata said, speaking low so only Shawn could hear. Shawn stopped chewing to listen. “I killed a gringo man and his puta whore near Tres Alamos,” Zapata said, “and I cooked his heart and ate it. But he wasn’t young and tender like you are, muchacho. His heart was very tasty, but yours would surely be much more so, verdad?”

The other six convicts at the table kept their attention on eating, ignoring Zapata and Shawn.

The chunk of sourdough bread seemed stuck in Shawn’s throat. He didn’t know how to reply to the Mexican, so he shook his head, then he nodded, and tried to look confused.

Suddenly a twenty-penny nail that had been flattened and honed to a sharp edge was pricking Shawn just behind the point of his jaw. Zapata had a hand on Shawn’s shoulder and he was smiling as if in friendly conversation. “You see, gringo muchacho, Zapata holds your life in his own two hands. I have your life, hijo del cerdo. Beg for it. Say, por favor, Senor Zapata, may I have my life. Beg, puto niño, or you live no more.”

Shawn shuddered and tried to swallow the sodden mass in his mouth, but couldn’t. He snorted. Then coughed, sending goulash out his nose and onto the table. A guard started in Shawn’s direction, and the homemade knife disappeared from Zapata’s hand.

“You should eat more slowly, señor,” Zapata said, pounding lightly between Shawn’s shoulder blades. Zapata spoke to the guard. “Some goulash, what do you say, señor el guardia? Some got down the wrong pipe. But I am sure our young Americano is OK now.” Zapata raised an eyebrow.

“Sure. Fine,” Shawn managed to say between coughs.

“You got five more minutes,” the guard said. “Eat up.”

But Shawn had lost his appetite. Zapata didn’t threaten him again, but Shawn felt like he was sitting next to a sidewinder in the skin of a man.

Surely the others at the table saw what Zapata had done. Shawn looked at each convict, but none would meet his eyes. None except Zapata, who raised a finger and wiggled it at Shawn. “Relax, gringo cachorro. Zapata is not going to demand your life this day. But you will never know when that day will come, until I decide it is time for you to know.”

Zapata stood up. “You had best eat something, gringo muchacho. You very much need to grow.”

Shawn managed somehow to get two more spoonfuls of goulash down before the cook banged on a battered tub, signaling the end of mealtime.

“All right. On your feet,” hollered the guard who stood by the door. “File outta here, and keep your hands where I can see ‘em.”

Shawn gulped another mouthful and bit off a hunk of bread as he was standing up. That left his plate less than half full, with a sizeable chunk of sourdough on it, too. Zapata sneered at him and turned his back.

Shawn followed Zapata’s slight form, trying to chew and swallow and get another bite, all at the same time.

Zapata put his plate in one tub, spoon in another, and tin cup in a third. Shawn started to dump his plate in the same tub when a hand shot out and grabbed his wrist.

“Whassa matter of you? Cain’t you eat all your food?” The questioner was also dressed in prison stripes, but he had an air of authority.

“Didn’t have time,” Shawn said.

“You eat what you take. Them’s the rules,” the man said.

Shawn squared off in front of him, looking up into a wrinkled face with stubble in the creases of the chin. “Look here, mister. I’m just as anxious as anyone else to keep the rules around here. But I don’t take too kindly to common inmates telling me what is and what ain’t.”

Shawn noticed a slop bucket off to the side, so he scraped the goulash and hunk of sourdough bread off into it. He tossed the plate into the proper tub and followed with the spoon and cup, after he drained it of its weak tea.

“That satisfy you, old man?” Shawn was feeling piqued because of the threats Zapata had made, threats he could do nothing about. The old man at the tubs didn’t seem at all threatening compared to the pricks from Zapata’s little knife.

“Jest so’s you know,” the older inmate said, backing off.

Shawn nodded and walked past the guard – who had ignored the whole thing – and through the open door. A little dust-devil whirled by, whipping at Shawn’s pants and sweeping away the steamy smell of sweating men that had been so oppressive inside.

Outside, convicts spread out over the yard. Some stood in close knots of humanity. Others wandered aimlessly about. Shoo Lee was in the northwest corner beneath the guard tower, practicing his graceful fighting dance, and Shawn noticed he didn’t wear a pigtail like the other Chinamen. He started in the direction of the slow-dancing Oriental.

Shawn got no more than halfway across the yard when a spearhead of Mexicans, led by Zapata, moved in his direction. He walked faster, but the Mexicans quickened their steps to match. Shawn was only a dozen yards from Shoo Lee when the Mexican group forked into a pincer movement and surrounded him. Suddenly, he stood in a circle of Mexicans three deep. Small as he was, Shawn’s head didn’t even show above the Mexicans’ striped garb and straw hats.

“Gringo boy,” Zapata sneered. “I think you must learn a lesson about who truly commands the yard at El Carcel de Yuma.”

Zapata swiped a hand at the side of Shawn’s face. He automatically put up a hand to ward off the blow. In an instant, the knife pierced Shawn’s hand and was gone.

“What happened to your hand could well happen to your eye or your ear or your tiny little boy’s cojones, gringo.” Zapata’s voice sounded in his right ear. Shawn sucked in a sharp breath against the stabbing pain in his hand. He squeezed his eyes shut and willed Zapata to walk away.

But he didn’t.

The Mexicans in the circle tittered.

Shawn opened his eyes. Zapata stood before him with his arms folded. The bloody tip of the nail-knife protruded from between his index and middle fingers. Shawn couldn’t take his eyes from it. He backed away. The circle of Mexicans moved as he did, keeping him in the center with Zapata.

Shawn’s breath came in short gasps. His brain clouded. He didn’t know what to do. No one had ever threatened to kill him before.

“You are helpless, gringo perro. You have no choice but to be the slave of Zapata the terrible. You will obey my commands, or you will be without your cojones, comprende? Do not as I say, gringo, and you die. In your sleep, perhaps, or right here in the yard of El Carcel de Yuma.”

The Mexican held his slim knife between thumb and forefinger as if it were no more than a needle. Slowly, he raised his hand until the nail-knife was aligned with the throbbing pulse in Shawn’s temple.

Zapata grinned, a cat toying with a wounded bird.

Shawn tried to summon saliva to his parched mouth. He looked askance at the nail-knife approaching his head.

A whistle blew from the corner of the yard office, signaling time to return to the cells.

Men began to line up.

The knife disappeared from Zapata’s hand, but the wolfish grin remained on his face. With his forefinger, the Mexican tapped Shawn on the nose, then turned to follow the other Mexican inmates toward the lineup.

“All right. Line up on me,” shouted Turkey Bills, holding his arms out in front of his body, indicating that the men were to form two lines. Bull Tarkington leaned against the corner of the yard office, watching. Guards in the towers held their Winchesters at the ready, and a single Lowell Battery Gun poked its multi-barreled snout from the main guard tower atop the prison’s water cistern.

Shawn’s hand throbbed, but he ignored the pain. He lined up at the very end of the double file of stripe-garbed men. There must be an odd number of prisoners, he thought, noting that Zapata was a pace ahead rather than alongside.

Shawn shuddered at the memory of the glittering nail-knife.

“Count off!” Turkey hollered. And the men started shouting a number in turn. Shawn soon realized that they were counting out in order, so he shouted “ninety-one” when his time came.

“All prisoners accounted for,” Bills called to Tarkington.

“Lock ‘em up,” Tarkington replied.

The striped column moved off toward the cellblock. That’s when Shawn realized that the others had lined up by cells. Shark and Kid Pringle and Shoo Lee were about halfway up the line. Nothing I can do about it now, he decided.

“You coming in with us, gringo?” Zapata whispered his question, glancing at Shawn with that predator’s grin on his face.

Shawn ducked his head and fell back a pace.

Zapata laughed.

The file of men entered the strap-iron gate that stood at the end of the cellblock.

“Where’s Brodie?” Turkey called.

“Here.”

“Get your hairless ass down here with the rest of your cellmates,” the guard hollered.

“Yessir.” Shawn took a quick step, thinking to run up the line to his place with the cell number eight men. Instead, Zapata’s right foot deftly knocked Shawn’s left one inward so he tangled up and sprawled on the graveled walkway, tearing strips of hide from his palms as he broke his fall with his hands.

Instantly, Shawn was on his feet, once more sprinting along the line of laughing convicts.

“Here I am,” he said breathlessly, pulling up next to Shark Blanchard.

“Next time you’ll know,” Turkey Bills said. “Line up with your cellmates.”

“Yessir.” Shawn grinned. He’d much rather be with the convicts in cell number eight than alongside the Mexican Zapata.

The cell’s iron door clanged shut. He heaved a sigh of relief as the tension drained from his body.

Shoo Lee appeared at Shawn’s side, though there was no sound accompanying his approach. He formed a question in his eyes and held out his hand, palm up. Shawn showed his lacerated palms. The Oriental pulled a square of loosely woven cotton cloth from his pocket. He spat a liberal quantity of saliva on Shawn’s left hand and wiped it clean with the cloth. He spat on the hand again and worked the saliva into the lacerations with the cloth. “Good for cuts,” he said softly.

Shoo Lee repeated the process with Shawn’s right hand. Almost finished, Shoo Lee noticed the puncture wound. He turned Shawn’s hand over. A rivulet of dried blood went from the exit point to the juncture of Shawn’s middle and ring fingers.

“Where’d you get that, Button?” Blanchard asked from where he was watching Shoo Lee work on Shawn’s hands.

Shawn told them about Zapata and the Mexicans.

“Mexicans is powerful hereabouts,” Blanchard said. “There are more of them than anybody else. Well, almost. More whites, I reckon, but whites don’t stick together very well. Mexicans are just Mexicans, but whites are Anglo and Irish and Swede and French. And then they’re Catholic and Baptist and Methodist and Mormon. Don’t hang together well at all. And ever since that murdering son Zapata got here, the Mexicans has been feeling their oats.”

“I gotta sit by that killer every time we eat,” Shawn moaned.

The inmates of cell number eight were silent.

And the cell got dark as the sun went down.

“We’ll sleep on it, Button,” said Blanchard.

They got into their bunks.

The cellblock was soon a chorus of snores, but Shawn’s eyes did not close until the dawn began to gray the vista outside the prison cells. By then, Shawn had made up his mind.

As Shoo Lee did his morning dance in the exercise yard, Shawn sidled over next to him.

“‘Scuse me,” Shawn said to the taciturn Oriental.

Shoo Lee stopped his routine to face Shawn. His hands fell loosely to his sides, but to Shawn he looked like a puma ready to pounce.

“Shoo Lee?” Shawn said.

The Oriental nodded.

“Would you teach me how to protect myself? Your way? Please?”

4

Shoo Lee stood stock-still, looking at Shawn. His dark almond eyes showed no expression. He seemed to have even stopped breathing. Shawn shifted his weight from one foot to another as he waited for the Oriental to speak.

Finally, Shoo Lee shook his head slowly from side to side and turned his back on Shawn, preparing to resume his regimen of finely balanced, dance-like fighting moves.

Inside, Shawn felt a flutter of panic. Without Shoo Lee’s help, Zapata would kill him. He rushed around to face Shoo Lee again. He fought the panic down and struggled to keep his eyes from tearing up.

“Please, Shoo Lee. Please teach me. Everyone leaves you alone. But they all pick on me. If you don’t help me, I’ll die. I know I will, I’ll die, they’ll kill me.”

Shoo Lee shook his head again.

“Shoo Lee! Just tell me what to do. I’ll do anything!”

The Oriental turned his expressionless eyes on Shawn again. “Take off your shoes,” he said in a quiet voice. “If you can live without shoes for two weeks, we will talk again.” Shoo Lee turned from Shawn and continued his dancing ritual.

Go without shoes? That’s kid stuff. Men wear shoes. He’s trying to make me back into a little kid. Shawn’s brain spun with reasons why he shouldn’t remove his shoes. Then he noticed that Shoo Lee would shoot a glance in his direction when his routine allowed him to see Shawn without having to make an unnatural move.

He’s watching. He’s looking to see if I’ll really do what he says, Shawn thought. He’s told me to do something childish just to see if I’ll do it. Then, for the first time, Shawn noticed that Shoo Lee wore no shoes. His bare mahogany feet with their square-tipped toes seemed to plant themselves immovably on the earth with each step Shoo Lee took, yet his movements were as flowing as the waters of the Colorado River that bordered the prison on the west.

Shawn sat down on the bare ground of the prison yard and removed his shoes. As a child, he’d rarely had shoes, but he’d gotten his first pair for his twelfth birthday and had not gone barefoot since. He tied the laces together and hung the shoes around his neck. The call for breakfast sounded, and Shawn hurried to the dining room, limping every time his soft soles hit a pebble along the way.

Breakfast was porridge and brown sugar. Gingerly, Shawn carried his portion to Zapata’s table. He sat in the space next to the Mexican, cringing in anticipation of meanness from Zapata. But the killer ignored him, preferring to talk in Spanish with the other four Mexicans at the table.

Shawn took the opportunity to gobble at his mush. He’d nearly finished it when the hard end of a truncheon reached under his chin and lifted his face. Tarkington!

Shawn nearly choked on his final mouthful of porridge.

“‘Morning, thief.”

Shawn struggled with his mouth full of mush, which refused to go down.

The truncheon poked him in the throat. “Answer me when I speak to you, thief.”

Shawn sputtered. The truncheon poked him again. He choked. Why did someone have to make him choke every time he sat down to a meal? Still, he was finally able to get the sticky porridge down. He looked at Tarkington. “Yessir, Sergeant Tarkington.”

“That’s better.” The truncheon went back on Tarkington’s belt. “You’re assigned to the adobe brick yard, thief. Warden says you need to learn how to work. Keep you from thieving when you get outta here.” Tarkington smirked.

“Yessir.” Shawn didn’t know what else to say.

“Turkey will take you out there at nine. You mix adobe from nine to five, six days a week. Sunday’s you get off. Lucky dog. As today’s Wednesday, you only have four days to work before you take a rest.” Tarkington swaggered back to the dining room door, turned to take a final sweep of the inmates with his pale eyes, then disappeared into the blinding sunlight outside.

“Gringo muchacho,” Zapata said so only Shawn could hear. “At the adobe brick yard, you will keep your eyes to yourself, or you will die. Comprende?”

At least Zapata wicked little knife wasn’t in sight.

Shawn didn’t take any chances. He nodded that he’d heard what Zapata said and that he understood.

“Bueno,” the Mexican killer said. “You go now. Andarle.”

Shawn stumbled to his feet, stubbing his toe against the table leg. Cursing under his breath, he limped across the floor with his bowl and cup. He dumped them into the dirty-dish tubs and went outside into the mounting heat of the day. He raced for cell number eight to get rid of his shoes, and rushed back in time to make the work gangs.

“You come with my group, turd,” Turkey Bills said, slapping his truncheon into his hand. Without waiting to see if Shawn was following, the lanky guard set off across the yard. Shawn followed as quickly as he could on his tender feet.

A group of convicts hovered near the sallyport, waiting for Turkey to let them out to work at the adobe brickyard. Turkey marched to the gate pier and turned, repeating his call of the night before: “Line up on me.”

The convicts formed two lines with Shawn again at the tail end.

“Count off.”

When Shawn’s turn came, he shouted “Twenty-three.”

Turkey nodded and stepped to the strap-iron gate. “Twenty-three convicts for the adobe yard,” he said, “headed by trusty Wilhelm Porter and guarded by John Bell.”

The gate swung open to let the convicts out. Still lined up by twos, they walked right out the sallyport tunnel and turned right, moving between the short unfinished wall jutting from the sallyport and the rock water cistern that sat on the edge of the bluff over the Colorado River. Luckily, the convicts were in no hurry, so Shawn was able to keep up despite his bare feet.

The adobe brickyard sat less than fifty yards south of the main guard tower and its Lowell Battery Gun. Guards paced the big tower with Winchester rifles. The convicts bunched up at the mixing trough.

The trusty called Porter started giving orders. “You all know what to do. Goliath, you’re on the windlass. Orlando Baca, get your Mexican crew over to take yesterday’s bricks outta the molds and line ‘em up to dry.”

The Mexicans moved off.

Porter assigned men to stack dried bricks and to measure sand to cut the clay riverbed soil with.

“Button,” Porter called.

Shawn ignored him.

He walked over and tapped Shawn on the shoulder. “Button, I’m talking to you.”

“Name’s Shawn.”

“We’ll worry about your name when we see what kinda man you are. ’Til then, you’re just a button. Now come on over here. You’ll be mixing today.”

Shawn nodded his assent.

“I see you ain’t got no shoes on. Maybe that’s just as well. You can get in the mixing trough and tromp.”

“What’re you mixing?”

“See that big man walking the capstan over there? His name’s Robert Franklin, but he’s so big that everyone just calls him Goliath. Well, he’s winching clay up from the river bottom. You’ll mix that clay with water and sand to make mud for the bricks.”

“Clay and sand? I thought you had to put straw in adobe.”

“Only when you ain’t got sand handy.”

“Still don’t see why.”

Porter frowned. “It don’t make no nevermind to you. You just get in there and tromp around. Mix that sand and clay up real good.”

Shawn shrugged and climbed into the low-sided mixing trough. Two convicts shoveled clay and sand into the box, then poured river water all over it.

“It’s all yours, kid,” one of them said. “Go to it.”

Shawn soon found that tromping clay and water and sand was no Sunday outing. No sooner did he get one batch to the consistency of mud than the convicts would have another pile shoveled in at the other end of the trough.

“OK, Button. Take ten minutes off. You can sit over there if you want.” Porter pointed to the stack of dried bricks.

Shawn squatted in the shade of the brick pile, happy to have a chance to rest. Goliath Franklin still plodded at the winch capstan, seemingly inexhaustible, though his prison garb was dark with sweat. The pile of clay from the river bottom continued to grow, forming a manmade bluff at the edge of the adobe yard.

The end of the day brought weariness like Shawn had never known. His legs were leaden and his head pounded from eight hours in the Yuma sun, even though he wore the prison-issue straw hat. He waded through the water trough to wash his feet, then made his way back to the cellblock with the rest of the brickyard convicts.

“So how was your first day at work?” Shark Blanchard asked.

Shawn moaned and clambered up onto his bunk. Now he knew why Kid Pringle had bunked out so quickly that first day. In minutes Shawn was asleep. Nor did he wake for supper. Nor when his cellmates returned. Not even Turkey Bills’ truncheon clanging on the strap iron of the cells woke him.

The night was still black when Shawn finally stirred. The hot sun and endless hours of tromping had sweat all the moisture from his body, so he didn’t need to piss, but his stomach had come to the conclusion that Zapata had sneaked in during the night and cut his throat – Shawn Brodie was almighty hungry.

“Button?”

Shark’s voice barely reached Shawn’s ears.

“Yeah?” Shawn whispered.

The gambler stood quietly. Shawn felt Blanchard’s hand touch his. Then there was a chunk of sourdough in it. Shawn’s cellmates had been watching out for him. Taking a big bite of the sourdough bread, Shawn Brodie savored the companionship of cell number eight.

By the time he’d slowly chewed the sourdough into a memory, the coming dawn let Shawn see the bulk of Shoo Lee on the bunk across the cell. The Oriental’s eyes glittered as he watched Shawn. He raised a hand in greeting and turned to face the wall.

Though dawn lit the cell, the wake-up call would not come until six. Shawn closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but the warm memory of Shark’s hand and the hunk of sourdough ran back and forth across his mind. The corners of Shawn Brodie’s mouth turned up. Maybe this hellhole wasn’t going to be all bad.

Shawn dozed.

The bugle played reveille and the denizens of the Yuma pen arose.

Shawn climbed down from his bunk, laboring against pain in his leg muscles like he was sixty-four instead of fourteen.

“You OK, Button?” Shark Blanchard’s voice carried a note of concern.

“Ain’t never tromped adobe all day before,” Shawn said. “I can tell I got lots of muscles in my legs, ‘cause every one of them hurts.”

“You get a good breakfast,” Shark said. “That’ll help.”

“You’re lucky you ain’t out on the rock pile with me,” Kid Pringle said. “Busting rocks’ll show you what work’s all about in a hurry.”

“No thanks, Kid,” Shawn said. “I’m too little for that.” He grinned at Pringle, who smiled back.

“You’ll do, boy,” Kid Pringle said.

Now was the chance, if one was ever to come. Shawn drew in a big breath and said, “I’d take it kindly, Kid, if you’d show me how to handle a short gun . . . when you got time, that is.”

The Kid stood a little taller. And he looked pleased. “Maybe when I get some time,” he said, echoing Shawn’s words. He smiled again.

“Let’s go eat,” Shark Blanchard said as the bell hanging by the dining room door sounded.

Zapata said nothing to Shawn that morning. Nor the next. He seemed to have more important things on his mind.

A week in the adobe yard and Shawn’s muscles quit hurting. He was able to look around as he tromped clay and sand and water into a thick slurry.

“Still don’t see why you add sand,” Shawn said to Wilhelm Porter, though he kept right on tromping mud.

Porter looked at Shawn like he was crazy. “That’s simple,” he said. “You don’t put in about fifteen percent sand, your bricks crack when they dry. The sand keeps that river-bottom clay from shrinking too much, that’s all.”

“Oh.” Shawn felt like a fool. He looked off over the bluff toward California. Goliath was on the capstan again, and the pile of river-bottom clay formed a small mountain at the bluff’s edge.

As the adobe crew wandered away from their work stations at five o’clock, Shawn noticed the Mexican brick makers shoveling dry dirt over a supine form. Shawn moved a little so he could see better.

Zapata! They were covering Zapata. Was he dead? No. There was a slight movement. Shawn watched from the corner of his eye so he wouldn’t appear to be looking at the Mexican convicts.

“Come on, come on,” Porter said. “Let’s get inside.”

The sallyport guards never counted the prisoners, assuming the trusty or guard on duty would do it. On that Saturday, John Bell had been called away early and trusty Wilhelm Porter was in charge of the adobe detail.

Shawn noticed how the Mexicans moved around, covering for Zapata. The killer was going to go for it, escape. No doubt about it.

Zapata’s absence wasn’t discovered until evening count off, when the number of convicts came up one short.

“OK. Who’s missing?” Bull Tarkington shouted. “Turkey. Check the cells. Make sure they’s no one in there asleep.” He seemed to be looking straight at Shawn as he shouted.

“All empty, Bull,” Turkey called a few moments later, “except for Harry the lunger,”

“Separate by cells!” Tarkington yelled.

The convicts shuffled into small groups.

Still, it took nearly half an hour for the guards to find out Zapata was the one missing.

Tarkington peeled off the Mexicans in Zapata’s cell one at a time and took them in the yard office. Each time he returned, his face was more clouded with anger.

All forty-seven Mexicans were interrogated without success. Tarkington’s face had turned beet red.

“Put ‘em back in the cells,” he ordered. “And search the grounds outside while there’s still light. You might find his tracks.”

Shawn followed his cellmates into the cellblock, head down in thought. He’d seen Zapata being buried, but the killer might be long gone. Besides, if he told what he’d seen, the Mexicans might think he was ratting on them. Shawn stumbled over the sill at the main gate to the cellblock. Tarkington stood to one side, scowling and slapping his truncheon into the palm of his hand with loud smacks.

Maybe Zapata can’t get out. Maybe he can’t breathe. Shawn sighed. He couldn’t let the Mexican die, for all the threats Zapata had made on his life.

“Sergeant Tarkington,” Shawn called.

Tarkington peered into the cellblock in the gathering dusk. “Whaddaya want, thief?”

“I think I know where Zapata is.”

Tarkington strode into the cellblock and seized Shawn by the arm. “Where?”

Shawn jerked his arm free. “You don’t have to grab me. I’ll follow you.”

“Don’t sass. Now where’s that Mexican?”

“Outside.”

“Outside, where?”

“I have to show you.”

“Come on, then.”

Shawn followed on bare feet not nearly as tender as they’d been when he first removed his boots. He was getting tougher.

“Sergeant of the guard with one prisoner,” Tarkington said at the sallyport.

“Now, where ‘bouts is that Mexican?” he asked when they’d passed through the sallyport tunnel.

Shawn led the way to the hill of clay that Goliath had winched up from the river bottom. Nothing had been disturbed. Zapata was still lying where the Mexicans buried him. Shawn pointed to the spot.

“Zapata’s under there,” he said.

“Trent. Oliver. Ingalls.” Tarkington shouted. “Grab some shovels and get over here.”

Shawn stepped back to the brick stack and watched the guards dig. A moment later, they’d uncovered Zapata’s foot.

5

The guards uncovered Zapata as the adobe brickyard turned blue in the dusk. The Mexican killer lay motionless, his dingy jailbird stripes splotched with clay. Shawn watched the guards work over Zapata’s still form.

“Stupid greaser,” Tarkington stormed. “He may be in for twenty-five, but now he ain’t got no life a-tall. Looks like he’s made his last escape.”

The Mexican coughed and whimpered.

Tarkington brightened. “Then again, maybe he’ll live long enough to spend a stretch in the Snake Den.” Tarkington threw a sidelong glance in Shawn’s direction. “Come on, thief,” he said. “Back to your cell.”

Shawn followed the sergeant back through the sallyport to the cell block, where Turkey Bills let him in and opened the door to cell number eight.

“Find thet Mex?” Turkey asked.

Shawn nodded.

“Where was he?”

“Buried under the clay stack in the brickyard.”

“I’ll be damned.” Turkey clanged the door shut. “He still kicking?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll be damned. Snake Den fodder. There’s where he’ll go for trying to escape again.” Turkey snapped the padlock closed.

“You OK, Button?” Shark’s voice came from the bottom bunk.

“Yeah. Thought for a minute Zapata was dead, but he came around.” Shawn clambered up onto his bunk.

“May be my imagination, Button, but I’d say you’re a mite taller now than you was when you first came in here. Could be you’ve taken to growing some.” Shark chuckled. “Hell of a place to grow up in, Yuma hellhole.”

“I’ll say,” Shawn answered with a chuckle of his own. Then he said, “Shark, I was wondering. Who was in my bunk before me? He’s scratched words on the wall. ‘God’ and ‘the devil’ figure quite a bit...”

“Yeah, Joshua Mathews was an odd guy, a bit of a religious nut. You’re like a breath of fresh air, compared to him, Button. Not that I mean to speak ill of the dead.”

“He’s dead? What happened?”

“I guess he wasn’t dealt such a good pack of cards. Ended up in the Snake Den, got bit by a rattler.”

The Snake Den held a dread fascination for Shawn. He had to ask. “Bull Tarkington said nobody’s died from a snakebite.”

“He’s a liar, then. Maybe he has his reasons.”

“Couldn’t the doc save Matthews?”

“No, by the time they pulled him out, he was already suffering real bad, spewing up his guts and struggling to breathe. Doc let slip the poison’d got to Mathews’s kidneys so he couldn’t piss and that killed him.” Shark shook his head. “His leg swole up and turned black. Putrid, they said. Poor bastard took four days to die from that bite.”

Shawn shuddered. “Well, I’m sure as hell not going in there!”

“Good decision, Button.”

“Lay off talking in there,” Turkey hollered. “You got plenty of time to gab while the sun’s up.”

“Yessir,” Shawn called, and turned to the wall. Sleep came quickly, as did the morning. Again, in the hour before breakfast, Shawn went to the exercise yard to watch Shoo Lee do his slow-dance ritual. He stood far enough away as to not bother the Oriental, but close enough to observe every move.

Ten minutes before time for breakfast, Shoo Lee motioned Shawn over. “I will teach you,” he said. “But the way of Ti is long and you can never stop practicing. In my country, even old men practice Kara Ti every morning and evening.”

“K-Kara Ti?” Shawn stumbled over the unfamiliar words.

“Yes. It is a kind of dance that helps you keep a good balance between your mind and your body. It teaches your body the basic moves necessary for Ti, but does not include some of the striking motions. But we will not start there. First, you must learn to imitate the birds and animals of nature. Today, you will start by becoming a heron.”

“Heron?”

“That is correct. A heron is a tall slim bird that stands in the water on one foot and spears frogs and fish with its long beak. It strikes very quickly. That technique we should learn.”

“What do I gotta do?”

“For ten minutes, stand like this.” Shoo Lee lifted his right leg so the knee was thrust forward and the calf crossed his left leg about halfway up. “You can use your wings to help keep balance,” he said. He placed his open hands close to this chest, palms inward, and held his elbows out away from his body.

Shawn snickered.

Shoo Lee immediately returned to his usual stance. His almond eyes bored into Shawn’s. The smile left Shawn’s face. He became uncomfortable under Shoo Lee’s stare, but refused to drop his eyes.

“It is not humorous,” Shoo Lee said finally. “Someday the ability to balance perfectly on one leg may save your life.”

Shawn said nothing, and kept his eyes on Shoo Lee’s.

At last the Oriental nodded. “You try,” he said.

Shawn imitated Shoo Lee’s pose. Shoo Lee pushed here and pulled there until he was satisfied that Shawn’s heron stance was as it should be.

“Stand like that until breakfast time,” Shoo Lee commanded, and returned to his own regimen.

Shawn’s calf began to cramp. Then his thigh muscles. He gritted his teeth, determined to stay in the heron pose. His muscles quivered. Sweat beaded his face. Soon, his muscles hardened into painful knots. He willed them to obey, and maintained the pose. Then he found that tensing and relaxing the thigh muscle of the leg he stood on helped relieve the cramps.

Somehow he managed to keep his right foot off the ground and had not fallen over when the cook clanged the bell to signal that breakfast was ready.

“Good,” Shoo Lee pronounced. “Practice the heron pose whenever you have time.”

Shawn had half a million questions to ask Shoo Lee, but the Oriental was already striding briskly toward the dining room.

Zapata was not at breakfast that morning, nor did he show up for nearly a month. The grapevine said he got twenty-three days in the Snake Den for attempting escape. Shawn never mentioned Zapata nor did any of the Mexicans at his table talk about the killer. Yet they would glance at Shawn and talk in Spanish, and he wondered if Zapata would try to get him for messing up the escape plan. Shawn saw that nail-knife in his mind and it hurried him through meals because he didn’t want to be near Zapata’s gang any more than he had to.

But when Zapata did come to breakfast, he was but a shadow of the former knife-wielding Zapata. His wrists were like sticks protruding from a floppy set of prison stripes. His fierce eyes had turned dull and listless and had sunk deep into his skull. He was silent through the meal, but spoke to Shawn just before time to leave.

“Gringo muchacho,” he said in a low voice that sounded rusty from disuse. “The clay was so heavy. I could not move. Only a small open place by a rock gave me air to breathe. If not for you, gringo, Zapata would have perished beneath the clay. I survived the clay bank. I have survived the Snake Den. And gracias a Dios, you had the guards uncover me. That I shall not forget.”

Zapata laid a skeletal hand on Shawn’s shoulder and struggled to his feet as if it were painful to stand.

“Gracias . . .” he said to Shawn. Then added one more vital word. “Amigo.” Zapata gave Shawn a lopsided grin and shuffled off with his utensils.

As Shawn left the dining room, he was once again surrounded by Mexicans three deep. But this time, they were smiling. Not the vicious smiles of predators, but the easy simple smiles of friends. Saying nothing, each of the Mexicans touched Shawn on the arm or tapped him on the shoulder. Again, acts of friendship, not challenges of rivals.

“We have a few minutes before work,” Zapata said. “Go practice with the Chinaman.” Zapata walked away.

“Zapata,” Shawn called after him. The Mexican stopped. He looked like a scarecrow with a straw hat that rested on his ears. He said nothing, waiting for Shawn to speak. “Thanks, Zapata,” Shawn said, extending his hand.

The Mexican killer stared at Shawn for a long time. Then broke into a grin. He grasped Shawn’s hand. “You are very young, my gringo friend. But your heart is true. I think now we are friends, es verdad?”

“I’d say so, Zapata. Gracias.”

Shawn practiced his heron pose every day, morning and evening for a week before Shoo Lee was satisfied. Shawn was still not allowed to join in Shoo Lee’s Kara Ti dance. Instead, the Oriental showed Shawn another pose that required absolute balance and control. He called this pose “striking snake.”

On Sundays, convicts got a day of rest. And every fourth Sunday, the prison was opened to the public. Everyone who entered was charged two bits, which was turned over to Mrs. Strickland to be applied to the prison library.

The main entertainment on these open-house days was Goliath Franklin. At two o’clock in the afternoon, trustees would rope off a ring, and Goliath would fight anyone and everyone, townie or inmate, it made no matter to Goliath. The gigantic man had the mind of a boy. To him, it was all in good fun, and he didn’t really mean to hurt people, though he often did.

Shawn sat on the edge of the table where Penny James displayed his leatherwork. Penny had an uncanny ability to turn cowhide into items folks coveted. They ordered saddlebags and moccasins and gun-belts and scabbards from Penny, and he worked hard to meet the demand for his skillfully grafted goods. But Penny was a bashful man who shied away from contact with outsiders.

Now, Shawn took care of the booth while Penny stayed in the workshop. With a fight going on between Goliath and a big miner inmate called Black Jack Scruggs, there were hardly any visitors near the tables that held the handiwork of inmates.

Shawn pulled his straw hat down over his eyes and went into the badger pose, which Shoo Lee had shown him earlier in the week. Tomorrow, he’d get another. And it wouldn’t be long until Shoo Lee would start to teach him . . .

“Excuse me, sir.”

Shawn recoiled in surprise and nearly lost his balance. He opened his eyes to see a young blonde girl of thirteen or fourteen standing by the table.

“Yes, ma’am,” he stammered.

“May I ask whatever in the world you were doing crouching there looking like a cougar getting ready to pounce?”

“Yes, ma’am. I was practicing a Ti balance pose.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“A balance pose.”

“Oh.”

Neither said a word for several minutes, then both tried to speak at once.

“I –”

“Miss –”

The girl smiled, then laughed. Fine bronze bells would never be able to replicate the tinkling of her laughter. A bonnet shaded her fair complexion from the sun, and a tasteful calico dress billowed below the waistline, attesting to many petticoats. In her left hand, she clutched a small lace parasol. But all this was lost on Shawn Brodie, for he saw only her hazel eyes. He felt as if he were about to drown in their depths.

“Sir?”

Shawn continued to stare.

“Sir?”

“Oh. Huh? What?” Shawn blinked and rubbed his eyes, then looked again. She was still there. The angel in blue calico that brought out the highlights in her eyes was still there.

“Is there something wrong?” she asked. “Perhaps you are unable to speak properly. Poor boy. That’s probably it.”

Shawn shook his head hard, as much to clear the cobwebs as to deny there was anything wrong with his speech. “Yes, ma’am, I mean, no, ma’am. I mean, well, I guess I can talk as good as the next feller in line.” Shawn’s words tumbled over each other. “What was it you wanted to know about? I’m sorry if I seemed a might tetched, but you’re almighty pretty, ma’am, and well, us jailbirds don’t often get to see the likes of yourself, even on Sunday visit days.”

The girl laughed again. “That’s quite all right, Mister Convict.”

“Shawn. My name’s Shawn Brodie.”

The girl curtsied slightly. “Pleased, Mister Brodie,” she said. “I am Anne Marie Shoen. My family just moved to Yuma. My father is building a new brewery on Second Street near Gila. He will soon offer good Schoen beer to the citizens of Yuma.”

“I’m sure he’ll do well,” he said, more to keep her talking than anything else.

“Certainly so, Mr. Brodie.” Then she stopped talking. Just the opposite of what Shawn wanted her to do.

“Uh, anything here catch your fancy, Miss? Penny James, well, he’s about as good with a piece of leather as they is anywhere. An’ if you don’t see what you want right here on the table, you just tell me what you need and I’ll be sure and have Penny make it up for you.” He paused to take a breath.

“Mister Brodie, is it terrible to be in prison? Is it really bad?”

Her direct question caught him completely off guard. “Well, ma’am, it do take some getting used to. But if’n you obey the rules, you get by.”

“Have you been here long?”

Shawn’s face turned bright red and he rolled a pebble around with his bare toes.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to pry. It’s just that you seem so much younger than the other people who live here.”

Shawn found his voice again. “I am. I mean, I’m younger than most. Kid Pringle, he’s going on twenty, but I won’t be fifteen until November.”

“Oh. Then we’re nearly the same age. I will turn fifteen in June.”

The talk seemed to be getting too familiar for comfort. “And what could I help you find, ma’am?” he asked, trying to steer the conversation back to the pile of leather goods on the table.

“I’d hoped to find a belt for my father,” she said. “But I don’t –”

“Anne Marie Schoen!”

The girl jumped as if struck and quickly turned her back on Shawn. “I’m here, father,” she called, her voice trembling.

Shawn had time to back up two steps before a burly blond man with a body like a beer barrel came around the corner. The walking beer barrel grabbed Anne Marie by the upper arm and marched her around the corner and out of sight before Shawn could even open his mouth to defend her.

Gone. Where Shawn’s day had been filled with the brilliance of Anne Marie’s presence, now she was gone and everything looked dark and foreboding.

A roar went up from the crowd surrounding the fight ring.

“Get up, Scruggs,” came a shout. “We got money on ya, Black Jack. Get up, will ya!”

Shawn shrugged. Gambling was a popular though forbidden pastime at Yuma. He steered away from games of chance that he knew nothing about. Shark Blanchard was teaching him card games, but with Ti lessons and practicing morning and night, he didn’t have much time for cards.

The grunts from the fighters and the smacks of big fists striking solid flesh came from the roped-off ring around the corner. Shawn ignored them, once again concentrating his consciousness into the center of his being, achieving perfect mental and physical balance before moving into the crouching badger pose. He held this for more than a minute, then smoothly changed into the heron pose, and then to the striking snake.

“You and the Chinaman dance around like a couple of sissies.” Tarkington spoke from the corner nearest the cellblock.

Shawn continued his exercise.

Tarkington slowly paced the area in front of Penny James’s table. Shawn seemed to pay him no attention, but his entire cognizance was alert, assuming the sergeant was going to strike.

“What were you and that girl talking about?” Tarkington demanded.

Shawn didn’t try to bluff. “She was looking for a belt for her Pa.”

“Don’t want you messing with any women, hear?”

“Not likely to happen, sir. She’s not even fifteen and neither am I.”

Tarkington snorted and left.

Shawn went back to his exercise. The splats of fist on meat got louder. Then a great moan arose.

“Up, Black Jack. Up!”

But the challenger was not to rise again. Shawn watched from the corner as a pair of burly convicts carried the unconscious Black Jack Scruggs to the prison hospital on the second floor above the stable.

Goliath stood stolidly with a big grin on his face, his knuckles skinned and bloody. Stripped to the waist, Goliath looked real strong, Shawn thought, with all those muscles standing out like knotted chords.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the barker from town cried. “The winner and champion of the entire territory of Arizona! RO–BERT GO–LI–ATH FRANKLIN!”

Goliath broke into a huge grin and raised his great arms above his head in victory.

“That’s it for the entertainment, folks,” the barker said. “Come back again on Sunday, November the fifth, to see if Goliath Franklin can maintain his unblemished record of wins.”

Townspeople milled around and started leaving through the sallyport in twosomes and foursomes.

There she was! Shawn caught sight of the blue-clad Anne Marie, but she was too far away for him to tell if she saw him, or was even looking for him, for that matter.

Before he got all the leather goods put away, the bell rang for supper, so Shawn hurried with the remainder. He didn’t want to miss a meal, because these days it seemed like he was hungry all the time.

Zapata was silent at the meal. And, while the Mexican always looked at Shawn with a friendly smile on his face, Shawn could tell he was plotting. It wasn’t in a man born and reared under starry desert skies to go long in prison without attempting to escape.

Shawn put his utensils in the proper tubs and left the dining room.

“Turd,” Turkey Bills said to Shawn as he left the dining room, “you march yourself over to the yard office. Bull wants ta talk to ya.”

6

Shawn rapped lightly on the yard office door. In his mind, he was going over everything he’d done that day, searching for whatever it was Tarkington was going to get after him for. He couldn’t think of a thing except for talking to that pretty girl, Anne Marie, Anne Marie Shoen.

There was no rule against talking to outsiders as far as Shawn knew, but Tarkington sometimes made up rules all at once, usually rules that required immediate punishment.

“Come!” Tarkington’s voice roared through the thick wooden door.

Shawn carefully lifted the latch and opened the door.

“’Evening, thief,” Tarkington said. “Come here. I gotta teach you a thing or two about getting along in this hole.” Tarkington wore a feral smile.

Shawn stepped into the room and came to attention.

“Shut the door, thief.”

“Yessir.” Shawn swung the heavy door shut and latched it.

Tarkington sat in a large wooden chair with arms on it. Usually he used the chair when he had desk work to do; now, the chair was turned toward the center of the room and Tarkington slouched in it, legs spread wide.

“Come here.” Tarkington beckoned for Shawn to stand between his legs.

Shawn walked forward hesitantly, stopping before he was actually between them.

“Turn around,” Tarkington demanded.

Shawn turned.

“You’ve got bigger, thief. Growed some.”

“Yessir. I guess so, sir.”

“I seen you talking with the girl, thief. You figure you’d like to bundle a little with her?”

“She was just wanting a belt or something for her pa, sir.”

“You never thought about screwing her?”

“Me, sir?”

“Yeah. A man stays in this hellhole long enough, he’ll screw anything that moves. Chickens. Sheep. Much less a pretty young girl . . . or a blond boy.”

Shawn shifted his feet. He didn’t like the direction this talk was headed. Yes, Anne Marie was pretty. But that didn’t mean he should . . . He shut his mind on the images Tarkington was trying to make him think.

The sergeant stood up and caught Shawn by the shoulders from behind. “Boy like you don’t have no place making eyes at young girls. You still got lots of time to spend here in the hellhole, so why don’t you just make things all easy for yourself?”

Shawn shook his head. “Don’t know what you mean, sir,” he mumbled, hunching his shoulders in anticipation of a blow from Tarkington.

Tarkington removed Shawn’s hat, tossing it on the desk. He ran his hand roughly over Shawn’s short flax-blond hair. Shawn tried to move away, but Tarkington held him fast.

“Ain’t nothing hard about it,” Tarkington said, breathing fast. He took Shawn’s hand and put it on his crotch, holding it against his bulging pecker. “All you need to do is just rub it a little,” Tarkington said huskily. He used his own hand to rub Shawn’s hand against his full erection.

Shawn shook his head violently and jerked his hand away.

Tarkington backhanded Shawn, knocking him against the wall in a jumble of arms and legs.

“Things would sure go better for you if you cooperated, thief.” Tarkington spoke in a low voice, but the threat was unmistakable. “Now, come over here.”

Shawn got to his hands and knees. He kept his head down, shaking it back and forth. Tarkington’s boot caught him in the ribs, lifting him completely off the floor and slamming him into the corner of the desk. “Come here, I said. Do what’s gotta be done.”

Still Shawn shook his head. And he kept refusing, though each time he did, Tarkington would hit or kick him again.

“You’re a stubborn ass, thief,” Tarkington said. “It wouldn’t hurt you to give a man a little relief. And it’ll hurt a hell of a lot more if you don’t.”

Shawn was still shaking his head.

A rap sounded on the door. “Bull?”

“Whaddaya want, Turkey?”

“Time for head count and lock up, Bull. Need to get the little turd out here, iffen you’re through, that is.”

Tarkington looked at Shawn. “Yeah. I’m through – for now. Come take this thief away.”

Shawn labored to his feet, his ribs and muscles aching. “Could I have my hat, sir?” Shawn’s voice came out in a croak.

Tarkington laughed and crammed the straw hat on Shawn’s head. “Sure. But don’t think you’ve heard the last of this, thief. Now, go.”

Shawn limped to the door and struggled to get it open. Turkey Bills stood on the other side. He looked at the blood leaking from Shawn’s nose and whipped a glance at Tarkington. “Little turd give you some sass?”

“Yeah, some,” Tarkington said. “But maybe he’s learned a lesson.”

“Turd,” Turkey said to Shawn. “You’ll do better not sassing the sarge. A whole lot better.”

Shawn’s ribs hurt so much he could hardly stand up straight, and he wanted to get away from Tarkington. He pushed by Turkey and headed across the yard toward the cellblock.

“Hey, thief,” Tarkington called after Shawn. “Don’t you go thinking you’ve heard the last of this. It ain’t over, thief. Not by a long shot.”

Shawn ducked his head and plowed onward, never looking back to see if Turkey Bills was following or not.

The inmates of Yuma Prison were lined up double file for count off when Shawn slipped into line behind Kid Pringle.

“You run into a fence post?” Shark Blanchard asked.

“Not hardly. I ran into Bull Tarkington’s right boot. More times than one.” Shawn swiped at his nose with the arm of his prison shirt. “Stopped bleeding now,” he said. “Ain’t no need to worry.”

“You get on the bad side of the Bull, kid, an’ you got trouble,” said Blanchard. “One way or another, that rowdy’ll get you.”

Shawn nodded, but he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He hurt too much. No doubt the places where Tarkington had kicked him would be blue and purple by morning.

“Twenty-seven,” Shawn hollered as his turn came around. All one hundred and five convicts were accounted for. And Shawn was no longer the newest resident of the cellblock. Though his bruises and scrapes hurt, Shawn was still able to sleep, and the dawn found him stiffer and sorer than he’d been when he went to bed. After reveille, he couldn’t help groaning as he worked his way from his second-tier bed to the floor.

“You OK, Button?” asked Blanchard, putting a hand on Shawn’s shoulder.

“Little stiff, Shark. Thanks anyway. Probably loosen up when I get to moving.”

“You want me to tell Porter that you’re stove up and need a day off?”

“Nah. Stomping mud in the brickyard’ll help me heal faster.”

“It’s your neck. Me, I’d grab any chance to get a day off.” Shark Blanchard chuckled.

“Suppose so. But I’d rather not,” Shawn said, grinning at the gambler.

“Like I said, it’s your neck.”

Shawn nodded and started doing some of the stretching exercises Shoo Lee had taught him. Damn. The purple places where Bull Tarkington’s boots had caught his ribs and butt and thighs didn’t want to stretch out. They damn right hurt. But Shawn set his lips in a firm line of determination and kept on with the exercises.

Shoo Lee watched in silence, but his approval of Shawn’s attitude was plain.

Guards came along the cellblock, unlocking the strap-iron doors so inmates could go out to the exercise yard before breakfast.

“Come,” Shoo Lee said to Shawn, and led him outside.

“Follow me,” Shoo Lee commanded and began his Ti routine.

Shawn stood watching until he could see the twelve basic moves that made up Shoo Lee’s dance. The third time through the moves, Shawn tried to follow, and the third time Shawn did the moves, Shoo Lee stopped to watch.

“You do good,” he said. “Watch this.” The Oriental executed the sixth move. “See?”

Shawn copied the move.

“No. Watch again.” Shoo Lee did the move.

Shawn copied him.

“Better. Watch once more.”

Shawn paid close attention to each pause and each pose. He saw two places where he had not raised his elbows high enough, and one where he lifted his foot when he should have slid it forward without the ball of the foot leaving the ground.

“OK. You do it.”

Shawn repeated the sixth move.

“Good. Now we do all twelve together, but you face me.”

The two slid and dipped and floated through the Ti routine.

The cook clanged on the bell, announcing breakfast.

Shawn and Shoo Lee lined up with the other inmates. Shawn took a very large portion of cracked wheat porridge along with plenty of brown sugar and a tin cup for tea at the table. He took his breakfast to his customary seat. Today, he was seated and halfway through his meal before Zapata showed up.

“Buenos dias, Shawn Brodie,” Zapata said. He sat heavily on the bench and slumped over his porridge. Heaving a sigh, Zapata said, “Look at the glue they would have us eat, gringo amigo. Wheat is food for pigs, I think. I would much prefer frijoles y tortillas, no?”

Shawn shoveled another spoonful of thick porridge into his mouth. Hungry as he was these days, thick cracked wheat porridge did a lot to take the edge off his perpetually empty stomach. He didn’t bother answering Zapata. The Mexican often talked to Shawn as if he were talking to himself.

“Life behind rock walls is no life,” Zapata said, poking at the sticky porridge with his spoon. “I do not think I can stay here very much longer, amigo. I know you saved my life when I tried to get away from this hellhole before. Gracias. But soon I must try again. Or I shall go crazy. I know I will.”

Shawn had heard Zapata’s lament before, so he nodded and scraped the bottom of his tin bowl for the last of the porridge. He tongued the gob of mush off his spoon and rolled it around in his mouth, thinning it out with saliva and working it up to be swallowed.

Zapata took a small mouthful of porridge. “Tasteless glue,” he said. “Food for swine.”

Shawn grinned at Zapata. “Ain’t no more coming ‘til six o’clock. You’ll get mighty hungry out there in the brickyard if you don’t eat. How can you expect to have the strength to escape if you don’t eat? So it’s not Mexican grub. So what? It’ll give you strength, and that’s what you need most right now, doncha think?”

Zapata’s eyebrows leaped upward in surprise. Shawn didn’t usually say that much.

Then Zapata nodded. “You speak the truth, my gringo friend. I will eat all of this glue. And one day I shall escape. This I promise.”

The Mexican ate his porridge in determined mouthfuls.

Shawn grinned. “See you in the brickyard,” he said, picking up his utensils and leaving the table.

“All right, convicts. Shut up and listen.” Turkey Bills pounded on a tin tub with his truncheon to get the attention of Yuma’s one hundred and five inmates. The buzz of voices waned and the men waited in silence.

Bull Tarkington entered the dining room and swaggered to the head of the tables. He took a spraddle-legged stance, hands on his hips and arms akimbo. “OK, convicts,” he hollered. “It seems someone of you ain’t got shut of his bad habits yet. They’s a good pocketwatch missing from my office, and I’d say one of you convicts took it. Does any of you want to fess up, or do we have to do a full search?”

None of the inmates spoke up.

Tarkington pulled his truncheon and smacked it into his free hand. “Well?”

Silence.

Tarkington glared at the convicts. “OK,” he said, venom in his voice, “if no one’s gonna confess, we’ll just have to do a full search. Put your dishes in the tubs and get outside, starting with the table closest to the door. Now. Move.”

In moments, the stripe-clad men were lined up double file across the exercise yard.

“All right,” Turkey Bills hollered. “Turn so you’re facing away from the guy in the other line beside you.”

The files of men turned so they stood back-to-back, facing away from each other.

“Take off your shirts and trousers, fold ‘em, and lay ‘em out in front of you,” Bills ordered.

In a flurry of movement, the convicts obeyed, stripping to their drawers and putting their folded garb on the ground.

Turkey Bills walked the line of half-naked inmates, peering at each convict’s face. He stopped in front of Shawn Brodie. “Take your hat off, turd.”

Shawn complied.

“Shake it.”

Nothing fell out.

“OK.”

Turkey moved on down the line.

“Hey, Sarge,” came a yell from inside the cellblock.

Details

Seiten
300
Jahr
2016
ISBN (eBook)
9783738902501
Sprache
Englisch
Erscheinungsdatum
2016 (März)
Schlagworte
snake

Autor

Zurück

Titel: The Snake Den