THE FIRST DAY that Son Holland arrived in the penal camp, manacled inside a mule-drawn wagon with seven other convicts, he knew that he would eventually escape, that he would die before he would spend ten years in a steaming swamp under the guns and horse quirts of malarial Frenchmen with Negro blood in their veins and a degenerate corruption in their hearts. But he was just barely nineteen then, still sufficiently naive to believe that his will alone was enough to win his freedom. He didn’t know that almost two years would pass before his escape would come almost by accident, and that he would have to help murder a man to accomplish it.
The penal camp was built on a mudflat of the Mississippi River, where it made a wide bend north of Baton Rouge, and at sunset, while he stood exhausted and silent in front of his pen, waiting for the long chain to be slipped free from the iron ring manacled to one ankle, he looked out over the miles of swampland that one day he would have to cross to reach the Sabine River and Texas. White cranes flew low over the dead cypress tops in the sun’s afterglow, their wings covered with scarlet, and the willow trees along the banks seemed wilted in the damp heat; just as the pen door was bolted and locked behind him and he lay down on the wood plank in the collective smell of himself and the other convicts, he saw the mosquitoes begin to lift in gray clouds out of the cattails.
Sleep came to him only in the late hours of the night, because the men who were to be whipped for breaking a rule during the day were always taken from the pens after the guards had eaten supper and started in on the barrel of whiskey they kept locked up with the axes and saws. So a man never knew until very late whether he would be called out from the pen, told to pull his cotton breeches over his buttocks and kneel across a log, like a child saying his prayers, and be whipped until he cried and the urine ran down his thighs.
Also, there were the sounds of the convicts in the maisons de chiens, the dog houses, a row of wooden boxes where the bad ones were locked in with a hole the size of a cigar for air. There wasn’t enough room for a man to sit upright, and after a day his body felt as though he had been turned on a medieval rack; a second day reduced him to a pleading thing that whimpered inside the wooden frame of his agony, while the lines of men clanked past him on their long chain into the marsh. If he was left in there three days, he usually had to be dragged from the box like a dog that had been crushed across the rib cage by a wagon wheel. He would lie in the dirt, his head touching his knees in an embryonic position, his eyes blind to the white sun, his lips caked with his own salt and his eyes absolutely mad.
Son Holland experimented with different ways of getting into sleep, of sinking down past the suck of air behind the horse quirt and the fingernails scratching inside the dog houses. Sometimes he thought about women, but more often in the hot darkness he thought about his home in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee. In the center of his mind he could see the dark green of the mountain crests rising out of the morning mist, and as the sun grew hotter and burned away the fog from the river, he saw the dogwood in bloom against the hillsides and the rolling stands of maple and beech trees and yellow birches. But if he dwelt too long upon that vision he would remember the burned cabin and finding his mother and father in the horse lot after the hogs had gotten to them. The high sheriff said it was done by drunk Shawnees, because only a drunk Indian killed like that and did those kinds of things to a man before he died.
Then there was the long ride on the swaybacked chestnut to Memphis, where he sold it for the passage down the Mississippi to New Orleans, that leftover piece of Europe where men who couldn’t even speak English made fortunes in the cotton exchange. Then he would feel an anger and shame at his stupidity in thinking that he would be considered anything more as a mountain person than the poor white trash that filtered into the city from the Mississippi River bottoms.
When he entered a public house to eat and was told to go around to the side door by a Negro servant, he backed out into the cobbled street unable to speak and was almost run down by a carriage. He learned quickly that there were only certain places where he entered the front door, and the men seated at the tables were a foul lot who slurped at their tankards of wine and smelled of cured alligator hides and the stagnant water of the marshes. Their skin was discolored a pale greenish cast, because they lived along the bayous or came out only at night to rob from the flatboats on the river, and they all carried razor blades or knives in their beaded moccasin leggings.
He was sleeping on a pallet among the same type of men behind the slave quarters, when he was arrested and put into manacles by two city constables.
Neither of them spoke English, and when he backed away, protesting, “What for? What for? I ain’t done nothing,” they pressed his hands together, almost gently, and locked the manacles on his wrists. He felt the chain come tight between his clenched fists. A rage swelled in his chest and he swung the loop of chain into a constable’s face.
“Don’t fight back with them Frenchies, boy,” a man on the ground said. “They’ll salt your hide when they get you in jail.”
The second constable hit him across the ear with his pistol barrel; Son heard the blood roar in his head and he tipped sideways on one foot as though his body were made of wood. He got to his hands and knees, his ear burning, and saw the mud-flecked boot flick out toward his face; then he knew that pain was only a brief thing, a tearing along the jawbone someplace, a glass splinter in the softness of the brain, and finally just a rolling over like a lover into the arms of one’s tormentor.
He awoke on the floor of the jail wagon on the way to the city prison, and the constable who had kicked him was sitting on the wooden bench next to the barred door, his small face an indifferent white oval in the moonlight. Son could feel the metal-banded wheels vibrate on the cobbles through the floor of the wagon.
“What for?” he said. The inside of his jaw felt swollen against his teeth, and he wiped a clot of blood off his bottom lip.
The constable crossed his leg on his knees and looked out through the barred door.
“What for, you shithog? I ain’t done nothing except sleep in the same place as them pirates down there. I don’t have nothing to do with where they go at night.”
The constable made a motion with his two fingers, as though he were snipping at something with a pair of scissors.
“That don’t make no sense.”
The constable wet his lips and hummed a sound in his throat, then clipped at the air again and said, in his bad accent, “Cutpurse.”
“What?” The word was unbelievable to him, something apart and away from him.
“You’re a liar,” he said, and looked up from the floor and felt his heart beating.
“CUTPURSE AIN’T NOTHING,” Hugh Allison said from the bunk next to Son. “That’s no bad mark against a man. I was up in front of the same judge three times for the same thing. The only reason he give you them ten years was because you stole it from a quadroon woman that belonged to a gentleman. That’s the way the law works with these Frenchies.”
I didn’t steal it. She lied in the court, with her hand on the Bible, in front of God and all them people, and she looked straight at my face when she lied.
The false dawn had just started to spread in a low gray band across the horizon, dimly outlining the mudflats and the moss in the cypress trees and oaks on the far side of the Mississippi’s dark expanse. It was still cool, with a fresh breeze off the water, and mockingbirds swept low over the willows and cattails after insects. Somewhere back in the sandy bottoms of the marsh Son heard a bull alligator roaring for its mate.
“What I mean is, you just stole from the wrong high-yellow woman,” Hugh said. “You wouldn’t have got all that bad time if you’d taken it from some darky woman down in the market. You just ain’t supposed to mess with them gentlemen’s quadroons. That’s a rule they got down here.”
She lied because she left her purse in another white man’s home, he thought. The lawyer told me in the jail that you can make a liar of her in front of the court, that you can even suggest she’s not a white woman and hence is capable of receiving the insult, but you can never accuse the other gentleman, who is seated next to the cuckold, of lying at the same time, or otherwise they will make sure that you never reach the penitentiary. Don’t you understand that, Holland? It’s their strange conception of honor.
“You got to stop grieving on it, boy,” Hugh said. “You might not believe this now, but one day you’ll be out of here. It ain’t that way with me. I been in here twice before, and with all that time they give me for killing that fellow, I might get buried here. They’ll just dig a hole back in the swamp and drop me in it.”
“Hush up, Hugh.”
Hugh Allison’s skin was sunburned almost black, and his bleached hair was shot through with gray and hung over his head like a tangle of snakes. He had a dozen scars on his body from knife and pistol wounds, and there was a large raised welt above his collarbone where an arrowhead lay embedded under the skin. He was almost blind in one eye, and the pupil stared coldly out of his face like a black marble. He claimed to have been a member of the Harpe gang on the Natchez Trace years ago, and said that he was there when the posse sawed Micajah Harpe’s living head from his shoulders.
“You ought to listen to an older man,” he said. “There’s only one rule to living in here. You take your opportunities.”
“What are you saying?”
“You been in the dog box three times, each time for running when you didn’t have no chance of getting away. The next time they lock you in there they’re going to leave you until your brains melt and run out your ears.”
Son looked out through the bars of the pen at the mist rising off the river and the light swelling into the sky. The moon was still hardly visible in the dark blueness of the west.
“I can’t make ten years,” he said.
“You don’t listen, do you, boy? How do you think I lived all these years? There’s been many a man that tried to put me under—Indians, redcoats, high sheriffs, these Frenchy guards—and I always come out ahead of them. Because you learn to fight like an Indian. You shoot from behind a tree. You don’t fight the other man on his ground.”
“I want to sleep,” another man said from his bunk.
“Don’t that make sense to you?” Hugh said. His cold black eye was wide in the half-light. “One of these days you’ll get your chance. Maybe both of us will.”
“Did you ever try to run?”
“Hell, yes, I did, and I done it just like you. We was felling cypress about five miles north of here, and Landry let me go into the bushes to take a shit and I kept right on a-going. I didn’t make a quarter mile before they run me down. They put me in the dog box for three days. The hinges on the inside was so hot they scalded my hands. I don’t remember nothing after the second day. When they took me out my head and my knees was full of splinters.”
“Be quiet and let us sleep in the time we got left,” the man in the next bunk said.
“Bother me again and you’ll be sleeping with my fist upside your head,” Hugh said.
At the far end of the camp the door opened on the log building where the guards slept, and Son saw Emile Landry framed in the light from the lantern on the table inside. He wore soiled gray pantaloons tucked inside his boots, a split-tailed coat, and a short stovepipe hat; and in his hands he carried the horse quirt that was weighted in the handle with lead. His brother Alcide Landry stepped out of the log building behind him. They were ten years apart in age, but they could have been twins. Their torsos were unnaturally large for the rest of their bodies, the shoulders an axehandle wide, and they seemed to have no necks below their small cannonball heads. No one knew where they came from or what they had been before they became guards in the camp. Even the oldest prisoners said the Landrys had always been there. Occasionally, one of them would take the riverboat down to New Orleans, but otherwise they lived almost the same life as their prisoners.
Son watched the older one, Emile, walk to the iron bell that hung on the oak tree by the row of pens. He rang the clapper three times, then unbolted the pen where the trusties slept. The trusties filed out in their dirty, blue-striped uniforms and began stoking the glowing ash in the stone oven where all the camp food was cooked. They put one block of cornbread in each wooden bowl and poured molasses over it out of a crock that was swarming with flies.
Emile Landry opened the food slit to Son’s pen and let the trusty push in eight bowls and a single pan of water with a cup floating in it.
“Bayou Benoit today,” he said, and walked behind the trusty to the next pen. The low clouds on the horizon had turned to pools of fire.
“Oh shit, that’s where all that quicksand’s at,” a man said.
“It ain’t no worse than where we was yesterday,” another man said.
“You ain’t been up there. We cut that bayou three years ago. A whole chain got stuck in it. They was fighting in the water and tearing at willow branches, and by the time Landry come back with a mule and a rope, every one of them was drowned.”
“Shut up,” Hugh said. “Them men got drowned because they was scared before they went in there.”
“And you ain’t?” the other prisoner said.
“Not of no Louisiana mud. Just of the dumb sonofabitch that might be on the chain next to me,” he said.
Emile Landry came back to the pen with the trusty and unbolted the door. The brass butt of his pistol hung out of his coat pocket.
“Man number one on the stump,” the trusty said.
One at a time they stepped out of the pen onto a sawed cypress stump, and the trusty ran the chain through the iron ring banded on their ankles as though he were threading fish on a stringer. The water barrels, the canvas sacks of smoked carp for lunch, and the axes and saws were loaded on the mules, while the men stood silently in the purple dawn. Then the trusties brought up the saddled horses for the guards, and the chains of men filed past the dog boxes, each man in step with the other, behind the switching tail of Emile Landry’s mare.
They crossed Bayou Benoit on the chain, the brown water swirling around their chests, and each man’s heart clicked inside him as he waited for the moment he could grab for one of the limbs and pull his weight out of the water. The convict in front of Son was an eighteen-year-old blond boy from Natchez, with thick white scars from the guard’s quirt up and down his spine. He grabbed onto a willow branch with both hands and lifted himself violently out of the water. A three-foot moccasin that had been coiled on the limb above exploded out of the shadows like a piece of black electricity, its white mouth open wide, and sank its teeth into the boy’s throat. He slapped at the writhing snake with his hands, his eyes bulging with shock and terror, and screamed, “Oh God, I am killed.”
Son caught the moccasin behind the head and squeezed until the jaws opened and the fangs came loose from the boy’s throat, then threw it downstream as far as he could. The boy fell backward into the water on his buttocks and his head went under as though he were resting for a moment, and Son had to grab him under the arms and pull him onto the mudbank.
“Get some wet chewing tobacco on it, Mr. Landry,” Son shouted up at the guard on horseback.
“Il est mort,” Landry said.
“No, he ain’t. My uncle back in Tennessee got hit in the face with a copperhead, and we bled him and kept tobacco juice on it, and it sucked that poison right out of there.”
The guard motioned to two trusties with his quirt, and they unlocked the bolt on the head of the chain and slid it through the ring on the boy’s ankle. The gashes in his throat were turning blue, and his eyes were dilated and shot with blood.
“La-bas,” Landry said.
The trusties carried the boy between them back on the sandy flat and laid him at the edge of the canebrake. Son waited for something else to happen, but it didn’t. The other men were taken off the chain, the trusties went to unloading the mules, and Emile Landry looked first at his pocket watch, then squinted upward at the sun with his small, round face.
“Ain’t you going to try to save him?” It wasn’t even a direct question, just a simple statement of incredulity.
The guard walked his horse back into the shade, removed his short stovepipe hat, wiped his hand along the sunburned line of his brow, then pinched the hat down on his cannonball head again.
“I’ll suck it out myself, Mr. Landry.”
“Shut up, Son,” Hugh said quietly behind him.
The men filed past the mules and picked up their axes and saws and went to work on the cypress trees along the bayou’s bank. In the dappled light of the canebrake Son could see a white foam forming at the corners of the boy’s mouth.
“You murdering sonofabitch,” he said.
He heard the horse quirt suck through the air behind him, and in the edge of his vision he saw Alcide Landry’s livid face just as the weighted handle ripped across his ear and sent him sprawling in the sand. He rose to his knees, his mind roaring with light and sound, the blood already running down into his striped jumper, and then Alcide Landry’s boot came up so hard between his buttocks that he thought he was going to urinate.
They chained his hands around a tree for the rest of the day, and gave him a single cup of water while the others ate lunch. The boy died alone that afternoon. Son looked over at him in the growing shadows, at the flies buzzing around his eyes and caked mouth, and for a moment he thought he saw his own face on the boy’s.
That night at the camp he knelt over the log, his filthy cotton breeches pulled down to his knees, while Emile Landry whipped the quirt across the white skin fifteen times. Then the trusties carried him trembling to the dog box.
IT WAS A soft, lilac evening when they opened the lid and walked him to his bunk. He couldn’t straighten his legs, and his knees caved each time he tried to set his full weight down. The late sun was a red flame through the mauve-colored trees across the river. When they dropped him on his bunk and bolted the pen door behind him, he thought he heard the rumble of dry thunder beyond the horizon.
It was raining softly when he awoke in the morning and the wind from the river blew the mist inside the pen. He knew it was Sunday because it was already past the time when the work gangs should have been deep into the marsh. He straightened his back against the hard boards of the bunk and felt the pain of the dog box slip along his spine and make his groin go weak.
“He really laid the quirt on you, didn’t he?” Hugh said.
“He warms to his work.”
“You look like they baked you in a skillet. Drink some of this coffee and stretch out your stomach. The worst thing in that box is not having no water in you. You get so damn thirsty in there you drink what little they give you all at once, and then piss it out in your pants. When you try to space out your sips, you watch it steam away in the heat. They know how to make a man work against himself. I heered the French got a prison island off South America somewhere that’s so bad nobody believes it till they get there.”
Son drank his coffee slowly and sucked on the boiled beans at the bottom of the cup.
“I got a treat for you. Take a chew of this,” Hugh said, and handed him a dark twist of tobacco. “That ought to make you right again. I take care of you, don’t I?”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Last night a whiskey trader come upriver to see the Landrys and they all got drunk and had a big time shooting at an alligator out on a sandbar. Before the trader left I called him over to the pen and gave him a mouth harp for the tobacco and two cups of whiskey that liked to fried my hair. When I woke up this morning I thought I had broken glass inside me. I never thought whiskey could be that bad. That trader must put dead animals in his still or something.”
“You ain’t got a mouth harp.”
“Well, it wasn’t mine but the fellow who owned it couldn’t play it worth a shit, anyway.”
“Hugh, you better stop getting people mad at you in here.”
“What are they going to do? Kick me out of here and send me back to New Orleans?”
Son couldn’t help laughing, although the movement sent a shudder of pain down his back again.
“Today we’re going to wash our clothes and bathe in the river and take an afternoon nap like gentlemen,” Hugh said. “Tomorrow your body won’t have no memory of that box. But this time you listen to me. You don’t go up against them people again when they got it all on their side. What you done was plumb stupid. Landry wanted that boy to die. Every one of us he don’t have to feed means money in his purse to spend on whores in New Orleans.”
“You don’t let a man die like that.”
“Where do you think you are? The regular rules don’t have nothing to do with this place. I ain’t even going to talk with you about it anymore. You don’t learn nothing even when it hits you alongside the head.”
There was a crack of lightning across the sky, and the rain began to fall harder, dimpling the wide sweep of the Mississippi. A trusty ran from the log house toward their pen with a set of wrist manacles in his hands, the three-foot loop of chain swinging against his body, his head bent against the rain. He unbolted the door and stepped inside the pen, the water sluicing off his straw hat. He coughed up phlegm and spit it on the floor.
“All right, Allison and Holland outside,” he said.
“What the hell for?” Hugh said.
“There’s a mule stuck in the mudbank a half-mile downriver. You’re going to pull him out.”
“Who says we got to do it?” Hugh said.
“Landry wants two men, and he didn’t say nothing about taking a vote.”
“Holland just come out of the dog box,” Hugh said.
“And I just had to empty out the slop jars after they was drinking all night. Things is tough everywhere these days.”
Hugh bit a chew off his tobacco twist, put the rest inside his jumper, and stood up from his bunk.
“Where’d you get that?” the trusty said.
“I took it away from a trusty that wanted to make my day a little harder.”
“You give me what you got there and you can sleep this morning.”
“You know why you’re a trusty? It’s because you like toting for them and cleaning their slop jars and jumping around like a monkey on a wire. They could turn you loose and you’d find somebody just like them. They understand your kind real good.”
“You know what’s going to happen to you, Allison? You’re going to grow old in here. You’re going to forget when you come in or how many years you spent here, and you’ll start pissing on yourself at night and putting your food in your beard and asking people when they’re going to let you out.”
Hugh leaned toward the bars and spit a stream of tobacco juice into the rain.
“Maybe I ought to tell you something to make your day more interesting,” he said. “A couple of them trusties you bunk with was with me and Wiley Harpe and Sam Mason on the Natchez Trace. They owe me a lot of favors, number one being I never told about a whole family they tomahawked to death up in Tennessee. Now, you think about that awhile, pigshit.”
Hugh took the manacles out of the trusty’s hands, snapped one iron band around his wrist and the other on Son’s, turned the key on each lock, and handed it back to the trusty.
“Come on, Son, let’s get that mule out of there so we can get some rest today,” he said.
They and the trusty went to the tool house for a block and tackle, then they followed Alcide Landry on his dun horse down the riverbank to where the mule was stuck up to its flanks in the soft mud by the water’s edge. The rain clicked flatly on Landry’s gum coat, and when he twisted in the saddle to see that they stayed in step behind him, Son saw the white, drawn emptiness in his face and the resentful narrowed eyes which meant that his older brother had probably forced him to go after the mule.
An oak tree dripping with Spanish moss hung out over the mudbank where the mule was caught, and while the trusty climbed along the limb with the block and tackle knotted around his waist, Son and Hugh waded into the shallows and mud and began working a double cinch under the mule’s stomach. The water became so clouded that they couldn’t see their hands under the surface, and each time they tried to tighten the cinch the mule drew in all its breath until its sides were as hard as a barrel.
“I’ll teach you about that trick, you piece of glue,” Hugh said, and drew back his huge fist and slammed it into the mule’s rib cage.
The mule’s breath went out with a wheeze, and they slipped the cinch tight and attached the iron rings to the block and tackle that hung from the oak limb. Alcide Landry watched them silently from atop his horse, back under the driest branches of the spreading oak. Son thought his face looked even whiter than it had earlier.
They pulled the mule free from the mud and whipped it across the scrotum with willow switches until it finally labored with its hooves and knees out of the shallows onto the sand. The rain was cold and driving hard now, and islands of dead trees floated past them in the center of the river. The trusty climbed out on the oak limb and tried to unknot the rope on the block and tackle, but the rain had swollen the hemp. He tore a fingernail and held his hand under his armpit.
“I can’t untie the sonofabitch with the weight hanging on it,” he said, his small body like a wooden clothespin on the limb. “Swing it back up behind me somewheres.”
“I reckon things is tough everywhere these days,” Hugh said.
“You better check on what’s in your dinner bowl the next time you eat,” the trusty said.
“Why don’t you just stay up there and they’ll bring their slop jars to you?”
“Let’s get on with it and get out of here,” Son said.
“Vite. Too much time,” Landry said.
“He wants to get back to his whiskey pretty bad, don’t he?” Hugh said softly. He took the heavy block and tackle and swung it as hard as he could toward the back of the tree. It knocked into the trunk and swung back over the water again.
“Too much time,” Landry said, and rode his horse out from under the tree to the edge of the river. Water dripped off the brim of his hat, but his face was as white and dry as paper. Son could see the small cracks in his lips, and he remembered what his own face had looked like in a mirror after he had been drinking for two days in New Orleans.
Hugh swung the block again at the tree, his thick arms high over his head, and it looped up into the branches, disappearing for a moment in a shower of raindrops, then swung back into its trajectory and caught Alcide Landry with its full weight squarely in the face.
His boots hadn’t been in the stirrups, and the blow knocked him backward off the rump of the horse into the water. His nose was roaring blood and there was a piece of tooth stuck on his lip. He sat in the shallows with his legs spread apart and his arms propped behind him while his stovepipe hat floated away from him. Son stared at him and felt his heart sink with a fear that he had never known before at the penal camp. He looked at Hugh, whose face was as blank as his own must have been, except for the black marble eye that had a frightful light in it.
“We’re in a shitpot full of it now,” Hugh said. “Let’s finish it.”
He ran through the shallows in his bare feet and came down into Landry’s chest with his knees, then began swinging into his face with both fists.
“What are you doing?” the trusty shouted from the oak limb. “Do you know what his brother will do to us for this? I ain’t a part of it. I ain’t here.”
“Get a stone, a stick, anything,” Hugh said. “I can’t hold him under.”
Landry’s head came up from the water, the blood and wet sand streaming from his face. His eyes were crossed and there was a deep gash like an indented star in the middle of his forehead.
“Damn it, Son, get something,” Hugh said, then poised his fist in midair and got off Landry’s chest and stumbled up onto the sand. He looked furiously for a weapon, picked up a rotted cypress knot and threw it aside; then he kicked at Landry’s head once with his bare foot and fell backward in the sand. Landry got to his hands and knees, a clot of blood dripping off his tongue, his gum coat tangled around his body, and began crawling back to where his horse stood under the oak.
“Get the manacles. They’re on his pommel,” Hugh said.
The horse flipped his head at the collapsed reins when Son got close to him, and he was barely able to pull the looped chain from the pommel before the horse spooked back into the trees. Son ran back to the water’s edge, where Hugh was trying to roll Landry over on his back.
“We can lock him and the trusty around the tree,” Son said. “They won’t come looking for them till this afternoon.”
“Then do it. I can’t keep holding him by myself. Grab his arm.”
“He’s slippery as bear grease.”
“Then sit on him.”
The three of them slipped and rolled in the wet sand, the manacles swinging in the air, then one of Landry’s hands went inside his coat.
“Oh shit, Hugh. He’s got a pistol in there.”
“Hold his arm. Don’t let him get it out.” Hugh wrapped the chain once around the guard’s throat and pulled it tight. Landry’s head snapped backward as though he had been dropped from a gallows. His eyes bulged, his tongue came out, and his free hand pushed desperately at Hugh’s face.
“Pull on the other end,” Hugh said.
“Do it, you hear me.”
“Just get the gun from him. We can’t—”
“Son, he’s cocked it. Lean into that chain.”
Son saw the barrel’s stiff outline pointed at his stomach. He kicked at Landry and turned his head away, his teeth clenched and his eyes closed, just as the ball tore through the coat in an explosion of dirty smoke and flattened into his rib cage.
He knew that it was still raining because he could see the water dimpling in the river, but there was no sound. The horizon tilted, and he saw the willows and oaks and cypresses green against the sky, and a riderless horse was bolting in a shower of sand down the riverbank. He wiped his mouth quietly, swallowed, and tried to concentrate his vision on the horse that was now far down the river, the empty stirrups flying back against its flanks.
He felt Hugh tearing away the striped jumper from his side. Over Hugh’s shoulder he could see the guard sitting upright in the sand, his face dead and staring like a gargoyle’s.
“You ain’t gut shot, are you?” Hugh said.
“I don’t know.”
“Spit in my hand.”
“Do what I say. Spit.”
Son leaned over into Hugh’s palm.
“Clear as spring water,” Hugh said. “I knowed he couldn’t get you.”
“I jerked back on the chain just when he let off at you. It don’t take a lot to bust it sometimes.”
Son pressed his hand against his side and felt the wetness run between his fingers.
“How bad is it?” he said.
“I reckon the ball’s still in there, but it ain’t deep. I’ll get some cobweb back in them trees and catch up the mule and then we’re going swimming.”
The trusty climbed down from the oak and stood several feet from them. The rain clicked steadily on his straw hat.
“I can’t go back there,” he said.
“That’s right, but you ain’t going nowhere with us,” Hugh said.
“I only had two years to go. You done all this.”
“You don’t think too good, do you?” Hugh said. “I just as soon kill you like I done him. You best go after that horse while you got the chance and head for Mississippi. But you remember one thing. If we run across you again, or if you give the law a sniff of where we’re at, I’m going to finish you the way Wiley Harpe used to do it. I’ll gut you like a fish, fill your insides with rocks, and sink you in the river.”
The trusty looked at the insane light in Hugh’s black marble eye and began walking down the river in the sharply etched tracks of the riderless horse.
“I don’t know if I can swim it,” Son said.
“There’s a narrow place two miles down from here. We’re going to hold on to that mule’s tail and go right across it. Then we ain’t stopping till we see Texas.”
“Get the cobweb, Hugh, and let’s get out of here.”
The river narrowed just before it made a mile-wide bend with a steamboat landing on the far side. There were sandbars in the middle of the current with willow trees on them, and the bleached wreck of a flatboat lay on its side against the distant line of flooded cypress. Son tied the jumper tightly around his wound, unlaced his boots, and hung them around his neck.
“I don’t know if I told you this,” Hugh said, “but in Kentucky they don’t teach you how to swim. If I slip off that mule’s tail, don’t come after me.”
“You crazy old sonofabitch. This is a hell of a time to tell me that.”
“Boy, we ain’t got too many selections in the matter.”
They whipped the mule into the water, then pushed at its rump until it stumbled off the shelf of mudbank into the current. Its eyes were wide with fright, its teeth bared and its nostrils dilated for air above the eddies swirling around its neck.
“Swim, you old shitpot, or you drown with us,” Hugh said.
They held onto its tail with one hand and fought to keep their heads above the water with the other. Son’s boots felt like iron weights hanging from his neck, and he thought he could feel the pistol ball grating against a rib each time he swung out his free arm. Up the river, he heard the whistle of a steamboat; then it came into view, low and massive and gleaming whitely in the rain.
“That’s our luck, ain’t it?” Hugh said. “They’ll probably stop and try to pick us up.”
The mule reached the first sandbar in the middle of the current, and kicked its way up out of the shallows as soon as they let go of its tail. They lay on the sand, their faces on their arms, their chests heaving. Son twisted the jumper tighter on his wound, and a spiderweb of pink ran down his side.
“Two hundred more yards,” Hugh said. “Then we ain’t got nothing to worry about except cottonmouths and mosquitoes.”
“He’s going to come after us. You know that, don’t you?”
“He’ll do that, all right. But it’s a different game now. He don’t have the edge no more.”
They went into the water with the mule again, and as the dessicated wreck of the flatboat on the far bank came nearer, Son looked up the river at the huge paddle-wheeler approaching them, the smoke blowing off its scrolled stacks, the latticework on the upper deck splashing with rain, and he wondered at all the wealth inside, the grand salons where fortunes in cotton were won and lost with a casual throw of a playing card.
“Forget about it. The likes of us ain’t ever going to ride in something like that,” Hugh said.
When the mule’s hooves hit bottom and its shoulders suddenly rose from the water’s surface, Son felt something tear loose inside him like a black marble rolling into a socket of pain. The mule’s tail slipped out of his hand, and the soft brown current moved over his head and filled his ears with a quiet hum. He opened his eyes once and saw that life was simply an infinite green expanse of light that he could breathe as easily as a fish.
Hugh’s rough hand broke the water and pulled his head up by the hair.
“We done made it, Son,” he said. “What’s the matter with you? We ain’t going to see Jesus for a long time yet.”
Two for Texas
Son Holland escaped a Louisiana chain gang—but never intended to kill a prison guard during the breakaway. Terrified for his life, on the run through the bayou with fellow escapee Hugh Allison and a beautiful Indian squaw, Son flees across the river to Texas, where the only chance the travelers have for survival awaits in a violent storm of revolution led by General Houston and James Bowie.