Arming sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his striped shirt, the prisoner looked about him as his fellow inmates toiled in the hot sun. A few of them had passed out and had been dragged to the relative shade of the high stone walls that surrounded the territorial penitentiary. He laid his pick ax down and raised his hand.
"Harper!" came the begrudging acknowledgment.
The shackles around his ankles chaffed in the blistering heat, weighing him down, keeping him from moving freely, but he needed a drink of water from the bucket. His head was aching unmercifully as he shambled over under the watchful eye of the armed guard.
"Hurry it up, Harper!" the guard snarled, caressing his rifle as though it were a willing woman.
The water was hot, but it was wet and as he lifted the dipper to his parched lips he saw buzzards flying above his head. He deliberately let some of the water fall down his chin to help cool him.
"That's enough. Get your sorry ass back to work!" the guard shouted and took a menacing step toward the prisoner.
Falling back into line, he stooped over to pick up the pick ax, the pain in his back like sharp talons dragging down his lacerated flesh. The heavy cotton of his striped prison garb had stuck to his back in just the length of time it took him to bend over and straightening up was hell. He grit his teeth and wearily raised the pick ax, stabbing it into the rocky soil, wishing he was driving it into the face of the bastard who put him in this ninth circle of damnation.
A Negro down the line started chanting a work song and others around him joined in. He's too tired, too angry to add his voice to the others though he'd been told the singing helped to blot out the tedious, backbreaking work.
He would never know who started the fight or why the bull guarding his section of workers turned away, hurrying toward the melee, leaving him and four other men unguarded. All he heard was one of the others hissing at him, waving an arm at him, telling him to run.
"Make tracks, boy!" someone said and hobbled though he was, he lit out along with two others, scrambling toward the river and the marshes beyond, the chain between the leg bands of his shackles biting into his ankles.
Shots were fired, but the bullets hadn't come their way. The three of them were hightailing it as fast as they could, ducking in among the tall rushes at the river's edge, wading into the murky waters of the river. It was tough walking in the silt and tougher still striving to swim with ankle shackles weighing down your feet, but the men were determined and were soon halfway across the water before the first rifle shot came from the guard tower, taking one of them down beneath the churning waves.
Swimming faster than he ever had before, ignoring the burning pain ripping across his back as his movement tore open lashes that had partially healed, the prisoner didn't have time to see if the other man plowing through the water was going to make it to the opposite bank. He was kicking furiously with his bound legs--flailing them in tandem with one another like the tail of a fish cutting through a stream. Dimly, he heard shouting, bullets streaking into the water near his head, heard the dogs barking, and knew the bulls would be after him as soon as they took to their horses. His only thought was to reach the other side, to run, to hide, to get away.
Freedom was a few strokes away and though his back was on fire and his strength was flagging, he made one last desperate heave toward the banks of the river.
If they caught him, he'd be sent to Leavenworth. There was no doubt in his mind about that. As bad as the prison was in Missouri, it might be worse in Kansas though he'd heard they didn't use the cat-'o-nine in there. After having spent more than his share of torturous nights in the frigidly cold dark cells in the winter and then baking in those same cells in the furnace of summer for infractions he could no longer remember having committed, he didn't want to think of what they might do to him in Kansas.
He would rather die than be taken back to the penitentiary.
Once on the other side, he collapsed for only a minute or two on the shore to gain his breath then he was stumbling to his feet, shuffling along as fast as his shackles would allow, making for the roadway and beyond to either freedom or an early grave.
Uppermost in his mind was the face of the man who had condemned him to the last five years of living death and he made a vow to himself--he would either die before he allowed them to drag him back to prison or he'd find Jonas Dalton and exact the revenge that had been building in his gut for those five, horrible years.