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HARD TIME – Part 3

Jim said, “If we kill him, and get caught, they will electrocute us. If we kill him, we have to do it in a way that can’t be proved.” He went on, “We gotta make sure the rest of the prisoners know it was us, so they’ll fear us.” They spent weeks coming up with plan after plan.

* * * * *

Ben, the youngest and least threatening on the chain gang, was the water boy. He shuffled up and down the line passing out water from two canvas buckets hanging by ropes from a wooden yoke. A tin cup was attached to the yoke by a cord. The prisoners were allowed to dip bug laden and brackish water twice each hour. Pete reveled in his domination of Ben by forcing him to fill the cup and hand it to him.

Ben said, “We can grind up glass to a fine powder and put it in his cup. It’ll cut his innards to pieces.”

“It’ll cut you, and the guards will see your bloody hands.”

“I’ll carry it in something and slip it in before I get to him.”

“I like the idea, but not glass. There are too many risks. If you get caught, what’ll you say?”

The chain gang was on a particularly tough stretch of the swamp, clearing brush and bamboo. Hardly a week went by without someone getting bit by a snake. Everyone, including the guards, was jumpy. As one of the prisoners put it, “You had-ta look where you was cutting every time you swung your machete. Otherwise, you could-a hit a snake.”

The men carried long bamboo shafts to thrust ahead of where they worked to get the snakes to move away; even the guards had poles.

Ben had read somewhere that finely shaved bamboo slivers could kill a man slowly and painfully with little evidence. In these surroundings, he was sure he could conceal this deadly gift.

“I’ll try bamboo and see if it does the job.”

The next day Ben cut a few inches from his shaft. Working with a jailhouse knife made from a piece of tin, he cut fine shards. So fine, they were almost invisible to the human eye. He wasn’t careful, and a sliver got stuck in his finger. He felt the pain but could not see the offending shard. “Damn, this hurts.”

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“How you gonna test it?” Jim asked.

A pack of mongrel dogs hung about the camp surviving on scraps, roadkill, and what they could beg off the prisoners and guards. “I’ll try it on one of the mutts.”

Jim asked, “How can you do that?”

“Easy, I’ll save my meat Saturday and mix in the bamboo.”

Angrily, Jim retorted, “I mean, how can you kill a dog?”

“Easy if it will help get rid of Pete.”

Jim slumped, head down as he whispered, “Oh, God.” After a moment, he looked up and said, “Okay.”

Two days later, Saturday, the one night a week they got meat, Ben saved what passed for meat, ground-up hog, beef entrails, and chicken scraps. Because it was his plan, Ben said, “I’ll do it.” After dinner, he slipped one of the dogs, a mangy collie mix, a handful of bamboo-laced meat.

Ben and Jim watched the mongrel. The first day they saw no change in its behavior. The second day the dog began whimpering and crawling around in pain—the third, it passed blood from its ass and coughed up more—the fourth it died.

Two days later, Ben gave Pete a water and bamboo cocktail. Based on their experience with the dog, they expected some sign on the second day. Pete seemed as healthy as a sadistic bastard can be. Ben thought about giving him another dose of bamboo. Jim vetoed the idea as too risky.

Ben smiled at Pete and said, “How’s the water?”

“What the f*@k are you talking about, punk?”

Ben smiled. He made sure that Pete’s crew overheard the exchange, a conversation he repeated as the day wore on.

On the third day, Pete began to complain of severe stomach pain. Walking up with a bright smile, Ben almost sang, “Hey Pete, you want another cup of water? I fixed it special for you.” Pete declined—by then—it was too late.

By the fourth day, Pete was shitting and puking blood. He couldn’t walk. Even the guards knew he was dying. Once again, Ben offered to bring him water.

It took Pete five days to die.

No autopsy, no investigation, just a quick burial in an unmarked grave: the other prisoners knew Ben had killed Pete, only not how. Life on the chain gang remained hard.

Ben was never attacked again.

 

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HARD TIME

 

Public Safety Writers Short Story Non-Published

Honorable Mention –  HARD TIME

The story is serialized in three segments. “Hard Time” was the inspiration for a chapter in A Tale of Robbers and Cops, a historical novel covering fifty years in the lives of two brothers, career criminals, and the men and women in blue who must deal with their crimes.

Hard Time – Part 1

They weren’t killers by nature. Jim Tucker born, in 1912 to Georgia sharecroppers, was three years older than his brother Ben. His memories of home were of a one-room house, a shack really, where he, his parents, two brothers, and two sisters ate, slept, hated, and grew old prematurely. His family survived on less than $350 a year, half what maintained most American families. They were lucky. They had inside running water. The one place where any privacy could be found was the stinking privy out behind the equally foul-smelling chicken coop.

The landowner refused to do anything to ease their suffering. The walls were of roughhewn planks cracked and decayed to the point they no longer kept out the wind or rain. The Tucker’s waged a constant battle with the elements to keep the place livable. Nailing and repairing the wooden walls, applying tar paper, and sheets of tin seemingly did nothing to solve the problem. Their father succumbed to alcoholism and consumption at the ripe old age of forty as the Great Depression began. He left behind a wife and five children to fend for themselves.

Nine months later, their mother remarried a widower who had four children of his own. With eleven mouths to feed, Jim felt it would be easier for all if he left. Ben went with him. Two days later, they stole their first car—their first step in a life of crime.

The following week, broke, hungry, and with nowhere to sleep, they held up a gas station. Immediately caught, there was no trial. The deputy sheriff who arrested them said, “It’ll go better for you if you plead guilty and get it over.”

The judge who presided over their arraignment did not ask or offer them an attorney. Instead, he said, “Boys, the deputy tells me you want to plead guilty.”

Jim answered, “Yes, sir, I guess so.”

“Did you steal the car?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you hold up Mr. Smyth’s gas station?”

“I guess we did,” Jim began and added, “Yes, sir, we did, sir.”

“It sounds to me like y’all are guilty. How do you plead?”

“Guilty.”

“Ben, how do you plead?”

“I guess guilty, sir.”

“Son, you have to plead guilty or not guilty, one or the other.”

“Guilty, sir.

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Sentenced to three years on a Georgia Chain Gang, they endured back-breaking work. The labor was difficult enough without the swamp, inhumane guards, and brutal inmates. Still years away from becoming a wildlife refuge, the Okefenokee Swamp covered 400,000 acres of Northern Florida and Southern Georgia. This shallow peat-filled quagmire was home to more than four hundred species of animals, including alligators, venomous snakes, and panthers.

Assigned to lay down a roadway for what was to become Georgia State Route 94, the convicts cleared a swath of land wide enough for a two-lane road into the heart of the swamp. They suffered immensely from the heat and never-ending swarms of insects. The prisoners had no protection from the elements other than the rotting and mildewed tents, the warden and guards referred to as inmate shelter.

The guards fared little better in the hastily erected temporary buildings moved whenever the roadway inched another five miles into the unforgiving swamp. The warden had a decent home in Fargo, miles outside the swamp. An infrequent visitor, he came to inspect the camp once a month to verify the records of new, released, and deceased inmates. If an inmate was unfortunate enough to die after the warden’s monthly visit, his remains were unceremoniously buried in a shallow, unmarked grave.

Guarding the prisoners was an unpleasant task made even more so by the environment: rain, sweltering heat, humidity, insects, snakes, and any number of other unpleasant experiences. The guards endured constant pain and discomfort. They were generous in passing their pain on to the convicts. One guard was often heard repeating, “If I have to put up with this shit, dem fu%#ers are going to suffer even more.”

 

Book Review: Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West. 2010 Modern Library Edition ed. New York, NY: Modern Library, 2010. Print.

 

Many consider Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian too violent to read. Violence begins onGUEST_e7b7a5bd-5894-4e82-907d-da212ef1d4e8 the second page and continues unabated to the end. McCarthy delivers a treatise on man’s inhumanity to man in the form of genocide. Blood is a constant theme as blood is spilled in one senseless massacre after another. Blood is not the result of conflict, but the reason for it.

McCarthy weaves what could be a series of short stories describing the worth or lack of indigenous people’s lives in the latter half of the nineteenth century west. The story, seen through the eyes of the narrator, follows the Kid and a gang of killers. McCarthy’s narrator never allows the reader inside the mind of the characters. We learn only what McCarthy wants as he develops his characters. He forces the reader to imagine one’s vision of the murderous thoughts. He is masterful in constructing his performers while forcing his readers to judge them.

McCarthy uses understated allegory to deliver messages that express what the characters are or what they represent. Spitting is used throughout as a symbol of the low regard the men have for anything, including human life. The insult of the act says more than dialogue could deliver. Wolves are symbolic actors. Almost daily, we see wolves. The humans and the wolves are representative of hunters looking for easy prey. The only difference, wolves kill for survival.

Glanton and his gang are inherently immoral, evil, clichés of bad guys in black hats. The governments of Mexico and the United States, equally evil, legitimatize genocide. This allowed for the ferocious and persistent murder and attempted extermination of the native peoples of both countries.

Genocide is the predominant theme. Except for the Delaware’s, the Indians are shown as savages. This holds even when the Diegueño Indians rescue the Kid and the ex-priest. “They would have died if the indians had not found them” (312). The narrator refers to these people as savages, as aborigines. “they saw the halfnaked savages crouched…” (312).

Two central characters, Glanton and the Judge, build upon the theme of genocide. Glanton, when he kills an old Indian woman sitting in the square of an impoverished Mexican village. When he sees three of his men squatting with her, he dismounts and kills her. “The woman looked up. Neither courage nor heartsink in those old eyes. He . . . put the pistol to her head and fired” (102). On the very next page, he confirms his complete contempt for life when he tells the only Mexican in his band to scalp the woman’s corpse with these chilling words, “Get that receipt for us” (103). She is nothing more than a hundred-dollar bounty.

The reader becomes almost inured to the violence. Once the butchery began, it seems as though there can be nothing more disturbing—there is—the Judge is evil incarnate. The gang surprises and attacks a large Indian encampment, “the partisans [Glanton’s men] nineteen in number bearing down upon the encampment where there lay sleeping upward of a thousand souls” (161). The Judge leaves the devastated village with a captured child, a ten-year-old boy. He treats the child humanely, and the boy becomes somewhat of a mascot. Three days later, the depth of the Judge’s evil is shown. “Toadvine saw him with the child as he passed with his saddle, but when he came back ten minutes later leading his horse the child was dead and the judge had scalped it” (170). The reader is left to wonder if the Judge killed the boy because he thrives on murder, or if he defiled the child and killed him afterward.

McCarthy’s colorful and graphic language adds significantly to the ability of the reader to see, understand, and experience the scenes and settings. Short and straightforward, his portrayal of the gang as they cross the desert, conveys in a few easy to read lines, in which the reader can feel, and smell the riders. “They rode on, and the wind drove the fine gray dust before them and they rode an army of graybeards, gray men, gray horses” (259).

The Kid, born into a violent world, dies a violent death forty-five years later. Some assume that the Judge, a pedophile, and sexual deviant, rapes the Kid and leaves him for dead. We’ll never know the answer.

McCarthy’s final message to the reader, evil cannot be eradicated; it lives forever.

15 Things I’d Like To Ban From Contemporary Crime Fiction – Adrian McKinty

Adrian McKinty is an Irish novelist currently living in St. Kilda, Australia. Below is a posting from his blog I found interesting and want to share. For the complete article click on http://adrianmckinty.blogspot.com/ and scroll down to Sunday, May 12, 2013.

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15 Things I’d Like To Ban From Contemporary Crime Fiction

Crime fiction has gotten very dull lately hasn’t it? I should know because I get inundated with galleys and review copies and most of them are beyond tedious, without a spark of wit or a well turned phrase in any of them. And the cliches, Jesus the cliches. And the violence. Especially violence towards women and children…It’s almost impossible to read some of this stuff and it makes me wonder how and why these authors ended up writing it. Were they pressured by editors or a feeling that this is what the market demands? I wonder if they ever get embarrassed. I know I get ashamed when I find myself falling into cliche or hacky situations or when the dialogue sounds tinny and false. I’m guilty, I’ll admit it, but I can’t be the only one, can I?

1. Clever serial killers
2. Stupid serial killers
3. Child Murderers
4. Serial Rapists
5. Everything from Scandinavia
6. Torture Porn
7. Working class stereotypes
8. Architects
9. Gallery owners
10. Books with recipes
11. Detectives baffled by basic scientific facts/mathematics
12. Detectives who solve crimes with magic or fairy dust (Lizbeth Sallander, the BBC’s Sherlock etc.)
13. Detectives who solve crimes with cats
14. Cops who haven’t heard of Ernest Hemingway or other basic elements of contemporary culture (this is an extension of #7 above).
15. Super villains. I’ll explain this one. There’s an entirely fallacious belief out there that gets repeated all the time (I heard JJ Abrams repeating it on TV not ten minutes ago) that a hero is only as good as the villain is bad. The hero is supposedly ‘defined by the villain.’ This is utter nonsense. In a well made narrative you don’t even need a villain or a decent McGuffin you just need a good story and fascinating characters. JJ Abrams worships at the throne of Spielberg but he should remember that the shark in Jaws only appeared on screen for about two minutes and its Spielberg’s best movie. And sometimes the most interesting part of the journey is the voyage the hero takes inside his own head. Nach innen geht der Geheimnisvolle Weg, as Novalis said. “Inward goes the way full of mystery.” You know?

Of course with a good story, good dialogue and good characters you can break all the rules above and have yourself a terrific book. But still…you know what I’m talking about… and if you have your own ideas about things you’d like to ban or cliches you’d like to kill please don’t hesitate to let me know.