By Andii Valo
Time was like a train which never stopped. It steamed slowly but relentlessly forwards, taking no passengers, only prisoners. Should a man happen to find he’d boarded the wrong train, then God have mercy on his soul!
Ben wade used to like trains.
He cursed as a fierce gust of wind blew sand into his face and scrubbed a sleeve across his stinging eyes before risking a final look out into the yard. There wasn’t much to see anymore; the sandstorm had come from nowhere twenty minutes ago and was raging so fiercely that visibility was down to a couple of feet. He had no trouble visualising what was out there though. He’d been looking at that yard for long enough to be desperate for a change of scenery.
He conceded defeat and hooked an old blanket over the nails banged into the wood around the small window. He knew from experience that when storms like these blasted sand into his living quarters it tended to stay for days and find its way into every possible nook and cranny, bedding, clothing, even a man’s hair and the sensitive folds of his skin.
Wade wasn’t sure what time it was but estimated it was somewhere close to 8pm. The storm had obliterated the sinking sun’s rays, bringing dusk sooner than usual, and the blanket across the window added to the gloom. He eyed the candle on the floor next to his bunk, wondering if he should light it yet. He wasn’t sure when or where the next one might come from but then his gaze fell on the other bunk, the one which had been unused for two long months and he instantly strode over and struck a match to the wick.
The small, bare, whitewashed stone room looked more friendly in the flickering yellow light but this wasn’t a place Ben Wade would ever call home. This had been imposed upon him, thrust on him against his will and he was heartily sick of being here.
He’d stood at the window for too long. His lower back and left leg had begun to ache and he knew it would get worse, disturbing his sleep and infecting his dreams. He lay down gingerly on his bunk, pulled a book from under his pillow and tried to read, to take his mind off the nagging pain and tense, edgy restlessness he’d been experiencing since he’d learned that second bunk was about to be occupied..
He heard a bell toll eight times, heralding the official start of night time. It was muffled by the storm but his ears had become so attuned to its sound that it could wake him from the darkest depths of sleep. Over the past couple of months he’d learned to hate that sound and everything it stood for, but there was no getting away from it and that aggravated him beyond belief.
He put the book down with a sigh and blew out the candle. No sense in wasting good light. It was unlikely he’d meet his new companion until the weather improved, since nobody was prepared to walk even a few feet in a stinging, blinding sandstorm. He was pretty sure the man wasn’t far away though. He’d heard the damned train arrive about an hour ago and although the railroad was a little way off, well below the bluff, sound tended to carry in the desert.
Ben closed his eyes and tried to relax, aware how this might be the last peace he’d get in a while. Who knew what he might be forced to endure after tonight? The man might snore, fart, talk in his sleep or worse. He might be slovenly, uneducated and uncouth… These were all distinct possibilities and Ben fought down a momentary stab of anger, wishing the bastards who ran his life would just let him be. Why did they have to go changing things now? He hadn’t caused any trouble, he’d paid good money for the few luxuries he’d managed to procure and he was Ben Wade Goddamit! He was entitled to his privacy, his solitude and a few hours of peace between sunset and dawn. If this new fucker threatened that in any way he’d get his head busted in record time!
Ben’s heart had begun to hammer, he was breathing hard through his nose and he got himself under control quickly. He rarely let emotion get the best of him, things ended disappointingly when he did, and he realised he was looking at all of this the wrong way. He needed to treat the new arrival as an opportunity, not a threat, and the meagre scraps of information he’d managed to glean about the man indicated that, with some careful handling, there was a chance to turn his fortunes around, take control of his own life once more. Until recently he’d been weakened and incapacitated, but his strength was returning rapidly and Ben Wade was almost back to his old self. Who could resist that?
He only realised he’d dozed off when the sound of approaching voices roused him. The room was fully dark now and very quiet, the storm long since passed. The voices got louder and stopped outside his door. Light illuminated the blanket across his window and he pulled himself into a sitting position, listening to the familiar sound of a key turning in a lock. A moment later his door was thrown open to reveal a cluster of shadowy figures, one of them holding a lamp. A man was pushed into the room and he took a few hesitant steps forward then stopped, gazing at his surroundings as one of the group behind him spoke sternly.
“Don’t get comfortable in there. You gotta be processed before you settle for the night!”
The door slammed shut and the lock turned again. The light receded and suddenly everything was black as pitch. Ben sat stock still, listening intently but he couldn’t hear a thing. It made him nervous that some stranger was standing close to his bed and though he couldn’t even hear the man breathe, he knew he was there from the smell alone. Ben wrinkled his nose at the harsh, sharp odour, thankful that part of the processing procedure involved bathing and clean clothes because this man hadn’t washed in a long while! Spooked by the nature of his predicament, he felt on the floor for the candle and lit it deftly. The man was standing in the exact same place and Ben threw a curt nod at the bunk behind him.
“That one’s all yours, friend. No sense standing around all night…”
The man gazed at him for a moment and Ben took the opportunity to study his new companion. He was tall, lean and might have been young but Ben found it difficult to gauge because of the grime all over his face. His clothes were dirty and spotted with blood; his hair so matted and greasy it was hard to know the colour. He hadn’t been acquainted with a razor in quite some time and it was impossible to know where his hair ended and the straggly beard and moustache began. The eyes which scrutinized Ben were dark in the candlelight and he saw them glinting. It might have been intelligence or humour, perhaps danger, but was just as likely a trick of the light. The man still hadn’t moved and Ben hitched himself a little higher on his bunk.
“I figure we’ll be together a while so we may as well get acquainted. My name’s Ben Wade.”
Most people knew the name, and it usually elicited some kind of reaction. Ben was damned sure this fellow had heard it plenty of times, given his reputation and current location, but there was no flicker of recognition. There was no response at all actually, the man just sat on the edge of his bunk and started looking around the room. Ben tried again, keeping his voice smooth and even.
“What do I call you?”
The dark eyes lingered on his face for the briefest second and then resumed their scrutiny of the walls. Ben was getting irritated but allowed none of it to show. He barked out a laugh.
“Yuma prison does tend to scare the shit out of newcomers. I understand if you don’t feel like talking.”
The man’s gaze swung back and Ben finally had his full attention. None of his words seemed to have hit their target and the man wasn’t remotely offended or roused by his barbs. On the contrary he seemed amused and his mouth pulled into a lop-sided grin.
“You’re talking enough for us both, but don’t get nervous on my account.”
His voice was a quiet drawl, the words spoken without aggression, but he’d made an effective parry and they both knew it. Ben forced himself to smile.
“Now I know you’ve got a tongue, how about you give me your name?”
The man shook his head slightly. “I imagine a man of your resource already has it.”
Ben clasped his hands behind his head and leaned against the headboard of his bunk, feigning indifference but quietly reassured. His new cellmate knew exactly who he was. He sighed heavily, just to inject some drama and keep the man’s attention.
“Not so long ago a prisoner with a little money might buy a guard’s co-operation, encourage him to talk or turn a blind eye to certain activities, but Yuma’s all changed now. They got a new governor six months back, some big shot from the Union army who couldn’t accept the war’s been over for years and turned into a bitter, hard-arsed son of a bitch. The first thing he done was remove the entire staff and bring his own people in. They’re all army bastards, just like him, and there’s no getting through to men like that.”
“How long you been here, Wade?”
The newcomer sounded interested but he’d also managed to turn the tables and become the interrogator. The fact wasn’t lost on Ben and he wasn’t about to give up any personal information.
“Long enough… But I spent time here before and I’ve seen the changes. It ain’t just guards getting tight lipped either; the punishments have gotten severe and there’s all kinds of new rules to break. Time was you’d get the ball and chain or a few days in the dark cells for stepping out of line, now they’ve got whippings and beatings and if a prisoner tries to escape they shoot to kill.”
The man was wearing his lop-sided grin again. “That’s why you’re still here?”
Ben was about to answer but a sound outside drew his attention and he jumped up to investigate. The action sent needles of pain down his back and leg and he swore quietly and limped across to the cell door. He pulled the blanket away from its small, barred window and peered out into the exercise yard. There was light spilling from the door of the nearby guardhouse and a group of men were heading his way. He turned to face his new companion.
“Looks like you’re about to get processed. God knows you could use that bath!”
The man seemed edgy and it made Ben smile broadly. “Are you frightened of a little soap and water?”
The man stood up and fumbled in the back of his pants. Ben watched, grimacing slightly, unsure what he was about to encounter, but to his surprise he produced a half bottle of liquor and a fat roll of money.
“Where do I stash this?”
Ben didn’t have time to wonder how he’d managed to smuggle contraband into Yuma prison, or how bad it might smell. He could hear footsteps getting close and he snatched the items from the man’s hands, stuffed them under his thin mattress then lay on top of the bunk, legs crossed and hands behind his head - the very picture of nonchalance.
Their owner was gazing at him, decidedly nonplussed. “You can help yourself to a little hooch while I’m gone, but I know exactly how much money’s in that roll.”
A key rattled and the cell door opened to admit three heavily-armed guards. One of them was holding a lamp and Ben squinted as the fierce light hit his face. He knew them all: two were old hands – tough, grim faced ex-soldiers who seldom spoke except to caution prisoners - the third, the lamp-bearer, was a much younger man who’d arrived about a month ago. Ben knew him only as Cartwright and from the way he slouched around the prison, it was pretty clear he’d never set foot in the army. He was sullen and cagey to begin with, but Ben had eventually managed to strike up a dialogue.
With a little time, patience and persuasion Ben had gotten him running a few errands, in exchange for hard cash. Cartwright provided him with his meagre resources: candles, extra blankets, laudanum and the odd quart bottle of whisky, and shared what scant information came into his possession. It was Cartwright who’d revealed how he’d be getting a new cellmate but he didn’t know much more than that, not even the man’s name - only that he’d been part of a notorious gang and had five thousand dollars on his head. He was wanted in a dozen states and territories for a range of crimes which included armed robbery, gambling, cheating, rustling, murder and worse.
Ben had honestly expected to be impressed by the man but as he looked over at his nameless cellmate, who was staring at the guards impassively, he was struck by how unlike a notorious criminal he seemed. In his current state he looked more like a worthless hobo who’d been whipped between towns and kept himself alive by begging and petty thieving. Looks were deceptive, though, and Ben had never been fooled by them. This fellow was smart, resourceful, dangerous and the fact he’d been placed in the highest security cell meant the prison authorities felt the same way.
Cartwright stepped closer to the grimy newcomer, held up the lamp and wrinkled his nose.
“You smell like a sewer rat, boy. You’re good and ready for that bath, ain’t you?”
It was only because Ben was looking directly at them, as the words were uttered, that he saw the look which passed between them. The angle of the lamp meant the other guards didn’t notice the prisoner gave an almost imperceptible nod of his head before Cartwright grabbed his shirt and pushed him towards the cell door. The other guards pinioned his arms and hauled him outside. He didn’t struggle, in fact he hadn’t made a single aggressive movement since his arrival, but it seemed that didn’t matter much. He was a prisoner and accordingly treated like a vicious dog.
Cartwright was pulling the cell door closed as Ben called to him.
“What’s his name?”
The guard smiled insolently.
“You losing your touch, Wade?”
Ben sat up on his bunk, feeling the bottle of liquor press into his buttocks.
“So you don’t know his name…”
Cartwright stared for a moment but reacted predictably to the challenge. His face split into a nasty grin.
“You got Cortez Thompson and he’s one evil son of a bitch. You’d best watch your back around him!"
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