About the Author
James Lee Burke is the author of many previous novels, many featuring Detective Dave Robicheaux. He won the EDGAR AWARD in 1998 for CIMARRON ROSE, while BLACK CHERRY BLUES won the EDGAR in 1990 and SUNSET LIMITED was awarded the CWA GOLD DAGGER in 1998. He lives with his wife, Pearl, in Missoula, Montana and New Iberia, Louisiana.www.jamesleeburke.com
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Two for Texas ONE
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...
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