The third Bear Haskell book will be up on Amazon on Monday. Here's the first chapter...
There was a slithering sound, like that which a snake makes crawling through sand...
Jamie Lockhart opened his eyes to see a shadow grow before him in the nearly impenetrable darkness of Hell Hole, as the dungeon was called at the Colorado Territorial Penitentiary in Trinidad.
The shadow stopped near where Lockhart slumped. A vertical white line appeared. As it did, a fetid smell, like that of something dead, assaulted Lockhart’s nose. Hell Hole characteristically smelled like something dead—namely the numberless dead men who had died in Hell Hole’s bowels, as Lockhart figured he himself was bound to do. But this smell was ripe enough to rival even those.
The voice was raspy and deep, like the roll of a distant drum. It was then that Lockhart realized that this new death smell was not a death smell at all but the smell of a man’s breath. He recognized the voice.
“Mic?” Short for McGeehy. Oscar McGeehy. One of three of Hell Hole’s “hounds”, which was what the dungeon’s guards were called.
The Three Hounds at the Gates of Hell.
Each fit the description, too, for they were large, animal-like men with heavy fists and shoulders and flat, dead eyes. Brutal men. Heartless and violent beyond words. They’d leave a dead man in the Hole for days, until he’d swollen up and stunk like an overfilled privy in the hot desert sun, and then they’d come down and haul him out, laughing and cajoling the prisoners who’d had to live with the stench.
“Me, all right,” McGeehy said in his thick Irish accent. “Mic.”
“Christ, Mic,” Lockhart said, shaking off the bonds of a shallow but welcome sleep. “What the hell did you eat for supper? You’re breath would choke a dog off a gut wagon.”
There was a dark flicker of movement, a rustling sound. Mic’s huge fist slammed against Lockhart’s right cheek. It was a sledgehammer blow, slamming Lockhart’s head against the solid stone wall with a resolute smacking sound. Crimson flowers opened behind Lockhart’s squeezed-shut lids. For a few seconds, he felt as though every tooth in his mouth had been jarred loose by the vicious wallop.
Lockhart shook his head, fighting off the grabbing hands of unconsciousness.
“No-no,” Mic said, blowing more of his foul air at Lockhart’s face. “You ain’t gonna pass out on me, Jamie boy. You got places to go. Men to see. Things to do.”
There was a clinking sound as McGeehy plunged a tin cup into the water bucket beside Lockhart. The cup flashed in a flicker of ambient light as McGeehy hurled the water at Lockhart’s face.
Lockhart yelped against the water’s sudden assault, instantly chilling him, sucking his breath from his lungs. He got some of the water down his windpipe, and he choked on it, making strangling sounds in the Hole’s stony silence.
“You fucker, Mic!” Lockhart wheezed. “Oh, you fucker!”
As Lockhart continued to shed the bonds of semi-sleep, he heard the rattle of keys and the jingle of a chain. The slight tug on his left ankle told him that McGeehy was unlocking the stout padlock that held a log chain fast to the shackle that gripped Lockhart’s ankle as tight as a clenched fist. The other end of the chain was attached to a stout iron eye embedded in the stone wall somewhere to Lockhart’s left.
A voice said in the darkness to Lockhart’s right, quietly echoing off the stone walls, “What in the hell you doin’ over there, Mic? You turnin’ Lockhart loose, are you? What time is it? Must be the middle of the night.”
Hans Gunderson was the only other prisoner currently confined in the dungeon. Like Lockhart, he’d been asleep, slumped against the wall, before the guard had shown up.
Mic stopped what he’d been doing. In the darkness, Lockhart saw the big Irishman straighten, turn, and stride over toward Gunderson.
“What you doin’, Mic?” Gunderson said, both suspicion and wariness threading his voice. “Pullin’ Jamie out of the dungeon in the middle of the night...?”
Mic’s footsteps had stopped several feet to Lockhart’s right. The guard’s bulky shadow seemed to hover in the air over there. Lockhart heard the clink of a chain as Gunderson moved his leg, shifting his position against the wall.
“Shoulda stayed asleep, bucko.”
There was a muffled yelp. Then a scuffling sound, a strangling sound. Gunderson’s chain clinked as it flopped along the floor. Finally, there was the grinding, cracking sound of Gunderson’s neck breaking. A final grunt.
A thud and final clink as Gunderson dropped to the cold stone floor.
Lockhart laughed. “How you gonna explain that, Mic?” He laughed again in delight of the trouble the guard would get into when the warden got wind of a prisoner suffering a broken neck under McGeehy’s watch.
“I ain’t.” McGeehy knelt beside Lockhart once more, poked his key in the padlock. There was the sudden ease of tension as the chain fell away, clinked to the floor. McGeehy’s fetid breath again pushed against Lockhart’s face. “You see, bucko,” he said, “it’s your lucky night. We’re getting’ outta here. Me an’ you—see?”
“Me an’ you?”
“Sure.” McGeehy smiled. “Ain’t that sweet?”
“I don’t know,” Lockhart said, trying to hide his surprise. “You ain’t proposin’—are ya, Mic?”
McGeehy grunted as he slammed another haymaker against Lockhart’s cheek, rattling the prisoner’s brains again.
“Goddamn, you’re a brutal bastard!” Lockhart complained when he’d regained full consciousness once more. His ears rang from the blow.
“Now, you gonna keep makin’ smart?” McGeehy said. “Or you wanna get outta here?”
“How you gonna do that, Mic?” No prisoner had successfully escaped Trinidad Pen in the past seven years. Only three had been fool enough to try in that time, and they’d been shredded with bullets hurled from the guard towers before they’d even made it to the outside wall.
“You just keep your gums from flappin’, an’ follow ole Mic, and I’ll show you. Okay? You understand what I’m sayin’, boyo?”
“Sure, sure, Mic,” Lockhart said. “Whatever you say, Mic.”
He was more than skeptical. Why would McGeehy help him escape? Must be some trick. Lockhart was sure of it. But what did he have to lose?
He’d been in the dungeon for the past six days. Six days after a ten-day stint a little over a month ago for gouging out another prisoner’s eye and shoving it down his throat. He moved only as far as the chain would allow, eating only bread and water, hoping a rat would drown in his water bucket during the night so he could fortify himself with meat.
Dungeon dwellers who couldn’t bring themselves to eat rat meat usually died in the dungeon.
McGeehy removed the shackle around Lockhart’s right ankle. The prisoner cursed and gritted his teeth as the blood flowed freely into the pinched flesh. He could feel it burning like diamondback venom in his foot.
“Come on,” Mic said and moved off into the darkness, in the direction of the ladder. His heavy, cork-soled boots clomped on the stones.
“Hold on, Mic!” Lockhart rasped. “My foot ain’t had any blood in it for six days!”
“Stop pussy-footin’ it or I’ll leave you down here!”
Lockhart hurried after the big guard, limping, wincing as his bare feet ground pebbles and sharp bits of flaked stone, food scraps, and rat droppings. He could see maybe one or two feet in front of him. He almost ran into the wall up which the rope ladder climbed, and would have if he hadn’t heard the creaking of the hemp as McGeehy climbed it, grunting quietly as his bulky, inky figured grew against the hole above, which was a four-by-four-foot square of weak amber light.
Lockhart watched the big man gain the hole, the prisoner’s heart thudding, hoping that this wasn’t one of the sadistic guard’s jokes. As soon as McGeehy was out of the hole and kneeling beside it, beckoning, Lockhart leaped at the rope ladder.
His right foot ached horribly as he climbed, the ladder buffeting around him. Several times his hands or his feet slipped from the raking hemp, and he nearly fell back to the dungeon floor.
His heart turned cold at the thought.
He’d given up on the idea of being released from the dungeon anytime soon, after he’d beaten a fellow prisoner senseless in the prison rock quarry—over what, he couldn’t even remember. In prison society, any slight was reason enough. If you didn’t respond to taunts or threats, those taunts or threats would just keep coming and grow in venom, and you might end up with more and more men against you. In prison society, only the strong survived. They survived by proving every minute of every hour of every day that they were stronger, more savage than the men around them, and not to be trifled with.
More often than not, it cost them time in Hell’s Hole but it was better than the alternative. No, Lockhart had given up on the idea of being let out of Hell’s Hole soon, maybe not for another week or so. But now that that carrot had been placed before him, he found himself chasing it like the most desperate of hungry ponies.
When Lockhart was near the top of the hole, McGeehy reached down, grabbed his arm, and painfully jerked him up out of the hole. Lockhart rested there by the hole on his knees, breathing hard, grinding his teeth at the pain in his right foot, looking around.
They were in the Hell’s Hole entrance corridor lit by two guttering lanterns bracketed to the sandstone walls.
There was a small wood stove and an ancient, overstuffed parlor chair positioned in front of the stove, a seat for whatever guard was posted at the Hole at any given time. A small table stacked with old, brittle, water-stained newspapers and magazines stood beside the chair.
Beyond rose a flight of stone stairs, lit by two more guttering lamps, to a heavy iron door with a barred window. Lockhart studied the door. It was partway open. Odd. Lockhart had spent enough time in the Hole to know that that door was always locked.
What was even odder was that one of the other two guards lay slumped at the bottom of the stairs. That was Bingo Dwyre, a lout from the streets of New York City. He lay with his head cocked back against the corridor’s right wall, his neck bent at an odd angle, blood trickling down from one corner of his mustached mouth. His leather-billed, dark-blue hat lay overturned on the floor near his head.
“Your work, Mic?” Lockhart asked.
“Whose do you think?”
Lockhart curled his upper lip. “You do that for me?”
“Just for you, Jamie me boy. Just for you!”
“You must think I’m mighty special.”
Mic placed a big hand on Lockhart’s left shoulder, grinning down at him, the guard’s long eyes slanted devilishly beneath heavy, rust-red brows. His scraggly mustache of the same color rose with his lips. “Ten thousand dollars worth of special, me boy. Come on!”
“Ten thousand dollars?”
Mic ran up the stairs, taking the steps two at a time.
Lockhart stared after him, incredulous, then, not wanting to be left behind, he pushed himself to his feet and ran as fast as he could up the steps behind the big guard. He followed Mic through the door, down the long, stone hall, barred windows on each side letting in the cool night air that brought to Lockhart’s nose the smell wood smoke and the perfume of the Colorado desert and the pines of the southern Rockies.
It was intoxicating. Lockhart drew a deep breath as he ran, forgetting about the misery in his foot and ankle.
The corridor seemed to trail off into infinity. To each side were heavy barred doors marking the way to various cellblocks. McGeehy’s large figure was a jostling shape ahead of Lockhart. Sometimes the big guard faded into the darkness altogether and only his running footsteps told Lockhart he was still ahead of him.
They pushed through two more doors, both unlocked. Beyond the last door lay another dead guard—the impossibly fat George Stinson. McGeehy had unlocked the doors beyond Hell’s Hole. And he’d killed two guards. At least, two guards. There might be more.
Lockhart didn’t worry about it. All he could think about now was keeping up to the big guard lest he should get left behind and returned to that stinking pit. A part of his mind still believed in the possibility that this was all a cruel joke being perpetrated by McGeehy for sport—you couldn’t put it past ole Mic—but all that Jamie Lockhart could think about was making it to the outside—to the vast, broad, open night filled with the perfume of the Colorado desert, and freedom...
Finally, they came to a last door. It, too, was open. Another guard lay dead just inside. As he stepped over the dead guard and pushed the door open just enough that he could poke his head out for a look around the consumptives’ exercise yard, McGeehy glanced back at Lockhart now breathlessly catching up to him.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do, boyo.” The guard was also breathing hard, filling the air around them with his fetid breath. “We’re gonna run across the yard here and climb the first wall. Keep to the right, near that tower right there—understand?”
Lockhart brushed his fist across his running nose and said, “Near the tower?” But there was a guard armed with a rifle in each tower.
“Don’t worry about the tower. Just vault the first wall and get into the shadow of that tower as quick as you can. Follow me. I’ll show you where a rope is hanging down the inside of the outside wall. We’re gonna climb it, pull it up, and drop it over the outside wall, and scurry down. Got it, boyo?”
“I got it, Mic—I got it!” Lockhart’s blood was singing in his ears, his heart racing at the prospect of freedom.
McGeehy looked around once more, carefully, and then he bolted forward, crouching low at the waist. Lockhart followed him, barely keeping up, as Lockhart gained the inside wall, near the tower that stood just beyond it, on the inside corner of the outside wall.
Lockhart hurled his big body over the six-foot-high wall, and Lockhart managed to scramble up the wall, as well. Clumsy from pain and weakness, from being chained up for six days and nourished by only bread, water, and the occasional rat, he tumbled down the other side to land with a grunt in the dirt.
“Shhhh!” McGeehy admonished, crouching over Lockhart. “You tryin’ to wake the bloody dead, ya bloody fool? For the love of all the Saints in Christ’s heaven!”
Lockhart scrambled to one knee and looked at the brick guard tower facing him on his right, in the northeast corner of the outside wall. He could see only darkness there beneath the tower’s peaked roof, but there had to be a guard in there, armed with a Sharps rifle. The guard had to have heard Lockhart and McGeehy running, and Lockhart’s fall.
Why hadn’t they been perforated by bullets?
Because the guard in the tower had thrown in with McGeehy, Lockhart told himself, and smiled as he ran behind the big guard toward the outside wall. The rope was there—hanging down the inside of the wall, right where McGeehy had said it would be.
An elaborate plan. One that had been sketched out well in advance. McGeehy had been paid ten thousand dollars to squirrel Jamie Lockhart out of Trinidad Pen.
Never mind. He’d likely find out soon.
They climbed the rope. It was easy. Lockhart had no trouble. Freedom beckoned. His foot felt fine. He could feel his hands bleeding from the hemp’s rough rake, but there was no pain. All that his brain registered of that climb was the perfume of the desert in his lungs, and the hammering, aching prospect of freedom after wasting away for the past ten years in the pen.
McGeehy dropped to the ground at the base of the outside wall. The light of a sickle moon shone in his eyes when he looked up at Lockhart dropping down behind him. Lockhart released the rope, hit the dirt, and rolled.
“What now, Mic?” he whispered in the darkness, the open night enshrouding him, nearly taking the breath from his lungs. There was the moon, rising over those spindly trees by the river’s cut. My god, the moon!
It appeared close enough to reach out and grab in his fist...
“We cross the river, boyo,” McGeehy said. “We cross the river. Don’t worry—it’s dry. There’s a break on the other side, near a big cottonwood. If all’s gone accordin’ to plan, two horses will be waiting for us there. Their saddlebags will have a change of clothes in ‘em for both of us. Come on, boyo—we’re almost home!”
“Hold on, Mic.”
“What is it?” McGeehy glanced behind him.
Lockhart had found a fist-sized stone. He lunged forward with savage grunt and rammed the rock against the dead center of McGeehy’s forehead.
The guard dropped like ten tons of hard freight.
When he was down and groaning, blinking, trying to shake off the assault, Lockhart beat his skull to a bloody pulp, trying to stifle his own laughter.
“There you go, Mic,” he said, wheezing. “That’s for everything.”
He dropped the rock and removed the man’s socks and boots. He donned the socks and boots. They were too big for him, but Lockhart didn’t care. He grabbed the guard’s revolver from his holster, blew the dead man a kiss, and ran for the dry riverbed and freedom.