First in a new series!
Lucas Fume has had plenty of fights in his life: spying for the Confederate Army, standing up to the railroad company when they tried to take his land, then getting framed for the murder of his business partner—only to lose his land as well as the love of his life. But Lucas isn’t finished fighting yet…
With help from Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Henry, a fellow inmate and former slave, Lucas manages to escape prison. Riding with Zeke to St. Louis, he soon discovers that his former partner is still alive, using a different name, and doing big business with the railroads—and he has Lucas’s lost love with him. On the run from the law and up against a rich and influential enemy, Lucas is about to take on the most dangerous fight of his life.
About the Author
Larry D. Sweazy is the Spur Award- and Will Rogers Medallion Award-winning author of the Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger series, including The Gila Wars, The Coyote Tracker, The Cougar's Prey, The Badger's Revenge, The Scorpion Trail, and The Rattlesnake Season. He is also the author of the modern-day thriller The Devil's Bones and short stories appearing in numerous fiction anthologies and literary publications.
Read an Excerpt
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON, FROM SELF-RELIANCE (ESSAYS: FIRST SERIES)
Lucas Fume drew back just in time, ducking a hard punch. The only weapons he had to defend himself with were his wits and his fists; everything else had been stolen from him longer ago than he wanted to admit. There was no time to ask his attacker about the offense made, or to reason his way out of it. Like so many times before, this attack had come out of nowhere.
Every second of every day in the Tennessee State Prison was a matter of life and death. There was no such thing as being safe. Not in prison, not locked away behind cold iron bars, or out in the open in the cavernous mess hall, where he had been standing minding his own business.
Fighting on an empty stomach was as natural as breathing to Lucas, and he was happy to oblige the attacker no matter the cause. He was accustomed to attempts on his life—at least this fighter had come straight on, instead of from behind like so many of the other failures. It did nothing but fuel his fire.
Lucas had been enraged since the first day he’d been dragged, kicking and screaming, inside the filthy prison, and that rage had only grown the longer he’d been forced to remain locked up for a crime that he most certainly did not commit.
Every man in prison claimed innocence, but in his case, it was the truth. He had been falsely accused of murder, railroaded by powers beyond his own reach, and tossed in a cell, with the key thrown away forever.
“Get ’im, Fume!” someone shouted from behind him.
“Kill the bastard,” another man yelled. “I never liked that surly son of a bitch in the first place.”
It only took Lucas a second to size up his opponent. He was tall as a ladder, bony as a sturgeon, and uglier than a pale white nag horse—but strong and light on his feet, that much was obvious. The attacker’s name was unknown to him, but his reputation as a troublemaker, a leader of sorts to a gang of his own ilk, had not gone unnoticed by Lucas in the days past. He had been wary of the man from the first sighting.
This fight was not for honor. Most likely, it was a show of power and nothing more. Lucas had a reputation as a hard fighter, a tough opponent to beat. A victory over him would be a feather in the stranger’s cap, garner him even more respect.
The pale man looked surprised at his missed punch. He spit at the floor in disgust, barely missing Lucas’s foot with his foulness, then turned up his lip for another round, and a surer aim. He cocked his fists upward as if the fight had been preordained at a set time and place.
Whispers of wagers started to make the rounds, passing from man to man. The bet-taker, a sheepish man dressed in tattered gray rags, and a known prevaricator, offered unknown currency to the victors.
The prizes ranged from extra food at evening meals to protection in the depths of the night, or whenever needed, from the legion of maniacal and, often, sadistic guards. There were a hundred different types of money in prison.
Lucas stepped back, nearly bumping into the wall of men that had suddenly surrounded the two pugilists like a living, breathing boxing ring.
Entertainment was not expected, it was demanded. The moment a line was crossed, a punch thrown, or curses exchanged inside the walls of the prison, the prospect of a fight brought sudden joy to the mundane drudgery of every day.
Chants rose to the roof like the opening chorus of a cathedral hymn; only there would be no salvation at the end of this fight, just an accession to the top of the ranks of toughness—if it came to that.
Lucas quickly gathered his thoughts and calculated his next move.
Big men had reach and power, but they were usually clumsy on their feet, slower than they thought they were. On the other hand, Lucas was of medium height, solidly built, and quick on his feet, like a good fighter should be. He’d spent his lonely hours in his cell keeping as fit as possible, by walking in circles, squatting repetitively, lifting himself up and down prone to the floor, passing the time as positively as he could, preparing for whatever the future threw at him. Given the gruel and poor diet he was forced to accept, some days the only protein he ate were the roaches floating belly-up in his soup. All things considered, he was in pretty good physical shape.
Lucas was confident in his skills and ability, as confident as he could be with the key to his freedom tossed to the wind, but he knew little of his opponent, his past or his training. Something had propelled the pale man to challenge him, and Lucas had no earthly idea what that something was outside of the organizer taking bets. It didn’t matter. The fight was started, and an end to it was a pleasure to face. Passing up a fight rarely occurred to Lucas, and losing a match of this type was rarer.
Lucas’s reaction to the realization of his perceived advantage against the pale man was instant.
Instinct drove him straight at his leering opponent, on the inside, ducking low, sliding straight up the man’s body like a squirrel skittering to the top of a tree. He landed a hard, perfectly placed blow to the man’s jaw before the attacker could even think about launching a follow-up to his original punch.
The echo of the hit reverberated throughout the hall like the loud smash of a cymbal in a marching band, announcing something more to come.
The pale man spit again. A pair of rotted teeth exploded outward from his mouth, quickly followed by a stream of warm blood.
Dead men smelled better, but Lucas wasn’t about to step away; he was in close enough to do some real damage and end the fight before it got out of hand. Be done with it, eat breakfast, and return to his cell alone, a victor left to his spoils, another notch on his belt, and a silent hope that he would have a day left alone to himself.
If it was a show of power the man wanted, then by God, that’s what he’d get. Lucas had no posse or gang to impress, just the population of the prison as a whole. The last thing he could afford to do was show any weakness at all. Predators of all types waited in the shadows.
Lucas followed up the first punch with a quick left jab to the man’s sternum, knocking the wind out of his fragile chest, sending him flailing backward into the crowd so deep that he nearly disappeared.
The chants transformed to cheers and more yells. It was a real fight now—gladiators surrounded by a bored and hungry crowd. The smell of blood was in the air, and the crowd continued to grow in size and volume. But all Lucas could hear was his own heartbeat. His focus was on the fight and nowhere else. Finish it, end it, beat the man to within an inch of his life, but leave him living as an example. No matter the right of self-defense, there was no just cause to see the pale man to his death—at least at the moment, under the current circumstances. Though he would kill him if he had to, there was no question about that.
The blood in Lucas’s own veins ran fast. He felt nothing in the heat of battle but hot adrenaline, a sweet drug he’d learned to crave a long time ago. His rage transformed into the desire to survive, to live—not to see another day, those far hopes had been vanquished—but to see the next minute, the next second, because that’s all there was. Dreams. Prosperity. Hope. Those words had ceased to exist in his mind, in his heart, from the first moment the cell door had locked behind him, and his prison nightmare had become an unending reality.
Lucas rushed in toward the man, but stopped just short of his reach. His opponent had produced a shiv, a thin piece of wood sharpened and honed over time, and out of the sight of the guards, to resemble a real knife. The crude weapon could be just as deadly as a knife forged of the finest metal if it was used properly and thrust into the right part of the body.
Sweat dripped down Lucas’s forehead and crossed his lips; the taste of his own saltiness was pungent, but it reminded him that he was still very much alive. His hair, solid black and shoulder-length, was soaked wet, like he had suddenly stepped out into a thunderous rainstorm. It felt heavy, like a helmet, but offered no protection, nor did his beard. It was thick and unkempt; formal mirrors and razors were unheard of here. He looked like a backwoodsman or a fellow countryman, fresh off the boat from Scotland. Pride in his appearance had been one of the first things to go.
The air inside the hall had suddenly turned hot, and the light dimmed, turned to a diffused gray. It was more like early evening instead of morning inside the fortified limestone walls of the prison.
Tension between the prisoners had been thick for the past few days, unsettled as if a storm was coming—except there was no horizon on which to see it looming. The prison’s windows were sparse, up high, glazed with the sooty grime of years of neglect.
Maybe this fight had been brewing longer than he knew, and Lucas had just not noticed, but he doubted that. He tried to constantly be aware of his surroundings. It was his training, his way, to notice everything, and everyone, to calculate his own survival, his own safety. It was rare that he would miss an event like this one. He was a planner, a plotter, a thinker—or he had been once upon a time. Maybe the time in prison had dulled his senses more than he thought. It was the only explanation for his current situation that made any sense at all.
The pale man stepped back out of the wall of men, his shoulders squared, a slightly dazed look in his eyes, the shiv held tightly at his waist.
“You think that weapon scares me?” Lucas said. “Looks like your little pecker is sticking out. Which ain’t too far, if you ask me. I’d be embarrassed to show it in public if I was you.”
The crowd laughed and hee-hawed.
The pale man glanced quickly at the knife, then back to Lucas. “Ain’t no pecker.”
Lucas thought about making his move then, but he waited. The man had shown he could be distracted, and that was all Lucas needed to know.
His attacker wiped bloody drool from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand, ignored the laughs, and scowled. His face was as serious as an undertaker’s. “You’re a little pecker is what you are, Lucas Fume. Won’t be the first one I cut off, neither.”
“Oh, a competition? Do you dance, too?” Lucas swayed right and left, drawing a few more chuckles from the crowd. It was a show now. He needed as many fans as he could get if things turned out differently than he thought.
“I’ve kilt more’n one of you black-haired, black-eyed, heartless traitors, and I’ll be happy to do it again.” The pale man’s face was no longer white but blushed red from the base of his throat upward.
“Traitor is a serious thing to call a man.” Lucas’s tone grew stern. He gripped his fists tighter.
“Scores still need settling no matter what the words on paper say, no matter what the lyin’ politicians and lawyers say about the end of things. Any man who thinks the war is over is a fool. You wore the blue uniform and the gray. Which was you? I say you was a Federal all along.”
“I don’t have to defend my service to you. I wore whatever uniform, or getup, served the cause.”
“So was you a spy? Or a profiteer?”
“Call it what you want.”
“Some say you betrayed us at the second Bull Run, held back on what you knew. There’s blood on your hands, Fume. Maybe my own kin. I had people die in that battle.”
Lucas shrugged; he’d heard that charge before. “Those would be children’s tales to get you through the night.”
“Don’t disrespect me or my dead, or I’ll just string out your sufferin’ longer. The rebel flag still flies in the hearts of men stronger, and smarter, than you. Deeds still need answering for. Justice will be sought after the last breath of the oldest soldier has been taken. I am the deliverer of said justice. I am here for you, Lucas Fume.”
“So you are,” Lucas answered. There was an intentional hint of Scottish brogue on the tip of his last words, an exaggerated roll of the tongue offering a reflection of his father’s home country more than proof of being an immigrant himself, which he wasn’t; he had been born on American soil before the country split in two. “And so you are.”
He’d had to answer for his deeds in the war more than enough since the end of it. The past was the past, and it couldn’t be undone. Not that he would’ve changed any of his actions if he could have.
Without any further warning, Lucas dove toward the ground headfirst, tucked into a tight roll, and extended his right leg as he came up, shoving his boot, with full force, directly into the man’s groin.
The move shocked the pale man again, giving him no time to get out of the way. He buckled in pain and gasped loudly. The painful sound was like the desperate screech of a rat as its head slammed hard against a wall. The shiv fell to the floor, landing inches from Lucas’s hand.
“A man who fights with his feet ain’t no man at all,” someone shouted in protest.
Lucas ignored the slight. He was still alive. That’s all that mattered. This wasn’t entertainment; it was life or death. Gentlemen’s rules had gone out the window as soon as the pale man produced the weapon.
Lucas grabbed the shiv and jumped up, ready to end the fight. But something had happened when he had been on the ground and faced away, something so unexpected that it nearly took his breath away.
Instead of the pale man coming face-to-face with him, there stood in his place, ready to continue the fight, one of the biggest, angriest looking Negroes Lucas had ever seen—with a real knife in his hands.
The train sped into the night, barreling out of St. Louis for Kansas City with such fury that Joe Straut feared the wheels would jump the track. He could barely maintain his balance as he made his way from one railcar to the next. There was no explanation for the sudden departure at such a late hour. There never was. But this one felt different, especially coupled with the unexpected demand of his presence from the Boss.
The last passenger car was private, an example of new luxury, like the poorest of the poor could never imagine. The world had changed once the railroad in the West had opened up fast travel. The time from New York to San Francisco had been whittled down to a week or so, instead of the arduous months it once took, not so long ago. And in finer accommodations, too.
This railcar had smooth, rich mahogany wood lining the walls comfortably and covering the curved ceiling in perfect sheets, as if the trees had been made for just that purpose. It was like walking into an oversized, very expensive pipe. The car glistened with an expensive sheen, and the wood still smelled fresh cut.
The floor was covered with hand-made Oriental wool carpet, red and gold in odd, unidentifiable symmetric patterns that must have meant something to their creator, but not to Straut. The carpet, like a lot of the decorations that adorned the railcar, had been shipped from places that Joe Straut had never heard of, and most likely would never see. It was so soft and pliable that he could barely hear his own footfall.
Dimly lit brass sconces lined the outside wall of the railroad car, offering visible passage to the last set of doors, at the end of the passageway, at any time of day or night. Oddly, there was not a hint of coal oil in the air, and the flames barely flickered with effort to stay lit.
The double doors at the end of the passage were ornately carved with a peacock in each front panel. Behind them was an even more luxurious room, the quarters of the owner of the railcar, and Straut’s boss, a man known as Lanford Grips, rarely seen in the light of day, or away from his desk as far as that went.
Straut knew the man’s name was a fake, but it didn’t matter to him, he just called Lanford Grips the Boss, and tucked the gold coins that were paid to him on the first of every month into his pocket—and left it at that.
The money was a good amount for the deeds that he did, or was expected to do—better than what any other man had ever offered to pay Straut for his services before. He was indebted to the Boss, forever at his beck and call.
The food and comforts in Lanford Grips’s midst were better, too, regardless of what the Boss’s name really was, or where he got his money from. Hired hands had no business knowing such details, and no one knew that better than Joe Straut. The less you knew, the better off you were.
West of the Mississippi, names didn’t seem to matter much these days. A man could leave the past behind him and start anew with little worry of any questions being asked. Especially if a man had as much money as the Boss had.
The train swayed and rocked furiously, but his time on trains had been long, so Straut was able to steady his balance pretty quickly. All that mattered, at the moment, was that he’d been hailed by the Boss, and answering, sooner rather than later, was in his best interest. Lanford Grips didn’t like to be left waiting.
Joe Straut had been a loyal sergeant in the war, seen more years in battle than he liked to admit. He hadn’t served with the Boss, but there was no doubt that the Boss had a fighting background, had fought in the War of Northern Aggression. But like almost everything else about him, the specifics of the Boss’s duty were unknown. There was no question, judging by his accent, by his manners and likes, that he was a rebel, a man of the South. Gray not blue. The loss had been hard for them all to swallow. Straut could see that in the Boss, too, even though it was never spoken of, or shown in action or material possessions.
Order, discipline, and leadership were rare qualities among common men. Training never wore off. You could see it in how men stood, how they quietly commanded the men around them to do their bidding, and how they reacted when orders went off the rails. Straut had seen the Boss in all of those situations, and the Boss had mirrored Straut’s captains’ and other officers’ actions during the war. There was no question that the Boss had had formal training. Could’ve been West Point for all Straut knew.
Straut passed smaller berths in the railcar that were reserved for esteemed guests and appointed people within the organization. All of the blinds were closed, the doors locked tight as a bank drawer. With no sounds coming from inside any of the berths, there was no clue to the reason for his call.
The last railcar was silent except for the persistent and urgent rumble of the iron wheels underneath and the huff and puff of the steam locomotive behind Straut. It was long after midnight. Time enough when most decent people should be asleep—as Straut had been before the demanding alarm had roused him. That would explain the silence, but there was a feeling of emptiness in the railcar that had not existed hours before when a group of well-moneyed men and women had been shepherded onto the train and shown to their quarters. These quarters. These silent sleeping quarters.
Two men stood outside the peacock doors that led into Lanford Grips’s domain, their eyes focused solely on Straut.
The men were shorter than normal in stature, arms crossed behind their backs, their round, yellow-skinned faces stiff and emotionless as statues’. They were dressed in black tunics and baggy linen pants, their feet in open shoes, flat on the bottom, strapped between the toes.
The men were Chinese, castoffs left with little work now that the railroad had been mostly completed. At least these two had found employment. If they possessed any weapons—knives, guns, or otherwise—Joe Straut had never seen them, but he did not doubt their existence hidden deep somewhere in the foreign clothing.
The Boss would not entrust his security, and safety, to unarmed men. There were rumors that they were hand-and-feet fighters, could kill a man with the quick flick of their palms and nothing more. Straut had never seen such a thing, and didn’t want to provoke them to action to see for himself if the gossip was true or not. Rumor and the Boss’s choice of their presence outside his door were enough of an endorsement for him.
Both men stiffened and squared their shoulders, like lean guard dogs on the alert, rising out of the shadows, as Straut approached. He half expected them to growl.
Straut stopped before them with a grimace, and tried to remember the latest password. The Boss changed it daily. At times it felt odd. These same two men had allowed him to enter the room multiple times, but they always demanded the password regardless of recognition.
There was, Joe Straut figured, reason to be protective of wealth and physical existence in troubled times, and in dangerous, unknown lands. Outlaws and Indians were out and about on the railroad line, striking anytime they wanted. The advent of trains had brought gold and guns to a desolate and isolated world—there was no one for miles to come to a person’s aid. But this depth of security still unsettled Straut, though he didn’t protest. He knew better. One day, though, he hoped to gain the Boss’s trust so he wouldn’t have to remember new passwords. He constantly worried about proving himself.
“Red,” Straut finally stuttered to neither man in particular, mostly to the door. He didn’t like looking the Chinese in the eyes.
Neither guard moved, or implied that the word was correct. A bead of sweat swelled to existence on Straut’s upper lip, and his trigger finger flinched unwittingly. He carried a Colt .45 Open Top, but the holster was buttoned up. If the rumors about the Chinese were true, there wouldn’t be enough time to defend himself. Sleepiness had made him sloppy, forgetful.
The guard on the right nodded after taking a long breath, then tapped three times softly in the middle of the door and stood back and waited.
Straut relaxed. Yesterday the password had been “greenhorn,” and he had been a little confused about what day it was. Yesterday or today?
Tomorrow was Monday, and he expected the password to be “horn blue one,” if he was correct in his thinking. He’d tuck that thought in his memory to see if he was right.
The process to open the door was always the same, too, with the exception of the number of taps and the placement of them. A small brass bell was mounted over the door, and it would tinkle when it was clear to open it.
The train bounded around a curve, and Straut failed to anticipate the sway, to shift his weight properly, and stumbled hard to the left, nearly bumping into the second guard. For some reason, the engineer blew the horn. Must have been antelope or deer on the track.
The Chinese man, who was a good head and a half shorter than Straut, sneered, but didn’t lose his footing. The Chinese always smelled of salt and starch to Straut, and this guard was no exception. Straut had never smelled opium smoke on any of the guards, but he knew that smell well enough from his time in San Francisco. He doubted if the Boss would tolerate such behavior from his security force.
The Chinese were mysterious, with their odd language and even odder ways of eating and living. Among the men Straut commanded there were more grumblings about having to deal with the Chinese than about the Irish that the Boss used as muscle when he needed it. The Chinese made Straut’s men nervous. The Irish just pissed them off.
The bell finally tinkled, and the door opened, almost magically, just as Straut regained his balance. Both guards stood aside, expressionless, waiting for Straut to enter the Boss’s quarters.
It was at that moment that a strong, cold shiver trembled up Straut’s spine, and for a reason he didn’t know, he felt like he was a dead man walking in to face his Maker.
Lucas was more surprised by the sight of the Negro than he was by the knife. Negroes were segregated, kept in another, unseen wing of the prison. Their existence was known of within the prison walls, but they were never seen walking free among white men in any capacity. Especially not armed with a knife in their hand.
The tense, warm air that Lucas had noticed earlier grew even warmer, and was followed by a rise of volume in the chorus of yells that had suddenly turned to screams of fear instead of antagonism and vented rage. Panic had replaced chants for blood as the smell of smoke became apparent to every man in the hall.
A quick glance to the distant wall told Lucas all he needed to know.
The Negro wing had been breached; they had busted out of their cells, or mess hall, and a fire had started in the melee. Gangs of Negroes spilled through a normally locked door, more of them than Lucas could count, looking for a fight—and knowing they would find one. The boxing match had lost its entertainment value. In the blink of an eye the fight erupted into a full-fledged riot.
Elbows and fists started swinging, and the circle of men around Lucas broke apart, becoming a mass of ants fighting for survival. Black man against white, pent-up rage unleashed, punches thrown and revenge taken for crimes committed in the past and present, or punches thrown for no reason at all, other than pure, unadulterated hate.
There were no guards in sight, but it would be only a matter of time before an army of them would show up to quell the fight—if that was possible. The only advantage held by prison guards was their access to guns. Lucas expected a brigade of them, fully armed, with orders to shoot to kill, no matter the color of skin that fell into their sights.
“Behind you!” someone shouted, directing Lucas’s attention back to the pale man who had initially faced him down.
At first, Lucas didn’t understand. It was the Negro who had yelled. But that’s all he had time to think about. Something hard slammed into the back of his head, sending him flying forward to the floor.
Lucas slid face-first into the fighting crowd. It was like being thrown to the ground in the middle of a cattle stampede. He froze and cowled his head with his forearms, doing his best to protect himself from being stepped on or kicked.
He realized then that the Negro had tried to warn him, but there was no time to consider the wonder of such a thing—someone grabbed both of his feet and started dragging him through the crowd, toward the fire beyond the open door.
Lucas twisted around to find it was the pale man who was dragging him.
There was madness and rage in the man’s eyes. Eyes that were full of murder and battle, even though the cause for the attack had never been given. It didn’t matter. All Lucas could do was fight for his life. Screaming for help would do him no good. He had no compatriot, no savior, to offer rescue or redemption. Building a fellowship among killers and thieves was fraught with more peril than it seemed worth, but suddenly it looked like a mistake not to have aligned himself with a gang of some kind so he would have allies in a fight. As it was, Lucas was lost in a sea of men just like him, trying to stay alive.
The heat inside the mess hall had grown as intense as a smokehouse, even on the floor.
Fear of fire was spreading as quickly as the flames. Before long there would be nowhere to run. They’d all be trapped like rats on a sinking ship. This wing of the prison was built of nothing but wood and iron on top of the old limestone foundation from the previous prison. It had burned down, too. Men locked in their cells faced certain death if help didn’t come soon.
Alarms sounded—bells inside the prison and out. Somewhere in the distance, a gunshot rang out, followed by another and another. But none of this mattered. The pale man had plans for Lucas and kept dragging him away from the crowd, toward the burning Negro wing of the prison.
Lucas grabbed the doorjamb as they passed through the entrance, throwing the pale man off balance. The sudden hitch gave Lucas an opportunity to swing his feet back and forth, successfully breaking the man’s tight hold.
He jumped to his knees and dove forward, leading with the shiv.
The point of the wood weapon caught the pale man just under the chin, not quite in the curve of his soft throat. The shiv pierced the man’s skin easily. The force of it sliced upward into his tongue. No scream came out of the pale man’s mouth as Lucas withdrew the shiv, just a gasp and a gurgle. The pale man’s eyes brewed black with rushing blood and pain, and if he had smelled like a dead man on the first strike, then Lucas was about to make that smell a certainty now.
In close, Lucas drew back and jammed the shiv into the man’s chest, pulling the weapon in and out as quickly as he could, stabbing him multiple times. The attacker withered to the ground without a peep, falling against a wall that was already warm, ready to give itself to the fire at any second.
The gunfire came closer, had arrived inside the mess hall. But so had the fire. Flames leapt upward to the ceiling, while smoke swarmed to the floor, gobbling up men like venomous snakes, stinging their eyes, and looking for entry into their lungs any way it could find.
Smoke was more lethal than the fire itself. If Lucas had had a choice in his death, he would have chosen to burn up instead of being strangled by formless smoke.
“I know about a way out.”
The voice came from behind Lucas. He glanced quickly down at the pale man to make sure that he was dead, that he wouldn’t rise up and attack again, and Lucas didn’t turn around until he was satisfied that that was, in fact, the truth.
The Negro with the knife, which was now nowhere in sight, stood before Lucas. “Why in the hell should I trust you?”
“’Cause your only choice is stay to here and die or to be free.”
“Not much of a choice.”
“No, suh, it’s not.”
Lucas shrank back and studied the Negro for a long second. The man was taller than him, broader and more muscular, dressed in prison rags like the rest of them, and most assuredly could have just attacked him from the broadside if he had wanted to kill him.
There was a simple way about the Negro, but that could’ve been an act. Lucas had learned a long time ago that Negroes were masters of manipulation. They would behave one way in front of whites and another, more honest way when they were among themselves. Life in prison and on a plantation weren’t that different.
“How do you know about this way out?” Lucas asked.
“I worked in the kitchen many a day,” the Negro said. “And . . . I’s the one that set the fire ablaze.”
Lucas followed the Negro away from the mess hall, toward the fire, and just as suddenly as he had appeared, he disappeared.
The Negro ducked into an open arched door that Lucas hadn’t known existed. The flames followed after them, rushing down an interior wood wall on their right. A lock dangled open. It was either a curious stroke of luck, or there was more to what was happening than Lucas knew. It unsettled him, put every ounce of his being on alert, more than it already was.
With a deep breath, Lucas trailed the Negro into the darkness, ready for anything.
The internal passageways of the prison were a mystery to Lucas. Only his well-worn path of daily travails was known to him. Dim limestone blocks stacked in strong patterns, cell bars themselves, had numbed his mind with routine and sameness. In truth, he knew little of the prison in its entirety. There had never been reason to care about more than what was right in front of him. At the moment, that attitude appeared to have been another mistake on his part. He didn’t know where he was, or where he was going.
Smoke wrapped around Lucas’s ankles, trying to pull him down, trying to poison his lungs. He pulled his shirt up and breathed through it as shallowly as possible.
The hall was dark in front of him, his way lit only slightly by the angry and glowing orange flames behind him.
The exterior wall of the passageway was made of carved stone, carefully stacked, ages ago, long before Lucas had been born, let alone thought of doing anything wrong, or doing anything worthwhile for that matter, which was closer to the truth. If he had ever planned an escape, this would not have been the way he would have thought to go about it.
Lucas stopped and stood with his back to the wall. It was moist and cool to the touch, offering him a moment of relief and comfort.
It was almost like he had jumped inside a deep well, the path to nowhere, horizontal instead of vertical. There was no end to the darkness, no clue where the next door was or what lay in wait before him. All of his instincts told him to turn around and go back. Common sense finally prevailed over the desire to flee.
“Wait, why should I follow you any farther?” Lucas’s voice echoed off the walls, louder than he’d expected it to. Fear of giving himself away revealed itself. Another surprise.
The Negro stopped ahead of him, nothing more than a shadow, though the whites of his eyes shone like small moons, orbs of distant light reflecting a certainty back to Lucas that was unsettling, and comforting at the same time.
Behind them, screams, yells, and gunshots continued to rise above the crackle of the hungry fire. The riot echoed so loudly that the force of the fighting threatened to collapse the roof, adding more to the disaster than was already present.
The sounds of battle were familiar, buried deep in Lucas’s memory, put in a place he’d like to have forgotten—but that was not possible, and he knew it. This was a different time, and a different war, one that he didn’t volunteer for or have a choice in. It was his own personal freedom that was at hand, not a nation’s. A personal war set on him by forces out of his control.
It was either a miracle or a trap, he wasn’t sure which, but his current predicament was one that he would have never imagined when he opened his eyes that morning.
“You ain’t got no reason to trust any man inside these walls, suh, but I’s about to take you outside of this dark place if that be your wish. Troubles will follow, that be true, but my aim is to bring you—and myself—outside to the free world.”
“Troubles are a constant companion of mine. That’s not my concern.”
“You be a fugitive. You ready for that?”
“Who says I’m escapin’ from anything?”
“I ’spect no one is. I just assumed you were a prisoner. Where’s your knife?”
“Got took from me.”
“Lucky it didn’t end up in your chest like that shiv.”
“Don’t matter, ain’t no escape for a man like me, inside or out. That knife wouldn’t have done me no good here.” The Negro’s words were a whisper, loud enough to hear but not clear enough to end any confusion held at the forefront of Lucas’s mind.
“What is your name? Why are you here? Who are you?”
There was a long moment of silence from the Negro, followed by a couple of deep, thoughtful, breaths. “None of us knows our real names, just what folks calls us where we are, ya knows what I mean? I been called Zeke all my life. The long of it is Ezekiel Micah Jones Henry, but I’s just Zeke, mostly, to those who wants to call me by my name. Mistuh Henry gave me his name when I was born. Mostly, it’s just a scar more’n a name.”
“Yes, suh. And you be Lucas. Lucas Fume. Master of the Seven Oaks plantation, honorable war hero and known spy, a keen businessman throughout the states and territories, and convicted murderer of John Barlow, the bestus friend a man could ever have—or so it once was told that way. I knows who you is, I sure do.”
“I didn’t kill John Barlow. I got into an argument with him about the state of our finances, which were rigged to look like I had stolen from our company. In other words, I was the last person to see him alive, and I had the motive and means, according to the lawyers, to kill him.”
“Ain’t my business what you did or didn’t do, now is it?”
“It is if I say I’m innocent.”
“I ain’t the law.”
Lucas recoiled. “How do you know my name?”
“I knows a lot more than that, but now’s not the time to trade on more stories than we need to. That’s just proof that I ain’t no foe, and this here ain’t no accident. I come for you, Mistuh Fume. That has to be good enough for now. We stand here much longer, we die from the smoke, or by the gun of a guard lookin’ to make a name for hisself. Way out is this way. You wants to stay, that’s all right with me, but it’d be a sad end to be sure.
“Won’t be no mercy for this mess. Turned out to be far more than it was supposed to be, the way it is. I’s in no mood to hang, no, suh, not on this day, Lucas Fume. Not on this day. Not for the likes of you or no one else. Now, let’s get, before we can’t get no more.”
“So I should trust you, that you’re going to see the both of us out of here? And that’s that?”
“Yes, suh, that is so. And once we’re out on free ground, you’re on your own in the world. My duty’d be done then, and the same for me, true as a ringing bell. If they catch either of us, we die for sure. More dead men at my hand than yours once the ashes settle to the ground and the smoke disappears. Hear those screams? White men be murdered from the flame set by a black hand. Negroes just gone, but soon replaced, but the white men, they be counted and judgment set forth. Breathin’ is just cause to anger free men. You knows that. I lit the flame, and white men died. What you think they gonna do to me if they catches me? I won’t make it past the nearest tree, much less get me no fair trial. I didn’t mean no one to die. Do that make me innocent, too?”
There was nothing Lucas could say. Innocence was his last concern at the moment. The thought of freedom was a strong drug. He nodded with recognition.
The defeat of the South had been hard to take. A way of life for everyone had been changed, taken, or lost, even from him. Whether it was right or good—time would tell—but the cause of it no longer mattered, or wasn’t supposed to. Just because there were signatures on paper, like the pale man had said, and the proclamation of peace and emancipation had been inflicted on the populace, it didn’t truly mean the fighting was over. The struggle between white men and slavery would live on. Any man of intelligence knew that to be true, no matter the color of his skin.
Before Lucas could utter another word, a silhouette formed on the wall to his right. It was of a man in the midst of raising a rifle.
A single shot exploded inside the passageway. It reverberated so loudly in the tight, dark space that Lucas thought his eardrums would shatter.
The bullet ricocheted off the floor, inches from his boot. The muzzle flash lingered for a long second, like a candle struggling to stay lit, then disappeared, offering the familiar taste of gunpowder along with the smoke. It was a recipe for death.
“Run or die. Them’s your choices, Mistuh Lucas,” Zeke said, then turned and disappeared completely into the darkness.
The guard started shouting, ordered them to stop and surrender. He fired several more rounds from a Spencer repeating rifle, but he was shooting senselessly into the darkness, missing them because of luck and the blessing of darkness.
The bullets sparked off the stone, thudded into the ground, barely missing Lucas as he hugged the cold wall as tight as he could and ran after Zeke Henry with every ounce of strength he could muster. If he had anything to do with it, today would not be his day to die.
The door closed behind Joe Straut with a heavy thud. It was as cold as a tomb inside Lanford Grips’s quarters. Straut stopped just inside as the peacock doors closed him in. He shivered again and took in the room, tried to gather his thoughts, his fears, and his strength, all into one place.
Never tremble in front of an angry dog, that’s what Straut’s old pa used to say, but that was before he stepped into a snake hole and broke his leg because he wasn’t watching where he was going.
Both were valuable lessons when it came to dealing with a man like the Boss, and Straut had already failed at one lesson before he got started. He just hoped the Boss hadn’t noticed the outward show of fear.
Straut had been in the Boss’s railcar quarters several times before, but the grandness of them never ceased to amaze him. He’d never seen anything so beautiful on wheels—or off, for that for matter. Not that he’d ever stepped foot in the fine hotels in St. Louis, the opera house in Kansas City, or the nicer homes in Abilene to know the difference. Saloons, flophouses, and cathouses were more his style, more his bailiwick. He’d never rubbed shoulders with the hoity-toity too much. Joe Straut had always been on the outside looking in, at least until the Boss had recruited him, had brought him into the organization and realized that Straut was better at being a sergeant than most men could ever hope to be.
Men followed Straut with ease, that was for sure, did for him what he wanted them to without question—which had always been a surprise to Straut. It had been that way all his life mostly, and something he’d been able to use to his advantage from an early age.
Being in charge had been a gift and a curse at times, but he’d discovered his true talent in the war. As with most fellas, though, it was what came after the war that was the hard part, living in the world of Reconstruction and within the federal union. There weren’t many places for a man like him to go. No home to return to, no easy future at hand, no fortune to cash in. The only currency he carried was experience with a weapon in hand, drumming men up into a killing rage or talking them through a defeat, a loss on a bloody battlefield, where they most likely had learned, or lost, something of themselves they hadn’t known they had in the first place.
Luckily, he’d found the Boss, or the Boss had found him, after the last rebel shot had been fired.
Straut couldn’t really remember how it all came about. It just did. One day he was whiling away time in a saloon, and the next he was standing in front of a group of ragtag men in an abandoned hell-on-wheels town, getting them in shape for something that the Boss considered useful. Laws were less worrisome west of the Big Muddy.
It was a new land, a new start, albeit in old boots. The promise of employment, of a place to belong, had seemed like a godsend then. At the moment, Straut’s position felt like a curse.
He couldn’t quell his fear, couldn’t help but believe that something was wrong, that he was in deep trouble with the Boss—which never turned out good for anybody. The Boss had no tolerance for errors or ignorance.
Straut stood at attention, took a military position, even though his shirt was half-tucked-in, and one pant leg sat atop his boot, while the other, ragged at the cuff, had fallen to the floor. The Boss never expected him to be precise, or dressed in a uniformed way, but the Boss liked things neat, accountable, put together so as not to draw any attention. Dirty outlaws were offensive.
There was no sound inside the quarters, just the roar of the train, the loud and constant heartbeat of the locomotive pushing hard into the deep night.
To say the room was opulent was an understatement. The walls were covered with the same mahogany wood as the rest of the railcar, but the carpet was different. More plush. Straut’s boots sunk down half an inch when he stepped into the room. The carpet was red. Blood-red, sculpted with patterns that seemed to rise and fall perfectly. And like the patterns in the outer car, these didn’t make any sense to Joe Straut, either.
If the designs on the floor meant something, then the meaning was lost on him. He never was good at design or culture, barely knew the difference between a sideboard and a cupboard—but he knew the difference between a Spencer and a Henry rifle just by the sound of it, by seeing from a good distance how it was loaded and fired.
All he really knew about the railcar was that the furnishings and draperies were expensive, most likely shipped over from England or China, and that unless he was told to, Joe Straut wasn’t going to sit anywhere or on anything anytime soon.
Lanford Grips sat at the rear of the room, behind an ornately carved writing desk. “It took you long enough.” He motioned with a jerk of his head for Straut to come forward, to stand before him. Like a good soldier, he obeyed.
The Boss was a small man in stature, even smaller when he was sitting behind a large desk, his arms held tight to his side, hands out of sight. A fleck of solid white hair pierced his temple like a streak of unspoiled snow sitting atop the darkest, blackest soil any man had ever seen. His nose was thin, hooked upward slightly, and he had the eyes of a wolf, so blue that in the dim light they looked as black as his hair. The Boss wasn’t an old man, but he wasn’t young, either. In regular daylight, he looked, and dressed, like a banker. A respectable businessman, deciding whether or not to give a loan to some desperate rancher.
“I was asleep,” Joe Straut said. “The rock of the train puts me out easy, Boss, once I settle in. Sorry, I wasn’t expectin’ any trouble.”
“You should always expect trouble.” Lanford Grips didn’t show any emotion, and he commanded Straut’s full attention. But there was no mistaking another man standing in the shadows, just behind the Boss, to the right of him, as always, an ever-present valet known as Bojack Wu—another, more worrisome, Chinese in the Boss’s employ.
Like the two door guards, Wu was dressed all in black, loose-fitting clothes. His face was hard and his eyes tight, as if he were a snake always on the ready to strike. If you blinked in Bojack Wu’s presence, you could find yourself dead before you knew what hit you.
Excerpted from "Vengeance at Sundown"
Copyright © 2014 Larry D. Sweazy.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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