Nightmare Man was screaming again.
Not the one with the tattoos, the other Nightmare Man.
Ben Hawkins screamed right back at him. "Shut yer hole, damn you! Lemme alone!"
Nightmare Man kept it up. He was yelling one word over and over, though it made no sense at all.
Ben tried to drown him out. "Shut up, shut up, shut up!"
And then something crashed into Ben.
More accurately, he crashed into the bunkhouse floor, having been flung out of bed. He woke with a start, just in time to roll and evade the kick Bull Teufel aimed at his head. The guard bellowed, "You shut up, asshole!"
A few of the other prisoners gave halfhearted cheers. Most remained silent. Evidently, they'd side with one of their own against Teufel even if their fellow con's nightmares had been keeping them awake.
Ben sat up cautiously, not even trying to dodge a weaker kick that caught him in the hip. He knew Teufel had to get that one in, to save face.
The guard watched him struggle back into bed, hampered by the short chain connecting his leg irons. For his part, he didn't risk looking directly at Teufel. Why antagonize 250 pounds of solid muscle? But he saw out of the corner of his eye that the man wore an evil smirk, and he didn't have to wait long to learn why. As soon as he'd gotten his aching body resettled in the bed, Teufel hauled him out of it and threw him on the floor again. "It's time to get up, you scumbags!"
As he grasped the bed and wearily pulled himself to his feet, Ben reflected that once again - just like all the other times - he couldn't remember the word Nightmare Man had been yelling at him.
Huh. He was prob'ly tellin' me, "Die!"
After another day's backbreaking work in a quarry, Ben was too tired to resent the wretched excuse for an evening meal. It was, in fact, better than most of the ones he'd had in the months before his arrest. He'd occasionally managed to steal some decent food back then, but more often he'd scavenged from garbage cans.
Still, he knew how the other convicts regarded the food. As they were being herded back into the bunkhouse, he wasn't surprised to hear Whit Adams say, "Swill."
He was surprised at how loudly Adams said it. Until guard Jesse Strack spun around and said belligerently, "Was that you, Hawkins?" Then he caught the sly look on Adams' face and thought, Oh no. They cooked that up between them. Gives Strack an excuse to drag me outside an' beat me - he'll pay Adams off with a supply o' cigarettes, maybe even booze.
He guessed Adams was one of the cons who'd cheered his being roughed up that morning. Ben was the newest and youngest prisoner in the camp, and he'd already had to defend himself against worse than kicks.
"It warn't me!" he protested. But he knew denials wouldn't do him any good, so he didn't waste his breath saying it more than once.
Strack hauled him outside; just beyond the door, a leering Teufel was waiting. It was a toss-up which of the two was bigger and meaner. Ben figured that even if he wasn't hobbled by his chains and weak from malnutrition, he wouldn't stand a chance in a fight with either of them. So he decided not to resist the thrashing. When they threw him down, he curled into a ball, the better to absorb it without serious injury.
Just don't scream, don't make a sound. We're so close to the bunkhouse that everyone can hear. If they can't get a peep outta me, their pride will make them stop an' pretend they never meant to do much.
It was hard to stick to that plan when they began hitting him with clubs. But he gritted his teeth and reminded himself that the guards had orders not to break bones or leave permanent scars. An occasional injury could be explained as one prisoner's having hurt another, but even that was frowned on, because it implied they couldn't maintain order.
A beating, he could take.
But then one of them grabbed him from behind and started trying to pull his pants down.
Oh God, no!
He summoned all his strength, rolled over, and gave his attacker - Teufel - a vicious kick in the groin, with both feet. Teufel stumbled backward, roaring like one of the bulls he was named for. But Strack smashed his club into the side of Ben's head, then picked him up bodily and hurled him against the bunkhouse wall. Ben's last thought before he blacked out was, Dammit, it ain't no better to be raped while you're unconscious!
Then, suddenly, he was fully conscious again. His head and his right arm hurt; to his relief, his rear end didn't. Even the pain he had was minor, quickly fading away.
Yet it seemed not much time had passed. He was still lying beside the wall, and he could hear both guards cursing.
Strack raged, "I think my arm is broke! I musta snapped somethin' when I picked that lowlife up an' threw him."
"I ain't feelin' so great neither," groused Teufel. "Along with gettin' kicked in the privates, I fell an' hit my head on somethin'. At least...I don't clearly remember, but the way it hurts now, I musta hit it."
"You seem to be in better shape than me," said Strack. "Take a look at the lowlife an' see how bad off he is, will you? I kinda lost it there, may've fractured his skull."
"Shit. I was lookin' to have some fun, gettin' a piece o' that young ass. Ain't up for it now, though."
Ben got to his feet as Teufel staggered over to him. He glared at the guard, but didn't speak.
"Hey, I guess he's tougher'n he looks, Jess! Can't be hurt much, the way he's actin'." While Strack, cradling his arm, let out another string of oaths, Teufel pushed Ben toward the door of the bunkhouse.
In the doorway, where everyone could see, he grabbed Ben by the hair and spat in his face.