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Mercy's Prisoner

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Mercy's Prisoner #2

"The punk [young tramp] rolled up his big blue eyes
And said to the jocker [older tramp that the punk followed], "Sandy,
I've hiked and hiked and wandered too,
But I ain't seen any candy.
I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore
I'll be God damned if I hike any more
To be * * * * * * * *
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains."

—Final verse of the original version of Harry McClintock's Big Rock Candy Mountain (about 1897), as quoted – and censored – by folklorist John Greenway.


"The decent hoboes were protective as long as they were around, but there were times when I fought like a wildcat or ran like a deer to preserve my independence and my virginity. I whittled my way out of two or three jams with a big barlow knife, and on one occasion I jumped into the darkness from a boxcar door – from a train that must have been doing better than thirty miles an hour."

—Harry McClintock on his experiences as a teenage tramp in the 1890s.


"There has to be a first time for everything; for friendship as well as love; and first friendship, once given, can no more be given again than first love."

—Rosemary Sutcliff: Blood Vow.


He knew what his prisoner's expression would be before he saw it: a mixture of apprehension, wary hope, and the expression he had come to fear most of all – determination.

He said, before his prisoner could speak, "I'm going away."

His prisoner stared. "Away?"

"Yes." He told himself that the prisoner's growing look of concern was only due to the implications of being transferred to a strange guard. "I've arranged for Keane to provide service to you."

It was the old phrase, the source of many jokes at Mercy Life Prison, but his prisoner didn't smile. "When will you be back?"

"Don't give him any trouble." He needed to get out of here before he did something he'd regret. "I've told him you are not difficult."


He let the sound of the barred door clashing behind him be his answer. He could feel his prisoner's eye on him as he crossed the fire-pit area on his way to the level's exit.

Not difficult. It was a lie, in actual fact. His prisoner was more difficult than anyone he had ever guarded in his life. That was why he needed to go away.


The year 385, the eleventh month. (The year 1890 Barley by the Old Calendar.)

After the riot, Compassion Life Prison's surviving prisoners – and surviving guards – were lodged temporarily in a building at the crossroads of the nearest town, Ammippian Springs. The town itself – as bored guards had long since realized – offered nothing of interest to a city man. None of that area of western Mip did. In order to reach anything even mildly interesting in the way of nightlife, one had to travel by buggy or wagon to the closest city, Hagerstown, which was more than ten miles away. Mip's capital was even further away; travelling there by road was a matter of hours. So the guards, as they had for centuries, made their own entertainment.

Thomas, leaning his cheek against a cool bar of the cell as he listened to the satisfied grunts of the prison's day supervisor, wondered whether he would ever be free.

He looked around again. The prison cell – four walls of bars, with an iron foundation and roof – had been placed in the holding prison's attic, which could be reached only through a ladder leading up from the second floor. The ladder end of the attic was where the guards had placed a wardrobe that could hardly be termed spacious, but it was adequate for the job that the guards had in mind. This was where they took the prisoners they had chosen as their lads – an old custom, probably as old as Compassion Prison itself.

The prisoners in the cell were doing their very best to ignore the current re-enactment of that custom, though every now and then, some of the more vulnerable prisoners – the "lads," as they were termed – glanced over at the wardrobe with wide eyes, obviously envisioning what was taking place. None of them looked at Thomas, standing on the other side of the bars.

He was used to being ignored by now. He took another look at the "men" among the prisoners. There were four of them now, two more than there had been the previous week, for new prisoners continued to arrive. Despite being natural rivals for one another's property – food, blankets, and lads – the prison's men appeared to be getting along reasonably well. Perhaps the horrors of the riot had taught the prisoners that much.

The only other person in the attic, standing on Thomas's side of the bars, was Starke, who was busy lighting up a cigarette as he guarded the wardrobe. Smoking on duty was against life-prison regulations. Thomas wondered whether he dare remind Starke of that.

Starke noticed him and silently offered his cigarette case. "No," replied Thomas. "It's against regulations."

Starke slipped the case back into his jacket pocket, took a long moment blowing a ring of smoke toward the ceiling, and finally said, "I remember the day I taught you that regulation. You'd just been fitted for your first long pants, and you were eager to have your first smoke, in order to show how manly you were."

Thomas tried to think of a reply to this – he was acutely aware of the prisoners listening in, with grins on their faces – but at that moment, Pugh emerged from the closet, with his right hand grasping hard the nape of a dazed-looking prisoner, while his left hand buttoned up his fly.

Starke, without a word, took the prisoner from him. Thomas – bound as always to follow regulations – lifted his coiled whip from his belt. There had been occasional trouble, he heard, with the transfer of prisoners in and out of the cell; the humiliation of the riot was still fresh in the prisoners' mind.

There was no trouble this time, though. The prisoners looked at Thomas, and they looked at his whip, and they came nowhere near the cell door as Starke unlocked it and thrust the shaken lad inside.

The prisoners' mute looks of respect for his skill with a whip went a little ways in restoring Thomas's confidence. He waited until the cell door was locked and Starke was out of reach of the prisoners; then he returned his whip to his belt and said, "May I have a word with you, Mr. Pugh?"

"Save it for when I'm on duty." Pugh turned toward Starke. "Give me some baccer, for love of the gods. I'm parched."

Starke offered his cigarette case again. Thomas said, "Smoking on duty is against regulations."

"So?" Pugh did not look his way as he pressed his cigarette against the glowing end of Starke's cigarette. "The Keeper isn't above smoking a bit of baccer while he's on duty. And the Keeper takes lads, if that's the lecture you were planning to give me. Are you saying that you know better how to behave than the Keeper of Compassion Prison?"

Thomas forced himself to count backwards from ten. He knew, of course, from whence Pugh's resentment arose. Pugh had long been the day supervisor of Compassion Prison; by right of rank, he should have risen to the rank of night supervisor and received the title of Assistant Keeper after the previous Assistant Keeper died in the riot. Instead, that rank and title had been taken by a youth who was still in his journeyman years: the Keeper's son, Thomas.

It would do no good to remind Pugh that he had been away on a foreign holiday at the time that the riots occurred, and that an immediate appointment had needed to be made. It would do even less good to say that the appointment had been a punishment. How could Thomas explain that his father had appointed him Assistant Keeper and night supervisor, years before Thomas ought to have risen so high in rank, as a way of burdening him with responsibility that would likely crush him?

Starke was watching Thomas steadily. Thomas suspected he had guessed the truth; Starke had witnessed father and son enter into their grim battles with each other more than once. But not even Starke would follow Thomas's orders, when they went against long-standing prison custom. Not even him.

Thomas said, "The Keeper left me in charge of this holding prison while Compassion's building is rebuilt, Mr. Pugh."

"As Assistant Keeper." Pugh turned away. "That gives you the right to determine at what hour our shifts exchange. It doesn't give you the right to overturn centuries' worth of customs. Good night, Starke. I'll see you at work tomorrow." And he swung himself down onto the ladder leading to the second floor, never looking Thomas's way.

Thomas was left burning with rage and humiliation. But if nothing else, he had inherited his father's ability to sound cool under pressure. "Where are the night guards, Mr. Starke? They should be on duty by now."

"You tell me." Starke blew out another ring. "If you want to keep matters in order here, stop wasting your time with trivialities. Make sure that the night guards relieve us on time from our duty. They're your responsibility."

Thomas let his cool gaze travel over to Starke. "You meant to say 'sir,' I'm sure."

Starke merely snorted. Stubbing out the final remains of his cigarette in the guards' ashtray – placed there by order of the Keeper himself – he came forward and said in a soft voice, "Look, Tom, Pugh's a pig, but he's right in what he said: You don't have the authority to do anything except supervise the night guards and make sure that Pugh supervises the day guards. Maybe you can keep the night guards from smoking on duty. Maybe. But if you try to do more than that, the guards are going to laugh at you. Even more than they're already laughing at you."

He could feel an aching in his throat. "Are you laughing at me?"

Starke shook his head. "You want the best for this prison. You always have. You're an idealist, and that's not a bad thing in a youth." He smiled, managing somehow to encompass in that smile all the superiority of being five years older than Thomas. "We're all idealists when we're young. We grow out of it. . . . I almost wish that you'd been at Compassion during the riot."

"So do I." He managed to swallow the hard lump in his throat. "How is your shoulder?"

Starke half-shrugged, using the shoulder that wasn't bandaged beneath his uniform. "Still keeps me awake at night. I'm told it will heal eventually, more or less. You want me to keep guard while you round up the stragglers? I won't be getting to sleep for hours anyway."

It was impossible to stay angry at Starke, Thomas reflected as he worked his way down the ladder and then checked the empty bedrooms of the missing night guards. Starke was unfailingly protective of the boy whom Compassion's Keeper had entrusted to him, eight years before.

But Thomas was no longer a boy. And he was finding it impossible to convince anyone at Compassion of that fact.

It had been easier at Mercy . . .

At that moment, as his thoughts turned toward Mercy Prison and all the longing that he held toward that life prison, the front door of the holding prison banged open. The missing night guards had returned.

"Where have you been?" Thomas snapped. He had just made his way to the bottom of the stairs, in preparation for searching the main floor and the surrounding yard – perhaps even the rest of the town.

The senior of the night guards, Chase, looked startled. "Following Pugh's orders," he replied. "He told me to pick up the new shipment."

It was then that Thomas noticed the prisoner.


The year 393, the eleventh month. (The year 1892 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)

Given the number of train connections between Mercy Life Prison and his destination, he elected to hire a buggy to take him to Williamsport. He could have hired a buggy for the full trip, but he had no desire to have his presence traced that far. Instead, offering a tale about relatives in Williamsport, he paid off the buggy-driver. Then he went in search of a train headed west on the Western Mippite Railroad's newly built line to Cherry Run.

But matters did not prove to be so easy.

"Not yet, sir," said the station agent firmly as he counted the bills in his hand.

"I thought your company advertised last summer that this new rail-line would have several passenger trains a day." He had to work very hard to keep sarcasm out of his voice.

"Oh, yes." The agent smiled at him, his face alight from sun reflected off the nearby creek. "We expect lots of passengers to ride the new line in order to visit Clear Spring. For the orchard-picking, you know." The agent winked; the outlawed cock-fighting at Clear Spring was notorious among gamblers. "But we don't have more than one passenger train a day yet. Try us again in a month's time."

Punching away that smug smile would go a long way to easing the tension that had been building up in him during the past few weeks, but it would not supply him with needed answers. Also, he reminded himself, he was not immune to arrest here, as he would be if he committed the same act against his prisoner. "Very well. Where may I hire a buggy?"

But here he ran up against another barrier. Williamsport, for all its claims to be the crossroads of western Mip, had not yet established a buggy-hiring service.

"Never needed one," declared the perpetually grinning agent. "We've got the trains. And before that, during the great migrations to Vovim, settlers brought their own wagons. Why, they say that, in the days before the settlers arrived, the Ammippian tribe made this town a part of its trail . . ."

"Yes, yes," he said impatiently, since the agent seemed prepared to launch into ancient history, before the Old World had discovered the New World. "But this particular settler sent away his buggy, since he was unwise enough to trust the glittering advertisements of the Western Mippite Railroad. What can you do for me?"

He had not, it seemed, succeeded in stripping sarcasm from his voice this time, for he saw a familiar look of truculence enter the agent's face. The agent said gruffly, "Might call a special for you."

"Do that," he ordered. "I'll return in two-thirds of an hour." He had to get himself away from here before he did something that . . . Well, not that he would entirely regret smashing in the agent's face, but he couldn't afford to call attention to himself on this trip.

Besides, he reminded himself, he could hardly descend upon his host with blood drying upon his knuckles, and then ask for help.

He took a look at the road behind him: houses straggled up the hill to the town center. He shook his head. Williamsport was too near the capital; there was a chance he might meet someone he knew if he walked through the respectable part of town. Instead, he turned away and followed the railroad tracks down the wooded creek bank to the canal, in the direction of the western mountains.

The canal was easy enough to sight from the depot: an aqueduct carried the canal boats over the creek. Near the aqueduct was a turning basin for the boats, accompanied by a short railroad track leading to a warehouse on the basin. He stood a while, watching coal being loaded from the boats onto freight cars.

The day was cool – "headed toward Hell," as his father used to humorously put it, in the days before his only child had grown old enough to break his jaw, and be disinherited, and leave home to take up the surprisingly respectable occupation of prison guard.

He supposed his parents still lived in Clear Spring, a town he would pass during his journey. He had no intention of stopping there. He didn't want to have to decide whether his new-found duty to the Boundaries required him to apologize to his drunken father and his slovenly mother.

Canal-boat captains shouted cheerful insults at one another as craned buckets took coal from their boats. The boats no doubt brought the coal from mines in the mountains of western Mip. But he didn't so much as contemplate hiring one of the boats headed back west; the gossip range of canal captains was notorious. As for the freight cars, they were presumably headed east toward Hagerstown, or perhaps even as far as Balmer, the largest city in the Dozen Landsteads, over Mip's eastern border.

But other freight cars would be headed west to pick up coal and coke from Cherry Run, the first town over western Mip's southern border with the Kingdom of Vovim, or perhaps grain from Big Pool, the westernmost station in the Magisterial Republic of Mip. A thought began to form in his mind.

The agent, though, had grown even more truculent during their time apart. "Company rules don't allow it, sir," he said firmly. "Passengers have to use the passenger trains. Freight trains are for freight. Specials," he added with a smile, "aren't available today. Too many cars in for repairs, I'm told."

He had a momentary vision of how tasty the agent would look if his neck were strung tight with his own telegraph wire. Before he could decide whether to carry out his plan, though, the agent suddenly turned red in the face. "You rascal!"

"Are you addressing me?" He was amused rather than offended; "rascal" was the mildest name he had been called since he became a prison guard.

The agent paid no attention to him. Instead, he dashed around the corner of the depot. Shortly thereafter, he returned to the front of the depot, holding the ear of a ragged-clothed youth.

"What did I tell you about loitering around here?" he shouted at the lad, who was now yelping from the pain of having his ear tugged.

"But you told me it would be all right, mister, since I was heading for a job. . . . You said if I gave you all my money . . ." The lad spoke in a breathless voice.

"Liar!" The agent let go of the lad's ear, only in order to shake him. "Hopping our freights at the expense of the company – why, I ought to give you over to the town soldiers. They'd see that you cooled your heels in jail."

The lad made no further protest, though his face was screwed up in anguish at the prospect of being handed over to the authorities.

There was more than one way in which to have revenge, he reflected as he put away the pipe he had been about to light. "I can take care of that," he declared.

"Sir?" Baffled, the agent turned toward him.

Opening his jacket, he flashed the badge pinned inside it, too quickly for the agent to read the name on it. "I work in the life prisons. A rascal like that won't learn his lesson until he has spent a very long time indeed in a cell."

"No!" cried the lad, and with good reason, given the reputation of the life prisons.

"Well," said the agent, clearly torn between satisfaction and justice, "he's not quite old enough for a life prison—"

"He's of journeyman age." This was a guess, but the lad made no protest. "That's plenty old enough. Come here." He grabbed the lad's arm, and the agent released him. "Thank you for turning over this prisoner to me, sir. We know how to deal with such young men in the life prisons." He propelled the lad off the platform before the agent should have time to think up new protests.

With any luck, the agent would spend the rest of his life filled with nightmares about having handed over a young man to the unremitting cruelties of the life prisons.

"Please, mister." The lad was breathless, but he wasn't crying, which showed remarkable will-power on his part. "Please, I weren't going to do no harm—"

"Quiet." He needed to get both of them out of sight, before the agent should begin to wonder how he planned to transport his prisoner to a life prison.

"Mister, I won't do it again! I promise! Please let me go—"

"I said, Quiet." He dug his fingers into the lad's arm and received a quite satisfactory grunt of pain. Then the lad was quiet, compliant. Which was a satisfaction in itself, but was rather too tempting. Taking the chance, he stopped on the bridge over the creek and released the lad. "Fine. Here we are. Go on your way."

As he had hoped, the lad did not immediately flee; instead, the boy stared, bewildered. "Why are you letting me go, mister?"

He could have said, "Because you're a dirty little emigrant from the Dozen Landsteads, too cowed by your childhood training to disobey authorities, even when they're abusing you." That would have been half the truth. But only half.

"You're free to go," he emphasized to both the lad and himself. "I can't hold you. I don't possess the power to arrest men, and even if I did, no one is sentenced to life imprisonment for hopping freight trains. Though we'll just leave the agent wondering about that, shall we?" He allowed himself to offer one of his dark smiles.

After a moment, the lad gave the hint of a smile himself. "Thank you, mister. I'm ever so much obliged to you. If there's anything I can do for you . . ."

They were still standing on the bridge spanning the creek. From the far side of the creek came the faint whistle of a freight train headed west.

"Well," he replied, "now that you mention it . . ."