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Authors: Stone Wallace

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BOOK: Black Ransom
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Instead he tipped his hat, wished them both a pleasant trip, and expressed the hope that Melinda would stay in touch.

Melinda said she would, but Buck caught the quick, hard glance Abigail leveled at her sister. A look that only Buck noticed, which indicated that if Abigail had her way, Melinda would have no further dealings with the town of Justice—or with her husband.

FIVE

JUDGE CHARLES HUGH
Harrison finished up his business in Justice and, after capping this latest assignment with his customary glass of saloon brandy, returned by stagecoach to his quaint country home some fifty miles north of the town in a place called Bolton, for what he hoped would only be a brief stopover. Since his judicial duties were frequent, overseeing trials and settling disputes in small Arizona towns and communities, his visits home usually never exceeded a couple of weeks. During that time he mostly kept to himself, immersing himself in virtual solitude, avoiding lengthy talks with his wife, particularly about personal matters. Dinner table conversations with his wife and daughter tended to be brief and perfunctory. When it came time to retire for the night, which was always at an early hour when he was at home, and always after he had sequestered himself in the parlor for some post-dinner reading, he and his wife slept in separate bedrooms. He could conveniently justify this arrangement because of her ill health.

He spent most of his daytime hours tending his vegetable and flower gardens, not because he particularly enjoyed dirtying his hands in the soil, but because it provided him with an excuse for time alone. Early each morning he would awaken before his wife and daughter, eat a quick breakfast he would prepare himself, then dress in faded and dirty dungarees, don a battered straw hat to protect his balding head from the sun, and step out into the yard to focus on nothing but the task at hand.

Although she was ill, Harrison's wife, like most women, yearned at times for some show of affection, a romantic word or gesture, but the judge was a man incapable of expressing tender feelings. His wife would have to settle for the occasional pat on the hand or peck on the cheek—and even those moments were infrequent. Gradually she had grown accustomed to Harrison's determined avoidance of sentimentality, just as she accepted without question his constant need for privacy.

However, she was less accepting when it came to her husband's relationship with their daughter, Evaline. Since Harrison was often absent and spent so little time with Evaline, his wife felt he should take better advantage of those periods when he was home. As she would gently try to explain during rare moments of intimate conversation, their daughter was growing up and needed the guidance and wisdom of her father.

More to placate his wife, Harrison did attempt to establish a semblance of a relationship, but he found it difficult to exhibit paternal interest in his child. Even simple communication with her seemed beyond his grasp. His “relationships” with younger girls had been of an entirely different nature. He valued them solely for one purpose. He neither understood nor cared about their needs. And this thoughtlessness extended even toward his daughter.

On a deeper level, though it naturally was never expressed, Harrison inwardly resented Evaline for it had been his wish to have a son, which would never be, as Evaline's had been a difficult birth and the doctor had frankly warned the judge that an attempt at another child could prove fatal for his wife.

Nevertheless, Harrison took it for granted that, as her father, he loved her, though, as with his wife, it was never expressed through words or displayed by outward shows of affection. If he'd ever given it thought, he would not remember even having ever kissed her. Evaline, like her mother, had come to accept that reserve as simply his nature—perhaps an extension of his professional persona. She could not imagine there being any difference between the man she saw as her “father” and Judge Charles Harrison.

Where Evaline had difficulty was in how he failed to acknowledge her accomplishments, which she was always eager to share with him. Since she saw him so seldom, Evaline sought his approval and felt a deep yet silent disappointment when such was not forthcoming. Harrison rarely if ever expressed pride in the high grades she worked hard to achieve in school, primarily to please him, or showed enthusiasm for her musical talents, particularly in piano, where she had received recognition in church recitals. Before she became sick and was more physically able, her mother had been the one to nurture her gifts and shower her with praise. Where she encouraged Evaline's talents, her father responded to what he considered “frivolities” in a dismissive manner that was hurtful to his daughter.

As such, a gap existed between Harrison and his daughter. Harrison never considered this a troubling proposition. As a man firmly set in his ways, he accepted his domestic situation as the way things should be, ignorant to the pain his uncaring attitude caused Evaline—or his wife, for that matter.

Besides, he contented himself with the knowledge that soon he would be summoned to preside over another court case . . . and partake in the pleasures of another bordello.

SIX

IN THE DAYS,
then weeks, that followed, Ehron Lee Burrows struggled to keep the vow he had made to himself. Against the endless strain of long, arduous, sun-baked labor, busting rocks and clearing gravel-laden trails in the quarry while locked in painful leg irons, the taunting and outright cruelty of the guards, meager meals most often consisting of rotten potatoes and stale, maggoty crackers, and the tension that came from being confined with his cell mate, whose unbalanced moods were apt to swiftly change from childlike amiability to potential menace, Ehron Lee maintained good behavior and obeyed the prison rules. He never complained about the exhausting work and accepted any order given to him without argument.

During his roughest moments, only two things gave him the strength to keep going. One was the discipline he had observed in the army; the other, of course, was his determination to see his wife. He discovered that he could endure most anything by keeping the image of Melinda's sweet face imprinted on his consciousness. Then, despite the grueling days and the distance that separated them, Ehron Lee would feel she was beside him and he could continue to hold out hope.

He was certain his fortitude would be further strengthened come visiting day when he could see her and talk with her . . .

But as the assigned day approached, Ehron Lee started to grow concerned. He hadn't received word from the superintendent that Melinda's visit had been confirmed—or approved. If she had sent a letter of her intention to the prison, Ehron Lee hadn't been told. He asked to speak directly to Superintendent Watson about whether he had been notified of her arrival, only to have the guards bluntly refuse his request. He was informed that the superintendent would speak with prisoners only when
he
wanted to see them, and generally that was when a punishment was in order. Rarely was a prisoner granted an audience at his own request. Ehron Lee's only contact with Rockmound authority was through the guards, and they had proven themselves a cruel, unsympathetic lot.
If
confirmation of a visit was received,
if
permission was granted, the guards themselves would notify the prisoner. And since many of them offset their own boredom by finding ways to torment the men, often this information was withheld until the last minute, giving the prisoner virtually no time to prepare for the visit. They would meet with their loved ones fresh off their work detail, dirty, sweaty, and often so heat-exhausted they were barely able to contribute to or comprehend any conversation.

Ehron Lee didn't know if this was what the Rockmound guards were planning to do with him, but a feeling of apprehension had begun to grip at his gut. His greatest dread was that perhaps Melinda would not be coming. All manner of troubling thoughts flooded his brain: Had she taken ill, had something happened to the baby . . . or had Abigail succeeded in working her poison on her?

Late on the Friday night before visiting day a full moon passed a shaft of light into the cell, casting a lengthening shadow of the barred window across the floor.

A bitter, mocking reminder to Ehron Lee, who was unable to sleep and was restlessly pacing the small cell, eight strides from barred window to cell door.

Woody Milo was watching him from his bunk. He was on his side, propped up on an elbow, quietly amused at his cell mate's dilemma.

“Don't hold your breath,” Woody finally said, speaking in a quick, hushed tone. “Don't get many visitors out here. Too far to travel, and it's unsafe country, too. Never know when them Injuns might decide to stir up trouble. From what I hear, them that got left behind after the roundup have been keepin' themselves scarce, but you never know with a redskin. Yeah, takes a real special lady to chance that risk. And I ain't seen many of those.”

Ehron Lee stopped pacing. He turned to Woody and shot him a hard look.

Woody threw up his hands in a defensive gesture. “Ain't sayin' nothin' in particular. Just been here a lot longer and seen how things are.”

“She'll be here,” Ehron Lee muttered with forced confidence. He had to convince himself that she would.

Woody stretched out on his bunk. “If'n I was you, I wouldn't be lettin' myself in for a disappointment,” he said.

Ehron Lee was on edge, his nerves taut with an uncertainty that threatened to overwhelm him. This was one time he couldn't let Woody antagonize him because he couldn't be sure of himself, how he'd have the potential to react. Ehron Lee's behavior had been exemplary, but tonight he feared it wouldn't take much for him to become aggressive and lose those privileges he believed he had earned—if Woody didn't shut up.

He stepped over to Woody's bunk and fastened him with a cold stare. “I don't want no trouble with you, Milo,” he said firmly. “So take this as friendly advice. Keep yourself outta my concerns.”

Woody emitted a quick laugh. “Right now we ain't got no one but each other.”

Ehron Lee regarded him with a skeptical look. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“Fact is, I'm the only friend you got in this place,” Woody said brightly.

Ehron Lee brushed aside the remark with a dismissive wave of his hand and started to turn away. That was when Woody leaped down from the bunk and positioned himself directly in front of Ehron Lee, the nearest physically he had yet got to his cell mate. Too close to suit Ehron Lee.

“You think I'm jokin'?” Woody said, looking up into the taller man's face, one eye direct, the other tilted eerily downward and focused slightly to the side. “You forget that I don't do no work outdoors. I clean out the cells. Maybe a coupla times a week they take me over to the superintendent's office. Do cleanin' there, too. Sometimes—I see things. 'Course I'm careful . . . but I've taken a gander at some of the stuff that comes in.” His voice took on a sly edge. “Interestin' stuff . . . like names that are on the monthly visitor list.”

Ehron Lee's face was rigid, his expression grim.

“What're yuh sayin'?” he said slowly.

Woody lifted a shoulder. “Reckon what you don't wanta hear. Your wife's name ain't on that list.”

The immediacy of the words impacted like a sharp puncture, deflating the hope that Ehron Lee had worked so hard to hold on to.

Ehron Lee's fists clenched reflexively. His first urge was to grab Woody by his skinny shoulders and slam him against the wall.

And then he steadied himself, collected his thoughts. He remembered who the source of this so-called information was. The twisted little punk who had been trying to rile him off and on since the day he arrived at Rockmound. Was this something else he'd cooked up for his own amusement?

“You better know what you're talkin' about,” Ehron Lee said darkly, his body still poised aggressively.

Woody's blood quickened and he suddenly seemed like a scared child, sensing that Ehron Lee was ready to do him harm.

He started to stammer. “Y-You ain't g-gonna hit me, are yuh? I—I told yuh, I d-don't like for no one to t-touch me.”

“You opened the door on this, Milo,” Ehron Lee said with deliberate emphasis. “You finish what you started . . . and you best have somethin' to back your words.”

“C-can't tell yuh no m-more than I d-did,” Woody said anxiously, the stutter in his voice becoming more pronounced. “I t-told yuh: I saw the list. D-Didn't see no one n-named ‘Burrows' on it. List ain't g-got that m-many names I wouldn'ta noticed.”

Sensing Ehron Lee's mood shifting, Woody started to step back, toward the bars of the cell.

Ehron Lee's features contorted in thought; though, in fact, he stubbornly refused to accept what Woody was telling him.

“You're lyin',” he said thickly.

Woody shrugged his shoulders weakly. “W-Why would I?”

“If what you're sayin' is so, why wasn't I told?” he demanded. “The superintendent hadda know I was expectin' to see Melinda.”

Woody shrugged, his eyes darting about the cell nervously. “W-Why would they t-tell yuh she ain't c-comin'? Havin' visitors is a p-privilege, n-not an obligation. Th-They d-don't owe you nothin'.”

Ehron Lee's face paled and his legs felt strangely weak. He swallowed so hard that the bobbing in his throat was noticed by his cell mate. Ehron Lee lowered himself onto his bunk. Woody stayed pressed against the bars for a few moments, then, trusting Ehron Lee wouldn't make a grab at him, he gradually inched his way over to the opposite bunk and carefully sat himself down. His breathing was labored but he gradually regained his composure.

“'C-Course, it's likely the superintendent hisself mighta refused your missus permission,” Woody said, losing his stammer as he calmed. “Seen it happen before.”

Ehron Lee tried to absorb what Woody was suggesting. But it couldn't be right. It didn't make sense. He'd played by all the rules. He was owed this visit from Melinda. And suddenly he knew that if Milo was lying to him, making a cruel joke at his expense, he'd strangle him dead right there in the cell.

Ehron Lee looked back at Woody. “He'd have no call. I ain't caused no trouble. I've put up with every bit of stinkin' dirt they've handed me. There ain't no reason for them not to allow her to see me.”

Woody dared to speak boldly. “You're in prison, Ehron Lee. To Watson and them others, you're just another convict. You ain't worth spit, far as they're concerned. They don't need no reason for anything they do.”

Ehron Lee was too engrossed in his shuffle of thoughts to take offense at Woody's remark, as truthful as it might be.

His eyes narrowed until they became like slits. His mouth started to tremble.

“I coulda waited the month,” he muttered to himself. “I could eat all the garbage they fed me for a month, knowin' that I'd be seein' my wife. That's all the reward I asked for . . . and I sweat blood for it!” His voice rose in pitch as a bottled rage uncorked and forced its way to the surface. “That's how it is, huh? Yeah . . . yeah, we'll see.”

Ehron Lee thundered over to the door of the cell, widening his arms and gripping the bars tightly, whitening his knuckles, and began yelling for the guards. He was demanding to speak to the superintendent. Soon the outer door opened and a beefy, mean-faced guard stomped into the cell block. For extra emphasis he was waving his truncheon aggressively.

He spoke harshly, with a thick Irish brogue. “Stop that shoutin', or I'll be comin' in there to give yuh somethin' to really be yellin' 'bout.”

Ehron Lee's indignation was so pronounced he was beyond being intimidated by this big bag of wind.

“Tell Watson I wanta see him,” he said heatedly.

“And you can go to hell,” the guard returned. He spit toward the cell.

Ehron Lee was wild-eyed. “You tell
Superintendent
Watson that if he don't agree to see me . . . and in five minutes . . . I'll rip this goddamn cell apart!”

“And as I'll be tellin' yuh, you can go straight to hell.” The guard spit again and stomped out of the cell block.

Woody was both alarmed and amazed. Until this moment he'd seen Ehron Lee put up with the miserable conditions and rough treatment and never once let go of his temper. That clearly was about to change, and it looked to have frightening consequences.

“Take it easy, Ehron Lee,” he said in a pacifying tone. “He gets them other guards in here and it ain't gonna be pleasant for either of us. Maybe—maybe things'll be different next month.”

But Ehron Lee wasn't hearing. All reasoning had left him. Everything he'd kept locked within him during the past month was readying to be unleashed.

“There ain't gonna be no next month!” he erupted with such venom that Woody scrambled to the back of the bunk, pressing himself tightly against the wall, hunching his slight body and hugging his knees with both arms.

Ehron Lee's face swelled red as the blood surged into his head.

He yelled with vehemence through the bars. “Don't think I got the nerve, do yuh, you sowbellied son of an Irish pig!”

Ehron Lee began shouting, cursing. He had become more than irrational; he was in an unbridled fury. He turned to his bunk, grabbed the thin, ratty mattress with both hands, and flung it to the floor, kicking it over and over until the flimsy fabric ripped apart under the repeated impact and feathers began scattering throughout the cell. Then he stalked over to the back wall, grabbed the water bucket, and tossed it forcefully against the bars of the cell, water splashing out everywhere into the corridor.

It didn't take long for the ruckus to bring three burly guards hurrying into the cell block, one of whom was the Irishman. Ehron Lee met them defiantly, challenging them to come inside the cell. He was on his feet, eyes glazed and bulging, brandishing the water bucket as a weapon, ready to fight all of them if they dared to step a foot inside. The Irishman wore a grim smile as he pulled the big key ring off the side of the outer wall and jammed the appropriate key into the lock. The other two guards had their truncheons at the ready, likewise smiling at the prospect of beating an unruly prisoner into submission. Woody squirmed on his bunk. He was trembling, both from fear and, admittedly, excitement.

BOOK: Black Ransom
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