Tom Hemmings, a college dropout restless for adventure, had hired on as a guard at The Indiana Penal Farm—a medium security prison covering 20,000 pastoral acres, most of it farmland and sycamore forest. He had not expected the job to include a manhunt, but a month later he was deployed on one. Assigned to a two-man shotgun team, he was ordered to pursue a pair of escapees along a bounding stretch of whitewater while dog handlers kept pace on the opposite shore.
Since the escapees were rumored to have a pistol, Tom was not that eager to join the chase. Henry Yoakum, his partner on the manhunt, had warned him about the pistol. But Yoakum, a gaunt prison guard with a shrapnel-scarred face, was also the subject of rumor. Although Yoakum was friendly and gifted in gab, word had it he was deeply involved in drug trafficking with the inmates. Tom did not know why he had been paired up with Yoakum, but the man’s crafty eyes and sly demeanor should have given him a hint of what the manhunt was going to cost him.
“The creek might snatch ’em up first,” Yoakum scoffed as the two of them trudged towards the woods. “Seen it happen before—it’s a damn good place to drown. Guess a rabbit will try anything to shake loose the dogs.”
Tom’s palms were sweating in spite of the cold. “You sure they’re armed?” he asked.
Yoakum patted his shotgun and laughed. “Stick by me close, Tommy. If I don’t take care of you, who else will?”
They were climbing into a low fog bank. The cornfields, a quarter mile behind them, had already become a blur while above them the boughs of the sycamores were barely visible. Tom was losing sight of Yoakum as well: the man was gliding before him with the stealth of a bobcat. Not even the swaying of a branch or the snapping of a twig betrayed his movement. Finally, the ethereal droning of Yoakum’s hand radio enabled Tom to spot him. Yoakum was waiting at the top of the hill, sitting on a log and taking a slow drag on a cigarette. His face looked macabre in the smoky half-light, as though clawed by the talons of an eagle.
“Viet Nam taught me well,” he muttered. “Must’ve kilt a dozen of the little yellow fuckers. And the place was a fuckin’ gold mine.”
“Good place for a shaft,” Tom replied irritably. He was hot underneath his Second Chance vest and his skin was beginning to itch. He sat gingerly on the log.
Yoakum shrugged cheerfully. He squinted into the haze then spat. “Their ghosts never bothered me none, Tommy. Guess I must’ve kilt them too. ’Sides,” he went on, “It’s the Cong left alive I feel sorry for—sittin’ around in dirty huts, missin’ an arm or a leg, while their country gets sold out to foreign cap’lists.” Yoakum chuckled dryly and lifted the cigarette. The red eye expanded between his fingers. “But Henry Yoakum hit pay dirt there. Made a fortune outta black market commissary and gold. Pried it from the teeth of the fuckers we shot dead.”
A hollow boom punctuated the conversation. The sound was barely audible, a reminder that they were far ahead of the other shotgun teams. Yoakum shook his head and slipped the radio from its leather sheath. Depressing the squelch button, he murmured into the receiver. Not waiting for a reply, he plunged the radio back into its sheath.
“It was one of our guns,” he announced. “I’m bettin’ it was a new officer—a cherry fucker like you. He musta fired a warning shot at a deer.”
“You sure of that?”
Yoakum nodded. “Them rabbits got too good a start on us. It ain’t likely we’re gonna flush ’em this side of the dam.” He rose lightly to his feet, surveying the woods as he did so. A gray squirrel scrambling from bough to bough caught his eye momentarily before it melted into the haze. Yoakum sighed, relaxed his shoulders, and checked the safety on his shotgun.
“Let’s get outta the range of friendly fire,” he said.
It was midmorning before the two stopped to rest. It seemed they had been hiking forever, perhaps because the ground rose sharply and Yoakum set too brisk a pace. As they sat on a fallen maple, Tom gazed around uneasily. It was unclear to him what the haste was all about; he could not be sure whether Yoakum was seriously bent upon catching the escapees or simply wanted to keep out of range of the other shotgun teams. In any case, Tom needed a break and so he welcomed the wintry air and the perpetual laughter of the creek. Not even when he studied the terrain below, observing the fog-shrouded prison in the distance, was he able to recover his sense of mission. The buildings seemed as remote as passing ships.
“What if we do catch up with them?” Tom blurted, a prospect he had only begun to consider. He could now hear a thundering sound in the distance, a hint that the dam was not far away.
Yoakum shrugged and lit another cigarette. “Ya ever dusted yerself a rabbit, Tommy?”
“I’m not that good a shot,” Tom confessed.
“Well, shoot at the ground in front of ’em. Like they showed ya on the firing range. That’ll spread out the buckshot and throw it smack into ’em.”
Tom felt his scalp tingle. “What if they’re unarmed?”
Yoakum chuckled. He lifted a pant leg, exposing what appeared to be a toy pistol strapped to his shin. It was a nine-millimeter Glock.
“Ain’t no way they can trace it, Tommy. The serial number’s been filed to the quick.”
“A throw down?” Tom said. He was somehow not surprised.
“An equalizer, I call it. We ain’t supposed to have ’em, but the brass don’t bother checkin’ you out. An’ I’ll be damned if I’ll chase down their rabbits without a little insurance. They’ll hang ya in a second if ya shoot an unarmed man.”
Yoakum wagged his foot. The Glock glittered like ice. “Rules of engagement, they call it,” he said. “’Cept that they make the rules while we do the engagin’.”
A shotgun spoke faintly in the woods below them, as though the fog had cushioned it. Yoakum lifted his radio to his ear and listened carefully to a garbled messages. His face was expressionless when he returned the radio to its sheath, confirming another false alarm.
“I did unstrap it once,” he confided. “Happened six years ago in the kitchen dorm. This new guard and I was workin’ the midnight shift an’ waitin’ for the count to begin. Well, this fucking inmate with a Smith & Wesson got the drop on us. Must’ve snuck the gun in through the main gate when he was returnin’ from a work detail.” Yoakum frowned and raised his hand. The eye of the cigarette glowed like a coal. “It was cold clear thinkin’ that got me out of it—nothin’ else. The fucker said he was gonna waste me and let that cherry officer live. Said he didn’t have no use for two hostages. Told me I had it comin’ anyhow so I asked him if I could take a few minutes to pray. Said I wanted to confess my sins to Jesus ’fore meetin’ my maker an’ all.”
Yoakum laughed then shook his head. His hand stroked his shin. “Well, the fucker was a Muslim so he hadda respect religion. He told me to take a few minutes an’ I closed my eyes on him. When I opened ’em five minutes later, he was lookin’ away so I hit the light switch and rolled. Now the dorm went blacker ’an pitch, but by then my eyes had adjusted. I could see that asshole, clear as day, stumblin’ around like a blind man. Put four shots into his chest before he even knew what was happinin’. Then I finished him off with a slug to the head.”
Yoakum dropped the cigarette, chuckling before crushing it out beneath his boot heel. “It don’t hurt a man to see his way in the dark.”
“What about the investigation?”
“I told ’em the inmate had two rods on him. Said I just took one of ‘em away so I could give him what he had comin’. Now they couldn’t prove nothin’ else ’cause there weren’t no witnesses. I took care of that when I killed the lights.”
Yoakum shook his head, cackled, then toyed with his radio. The static dissolved, as though yielding to the mounting rumble of the falls. He called in their coordinates and rose to his feet.
“’Bout time we caught us some rabbits,” he said.
Tom felt his heart hammering as the two of them descended the hill. The falls were louder now—like an approaching freight train—and he could have traced out his name in the fog. Walking behind Yoakum was like following a shadow: the man appeared and vanished so subtly it was difficult to tell him apart from the trees. Tom wondered if Yoakum was trying to outpace him. If this were the case, he could not fault the man. Tom, with his heavy stride and callow sense of ethics, could only be a liability to a phantom.
Shortly before noon, they spotted the inmates. Yoakum saw them first. Clutching Tom’s sleeve, as though protecting him from a fall, he pointed to the bottom of a hollow ravine.
A sinew of smoke, drifting lazily from a campfire, was the only movement in the gully. The inmates lay motionless beside the blaze. Most likely, they had been pummeled into submission by the brambles and the bog and were waiting for a search party to come and find them. The pair looked like lepers, castaways, and the plume, bleeding gently into the fog, appeared to be a signal of distress.
Tom nodded to Yoakum, a prearranged signal, and took his position behind a dead oak. It would take Yoakum ten minutes to position himself on the northernmost lip of the gully, ample time for Tom to muster up the courage to squeeze off a round. Since the inmates were impeded by the creek, Yoakum would easily intercept them if they chose to flee the warning shot.
Tom waited and watched, convinced he was invisible. The fogbank was particularly thick within the gully, filling it like soup in a bowl, and the inmates seemed to be turning into mist. They looked like wraiths, and for this reason Tom grew less reluctant to shoot in their direction.
A bough above him snapped and then teetered. He did not hear the pop—the bark of a light caliber handgun—until a second later. The sound was similar to a firecracker, and so it surprised him when the bough came crashing down. Only then did he notice the glint of metal in the gully below. Had the weapon been discharged in his direction?
He fired too quickly, failing to brace the stock of the shotgun against his shoulder, and lost his balance when the butt kicked his chest. A rock struck his head—he swore someone had flung it—but no one approached as he lay semiconscious on the ground. Only darkness assailed him—darkness and a distant booming that sounded like an echo. It was a second report, sharper than the first, that convinced him that Yoakum was shooting at the inmates.
The darkness waned as Tom’s senses recovered. Slowly, painfully, he rose to his feet. His shotgun, half buried by dead leaves, looked as foreign as an amputated limb, and he picked it up reluctantly before peering through the branches of the oak. The sight in the gully was the same: the plume climbed feebly from the campfire, and the two boys still appeared to be asleep. Only the sight of Yoakum, crab-crawling down the slope, suggested that anything had changed.
He kept his eyes on Yoakum; the movement of the man, quick and precise, mocked the lazy trajectory of the smoke. When Yoakum finally waved to him, Tom chambered a round and set the safety on the shotgun. Dead branches tugged at him, scratching his face, as he abandoned his position behind the oak. Stepping into the clearing, he began his descent to the bottom of the ravine. A minute later, he was standing before the campfire.
The inmates lay slack-jawed and peaceful. They looked like children napping, a sight that belied their crank-rotted teeth and the Aryan Brotherhood swastikas printed upon their wrists and biceps. Obscured by a membrane of watery heat, they had retained their ethereality and Tom gazed at them as though they were sacred. Not even the odor of shit diminished the sanctity of the moment.
“One of ’em crapped his pants,” Yoakum said.
Tom spoke woodenly. “Are they dead?”
Yoakum kicked one of the bodies. “This one ain’t. The fucker fainted before I had the chance to plug him too.”
As he spoke, Yoakum cracked the pump-action on his shotgun. His face was like stone and he looked coldly at the surviving inmate. After a moment, he shook his head then slipped the safety into place.
“The fucker will squeal on us—that’s for sure. Try an’ pack us in. But it’s his word against ours, ain’t it now?”
Tom shook his head. “How much punch can he pack? It was a clean shoot.”
Only then did Yoakum point, calling Tom’s attention to a shiny object, the thing Tom had seen while behind the dead oak. His heart sank. It was not a pistol—not even a knife—but a small can of Pork and Beans.
“That’s just the problem,” Yoakum said. “The fuckers weren’t packin’. We dusted ourselves a clean rabbit.”
Tom looked at the can and saw only reflection—the shivery glitter of firelight caressing metal. He spoke lamely. “How could we have known?”
“It won’t matter at the inquisition, Tommy. They’ll make us out to be child killers. That’ll be certain if the brass has its way.” Yoakum coughed—his lungs rattling sharply—but when he spoke again his voice was clear. “We may as well beat ’em to the punch.”
A bodiless drawl was repeating a code. Yoakum unsheathed his radio, muted the sound, then quickly reported their position. He sighed before returning the radio to its sheath.
“Let’s get down to business,” he said.
Yoakum slipped his hand into his pocket, removing the Glock and a large dirty handkerchief. For a moment, he fumbled with the gun, stroking it with the cloth as though burnishing a jewel. He then pressed the cloth to the dead boy’s fingers. “Gotta get gun powder on ’em,” he said.
Finishing his work, Yoakum pocketed the handkerchief. The gun he placed in the dead boy’s hand.
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