The fog coming off Shoal Creek was pouring through the prison yard in pearl-colored puffs that made him think of cannon smoke. Captain Jerod Robin lay on his back in the caliche mud with his head leaning against the south wall of the stockade. The Leatherwoods had smashed his pocket watch, but he thought it would be nearing a wet dawn if he could see the sun.
A chain around his ankle locked him to the steps of the gallows platform. Robin’s ribs ached from the stomping that had been laid on yesterday evening by Santana Leatherwood and his three nephews. Massaging his sore heart with his fingertips, Robin touched the letter the nurse at the hospital in Tennessee had sewn into the lining of his butternut coat. Several buttons had been torn off the double row down the front of his coat, but the letter was safe. If the Leatherwoods had found and read the letter, they would have murdered him yesterday on Pecan Street instead of beating him and throwing him into the bull pen and waiting for the judge to come and hang him to make his death what now passed for legal around here.
As Robin’s fingers rubbed the outline of the letter, he felt comfort in those folded pages of words. His life had been so distorted for the past three years—since Shiloh—that he might have been dreaming his existence. The letter was a real thing that confirmed the one hope that through it all had brought him back from madness and given him reason to return to the world—the hope that he still had a home at Sweetbrush and people there he loved who loved and needed him.
A smell of rotted meat floated through the fog, and then a groan.
“Help me,” a voice cried. “Will someone help me, for God’s sake?”
“That’s a laugh,” yelled another voice.
“Please. For God’s sake, help me.”
“Tell it to your preacher and let him holler up at heaven with your sad story.”
Laughter drifted around through the fog. Then silence settled as prisoners brooded their fates in the dark. The fog grew thick as snow to the touch and turned cool. Robin realized he was feeling rain on his hands and heard drops tapping on his hat. He