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 lifted his head and opened his mouth and licked the moisture off his lips.
“Bastards coming,” shouted a voice in the fog.
More voices shouted, “Bastards coming! Bastards coming!”
“Quiet down, you putridity,” yelled a voice Robin recognized as Santana Leatherwood’s. Robin heard the chink of spurs. He saw a disturbance in the fog, where forms began to appear coming toward him.
“Jerod Robin, where you at?” called out Billy Leatherwood, the youngest and smallest of the three brothers approaching him in the fog. They were dragging a sack that had something heavy in it.
“Over by the heel fly, Billy. He’s chained up over that way,” said Santana, looming out of the mist behind his three nephews. There were gold tassels on the band of his wide-brim campaign hat that he wore tilted forward onto his forehead. His neck scarf and suspenders were yellow against the faded blue of his 7th Cavalry uniform shirt. Six silver conchos, Mexican style, ran down the outside of each of his black leather boots. His spurs were silver with two-inch rowels, mean ones.
“Here he is, Captain,” Billy said. “Laying here like he’s on a holiday with nothing to do. Why, I believe he’s asleep.”
“Give him a kick,” said Santana.
“Don’t touch me, Billy,” Robin said. “I’m keeping score on you.”
“Get up, then. The captain has brought you a new friend.”
Robin pulled his knees up and made it to his feet as the two elder Leatherwood brothers hauled their sack toward him. Robin was tall and pale, with sleepy blue eyes. In the fog he could barely make out the sullen features of the middle Leatherwoods under their round-top felt hats. Vapor floated around their faces. Santana stepped closer to Robin and gestured toward the sack.
“This fool stole General Custer’s brother’s horse,” Santana said.
What Robin had taken in the fog to be a sack he now saw was a man with his chin fallen onto his chest. Blood dripped from a black patch in the man’s gray hair and plopped into the dirt. Luther and Adam Leatherwood were holding him up by the armpits. His legs disappeared behind into the fog.
“This fellow is as big a fool as you are, Robin,” Santana said. “You and him are going to pay the same price for your foolishness. You’ll be jerking in the sky side by side, you and this foreign idiot. Put the horse thief down, boys.”
The Leatherwood brothers let go, and the prisoner hit the ground on his face.
“Chain him up next to young Robin,” Santana said. He bent near enough that Robin could see above Santana’s left ear a bit of silver plate that was a marker from battle in a war previous to the one that was now ending. “Well, Robin, life is uncertain, ain’t it? Full of twists and turns. When they talk about odd twists of fate, they mean you and me, don’t they? Seems like yesterday you was a rebel officer with a history and a future. But today you are a doomed fool chained up with an idiot who thought he could make off with Tom Custer’s famous horse from in front of Dutch John’s Saloon in the middle of the night.”
“This thief has to be real stupid,” said Adam.
“I mean, he’s dumb as a stump,” Luther said.
“The horse he tried to steal is the very same horse Tom Custer rode at Namozine Church and three days later at Sayler’s Creek when we were chasing you rebel cooters through Virginia three months ago. You’ll be glad to know I got back into action in time for the finish of this war.