EACH rock he crushed into pebbles with his pick under the blazing sun wore him down a little more. The jolt of the impact surged up his arms, vibrated through his shoulders and his spine. He was hurting bad, sweating like a hog, and the chain gang had only been outside for an hour. The screw paced up and down the blacktop behind them, at total ease with a shotgun cradled in the crook of his arm, spitting tobacco at their feet and daring them to think about running. Not that they’d get far with heavy chains and cuffs chafing their ankles and locking them together.
And where would there be to run? Desert on either side of the highway, nothing to hide behind except a couple of lonely mesas. No water or food for at least twenty miles. And long before then you’d be hunted down like a dog, swarmed by the state police. It was better to keep your head down, withdraw inside your own mind. Hum a tune and try and block out the pain, and maybe that sun would creep a little quicker across the sky.
Not for the first time he wondered what he’d done to deserve this. Breaking and entering, stealing some cheap jewellery, almost getting blown away. The judge handed down his eight year stretch and yawned. Yawned. Like he was thinking about what he’d have for dinner that night. The rocks morphed into the judge’s face, and the bitterness welled inside him again.
A rumble in the distance made him prick up his ears. He glanced down the road while the screw was looking the other way. An old pickup truck was lumbering toward the crew. It would pass right behind him. He’d be lucky if he didn’t wear their trash. The warden encouraged the gentle citizens of the town to teach them a lesson in their own way, for being the scum of society. Heaving the pick again, he sent it swinging to chip at another stone.
The brakes squealed, and a shot blasted. The screw dropped to the ground in a heap, his hat tumbling away into the ditch. Some old boys got out of the truck and came over to him. He squinted up in the glare and saw his brother’s face shimmering there.
Break the chains not the rocks, his brother said, and helped crack the links. The other inmates stared at the fugitive, then at the screw, the keys glinting at his belt and blood seeping through his uniform. The man’s wife would be none too happy about that.
The fugitive grabbed up one of the rocks he broke from the ground as a souvenir. They were over the state line by midday.
Written for the Swinburne Microfiction Challenge 2017. The theme was BREAK.
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