Note: This story was dynamically reformatted for online reading convenience. On the Chain Chapter 3 and Conclusion by Hardlabor The clerk slowly shook her head as she watched a young woman nervously ascend the walk to the visitor's office. The girl fit a certain profile: young, reasonably attractive, shoe-button eyes, modest dress, and a sweet, doe-like face. "Another one," the clerk muttered to a nearby co-worker as the girl turned the door-handle and entered the room. "Can I help you, miss?" The girl's story spilled out a mile a minute. "I hope so. I think a friend of mine here. It's a case of mistaken identity. They have the wrong man; I just know it. I spoke to an officer Saturday, and he said my friend would be out Monday but he never turned up. Could you check for me? His name is Robert Perez." "Certainly, miss" said the clerk reassuringly. She ran her finger down the prison roster while thinking "the poor dear" to herself. "Peabody, Pepper, Perez. Robert Perez...ah! Yes, we have a prisoner by that name. He's being held on a bench warrant until his trial, which is in about three months." The girl gasped, and the words flowed in a torrent. "Three months! There must be a mistake! He's innocent! It's mistaken identity! Didn't the court hear his case?" "Miss, if there was even the slightest doubt about the prisoner's identity, the court would have summoned him for a habeus corpus hearing the first business day, which would be Monday. His file would have been notated regardless of the outcome, and since there is no such notation, then the court must not have found cause for further investigation." Marie brushed away a tear. "May I see him?" she asked despondently. The clerk glanced at the record again. "No, miss. That prisoner is on the punishment detail for 36 days, and he is not allowed visitors until he completes his privileges are restored." The clerk noticed additional details on the prisoner's record, but she felt sorry for the girl and did not mention them. "36 days, on that horrible chain gang? Oh, God!" cried Marie. This was too much for the clerk, who clasped her hand over the girl's sympathetically. "Yes, miss. I'm sorry, but I've seen so many nice girls like you shedding tears over men who weren't worth it. Maybe this one is worth the tears. I don't know. But I do know that nice men don't end up here. And most of our prisoners never end up on the punishment detail, let alone for 36 days. Only you can decide if this one is worth it, but my advice is to let this one go. He deserves what he's getting." Marie buried her face in her hands. She wanted to cry, but she couldn't help thinking about what the clerk had said. It was the same thing Reverend Michaels had asked: How well did she really know Robert? If Robert was innocent, how did he end up on the punishment detail right off the bat, and for so long? Could he just be playing her for a fool? The clerk was pleased to see the girl collect herself. "Thank you for the information, ma'am" said the girl, who turned a bit hesitantly, and then decisively strode from the room, closing the door behind her. "Maybe this one will listen" said the clerk to her co-worker, adding "get this--her little boyfriend has a date with the whip, and he's got the necklace for a month besides." The co-worker shook her head, and muttered "I guess it's true. The good girls always go for the bad boys." --- "On yer feet! On yer feet! I mean you! I mean you!" boomed the trusty through the predawn air. I attempted to rise, but I had forgotten that my necklace was tethered to the bunk. As soon as the other prisoners were ready to move, Ol' Jack released the lock that kept me attached to my bunk. "On yer feet. I gotta fix yer chain" he said. The trusty took the dangling chain from my necklace, ran it once around my waist, and locked it tightly, like a belt. This helped keep the chain out of my way so that I could work, and it added another element of pain any time the shifting links pinched my flesh. We were marched to the privy for our ten minutes of freedom. The handcuffs were locked back on after we had finished, as they always were when we weren't working, and we were led to the gate to wait for the Boss. Presently, a truck arrived and the Boss jumped off, with two guards. We stood at attention while the Boss inspected our restraints. I was the last prisoner on the squad chain, and the Boss chuckled when he came to me. "Did you have a nice evening, boy?" he asked sarcastically. There was only one reply I could give, and we both knew it. But I had to say it. "Yes Boss!" "Now, you get a whipping tonight, boy. You want me to go hard on you, don't you?" "Yes Boss!" We both knew what was going on. I had to do what I was told. I had to take whatever they dished out. I had to say what I was told to say. If I refused, I suffered. If I complied, I became theirs. --- We were loaded onto the truck, and it was off to work, topping the hedges that ran along the county road. I suffered that day like no other. My necklace chain soon abraded the skin over my hip bones, and the torture was all the worse as my sweat mixed into the raw flesh. But still I worked. I had no choice. If I failed to keep the lick, my suffering would be much worse. I had to keep up with the other prisoners, no matter how much it hurt. Somehow I made it through that day. I honestly don't know how, because I suffered every second and every minute I was out there. Just when I thought I couldn't take any more, the order sang out "lay em down! Bring em in!" I was so relieved--because I had forgotten. We were all locked back into handcuffs and loaded into the truck for the trip back to prison. The gates were opened and we were offloaded for inspection. The Boss stopped when he got to me. "Set him up," he said to Jack. Then I remembered. Terror gripped me, but there was nowhere to go. There was nowhere to hide. The trusty unlocked my upright from the squad chain, and he led me shuffling to the to the gate's steel bars. There was a horizontal bar a few inches above my head, and Ol' Jack deftly unlocked one of my wrists, quickly pivoted my arms, and then slipped my handcuffs around the gate bar before locking the loose end around my unrestrained wrist. "Just give in, boy," whispered Jack, in a tone that suggested genuine sympathy as he released the buttons on my trousers. We waited. I don't know how long. I assumed that this was intentional--I was an example to the other prisoners: exposed and vulnerable, subject to the whip's caprice. My wrists were hurting, but then I heard the Boss say "Warden, the prisoner is ready for discipline." "Excellent, Sergeant," said Warden Richardson. "Ellen, I want you to see this, so that you will know how seriously we take discipline here. I would like you to call out the strokes after they fall. Now, Sergeant, you may proceed." I heard the sharp sound of plaited leather slicing air, and I felt more pain than I have ever felt in my life. "One," yelled Ellen. Her voice was feminine and playful, in the way only a girl's voice can be. Ellen's role in the event added to its cruelty: like many men, I associated women with kindness and compassion, and there was something perverse about the way her sweet voice narrated my suffering. I tried to suppress my urge to scream, my body contorting in agony as much as my restraints would allow. "Two," Ellen yelled. I couldn't help myself. I let out a yelp of pain. Then a pause. I wondered if they had finished. "Three." Through the pain, I understood. They were waiting. Letting the pain subside so that I would feel the full impact of every stroke. "Four." It was useless. I screamed every time the whip fell, and I moaned and begged for mercy in between. It felt like the pain would never end. I knew I would die there. But of course, eventually sweet Ellen's melodious voice reached ten. I hung there a few moments. Then I heard the Warden's voice again, very near me. "You see, Ellen, how a good flogging should be. Notice how the Sergeant arranged the strokes so that each one struck virgin flesh. The goal is to inflict maximum pain." "Yes, I see, Ma'am" Ellen replied. "Now, meet me back in the office. I want to...teach you...something else." The Warden then addressed the prisoners, explaining that I had been insubordinate and this was the result. Only then did then was Jack allowed to take me down. The trusty repeated the procedure in reverse, unlocking one of my cuffs, placing my hands behind my back and locking me up, and then escorting me to the other prisoners to be locked back on the chain. Finally, we were returned to the cage for the evening, after our supper. I can tell you exactly when it happened. It was when I was whipped. That was the day I broke. I stopped thinking about things. My body wasn't my body anymore. It was theirs, and they could do anything they wanted to it: whip it, put it to work, lock it in chains, starve it. What day was it? I lost track--it didn't matter anymore. Why was this happening to me? Because I deserved it. I had accepted that. Not only did they control my body, they controlled my mind. A few days passed. I don't know how many. The truck bounced along the road into town, pulling to a stop on the corner of Railroad and Main. We prisoners slowly filed off and lined up to have our handcuffs removed. Then we picked up our tools: sledgehammers, pickaxes, and shovels. I knew it was going to be a hard day. The sun was just peeking over the horizon and already the air was a sultry 75 degrees. It was pointless to think about it, though. It wasn't my place to think anymore. Our work that day was to break the asphalt road in town and dig a trench down to the main waterline so that the plumbers could replace the pipe. No one was about when we began to work. Each man took a three foot wide section in front of him, broke the asphalt with the sledgehammer and pickaxe, and then excavated the exposed earth down to twenty four inches. It was terrible work. The empty streets had filled with townspeople by mid-morning, who cut wide detours around the eight sweating, grunting, filthy prisoners working in their midst. It was somewhat rare for a punishment detail to be put to work in town due to the potential danger to the public, but the Mayor wanted to save money on the project and prison labor was free. We continued to work through the early afternoon, suffering mightily in the heat of the day. Had I been in another frame of mind, I might have noticed that we were working right in front of the bank where I once worked in my prior life. Mr. Peterson, the owner of the town bank, sipped a cool glass of lemonade as he stood in his air conditioned office. He was dictating a letter to his secretary, Marie, while absent-mindedly watching the men work through the tinted glass. "And so on and so forth. Have you got that, Marie?" "Yes sir, I'll send it out right away." "Good. Now, look at this. If this isn't a monument to what can be done with a little discipline, I don't know what is. Here we have eight worthless criminals. The dregs of society. Give them a little discipline, and yes--even they can contribute to society. Why, look at the one on the end. The one in the collar. He must be an especially dangerous prisoner, but see how hard he works?" Marie stood, and looked at the line of unfortunate prisoners. She gasped. "Mr. Peterson, that's Robert Perez!" Mr. Peterson looked again, again, and again. The face did seem to resemble his missing teller, Robert Perez. But the filth. The grime. The chains. The half-nudity. It couldn't be, and Mr. Peterson insisted that Marie was wrong. Then Marie told Mr. Peterson her story. How she had run into Robert purely by accident as he worked on the county road. How she had been told that his case would be addressed on Monday. How she had checked with the prison when he didn't show up the next day, only to be told that Robert belonged in prison. How she had felt so deceived. Mr. Peterson looked at Marie, and then he looked at the chained and collared beast in the street. It just couldn't be. There was one way to settle it. Mr. Peterson knew the Boss as Mike Reynolds, a regular customer at the bank, and he resolved to ask if he could examine the prisoner in question. The Boss gave his consent and ordered the last prisoner to halt, put down his tool, and stand at attention. I responded instantly to the order, placing my shovel carefully on the ground and standing at attention, with my head and eyes lowered in anticipation of further orders. To my surprise, a man in a suit stood in front of me. "I can't tell without seeing his face. Can you tell him to raise his head?" "Raise your head, prisoner." I complied. "By george, it is Robert! Goodness, Robert. What have you gotten yourself into?" said Mr. Peterson. I wasn't allowed to speak unless the Boss gave me permission, and I stood awkwardly silent until the order was given. "Sir, I was arrested by bounty hunters" I replied. "I see. Well." Mr. Peterson hesitated. "Thank you, Mike" he said, and returned to the bank. I didn't give the exchange a second thought, and it didn't even occur to me to say that I was innocent. Every time I had said that I was, I was punished for it. I had noticed many people who used to know me staring at me as I worked, and I assumed Mr. Peterson simply wanted to see for himself how far I had fallen. Little did I know that the gears that would decide my fate had already begun to turn. Mr. Peterson had tremendous faith in the criminal justice system, but he also had tremendous faith in his own hiring abilities. The bank was a key institution in town, and Mr. Peterson knew just about everyone. First, he contacted Judge Hawkins' office, but he found that she was still out of town wrapping up the murder case. However, the court clerk did enter the Judge's office and examine the packet of papers that had lain there unopened for ten days. There she noted the discrepancy between the wanted man's physical description and mine, and then she investigated the bench warrant more closely. The Robert Perez named on the warrant had the same day and month of birth, the other Robert Perez was two years older. Unfortunately, by the time this discovery was made, the punishment detail had been transported back to the prison for the day. --- "On yer feet! On yer feet! I mean you! I mean you!" I waited for Ol' Jack to unlock my necklace from the bunk. Then I stood, and waited for him to fix my necklace chain. We marched to the privy, single file, and the trustee removed our handcuffs to allow us our ten minutes of freedom. Finally, we were locked back into handcuffs and taken to the truck to be put to work for the day. The truck bounced along a bumpy road to the nearby swamp, from which we were to drag cypress logs to be sawed at the prison mill. It was difficult work. It was hard enough that the logs were heavy in their waterlogged state, and the foul green swamp muck made made our suffering exponentially worse as it invaded every pore. Around mid-morning, a truck drove up to the work-site, and a guard asked the Boss if I was present. The Boss pointed me out, and the punishment detail was ordered to halt while I was unlocked from the chain. I saw the Boss asking the guard what was going on, but the guard merely shrugged. I had no idea what it all meant, but I assumed I was to be punished. My back was still raw from the last whipping, and the thought of another whipping terrified me beyond all reason. I didn't think. I couldn't think. All the thinking had been whipped out of me. The second the guard unlocked me from the chain, I bolted toward the swamp. Or at least, I tried to. Like I said, I didn't think, and I hadn't considered that I couldn't get far with my legs in irons. I immediately tripped and fell a split second before the guard caught up to me. I grabbed and clawed and kicked and tried to get up. I was an animal. It was no use. Another guard arrived and I was overpowered, cuffed, and hogtied for good measure. The adrenaline wore off, and the gravity of what I had done sunk in. I wanted to cry, but somehow, I just couldn't. The two guards who had recaptured me cursed me as they carried me to the truck and threw me unceremoniously in the bed. Then the long drive back to the prison. The truck pulled to a stop near the administration building, and the two guards summoned two more. Then the four of them lowered the tailgate. "Now...the Warden wants to see you. Are you going to be a problem?" they asked menacingly. "No sir, I'm sorry sir, I lost my head sir" I quickly sputtered. The guards laughed. "Good, but I hope you won't mind us taking precautions," said the man in charge as they released me from the hogtie. I soon learned what he meant. My handcuffed wrists were pulled high into my middle back, and a short length of chain was used to attach my cuffs to my collar. It was highly effective: relaxing my arms made it difficult to breathe because of the pressure on my neck. Flexing my arms relieved my neck, but soon my arms cramped. I was fully occupied by balancing these two concerns. There was not the slightest chance of resistance. The four men escorted me into the Warden Richardson's well-appointed office. I was shocked to see Marie and Mr. Peterson discussing my case with Warden Richardson. What was happening? "I admit the evidence is compelling, Mr. Peterson, but I cannot release him without an order from Judge Hawkins," said the Warden. "He only has four days left until the Judge returns from Templeton. I don't believe it will do him any harm to spend that time with us. I'll suspend his punishment and have him work on one of the regular work details on the strawberry farm." "That simply won't do," said Mr. Peterson. "The man in your custody is innocent, and justice delayed is justice denied. Here is a telegram from Judge Hawkins authorizing the release, and expressing the opinion that a telegram ought to be sufficient under the circumstances." "Ah, here's Perez now. Corporal Smith...what on earth happened?" asked the Warden, while Mr. Peterson uttered a "my goodness!" and Marie let slip a soft cry. "Warden, the prisoner attempted to escape when I unlocked him to bring him here. He resisted efforts to bring him under control, and both myself and Officer Stanton were assaulted. Sergeant Reynolds and Officer Philips also witnessed the offense" said Corporal Smith. "Indeed!" said the Warden. "Mr. Peterson, I think you'll agree that in spite of this prisoner's apparent innocence in the matter we discussed, this development means that he is going to remain in our custody for the foreseeable future. And probably for a very long time to come." "Yes, it certainly sounds like it, Warden." Mr. Peterson shook his head slowly. He stood to walk out. "Warden Richardson, you were right. Please let me know if you need me to testify about the guards' injuries. Robert, I'm sorry I wasted my time on you. Come, Marie." Marie stared at me intently for a moment. Then she stood to leave as well. As she passed me, she said, in a clear, emotionless voice: "They were all right. You do belong here." The Warden summoned Ellen into the room as soon as Mr. Peterson and Marie had departed. Then she spoke to me: "I have in my hand a telegram authorizing your release based on mistaken identity." She tore the document to pieces. "Naturally, that cannot happen now. I will telegram Judge Hawkins to inform her of your offenses. I will recommend charges of attempted escape plus two counts of assault and battery on an officer. You will, of course, remain in our custody until your arraignment, and I will make a forceful case to Judge Hawkins that you should remain here without bail until your trial. "Corporal, take the prisoner and have him processed under his actual identity. Ellen, transfer the appropriate disciplinary actions from the other Robert Perez's record to this prisoner's. He is to be placed on the punishment detail permanently. Furthermore, he will receive 42 lashes: Corporal Smith will give him 21 lashes tomorrow morning, and Officer Stanton will give him 21 more in seven days. Is that understood?" The two officers saluted the Warden, and then they led me down to be processed. It was surreal. I watched them fill out a form with my name, with my address, with my information on it. They photographed me. They fingerprinted me. Tomorrow they would whip me. Then they would work me. And in a few days, they would convict me. They had the right. I was theirs now. The End