A Left Turn at Albuquerque Continued – Part 05

By Hunter Perez

I never considered myself to be a jealous person, but after my meeting with Holmgren I was deeply envious of his encounter with Quinn, that adventure-seeking magazine writer he met at the schoolhouse. I was unable to fall asleep because I became consumed with resentfulness over Holmgren’s newfound happiness and the possibility that he might find himself in a romantic relationship.

“Why is he able to go out and about and meet people while I have stay locked in a cage?” I thought to myself. “He knows I don’t belong in here, but he’s keeping me here. He’ll probably keep me here for the rest of my life. He’ll probably quit one day and go off somewhere with his new boyfriend and I’ll be stuck behind bars until I die.”

My unhappiness forced me up, which was just as well because Zeb began snoring at an intolerable level. I sat at the foot of bed, sometimes glancing out of the cell door with the hope that Patterson would come chugging by for a quick chat. By mostly I stared at the floor, slowly asphyxiating myself with self-pity.

I tried to recall how many lovers and brief encounters I tallied up during the years. Only a few managed to curl a slight grin on my lips, most notably the raucous Sloppy Joe. Some were so ridiculous that I wondered why I ever wasted my time with them. There were a couple of guys whose faces I remembered but whose names escaped me. And I thought of poor eager-to-please Nicky as a college freshman asking my permission for his first kiss – how could I have ever anticipated that innocent request would put me in this predicament?

What made my bitterness worse was that Holmgren told me several times about how he considered me to be very handsome – he even mentioned how he was smitten by that photo of me on Nicky’s refrigerator – and yet he never treated me like an object of affection. And now his heart is beating for someone he met by going into town – all while he was enjoying a freedom that he stole from me. I wanted to cry.

There was a tap on my lower back – Zeb was knocking his foot on me. “Jesse James, what’s wrong? Is something bothering you?”

“Go back to bed, Zeb,” I said. “I’m just a little depressed.”

“What does that mean?” he asked. “I never heard that word before.”

“It means very sad,” I explained. “It will pass.”

Zeb bounced up and sat next to me at the foot of the bed. He looked very concerned – I never saw him with such an expression. “No, Jesse James, I don’t want you to be sad. You can tell me what’s wrong. I will listen.”

I shook my head and looked away from him. “No, you’ll laugh at me if I say it. Oh, what the hell, I might as well say it. I just wish that someone was in love with me.”

“I love you, Jesse James,” Zeb said in a low voice. “You know that.”

I smiled wanly and shook my head. “I know, and I love you too, Zeb. You’re a great friend. But I didn’t say that I wanted to be loved. I said that I wished someone was in love with me. It’s different. Oh, I know I’m talking like an idiot. But I wish someone would say that they’d like to spend the rest of their life with me. Really, Zeb, go back to sleep. I’ll be okay.”

I shut my eyes and clenched my jaw, trying to force myself out of that sad mood. Zeb tapped me on the shoulder, which caused me to open my eyes and turn to look at him. Zeb quickly kissed me straight on the lips and pulled back, giving me a goofy smile.

“What was that for?” I asked.

“I’d like to spend the rest of my life with you,” he whispered.

I looked at Zeb with bafflement. “Zeb, please don’t joke with me.”

“It’s no joke, Jesse James,” he said as he stood, placing an arm under my legs while wrapping his other arm around my shoulders. Zeb lifted me off the foot of the bed and positioned me in the center of the mattress, pushing me gently to lay flat on my back. He beamed as he looked at me and stroked my hair with his hands.

“Would you spend the rest of your life with me?” he asked.

I couldn’t believe what was happening. I started to breathe at a heavier rate and began to sit up, but he put a hand on my shoulder and directed me down again.

“Would you?” he said.

Flabbergasted by his behavior, I found myself nodding even though I had no inner desire for him. But Zeb had enough passion for both of us – he climbed over me, wrapping his strong arms around my body.

“Hey, Jesse James, can you get out of this?” he said before placing his lips on top of mine. The kiss lasted a minute, and I felt like I was hit by a train – he was all power and intensity and it certainly knocked me out of my funk. He pulled back and looked down on me, full of joy.

I wasn’t in love with Zeb and I didn’t want him to be in love with me. “But why hurt his feelings?” I thought to myself. “He is sincere, and I could use a lot of happiness tonight.”

I smiled and he came back for a new kiss. My hands grabbed at his broad muscular back as he pushed himself harder on top of me. It wasn’t the night that I expected, but in the morning I had no complaints.

* * *

The next three weeks were very pleasant. We had a spell of inclement weather and the rock quarry could not be accessed, so Zeb and I were stuck in our cell. We passed the days trying to teach each other new skills – he insisted I would be an excellent prizefighter and he tutored me in the various punches and movements needed to score a bare knuckle knockout. I found myself growing stronger under his tutelage, which helped to channel a lot of my inner anger and sadness into something productive. In turn, I introduced him to yoga, which he did not immediately enjoy – as someone used to the fast rough-and-tumble of boxing and wrestling, he felt yoga was too slow and mannered. But he also had a competitive edge and didn’t want to admit that I could one-up him, so he kept practicing until he got the hang of it, at which point he declared that he liked it.

I learned something about Zeb that I found fascinating. One rainy day when we were confined to our cell, I took a nap and awoke to find him on the floor with one of my notebooks and pencils. He was drawing a horse – but that makes it sound simplistic, which it was not. It was a beautifully detailed sketch rich with shadings and texture.

“His name is Thunder,” Zeb told me when he realized I was watching him. “He was my favorite horse in the circus. I used to feed him carrots and hay and wash him down. He was a good horse. He was so smart and loving.”

“That is a brilliant drawing,” I said, amazed at what he created. “I didn’t know you had such talent.”

Zeb looked at me sadly after he finished his picture. “I want to write Thunder’s name on this, but I don’t know how. Can you show me, Jesse James?”

I went on the floor, took another piece of paper and wrote “Thunder.” I asked Zeb if my penmanship met with his approval and he happily agreed, so I wrote “Thunder” at the bottom of the page.

“Why don’t you try to write Thunder’s name on that other paper?” I suggested.

Zeb took the pencil and tried to replicate what I wrote. At long last, I was able to figure out a way to begin the tutoring that Holmgren wanted from me. From that point, we devoted time in the evening for Zeb to learn the alphabet and how to spell.

At the close of the day when we went to bed, Zeb would become very tender – sometimes just holding me until I fell asleep, other times having a bit more in the way of interactive fun. To my surprise, that little prison cell suddenly became the best place in the world, and I no longer envied Holmgren’s ability to go out and about.

When the weather cooperated, the rock quarry took on a strange vibe of its own. I came to like those weird guys who joined me in the pointless demolition of rocks into pebbles. One day I absentmindedly began to sing the old Bobby Fuller tune “I Fought the Law” while I was (as per the song’s opening line) breaking rocks in the hot sun. Zeb overheard me and wanted to learn the song. Once he mastered it, he began singing out very loud while he busted his rocks. The other guys in the ball-and-chain brigade also wanted to learn the song – even the oddball McKimson, who stopped reciting the Gospel According to John to himself to learn the song. Our musical brotherhood piqued the curiosity of the dull Jones brothers who were supposed to be guarding us – they wandered over to see what was happening and inquired about the catchy song they never heard before. By the end of our work session, no one was hammering rocks but everyone was harmonizing to “I Fought the Law,” including the Jones boys who showed their first smiles since I made their acquaintance. In the days that followed, Zeb would ask what other songs I knew – and soon, our 19th century rock quarry sounded a lot like an AM radio oldies station.

One day at the quarry, Holmgren came by accompanied by Charleson and a man in civilian clothing who was handcuffed behind his back. This man had a strong and straight posture and a no-nonsense demeanor to him. Charleson came over to the rock breakers and directed that I pick up my ball and chain and go to Holmgren and the man.

“Mr. Quinn,” said Holmgren to the man. “I want you to meet the man who inspired your next article.”

I nodded to Quinn and stated that I admired his writing and Quinn nodded back with a tight smile.

“Forgive me for not being able to shake your hand,” Quinn said, his voice strong and confident. He then glanced at Holmgren and offered a wider smile. “The lieutenant believed it was a good idea to acquaint me with my new life as quickly as possible.”

“Mr. Quinn is going full convict on us,” Holmgren continued, looking admiringly at his new prisoner. “He’s even agreed to try out our various punishments. He’ll do a spell in solitary, he’ll get flogged, he’ll be in pillory, and he’ll be out here in the quarry and your fellow rock breakers.”

“You’re in for quite a holiday,” I said to Quinn. “Hopefully, it’s not too late for you to change your mind.”

“Trust me, I’ve experienced worse,” Quinn replied, still looking at Holmgren.

“If you don’t mind my asking, is there a safe word for Mr. Quinn in case things don’t work out as planned?” I said to Holmgren.

The two men didn’t bother to make eye contact with me, and Holmgren eyed Quinn while responding. “Charleson and Patterson are aware of Mr. Quinn’s work here – Charleson is on day patrol and Patterson works at night, so if anything goes awry he can reach out to one of them. And now, we need to get going.”

Holmgren motioned with his head to Charleson to return me to rock breaking while he patted Quinn on his shoulder and led him off.

“I can’t believe a man would voluntarily want to put himself into this place as a prisoner,” Charleson muttered to me. “The crazy thing is that to be punished in the way he wants, he has to break the rules. We can’t just flog him for no reason. The lieutenant decided that he’s going to slap me, then I will file a conduct demerit and then he can be pilloried or flogged. We have to go by the rules – reports have to be filed and approved before he can be disciplined.”

“All of that paperwork seems like a punishment to you, Sir,” I said. “Plus, you get slapped a couple of times. I hope you get a raise for this.”

“I’ve actually read his writing,” Charleson added. “I find him to be very tedious and pompous as a writer.”

“Then he certainly deserves to be punished extra hard, Sir,” I laughed. “Give him a few slaps back in the name of quality writing.”

Resuming my labors at an open spot in the quarry, I quickly found myself surrounded by O’Dwyer and Rain – with neither looking very pleased.

“Lad, what’s your relationship like with the bossman?” O’Dwyer asked.

“What, the lieutenant?” I said, puzzled by the question. I didn’t like the bluntness of the inquiry and I lied, “There’s no relationship.”

“Then why did he want you to speak with him and that man?” O’Dwyer demanded.

I wasn’t certain what O’Dwyer was up to, so I opted to be tough but evasive. “It was someone I used to know who asked after me. Nothing worth talking about.”

O’Dwyer shot a glance at Rain, who glowered and nodded slightly.

“As long as you’re not chums with the bossman,” O’Dwyer said.

I banged my sledgehammer against my metal ball. “Chums don’t put their chums in chains. He’s not my idea of a chum.”

O’Dwyer sought more assurance from Rain, who nodded again.

“You best be honest, lad, because I want you for something special that’s going down,” O’Dwyer confided. “In the not too distant future, there will be a few prisoners taking their absence of this place, and I want you and your boy Zeb to be among them.”

I stopped hammering and felt uneasy. “Where are these prisoners going?”

O’Dwyer chuckled and patted me on the back. “I, for one, will be on my way to California to book passage to Australia. I know Rain will be going back to his tribe. Where you and Zeb go is up to you once we are a safe distance from here. I don’t know if Rain wants you to join him, but you lads are welcome to stay with me and my kin in Australia.”

I looked at Rain and he shook his head disapprovingly. “Go to Australia,” he blurted. “You’re not coming with me.”

I was uncertain how to respond, and O’Dwyer picked up on my confusion. “Don’t worry about the details, you’re not expected to be part of the planning. But when the time is right, I want you and your boy Zeb to be with us. We’ll need your muscle for the first part of the escape, in case we get into trouble.”

O’Dwyer put out his hand and asked, “Is it a deal?” I cautiously shook his hand and then extended my hand to Rain, who nodded and walked away. O’Dwyer gave me a hearty swat on my back and joined his comrade.

I blinked hard and took a deep breath as my new future dawned on me. “Well, either I’ll be hanged for a prison break or I’ll be hunting kangaroos. I never thought I’d get out of here alive, so maybe being hanged would be a blessing. Still, I always wanted to see Australia – I never thought I’d see it as an escaped convict. Either way, at least now I have something to look forward to.”

I picked up the sledgehammer and drove it into a large rock while singing aloud, “Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, you’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me…”

To be continued…

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