Life and Undeath on the Chain Gang Morty was up to something. Or, at least, he was plotting something.

Zeke could tell by the conniving look in his cellmate’s eyes, as they sat in the shade of the trees, soothing their parched throats with lukewarm water and placating their starving bodies with the crust of bread the warden passed off as food. It wasn’t like they didn’t have all day to think, while lost in the drudgery of hard manual labour. Building the Western North Carolina Railroad took a lot out of a man. But if Monty was anything like Zeke, he spent his whole time while working worrying about ending up on “Chain Two.” That was the last thing Zeke wanted happening to him, and it was a constant and growing concern. The closer they got to the end of the job, the less the camp warden and his pack of hounds cared what happened to the men on “Chain One.” As long as the work got done, it didn’t matter to them if Zeke and Morty were on Chain One or on Two. In fact, the only reason why the two men or any of their cohorts were still on Chain One was because they worked hard and fast, they didn’t voice their complaints and they had a strong will to live. Not that there wasn’t plenty to complain about. The conditions that they were working in were atrocious and the warden took advantage of the fact that society considered the prisoners less than human and didn’t recognize their rights. There was low tolerance for law-breakers in the Land o’ the Sky. The weather of a North Carolina summer, on many days, could be scorching and Zeke had watched other men drop like flies from fatigue, dehydration and heat exhaustion. In fact, the mortality rate on Chain One was closing in on fifty percent. Zeke had watched Chain One shrink from sixty men to just over forty, after the initial incident that started Second Chain in the first place. Day by day, Chain Two continued to expand. It was no skin off of the warden’s back if anyone died while working. It meant one less mouth to feed and one less person he would have to shelter while waiting for a new inmate to fill that bunk. It also didn’t leave him short-handed. He would simply have his hounds drag the body over to Chain Two and set the prisoner to work there, once Maitresse had prepped them in her way. She was the first corpse whisperer that Zeke had ever encountered, and he was hoping that she would be the last. Zeke inched his way over to Morty, as close as his restraints would allow, brushing the sweat from his brow. Even in the shade, it was hellishly hot. “What’s on yer mind?” he drawled. If Morty was plotting something, Zeke wanted in on it. The shackle and chain continued to rattle slightly as Zeke strained against them. He glanced down at the spot where the metal cuff left chafe marks on the dark skin of his leg. He hoped he wouldn’t end up with “shackle poisoning,” a sometimes lethal infection some of the convicts contracted because of the chafe.

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