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Uploaded 24 December 2007
After "The Pickering Papers" by E. O. Costello:
The Pickering Papers: A Clean Start
by Walter D. Reimer
The Pickering Papers: A Clean Start
by Silas Lashley (as told to Walter D. Reimer) ©2007
(A. Abel Pickering courtesy of E.O. Costello
and the assistance of M.M. Marmel and J.T. Urie is gratefully acknowledged. Thanks!)
(Warning. Mature language and some mature situations.)
I suppose I got to, like, introduce myself. Name's Silas Lashley - everbody calls me Sy, though. I'm from up Tse-whit-sen way in Tillamook. My Dad always said that we raccoons hadda fight to make our way inna world, on accounta we ain't really trusted none. The black mask on our faces, see? A preacher man once tol' me it was "The mark of Cain."
Right before I punched his lights out.
So, I ended up at the Krop - that's the Prince Kropotkin Penitentiary – in ’32 after I caught my girl in bed with anudder guy. I didn't kill him. I just made him WISH I had. Coz a' that, the judge was what ya call sympathetic. Only gave me ten to fifteen. Felt like a lot at the time, since the most I'd spent locked up before was thirty days for helping smash up a saloon. But I wasn’t but nineteen at the time, so ten to fifteen sounded like a million.
Ever been down to the Krop? Scary place if ya ain’t been there before. The place sticks out into the ocean like a sore thumb, and the only place it’s connected to the rest of Tillamook is full of swamp, deep woods an’ blackberry vines like yiffin’ barbed wire fences. Big place, too, divided up into four camps. I was put in Camp 1 to start with – that’s for fresh fish, new inmates.
All the inmates work up at the Krop, even if it’s pushin’ an idiot stick. They do logging, fishing – God, if I ever eat another fish again it’ll be too soon – there’re farms and a cannery. Sure, there’s also the laundry, the kitchens an’ the front office, too.
Escape? Yeah, I guess you ain’t been there. Closest town by water’s fifteen miles across open water, cold too. Closest town by land’s fifty miles. All inmates come in by boat.
Anyway, one night about the second week I was in a guy tried for me. Ya hear that sometimes, in the dark, an’ I ain’t that way, see? In my case it was an older guy, a beaver. I hit him until he stopped movin,’ an’ left him on th’ floor until breakfast. After that furs knew I could take care o’ myself, so they let me be.
Camp 1 guys work, just like everyone else, only we have to start out learning how to do things. I was pretty strong, so they had me over at the logging camp, where they’d cut these yiffin’ huge trees down and cut ‘em up for lumber. The other camps are for more, whaddaya call it, experienced lags, but some of th’ Camp 1 guys stay there, like I did. Don’t ask me; ask the trusties who do up the paperwork.
Like I was sayin,’ I managed to keep my muzzle clean (I figgered that if I can stay out the Hole, mebbe the Warden’d let me out at ten and not fifteen), an’ about five years in I hears the alarm siren go off down by the dock. I was getting’ ready for work, but we all went to the windows to look.
Yeah, new boat comin’ in from town. Boat pulls up and gets tied an’ the escort stays offshore, waitin.’ Looks about six of ‘em – you can spot an inmate by the gray uniforms with th’ broad black stripe. One of the guys in my block, tall horse named Marty, asks me, “See anyone ya know, Sy?”
I shrugs my shoulders. “Howinhell should I know?” I rub a paw against the window in time to see a fox, slim guy, comin’ off th’ boat. He’s got a guard holdin’ him by the elbow. I wondered who he was, but had to go to work.
One of my buddies might tell me later.
Sure enough, I find my friend Chuck and we strikes up a conversation. Chuck smokes, an’ I don’t, but I’m always willin’ ta have a few coffin nails for him. He thanks me, lights up and says, “So, what’s goin’ on, Sy?”
“Know anything about the new guys?” Chuck works in the front office.
“Like that fox. Who rates his own guard, I wanna know.”
Chuck starts to laugh, real soft-like. “Well, I’ll tell ya, Sy. Name’s Pickering, and he’s supposed to’ve been the top cop down Spontoon way. The guard was to make sure he didn’t decide to take the long swim.”
I hadda blink at that. “No kidding? What the hell’d he do to get sent up here?”
“Seven to ten for stealing from his own department.” Chuck grinned. “I’ll give five to two he don’t last the week.”
“I’ll take a piece of that,” I says.
Sure ‘nuff, they puts Pickering in Camp 1 like all the other fresh fish, an’ he’s in a cell with an old guy who’s close to finishin’ up his sentence. I seen him, walkin’ around like he was still a cop – ya know, that snout in the air look. Didn’t talk to any of us, but he tried to talk to the guards a lot. One day he comes up to this screw, big wolf named Carson, an’ tries to complain about his cell.
Bad move. Carson, he just gives this little smile, see? And then he punches Pickering dead in the muzzle. The fox hits the floor and Carson follows up with a few kicks in the ribs for luck. That’s when we all knew he wasn’t no better than us.
After a day or two we start in on him.
Nothin’ serious – we didn’t need another like Molly in the camp. Just an elbow here, a trip there. Used to trip him up almost every meal. Hell, even his cellmate helped short-sheet his bed. He took it, though, like he felt he deserved it. I guess havin’ Carson beat him up knocked some of that attitude outta him. All cops are crooked, sure, but you have to be pretty low to steal from your own like that. And over a woman, too (Chuck got more from another trusty). Some fluffy ewe or other; I wonder if anyone asked him if she was worth it.
He seemed real quiet, kept to himself a lot apart from work an’ meals. He looked over fifty so he wasn’t likely to cause no trouble on his own. They had him out haulin’ nets, an’ made sure we all knew he was just another guy in stir.
Fine by me. I lost two dollars on him not hangin’ himself in the showers inside a month, so I figgered if he’d last that long, he might make it out.
I didn’t reckon on Yellow Sky.
See, we got all types here, an’ they’re all guys. You can see what I’m talkin’ about, can ya? Take Molly, f’rexample. Here’s this scrawny canine kid fresh off th’ boat, sent up for five years for I don’t care what. He got broke, an’ now he’s like th’ only woman we got. Hell, even some of the guards use him. He’s an example of what Yellow Sky does to furs, an’ the puma’s good at it.
So Yellow Sky gets a look at Pick (we’d started callin’ him that), an’ first thing he does is talk to a friend o’ his in the front office. Next thing you know, the old guy in Pick’s cell’s moved out, an’ Sky’s moved in. He also gets his job changed to the fishing. After two weeks, he starts to work, slow an’ subtle-like.
Never knew what Pick thought of it; kept his mouth shut but you could tell he was starting to get edgy. That hunted look, y’know?
So one night I was tryin' to get some shuteye, when there's this Gawdawful yellin' comin' from down the cellblock, an' after a second I hear th’ screws runnin.' Onea them yells fer th' Doc, and before ya know it the whole place is soundin' like Mabel's on Saturday night.
Hey, I'm just like everyone else - I hit the bars to see what's what. The lights come on, an' I see three screws carryin' out Yellow Sky. Puma's covered in blood, an' it's runnin' out all over the floor.
I know what the trusties will be doing tomorrow before breakfast, an’ they’re gonna be hatin’ that.
All this is happenin’ down at the far end of the block, to my right; I hear some wiseacre whisper to my left, “Who dunnit?”
“Howinhell should I know?” I snarl. I turn just in time to see a blood-covered fox in pawcuffs being shoved down the hall. "Pickering, looks like," I says.
"Pickering! Holy shit, man . . . didja see what he did ta Yellow Sky?"
"Yeah, I seen it. Guess the fox wanted some catgut." Word o’ this’ll get around fast. Me, I wouldn't have taken anything less than 25 to 1 on him being the fur with the shank.
But I guess you push hard enough, anyfur'll turn on ya.
I went back to my bunk and got a bit more shuteye, an’ at breakfast that morning I makes sure I get a seat next t’the Doc. Now, he ain’t the actual doctor – that guy’s a member of the staff – he used t’be a doctor before he killed a patient. He’s the medical trusty, helps the real Doc out.
He looks tired, and douses his cornmeal mush with his milk before eating. “Busy night, huh?” I ask.
He gives a tired laugh. “Yeah. That Pick – he must’ve been scared out of his mind, judging from the wounds on Yellow Sky. I’m surprised he didn’t stab himself.”
“Do tell.” Fried cornmeal mush isn’t real tasty. You kinda eat it automatically. Hot though, an’ you need that on a chilly morning.
“Well, from what Doctor O’Dell and I managed to determine, Pickering was in bed when Yellow Sky tried to climb on top of him. He rolled over on his back, shank out and ready.”
“Shank?” I was impressed now. Didn’t think Pick had the knowhow to do that. ‘Course, there’s plenty of stuff to make ‘em. “What’d he have?”
“Piece of scrap from the fish cannery, whetted sharp as a fillet knife. Handle made from a strip of towel.” Doc shrugged. “At any rate, he apparently misjudged the distance and instead of just threatening Yellow Sky, he slashed him across the throat.”
I whistled. “No shit.”
He chuckled. “And when that puma started yelling and thrashing he pulled Pickering out of the bed. Pickering landed on top of him and, well . . . let’s just say he gutted Yellow Sky like a fish by the time the guards dragged him off the fellow.”
Word gets around fast in prison. Lunchtime that’s all anyone’s talkin’ about.
Friend o’ mine from Camp 3, Jack, sits next to me while I’m eatin.’ "Hey Silas! I hear Pick cut that rapin' puma up good, eh?"
"That's what I hear," I said, offerin’ him a smoke from my pack. Jack's a friend, an' ya don't find many o' them here. "Laid him open good."
Jack nods. "I wonder how Lamb Chop will look in a string necktie."
I hadda laugh at that. "Yeah," I muttered, "'Course if it was up to th' Warden, he'd prolly wanna erect a statue to Pick." We finished up lunch and went back to work. Those trees won’t saw themselves.
When I gets back from work I find out that Pick got sent to the Hole for ten days for his slice-n-dice job. I guess the guards resented havin’ to do the paperwork, ‘cause I also heard they beat his ass before chuckin’ him into the cell, an’ didn’t even let him clean up either.
Still, ten days on bread an’ water – I know one fur ain’t gonna be bustin’ his tail in cold water, haulin’ nets. Breakfast in bed, such as it is.
Th’ house trusties really bitched about cleanin’ up the mess in the cell. Made up for it by stealin’ everything Pick had – includin’ his underwear. ‘Course, they also stole all of Sky’s stuff, but he won’t be needin’ it anymore.
‘Bout ten days later it’s Sunday, an’ we’re all enjoying ourselves after church when the door at the end of th’ cellblock opens and in walks Pick. They cleaned him up and he’s in a clean uniform, an’ carryin’ a new bedroll an’ stuff.
He’s got two guards with him, an’ as he gets about half the way along someone yells, “Hey, Pick, lookin’ good! Ya get a nice lanolin job on yer fur?”
The fox he, like, flinches a bit but keeps on going, sayin’ nothin.’ They put him in the same cell and close the door on him. As one of th’ guards, a rat, walks by I ask, “Hey, what’s happenin’?”
“What’s it look like?” the rat says. “Had a talk with the Warden, an’ we gets orders to put him back here,” and he jerks a thumb behind him.
“So he ain’t gonna swing?”
The screw shrugs. “Nope.” He walks out an’ we all look at each other.
“Huh!” I says. “Guess th’ old ox thinks Pick did us a favor.”
“Could be,” Marty says, “but I ain’t turnin’ my back on that fox. Might’ve gotten a taste for it.” We all nodded at that. Sometimes a fur who cuts a guy decides he likes the scent of blood and then he’s dangerous. The guards usually get those before we do.
Later in the day they comes back and lets him out so he can go to chow with us, and leave his cell door open afterward. He’s standin’ over by a window, looking out at the ocean, when in walks Molly.
Doesn’t say anything, but then Molly stopped talkin’ after about a year, an’ that was three years ago. Still has a year left in here. He walks straight up to Pick, and waits until the fox notices him. We all go quiet as Pick turns to him, to see what happens. Was Molly sweet on Sky, an’ wantin’ revenge?
Before we even have time to bet, Molly sticks out a paw. Pick looks at it real slow-like, then the two shake paws. Molly looks up at him an’ says, “Thanks.” The pup then just walks on out, back to his own block, leaving us all without a yiffin’ thing to say.
Next day I find that Pick’s on the lumber crew now. I think that the Warden thought maybe if he can kill a fur, he can swing an axe or saw or drive a tractor. Anyway, I spot him lining up with our crew and I call out, "Hey, Pick!" I grinned when the fox flinched. "Calm down, I ain't no friend of that cat you stuck. You okay?"
He nods, a bit jerky-like. “Yeah, Sy,” he says, an’ his voice’s real odd-soundin.’
Our crew starts walkin’ the mile or so to the yard and I asks him, “Hey, I hear you’re from down Spontoonie way. They talk like you do down there?” NO, I ain’t gonna ask him about women. I know the girls down there wear next t’nothin,’ an’ talkin’ about it’s only gonna get me riled up.
Pick smiles a bit. “I’m from America,” he says. “South Carolina.”
“Oh? Where’s that at?”
“Other side of the yiffin’ world from here,” the fox says with a chuckle. “Born and raised there, went to college there.”
“College boy, huh?”
“University of South Carolina, B.A. in Law. For all the good it did me. You’d think I could spot the scam that bitch was running on me, but no . . . “ He shrugs. “Ancient history. You know what my wife did when she found out?”
I’d take a guess, but then I’ve seen him in the shower.
“She piled all my stuff up, and set fire to it.” He shakes his head. “Talk about a clean start, huh?” We walks on a moment and he adds, “And then I come back from the Hole, and everything’s gone. Another clean start.”
“Yeah, about that,” I says. “No hard feelins’, huh? Happens all the time.”
“No, no hard feelings. Everything had blood all over it anyway.” Yeah, I knew that.
We walk on quiet after that, an’ reach th’ camp to start workin.’
Lunch was chicken sandwiches, so the kitchen boys said; I guess my chicken had managed to escape. I wangle another sandwich in exchange for a cigarette and sit down on a stack of boards to eat. Jack takes a seat next to me, an’ we both look up as Pick walks over. “Mind if I sit here?” the fox asks.
I look at Jack, who shrugs. “No, take a seat. Free country.”
He nods and sits down. Jack eyes him and says, “You Pick?”
“Jack Canter. Glad t’know ya,” and he shakes paws with the guy. “Lotta furs were glad t’see Sky get deaded.”
“What’d you an’ the Warden talk about?” I asks Pick after dinner. When he looks at me I smile. “Ain’t no secrets in the Krop.”
“Yeah. Well, he said I acted in self-defense, so he wasn’t going to add anything to my sentence – but he wasn’t going to lower it either.” Pick shrugs. “And all I could do was stand there and worry that my uniform needed pressing and whether I still take a size 42.” We both laughed at that.
“There’s a guy over in the next block who’s a tailor; maybe he can do a job for ya. Goin’ from a desk job to haulin’ nets and now helpin’ run a sawmill’ll put muscle on ya. Wonder what that sheep femme would think if she saw you.”
Pick gives me a look, then grins a little crookedly. “To hell with her.”
I slaps him on the back. "That's the spirit! C'mon, me an' some o' th' boys are getting together a poker game after dinner. Want in? Cost ya three cigarettes."
Things got quiet after that, which suited everyone just fine. Most furs just want to do the time and get out, see? That was my goal; finish up my ten and get out. ‘A clean start,’ Pick called it. We found out his actual name was Art, but Pick was what he answered to.
He had a degree in law, an actual college degree, so a few furs started asking him for legal advice. He didn’t charge much, so he would’ve been a shitty lawyer. A few even asked him to work on appeals, although he said he didn’t know the laws up here in Tillamook. But he gave what advice he could – hell he even tried teachin’ a few guys to read.
Round about a year after he shanked Yellow Sky he gets a thick envelope from some fancy-Dan lawyer in America. He told me it was divorce papers, and he expected it. But he spent a couple weekends talking to the prison shaman about it. Since the vixen he was hitched to cleaned out his bank account and torched all his stuff, he didn’t have to do nothin’ but read the papers and sign ‘em.
“If I knew twenty years ago what I know now, Sy,” he says to me one day, “I would’ve yiffed that vixen till her tail fell off. Never knew what I had.”
“Ya need to stop talkin’ like that,” I tell him, “or they’ll have to start puttin’ more saltpeter in the food.” I laughed. “Food tastes lousy enough already.”
We both started laughing.
But I think the divorce still hurt him.
Must’ve been, oh, ‘bout 1940 – yeah, I had about two years to go before I could get out, an’ Pick had four – that we got an honest-to-God celebrity come in off the boat. We were still workin’ out at the lumber camp, him foreman on his crew and me drivin’ a tractor haulin’ logs. Hell of a lot easier than carrying the damn things by paw.
So we get back for dinner an’ there’s a couple new guys in our Camp. One’s a tall whitetail deer, big guy with a mean look on his puss; th’ other’s a runty little cat with tabby fur and a scar across his neck. Th’ guards put the cat in with me, an’ the deer goes with anudder guy over in B Block.
First thing I do is tell the fresh fish that I ain’t gonna hurt him none, and asks his name. Says it’s Al, an’ he’s been in before, only over in Rain Island. Two years for beatin’ on a guy. I ask him what he knows about the deer, an’ he goes real quiet.
“That’s Jake Carlsson,” he says, an’ I know why he’s bein’ quiet.
Ya hear ‘bout mobsters down in America, Al Capon an’ them? Well, Carlsson’s onea those, only running a big gang up here in Tillamook, drugs, women and such. I ask a bit more, an’ finds out that he’s pulled life for having a whole family killed. Seemed the dad was behind on his payments.
After dinner I stop by Pick’s cell. He’s busy readin’ the Bible and we talk a while over a bottle of pruno (I make it for the block, and Pick helps me hide it. Good hooch, too). “Whaddaya make of the new guys?” I ask.
Pick looks like he just bit into somethin’ sour. “I’ve had enough of yiffin’ whitetail deer to last me the rest of my yiffin’ life. I hear he’s a gangster.”
“Ya heard right.”
“Chances are he’s got a few friends in here. I’m just going to ignore the yiff out of him.” He crests. “Watch out for him, Sy, five’ll get you ten he’s gonna plan something.”
When Pick gets angry, his South Carolina accent gets really bad, so it’s hard to understand him. I can tell he’s angry about something, so I finish my pruno and head back to my cell.
Sure enough, Pick had him figured out. Carlsson thinks that he shouldn’t be in the Krop, so he’s talking about escapin.’ Says he’s got enough people on the inside to help him, an’ offers jobs to any of us who want to join him.
Some of the guys, newer, acted like they wanted to throw in with him. Not me; sure, I was only twenty-seven, but I’d been in long enough to know you can’t just walk out of the Krop. I played it close, though, and managed to learn a few things.
Word got ‘round that Pick was an ex-cop, and Carlsson’s boys stayed away from him, thinkin’ he might be a snitch. ‘Sides, a sixty-year-old ain’t gonna be able to keep up when the runnin’ starts.
I come walkin’ up to Pick’s cell one night and Carlsson’s there at the door, saying something real low and quiet-like to the fox. Pick’s just listenin,’ noddin’ his head from time to time. As I come walkin’ up, Carlsson gives me a long look and says to Pick, “Just remember what I told you, or your life ain’t worth this,” and he flips a coin at him. Pick snatches it outta the air; good reflexes for an older guy.
Carlsson walks away, and I lean against the door while Pick looks at the coin. See, the prison pays us, but we don’t have no money like we know it on the outside. Here, the coins are all wooden, up to about fifty cents. Good for buying off the prison store, but no good anywheres else. “What’d he want?” I ask.
Pick looks up at me, an’ shrugs. “He was telling me to keep my muzzle shut or he’d have his boys shut it for me.” He flipped the coin and caught it, covering it with his other paw. “Call it.”
He looked, and with a chuckle he tossed the coin to me. It was a nickel piece. “Plug nickel, huh?” I ask.
“Been watching too many gangster movies, I guess.”
Two months after Carlsson came in, he about had everything ready. From what I heard it was gonna start with a fight on the exercise yard and get bigger fast. Guards would be taken prisoner, an’ in all the uproar Carlsson and some of his boys would make for the dock. They figured if they could snatch one of the boats, they could go anywhere.
Not a bad plan, actually.
Just our luck me an’ Pick’re out on the yard one Saturday mornin’ playin’ pitch an’ catch with a few others when the shit hits the fan. There’s a line of furs at the store, waitin’ their turn, when this one guy butts in th’ line. The guy behind him taps him on the shoulder, and the buttinsky turns and plasters him in the face with a fist. Blood flies and the fight’s on.
Now, a fight’s a fight, an’ you’d think we’d all gather ‘round to lay bets and cheer ‘em on. You’d be wrong. Ya cheer fights when they’re boxin’ matches, refereed by th’ screws in th’ gym; if there’s a fight in the cells or outside you clear away fast. The screws will be comin’ hard, an’ they get a bit wild with them batons they got.
Plus the guys on the towers might get itchy paws.
Pick an’ me walk back to the door to our block just as the siren goes off. Before I ducks inside I see smoke coming from Camp 4. “This’s gonna be a long one, Pick,” I says. I hope it ain’t as bad as the one in ’35.
“Looks like it.” He looks at me. “Care for a game of checkers?”
We’re into our second game when we hear gunfire. Occasional chatter of th’ big Lewis guns up on the towers, an’ a flat boom from a shotgun. ‘Bout a minute after that the whole block’s locked down and everyone counted.
And I was winnin,’ too.
We stay locked down through lunchtime, an’ the trusties serve us cold sandwiches, hot coffee and doughnuts. I heard a few guys ask what the screws were eatin’ if we’re havin’ doughnuts an’ coffee. Made for a good laugh.
We also get some news. The fire at camp 4 was set on purpose (no shit), an’ some of the armed trusties mutinied. Yeah, this is gonna take a while to settle down.
Nothin’ we can do about it though, so after I eat I turn in and get some shuteye.
I hears a commotion, and wake up to hear people yellin.’ Everyone in the block’s straining against the bars, trying to get a look out the windows, an’ I hear shots.
“I can’t see shit, can you?”
“Ricky’s got the best view.”
“Ricky, whatcha got?”
“Pipe down, everyone, so we can hear.” The word gets passed so we can hear the badger three cells down from me talk.
“There’s shooting – “
“We can hear that, numbskull.”
“I said shut the yiff up.”
Ricky pauses and goes on. “Buncha furs headin’ down the dock . . . looks like four-five or so, an’ they’re shootin’ back at the screws . . . Holy shit! Looks like they plugged old Canning!” Canning was a sergeant, fat elk.
“Sez you. Canning’s fat ass is about as hard to hit as the GROUND.”
“Listen, you want to hear about this, or yak on all day?” We quieted down. “They’ve made it to one of the transport boats. Hey, Bill, what’s this Carlsson character look like? Big buck?”
“Goddamned whitetail yiffin’ deer!” That was Pick.
“Okay, okay . . . yup, that’s him, flaggin’ like nobody’s business . . . they’ve got the boat started an’ they’re pullin’ away.”
“Any sign of the escort boat?”
A few started to cheer. The last attempted escape was a year or so ago, one fur. They hadda go rescue his ass from the swamp. As it was he lost a few toes an’ fingers to frostbite.
Just then there was a drone and a Gawdawful bang. “HOLY SHIT!” Ricky yelped.
“What the yiff was that?”
“You okay, Ricky?”
There wasn’t no answer at first, so we all go quiet so we can hear Ricky say, “They’re dead.”
“What happened?” I ask.
“They were headed out, fast as they could go, when there’s this flash, see? Then a boom and the whole back half of the yiffin’ boat goes flyin’ all over the place.”
“Can ya see what did it?”
“I’m trying . . . Jesus and Saint David . . . a frickin’ blimp with a cannon on it.”
Sound of a smack. “It’s like a big balloon with motors onnit, dummy.”
“Howinhell did it get here so damned fast?”
“It didn’t,” Pick called out. “They probably called for it as soon as they figured out what was really going on.”
“That makes sense.”
Yeah, it did. Chances were Carlsson’s boys didn’t grab or smash up the phones or the cable. Yiffin’ idiots.
“Okay, boats are headin’ out there,” Ricky said. “Looks like it’s over.”
“Until we get to clean up the mess tomorrow,” I hear the house trusty grumble.
By the time all’s said an’ done, the riot ended up killin’ three guards (plus Canning) an’ thirteen inmates (not countin’ th’ seven guys on the boat – they’d need dip nets to figger out who’s what). Camp 4’s main building had some damage, but not much; the fire was mostly for show. A bunch o’ furs got beat up or shanked, some pretty badly. A thing like this, see, is the perfect time to settle old business.
Two days after everything, we get locked down, no explanation. After we quiet down the door opens an’ six guards walk in, four with batons and two heftin’ shotguns. With ‘em’s the warden, thin gangly bastard by name of Leary. He’d only been in the job ‘bout a year, after Two Birds retired, an’ you could see he had his tail in a twist.
He’s obviously inspectin’ us, cuz the coyote he takes a slow an’ deliberate walk down the block, pausin’ to take a long look at each of us. He gets down to the end where Pick’s cell is an’ I hear a guard yell, “Open Fifteen! Thirty-seven oh nine five ess, step out!”
That’s Pick’s number (the S is for Spontoon) and I get curious. “Reporting, sir,” I hear Pick say.
I hear Leary ask, “You Arthur Pickering?”
“You were Chief Constable down in Spontoon, from what I hear.”
I wondered what Leary was playin’ at. He could’ve learned all that in his office.
“I was wondering if you’d heard anything about the disturbance before it happened.”
“No, sir. I had no warning.”
“But word gets around. Surely you must’ve heard something.”
“Apart from the usual rumors, sir, no.”
“Grab him. Give me that.”
There’s a heavy sound, and Pick gives out a pained noise an’ starts coughin.’ “Next time you hear a rumor,” Leary snarls, “you tell someone. You get six months added to your sentence as a reminder. Now get back in your cell, convict.”
Then the guard yells, “Close Fifteen!” an’ I hears the clankin,’ followed by the door locking. Leary walks by, this time lookin’ real meanin’ful at us.
Sounds like someone’s puking down at Fifteen.
They let us out at dinnertime an’ Pick gets in line behind me. There’s no talkin’ in the servin’ line, but when we gets to a table I ask, “You okay?”
He shrugs. “He swings a mean baton - right in the nuts.” A short laugh. “Kind of stupid, really; I’m not using them for anything at the moment.”
Gettin’ everything cleaned up took a while, with furs gettin’ pulled off other work details cuz they had some skill or other that the Warden needed, like bricklayers an’ plasterers to help fix up Camp 4. Pick left the logging works since one of the trusties who do the paperwork threw in with Carlsson, an’ ended up fish food.
So he started pushin’ paper ‘stead of pushin’ logs around.
Best thing, really; he could use that degree of his. He still gave advice, an’ kept tryin’ his paw at teachin.’
September 20, 1942. God, I still remember it. Bright an’ early a guard comes up to my cell with some papers in his paw. “32-2589T?” he asks, and I shows him my number.
After makin’ sure it’s me he says, “Pack your shit up, Lashley. It’s time to go.” He walks off.
I’m standin’ there cryin’ while everyone in the block crowds around me, slappin’ me on my back and shaking my paws. A few guys started askin’ me if they could have some of my stuff, so I started givin’ it out (all but the stuff that has to go back to th’ Krop).
I hear a noise behind me an’ I turn to see Pick smilin’ fit to bust. “So, time to go.”
“Hell yeah,” I says, an’ I sticks out a paw.
After we shakes paws he asks, “So, what’re you gonna do with your clean start?”
That brought me up short. He’d talked about a clean start after that bitch torched his stuff, an’ again after he killed Yellow Sky. Tell the truth, I hadn’t given it much thought; get out, get laid, look up a few friends and start over again.
He could see I hadn’t thought it over. He puts a paw on my shoulder. “Sy, you have to start over. You have a clean slate right now, and you’d better make the right choices or you’ll be right back in here.”
“You’re soundin’ like the shaman, Pick.”
“He’s got good advice, Sy. I’m just passin’ it on to ya. Take care of yourself, an’ don’t end up in here at my age, okay?” He smiles and we shake paws again. I finish packin’ up what I want to bring out with me (not much) and head for the door.
I get escorted by a guard to th’ front office, down by the dock. Just as I get in the door I’m told to strip down to my fur.
Sign these, take those, get your old clothes back, here’s a new suit (cheap crap, but it fits, sorta-kinda), here’s some money, now get on the boat – an’ don’t come back!
The weather was great, but it wasn’t till I walked through the gate at the landward end of the dock when it finally hit me.
I was free.
I wasn’t in prison no more.
I cried, I’ll admit it; sat down on a bench and bawled like a yiffin’ baby. Then I pulled myself together and started thinking.
‘Bout two years later, I had found me a job as a dock-walloper, which gave me somethin’ to do an’ kept me outta trouble. I was stayin’ at a cheap boardin’ house run by an old lag who’d seen a need and set the place up for convicts until they’d get back on their feet.
I wasn’t rich. My pay gave me some new clothes, odds an’ ends, an’ a few drinks at a saloon. I did get laid, few times too, at the local union hall.
So here I am, helping unload a small cargo boat when I see the prison boat comin’ in to its dock. I pause to watch, an’ two furs head up the dock to the gate, an’ freedom.
I ain’t really like payin’ attention, till I see that onea them’s a fox.
“Hey, Pick!” I call out, an’ he spots me, an’ waves as he walks out th’ gate. He walks over an’ we shake paws. “Ya made it out, you old motheryiffer!”
“Yeah, here I am,” he says. He looks tired, lotta gray in his fur, but happy.
I look around, spot my boss and start to walk over to him. “Look, if ya need a job, I can put a word in for ya. Not bad work, too.”
He smiles at me. “Don’t need to,” he says. “I got a job lined up already.”
That brings me up short. “No shit? Well, we need to talk. How about a drink?”
He thinks a bit, then nods. “I need to celebrate a little.”
I manage to talk the boss into givin’ me an early lunch, and me an’ Pick go over to The Old Cripple, that’s a bar about a block in from the docks. I orders a beer, while Pick tries out the homegrown pumpkin ale. That’s tasty stuff, but I like the lager they makes in Rain Island myownself.
“So, what’s goin’ on at the Krop?” I ask.
A shrug’s all I get at first (he’s busy wipin’ his mouth). Finally he says, “Not much, but you know not much changes in there.”
“Yeah. What’s this I heard about a job?”
Now he smiles big. “Last year, I started sending out a resume. The hardest part was convincing the university to release my transcripts. The War, you know.”
I nods. That’s why there’s so much work onna docks. Ever since we beat back the Russkis, we’ve thrown in with Rain Island and them. I thought about signin’ up, but figger th’ army’s a lot like prison.
“Anyway, about a month or so ago I get a letter from Rain Island’s Education Syndicate. They were offerin’ me a teacher’s contract. Pay’s not bad, and it’s teachin’ little kids, but – “
“Beats dock-wallopin,” I says with a smile.
He grins and takes another drink. Ain’t much alcohol in pumpkin ale, which is why I figger he’s drinkin’ it. He finishes up an’ asks, “What I need now is a roof over my head, an’ a woman.”
“Nearest union hall’s about two blocks thataway,” and I points. “Ya can stay at th’ same boarding house I’m at till you head over ta Rainie.”
“That sounds great.”
When I get home from work I find Pick’s in a room down the hall from me, only staying a couple days before shippin’ out. Talk about startin’ over – he told me once that he’d hadda work on the trip up from Spontoon.
He’s wearin’ glasses, an’ grins up at me when I knock on his open door. “Have any fun at the joy house?”
“Lasted longer than I thought I would,” Pick says. “That girl’s gonna be bowlegged for a day or two, though.” We both laugh.
That night I’m in bed, thinkin.’ There ain’t nothin’ to hold me here, with nothin’ to look forward to apart from the pay.
‘Round midnight I comes to a decision.
“You’re going with me?” Pick asks. “I don’t know if I can get you a job, Sy – “
“Shut it,” I says. “I’m just along fer th’ ride. I’ll take things as they comes. ‘Sides, I can do most anything for work, even if I has to push an idiot stick.” I hold up a ticket and smile. “I bought th’ ticket and quit my job this mornin,’ so I’m going ready or not.”
“Wantin’ another clean start, huh?”
I grins at him.
Yeah, it was a clean start, fer both of us. I got two jobs, since everyone was hirin.’ I swept an’ mopped floors at the Haywood Elementary School, an’ after a bit found a job as a junior clerk in a store. Paid good, less the dues I paid into th’ Collective.
Met a cute raccoon femme named Laura who worked at anudder shop in th’ town. We dated a while ‘fore gettin’ hitched.
Pick? Well, he took the teachin’ job, an’ did real well at it. Lived by hisself in a small apartment, rentin’ from th’ local collective. I think he started seein’ a lot of some widow woman, but never got married. I guess he thought once was enough fer him.
‘Bout a month after we get there, I comes up on him readin’ th’ the newspaper from Seathl. We says hello and I asks him what he’s readin.’
He passes the paper over to me, an’ I reads about some police big shot or other in th’ Spontoons dying. I look at Pick an’ he smiles. “There was a time when I wished he’d die,” he says, “but now that he actually is dead I really can’t think of anything bad to say about him.”
We just come back from th’ cemetery, Laura an’ me an’ the kids.
Pick – Art, I mean – well, he passed away real quiet-like in his sleep. Seventy-five’s a good run, though, an’ he had no complaints; I’m forty-two with pert damn near a whole life ahead o’ me.
Just before he went he smiles at me. “Sy,” he says, “always remember the clean start.”
Like I could forget. Thanks to his advice I gots a wife, two good jobs and two great kids. Art, he’s the oldest at ten (yeah, we named him after Pick, an’ you gonna make somethin’ outta it?) and Sally’s eight. Both’ll do better’n me, or I’ll tan their little striped tails.
The preacher man asked me to say a kind word over him, an’ after Laura puts her foot to m’backside I goes on up.
“I met Art Pickering,” I says, “when he was pretty low. Prison time, lost his job an’ wife on accounta he was a bit of a prick.” Some of th’ church ladies giggle. “But he learned to make good use of a clean start,” an’ that was all I could say.
An’ he was a good teacher, too, I suppose.
One last word:
There is a moral to this tale (isn’t there always?) and that moral is that no one is beyond redemption. Everyone’s capable of taking advantage of a clean start.