Lewis brought the axe down with as much force as his body could muster. It flashed between Milton's
outstretched legs, hitting the chain dead centre. The link cracked open. Milton grinned in relief.
"That's her, Lewis. That's her."
He lifted the iron bracelet above his left ankle to reveal a red mark which encircled his flesh. He
gently rubbed the redness with both thumbs and shook his head in disgust. "Like animals. Treated us
like dogs. Like a herd of pack animals. I swear, if I ever seen any of them jailers . . ."
He stopped mid-sentence. Lewis wasn't listening, but was staring into the distance. He followed Lewis's
look. "What ye seeing, Lewis?"
Lewis didn't answer right away. He ran his hand along the axe handle. The shaft was nearly up to his
waist. "Nothing, I guess. Eagle's shadow, maybe."
Milton squinted into the distance. "No eagles round these parts. A hawk probably."
Lewis snorted. "Makes no never mind, eagle or hawk. We ain't gonna catch neither." He looked around him,
taking in the well-tended fields and rows of neatly trimmed hedgerows with contempt. The hill they had
chosen afforded a good look out place, but there wasn't much to look at. "Not even a goddamn carrot."
"Too early," Milton answered. "Be nothing for another couple of months or so."
"Must be something they could a growed in winter."
Milton laughed. "Lordy Lewis, you ain't never done no farming, have ye?"
Lewis spat onto the ground. "Nope. Never will neither." He rested the axe against the nearby tree, and
placed his hand on his stomach. "No good being free if we're gonna die of starvation, Milton. That farm
house we got the axe at last night is looking mighty tempting."
Milton eyes darted across Lewis's face. "Better not, Lewis. If one of them escaped . . ."
"No one will escape."
Milton stopped rubbing his red ankle. Some of his natural colour was coming back. He slowly picked up
the loose chains attached to the bracelet of each ankle and carefully tied them to his calves with
strips he tore off his trouser legs. He spoke without looking up. "You ever think a them young 'uns
that died in that fire?"
"Nope," Lewis answered flatly.
"I mean," Milton continued, "there weren't nothing we could a done." He glanced up at his companion.
Lewis face was a cold sneer. "Weren't there?"
Milton snapped his head away, but Lewis's words burned into his mind. Milton shook his head. Lewis
was wrong. They'd been chained together when they'd broke from the road crew that day, his left leg
to Lewis's right. There was nothing they could of done. Nothing.
Neither said anything for a time, then Milton heard Lewis gasp. He looked up to see Lewis staring
out across the distant fields again. Milton followed his look—this time he saw something. A
man. An old man bent over with age, carrying a walking stick. The man carried a rough knapsack on
his back. Milton spoke in a whisper. "You reckon he seen us?"
Lewis shook his head. "Nah." Both of them watched the old man cross the fields. "Farmer?"
"Maybe. Or a hand."
Lewis spat again. "Bit old to be a hand. What you reckon he's got in that knapsack?"
Milton shook his head. "No point in taking risks, Lewis. We've only two more days. Two days and
we're over the line—and then we're free, free."
Lewis pinched his stomach."If we don't die a hunger first. I ain't suggesting nothing. Just asking
him for a bit to eat, is all. Maybe he's got some dried beef or something."
Milton allowed this to roll around his head for a bit. The hunger pains he'd kept under control now
barked into his ear. "No harm asking, I guess." He stood up, stretched a little, hooked his thumbs
into his trouser belt and moved forward. Lewis fell into line with him, picking the axe up as he did so.
"Why you bringing that?" Milton hissed, pointing at the axe.
"To valuable to leave here. Besides, we might be able to trade it for some grub."
Milton paused for a bit, then nodded. Both men moved in silent rhythm towards the bottom of the hill.
* * *
The old man didn't hear them approach. It wasn't a walking stick he carried, but the handle of a scythe,
the blade of which had seen better days. He was using the farm tool as a prop to hold him upright as he
walked, but the blade was catching dirt as he crossed the fresh furrows of soil, making the enterprise
somewhat futile. They were about six feet away and Milton was about to call out a 'Howdy', but Lewis
moved like a leopard and hit the old man across the back of the head with the axe handle. The old man
slumped, head first, to the ground.
"What you do that fer?" growled Milton.
"Don't be so naïve," Lewis snapped. "He weren't gonna give us anything. We'll be long gone 'fore he even
knows what hit him. Might even think it was a dream. Now keep an eye out 'til I look in his knapsack."
Lewis bent down and quickly ripped the knapsack off the old man's back. He pulled it open and peered
inside. Dissatisfied with what he saw, he upturned the sack and shook the contents free. Only two
items fell out. A coat, and a white canister of some kind. Lewis picked up the coat and pressed and
patted it through thoroughly. Empty. He lifted the coat up to take a better look. It was an old faded
black overcoat—more like a tent-coat that a freight-hopping hobo might wear, complete with with
a sewn-on hood and two oversized sleeves. Lewis grimaced; the coat was as old and ragged as its owner.
He threw it onto the ground in disgust and grabbed the white canister. But it wasn't a canister—it
was a sheet of paper which had furled up into a roll. He unrolled the sheet. It was blank. He waved the
sheet towards Milton. "What you make of this?"
Milton quickly glanced at the sheet. "I don't make anything of it. Lewis, we gotta get outta here."
Lewis threw the paper on the ground in anger. "Milton, what do you see?" he asked.
"Exactly. Nothing. And lots of it. No one around for miles. Now keep your jitters under control and help
me search this old-timer. Maybe he's got something in his pockets." Milton frowned, but he did as Lewis
requested. They both grabbed the old man's shoulder and turned him over.
Milton stepped back in shock. "He's dead."
Lewis looked down at the old man's face, his lifeless eyes, his frozen stare. "Yup. Reckon he is at that."
He gave a grin and winked at Milton. "Guess it was his time."
Milton gave Lewis a look, but said nothing. He watched silently as Lewis ran his hands along each side of
the corpse, cursing that there were no pockets. Lewis patted the old man down, head to toe. Lewis spat.
"Not a goddamn thing."
Then something glimmered. Lewis glanced towards the piece of paper he had emptied from the old man's
knapsack. He reached out, picked it up, and lifted it to the sun. The paper sparkled. It was then he
noticed the two glittering lines which ran down each side of the paper. He looked at Milton, his face a question.
"Gold leaf," Milton said.
Milton shook his head. He then glanced at the dead body below him. "Lewis, we gotta bury him. It's the decent thing to do."
Lewis snorted. "Decent don't come into it. It's the sensible thing to do. Dead bodies bring police. But
nothing fancy, mind. Just enough to hide him."
Milton nodded. "I'll break off a couple of posts from that fence, for digging," he said pointing to the edge of the field.
Lewis nodded in agreement. He looked at the paper in his hand. The two lines shone in the sunlight. For a moment,
he thought he saw some words scribbled across it, but a closer look showed nothing. Trick of the light. Anyways,
valuable or not, he was taking it with him.
* * *
The makeshift screen was ugly, but it kept the night wind off—most of it anyways. Lewis glanced across at
the sleeping Milton, envying his ability to sleep anywhere, anytime. Thankfully, he had finally stopped snoring—else
Lewis wasn't sure he could hold out another two days without killing him. Milton was a coward and a sneak, but honest after
a fashion. Lewis didn't doubt the con had family across the Pennsylvanian border. But he did doubt that they'd be welcoming
him with open arms. Still, it was his best—his only—option for now.
Cleveland was only a few days on from there. Detroit maybe a week or so more. Then up to Winnipeg and the open plains of
Canada. Shortage of ranch hands there, so Milton said. A new country, a new start. Lewis was so enamoured with these
thoughts that he didn't hear the old man approach until he was an arm's length away. And in that arm was a scythe.
The slice of the scythe through bone was enough to wake Milton from his slumber. He bolted upright at the sound. The
figure that stood over the headless body of Lewis did not resemble the old man they had buried. But Milton knew it was
him. Only now, he didn't seem so frail. The scythe was not being used as a walking aid, but held high with one hand, blade-side
up. The old black overcoat hung loosely upon his frame, the hood half covering his face. His free hand protruded from the coat's
oversized left sleeve. It held a white scroll. Milton recognised it. The old man dropped the scroll onto the ground. It was only
then Milton noticed the three small children who were gathered around the hooded figure.
The old man turned and walked off into the distance, closely followed by the children. Milton watched them go, his body rigid
with fear. But, despite the fear, he forced himself to take a closer look at the gold trimmed piece of blank white paper which
now lay open on the earth. But the paper was no longer blank. On it was written a name.
Milton M. Grumman.
Milton's eyes bulged outwards, like some crazy frog.
And that is how they remained two days later when the local deputy sheriff found him. The deputy had no trouble easing Milton into
his wagon, no trouble guiding him through the prison gates of the Western State Penitentiary in Pittsburgh some days later. And
those jailers who brought Milton to his solitary confinement cell had no trouble either.
It took a good three months to get the full story out of prisoner Milton. Chief Keeper, Captain Mortimer E. Sheridan, more or
less laughed when he heard it. Clearly the two cons got into a fight, and Grumman got lucky with the axe they'd stolen. He was
doing life anyway, so it made no difference, and Lewis Bollinger was hardly a loss to humanity. But the story Milton told was an
enjoyable one. The piece of paper with his name etched on it was a nice touch—must have taken him quite a while to get it
so fancy. Yup, all the story missed was a deer-toed, red-horned, goatee-wearing devil to make it perfect.
But when Chief Sheridan heard the screams that came from Grumman's cell a few nights later, his heart thumped just as hard and
as fast as any man on duty that night.
They reached the cell, but none of the jailers reached for their cell keys. Finally the Chief cussed and pushed the others aside.
The lock clunked open and the heavy iron door swung wide into the corridor. Half of Chief Keeper Sheridan knew what he'd see when
he stepped into the cell, the other half dismissed the idea as preposterous.
But the first half was right. Milton M Grumman's head rested in a corner of the cell. His headless body was slumped upright against
the bed, legs out, arms folded, like a man reading a book—only this one wasn't reading. Though there was something in his hands.
Chief Sheridan walked over to the corpse. He lifted the sheet of white paper out of the Milton's death grip and opened it flat. It
was blank, save for two gold lines which ran down each side. The carefully etched name of Milton M Grumman was no more. Chief
Sheridan glanced around the cell to confirm what he already knew. There were no holes in the wall, no tunnel from outside, not a
single window bar had been touched. Then he noticed something at the base of the late Milton M Grumman's left leg. Despite the
cold sweat which was now forming on his brow, he forced himself to take a closer look. He lifted the trouser leg up. There,
around the corpse's ankle was a deep red ring, cut down to the bone. Any deeper, the ankle would have snapped off. He glanced
at Milton's hands. Both thumbnails were stained dark with blood. The chief spoke without turning around. "Tell the shop to make
up a coffin—a strong one. Nothing pretty, nothing fancy. Just strong. I want it here within the hour."
* * *
Some said Doctor Francis Julius LeMoyne was a madman, a lunatic in league with the devil. A man with no soul, no respect
for the sacred, no respect for the church, no respect for the dead. Others called him a visionary, a humanitarian, a
modern day saviour who had the courage to do what needed to be done to rid Pennsylvania of deadly plague and pestilence
left by unsavoury and unsanitary corpses.
Whatever the truth, the crematory he had opened a couple of years previously, in 1876, had not done as brisk a business
as the good doctor had hoped. Not that he had brought the crematory to Washington Pennsylvania to make a profit. Far
from it. But should some income be raised from some wealthy patron to keep the furnaces burning, so to speak, well,
he certainly would not refuse such good fortune. And no patron had deeper pockets than the good folk at Western State
Penitentiary. Sadly, their custom was infrequent. But no less welcome for that. So even though it was in the middle of
the night when he had received the phone call from the prison, and the required paperwork would not be ready until the
following morn, he had sent out a housemaid to rouse his one employee to attend to the matter, forthwith.
Mister Briggs, the manager, book-keeper, 'meeter and greeter', and truth be told, oven sweeper, of the United States of
America's only crematory, waited patiently at the doors of his employer's creation. He stifled a yawn with one hand,
sipped coffee from the other. He hoped the good doctor would add a little extra in his pay packet for this unruly
intrusion upon his sleep.
After a while he began to consider returning to bed, but at that very moment a wagon came thundering up over the
ridge of the road. Minutes later it screeched to a halt outside the crematory. The wagon doors were flung open
front and back and a total of six jailers jumped out of it. Without word or gesture they wrestled a rough-looking
coffin out of the back of the wagon and proceeded towards the waiting Briggs, who tried to hide a grimace at such
undignified actions. He opened the crematory main doors and allowed the entourage to pass through.
Another man stepped out of the wagon. Briggs recognised him as the Chief Jail Keeper, Captain Mortimer E. Sheridan.
The chief gave him a brief salute, Briggs returned the gesture. The chief approached him, handing him a scroll of
white paper. "Make sure this burns with the coffin," he said. Briggs looked at the piece of paper. He was about to
say that this was hardly a time for joking, but something in the chief's demeanour told him to keep quiet. The
chief passed him by without any further communication.
Sometime later when he had collected the ashes into a cheap but ornate urn, Mister Briggs stepped outside of the
crematory. Sometimes a prisoner's family would spring for a good—or even expensive—urn. His gut told
him that this was an unlikely candidate, but it was worth a shot. The six jailers were standing around, the chief
a little further off, smoking a cigar. Briggs approached the chief, ornamental urn in hand. "Thought you'd given
them up?" he said, nodding to the cigar.
"So did I", Sheridan replied. "Is it done?"
Briggs nodded. "So, chief, what will I do with these ashes?"
The chief didn't look at the urn. He turned to follow the other men who had already started walking towards the
wagon. He spoke over his shoulder.
"Send them back to hell," he said. Moments later, the wagon was nothing but a dot on the horizon.
Briggs watched them go. He looked at the urn in his hand and sighed. He went to the side of the crematorium, lifted
the lip of the urn and scattered the ashes onto the ground around a nearby willow tree, where the ashes of so many
others had been scattered before. He knocked the urn against the brick wall of the crematorium, then took out a
rag and wiped it clean. The urn would have to wait another day for someone to claim ownership of it. Meanwhile, it
would do nicely as a storage jar for that fancy gold leaf scroll of paper the sheriff had asked him to burn.
Might as well get some value out of working such an ungodly hour.