Rating: PG13 for prison violence.
AN: The inspiration for this one came from the episode Locked Up and Tied Down from Xena: Warrior Princess. As such, the real credit and dedication to this story goes to Rob Tapert and John Schulian.
Supplies came to the island every two weeks, be it medical or foodstuffs. A group of ten prisoners were herded like sheep to the seaport in the morning by a dozen guards and given the orders to pull the wagons filled to the top with crates and barrels back to the prison. This task would take close to an hour with the guards constantly prodding and shoving the inmates along, beating any who dare fall behind or fail to move faster. That was always the way things had to be done: quickly and wordlessly. Anything short of complete and utter obedience was punished with much joy and brutal efficiency.
You did not want to be disobedient.
Benjamin watched them come up the trail with bleary eyes as he stood with another group of similarly gazing convicts. It would be their turn to work once the wagons stopped before them and the weary, despondent men pulling them were mercilessly led back to the yards. Of course they had it worse, Benjamin easily admitted; they were the ones who had to push those wretched wheeled torture devices up a treacherous rock hill while his group only removed the cargo. It was unfair in so many ways, yet he did not wish for a single second that he was with them as they hiked up that trail. Even his kindness only went so far.
Abram Gibbons was second in command to the captain of the guards in Botany Bay, and it was he who oversaw supply transportation to the prison. He took great pleasure in his duties, be it surveying the activities of a party of laboring prisoners or breaking the ribs of a man who he would deem unruly. Currently, he was standing to the side of the cart with four guards, and when he gave the simple gesture to begin work, everyone took unquestioning heed. Going against the direct orders of any guard here, especially Gibbons, was one of the most unwise choices a man could have. It was a lesson learnt all too soon.
Benjamin walked silently beside a man whose face was equally ragged as the clothing that hung from his gaunt body was. They stood in line, waiting for their turn to take a supply box from the wagon. Here, you worked in pairs. Always in pairs, because there was a far slimmer chance for error if you took one end and your partner took the other, moving together to move the cargo. They would be worthless items if they were damaged by the carelessness of one man, it was quickly established. Take care not to drop them.
Which was exactly what happened when Benjamin hefted one side of a barrel on his shoulder while the other man, fatigued and worn and so weary, tried to do the same but only ended up falling to his knees and sending the cask crashing down beside them where it was, thankfully, still in one piece.
"Get up," The barber muttered, a hint of anxiety and fear creeping into his voice. He knelt beside the downed man—Mason, his name was, at least Benjamin thought he heard the others call him that—and grabbed him by the arms, pulling him up. "Quick. Come on."
Mason was numbly nodding to everything Benjamin said; it was doubtful that he was even hearing him, given the detached look in his eyes. This man did not just need food and sleep: he needed a doctor. He was sick, anyone could see that, especially a barber surgeon who still had the drive and capacity to recognize the wounded and show a mite of compassion for them, even here.
"Are you okay?" He whispered to the other man, unaware of the approaching heavy footsteps and terrible silence that had fallen upon them. Every eye was on them as Gibbons strode over to the two and cast a foreboding eye upon the two inmates.
"And what's going on here?"
The five dreaded words. Benjamin turned to the second-in-command as Mason huddled closer to Ben in a cowering fright. He was certainly hearing this.
Benjamin would have gulped if his throat was not so dry. "He's too tired," He hopelessly replied, knowing full well that this would not end for the both of them but God have mercy if he lied. "He cannot lift anymore."
Gibbons glanced from the guard standing beside him to Mason with a sickly, feigned smile of sympathy. "Aww, 'e's too tired?"
When he motioned with a simple, quick move of his hand, the guard stepped forward and grabbed Mason, throwing him back to the group of prisoners behind them. All were watching with a sudden interest at the proceedings as Gibbons approached Benjamin and leered in his face. It was obvious what would happen next.
"Yer a real hero, aren't you?" He sneered at the barber, who had since lowered his head to the muddy ground.
There was mild surprise on Gibbons' end before he snorted and punched Benjamin in the cheek. It was not hard enough to break a bone, but it was enough to leave a quickly darkening purple bruise that would surely turn blacker before afternoon would come. Benjamin was knocked back against the wagon where he looked back up at Gibbons with a mixture of bewildered pain and delayed fear.
"You just talked back to me," Gibbons snarled. His fist was still curled. "Didn't you?"
Benjamin's upper lip trembled. "N-no—"
He gasped when a second punch was delivered, this time to his gut. He felt his knees buckle, and he fell in a heap beside the barrel just as Mason. Benjamin was still panting and struggling to breathe when Gibbons aimed a vicious kick at the barber's legs, and this time, he did not try to hold in his cries of agony.
"Don't you EVER TALK BACK TO ME," Gibbons screamed at Benjamin's squirming form. "IF I SAY YER A HERO, YER A HERO!"
Screeching this last word, he kicked Benjamin again and only seemed to calm down when he yelled out, louder than before. The prisoners behind them watched in sickened muteness as Gibbons chuckled and shook his head as if he was watching a child take his first steps.
He laughed, tilting his head.
"Yer a real hero, aren't you?" He asked, loudly emphasizing each word. His smile widened as the twitching, muddy Benjamin sobbed something inaudible. "Wha' was that?"
Tears trailed down Benjamin's dirty, bruised cheeks. "I'm a...real...hero," He wept. Everyone heard him this time, and it was some remarkable wonder that the convicts that hadn't lowered their heads turned away, affronted. Respect could be found even here, it seemed, from the most unlikely sources.
Gibbons' steely gaze hardened. "Good, Mister Hero."
He darted forward and grabbed the barber by the collar and pulled him to his feet, where his head lolled slightly to the side but always kept its gaze leveled to the guard.
"I want ye to unload all the cargo and set it up against the wall. Now."
Gibbons glanced over his shoulder to the rest of the group and spoke brashly, "And I want the hero to do this by 'imself! If any of you lot so much 'as lift a finger to 'elp 'im, you'll get a dozen lashings fer insubordination from me!"
He released his grip from Benjamin and sent the barber reeling back where he continued to gaze up at Gibbons with that glossily dismayed stare until the second-in-command walked back to his friend, chatting quietly but animatedly that you couldn't be gentle with these criminals, you had to show discipline. But Benjamin knew he was still watching him from the corner of his eye, so he shakily but quickly turned back to the cart and began lifting another barrel.
He was never quite so willing to stop and help a fellow prisoner after that.