King's Row

The door opened and the boy walked in hesitantly, his hands out in front of him. The man in the next cell sat quite still and watched, because it was part of his trade and he did it from habit. There was dried blood in the boy's hair and a dirty bandage slipping down over one eye. He took two steps forward and cracked his shins against the bunk. The man heard his arm and wrist bang against it as he fell over. It made a lot of noise.

The deputy slammed the cell door shut and locked it, and the boy got up slowly. He looked lost, standing there trying to figure out what else lay around him.

"Friend," the man said quietly, "There's a bucket in the corner furthest away from you but apart from that, she's empty."

The boy turned at the sound of his voice. "Thanks, mister," he said, and his voice was hoarse. "Didn't know there was somebody there."

"Name's Ben Shepard. Been here a while - they're waitin' on the judge, to try me."

"I'm Jess Harper."

"You blind?"

The boy's chin came up. "Mebbe. They ain't sure yet."

"Fight?"

"Yeah." He turned around and cautiously backed up to the bunk and sat down.

"Reckon t'other fellow, he didn't come out so well?" Shepard asked.

"It was a fair fight."

"They always are."

The boy ignored him and lay on his side, facing the wall.

The afternoon dwindled away into dusk and the deputy brought in a tray with two plates of beans and two coffee cups on it. He opened the boy's cell and put the dishes on the floor before he served Shepard. The man waited until the door closed behind the deputy's back.

"You hungry, bub?"

"I could eat," The boy said sullenly.

"Stand up then and take little steps until I tell you to stop. Hold it! That's far enough." Shepard warned. "Don't bend over, you'll bang your head on the bars. Plate's about half a hand away from the toe of your boot. Squat and feel for it."

He managed to pick up the plate without spilling anything.

"All right then. There's a cup of coffee to your left. Watch it, you're - goddammit. Deputy won't be happy 'bout havin' to clean that up."

The boy straightened. His face was sweaty and he was breathing like he'd run a race. "I'd have liked some coffee," he said bitterly.

"Back up, " Shepard advised him. "Three steps straight back and you can sit down."

Jess made it without dropping anything else and they ate the way working men eat, quickly and without speaking. Shepard swallowed half of his coffee.

"Hold out your hand towards me," he ordered. When the boy obeyed, his hand stretched out towards the bars, Shepard closed his fingers around the cup. "Don't spill none of it."

Jess drank the lukewarm brew slowly and Shepard watched him. Finally he broke the silence.

"How old are you, bub?"

A wary look came over the boy's face. "Twenty-one. Why?"

"No reason. You were in the army?"

"Mebbe."

Shepard grinned. A faded line ran down each seam of the boy's tattered butternut pants where the service stripe had been torn off. Cavalry, probably - the boy had the look of a horseman. After a while he spoke again.

"You play checkers?"

"My pa did. He never had time to learn me, though."

"It's a game you can play just as good without seein.' I'll get us a board and I could show you."

"I'd like to play," the boy said, and the sudden eagerness in his voice made him sound very young.

"Your pa know you're in here?"

"He's dead."

"No other kin?"

"None alive." He clipped the words off without emotion.

"You a Texan?" Shepard asked, glancing at his boots.

"Panhandle."

"Pa was a rancher?"

"When he was sober." Jess hesitated. "Mister, I reckon it's none of my business -"

The man forestalled him. "Murder. I've killed six men. You get the name of bein' a little too fast with a gun and sooner or later it catches up with you. Last fellow I shot had a lot of friends."

When the deputy came back for the dishes, he cursed at the spilled coffee but agreed to find them a checker board. It was shoved through the door with their meal next morning. Shepard upended the bucket in his cell and placed it next to the bars, unfolding the board across it and neatly laying out the black and red pieces.

"The idea in this game," he began, "Is to get your men down to the last row, the king's row." He took Jess' right hand by the wrist and guided it to the edge of the board. "You move them like this…"

The trial was set for Tuesday and for the next three days, they played checkers. Every day Jess got a little better and on Monday evening he was able to play Shepard to a draw.

They came for Shepard before noon on Tuesday, the sheriff and two deputies, one walking behind him and one on each side even though the man was shackled. The boy sat on his bunk and listened to street noises and the wind blowing through the window. It seemed like a terribly long time before they brought him back.

"Well, bub," Shepard said as the handcuffs were removed. "Looks like we won't be playin' checkers much longer."

Jess got up and came carefully over, curling his hands around the bars. He waited for the sheriff to leave before he asked, "When?"

"Tomorrow morning. Early, before it gets too hot."

That night, for the first time, Jess won.

"Nice goin'," remarked his opponent.

"I'm sorry," Jess said, and his throat felt tight, almost as if he was going to bawl like a baby. "I didn't want to."

"You dumb bastard," Shepard told him. "Do you think it hurts anything, you beatin' me? Win. Always win, if you can do it on the square. "

He stood up and took a turn around his cell, stopping at the window.

"Listen to me. Life is kind of like checkers. You're goin' to get jumped and took off, sometimes. But don't ever try to go any way but straight down the line. Even if you get jumped, you can still get yourself to the king's row. "

He came back to the board and sat down. "Let's see if you can do that again."

They played until daybreak and were still hunched over the board when the outer door opened and the sheriff came in, solemn-faced and with his deputies behind him.

"Time to go, Shepard. There's quite a crowd waitin' on you."

The prisoner stood up. "Take me by the jakes, first."

He looked over to the other cell. "You been in the war. You know what happens when a man dies sudden."

Jess nodded. Shepard said quietly, "If I can, I want to go clean. A man shouldn't meet his Maker with shit all over him."

"You ready?" The sheriff asked.

Shepard stopped at the door and called back over his shoulder. "You remember what I said about that king's row, son. Right down the line. They can't beat you if you play it straight down the line."

The boy heard the creak of hinges and then the sound of footsteps, fading away. He sat, waiting, rubbing his damp hands against his pants legs. He knew it was coming but it still took him by surprise, a sharp cracking noise like a flat rock hitting the surface of water, and then a faint roar from the people watching.

"Straight down the line," he whispered. He felt his way back to the bunk and lay down, his face turned to the wall.