Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: SKULDUGGERY (09/01/16)
TITLE: Desperate Men
By Jennifer Woodley
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Paul King’s emaciated frame slumped onto the cold, earthen floor. His closest companion, a rusty, iron chain, bound to his ankle till death-do-us-part, clunked with an unaffectionate thud beside him. He hardly noticed its painful presence anymore. Paul, once an athletic and virile man, had been torn from the warm, loving arms of his dearest attachments, a wife and two children. Then came a crime committed in desperation. He was caught, convicted and sentenced to the Tasmanian penal colony for stealing a watch. Sentenced to a hell on earth. Sentenced for the term of his natural life.
Almost an entire life of merciless whippings, meager rations, brutal chain labor, scrutinizing glares of unforgiving guards and failed attempts to escape Port Arthur penitentiary, had robbed Paul of his sanity, reason and self-hood. Who was he now? Just like the chill blasts of wind that screamed through the gaps in his cell walls, the system had blown away Paul’s true identity: he did not recognize who he had become. All that was left was a disillusioned man, lonely and broken, with nothing to anticipate in his tomorrows but torture and futile dreams of freedom.
In the early hours of this morning there was an ominous air of plotting and deceit looming in the cell. Gut wrenching hunger was driving Paul’s mind to scheme cunning confabulations with his cell mate, Jack O’Flannery. Paul lunged towards Jack, shaking him from a fitful sleep. Could Jack be trusted? That was a prodigious risk Paul was prepared to take, though he may be gambling his life on it.
Only if you knew the devilry of lingering starvation, its nightmarish torment, its black sinister thoughts, its sombre and eternal ferocity, would you, dear reader, understand the brooding thoughts Paul now whispered to Jack, his partner in crime. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight the incessant growling in his belly. But just now, as dawn’s first light seeped insidiously into the bowels of this hellish cave, neither man had a crumb of strength left in their phantom frames.
In a desperate attempt at self-preservation, they agreed to straggle their third cell mate, the notoriously brutal Lucas Dawes, freshly delivered to the Tasmanian shores for murder and highway robbery. His meal, shoved with theirs under the cell door, twice daily, would be their pitiful boon for the malevolent act. A feeble attempt to sustain their own strength for a few more days until Dawes’ death was noticed.
Now as the men’s base instinct to survive took shape, they edged towards Dawes’ sleeping form, who was ignorant of the wickedness about to befall him. Desperate insanity, combined with uncontrollable hunger, overpowered the two criminals. They had become treacherous savages in a system of justice that showed no mercy or concern for the soul of a man. Savagery and cruelty begets the same.
Dawes’ soul slipped from this world into the next, with a momentary convulsion and a low guttural groan. God have mercy on him and the countless others who believed their offences were beyond pardon in this world.
The guard, suspicious of the sideways looks and unconvincing lie of King and O’Flannery, that Dawes was too sick to work, soon discovered his stiff, cold corpse shoved carelessly into a corner. He rejoiced in this opportune moment.
Within days, O’Flannery enjoyed the temporary comfort of a handful of tobacco as King was led to the hangman’s noose for the murder of his cellmate, Lucas Dawes. A fool risk had cost King his life. But King mused that this was no life worth preserving anymore. O’Flannery grinned wickedly. He had outdone his opponent, for now. He had to watch his back. No man at Port Arthur could be trusted.
The guard, eager for transfer to the warm waters of the Norfolk Island settlement (and the promise of native women) was granted his wish for capturing the nuisance criminal King, who, he believed, had had one too many lives. All it took was a bribe of second-rate English tobacco. Desperate men, with their foibles are so easily beguiled. He wondered what had made them that way.
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