Off the track

A shabby cart barely fit to carry dirt arrived at Toulon filled with men. They were chained together. That was the way it should be. The convicts were miserable, as was their due. They had broken the law. They were not humans. They were convicts.

The guards to the chain of prisoners learned their faces and their numbers. The prisoners learned the guards' names. The difference between them lay in this sign of sentience. The guards were just as bound to the prison as the convicts. They did not leave at night. There was no happy family waiting around the hearth to greet them. They only had each other. Most of the guards were silent throughout the day, speaking only to reprimand convicts who committed minor infractions. The culprit would then receive a harsh beating.

Sometimes there was more than a beating. A prisoner might find himself violated in front of his fellows, enduring a pain worse than the constant miseries of life in the prison. Prisoner 24601 was not the most likely candidate for this humlilation, because he was strong enough to defend himself against a single guard. The greater pain was not something the guards liked to share with each other, and so 24601 was safe until his fellow convicts betrayed him.

The chains were a constant part of life, and heavy enough to drag at the spirit of the most joyous man. With the addition of rough hands, though, the burden became too much even for the strongest inmate. The others on the chain held him down. One growled, "You've gotten away one time too many."

"If you touch me, I will kill you," 24601 promised as he tried to free himself.

Harsh laughter answered him. "We don't have to touch you ourselves. Look, here is a guard. Monsieur Javert, we have your favorite for you, all ready."

24601's pants were torn away. The guard laughed as unpleasantly as the convicts who captured his prey. "The strong one is brought to earth at last." There was more pain, and bitter indignity, but with a man on each arm and the broad body of the guard on him, 24601 could not escape. It was not over soon enough for any participant. "Don't forget this. You're as vulnerable as the rest of us."

"I never will."

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