Originally published in The New Yorker, May 16, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 83.
The only problem with Rash's story is that it's a bit too reliable: from the moment we learn that Sinkler -- a "trusty" who is allowed to roam free in return for his hauling water (from wells at the neighboring farms) to the chained members of his hard-labor prison gang -- was arrested for scamming people, you can't help but look for the genre's all-too-familiar double-cross. It's awfully convenient, one thinks, that at the particular farm Sinkler winds up cadging water from, there's a young woman being oppressed by her older husband; moments later, this turns to suspicion: OK, why is this young woman being allowed to spend so much time with the sly young con man? When she's the one to suggest an escape plan for the two of them, the one who has played cold, then hot; dumb, then smart; soft, then strong, it's pretty clear where we're going. But they do say that half the fun's the journey.
Rash chooses to use a rougher dialect without bothering to explain certain expressions -- it lends a neat authenticity to the setting that distracts, in the most elegant of ways, from the mechanics of the plot. "He asked Vickery if someone could spell him, and the bull guard smiled" "plenty enough cush to get him across the Mississippi," and "Lucy Sorrell had given him the icy mitts, but he had a month to warm her up" are just a few examples of the sound of the piece. And unlike an earlier piece (David Means's "Tree Line, Kansas, 1934"), at least this one has a strong plot to hang its hat on. It is, in other words, enjoyable to read, even if it's not particularly telling or deep:
It would be another hot, dry, miserable day and he'd be out in it. At quitting time he'd go back and wash up with water dingy enough to clog a strainer, eat what would gag a hog, then at nine o'clock set his head on a grimy pillow. Three and a half more years. Sinkler studied the ridgeline, found the gap that would lead to Ashville.
No, this is a story that knows exactly what it's doing, and savors the telling of it. That sure hand is what allows the ending to remain satisfying, despite not being particularly surprising. Rash has many ways in which to describe Sinkler and Lucy's ultimate fate, but rather than being direct about it, he draws a closer bead on Sinkler's thought process and allows him to figure out where this is all going, ending the story just moments before the action actually occurs. It's a final glimpse into Sinkler's mind, and if it doesn't exactly deepen his character (who really only seems to exist to live free by his own rules), it does show us what it's like to have such a clever, doomed mind.