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1958 Nashville, Tennessee
A thunderstorm cleared half hour before. Water slithered off the top of the truck as it creaked to stop. A heavy white man called Wyman in short sleeve shirt and khaki trousers stepped out from the cab. He moved to wait confidently by the tailgate holding a worn twelve gauge pump. In cadence, Bowers the white driver with a silver badge on his shirt and billy club in his belt came around with the key. He turned the key and twisted the hasp. The door flapped open.
An unbound and indigo-faced man in a stained denim outfit hesitated at the portal. Barely five feet tall. Ash hair. Jimmy the trustee carried a roughly made wooden block for the routine. He jumped down to place the block below the door. Next he unhooked two water cans with dippers off the sideboard for both the gang and the guards.
Another black man in a dusty uniform appeared in the daylight. Mechanically and slowly he stepped down followed by nine more. All black faces. They formed a line. Each man was chained at his ankles. The ten were connected by a longer measure of steel that threaded between their legs.
Bowers called out each man's name. He check marked the convict number on a manila form held tightly by his clipboard. Like good children of another time the men spoke out loud only when spoken to. Last in the column was Walter Hyde.
Walter blinked in the bright light and gazed at the guard. He thought to himself. "Whoa, lookee here. This cracker some trouble. Walter, Walter. Just be jailbird. Man, you know how."
Bowers kicked the long chain and jerked Walter forward close to get his attention. "Hyde, Walter. Number seven, three, four, five, seven. Now, you must be the one that hides, correct Walter?"
"Yessuh," Walter slowly replied and spit languidly.
Inside Walter knew it was a bad thing to do. He swallowed and muttered almost silently, "Man, whatta you think. That hunky's gonna come down on you hard. Actin' stupid. Damn!"
Bowers nosed even closer and softly threatened. "Now, Walter. You spittin' across me. You know we just got a job to do heah. You take it easy and there won't be no problem, Walter. You heah me, boy?"
Walter held his look on the guard. "Yessuh! No problem, suh." Walter nodded down. Moved backward to the others.
Behind his eyes Walter built an image of a slave days chain gang. "No different. I need Nat Turner here. I need Joe Louis." He caught himself. "At least rain and cool. Could be worse. Last week a hundred ten degrees."
Bowers jolted Walter out of the daydream with a billy club jab into the convict's ribs. "Walter! Listen up!" He ordered the line. "Now all you boys. Time to unhook."
Wyman moved the twelve gauge barrel up toward the gang. Back up for his partner. Bowers unsealed a padlock, pulled the hitch links out from the men's legs. The chain fell into a hive on the asphalt.
"Jimmy, pack away that tether and get the tools down off the truck."
Jimmy moved with measured steps set by a lifetime behind bars. He carefully placed the water can on the dirt. He gathered up the chain pile and stowed it on a shelf by the rear wheels. From a metal case on the same side, he handed out a shovel or a pickaxe for each gang man.
Wyman carefully inspected each inmate's leg irons. He kept a safe distance. Some men held tools which in an instant could become deadly weapons.
Wyman remembered the old rule for prison guards. "The only con you can trust is a dead one, but first you make sure he's really dead."
"All right! All you boys. Git movin' down this way. Let's go! Step 'n step." Bowers called out.
He motioned forward with his hand. The men slowly paced in clattering rhythm down the hill. The shackles made a flat ringing sound.
Reminded Bowers of church music. He faintly whistled "Standing in the Need of Prayer." The gang shuffled along with Wyman in the lead.
Walter loved being outdoors. He paused to think about that moment beyond the walls. "Smells good. Grass and leaves and dandelions. Damn cell reeks. Like rotten possum dead on a road."
Ten yards later Wyman interrupted the walking daydream. "Hey, Walter! Wake up! Let's get down to the work. What are you waitin' for, Christmas?"
"All right, boys. First rain, and now a gang that's movin' like they sleepin'. State road man marked the start over heah." Wyman almost shouted. He stood beside the chalk line on the surface. He traced the line with the barrel of the twelve gauge to find his place.
"Boys! Start heah. Punch through to the dirt. All along that white line."
The chain gang grouped along the marks, and some few began to pickaxe the asphalt into fragments. Others with shovels scraped the shards up and hurled them onto piles across the ditch. Wyman and Bowers eyed each other as they settled into counting off the hours for the morning's work.
A mile up the road, an almost teenage boy, Harmon and his friend, Tommy steered their bicycles out of the driveway. Harmon rode a new English. A Raleigh with thin tires and compression brakes. Tommy pedaled a Schwinn borrowed from Harmon's sister.
"Last one to the crossroads is a dead frog! You can't catch me," Harmon dared his friend.
"You got more gears than me," complained Tommy.
Faster and faster Harmon spindled down the long grade of gritty, soggy tarmac. Tommy trailed behind on the slower, single gear American.
High above, dirty rain clouds bumped into one another. The distilled mist fell onto the chain gang as they dug into the road. After five or six swings of the pick Walter Hyde lifted his head. He shook his shoulders to prepare muscles for more long days work. He noticed the two boys, uphill rushing toward his gang. Downhill an ancient, maroon Buick snaked out of it's lane on the big highway and careened left. Walter turned to see in the distance a beehive hairdo woman at the wheel approaching.
All at once she grinned. She grated her teeth. She punched buttons on her radio. She steered completely unaware of the world beyond her dashboard. The old glider rumbled into the wrong lane, and aimed directly toward the fettered men on the pavement.
Walter rose to warn his mates, "Hey! Look out boys! Wild car's a comin'!"
In the moment before he jumped for safety Walter pivoted to see the white boy on the top-heavy Raleigh. The zigzagging Buick scared both boys toward the prisoners. Unable to slow or avoid the lead boy's wheel slipped on a chunk of asphalt. The other boy slid across the road. Safe haven.
Walter recoiled as Raleigh boy Ferris-wheeled on a path through the gang. In a flash Walter remembered a lanky, black man who failed escape and fell to his death.
Terrified, tightly gripping the handle bars the boy skipped onward into direct path of the dizzy Buick. By instinct and luck Walter's long arm flipped into the trajectory of the tumbling boy. In one dance-like movement Walter gathered the boy and bike up over his shoulder and forced to safety.
In unison the prisoners and the two guards vaulted for cover on the dirt bank. With a roar and a screech the Buick pinballed off the prison truck and toppled upside down into the drainage ditch.
The guards and some few prisoners hurried to help the crazy woman.
Walter grabbed a water can and a towel and went to the boy who lay stunned on the ground. Walter pressed the towel on the boy's forehead abrasions.
"Hyde, what you doin'?" Jimmy the trustee came over fearful.
"I was a medic in the army, Jimmy. Get me that red cross kit up in the truck. Boy's not bleeding bad, but his breath's hard. Maybe he's got a concussion. He hit the ground pretty damn hard." Walter's voice assured Jimmy who ran for the truck.
Walter looked directly into the boy's eyes. "Boy. Boy! Listen to me! Can you see me? What's your name, boy? Say it to me. Sit up a bit."
The boy slowly focused on the big man's face inches from his and blinked. "Yeah. I see you okay mister. I'm Harmon. That car was goin' to kill me!"
"Sure enough Harmon. You keep still for a minute. But don't go to sleep now." He pressed the cotton towel to the boy's forehead. Tears came up around Harmon's eyes. Walter comforted him. "You gonna be fine, Harmon. Just keep on sittin'. I'm an army medic. I'll take care of you. You're not hurt so bad. You very lucky, boy."
Walter looked at the other white boy across the road watching, waiting next to his bike.
Tommy called hesitant from across the road. "Hey, Harmon! You need any help?"
"Naw, I reckon I'll live, Tommy."
Walter stared for a few slow heartbeats at Tommy. Harmon noticed the sadness in the gray and brown of the chained man's eyes.
"Walter." Wyman broke in. "I reckon that crazy, drunk woman was tryin' to kill us all. This boy all right?"
"Yessuh! No problem, suh." Walter reprised the role of the loyal inmate.
The guard cautioned. "You stick with him, an' I'll be right up the road. We'ah helpin' the woman."
Walter nodded in compliance. Jimmy the trustee appeared with the first-aid kit. Walter gently dabbed the wound with alcohol. Harmon flinched.
"It stings a little. But we gots to clean you up. I don't believe you need stitches, boy. When you get home aks you Mamma to put on a new dressing." Walter placed a band aid on the scrape.
Suspiciously eyeing his friend, Tommy stayed in protected territory opposite the convicts and the guards. With Walter's help Harmon stood uncertainly and walked the Raleigh across the road to join Tommy.
"Harmon, you skinned up pretty bad, huh? I tell you, I was scared of those old cons." Tommy whispered. "Those convicts are all murderers. That's why they're in chains."
"Shut up Tommy, and grow up! They ain't so bad, and that one helped me, a lot. Te saved me from the crazy woman." Harmon nodded across the road to Walter while correcting his younger friend.
Walter returned the nod and muttered to the trustee. "Jimmy, I'm just thinkin' I'll be seeing you on down the road."
"What you mean by that Walter?" Jimmy could barely finish the question.
Walter jumped across the road. In a fluster he grabbed Tommy's Schwinn and started to pedal. Tommy yelled out. Walter's leg chains got tangled for a moment. Walter stumbled. He pulled over to get control of the pedals.
Alarmed and angry above. Wyman swung the shot gun up. Sighted and fired two shots quickly. The first scattered across the road. The second cut across Walter's right hand on the handle grips shearing off his two outside fingers.
Blood spurted over the amazed convict. The two fingers splattered onto the asphalt. Walter spun around going faster and faster to freedom.
Tommy stared. Harmon yelled, "Stop it! Don't shoot!"
Wyman shouted loud. "Hyde you stop there!"
Walter ignored the blood. Ignored the shouts of the guards. Got the bike under control. He pedaled faster speeding down the road. Wyman missed two more shots. Bowers threw his billy club after Walter in hopeless anger. The delirious woman squeezed out of the Buick and screamed nonstop.
Bowers turned on her. "Shut up Loudmouth! Quiet! You making me nuts! That damn prisoner just escaped under our damn noses. Woman, you to blame!"
She paused and began to scream again. "You wrecked my car! You did it Mister!"
Down the hill, Walter reached the big highway and glided out of sight. Rallied by the crazy woman screaming at the guards, two other convicts bolted for the woods. The escapes poured more scorn on Wyman and Bowers.
Jimmy the trustee bit his tongue. Shook his head. Ran his hand through his short-cropped hair. He noticed Walter's two fingers on the bloody road. He looked around. Hunkered. Put his hand on top of the fingers. Shuttled them into his side pocket.
Jimmy rose. The good trustee always helped out. He gathered the remaining prisoners in a line up on the dirt pile.
Soon more police cars showed up. State troopers and Nashville south. Police everywhere. Tow trucks. The prisoners just kept their seats. Stayed out of the fuss.
An hour later the Warden showed up to manage the details of the escapes.
Hats in hands. Heads bowed. Wyman and Bowers greeted the stocky man in a business suit.
"We're so sorry sir. They got the jump on us, sir." Both trembling guards spoke as one.
"Hells bells Deputies! What in the ding dong is goin' on heah? How did those boys really get away? The Governor ain't gonna like this one dogdamned little bit."
Bowers sputtered. "That old crazy woman ran into the truck and turned over, sir. The prisoners ran when she crashed. She nearly killed us all."
Wyman jumped in. "We were gettin' her out of the wreck and those boys took off. Two ran in the woods, and the other jumped on a bicycle and rode away, sir. I hit him with buckshot, but he kept on runnin'. He was bleedin'. We got twenty men searchin' sir. They all gonna be captured any minit' sir."
The Warden pondered for a moment. Then he rebuked with fury. He moved close to face Wyman and then Bowers. "Now one thing's botherin' me, Deputies. How in God's great name can a boy in chains ride off on a bicycle? Please explain that to me!"
"It was a girl's bike, sir!" Wyman and Bowers both again.
The Warden growled. "You mean to say we're providing bicycles. Girl's bicycles. For my prisoners? Damn. Damn. Damn." He shook his head. "What the Governor's gonna say to me! Maybe I'll get him to come and say it to you. That is, if you indeed are still a State of Tennessee employee at that time!"
He paused, clicked his lips. "Enough! Get back to work you two! Find those prisoners!"
The Warden marched over to question Harmon and Tommy who waited with state troopers close by.
"Well young men maybe you can tell me why these prisoners got loose. That bicycle you gave the prisoner. Was it yours?" The Warden cocked his head at Tommy like the school principal dealing with a naughty child.
Tommy always told truth and more. He thumbed to Harmon. "It was his sister's. That convict grabbed it right out of my hands. He was big. I couldn't stop him."
"Is that right, son?" The Warden looked directly at Harmon.
Harmon gritted his teeth. "Yes sir. Yes sir. That's what happened."
The Warden tightened his eyes. "Then nothin' more to add from you?"
Harmon. "No sir. No sir. That's what happened."
Tommy. "Yes sir. That's all."
The Warden paused. Poked his tongue into the side of his cheek. Then he decided. "You look like you boys are from nice families. I'll be callin' your parents later. Now get on out of heah. Go on home." He motions to the right.
Relieved, the boys walked up the hill for home. "You think we're in trouble?" Tommy broke the silence.
"Mom's gonna be pretty upset, you lost Carol's bike!" Harmon slyly teased as he pushed his Raleigh along.
"I did not! That convict murderer stole it from me. You saw everything." Tommy jabbed back as the two boys restored the spar of their friendship.
Jimmy the trustee and the other prisoners waited. The Warden and the Guards met to plan recapturing the fugitives. Jimmy edged over to a clear place away from the other prisoners. Away from the ditch and piles of dirt. He gently scraped a hollow place in the ground. With reverence he put in Walter's fingers and covered the grave. He arranged five stones to the mark of a cross. Jimmy closed his eyes for his missing angel.
#Unreal #ShortStory #CreativeWriting #Fiction #ChainGang
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