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The Getaway by O. F. Lewis

From Red Book

Old Man Anderson, the lifer, and Detroit Jim, the best second-story man east of the Mississippi, lay panting side by side in the pitch-dark dugout, six feet beneath the surface of the prison yard. They knew their exact position to be twenty feet south of the north wall, and, therefore, thirty feet south of the slate sidewalk outside the north wall.

It had taken the twain three months and twenty-one days to achieve the dugout. Although there was always a guard somewhere on the north wall, the particular spot where the dugout had come into being was sheltered from the wall-guard's observation by a small tool-house. Also whenever the pair were able to dig, which was only at intervals, a bunch of convicts was always perched on the heap of dirt from various legitimate excavations within the yard, which Fate had piled up at that precise spot. The earth from the dugout and the earth from these other diggings mixed admirably.

Nor, likewise because of the dirt-pile, could any one detect the job from the south end of the yard. If a guard appeared from around the mat-shop or coming out of the Principal Keeper's office, the convicts sunning themselves on the dirt-pile in the free hour of noon, or late in the afternoon, after the shops had closed, spoke with motionless lips to the two diggers. Plenty of time was thus afforded to shove a couple of boards over the aperture, kick dirt over the boards, and even push a barrow over the dugout's entrance—and there you were!

One minute before this narrative opens, on July 17th, a third convict had dropped the boards over the hole into which Old Man Anderson, the lifer, and Detroit Jim, had crawled. This convict had then frantically kicked dirt over the boards, had clawed down still more dirt, to make sure nothing could be seen of the hole—had made the thing look just like part of the big dirt-pile indeed—and then had legged it to the ball-game now in progress on this midsummer Saturday afternoon, at the extreme south end of the yard, behind the mat-shop.

Dirt trickled down upon the gray hair of Old Man Anderson in the dark and stuffy hole he shared with his younger companion. But the darkness and the stuffiness and the filtering dirt were unsensed. Something far more momentous was in the minds of both. How soon would Slattery, the prison guard, whom they knew to be lying dead in the alley between the foundry and the tool-shop, be found? For years Slattery had been a fairly good friend to Old Man Anderson, but what did that count in the face of his becoming, for all his friendship, a last-minute and totally unexpected impediment to the get-away? He had turned into the alley just when Old Man Anderson and Detroit Jim were crouching for the final jump to the dugout! A blow—a thud—that was all....

Anderson lay now, staring wide-eyed into the black nothing of the hole. For the second time he had killed a man, and God knew he hadn't intended to—either time! Fourteen years ago a man had tried to get his wife away from him, while he was serving a one-year bit in the county jail. Both men had had guns, and Old Man Anderson had killed the other or he would have been killed himself. So that was no murder at all! And as for Slattery—big, heavy, slow-moving, red-faced Slattery—Old Man Anderson would even have gone out of his way to do the guard a favour, under ordinary circumstances. But as between Slattery and the chance to escape—that was different.

Old Man Anderson rubbed his right hand in the dirt and held it before his eyes in the blackness. He knew that the moisture on it was Slattery's blood. The iron pipe in Old Man Anderson's hands had struck Slattery on the head just once, but once was enough.

Old Man Anderson burst into hiccoughing sobs. The younger convict punched him in the ribs, and swore at him in muffled tones. Anderson stifled his sobs then, but continued to sniffle and shiver. This time it would absolutely be The Chair for him—if they got him! In a few minutes they couldn't help discovering Slattery. Anderson never could give himself up now, however this business of the dugout and the hoped-for old sewer conduit should finally turn out. In the beginning he had counted on crawling out, if worst came to worst, and surrendering. But to crawl out now meant but one thing—The Chair!

In all his fourteen years behind the walls the vision of The Chair had terrorized the old man. When they had sent him to prison his first cell had been in the death-house, separated from The Chair only by a corridor that, they told him, was about twenty feet long, and took no more than five seconds to traverse—with the priest. Until they changed his cell, the gaunt, terrible Thing in the next room edged every day nearer, nearer, nearer, looming, growing, broadening before his morbid vision until it seemed to have cut off from his sight everything else in the world—closer, closer until it was only seven incredible hours away! Then had come the commutation of his sentence from death to life!

The next day Old Man Anderson, gray-haired even then, went out from the death-house among his gray-clad fellows, but straight into the prison hospital, where for three months be lay a victim of chair-shock just as surely as was ever a man shell-shocked on the Flanders front. And never since had the hands of the man wholly ceased to quiver and to shake.

Now he was a murderer for the second time! In the blackness he stretched out his hand, and ran it over a stack of tin cans. Detroit Jim had been mighty clever! Canned food from the storehouse, enough to last perhaps two weeks! Detroit Jim had had a storehouse job. Twice a day, during the last ten days, the wiry little ferret-faced second-story man had got away with at least one can from the prison commissary. Also he had provided matches, candles, and even a cranky little flashlight. Only chewing tobacco, because you can smell smoke a long way when you are hunting escaped convicts. And a can of water half the size of an ash can!

Despair fastened upon Old Man Anderson, and a wave of sickness swept over him. All the food in the world wouldn't bring Slattery back to life. And again that Thing in the death-house rose before his mind's eyes. Throughout all the years he had carried a kind of dread that sometime a governor might come along who would put back his sentence where it had been at first—and then all his good behaviour in these endless years would count for nothing. Until Detroit Jim had told him about the long-forgotten sewer conduit, he had never even thought to disobey the prison rules.

The old man's teeth chattered. Detroit Jim's thin fingers tugged at his sleeve. That meant getting busy, and digging with the pick with the sawed-off handle. So Anderson wriggled into the horizontal chamber, which was just large enough to permit his body and arms to function.

As he hacked away at the damp earth, he could see in the pitch darkness the dirty sheet of paper, now in Detroit Jim's pocket, upon which their very life depended. It was a tracing made by a discharged convict from a dusty leather-covered book in the public library in New York, sent in by the underground to Jim. The book had contained the report of some forgotten architect, back in the fifties of the last century, and the diagram in his report showed the water and sewage conduit—in use! It ran from the prison building, right down across the yard, six feet under ground, and out under the north wall, under the street outside, and finally into the river. Built of brick, four feet wide, four feet high. A ready-made tunnel to freedom!

Old Man Anderson could hear Detroit Jim's hoarse whisper now, as he chopped away at the dirt, which he shoved back under his stomach, to where Jim's fingers caught it and thrust it farther back.

“We're only a couple of feet from that old conduit right now. Dig, you son of a gun, dig! Can the snifflin'! You dig, and then I'll dig!”

They were saving their matches and candles against necessity. Mechanically the old man chopped and hacked at the wall of earth in front of him. Now and then the pick would encounter a stone or some other hard substance. In the last few days they had come upon frequent pieces of old brick. Detroit Jim had rejoiced over these signs. For the old man every falling clod of earth seemed to bring him nearer to freedom. They also took his mind off Slattery.

So he chopped away, how long he did not know. Suddenly his pick struck an obstacle again. He hacked at it. It gave slightly. A third time he struck it, and it seemed to recede. An odour of mouldy air filled his nostrils. In that little aperture his pick touched nothing now! He heard something fall! Then he knew! There was a hollow place in front of them! The abandoned conduit? He stifled a shout.

From somewhere, muffled at first, but ultimately faintly strident, rose a prolonged wail that seemed to issue from the very earth. The sound rose, and fell, and rose again. Frantically the pick of Old Man Anderson hacked away at the dirt, and then at whatever was in front of him. Detroit Jim snapped the feeble flashlight then. It was a wall—the conduit wall!

Meantime, the prison siren shrieked out to the countryside the news of an escape.

What time it was—whether night or day or what day, neither Jim nor Old Man Anderson knew. They had slept, of course, and Jim had forgotten to wind his watch. Had one week or two weeks passed? If two weeks had slipped by and if the prison officers ran true to form they would by now have ceased searching inside the prison walls.

Old Man Anderson and Detroit Jim huddled close to each other in the darkness of the conduit. A hundred times they had crawled from one end to the other of their vaultlike trap! In their desperate and fruitless search for an outlet to the conduit they had burned many matches and several candles. Besides, Old Man Anderson had required light in which to fight off his attacks of nerves, and the last of the candles had gone for that. Now total darkness enveloped them.

The conduit was blocked! By earth at one end, and by a brick wall at the other! All along the winding hundred feet of vault they had hacked out brick after brick only to encounter solid earth behind. Only a few tins of food remained and the water was wholly gone; the liquid from the food cans only served to increase their thirst.

Old Man Anderson had grown to loathe Detroit Jim. Every word he murmured, every movement he made, intensified the loathing. He had made up his mind that Jim was planning to desert him the next time he should fall asleep; perhaps would kill him and leave him there—in the dark. The two had practically ceased speaking to each other. In his mental confusion Old Man Anderson kept revolving in his mind, with satisfaction, a new plan he had evolved. The next time Jim should fall asleep he would crawl back through the aperture in the conduit wall, pry up the boards over the opening into the prison yard, wriggle out, and take his chances in getting over the wall somehow! Better even be shot by a guard than die like a rat in this unspeakable place, as he was doing, where he couldn't stand up and dared not lie down on account of the things that were forever crawling through the place! His contemplation of his plan was broken in upon by his companion clutching him spasmodically by the arm. The old man's cry died in his throat.

Footsteps! Dull and distant they were, and somewhere above them—momentarily more distinct—receding—gone!

Detroit Jim pulled Andersen's head toward him, and whispered:

“Sidewalk! People going by! We've never sat right here before! We wouldn't hear them if they weren't walking on stone, or slate, or something hard!”

The old man's heart pounded like a trip-hammer. Detroit Jim seized the pick and began to pry the bricks loose from the arched roof of the conduit. They worked like mad, picking, hacking, pulling, piling the bricks softly down on the conduit floor.

Once, for an instant, Jim stopped working. “How far from the hole we came in through, do you think we are?” he whispered.

“'Bout a hundred feet, I guess,” answered the old man. “Why?”

Without replying Detroit Jim resumed his picking, picking, at the bricks. A hundred feet from where they had entered would not be under the sidewalk. Finally, he understood. This conduit wound around a good deal; it would take a hundred winding feet to cover thirty straightaway.

Finally, also, Detroit Jim turned the pick over to the old man, who, feeling in the blackness with his hands, discovered the span as wide as his outstretched arms, from which Detroit Jim had removed the bricks. It was a span of yielding earth into which the old man now dug his pick. As he worked, the loosened dirt fell upon him, upon his head, into his eyes and nose and ears....

Abruptly the old man's pick struck the flagging above them! Detroit Jim mounted upon the pile of bricks and shoved Anderson aside.

Jim felt along the edges of the stone clear around. It seemed to measure about three feet by two, and to be of slate, and probably held in place only by its contact with other stones, or by cement between the stones. No light appeared through the crevices. Detroit Jim took from his pocket a huge pocket-knife and with the longest blade poked up between the main stone and the one adjoining. The blade met resistance.

Ultimately, and abruptly, however, the blade shot through to the hilt of the knife. Jim drew it back instantly. No light came through the crevice.

“I smell good air,” he whispered, “but I can't see a thing. It must be night!”

They knew now what to do. The flagging must be removed at once, before any one should go by! The hole would be big enough to let them out! Old Man Andersen's heart leaped. It was over. They had won. Trust him to go where they'd never get him for the Slattery business! As for Detroit Jim, he already knew the next big trick that he would pull off—out in Cleveland!

Ultimately, as Detroit Jim worked upon it, the stone began to sag. An edge caught upon the adjacent flagging. The two men, perched upon the wobbly bricks, manipulated the stone, working it loose, until, finally, it came crashing down.

The stone had made noise enough, it seemed, to wake the dead; yet above them there was no sound. Swiftly they raised the flagging and set it securely upon the heap of bricks. When Detroit Jim stood upon this improvised platform his head was level with the aperture they had made. He could see no sky, no stars, could feel no wind, discover no light such as pervades even the darkest night.

“Good God!” he breathed. His fingers went out over the flagging. His knife dropped. The tinkle echoed dully down the conduit. He stooped to where Old Man Anderson stood, breathing hard.

“It's a—a room!” he whispered.

“A—a room?” repeated Old Man Anderson dully.

“Come! After me! Up! I'll pull you up!”

Detroit Jim, being wiry, swung himself up, and then bent down, groping for the old man's hands. Winded, panting, exhausted, the two men stood at last in this new blackness, clutching each other, their ears strained to catch the slightest sound.

“For God's sake, don't fall down that hole now!” hissed Detroit Jim. “Listen. We'll both crawl together till we get to a wall. Then you feel along one way, and whisper to me what you find, and I'll crawl the other. Look for a window or a door—some way out! We'll come together finally. Are you ready?”

“I'm—I'm afraid,” whined the old man.

Detroit Jim's fingers dug into the other's arm, and he pulled the latter along. Their groping hands touched a wall—a wall of wood. Detroit Jim stood up and pulled Anderson beside him. He felt the old man shiver. He shoved him gently in to the left and himself moved cautiously to the right, slowly, catlike.

Finally, Jim came to a door. He could perceive no light through the chinks in the door. Sensing the increasing uncanniness of a room without windows, without furniture, with flagging for a floor, he turned the knob of the door gently, and it gave under his touch.

Just then there came to him a hoarse whisper from across the room. It made him jump. “I've—I've found some wires,” the old man was saying, “in a cable running along the floor——”

“See where they lead!” Detroit Jim was breathless, in anticipation.

And then, shattering the overwhelming tension of the moment, shrilled, suddenly, a horrible, prolonged, piercing shriek ending in a gasp and the sound of a heavy body falling to the floor! What, in God's name, had happened to the old man? And that yell was enough to awaken the entire world!

Detroit Jim groped his way across the room. He could hear now no further sound from the old man.... Steps outside! He sank upon his knees, his hands outstretched. He heard a lock turn; then following upon a click the whole universe went white, and dazzling and scorching!

He raised one arm to his blinking, throbbing eyes. A rough voice shouted: “Hands up!”

There was a rush of feet, the rough clutch of hands at his shoulders.... Presently he found himself blinking down upon the fear-contorted face of Old Man Anderson dirt-streaked, bearded, gaunt, dead!

Slowly his eyes crawled beyond the body on the floor.... Before him, its empty arms stretched toward him, its straps and wires twisting snakily in front of him, was The Chair!