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HARD TIME – Part 3

Jim said, “If we kill him, and get caught, they will electrocute us. If we kill him, we have to do it in a way that can’t be proved.” He went on, “We gotta make sure the rest of the prisoners know it was us, so they’ll fear us.” They spent weeks coming up with plan after plan.

* * * * *

Ben, the youngest and least threatening on the chain gang, was the water boy. He shuffled up and down the line passing out water from two canvas buckets hanging by ropes from a wooden yoke. A tin cup was attached to the yoke by a cord. The prisoners were allowed to dip bug laden and brackish water twice each hour. Pete reveled in his domination of Ben by forcing him to fill the cup and hand it to him.

Ben said, “We can grind up glass to a fine powder and put it in his cup. It’ll cut his innards to pieces.”

“It’ll cut you, and the guards will see your bloody hands.”

“I’ll carry it in something and slip it in before I get to him.”

“I like the idea, but not glass. There are too many risks. If you get caught, what’ll you say?”

The chain gang was on a particularly tough stretch of the swamp, clearing brush and bamboo. Hardly a week went by without someone getting bit by a snake. Everyone, including the guards, was jumpy. As one of the prisoners put it, “You had-ta look where you was cutting every time you swung your machete. Otherwise, you could-a hit a snake.”

The men carried long bamboo shafts to thrust ahead of where they worked to get the snakes to move away; even the guards had poles.

Ben had read somewhere that finely shaved bamboo slivers could kill a man slowly and painfully with little evidence. In these surroundings, he was sure he could conceal this deadly gift.

“I’ll try bamboo and see if it does the job.”

The next day Ben cut a few inches from his shaft. Working with a jailhouse knife made from a piece of tin, he cut fine shards. So fine, they were almost invisible to the human eye. He wasn’t careful, and a sliver got stuck in his finger. He felt the pain but could not see the offending shard. “Damn, this hurts.”

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“How you gonna test it?” Jim asked.

A pack of mongrel dogs hung about the camp surviving on scraps, roadkill, and what they could beg off the prisoners and guards. “I’ll try it on one of the mutts.”

Jim asked, “How can you do that?”

“Easy, I’ll save my meat Saturday and mix in the bamboo.”

Angrily, Jim retorted, “I mean, how can you kill a dog?”

“Easy if it will help get rid of Pete.”

Jim slumped, head down as he whispered, “Oh, God.” After a moment, he looked up and said, “Okay.”

Two days later, Saturday, the one night a week they got meat, Ben saved what passed for meat, ground-up hog, beef entrails, and chicken scraps. Because it was his plan, Ben said, “I’ll do it.” After dinner, he slipped one of the dogs, a mangy collie mix, a handful of bamboo-laced meat.

Ben and Jim watched the mongrel. The first day they saw no change in its behavior. The second day the dog began whimpering and crawling around in pain—the third, it passed blood from its ass and coughed up more—the fourth it died.

Two days later, Ben gave Pete a water and bamboo cocktail. Based on their experience with the dog, they expected some sign on the second day. Pete seemed as healthy as a sadistic bastard can be. Ben thought about giving him another dose of bamboo. Jim vetoed the idea as too risky.

Ben smiled at Pete and said, “How’s the water?”

“What the f*@k are you talking about, punk?”

Ben smiled. He made sure that Pete’s crew overheard the exchange, a conversation he repeated as the day wore on.

On the third day, Pete began to complain of severe stomach pain. Walking up with a bright smile, Ben almost sang, “Hey Pete, you want another cup of water? I fixed it special for you.” Pete declined—by then—it was too late.

By the fourth day, Pete was shitting and puking blood. He couldn’t walk. Even the guards knew he was dying. Once again, Ben offered to bring him water.

It took Pete five days to die.

No autopsy, no investigation, just a quick burial in an unmarked grave: the other prisoners knew Ben had killed Pete, only not how. Life on the chain gang remained hard.

Ben was never attacked again.

 

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HARD TIME

 

Public Safety Writers Short Story Non-Published

Honorable Mention –  HARD TIME

The story is serialized in three segments. “Hard Time” was the inspiration for a chapter in A Tale of Robbers and Cops, a historical novel covering fifty years in the lives of two brothers, career criminals, and the men and women in blue who must deal with their crimes.

Hard Time – Part 1

They weren’t killers by nature. Jim Tucker born, in 1912 to Georgia sharecroppers, was three years older than his brother Ben. His memories of home were of a one-room house, a shack really, where he, his parents, two brothers, and two sisters ate, slept, hated, and grew old prematurely. His family survived on less than $350 a year, half what maintained most American families. They were lucky. They had inside running water. The one place where any privacy could be found was the stinking privy out behind the equally foul-smelling chicken coop.

The landowner refused to do anything to ease their suffering. The walls were of roughhewn planks cracked and decayed to the point they no longer kept out the wind or rain. The Tucker’s waged a constant battle with the elements to keep the place livable. Nailing and repairing the wooden walls, applying tar paper, and sheets of tin seemingly did nothing to solve the problem. Their father succumbed to alcoholism and consumption at the ripe old age of forty as the Great Depression began. He left behind a wife and five children to fend for themselves.

Nine months later, their mother remarried a widower who had four children of his own. With eleven mouths to feed, Jim felt it would be easier for all if he left. Ben went with him. Two days later, they stole their first car—their first step in a life of crime.

The following week, broke, hungry, and with nowhere to sleep, they held up a gas station. Immediately caught, there was no trial. The deputy sheriff who arrested them said, “It’ll go better for you if you plead guilty and get it over.”

The judge who presided over their arraignment did not ask or offer them an attorney. Instead, he said, “Boys, the deputy tells me you want to plead guilty.”

Jim answered, “Yes, sir, I guess so.”

“Did you steal the car?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you hold up Mr. Smyth’s gas station?”

“I guess we did,” Jim began and added, “Yes, sir, we did, sir.”

“It sounds to me like y’all are guilty. How do you plead?”

“Guilty.”

“Ben, how do you plead?”

“I guess guilty, sir.”

“Son, you have to plead guilty or not guilty, one or the other.”

“Guilty, sir.

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Sentenced to three years on a Georgia Chain Gang, they endured back-breaking work. The labor was difficult enough without the swamp, inhumane guards, and brutal inmates. Still years away from becoming a wildlife refuge, the Okefenokee Swamp covered 400,000 acres of Northern Florida and Southern Georgia. This shallow peat-filled quagmire was home to more than four hundred species of animals, including alligators, venomous snakes, and panthers.

Assigned to lay down a roadway for what was to become Georgia State Route 94, the convicts cleared a swath of land wide enough for a two-lane road into the heart of the swamp. They suffered immensely from the heat and never-ending swarms of insects. The prisoners had no protection from the elements other than the rotting and mildewed tents, the warden and guards referred to as inmate shelter.

The guards fared little better in the hastily erected temporary buildings moved whenever the roadway inched another five miles into the unforgiving swamp. The warden had a decent home in Fargo, miles outside the swamp. An infrequent visitor, he came to inspect the camp once a month to verify the records of new, released, and deceased inmates. If an inmate was unfortunate enough to die after the warden’s monthly visit, his remains were unceremoniously buried in a shallow, unmarked grave.

Guarding the prisoners was an unpleasant task made even more so by the environment: rain, sweltering heat, humidity, insects, snakes, and any number of other unpleasant experiences. The guards endured constant pain and discomfort. They were generous in passing their pain on to the convicts. One guard was often heard repeating, “If I have to put up with this shit, dem fu%#ers are going to suffer even more.”