This is a story about people, mostly good people and how they and the circumstances surrounding all the events have influenced my life.
I am writing this because someone asked who I am and my answer was, “I have no idea.” I’ll try to be as objective as I can. I will also mention names. Most of the people are probably dead now anyway, but if one should read by chance the names of friends or family, well it is my purpose to tell the story with as much truth as I possibly can and maybe answer the question, “Who am I?”
It all started one summer in the mid `70s. I think maybe 1973. I happened to be living in Red River County, Texas. I was working at a gas station in the middle of nowhere on Highway 37, right on the Oklahoma State line in Red River. I walked to work the first month until I bought a horse named Jack. Jack was a big old paint horse about fifteen hands tall and mean. At least that’s what everyone else said. I got him for $50 cash. Then I rode to work.
I was a part-time ranch hand, pumped gas, even washed windshields. Gas was nineteen cents a gallon. Still it was cheaper to feed a horse. I was working for Bill Lawler. I was making twenty dollars a week and free grazing for my horse while I was at work. I was also allowed use of his corral and a small pasture where I kept horses I was breaking for people at ten dollars a head. I’d hire out todo odd jobs on the days I had off, or I’d do some horse-trading with the locals.
I hired out to a man who was from Temple, Texas – a retired railroad man – to build a fence around the five acres he bought just down the road. It took considerable clearing to make a fence line. I’d work all my off time clearing brush and building fence. Of course, Jack helped a lot. He was a smart horse. As I went from post to post driving in the staples, Jack would bring the tools – hammer, bag of staples, post hole diggers, even the water jug when he could get a good bite on it. I first noticed his intelligence at this while repairing fence for Bill. Jack would watch me, then start picking up things with his teeth, bring them where I was working, drop them, and go back for the rest. I really never thought it strange until I started to write about it. But he was the best at untying knots. Couldn’t keep that horse tied!
Well, anyway, I was over half finished with the fence when the trouble started. The railroad man came in one weekend and for good faith I asked for part of my wages. I was supposed to be earning $1.25 an hour – big money for me. I had it figured he owed me right at fifty dollars. However, he said he wouldn’t pay me until the job was finished. So we (Jack and I) went back at the chore. I finally finished about a month later, working part-time.
When I next saw the railroad man he said the right-of-way was too narrow. He wanted more brush cut away from the fence. He was going to stock it with goats to finish clearing the underbrush. Well now we were at a standoff. He still wouldn’t pay me for what I’d done and I refused to do anything else. I got mad.
After a few weeks he built a small cabin there in the fenced-in tract and stocked it with food, a camping stove, some garden tools, lanterns, etc. Each day I rode past on my way to work. I got mad one evening. I came by late, saw no one was there, so I left Jack standing at the gate. I went in, collected what I thought was a fair amount for my work, tied it on Jack, and we left. A few days later I was arrested, taken to the Red River County Jail in Clarksville, Texas. I had to leave Jack with my boss.
It was a large limestone building built in the 1800s. The downstairs part was the home of Dewey and Virginia Smith, jailers! Mrs. Smith did the cooking and feeding; Dewey did the locking and unlocking. The jail was upstairs. There were two big rooms on each end of the long building. Metal stairs against the far wall came up rather steep into the center section, which contained two cells. These two cells were for women or juveniles.
I was placed in the big room on the west side – a big stone room with a square cage in the middle, which was unlocked. I could walk all the way around it. Beds were welded to the outside of it – a bunch of beds, sixteen, if I remember correctly. I was alone. Now the bars were all that were between me and freedom, just like the old cowboy jails. I could look out at the old wagon yard that was now used as a farmers market. I could hear people talking below on the sidewalk.
Then I heard Mrs. Smith. Dinner was served – chicken fried steak, apple pie, potatoes and gravy – on one of those big thick plates you get at restaurants. Well, jail was looking up! Mrs. Smith informed me I was their only guest at the time. When she returned for the plate she brought a book, one of those romance novels, and a can of Prince Albert pipe tobacco (compliments of Dewey), and some matches – those big old kitchen matches, the ones that strike anywhere.
Now I never was a smoker, but Jack and I chewed tobacco once in a while. He was awful messy with it. Got it all over the hammer handles and such but seemed to enjoy it. Now I felt like Clint Eastwood. I finally managed to roll what appeared close resemblance to a cigar with a big hump in the middle. So I struck a big match, lit up and sat down to do some thinking. I was feeling really small. However, a rage of injustice was burning in my mind. I could see the railroad man laughing. He got a free fence and I was in jail! But my creative mind was already at work as I walked around and around this big stone room.
In the northwest corner was a big tree just outside the window-bars. It was right over the kitchen, I figured, as I could hear pots and pans clanging below.
Photo by JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
The next morning I went before a Justice of the Peace. The same deputy who had arrested me took me to the courthouse one block over – another limestone building, which looked to have been built the same time as the jail. It had massive halls, hardwood floors, and ornamental trim, with big wooden stairs. The Justice of the Peace had on some khaki pants and shirt, and a cigar in his brown-as-fresh-baked-bread, nicotine stained fingers. He only had two fingers (well, actually a thumb and one finger). The rest had been cut off. He had a fat round face, pig eyes, and a puffy little mouth. “Son, you are charged with burglary of an inhabited dwelling. Your bond is set at $2,500.” That was it. We left.
The deputy said, “Old Nub went easy on the bond.” To me it was a fortune. So I went back to jail. The best part of jail was the food, and Mrs. Smith was always bringing a book.
Now Bill, my boss, came and saw me. Said he could get me out of jail for $250, but I’d have to pay him back. I wasn’t about to pay to get out. I should be paid for my work and my trouble. I asked him to take care of Jack until I could get home. I sure missed that horse. Besides, I had other ideas about getting out a lot cheaper.
I had already learned how to unlock the door to the center of the jail where the stairs went down. I’d investigated downstairs. The front door was locked. They’d have to ring a bell that woke Dewey and he would come open the door and lock up whomever. The back door was through their home, so that was out. But the kitchen was on the same side as where I was supposed to be locked up. So I decided to see about a snack. I found chocolate pie and milk! Back to my home and to sleep. Next morning Mrs. Smith gave me a strange look, and then looked at the door real good, but never said anything. After a few days I’d find cookies or a piece of pie already on a paper plate and a glass of milk waiting. It made the trips quieter and quicker. Now the imagination can have you work up quite an appetite.
Then one day I saw her walking through the farmers market – Sheldi, my first love. After several minutes of shouting, I got her attention. Shocked and surprised to see me in jail, she walked over. I told her to ring the bell and Dewey would let her up to visit. Soon we were facing each other through the little door where I received my food. I told her why I was in jail and that I needed out. She didn’t have $250 and I didn’t want that. I wanted some good hacksaw blades that you could get at the hardware store for a buck! She really didn’t like the idea, but promised to get them. Two days later she was back with three blades! She was living way out in the country in a house with no lights, a hand drawn water well, and a wood stove. Her parents lived two miles away in a trailer with electricity and all, but Sheldi chose to live in the house her grandmother had left her. I had promised to go there as soon as I could get out.
It was going to have to be a night job, because Mrs. Smith stayed in the kitchen all day and the window I had chosen was the one in the back by the big tree, a natural ladder from the second story window, also right over the kitchen. The street that ran in front of the jail came over a small hill just before reaching the jail. The car lights would flash on the window before the car went by, so I’d have to watch that. It had also grown cold and I’d have to have the window open to get at the bars, but a small price to pay for freedom. That night I began to saw.
It was work. In a few minutes I had blisters on my hand and no real progress in cutting through the bars. By the end of the night I was tired, sore, mad, and needing to work in the daytime also. It was just three days until Christmas.
At breakfast I asked Mrs. Smith if she had a radio. I’d just love to hear some Christmas music (especially to drown out the sawing noise). She brought me a radio and a cord, which I dropped out the window where I was sawing and she fished in the kitchen window. I had music, loud music, and began to saw again while listening to Billy Swan’s “I Can Help” and Willie with “blue eyes crying in the rain.”
By Christmas Eve night I had only one bar cut out. Actually I left a tiny piece holding it top and bottom and filled the gap with soap and Prince Albert ashes so you couldn’t see it was almost sawn in two. The space would be barely big enough to get my head through. I was pretty slim, but I knew it would be hard to squeeze through that opening.
Now Christmas Eve night I planned to do just that. After dark I cut the remainder of the bar at the bottom and broke the top part off. There was my freedom. But soon after I stuck my head through it, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere like that. I smoked and walked. Then I had an idea. I could get naked, soap up in the shower, and slide through.
So that’s just what I did. I tossed my clothes out the hole and slipped through pretty easily. Now there I was, just out the window, standing on a little ledge at he bottom of the second story, naked as the day I was born, when a car pops over the hill like a spot light. I was caught in their lights for a second, then I saw their brake lights, tires squeal, they backed up. Now their lights are on me and I hear a lot of laughter. Finally after what seemed like hours they left.
I eased to the corner, grabbed hold of the tree, eased down a limb (you have to be careful climbing trees naked), and finally I was about six feet off the ground on the last limb. I jumped and now I was on the ground. It was cold so I was ready to find my clothes, put them on and be on my way to Sheldi’s. One problem remained. I couldn’t find my clothes. I had rolled them up, tied my belt around them making a pretty small bundle, but they were gone. A street light had me and the ground lit up. Then for some reason I looked up. There, just outside the window in a fork of a limb were my clothes, stuck in what seemed mid-air. I couldn’t get to the first limb to climb up and get the clothes, so there I stood, cold and naked on Christmas Eve.
What to do now was my next question, but before I could think it, the Sheriff’s Deputy had arrived and stood looking at me with this serious look. Then he busted out laughing. I was marched back around the jail to the front door where he rang the bell. I didn’t want to face Dewey, and especially not Mrs. Smith in the morning. But that was taken care of, as she was with Dewey when he opened the front door. There I stood, shaking and naked. I’ll never forget the expression on their faces to see me like this.
Anyway, I found myself in the other end of the jail this time – the east side. The next morning Mrs. Smith wouldn’t look at me, and no book! The door wouldn’t open for late night snacks, either.
I went to see Nub again. He set a $10,000 bond for escape! Well, I sure wasn’t getting in any better shape soon.
Soon December turned to January and court was at the end of the month. I was given a court appointed attorney who said if I hadn’t escaped I could have gotten probation. He couldn’t understand that I was the one robbed. But he said he was sure I’d get a light sentence: five years.
Well, I had no intentions on going to prison. I needed Sheldi and more blades. A little while later I saw a welding truck appear outside my window. I heard all of the racket as they hauled their equipment up the stairs. They welded up my escape hatch and left. The next day I was back in my old home and granted kitchen privileges, so to speak. That night there was chocolate pie and milk. Soon the books were back, but no Prince Albert in the can! I guess Dewey was still pissed.
One thing no one thought about was what happened to the saw blades. But I knew just where they were and after pie and milk I was back at work. The blades were dull and it was even slower this time. Soon my court date had come. I went before the circuit judge (Judge Lions) who gave me five years. But I had no intentions on going to prison, so it didn’t really matter. Let them have their day dispensing justice. Me, I was working on early release every night.
When I could make no more progress with the blades, the welds were still holding. I had chosen to cut the same bar out, in the welds. So now I needed a new plan.
I made a rope of wool blankets from the bar to the steel cage in the middle. Then I took a cast iron drainpipe from under the sink and used it to twist. Soon the blankets were stretched tight like a cable. I felt the cage moving, creaking. I kept turning, tightening, and I heard a crack, and then saw strange lights. I came to lying on the floor, my head throbbing. When I touched the back of my head it was sticky. Blood. Then I thought of the rope. The bar was gone. It had hit me in the back of the head when it came loose. I just stared at the hole for a while.
Wasting no more time, I got naked, soaped up, made sure I threw the bundle of clothes clear of the tree and saw them land on the sidewalk. I was out the window and down the tree with no incident. With my clothes on, I set off through town, being as quiet as possible. I made it to the railroad tracks, which ran east – seventeen miles later would put me one mile from Sheldi’s house. I ran most of the way. It was just getting daylight when I crossed the field behind Sheldi’s house. I saw her as she saw me. We met at the back gate. My head was still bleeding and I was all scratched up. I had blisters on my feet and now I was scared. I was mad, and couldn’t understand how things got so crazy.
Sheldi cleaned the gash in the back of my head and some cuts on my hands where I had fallen. I was tired. No, I was all give out. I fell asleep on the couch, how long I still don’t know, but I woke up and heard voices. Sheldi was talking to someone. I couldn’t make sense of anything until I recognized the deputy’s voice. The one who had arrested me. Then I heard him say, “Would you mind if I just look inside to see if he is here?”
I eased to a window. I could see him on the front porch talking with Sheldi. Another deputy was standing by the car holding a shotgun. This meant trouble, so I eased through the house and hit the back door at full speed. I was almost across the field when I heard shouts, then heard the shotgun fire. I dove into the woods and was soon deep in them. I found a creek and washed the gash again. It was still bleeding. Now I had no shirt. It was at Sheldi’s. I walked all evening towards what I hoped was the direction of Crystal Lake. No one would be there in the winter and there were summer cabins where I knew there would be some food and a shirt.
It was dark when I got there. All was quiet. I found a cabin and went in. The doors were never locked. I found some canned goods and a shirt, and even an old army coat. I also found a first aid kit. My hand and head were still bleeding. I was all give out. But I knew I couldn’t stay there. It was a place they would look. I took my small sack of goods and a can opener and left and went south towards the flatlands. The river was close.
I walked until I fell. I opened the pork and beans and ate them out of the can with the lid. I tried to put peroxide on the cuts in the dark. Finally I slept with my head on the sack of canned goods. I woke with the sun in my eyes, but there was something else that woke me…. Then I heard it – bloodhounds – and in the distance, the sounds of a helicopter. I grabbed the sack and headed away from the dogs. I came to the river, or the backwaters of it. It was like a swamp. The water was two to three feet deep. It was already afternoon. The sun was close to the tree line. I sat in the water, hoping the dogs wouldn’t find me. Sitting down, the water was just below my chin. I leaned back against a tree, the sack between my legs, and slept again.
When I woke up it was dark, and something had woke me. Then I heard the splashes. No doubt about that sound. It was a horse walking through the shallow water. It meant a man on a horse, because a horse would not be out in the water on its own. Then I heard the radio. It was a police radio and the man on the horse was Slim Hulan, a Texas Ranger, and a captain at that, I’d later find out.
He rode within a foot of the horse stepping on me. Then he stopped and threw his leg over the saddle horn, getting a comfortable seat. I watched as he took out a Camel cigarette and lit it. I could have touched his leg!
Sitting there, I could hear my heart beating, sounding like a base drum in my ears. I wondered if the man on the horse would hear it. What I didn’t know then, but was beginning to find out, was that this manhunt had taken quite a serious turn. I had been sentenced to TDC, prison – state prison. I had been convicted of burglary and escape, and was now also charged with the burglary of a Crystal Lake cabin where it was believed I had also taken a knife. So I was not just a 19-year-old country kid playing games. I was an escaped state convict.
I heard the dogs again, getting closer. I had begun to feel my legs cramping. I needed to move. I really needed this Camel-smoking cowboy to ride away. But he seemed comfortable and content. So I knew one of us had to go. I began to feel around under the water with my hands and I found a limb. I felt it move under the water. It was about as long as a walking cane. So, being able to move it under water quietly, I brought it under the horse very carefully. And when I could sit no longer I brought the stick up as I rose up and screamed as loud as I could, hitting the horse’s belly with the stick at the same time. The horse jumped about ten feet and hit the ground in a dead run, while the Texas Ranger hit the water on his back, making a big splash. Me, I was right on the horse’s heels, with my sack in one hand, stick in the other.
I ran for hours, ate cold beef stew from a can, and then ran some more. Now I was really scared. I was more like a wild animal, thinking and all. I know I must have looked like one.
For twelve more days I ran, they chased. On the fifteenth day after my escape, the dogs were close. I could actually see them at times. I was out of food and looking back at the dogs when I jumped over an overgrown fence, and smack in the middle of six Texas Rangers. One was Slim Hulan, the captain.
I thought, “Well, now they will beat the piss out of me.” But I was wrong. I was handcuffed and had to walk another two miles to a road. The County Sheriff was there, and had every intention of beating me, but Slim told him to leave me alone. He put me in his truck and took me to Clarksville. We first stopped at a Dairy Queen. He fed me, and then took me to the hospital where I stayed two days. Then back to my old jail – in the cage this time, in the center of the cell.
I was finally taken to court on the new escape charge and the Crystal Lake burglary. I was given eight more years. Now I had thirteen years in prison. I was nineteen and I only wanted my pay for the work I did. I never saw Jack, my horse, my saddle — nothing I owned ever again! Nor did I ever get paid for the fence me and Jack built.
Now, here it is, the year 2000. I’m in prison. I guess I have what they call a criminal mind. Antisocial, they-call it. But now I have a freedom, a deep freedom, that most could only dream of. For deep within the center of my being I can feel the laughter of God, filling my whole being with joy. I am above it all.
I wish everyone in this story the same peace I have. Mrs. Smith, you were wonderful. You too, Dewey. And Slim, may you always ride among the stars. You were an angel to me as a scared boy. We need more of you today. God bless you all!
If the old jail is still there, on the west end by the door there is a big heart, carved in the stone with a spoon, with these words.
I never saw her again, either, but thanks for your help!