Jailbird

by Reid Laurence

"I don't know 'bout you...," said Wild Bill - a nickname the other convicts had thought of which stuck and seemed to suit Bill Tyson's rowdy nature. "But I'm sick an tired a look'in at these four walls."

"Don't start complain'in again," answered Bill's cell mate - called Penguin for the way he preached his thoughts to his fellow prisoners. "Ya know it never gets ya anywhere. Besides, the Man's on his way - I can hear 'im com'in."

"Big deal," replied Wild Bill, just as disgruntled as ever. "Elvis Presley his self could walk through that door for all I care. Ain't ya sick an tired a the same old routine, day in an day out? Don't it make ya wanna get up an get the hell outta here? I never could understand why you're so content ta just sit there on your ass an eat that crap they dish out? There's a whole world out there just wait'in for us, an you couldn't give a damn, could ya?"

"Hey," said Penguin, in the same cool, calm tone he used whenever his good common sense predicted outburst or disorder in the crowd around him. "You find a good way outta here, an I'm with ya all the way. Until then, ya know what?"

"What?"

"I don't wanna hear no more," replied Penguin. "Besides, you remember what happened ta the last poor bastard who wanted out? Even the cons wanted a piece of 'im for mak'in all that trouble for the rest of us."

"Yeah, I remember the guy. He made a lotta waves didn't he. What the hell was his name anyway, I forget?"

"Just plain Bird I think. That's con talk for prison time. Never knew his real name. But anyway, you keep mak'in waves like Bird, an they'll do the same thing ta you as they done ta him."

"What'id they do to 'im?" asked Bill, whose curiosity had by now, gotten the better of him.

"They fried 'im early. Whaddaya think they done? They sure didn't pat 'im on the back."

"What difference does it make," replied Wild Bill. "We're all on death row here anyway. If ya ask me, he didn't lose much."

"Well, if yer ask'in me," answered Bill's cell mate. "He took a gamble an lost. If ya want my advice Bill, don't play against odds like that..., you'll lose every time."

Just as Penguin's words began to sink through Bill's callous exterior - making him realize what might happen if he caused dissension within the prison walls - the guards showed up with lunchtime meal trays and began handing them out, one by one to the great population of hungry, waiting prisoners. But when the guard slid Bill's tray into his cell, Bill's reaction was only to ignore it. Even as the other prisoners around him contentedly ate, he very willfully turned away from the food, as he'd done many times before. In fact, by now, Bill's stomach had gotten used to being empty and the urge to eat that normally accompanies the very thought of food, had all but completely disappeared in Bill, leaving in its place only the stubborn, determined attitude that was so characteristic of Wild Bill - a prisoner of great moral conviction.

"Ain'tcha gonna eat taday Bill?" asked Penguin. "It's been days. You must be starved ta death."

"Mind yer own business," replied the thin but wiry Bill. "I'll eat when I'm good an ready."

"Oh yeah?" came Penguin's reply. "Well I'm good an ready," he said, frantically digging in to the food on his tray, as if someone were going to take it away. "You just starve yerself then," continued Penguin. "See what I care. In the meantime, I'm gett'in bigger an bigger an yer just as small as ever. Besides, there's nuth'in wrong with this chow," said Penguin, sucking up the last tiny morsels of food from his dish with his mouth. "You're just too damn fussy, that's all. Ya know, this ain't no restaurant here. Whaddaya expect anyway?"

"A life, that's what I expect. That's all anyone expects ain't it? They took it away from me, an I'm gonna get it back, you'll see."

"Fine," answered Penguin, as he finished the food from his own tray and at the same time, kept a carefully trained eye on Bill's untouched meal. "But don't say I didn't warn ya when ya wind-up like Bird. By the way," he continued. "You ain't gonna eat your lunch, are ya?"

"Nope, I ain't gonna eat my damn lunch. Here," said Bill, about to become facetious, pushing his lunch tray within Penguin's reach. "Here ya go, It looks better on you. As far as your advice goes, for all the good it'll do, I'll try an remember."

The next morning the prisoners awoke to a dreary, cold, rainy day but to many, the weather on the outside world meant very little. It was only something to observe every now and then through the tiny opening in each cell Bill called, 'a sorry-ass excuse for a window'. What then could be the cause for the disquiet mood in Bill's cell block? If not the weather, what then? No one knew exactly, but a sixth sense told the prisoners something was up. Something was about to happen that would alter their daily routine of waking, eating, exercising and sleeping but what it was exactly, no one could say. That is, until one of the big cell block doors opened and four big guards came rushing in... "What the hell is this!?" asked Penguin. "A raid? I ain't hid'in nuth'in, they got nuth'in on me."

"No stupid, it ain't no raid. Look," answered Bill, as he watched one of the prison trucks backing up into position to a side door. "There transfer'in us some-wheres."

"Like where? Another prison?"

"How should I know? We'll hav'ta wait an find out."

"Well," replied Penguin, doing his best to recover some of his composure. "It couldn't be any worse then this place here."

"I don't know about that," said Wild Bill, with even more pessimism in his voice than usual. "I got a bad feel'in about this. A very bad feel'in."

Two by two, the prisoners were ushered into the back of the truck, but it wasn't long before the small, old prison vehicle filled to capacity, leaving Bill and his cell mate standing outside in the cold rain as it drove off into the fog. Wondering to themselves - as two remaining guards stood vigil over them - the pair stood side by side and waited as the chilled, falling rainwater cascaded down over their faces. Then, overhearing two of the guards talking to each other, the pair soon realized what the very near future held in store for them. "Whaddaya wanna do with 'em now Hank? You gonna leave these two stand'in in the rain like this?"

"Ya want I should give 'em umbrellas?" replied the other guard, mockingly. "Besides, where they're go'in, they might as well catch pneumonia now an get it over with." Laughing at his own cruel jest, the guard slapped his friend on the back for emphasis and reached into an inside pocket of his coat for the pack of cigarettes he normally kept handy. "Damn," he muttered. "I'm outta smokes. Can you watch these mugs for two minutes while I run in an buy a pack outta the machine? I'll be right back."

"Sure Hank," answered the new and far less confident guard. "I'll do it, but don't take too long, okay. Gives me the creeps stand'in out here watch'in the poor bastards get rained on, know what I mean?"

"One thing ya gotta learn out here Tommy, before one more day goes by," replied the other, more experienced man as he turned to walk inside. "Ya gotta learn ta detach yerself from any kinda feel'ins for these poor slobs. You and I both know where they're go'in, an there ain't nuth'in either of us can do about it, even if we wanted to. Ya read me?"

"Yeah sure Hank, I read you."

"Good, I'll be right back. Keep an eye on 'em."

Even before the prison guard could make it to the door, Bill could feel the fear and dread welling up inside him, and turning to face his friend, he could tell Penguin felt the same way. "Our number's up buddy boy," said Bill, as the guard left in charge momentarily turned to look out in a different direction. "Looks like judgment day arrived a little sooner then expected."

"Whaddaya mean judgment day?"

"I mean they're gonna snuff us out, as in k-i-l-l," replied Bill, spelling out the letters of the word to emphasize its meaning. "You heard 'em as well as I did, didn'tcha?"

"I heard 'em, but I just can't believe it."

"What's not ta believe?" answered Bill. "Ya knew we was on death row all along didn'tcha?"

"I wanna talk ta the Governer," said Penguin.

"You argue with 'em if ya want," muttered Wild Bill under his breath. "But me, I got a plan."

"What plan?" replied Penguin, who's body was beginning to shake at the thought of his own execution.

"I say, the next time the guard turns around, we rush 'im, try an toss 'im down. That outta buy us enough time ta run away inta the fog. Whaddaya say? It's now or never, while the other guard ain't here. Are ya with me?"

"Yeah," said Penguin, nervously. "I'm with ya."

"Okay then," said Wild Bill. "You hit 'im high, I'll hit 'im low, on the count a three. Ready?"

"Ready as I'll ever be."

"Alright, here we go," said Wild Bill. "On my count. One..., two..., three!"

Living up to his name, Bill's wild, straight forward plan of action seemed to be working, as the two renegade prisoners ran into the guard, knocking him off balance and sending him to the ground. Hitting the back of his head on the hard, wet pavement as he fell, the guard temporarily lost consciousness and in the moments that followed, completely lost track of Bill and his scared, but determined friend, Penguin. Running hard now, from fear and the adrenalin that coursed through their veins, the pair had put at least a mile between them and the prison they fled. The thick, grey fog they ran into also helped to conceal them, as they ran and made their way through quiet cattle pastures, and areas of dense vegetation and forest. But the frantic pace of their escape was catching up with Penguin, who was beginning to tire from all the weight he'd gained and the many extra servings he'd eaten off Bill's meal trays.

"When can we stop?" asked Penguin, huffing and puffing, too heavy and out of shape to keep pace with his much thinner companion.

"When I say so," replied Bill. "Unless a course, you're anxious ta get dragged back ta the 'Big House'..., or worse."

"I'm just too tired ta go on Bill, I gotta stop or I'll toss up lunch."

"We can't stop yet. Lets run at least till we get ta them trees," answered Bill, referring to a thin strip of forest ahead, with a clearing beyond. Running between the trees on wobbly legs with his head pointed down to the ground, Penguin missed seeing a large oak in his path and ran right into it, crying out in pain as he sailed backward, landing on the ground with a thud.

"Shit," said Bill, "That had ta hurt." Resting his hands on his knees as he caught his breath from their long run, Bill peered out into the clearing. Reaching out to Penguin, he offered him a helping hand to get him up off the wet ground. "C'mere an look at this," he continued. "Looks like another jail don't it? Damn, is the world just one big prison or what?"

"That's one way a look'in at it," said Penguin, rubbing his head as he got to his feet. "If you're one a those pessimistic types. But if yer ask'in me, it's just one a those things - a coincidence or someth'in."

"Look at the size of it will ya," exclaimed Bill. "Must be a few thousand jailbirds down there. I never seen a prison that big in my life."

"So whaddaya wanna do now Bill. If we hang around here too long, we could end up back in the pen. Besides," continued Penguin. "I'm gett'in hungry. We ain't eaten in hours. Boy, I sure miss all that good grub we left behind."

"Sure," answered Bill. "Why don'tcha just go back for dinner like we never left. We'll just pick up where we left off, no problem. I'm all for it. I might even get a ringside seat when they fry ya..., dope! Don'tcha know if ya go back there, you'll end up like Bird!"

"Yeah," admitted Penguin. "I guess it was a bad idea. But whadda we do for food? You don't care cause you never get hungry."

"Well, I'm gett'in there. All that runn'in took a lot outta me. Why don't we head for one a those fast food joints an raid the dumpster."

"Yuck," replied Penguin. "That disgusting."

"Got a better idea?"

"Whatchya got there?" asked Penguin, forever interested in what others were eating, even though he was very much absorbed in the day old cheeseburger he found.

"Fish, I think," replied Bill. "Who cares. I don't live ta eat, buster... I eat ta live. Anyways, I got someth'in more important on my mind, like stay'in free. I'll tell ya right now Penguin," continued Bill, talking as he ate. "I ain't go'in back ta the pen. If they catch me, it's all over."

"Whaddaya mean?" said Penguin, finishing his burger, turning over boxes and old newspapers as he searched for anything else that wasn't rotten or swarming with flies.

"I mean," answered Wild Bill, true to his name. "They'll have ta kill me before I go back there."

"I'd say that decisions' already been made for us, wouldn't you?" said Penguin.

"I'd say yer right," replied Bill. "C'mon, lets get mov'in," he added, getting to his feet. "I don't feel comfortable stay'in this long in any one place. Just makes it easier for 'em ta track us down."

"Just a minute," replied Penguin, feeling certain that he'd caught a glimpse of some French fries lodged between two empty cartons of eggs.

"We don't got a minute," answered Bill impatiently. "You can stay if ya want, I'm mov'in out, pronto."

Jumping from the dumpster, Penguin's feet had only just touched the pavement when Bill yelled out, doing his best to get Penguin's attention. There, just leaving the restaurant parking lot was a rusty old pick-up truck, sputtering its way toward the main highway with Bill running close behind it. Jumping into the back, with Penguin in hot pursuit, Bill did his best to conceal himself from the driver who was - as Wild Bill realized, when he peered in through the back window - a very old man dressed in overalls, and fortunately for Bill, couldn't hear very well. Catching up, Penguin noisily hopped into the bed of the truck, but went unnoticed, as Bill watched the driver lean to one side to adjust his hearing aid and turn up the volume on his radio. "We're in luck. He can't hear worth a damn," said Bill, referring to the driver. "Is this perfect or what?"

"I've seen better accommodations," replied Penguin. "But I suppose it'll have ta do. Where do ya think he's headed?"

"We're headed south, ain't we? On highway 65. An accord'in ta my calculations - an the sign we just passed a course - we should be headed straight for the Buffalo River in beautiful northern Arkansas. Imagine that," continued Bill, leaning back on the hard metal surface of the truck bed. "Me an you bask'in in the sun by the river bank, all the food we can eat an nuth'in ta do but take in the views an relax. All we gotta do is stay away from the tourists an we'll be fine."

"Whaddaya mean, 'all the food we can eat'?" asked Penguin.

"I thought that'd get yer attention," said Bill. "There's a shit-load a fish, ain't there? An a whole bunch a other goodies I bet..., you'll see."

"Leftovers from the tourists?" asked Penguin. "Sounds good ta me."

"You got it buddy boy. An the best part is, we're free. We can do what we want, when we want, an nobody's gonna tell us different."

"Oh man," said Penguin. "I can hardly wait. When do we get there?"

"I dunno exactly, but do me a favor will ya."

"What?"

"Don't call me man, I hate it."

"Here we go buddy boy," said Bill, as the old truck made its way over the bridge which connected the banks of the beautiful, green, rushing river beneath. "This here's our stop. Unless a course you'd like ta go home with the old guy here an end up on some farm, grazing like an animal."

"What are you talking about? I am not an animal," answered Penguin, angry with Bill for thinking of him in that vein. "I do not graze."

"Forget it, would ya. C'mon, let's move out!"

Getting off the truck was about as difficult as getting on - which was not very easy - but when the old man slowed down at the opposite end of the bridge to avoid an armadillo in the road, the two companions seized the opportunity and jumped off. Unable to control their legs from the momentum of the moving truck, Penguin and Wild Bill both fell, and rolled the rest of the way down an embankment which met the side of the road where the bridge terminated. "Ouch!" exclaimed Penguin, rubbing his head. "I think I hit my head on a rock. Lets hope we don't have ta do that again. Those last few feet really hurt like hell."

"Yeah, I know what'cha mean," said Bill. "Which reminds me of an old joke about keep'in yer shoelaces tied cause a trip's better then a fall, get it? Trip, fall, a little play with semantics there, get it?"

"A course I get it, it's just not very pertinent, that's all."

"Why?" asked Bill.

"Cause I ain't wear'in any shoes, for one thing."

"Just a technicality, that's all. Hey," continued Bill, getting to his feet to have a look around. "Would ya look at this place, it's beautiful!"

"Yeah," answered Penguin. "An the best part is, there ain't no people around."

"I hear ya. No people, but a lotta potential friends at large, that's for sure," replied Bill, drawing Penguin's attention to a pair of Cardinals who were bathing themselves and drinking water from the river.

"An some what ain't so friendly," observed Penguin, referring to a pair of hawks that were circling overhead, watching their every move.

"I see what'cha mean," said Bill. "But at least out here, we're free. Free from any man who thinks he can keep us in a pen, plump us up on steroids and execute us like some kinda lousy convicts. It turns my stomach just ta think about it. We'll just have ta watch our step, that's all. You watch my back an I'll watch yours, just like when we was back in the pen, right?" Extending a large white wing, Wild Bill reached over to his friend as a man might shake hands or pat another on the back. "Right," agreed Penguin. "Birds of a feather, flock together. Now where's all the grub you were talk'in about. Ya made this place sound like a non-stop banquet. Whadda we do for food?"

"Hmm...," said Bill, about to do one of those things that should come naturally to any red-blooded American turkey in the wild. Bending at the hip, he picked up a fat juicy beetle on its way into the forest and finished speaking as it crunched in his beak under pressure. "Try the insects here - gulp! - they're delicious."

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