Western Short Story
Break-out From Folsom Prison
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

There lingered over the next few days, the hanging of three men, all killers of women, precious citizens, bar none, from one border to the next, from California clear back to the East.

One of the prisoners was an innocent man found guilty of a framed-up charge of mutilation of beautiful women, six counts thrown onto his lap, howls from women’s group to a fare-thee-well.

That man’s name was Max Latcherary, loner, peddler, beggar, grabbed by a lying deputy, Butch Bergin, who swore he’d seen Max directly in the act, and thus sworn to in court. But Max was innocent, found in the wrong place at the wrong time, and seized by this drunken deputy of the law, a bit tipsy at any time, but treated as a solid witness of what he saw, when and where and by whom, which happened to be Max, a lone peddler on the dusty road in a dusty town not far from Folsom, California.

The judge didn’t believe a word issued by the deputy Bergin, nor did the jury, but Max was such a loser in life it didn’t seem to make much difference in a rushed case, as the judge declared, “Life in Folsom, to his last day.”

The local news editor, keeping score for those interested, called the system “Board of Selection,” for what that’s worth.

But Max Latcherary wanted to clear his name forever, find his old girlfriend, Mary Lou Manningham, and have a normal life. It was a man’s right to hope for a good life of his own and those around him.

Max, as was his rote, didn’t waste time, didn’t dawdle around like many prisoners, but spent hours watching guards, personnel, and visitors on prison property, knowing who went where to do what and with whom, especially guard personnel armed to their back teeth, as whispered, and shouted out when so needed, like the times of insurrection in the making, happening often enough.

The guards were the lone and chief watchdogs on prisoners, from their towers, their duty posts, with clear views every which way one could look, a circle of towers around a practically open field of bodies, and that was long before cement and bricks made up the eventual walls of Folsom Prison.

Plus, there were many executions conducted while Max was imprisoned, enough to spur any thinking man to do his best avoid such actions. As said, “Once dead doesn’t matter where one spent his last hours.”

The guard towers were high up, like a lower sky of sighting points, almost on the backs of prisoners, From such loose confinement, Max figured he could slip off in the night, get up a head of steam, elude pursuers, put distance between him and those who’d come after him, their horses beating the drums of chase.

He had prepped himself with desperation, needed desire, his body worked to a physical best, in shape for the coming ordeal; and Mary Lou Manningham setting a whole lot of destination for him; he could not put her out of his mind, the smile she wore, the touch of her hand, the sway of hips, the shape of things to come.

It was a cinch to slip out of sight in deep shadows, the night as dark as it could be as if prayed for, cloudy, moonless, a lull in prison activity as though things all over had come to a halt, sleep at a maximum. He had chosen the tower, the guard who slept quickest, most often, a lazy lug to begin with, who’d shoot at shadows to start some fun, wake up the warden, and the small part of the world in his ken, and love the look on the warden’s face when there were no answers to attend, to measure, to investigate.

Things tight as drums needed no extra care. Life could be as smooth as grease in a frying pan, ready for a dipping. Max felt like a trail cook at ease.

Came the night his chance was at hand; beneath the tower, he grasped the end of a cord wound from hundreds of pieces of cloth he’d gathered and strung like a line, which now hooked two buckets near a water well, and shook it vigorously, the ruckus drawing all eyes, all attention, of tower guards, and Max sprinted in solid darkness beyond the tower. He was off and running in that darkness, soon out of sight of the tower guards, down a gulley, up a short rise, into another gulley, and headed for a barn where horses were quartered by a local horseman. This information given to him by his lady friend during a visit,

He slid inside the barn, smooth-talked to a black steed, saddled the animal, mounted him in dead silence, walked the animal into the darkness of the free world, no hurry in the gait, no splash of success smothering him, just the pace of freedom on the loose.

Two days later, he was out of California, into Nevada and headed for ever-ready Mary Lou Manningham, waiting for him if he was ever free, her name changed, her little cabin a welcome in the outskirts of a dusty little town. She had tracked the lying deputy after retirement to this little range town of Fallon Falls, near Fallon, in Nevada.

The gun, so to speak, was loaded for her, for Max, for the chosen guard.

There was a joyous reunion for the pair of lovers, heaven come to them after a tough-as-nails ordeal, though more hard work loomed ahead, all of it concerning the guard who put Max into prison, the drunken liar, one of the newer citizens of Fallon Falls, along with a Mary Louise Manton (Mary Lou Manningham), late of California and elsewhere. She became friendly with some neighbors, including the local sheriff, Joe Jervis, and his daughter, Lyla.

“Lyla,” she said one day soon after meeting, “If I dropped a case in your father’s lap. about a wrong guilty verdict in another state, but the lying chief witness is now living in his territory, right here in Fallon Falls, do you think he could or would do something about it?”

Lyla sensed not only her new friend’s anxiety, but the truth of the matter digging at her soul, and replied, “This old lawman here, this statue of rightness and fair play, will chase down any cause worthy of law, order and actual innocence of anyone harmed by the law. It’s only right when it’s right in his mind, and he shines when it’s a good deed done for someone who’s been wronged so badly.”

Mary Louise responded, “It’s powerful goodness to know he’s like that. I’d explain everything to him if I had the opportunity. You’re proving to me that there’s a lot of justice left in the world, the kind from which my friend and lover can get help, and I’ll tell your father everything for both our sakes. We’re all in Fallon Falls right now, my friend, me, the lying and retired deputy, under your father’s jurisdiction, I’d guess, the way things stand now. I’ve hoped it would come to some kind of re-opening or review, with all parties directly involved being here. I’ve prayed for it. About gave up my life for a new chance for him, innocent all the way, and a breakout from Folsom Prison in California to bring all things into clear vision, finally to let us have the life we always wanted, and were cheated of, so far.”

The light in Mary Louise’s eyes lit up her whole face, showed it truthful to every degree, showed it as a woman’s lingering hope while she sat on a ragged, craggy edge of life, chance the great contender on things pulling awfully hard on the soul.

“Oh, dear girl,” said Lyla Jervis, “I feel like we’re sisters already, and my father damned well better help you with all his energy. I tell you, girl, he is a powerhouse of energy ready to explode for justice. He was made that way by the Good Lord, and he knows it. So, let’s go talk to him. Tell him everything, every single detail, about him, your lover, the bad verdict, the liar witness and drunk, and still a drunk I can imagine, holed up here in Fallon Falls, and all about the breakout from Folsom Prison. He’ll get that squared way too. I tell you; Mary Louise, mercy and justice will be coming. And if you’re hiding under a name not your own, better tell him that too. He likes to eat off the cleanest plate.”

The two ladies of the drama giggled at some secret insight that only women laugh at,

Sheriff Joe Jervis heard every word told him, felt his imagination make pictures of deeds and daring, and of lies and curses filling the big picture, saw it all, understood it all.

With his mind tuned into the problems at hand, he sauntered that evening into the Great Desert Saloon in Fallon Falls and waited his chance to close up certain ends of the problem. He heard one tipsy drunk leaning against the bar, say, to a bar mate, “I tell you, Harry, it was my word against the killer’s word and the judge put him in Folsom for life. I saw the whole thing and said so. Murder on the spot, it was. Murder on the spot!”

He wrapped his arm around a man named Harry, and continued, “It was a cinch verdict, and I retired right after that and took over my old man’s ranch. I’ll get it going one of these days and hire you on, just like I said. Have another one me. It’s good to talk about the old days to someone who’s interested in the old days rather than a bunch of new-fangled junk popping up around us. Truth is the kicker, like I keep saying.”

Harry said, “Bert, you’ve said that a hundred times tonight and last night and the night before that. That’s all I’ve heard, like you’re trying to make yourself believe what you’re saying. It’s an old trick of the bottle. We all drink from the same tub, no matter what the bottle looks like, nor what the label says.”

“Harry, are you calling me a liar?”

“Right to your face, old buddy. Right to your face.”

“Well, I guess I can’t lie to you like I can to others, but I’m still going to hire you when I get things going in the right direction. It just takes a little time.”

Sheriff Joe Jervis, acute listener, marker of details in his broad mind, slapped his hand on Bert Bergin’s shoulder and said, “Bertie, boy, you ain’t got any time at all before I condemn you as a Number One Liar, and just about to make his amends. I want to re-introduce you to Max Latcherary, sitting over there in the corner chair, and there ain’t no cuffs on him.”