Western Short Story
The territorial telegraphs hummed, the once-a-week presses rolled out their sheets one page at a time, and every saloon, barbershop, general store and bunkhouse in the reachable west called it, in varying degrees, “The Waco Walk,” “The Waco Walk-away,” “A Waco, Texas Treat,” or, as simply said as The Bridger Herald put it, “Jigger’s Out of Jail.” That issue of the Herald put all of Bridger, Nevada into a week-long party celebrating the escape of their hero. As an innocent on-looker, Jigger Jerrob had stopped a robbery at the bank when the robber shot a teller in front of three unarmed customers, by pistol whipping the robber as he exited the bank. Less than a week later, when compatriots tried to break the robber/killer out of the Bridger jail, Jigger Jerrob dropped the three desperate men right in front of the jail after they had shot up the deputy on guard. The deputy was Jerrob’s brother-in-law and father of his only nephew. Until those events, he had never fired a gun in anger or for personal gain. Those stories also were widely heard.
The warden at Waco was more incensed by the walk-away than most people understood. Only a few acquaintances could imagine the source of such enmity. Only a few knew.
The Waco incident was, of a certainty, not a release, but a jail break by one of the bravest and most admired men ever to earn his wages in Bridger, and surely the most innocent of men. Jigger Jerrob broke out of jail to prove his innocence all of five years after he had been found guilty of robbery and pistol-whipping three members of the Paul Oxley family by a Texas court. Some people openly claimed the family was put up to identifying him as their assailant. He was not sure what the future, as a fugitive, would bring him, but there certainly were some answers due out of the past.
During his imprisonment under a tyrannical warden, Jerrob performed jail tasks because he wanted to share his energy and stay in shape, not because the warden hounded him into the tasks. He often wondered why he was a special target of the warden, but always managed to put such thoughts aside, realizing that you never know what makes some men tick, what makes them comfortable in the saddle or out of it, .
Besides being a model prisoner who only offered simple statements like “I never hurt anybody,” or “There’s people hereabouts who made this happen,” he was also the most patient of prisoners, and the most alert. All his life he never did anything half way, remembering his father always saying, “Don’t waste your time and my time by doin’ things half way. Life ain’t that long for any of us.” Once he said to Jigger, who was well ahead of his expected finish day on a project, “’Stead a callin’ you Jigger I shoulda done it as Mostly, like Mostly there or Mostly done.” They both laughed at that as Jigger, without stopping to share the laughter, continued to dig post holes for a new fence.
From his cell window in the Waco jail, and on his menial tasks within the prison, Jerrob watched every move made about the prison; what guard was lazy on his watch or rounds, which of them tended to rush things in order to get “lazy” time, which guard was really inept and not fit for the task. One guard in particular he suspected of carrying some kind of contraband or nicety to one of the prisoners. He also noted the type and schedule of repeat visitors, noting very carefully the goings and comings of visitors to the warden’s office, one of them lasting a few hours every two weeks. He found out from one guard that the warden and his visitor played chess with a real passion, and the guard he suspected of carrying favors was tending to his brother-in-law. He marked the one passion and the one indiscretion in his mind, yet saw nothing wrong with either one.
Jigger Jerrob also knew that escape from the Waco jail would come from the simplest of ruses, not from some elaborate scheme that had too many parts to depend on. He kept to himself all his observations and all his thoughts.
In The Tethered Saloon in Bridger, Jocko MacLaine stood behind the bar and yelled at a tall customer just coming through the front door, “Hey, mornin’, Smack, you hear the good news? Jigger’s got himself rid of that damn jail down in Texas. Say he plain walked off into the late afternoon sun in a visitor’s coat and hat, right past a guard sleepin’ on his butt end. Ain’t that the way it oughtta been done, ole Jigger ahead of ‘em all all the time he was in there I’m bettin’. I won’t wanta be that sleepyhead. No sir!”
“’Bout time somethin’ good happened for Jigger. We couldn’t get nothin’ done up here and him down there, tossed in with them critters like he was cattle. We knowed he never did knock down what he wouldn’t eat, or needed for something to get by with, or saw misery plain comin’ to others by varmints. Boy’s a true spirit, can be said of him. Yes sir.” He pointed to the top shelf and said, “For Jigger. I’ll buy one for you. Pour ‘em.” He looked around, laughed and said, “Still glad the place ain’t filled up, but Jigger’d be worth that.”
Two weeks later, with one Texas Ranger known to have slipped into Bridger to keep his eyes open and listen to saloon talk, Jigger Jerrob was hiding far away. Instead of fleeing north when he was some distance from the jail, he headed southwest and was holed up in an old line shack near Pedicoke, about 60 miles from Waco. As a youngster he had spent a summer near the area with his father. A drummer gave him an old nag to get rid of as a favor. Jerrob traded up a couple of times and ended up with a decent mount, and with a few dollars earned on odd-jobbing at various sites, he managed to buy a revolver. His clothes were found-stuff or cast offs, and his shirt was pulled from a stream where it was hung up on a floating tree. His appearance had changed greatly from the day he walked away from the Waco jail.
Three weeks later he was in Mexico and for a year he stayed away from border towns. Slowly but surely, from Waco all the way to Bridger, his name came less frequently into conversation. But Jigger Jerrob was not sitting still, and he kept tabs on any and all comments that came up about Waco and its local happenings. All the patience, all the alertness, he was sure, would one day spur him into action.
That day came a little over a year after his arrival, when he was recognized by a man from Bridger, an old pal from one of the cattle drives, Jason Wiles.
“My gosh, Jigger,” Wiles said, “we thought you were dead long ago. Nobody’s heard a word about you. You been here all this time? We all know you did none of that stuff they said.”
“Have you heard anything about Waco and the situation, Jason? Anything about the family that named me?”
“Well, Jigger, with you thought dead or gone forever, there’s some kind of talk shaking loose. The kid who was the youngest in that family, and the orneriest, is a real blabber. These days he’s shooting his mouth off about how his folks got some decent money to buy a spread of their own. Course, they lost it not knowing how to do the business. Now this kid is on the outs with his folks who give him the boot, and his mouth is like flannels on a windy day clothesline. If there’s any answers for you, he’s the one you got to corral. Rope him in and you got all the answers. You need any help, I’m up to it.” His chin froze firm, his eyes came steady.
“I don’t want anybody getting in trouble with the law over this. I’ve been a long time waiting for a break. Now I might get a stampede going. I need something big. Something sure. But the truth. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“That’s been a long haul for you, Jigger, but I’ll tell you this, there’s a lot of people still on your side in this thing.
“It’s not over yet, my friend. Not yet. And it all gets me to thinking that I may need some help after all.”
“You name it, Jigger. I’m willing.”
Three weeks later Jigger Jerrob, under almost a month of beard growth, appeared in a small town a few miles from Waco. He was, decidedly, a new person; looks, duds, the whole works. Jason Wiles pointed out the flannel mouth, Lee McDaniels, who likewise sported a heavy dark beard, worn-down eyes and mouth and sloping shoulders of the idle. He soon moved to a place on the bar after he had seen Jigger buy a couple of rounds for gents he had been talking to. McDaniels was soon in the conversation and drinking off his first drink from Jigger. Part of his free-mouth was the chunk of dough his family got for pointing their fingers at a stranger, Jigger Jerrob, as the one they saw pistol-whipping the Oxleys.
He loved his free drinks, shot off his mouth continuously after Jigger Jerrob had stated loudly and firmly that he no longer had any use for his family that had also kicked him out of their home. One day later, after all Jerrob’s plans were firmed up, he had treated McDaniels so often with drinks that it was a cinch to get him on his horse and head him off on a long ride… all the way to Bridger, Nevada.
It was not an easy ride, but Jerrob, and Wiles now fully devoted to helping an old pal, managed to keep McDaniels in line and in-tow all the way to Bridger. The ropes never were loosed from at least one wrist, a true prisoner in tow.
Outside the Bridger jail after the long ride (and a cinch to Jigger after five years in jail), most everybody recognized Wiles but only one or two, including Sheriff Paul Lakeland, saw anything familiar about Jigger Jerrob. It was only in the jail that Jerrob owned up to who he was. A small celebration erupted in little more than two hours later after the sheriff had heard all that Lee McDaniels had to say, and then heard Jerrob’s explanation and proposal for closure on all his issues.
The sheriff sent off the telegraph to the Waco marshal, a one-time trail pard: “Have jailed a man in Bridger involved in the Oxley murders. Please reply. PL”
The marshal’s reply came back: “Paul, hold him for me. I’m on my way soon to bring back the fugitive, but have a hanging on hand. Tim.”
Two weeks later, the territory buzzing with the news of Jigger Jerrob’s arrival home and accompanied by a man who could clear him of all charges, the Texas marshal, Tim Maxon, rode stately and with great command into Bridger on a tall, black horse. The sun bounced off his badge and his weapons, and even without the identifying marks, he was recognized as a person of state. Dismounting in front of the Bridger jail and sheriff’s office, Maxon sensed a buzz in the air from a gathering crowd, but he could not have put together the scene and the players that he’d meet inside the jail.
He knew Paul Lakeland for a good number of years. Lee McDaniels he remembered in a flash as one of the testifying McDaniel family, but had no idea of who the bearded stranger was on this side of the bars.
Maxon looked at Lakeland. “I know this dude,” he said, pointing to McDaniels, “but he ain’t the one I’m going to take back with me.” Nodding at Jigger Jerrob in beard, he said, “I don’t know him. Who’s he?”
The sheriff then placed Jigger Jerrob inside another cell and said, “He’s the fugitive from the Waco jail, Jigger Jerrob, but he is now my prisoner.” He locked the cell door behind Jerrob.
“What the hell’s going on, Paul? You bring me all this way on a pretense? Do some explaining.”
Paul Lakeland told McDaniels to tell what he knew about the Oxley murders and McDaniels’ tongue was as loose as it had been since he’d been kicked out of the family home. Then the two officials wrote out the confession of duplicity, deception, and outright lies told for money, and then they had McDaniels sign the statement.
The marshal said to McDaniels, “You’re going back with me son, and Jerrob here can stay with you, Paul, sort of in custody for me until I go back and set this all straight up and proper. I was of a mind to bring him back until he got cleared, but that last name of the pay-off gent prevents that trip and it’s something that, I swear by all the gods you know, I’ve been looking for for a long, long time.”
The final name appearing in the confession, the money man that McDaniel named, was the warden of the Waco jail.
“I don’t know where all the answers are, and why he set up your prisoner in there, but it’ll all come out in the wash.” He went to Jerrob’s cell and said, “How long you been in Waco, son? Is it five years now?”
“Yes, sir, all of five years, but even this side of the bars feels better than before.”
“You sit by, son, and I’ll take care of the other end.”
To McDaniels he said, “You got any idea why he picked Jerrob here?”
“I just heard he saw him spit on the boardwalk in front of his house and didn’t like it. I don’t know if it’s true, but you can take it from there.”
“I got it, son,” the marshal said. “Never figured it was much different than that, not with that man.”