Western Short Story
From one minute of the day to the next, Neckwrek Handel-Handel sang the song endlessly, “Ain’t No Jail Aholtin’ Me,” sang it, mouthed it, uttered it, yelled it. For his five years in Yakima Territorial Prison the guards always knew where he was, in what disposition, secure in one cell or another, or laboring on a prison work detail. Prisoner #127 was known by the only name ever used by him, Neckwrek Handel-Handel, but history had other versions that are worth unveiling if the man is to be known if not understood. Yakima Territorial Prison, as described by some Washington folks in the know, was “200 miles of nothing between here ‘n’ there,” and about the toughest place in the territory. He was 24 years old when he was brought to Yakima, the prison then just over a year old, and 29 when he escaped, in 1881.
That truth said Handel-Handel was born Richard Bannister Barrons, III, to the Barrons of Jamaica Plain, Boston area, Massachusetts, USA. His parents, the Richard Bannister Barrons, II, were engulfed by the great fire in 1857 that burned to the ground the stately home of the Barronses in a very posh section of that village. The only child, Richard III, was rushed out of the house at the height of the immense conflagration (fueled by almost 100 oil lamps spread throughout the mansion), by the nanny Auntie Dilz, a large black woman who dearly loved the child as if he was her own. He was four years old and her lap was the warmest, sweetest and most loving lap he had known, and the only one most likely, because the parents were caught up in a serious social life, the father a successful ship owner.
People of Jamaica Plain village assumed that Richard III died in the fire that leveled the huge home, along with “that governess or nanny they had, with a funny name, who must have burnt with poor little Richard, but nobody can remember her name.”
Before dawn the next day, Auntie Dilz was in the house of a relative in West Cambridge, and a week later in the back end of Rockport, near Gloucester and the Portuguese-manned fishing fleet, at another relative’s place of employment, with another ship owner who saw no color in people, and asked no questions about “the black lady, who could cook like a god sent from Olympus, and a white child, perhaps little more than a tot.”
Even there, Richard III was caught up on two levels, a white boy in the brace of black servitude. But Auntie Dilz’s employer hosted the most elaborate parties with the grandest food imaginable, great reams of it, elaborate loaves and cakes and icings, greens with magical tastes, and a miracle mix of fish and meats, “sea and sod” as the ship owner called it, all cooked up by “that woman in his kitchen, the mother of that poor child with that strange name, Neckwrek Handel-Handel.” Interest piqued, spoken for, and accepted, so thusly the boy grew up in two worlds, but knowing at all hours the warmest place on earth, the lap of Auntie Dilz who became, one unsuspecting day as declared by the boy himself, Momma Dilz.
The woman sang songs to the child the minute she left off her duties as cook, maid, live-in factotum, endless singer in her own mind as she spun through her duties. Big, black, gracious for her size, elegant of hand, songs in her throat for every deed required of her, mythical songs that called on her past and the memories she strove endlessly to keep alive in her mind, and in so doing presented to the loving child an extension of her own history. From her lap he caught a sense of music that swelled in him but especially off by himself. It was when he was alone that he could enjoy the joy that leaped out of him as he sang, knowing Momma Dilz’s voice, the magic of her words, the love that rose from her lap, from her sweet embrace, while she sang “ole Afridca comin’ home agin.”
Now and then, in moments of deepest sadness, she told him of her journey in chains and all imaginable pains on a dark ship when she was just 13 years old. How she survived by being freed of her chains on calm nights and was brought to the captain’s cabin. What her survival had cost her. What she was taking back that was her own to give, not to be taken at threats of death. Only when he had come of age did rage enfold him, the night in the haymow when a girl, another mixed person, played games with him. His rage came apace of all the pleasures he would come to know.
When a white boy of that end of Rockport, a constant companion of Neckwrek’s, began to steal from Momma Dilz’s employer, he dropped clues that it was Momma Dilz who did the thievery, small and unobtrusive clues he had discerned about the woman and “that stupid boy who don’t know if he be white or black, who ought to know his place.”
Beset by doubt, called upon by friends to “get rid of that disgrace he harbored, that woman and that child,” the employer and ship owner was caught in a quandary. The solution was never his, as he was robbed one night coming back from Gloucester and shot dead on the road. Momma Dilz and Neckwrek didn’t last a week, as relatives of the ship owner ushered them out of town. Neckwrek was 12 years old. Momma Dilz died of a heart attack in her flight. A week later he snuck back into Rockport, killed the thieving boy, was seen, and ran. When it leaked out later that he had killed the wrong boy, his brother having committed all the thefts, Handel-Handel made a vow that he would seek revenge.
He was still running 12 years later, still promising to avenge Momma Dilz’ death, when he was sent to Yakima Prison for holding up a stage outside of Mineral Park, Washington Territory and taking the strongbox away with him.
Such is history of one person, boy to man, freed to be imprisoned, man on his own in this world of two worlds.
Two passengers of the stagecoach that Handel-Handel robbed were from Bisbee, almost 100 miles back on the trail. They had seen the robber on a number of occasions, back in Bisbee. Doc Parsons, a general practitioner, and his wife Mildred, town stalwarts, solid citizens, stood up in court and pointed at Handel-Handel as the coach thief. They identified him by the scars on Handel-Handel’s body, on wrist and face, that the doctor had seen two visits to his office. Parsons, once on General Grant’s staff as a medical aide, was firm and definite in his identity. The judge, knowing some of Handel-Handel’s background, much to his chagrin, said at the sentencing, “Young man, I hate to see a whole life wasted, so I am going to send you to Yakima Territorial Prison, not for your whole life, but for 10 years. I sincerely hope that you get out of there someday and move on with your life.”
The judge never realized, for one minute, that Handel-Handel would escape from Yakima. It appeared impossible from his personal survey, the facility new, the walls solid, the guard force strong, the surrounding territory, for miles and miles on end, a sure deterrent to escape. The land was inhospitable to say the least, natural enemies growing out of that inhospitable geography, dangers found deep in canyons, hidden up wadis, in the way of any man on the move. Whatever the judge gleaned about the young prisoner, he did not find the resolve that Handel-Handel had formed and held in deep reserve.
Only two days in prison, knowing the jeopardy that daily surrounded him, including one mouthy prisoner making serious jokes about his name, Handel-Handel made a small, deadly weapon, a knife of sorts but jugular sharp, out of a metal dish “lost during mealtime.” Other prisoners took the hint when the mouthy prisoner was found, in his cell, almost bleeding to death from a jagged wound on his face. Handel-Handel, always singing his song, “Ain’t No Jail Aholtin’ Me,” was never bothered after that, and was able to plan his impossible escape from the Yakima prison.
It only took him five years.
Six months after his escape, through the curried intervention of a guard, with not a single sighting of the escapee, the doctor, his wife, and the judge managed to relax their vigilance about revenge. They believed, as did many people, that the fugitive had perished in the desert. But, then, each got a copy of a letter found secreted at Yakima, that said, “I don’t blame none body of my jailin’. Not you’se too. I ain’t none bad accep what I did to nudder boy. I thot he real kilt Momma Dilz all alone but his bruder did it. Who come after me gettin’ hurt ever time. That come promise. I ain’t kep no hate wid me, but make sure the killer be kilt.”
Rockport, Massachusetts was too far away to be reached by an escapee without funds or friends. A letter was sent by Washington prison officials advising Rockport officials of Handel-Handel’s promise of revenge.
Yakima, indeed, was too far away to be any kind of a threat to Rockport, or to the real thief who Handel-Handel believed had killed his Momma Dilz by causing her heart attack.
It only took Neckwrek Handel-Handel eleven months to walk into Rockport after dark on the last evening of August, 1882. The August moon was not shining, but a west wind came steady and the tide was out, the air so fully fresh and invigorating that he could easily measure the difference with his Yakima cell. He thought it was like finding a salt cache on his escape route through Utah. The salty air, full of memories, made him cry at first, and then the hateful resolve overcame him. He knew for only bare moments the safety of Momma Dilz’s bountiful and heavenly lap. It was never to come back to him, that acre of pleasantness, that sea of warmth.
During his long stay away from Rockport, he found out, the real killer had died, leaving Handel-Handel unresolved.
Lost in his desolation, figuring a way out of his present situation, he dreamed of walking back westward as the fulfillment of his life. “I kin do thet less’n a year, betcha betcha betcha,” he mouthed to himself in the darkness of the night. He remembered the heat of his cell at Yakima, how it burned his skin, laid him down trying to recall how to breathe properly, saving himself by absolute stillness, wasting nothing of his mind.
At a moment of fearful realization, that Momma Dilz’s warm lap might be gone forever, that darkness had stolen her, that the death of a thief had no resolve for him, he found himself at the edge of the sea. Boats and craft of all sizes bounced on the slightly angular waves coming inward with the tide. He heard the music of the sea and the hulls being washed by the grace of the ocean. The stars had flung themselves out over the vast sea and seemed to touch the far line of the horizon. One star close to the horizon blinked continually at him, as if pointing.
“West go east and east go west,” he said under his breath, knowing that there would be no place to hide any longer. In the steady motion of tide, the water touched warmly on his legs, not as warm as his Yakima cell, but warm, invitingly warm. The walls in his prison cells had been hot on his skin, some days as hot as the sun itself, but the floor of those cells was really the rooftop of Hell. The threat, ever there every minute in Yakima, disappeared. “Ain’t no more fallin’ t’rough,” he sang, “fallin’ down the Devil’s lap.”
And there was real music out there, where that bright, glorious single star still blinked at him, Momma Dilz’s kind of music! The smooth throb of it came on the tide, moved with the breeze, with the full sky of stars keeping pace. His fingers could almost touch it, move with it, as the beat ran on his skin. All of it enveloped him, promising a blanket of heaven.
The revelation came alive; Momma Dilz was still warm in whatever place she waited. He had done his revenge, and she had to be warm as ever, her lap as bountiful. He remembered how she had always wanted him to learn how to swim, always being near the sea, or connected to it somehow, but he had an inevitable fear of water and never learned how. So it was his own miracle when he said, almost sang, “Ain't none too late learnin’ now, Momma, none too late for learnin’.”
Again he heard the music as he had in the foothills of wild western mountains, in Utah and Wyoming and other places on his way to forever, the music that belonged to her, that came with the wind in canyons, across lush prairies, up and off the peaks “prayin’ right up to heaven itself.”
He leaned into the slight white line coming at him and swung one arm forward. He sang the song that had carried him for such a long time; “Ain’t No Jail Aholtin’ Me,” letting the words rise from his throat as the warm September water washed against his face.