The convicts of the county road gang were chopping
weeds along the side of the highway and clearing and stacking brush further in. Khaki clad guards stood with weapons in all sorts of unmilitary
positions and tried to avoid the glare of the North Carolina sun.
Lennie sat on his front porch, chair leaned back on
two legs, boot clad feet on the porch rail, and watched the action at the
top of the hill out of half-closed eyes. He was a small, wiry man, but
one who could take care of himself in any event. You could tell by
his uncalloused hands that he had never ploughed a field and from his
independent air that he had no such intentions. His denim shirt was
spotless, and his work pants had a trace of a crease. A cloth hat with a
feather in the band covered the spot on the back of his head where
hair no longer grew. He chewed contentedly on a toothpick. Women
thought of him as roughly handsome. Men thought of him as someone you
didn't mess with.
The man coming down the hill in black and white
striped prison garb was evidently a trustee. A guard half way up the hill kept an eye on him.
"Y'all mind if I get a bucket of water for the men?"
The convict asked as he came to the well house off the end of the porch.
He didn't wait for an answer, but began lowering the wooden well bucket.
"Man, I found it. I really found it this time," he said to no one in particular.
Lennie tried to look uninterested, but after a few seconds asked, "Found what?"
"Lotta five gallon cans of corn likker, buried just under the ground and covered with brush."
"Why you telling me?"
"So you can tell the man that owns 'em, we got two ways to do this. I
can tell the guards and they'll take it for themselves and be a little easy on me for a while. Or I can keep my mouth shut and git a favor."
Lennie considered this while the con emptied the well bucket into his own.
"What kind of favor?"
"I need to git off the chain gang. Usually I just serve my time. Then when I git out I need money so I do something stupid and go right back on again. Right now my brothers got a job waiting for me if I can git over the state line. I want out while the job is still there."
The guard wondered why a getting a bucket of water took so much time, and started down the hill.
Lennie thought a minute, then said, "Next trip, just drop your bucket at the well and head over that knoll. You'll be hidden from view and someone there will be waiting to help you get away."
The next trip didn't work. There was a different trustee. But the one after that did the trick. The con dropped the bucket by the well and, scurrying as fast as his legirons would allow, disappeared out of sight over the hill. The guard came running down the hill, shot-gun ready, and stopped at the top of the knoll.
"He went that-a-way," Lennie pointed. "Git that son-of-a-bitch."
The only person in sight was someone in the back of a battered pick-up
truck, heading up the next rise. A chain-gang truck raced up and slowed, but didn't stop, and the waiting guard clambered in. They went in hot pursuit of the fleeing vehicle. When they overtook it, the person in the back was a teen-age boy. His striped sport shirt looked like chain gang garb from a distance. The farmer in the front wasn't interested in their problem.
"Iffen you got an escaped prisoner down there, what're you doing up
here bothering me?" he wanted to know.
Back down by the well, the guards searched every nook and cranny including, with Lennie's permission, the house and attic. Lennie's apparent full cooperation in the search removed any suspicion they might have had of his complicity.
During the chase, an old Maxwell, driven by a woman in a poke bonnet,
went up the road toward the highway. She hesitated at the entrance to the highway as if uncertain which way to go, then turned left and disappeared into the distance. Snuggled in the trunk of the car was the escaped convict.
About two weeks later a stranger showed up at the
door. Lennie came
out, still holding the fruit-jar from which he had
"Dave said to tell you thanks," the man said. "He's on a new job and is
sending for his family as soon as it's safe. He wanted me to tell you you're a righteous man and he has all the respect in the world for you."
Lennie offered the fruit-jar and the stranger took a good swig. Then he was on his way.
Lennie stood contemplating those words. A righteous man. Yes, he guessed he was. He had helped a fellow man he didn't even know to a better life. But deep in the inner depths of his mind a green little doubt flickered. Had it really been to help his fellow man, or was it because the top quality corn squeezings that he had reclaimed sold for ten dollars a gallon?