The Legend of Potter’s Field
by John Haymaker
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
A letter from Cuz arrived at the prison a month later. Marty sat on his bunk and read the contents aloud to his cellmates. Cuz had chosen a plot just steps away from his grandfather’s grave, under the same oak but across the service road, not the cozy plot Marty longed for.
Other family members had raised objections. The locale was still good, and the headstone was set in place, all ready. Cuz included in the envelope a photo showing the pink granite slab engraved with a scroll carried aloft by doves unfurling: his name, Marty Dunn; his date of birth, July 15, 1954; and a blank space for his date of death. Marty’s epitaph spanned the base of the granite: IN A BETTER PLACE.
Bishop slapped Marty on the back, saying, “You pulled it off. You’re going to the good place.”
“We had faith in you,” Cooch said, nodding agreement.
But Marty tossed the letter aside, and dropped his head between his knees and heaved a sigh.
Bishop watched Marty a moment, looked from Cooch to Low Brow to Palmer, stroked his chin thoughtfully and said, “He don’t seem elated.”
Low Brow leaned forward and clucked his tongue. “Seems all too final, don’t it? All set but the date.”
Marty shrugged. The finality of it was too much — Marty felt shame, not for making funeral arrangements, not for handing Cuz a phony will, but for giving up on life. “Seems kind of dowdy now.”
“It’s a good design,” Cooch said. “I like it.”
“Might as well be folded hands praying, but I tell you what I wish I’d done,” he said wagging his finger, “that silk screen thing on the envelope...” He got up and rummaged through his old letters and papers. “Here, like this with the prison bars and cuffed hands breaking free.” And Marty banged his wrists together and pulled them as if struggling to break a chain. “Too late now, though.”
Palmer stood up and started dancing like a boxer, throwing a few fake-out jabs toward Marty. “Hey, don’t let it get you down. Maybe you still got some fight left in you,” Palmer said, making swift gut punches to Marty’s belly.
Marty stood, walked up to Palmer with his chin jutting out. “Maybe I do. But I’ll pick my fights, and you ain’t worth my time.”
“Time is indeed short,” Low Brow said, “when you got one foot in the grave.”
“Screw you guys,” Marty said and fell back on his bunk, gripping the silkscreened envelope, turning it round and round. Long into the night, he lit cigarette after cigarette, stared at the cuffed hands and recalled Joey’s sketch of a Ninja scaling prison walls.
* * *
Days later word spread around the prison. A massive rockslide blocked the last few miles of road leading up to Mad Max, and those last few turns on the road, hairpins and switchbacks, had required expert navigation even when clear. The Warden organized a work detail to clear the road. The bus ferrying the newly convicted was scheduled to arrive in two days, and the road was impassable.
Guards paced the corridor between cells, briefing inmates on details: they would be issued orange jump suits at five a.m. and leave the prison by six under heavy guard, shackled in leg irons and cuffs. Lindsey, a new guard many inmates regarded as a bully, trolled along the corridor. He slapped his nightstick across cell bars and warned: “Firepower will be considerable, and we don’t need permission to use it.” And if the inmates needed a reminder, Lindsey pounded home a phrase that inmates knew all too well: “No one ever escapes from Mad Max.”
Lindsey might have followed with a litany of reasons, but the inmates fell silent, and he knew he’d made his point. For even the luckiest escape artist, the terrain outside was too treacherous, the weather unpredictable. You could burn up and freeze to death on the same day, and either way you’d be lost in the wilderness, easy prey for wolves and bears.
Another guard laughed: “These loudmouths are strangely silent tonight.”
“Because they know I’m right. No one ever escapes from Mad Max,” Lindsey said again rapping the bars of Marty’s cell. “Sleep tight, boys. Hard day’s work tomorrow.”
Marty sat up, furious, fists clenched. “If I get half a chance tomorrow, I’ll kill that pushface,” he said.
“Don’t let Lindsey rile you,” Bishop said. “He’s full of himself.”
* * *
That night, Marty pulled out old letters, thumbed through them and laid the two dearest, those from his daughter, on his chest. Before leaving his cell the next morning, he suited up and slipped both her letters into his orange jumper.
A prison bus delivered inmates to a stop a mile outside prison gates. Inmates filed off in groups of two. Guards removed their cuffs but not the leg irons and directed inmates toward a dump truck idling just ahead, where fallen debris blocked the road. Morning clouds surrounded the cliff, and trees prevented any view below, but the work to be done was clear.
Inmates fanned out along the road in orange waves, resigned to the task of heaving the rocks, one by one into the waiting dump truck. The smell of diesel was strong as the dump truck progressed forward inch-by-inch while inmates cleared the road. Guards stood by, packing Glocks in shoulder holsters and holding assault rifles at the ready, urging inmates to keep moving, to keep working.
The forced labor created anger among men who hadn’t worked in years other than performing light KP duties, mopping shower stalls and brushing toilets. Freshly cleaved from the cliff, the rocks were jagged and sharp and many heavy, as much as fifty pounds. Warden provided them no gloves and, early in the day, the inmates’ hands were blackened and creased with blood.
Though it was late October, snakes beside the road were not uncommon — numerous rattlesnakes were on the move toward a winterproof den. There had been three pistol reports that day as two guards moved ahead of the inmates to check. One snake reared up, half the height of a man, the cotton white of its mouth baring jagged fangs. A guard shot the head off, and the headless body fell to earth, a writhing mass. Echoes of the pistol reports rattled everyone’s nerves.
After the commotion, rocks landed in the truck once more with resounding thuds. Marty did his best to unnerve guards sitting in the truck’s cab, pelting small balls of stone into the truck bed like baseballs, striking the truck with undue force, and many shattered on impact.
Lindsey chastised Marty: “I told Warden you’d just make trouble out here.”
“I’m clearing the road, ain’t I?” he said, lobbing another rock toward the truck underhanded like a softball, but still it landed with startling impact.
Lindsey threw open the truck door and approached Marty, readying a set of handcuffs. Then an inmate shrieked — and a guard hollered, “He’s been bit.” Lindsey ran up the road toward the scene and fired three rounds at a viper while another guard helped the inmate back toward the bus for medical attention.
“That guard Lindsey’s got it in for you,” Bishop said.
Marty shrugged and returned to picking up stones, then stopped. “Maybe I got it in for him,” Marty whispered and tossed a rock to Bishop. Bishop caught it in one hand, and threw it toward the truck bed. “What’s up?”
To watch Marty then, you would have no sense he was about to pull the stunt of his life, that he had a plan already in execution, despite all signs to the contrary.
Lindsey had no sooner returned to his perch in the cab when Marty raised a hand overhead motioning for Lindsey. “Just follow my lead,” he said under his breath.
Lindsey sidled out of the cab and approached, holding his rifle across his chest. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“There’s a snake. A big one.” Marty pointed.
“I don’t see it. Where?”
“Right there,” Marty whispered, glanced downward and poked his finger forward as gently as if sneaking up on prey. He was: Marty squinted, extended his finger, and Lindsey leaned over, cautiously extending the rifle barrel where Marty pointed, raising the butt of his rifle above his own.
In a flash, Marty grabbed the rifle from behind and Bishop wrested the pistol from Lindsey’s holster and forced it into Lindsey’s backside, got Lindsey in chokehold and pinned Lindsey to his chest, one arm wrapped around his neck.
Guards all around had clear shots at either Bishop or Marty, though shooting wasn’t an option without sacrificing Lindsey or the truck driver — who held his hands over his head while Marty rounded the truck, aiming the rifle at him through the windshield.
Confidently in control of the situation, Marty wagged the barrel of the gun and motioned for the driver to exit the vehicle. He did, hands still raised. Bishop dragged Lindsey to the cab, manhandled him, grabbing a handful of hair, and forced him into the cab with the pistol jammed under his chin.
Marty kicked the driver to the ground. He held the rifle in one hand, fingering the trigger and stepped into the idling cab. Guards surrounded the truck in a brief but tense standoff. Bishop pulled Lindsey’s head toward the window, pointing the pistol into the base of Lindsey’s skull. Marty gunned the engine, and the guards backed away but kept weapons ready, waiting for any opening.
A rousing clamor of catcalls and chants erupted from the inmates, who had ceased work: “Prison break! Prison break! Prison break!” You could hear Low Brow and Cooch over all the others.
Marty shifted the truck into gear, pressed the accelerator, but released the clutch too early and clipped the gears. The truck lurched forward, ramming boulders as the tires rumbled and bobbed over smaller debris in a ride full of jolts. When they passed all the areas of fallen rock, Marty picked up speed, and inmates erupted in cheers once more: “Go, Marty! Go, Marty!”
The truck passed the first switchback. Out of sight of the guards. Marty sped up, and said, “Now get that slob out of here.”
Bishop thrust open his door and shoved Lindsey to the pavement. Despite the obvious danger, Lindsey did not resist.
The truck barreled forward as Marty swerved around switchbacks. Though the road soon descended into dense fog, Marty’s adrenaline wouldn’t allow him to slow down. Bishop would have had Marty go faster. Exhilarated, Bishop pounded the dashboard with his fist and alternately checked the side-view mirror for any vehicles in pursuit, but he saw nothing other than gray fog swirling behind.
Marty missed a hairpin, and the dump truck lifted a back tire off the pavement. The truck might have righted, but its load of rock slammed the side of the truck bed, adding momentum as the wheels tipped. The truck rolled and plunged downward into the mist, unloading a clamoring avalanche of rock from the truck bed, until the truck slammed past tree branches and stopped dead on a ledge beneath the fog, landing on its side, pinning the passenger door closed.
Thrown from the cab, Marty was stunned. Whe he slowly came to, he rose to his knees twenty feet from the truck and inches from where the rifle had landed. The impact had torn off the truck hood, exposing the engine block and shattered the windshield. The rifle, too, seemed damaged; the scope was busted for sure, Marty saw when he picked it up.
“Bishop, you in there?” he asked frantic, checking the trigger and then the magazine clip when the trigger stuck. Marty threw a rock at the truck, pinging the bumper.
“The damned door’s stuck. Gimme a second.”
“Stop wasting time. Just come out the way I did.” Marty looked up at Bishop, who was hanging upside down in the truck. “You got the pistol? The rifle’s jammed,” he said, throwing it aside.
Moments later, Bishop had his head out the windshield, holding the pistol in his hand as he crawled through as best he could, still hobbled at the ankles.
Once outside, Bishop lay on his back, stretched his feet as wide as the chain allowed and fired into his leg chain, snapping it apart. He then passed the pistol to Marty who did the same. Their ankles remained cuffed, but they could move freely, dragging the short length of chains behind, jingling as they moved about.
They argued about which way to go. Bishop thought it would be best if they followed near the road; they would be less likely to get lost. But Marty wanted to go straight down. “Following every turn in the road will take twice as much time,” he said.
It was a slow, steep decent, but they picked up speed, getting used to feeling out ledges and branches, feeling out footholds, testing rocks, leveraging exposed roots. Marty was old, but his upper body strength was invincible, strength gained carrying buckets of cement, pushing wheelbarrows, hammering relentless nails in shingles, drywall and clapboards. His grip served him well clinging to crevices in the cliff while his feet felt about below for solid footing, trusting his senses as he shifted. He hurried, slipping at times, but was quick to regain his balance.
Then in a ravine filled with loose stone and gravel in its trough, both men allowed themselves to slide, pulling at small trees to slow themselves, soiling and tearing their orange suits. They descended into thick forest, too thick to traverse easily. The undergrowth was unexpectedly heavy and treacherous, and they soon found themselves lost and looking for a road. They found a stream — and that at least cut a clear path for them.
They followed the river until it neared the road again. The water was cold, but it felt good on their cut and scraped hands and on their swollen ankles still bound in shackles. They quenched their thirst, scooping handfuls of water.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by John Haymaker