It’s a mighty fine summer day in the state of Georgia in the year of 1923.
Clank, clank, clank. You feel the burning sensation of your aching muscles. Your body fighting a never-ending battle against your mind. Clank, clank, clank. Your body tells you to stop. To sit down for a minute, relax and maybe get some water. Your mind tells you to keep going. You know what happens if you slack on the job. Clank, clank, clank.
“Put your backs into it, you lazy mongrels!”
You instinctively duck your head, as the Overseer pass you by on his horse. The overseer is already uncurling his long whip. It won’t be long until he finds an unfortunate soul to strike. You put more effort into your swing, bringing the pickaxe down hard on the stones, you and the other convicts are breaking down, into smaller pieces. You are flanked by sweating convicts, two on each side. All wearing the same black and white striped clothing, all with their heads shaved and all with the same strained and despairing expression on their faces.
“It has to be today!” puffs Bobby, as he swings his pickax down hard on the chain, connecting your legs. The chain is linked together to another chain, connecting you, Bobby and three other convicts together. You nod in agreement, not taking your eyes away from the stone you are working on. Bobby swings yet another time, down hard on your chain. It severs with a satisfactorily snap.
“All right,” whispers Bobby. “One down, one to go.”
“Wait!” You hiss between hard pressed lips. You look to your left as one of the guards walk towards you and Bobby. You try to position your feet, so he won’t be able to see that your chain is not connected to the others.
“What are you talking about?” The guard unshoulders his shotgun, aiming it loosely at your legs. “You guys trying to pull any tricks huh?”
“No sir,” replies you and Bobby almost at the same time.
The guard keeps on looking at you, squinting his eyes. He spits through the side of his mouth, the gob hanging down his chin. He doesn’t seem to care. He just looks at you. “I’m keeping my eyes on you, boy,” yells the guard, looking you up and down. Then he turns around saying” You better not try anything stupid.”
You can’t believe your luck. “This is typical, for the new guards,” whispers Bobby. “Takes them a while to loosen up.”
“This one is different.” You keep your eyes on the guard, as he walks away. “I think he is looking for an excuse to shoot one of us. He is the kind of white man, who doesn’t like colored folks.
“Well,” chuckles Bobby. “He might just get the chance with you.”
You nod, as you scan the surrounding area, where you have been for the last week or so. The area, where you and the other convicts have been working is full of big rocks, which some big farmer wants to be cleared. The land next to you, is already cultivated corn fields. The corn stands at around 8 feet tall. Making it easy to hide in and the fields of corn stretch out almost as far as your eyes can see. There is a forest next to the fields, which you know also stretches for many miles, all the way up to the border of Tennessee. That is your destination, Tennessee. You have heard that the guards stop following running convicts, as soon as they cross the border to another state.
You decide to wait a little longer, before Bobby starts to give the chain, connected to your legs an occasional hit. You have been doing this for the last couple of days, trying to wear the chains thin. The surrounding convicts are fully aware of what you and Bobby are up to. But they are minding their own business. No one likes a snitch, especially not convicts.
“One last swing,” puffs Bobby, bringing the pickax down hard snapping the chain.
“Thank you, Bobby,” you quickly look around, noticing when the guards are furthest away, so you can make your escape.
“No problem brother,” whispers Bobby. “I hope we meet again, some day. Now go!”
You quickly shake his hand, before you turn around and run as fast as you can. You count the seconds, waiting for the guards to start shouting. You actually get to around a hundred meters before they call out, threatening to shoot you. That’s much longer than you ever dared to hope for.
You have to choose, whether you want to run into the forest or run through the cornfield.
1 Run for the forest or 2 run for the cornfields
You quickly run for the forest, to the sound of cheering fellow convicts and the yells from the angry guards. “Stop in the name of the law!” You think that the voice, is belonging to the guard, who promised he would keep an eye on you. You keep running, not daring to look back. The warning is soon followed by a loud shotgun blast, followed by more yelling and the whinnying from a horse. You hear the sound of galloping hooves come closer and closer. You are not sure if you will be able to get to the forest, before the Overseer will be in shooting range.
It sounds like he is just behind you now, as he yells for you to stop, but you keep on running. The dirt, right next to you suddenly explodes as pellets rips up the earth. You don’t think that it was a warning shot, but due to the fact of poor aiming. You cringe to the sound of another blast, which also misses you.
You feel the excitement as you are now running under the canopy of the forest. You press through some bushes, hoping that the Overseer won’t be able to force his hors through.
There’s a loud cursing behind you, followed by the whinnying of a scared horse. You dare to look over your shoulder, just in time to see the Overseer being thrown off the saddle. Your smile is soon wiped off, as you notice more guards on foot running towards you. You turn around, running further into the forest. Even though you run as fast as you can. You can hear that the pursuers are close by, yelling and cursing through the forest.
You have been running for around an hour, still not able to throw the guards completely off your tail. Desperation is starting to set in, something must happen soon! You suddenly come across a somewhat calm river, snaking through the forest. The river is around ten meters wide, a couple of leaves floating gently downstream.
The choice must be made, whether you want to run down the river’s muddy shore or try and cross it. The guards are so far behind, that you might be able to cross the river, without them spotting you.
1.Cross the river or 2 follow the river
You run for the edge of the cornfield, trying to make your advance even greater than it already is. You quickly reach the cornfield, running into it at full speed. You decide to slow your pace as much as you dare, so you don’t leave a trail of broken corn in your wake. You force yourself to move gently through the corn. It will also make it more difficult, for the guards to spot your location from afar if the top of the corn stalks aren’t moving. You can hear the guards yelling to one another as they crash through the cornfield behind you. You suddenly hear the galloping sounds of hooves as the overseer tramples though the cornfield. “Follow me men,” yells the Overseer. “I’ll clear a path.” You can hear the charging horse galloping past you, mere meters from where you are walking. You try and move away in another direction, but it doesn’t take long before you cross path with the Overseer yet again. This time he almost runs you over, as you barely manage to jump to safety.
“There he is,” yells the shrill voice of a guard.
Fear grips at your heart! This can’t be the end, you think to yourself. You jump up from the ground, running as fast as you can, not caring whether you make the corn shake. You can hear the guard who was screaming before, breathing furiously as he does his best to catch up to you. You are being slowed down by all the corn, where all the guard has to do, is follow the trail you are making.
You suddenly feel something crash into your legs toppling you over. You land hard on your side but are already scrambling to your feet. Something hard hits you on the back of your head, sending you crashing back to the ground.
“I got him, I got him,” squeals the guard.
You feel a strong hand grab your leg and start pulling you back towards the other prisoners. You lie on your back, too overtaken by pain to move. You are barely able to remain. “You’re in big trouble now, convict,” says the guard. That is the last thing you hear, before you lose consciousness.
You hope that the current is as slow as it looks. You cautiously walk into the river slowly testing the water. Feeling only a slight pull from the current, you immediately start swimming. You have crossed the river, before you even know it, scrambling to hide behind a cluster of bushes on the other side. You quickly remove your striped black and white blouse and pants. The wet clothes will not only slow you down, it will also make you that much easier to spot as you run through the forest. You hide the clothes under the bushes, hoping that the guards won’t see your footprints in the mud right away. You pray to god, that the rest of your escape will go as easy as it has done so far.
You run for several more hours only daring to stop for a short break every now and then. You know from other convict’s attempts, that if the guards don’t catch you within the first hour or so, all hell breaks loose. Then they put everything they have into motion. They start broadcasting news about you on the radio, sending dogs and what not after you. The scariest thing for an escaping convict like you, is actually not the guards themselves. It’s all them damn vigilantes, running around yelling about their amendments. They might be shooting you on sight or even worse, hang you! It’s much better being caught by the guards, they at least know your value, breaking bigger stones into smaller ones.
The sun has started to set, and you are deep within the forest now. You see what appears to be an abandoned barn. The door stands half open, all the windows are broken and the building itself, is completely overgrown with brambles, lichen among other plants. The place has obviously been deserted for a very long time.
You have to decide, whether you want to sleep for a couple of hours in the barn, or just keep running, getting as far away from the guards as possible. You are pretty much exhausted from your escape so far, with the sun going down, it is already becoming colder and you are not wearing anything besides your shoes and underwear. It might also be a good idea to take the chance and get as far away from the guards as possible.
1 Hide in barn or 2 continue until dawn
You decide to run down the river, following its winding path through the forest. It doesn’t take long, before you can hear your pursuers getting closer. You are probably more determined than them, but they have better shoes, better clothes and they have been more properly fed than you, for several years. You are starting to feel the exhaustion drain your energy minute by minute. You take a couple of seconds respite, leaning against a tree trunk, trying to catch your breath. You make a quick peek beyond the tree trunk, trying to see where your pursuers are located.
You immediately start running again, as you see three prison guards, no more than a hundred meters behind you. They seem to be almost as exhausted as you are! They spot you as soon as you start running, throwing all their energy in one final charge. You try and regain some distance to them, but it is impossible, you have been running on fumes for quite some time. You start losing control over your legs, making it harder and harder to force them to move. They feel like lead.
You suddenly trip over a log, lying in your path. You land hard on the ground but manage to ease the fall with your hands. You quickly jump up and start running again. You get no more than a few meters before you tumble down again. This time you have no time to get up, before the guards are upon you, kicking and beating you to a pulp, before they drag you back to the chain gang. Back to work even more years than you were sentenced to begin with.
Hide in barn
You walk slowly into the barn, searching it thoroughly. You are finally satisfied, that the place has truly been abandoned many years ago. You then set out to try and make your first night in freedom as comfortable as possible. The barn is just made up of one big room, probably for housing cows or the like. You almost clap your hands in excitement as you see there are plenty of half rotten but still kind of soft hay, lying everywhere. You scoop as much as you can together in one corner making yourself a makeshift bed. It gets even better, as you find several discarded sacks made of cloth. You lay yourself to rest on your “hay mattress” and pull a couple of the sacks over your body to keep you warm. You lie on your back for a while, thinking about just how lucky you have been. You were looking at spending at least five more years, working on the chain gang. You have only dreamed of getting this far. Most convicts never even get out of sight from the pursuing guards. You have been on the run for at least six hours now. When you have had a nice sleep, you are sure you will be fully energized to be able to cross the border to Tennessee the following day. From there, all you have to do, is find someone more or less willing to help you getting rid of the damn shackles on your ankles. Even though you have a long way to go, before you can call yourself a man in safety, you already feel as a man in freedom. That counts for a lot!
You suddenly wake up, to the sounds of barking dogs and yelling men. You sit up with a jerk, making hay fly in every direction. The sounds are close and what is worse, they are coming closer still. You quickly jump out of your makeshift bed, running to one of the broken windows, to see what is going on. You jerk your head back, as you see a fat guard being dragged by four Dutch Shepherds. The dogs are impatiently pulling at their leashes, trying to get free from their master. You just hope that the guard can hold the dogs back. You have heard plenty of stories of unfortunate prisoners being bitten so badly by the guard dogs, that they were never able to work at the chain gangs again. Now, a group of vigilantes sound much more appealing, than being ripped apart by raging dogs.
There is no doubt in your mind. The guards will search the barn in a matter of seconds. You can’t use the way you came in, as the guard with the dogs will be there momentarily. Instead you run to one of the windows, using your elbow to smash the window, clearing the frame of broken glass. You hear the guards yell to each other, as the sound of shattering glass reaches them. You quickly jump out through the window and start running. You barely notice the cut on your thigh, as you try and flee the barn. There is nothing you can do, except to run for your life.
You look over your shoulder, but there are no guards in your vicinity. You push yourself forward, telling yourself that you are gonna make it. Then you hear the loud barking of the dogs. The sounds of the dogs draw nearer and nearer. That can only mean one thing. That the dogs have been turned lose. You dare to look over your shoulder one last time. The sight almost completely freezes your muscles with fear. Two of the dogs come running at full speed, their wet tongues lolling out of their gaping mouths. You don’t even get to turn your head back, before the first one is on your back. You go down with the dog, while the other attacks your legs, trying to hold you still. The pain is excruciating. You try to punch the dog, who jumped you. You miss the dog by an inch and get rewarded by being bit on your wrist. Neither of the dogs are letting go and every time you try to move, the dogs throw their head from side to side, making you unable to move. There is nothing else you can do, than lie still and wait for the guards, to take you back to the chain gang. All hope is lost.
Continue until dawn
You force yourself to keep moving. Even though the barn offers warmth and a good night of sleep, you don’t dare make a break already. You are not that far away from the chain gang guards. It won’t be long, before the entire area will be crawling with guards and certainly also dogs. Crossing the river certainly gave you a head start, but it will only be a matter of time before the dogs will get your scent. Better to keep moving. This is probably your only chance at living your life in freedom. If they catch you, you are almost certain that a lot of extra years will be put on your sentence. With that in your mind, you force yourself to continue your escape, deep into the night.
It doesn’t take long before the sun is down, and the moon has taken over, changing the day into night. It has gotten tremendously harder to see anything in the dark. The night also brings the chilling cold with it, making it even harder to move your aching body. The cold air hurts your throat and lungs just by breathing. When you try and slow down the pace, the cold is almost unbearable. When you try to jog, making your body get a little warmth, you keep on hurting your head, running into tree trunks or falling over a branch and hitting the cold, hard earth.
Even though you are feeling the cold and exhaustion wearing your body down, you keep on pushing yourself forward. You tell yourself, that it is the exact same thing, working on the chain gang. Your body screams for you to stop, but your mind forces you to keep going. The only difference is, that this time you work for yourself and not, for the god damn government.
The hours creep by, ever so slowly. You have to stop once in a while to get your breath, but also to look at the moon. It is important to have a focal point in the darkness, so you don’t run around in circles. At some point you notice, that the sun is starting to rise in the sky. You can’t wait to feel the warm rays on your numb body.
You keep on pressing forward through the morning, feeling the invigorating rays warming your body. You hope that it won’t take long, before you reach the border of Tennessee. If you get across the border, your chance of escaping the guards will be much, much greater. You quicken the pace, now that you are better able to navigate through the forest. You keep telling yourself, just a little longer. Just a little longer and you will be safe.
“What happened then grandpa?” asks the youngest of your grandchildren.
You chuckle loudly. “Well, Alma. I got away. I ran through the forest almost all of that day.” You shake your head slowly, reminiscing the life in the chain gang. The unlucky souls, especially Bobby. He was probably working there, the rest of his miserable life.
“How’d you get the rest of the chains off grandpa?” Asks Billy, who is your eldest grandchild. He is almost a grown man.
“Well. Luck just kept smiling on me. I found an abandoned factory. Had all the tools I needed. I even found some discarded worker’s clothes. Got myself a job working at a big car manufactory.”
“Why were you in the chain gang to begin with, grandpa?” asks Alma.
“Well… I shot a man in the head,” you say matter-of-factly. “shot him dead.”
Your grandchildren look at you, eyes open wide. “He had it coming,” your voice going dark. “Now off you go children, school is waiting.” You give them a big smile as their mother enters the kitchen and gently nudges them out the door.