Friday, May 17, 2013

Man Hunt

by Audrey L. Barclay

Phil Johnson picked up the jangling telephone from the table beside him and handed it to his mother, making a wry face as he did so. There went their Carom game, probably.

Mrs. Johnson listened a moment, then told her neighbor up the road, "Don't be alarmed, Alice. I'm sure every possible precaution is being taken to see that no harm comes to anyone." She replaced the instrument then, answering their unspoken questions, she quietly told them, "There's been a break at State prison. Six convicts shot their way out about an hour ago. Alice is afraid they're hiding somewhere nearby, but I'm sure we've nothing to worry about; that's forty miles away, and they're sure to be caught before they get this far."

Twelve-year-old Phil was instantly alert. "Oh, boy! A prison break!" His vivid imagination immediately went into action. Bill, being more realistic, moved across the room and turned on the television just in time to hear the announcer say that all Sunday evening programs would yield priority to further news of the escape. Sheriff Walker was asking that everyone remain off the streets after dark, and keep their doors and windows locked until the prisoners were apprehended. Sixteen-year-old Bill, while Dad was away, felt his responsibility as man of the house.

Finally, with the impatience of ten years, Tom demanded, "come on, you guys! Just because me and Mom are beatin' ya I guess ya wanna quit. Pikers!" No one moved to resume the game, so the disgruntled lad banged the board with his fist, making the rings bounce, and went to his room, muttering to himself as he went. Who cared about any ole prison break, anyway?

No trace of the escapees was found throughout the ensuing week. Except for the healing wounds of the two guards they had shot, it was if it had never happened. The general consensus of opinion was that there had been help from the outside in making their way across the state line, although a few individuals remembered--and heeded--the sheriff's warning for caution.

Phil, to the detriment of lessons and the exasperation of teachers, sat in class dreaming of the grand new game he could play when he went hiking Saturday. He'd go on a manhunt! He knew just where to go first:  the culvert about a mile down from the railroad track. The big round pipe was big enough a man could stand up in it--a dandy place to hide.

The lad arose early that morning. He packed his knapsack with the sandwiches his mother had ready, cookies, apples, and eyed the lone piece of pie miraculously left over, then decided it was too messy. Instead, he dropped another handful of cookies in his shirt pocket, slung the bulging bag over his shoulder on the sturdy stick he always carried, and was off across the pasture. He didn't hear his mother's admonition to brush his rumpled brown hair and tuck his shirttail in.

Reaching the pasture fence Phil crawled between the barbed wires, climbed the embankment to the railroad track, where he balanced himself atop a rail and went teetering off towards his hideout, counting crossties as he went. He nibbled at the apple he had fished from his knapsack, and tried to decide who he was today. Usually, he was General Custer, Kit Carson, or some equally fascinating character, but he wasn't quite sure today who he should be. He guessed, though, if he was going to hunt escaped prisoners, he'd better be Sheriff Walker.

Reaching his destination, the boy scrambled down the embankment to the culvert and found it already occupied. Forgetting momentarily for whom he was looking, he supposed the tall, dirty, unshaven man who stood facing him from inside the tunnel was a tramp. The man stared silently at the boy, making no response when Phil greeted him with a friendly, "Hi!"

Seating himself some ten feet away, Phil opened his knapsack, removed two sandwiches, and offered one to the hungry looking stranger who made no move to accept it. Shrugging slightly, he replaced the sandwich and began to eat, covertly watching the man as he did so. He began to feel sorry for the fellow as he saw him lick his lips hungrily from time to time. Dark circles beneath his eyes made him look tired, too. Again Phil offered food, and this time it was accepted, still without comment.

Watching the fellow greedily devour two of the sandwiches, Phil took further inventory:  he must be about forty years old, and looked awfully strong. The heavy rough work shoes were quite worn, the coarse cotton shirt and pants faded and soiled. Then he saw the short ugly knife stuck beneath the belt. The blue eyes bulged, the hand flew to his mouth to stifle a scream. Golly! A convict! He hadn't expected to find one, not really. What would Sheriff Walker do?

Finishing the food, the man spoke for the first time, "Where does this railroad go to?"

"Canada," was the shaky reply.

"Will there be a train today?"

"Yes, right after noon. Are you planning to catch a ride on it?"

"That's none of your business," was the surly response.

Sometime later, trying to think of something to talk about, Phil told the man, "I know the engineer on that train. He'll stop and let you ride, if I want him to."

The guy was skeptical. "I don't believe you. Are you sure?"

"Oh, yes! I'm sure."

"All right, then, you stop it. And you'd better be right!"

When the whistle of the approaching train was heard as it rounded the curve, Phil scrambled up the embankment, pulled the red bandana from around his neck, and waved it wildly until the engineer had brought his train almost to a stop. Without a word to the boy who had befriended him, the unkempt stranger climbed aboard and hid himself in an open boxcar.


Editor's Note:  Maybe you know what game the Johnsons were playing at the beginning of this story, but I'd never heard of it, so I turned to Google for an introduction. Carrom (Grandma left out an R) is a board game that has been around for well over a century. You can click on this link to view a modern, inexpensive version of the game that uses rings for pieces (like the pieces in Grandma's story), and, if you're still curious, you can watch a short, soundless video of a game in progress (played with "coins" instead of rings) by clicking right here.

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