The Getaway by
O. F. Lewis
From Red Book
Old Man Anderson, the lifer, and Detroit Jim, the best second-story
man east of the Mississippi, lay panting side by side in the pitch-dark
dugout, six feet beneath the surface of the prison yard. They knew
their exact position to be twenty feet south of the north wall, and,
therefore, thirty feet south of the slate sidewalk outside the north
It had taken the twain three months and twenty-one days to achieve
the dugout. Although there was always a guard somewhere on the north
wall, the particular spot where the dugout had come into being was
sheltered from the wall-guard's observation by a small tool-house. Also
whenever the pair were able to dig, which was only at intervals, a
bunch of convicts was always perched on the heap of dirt from various
legitimate excavations within the yard, which Fate had piled up at that
precise spot. The earth from the dugout and the earth from these other
diggings mixed admirably.
Nor, likewise because of the dirt-pile, could any one detect the job
from the south end of the yard. If a guard appeared from around the
mat-shop or coming out of the Principal Keeper's office, the convicts
sunning themselves on the dirt-pile in the free hour of noon, or late
in the afternoon, after the shops had closed, spoke with motionless
lips to the two diggers. Plenty of time was thus afforded to shove a
couple of boards over the aperture, kick dirt over the boards, and even
push a barrow over the dugout's entrance—and there you were!
One minute before this narrative opens, on July 17th, a third
convict had dropped the boards over the hole into which Old Man
Anderson, the lifer, and Detroit Jim, had crawled. This convict had
then frantically kicked dirt over the boards, had clawed down still
more dirt, to make sure nothing could be seen of the hole—had made the
thing look just like part of the big dirt-pile indeed—and then had
legged it to the ball-game now in progress on this midsummer Saturday
afternoon, at the extreme south end of the yard, behind the mat-shop.
Dirt trickled down upon the gray hair of Old Man Anderson in the
dark and stuffy hole he shared with his younger companion. But the
darkness and the stuffiness and the filtering dirt were unsensed.
Something far more momentous was in the minds of both. How soon would
Slattery, the prison guard, whom they knew to be lying dead in the
alley between the foundry and the tool-shop, be found? For years
Slattery had been a fairly good friend to Old Man Anderson, but what
did that count in the face of his becoming, for all his friendship, a
last-minute and totally unexpected impediment to the get-away? He had
turned into the alley just when Old Man Anderson and Detroit Jim were
crouching for the final jump to the dugout! A blow—a thud—that was
Anderson lay now, staring wide-eyed into the black nothing of the
hole. For the second time he had killed a man, and God knew he hadn't
intended to—either time! Fourteen years ago a man had tried to get his
wife away from him, while he was serving a one-year bit in the county
jail. Both men had had guns, and Old Man Anderson had killed the other
or he would have been killed himself. So that was no murder at all! And
as for Slattery—big, heavy, slow-moving, red-faced Slattery—Old Man
Anderson would even have gone out of his way to do the guard a favour,
under ordinary circumstances. But as between Slattery and the chance to
escape—that was different.
Old Man Anderson rubbed his right hand in the dirt and held it
before his eyes in the blackness. He knew that the moisture on it was
Slattery's blood. The iron pipe in Old Man Anderson's hands had struck
Slattery on the head just once, but once was enough.
Old Man Anderson burst into hiccoughing sobs. The younger convict
punched him in the ribs, and swore at him in muffled tones. Anderson
stifled his sobs then, but continued to sniffle and shiver. This time
it would absolutely be The Chair for him—if they got him! In a few
minutes they couldn't help discovering Slattery. Anderson never could
give himself up now, however this business of the dugout and the
hoped-for old sewer conduit should finally turn out. In the beginning
he had counted on crawling out, if worst came to worst, and
surrendering. But to crawl out now meant but one thing—The Chair!
In all his fourteen years behind the walls the vision of The Chair
had terrorized the old man. When they had sent him to prison his first
cell had been in the death-house, separated from The Chair only by a
corridor that, they told him, was about twenty feet long, and took no
more than five seconds to traverse—with the priest. Until they changed
his cell, the gaunt, terrible Thing in the next room edged every day
nearer, nearer, nearer, looming, growing, broadening before his morbid
vision until it seemed to have cut off from his sight everything else
in the world—closer, closer until it was only seven incredible hours
away! Then had come the commutation of his sentence from death to life!
The next day Old Man Anderson, gray-haired even then, went out from
the death-house among his gray-clad fellows, but straight into the
prison hospital, where for three months be lay a victim of chair-shock
just as surely as was ever a man shell-shocked on the Flanders front.
And never since had the hands of the man wholly ceased to quiver and to
Now he was a murderer for the second time! In the blackness he
stretched out his hand, and ran it over a stack of tin cans. Detroit
Jim had been mighty clever! Canned food from the storehouse, enough to
last perhaps two weeks! Detroit Jim had had a storehouse job. Twice a
day, during the last ten days, the wiry little ferret-faced
second-story man had got away with at least one can from the prison
commissary. Also he had provided matches, candles, and even a cranky
little flashlight. Only chewing tobacco, because you can smell smoke a
long way when you are hunting escaped convicts. And a can of water half
the size of an ash can!
Despair fastened upon Old Man Anderson, and a wave of sickness swept
over him. All the food in the world wouldn't bring Slattery back to
life. And again that Thing in the death-house rose before his mind's
eyes. Throughout all the years he had carried a kind of dread that
sometime a governor might come along who would put back his sentence
where it had been at first—and then all his good behaviour in these
endless years would count for nothing. Until Detroit Jim had told him
about the long-forgotten sewer conduit, he had never even thought to
disobey the prison rules.
The old man's teeth chattered. Detroit Jim's thin fingers tugged at
his sleeve. That meant getting busy, and digging with the pick with the
sawed-off handle. So Anderson wriggled into the horizontal chamber,
which was just large enough to permit his body and arms to function.
As he hacked away at the damp earth, he could see in the pitch
darkness the dirty sheet of paper, now in Detroit Jim's pocket, upon
which their very life depended. It was a tracing made by a discharged
convict from a dusty leather-covered book in the public library in New
York, sent in by the underground to Jim. The book had contained the
report of some forgotten architect, back in the fifties of the last
century, and the diagram in his report showed the water and sewage
conduit—in use! It ran from the prison building, right down across the
yard, six feet under ground, and out under the north wall, under the
street outside, and finally into the river. Built of brick, four feet
wide, four feet high. A ready-made tunnel to freedom!
Old Man Anderson could hear Detroit Jim's hoarse whisper now, as he
chopped away at the dirt, which he shoved back under his stomach, to
where Jim's fingers caught it and thrust it farther back.
“We're only a couple of feet from that old conduit right now. Dig,
you son of a gun, dig! Can the snifflin'! You dig, and then I'll dig!”
They were saving their matches and candles against necessity.
Mechanically the old man chopped and hacked at the wall of earth in
front of him. Now and then the pick would encounter a stone or some
other hard substance. In the last few days they had come upon frequent
pieces of old brick. Detroit Jim had rejoiced over these signs. For the
old man every falling clod of earth seemed to bring him nearer to
freedom. They also took his mind off Slattery.
So he chopped away, how long he did not know. Suddenly his pick
struck an obstacle again. He hacked at it. It gave slightly. A third
time he struck it, and it seemed to recede. An odour of mouldy air
filled his nostrils. In that little aperture his pick touched nothing
now! He heard something fall! Then he knew! There was a hollow place in
front of them! The abandoned conduit? He stifled a shout.
From somewhere, muffled at first, but ultimately faintly strident,
rose a prolonged wail that seemed to issue from the very earth. The
sound rose, and fell, and rose again. Frantically the pick of Old Man
Anderson hacked away at the dirt, and then at whatever was in front of
him. Detroit Jim snapped the feeble flashlight then. It was a wall—the
Meantime, the prison siren shrieked out to the countryside the news
of an escape.
What time it was—whether night or day or what day, neither Jim nor
Old Man Anderson knew. They had slept, of course, and Jim had forgotten
to wind his watch. Had one week or two weeks passed? If two weeks had
slipped by and if the prison officers ran true to form they would by
now have ceased searching inside the prison walls.
Old Man Anderson and Detroit Jim huddled close to each other in the
darkness of the conduit. A hundred times they had crawled from one end
to the other of their vaultlike trap! In their desperate and fruitless
search for an outlet to the conduit they had burned many matches and
several candles. Besides, Old Man Anderson had required light in which
to fight off his attacks of nerves, and the last of the candles had
gone for that. Now total darkness enveloped them.
The conduit was blocked! By earth at one end, and by a brick wall at
the other! All along the winding hundred feet of vault they had hacked
out brick after brick only to encounter solid earth behind. Only a few
tins of food remained and the water was wholly gone; the liquid from
the food cans only served to increase their thirst.
Old Man Anderson had grown to loathe Detroit Jim. Every word he
murmured, every movement he made, intensified the loathing. He had made
up his mind that Jim was planning to desert him the next time he should
fall asleep; perhaps would kill him and leave him there—in the dark.
The two had practically ceased speaking to each other. In his mental
confusion Old Man Anderson kept revolving in his mind, with
satisfaction, a new plan he had evolved. The next time Jim should fall
asleep he would crawl back through the aperture in the conduit wall,
pry up the boards over the opening into the prison yard, wriggle out,
and take his chances in getting over the wall somehow! Better even be
shot by a guard than die like a rat in this unspeakable place, as he
was doing, where he couldn't stand up and dared not lie down on account
of the things that were forever crawling through the place! His
contemplation of his plan was broken in upon by his companion clutching
him spasmodically by the arm. The old man's cry died in his throat.
Footsteps! Dull and distant they were, and somewhere above
them—momentarily more distinct—receding—gone!
Detroit Jim pulled Andersen's head toward him, and whispered:
“Sidewalk! People going by! We've never sat right here before! We
wouldn't hear them if they weren't walking on stone, or slate, or
The old man's heart pounded like a trip-hammer. Detroit Jim seized
the pick and began to pry the bricks loose from the arched roof of the
conduit. They worked like mad, picking, hacking, pulling, piling the
bricks softly down on the conduit floor.
Once, for an instant, Jim stopped working. “How far from the hole we
came in through, do you think we are?” he whispered.
“'Bout a hundred feet, I guess,” answered the old man. “Why?”
Without replying Detroit Jim resumed his picking, picking, at the
bricks. A hundred feet from where they had entered would not be under
the sidewalk. Finally, he understood. This conduit wound around a good
deal; it would take a hundred winding feet to cover thirty
Finally, also, Detroit Jim turned the pick over to the old man, who,
feeling in the blackness with his hands, discovered the span as wide as
his outstretched arms, from which Detroit Jim had removed the bricks.
It was a span of yielding earth into which the old man now dug his
pick. As he worked, the loosened dirt fell upon him, upon his head,
into his eyes and nose and ears....
Abruptly the old man's pick struck the flagging above them! Detroit
Jim mounted upon the pile of bricks and shoved Anderson aside.
Jim felt along the edges of the stone clear around. It seemed to
measure about three feet by two, and to be of slate, and probably held
in place only by its contact with other stones, or by cement between
the stones. No light appeared through the crevices. Detroit Jim took
from his pocket a huge pocket-knife and with the longest blade poked up
between the main stone and the one adjoining. The blade met resistance.
Ultimately, and abruptly, however, the blade shot through to the
hilt of the knife. Jim drew it back instantly. No light came through
“I smell good air,” he whispered, “but I can't see a thing. It must
They knew now what to do. The flagging must be removed at once,
before any one should go by! The hole would be big enough to let them
out! Old Man Andersen's heart leaped. It was over. They had won. Trust
him to go where they'd never get him for the Slattery business! As for
Detroit Jim, he already knew the next big trick that he would pull
off—out in Cleveland!
Ultimately, as Detroit Jim worked upon it, the stone began to sag.
An edge caught upon the adjacent flagging. The two men, perched upon
the wobbly bricks, manipulated the stone, working it loose, until,
finally, it came crashing down.
The stone had made noise enough, it seemed, to wake the dead; yet
above them there was no sound. Swiftly they raised the flagging and set
it securely upon the heap of bricks. When Detroit Jim stood upon this
improvised platform his head was level with the aperture they had made.
He could see no sky, no stars, could feel no wind, discover no light
such as pervades even the darkest night.
“Good God!” he breathed. His fingers went out over the flagging. His
knife dropped. The tinkle echoed dully down the conduit. He stooped to
where Old Man Anderson stood, breathing hard.
“It's a—a room!” he whispered.
“A—a room?” repeated Old Man Anderson dully.
“Come! After me! Up! I'll pull you up!”
Detroit Jim, being wiry, swung himself up, and then bent down,
groping for the old man's hands. Winded, panting, exhausted, the two
men stood at last in this new blackness, clutching each other, their
ears strained to catch the slightest sound.
“For God's sake, don't fall down that hole now!” hissed Detroit Jim.
“Listen. We'll both crawl together till we get to a wall. Then you feel
along one way, and whisper to me what you find, and I'll crawl the
other. Look for a window or a door—some way out! We'll come together
finally. Are you ready?”
“I'm—I'm afraid,” whined the old man.
Detroit Jim's fingers dug into the other's arm, and he pulled the
latter along. Their groping hands touched a wall—a wall of wood.
Detroit Jim stood up and pulled Anderson beside him. He felt the old
man shiver. He shoved him gently in to the left and himself moved
cautiously to the right, slowly, catlike.
Finally, Jim came to a door. He could perceive no light through the
chinks in the door. Sensing the increasing uncanniness of a room
without windows, without furniture, with flagging for a floor, he
turned the knob of the door gently, and it gave under his touch.
Just then there came to him a hoarse whisper from across the room.
It made him jump. “I've—I've found some wires,” the old man was
saying, “in a cable running along the floor——”
“See where they lead!” Detroit Jim was breathless, in anticipation.
And then, shattering the overwhelming tension of the moment,
shrilled, suddenly, a horrible, prolonged, piercing shriek ending in a
gasp and the sound of a heavy body falling to the floor! What, in God's
name, had happened to the old man? And that yell was enough to awaken
the entire world!
Detroit Jim groped his way across the room. He could hear now no
further sound from the old man.... Steps outside! He sank upon his
knees, his hands outstretched. He heard a lock turn; then following
upon a click the whole universe went white, and dazzling and scorching!
He raised one arm to his blinking, throbbing eyes. A rough voice
shouted: “Hands up!”
There was a rush of feet, the rough clutch of hands at his
shoulders.... Presently he found himself blinking down upon the
fear-contorted face of Old Man Anderson dirt-streaked, bearded, gaunt,
Slowly his eyes crawled beyond the body on the floor.... Before him,
its empty arms stretched toward him, its straps and wires twisting
snakily in front of him, was The Chair!