Fog rolls off the Trinity River in East Texas in the hours before dawn, especially in winter, and lies on the land like Vaseline. It’s thick and calm and quiet and peaceful in the fog, there where the piney woods that stretch on east into Louisiana give way somewhat abruptly to blackland prairies that spread west all the way to Dallas and beyond. She almost can’t see her hand held out of the open car door in front of her own face. It’s that thick.
And even better, surely no one can see her sitting here in this car on this dirt side road off another dirt side road, not far from the river bottoms. Sure, her leg that was burned badly a few months back still hurts and the other hip hurts even more from the rheumatism that flared up only recently. Rheumatism, at only twenty-three years old, no less. Too much sitting in cold cars. Too much sleeping in cold cars! But even with the pain, it’s a comfort to know she can’t be seen parked here in a cloud at daybreak, like a ghost in heaven. It’s chilly, this cloud on the ground, but it’s safe, and if death is like this fog it might not be so bad.
Only it’s not worth thinking about death. That’s the rule. "Let’s don’t be sad," she said to her mother only a few months before when the subject came up. We’re here now. We’re alive.
"Let’s don’t be sad" is what she said.
It’s like thinking about air, for God’s sake. And why think about air? Death and air. Fog, though, is good. Thick and quiet, except for now and then an occasional tick ticka tick of the steel in the car that says the sun has risen, even if she can’t see it rising.
When you’re standing in a cold ditch in fog so thick you can’t even see the car only a few yards away it’s amazing where your mind will want to wander. Standing there with a fat automatic rifle in your hand waiting, what has it been now, ten minutes, an hour? Could be either. But you don’t let your mind wander for the same reason you don’t drink much moonshine even when everyone else does. Or, rather, you don’t drink it especially when everyone else does. Even when Bonnie does. She likes it sometimes, but you know it dulls the senses, slows you down, gets you caught, gets you killed. So you don’t drink much moonshine and you don’t let your mind wander through the fog.
Where are they? Should be any minute now.
Eastham Farm, burnin’ Eastham, bloody burnin’ Eastham Prison Farm. This breakout was your idea in the first place, you and Fults thought it up together. But that was back a few years, back when you were still a prisoner on the inside. Not out here and free. Ha! FREE! As much as being on the run from the laws is freedom. Yeah, what a wonderful freedom this is: being wanted, being wounded, being hot as hell in three states, four, five states, whatever. Feels like you and Bonnie are hot as hell everywhere. Hot right in this ditch in the chilly fog a mile from the burnin’ hell. Oh they’d love to find you here, for sure.
But you weren’t thinking how it would feel to get this close to this place again when you said let’s do it. No way. And you weren’t thinking you would be here with this pathetic drug addict Mullins instead of Fults or Raymond or someone you don’t have to watch every second, someone who’s likely to turn rat just for another hit of dope.
It’s amazing what a man can force himself not to remember most days and nights, except when it creeps up. And standing here in a ditch so close to it all, to where most of it all happened anyway, some of it does creep up no matter how you fight it. Burnin’ Eastham. Burnin’ hell.
Sure, you have killed a few men, more than a few, but you’re not a killer at heart. Not according to your friends, anyway. This is not to say that you’re afraid to pull the trigger when it has to be pulled. And not to say that you don’t like the look of fear in big cops’ faces when a gun’s pointing their way. (If they’d look a little more afraid and not be reaching for their own guns all the time, you tell your friend, the trigger might not need pulling so often.) You pull the trigger, sure. It’s just that there’s no pleasure in it, even when it has to happen. So you’re not a killer, right?
But when those memories do creep up, you start to think about those guards and their finks, their chains and their bats. And their "trusties" who will sit on your head while the man—the "captain"—whips you with the strap. And even worse sometimes is what goes on when the guards aren’t around.
When those memories creep up....Those guys, well, they deserve whatever comes their way. At least as much as you do.
The guards at Eastham Prison Farm, some thirty miles north of the main Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, hate that fog but are pretty well used to it. Running the boys out the two miles or so to the work site from the building in dim dawn light and fog means riding closer to the jogging squad than the guards want to ride, just so they can see the boys clearly. Closer to the convicts means the convicts are closer to the guards, closer to their reins and closer to their bridles. Closer to the loaded Smith & Wesson .38s in their holsters. Closer to the shotguns, though with those right in a guard’s lap all day, he is damned well likely to get a blast off if a prisoner is stupid enough to try to come near it.
Or not. Trouble comes fast in fog. On a foggy morning just like this, in fact, an Eastham guard named John Greer rides into the middle of his squad, all fired up to give the lazy bastards a piece of his mind, and maybe a piece of the bat for milling around instead of chopping weeds. Only instead of pistol-whipping some sorry two-time loser across the side of the head as planned, it’s suddenly Greer who is pulled off his horse and passed around a circle of convicts, like some Julius Caesar, to be stabbed one at a time with homemade dirk knives. Greer doesn’t even get a single shot off and he winds up dead with no witnesses as to who exactly did it. Funny how you can have lots of killers but no witnesses at all. Not that someone at burnin’ Eastham won’t be made to pay hell for the killing of a guard.
This foggy morning another guard, whose name is Olin Bozeman, isn’t going to make that particular mistake. He’ll make a different one, which he’ll live to regret, and one of his fellow guards, Major Crowson, will make an even dumber move that he won’t live to regret because he won’t live. No, as a general rule the guards don’t ever want to be too close to a squad of felons armed with hoes and other tools, not to mention guns snuck in from outside. Guns that the guards know nothing about until the cold barrel is pointed straight at them by a man who may hate them enough to kill them or may not, but who is desperate to get out by whatever means necessary.
But Eastham guards still have to be able to count the boys as they jog along. So the thicker the fog, the closer they have to stay.
Seems like counting is most of a guard’s job most of the days. Over and over again, for fourteen or sixteen hours a day, for a few bucks’ pay to feed a family they only get to see every other night at best, and an occasional Sunday. A guard gets his breakfast before dawn in the guards’ dining room, gets his horse after breakfast from the lot boy, who has the animal all saddled up and waiting, gets his shotgun from the picket, and just about the first words he hears spoken is the trusty yelling out the number of men coming out of the tank for their squad.
"Eighteen, Boss," he says, or whatever the number of the day is, and they count them coming out of the door in their white suits for those that haven’t tried to run in the past and their striped suits for those that have run off and been caught.
"One, two, three, four, five, six..." until they get them all and can yell back "Eighteen," to let them know inside the building they got the same number outside, as if someone could get lost in the doorway. Then all day on the horse with that shotgun in one hand and the reins in another, come hot sun or come thick fog, they count those boys over and over until lunch.
The only reason the guards might run in sooner than lunch is come hail or rain. They got hail around here can kill a man once in a while, and lightning: an Eastham guard named Sye Fulsom once saw a convict get zapped right off the water wagon. Scared the shit out of the mules, literally.
On a normal day, though, it’s work the squad hard until lunch and then run them back to the building, yell "Eighteen coming in" and hear the voice come out "Eighteen, Boss" when the men are in the door again. Lunch is usually ham and beans, but it’s better than the squad is getting, and for that a guard in these times can be thankful. And maybe there’s a moment for a catnap or at least a few minutes of horizontal in the guards’ bunkhouse before it’s time to get the horse and get the shotgun. (The pistol never leaves his side. "Goes to bed with you, gets up with you, and goes to the long table with you," says a guard who was there. "Boy, it damn near grows into you.") Then it’s back to "Eighteen, Boss" out the door and "Eighteen" called back in. Back out to fields in summer or the woodlots in winter for the afternoon’s work session.
That would be the afternoon and evening’s work. "Can to can’t" is what the prisoners call the workday on burnin’ Eastham, meaning the work goes "from the time they can see until they cannot."
And for the guards, from can to can’t, it’s counting. Trotting the boys out, counting them, counting them as they hoe, counting them as they chop and pick, trotting them back in and counting them as they run. Maybe a little discipline now and then. Some guards are more inclined toward that part of the work than others, but even the ones that don’t like seeing men beat up aren’t going to say anything about it. Not with jobs as scarce as they are. Not with unemployment running 30, 40 percent. It’s the Depression. It’s the drought. It’s hard times in a hard place to make a living even in good times. Even if they haven’t lost the farm yet, farming won’t pay. Maybe they got a sick kid, and a doctor to pay off. So who are they going to say anything to about some bastard convict getting hurt out in a field?
"See nothing, hear nothing, tell nothing," says a guard from those years. "That was the way it was. That’s why those old big captains could treat the guards like they did. It’s also why some of the little captains and guards were brutal to the convicts. No one dared to tell what was really going on."
There is plenty going on. But mostly, just counting men hoeing cotton all summer and chopping wood all winter. That’s all anyone sees anyway, right? If anyone asks, which nobody does.
Except this particular morning work doesn’t get started right off because Raymond Hamilton, bank robber, ladies’ man, and general pain-in-the-ass braggart, is not in the right squad jogging out to the woodlot, and guard Bozeman knows it. Hamilton’s running out last in line with Bozeman’s number one squad and he’s supposed to be in the number two squad under a guard named Bishop.
It should make Bozeman nervous, this switch, and no doubt it does somewhat, though apparently not as nervous as it turns out he ought to be. There are a lot of squads, after all, not just his. Two hundred or two hundred fifty men jogging out on any given morning, and the convicts are always pulling this kind of stunt for whatever pathetic reasons they may have. And Hamilton’s a wiseacre anyway.
Maybe Bozeman figures he’ll take care of it as soon as they get to the woodlot. Perhaps not incidentally, the woodlot means out of sight of the building, so if there’s some punishing that needs to happen it’s out of sight, too. (Not saying that’s his thinking, just a possibility.) But the fact that it’s Raymond Hamilton in the wrong squad and not just some two- or three-time loser should make Bozeman more nervous then he is. Should WAKE HIM UP. Pretty much since the minute Hamilton arrived at Eastham from the main prison at Huntsville—"the Walls"—he’s been talking about how he won’t be staying long.
"I’m Clyde Barrow’s buddy, Captain," he says one day not long after he gets there. Says it right to the face of the boss of the farm, no less. That’s Captain B. B. Monzingo, the Big Captain, as everyone calls him. "Clyde is coming down here and take me out and I won’t be here long."
It’s always that way with Hamilton, no matter how much the guards rough him up or whatnot. Clyde this, Clyde that, Clyde and Bonnie, yeah, yeah, yeah, until no one pays attention anymore.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, maybe, but Bozeman and everyone else knows, or should know, that Hamilton is, in fact, an old friend of Clyde and Bonnie’s. More than a friend—Raymond was a member of the gang back in West Dallas. A Dallas detective named J. W. Fritz even warned the Texas prison officials about Hamilton when he turned the prisoner over to them, saying they "were asking for trouble if they sent Hamilton outside the Walls to work." But the warden just laughed at Fritz.
So when Hamilton turns up running out in the wrong squad on a foggy morning, a person might think guard Bozeman will take the time to stop and get Hamilton out of squad one and back to squad two as soon as he notices the switch. But Bozeman doesn’t do it. He figures instead he’ll wave to his fellow guard Crowson to come over once they’re already out at the woodlot. Crowson can help take care of Hamilton. He’s the kind of guard who is good at discipline.
In the ditch about a hundred yards away, you and the drug addict can hear the twenty men huffing as they jog up to the woodlot. Shut up now, Mullins, that’s them trottin’ out now. Shut up now and keep quiet and keep ready with that gun if you ever want your lousy money from Raymond, Mullins. Whose damn idea was this coming right here to the very edge of burnin’ Eastham.
Quiet now, quiet.
Mr. Simmons said there have been 27 escapes in three years from the two farms where "backfield" men are used. For the two years before that there were 172 escapes.
—The Houston Press
It’s completely against regulations for Major Crowson—that’s his name, not his title—to come anywhere near squad one, even though his fellow guard Bozeman is waving him over. Crowson’s job that day is to be the "long arm," the man with the steady aim and the long-barreled rifle who stays far enough away from the activity of the work gang to see the big picture and shoot a runner from afar. He’s a sniper, you might say, only not hidden but there on his horse, moving around in the distance at the edge of the field, occasionally in but mostly out of sight. Something for the convicts to think about every time they consider doing something stupid like running off or causing trouble.
It’s Prison Commissioner Lee Simmons’s special idea to always have this "long arm," or "backfield man," as he sometimes calls it. Simmons says he’s going to stop all these escapes that have been going on. His explicit rule is that the long arm should never come near the work gangs and has "no duty except to stay well clear of the convicts and to be in the background ready with his Winchester in case of any excitement."
Crowson, however, routinely ignores the regulation because who wants to sit out there on a horse all day, waiting for excitement? He’s got a reputation among the prisoners for violence, and he carries in addition to his guns a rubber hose with a piece of wood in it that he swings around and cracks on the back of the convicts’ necks.
Crowson is "a crack shot with both revolver and Winchester," says Simmons about what happened next, and "had he kept his post on the edge of the timber, things would have turned out differently."
Maybe the commissioner knows what he’s talking about, even though he wasn’t there on the day of the break. But one way or another there is going to be trouble this morning. Raymond Hamilton jumping squads is only the start. Both he and Joe Palmer, another dangerous convict and proven escape artist, have guns smuggled in from somewhere. And they haven’t got much to lose: Hamilton’s in for 245 years and Palmer’s in for life.
So either someone is going to get away from burnin’ Eastham this morning or somebody is going to get shot; or both. Crowson supposedly knows better than to ride up to a squad of men, but he reins his horse toward the clearing where Bozeman has told the squad to stop.
"It was about 7:15 a.m. when Bozeman called me and said, Raymond Hamilton has jumped in my squad," says Crowson. "I said, ‘Boy, that is for something.’ "
"Yes, it is," Bozeman says back to Crowson.
Both guards know enough to be nervous, but all the same Crowson, perhaps with his attention only on Hamilton, rides right on up to Joe Palmer. Palmer’s got his back turned, and Crowson rides up to him not knowing he also has a gun in his hand.
"It all happened so quickly," says Bozeman. "I saw Palmer walking up to me as if he wanted to ask me something. Our rules do not allow the men to come too close to us in the field and I was just going to stop him when he came out with an automatic pistol."
"Throw up your hands," Palmer says. "Don’t move and there won’t be no shooting."
He does shoot, though. "He didn’t give us time to do anything but fired point-blank into Crowson’s stomach. He was shot through and through, from side to side," says Bozeman, who manages to get off a blast with his shotgun before he, too, is hit by a bullet from Palmer’s automatic pistol.
"My God," says Crowson softly when the bullet hits him. Then he howls.
"They both screamed," says Britt Matthews, another guard on duty that day. "They both screamed and said, ‘I’m shot.’ " Pop! Pop!
You hear the handguns go.
There’s a shotgun. That would be the guard.
That’s it. That’s them. Either Ray’s shot them now or they got him, but it doesn’t matter. Here we go. You stand up in the ditch and see Raymond running toward you. Palmer too, though he’s coming a bit slower since he’s trying to take off his stripes as he runs.
"Give us something else," Hamilton yells. "Let ’em have it, Clyde."
Sure, Ray. Sure, buddy.
"Clyde started to shooting," says Mullins—rata rata rata...rata rata rata—"and asked him what more he wanted."
You’re just shooting the trees to pieces over the guard’s heads with your Browning automatic rifle—your BAR. You’re not aiming to hit anyone, just laying down cover for the boys on the run toward you in the fog.
God, that gun feels good.
Rata rata rat.
If you’ve got to be back here at burnin’ Eastham, it’s going to be back on your own terms at least. In a brand-new suit with a loaded Browning in your hands and a girl in a brand-new car behind you.
It’s too long in the sleeves, the suit, a bit of poor tailoring that had you fit to be tied a few days ago when you first got out of the car and looked at yourself in it in the headlights with all the family gathered around for a secret visit in a cornfield outside Dallas. "I might as well bought an overcoat and been done with it," you yelled, making everybody laugh.
But nobody’s looking at your coat sleeves when you’re firing a flaminghot BAR that with the giant double clip you had specially welded together can empty forty rounds in a couple of seconds.
Rata rata rata.
Remember me, Mr. Monzingo? Remember me, Big Captain of burnin’ Eastham? I bet you do. And if you don’t, it don’t matter—I remember you.
Rata rata rata rata.
Come on, Ray, run, you lazy bastard.
Bozeman’s on the ground, but he’ll live. The other guards but one, meanwhile, are running away as fast as they can.* The guard who stayed, a brave fellow named Bobbie Bullard, who’s in charge of squad six, fires his shotgun at Palmer and then turns back to make sure his own convicts don’t take advantage of the mayhem and make a run for the river. He points his shotgun at a squad of men lying flat on their stomachs.
"The first man to raise his head," he yells, "will have it blown clear off." None test him on that.
The bullet Palmer puts through Crowson, however, tears his stomach up good. It puts four holes in his intestines, the lead expanding as it passes through the soft tissue before ripping out through Crowson’s abdomen on the other side. He should be lying in the dust writhing in agony, but unbelievably, or maybe just out of fear of what will happen next, Crowson stays in his saddle, slumped over, and his horse takes him off first in the direction of the woods, then eventually back toward the main building.
And Palmer shoots him again.
"After Joe Palmer shot me in the stomach he shot at me once while I was riding away," Crowson says on his deathbed. "When Joe Palmer pulled his gun on me, Joe Palmer said, ‘Don’t you boys try to do anything.’ I never did get my hand on my gun and I never did shoot at Joe Palmer, who shot me."
For a long time after the escape Palmer says he never meant to shoot Crowson, that he expected the guards to put up no resistance and that it was all an accident. But years later, when all his appeals have failed and he knows he can’t escape Old Sparky, as the Texas electric chair is known, Palmer says, "It wasn’t necessary for Crowson to be killed."
"But I hated Crowson and I killed him because I hated him," he says. "That’s the truth and I’m ready to die."
* "I never left," one of them later protested in a hearing. "I just didn’t stay."
Back at the car in the fog, Bonnie hears it all beginning too. The sound of the guns, a Colt .45’s firecracker bang. Distant shouts. A horse screaming madly. A shotgun’s duller blast. Then ratarataratarata. The Browning automatic rifles. Rata rata rat. The crack of tree branches breaking, crashing. More distant shouts. And more shots. And again the familiar, faithful BARs. Clyde sure loves those BARs, steals them from National Guard armories every chance he gets.
She leans on the horn. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep with that sort of tinny, thinny, wavering old-timey bleat. Beep beep beep beeeeeeeeeeeeeep. That’s the plan. Hear the guns, lean on the horn so the boys can find their way back to the car. Might as well start the engine now, too, what with all this noise. Rata rata rata beeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
Where are they? Come on already! Come on! A girl can get bored of adrenaline it turns out, even when it’s just about all there is left. That and cigarettes. Rata rata rata rata . . . not bored, that’s not it. Just weary. Bone weary. C’mon, dammit, where are you now? C’mon, honey. C’mon now, sugar. Don’t make this the day.
You and the dope fiend, Mullins, get to the car first. The ditch is pretty close, after all, and you know exactly where to run. But even as you get there, the outlines of the other men appear out of the mist. Bonnie lays off the horn and slides over in the front seat, opens the door.
Here’s Hamilton and Palmer, who’s bleeding all over his stripes from the shotgun pellets someone managed to put in his head. Here’s Henry Methvin, too, the Louisiana kid in for attempted murder. You knew him a little, back when you were on the inside. And a thief named Hilton Bybee.
All of a sudden Mullins, for some reason, thinks he’s in a position to have an opinion about things and says, "Nobody but Raymond and Palmer going," meaning that Methvin and Bybee are just going to be left there to try and outrun the hounds that they can all hear baying in the not too big a distance. Hamilton also says, "We don’t want that old boy," meaning Methvin, to which you reply, "Yes we do, come on, son."
Not while you’re in charge. "Shut your damn mouth, Mullins," you say. "This is my car—I’m handling this. Three of you can ride back there."
You point to the turtleback of the car. Bybee and Methvin and Hamilton climb in. It’s a tight fit, but no one’s complaining.
"Guess four of us can make it up here," you say.
Up here, in a 1934 Ford V-8 coupe, is a space not exactly designed for four adults to sit comfortably. It’s a two-door car with a single seat and some room behind that’s stuffed with clothes and on-the-run necessities. But you don’t take up too much room at only five feet five inches tall and not much more than 125 pounds. Bonnie’s even smaller, four feet ten. She’s tiny. So there’s room for Palmer, who’s sick and bleeding but has changed into one of the two suits of street clothes you brought, and for Mullin, too, though part of you would like to just leave him behind to face the dogs.
"Nobody but Raymond and Palmer going!" That’s Mullins for you, all right. As if you might leave anyone behind in hell if they’ve got the guts to run and you’ve got the wheels to help. At least help them get past the dogs and the river. "You’ve got to get off the ground" is the first rule of getting away from the dogs.
Oh sure, sorry, boys, you go on back and see if Crowson’s going to live and come back to work and find you. Oh he’ll be overjoyed to see you! And if he’s dead? Don’t worry, the rest of the guards and their trusties will be happy to see you coming too.
No. No one’s going back. Not as long as Clyde Barrow is driving and there’s room in the car.
"Get in, son," you say to Methvin, who is only a few years younger than you.
"Everybody hang on," you say. "I’ll take you out."
And then the accelerator is to the floorboards and you’re gone.
"I went to Governor Miriam A. Ferguson and former governor Jim Ferguson," says Prison Commissioner Lee Simmons. It’s a month after the break at Eastham."I told of my need for a special investigator and that I was considering Frank Hamer."
A lot of meetings with Governor Miriam include her husband, Jim. After Jim was impeached, convicted, and tossed out of his own term in office a few years back, Miriam ran and won in 1932 on a platform of "two governors for the price of one." It wasn’t just lip service, so former governor "Big Jim" is sitting there with current governor "Ma" when Simmons comes in and explains that he wants to hire someone to track down the people who raided Eastham Farm, killing one of his guards and wounding another.
The creation of the position isn’t a problem. The Fergusons have already said they’ll do whatever they can to help Simmons catch Clyde Barrow and his lover, Bonnie Parker, who everyone believes are responsible for the raid. The problem is the man Simmons thinks he wants for the job. Frank Hamer quit the Texas Rangers force in a huff when Miriam Ferguson was elected, saying he could never work for a woman. Simmons doesn’t even want to ask Hamer if he’s interested in hunting down Clyde and Bonnie without clearing it first in Austin, but it turns out Ma Ferguson isn’t the type to hold a grudge.
"Frank’s all right with us," she says to Simmons without batting an eye. "We don’t hold anything against him."