The red-tailed hawk soared effortlessly over the large cornfield, its eyes searching for any movement along the newly harvested rows of dried corn stalks. Cleatus watched as the magnificent bird patiently spied its prey, a sight he had observed many times in the last three years in this iconic valley in the West Virginia mountains. A New Jersey boy, Cleatus marveled at the beauty that surrounded him: clear-running trout streams, tall hardwoods with multicolored leaves, pastures with endless wild flowers, and wild game of many sorts. If only he was free to enjoy them.
“Cleatus, whatcha doin’ boy?” The familiar hillbilly voice of guard Tom brought him back to reality.
“Taking a break, Boss. You startled me a little.”
“Well, you sure picked a mighty fine spot here by the river. Figured you might be thinkin’ about the basketball game last night. Those local high school boys about whipped you pros.”
Cleatus smiled. “Yeah, those fellows came to play, especially that little point guard they called Tackler.”
“I did notice you talking to him before the game,” mused Tom.
“Boss, I was just trash talking. Knowing it was the first time he’d been inside a prison, I figured I’d give him a little something to think about. So I put my arm around his shoulders and whispered, “Boy, if you set foot on this court, I’m gonna get you just like I got the fellow that got me put behind bars.” He took a deep breath and looked at me wide-eyed. I thought I had him! But then, he stepped right onto that court. I laughed, gave him a good slap on the behind, and said, “You one brave white boy!”
“He had a good game, but you were amazin’. Well, gotta check on the other inmates. You have ‘bout three hours until the 5PM siren…don’t be late.” Cleatus watched Tom walk away and climbed back on to his big green John Deere tractor. He might not make the 5PM rendezvous.
Cleatus had not hurt anyone. He was a good student and a star athlete in high school. He jumped at the opportunity to play basketball at West Virginia University. Cousin Jerome had offered to drive him down to the WVU campus. After a quick stop in Pittsburgh where Jerome had a business appointment, they entered West Virginia. Blue lights atop a WV State Patrol car brought an abrupt halt to the trip and Cleatus’s dreams. Unknown to Cleatus, Jerome’s ‘business’ was dealing illicit drugs and his car was full of product and a loaded handgun.
Cleatus had sworn he knew nothing of the drugs and gun, but Jerome blamed Cleatus; and in the 1960s, two big-city black guys in West Virginia with drugs and a loaded gun got plenty of attention. Their trials were quick and the sentencing was quicker. Because of the gun, Jerome received 10 years at the maximum-security prison. Cleatus got five years at the Huttonsville Prison Farm, a medium-security prison.
Depression ensued for several months following. Then, a local pastor befriended Cleatus and believed him innocent. With this new hope, Cleatus decided to become the model prisoner. Working his way through menial jobs to the ‘Trusted Prisoner’ ranks, he
now worked largely unsupervised on the prison’s multiple farms. However, during a recent visit the pastor confessed he had no success in convincing the legal community Cleatus was not guilty. As Cleatus climbed from the tractor, he knew the mountains would supply his road to freedom now that Tom was out of sight.
The water was warm as Cleatus waded across the 200 feet of shallow rapids. The Tygart River was a mountain stream that would help isolate him from the tracking bloodhounds. Cleatus’s athleticism allowed him to move steadily through the water, up the bank and across a two-lane road. He began to climb the steep banks of a heavily- forested hill that led to the higher mountains. As he crested the hill, he heard what sounded like the slamming of a truck door.
Cleatus peered into the next hollow. He saw a bright red truck on an old logging road and a medium-sized man in full hunting garb loading what appeared to be a shotgun. The man walked further up the road and started to climb a rocky outcrop opposite Cleatus. Then the siren sounded. The escape siren from the prison meant that Cleatus’ absence had been detected much sooner than he had anticipated. He was now a fugitive. He needed to move, but the armed hunter had paused at the siren’s wailing.
The hunter surveyed the area then resumed his climb. Cleatus breathed easier and decided to keep the top of his ridge between he and the hunter as he continued his escape. Suddenly, Cleatus caught a glimpse of the hunter sliding down the rocky slope with flailing arms. Screams of pain filled the air amidst pleas for help. Cleatus ran up the ridge trying to distance himself from the ruckus. The calls for help stopped…as did Cleatus. He knew he could not leave the hunter. He turned and started his decent toward the still body and his own capture.
He knelt and put a hand on the hunter’s shoulder noticing fresh blood near his head. As he gently rolled the man to his side, he exclaimed, “TACKLER.” Tackler was breathing but out cold. Cleatus wet his handkerchief from Tackler’s water bottle. He wiped the blood from Tackler’s forehead and gasped when two blue eyes stared back at him.
“Cleatus, what are you doing here?” whispered Tackler.
“Helping you, you brave, little white boy. Where are you hurting?”
“I got bit by a rattler on the ankle. I saw him too late.”
“Where are your keys and where is the nearest doctor, Tackler?”
Tackler pointed at a pocket, “Mill Creek,” as he slid back into unconsciousness.
Cleatus knew Mill Creek was a small town about two miles north of the prison farm…a farm that would now be fully energized to find him. Cleatus, with keys now in his pocket, picked Tackler up in his arms, descended to the log road and ran to the truck.
Securing Tackler in the passenger seat, Cleatus backed the truck down the log road until he could turn around. He drove to the two-lane road he had crossed earlier on foot. He turned left and raced down the road passing two prison vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. They paid little attention to the truck as no one would expect an escapee to head toward the prison. As Cleatus entered Mill Creek, he saw the sign ‘Doctor J. Spender, MD.’
Cleatus turned into the parking lot, jumped out, and carried Tackler through the door marked ‘Office’. The receptionist screamed at the sight of a large black man in prison garb holding a man in his arms. Dr. Spender came out of his office and before he could say a word, Cleatus said, “Doc, Tackler here was bitten by a rattlesnake, fell hard, and needs help now.” Doc motioned for Cleatus to lay Tackler on a bed and then asked him to leave the room. As Cleatus walked into the outer office, the outside door opened and in stepped two prison guards.
Cleatus didn’t react when the guards shackled him in the doctor’s office. Even three days in isolation did not affect him, as all he could think of was Tackler. He did know a review board would determine his fate later that day…and from all reports, life would get considerably harder for a much longer time.
Cleatus entered the hearing room fully shackled. A board of three officers, including Warden Liggett, sat at a table. To the left were observer chairs and, in the front row, sat the local pastor and one terribly banged up Tackler. Tears came to his eyes as Tackler gave him a big, two-teeth-missing smile and a thumbs up from his one good hand. Cleatus took his place in front of the panel. Liggett reviewed the events of the three-hour escape. He acknowledged Cleatus for ‘potentially saving a life’ but an escape was an escape. Cleatus hung his head low.
The door opened abruptly, and a uniformed State Police Officer entered, asking to speak with Warden Liggett outside. Shortly, Liggett reentered the room. He spread four documents in front of him. “Cleatus, your heroics in saving Tackler made state news. A guard at Moundsville Prison showed the story to your cousin, Jerome. Jerome subsequently confessed to being the drug dealer, gave authorities names, and swore you knew nothing of his business. Therefore, Cleatus, the Governor has commuted all your sentence and as soon as we can sign these pieces of paper, you will be a free man.”
“Owe you my life,” Tackler said as they tearfully embraced. Cleatus turned, and in front of him stood a man with a WVU Athletics Department shirt smiling – a smile that held a newfound hope for Cleatus’s future.