Chapter One

The train was late and didn’t get into Yuma until after dark. Then the ticket agent at the depot had to telephone the prison and tell them they had better get some transportation down here. He had three people waiting on a ride up the hill: a man he had never seen before who said he was the new prison superintendent, and another man he knew was a deputy sheriff from Pima County and he had a prisoner with him, handcuffed, a big colored boy.

Whoever it was on the phone up at the prison said they had sent a man two hours ago and if the train had been on time he would have met them. The ticket agent said well, they were here now and somebody better hurry with the transportation, because the Southern Pacific didn’t care for convicts hanging around the depot, even if the boy was handcuffed.

The Pima deputy said hell, it wasn’t anything new; every time he delivered a man he had to sit and wait on the prison people to get off their ass. He asked the big colored boy if he minded waiting, sitting in a nice warm train depot, or would be rather be up there in one of them carved-out cells with the wind whistling in across the river? The Pima deputy said something about sweating all day and freezing at night; but the colored boy, whose name was Harold Jackson, didn’t seem to be listening.

The new prison superintendent—the new, temporary superintendent—Mr. Everett Manly, heard him. He nodded, and adjusted his gold-frame glasses. He said yes, he was certainly familiar with Arizona winters, having spent seven years at the Chiricahua Apache Mission School. Mr. Manly heard himself speak and it sounded all right. It sounded natural.

On the train Mr. Manly had exchanged a few words with the deputy, but had not spoken to the colored boy. He could have asked him his name and where he was from; he could have asked him about his sentence and told him that if he behaved himself he would be treated fairly. He could have asked him if he wanted to pray. But with the Pima deputy sitting next to the colored boy—all afternoon and evening on the wicker seats, bumping and swaying, looking out at the sun haze on the desert and the distant, dark brown mountains—Mr. Manly had not been able to get the first words out, to start a conversation. He was not afraid of the colored boy, who could have been a cold-blooded killer for all he knew. It was the idea of the deputy sitting there listening that bothered him.

He thought about starting a friendly conversation with the ticket agent: ask him if he ever got up to the prison, or if he knew the superintendent, Mr. Rynning, who was in Florence at the present time seeing to the construction of the new penitentiary. He could say, “Well, it won’t be long now, there won’t be any more Yuma Territorial Prison,” and kidding, add, “I suppose you’ll be sorry to see it closed.” Except maybe he wasn’t supposed to talk about it in idle conversation. It had been mentioned in newspapers—“Hell-Hole on the Bluff to Open Its Doors Forever by the Spring of 1909”—pretty clever, saying opening its doors instead of closing them. And no doubt the station agent knew all about it. Living here he would have to. But a harmless conversation could start false rumors and speculation, and before you knew it somebody from the Bureau would write and ask how come he was going around telling everybody about official government business.

If the ticket agent brought up the subject that would be different. He could be noncommittal. “You heard the old prison’s closing, huh? Well, after thirty-three years I imagine you won’t be too sorry to see it happen.” But the ticket agent didn’t bring up the subject.

A little while later they heard the noise outside. The ticket agent looked at them through his barred window and said, “There’s a motor conveyance pulling into the yard I reckon is for you people.”

Mr. Manly had never ridden in an automobile before. He asked the driver what kind it was and the driver told him it was a twenty-horsepower Ford Touring Car, powerful and speedy, belonged to the superintendent, Mr. Rynning. It was comfortable, Mr. Manly said, but kind of noisy, wasn’t it? He wanted to ask how much a motor rig like this cost, but there was the prison above him: the walls and the guard towers against the night sky, the towers, like little houses with pointed roofs; dark houses, nobody home. When the gravel road turned and climbed close along the south wall, Mr. Manly had to look almost straight up, and he said to the guard driving the car, “I didn’t picture the walls so high.” And the guard answered, “Eighteen feet up and eight feet thick. A man can’t jump it and he can’t bore through neither.

“My last trip up this goddamn rock pile,” the Pima deputy said, sitting in the back seat with his prisoner. “I’m going to the railroad hotel and get me a bottle of whiskey and in the morning I’m taking the train home and ain’t never coming back here again.”

The rest of the way up the hill Mr. Manly said nothing. He would remember this night and the strange feeling of riding in a car up Prison Hill, up close to this great silent mound of adobe and granite. Yuma Territorial Prison, that he had heard stories about for years—that he could almost reach out and touch. But was it like a prison? More like a tomb of an ancient king, Mr. Manly was thinking. A pyramid…

Forty Lashes Less One

Publisher: New York : Bantam, 1972
Edition: First Edition
Format: Paperback Original
Pages: 168 pages
Original Price: 75¢
Genre: Western
Locations: Arizona
Special Notes:

A hellhole like Yuma Prison does all sorts of things to a man. Mostly it makes him want to escape. For two men facing life sentences—Harold Jackson, the only black man behind the walls, and Raymond San Carlos, an Apache halfbreed—a breakout seemed nigh on impossible. That is, until the law gave them two choices: rot in a cell, or track down and bring back the five most ruthless men in Arizona.