Willie Junior Williamson said he had always been a wanderer, so maybe it was no surprise that it took the law 44 years to catch up with him after he escaped a Virginia chain gang.

"I was always on the go. That's the way I like to live my life," said Williamson, recalling how he paid a guard $20 for his freedom in 1946, and drifted from job to job in the waterways and tobacco farms of the Southeast before returning to his District home.

Although officers tracked him down in August and threw him back in jail to finish his prison sentence, Williamson once again has found freedom, this time with the governor's seal and a one-way bus ticket home.

On Tuesday, Williamson became the first person granted a pardon by Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D). The governor reasoned that Williamson's eight-year prison term, handed down in 1945 after Williamson stole $169 worth of goods from a Norfolk general store, "appears to be somewhat excessive."

In fact, Wilder concluded that by today's standards, Williamson would not have been jailed in the first place.

Williamson will board an 8:15 Greyhound this morning, state officials said, and should reach his Northwest Washington home in time for a neighborhood Christmas party being thrown by his girlfriend.

"Tell her I said hello and I love her. Tell her I'll be home soon," said Williamson, 66, who learned Tuesday that he would be freed from the Chesterfield County Work Release Unit after having served 14 months of his original eight-year sentence -- nine months in 1946 and about five months in 1990.

Wilder spokeswoman Laura Dillard said that the governor recognized the need for a pardon after authorities concluded that Williamson had been a law-abiding citizen while he was free. "There had to be a thorough background check on his life since he had escaped," Dillard said. "Once that was satisfied, the governor granted a conditional pardon."

Williamson was convicted in 1945 of two counts of burglary for having broken into a Norfolk neighborhood store and stolen a suit, a bottle of liquor and a radio, state officials said.

He served his first prison stretch with a road gang from the Southampton State Farm. Williamson insists to this day that he did not escape, but that he bought his freedom fair and square.

"One of the guards let me go for $20," said Williamson in a telephone interview from the Chesterfield prison. He said the guard needed stakes for a crap game with the prison cook, and he came to Williamson because he knew the prisoner had some money hidden away.

"I had money," he said, adding that he earned it in the Tidewater loading ships with supplies bound for the European theater during World War II. "I kept money in my socks and shoes and in my hair -- I had long pretty hair then. I had money hid all over me they couldn't find."

In exchange for the $20, Williamson said, the guard unlatched Williamson's chains, gave him fresh clothes and helped him jump a freight train bound for Portsmouth, Va., and a girlfriend in Norfolk.

Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Joseph D. Morrissey said he refused in October to prosecute Williamson for the escape, saying Williamson's probation record showed he had stayed out of trouble for 44 years. Morrissey said authorities picked up Williamson so they would have time to determine whether he had committed other crimes.

By the time Williamson returned to his District home in the late 1950s after traveling the Southeast, he had married and fathered the first few of his nine children, most of whom still live and work in the Washington area.

Other than adopting Willie Edward King as a pseudonym, Williamson said he did little to hide his whereabouts. He served five terms as a juror in Superior Court in the District, had a long-term job delivering newspapers for the now-defunct Washington Star and saved enough money to buy a small boarding house.

The FBI finally identified Williamson when he gave his fingerprints to a company that hired him as a chauffeur. Morrissey said the FBI keeps records of escapees indefinitely.

Williamson's longtime friend Samuel D. Kramer said Williamson had become a model citizen. "If a person can keep himself clean for 44 years, I think whatever happened previously should be forgotten. I think he rehabilitated himself," said Kramer, president of Capital City Market.

Brenda Bibb, Williamson's girlfriend, said she was shocked the morning in August when officers knocked on their door and arrested Williamson. Bibb, noting that she did not know Williamson was a fugitive, said her boyfriend "was so happy when he called me yesterday he was crying."

It had made her angry, she said, that Williamson was jailed for five months before state authorities decided to forgive his 45-year-old debt to society.

"He has been gone for about 4 1/2 months, and for what?" she said. "It doesn't make sense to me. I could see it if he'd been in trouble."