CHAPTER THREE

Thibodaux, Louisiana
Tuesday, January 2, afternoon

Slugger Janx woke up with rain, more like a gentle mist, falling on his battered, broken, blood-crusted face. He had been nicked by a bullet once in the jungles of Vietnam on the side of his thigh, but other than that one small flesh wound, he had come away unscathed. Now, ironically because of serving his country, he lay here hurt worse than any time he could remember in his life.

He sat up feeling like he had gone through the cogs of some massive machinery. Old Sideburns sure did pack one mean punch. And work boots didn’t seem to agree with Slugger’s body and face, either. The rain whispering down on his hair and running down inside his tee shirt reminded him that when he was lulled to sleep by the fists and boots of his rescuers and new-found white friends, the day had been bright, sunny, and hot. Things seemed to change mighty fast in the universe of Slugger Janx.

There was no wind, so the effect of the low-hanging clouds on the atmosphere must be responsible for bringing the smells of the swamps in from down south, and those musty, dank odors lingered in the soupy mist in the trees. Slugger started to get up, but his right knee screamed at him to go to hell with that idea. He paused in a silly position, with one foot and both hands on the ground, his right leg splayed out behind him while tremors of pain shot up and down it.

But Slugger Janx was a Vietnam soldier. He had felt discomfort and pain before, and this was not going to stop him. Gritting his teeth, he got to his feet and stood there swaying, waiting for a wave of dizziness and the pain in his leg to subside.

After a minute or two that seemed like ten, the dizziness was gone, but if he waited for all his pain to go away he might have to hang out here until the Chicago Cubs won another World Series.

Turning, he looked up the side road they had come down and pushed all thought of the long walk ahead of him from his mind. He had to get home and slither into his bed. He had to get some hot soup in him and some heavy blankets over him. Although he continued to sense that the rain was warm, and even as it fell the day remained muggy and hard to breathe, he was shivering all over as his body rebelled. The sooner he got into bed, the sooner he would recover from this beating of his life.

Dragging his half-numb leg along with him only because he couldn’t figure out a way to leave it behind, he struggled along until he got out to the main road. He didn’t have a watch, but it felt like a death march of an hour. The rain was now only a warm mist, and the sky a paler gray. The moisture had begun to wring from the pine trees a sweet perfume that filled more than Slugger’s olfactory senses: It filled his brain. There had been times when he was a child, out walking with his mother, that he would have found this luring scent to be like a piece of heaven. Maybe it still was, but Slugger Janx’s life was quickly rotting into hell.

The first two miles dragged by, and Slugger had to stop and rest several times along his odyssey. Once, he found a stump a ways back in the woods and went into the looming shadows to sit down on it, having to keep his right leg stretched out in front of him because it swore to him it would die before it would bend.

Once more, he started back on the highway, leery of any passing automobile. But maybe even sworn haters of black men and Vietnam baby killers would have mercy on him now, seeing the condition he was in. Or at worst, maybe they would simply laugh and point at him and send taunts his way, but not stop to finish him off. After ten or fifteen cars had passed, and no one had stopped, he guessed that was the best he could hope for.

Just when the day looked to be getting lighter, and he made out a lemony spot in the sky where the sun begged leave to shine, more black clouds started to hunch in from the south, and soon the malevolent sky opened up, and sheets of winter rain bore down on him, soaking his clothing the rest of the way to his bones.

Slogging on through roadside mud that was quickly becoming unbearable, he finally glimpsed a few glittering lights in the gloom ahead and realized that the day’s darkness was due to more than the dark clouds: It had taken him hours to walk this far dragging his obstinate leg, and evening was fast spilling over the countryside.

Some two hundred yards from the town limits, the edge of where civilization started for Slugger Janx, he heard a car with a stuttering motor that seemed to be chugging out the last of its life coming up from behind. He winced as the car slowed down, then stopped beside him. He looked over to see the passenger side window rolling down.

“Hey, boy! Boy, you hurt?” The speaker was a silver-haired old black man in a silky white shirt that glistened in the half-light like new milk.

Slugger shook his head, blinking at the water that sluiced into his eyes. He swiped at it with a big hand. “No, Pop, I’m all right.”

“All right? Hell you say! Boy, yore lips is so swole I c’n hardly understand you.” The man’s door opened, and Slugger saw a younger man, almost as dark as he, get out of the other side and hurry around the front of the car as the old man reached him.

“Hey, Jeeb, we gotta get this boy outta the weather. Come on, Son, give me a hand.” The old man turned back to Slugger, and Slugger was ingratiated to see the concern in his face. “Come on, boy, what the hell happened to you? We gotta get you in the car and warm you up. Lawd, you shakin’ all over, like a dog passin’ a peach pit.”

The old man took Slugger’s arm as the younger one, Jeeb, came around behind him and got the other arm. Slugger fought back momentary alarm. These were his own people. They wouldn’t be playing a trick on him like Sideburns and his friends had. He would be safe with Jeeb and the old man.

As the old man opened the back door of the once-green, now rusted out Buick, the headlights of another car approached from the direction of town. Jeeb and the old man ignored it, trying to get Slugger into the car out of the rain as fast as possible, until a siren bleeped, and then a red oscillating light fired up out of the gloaming, lighting up the new-coming automobile like a lazy man’s Christmas tree.

Jeeb, the old man, and Slugger froze. Through the glare of the bright headlights of the police car, Slugger sensed, more than saw, two dark-clad figures dismount. They stopped just back from the devastatingly bright headlights so they were two blurry figures that couldn’t quite be made out.

“Hey, what we got goin’ on here?” asked a white man’s voice. “Who you got there?”

The old man replied, “Nobody, sir. Just a kid that’s in a bad way an’ we gotta git ’im in our warm car.”

“A kid? Hey, kid,” the voice got sterner, and the passenger of the car started forward. When he came around in front of the headlights, Slugger saw his silhouette against the glare, and his silhouette carried a club.

“Yeah, see if it’s him, Billy,” Slugger heard the driver say. Billy—a fitting name for someone carrying a police club. Slugger cringed and waited.

The police officer came close, emerging into detail as he closed to within a few feet. He slapped the billy club loosely against the outside of his right thigh, looking Slugger up and down.

“Yep, it’s him, all right. He’s got the G.I. coat and pants on, and the boots they talked about too. But damn, Harry, somebody’s worked this buck over but good.”

Harry, the driver of the police car, shut his door, a very muffled sound overpowered by the hard rain. He started forward, and when he reached them he quartered around to the side and rear of the old man.

“You two just git yoreselves back in that there car and drive on,” Harry ordered. “Don’t even think about lookin’ back this way.”

The old man had just enough bravery to pat Slugger’s arm, trying to comfort him. “Sorry, son.” He reached out, making a point not to make eye contact with the officers, and shoved the back door of the car shut. Then he moved back warily to his own door and opened it, climbing in. Jeeb walked all the way around the back of the Buick to stay away from the policemen and got in his side without any comment, as if his silence would keep the officers from seeing him.

Their car sped away down the street, leaving Slugger standing there with one officer in front of him and the other to the side, both wearing their dark blue caps low over their eyes. He was careful not to make eye contact and only stared at the ground, but out of his peripheral vision he could see that the second officer also brandished a billy club.

“Listen, boy,” said Officer Billy. “We got six white kids that say you assaulted them for no reason a-tall. What do you have t’ say about that?”

“No, sir, it wasn’t that way. They come at me and was screaming an’ spittin’ an—”

An excruciating pain erupted in Slugger’s right ribcage, and even as he cringed and slammed his eyes shut, arching to the side, he realized the driver of the police car had jabbed him with his club. He felt a hammer blow to the outside of his left knee, and he went to the ground, first on that knee, and then over on his side as he felt Harry shove him hard with his foot.

Lying on the ground in the hard-falling rain, he buried his face under both his arms. He could hear the officers screaming at him, and Billy kicked him in the ribs. Their inarticulate words weren’t registering on him. He had to concentrate. Maybe he wasn’t obeying whatever orders they were giving. Maybe if he obeyed they would stop.

“I said get on your face, buck!” one of the officers was yelling. Those were the first clear words he got from them.

He tried to roll over toward Billy, but the officer’s foot took him in the chest, and he was forced again onto his back.

This time it was clearly Harry who roared at him again: “What’s stoppin’ you, nigger? On yore back before I split yore head wide open like a melon!”

The officer’s hard boot jamming into his shoulder was helpful in that this time it made his attempt to roll over on his face successful. He lay there against the hard wet pavement as he felt more kicks, mostly from Billy.

Then someone’s knee dropped like a boulder into the middle of his back, and he felt his ribs dig into the asphalt as he heard a muffled cry from his own lips. “Shut yore mouth, boy! Yore hands! Yore hands!” the words finally registered.

Numbly, he got his hands behind him, and one of the officers slammed handcuffs on his wrists and bound them down way too tight. “All right, now get up!” Slugger tried. His legs wouldn’t obey him. It wasn’t his fault.

“I said get up, nigger!” He felt a kick from Harry again, and then two, maybe three more from Billy, who didn’t seem to want to be left out of the fun.

Somehow, Slugger found strength. He lurched upright, and then he felt both of them grab him by the upper arms, and they swept him off his feet so fast he would have fallen straight down onto his face if they hadn’t been supporting him.

They marched for their car, his feet too weak to keep up, and he felt himself thrown much too hard against the hood. The air exploded out his mouth, and he gasped like a fish out of water. He could hear one of the men growling, “Pat him down. Pat him down good.” And he almost sensed more than heard that they were telling him to spread his feet. He started to do so, but good, hard kicks to the insides of his feet were really what helped the task be accomplished.

Lying against the hot, steaming hood of the police car, he felt himself being grabbed and groped all over, especially around the area of his belt. He heard one of the officers say something about finding nothing, but the words seemed mumbled and far away. Suddenly, a club struck him across the back and shoulders, then again, and again. Each blow seemed harder than the first, as if both of the officers were wielding the clubs, each man trying to out-do his partner. This time, however, no orders came with the blows. This time they were hitting him for the sheer joy of it.

At last, they grabbed his arms again, jerked him upright, and dragged him toward the rear of the car. As one of them opened the door, they shoved him inside, and he struck his head on the top of the door, making white light flash in his brain. They pushed him the rest of the way into the seat, and somebody picked up his feet and heaved them inside as well. Just before the door slammed shut, he heard one man say with a laugh, “I guess that’ll teach ’im his place about beatin’ on white kids.”

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