Coal pulled the GMC into the driveway half an hour after dark. The sun had been down shortly after they passed the village of North Fork, and after that, down in the depths of the canyon, the world had grown dark fast.
Virgil was asleep beside him, the butt of his new rifle on the floor with the barrel resting between his legs, and the fingers of his right hand curled loosely around it, like a younger boy might in his sleep continue trying to cradle a new puppy. Coal smiled. Thinking back on the trip, even with all it had cost him, he would have paid a hundred times more.
Connie met him on the front porch with a big smile. He had just woken Virgil up, and his boy was gathering all his paraphernalia together in the cab.
“How did your trip go?”
“The best possible, Mom. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
“Oh, wonderful!” She gave him a big hug, then watched Virgil come around the front of the truck carrying his load, with the Remington now back in its box. “Oh! I see a little bribery came into play.”
Coal laughed. “Nope. Virgil just needed a hunting rifle, and I got him one. Nothing to it. Right, Virg?” He dropped a hand on his boy’s shoulder and squeezed as he stopped beside him on the porch.
“Well, I’ll anxiously look forward to seeing that when you get it out of the box, Virgil,” said Connie. She looked down at the wooden box in Coal’s hand. “And I assume you didn’t get left out of the gift-giving either.”
Coal laughed. “Nope, I didn’t. Just upgrading a little.”
They all went in the house, where the dogs did their usual attack. Coal noticed that Virgil seemed to give Dobe some extra special attention this time, as if he were already assuming more ownership of the big lover-dog.
The other kids came running over to greet the wandering travelers, and Virgil went to the living room and pulled his rifle out of the box, showing it off to everyone.
Once everyone was settled and had said their greetings, Connie got Coal to the side. “Honey, you remember that call that came in before you left?”
Coal hadn’t given the call another thought the entire trip. “I do now. Who was that?”
“No, I think it’s something you’ll want to know about.”
Coal frowned. He couldn’t think of one attorney, other than perhaps Mike Fica or Bryan Wheat, that he could possibly care to talk to. And his mother had said that was a long distance call.
“So . . . ?”
“It was a man from Louisiana. Hang on a second.” She went and pulled a notebook out from under the phone and peered at it for a few seconds. “Mr. Puckett? Lawson Puckett?”
“I don’t know him. Louisiana?”
“Yes. But about an hour ago another call came in from Louisiana.”
“No, Son. No. This is why I think it’s important. It was a woman named Martha May Janx, and she—”
“Did you say Janx?”
Coal perked up and came wide awake. Louisiana. Janx. He suddenly knew the connection.
“I had a buddy in Nam at the prison named Slugger Janx. And he was from Louisiana.”
Connie swallowed and reached out to touch Coal’s forearm. That worried him. She only did that as a way to comfort him, or to prepare him for something hard she was about to say.
“She said her son is in jail.”
“What? Jail? I thought he was still in Nam.”
“I guess not. He’s in jail, she said for something he didn’t do, and she said he’s going to go to prison if they can’t find someone to help him.”
Coal’s chest constricted. His mind went back to the riot at Long Binh Jail, that hot, muggy, terrible August of 1968. No man had stood stronger and more loyal beside Coal than his friend and underling Slugger Janx. Slugger was a proud, law-abiding man, not the kind of man to commit a crime.
“What else did she say, Mom? Why’s he in jail?”
“She didn’t say. I just told her I’d have you call when you got back. She sounded pretty desperate.”
“Where’s the number?” This wasn’t something that could wait. Slugger had stood by Coal in his time of greatest need.
He took the phone and the number up to his room, where he plugged the phone into the jack and dialed it, heart pounding. After only one ring, the phone picked up. There was a distant, hopeful Hello?
“Hello. Am I speaking to Mrs. Janx?”
A long pause. Um, yes sir. Who is this? In spite of the hope in the voice, there was suspicion too.
“My name is Coal Savage, ma’am. I was with your son in Vietnam.”
Oh, dear Lord. Yes! Dear Lord. Oh, thank you, Mr. Savage, for calling me back. Sir, I never dreamed—
Coal cut her off. “Ma’am, my mother said something about your son being in jail. What’s wrong? Is he all right?”
No, sir, he ain’t all right, Mr. Savage. The policemen, they been beatin’ him. They won’t let me in t’ see him no more. And somebody done beat the attorney man they had t’ help Bryant. He’s in a real bad way now, in the hospital.
Coal was stunned by the words. “What happened? What did he do?”
Sir, I swear to you, he didn’t do nothin’. He had a fight with some kids what was callin’ him baby killer an’ spittin’ in his face. Then some other men who pretended t’ help him beat him, real bad. And then the policemen came, an’ they beat him too, an’ they took him t’ jail. He been there ever since, an’ I think he’s gon’ die there, an’ they won’t let me come in—
“Ma’am. Hang on a second. What’s he being charged with?”
The woman, who sounded elderly and frail, told him everything she could think of. Coal listened intently, with a sick feeling in his stomach. His friend, his protector, his buddy, Slugger Janx was being railroaded. His mother was right: He was going to prison, and there was no doubt about it, unless someone came to his rescue. Coal had read all too much about how things were done down South. But this was Slugger Janx, who had remained beside him, shoulder to shoulder, during his darkest days in Nam.
“Ma’am, I’m coming down there.”
There was a long pause, at least four seconds. Pardon me, sir?
“I said I’m coming down there. Tomorrow, if I can. Will somebody meet me at the airport? I’ll be in a small airplane, and I won’t be coming through the terminal.” Longer silence. “Ma’am?”
Suddenly, Coal heard the sound of the woman’s voice. She tried to speak and couldn’t, and he realized she was crying. Soon, a man’s voice came on the line.
Sir, this is Charley Janx, Slugger’s father. My Martha May ain’t able t’ speak no more right now. Can you talk t’ me instead?
Coal laughed. “Yes, sir! You bet I can talk to you.”
Coal stayed on the line long enough to get all of the information he felt he would need once he got to Louisiana, and then he said goodbye to both of them, once Martha May finally had control of her emotions, and hung up the phone. He immediately ran down to dig through the phone book and look up a man by the name of Steve White, who was a retired airline pilot and still flew a Piper four-seater aircraft to take tourists and hunters into the backcountry of Idaho, or wherever else they needed to travel. White, originally from Grapevine, Texas, had settled in Salmon six or seven years ago for the small-town environment.
To Coal’s delight, White said he had nothing pressing on his calendar for the following two days, and he said he would be happy to meet Coal around seven in the morning and fly him down to Louisiana.
Thibodaux, get the gloves on, thought Coal. Coal Savage is on his way to pay a visit, and fists are going to fly.
Photo courtesy of the REAL Captain Steve White and his beautiful wife, Teri.