Near Camden, Alabama 1948
“I’ll give you five minutes,” the deputy warden said, toothpick bobbing with the movement of his lips.
“Sir?” Bill said, wiping the sweat from his brow with the striped sleeve of his shirt.
It was late afternoon in August, and everything shriveled beneath the Alabama sun. The deputy warden had separated the three men from the rest of the chain gang and walked them down the road half a mile or so.
“Don’t you mean suh?” he spat.
Bill squinted toward the sound of an engine rumbling to life. The remaining inmates were being loaded onto the bus headed back to jail. He was chain-bound to two others, a big, simple man the inmates called Bobby, though no one knew his real name, and the old man with eyes like spoiled milk.
“What’s goin’ on, sir?”
“What’s goin’ on is, that woman you raped was the daughter of a close friend, my best friend to be specific. Now, the law says you get to have a trial, but I’m the law on this particular stretch of road. I say you get five minutes befo’ I set the hounds loose,” the deputy warden said.
He looked at his watch and corrected, “Four minutes.”
Two trucks passed the bus and Bill saw the unmistakable silhouettes of hound dog heads catching the wind, ears like limp airplane wings.
“Never raped anyone,” Bill said.
“Not what she said. No suh.”
He checked his watch again, “Three-and-a-half.”
Bill inched away and the others followed suit. He was being set up. He knew he was being set up. He would be better off standing right there on that dusty road than running. That was the excuse they needed, but in the moment, it didn’t feel like a choice.
The deputy warden turned to wave at the approaching trucks. His bulk tested the integrity of every seam and button of his shirt. Bill bet hehadn’t been in the war. Probably had a “heart condition” or something.
“C’mon,” he said to the others.
The blind man did not speak but grasped the well-formed shoulders of the man in the middle. Bill scanned ahead as he walked, chewing for just a moment on the possibility that any one of the three men might have had a slave grandfather who picked cotton in the very field they were entering. Now, he was a free man in chains. Beyond the endless, cloudlike tufts was a line of trees. Probably half a mile as the crow flies, but their path to it would not be straight.
Behind, a new car joined the trucks idling on the road. A man got out waving his arms. He pointed in the direction he’d come and Bill heard three words that gave him a momentary reprieve from the toxic ball of panic growing in his belly.
Bus turned over
The deputy warden stomped on his hat. His thin, blonde hair looked like a bad batch of cotton, something you might use to stuff a scarecrow with. He watched Bill and the others scurry toward the trees.
“Coupl’a yours are injured, too, Don,” the man in the overalls said.
The rapist would have to wait. Might make the chase more interesting, actually. With a whistle and a wave of his hand he rallied the men. Hopefully, it was nothing serious. Hopefully, he’d put the hounds to good use soon. If not, well, Alabama would finish the job for him.
They stumbled and fell, their cheap shoes sliding over the loose soil. By the fifth time Bill dusted himself off and reverted back to his training.
“Okay, now, I’m gonna say left and I want each of you to step with your left foot. When I say right you step with your right. We get the hang of it I’ll pick up the pace a bit,” he said.
Bobby grunted and the blind man nodded once.
Bill watched the road. None of the vehicles had yet returned and the trees loomed just ahead.
“Left on three. 1-2-3-left!”
There was a bit of a delay. The blind man stepped on Bobby’s heel. But it wasn’t bad. Bill had a time of it himself in basic training.
Within a minute, they no longer stepped on each other’s ankles. Bill had them nearly jogging by the time they reached the woods. The air was still thick as river mud, but a few degrees cooler, at least.
Bill had grown up in these woods, but at that moment he was back in Europe, running for his life again. As in Europe, he was unarmed. Medics weren’t allowed to carry weapons, but a lot of stuff that wasn’t allowed to happen did over there. They dodged exposed roots and glistening spiderwebs, the trees crowding closer and closer together.
“Got to get to water. Got to lose the scent,” Bill huffed.
Bobby grunted and the old man might have offered a yup in response.
Running for his life again. When he’d come back he marched in a parade down Main Street in Camden, right alongside the white men. Deputy Don was probably in the crowd that day, clapping louder than anyone else. He knew the woman who said he’d raped her. He knew she’d never been raped. But, she had fallen in love with a black man and fell pregnant with his baby. Couldn’t say it was him. They had a plan to run away together. But, a baby was gonna come out of her with curly hair and umber eyes, and there had to be a reason for it.
Ten minutes in and the pace staggered as if their legs were slowly turning to sand. The underbrush pulled at their striped pants, hooked around their ankle chains. The light leaking through the canopy was the color of honey. Dusk approached.
“We gotta get these chains off,” Bill said, stopping to look at the men.
The old man turned his head and held up one finger.
“Trucks comin’ back,” he said, voice thin as gauze.
“How’s that?” Bill said.
He nodded his head to the west.
“Trucks. Dogs’ll be comin’ right behind.”
“You can hear that?” Bill said, fascination supplanting fear.
The old man nodded.
“Then we gotta get outta these chains now.”
He looked to Bobby. The man met his gaze and held it as he lifted his swollen arms. In one violent motion he threw his arms behind, breaking free of the chains that bound his hands.
“Don’t do no good to bust out when they got a gun at yo back,” he said.
The blind man smiled as if he’d seen everything.
“Git me a big rock,” Bobby said.
Bobby liberated both men from the chains, but they all still wore the heavy bracelets around their wrists and ankles.
“Dogs is loose. S’pose they’s one more thing to tell ‘fore we start,” the blind man said.
He pulled a pant leg up and tugged his sock down. The skin around is ankle was mottled black and purple, darker than an eggplant left to whither on the vine.
“They did it last night. Make today more difficult fo’ you, I reckon. Done my best, but can’t run on it.”
“Jesus,” Bill said.
He instinctively reached for the bag of Army-issued medical supplies, but felt only his hip. Given time he could fashion a stretcher, but time was the one thing they did not have.
“They got the scent, boy!” one of the men from the trucks said.
The hounds tore through the cotton field and paused at the forest’s edge.
“Yup, shame he made a run fo’ it. Heard he was on his way to bein’ a lawyer. Took a blind boy and a dummy with ‘im. Such a shame,” Deputy Don said with a wink.
“Now, start veerin’ to the right some,” the blind man said.
Bobby barely noticed the extra weight on his back. Bill sacrificed the top half of his jumpsuit to the cause, crafting a crude sling to keep the old man off his feet. Clouds blotted out the setting sun and they smelled of rain. The forest went gray, the leaves and trunks of trees the same color. Rocks and roots seemed to jump out of the ground, and Bill was one sprained ankle away from being dog meat.
“Touch to the left.”
Bill adjusted course.
“Nope, don’t put yo arms out. Keep ‘em tucked nice and tight by yo side.”
They agreed their only chance to survive the night was the river. The old man, Jasper, Bill learned, took the role of navigator. He cocked his head to the side, one ear listening to what was behind and the other to what was ahead. Bobby absentmindedly began to hum and received a crisp smack on the back of his head for the effort.
“Okay, gettin’ close. Take five steps then I need you to crawl under those plants. Brush off some o’dat cotton when you do,” Jasper said.
Bill could barely make out the plants, but he did as he was told.
“You, big man, walk right around. Go up that ridge if you need. River’s not far now,” Jasper said, ripping free another piece of his jumpsuit and tossing it in a briar patch.
The dogs were mostly quiet. It was the men behind that wouldn’t shut up. To Jasper, he might as well have been right among them. He could not make out the words, just the shapes of the words, but the laughter was like gunshots to his sensitive ears.
Night arrived in concert with the storm. The men, many built similar to Deputy Don, struggled to stay upright. The laughter became curses as the dogs followed the scent trails, the odor slowly soaking into the black Alabama soil.
Jasper gave orders from his perch on Bobby’s back, directing the big man to take a different path from Bill’s. By the time they reached the river even Bill could hear the dogs.
“They’re close!” Bill whispered.
“Yes’m. They is. They about to have a time of it, too,” Jasper chuckled.
“What you mean?” Bill asked.
“Just step on into that water and keep your ears open,” Jasper said.
“Gators in there,” Bill said.
The wind from the storm whipped the river into frenzy.
“Shouldn’t be in no mood to hunt in this weather. Anyway, I can see ‘em just fine,” Jasper said.
His white teeth glowed like moonlight in the dark.
Bill entered the water, Bobby just behind. They swam against the current, guessing the men in pursuit would expect the opposite.
“Bit left. There’s a gator on yo right but he’s sleeping.”
Jasper navigated in water as well as he had on land.
The texture of the hound dog calls changed. It was frantic, tinged with pain.
“What’s that?” Bill asked.
“That was the briars. They’ll feel the poison oak on they noses in a while. Got sumac waitin’ for ‘em at the water’s edge. Men are in the thick of it right now, chasin’ ghosts. Rain’ll spread it everywhere. Ain’t no one gonna be laughin’ back there no more,” Jasper said.
They rode the waves in silence only interrupted by Jasper’s directives.
At dawn the three men stood on riverbank, soaked to the bone with rain and river water. Jasper leaned against Bobby, foot hovering above the soil. Downstream, the dogs scattered, noses reporting conflicting information. Deputy Don sat on a log, soaked in poison with his skin just beginning to tingle. When the screaming began he would be the loudest among them.
Bill did not know what the day held for him, or the week or month. He only knew he survived the night and that the shafts of sunlight piercing the canopy kissed the face of a free man.
Bill kneeled before Jasper.
“Come on, old man, let’s see about that ankle.”