Big Boy Leaves Home from Uncle Tom's Children (1938)
Yo mama don wear no drawers . . .
Clearly, the voice rose out of the woods, and died away. Like an echo another voice caught it up:
Ah seena when she pulled em off . . .
Another, shrill, cracking, adolescent:
N she washed 'em in alcohol . . .
Then a quartet of voices, blending in harmony, floated high above the tree tops:
N she hung 'cm out in the hall . . .
Laughing easily, four black boys came out of the woods into cleared pasture. They walked lollingly in bare feet, beating tangled vines and bushes with long sticks.
"Ah wished Ah knowed some mo lines t tha song."
"Yeah, when yuh gits t where she hangs em out in the hall yuh has t stop."
"Shucks, whut goes wid hall?"
They threw themselves on the grass, laughing.
"Yuh know one thing?"
"Yuh sho is crazy!"
"Yeah, yuh crazys a bed-bug!"
"Crazy bout whut?"
"Man, whoever hearda quall?"
"Yuh said yuh wanted something to go wid hall, didn't yuh?"
"Yeah, but whuts a quall?"
"Nigger, a qualls a quall."
They laughed easily, catching and pulling long green blades of grass with their toes.
"Waal, ef a qualls a quall, whut IS a quall?"
"Oh, Ah know."
"The ol song goes something like this:
Yo mama don wear no drawers,
Ah seena when she pulled em off,
N she washed em in alcohol,
N she hung em out in the hall,
N then she put em back on her QUALL!"
They laughed again. Their shoulders were flat to the earth, their knees propped up, and their faces square to the sun.
"Big Boy, yuhs CRAZY!"
"Don ax me nothin else."
"Nigger, yuhs CRAZY!"
They fell silent, smiling, dropping the lids of their eyes softly against the sunlight.
"Man, don the groun feel warm?"
"Jus like bed."
"Jeeesus, Ah could stay here ferever."
"Ah kin feel the ol sun goin all thu me."
"Feels like mah bones is warm."
In the distance a train whistled mournfully.
"There goes number fo!"
"Hittin on all six!"
"Highballin it down the line!"
"Boun fer up Noth, Lawd, bound fer up Noth!"
They began to chant, pounding bare heels in the grass.
Dis train bound fo Glory
Dis train, Oh Hallelujah
Dis train bound fo Glory Dis train, Oh Hallelujah
Dis train bound fo Glory
Ef yuh ride no need fer fret er worry
Dis train, Oh Hallelujah
Dis train . . .
Dis train don carry no gambler
Dis train, Oh Hallelujah
Dis train don carry no gambler
Dis train, Oh Hallelujah
Dis train don carry no gambler
No fo day creeper er midnight.rambler
Dis train, Oh Hallelujah
Dis train . . .
When the song ended they burst out laughing, thinking of a train bound for Glory.
"Gee, thas a good ol song!"
"Geeee whiiiiiiz. . ."
"Somebody done let win! Das whut!"
Buck, Bobo and Lester jumped up. Big Boy stayed on the ground, feigning sleep.
"Jeeesus, tha sho stinks!"
Big Boy feigned to snore.
Big Boy stirred as though in sleep.
"Yuh rotten inside!"
"Lawd, cant yuh smell it?"
"Nigger, yuh mus gotta bad col!"
"NIGGER, YUH BROKE WIN!"
Big Boy laughed and fell back on the grass, closing his eyes.
"The hen whut cackles is the hen whut laid the egg."
"We ain no hens."
"Yuh cackled, didnt yuh?"
The three moved off with noses turned up.
"Where yuh-all goin?"
"T the creek fer a swim."
"Yeah, les swim."
"Naw buddy naw!" said Big Boy, slapping the air with a scornful palm.
"Aa, c mon! Don be a heel!"
"N git lynched? Hell new!"
"He ain gonna see us."
"How yuh know?"
"Cause he ain."
"Yuh-all go on. Ahma stay right here," said Big Boy.
"Hell, let im stay! C mon, les go," said Buck.
The three walked off, swishing at grass and bushes with sticks. Big Boy looked lazily at their backs.
Walking on, they glanced over their shoulders.
Big Boy grunted, picked up his stick, pulled to his feet, and stumbled off.
He ran, caught up with them, leaped upon their backs, bearing them to the ground.
"Quit, Big Boy!"
"Git t hell offa me!"
Big Boy sprawled in the grass beside them, laughing and pounding his heels in the ground.
"Nigger, whut yuh think we is, hosses?"
"How come yuh awways hoppin on us?"
"Lissen, wes gonna doubt-team on yuh one of these days n beat yo ol ass good."
Big Boy smiled.
"Yeah, don yuh like it?"
"We gonna beat yuh sos yuh cant walk!"
"N dare yuh t do nothin erbout it!"
Big Boy bared his teeth.
"C mon! Try it now!"
The three circled around him.
"Say, Buck, yuh grab his feels!"
"N yuh git his head, Lester!"
"N Bobo, yuh get berhin n grab his arms!"
Keeping more than arm's length, they circled round and round Big Boy.
"C mon!" said Big Boy, feinting at one and then the other.
Round and round they circled, but could not seem to get any closer. Big Boy stopped and braced his hands on his hips.
"Is all three of yuh-all scareda me?"
"Les git im some other time," said Bobo, grinning.
"Yeah, we kin ketch yuh when yuh ain thinkin," said Lester.
"We kin trick yuh," said Buck.
They laughed and walked together.
Big Boy belched.
"Ahm hongry," he said.
"Ah wished Ah hada big hot pota belly-busters!"
"Cooked wid some good ol saltry ribs . . ."
"N some good ol egg cornbread . . ."
"N some buttermilk . . ."
"N some hot peach cobbler swimmin in juice. "
They began to chant, emphasizing the rhythm by cutting at grass with sticks.
Bye n bye
Ah wanna piece of pie
Pies too sweet
Ah wanna piece of meat
Meats too red
Ah wanna piece of bread
Breads too brown
Ah wanna go t town
Towns too far
Ah wanna ketch a car
Cars too fas
Ah fall n break rnah ass
Ahll understan it better bye n bye . . .
They climbed over a barbed-wire fence and entered a stretch of thick woods. Big Boy was whistling softly, his eyes half-closed.
"LES GIT IM!"
Buck, Lester, and Bobo whirled, grabbed Big Boy about the neck, arms, and legs, bearing him to the ground. He grunted and kicked wildly as he went back into weeds.
"Hol im tight!"
"Git his arms! Git his arms!"
"Set on his legs so he cant kick!"
Big Boy puffed heavily, trying to get loose.
"WE GOT YUH NOW, GAWDDAMMlT, WE! GOT YUH NOW!"
"Thas a Gawddam lie!" said Big Boy. He kicked, twisted, and clutched for a hold on one and then the other.
"Say, yuh-all hep me hol his arms!" said Bobo.
"Aw, we got this bastard now!" said Lester.
"Thas a Gawddam lie!" said Big Boy again.
"Say, yuh-all hep me hol his arms!" called Bobo.
Big Boy managed to encircle the neck of Bobo with his left arm. He tightened his elbow scissors-like and hissed through his teeth:
"Yuh got me, ain yuh?"
"Les beat this bastard's ass!"
"Say, hep me hol his arms! Hes got aholda mah neck!" cried Bobo.
Big Boy squeezed Bobo's neck and twisted his head to the ground.
"Yuh got me, ain yuh?"
"Quit, Big Boy, yuh chokin me! Yuh hurtin mah neck!" cried Bobo.
"Turn me loose!" said Big Boy.
"Ah ain got yuh! Its the others whut got yuh!" pleaded Bobo.
"Tell them others t git t hell offa me or Ahma break yo neck," said Big Boy.
"Ssssay, yyyuh-al gggit ooooffa Bbig Boy. Hhhes got me," gurgled Bobo.
"Cant yuh hol im?"
"Nnaw, hhes ggot mmah nneck . . ."
Big Boy squeezed tighter.
"N Ahma break it too les yuh tell em t git t hell offa me!"
"Ttturn mmmeee Illoose," panted Bobo, tears gushing.
"Cant yuh hol im, Bobo?" asked Buck.
"Nnaw, yuh-all tturn im lloose; hhhes got mah nnneck . . ."
"Grab his neck, Bobo . . ."
"Ah cant; yugurgur . . ."
To save Bobo, Lester and Buck got up and ran to a safe distance. Big Boy released Bobo, who staggered to his feet, slobbering and trying to stretch a crick out of his neck.
"Shucks, nigger, yuh almos broke mah neck," whimpered Bobo.
"Ahm gonna break yo ass nex time," said Big Boy.
"Ef-Bobo coulda hel yuh we woulda had yuh," yelled Lester.
"Ah waznt gonna let im do that," said Big Boy.
They walked together again, swishing sticks.
"Yuh see," began Big Boy, "when a ganga guys jump on yuh, all yuh gotta do is put the heat on one of them n make im tell the others t let up, see?"
"Gee, thas a good idee!"
"Yeah, thas a good idee!"
"But yuh almos broke mah neck, man," said Bobo.
"Ahma smart nigger," said Big Boy, thrusting out his chest.
They came to the swimming hole.
"Ah ain goin in," said Bobo.
"Done got scared?" asked Big Boy.
"New, Ah ain scared . . ."
"How come yuh ain goin in?"
"Yuh know ol man Harvey don erllow no niggers t swim in this hole."
"N jus las year he took a shot at Bob fer swimming in here," said Lester.
"Shucks, ol man Harvey ain studyin bout us niggers," said Big Boy.
"Hes at home thinking about his jelly-roll," said Buck.
"Buck, yo mins lowern a snakes belly," said Lester.
"Ol man Harveys too doggone ol t think erbout jelly-roll," said Big Boy.
"He's dried up; all the saps done lef im," said Bobo.
"C mon, les go!" said Big Boy.
"See the sign over yonder?"
"Whut it say?"
"NO TRESPASSIN," read Lester.
"Know whut the mean?"
"Mean ain no dogs n niggers erllowed," said Buck.
"Waal, wes here now," said Big Boy. "Ef he ketched us even like this thered be trouble, so we just as waal go on in. . "
"Ahm wid the nex one!"
"Ahll go ef anybody else goes!"
Big Boy looked carefully in all directions. Seeing nobody, he began jerking off his overalls.
"LAS ONE INS A OL DEAD DOG!"
"THAS YO MA!"
"THAS YO PA!"
"THAS BOTH YO MA N YO PA!"
They jerked off their clothes and threw them in a pile under a tree. Thirty seconds later they stood, black and naked, on the edge of the hole under a sloping embankment. Gingerly Big Boy touched the water with his foot.
"Man, this waters col," he said.
"Ahm gonna put mah cloes back on," said Bobo, withdrawing his foot.
Big Boy grabbed him about the waist.
"Like hell yuh is!"
"Git outta the way, nigger!" Bobo yelled.
"Thow im in!" said Lester.
Bobo crouched, spread his legs, and braced himself against Big Boy's body. Locked in each other's arms, they tussled on the edge of the hole, neither able to throw the other.
"C mon, les me n yuh push em in."
Laughing, Lester and Buck gave the two locked bodies a running push. Big Boy and Bobo splashed, sending up silver spray in the sunlight. When Big Boy's head came up he yelled:
"The wuz yo ma yuh pushed!" said Bobo, shaking his head to clear the water from his eyes.
They did a surface dive, came up and struck out across the creek. The muddy water foamed. They swam back, waded into shallow water, breathing heavily and blinking eyes.
"C mon in!"
"Man, the water's fine!"
Lester and Buck hesitated.
"Les wet em," Big Boy whispered to Bobo.
Before Lester and Buck could back away, they were dripping wet from handfuls of scooped water.
"Gawddam, nigger; the waters col!"
"C mon in!" called Bio Boy
"We just as waal go on in now," said Buck.
"Look n see ef anybody's comin."
Kneeling, they squinted among the trees.
"C mon, les go."
They waded in slowly, pausing each few steps to catch their breath. A desperate water battle began. Closing eyes and backing away, they shunted water into one another's faces with the flat palms of hands.
"Hey, cut it out!"
"Yeah, Ahm bout drownin!"
They came together in water up to their navels, blowing and blinking. Big Boy ducked, upsetting Bobo.
"Look out, nigger!"
"Don holler so loud!"
"Yeah, they kin hear yo ol big mouth a mile erway."
"This waters too col fer me."
"Thas cause it rained yistiddy."
They swam across and back again.
"Ah wish we hada bigger place t swim in.
"The white folks got plenty swimming pools n we ain got none."
"Ah useta swim in the ol Missippi when we lived in Vicksburg."
Big Boy put his head under the water and blew his breath. A sound came like that of a hippopotamus.
"C mon, les be hippos."
Each went to a corner of the creek and put his mouth dust below the surface and blew like a hippopotamus. Tiring, they came and sat under the embankment.
"Look like Ah gotta chill."
"Les stay here n dry off."
"Jeeesus, Ahm col!"
They kept still in the sun, suppressing shivers. After some of the water had dried off their bodies they began to talk through clattering teeth.
"Whut would yuh do ef ol man Harveyd come erlong rlg t now?"
"Run like hells"
"Man, Ahd run so fas hed thinka black streaka lightnin shot pass im."
"But spose he hada gun?"
"Aw nigger, shut up!"
They were silent. They ran their hands over wet, trembling legs, brushing water away. Then their eyes watched the sun sparkling on the restless creek.
Far away a train whistled.
"There goes number seven!"
"Headin fer up Noth!"
"Blazin it down the line!"
"Lawd, Ahm goin Noth some day."
"Me too, man."
"They say colored folks up Noth is got ekual rights."
They grew pensive. A black winged butterfly hovered at the water's edge. A bee droned. From somewhere came the sweet scent of honeysuckles. Dimly they could hear sparrows twittering in the woods. They rolled from side to side, letting sunshine dry their skins and warm their blood. They plucked blades of grass and chewed them.
They looked up, their lips parting.
A white woman, poised on the edge of the opposite embankment, stood directly in front of them, her hat in her hand and her hair lit by the sun.
"Its a woman!" whispered Big Boy in an underbreath. "A white woman!"
They stared, their hands instinctively covering their groins. Then they scrambled to their feet. The white woman backed slowly out of sight. They stood for a moment, looking at one another.
"Les git outta here!" Big Boy whispered.
"Wait till she goes erway."
"Les run, they'll ketch us here naked like this!"
"Mabbe theres a man wid her "
"C mon, les git our cloes," said Big Boy.
They waited a moment longer, listening.
"What t hell! Ahma git mah cloes," said Big Boy.
Grabbing at short tufts of grass, he climbed the embankment.
"Don run out there now!"
"C mon back, fool!"
Bobo hesitated. He looked at Big Boy, and then at Buck and Lester.
"Ahm goin wid Big Boy n git mah cloes," he said.
"Don run out there naked like the, fool!" said Buck. "Yuh don know whos out there!"
Big Boy was climbing over the edge of the embankment.
"C mon," he whispered Bobo climbed after. Twenty-five feet away the woman stood. She had one hand over her mouth. Hanging by fingers, Buck and Lester peeped over the edge.
"C mon back; that womans scared," said Lester.
Big Boy stopped, puzzled. He looked at the woman. He looked at the bundle of clothes. Then he looked at Buck and Lester.
"C mon, les git our cloes!"
He made a step.
"Jim!" the woman screamed.
Big Boy stopped and looked around. His hands hung loosely at his side. The woman, her eyes wide, her hand over her mouth, backed away to the tree where their clothes lay in a heap.
"Big Boy, come back here n wait till shes gone!"
Bobo ran to Big Boy's side.
"Les go home! Theyll ketch us here," he urged.
Big Boy's throat felt tight.
"Lady, we wanna git our cloes," he said.
Buck and Lester climbed the embankment and stood indecisively. Big Boy ran toward the tree.
"Jim!" the woman screamed. "Jim! Jim!"
Black and naked, Big Boy stopped three feet from her.
"We wanna git our cloes," he said again, his words coming mechanically.
He made a motion.
"You go away! You go away! I tell you, you go away!"
Big Boy stopped again, afraid. Bobo ran and snatched the clothes. Buck and Lester tried to grab theirs out of his hands.
"You go away! You go away! You go away!" the woman screamed.
"Les go!" said Bobo, running toward the woods.
Lester grunted, stiffened, and pitched forward. His forehead struck a toe of the woman's shoes.
Bobo stopped, clutching the clothes. Buck whirled. Big Boy stared at Lester, his lips moving.
"Hes gotta gun; hes gotta gun!" yelled Buck, running wildly.
Buck stopped at the edge of the embankment, his head jerked backward, his body arched stiffly to one side; he toppled headlong, sending up a shower of bright spray to the sunlight. The creek bubbled.
Big Boy and Bobo backed away, their eyes fastened fearfully on a white man who was running toward them. He had a rifle and wore an army officer's uniform. He ran to the woman's side and grabbed her hand.
"You hurt, Bertha, you hurt?"
She stared at him and did not answer.
The man turned quickly. His face was red. He raised the rifle and pointed it at Bobo. Bobo ran back, holding the clothes in front of his chest.
"Don shoot me, Mistah, don shoot me . . ."
Big Boy lunged for the rifle, grabbing the barrel.
"You black sonofabitch!"
Big Boy clung desperately.
"Let go, you black bastard!"
The barrel pointed skyward.
The white man, taller and heavier, flung Big Boy to the ground. Bobo dropped the clothes, ran up, and jumped onto the white man's back.
"You black sonsofbitches!"
The white man released the rifle, jerked Bobo to the ground, and began to batter the naked boy with his fists. Then Big Boy swung, striking the man in the mouth with the barrel. His teeth caved in, and he fell, dazed. Bobo was on his feet.
"C mon, Big Boy, les go!"
Breathing hard, the white man got up and faced Big Boy. His lips were trembling, his neck and chin wet with blood. He spoke quietly.
"Give me that gun, boy!"
Big Boy leveled the rifle and backed away.
The white man advanced.
"Boy, I say give me that gun!"
Bobo had the clothes in his arms.
"Run, Big Boy, run!"
The man came at Big Boy.
"Ahll kill yuh: Ahll kill yuh!" said Big Boy.
His figoers fumbled for the trig; er.
The man stopped, blinked, spat blood. His eyes were bewildered. His face whitened. Suddenly, he lunged for the rifle, his hands outstretched.
He fell forward on his face.
Big Boy and Bobo turned woman.
"Jim!" she screamed again, and fell weakly at the foot of the tree.
Big Boy dropped the rifle, his eyes wide. He looked around. Bobo was crying and clutching the clothes.
"Big Boy, Big Boy . . ."
Big Boy looked at the rifle, started to pick it up, but didn't. He seemed at a loss. He looked at Lester, then at the white man; his eyes followed a thin stream of blood that seeped to the ground.
"Yuh done killed im," mumbled Bobo.
"Les go home!"
Naked, they turned and ran toward the wood. Wben they reached the barbed-wire fence they stopped.
"Les git our cloes on," said Big Boy.
They slipped quickly into overalls. Bobo held Lester's and Buck's clothes.
"Whut we gonna do wid these?"
Big Boy stared. His hands twitched.
They climbed the fence and ran through the woods. Vines and leaves switched their faces. Once Bobo tripped and fell.
"C mon!" said Big Boy.
Bobo started crying, blood streaming from his scratches. "Ahm scared!"
"C mon! Don cry! We wanna git home fo they ketches us!"
"Ahm scared!" said Bobo again, his eyes full of tears.
Big Boy grabbed his hand and dragged him along.
They stopped when they got to the end of the woods. They could see the open road leading home, to ma and pa. But they hung back, afraid. The thick shadows cast from the
trees were friendly and sheltering. But the wide glare of sun stretching out over the fields was pitiless. They crouched behind an old log.
"We gotta git home," said Big Boy.
"Theys gonna lynch us," said Bobo, half-questioningly.
Big Boy did not answer.
"Theys gonna lynch us," said Bobo again.
Big Boy shuddered.
"Hush!" he said. He did not want to think of it. He could not think of it; there was but one thought, and he clung to that one blindly. He had to get home, home to ma and pa.
Their heads jerked up. Their ears had caught the rhythmic jingle of a wagon. They fell to the ground and clung flat to the side of a log. Over the crest of the hill came the top of a hat. A white face. Then shoulders in a blue shirt. A wagon drawn by two horses pulled into full view.
Big Boy and Bobo held their breath, waiting. Their eyes followed the wagon till it was lost in dust around a bend of the road.
"We gotta git home," said Big Boy.
"Ahm scared," said Bobo.
"C mon! Les keep t the fields."
They ran till they came to the cornfields. Then they went slower, for last year's corn stubbles bruised their feet.
They came in sight of a brickyard.
"Wait a minute," gasped Big Boy.
"Ahm goin on t mah home n yuh better go on t yos."
Bobo's eyes grew round.
"Yuh better go on!"
"Lemme go wid yuh; they'll ketch me. . ."
"Ef yuh kin git home mabbe yo folks kin hep yuh t git erway."
Big Boy started off. Bobo grabbed him.
"Lemme go wid yuh!"
Big Boy shook free.
"Ef yuh stay here theys gonna lynch yuh!" he yelled, running.
After he had gone about twenty-five yards he turned and looked; Bobo was flying through the woods like the wind.
Big Boy slowed when he came to the railroad. He wondered if he ought to go through the streets or down the track. He decided on the tracks. He could dodge a train better than a mob.
He trotted along the ties, looking ahead and back. His cheek itched, and he felt it. His hand came away smeared with blood. He wiped it nervously on his overalls.
When he came to his back fence he heaved himself over. He landed among a flock of startled chickens. A bantam rooster tried to spur him. He slipped and fell in front of the kitchen steps, grunting heavily. The ground was slick with greasy dishwater.
Panting, he stumbled through the doorway.
"Lawd, Big Boy, whuts wrong wid yuh?"
His mother stood gaping in the middle of the floor. Big Boy flopped wordlessly onto a stool, almost toppling over. Pots simmered on the stove. The kitchen smelled of food cooking.
"Whuts the matter, Big Boy?"
Mutely, he looked at her. Then he burst into tears. She came and felt the scratches on his face.
"Whut happened t yuh, Big Boy? Somebody been botherin yuh?"
"They after me, Ma! They after me. . ."
"Ah . . . Ah . . . We . . ."
"Big Boy, whuts wrong wid yuh?"
"He killed Lester n Buck," he muttered simply.
"Lester n Buck!"
"He shot em, Ma!"
"Lawd Gawd in Heaven, have mercy on us all! This is mo trouble, mo trouble," she moaned, wringing her hands.
"N Ah killed im, Ma . . ."
She stared, trying to understand.
"Whut happened, Big Boy?"
"We tried t git our cloes from the tree
"We wuz swimmin, Ma. N the white woman.
"White woman? . . ."
"Yessum. She wuz at the swimmin hole. . ."
"Lawd have mercy! Ah knowed yuh boys wuz gonna keep on till yuh got into somethin like this!"
She ran into the hall.
"C mere, Ah say!"
"Whutcha wan, Ma? Ahm sewin."
"Chile, will yuh c mere like Ah ast yuh?"
Lucy came to the door holding an unfinished apron in her hands. When she saw Big Boy's face she looked wildly at her mother.
"Whuts the matter?"
"He's out front, Ah reckon."
"Git im, quick!"
"Whuts the matter, Ma?"
"Go git yo Pa, Ah say!"
Lucy ran out. The mother sank into a chair, holding a dish rag. Suddenly, she sat up.
"Big Boy, Ah thought yuh wuz at school?"
Big Boy looked at the floor.
"How come yuh didn't go t school?"
"We went t the woods."
"Ah done done all Ah kin fer yuh, Big Boy. Only Gawd kin help yuh now."
"Ma, don let em git me; don let em git me."
His father came into the doorway. He stared at Big Boy, then at his wife.
"Whuts Big Boy inter now?" he asked sternly.
"Saul, Big Boys done gone n got inter trouble wid the white folks."
The old man's mouth dropped, and he looked from one to the other.
"Saul, we gotta git im erway from here."
"Open yo mouth n talk! Whut yuh been coin?" The old man gripped Big Boy's shoulders and peered at the scratches on his face.
"Me n Lester n Buck n Bobo wuz out on ol man Harveys place swimmin . . ."
"Saul, its a white woman!"
Big Boy winced. The old man compressed his lips and stared at his wife. Lucy gaped at her brother as though she had never seen him before.
"Whut happened? Cant yuh all talk?" the old man thundered, with a certain helplessness in his voice.
"We wuz swimmin," Big Boy began, "n then a white woman comes up t the hole. We got up right erway to git our cloes sos we could git erway, n she started screamin. Our cloes wuz right by the tree where she wuz standin, n when we started t git em she jus screamed. We told her we wanted our cloes . . . Yuh see, Pa, she was standin' right by our cloes; n when we went t git em she jus screamed . . . Bobo got the cloes, n then he shot Lester . . ."
"Who shot Lester?"
"The white man."
"Whut white man?"
"Ah dunno, Pa. He wuz a soljer, n he had a rifle."
"Yessuh, Pa. A soljer."
The old man frowned.
"N then what yuh-all do?"
"Waal, Buck said, 'Hes gotta gun!' N we started runnin. N then he shot Buck, n he fell in the swimmin hole. We didn't see im no mo . . . He wuz close on us then. He looked at the white woman n then he started t shoot Bobo. Ah grabbed the gun, n we started fightin. Bobo jumped on his back. He started beatin Bobo. Then Ah hit im wid the gun. Then he started at me n Ah shot im. Then we run .
"He went home."
"Anybody run after yuh-all?"
"Yuh see anybody?"
"Nawsuh. Nobody but a white man. But he didnt see us." "How long fo yuh-all lef the swimmin hole?"
"Little while ergo."
The old man nervously brushed his hand across his eyes and walked to the door. His lips moved, but no words came.
"Saul, whut we gonna do?"
"Lucy," began the old man, "go t Brother Sanders n tell im Ah said c mere; n go t Brother Jenkins n tell im Ah said c mere; n go t Elder Peters n tell im Ah said c mere. N don say nothin t nobody but whut Ah tol yuh. N when yuh git thu come straight back. Now go!"
Lucy dropped her apron across the back of a chair and ran down the steps. The mother bent over, crying and praying. The old man walked slowly over to Big Boy.
Big Boy swallowed.
"Ahm talkin t yuh!"
"How come yuh didnt go t school this mawnin?"
"We went t the woods."
"Didnt yo ma send yuh t school?"
"How come yuh didnt go?"
"We went t the woods."
"Don yuh know thas wrong?"
"How come yuh go?"
Big Boy looked at his fingers, knotted them, and squirmed in his seat.
"AHM TALKIN T YUH!"
His wife straightened up and said reprovingly:
The old man desisted, yanking nervously at the shoulder straps of his overalls.
"How long wuz the woman there?"
"Wuz she young?
"Yessuh. Lika gal."
"Did yuh-all say anythin t her?"
"Nawsuh. We jes said we wanted our cloes."
"N what she say?"
"Nothin, Pa. She jus backed erway t the tree n screamed."
The old man stared, his lips trying to form a question.
"Big Boy, did yuh-all bother her?"
"Nawsuh, Pa. We didnt touch her."
"How long fo the white man come up?"
"Whut he say?"
"Nothin. He jus cussed us."
Abruptly the old man left the kitchen.
"Ma, cant Ah go fo they ketches me?"
"Sauls doin whut he kin."
"Ma, Ma, Ah don want em t ketch me . . .
"Sauls doin what he kin. Nobody but the good Lawd kin hep us now."
The old man came back with a shotgun and leaned it in a corner. Fascinatedly, Big Boy looked at it.
There was a knock at the front door.
"Liza, see whos there."
She went. They were silent, listening. They could hear her talking.
"Me, Brother Sanders."
"C mon in. Sauls waitin fer yuh."
Sanders paused in the doorway, smiling.
"Yuh sent fer me, Brother Morrison?"
"Brother Sanders, wes in deep trouble here."
Sanders came all the way into the kitchen.
"Big Boy done gone n killed a white man."
Sanders stopped short, then came forward, his face thrust out, his mouth open. His lips moved several times before he could speak.
"A white man?"
"They gonna kill me; they gonna kill me!" Big Boy cried, running to the old man.
"Saul, cant we git im erway somewhere?"
"Here now, take it easy; take it easy," said Sanders, holding Big Boy's wrists.
"They gonna kill me; they gonna lynch me!"
Big Boy slipped to the floor. They lifted him to a stool. His mother held him closely, pressing his head to her bosom.
"Whut we gonna do?" asked Sanders.
"Ah done sent fer Brother Jenkins n Elder Peters."
Sanders leaned his shoulders against the wall. Then, as the full meaning of it came to him, he exclaimed:
"Theys gonna git a mob! . . ." His voice broke off and his eyes fell on the shotgun.
Feet came pounding on the steps. They turned toward the door. Lucy ran in crying. Jenkins followed. The old man met him in the middle of the room, taking his hand.
"Wes in bad trouble here, Brother Jenkins. Big Boy's done gone n killed a white man. Yuh-alls gotta hep me . . ."
Jenkins looked hard at Big Boy.
"Elder Peters says hes comin," said Lucy.
"When all this happen?" asked Jenkins.
"Near bout a hour ergo, now," said the old man.
"Whut we gonna do?" asked Jenkins.
"Ah wanna wait till Elder Peters come," said the old man helplessly.
"But we gotta work fas ef we gonna do anythin," said Sanders. "We'll git in trouble jus standin here like this."
Big Boy pulled away from his mother.
"Pa, lemma go now! Lemma go now!"
"Be still, Big Boy!"
"Where kin yuh go?"
"Ah could ketch a freight!"
"Thas sho death!" said Jenkins. "They'll be watchin em all!"
"Kin yuh-all hep me wid some money?" the old man asked.
They shook their heads.
"Saul, whut kin we do? Big Boy cant stay here."
There was another knock at the door.
The old man backed stealthily to the shotgun.
Lucy looked at him, hesitating.
"Ah better go," said Jenkins.
It was Elder Peters. He came in hurriedly.
"Good evenin, everybody!"
"How yuh, Elder?"
"How yuh today?"
Peters looked around the crowded kitchen.
"Whuts the matter?" "Elder, wes in deep trouble," began the old man. "Big Boy n some mo boys . . ."
". . . Lester n Buck n Bobo . . ."
". . . wuz over on ol man Harveys place swimmin . . ."
"N he don like us niggers none," said Peters emphatically. He widened his legs and put his thumbs in the armholes of his vest.
". . . n some white woman . . ."
"Yeah?" said Peters, coming closer.
". . . comes erlong n the boys tries t git their cloes where they done lef em under a tree. Waal, she started screamin n all, see? Reckon she thought the boys wuz after her. Then a white man in a soljers suit shoots two of em . . ."
". . . Lester n Buck . . ."
"Huummm," said Peters. "The wuz old man Harveys son."
"Yuh mean the one that wuz in the Army?"
"Yuh mean Jim?"
"Yeah," said Peters. "The papers said he wuz here fer a vacation from his regiment. N the woman the boys saw wuz jus erbout his wife . . ."
They stared at Peters. Now that they knew what white person had been killed, their fears became definite.
"N whut else happened?"
"Big Boy shot the man . . ."
"He had t, Elder. He wuz gonna shoot im ef he didnt . . ."
"Lawd!" said Peters. He looked around and put his hat back on.
"How long ergo wuz this?"
"Mighty near an hour, now, Ah reckon."
"Do the white folks know yit?"
"Don know, Elder."
"Yuh-all better git this boy outta here right now," said Peters. "Cause ef yuh don theres gonna be a lynchin. . ."
"Where kin Ah go, Elder?" Big Boy ran up to him.
They crowded around Peters. He stood with his legs wide apart, looking up at the ceiling.
"Mabbe we kin hide im in the church till he kin git erway," said Jenkins.
Peters' lips flexed.
"Naw, Brother, shall never do! Theyll git im there shot N anyhow, ef they ketch im there itll ruin us all. We gotta git the boy outta town . . ."
Sanders went up to the old man.
"Lissen," he said in a whisper. "Mah son, Will, the one whut drives fer the Magnolia Express Comny, is takin a truck o goods t Chicawgo in the mawnin. If we kin hide Big Boy somewhere till then, we kin put him on the truck . . ."
"Pa, please, lemme go wid Will when he goes in the mawnin," Big Boy begged.
The old man stared at Sanders.
"Yuh reckon thas safe?"
"Its the only thing yuh kin do," said Peters.
"But where we gonna hide im till then?"
"Whut time yo boy leavin out in the mawnin?"
They were quiet, thinking. The water kettle on the stove sang.
"Pa, Ah knows where Will passes erlong wid the truck out on Bullards Road. Ah kin hide in one of them ol kilns . . ."
"In one of them kilns we built . . ."
"But they'll git yuh there," wailed the mother.
"But there ain no place else fer im t go."
"Theres some holes big enough fer me t git in n stay till Will comes erlong," said Big Boy.
"Please, Pa, lemme go fo they ketches me . . ."
"Let im go!"
"Please, Pa . . ."
The old man breathed heavily.
"Lucy, git his things!"
"Saul, theyll git im out there!" wailed the mother, grabbing Big Boy.
Peters pulled her away.
"Sister Morrison, ef yuh don let im go n git erway from here hes gonna be caught shos theres a Gawd in Heavenl"
Lucy came running with Big Boy's shoes and pulled them on his feet. The old man thrust a battered hat on his head. The mother went to the stove and dumped the skillet of corn pone into her apron. She wrapped it, and unbuttoning Big Boy's overalls, pushed it into his bosom.
"Heres something fer yuh t eat; n pray, Big Boy, cause thas all anybody kin do now . . ."
Big Boy pulled to the door, his mother clinging to him.
"Let im go, Sister Morrison!"
"Run fas, Big Boy!"
Big Boy raced across the yard, scattering the chickens. He paused at the fence and hollered back::
"Tell Bobo where Ahm hidin n tell im t c mon!"
He made for the railroad, running straight toward the sunset. He held his left hand tightly over his heart, holding the hot pone of corn bread there. At times he stumbled over the ties, for his shoes were tight and hurt his feet. His throat burned from thirst; he had had no water since noon.
He veered off the track and trotted over the crest of 2 hill, following Bullard's Road. His feet slipped and slid in the dust. He kept his eyes straight ahead, fearing every clump of shrubbery, every tree. He wished it were night. If he could only get to the kilns without meeting anyone. Suddenly a thought came to him like a blow. He recalled hearing the old folks tell tales of blood-hounds, and fear made him run slower. None of them had thought of that. Spose blood-hours wuz put on his trail? Lawd! Spose a whole pack of em, foamin n howlin, tore im t pieces? He went limp and his feet dragged. Yeah, thas whut they wuz gonna send after im, blood-hours! N then thered be no way fer im t dodge! Why hadnt Pa let im take the shotgun? He stopped. He oughta go back n git the shotgun. And then when the mob came he would take some with him.
In the distance he heard the approach of a train. It jarred him back to a sharp sense of danger. He ran again, his big shoes sopping up and down in the dust. He was tired and his lungs were bursting from running. He wet his lips, wanting water. As he turned from the road across a plowed field he heard the train roaring at his heels. He ran faster, gripped In terror.
He was nearly there now. He could see the black clay on the sloping hillside. Once inside a kiln he would be safe. For a little while, at least. He thought of the shotgun again. If he only had something! Someone to talk to . . . Thas right! Bobo! Bobod be wid im. Hed almost fergot Bobo. Bobod bringa gun; he knowed he would. N tergether they could kill the whole mob. Then in the mawning theyd git inter Will's truck n go far erway, t Chicawgo . . .
He slowed to a walk, looking back and ahead. A light wind skipped over the grass. A beetle lit on his cheek and he brushed it off. Behind the dark pines hung a red sun. Two bats flapped against that sun. He shivered, for he was growing cold; the sweat on his body was drying.
He stopped at the foot of the hill, trying to choose between two patches of black kilns high above him. He went to the left, for there lay the ones he, Bobo, Lester, and Buck had dug only last week. He looked around again; the landscape was bare. He climbed the embankment and stood before a row of black pits sinking four and five feet deep into the earth. He went to the largest and peered in. He stiffened when his ears caught the sound of a whir. He ran back a few steps and poised on his toes. Six foot of snake slid out of the pit and went into coil. Big Boy looked around wildly for a stick. He ran down the slope, peering into the grass. He stumbled over a tree limb. He picked it up and tested it by striking it against the ground.
Warily, he crept back up the slope, his stick poised. When about seven feet from the snake he stopped and waved the stick. The coil grew tighter, the whir sounded louder, and a flat head reared to strike. He went to the right, and the flat head followed him, the blue-black tongue darting forth; he went to the left, and the flat head followed him there too.
He stopped, teeth clenched. He had to kill this snake. Jus had t kill im! This wuz the safest pit on the hillside. He waved the stick again, looking at the snake before, thinking of a mob behind. The flat head reared higher. With stick over shoulder, he jumped in, swinging. The stick sang through the air, catching the snake on the side of the head, sweeping him out of coil. There was a brown writhing mass. Then Big Boy was upon him, pounding blows home, one on top of the other. He fought viciously, his eyes red, his teeth bared in a snarl. He beat till the snake lay still; then he stomped it with his heel, grinding its head into the dirt.
He stopped, limp, wet. The corners of his lips were white with spittle. He spat and shuddered.
Cautiously, he went to the hole and peered. He longed for a match. He imagined whole nests of them in there waiting. He put the stick into the hole and waved it around. Stooping, he peered again. It mus be awright. He looked over the hillside, his eyes coming back to the dead snake. Then he got to his knees and backed slowly into the hole.
When inside he felt there must be snakes about him, ready to strike. It seemed he could see and feel them there, waiting tensely in coil. In the dark he imagined long, white fangs ready to sink into his neck, his side, his legs. He wanted to come out, but kept still. Shucks, he told himself, ef there wuz any snakes in here they sho woulda done bit me by now. Some of his fear left, and he relaxed.
With elbows on ground and chin on palms, he settled. The clay was cold to his knees and thighs, but his bosom was kept warm by the hot pone of corn bread. His thirst returned and he longed for a drink. He was hungry, too. But he did not want to eat the corn pone. Naw, not now. Mabbe after erwhile, after Bobo came. Then theyd both eat the corn pone.
The view from his hole was fringed by the long tufts of grass. He could see all the way to Bullard's Road, and even beyond. The wind was blowing, and in the east the first touch of dusk was rising. Every now and then a bird floated past, a spot of wheeling black printed against the sky. Big Boy sighed, shifted his weight, and chewed at a blade of grass. A wasp droned. He heard number nine, far away and mournful.
The train made him remember how they had dug these kilns on long hot summer days, how they had made boilers out of big tin cans, filled them with water, fixed stoppers for steam, cemented them in holes with wet clay, and built fires under them. He recalled how they had danced and yelled when a stopper blew out of a boiler, letting out a big spout of steam and a shrill whistle. There were times when they had the whole hillside blazing and smoking. Yeah, yuh see, Big Boy wuz Casey Jones n wuz speedin it down the gleamin rails of the Southern Pacific. Bobo had number two on the Santa Fe. Buck wuz on the Illinoy Central. Lester the Nickel Plate. Lawd, how they sheveled the wood in! The boiling water would almost jar the cans loose from the clay. More and more pine-knots and dry leaves would be piled under the cans. Flames would grow so tall they would have to shield their eyes. Sweat would pour off their faces. Then, suddenly, a peg would shoot high into the air, and
Pssseeeezzzzzzzzzzzzzz. . .
Big Boy sighed and stretched out his arm, quenching the flames and scattering the smoke. Why didnt Bobo c mon? He looked over the fields; there was nothing but dying sunlight. His mind drifted back to the kilns. He remembered the day when Buck, jealous of his winning, had tried to smash his kiln. Yeah, that ol sonofabitch! Naw, Lawd! He didnt go t say the! Whut wuz he thinkin erbout? Cussin the dead! Yeah, po ol Buck wuz dead now. N Lester too. Yeah, it wuz awright fer Buck t smash his kiln. Sho. N he wished he hadnt socked ol Buck so hard the day. He wuz sorry fer Buck now. N he sho wished he hadnt cussed po ol Bucks ma, neither. Tha wuz sinful! Mabbe Gawd would git im fer that? But he didnt go t do it! Po Buck! Po Lesterl Hed never treat anybody like the ergin, never . . .
Dusk was slowly deepening. Somewhere, he could not tell exactly where, a cricket took up a fitful song. The air was growing soft and heavy. He looked over the fields, longing for Bobo . . .
He shifted his body to ease the cold damp of the ground, and thought back over the day. Yeah, hed been dam right erbout not wantin t go swimmin. N ef hed followed his right min hed neverve gone n got inter all this trouble. At first hed said new. But shucks, somehow hed just went on wid the res. Yeah he shoulda went on t school the mawnin, like Ma told im t do. But, hell, who wouldnt git tireda awways drivin a guy t school! Tha wuz the big trouble awways drivin a guy t school. He wouldnt be in all this trouble now if it wuznt fer that Gawddam school! Impatiently, he took the grass out of his mouth and threw it away, demolishing the little red school house . . .
Yeah, if they had all kept still n quiet when the ol white woman showed-up, mabbe shedve went on off. But yuh never kin tell erbout these white folks. Mabbe she wouldntve went. Mabbe the white man woulda killed all of em! All fo of em! Yeah, yuh never kin tell erbout white folks. Then, ergin, mabbe the white woman woulda went on off n laffed. Yeah, mabbe the white man woulda said: Yuh nigger bastards git t hell outta here! Yuh know Gawdam well yuh don berlong here! N then they woulda grabbed their cloes n run like all hell . . . He blinked the white man away. Where wuz Bobo? Why didnt he hurry up n c mon?
He jerked another blade and chewed. Yeah, ef Pa had only let im have the shotgun! He could stan off a whole mob wid a shotgun. He looked at the ground as he turned a shotgun over in his hands. Then he leveled it at an advancing white man. Booooml The man curled up. Another came. He reloaded quickly, and let him have what the other had got. He too curled up. Then another came. He got the same medicine. Then the whole mob swirled around him, and he blazed away, getting as many as he could. They closed in; but, by Gawd, he had done his part, hadnt he? N the newspapersd say: NIGGER KILLS DOZEN OF MOB BEFO LYNCHED! Er mabbe theyd say: TRAPPED NIGGER SLAYS TWENTY BEFO KILLED! He smiled a little. Tha wouldnt be so bad, would it? Blinking the newspaper away, he looked over the fields. Where wuz Bobo? Why didut he hurry up n c mon?
He shifted, trying to get a crick out of his legs. Shucks, he wuz gettin tireda this. N it wuz almos dark now. Yeah, there wuz a little bittie star way over yonder in the east Mabbe the white man wuznt dead? Mabbe they wuznt even lookin fer im? Mabbe he could go back home now? Naw, better wait erwhile. Thad be bes. But, Lawd, ef he only had some water! He could hardly swallow, his throat was so dry. Gawddarn them white folks! Thas au they wuz good fer, t run a nigger down like rabbit! Yeah, they git yuh in a corner n then they let yuh have it. A thousan of em! He shivered, for the cold of the clay was chilling his bones. Lawd, spose they found im here in this hole? N wid nobody t help im? . . . But ain no use in thinkin erbout tha; wait till trouble come fo yuh start fightin it. But if the mob came one by one hed wipe em all out. Clean up the whole bunch. He caught one by the neck and choked him long and hard, choked him till his tongue and eyes popped out. Then he jumped upon his chest and stomped him like he had stomped that snake. When he had finished with one, another came.
He choked him too. Choked till he sank slowly to the ground, gasping .
Big Boy snatched his fingers from the white man's neck and looked over the fields. He saw nobody. Had someone spied him? He was sure that somebody had hollered. His heart pounded. But, shucks, nobody couldnt see im here in this hole . . . But mabbe theyd seen im when he wuz comin n had laid low n wuz now closin in on im! Praps they wuz signalin fer the others? Yeah, they wuz creepin up on im! Mabbe he oughta git up n run . . . Oh! Mabbe the wuz Bobo! Yeah, Bobo! He oughta clim out n see if Bobo wuz lookin fer im . . . He stiffened.
"Over here on Bullards Road!"
"C mon over!"
He heard footsteps. Then voices came again, low and far away this time.
"Yuh reckon they got erway?"
"Ah dunno. Its hard t tell."
"Gawddam them sonofabitchin niggers!"
"We o'ughta kill ever black bastard in this country!"
"Waal, Jim got two of em, anyhow."
"But Bertha said there wuz fo!"
"Where in hell they hidin?"
"She said one of em wuz named Big Boy, or somethin like tha."
"We went t his shack lookin fer im."
"But we didnt fin im."
"These niggers stick tergether; they don never tell on each other."
"We looked all thu the shack n couldnt fin hide ner hair of im. Then we drove the ol woman n man out n set the shack on fire . . ."
"Jeesus! Ah wished Ah coulda been there!"
"Shoulda heard the ol nigger woman howl . . ."
"C mon over!"
Big Boy eased to the edge and peeped. He saw a white man with a gun slung over his shoulder running down the slope. Wuz they gonna search the hill? Lawd, there wuz no way fer im t git erway now; he wuz caught! He shoulda knowed theyd git im here. N he didnt have thing, notta thing t fight wid. Yeah, soon as the blood-houns came theyd fin im. Lawd, have mercy! Theyd lynch im right here on the hill . . . Theyd git im n tie im t a stake n burn im erlive! Lawdl Nobody but the good Lawd could hep im now, nobody. . ."
He heard more feet running. He nestled deeper. His chest ached. Nobody but the good Lawd could hep now. They wuz crowdn all round im n when they hada big crowd theyd close in on im. Then itd be over . . . The good Lawd would have t hep im, cause nobody could hep im now, nobody . . .
And then he went numb when he remembered Bobo. Spose Bobod come now? Hed be caught sho! Both of em would be caught! Theyd make Bobo tell where he wuz! Bobo oughta not try to come now. Somebody oughta tell im . . . But there wuz nobody; there wuz no way . . .
He eased slowly back to the opening. There was a large group of men. More were coming. Many had guns. Some had coils of rope slung over shoulders.
"Ah tell yuh they still here, somewhere. . ."
"But we looked all over!"
"What t hell! Wouldnt do t let em git erway!"
"Naw. Ef they git erway notta woman in this town would be safe."
"Say, whuts the yuh got?"
"Chris! Thisll be hot if we kin ketch them niggers!"
"Ol Anderson said he wuz gonna bringa barrela tar!"
"Ah got some gasolin in mah car if yuh need it."
Big Boy had no feelings now. He was waiting. He did not wonder if they were coming after him. He just waited. He did not wonder about Bobo. He rested his cheek against the cold clay, waiting.
A dog barked. He stiffened. It barked again. He balled himself into a knot at the bottom of the hole, waiting. Then he heard the patter of dog feet.
"Whuts he got?"
"Its a snake!"
"Yeah, the dogs foun a snake!"
"Gee, its a big one!"
"Shucks, Ah wish he could fin one of them sonofabitchin niggers!"
The voices sank to low murmurs. Then he heard number twelve, its bell tolling and whistle crying as it slid along the rails He flattened himself against the clay. Someone was singing:
We'll hang ever nigger t a sour apple tree. . .
When the song ended there was hard laughter. From the other side of the hill he heard the dog barking furiously. He listened. There was more than one dog now. There were many and they were barking their throats out.
"Hush. Ah hear them dogs!"
"When theys barkin like the theys foun somethin!"
"Here they come over the hill!"
"WE GOT IM! WE GOT IM!"
There came a roar. Tha must be Bobo, the mus be Bobo . . . In spite of his fear, Big Boy looked. The road, and half of the hillside across the road, were covered with men. A few were at the top of the hill, stenciled against the sky. He could see dark forms moving up the slopes. They were yelling.
"By Gawd, we got iml"
"Where is he?"
"Theyre bringin im over the hill!"
"Ah got a rope fer im!"
"Say, somebody go n git the others!"
"Where is he? Cant we see im, Mister?"
"They say Berthas comin, too."
"Jack! Jack! Don leave me! Ah wanna see im!"
"Theyre bringin im over the hill, sweetheart!"
"AH WANNA BE THE FIRS T PUT A ROPE ON THA BLACK BASTARDS NECK!"
"Les start the fire!"
"Heat the tar!"
"Ah got some chains t chain im."
"Bring im over this way!"
"Chris, Ah wished Ah hada drink . . ."
Big Boy saw men moving over the hill. Among them was a long dark spot. Tha mus be Bobo; the mus be Bobo theys carryin . . . Theyll git im here. He oughta git up n run. He clamped his teeth and ran his hand across his forehead, bringing it away wet. He tried to swallow, but could not; his throat was dry.
They had started the song again:
We'll hang ever nigger t a sour apple tree . . .
There were women singing now. Their voices made the song round and full. Song waves rolled over the top of pine trees. The sky sagged low, heavy with clouds. Wind was rising. Sometimes cricket cries cut surprisingly across the mob song. A dog had gone to the utmost top of the hill. At each lull of the song his howl floated full into the night.
Big Boy shrank when he saw the first flame light the hillside. Would they see im here? Then he remembered you could not see into the dark if you were standing in the light. As flames leaped higher he saw two men rolling a barrel up the slope.
"Say, gimme a han here, will yuh?"
"C mon! Straight upl Git t the other end!"
"Ah got the feathers here in this pillar!"
"BRING SOME MO WOOD!"
Big Boy could see the barrel surrounded by flames. The mob fell back, forming a dark circle. Theyd fin im here! He had a wild impulse to climb out and fly across the hills. But his legs would not move. He stared hard, trying to find Bobo. His eyes played over a long, dark spot near the fire. Fanned by wind, flames leaped higher. He jumped. That dark spot had moved. Lawd, thas Bobo; thas Bobo. . .
He smelt the scent of tar, faint at first, then stronger. The wind brought it full into his face, then blew it away. His eyes burned and he rubbed them with his knuckles. He sneezed.
"LES GIT SOURVINEERS!"
He saw the mob close in around the fire. Their faces were hard and sharp in the light of the flames. More men and women were coming over the hill. The long, dark spot was smudged out.
"Everybody git backl"
"Look! Hes gotta finger!"
"C MON! GIT THE GALS BACK FROM THE FIRE!"
"He's got one of his ears, see?"
"Whuts the matter!"
"A woman fell outl Fainted, Ah reckon . . ."
The stench of tar permeated the hillside. The sky was black and the wind was blowing hard.
"HURRY UP N BURN THE NIGGER FO IT RAINS!"
Big Boy saw the mob fall back, leaving a small knot of men about the fire. Then, for the first time, he had a full glimpse of Bobo. A black body flashed in the light. Bobo was struggling, twisting; they were binding his arms and legs.
When he saw them tilt the barrel he stiffened. A scream quivered. He knew the tar was on Bobo. The mob fell back. He saw a tar-drenched body glistening and turning.
"THE BASTARDS GOT IT!"
There was a sudden quiet. Then he shrank violently as the wind carried, like a flurry of snow, a widening spiral of white feathers into the night. The flames leaped tall as the trees. The scream came again. Big Boy trembled and looked. The mob was running down the slopes, leaving the fire clear. Then he saw a writhing white mass cradled in yellow flame, and heard screams, one on top of the other, each shriller and shorter than the last. The mob was quiet now, standing still, looking up the slopes at the writhing white mass gradually growing black, growing black in a cradle of yellow flame.
"PO ON MO GAS!"
"Gimme a lif, will yuh!"
Two men were struggling, carrying between them a heavy can. They set it down, tilted it, leaving it so that the gas would trickle down to the hollowed earth around the fire.
Big Boy slid back into the hole, his face buried in clay. He had no feelings now, no fears. He was numb, empty, as though all blood had been drawn from him. Then his muscles flexed taut when he heard a faint patter. A tiny stream of cold water seeped to his knees, making him push back to a drier spot. He looked up; rain was beating in the grass.
"C mon, les git t town!"
". . . don worry, when the fire git thu wid irn hell be gone . . ."
"Wait, Charles! Don leave me; its slippery here. . ."
"Ahll take some of yuh ladies back in mah car. . ."
Big Boy heard the dogs barking again, this time closer. Running feet pounded past. Cold water chilled his ankles. He could hear raindrops steadily hissing.
Now a dog was barking at the mouth of the hole, barking furiously, sensing a presence there. He balled himself into a knot and clung to the bottom, his knees and shins buried in water. The bark came louder. He heard paws scraping and felt the hot scent of dog breath on his face. Green eyes glowed and drew nearer as the barking, muffled by the closeness of the hole, beat upon his eardrums. Backing till his shoulders pressed against the clay, he held his breath. He pushed out his hands, his fingers stiff. The dog yawped louder, advancing, his bark rising sharp and thin. Big Boy rose to his knees, his hands before him. Then he flattened out still more against the bottom, breathing lungsful of hot dog scent, breathing it slowly, hard, but evenly. The dog came closer, bringing hotter dog scent. Big Boy could go back no more. His knees were slipping and slopping m the water. He braced himself, ready. Then, he never exactly knew how-he never knew whether he had lunged or the dog had lunged-they were together, rolling in the water. The green eyes were beneath him, between his legs. Dognails bit into his arms. His knees slipped backward and he landed full on the dog; the dog's breath left in a heavy gasp. Instinctively, he fumbled for the throat as he felt the dog twisting between his knees. The dog snarled, long and low, as though gathering strength. Big Boy's hands traveled swiftly over the dog's back, groping for the throat. He felt dognails again and saw green eyes, but his fingers had found the throat. He choked, feeling his fingers sink; he choked, throwing back his head and stiffening his arms. He felt the dog's body heave, felt dognails digging into his loins. With strength flowing from fear, he closed his fingers, pushing his full weight on the dog's throat. The dog heaved again, and lay still . . . Big Boy heard the-sound of his own breathing filling the hole, and heard shouts and footsteps above him going past.
For a long time he held the dog, held it long after the last footstep had died out, long after the rain had stopped.
Morning found him still on his knees in a puddle of rainwater, staring at the stiff body of a dog. As the air brightened he came to himself slowly. He held still for a long time, as though waking from a dream, as though trying to remember.
The chug of a truck came over the hill. He tried to crawl to the opening. His knees were stiff and a thousand needlelike pains shot from the bottom of his feet to the calves of his legs. Giddiness made his eyes blur. He pulled up and looked. Through brackish light he saw Will's truck standing some twenty-five yards away, the engine running. Will stood on the running board, looking over the slopes of the hill.
Big Boy scuffled out, falling weakly in the wet grass. He tried to call to Will, but his dry throat would make no sound. He tried again.
Will heard, answering:
"Big Boy, c mon!"
He tried to run, and fell. Will came, meeting him in the tall grass.
"C mon," Will said, catching his arm.
They struggled to the truck.
"Hurry up!" said Will, pushing him onto the runningboard.
Will pushed back a square trapdoor which swung above the back of the driver's seat. Big Boy pulled through, landing with a thud on the bottom. On hands and knees he looked around in the semi-darkness.
Big Boy stared.
"They got im."
Big Boy pointed in the direction of a charred sapling on the slope of the opposite hill. Will looked. The trapdoor fell. The engine purred, the gears whined, and the truck lurched forward over the muddy road, sending Big Boy on his side.
For a while he lay as he had fallen, on his side, too weak to move. As he felt the truck swing around a curve he straightened up and rested his back against a stack of wooden boxes. Slowly, he began to make out objects in the darkness. Through two long cracks fell thin blades of daylight. The floor was of smooth steel, and cold to his thighs. Splinters and bits of sawdust danced with the rumble of the truck. Each time they swung around a curve he was pulled over the floor; he grabbed at corners of boxes to steady himself. Once he heard the crow of a rooster. It made him think of home, of ma and pa. He thought he remembered hearing somewhere that the house had burned, but could not remember where . . . It all seemed unreal now.
He was tired. He dozed, swaying with the lurch. Then he jumped awake. The truck was running smoothly, on gravel. Far away he heard two short blasts from the Buckeye Lumber Mill. Unconsciously, the thought sang through his mind: Its six erclock . . .
The trapdoor swung in. Will spoke through a corner of his mouth.
"How yuh comin?"
"How they git Bobo?"
"He wuz comin over the hill."
"Whut they do?"
"They burnt im . . . Will, Ah wan some water; mah throats like fire. . ."
"Well git some when we pas a fillin station."
Big Boy leaned back and dozed. He jerked awake when the truck stopped. He heard Will get out. He wanted to peep through the trapdoor, but was afraid. For a moment, the wild fear he had known in the hole came back. Spose theyd search n fin im? He quieted when he heard Will's footsteps on the running board. The trapdoor pushed in. Will's hat came through, dripping.
"Take it, quick!"
Big Boy grabbed, spilling water into his face. The truck lurched. He drank. Hard cold lumps of brick rolled into his hot stomach. A dull pain made him bend over. His intestines seemed to be drawing into a tight knot. After a bit it eased, and he sat up, breathing softly.
The truck swerved. He blinked his eyes. The blades of daylight had turned brightly golden. The sun had risen.
The truck sped over the asphalt miles, sped northward, jolting him, shaking out of his bosom the crumbs of corn bread, making them dance with the splinters and sawdust in the golden blades of sunshine.
He turned on his side and slept.