Standing at the Scratch Lineby Guy Johnson
Raised in the steamy bayous of New Orleans in the early 1900s, LeRoi "King" Tremain, caught up in his family's ongoing feud with the rival DuMont family, learns to fight. But when the teenage King mistakenly kills two white deputies during a botched raid on the DuMonts, the Tremains' fear of reprisal forces King to flee Louisiana.
King thus embarks on an… See more details below
Raised in the steamy bayous of New Orleans in the early 1900s, LeRoi "King" Tremain, caught up in his family's ongoing feud with the rival DuMont family, learns to fight. But when the teenage King mistakenly kills two white deputies during a botched raid on the DuMonts, the Tremains' fear of reprisal forces King to flee Louisiana.
King thus embarks on an adventure that first takes him to France, where he fights in World War I as a member of the segregated 369th Battalion—in the bigoted army he finds himself locked in combat with American soldiers as well as with Germans. When he returns to America, he battles the Mob in Jazz Age Harlem, the KKK in Louisiana, and crooked politicians trying to destroy a black township in Oklahoma.
King Tremain is driven by two principal forces: He wants to be treated with respect, and he wants to create a family dynasty much like the one he left behind in Louisiana. This is a stunning debut by novelist Guy Johnson that provides a true depiction of the lives of African-Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century.
I looked at the cover -- an old tintype photo of an African-American World War I doughboy. I turned the book over. The brief blurb let me know this first novel was about "King Tremain...a dark angel of vengeance." Guy Johnson was compared to Walter Mosley, Larry McMurtry, and Mario Puzo.
Okeydokey. I read.
And I kept reading. What an astounding book. The hell with Mosley, McMurtry, and Puzo. Johnson is rubbing shoulders with Ernest Hemingway and Jim Harrison. We're talking operatic history on a grand stage, stretching from the American South circa 1916 to World War I France to Jazz Age Harlem, back to the bayou, and on to a black township in Oklahoma before ending in San Francisco.
The novel begins on Wednesday, March 15, 1916. (Every chapter starts with a date.) Leroi Bordeaux Tremain, a young black man, is poling a skiff with his uncle in a midnight bayou in Louisiana. They're hunting for white gunrunners who have invaded their turf. The scene turns very hard-boiled very quickly, with Leroi skewering a number of men with a bow and arrow. The lad is as squeamish as Clint Eastwood about such things: "As far as [Leroi] was concerned, death was a natural consequence for those who were not careful or alert. His only concern about killing whites was the heat that it might bring down on his family."
I talked on the phone with Guy Johnson, the 50-something son of poet Maya Angelou who lives in Oakland. He told me he wanted to create a character who would answer the question: Can a man kill and not be evil? The writer pointed out how violent America was during the first third of this century -- racial violence, union and antiunion murders, bloody strikes, riots.
Certainly Tremain displays this historical American capacity for violence, but he is not, I think, an evil character. After killing the gunrunners, he joins the Army to lie low and ends up on a battlefield in France. Johnson has crafted the next 40-some pages of battle as finely as Hemingway. Sharp, compact prose. Everything action and dialogue. Indeed, during our conversation, Johnson professed deep love for "Papa."
On the battlefield, Leroi finds that the black units are used as cannon fodder, so the white American officers and the Germans become a single enemy. After Leroi nearly shoots a captain, an older black soldier says, "I've been part of this man's army for over twenty years. I rode with the Rough Riders in Puerto Rico. We were still called 'buffalo soldiers' then. There's been many a time that I had my sights on a white officer and a couple times I had to go ahead and pull the trigger, but I never did it in a way that would bring dishonor on the reputation of the Negro fighting man."
Leroi's unit must perform a suicide mission and prevent the retreating Germans from blowing up a bridge. Not to wreck the drama, but after the guns go silent, Leroi is given his nickname, the King of Death. (He and his comrades also find a crate of German gold.)
After that battle, "King" Tremain engages in a "civilized" form of warfare and knuckle fights a black sergeant on Saturday, March 16, 1918. In such fights, a line is scratched in the dirt -- hence the title of the book -- and the two fighters stand on opposite sides. "At a preordained signal the fight would begin, then the line could be crossed. In gambler's rules, if one of the fighters suffered a knockdown, there was a break in the action. The man who delivered the blow returned to the scratch line and waited. The fighter who suffered the knockdown had to get up and walk back to the scratch line if he wanted to continue. If he did not...the man standing at the line was declared the winner."
Guess who wins the King fight...
The story then jumps forward two years to February 17, 1919. King is in Harlem running a club called the Rockland Palace Revue (which he bought with his German loot). With their display of gangsters and gunplay, the next 100 pages evoke the great hard-boiled saint Dashiell Hammett. King refuses to pay tribute to the white Mafia, so killers are sent to rub him out. In a wonderful set piece that would fit perfectly into Hammett's Red Harvest, Johnson has gangsters smoking cigarettes inside a limousine during a torrential downpour as a killer with a machine gun under his coat prowls a swanky Harlem restaurant searching for King. Our hero is not plugged, of course, and he ends up gunning down a half dozen mugs.
Soon afterward, King returns to Louisiana, where he ends up romancing 17-year-old Serena Baddeaux. Not that a love interest makes the book turn soft. Here King runs afoul of the local Ku Klux Klan (we learn that kyklos, the Greek word meaning "circle," is the origin of "Ku Klux Klan"), and a fair number of white sheets get blown away.
If you're familiar with my other columns, you know that excessive violence makes me worry about women readers. Not that violence is sexist, but it often excludes female readers. "Did women read the manuscript?" I asked Johnson.
He assured me they had. No one had problems with the violence.
Good. Let's get on with the story: After decimating the Klan in Louisiana, King and Serena travel to a black township in Oklahoma, a place similar to the one Toni Morrison created in Paradise. Of course, King doesn't find paradise in Oklahoma. He bucks the local authority. Bullets fly. And King and Serena end up in San Francisco, where an African American seer tells King the fates of his unborn sons and grandchildren.
Now, I've just condensed the last third of the book into a slight paragraph, but this book is epic in both the geography and history. And King is as complex as Mario Puzo's Godfather. Johnson told me that he saw King as a kind of freedom fighter, comparing him to the way a Native American might portray Geronimo. But later Johnson admits to me that he based King on his own grandfather -- a man who fought in World War I, had dangerous scrapes down South, and ended up in San Francisco during the 1930s living the life of an exotic gangster.
"Originally Standing at the Scratch Line was just back story," Johnson told me. "I was writing about King from his grandson's perspective. But somehow the character just seemed too one-dimensional. So I put that manuscript aside and told King Tremain's story as how he would see himself."
And what a great view this is. Johnson is modest in his accomplishments, but not his intentions. "I want to be a great novelist some day," he says. "Standing at the Scratch Line is like my first attempt to climb Mount Everest. I didn't get to the top, but I see the path."
I don't know about not reaching the top. Thinking of Hemingway, Guy Johnson certainly reached the peak of Kilimanjaro. To mix metaphors: If Guy Johnson ever wants to bare-knuckle fight the Great American Novel, guess who'll be standing triumphant at the scratch line?
David Bowman is the author of Let the Dog Drive and Bunny Modern.
"Tremain has the qualifications to be one of literature's most versatile heroes."—The Wall Street Journal
"An exuberant novel about dreaming big dreams and honoring black heroes. A page turner full of pride, energy and passionate people."—Black Issues Book Review
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Wednesday, March 15, 1916
The thick, low-lying fog covered the contours and waterways of the swamp. Only mature trees and shrubs were visible above the milky gray mist. Darkness was beginning to fade in the early morning light, creating the surreal landscape of a nightmare.
Two men propelled a flat-bottomed skiff quietly over the water. There were oars in the boat, but favoring the method practiced by bayou dwellers, both men used long poles. Trees loomed above them through the mist like towering observers as they poled their way down the narrow channels that coursed through a system of small islands. The silence was broken only by the distant bellow of alligators and the soft, incessant buzzing of voracious mosquitoes.
The man in the front took his pole out of the water and listened for sounds ahead. He motioned for his companion to stop poling. Somewhere to the right of the boat, there was an indistinct sound of human voices. High overhead came the long screeches of a pair of cranes calling to each other. The man in the front of the skiff turned and began unwrapping an oilskin bundle, in which there lay two bolt-action rifles, a quiver of arrows, and a homemade longbow. He directed his companion by hand signals to continue poling toward their right.
LeRoi Tremain followed his uncle's directions and quietly poled closer to their quarry. They were heading toward a large channel that fed directly into the gulf. Stealth was of maximum importance. The fog began to dissipate in areas that were close to the open waterways where there was a tidal current. They could not be sure that the mist would afford the same level of protection once they entered the channel.
Uncle Jake motioned for him to stop poling again, and the boat floated quietly forward. Off to their left, somewhere above them, a man coughed. LeRoi put his pole into the water to prevent the boat from continuing out into the channel. If they had continued on, they would have been caught between their quarry and a lookout man. His uncle motioned for him to take the bow and pointed in the direction of the cough. Picking up the bow, LeRoi slid over the side into the dark, brackish water. Jake handed him the quiver and squeezed his arm encouragingly.
LeRoi turned and waded slowly into the opaque vapor. A cold glove of water surrounded him up to his navel. He had to be careful, for he was near the edge of the channel and the waist-high depth dropped away to twelve feet. There could be no splashing. He strung an arrow in his bow and continued forward. He did not know whether he would need the arrow for the man or an alligator, but he intended to be prepared.
The man he was looking for was probably up in one of the trees, which were looming as shadowy presences above him. Twenty feet further into the murkiness, he felt a breeze blowing and the beginnings of the current moving on his right. He was getting too close to the edge of the channel. He changed his direction to angle to his left and waded through a particularly dense patch. When he emerged, a large shadow spun and stood watching him. It was the largest swamp deer he had ever seen. Had he been hunting meat, he would have treasured this moment.
After determining that this intruder had no immediate hostile intention, the deer turned and moved away with a stately dignity. LeRoi needed something to draw the attention of the man in the tree, so he picked up a short, thick piece of branch and threw it hard at the disappearing flank of the deer. The branch hit the deer with a resounding whack and the deer took off at a dead run, splashing its way to safety.
LeRoi heard a surprised "What the hell?" and the chambering of a bullet in a lever-action rifle. As the deer ran away, he saw movement in a tree off to his right. The shadowy outline of a man holding a rifle could be seen about ten feet off the ground. Dropping down into the water until only his head was above its dark surface, LeRoi began his noiseless approach. He figured the man must be standing on some kind of hunting platform. He knew he could hit him from where he was, but he couldn't risk the man calling out. He had to move closer to be certain of a killing shot.
As he moved nearer, he saw that there was a small dinghy moored to the trunk of the tree. In the surreal landscape of gray and white vapor under the trees' overhanging shadowy presences, only the boat had movement as the pull of the current caused it to bump against projecting roots. The man had resumed his stillness and had attempted to hide himself once more. LeRoi could not see the man clearly, but he knew where his chest was because he could see his arm. He was no more than thirty feet away. When he rose out of the water, the bow was already stretched taut with an arrow. The bow had a sweet, bass twang as the arrow was loosed.
LeRoi heard a soft thud and then the clatter of the rifle caroming off the tree into the water. He continued forward cautiously. He had no doubts that the man was hit, but LeRoi couldn't be sure he was dead. He might be waiting with a revolver. He could see the man's foot projecting out beyond the dark outline of the tree. From the way the foot was turned, LeRoi concluded it was unlikely that the man could see him approaching, but he did not abandon his caution.
The arrow had to be collected. Not only would it serve as evidence against him, but good arrows were nearly impossible to make and were expensive to buy. All his arrows were store-bought and had a distinctive red and yellow shaft, which made it easier for them to be found once they were shot. Standing at the base of the tree, he could still see no movement. The foot was still in the same position, an augury of death.
LeRoi picked up the rifle that was leaning against a root with its stock in the water. He checked the barrel carefully for obstructions, then mounted the rough ladder that led up to the platform. Peering over the rim of the platform, he was surprised at what he saw. His arrow was deeply embedded in the man's rib cage, but that is not what surprised him. It was the badge on the man's chest. LeRoi had been expecting one of the DuMonts or their kin. Instead he found the corpse of a white man who had pale skin, greasy brown hair, and a handlebar mustache. He was obviously a deputy. As LeRoi pulled his arrow free and wiped it off on the body of the deputy, he pondered whether he and his uncle had walked into an ambush. Cupping his hands and blowing into them, he made two quick owl hoots, a signal of alarm.
His signal was answered by six or seven shots. Standing up, LeRoi could see the flash of a gun from another tree platform fifty yards away. As LeRoi shouldered the rifle and took aim, he saw the pinkness of the man's face on the other platform. He squeezed the trigger and saw the man's body jerk backward and fall into the sea of vapor. Several more shots were fired in the distance, but LeRoi couldn't see where they came from.
It was clear the DuMonts had found out about the Tremains' raid and had somehow lured the sheriff's men out to take their side. LeRoi went through the deputy's pockets, checking for valuables. The man had only three dollars, which he took along with the badge. At the base of the tree, he put the rifle and the bow into the small dinghy and paddled out to find how his Uncle Jake had fared. Entering the channel, he let the current carry him. He levered another bullet into the rifle's chamber and set it against the gunwale; he knocked an arrow into his bow. Occasionally, he would row to avoid partially submerged logs and other debris, but for the most part he listened and stared into the fog.
Somewhere ahead of him to his left, a man cried out in pain. LeRoi dug his oar deep into the water to change direction and sent the dinghy slithering across the water. There was another cry, sounding like his Uncle Jake. Up ahead he saw movement around the dim outline of an island. He let the dinghy come to rest in a small thicket of bushes forty feet distant from the island. There were sounds of heated conversation.
"Get this cargo back aboard the Sea Horse while I find out how this nigger knew about our meeting." It was a voice of authority.
Another voice responded, "Aye, aye, sir."
A man cried out again. It was a long wail of agony and this time LeRoi knew it was his uncle.
The gruff voice spoke again. "Tell me, nigger, how did you know that we was going to be meeting here? It ain't gon' get no easier for you. You might as well talk now and save yourself a lot of pain."
The other voice called out, "Billy! Billy, bring the boat in. We need to load up!"
LeRoi heard the sound of an engine start and saw a small twenty-five-foot cargo boat chug into view. It was the type of boat that small-time traders used to sell their wares along the distant reaches of the bayou. The Sea Horse passed within fifteen feet of LeRoi on its way to the island. Billy was visible as he steered the boat to its makeshift mooring. LeRoi drew back his bow and let the arrow fly.
The force of the arrow penetrating into his shoulder knocked Billy into the water with a splash. There was no other sound except the engine of the Sea Horse. The boat continued chugging toward the island.
"Billy! Billy! Back off the steam! You're going to run aground!" The Sea Horse continued on its course. "Billy! Billy! Are you daft, man?"
"What's going on over there?" the authoritative voice demanded.
"I don't know, sir! He's got way too much speed!"
LeRoi pushed off from the thicket and followed the Sea Horse, using the boat to shield his approach. Before the boat crashed into the island, he heard his uncle call out defiantly in a voice racked with pain, "Just kill me, cracker! I ain't telling you shit!"
The Sea Horse plowed into the foliage growing at the water's edge. LeRoi saw a man clamber aboard and pull the levers to stop the engine. Before the man could turn around, an arrow struck into the woodwork above his head. The man swiveled and jumped over the side of the boat into the water. As he splashed away he shouted out, "There's more of 'em, sir! There's more of 'em!"
"Jimmy Lee? Jimmy Lee?" the voice called out. "Are you alright, man?"
"I ain't hit, but there's more of 'em! I'm gettin' out of here!"
"You better come back here, Jimmy Lee!"
LeRoi cursed himself silently for missing the man in the boat, but the movement of the dinghy had made his shot go wide. He paddled alongside the Sea Horse and climbed in. LeRoi took another arrow from his quiver and waited. He heard a man walk through the underbrush to the prow of the boat. LeRoi waited until he started to walk around to the side before he stood up. As soon as he reached a standing position, LeRoi saw the man swing a double-barreled shotgun in his direction. He ducked as both barrels discharged just above his head, shattering the glass windshield and splintering the wood of the navigation cabin. LeRoi stood up again, hoping to catch the man loading more shells into his shotgun, only to find him running away through the trees. Aiming carefully, he caught the fleeing figure in the thigh. The man went down but got up limping. He could be heard splashing into the water on the other side of the island. LeRoi got out of the boat cautiously and scouted the island to ensure that there were no more enemies about. He could still hear the injured man making his way noisily through the water to safety.
Uncle Jake was lying next to a smoldering fire. He was bleeding from a bullet wound to his stomach, blood oozing out with every intake of breath, covering his shirt and pants with its dark maroon stain. There were burn marks on his uncle's face and neck. LeRoi knelt and lifted up his uncle's head.
Jake opened his eyes slowly. "I'm gut-shot, boy. I'm gut-shot. I ain't gon' be making it home with you this time."
LeRoi said nothing. His uncle was growing steadily weaker as he watched. He felt a vast void within himself.
"You got to get out of here!" his uncle whispered. "We done walked in on some gun-running business. We done killed some pirates too. They'll be coming back here as soon as they find out what happened."
"I think I killed a couple of sheriff deputies too," LeRoi mumbled, unable to take his eyes off the blood pumping out of his uncle's wound.
"Damn! Big stars fallin'; won't be long before day," his uncle gasped. "Help me to the boat, boy. I want to be buried with my people."
As LeRoi carefully lifted his uncle in his arms he said, "Looks like those DuMonts tricked us into an ambush."
"That may be true, but two of 'em paid for this trickery. They's lying on the other side of the island. I shot them first."
In the distance they heard a man bellowing, "Ahoy! Ahoy Barracuda! Ahoy! We've been attacked! Ahoy Barracuda!"
LeRoi carried his uncle to the Sea Horse. If there was any chance of his survival, he had to be gotten home quickly and only the Sea Horse could do it.
"Don't leave them guns and ammunition," his uncle advised as LeRoi laid him down in the Sea Horse. Sweat was streaming down Jake's face. "We gon' need all the guns and ammo we can get if the pirates find out we was the ones who broke up this deal."
LeRoi made sure he could push the Sea Horse back into the water before he started loading the boxes of rifles and ammunition. The boxes containing the rifles weighed so much that he had to drag them to the boat, lift them against the gunwale, and slide them over the side. He loaded all the ammunition before he heard the sound of another steam engine chugging in the distance. Out of ten boxes of rifles and ammunition, he left three. He pushed off and clambered aboard the Sea Horse.
LeRoi was numb. He didn't want his uncle to die. He focused his attention on getting the steam engine started. He pitched six logs into the fire to raise the boiler's heat and waited for a head of steam. The engine stalled several times before it engaged with a slow mechanical clatter. LeRoi backed the boat out into the channel and turned the boat upriver. After fifteen minutes of steaming in midchannel, he passed the dark shape of a massive mangrove tree and turned into a small slough.
As soon as he rounded the first turn in the slough, three hundred yards from its entrance, he released the pressure in the boiler and cut the engine. Then he went to check on his uncle. Jake was unconscious and breathing shallow breaths. LeRoi attempted to make him as comfortable as possible and put a bundle of clothing under his head. He picked up a long stout pole, which all bayou boats carried, and began poling the Sea Horse slowly along. He didn't want the noise of the steam engine to give away his position. He knew that within half a mile a larger waterway intersected and he would be able to start the steam engine again. Soon the trees overhanging the water created a dense canopy that cut the light and gave the impression of a long, winding tunnel. The fog grew progressively thinner as LeRoi pushed the Sea Horse further along the slough.
It was hard work, but LeRoi poled the boat steadily, changing sides to keep the craft in the center of the slough. He refused to quit. He felt that if he could just get his uncle home alive, perhaps there was a chance. There were other things to think about. He and his Uncle Jake had created a problem for the family because white men had been killed. If it had been only DuMonts that had been killed, there would have been no problem. No one would have even investigated their death. It was different when colored men killed whites, particularly sheriff's men.
LeRoi did not waste a moment of sorrow for the men he killed. It was not a moral question for him; it was what he had been raised to do. His family had been feuding with the DuMonts for generations. Before he was ten years old, LeRoi had seen his father and two older brothers killed during a DuMont raid on the Tremains' corn liquor still. It was a memory that remained close to the surface. He would have been killed as well if he had not hidden in the surrounding underbrush. From that day on, he couldn't wait to go out and spill DuMont blood. As far as he was concerned, death was a natural consequence for those who were not careful or alert. His only concern about killing whites was the heat that it might bring down on his family.
LeRoi, large and unusually muscular for his age, took part in his first raid against the DuMonts when he was fourteen years old. During that raid he became what his uncle called "blooded" because he killed his first man. On his next raid, he was blooded again, but he was given greater respect for pulling an injured cousin to safety while under fire. The Sea Horse, rifles, and ammunition represented the booty from his fifth raid on the DuMonts and he was not yet eighteen years old.
LeRoi stopped poling and checked on his uncle, only to find that Jake was dead. He had passed away without returning to consciousness. The blood from his wound had stopped pulsing out of his body and was congealing on the deck. Jake's face had the look of serenity. If it wasn't for the coldness of his skin and the lack of respiratory movement, he could have been mistaken for being asleep. But he was not asleep, he was dead, and no amount of praying would bring him back.
Uncle Jake had taken him under his wing and had served as a surrogate father after LeRoi's own father had been killed. LeRoi felt as if his heart had been ripped out of his chest. He dropped to his knees, fighting back tears, and cupped his face in his hands. It seemed that nearly everyone that he cared for was being snatched from him. It seemed like a punishment to him.
The Sea Horse scraped bottom and jerked to a halt. LeRoi slipped listlessly into the water, which was barely four feet deep, and checked for the obstruction. A log had been laid across the creek and embedded into the bank on both sides, one of the logs his family had planted to prevent large boats from using the slough. By rocking the Sea Horse up and down, he was able to jockey the boat over the log with only a few serious scrapes.
LeRoi had no words for the sadness he felt as he got back into the boat. He had only formless emotions, which brought the taste of bile into his mouth. He picked up the pole, took a deep breath, and stuck it back into the water; shoving hard, he propelled the Sea Horse on down the slough. He could not have said that he loved his uncle, for he had never used that word in relationship to himself, but he felt the agony of loss. And as with all such negative feelings for which he had no words, LeRoi had to distill them into something purer like anger or hatred in order to understand them. He burned with a hatred that was beyond his years. He now had a greater debt to repay the DuMonts, one he would never forget.
He remembered a story one of his Sunday-school teachers had told. It was about how when each person is born, he starts off as a blank page, and with the passing of each day, more of his life is written on the page. People died when there was no more room on the page to write. He had felt then, and he felt now, if he had ever started off as a blank page, it was no longer true. He felt like his page was already filling up with little mean words about loneliness, pain, and disappointment. There didn't appear to be room on his page for words about happiness or joy.
Saturday, March 18, 1916
The funeral for Jake Tremain was held the weekend following his death. He was laid to rest in the family graveyard, which was located on a small hill behind the main house, the highest ground on the Tremain farm. The event was not attended by anyone outside immediate family and friends, but there were still almost seventy-five people. All the blood relatives were there, including LeRoi's crippled great uncle, who was the unchallenged head of the family.
The mood was particularly somber because Jake Tremain was popular, but there was also something else in the air, something undefinable. LeRoi felt it in the stares he received and in the way people stopped talking when he walked past. Everyone knew that white men had been killed and there was concern and worry etched on the faces of the women. The men acknowledged him with curt nods and somber looks. No one came to stand next to him. As the preacher said the last words over the coffin, LeRoi stood off to the side by himself.
After the service, food was served. LeRoi was just finishing a plate of fried catfish and corn pone when one of his younger cousins came up to him and told him that his great-uncle wanted to see him back at the barn. A chill went through him, for the barn was the traditional place of family celebrations or family meetings whenever something terrible had happened. No one had to tell him this was not a time of celebration.
It was a large wooden structure that contained a hayloft and had a fence dividing the ground floor. On one side of the fence sick animals were kept, and the other side was used primarily for storage of farm staples like grain and feed. When LeRoi walked in, he saw that all the adult men of the Tremain family were standing around his great-uncle, Henry Tremain, who was sitting on a milking stool. All conversation stopped as he walked up to Papa Henry, as the old man was called. LeRoi looked around at the solemn faces and saw few smiles. His skill with weapons had earned him grudging respect, but his youthful arrogance was not appreciated.
"You call me, Papa Henry?" he asked, trying to control the beating of his heart.
His grandfather had light, reddish brown skin and gray, wavy hair; his eyes were dark, and glinted like coals the combined evidence of his African and Choctaw ancestry. "We got us a problem, son," the old man spoke slowly. "The sheriff knows you was in on the killin' of them deputies. Those DuMont dogs went yappin' to him as soon as they heard about your arrows. Now, the sheriff wants to come on our land lookin' for you. He gon' try to come with a big posse and we can't have that."
"What can we do about it, Papa Henry?" LeRoi asked. His face appeared unconcerned, but fear was knotting his stomach.
"Well, we been talkin' and talkin' and the best way, I think," Papa Henry paused before continuing, "is for you to leave the area for a while."
"What's a while, Papa?" LeRoi had only been to New Orleans a few times. Other than that, he had never left the rolling hills and swampland that surrounded his family's farm.
"A couple years at least, maybe more. We got to let this whole thing die down a little taste, before I can tell you when you can come back."
LeRoi stared down at the hard-packed earthen floor of the barn and shook his head. He had grown up within a network of aunts, uncles, and cousins. He had never been alone. "It ain't fair that I got to leave. I only did what Uncle Jake told me to. You hid LeMar for almost two years and he killed some white folk. How come you can't do that for me? How come I got to go?"
"First thing is LeMar didn't kill no deputies, and second thing is, he didn't take nothin' from the pirates. He just killed some swamp trash. You done killed both John Law and some pirates. We gon' be pretty hard-pressed between the two: the badge on one side and them seafaring thieves on the other."
"What happens to my daddy's farm? Mama can't work it without me."
"That's one of the prime lots. Maybe it's time to give Clara and Benjamin a chance at farmin' it. I think your mama needs to move into the main house where she can be safe."
"Nobody is takin' my daddy's farm! It's mine by rights. Every year me and Mama worked hard gettin' the crops in. Ain't nobody come out to help us except Uncle Jake."
There was an angry murmur from the men standing around Papa Henry. They were incensed that LeRoi would dare challenge the head of the family's decision.
The old man waved everyone to silence. "Ain't nobody in this family own any land but me. I say who lives where and for how long. Now, as long as you my blood, you got a home and some land. It may not be the parcel your daddy worked, but it will feed your family when you get one in the future. Hear me, boy, ain't nobody gon' steal nothin' from you. Jes' do what I'm askin' you to do."
LeRoi realized that it was no good arguing. It would just set everyone against him. "What you want me to do, Papa?"
"There is a freight train carrying colored soldiers passing north of here around four-thirty in the morning. It'll be stopping to take on water by Dead Man's Slough. You can board the caboose, 'cause Bodeen Walker, your mother's cousin, is the head porter. He'll help hide you until you're out of Louisiana. From there you on your own."
LeRoi shook his head. "That's it? I don't get no money or nothin'? All you care about is that I'm gone? What about the Sea Horse and them guns?"
"'Course we'll give you some travelin' money," Papa Henry replied. "We thought maybe you would decide to join the army, then your board and lodgin' would be taken care of for a couple years. Ain't no doubt you old enough."
"I'll go, Papa," LeRoi said sadly. The tension in the room disappeared. Some of the men began to talk among themselves, but LeRoi's next words caused the room to fall silent. "I'll go now, but when I come back, I takin' over my daddy's farm. I don't care who's livin' there. I swear on the blood of my father, I'll kill the man that stands in my way." LeRoi turned to leave the barn, but a voice made him turn back.
"Damn shame you didn't have brains enough to collect all of your arrows before you ran away."
LeRoi turned to face the speaker. He wasn't a Tremain. He was Benjamin Willets and he was married to LeRoi's Aunt Clara. "Why you talkin'? You ain't a Tremain!"
The man had been whittling a piece of wood with a hunting knife and he pointed the knife at LeRoi.
"You ain't got enough respect for your elders! If 'en you don't watch your mouth, somebody gon' have to teach you respect," he said.
LeRoi pulled out his bowie from its sheath. "Why don't you come on and teach me some respect?" LeRoi asked. The men around him began edging away from Benjamin. Everyone knew of LeRoi's ability to throw a knife with either hand.
"Ain't no reason for us to start fightin' among ourselves, is there?" Papa Henry asked angrily. "In a few days we gon' have more enemies 'round than we can shake a stick at. We gon' need every man we got." The old man's words silenced the grumbling around him. He turned his dark eyes on LeRoi. "We'll give you travelin' money, boy, and we gon' see to yo' mother. She ain't gon' want for nothin'."
LeRoi nodded his head grudgingly and controlled his anger, but in his heart he felt that his family was giving him a raw deal. He was being forced to leave everything he knew. He felt abandoned. The protective shell and numerical strength was being stripped away. Now he would have to face the world alone. He knew that if his father or Uncle Jake were still alive, there would be a different solution to this problem.
"Just remember," LeRoi advised the assembly through gritted teeth. "If I have to come through hellfire, I'll be back!" Without another word, he left the barn.
Sunday, March 19, 1916
The sky was dark and the stars were twinkling when the Arkansas Shuttle gathered steam and pulled away from Dead Man's Slough. In the early morning darkness, the smoke billowing out of the train's smokestack looked blue, and the light above the engine's cowcatcher made the tracks in front glisten like parallel ribbons of silver in the distance.
LeRoi sat on Captain Sam Mack's favorite mare atop Beaumont Ridge, watching the train follow the contours of the rolling hills. The mare was extremely high-strung and the train's whistle made her boggle and rear up. Easily maintaining his seat, LeRoi soothed her with caresses and calm words.
Early the previous evening he had slipped into the forests surrounding the Tremain farm and made his way to Nellum's Crossing. Since he thought his family had forsaken him, LeRoi's pride would not allow him to accept anything from them. He went fifteen miles on foot to the only man he knew would help. He went to Captain Sam Mack. Since their youth, LeRoi's father and Sam Mack had a bond that was stronger than blood and it defied the custom and mores of the time. It did not matter that Mack was white. He had been present at LeRoi's birth, as LeRoi's father had been present at the births of Mack's two sons. To LeRoi, they were family. Although he arrived at the house long past dinner, he was fed a good meal, given fifty dollars' traveling money, and sent off with the mare and a hug from Mack's wife.
Beaumont Ridge was a huge fold in the earth that curved around for about fifteen miles and ended just after Shannon Junction. With a light kick, he urged the mare into a cantering gallop and rode along the slope of the ridge. It was his intent to get on board the train after it had passed the junction. His Uncle Jake had told him that if he ever had to escape the law by train, he shouldn't board it until it had left the parish; that way he was beyond the jurisdiction of local law enforcement.
The junction consisted of a flat open area with several large storage sheds, a small train depot, and a large dock that jutted into a wide manmade canal. It had been built for transferring shipments of cargo from trains to riverboats and barges. Normally, the depot was attended by a freight master and a couple of colored stevedores. This morning was different. There were about twenty armed white horsemen milling around the depot. Even from this distance, he could see shiny reflections on their chests. It was not difficult for him to conclude that these men were deputies and that the badges were the source of the reflections.
By the time LeRoi rode his mare through the trees and underbrush along the ridge to a spot overlooking Shannon Junction, the train was already there. Streaks of dawn were beginning to lighten the sky. Guiding the mare into a stand of small trees, he watched. The posse made everyone who had been a passenger in the caboose stand out on the platform. From where he sat, LeRoi could see there were three colored men who were receiving some rough handling from members of the posse. One of the colored men was being beaten with riding crops. He was lying on the ground in a fetal position while his tormentors stood around him in a circle, swinging their heavy crops at his head and shoulders. Suddenly, colored soldiers with rifles began pouring out of the train. Soon the horsemen were surrounded by a sea of black and brown faces in green khaki.
LeRoi saw a large brown-skinned man lift his arm and all the colored soldiers lifted their rifles and pointed them at the posse, whose leader walked to his horse and mounted. His deputies followed suit. They then rode single file through the throng of colored soldiers.
LeRoi nodded his head in approval. Maybe being a soldier wasn't such a bad idea after all. It looked like men in the army stuck together and helped one another. His heart was heavy. He was about to leave everything he knew and cared about for the unknown. As he rode on to Sycamore Bridge, where he planned to board the train, he made up his mind to enlist.
He recalled how his mother had tried to get him to go to church before he left, mouthing words about hell and damnation. Her eyes filled with tears as she told him to memorize the Ten Commandments. She was a weak and broken-spirited woman who had no effect on him. It was strange, he felt almost no love for her, and saying good-bye to her was nearly painless.
The most intense emotion he felt was the desire for the warmth and security that a strong family could provide. LeRoi had a clan mentality. All his life he had lived in an environment of strong blood ties. He was a product of the interweaving web of an extended family. He had no concept of national patriotism or regional allegiance. The only loyalty he had ever known was to his family. He swore to himself that one day he would be the head of his own family. It would be a new branch of the Tremains and it would dominate all the others. This thought was to be a driving force in his life, powered by a deep reservoir of indignation and pain.
Big Ed Harrison sat up with a questioning look on his face. "Damn if I know. Why?"
"These crackers might send us out anytime. In this kind of weather, guns freeze up. You got to keep them oiled."
"I guess you're right, LT," Big Ed said easily. He got up off his cot and stoop-walked over to his gun. He was a massive, hulking, brown-skinned man, almost six foot six inches tall and nearly three hundred pounds, almost all muscle. A big Nebraska farm boy, he had a friendly, easy disposition. His ready smile was contagious, even though it exposed a wide gap between his two front teeth.
"You think they'd send us out again? We just came back from three days on patrol. Last night was the first night we slept in the bunker in more'n two weeks. We been sent damn near everywhere. Our squad's taken some big hits. We got three men dead and one injured. They got to know we needs rest."
LeRoi pulled the bolt of his Springfield .30-06 free from its tracks. He set the bolt on a cloth that he had laid out for the purpose, examined the rifle's cartridge-feeding mechanism. "We arrived here in August with two full battalions of the Three hundred Fifty-first Regiment. What we got left: two platoons that ain't even half-strength? These people is using us like bait. Ain't no white units suffering them kind of losses. They throwing our lives away. They don't care what happens to us. They'll send us out to soften up some other target."
"If you feels that bad, why do you keep on?" Big Ed asked sincerely. He was twenty-two, and yet in his understanding of the world, he was younger than nineteen-year-old LeRoi. Big Ed continued speaking. "I tell you the only reason I keep on day after day, is thinkin' about seein' home again. Sometimes I just think about how rich and dark the dirt is back home and sometimes how you can just drive for miles and not see nothing but the green and gold of corn. We ain't got much of a farm, but I was starting to make a difference. We had a real good crop the last two years." "So, you want to be a farmer, huh?"
"It's what I dream about: standing behind a plow in the afternoon sun, drinking a cold glass of water, sweat drippin' off'en me, and the rich smell of tilled earth. If I didn't have that, I'd go crazy. I don't mind fightin' for my country but seein' all these people die is gettin' to me. Every time I close my eyes, I dream about home."
"I don't dream much," LeRoi admitted. "Especially about home. As far as fightin' for my country, I could give a shit! This war ain't done nothin' to make me patriotic. All I really care about is getting back home and settlin' some debts. I owe some folks a seein' to and I damn sho' gon' see that they get it!"
"Why don't you knock some officer down and a get stuck in the calaboose? They probably wouldn't let you out 'til the war was over."
"What?" LeRoi barked while pushing a cleaning rod with a bit of cloth through the barrel. He gave his companion a questioning look. "And let these crackers hang me for hitting an officer during military operations? I rather be bit in the ass by a snaggletooth mule and sent to Mississippi to live! I ain't lettin' these crackers get anythin' on me. If I go down, I wants to go down shootin'."
There was movement at the doorway as two men pushed through the tarp and entered. LeRoi had his Colt .45 pistol drawn when the men cleared the canvas.
The smaller man, "Professor" Darwin Morris, saw LeRoi's gun and said, "I brought you your food, don't worry." He was a dark-skinned, wiry man who wore round, wire-rimmed glasses. A college graduate, he was at twenty-six one of the oldest men in the squad. "Of course, once you taste it, you might want to pull your gun again." Professor was from Brooklyn and had a decidedly New York accent.
The other man, Slick Walters, who entered with Professor, spoke. "The food ain't that bad. We definitely got meat in our stew this time, but it cost me a carton of cigs." Slick was also from New York, but he hailed from Harlem, which was the other side of the world from Brooklyn. He handed Big Ed a metal mess plate with stew in it. "We gon' have to slip out to the town and pick up some stores." Slick was the wheeler-dealer and black-market specialist in the group. He stored his black-market goods in a German-occupied town five miles on the other side of the front lines. All the members of the squad had benefited from Slick's blackmarket trade, so when sorties were necessary to restock, he had the company of two or three squad members.
"Before we plan anything," LeRoi recommended, "we should check with Sarge. We may get sent out again."
Slick grimaced. "Not again! We just came back! How am I supposed to do business if I ain't got no time in camp? These mothers must just want to kill us off! I swear before God, they just want to kill us off!" Slick was a chocolate-colored man who never smiled. Instead, he sneered.
"We have to prove our patriotism over and over again," Professor said quietly, looking up from his diary, in which he had been writing. "You have to remember what W. E. B. DuBois wrote in The Crisis "
"Who gives a damn about him?" Slick declared angrily. "He's just another high yellow nigger who had the money to buy his way out of the service!"
LeRoi, who had been eating his lukewarm stew, picked up his rifle and slammed the bolt home, then asked, "High yellow what?"
There was a moment of silence before Slick stammered out an apology. "I didn't mean nothing against you, you know that, LT. I just meant, if the man ain't here risking his life with us, he ain't got shit to say!"
All the men in the Second Battalion of the 351st Negro Regiment had been stationed briefly at Fort Dodge, outside Des Moines, Iowa, before being transferred to fight in Alsace-Lorraine. Off the base, LeRoi had proven many times that he had the capacity to spill blood, and the fact that none of his enemies was alive or physically well enough to make the trip over to Europe was not lost on the other men in the battalion.
The conversation was interrupted by a sharp knock on the log above the entrance. All the men picked up and cocked their weapons. "Who goes there?" LeRoi called out.
"Sergeant Williams and Platoon Lieutenant McHenry," a voice answered back in clipped tones.
"Damn," Slick growled disgustedly. "It's that boot-licking sergeant and his master."
The canvas split and two men entered. The bunker's occupants stood up in accordance with military discipline.
"At ease, men," the lieutenant said as he waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light of the lantern. He was young, not much older than LeRoi. Of medium height, he was on the plump side of stocky. "It's as cold as a well digger's ass in Nome, Alaska," he said jokingly, but no one laughed. His face was pink from the cold and he rubbed his pale hands together vigorously.
The sergeant spoke. "The lieutenant wants to tell you boys about your next assignment. So listen up!" The sergeant was a dark brown-skinned man who was in his late thirties, and he had been in the service for nearly twenty years before the war started. He was military spit and polish down to the bone. Even after four months on the front lines, his uniform looked like recent issue and his boots were shiny.
"I've just come from HQ and I have our orders," the lieutenant said as he pulled a map from the chest pocket of his jacket and unfolded it on LeRoi's cot. "We're going to merge the two remaining platoons of the Three hundred Fifty-first into one, consisting of four squads. We'll be renamed the First Platoon of the Three hundred Fifty-first Regiment. I know you men have taken some devastating losses in personnel and that you've been on the front line continuously since you arrived. I spoke with Lieutenant Colonel Olsen and he assured me that after this mission you boys would get a well-deserved rest. He gave me his word."
Slick mimicked softly in a high voice, "He gave me his word."
Sergeant Williams instantly turned on Slick. "Watch your mouth, Walters. You're in the presence of an officer!" He gave Slick a threatening stare.
McHenry continued. "We're starting a big offensive tomorrow night and several infantry battalions are going to join in the attack. We know the Germans are pulling out of Saint Die to reinforce their position at Ribeauville. In order to do that they must go through this pass at Kastledorf Bridge." McHenry pointed to a spot on the map. "Since we can't possibly mobilize all our troops in time to stop them, it's been decided that if we can send a small group in tonight, maybe we can blow the bridge up if the Germans haven't gotten through yet, or if they moved the bulk of their troops and equipment, maybe we can stop them from blowing the bridge up."
LeRoi looked at the map and asked, "Don't all these squiggly lines mean mountains?"
"Why yes, Kastledorf is only fifteen miles from here "
Slick's sarcasm was barely disguised. "I knows you and the sarge done thought about this, but how you gon' get forty men fifteen miles deep into Kraut territory by tonight? 'Cause it may be fifteen miles as the crow flies, but it's a good twenty-five if you traveling by road. If you don't follow the road it's gon' be even more."
The sergeant turned to Slick. "The lieutenant doesn't have to answer to a private! Now, I warned you "
"That's alright, Sergeant. I'll handle this," McHenry said evenly. "Listen, Walters, I didn't want this assignment to a colored unit, but that's what the army gave me. So I took it and I didn't look back. After nearly four months on the front lines with the Second Battalion of the Three hundred Fifty-first Regiment, I see that you colored men are as good as soldiers as any unit of white men. The only reason I don't court-martial you for insubordination right now is that I know you men haven't had a decent rest in weeks. But if you ever approach me again in such a disrespectful manner, I'll have you up on charges so fast, it'll make your head spin. Do I make myself clear?"
Slick grimaced and nodded his head reluctantly.
"Do I make myself clear?" McHenry demanded.
After Slick had been faced down, all the men in the bunker listened quietly as the lieutenant outlined the plan and spelled out the deadline for being travel-ready. McHenry left as soon as he finished his briefing. The sergeant remained behind, leaning against one of the bunker's log supports. The four men began sorting through their duffel bags for clothing and equipment. There were no words spoken; there was only the sound of equipment being checked. Each man was aware that the sergeant hadn't left, and since it wasn't his practice to visit, they all knew he had something further to say.
The tension steadily built until Slick finally turned to the sergeant and said, "Alright, what you got to say? You sitting here like a big dog. Let's hear your bark!"
The sergeant turned and faced Slick. "You're a nasty piece of work. You're the type of Negro who makes it hard for colored men to succeed in the military. You don't know nothing about honor, hard work, or loyalty to your country. You're everything bad that they say about colored people, always trying to con somebody or trick people into doing your work.
"I saw you taking jewelry off of dead people's fingers, then going through their pockets to take their possessions. I can look the other way when it's guns and ammo, but I won't stand for stealing from the dead for personal gain. Ain't nothing that can discredit a unit faster than a reputation of stealing from the dead. If I see you doing it again, I'll shoot you on the spot myself. You got that?"
Slick pulled a switchblade from his pocket and opened it with a flick of his wrist. "Come on, sucker, I got somethin' for you," he taunted.
The sergeant laughed. "You think I'm afraid of that? Hell, I'll ram that little blade so far up your ass that you'll have a metal tongue. Now, if you had spent the year at Fort Dodge working with me every day on your hand-to-hand technique like Tremain here did, I might be afraid of you. But you goldbricked on that too. So, it's time for a final lesson."
Professor stood up and got in between Slick and the sergeant. "We're surrounded by enemies. Shouldn't we try harder to stick together? This isn't the kind of note we'd like to start this mission on, is it?"
Big Ed stood up. "The Professor's right. Colored people ought to stick together. We gon' need everyone we got, if we gon' come back from this one."
LeRoi watched the scene unfold in front of him and didn't feel any need to intervene.
Since there were two men between him and his intended quarry, Sergeant Williams stepped back. "Any time you want to bring that little pig sticker and challenge me, Walters, I'll be ready." He looked around and saw that LeRoi was just sitting and watching. "You think an old man like me stands a chance against a young buck like Walters?"
"I think you'll kill him," answered LeRoi in a matter-of-fact tone. "But that ain't what worries me. I want to know how we gon' get back from this mission, that's what worries me. We don't know the country around this bridge. We ain't got no planned route of escape. It looks to me like we bein' sacrificed again. What do you think, Sarge?"
"I think that we follow orders and put ourselves in the hands of the Lord."
Slick sucked his teeth and shook his head disgustedly. The other men were silent.
"Of course, the good Lord helps those who help themselves," Sergeant Williams continued. "So, I think that we'll send a couple of our best shots high above the bridge to cover our retreat and to check out possible escape routes."
"How is that going to help us if we run into that German artillery division?" Professor asked. "We're going to need more fire power than the small arms we were issued."
"A couple of howitzers could blast us to hell!" Slick interjected.
"Is this a suicide mission, Sarge?" Big Ed asked. "Is they sacrificing us?" The sergeant thought for a moment before he answered. "All I know is if you fight bravely and carry out your orders, you gon' make things better for the colored men who come after you. If it's your time to die, it's your time. Ain't nothing can change that, but if you fight bravely, it'll get recognized."
Slick questioned Big Ed. "You didn't expect him to say nothing else, did you?"
The sergeant pointed to Slick. "One more word and I'll do you now!"
"Can you get us some small artillery, like those forty millimeter cannons we saw on the outskirts of that little town we passed through to get here?" Professor asked.
"All the weaponry we gon' get through channels is what was already issued," Williams answered. "But I know you boys confiscated some German mortars and a big Vickers machine gun in one of our last raids. You must have them stored someplace. If you still got possession, we need them now."
"If we had the guns you's talking about, how would we move them through mountainous country, twenty-five miles beyond the German lines?" LeRoi asked in a tone that indicated casual interest. He knew that the sergeant was aware that his squad had begun to pilfer enemy equipment and ammunition, storing it on the German side of the lines.
"We're going to catch a train and let it carry us within four miles of our target. We'll have a quick hike through a pass in the mountains and then down to the bridge. But if we're going to get out of this with our lives, we're going to need everything you men have, uh, collected, especially that Vickers."
"Carrying the Vickers and all the ammunition is hard enough on flat ground," LeRoi advised. "And you damn sure can't be no mountain goat with it."
Professor added, "The Vickers weighs over one hundred seventy-five pounds and you can shoot three hundred pounds of ammunition in twenty minutes. We'd have to carry that gun, plus over a thousand pounds of ammunition, and then we'd still have to fire the gun sparingly."
"Talk that `white talk,' Professor! Talk it!" Big Ed said with a big smile, clapping his hands together for emphasis. "Tell him why it's a bad idea. I knows where this is goin'. If we takes it, I'll be the one who carries that old, bulky sucker. Four miles is the lifetime of a cow with that thing on your shoulder. The Krauts put it on a cart to move it."
"How long does a cow live anyway?" asked Slick.
Sergeant Williams said, "We've got forty men. Every man can take a share of the weight. We may have to disassemble the Vickers in order to take it with us "
"You mean take it apart, sir?" Big Ed interrupted.
The sergeant nodded affirmatively and waited for Big Ed's response.
"Well, I'm the handiest guy with a wrench in this group and if I had all day, I could easy figure this gun out. But I still wouldn't want to try to put it back together again in the dark by flashlight."
"If you men want to increase your chances of living, you'll find a way to bring that damned machine gun and some mortars! I can't order you 'cause technically I don't know that you got this stuff, but if you expect to survive after we hit the bridge, it will be because we have covering fire from that big gun." The sergeant stood up and walked over to the hanging canvas that served as a doorway. Before he walked out he turned and said, "In case you decide to get the gun, we'll rendezvous on the other side of the lines, five miles east of Saint-Germain on the ridge above the railroad tracks at oh-four-thirty sharp. It's below the ruins of an old chalet."
Sergeant Williams paused and looked at the men and saw their resentful faces. He was silent for a moment before he continued speaking. "I know you men have been keeping and using enemy equipment to make up for shortages in supplies. It's a violation of the code but as long as it wasn't done in my face, I did my best to look the other way. I know that the Negro troops are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to getting supplies and leave time, and the first to be called upon when there's a dangerous mission or latrine duty. It ain't no secret, we don't get first crack at the ammunition and we don't get issued the newest weapons. But it seems to me that you boys found the answer to that problem. I noticed that all four of you carry the German rapid-fire gun in addition to your army-issue Springfields. I have to say, I admire your ingenuity. Use that ingenuity to bring that Vickers." Turning on his heel, he left the bunker.
Slick was the first to speak. "I swear I'm gon' kill that motherfucker! He been ridin' me ever since Fort Dodge. He's just a Tom for Mr. Charlie! I can't stand him!"
"It sounds to me like the sarge thinks that this time it may be our butts," Professor said, putting away his diary. "I mean, it sounds like even he thinks it's a suicide mission."
"Who gives a shit what he thinks?" Slick declared angrily.
"I do," answered LeRoi. "I think we better get out of here as soon as possible, get over to where we stashed the gun, and figure out how to take it apart."
"I'm with you," Professor agreed.
"Wait a minute! Wait a minute!" Slick interjected. "You just gon' bring the gun like he asked? Whatchoo thinking? I got that stuff sold. It's like money in the bank."
"I'm more interested in living than having money," LeRoi answered.
"Me too," Professor added.
"Now, it took all of us to get the gun and the ammo stored. How you plan to move it with just the two of you?" Slick asked with a smug look.
"Is it just the two of us?" LeRoi asked, looking at Big Ed.
"Nope," Big Ed said. "I'm going with you, LT."
"Whoa! Wait a minute, Big Ed. You and me supposed to be tight. If I don't go, you don't go. What's going on here?"
"You been outvoted, Slick," LeRoi interjected with a slight edge on his voice. "Make up your mind whether you coming with us or not, 'cause we got to get out of here now."
Slick said nothing. He merely stood watching as his three companions continued packing their equipment and readying their kits for light travel. As guns were being checked, Slick blurted out, "I got an idea. How about if we go ahead and leave camp as if we're going to pick up the Vickers, but we get delayed by a German patrol and never show up? We miss the suicide mission. Ain't that an idea?"
"I mean to be on that ridge at four-thirty sharp," answered LeRoi. "With or without the gun. I ain't got no family now but my squad and my platoon and I ain't ever gon' let down family who's depending on me! I know what it feels like! So believe me, if I don't bring the Vickers with me, there'll be a damn good reason and it won't be something I made up." He stood up. "You ready to hit it?" he asked Big Ed and Professor.
"Alright! Alright, I'm coming," Slick said reluctantly. "I don't see how come you all so patriotic all of a sudden." He began packing his equipment.
"This isn't patriotism, man," Professor answered. "This is standing with one's own people. If we figure out a way to bring that gun, we're going to save colored men's lives. Nobody else is worrying about it, so I think it's up to us."
"Shit, we don't even know half these niggers!"
"It don't matter," LeRoi said. "They're our people. They got our color skin or something close to it. We know a little about what they been through, 'cause we been through it. They are family! The only family we got is the colored soldiers fightin' next to us."
"What family?" Slick scoffed. "You been niggers together?
LeRoi pulled a knife from his boot and threw it with his left hand in one motion. The knife stuck in a log beam and quivered about four inches from Slick's face. "Don't forget who you talkin' to," LeRoi advised. "I've told you before that I don't like the word nigger!" Slick edged away from the knife as LeRoi came over to collect it.
"Let's pull out," LeRoi said, lifting his pack on his back and picking up his guns.
The men left the bunker and headed uphill, straight for the trees. The snow continued to fall. Beyond the valley, the distant mountains' jagged outlines dominated the landscape with dark uneven shapes and snowcapped peaks. There was no breeze, but there was a slight chill in the air. They trudged single file in silence, hearing only the crunching sounds of their boots. There was ten feet or more between each man. The trees of the forest closed in around them like silent mourners at a funeral. They were headed for an old riverbed that was covered by brush and scrub trees. The riverbed was a deep, long-running scar down the face of the hillside, yet it could not be seen for any distance due to the density of the surrounding trees. The men descended into it and followed the defile down the hill toward the German lines.
At the bottom of the hill two hundred yards of snow-covered barbed wire extended in circular rolls across an uneven, bombed-out meadow to the first line of the German trenches. Halfway down the hill, the riverbed was joined by another creek. The men had to be careful because the footing was extremely slippery. There were two or three inches of water now flowing at the bottom of the bed underneath the snow and the men sought to stay out of it if they could.
LeRoi was in the lead and signaled a halt. He began pulling away several large pieces of brush on the uphill side of the riverbed and exposed a culvert that was four and a half feet in diameter. After taking a careful look at the surrounding landscape with his German binoculars, he quickly entered the darkness of the culvert on his hands and knees. He was followed one by one by his companions. The last man had the responsibility of pulling the covering brush back in place.
The culvert was part of an old reservoir drainage system that had been bombarded into disrepair. There were several places along its length where the walls had been totally ruptured by bombs through which the snow-covered hillsides could be seen. For the most part, the interior of the culvert was dark and was only occasionally illuminated by LeRoi's flashlight. The length of the culvert extended from where LeRoi and his companions had entered it to Saint Die Reservoir, high above the town that was its namesake.
The men did not leave the culvert until they had traveled nearly a mile within it. When they did exit, they were surrounded once more by a dense evergreen forest. From their previous forays in the area, they knew that there was a small German patrol station above them, guarding the road that entered Saint Die from Luneville. Below them were the lights of the German trench lines spread out like an endless maze. Their objective was a partially destroyed small town named Cote d'Saar, two miles on the other side of Saint Die. The trail was rocky and steep and the men made poor time because stealth was important. They knew that the Germans patrolled the area frequently. Much time was lost while the men sat quietly and surveyed their surroundings prior to moving.
Cote d'Saar was an old fort city that presided over a particularly calm stretch of the Saar River, which meandered slowly through a broad valley. After repeated air strikes by both German forces and the Allies, most of the town had been abandoned, its buildings in ruins. There was still a group of residents who had refused to leave their homes, but they generally hid from soldiers and were rarely seen. The onset of winter and the lack of food had forced even these hardy mountain people to take shelter in Saint Die.
There were no lights, nor was there any discernible movement. Nonetheless, LeRoi spent half an hour watching the town and the surrounding area before he signaled that it was alright to move forward. Their destination was a roofless stone warehouse set on a small hill on the edge of town. Once the men were inside the building, they had Professor serve as a l ookout and they checked the structure for booby traps. After assuring themselves that all was safe, LeRoi, Slick, and Big Ed turned their attention to moving a large metal plate along a section of wall. Once the plate had been moved, it exposed a staircase leading down into the depths of the building. LeRoi and Big Ed descended into the darkness with their guns at the ready, but they were only met with the scurrying sound of rodents. Big Ed came back up the stairs with a large tarp, which he hung over the entrance leading to the stairs.
Once the tarp was up, Slick lit an oil lantern and hooked it to an overhead beam. The basement was filled with all sorts of supplies, gear, weapons, and ammunition. It looked like an armory. Once the men had decided to keep their own storehouse, they had been very industrious. The Vickers was perched on its tripod in the far corner. It was just after midnight when they started working on the big machine gun and nearly two in the morning when they had it disassembled and packed into three bundles. It was clear to everyone that the four of them could not possibly carry the gun and ammunition. It was decided that the gun would be brought along and then ammunition would have to be stolen from somewhere near Kastledorf.
A hissed warning from Professor had the men dousing their lights and scrambling up the staircase in darkness. As they joined Professor, he pointed out a lone German military vehicle with its lights on, parked in the town square. It was a small troop carrier capable of holding eight to ten men. There were six soldiers standing around the vehicle talking.
"There's our transportation," whispered Professor. "We'll even be able to carry some ammunition, won't we?"
"How many soldiers you seen?" asked LeRoi, forming a plan in his mind.
"Just those men in front of that truck."
"Whoa, you ain't thinking what I think you's thinking, is you?" Slick questioned LeRoi.
"Yeah, we gon' get that truck." LeRoi turned and looked at Slick. "You got a problem with that?"
"We taking racehorse chances here, for what? It's gon' be the same when we get home: a nigger is still a nigger. Ain't nothin' gon' change. Uncle Sam ain't my uncle, he's just Mr. Charlie to me."
LeRoi poked Slick in the chest. "The Three hundred Fifty-first is family! I don't give two shits about Uncle Sam or patriotism, but I'll kill and die for family! You in or not?"
Slick sighed. "I'm gon' help. You's the boss."
LeRoi quickly outlined a plan and sent Big Ed and Slick off in different directions. He figured that he and his companions had the advantage because they knew the town very well. He had Professor climb the only church tower still standing and prepare for covering fire in case things went wrong. He slipped out of the building and headed toward the vehicle. His plan was quite simple. Slick would create noisy diversion, which would force the soldiers to investigate. The soldiers would be picked off one by one. It was his intention to get as close to the vehicle as possible before firing his weapon. He preferred to kill quietly, with his knife if possible.
As LeRoi picked his way through the debris and destruction of the demolished town, he was surprised at how things could be so different yet remain the same. Here he was a colored man from Louisiana, stalking white men in a little town in France. And yet it had a sameness about it, like when he was out on a raid against the DuMonts. If someone was to have told him a year and a half ago that he would be trained to kill and then ordered to go out and kill white men, he would have called the remark insane. But here he was. An alley between two roofless stone houses loomed ahead of him. LeRoi had to be careful moving about in the snow. It had been snowing for several hours without a break and the snow was now building into small drifts, making footing among the rubble very slippery. He slid the safety off his Bergmann and crouched down as he slowly continued forward.
LeRoi had changed substantially since his induction into the army. His four and a half months on the front lines had had the biggest effect on him. Not only had he been trained to fight and kill efficiently, but he discovered that he liked it. There was a level of excitement in playing in the game of death that was thrilling to him. For the first time in his life, he woke up each morning with a sense of purpose. He had never told his bunk mates, but he preferred to be out on squad patrol, not because he liked to risk his life, but because he was in control and there was no one to order him about. He was left to his own ingenuity to kill the enemy any way possible, but sometimes he wished they were American whites.
The end of the alley led to a corner of the town square. From the edge of the building to his left he could see through the falling snow that the same six men were still standing in front of the truck, smoking and talking. LeRoi could even hear an occasional laugh. They did not appear to be concerned with the need for alertness. He settled himself and waited for Slick's diversion. He felt fortunate that the truck's lights were facing away from him and that the truck was close enough for him to cover the distance in ten good strides. He unslung his Springfield and leaned it against the building, then pulled his two throwing knives from his boots and stuck them in his belt. He strapped two heavy, studded leather bands on his wrists. Experience had taught him that his defense was vastly improved in hand-to-hand combat when he could use his lower forearm to both attack and block. The Bergmann was checked and then slung so that the gun hung in the small of his back. He pulled his .45 government-issue automatic pistol and tested the slide. He liked to feel the gun's weight in his hand. He was ready. Leaning back against the wall, he took deep breaths, trying to relax. The only sounds he heard were the harsh consonants of German in the town square as the men talked and the snow continued to fall.
The Germans did not feel the need for caution because they were part of an augmented canine unit. They were in fact waiting for the return of four men and two dogs, who had been dropped at the edge of town to search the ruins for the local residents, known to fire upon German military units. Cote d'Saar was the last stop on their patrol route before returning to the garrison. No evidence of any resistance had ever been discovered in the region, so the soldiers had begun to take patrols lightly. When the loud metallic clattering began, emanating from the opposite side of town from which they had entered, the soldiers were momentarily confused. The headlights of the truck were turned off. After a few minutes of argument, four soldiers were sent out to investigate. Neither of the two remaining Germans saw LeRoi sprint across the square to the far side of the vehicle.
The sound of the four soldiers leaving the square had covered his approach, but once LeRoi reached the side of the truck all was quiet. After several seconds he could hear the two Germans whispering to each other. He was edging around the rear of the truck when he heard the door open and the sound of footsteps coming his way. Pulling a knife from his belt, he prepared to spring. The German soldier rounded the corner and didn't get a chance to raise his arm or even speak. With one savage cut, LeRoi slit the man's throat, then moved out of the way to let the body fall. There was a brief gurgling sound as the man writhed frantically in the reddening snow and died.
"Karl? Karl?" the other soldier called out.
The sound of gunfire rang out from the direction that the four soldiers had taken. LeRoi heard a rifle being cocked in the truck.
"Karl? Karl?" The soldier was now whispering from inside the truck.
LeRoi had ducked around the side and was grateful that the left rearview mirror was frosted over. Squatting by the driver's door, he flung it open. Simultaneously, a rifle was discharged and a bullet whistled over his head. LeRoi reached up and fired his pistol several times into the truck and heard the man inside grunt and fall out the passenger-side door.
LeRoi started around the truck to make sure the other man was dead when he heard a shot ring out from the church tower. He did not get a chance to turn around before the dog hit him. The big German shepherd had sunk its teeth into the wristband of his gun arm. The weight of the dog's lunge hurled him to the ground. The force of the animal's attack caused him to drop his pistol and his Bergmann was underneath his body. LeRoi pulled his knife from his belt and stabbed the dog several times, but the animal kept attacking, aiming for a grip on his throat. Finally, LeRoi was able to sink his knife deep into the animal's chest and push it off of him.
Shots rang out from the far corner of the square and bullets [Illegible] off the cobblestones and whizzed above him. He rolled over and pulled the Bergmann free and fired a burst in return. Scrambling to his feet, [Illegible] took refuge behind the truck. The shots were coming from the shelter [Illegible] a stone staircase in the corner of the square. Keeping the truck between him and the source of the gunfire, LeRoi circled the vehicle. He wanted to get clear of the truck because he knew it could easily be blown sky high He saw the German soldier he shot, lying on his back in the snow, struggling to turn over. The man was bleeding from several different wound LeRoi stooped down quickly and removed the man's Luger from his holster and shot him. The dead man also had four hand grenades strapped to his belt. They were called "potato mashers" by the American troop because of their unique shape, but they worked extremely well, better in fact than army issue. LeRoi removed them, pulling the pins out of two and heaved them toward the staircase. He took off running before the grenades detonated.
LeRoi reached the alleyway just after the explosions occurred. From the safety of the alley, he watched as the whole building collapsed forward onto the staircase. There were screams as men were crushed by the falling structure. In a few minutes all was still again. LeRoi walked out into the square, keeping an eye on the rubble at the far end. He saw Big Ed [Illegible] ing forward from a side street. His pants were tom and there was blood trickling from an open wound on his thigh. From the far side of the square, Slick could be seen clambering over the rubble. He waved [Illegible] Bergmann over his head. LeRoi turned and signaled to the church [Illegible] with his flashlight, telling the Professor to stay alert.
Inside the truck, the keys were still in the ignition. LeRoi pushed the igniter button, and the engine sputtered, then began to purr. He backed up to where Big Ed was waiting.
"Goddamned dog attacked me! It caught me by surprise," Big Ed explained as he clambered in the back of the truck. "I had to beat it off with the butt of my rifle. Goddamned thing came flying out of the falling snow like some kind of ghost! Still, I got three of them boys!"
"You need a tourniquet?" LeRoi asked.
"Naw, it ain't spurtin'! I can wait till we get out of here," Big Ed said he made himself comfortable between the benches. "All the noise we made, this whole town will be crawling with Germans in no time! We best pick up and get out! I never liked this town no way. Can't grow nothing here, the soil's too rocky."
"Where's your buddy?" LeRoi inquired as he swung the truck around and drove over to where he had last seen Slick. He slid down the window then called out, "Slick! Slick! We got to head out, man! You better get your ass over here or you gon' get left!"
Slick appeared, scrambling over the rubble of the fallen building. He beckoned to the truck, indicating he wanted them to follow him. He turned to go back the way he had come when LeRoi shouted, "We gon' leave your grave-robbin' ass!"
Slick turned and shouted back, "I found a box of gold! A real box of gold! It's too heavy for one man to carry. I can use some help!"
"Leave it!" LeRoi ordered. "We need to get out of here! We gon' have Germans down on our necks any minute!"
"This is a real box of gold! It's right here! All we got to do is lift up and carry it away! We can't walk away from this! Our money problems will be over!"
LeRoi left the truck idling with the brake on and scrambled up the mountain of debris. "If you're lying, yo' ass is mine!"
Slick led him to the back side of the destroyed building and there in the snow where Slick had dragged it was a squat metal box. "Open it," Slick urged. LeRoi flipped back the lid and saw that the box was filled with coins and jewelry made of gold. Slick was excited. "There's two more boxes like this! This buildin' was some kind of bank! There's a big crack in the vault showin' paper money and everythin'. With a little diggin' we gon' be rich!"
"Sorry, Slick, this is all we got time for." LeRoi closed the box. "I wants that gun mor'n I wants gold! I's ready to carry this one, but no mo'!"
Slick was aghast. The prospect of unlimited wealth was being turned down. "Nigger, you must be stupid! We got a treasure for the takin' and you gon' leave it for some damn gun? Nigger, please!"
LeRoi growled, "Pick up the box! We'll take this one back to the truck!"
Slick saw something in LeRoi's eyes that made him swallow any more words of contempt. He bent down and grasped the handle and lifted it in unison with LeRoi. The two men struggled and staggered with the weight of the box, but finally wrestled it back to the truck. Big Ed slid over so that they could push the box onto the truck bed.
"We best get on and pick up that Vickers," Big Ed suggested. "Them Germans got to come and investigate!"
Slick looked back toward the building's ruins and then into LeRoi's eyes. He decided on the wiser course and got into the back with Big Ed. LeRoi jumped in the cab and drove the truck without lights back to their storage site.
Professor met them at the door. "I saw lights coming this way down the road from Saint Die. Looks like a couple of squads coming right for us."
"Let's get the gun loaded," LeRoi urged.
"Damn! What about my supplies, my cigarettes, my uniforms?" Slick groused.
"We's only taking ammunition and mortars. Everything else got to stay! We ain't dyin' over no cigarettes and uniforms!" LeRoi barked as he headed down to the basement to get the Vickers.
With Big Ed keeping lookout, it took them twenty minutes to load the ammunition and the guns onto the truck. LeRoi was directing as he worked. Professor and Slick were sweating from exertion when the last box was loaded. Big Ed gave a warning whistle, indicating that the German trucks were within a mile of the town. LeRoi disappeared in the darkened building one last time. He emerged after a couple of minutes, climbed into the cab, and gunned the truck's engines as he sped out onto the darkened highway.
The two-lane road was a tortuous, twisting ribbon that followed the contours of the mountainside as it slowly climbed above the placid Saar. In the dark, with no lights, it was sometimes difficult to determine where the road actually lay beneath the snow. LeRoi did not let up on his speed and he barely kept the skidding, careening vehicle on track. Several times the truck actually scraped against the railings built to prevent vehicles from hurtling down the steep mountainside. The road dropped and curved into a pass between two peaks that turned into a straightaway with a half-mile visibility. LeRoi could see the lights of a small roadblock in the distance. He did not decrease his speed, but kept barreling down the highway with the accelerator pushed to the floor.
As the truck neared the roadblock, they saw lights being waved back and forth by the men staffing the checkpoint, but LeRoi ignored the signal and veered partially off the road in order to knock down the shelter upon which the telephone line was connected. There were shouts and curses as the German soldiers leapt out of the way. One fired two shots at point-blank range. None of the occupants was hit but two windows were shattered and flying glass was everywhere. The truck slammed into the post that served as support for the wooden pole that swung down and blocked passage. The post snapped and flew off to the right, and then the truck hit the wooden shelter and splintered the whole front of it. As it collapsed, the truck continued down the highway. More shots were fired by the Germans, but the bullets went astray.
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