by CM Flemming
1911. Atlanta, Georgia
Hank McCord accidentally witnesses his best friend’s murder by two mill supervisors. There’s another witness, Calvin Yates, is a Negro boy about Hank’s age but the problem is that the murderers are adults in positions of authority and, as Calvin asks Hank, “Who’s goin’ to believeus?”
The murderers see the boys and so begins a chase that forces the boys to flee to the only person who can help them–the Finder. Some call the Finder a conjure woman, a witch, a finder of lost things, a fixer. Though blind, the old woman “sees” things — and has other powers that Hank finds nearly as terrifying as the murderers on his heels.
The immediate tension and distrust between the two boys grows until it threatens to destroy both. They have been framed for the murder of Hank’s friend…
Wednesday, December 20, 1911
Now I try to abide by the rules same as the next kid, but sometimes you just gotta break one, ‘specially if it’s an ignorant one. I needed a place to think. That’s how I come to be down by the switch-line, a place the mill keeps off limits to the likes of me. I scooted up on a stack of railroad ties and got a splinter in my backside. It’d been a real bad day and it seemed like it was getting worse. That morning, my best friend told me they was trying to make it agin the law for young’uns like me to work the mill.
Then he told me how he planned to leave real soon. Bein’ sixteen, more than four years older’n me, he didn’t have to worry about bein’ put out of a job. He said he’d be coming into a pile of money directly. He wouldn’t tell me no more. Even though I knew I shouldn’t leave my mama, I still begged Jeb to take me with him. But now, here it was, less than a week from Christmas, and less than two weeks to my twelfth birthday and nothing looked like it was gonna turn out alright. Even my papa was dead an’ gone… all because of me. Now, I might not have no job, and my only friend was leavin’.
All I had ever wanted to do was raise English Thoroughbred horses with my papa. Might as well hang a big ol’ sign around my neck that said, “Hank McCord – World’s Biggest Flummox.”
So I sat there waiting for the 5:15, a sleek passenger train, to come through, hoping it would make me feel better. The way that train would zip along the tracks behind the mill was a thing of beauty. I liked to imagine where all the people was going–out west to big cattle ranches, maybe to the Rocky Mountains, or even all the way to California to dig for gold. All the while, I’d be wishing it was taking me far away from Atlanta… and Murphy’s Cotton Mill.
At 5:15, folks would be in the dining car, bright as daylight, eating fancy food on clean tablecloths. Sitting in evening shadows, I’d be able to see ‘em real good. Colored men in white jackets balanced loaded trays with one hand, going from table to table, serving those folks… them with plenty of money and no cares.
I wondered how in the world those porters could do that with the train moving down the tracks lickety-split. Maybe them that spilled stuff got fired, or worse. I’d ask Jeb about that. He knew most everything. But thinking about all that fancy food made me hungry. I looked in my lunch bucket. Wasn’t nothing left but an old, cold biscuit.
That’s when I heard ‘em–angry voices spoiling for a fight on the other side of the boxcars parked on the switch-line.
I shuddered at the venom in the man’s voice. “Nobody blackmails Tugg Arnold and gets away with it.” Then I heard a thud followed by a low grunt. It made my stomach hurt just to hear it.
Tugg Arnold was a floor supervisor at the mill where me and Mama worked. Anywhere Tugg showed up, you could be sure Jack Little wasn’t far behind. He was Tugg’s “assistant.” Mostly, they was both just bullies. Thick in the middle, Tugg stood over six foot tall, with wavy, reddish blond hair and a face that always looked sunburned. Jack was even taller, but skinny as a fence post, with stringy dark brown hair, and skin the color of dried corn husks.
“Yeah, nobody!” Jack’s shrill voice set my teeth on edge. I winced at the thump of another blow. They was giving somebody the devil.
“Who else knows about our operation?” Tugg bellowed. “Is that what you was schemin’ about with that McCord boy this morning?”
My heart skipped a beat at the mention of my name. I tried to think who I’d talked to that morning. I could only think of one person.
“Naw, Mister Arnold. Hank don’t know nothin’ about it.” I would’a known that voice anywhere, though I’d never heard it so weak and shaky. It belonged to my best friend, Jeb Smith.
What had Jeb gone an’ done to make them so all-fired mad at him? An’ why in the world would Tugg think I had anything to do with whatever it was? My teeth chattered. The wind felt like it was blowing straight off ice. It bit through my raggedy coat as easily as if I didn’t even have one on. I stuck my hands under my armpits to stop them from shaking. Jeb hadn’t said nothing to me about Tugg or Jack.
If those two caught me there, I didn’t have no doubt they’d beat up on me too. They’d see me first thing, too, if they come out from behind the boxcar. I needed to hide ‘til I could figure out how to help my friend. Out in the open like that, I was a sitting duck. The only hiding place I could see was inside one of the empty boxcars, but that meant going even closer to the fight. Quiet as I could, I eased off the stack of railroad ties and snuck over to the open door of the car closest to me. When I put my palms on the edge to jump in, a pair of old scuffed brogans blocked my way. I jerked my hands back like I’d been scalded.
Standing there in them worn-out shoes was a colored boy who looked about my age. The gaslight glinted off his black eyes, scowling down at me. He motioned with a hand dark as charcoal and whispered, “Go ‘way boy. Find your own hidin’ place. They’s no room for you in here.”
He looked wiry and tough, but I reckoned I had a better chance against a kid my own size than against Tugg and Jack. I puffed out my chest and glared up at him.
“Who you think you’re callin’ ‘boy’?” I whispered. “Back up! Ain’t no place else, and they’s plenty of room in there.”
With a little hop, I pulled myself over the edge of the doorway and stood up. I prayed Tugg and Jack hadn’t heard us over all the racket they was raising.
Quick as a snake, the boy’s hand snapped out and snatched me into the shadows. “Stay outta sight, then. And keep quiet,” he cautioned.
I wrenched away from him. As my eyes got used to the dark of the boxcar, I noticed little slivers of light shining through cracks between the boards. I crept across the floor and peeked out. From the looks of Jeb’s face they’d already worked him over pretty bad. Watching what they was doing to Jeb made me sick, almost as much as the shame of being too cowardly to help my friend. I tried to think what to do.
Jeb broke away and started to run. Jack stopped him with an ax handle across his middle. Jeb doubled over and crumpled to the ground. He gave a couple of gurgled coughs and blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. Then he lay still. His open eyes stared straight ahead. I couldn’t breathe, standing there looking at my friend’s battered body on the ground.
Tugg squatted down and laid his hand on Jeb’s chest. He stood up and yanked the ax handle from Jack’s hand. “You idiot! You must’a busted a rib into his lungs. He’s dead.”
My legs nearly buckled. I’d waited too long. Jeb couldn’t be dead! Tears filled my eyes ‘til I could hardly see. I blinked them away, not knowing what to do, but still glued to the crack in the boxcar.
Jack stuffed his hands in his pockets, and poked his bottom lip out. “Well shoot, Tugg. He was fixin’ to get away.”
Tugg shook the ax handle in Jack’s face like a long finger. “We needed to find out who else he told.” He wadded a piece of paper up and stuck it in his pocket. “And take care of ‘em.” He smacked the ax handle in his other palm.
I tried to swallow, but my spit had all dried up.
“What are we gonna do about this?” Jack pointed his chin at Jeb’s body, crumpled on the ground.
“What do you think, genius?” Tugg flung the handle on the ground. “We’re gonna make it look like an accident. Then we’ll let the sheriff handle it from there.” He grinned at Jack.
Jack pushed his hat back and scratched his head. “How you figure on doing that?”
I had to do something. I couldn’t let them get away with murder even if it was the last thing I did. Sweat popped out on my forehead. It come to mind that it just might be the last thing I did. What did Tugg mean, “Let the sheriff handle it”? What did the sheriff have to do with Tugg and Jack?
Tugg’s booming voice jerked me back. “Look, everyone knows what a drunk Smith’s old man was.” He checked his pocket watch. “The westbound will be coming along any minute. We’ll carry his body over to the other tracks.” Tugg pulled a silver flask from the hip pocket of his overalls and unscrewed the cap. He turned it up and took a swig, then cleared his throat. “We’ll pour some of this whiskey on him. It’ll look like he got drunk and passed out on the tracks.” After another swig, Tugg said, “It’s getting dark, so the engineer probably won’t even see him. Fast as that one goes, wouldn’t matter if he did. He couldn’t stop.”
Jack grinned like a garbage-eatin’ possum. “It’s a cryin’ shame to waste good sippin’ whiskey like that.” He reached for the flask, but Tugg held it out of his reach. “Aw, come on now, Tugg,” Jack whined. “Just one little sip.”
Tugg handed the flask to Jack, and said, “See to it you save enough to pour over the body.”
Jack’s head bobbed up and down a couple of times before Tugg snatched the flask away from him and screwed the cap back on. Jack wiped his chin on his sleeve. Tugg slipped his hands under Jeb’s arms. “Don’t just stand there. Get his feet.”
They laid Jeb’s body crosswise on the tracks, on his side, like he was asleep. Tugg pulled the flask out again and emptied it over Jeb.
The wind carried the smell of the whiskey into the boxcar. My stomach heaved. Jeb wasn’t no drunk. Nobody would believe that lie. Hot tears streamed down my cheeks. I’d nearly forgotten about the other boy. I glanced over at him. He looked about as sick as I felt.
“They’ve killed my friend Jeb,” I whispered. “I got to do something. I’m going for the sheriff.”
He grabbed my arm. “Don’t be a fool. Didn’t you hear ‘em? The sheriff be as big a crook as anybody. You better keep still ‘til they leave. Your friend’s dead. Ain’t nothing you can do now, ‘cept get yourself killed, and me too, if they catch us watching.”
My legs felt weaker’n a new-born colt’s. I had to think. Making my way across the dark floor to a pile of gunny sacks and garbage in the corner, I plopped down.
All of a sudden, that pile of garbage come to life, cussing and slinging his arms. “Get off’n me! This is my place. I was here first.” A dirty hobo screamed the words and his spit sprayed in my face. The whites of his eyes flashed in the dark. They was wild as a mad dog’s, his breath worse. He grabbed me around the neck. His hands was like a vise grip. My eyes felt as if they was about to pop from their sockets. I clawed at his hands and tried to gasp for air. My head spun.
I heard a loud “thwack,” like when Mama’s beating the dirt out of a rug. The vise grip on my neck fell away. Good-lord-in-the-morning! I’d never take breathing for granted again.
The hobo hugged his arm to his chest. “My arm! You done broke my arm!” He drew back into the corner, whimpering like a whipped dog.
Outside, Tugg yelled, “Who’s there?”
The boy threw the pipe down. I’d dropped to my hands and knees, still gasping. He jerked me to my feet. “Come on. We better git!”
I stumbled to the door. The boy jumped to the ground and I followed him. I hit the ground running, just as Jack come busting around the corner.
Tugg come huffing up behind him. “Catch ‘em Jack! It’s the McCord brat. I knew he was in on it.”
I ran like I’d never run before. My hat flew off, but I kept going. I could move pretty fast, but I couldn’t keep up with that other boy.
Cinders crunched behind me. I looked over my shoulder. Jack was barely more than an arm’s reach from me. In the distance, I seen Tugg dragging the hobo from the boxcar. When I looked ahead, a pile of crates blocked my path. I leaped high as I could, but I stumbled. By the time I got my feet back under me, I felt Jack’s hand on my shoulder. He’d a had me for sure, if his foot hadn’t got tangled in one of the crates. He lost his grip on me and tumbled headlong into the stack. That gave me a chance to put some distance between me an’ him. I could hear Jack kicking at the crates and cussing a blue streak.
I left the railroad and raced into the trashy, overgrown back lot of the mill. The other boy ducked between some buildings some fifty feet ahead. When I made the turn, I stopped dead in my tracks. He was gone, just plain vanished.
Then I noticed dead weeds mashed down and some loose boards at the bottom of one of the shacks. I bent down and peered into the darkness. The weeds nearly hid the opening to the crawl-space under the floor. It had the musky smell of rats but there wasn’t no time for nothing else. Tugg and Jack was too close behind. When I heard Tugg yell, I shoved the boards aside and slid under the shack, feet first.
The second I cleared the opening, a hand clamped over my mouth. I tried to yell, but then he hissed, “Shhh.”
I’d accidentally found the same hiding place as him…again. He let go and put a finger to his lips. I nodded and pushed the weeds up as best I could. We hurried to prop the loose boards back in place. When my eyes got used to the dark, I looked around for signs of rats. Mercy, I hated rats. Inside the crawl-space, their smell was even stronger. The only thing I hated worse was snakes. They liked the same hiding places, too. With it being winter though, there wasn’t much danger of coming across a snake.
We’d barely got the boards in place when we heard Jack’s pounding footsteps and ragged breathing. He stopped in the weeds, smack in front of us, trampling out any sign we might’a left. He leaned over and put his hands on his knees, gasping for breath. He was standing so close, I could see blood-splatters on his blue work shirt. The specks of blood looked black in the twilight. Tugg hollered in the distance.
When Tugg caught up, he sounded more out of breath than Jack. Sweat poured from his red face. He had my hat wadded up in his fist. “Where’d…they…go?” The air wheezed in and out through his mouth. He pulled a bandana from his pocket to mop his face. A piece of wadded up paper fell out on the ground.
“Dunno,” Jack said, panting. “They just up an’ disappeared.”
Tugg swore and smacked the wall. It startled me so that I bumped my head on the boards above me.
“What was that?” Jack whispered.
I held my breath ‘til thought I would pass out.
“I didn’t hear nothing,” Tugg said, still wheezing. “What’d it sound like?”
The boy glared at me. I glared back at him and rubbed my aching head.
“Sounded like something fell inside.” Jack’s feet come closer, and then he stood on tiptoes. I guessed he was looking in the window. “I don’t see nothing. Probably a rat or something.” He stepped back. “You reckon Smith told the McCord kid about our operation?” Jack asked.
There was that word again, “operation.”
“Sure, they had to be in on it together,” Tugg said.
In on what? Jeb never told me nothing about Tugg or Jack, nor no “operation” neither.
Tugg went on. “Why else would the McCord kid be hanging around the train yard so late? When I caught ‘em lollygaggin’ this morning, Smith made up some tale about empty spools.”
It wasn’t made up. My spools was empty.
Tugg stuffed my hat in the front of his overalls. “The kid could be hidin’ in one of these shacks. Let’s check ‘em out.” As they walked away, he said, “Look for a busted window, or broken lock.”
We watched them, as best we could, check every weather-beaten building, trying doors and peeping through dingy windows. Pretty soon, they come back and stood in the weeds in front of our hiding place once more.
Tugg bit off a chaw of tobacco and stuffed it into his cheek. “We’ll catch up with ‘em sooner or later, and when we do…” He punched a fist into his palm.
I looked over at the other boy. His eyes was bottomless black holes.
Jack said, “All right, we know the white one is the McCord brat. We know where to find him, but what about the nigger?”
I could almost feel the colored boy bristle at Jack’s insult.
Tugg spit out a stream of tobacco juice. It slithered down the weeds. “I didn’t get a good look at his face. There ain’t none of them working at the mill.” He looked around, and then, in a raised voice said, “McCord! You got any sense at all, you’ll keep your lousy little mouth shut… unless you want the same thing Smith got.”
Just then, the whistle of the westbound train ripped through the cold evening air. I shuddered. Even though I knew Jeb couldn’t feel nothing, the thought of his bones being crushed beneath the train’s grinding wheels was more’n I could take. For a split second, I pictured me and that colored boy laid out beside Jeb on those cold steel tracks.
I stuffed my fist in my mouth and swallowed my sobs. I sure didn’t want what Jeb got.
Jack kicked a dirt clod. It busted on the boards in front of us, and pieces of dirt shot through into my face. “I’d a caught the little brat if he hadn’t thrown a crate under my feet.”
Tugg snorted. “Hell, you’d stumble over your own two big feet just walking down the street. Let’s go. We got to make sure the brat didn’t manage to slip past us. You go let that drunk of a sheriff know what happened, so he can keep a look out for him, too. We can’t take a chance on lettin’ the kid get to the boss man.”
We could hear them grumbling and arguing as they left.
Sweat trickled down my sides. Whatever Tugg and Jack was up to, the sheriff seemed to be in on it. I was in deep trouble. We lay there for what seemed a long time in the crawl-space, staring out through the cracks, but not looking at each other.
“You think they’ll come back?” I whispered.
“How should I know what they’ll do?” he asked. “They your people.”
“They ain’t my people,” I snapped. “Tugg, the big one, he’s my boss.” Finally, I couldn’t take it no longer. I had to get out. I knocked the boards away and shot out. Leaning back against the rough, warped wood of the shack, I took a deep breath and tried to decide how I could slip past Tugg and Jack and get home to Mama.
The colored boy crawled out, too, his eyes darting this way and that. He leaned against the wall beside me. “What you gonna do, now? They knows you. They gonna be lookin’ for you.”
I brushed some cobwebs from my pants, and crossed my arms over my chest, cold again. “I don’t know. I got to find some way to get to Mister Murphy. He’s the man what owns the mill. Ain’t no way I can go back there tonight, though. They’ll be watching for me at home, too. Dang it, I can’t just run off. Mama’s depending on me, ‘specially since Papa died.”
“Well, you ain’t gonna help her none if you dead. What’d y’all do to make ‘em so mad?”
“I ain’t done nothing, blast it! I don’t even know what Jeb did, but it ain’t right for them to get away with killing him. He’s my best friend.” I stopped. “Jeb was my best friend.”
He looked at me. “I know how bad you feel ‘bout that, but you can’t bring him back.”
How could he know how I felt? “Jeb weren’t the kind to blackmail nobody. He must’ve found out something real bad about them. I ain’t got no idea what it was. And from what they said, it wouldn’t do no good to go to the sheriff.” For a second I wondered if maybe they just made up the part about the sheriff. “Well, maybe if I could get to him first, he might listen to me. I’ve got half a mind to try.”
“You got that right,” he said.
“Huh? Got what right?” I asked, digging a piece of dirt out of the corner of my eye.
“That part about havin’ half a mind. That’s all you got, if you think the sheriff gonna listen to you. It’s your word agin theirs. The sheriff ain’t gonna listen to no wet-behind-the-ears young’un. Besides, I know him. He be the biggest crook of all. He’ll throw you so far back in jail you ain’t never gonna see the light of day no more. Or worse.” He made like he was yanking a rope up around his neck.
I balled up my fists. I wanted to hit something. “It was murder, plain and simple. You seen it, same as me. He’d have to listen to us.”
He held up his hands as if to push me away. “Whoa, now. You wanna go get yourself killed, that be your business. You do whatever you gotta do, but I ain’t gonna have no part in going to no white lawman. You never seen me, an’ I never seen you. You got that straight?”
I kicked the boards at the bottom of the shack with my heel. “They ain’t gonna stop with killing Jeb. They’re after me now, ‘cause they think I know something. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I ain’t got no place to go.” My teeth chattered. I bit my lip to keep from bawling and wiped my nose on my sleeve. “Me an’ Mama ain’t done nothing to deserve this.”
I looked down and saw the wadded up paper that Tugg had dropped. I picked it up and smoothed it out a little. There wasn’t nothing on it but some names and numbers.
“What’s that?” the boy asked.
“Nothing, just something that fell outta Tugg’s pocket.” I wadded it up and started to throw it away, but then for some reason, I shoved it into my pocket.
He stared at me for awhile, as if he was trying to make up his mind about something. Then he said, “I sure nuf know what it’s like not to have nobody, nor no place to go.” He grabbed my elbow and said, “I can’t believe I’m sayin’ this, but I knows a safe place you can hide out, at least ‘til you can figure out what to do.”
We snuck away from the mill, toward the river and the railroad tracks, staying in the shadows. A smirk settled over his face. “So, you that McCord brat,” he said. “My name’s Calvin Yates.”
I didn’t appreciate the smirk, or his smart mouth, but I said, “My name’s Henry McCord. Most folks call me Hank.”
We both jumped when a screech owl shrieked from a clump of trees close by. “Let’s get outta here.” Calvin took off running, and I lit out, too… right on his heels.
About C. M. Flemming
C. M. Fleming is a westerner by birth but a southerner by choice. She received her degree in Pre-law from Eastern New Mexico University. A former fingerprint technician, she worked as a Uniform Crime Reporting Analyst with Georgia Bureau of Investigation until 2005. She became a finalist in the 2009 Georgia’s author of the year with her breakout novel, Finder’s Magic.