The Mississippi Delta has been described as the most southern place on earth. My family has lived here since the earliest white settlements. We have worked to leave a positive mark on this region for hundreds of years. As farmers, craftsmen, aristocrats, professionals, and teachers, we toiled to promote a legacy of progress and accomplishment. Depending on who you talk to, this area has been excessively blessed or abominably cursed. The Delta, actually an alluvial plain of the Mississippi River, can be described in many terms. It’s a land of some of the richest, fertile soils in the world. For millennia the flooding Mississippi River enriched Delta soils annually with a bounty of silt from northern lands. The economic and cultural development of the Delta is tied to this one fact more than any other. It is the home of huge cotton and rice plantations which provided a unique style of life, both blessed and tortured, for thousands of people. Growing and processing catfish are becoming major segments of the local economy. The agricultural based way of life helps feed and clothe the nation. Advances in plant genetics and basic farming practices from Delta scientists have revolutionized the way crops are grown. Conversely, the agricultural economy of the not too distant past enslaved and denigrated tens of thousands of black people. I hope that the cultural chasms this created will not endure for much longer.
The Delta’s people are as close to nature as humans can be. Paradoxically they can be the most cruel to their land. It’s quite sad to see that the Delta has been deforested, sickened with herbicides, insecticides, and defoliants, had its soil wasted, and its air polluted. Every natural system a most generous and benevolent Mother Nature put in place has been corrupted and disrupted. The close knit society of white people, particularly those sorts with money, will think the Delta is heaven on earth. My family has been unabashedly one of these types. In fact we cultivated and perfected these systems for generations. Many black people will testify that it’s quite the opposite. The races are close, yet irrevocably divided. Blacks and whites as individuals are as intimate as family. As members of different races they are as cruel and hostile as Jew can be to Arab, Irish Catholic to Irish Protestant, Hindu to Moslem. Lynching of blacks by whites, overt prejudice, and institutionally backed separation of races are still vivid in the minds of many citizens. It has taken generations for many to see the light and condemn these horrible practices. Racial divisions in schools, government, and the local economy have created a system of “us versus them.” The US Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, and other federal laws have superficially remedied some of the most egregious differences, but the underlying system is separation, hostility, and prejudice.
The Delta consists of all or part of 18 western and northwestern Mississippi counties. Its most defining geography is the Mississippi River as its western boundary, and its flat, endless, featureless land. Trees were long ago considered an obstacle to plantation agriculture. Consequently not very many of them are left. They do flourish along numerous bayous, lakes, and canals. It’s been said that “any fool can cut a tree.” It seems that fools have been running rampant in the Delta for quite a while. One of the most incredible engineering marvels in the world exists in the Delta. A system of levees on the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers holds back sometimes wildly fluctuating rivers. There were numerous failed attempts in creating this system. (Please remember this interesting fact. It plays a role in the story I am about to unfold to you.) Our people persevered and have been rewarded. Freedom from devastating floods have allowed the plantation economy to thrive. The law of unintended consequences, however, has been at work here. What planners didn’t anticipate was the levee system creating a large bowl. Water from the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers couldn’t get in, but water from heavy rains and smaller interior Delta streams couldn’t get out. While flooding from one source was eliminated, it was encouraged from another source. This law of unintended consequences seems to repeat itself throughout the history and culture of the Delta.
Blacks represent the majority of the Delta’s people. In some counties they are more than 70% of the population. Their society has imbued the Delta with a wonderful and rich cultural history. Their music, food, language, energy, religion, suffering, and hope is omnipresent. In past decades there has been a steady decline of black residents. Lack of opportunity, prejudice, and a declining economy are resulting in a steady depopulation of the region. While blacks have been oppressed, they have not been the most vigilant in carrying out the necessary strategies to pull themselves out of the quagmire they were thrown into. A cultural and economic inertia seems to have gripped the black population, strangling self-reliance and fostering the delusion that the forces of positive change will not come from within local communities, but from some outside manna. What I’m trying to say is that the time has passed to blame the past. Current problems are firmly rooted in the present and must be dealt with honestly. High levels of infant mortality, unemployment, illegitimacy, excessive dependence on transfer payments, and poor educational attainment cannot all be blamed indefinitely on outside influences. The lingering fatalism which sustained these phenomena still continues.
As an amateur economist of sorts, I have my own theory on the future of the Delta. I think that in not too many future generations the vast majority of industries which remain will be natural resource based....rice mills, cotton compresses, catfish processing plants and the like. From my volunteer work with the chamber of commerce I learned that there is a critical juncture in the life of any industry. There is a time when key monetary decisions are made. Should an industry reinvest where it’s currently located? Should the new and modern machinery and equipment needed to compete in a technological world be placed somewhere else? I have seen, all too often, when this time comes, that some of our fine local companies chose not to make this investment in the Delta. They take their profits and walk away from the table. Take a look at some of our industrial parks in Washington, Bolivar, Sunflower, Humphreys and other Delta counties. They are becoming industrial ghost towns of vacant, and abandoned buildings. Despite some isolated pockets, the best business climate has not evolved throughout the Delta.
The recent development of riverside gambling has brought some new jobs and new faces to the region. This economic strategy is inherently flawed. It in no way can be sold as a broad based scheme to lift the region from its doldrums. The basic strategy is to take money from the pockets of local people and send it to a corporate headquarters in a distant state. The crumbs falling off the crap tables have been fed to us as our salvation. What a distasteful partnership this is! State and local government teaming with common gamblers to find new and better ways to fleece people of their money in the name of economic development! The technology, science, and expertise of giant gambling enterprises has been brought to our land with the help of our government to exploit our own people. I am so glad this happened when I was not present in the state. (I do not mention riverboat gambling in my tale because the events which occurred predated this questionable development.)
While our natural climate has four distinct seasons, the Delta is characterized by a grinding tropical summer. High heat and high humidity for at least four months are enough to wear down the heartiest soul. Gray skies and prolonged cold rains characterize the winter months. Our spring and fall should represent the highlight of our local climate. They are ruined, however, by widespread use of agricultural chemicals. Fall defoliants, and spring pesticide applications are enough to sicken the body and soul of any outdoor person. There is disturbing evidence that this widespread use of noxious agricultural chemicals has caused higher than normal rates of cancer. There is too much anecdotal evidence to overlook this issue. Sadly, the vested economic interests will never let this concern go anywhere.
We Mississippians have what we call a “sense of place” about our state. We feel that we are defined by the town and region we live, its unique history and culture, its people, and institutions. Despite the less than stellar image which Mississippi has, we Mississippians will defend it to embarrassing lengths. Our land and water, towns, roads, buildings, churches, friends, neighbors, flag, and events are part of our inner being. Passing years give a mythic quality to this idea of sense of place. For better or worse Mississippians are locked in to the idea more than any other people in the United States.
I guess it’s apparent that this book is set in the Mississippi Delta. As I convey to you the events surrounding my story through this trusted author, and my dear friend, I like to think that the Delta is almost one of my characters. There goes that sense of place idea. Its role is as central to this story as any living breathing being. I must emphasize before going any further that the story I am about to relate to you is true. I believe I am the only one who can pull together all of the facts, circumstances relating to this story. Time and circumstances have dulled some of my memories. For years I have chosen to distance myself from what has happened, chosen to forget. The events of this story, however, have never left me. Finally, I have chosen to reveal them to my confidant who had developed the following manuscript. I really don’t know what my end purpose is. I will leave that to you to decide.
“Who’s out there? I say who’s out there?” No one responded. James Hogg realized his voice was octaves higher than normal. He anxiously turned his gaze away from the enormity of the Mississippi night and into his large and comfortable ranch style home. His wife Gladys, content as a goose and equally fat, was oblivious to his concerns. Dressed in her pajamas, she was relaxing just before bed with yarn and knitting needles. Her short, squat body, spilled into every square centimeter of her padded easy chair. Wiggling the toes on her fat feet, she resembled one of the Three Little Pigs. She was methodically knitting James his winter mittens. The worst heat wave of the summer, he thought, and she knits mittens! If not more than a bit worried, Gladys would have been chided by her husband for her long range planning. Something told him, however, not to dwell on the insignificant now. Something out there wasn’t right. Hogg sensed a presence on his property somewhere in the vastness of this oppressive summer evening, yet somewhere very close to his house. He could not pinpoint why he felt his unease. Perhaps it was basic animal instinct. Perhaps he was a man close to the daily life and death struggles of the fertile land he was a part of. It really didn’t matter why. It just mattered that the feeling was there, and that it was real, and it was strong.
Quickly turning again to scrutinize the encircling darkness of the summer night, he thought he saw movement in the huge pecan orchard that was his front yard. Squinting, craning his thick neck, and running his hands through his scarce white hair, he tried to discern what the presence was. He was reluctant to exit his home. Bone tired from the day’s toil and dressed in shorts, a pajama top, and his house slippers, he felt annoyed and unprepared to deal with this unexpected intrusion. A figure seemed to furtively move from one large tree trunk to another. He called out yet again. Again no one responded. “Damn those leaves,” Hogg muttered. The huge canopy of green topping the pecan trees was no longer an asset to him. These leaves which so effectively stopped the scorching Deep South summer sun from baking his house and grounds were now shielding the full moon’s rays from illuminating his surrounding yard. Where there might have been moonlight, there was only darkness.
A nagging apprehension was becoming real to Hogg. He often reflected on what he might have to do to protect himself and family living alone and isolated in Mississippi’s sparsely settled Delta region. During the civil rights turmoil of the ‘60s he slept with his shotgun next to his bed. He told all his friends he feared he would be a target for Blacks exploiting the civil unrest. More realistically and privately he was more worried about opportunistic whites taking advantage of the unsettled social atmosphere. Whatever the source of his worries, he lived an isolated life in south Washington County. Rich, white planters like himself were continual targets of the diatribes from the have nots, no matter what their color. Hogg liked to complain about the transfer payments, welfare, food stamps, and the like, which supported many poor families, mostly black. In fact Washington County’s leading source of income was transfer payments. What many didn’t realize was Hogg was one of the area’s largest beneficiaries of federal largesse. He received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the federal government not to plant all of his rich land.
Back to the present. Deep down he knew he would use the gun if he had to. When he said his prayers, like every good Mississippian did, he prayed he would never have to shoot another human being. He had always been a peaceful man. Farming (and not farming) cotton on his 2,000 acres was all he knew and all he cared about. Owning his land and inheriting money made it possible for him to shun credit and the associated worries brought on by a poor crop year and the resulting inadequate cash flow. His friends kidded him often, saying he was one man who had it all. The nagging apprehension, however, was the isolated safety of living ten miles from Glen Allan, the nearest village, and almost thirty miles from Greenville, the largest community in the region. In his thirty five odd years of farming, his apprehension was unwarranted. Tonight, though, something was different. The short hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end. He looked at his arm. Goose bumps covered it.
Making an effort to control his voice, and make it sound as normal as possible, he told his wife “Bring me my ten gauge.” Not hearing her move, he reluctantly turned to face her. As coolly as he could, he again repeated his command. Gladys laboriously rose from the chair and waddled to the large, oak, gun cabinet. I’m stupid, he thought to himself, as Gladys lifted his Remington out of its cradle. If something is out there why the hell isn’t the dog barking? A chill ran down his spine as he blurted out “Where the hell is the god damned dog?” Thinking his question rhetorical Gladys didn’t answer. She placed the gun down and was closing the cabinet doors. Armadillos and possums rooting in their yard were always feeling her husband’s wrath. Getting his shotgun was not an unusual task for her.
Turning again to peer into the evening’s darkness Hogg caught only the slightest glimpse of the object rocketing towards his chest. Moving with uncommon speed, he had no time to react. As it struck him, he flew violently backwards. He was knocked out of his slippers. As the living room floor and his back met with a frightful thud, Hogg knew he was in mortal trouble. Gasping for a breath on the ground, a searing pain racked his chest. Hogg knew his sternum had to be crushed. His disjointed mind swam in a painful, dizzy fog as his head jerked uncontrollably from side to side. The thing that hit him was up and moving into his house. Trying desperately to open eyes that refused to obey his mind’s command, he thought he heard his name being screamed, a shotgun being discharged, a heavy object hitting the floor.
A faint smile appeared on Hogg’s lips. Gladys got him with the shotgun. The small sense of satisfaction in him quickly disappeared as the agony from his chest knifed through his entire body. He felt himself being lifted by his belt and pajama collar. Pain numbed his mind as he was hurled through the air. Mercifully he was unconscious as he hit the wall with a sickly crunch.
The Nitta Yuma community was silent. Everyone in this secluded, and neglected farming enclave had turned in for the night. The unmistakable aroma of domesticated chickens, pigs, and goats permeated the air. No one made any effort to lessen the odors arising from the handful of outhouses which served the score of farm worker’s shacks. Abandoned vehicles, crushed fertilizer drums, and assorted discarded appliances littered the grounds of this hamlet of isolated, poor, black, farm workers. The rotting skeletons of once fine residences and farming headquarters bore silent yet eloquent testimony to the fact that Nitta Yuma had been in steady decline for decades. Like similar areas in the Mississippi Delta, a disproportionate share of the very young and the very old made up the community’s population.
Thelma Jackson lived in or around Nitta Yuma for most of her seventy nine years. Born into the grinding poverty of the disenfranchised farm laborer, she never remembered leaving Sharkey County. Hoeing, picking cotton, bearing children, rearing them, helping raise her numerous grand babies and now living out her remaining years...that was her lot in life. She never thought it would be any different. Her expectations were never greater than what was immediately before her.
Thelma’s two room shotgun house was adequate shelter. She even had an electric fan. Air conditioning here was unheard of. Her family often tried to persuade her to move to subsidized housing in nearby Rolling Fork. She refused. She would then have to give up her chickens. Just couldn’t do that. Recently her meager residence was sealed of all its cracks and holes by some of her grandsons. Sometimes the breezes of spring and summer felt good through those holes. No matter, her grandsons fixed it so the windows opened and closed easily. Her shack had the luxury of a screened porch. A broken piece of mirror hung beside her front door. It was quite utilitarian. If a ghost, or haint happened to be about and wanted to enter her front door, as they are prone to do, it would see itself in the mirror and be frightened off by its own reflection. Thelma couldn’t be too careful. The eight foot high marble Ten Commandments sitting near Highway 61 in front of a quaint white church also made her feel safe. Like so many insignificant, rural places, Nitta Yuma had its own peculiar attraction. A passing motorist might stop for a minute or two to look at the marble monument. With no stores or reason to spend money, the opportunity was lost for even the most meager economic development opportunity. No one could recall who placed the commandments there or for what purpose. No matter. No one would do anything harmful to good Christian people with those fine monuments so close by.
Advancing age and an uncooperative body made her a light sleeper. Anything from a hoot owl to the occasional passing car on nearby Highway 61 would awaken her. As Thelma came out of her sleep this summer night she turned quickly and abruptly in her bed. Something interrupted her slumber. Whenever she woke in the middle of the night there would always be a reason, no matter how trivial. She was a bit befuddled. This evening the reason for her awakening was not readily apparent. Sitting perfectly still for a number of moments, Thelma realized that the silence surrounding her was unusual, out of place. That was it! The quiet was absolute, no crickets, no insects, nor rats prowling amongst the chickens. Nothing!
Still erect but sitting perfectly motionless, Thelma heard her screen door being pulled on from the outside. The meager eye hook locking her porch was keeping her uninvited, unexpected, and unwanted visitor out. A series of quick jerks on the still hooked door startled Thelma almost to the point of panic. “Haints,” she mumbled to herself. “The haints come to get me. Lord have mercy on my soul.” As the jerks became more rapid and more violent Thelma tried to scream but no sound came from her shriveled, emaciated throat. She was now violently terrified. She began to tremble. When the porch screen door was yanked open pulling the eye hook out, Thelma fell backward into her bed pulling the covers over her head.
The intruder was on her porch now. A blow to the front door shattered it. She heard her mirror fall from its resting place and smash into countless pieces. Heavy footsteps spoke of a presence in the shack. “Got nuthin’ to save me now,” she croaked, tightly closing her eyes. Hot urine pooled between her legs. An eternity of seconds ticked by. Nothing. Summoning an inner strength from years of toil and endurance, she opened her eyes. Face to face with the intruder in the palest of diffused moonlight, she cocked her head in a second of inquisitive reflection. The last thing she remembered before entering eternity was strong hands on her throat and bile rising from her stomach.
“Sheriff Clack, everyone from my family except Cousin Buddy was at Uncle James and Aunt Gladys’ funeral. He hasn’t been at work for about a week and no one has seen him. Why don’t you do something? My Aunt Martha and I are extremely concerned.” Hal Hogg’s diminutive and matronly aunt was close at his shoulder. She was ill at ease in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Washington County Sheriff’s office.
Hal was red eared and frustrated. He leaned his tall and rather ungainly body over the thigh high wooden railing separating him from the Sheriff’s desk. His perpetually wrinkled, tan cotton slacks and white polo shirt hung loosely from his long, angular frame. The railing keeping the bookish and scholarly Hal at bay was worn and filthy from thousands of pairs of hands grasping and rubbing it in anguish, fright, despair, and anger. In the small, grimy, room dominated by a surplus army desk and outdated radio communication system, there was an aura of decay. Hal was not about to allow the railing to serve its intended purpose, a barrier more psychological than physical, distancing the authority figure of the Sheriff from outsiders infringing on him from the outside world. Incongruously, the baby faced, whiskerless, crew cut young man unrelentingly pressed the Sheriff
Hal had gesticulated furiously when he spoke. More than once his black rimmed glasses slid down his rather common and undistinguished nose. During his past two years as a fresh, new, high school teacher right out of college, he learned that quickly moving his hands and arms and speaking forcefully was one of the most effective ways for a lily white teacher to capture and hold the attention of tough, black, public school, ghetto students Despite being physically ungainly he was a skilled communicator. This seemed to overcome his uncoordinated and rather awkward persona.
Rolling his chair back in retreat from this aggressive and skilled speaker, and sounding more conciliatory than he would have liked, the huge Sheriff drawled in the characteristic Delta vernacular, “Look young fella, your cousin Buddy took two weeks vacation from his job a couple of days before these tragic deaths. He’s taken the same length of vacation about this same time of year for three years now. I checked it all out. He’s single and unmarried, same as you, and he’s got a decent job. He’s off chasin’ ass somewhere.” Maynard Clack abruptly stopped, ran his hands through his obviously dyed jet black hair and realized he said something he shouldn’t have.
Quickly turning to a very proper Martha Hogg, standing wide eyed next to Hal, the Sheriff cocked his head, forced a quick grin on his meaty yet creased and leathered face and rose from his chair. His six foot frame towered over Aunt Martha. A disarming smile revealed a life of poor dental hygiene. Missing teeth, and the black and yellowed remnants of numerous others made Martha Hogg inwardly shudder. The remnants of tobacco juice stained what few teeth remained with a brown sheen. “My apologies Miss Hogg. This is a difficult situation I’m in. While trying to deal with the pressures of the position and,” turning to Hal and removing his grin, then continuing “sometimes less than understanding people, I become less than discreet.”
Aunt Martha raised her head, replete with light blue hair, in a very dignified manner. Her sparse, thinning hair seemed to be colored to match the simple ankle length blue shift that hung from her almost emaciated body. She slowly blinked, and using both hands lifted her fine leather purse to her neck. The blue veins running through her hands and arms seemed to complete the color coordination of her basic ensemble. Resolutely she told the massive Sheriff, “Please continue.” It was incongruous that this tiny woman could give any kind of direction to man who towered above her so.
Calmly the Sheriff went on. “We’ve sent out routine inquiries to law enforcement agencies as well as local travel agents trying to locate Buddy. We’ve also contacted his employer. Tried to find some of his friends in Vicksburg. Seems he doesn’t have too many. These things are all routine. Apart from that, we’re not going to make any special effort to find a youngster on vacation. Heaven knows we’ve got enough to do. In a couple of days, when his vacation is scheduled to end, if he’s not back in his office, then we’ll make a special effort to find him. Until then, we’ll just wait. There’s absolutely no reason to suspect him in the murders and no reason to think he’s in any kind of danger. Why don’t both of you just relax and take it easy?”
Not content with the Sheriff’s reply but put at bay with the almost passive demeanor, Hal peered at the Sheriff with his undistinguished brown eyes and said, “You mean to tell me you’re not going to do anything at all?” His voice was that of an inquisitive school boy.
Sensing a let up in Hal’s attack, the Sheriff became more aggressive. He moved around his desk and took a step toward the Hoggs. “Mr. Hogg, Miss Hogg, we’ve done everything we can do right now. The police in Vicksburg have been notified of the tragedy. When Buddy shows at work they’ll get hold of him and tell him of the situation. There’s not a whole heck of a lot we can do here in Greenville. He’s in another county.”
Not willing to be put off so easily and felling his Aunt Martha nudging his forward with her bony elbow, Hal persisted. “Any other news about that old black lady murdered in Nitta Yuma? From what I read in the paper she was killed in a similar fashion to my aunt and uncle. A lot of things were similar. Nothing was stolen from her house. She had no enemies and was perfectly harmless.”
The Sheriff sighed deeply, his pot belly and massive chest rising perceptibly. Food and beverage stains from a recent meal adorned his uniform shirt. He sounded almost sympathetic. “Nothing new on that yet. As you know...”
Hal picked up immediately from the tack. “Yeah I know. It happened in another county and you have no jurisdiction.”
The Sheriff didn’t like the barbed comment but kept his temper. “The only thing I can do is share information with Sharkey County. It looks to me though, that it’s the work of some crazy. Probably some Yankee passing through.” (Yankees were always convenient scapegoats.) “Like you said, the killings were similar, but your family and that old black lady were as different as night and day...economic status, social class, you know, the whole thing. We simply can’t find any reason why any of them was killed.”
“Surely you have some leads you’re working on, some connection you’re trying to link together. Can’t you tell us anything?” Hal pleaded.
Shuffling a pile of papers from the top of his disheveled desk, the Sheriff found what he was looking for. The sheet looked like a scrap in his huge hands. He began to speak extemporaneously from the document. “It’s obvious that the suspect or suspects have enormous physical strength. All indications point to the fact that two of the victims were picked up and flung through the air with great force, smashing into the interior walls and floors of their homes. Another was bludgeoned, skull smashed, brains spilled all over the place, but no weapon found.” Aunt Martha cringed and whimpered slightly. The Sheriff continued. “No signs of a vehicle which transported the killer or killers was present at either site. Footprints on your aunt and uncle’s living room floor show that someone without shoes tracked up an awful mess in there. From our investigations of your uncle’s employees we could find no one who would go shoeless to their house for any reason. As a routine measure we sent photographs and the track measurements to the crime lab in Jackson. They tell us, from the size of the footprints, that the person who made them was about five seven. From the wide coarse nature of the prints it appears that the person made it a habit to go without footwear. That, Hogg, is all I know.”
Hal’s head dropped despairingly. He knew the Washington County Sheriff’s Department was doing the best it could. He also knew that the Sheriff was a poorly educated and minimally trained local. He was elected to office not because of his knowledge of law enforcement, but because he was a popular good ole boy who happened to know a lot of people, and who coincidently needed a job. A well-educated law enforcement major from a university setting just wouldn’t get elected in the Delta. There would be distrust and condescension concerning his or her uppity, professional ways. That’s just the way it was in Mississippi.
Hal thought it frustrating to be so terribly wronged yet so helpless to bring about justice. He knew he could never sit still and be totally passive, especially with the likes of the Sheriff handling things. Although he didn’t care much for his pompous, arrogant cousin, Buddy was still family. For some strange reason he was a favorite of Aunt Martha’s.
Hal reflected that he and his cousin had much in common. They were both orphaned early in life. Hal had been raised by Aunt Martha in Greenville. Buddy was taken from his hometown of Vicksburg and raised by an older sister and her husband in McGeehee, Arkansas. As soon as Buddy came of age, however, he returned to Vicksburg. He was a true Mississippian. His roots ran deep in Vicksburg and nothing could keep him away.
Their family was indeed a curious riddle. Although there weren’t very many of them, the various family segments were not very close. Somewhere back in antiquity there was trouble. Something terrible occurred which alienated some members of the family from others. Some wound up with money and property while others didn’t. Uncle James remained a debt free farmer because of his inheritance of farmland and cash. Even Buddy inherited a number of houses in Vicksburg. Hal was one of the have nots. He bore no grudges, though. Too much was made of the actions of people whom no one alive ever knew. Bitterness would change nothing. Stop daydreaming here in the Sheriff’s office, he told himself. Time to take Aunt Martha home. He gently grabbed his aunt’s elbow and walked her towards the door. Before reaching it, though, they were almost bowled over by two white Sheriff’s deputies and a handcuffed, young, black man who exploded through the door in a stumbling tangle of arms, legs, and bodies.
“Damn crackers, no good honkeys. Unchain me and I’ll whip your asses. You guys are scum. Your mamas are....” The black man’s venomous verbal barrage was halted by a wicked fist to his mid-section. Like a cat, the seemingly ungainly Sheriff Clack had vaulted the wooden railing, pushed his deputies aside, and felled the raging prisoner with a blow to his solar plexus.
Hal and Aunt Martha watched dumfounded, their jaws agape. The Sheriff, with fists clenched, towered over his writhing, and moaning prisoner. In a tough and condescending tone he said “Sorrell, try and learn some manners when you’re in my office. After all, there’s a lady present. That talk may go over in a juke joint, but it doesn’t go over here.” The moment’s excitement had animated the Sheriff dramatically. He was breathing heavily from the short burst of energy and the instantaneous excitement.
The lawman bent down and grabbed his victim’s belt with his large, calloused hand. He lifted the gasping man like a sack of flour and carried him to a chair. The hapless prisoner was roughly thrown down, almost knocking the chair over. The Sheriff’s physical power in handling the six foot prisoner was impressive. Hal was amazed at his strength. “You young fellas got a lot to learn about handlin’ these nigras,” the Sheriff said contemptuously to his marveling deputies. “If you want to be in law enforcement in these parts you fight fire by pissin’ on it. Oh, pardon me again ma’am,” the Sheriff said in a condescending manner, quickly looking to Aunt Martha. He obviously didn’t care about offending her now. His blood was up and he was in his element.
“Let’s go, Hal,” the gentile woman said in her most haughty manner. “We should not dwell too long in the company of low lifes. They’ll soil our reputation.” Her southern diction was perfect to the point of cliché. The Sheriff and his deputies exchanged glances and snickered.
“Go to the car, Auntie. I’ll join you in a minute. I want to talk to this young prisoner.” Hal was oblivious to the Sheriff’s rudeness to his aunt. Martha Hogg immediately took her nephew’s advice. She stepped out of the Sheriff’s office and was engulfed by the intense heat of the July afternoon. Hal turned his attention to the still dazed prisoner. A swollen, half closed eye told of recent violence. His finely tailored and once elegant cream colored shirt and brown slacks were soiled and torn. The imported shoes covering Sorrell’s feet looked as though they had been grated over unfinished concrete. “Are you all right, Lionel? Is there anything I can do for you,” Hal asked sympathetically.
“Just screw off teacher,” Lionel Sorrell said hoarsely. His lithe, athletic torso spoke of a fine physical specimen. His hands strained to free him from the unyielding cuffs. Cords of muscle rippled on his arms and neck. Being chained was an ultimate humiliation. Numerous facial bruises around his mouth and eyes were apparent through his very black skin. Blood dripped from his scalp. His close cropped, finely curled hair was dusted with soil and grass clippings. The man had taken a serious beating.
“Lionel, I want to help you. You need to see a doctor. Do you have an attorney? Can I...”
“I said screw off.” Sorrell glowered at Hal, his eyes filled with rage and anger. Hal was momentarily awed by the intensity of hatred coming from the chained captive.
The Sheriff had been whispering with his deputies during Hal’s short encounter with Sorrell. He turned his attention to Hal and stated “Back off, Hogg,”