Published on Wednesday, October 12, 2011
By J. S. Bell
Archie Maynor shuffled past the wooden, hand-painted city limit sign of Mitchellsville without looking up. He couldn't read it anyway, so what did it matter what the sign said? He knew it was Mitchellsville and he knew it was a place where colored people were not welcome.
Archie Maynor had no choice. Archie Maynor was going to Mitchellsville, welcome or not.
If he owned a pair of boots, Archie still wouldn't make six feet tall by a couple of hands, but that didn't matter either as he'd never owned a pair of shoes or boots in his life. Thin as a cedar fence rail, Archie looked like he could fall down a gopher hole feet first and not touch the sides. But looks deceived. Archie could work from can see to can't, and then some. The proof lay in his hardened palms, his callused feet and the steady, sure way he went about his business.
Right now, his business involved getting to Gaylord's Store in the town of Mitchellsville, no matter they wanted him there or not. A bushel basket full of choices, he did not have.
Archie kept his eyes down, staying off the boardwalk, watching the dust of the street curl around his toes as he kept putting one foot in front of the other. He felt like all the folk in town watched him pass, and the farther into town he got, the heavier the weight of their combined gaze. Soon he felt like he waded deeper and deeper into a pond of thick molasses.
The middle of seven buildings lining Main Street, Gaylord's Store stood one story tall, every wall out of plumb and the entire structure leaning to the left like a drunken cowboy. The front and back doors stood open, allowing the stifling summer breeze to slip through the store. Sacks of grain were stacked like cordwood to the right of the door, rusting farm tools scattered along the left.
At the hitching rail, four horses were tied, fine animals, hard ridden. The dust and muck of their travels remained, their coats uncleaned. Archie wanted to find a curry comb and give those horses a quick brushing; he sorely hated to see an animal treated that way. In the end though, he didn't pause, climbing onto the wooden porch with his deliberate, measured step. He had things to do and no time for another man's horse, no matter what the animal's condition. Archie gave no outward sign of the huge bird that seemed to be rampaging through his insides, hammering the underneath side of his chest bone. He passed from the bright sunlight into the eclipse beyond the front door and shuffled to a stop, glancing from up under his lowered brow to get the lay of the land.
Archie Maynor had never seen the inside of Gaylord's store. There was a smaller place that sold to coloreds through the back room where he normally went for supplies. Problem was, he already tried there, but they didn't have what he needed. He was down to his last chance.
A trailhand browsed through a pile of denim pants, one pair hanging over his shoulder already. He didn't even glance up when Archie shuffled past him.
Four white men lounged in chairs around a scarred table, beer and shot glasses scattered about. When a cat first sees a mouse, he cocks his head, his eyes get big and you can almost see him smile with anticipation. That's what these fellows looked like; a cat who's just seen a mouse. The table stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by dry goods stacked willy-nilly on tables, on benches, on handmade shelves and on the floor. Archie would have no idea how to find anything in the scattering of food, gear, clothes and who-knows-what that was piled without rhyme nor reason.
On his left, behind a long counter that doubled as a bar, stood a portly man wearing a white apron over his bib overalls and red-checked shirt.
"What do you want?" the apron-wearing man sneered. Archie took him to be Mr. Gaylord.
"Suh," Archie's voice came out raspy and dry. He swallowed and tried again. "Suh, I's sorry to trouble you..."
"Well, you done that already. I ast you what you want."
"Mistuh," Archie said. "Doctah Day, you know, the colored doctah that sees to my people? Doctah Day say my little girl needs somethin' to clear up an affection she got from scratching a skeeter bite. It done swole up and got affected all over her belly. He wrote it down on this heah papah."
Archie pulled a rumpled piece of paper from his front shirt pocket and shuffled to the counter to offer it to Mr. Gaylord. He smoothed it down with tender strokes, making sure all the wrinkles were out.
"I cain't pronounce it," Archie tapped the paper with one rough finger. "But he wrote it out clear."
Gaylord leaned over and peered at the writing through his half glasses. He had a pumpkin head with a ring of hair circling his bald spot and a red potato of a nose. A drop of sweat fell off his brow and made a wet splotch on the paper.
"Carbolic Acid," he said. "Yeah, I got that, but it comes at a dear price. Uh, about," he looked at the table of rowdies, "About a dollar a bottle. You got a dollar?"
"Yassuh," Archie couldn't read, but he could do some math, especially when it came to money. "I gots enough for four bottles."
"Whoo!" One of the rowdies at the table shouted. "Darkie's come to town with a whole four dollars in his pocket. What's the world comin' to?"
Archie ignored him and concentrated on staring at the counter, not meeting anybody's eyes, wearing his most humble expression.
"Well," Gaylord said. "It don't make no never mind. I ain't sellin' nothing to colored people out of my store. You go on. Get back to your own kind."
"But, suh," Archie used the same measured pace to speak as he did to plow or chop cotton or clear a stump. "My daughtah. Doc Day say she prolly gonna die, if'n she don't get the affection cleaned out. He say that carba..., carbaholic asset is the stuff she needs. In order so she can live. He din't have none, is why I'm here."
"You think I care about one more little pickaninny baby in this world?" Gaylord pointed at the door. "Now git!"
Archie stood a moment, steeling his nerve to make one final appeal. He honestly did not know what words he could use to make himself understood, words that might appeal to Mr. Gaylord.
He suspected the shopkeeper played to his audience and he might be more inclined to listen, had the rowdies not been there. Gaylord kept glancing at the table, like he was looking for approval. Archie could tell a lot about how white folk acted while never lifting his eyes to meet theirs.
"Now, hold on Gaylord." One of the drinkers at the table swaggered over to the counter. The biggest of the lot, he had a full head of dark hair and a long, curved mustache. He wore a plain, faded blue shirt and black jeans tucked into dusty boots. The thing that caught Archie's gaze was the pistol on one hip in a tied-down holster. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the others wore their weapons in a similar fashion. A crew of gunslingers and outlaws, riding through; no working man would wear his guns so.
Jes' my luck, find me a passel of white killers, coiled up like a nest of snakes under a 'mater vine.
"How bad you need this here medicine, boy?" The big gunslinger leaned against the counter on one elbow, looking at him like Archie was a cow he wanted to buy... or steal.
"I needs it bad, suh. My daughtah, she might die without it."
"What are you up to, Jeff?" called one of the outlaws at the table. That's how Archie saw them, as outlaws. What else could they be? The speaker, a sandy-haired gunslinger, took a sip of whiskey, eyes sparkling with mirth.
"Well, here's where I'm going," Jeff said. "My pal over yonder, Randall, he thinks that niggers don't feel things like love and hate same as white people do. Ain't that right, Randall?"
A black-haired man in a leather vest, his face, tanned dark by sun and weathered with hate, turned his chair around to face the counter. "That's about the size of her."
"And I say that just ain't so," Jeff went on. "I say they feel things just like people do. So I think we need us an experiment to figure out who's right, me or Randall."
"It's like this. Randall thinks that bucks like y'all are wild animals, just rut and grunt and make more critters just like you. He thinks you feel nothing at all about them offspring. Ain't that right, Randall?"
"Preach it, brother." Randall and his buddies sat around the table and grinned. The sandy-haired gunslinger slapped Randall on the back and laughed.
Jeff twisted his lips in concentration for a minute and looked around the store. His eyes fell on the table where his gang sat and lit up with an idea. Archie stood there, rooted in place, needing to stand his ground as best he could and come up with a way to talk Mr. Gaylord into selling him the medicine, no matter that he jacked up the price four times what Doc Day said it would be. The bird caged in his chest started to beat itself to death, hammering at his insides. He tasted a fresh penny in his mouth, which was strange as they were all in his pockets.
"I know! Here's what we're gonna do."
Jeff went to his place at the table and leaned down by the empty chair. When he came up, he held a tin can without the lid, which he brought over and set on the counter between them. Brown stains down the side and the sickly-sweet smell of tobacco confirmed that Jeff had used the can as a makeshift spittoon.
He pushed the can down the counter toward Archie. "Now to prove you love your daughter same as a white man, making me right, all you need to do is drink up this here can of tobacco juice."
The gang by the table giggled and back-slapped each other some more. Mr. Gaylord stood back away from the counter, his back against his shelves of dry goods stacked there. He didn't laugh, but he didn't look like he wanted to jump in the middle either.
"No, now don't thank me yet." Jeff raised his hands in a 'hold on' gesture, both palms out. "Randall could still be right. Should you just head on out the door, it'll prove you don't love your child enough to do what's needed to make her well. Now what I'll do, I'll guarantee that if you drink this here fine elixir, Mr. Gaylord over there will sell you all the medicine you can buy. No wait! I'll go even better. The first bottle is on me." He dug in his pocket and slapped a silver dollar on the bar.
"Whaddya say, boy?" Jeff asked. "Do you love your daughter or not?"
Archie couldn't move and could barely breathe. For the first time he looked up enough to see directly into Jeff's eyes and found no pity, no remorse and no kindness. He looked around at the table full of his pals, all of them grinning and carrying on. Two of them, the sandy-haired boy and the other man at the table were wagering money on whether he would or would not. All of them had the look of wolves hounding a wounded deer.
"Mr. Gaylord," Jeff said, "do you agree that you'll sell this boy his medicine if he proves he loves his daughter?"
"Uh, y-yes, sure I will."
"There," Jeff turned to Archie. "See, even Mr. Gaylord agrees to the deal. Now it's all up to you."
"Go on, buck!" the sandy-haired outlaw sang out. "That there ought to taste like the finest of whiskey to a nigger."
Archie looked into the tin can and saw a brownish scum of liquid, a trace of foam around the edges. A weedy clump of darker brown swayed at the bottom, like reeds in muddy pond water. The can was three-quarters full and gave off the odor of wet tobacco, spit and, since Jeff had been drinking while chewing tobacco, a trace smell of whiskey was present as well.
A tumble of pictures rattled through Archie's head. The first picture was him walking out of here, not drinking the awful mess. That picture was quickly followed by a picture of little Dorothy, her belly all swollen around the weeping sore, a foul-smelling pus draining out. Then he saw the graves of his first two little babies, taken young and leaving them with just Dorothy. Finally, he saw the face of his wife, tear-streaked and pleading as he dug up his jar of hard-saved nickels and pennies, preparing to go to Mitchellsville to buy the medicine written out on the piece of paper.
At the end, he knew he couldn't face his wife or his daughter if he came back empty handed.
He reached out and took hold of the tin can, but didn't raise it up, working on the nerve to do what he needed to do.
"That's it, boy," Jeff yelled. "Prove old Randall wrong! Go on, drink up." His pals hooted and hollered some more.
Fixing the picture of Dorothy in his mind, Archie Maynor lifted the can to his lips and closed his eyes, his throat working to get ready for the vile mixture to come. The rank smell assaulted his nostrils and it was all he could do not to puke right then and there.
He took a deep breath and held it, started to tip the can back.
The quiet voice came from near the front door, startling everyone. The command resonated through the store, without a raised voice and without inflection, cutting off the monkey chatter from the table of outlaws.
Archie set the can down and looked to see a white man of average size and build, dressed rough in a worn shirt and patched jeans. He stood near the piles of clothes in Gaylord's store, a pair of pants over one shoulder and a six gun stuck in his waistband. Archie had plumb forgot about him since he came in.
"What was that, friend?" Jeff ambled away from the counter. His gang scraped and scooted their chairs around so they all faced the door.
"I said 'stop'." The man acted like he was ordering soup. Archie couldn't see him well, as he was backlit by the open door, but what he saw wasn't impressive. Another ragged cowboy, drifting loose as a goose feather.
"Who're you?" Jeff demanded.
"I'm just a cowhand, looking for work."
I's right, thought Archie. Nobody special.
"We're having us an experiment here, cowhand. What gives you the right to step in."
"It weren't no experiment." The cowboy dropped his saddlebags to the floor and stepped a couple of paces into the darker interior of the store. "You were set to torture this old boy here and I won't stand for it. You don't treat no one that way, man nor beast."
The cowboy looked to Gaylord. "Sell him his medicine."
"Don't." Jeff barked when Gaylord started to move.
"Look, friend," the cowboy drawled. "I don't want no trouble..."
"Then just be about your bidness, friend." The big outlaw looked back at Archie and pointed to the tin can. "Drink up, boy."
"No," the cowboy said. He addressed Archie directly for the first time. "They can't make you do that."
"Well, stranger," Jeff drawled and something in his tone must have been a signal, for the other members of his group stood up with a screech of chairs, all facing the lone man in the door. "Just how do you plan to stop us? There's four of us, and one of you."
"Lookie there," the cowboy said to Archie. "Jeff here can count all the way to four without even looking at his hand."
Archie didn't laugh or crack a smile. He knew better than get in the middle of white folk business; it was a rule he'd lived by for over forty years.
"Let me ask this another way," Jeff snarled, all pretense of playfulness gone. "Are you prepared to die for this nigger?"
"No," the cowboy said, as still and quiet as a lazy stream. "I ain't prepared to die for him." He looked at Archie. "No offense."
"No, Suh," Archie said. He stood there as if planted into the floor, no more able to move than a cigar store Indian.
The cowboy looked back at the gang of outlaws, and when he spoke next, there was an edge of steel in his voice, like a sword being pulled slowly from its sheath.
"I am prepared to do what's right, just like every decent man would," said the man, lines creasing the sides of his eyes when he squinted. "Least ways, if he wanted to look in the mirror when he shaves."
"Partner," Jeff sneered, "you come to the wrong store today. Best take a'hold of that piece, cause the time for talking is done."
What happened next, Archie could never fully describe, though he tried many times. All the outlaws grabbed iron at the same time, masters of the fast draw, and all of them fired within split seconds of each other. Chips flew from the doorframe around the cowboy, who stood there with a cool deliberation and pulled his pistol from his waistband, aiming down the barrel like he was shooting tin cans.
The store filled with powder smoke, choking and thick as outlaw and cowboy had at each other, pistols banging and cracking, tongues of reddish fire spiking from pistol barrels. Randall went down first, shot in the face. The sandy-haired outlaw pitched backward, ass over tea kettle, by the cowboy's second or third shot. Jeff died clutching his gushing throat and the last outlaw crumpled in a heap, hit twice.
Four men down with six shots.
The cowboy weaved a bit as he came up to the counter and laid his smoking pistol down.
"Sell this man his medicine," he told Mr. Gaylord.
"And sell it at a white man's price."
Gaylord hurried to comply and sacked up four brown bottles in a poke. When Archie dug in his pocket for his money, Gaylord shook him off.
"On the house," was all he said.
The cowboy coughed and when Archie looked at him, he saw the man's teeth were bright with fresh blood. Three red patches soaked the front of his shirt and started to melt together into one.
"Mistuh," Archie addressed a white man while looking into his eyes for the first time in his life. "Why'd you go and do that? You all shot to pieces now."
"It was the right thing to do. You go on now, get on home to your little girl. Take them horses out there, seeing how these gentlemen won't be needin' 'em any more."
The cowhand staggered to a vacant chair and fell down more than sat in it.
"I'm just gonna sit and rest a minute." The cowboy's chin fell to his chest and he mumbled, "I'll be on my way here directly."
Scott Bell has over 20 years of experience protecting the assets of major companies. Currently engaged in a sales role for a global security provider, Scott has been everything from a Store Detective at Montgomery Wards to a Director of Loss Prevention at CompUSA.
Scott holds a BS in Criminal Justice from North Texas State University. He has also completed advanced training in interrogation and interviewing through the Wicklander/Zulawski seminars and the John E. Reid programs. Scott has been both a panel member and moderator of programs presented to the Source Tagging Council on contemporary topic of the merchant/suppler relationship relevant to Electronic Article Surveillance and RFID integration. Scott has been recognized by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners as a Certified Fraud Examiner, and by the American Society of Industrial Security as a Physical Security Professional.