Doc (Part One of Two) by Gregory K Shipman
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Warning: The author has noted that this contains strong language.|
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Doc (Part One of Two)
The night was dark with very little moon. Flickering light came from numerous torches burning here and there in the small North Carolina clearing. A group of twenty or so white men cast slinking shadows as they moved about. The scene was likely reminiscent of one many centuries earlier... perhaps in the Dark Ages. One might even imagine the screams of a victim being burned as a witch. This scene wasn't, however; centuries ago. This was nineteen-twenty-eight, and in the South that was still the Dark Ages.
The white men were dressed in farm clothes... bib overalls, khaki's and denims with collarless shirts. A small green pick-up truck with black fenders idled beneath a crippled oak tree. It was a Ford Model T Runabout built in 'twenty-six and the sheriff of this small town located in Luthor County considered it his most prized possession.
In the bed of the sheriff's truck stood a black man. The torch-lights barely illuminated his beaten, sweat-covered face. His clothes, torn and drenched, were evidence of a battle fiercely fought. Around his neck rested a noose fashioned from a horse-haired rope. The other end of the rope was tied to a thick branch on the oak. His hands were tied behind him... his feet together.
There was neither fear nor anger on the black man's face. If one could have looked long enough and hard enough a slight smile would have been seen tickling the corners of his mouth. The dark eyes had a hardness not seen before by these men. Two or three of the men carried bruises on their faces or bodies. Another had his arm wrapped... it was broken in two places. And yet another had lost an eye. The sweaty, bloodied black man had not made it easy to get him on the back of that Ford.
The sheriff, a two-hundred-forty pound big-bellied former pig-farmer named Denbo, had inched his Ford Runabout slowly forward. The black man stared defiantly at the crowd of lynch-crazed white men. His face was a portrait from Hell and his nostrils flared like Satan's own stallion. The dark eyes were focused on something beyond normal sight. Seconds later his feet kept time in the air as he was slowly choked to death.
The meanest, baddest, craziest black man in the county, Reuben Douglas, died at twenty. And his major crime? Being mean, unbowed and black in this North Carolina town of Whitesburg. The fate-sealing act was refusing to step into a muddy street so a white couple could pass by on the wooden sidewalk. Some things were unpardonable.
The men watched the black man until all movement had stopped. Afterwards they thought they heard whistling on the still night air. Each hurried to individual homes as if chased by Satan.
The young black man left behind a wife, sixteen-year-old and six months pregnant Ava, and a two-year-old son, Rueben Jr. Ava knew something was wrong when her husband wasn't home the next morning but 'worry' never got chores done so she worked through that day and the next.
Reuben's uncles brought his body home two days later. The sheriff told them where to find it. He was buried the following evening on a hill behind his father's house. Women cried. Men shook their heads and said nothing. The sheriff came to get a plate of food after the funeral was over. Everyone knew what he had done. No one thought it strange he showed up. It was, after all, the Dark Ages.
Ava left the little cabin she and her husband had built. It sat on two acres of land not quite fit for anything beyond cursing. The cabin was a hodge-podge of wood planks, scavenged bricks, roofing shingles and sheet metal. The porch could barely support itself, much less people. There was one door, three windows, and a chimney. An old wood stove barely eased the winter cold and nothing eased the summer heat.
Ava and Reuben Jr. moved in with Daddy Douglas. Marcus Douglas was glad to have his pregnant daughter-in-law and grandsons... one of them not yet born.
His wife, Lucinda, had been called home by God two years ago at thirty-eight. A case of pneumonia ended her life. She had always been skinny and frail. A plain woman with watery eyes, she suffered from many illnesses in her life. Her death was no surprise, but was still painful for her husband. He missed her company. A niece had been coming in to cook, clean and make sure he wasn't dead.
When Ava came she took over those responsibilities. Three months later she gave birth to her lynched husband's son. She named him Marcus. She insisted he wasn't named after his grandfather. She said she was just partial to the name.
Ava was a little sprout of a girl. She would never reach five-feet tall. Never weigh more than ninety-five pounds but would always make her presence known. Her skin was dark, eyes brown, teeth white. She rarely raised her voice but still managed to make herself heard. She found God at the age of seven and never lost Him thereafter. She married and then delivered Reuben Jr. before her fourteenth birthday. The young wife and mother was totally devoted to her husband, son, and God... and not necessarily in that order.
Reuben Sr. loved her deeply but he was a hard man to live with. His temper was legend among the coloreds around the small town of Whitesburg. He tolerated no insult to him or his family. He never backed down and rarely took the easy way out. In this North Carolina town and in the nineteen-twenties, Reuben was a lynching waiting to happen.
Reuben Jr., even at two years old, was the image of his father. Those who knew the father could see him mirrored in his son's disturbingly dark eyes. The eyes were brown but looked more like pools of black. The young boy rarely smiled, never laughed and was only gentle with his mother. He would be short like both parents, strong-willed like his mother and mean like his father. As far as his temper... the legend of the father would continue through the son.
Baby brother Marcus would be nothing like him or the father neither ever really knew. Marcus would grow to be an even tempered, happy child. The two brothers would look nothing alike. Marcus would reach five-feet-ten inches and Rueben barely five-feet-six. Marcus would have a curly mop of wooly hair while his shorter brother's hair would remain tight and beady. The baby boy did not inherit the eyes or the temper. Ava loved them both equally. Each would always love her completely.
The years passed and the boys grew. Ava and her sons continued to live with Daddy Douglas. His house sat on a small hill surrounded by 15 acres of trees and farmland. He no longer farmed. He now left it to Lucinda's relatives. He received a small income from their labor and the rent on the small cabins they lived in. His house was a white, two story square box with a peaked roof and a wrap-around porch protected by a matching color railing. The front and back had smaller jutting roofs to keep wet weather at bay. Twin pillars in the front stood guard over 3 wide steps leading from the ground to the porch. The front door was massive and the back one not as much. The windows had dark blue shutters standing stark against the white siding of the home. Green grass battled to grow in the immediate yard... in most places it was losing. A few trees stood guard during the day and cast frightening shadows at night and even more so when the wind howled.
Ava was consistent with her love of God and children. In 'thirty-seven Ava turned twenty and Reuben Jr. six-years-old. Like most boys his age he worked in the tobacco fields, played with other kids, fished in the many streams and dreaded the start of school.
Neither a leader nor a follower, Reuben went his own way. He was serious about everything and he had no close friends. He paid very little attention to his brother, Marcus. Marcus, not quite four years old, was quite pleased with that.
Marcus 'Daddy' Douglas died in his sleep in the summer of 'thirty-nine. He was fifty-six- years old. The only black doctor for thirty-five miles... Doc Washington... pronounced him dead from heart failure. Jeremiah Washington, at seventy-five, looked as though he had one foot in the grave himself. Stoop-shouldered, grey-haired and incredibly wrinkled, he had spent the last forty years doctoring the blacks in and around Whitesburg. The senior Douglas died owing him sixty dollars in past bills. This was not a rare occurrence since many of his patients were dirt poor and often bartering replaced greenbacks. More than a few died still owing. The old stoop-shouldered man knew that sixty dollar debt died with Daddy.
When the doctor left the house, he found eight-year-old Reuben waiting on the porch-steps for him.
"My Granddaddy owes you money?" the boy asked.
"Not anymore. He's gone."
"I'ma pay it."
Jeremiah looked at the small serious-faced boy in front of him. The image of Reuben Sr. looked back as though that lynch-rope had failed in its duty. The boy wore those cold dark eyes, that defiant stance, and the small-framed fury comfortably. The fit was perfect. It was like standing before dynamite and knowing it will go off but not knowing when. In spite of the hot summer air the old man shivered.
"Where you gonna get money?" the doctor asked.
"I'ma work for you."
"Doing what, son?"
"Whatever you need done."
The doctor smiled. "When can you start?"
"I already did," replied the eight-year-old pointing towards the doctor's old nineteen-twenty-five Model T 'Fordor' parked at the bottom of the winding hilly driveway.
Two boys, bruised and bleeding, were tied to a tree next to the car. Both boys looked about ten. Doc Washington, his face a question mark, turned back to Reuben.
"You left your wallet on the front seat. They tried to steal it. I stopped them." Reuben's eyes shone black.
The old man's voice was a whisper as he turned away from those eyes. "Could you untie them and let them go?"
"You the boss man," said poker-faced Reuben as he started down the driveway.
For the next two years Reuben worked for Doc Washington. Reuben Sr. was the only child of Marcus and Lucinda so no one said much when Ava continued to live in the Douglas house. There were one or two relatives who wanted to take the house and property, but then there are those who thought Reuben Sr. may have bested death and moved into Reuben Jr's body. Some things are better left alone. The smart ones did just that. The not-so-smart found out they should have... and quickly did.
'That boy do have some scary ways,' the older women often said when getting together for gossip. 'Sensible folks hereabouts know that if something sounds impossible that don't mean it is,' they continued. 'If there's a chance a snake's in a hole, why ask for trouble by sticking your hand in?'
Ava made a living doing laundry and cleaning for white folks. Reuben always managed to come home with a dollar or two each day. He always gave it to his mother. She never asked where it came from. He never said.
Reuben became Jeremiah Washington's right-hand man. He ran errands, helped him during his visits to his patients and often helped with bill collecting. Reuben had a way of knowing who could pay and who couldn't. He also had a way of convincing those who could pay... to pay. And often those who couldn't pay decided, in the end, maybe they could put something down. After all giving up a chicken or two or even a dollar or two is better than tangling with a devil disguised as a boy.
Even at ten, Reuben was not to be taken lightly. Most boys in the area gave him a wide berth. He was known as a serious man in a boy's body. Childhood had, by then, long since left Reuben and some believed it had never been there in the first place.
Reuben cut his first man three days after his tenth birthday. It was a hot muggy evening. August of 'forty-one, it was. The doctor and Reuben were making a house call at the local black whorehouse. A light blue clapboard house with a covered porch and windows displaying white lace curtains, it was a meeting place for many of the black men in and around Whitesburg... both single and those far from it. Some things only mattered on Sundays... or when you got caught.
Bettie Lou Fletcher owned the house and ran the girls. She was forty-one then and she no longer serviced the customers. She made her money from the girls who did. At five-foot-nine, one hundred eighty-five pounds and with twenty-five years of experience, Miss Bettie ran a tight ship. She not only knew every trick in the book... she had used them all more often than not.
She was a big woman and proud of it. She had soft brown eyes, a gentle smile and a heart of stone. She would give you the shirt off her back but in the end it would cost you twice what it would in any store.
One of the local hard-cases, a nineteen-year-old called Tater, came out of Miss Bettie's heading for the street. He had his head turned yelling at a friend on the porch. Doc Washington was walking to the house with Reuben behind him. Tater bumped into the doctor, spilling a mason jar half full of rot-gut liquor.
"Godammit!" he yelled. "Watch where you're going, old man. You made me spill my drink. I oughtta make you buy me a new one and slap your ass around for good measure."
The doctor stepped back while mumbling apologies.
One of Tater's friends laughed from the porch. "Careful Tater, the old man's got a bodyguard. I hear that boy mean enough to spit nails!"
Reuben, holding the doctor's bag, moved in front of him when the doctor back-pedaled. He looked up at Tater who was easily seven inches taller and double Rueben's weight. The bully had close-set eyes, a wide nose and big lips, and all were attached to a large head covered by thick nappy uncombed hair. He wore brown striped pants, held up by both a belt and suspenders. His shirt, once white, was sweat-stained and collarless. A pair of brown and white Stacy Adams shoes, run over and dirty, completed his outfit. Considered a tough man by most, Tater glared at Reuben. The boy didn't flinch.
"What you lookin' at, you little piece of shit?" The voice was both loud and demanding.
"Tell the doctor you sorry." The ten-year-old kept his voice low and calm.
"Or what, you nappy-headed midget?" Tater was clearly playing to the men on the porch.
"Tell him." repeated Reuben.
"Fuck you, you little asshole." Tater looked towards the porch with a smile on his face. A mistake when facing a cobra... both the head-turning and smiling.
Reuben had his right hand behind his back with his feet slightly spread and the bag in his left hand. He moved like a dancer as he dropped the bag, shifted his feet before bringing his right arm around and upwards. A scalpel was nested in his hand. Jeremiah Washington's eyes were too old and too slow to follow the movements but he knew what the outcome would be. Young Reuben always reacted violently to derogatory references to his size. The inherited temper took over with cold calculating efficiency. The old doctor was not surprised by the blood that appeared on Tater's shirt. The screams were loud and piercing. The hard-case raised his hands and Reuben slashed the left one. More screams. The friend on the porch leapt down to help. The boy calmly turned to face him. The man looked into the cruel dark eyes, then at the hard-set face and bloody scalpel. He decided not to get involved. That proved, in his case, you could flunk the third grade three times and still make an occasional good decision.
In nineteen-forty-one North Carolina, coloreds cutting coloreds didn't warrant much attention from the police, or in that case, Sheriff Clifford Denbo. By then the fat lawman had a newer car, an extra fifteen pounds and three more lynchings under his belt. Most of the colored people say he still carried the smell of pigs. He was called 'Pig-Man' behind his back.
Tater had survived the surgery the boy performed on him and decided the next time he saw Reuben he would settle things. Tater, proving he wasn't totally stupid, made a point of avoiding places Reuben was known to frequent.
The morning after, old-man Simpson, an eighty-year-old regular at Moe's Colored Barber Shop in Whitesburg had held court by telling the story of Reuben's feat. Simpson had watched Reuben Sr. grow up. Dressed in baggy overalls, a plaid shirt and dusty brogan boots the old man loved to talk about the Douglas'.
Daddy Marcus had befriended the older man some years back.
"That boy," said Simpson, who stroked a scraggly gray beard while speaking of Reuben senior, "had the Devil in him from day one. You could look in them eyes of his and see straight through to Hell. I'm bettin' them crackers that lynched him still havin' nightmares 'bout whether he comin' back. Well, I'm here to tell you he done come back and he's inside that ten-year-old boy. And it ain't crowded in there 'cause them two dark souls is livin' as one. I ain't superstitious but I also ain't stupid. Just 'cause you cain't see somethin' don't mean it ain't so. Dem Douglas boys got somethin' inside that gets passed on. That somethin' ain't no gift from the Lord neither. I ain't sayin' there be ghosts or demons or such... I'm just sayin' there some bad-ass darkness inside those boys and ain't a thousand Sunday morning preachin' gonna put light in there."
Old man Simpson paused thirty seconds before he finished. Old men know how to tell a story. "The way that Douglas boy operated on Tater, he be the new Doc in town."
And that nickname stuck.
"And his daddy," Simpson muttered to himself as well as the gathered audience, "be down there holding Doc's place at Satan's table."
Reuben 'Doc' Douglas, ten-years-old and many more years lethal, had officially arrived.
To Be Continued
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Gregory K Shipman
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