“That boy’s done strick’ wit’ hellfire,” Rufus said. Stewart ran past him and leapt over the fence into the hog pen.

The fight had been five on one. Jeb, the owner’s son, and four of his friends had goaded Wendell until he got upset and threw the first punch. Wendell had fought as best he could until one of the boys struck him in the back of the head with a block of wood. Wendell had gone crazy then, driven into a fit of anger. Suddenly he started coughing and fell to the ground. His body went into convulsions and he blacked out. The boys all laughed and at Jeb’s instruction, picked Wendell up and threw him into the hog pen.

Hogs are ornery to begin with and Wendell’s little nine-year-old body toppling into them, only served to intensify their mood.

Stewart landed solidly in the slick mud and slop. He squatted and scooped his son up with one hand. One of the hogs snapped and he delivered a heavy attention-getting blow, across its snout. Wendell’s thigh was bleeding and Stewart cradled the twitching boy, and kicked at the hogs as he carried him out of the pen.

That was seven years ago. Stewart had been docked a whole day’s pay for that incident, which was significant because he only made fourteen cents an hour and bread was half of that. One dollar and seventy cents was not small change.

Cotter’s Farm was located in a small town in Virginia that no one ever heard of and was eventually swallowed by a larger town. Stew worked for Amos Cotter who was a good man as men go. He treated his people as fair as could be expected, given the times. Cotter was more interested in his business than anything else and could care less if the people who worked for him were colored or not as long as they worked. Stewart was the best worker on the farm. Mr. Cotter had said as much on more than a dozen occasions. When Wendell turned fifteen he started working at Cotter’s Farm. At that same time, Cotter began teaching Jeb how to run it.

On Wendell’s first day Jeb had him in the pen slinging slop. Being new and unused to walking in the pen, he fell a few times to Jeb’s amusement, but it wasn’t so bad. You could fall in a pigpen, but you wouldn’t want to. You would need a wash, a boost of pride and would have to sleep outdoors that evening, but it was hardly dangerous. Not like a hog pen.

Rufus warned Wendell. “With them pigs rooting in they shit, all muddy and slick, you got’s to be quick enough to catch them, strong enough to hold them, and still be able to walk through that slop with them others rooting around you, bumping into you and everything else. You ain’t careful you fall right on your ass.”

Stewart could pull a hundred fifty pound sow, sling him over his shoulder, and walk out of the pen with it kicking and squealing to high heaven. Nothing ever got away from him. “Now listen here son. A hog is an eating machine. If you fall in a hog pen they will start on you even before you get a chance to kick, and if they hungry, you bound to get bit.”

Wendell had been lucky those years ago. Ideally Jeb would have had Wendell in the hog pen on his first day, but Mr. Cotter wouldn’t have it. That first day was the toughest for Wendell, but even at fifteen, he was his father’s son. His size and strength had begun to show. By the end of the day he knew how to stand, keeping his legs almost too wide with his feet planted firmly for balance in the slop. He walked by shifting his weight and sweeping with his feet instead of picking them up. By the end of the week, he could catch and hold a fifty-pound squealer. By then, Jeb had Wendell working the hog pen, but he never fell again.

“Don’t you go eating none of that for your supper now.” Jeb called out, laughing along with his friends. It was always worse when Mr. Cotter went to town and left Jeb in charge.

“Mr. Jeb, your pa done told ya, you ain’t to be making no sport of Wendell no mo,” Rufus said.

Jeb turned to Rufus and stopped laughing. “Go and run them hogs Rufus, they look hungry.”

Rufus made a face, he never ran hogs anymore. Rufus was easily the oldest on the farm. Many believed that Mr. Cotter kept him around because he was so old. Rufus was slow, but he knew everything there was to know about sows. He even gave Mr. Cotter advice sometimes, but that was behind closed doors and no one spoke of it.

“That’s okay Rufus,” Wendell called out. “He only makes sport of me because, he too clumsy and slow to catch one for his-self.”

Rufus turned back as silence fell over the workers. Everyone looked up. Wendell had forgotten himself. He had insulted Jeb and called him out. That sort of talk would get a man beaten and fired, but this was kid stuff and with Jeb’s friends there, he had to save face.

Jeb walked over to the pen with only the sound of grunting in the air of pig shit. He climbed into the pen not bothering about his shoes. He stared straight at Wendell with a fire blazing in his eyes just as scared as you please. Wendell had no expression, he stood with his legs wide and balanced with pigs grunting and squealing at his feet.

“Pick one,” Jeb said.

All of the workers started yelling at once, pointing at pig after pig.

“Shut up!” he stared at Wendell. “Pick one.”

Wendell nodded and pointed to a sow that was little more than a piglet.

Jeb smiled. “That the one you want? Hell that ain’t near the effort.” Jeb bent down and grabbed the little piggy that suddenly began to squeal like crazy. The look in Jeb’s face showed the strain of holding onto the slippery little thing while trying to keep his balance in the pen. He held his hands together as tight as he could, but the little pig began to slip. He lifted the pig off the ground and held it with his arms outstretched. He stood straight up. The pig continued to squeal and kick.

Jeb’s friends started clapping. Some of the workers joined in. The wild squeals from the piglet started to make the other pigs restless. Jeb was never taught to stand in a pigpen. He didn’t know that you never standup straight. In the frenzy, one large sow bumped Jeb in front, throwing him off balance. He righted himself still holding onto the wriggling piglet. Another bumped him from behind and he tipped. He stepped forward to catch himself as one of the larger pigs ran beneath his legs and Jeb went ass over tip into the muddy slop. Everyone started laughing. Jeb stood soiled.

“What the hell’s going on out here?” the laughter stopped as Stewart suddenly broke through the crowd. Seeing Jeb in the slop, he jumped into the pen to help him up. “Here you go Mr. Cotter sir. Give me your hand.”

“Get your goddamned black hand off of me damn it. I don’t need no help from no niggra.” Jeb climbed out of the pen and threw Wendell an evil look.

“That little thing sure was something,” someone said and everyone started laughing again.

Stewart stood tall and glared at the workers who fell silent and got back to work.

That evening Rufus let Wendell have it. “Maybe you is too young to be working with me.”

“Pa, he got up in that pen his-self.”

“Yeah, Rufus told me how you done helped him.”

Wendell said nothing.

Rufus shook his head and sighed, “I don’t want you coming back to Mr. Cotter’s for a while.”

“Pa, I ain’t holding to what Jeb done on his own.”

“If something bad happened there I could have lost my job because you is my son. Now how you feel about that, if I can’t put no food on the table for your Ma and your brothers huh?”

“Pa.”

“Uh-uh,” he shook his head. “You can’t come back to Cotter’s. You fired.”

Wendell left the house. His father never listened to him or took anytime to believe him. He thought about what he wanted to do to Jeb, and slammed his fist into his hands with the sound of a whip cracking.

Wendell began cleaning up for Mr. Burrows at the general store. He was not allowed out in the front of course. He swept up in the back, stocked the grain and feed, and tended to the few cows and pigs he had at his farm just across the way. He and his father didn’t speak much when he came home and since the summer was hot, Wendell began sleeping outside. The work at Mr. Burrows wasn’t that hard and Wendell began to enjoy it more than the pig farm.

“Hey Wendell.”

Wendell turned from cleaning out the barn to the sound of Jeb’s voice as he walked in. He was being followed by four of his friends. It wasn’t difficult to see what they had planned. Arthur Cooper was notorious around town and carried a stick. Wendell put down the bucket he was holding, “What you want Jeb?”

“I just come to thank you for what you done. Just come to show you there’s no hard feelings.” The other boys spread out around the barn, flanking Wendell while he kept his eyes on Jeb trying to imagine where everyone was.

“Well you is welcome sir,” Wendell said in a mocking tone and began moving towards the back door of the barn.

Arthur moved quickly to block his way.

“Something wrong?” Wendell said.

“Nothing wrong boy! Jeb was just telling me about a problem he had with some nigger that went and got the best of him is all.”

Wendell’s temper flared, he turned to Jeb, “That so?”

Jeb smiled.

“Well then I guess that means…” Wendell spun quickly and threw a fast punch that hit Arthur right in the face. Everyone moved in. Wendell spread his legs and bent his knees like he was standing in the pigpen. They came at him from all sides. Wendell handled himself as best he could.

Given the odds, he gave as well as he got, but in the end, they were too much for him. Something hit him hard in the back of his legs and he went down. They began to kick him and beat him until a husky voice called out, “Here, break it up, break it up.” Large hands were pulling the boys off one by one. After the last boy was removed, they all ran off, leaving Wendell to be helped up by a tall fat man in a suit. “What’s that all about son?” he asked.

Wendell stood. Blood was smeared across his face from a bloody nose that trickled down to a busted lip, “Nothing.”

“You got some pretty good moves there boy. Who taught you to fight like that?”

“No one sir. Just done what I could.”

“I never seen nobody stand like that neither, it looks uncomfortable.”

“It seemed right since I was dealing with them sows.”

“How old are you boy?”

“Sixteen.”

“You want to make some money doing that?”

“How?”

“You ever heard of bare knuckle fighting?”

“Yeah, they have it up da road a piece on Saturday nights.”

“Well I tell you what boy, my names Dixon and I will pay you a dollar to do that this Saturday.”

 

 

2

 

On Saturday night Wendell found himself standing behind a crowd of sweaty men yelling and cheering in a hot warehouse. He had to sneak away from the house and run five miles to get there, but he made it. Dickson was waiting for him at the door.

“Boy where you been? It’s late.”

“Sorry, I had to run.” Wendell was breathing hard.

“Run?” he looked Wendell over. He looked tired. “You sure you can do this?”

“Yes sir.”

Dickson looked into his eyes, “Okay you’re fighting right after the next one.”

“Who am I fighting?”

“That don’t matter. You just beat the tar out of him.”

The men never stopped yelling, placing bets, and cheering for their fighter. The sweaty heat mixed with the ‘thwack’ of fists, blood, and sweat made the atmosphere intoxicating and Wendell believed he could lick any man in the building.

One of the two men fighting suddenly fell back against the first row. The men held him up and pushed him back into the circle. The man staggered in a daze. The other fighter stepped in and delivered a blow right into the side of his head and the man fell in a heap. A roar of cheers and jeers erupted in the warehouse. Dickson suddenly grabbed Wendell and pushed through the crowd.

At the edge of the circle, Wendell took off his shirt because the other fighters weren’t wearing one. Dickson was arguing about something with two other men. Across from them, a large light-skinned older man stood with his shirt off, throwing shadow punches.

Dickson was yelling. “What the hell is this shit? This is not what we talked about! He’s sick? Horseshit he’s sick, this isn’t fair, this is his first time,” he pointed at Wendell. “Double the odds? Okay.”

Wendell wasn’t sure what they were talking about. He was just thinking that the man across from him was very big. He started to awkwardly throw shadow punches like the other man was doing.

Dickson finished with the men and came over. “How you feel?”

Wendell wanted to throw up, but he hadn’t eaten dinner so he took a deep breath. “I’m ready,” he said. He was getting a dollar anyway.

“Okay just go in there and beat the tar out of him.”

A short balding man with a limp got in the middle, “Last fight! Last fight! The Bomber against Kid Wendell.”

Wendell heard his name and got excited. Kid Wendell? He liked it.

Suddenly the man was out of the circle and the Bomber was coming towards him. Wendell doubled up and moved to the middle. The Bomber wasted no time and quickly gave Wendell two hits to the face. Wendell brought his hands up to block and the Bomber gave him a blow to the stomach. Wendell wasn’t expecting it and it took the wind right out of him. He fell to his knees. The Bomber swung low and caught Wendell on the side of the face and he went to the floor.

Boo’s and cheers roared in the warehouse. Wendell heard Dickson yelling behind him. He turned to look up at the big man who looked angry. “Get the fuck up boy!”

Wendell was scared. He might not get his money if he didn’t win. He slowly stood. The crowd cheered even louder.

The Bomber moved in again, Wendell spread his legs wide and bent his knees. The Bomber swung. Wendell stepped to the side, but didn’t punch. The Bomber threw a second punch and Wendell dodged it easily. Now he was ready. It looked as if the Bomber was moving in slow motion. Wendell tightened his fists.

The Bomber threw a right. Wendell stepped back and let the punch move past him. Then he stepped in and threw a left, hard to the Bomber’s face. He twisted his waist and brought his right in for an upper cut to the stomach that lifted the Bomber off the ground, and then stepped back. The Bomber was breathing hard and staring at Wendell who was not moving in to finish him.

The Bomber righted himself and moved in a little slower than before. He threw a jab at Wendell and missed, another and missed. Wendell stepped back. The Bomber threw a fake left, Wendell dodged and the Bomber hit him with a heavy right that sent him staggering into the crowd.

Wendell fell into several arms that caught him and pushed him back into the circle where the Bomber was waiting to throw two uppercuts into Wendell’s stomach, but this time Wendell was ready. The punches hurt, but he held his air and stood his ground.

Wendell stepped back, threw a quick jab to the face. It connected and he followed it with an uppercut to the chin and one to the body. The Bomber staggered. Wendell waited, and when the Bomber righted himself he moved in. He threw a right cross that came so hard and fast it sounded like a bone had shattered.

The Bomber tipped to the side stumbling and was out before he landed in the arms around the circle. They threw him back in, but he dropped right to the floor. A roar exploded on the warehouse. Hands began slapping Wendell on the back as he slowly lowered his arms and opened his fists. He was covered with sweat and breathing the hot air of the warehouse.

Dickson was suddenly next to him, “Kid Wendell!” The crowd got even louder. “You did great kid. That was the number two guy around here.”

“That means I get the dollar?”

“What?” Dickson slapped him on the back and released a laugh that was lost in the screaming frenzy of the warehouse.

Dickson gave Wendell two dollars and a ride home in his carriage. “You know boy you come with me to Mississippi. I can set you up in some real good stuff.”

“What stuff?”

“How would you like to make five dollars instead of two?”

Wendell had never even seen five dollars.

Dickson explained to Wendell about the fights in Mississippi filling his head with ideas of money. He stopped at the edge of the poor section of town. “Think about it boy.”

By the time Wendell reached the small shack that contained his mother, father and two brothers, his mind was swimming with thoughts of money and status. It was another hot night, so he went around to the makeshift mattress. One of the dogs was asleep on it and Wendell shooed her off and shook out the blanket before lying down on his back to stare at the stars. I could be the best fighter in the world he thought. I am the best fighter in the world.

The bucket of water snapped Wendell awake. He jumped up from the mattress looking for an assailant, his fists ready. “What the hell is you doing boy?” Wendell’s father stood towering over him.

“Pa?”

“Don’t give me no lip boy, I asked you something.”

Wendell stood silent, unsure, trying to get the sleep from his eyes. His stomach hurt, his face was puffy and one eye was swollen. His father didn’t seem to notice. “I just saw Jeb Cotter. You want to tell me how he got beat up?”

Wendell looked at the ground. “I didn’t start it.”

“Boy you ain’t a child no more, it don’t matter who started it. Mr. Cotter sent me home today. Said he’d have to think about letting me stay on. Boy don’t you understand? That’s food!”

“Mr. Cotter ain’t gonna fire you. All him other workers just as assbackwards as Jeb.”

His father’s hand moved like lightning. Wendell didn’t even know he’d been slapped until his head snapped to the side. “Don’t talk to me like that boy.” Wendell looked with shock into his father’s eyes. His father had not hit him in years.

“What was I supposed to do? Sit and take it like you does? Get put down and beat up like some… some hog?” Wendell turned and ran with his father calling him back, but he didn’t stop or look back. He ran down the road right through town to the boarding house where Mr. Dickson said he was staying at. He’d show them. He’d go to Mississippi and come back rich. He’d be the best fighter in the whole damn world.

Wendell had heard of Mississippi, but had no idea exactly how far away it was. Dickson made it seem like it was ‘just up the road a piece’. He’d been traveling to cities that had fights on his way down from New York. He was making some bets and looking for good prospects. After a week on the road with a drunken Dickson telling story after story Wendell missed his parents, especially his mother who he hadn’t even said good-bye to. He figured that he’d go to Mississippi, make some money and come right back, but he realized that he may have gotten into something a little more than he wanted.

Just when Wendell figured that he wasn’t going to be able to take another story, he heard Dickson exclaim, “Hello lovely.”

In the distance Wendell could make out what he thought was a small town, but as they advanced it got larger and larger, to the point that Wendell suddenly found himself frightened and wanting to go right back home.

Dickson had a permanent room at a house that took in boarders. Wendell tried to get out of the carriage when they stopped, but Dickson held him back, “Um… no fighters, um… allowed.”

“What?”

“Mrs. Parks. She knows what I do and don’t take too kindly to fighters. Just wait in the wagon.” Dickson took his bags and disappeared into the house for a while. He returned with a fresh suit and his hair neatly combed. “Now! Let’s do some business.” He exclaimed.

Dickson drove the carriage right through town as Wendell marveled at all the people. His world had consisted of the small town he lived in and nothing else. He noticed people staring at him as they moved past. Dickson drove the carriage across a wide main street and the road became rough. The houses became shabbily built shotgun style. A single narrow design that reached back room after room until it reached the back door. This area seemed more familiar to him.

Dickson stopped at a brick two story building. “Wait here.” He climbed out of the carriage.

Wendell watched as Dickson walked into an unmarked door on the side of the building. After several minutes, Dickson reappeared, “This way boy.”

Wendell jumped down from the carriage and followed Dickson around to a small stairway in the back of the building. “Ain’t scared of anything are you?”

“No.” Wendell said. Dickson had him drop the sir after the first day on the road.

“Good.” Dickson unlocked the door at the bottom of the stairs. “They use this for storage. It ain’t too deep, but it does get a little damp in the rainy season. We’ll move you someplace else then.” He ducked and stepped inside.

Wendell followed him into a small brick enclosed room filled with boxes. The room itself wasn’t very big to begin with, but with all of the boxes it was almost non-existent. Dickson began shifting boxes around to reveal a board that leaned against one of the walls. “Here you go boy, help me.” They both moved the board to reveal a large hole that might have been made by a sledgehammer. “Last boy I had in here got tired of the cramped space.” Dickson stepped through the hole.

Wendell heard the sound of a match striking and he stepped through the opening. The soft glow of a few candles revealed a large makeshift room with a damp dirt floor, several boards and boxes that made up the walls. “How’s this?” Dickson set one of the candles on the small crate that served as a table.

In the corner, a few pillows were piled on a board that Wendell figured would serve as a bed. He nodded, “I guess this will be all right.”

“Look I know what I said, but you got to fight first. Get some money. Then you get set up.”

Wendell nodded again. In truth, the room was fine, better than the little dugout bed he had at home, but Wendell had never spent time on his own before. He didn’t want to tell Mr. Dickson he was scared.

“Okay fine.” Dickson said quickly, wanting to get out before the kid changed his mind. “Get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow night, you fight.” He handed Wendell the key and left.

Wendell began situating the room. He watched as a large rat ran out from one of the cushions and into a hole. Removing all current tenants would be first.

 

 

3

 

The following night, Wendell did exactly what he did the first time. He removed his shirt and began throwing shadow punches to warn up. The man he was fighting was named Reed. Wendell stood before the hollering crowd. He still felt nervous. There was no announcer or ceremony this time, the other man just moved out towards Wendell and punched him in the face. The crowd went crazy with cheers.

Wendell balled his fists and moved towards the other fighter. The rest of the fight lasted thirty seconds. Wendell felt himself get angry. He felt the other man had hit him without warning. He moved in close, his legs wide.

Reed never landed another punch.

Wendell stepped to the side and dodged the next punch Reed threw. Then he stepped in and delivered a punch to the jaw that caused Reed to stumble backwards. He shook his head and moved in towards Wendell. He threw a right that Wendell ducked under, coming up with a left into Reed’s ribs.

Wendell felt a something give with the punch. Reed’s face contorted. He let out a squeal of pain. Then, as Wendell rose he threw a right uppercut that smashed Reed’s nose. Blood exploded all over both fighters and Reed fell right to the ground. The crowd roared.

Wendell was still very alert and fuming from the first punch. He felt a hand grab his shoulder and without thinking he spun and punched a bystander that had run up to congratulate him. The shocked crowd quieted as the man dropped to the ground, knocked out. Then they roared with laughter.

Dickson burst through the crowd smoking a large cigar. “That’s my boy.” He grabbed Wendell’s hand and raised it. “Kid Wendell!” The crowd went crazy.

Wendell followed Dickson out to the street. All the while men gave him pats on the back.

“Here you go son.” Dickson gave him three dollars and told him that he would fight again the next night.

“What now?” Wendell asked as Dickson began to walk away.

“What do you mean?” Dickson said, counting through a small bundle of money that contained several dollars and a handful of coins.

“I mean it’s early and I have never seen the city.” Truth was, Wendell had been afraid to wander around the city and stayed in his little apartment the whole day.

Dickson’s eyes widened. “Look here, don’t you ever cross that road into the city. They know me and they seen you with me, they, uh… they don’t like fighters over there okay. So stay around here.”

Wendell was visibly disappointed. He didn’t know anyone and had already been thinking about going home.

“Look here, I understand you all wound up. Here now.” He handed Wendell another dollar. “Go down that road there apiece.” Dickson pointed to the right. “When you get to the end you’ll find a big white house. Go to the door and ask for Miss. Roberta, she’ll fix you right up. Tell her Mr. Dickson sent you.” Dickson was off after that, counting his money.

Wendell did as Dickson had told him. It was dark, but he followed the long road to the end. He could see the gas lamps from the downtown buildings in the distance. After a mile, the street turned to the right and went past a big white building that stood off, almost by itself. It was two stories, brightly lit with a balcony that ran across the front of the second floor. It looked to be a large boarding house.

Wendell walked up to the front porch where two girls sat in the porch swing wearing very indiscrete clothing. A man exited through the front door as another went in.

The two girls smiled as Wendell stepped up to the front door and knocked. Both of the girls whispered and giggled to each other. “Just go on in baby. We ain’t too formal ’round here.” One of the girls said. They both giggled again.

Wendell opened the door and stepped into a large parlor with several girls wearing clothes that made him blush. He knew instantly what kind of place this was. The reaction to Wendell coming through the door was instant. The girls let out shocked gasps. Some covered themselves. One stood and ran through the curtain. A large man playing the piano stood and began to approach Wendell. The look in his eyes spoke his intentions and Wendell began to step back.

A large woman stepped from behind a curtain with the girl that just ran through, “What’s going on? What the hell are you doing in here boy?”

Not knowing what to do, Wendell reached behind him for the door. The door swung open. The two girls from the porch stepped in, still giggling. Wendell tried to get past the girls, but they stood in the doorway, blocking him.

“Stop that!” the big woman yelled. The two girls became silent.

Wendell sheepishly turned back to the large woman. The big man came up, but the large woman put up her hand to stop him. “What are you doing in here?” her voice suddenly kind.

“Mr. Um, Mr. Dickson sent me to speak to Miss. Roberta.”

“Dickson! Shit!”

Wendell flinched. He had never heard a woman talk like that before. The woman made an angry face at the two girls, waving them both out the door. With a shake of her head and a wave of her hand, the big man relaxed his fists and slowly moved back to the piano. “Come here boy,” she said kindly, taking his arm and slipping hers through it as an escort. She walked quickly through the parlor waving her hand at the girls around the room. “What’s your name son?” she said as they passed through a set of thick yellow curtains at the end.

“Wendell.”

“Well Wendell you certainly gave my girls a start. It’s okay though, mistakes do happen. You see you’re colored, so in the future you come in through the back way, understand?” Wendell nodded. “Mr. Dickson neglected to tell you that.”

They walked down the hall, past a stairway through a swinging door that opened to a kitchen. A few girls seated around a table let out a gasp as they entered. They quieted as the large woman waved her hand. Another big man stood at the stove stirring a big pot of something that smelled good. He gave Wendell the eye as they passed.

“They aren’t used to seeing men back here,” the big woman said. The door at the other end of the kitchen opened to a porch that served as another parlor. This one was smaller with a few chairs and not decorated at all like the front. The girls around here didn’t shy away as Wendell came in.

The women eyed him and said, “Hey there,” in suggestive tones. The girls all waved as they moved into another door. “Bye.” They called and Wendell blushed. A roll top desk sat in one corner with a bed at the far end that looked to have been recently used. A naked woman was leaning against the bedpost smoking a cigarette. Wendell tried to avoid looking at her.

“What the hell’s this?” the large woman stopped short.

The woman by the bed took a short drag, “Breaking her in like you said.”

“Where is she?”

The girl with the cigarette tilted her head towards a door on the side. “She’ll never last,” she said taking another drag.

“Not with you she won’t,” The large woman said. She let go of Wendell and moved fast for a woman so large. She grabbed the girls arm. “Did you hurt her?” The other woman tried to release her arm. “Tell me what you did?” The large woman was a lot stronger than she looked. She grabbed the girl’s hair, pulled her head back and took the cigarette out of her hand. “Don’t damage the merchandise!” The large woman snarled and jammed the cigarette into the girl’s belly button.

The girl started screaming in pain, flailing her arms as she tried to get away. Wendell stepped back shocked.

The large woman released the girl. She fell to the floor crying and holding onto her stomach. “Get the fuck out of here,” the woman left quickly, squeaking like a mouse.

The large woman went to the door and knocked lightly. “Julia?” she called, her sweet voice returning. “Julia, baby?” she said again and turned the knob. The door opened slowly. “Goddamnit!” she exclaimed. The door opened and the large woman returned escorting a young girl with long dark hair that fell over her back. Her face was puffy from crying and she walked bent over holding her hands to her crotch. There was blood on her fingers. The large woman laid out a blanket and helped her onto the bed then turned towards the door. “Darrel!” she said loud enough to make Wendell jump.

Outside Wendell heard another woman’s voice call out, “Darrel!”

A loud thumping sounded as the big man from the kitchen entered the room holding a blackjack. “Miss. Roberta!” He instantly began moving towards Wendell.

Wendell sized him up and began to ball his fists.

“No!” the sharp voice stopped Darrel cold. “You were supposed to be watching her.”

“I had to check the gumbo.” Darrel sounded dumb.

“Look at this crap.” The girl lay on the bed in a fetal position, softly crying.

Wendell stared at the naked girl. She was young, and beautiful.

Julia looked up from the bed and could just make out Wendell staring down at her. She focused and saw his large arms and thick neck and did her best to smile through the pain.

“Look at this!” Miss Roberta said staring at Darrel.

Wendell saw an exchange.

Darrel loosed his grip on the mace then tightened it. Nodding his head, he left with a short glance at Wendell.

“Sorry about this boy. I’m Miss Roberta.” she said somewhat softer. “Theresa.” she called out.

“Yes Miss Roberta.” A thin older black woman opened the door. She made a face when she saw the girl.

“Yes I know don’t worry about it. This is Wendell. He’s a fighter. That’s right isn’t it, you fight for Mr. Dickson?”

Wendell nodded. “Yes ma’am.”

Theresa tried not to smile at his manners.

“Yes, show him around. I didn’t get the chance to explain things to him, take care of him today.” she said with a nod. “He came in the front door.”

The girl smiled, “Bet that was something.”

“Yes it was, and Theresa, nothing for today.” The girl made a face. “He didn’t need to see this. I’ll sort you out later.” She turned. “Wendell go with Theresa she’s gonna take care of you.”

Theresa slipped her arm through Wendell’s, just as Miss Roberta had done, and led him out of the room. He looked back at the beautiful girl on the bed until the door closed.

Julia turned her head to watch as the big man left. Miss Roberta said his name was Wendell. The way he looked at her made her feel special. She had never felt special before.

The girls in the parlor smiled and cooed as Theresa walked Wendell through, arm in arm, to a curtain at the other end. A less decorated hallway led to another set of stairs. Theresa escorted him up to the second floor that had a long hallway lined with doors. Theresa stopped at the third door and opened it for Wendell. He had to duck to go in.

“You can sit here,” she said motioning towards the bed. The room was small, but very personal. It was decorated with fabrics and trinkets, the likes of which Wendell had never seen. In one corner, a small table with a bowl that contained what looked like dried blood. Chickens feet and claws from other birds were hung with feathers that ornamented the door and the walls. “Don’t touch none of that. Come sit here.”

There was a slight edge to her tone, and Wendell moved away from the table and sat on the bed. He looked at all the different colored fabrics covering the walls and ceiling.

Theresa smiled as she squatted in front of him. “You okay?”

“Yes ma’am.” Wendell said. His voice cracking as Theresa placed her hands on his thighs.

“You know what kind of place this is?” Wendell couldn’t speak. He nodded his head as Theresa rubbed her hand across his crotch feeling him get instantly hard. “You ever done this before?” Wendell moved his head slowly from side to side, as Theresa began to unbuckle his pants.

She guided him slowly, showing him, talking to him more than she normally would. He was just a big kid after all and for some reason she felt a sort of kinship towards him.

Theresa made Wendell feel powerful. He saw himself fighting every man in the world and winning. When it finally happened he was shocked. He was inside her warmth, moving with the rhythm of the tides. He saw the girl again. Her smile, innocent and beautiful and when he finally reached the apex, he didn’t care about fighting. He didn’t care about anything. Nothing mattered, but he thought of the girl and felt as if he could die in that moment. Electricity shot through him, down his spine and out his groin. He groaned, releasing everything in a groan like never before.

That night he dreamt of blood and chickens, and Theresa came into his head, chanting words in a language he did not understand, then she said a name. Nick. Lightning flashed, and he saw a wasteland with a large spindly tree, covered with bristles and barbs that hung over the horizon. The twilight showed its dark silhouette against an orange yellow horizon. It was full of what looked to be large ripe fruit. Wendell reached up and plucked one. He knew instantly that something was wrong by the texture in his hands. He looked down and saw that it wasn’t fruit at all, but a fetus. A large pink fetus that didn’t look like anything he had ever seen. It had a disfigured bone structure with a pig head. On its forehead were two tiny protrusions that he was somehow sure they would grow to be horns. Its large eyes were closed along with its mouth, but something beneath its lips was causing them to protrude. Wendell pealed the lips back slowly to reveal two small black fangs and a mouth full of sharp little teeth that suddenly snapped at his finger with a growl.

 

 

4

 

Dickson had Wendell fighting every night for weeks. After every fight he was given three dollars. Wendell was happy to get the money, but he was becoming more and more aware of the ever growing bundle that Dickson took the three dollars from. Wendell had more money than he knew what to do with so he hid most of it in the storage room. He began making regular visits to Miss Roberta’s, always through the backdoor. He became friends with Theresa and talked with her a lot. She knew a lot about the world that Wendell didn’t know and he learned quickly.

Wendell understood that because he was black he couldn’t do certain things. Where he grew up he remembered people treating everyone the same, but the more he thought about it, the more he began to remember little things. His father had always gone to the back door of certain places and always kept his head down when he spoke to certain people. Wendell grew angry with his father for acting lower than someone else. Always telling him, “You just as good as them boys, you remember that.” How many times had he heard that? Yet Wendell had gotten into trouble for standing up to Jeb.

Whenever he went to Miss Roberta’s Wendell looked for the girl he had seen the first night. Julia, Miss Roberta had called her. He made a request to have her for the night, but Miss Roberta replied that she had other white girls that would be better than that little thing. Twice Wendell had gone with white girls that were not from his part of the house and still he requested Julia.

Miss Roberta finally told him flatly, “No.” He could not ever have Julia.

“She only for one client,” Theresa said. “Miss Roberta found her special and only one person gets to be with her.”

“Who?” Wendell asked.

“I don’t know. One of them that comes in the front.” Theresa did her best to explain about what goes on at the house including what had happened to Lynda. “Lynda likes to go with women, understand?”

Wendell didn’t, but he nodded.

“One of the things had to be that Julia wouldn’t be messy the first time.” Wendell made a confused face, and Theresa tried to explain about the first time a woman had sex, how it could be messy. “Lynda was supposed to take care if that, but while she was doing that, she did other things too. When Julia told her to stop, Lynda got upset and instead of gently helping her along with it, she shoved something up inside that hurt her bad. Miss Roberta had Darrel mess Lynda up and rape her.”

Wendell didn’t know if he was more upset at what happened to Julia or what happened to Lynda. Theresa could see that Wendell desperately wanted to see Julia, and though it wasn’t allowed, she went to Julia’s room one night with a message. Minutes later she returned to her room saying that Julia would see him tomorrow. The man who she was for always came early and left. He never came at night.

Wendell lay in the little cramped area all night long, wide-awake. He thought of Julia. He would buy her something tomorrow before the fight. What would a girl like? He thought. He wanted to get something nice.

The next night Wendell was in great form. His name was starting to get around and some were talking about him boxing professionally and comparing him to Jack Dempsey. Wendell knew about prize fights. They were regulated, timed and some said they were fixed. Bare-knuckle was where the real men were. No rounds. Two men stepped in the middle of the crowd and fought until one dropped. Wendell had become the last fight of the evening. “Saving the best for last.” Dickson had said.

Men were now coming from miles around to watch and challenge Kid Wendell. Some said he was the best fighter in the state. Wendell began to think about prize fights. He could make a lot more money and it sounded easy. Stand with a man for three minutes then sit and rest then do it again. Too easy.

A large man from a city Wendell had never heard of threw several punches that missed. Wendell found that it was better for the crowd if he let the other fighters swing a little bit and let them get a few hits on him. His first three fights ended so quickly the crowd seemed disappointed. So now Wendell ducked and dodged for a while, letting the other fighters get a few in. If he really felt confident he might even fall into the crowd. When that happened bets were called, and the odds changed. He let some of the lower shots connect with his stomach while he gave them a tap on the jaw. After a few minutes of dancing, he would let loose, only having to throw a few real punches, depending on the opponent. Most of them couldn’t handle more than four of his punches until they dropped. The crowd always went crazy.

Wendell delivered an uppercut to the man’s chin then stepped back. The man swung a left at Wendell’s head. Wendell ducked under it and stepped in throwing a right into the man’s ribs. He pulled back quickly and swung for the head. The man was already turning back from the punch he’d just thrown. Wendell connected. The other man turned and kept turning until he dropped to the floor. The crowd went wild. Wendell took a breath as the man on the floor tried to get back up. It wasn’t going to happen and the circle closed with congratulations.

“That’s my boy.” Dickson said. He was wearing a new suit that was nicely tailored, counting through a large bundle of money. “How you feel kid?”

“I feel good Mr. Dickson.”

“Good, good, good.”

“Hey Kid you ever think about going pro?” A thin guy, also in a nice suit, stepped up to Wendell. He had black hair and a large nose.

“Well, I was sort of….”

“Hey!” Dickson stopped counting his money and stepped up to the thin guy. “Wendell don’t box in no ring you sonofabitch! Now get out of here!”

“I was just talking to the Kid.”

“Hey guys,” Dickson called out. “Check out this fucking wop. I don’t think he was invited.” Several men suddenly came from all around, grabbed hold of the thin guy, and moved him out the door. The grunting and pummeling began even before the door closed. “Don’t listen to that shit Kid. Bare-knuckles is where you should be. That’s where the money is.”

“Where?”

“Here.” Dickson held up his big wad of money.

“You said that I’d make five dollars for fighting if I come here with you. All I gets is three every night and you…” Wendell looked down at the large wad Dickson was counting out.

Dickson’s face flushed for a moment like he’d been caught. “I know Kid, I know. I was uh… waiting till you were ready. Remember what I told you, first you fight and then you get set up. Those other guys were just suckers. The fights are going to get harder now Kid. You think you ready for that?”

Wendell stared into Dickson’s eyes and nodded.

“Okay then, here.” Dickson pulled another dollar out of the bundle. “There you go for now. See you tomorrow kid.”

Wendell wasn’t exactly happy about it, but he had more important things on his mind now. He headed up the street to Miss Roberta’s.

All of the girls on the backside of the house liked Wendell and they always had one question when he walked in the door. “Did you win?” two asked at the same time.

Wendell nodded his head as several hoots sounded in the parlor. Theresa came right up to him. “How many is that now?”

Wendell shrugged his shoulders, “I ain’t for sure.”

“Well we should celebrate anyway.” She took his arm and led him up the stairs, once inside her room she got serious. “Now remember, if you get caught down there, you don’t tell no one how you found her. I don’t want Miss Roberta upset at me understand.”

Wendell noticed that the bowl had been moved and instead of dried blood, fresh red stains were inside. There was a thin puddle in the middle. In the corner on the wall a new chicken foot hung, along with a strange scent in the air. Wendell thought of burning sweat if that were possible. Theresa checked the hallway then led him out.

The corridor was empty, no one came or went. Theresa walked a little ahead of him and stopped in front of one door. She knocked, opened it a little and put her finger up mouthing “one hour” before leaving. Wendell slipped into the room.

The room was sparse. It contained a dresser, mirror, chair and a bed. Julia sat on the bed looking down at her knees. Her black hair hung down from her head and covered her face. Wendell stood at the door looking down at her, not knowing what to say. He mustered a small, “Hullo.”

“Hello,” the figure on the bed said in a quivering voice that sounded sweet.

Wendell suddenly became aware that he’d never heard her speak before. He moved towards the bed and the girl flinched. “Your name Julia?” The girl seemed to relax a little. “I’m Wendell.”

“I don’t want you to look at me,” she said.

Wendell stopped moving forward, “Why?” He waited to hear her voice again, she sounded like an angel.

“I don’t look the same,” she said. Her shoulders started to tremble as she softly cried. Wendell moved forward to the bed and Julia turned away. “I’m ugly,” she said.

Wendell was shocked. “No. You can’t never be ugly to me.” He reached out to touch her shoulder. She seemed so fragile with his large hand on her.

He slowly urged her to turn and look up at him. He winced when he saw the bruises on her jaw. Her right eye was almost swollen shut. Tears slowly seeped from the purple red slit that was her eye. His anger flared quickly, “Who done this?” he said through gritted teeth.

She shook her head and began to sob heavily. She leaned against him, feeling his large arms engulf her. From his pocket, he pulled a white handkerchief he purchased for her earlier in the day. He gently moved it around her eye to dry the tears, careful against the tender skin.

They lay back on the bed and stayed wrapped in each other’s arms for some time, not speaking. After almost an hour Wendell said, “If I had a way, would you come away with me?”

“They’d find us.”

“No. I’d see to it.”

Julia was quiet, “Miss. Roberta paid for me. I’m hers.”

“Nobody gonna treat you like that. If I gets me some money and I gets me an idea, you gonna come with me?”

Julia tried to smile and succeeded a little as she did her best to look into his eyes. “Yes. I will if you come for me.”

Julia checked the hallway and Wendell made his way back down to Theresa’s room. The room was hot, Theresa was seated cross-legged in her bed, sullen and sweating profusely.

“Now, what you gonna to do?” she said. Her voice was deep and raspy.

“I need to gets some money.”

“Are you a good fighter Wendell?” She stared straight ahead, unfocused.

Wendell had answered that question many times, but it sounded like she wanted more. “When I was growing up, I thinks my papa is the strongest man in the world. When I gets to be older, he looked to got weaker. When I saw some of the things he gone done to get by, I remember thinking, he was such a small man and I would make him proud and do better than that. I wanted to become something to make him proud of me, but he’s always looking at something else. When I fight, everything feel good. Them other fighters move like molasses. I can tell what they are going to do before they do it. It feel right and true, like I could be the greatest fighter in the whole world.”

“Wendell,” Theresa said looking at him for the first time. “There’s a place, where you could go, and you can be, whatever you want to be.”

“What’s that?”

“You got to take that road that leads to the sunset,” Theresa closed her eyes. “Walk that road for a whole night till you come to another road, then you go to your right and walk the whole day till you come to a big ugly oak tree at a crossroads in the middle of no-place. That’s where you wait.”

“Wait for what?”

Theresa’s eyes opened wide and stared intensely at him. “Wait. Wait for Him to come.”

“Him?”

“Him. Old Nick. You shake hands with him and you be the greatest fighter in the world after that.” Theresa’s eyes continued to burn through him. Wendell felt the room change. Theresa closed her eyes again and smiled. “You go now, him waiting for you.”

Wendell trusted Theresa. He stood right then and left.

Theresa’s eyes opened wide with terror. She clutched her throat. “No,” she rasped forcing her voice. She coughed and choked, as smoke began to spill from her mouth. She began to hyperventilate. Her breath labored in thick gasps spewing more smoke that joined the thickening concoction swirling in the wispy air before her.

Suddenly the fog twisted into a smoky hand with long cruel fingers that grabbed her by the throat. Theresa rose off the bed and was pinned to the wall. She hung, trying to get hold of the misty hand that clutched her. She struggled. Each smoky breath gave more and more substance to the thing that held her.

Theresa looked towards the bowl. She let go of the hand and released a sound that reverberated off the walls of the room. The bowl began to vibrate. Something flashed in her eyes and Theresa’s hands began to work slowly as if she were balling up a piece of paper.

The smoky claw hand reacted as if something was tugging on it. Her eyes opened wide and she began to slip down the wall until she was standing on her bed. The bowl was spinning and vibrating as she continued to work her hands, bringing them together, the smoke bundling in the air before her. The hand fought back, but was half the size now and as Theresa’s hands came together it became a ball of reverberant smoky air.

Theresa leapt from the bed. She grabbed her knife and cut her hand over the bowl and began to chant. The smoky mist hung in the air and Theresa began to knead the air squeezing and pressing her hands together as she continued to chant. The mist continued to thicken and shrink until it reached the size of a large marble and stopped. She picked it up squeezing the mushy little balloon that vibrated, ready to burst.

On a hook above her head, three chicken feet hung beside a small burlap bag. She pulled down the sack, opened it up and dropped the small marble in. It landed among a few others. Theresa pulled the drawstring closed and replaced it on the hook. Then she exhaled and collapsed onto her bed with tears in her eyes.

 

 

5

 

Wendell did not go back to his little apartment. He followed Theresa’s directions right out of town and down the road that led to the sunset. He walked all night watching his shadow slowly appear as the sun rose on his back.

The twilight dulled the landscape and he came to a road that led off to the right. There were no trees any longer, only dirt reaching to the horizon in every direction. He started down the road as the sun set on his left side revealing millions of stars and a full moon. The cool night air felt good. Late into the night, Wendell came to the intersection. The moon seemed to illuminate the tree and had it almost glow.

It was a grotesque looking tree and seemed out of place in the landscape. It reached as high as a two story building with a thick vine-like trunk that seemed to twist right out of the ground. There were no leaves. In fact, the tree was just as dry as the ground, which cracked away from the tree into the night. A sensation of déjà vu overtook him as he stared at the gnarled twisted branches that looked to be in pain. He sat at the base and watched the sunrise as he fell asleep.

“Boy? Boy. BOY!”

Wendell woke with a start, staring at a black man in a dark brown suit. He jumped up while the man stayed at the same height. The small man barely stood over his knees.

“Calm down boy, didn’t mean to scare you.”

Wendell looked down at the little man. “Who are you?”

“No I’m sorry, boy but that’s my question to you.”

“W-W-Wendell,” he stammered. He squinted his eyes against the unnaturally bright sunlight. He was still sleepy.

“W-W-Wendell?” the man laughed. “Ain’t no reason to be scared of me boy. I’m just the messenger. What you doing here?”

“I am waiting for someone.” Wendell said.

The little man laughed with a crazy giggle, “I knewd it, you is waiting for him, ain’t you?”

Wendell looked hard at the little man, surprised that he would know why he was there.

Laughing again, the little man jumped around. “I knewd it. Well come on W-W-Wendal.”

The little man walked away from the tree to a car that Wendell hadn’t noticed sitting on the road. The little man ran to the back door. The car was big and black as pitch, along with every window. The little man opened the back door and poked his head inside, then came back out again as Wendell approached.

“Get in,” the little man said, with a mischievous smile holding the door.

Fear gripped Wendell now more than any other time he could remember. He thought of Theresa and a strong image came to him saying, “No,” then he thought of Julia and again thought. “No.” Then he thought of his father saying, “He can’t do anything right,” and a stubbornness took hold of him. I’ll show you, he thought and he stepped inside of the car.

The back seat was huge and cushioned, and it looked even darker and bigger than it should have been. On the far side of the seat, a dark man in a darker suit with a baldhead sat with his legs crossed and his hands in his lap. The darkness of the interior kept him in shadow. The silhouette nodded.

“Hello.” Wendell said nervously and slipped in the back seat. The door closed and the heat increased. The air in the car was acrid and humid, and Wendell instantly felt sweaty.

The dark man slowly, but smoothly raised his hand. “Nick,” he greeted Wendell with a deep empty voice.

Wendell grasped the hand and shook it. It was so hot and dry it almost burned, “I’m Wendell.”

The silhouette nodded again. “I here you is waiting for me.”

“Is you him?”

The figure inhaled deeply. When he spoke it was slow and deliberate. “I am him that is Nick as you are him that is Wendell. If you is waiting for me, it’s cause you be wanting from me. What you be wanting from me boy? Understand I, can’t give you everything.” He paused considering. “But I could see my way to supplying certain things, for certain individuals.” The car seemed to tense. “For a price. Of course.” His last words hung in the air.

Wendell’s stomach tightened. “I don’t have much money,” he reached into his pocket for everything that he had on him.

Nick’s hand came up calm, waving the hot air. “Don’t worry yourself about that. I find its better, to deal in people, rather than money.”

Wendell put his hand down.

“You an honest boy, right?”

Wendell nodded.

“Good, then I will get my payment, from your honesty. You promise to pay, what is owed, when I come for it, and we have a deal.”

Wendell’s head was spinning from the heat. “Yes.”

“Good. Now what is it you want?”

At the question Wendell’s head cleared and he remembered the reason he was here. “I want… to be the greatest fighter in the world,” his voice didn’t sound like his own.

“Oh do you? Haven’t people told you that you could be? Haven’t people told you that you are?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you already think you are?”

Wendell thought for a moment and nodded.

“So you don’t believe that you are and you want me to make that happen?”

Wendell nodded again. He thought about the people telling him he was the greatest fighter they’d ever seen.

“Now you understand that, being the greatest is a hard thing to bear. If you a fighter, then people always want to see, how good a fighter you are. They come at you, all the time, ready for a fight just wanting to see if they are as good as the great Kid Wendell.” Nick in hailed, uncrossed his legs and settled in the seat, getting more comfortable.

Wendell wasn’t paying attention. He was remembering fighting, feeling like he was the greatest fighter in the world. His body got even hotter. His adrenaline came up. His thoughts stopped as Nick suddenly leaned out of the shadows. His eyes were empty black pools and his breath carried a toxic stench that threw Wendell’s mind into a haze.

“Responsibility like that can make a man go crazy,” Nick spoke the words as he stared into Wendell’s eyes. “You understand that boy? Being the greatest drives men mad.” The voice ran through Wendell’s head. “Crazy fighter. That’s what they’ll say. You want to be the greatest boy?”

Wendell nodded his head again and Nick brought his hand up. The words moved in the heat, filling his ears and clouding his mind as he took the hand and shook it. Electricity rushed through him. He felt something leave his body and for a moment he felt sad. It was as if his spirit knew that his destiny was right around the next corner, but now he was lost. His body slumped.

Nick released his hand as the door opened up again. Wendell squinted, blinded by the sunlight. He stepped out as the little man laughed. Wendell looked back and saw that Nick had retreated to the shadows and was sitting as if they had never spoken. The door closed and the little man climbed in front.

Wendell felt drunk. His head spun.

The black car started with a growl that didn’t sound like a car at all and rolled away.

Wendell stumbled to the tree. Sadness and loss overtook him and he began to punch the trunk. It crumbled and caved and his knuckles split. He cried forever until he was done and the loss was complete.

Wendell retraced his route in a haze. He didn’t sleep. He made his way back to the back to the city, reaching his little apartment just after dawn and collapsed onto the mattress and fell instantly into a dreamless sleep.

A heavy pounding stirred him. It didn’t quite register until the two-by-four struck him in the head. Wendell woke instantly, rolled and got quickly to his feet. His fists were up and ready for whatever was coming next.

The two-by-four came fast and Wendell sleepily ducked and blocked as Dickson yelled, “Where the fuck have you been? You know how much fucking money you cost me?”

“I had something I had to do.”

“Sonofabitch!” Dickson swung the two-by-four and Wendell blocked it. “I put you up and you do this to me?” Dickson was furious.

Wendell believed Dickson might be thinking about killing him.

Dickson’s eyes blazed. He stepped forward grunting. He swung the two-by-four. Wendell stepped in and threw a punch. The board exploded throwing splinters everywhere. Dickson’s eyes went wide in shock. He looked at the broken board.

Wendell had a crazed look in his eyes.

“All right,” Dickson said dropping the board. “Calm down boy. I thought that wop took you until we caught up with him.”

Wendell was still tense and ready to strike. His eyes looked different. He looked right through Dickson, focused on something somewhere else.

“It’s all right, okay?”

Wendell let his arms slowly drop, but kept his fists clenched.

“You um… you going to be ready tonight?”

Wendell nodded his head and swallowed. He blinked his eyes and unclenched his fists. “Yes,” he said focusing again. “I’ll be ready.”

“Okay then,” Dickson was nervous. He put up a hand, “Five dollars tonight okay?” he started moving towards the door.

“I want to fight twice.” Wendell said.

Dickson stopped. “You want to what? Look boy, I know you’re good, but most can just barely handle one.”

“Tell true I want to fight everyone tonight. Five dollars apiece.” The strange look came back in Wendell’s eyes. He looked crazed and far away.

Dickson gulped. “You gone soft kid?” he moved towards Wendell.

Wendell brought his fists up again.

“Okay, okay. Let me see what I can do.” Dickson backed towards the entrance.

Wendell dropped his arms and nodded. He collapsed back on the makeshift bed and went back to sleep.

Dickson left nervous. Fighting every fight was crazy, but maybe he could find a way to make back what he lost.

Wendell still looked dazed when he entered the warehouse to a hail of cheers. “The return of Kid Wendell,” someone yelled. Wendell felt the adrenaline.

Dickson rushed up to him, “Okay,” he said. “I set you up with the first five fights. The others wouldn’t give up their spots so that’s two fights out of it. Okay?” Dickson looked nervous. “Are you sure about this kid?”

Wendell turned to Dickson. “I’ll fight them at the same time,” he said.

“Look kid, I can only do so much. You been doing so much damage that a lot of guys came here tonight to watch you get the tar beat out of you. I’ve been covering bets against you because… well, I don’t know why, but you better come through for me or I’m done for.”

“Five dollars a piece.”

“Yes.” Dixon was nervous.

Wendell walked through the crowd in a daze of cheers and laughter. Dickson followed behind, stopping every now and again to talk to someone, writing a name and number on a piece of paper. Wendell reached the edge of the circle and Dickson came up beside him. He looked scared to death.

“Okay kid this is it, were in this together. If you die, I die,” Wendell ignored him.

Across the circle, five men stood shadowboxing, staring across at Wendell. A couple of them smiled. An announcer stepped out of the crowd. “All right, all right. Shut up you son’s o’ bitches, something a little different tonight. Tonight Kid Wendell verses Chuck Jones, Butch Wallace, Lefty Steel, Jimmy Smith, and Harold ‘the Bruiser’ Simpson. One after the other in that order.” The crowd went crazy and the announcer stepped out of the circle.

Wendell stepped away from the edge of the circle. One of the five stepped up. Wendell tried to remember what the announcer had said the name of the first guy was. It didn’t matter. The man came straight at Wendell. He watched the man throw a slow motion right hand that he ducked under. Then a slow motion left that he stepped around.

The crowd started yelling as Wendell dodged and moved around every blow. “He’s scared!” someone shouted. “Fight already!” another voice yelled. For a full minute, the other fighter threw punch after punch. Wendell waited until he felt bored then stepped in low to deliver a right upper cut to the man’s chin. His head snapped back and his body followed it to the ground. The crowd stopped cheering for a moment. “One punch?” someone yelled, then an explosion of cheers. Wendell stepped back a little and waited.

The next fighter stepped out as men quickly dragged the first one out of the circle. This fighter decided to be a little more careful. He didn’t start throwing punches right off. He and Wendell stood circling each other for a moment. A little jab and cover, jab and cover.

Wendell played the fighter’s game matching him blow for blow. The other fighter became frustrated. He seemed to sense what was coming and suddenly turned serious. He threw a quick jab, then a cross that connected with Wendell and snapped his head around. The crowd cheered. Wendell turned back and shook his head. The fighter saw the look in Wendell’s eyes and knew he was in trouble. Wendell threw a low jab then a high punch. The fighter stumbled back, but Wendell advanced, throwing punch after punch, while the other fighter tried to block the barrage.

Wendell stepped in, dropped low and delivered a heavy right to the stomach. Came up, jabbed with the left to set up the right, and then hit the other fighter in the center of his face. The explosion of blood was shocking. Even some of the bystanders got splattered. The other fighter toppled, out before he hit the floor, his face an unrecognizable from the blood.

Dickson stood on the side. He watched the next two fights go about the same. He assumed that they would be. What he was afraid of was the last fight. The fight that Wendell was supposed to have tonight was with ‘the Bruiser’ from Kentucky, Bruiser had been traveling from city to city taking fights with the best they had to offer. So far he had whipped everyone who crossed his path. The story was that he was planning on going professional. The worst of it was that he was known by another name in the New York gangs. That name had killed men with his bare hands, not just one, but a few both inside and outside of the ring. Being hit by ‘the Bruiser’ was like being struck by a sledgehammer one newspaper had written from a hospital interview with a fighter. Bruiser preferred to train with bare-knuckles because he said it softened the blows that you received with gloves on.

Dickson was excited that Wendell had gotten this far, but when the last fight started he moved. He wanted to be able to see, but made certain he was near an exit if necessary. The wagers he made were all riding together and all of his winnings were now riding on this fight. If Wendell lost he would be cleaned out. If he won he might be able to move to the big city.

The Bruiser came out cool and smooth, he hit Wendell in the face with a quick left right and moved out to the side. He moved in and out connecting and moving back jabbing and dancing around the edge. After four fights Wendell was a little tired, his face was swollen under his left eye and had a cut on his cheek. The Bruiser was fast, but to Wendell‘s eye, not much faster than the others. He was just too tired to follow. He covered up to catch his breath, while the Bruiser continued landing blows from all directions.

Wendell threw a punch. The Bruiser blocked the punch and stepped in with a left jab then a heavy right to the head. Wendell stumbled. The crowd roared. His head was fine, but he was tired. He stumbled back more than necessary and allowed the Bruiser to move in. Wendell suddenly spread his legs very wide for balance and dropped low.

The Bruiser came in and Wendell came up, almost from the floor with a right uppercut to the stomach that lifted the Bruiser off the ground. Wendell stepped back to finish catching his breath. The Bruiser did the same.

Wendell’s tired crazy eyes focused. Now he was ready. The Bruiser was angry, no one had ever hurt him before. He felt he’d made a mistake and that would not happen again. The fighters stood toe-to-toe trading blows back and forth around the circle. Wendell listened to the intoxicating cheers. He felt something coming from inside of him wanting to scream wild with the cheers. He grunted as he threw another left, right, left combination to the Bruiser. Each of them missed.

The Bruiser was getting tired. He was not about to let some kid beat him for the first time. He ducked the next punch to the head and stepped in with a heavy right to the gut, pulled back and drove an uppercut to the chin that snapped Wendell’s head back.

Dickson watched terrified, glancing over his shoulder to judge the distance to the exit and make sure it was clear as the crowd screamed louder.

Wendell stumbled back. He turned to the right, as the Bruiser moved in for what he thought was going to be the knockout. Wendell took a step back, stumbling, and then another. His stance was wide. Then he turned, hunched over, almost giving his back to the Bruiser. Bruiser threw a rabbit punch to the back of Wendell’s head. He didn’t notice that Wendell’s legs were not stumbling, but standing firm and solid.

The punch connected and Wendell turned suddenly, as the Bruiser was pulling back.

The Bruiser and Wendell locked eyes for a less than a second, which was far too long because Wendell’s heavy right was already on its way. It connected with the bridge of the nose, breaking it with another bloody explosion. Wendell didn’t stop. He moved in with a left to the gut followed by a right uppercut that hit the Bruiser in his broken nose just as his head was coming down. His bloody head snapped back and his eyes rolled white before the pupils came back to a dead stare. His body fell like a rag doll and hit the ground with white blood shot eyes that stared out at nothing.

The crowd erupted as Wendell kept his hands ready for the Bruiser to get back up. Two men from the side came out to check the Bruiser. They whispered for a moment before one of them shouted, “He’s dead!” The cheering died down with all eyes on Wendell.

Dickson snapped out of his shock, realizing that he had just made a fortune. He pushed his way through the silent crowd to join Wendell who still had his hands up and ready for the Bruiser to get back up. “What’s wrong with you all? That’s right, because he’s the greatest fighter in the world! Crazy Kid Wendal!” Dickson grabbed Wendell’s arm and raised it in triumph. The crowd exploded with cheering as two men dragged the Bruiser out of the circle.

Dickson went around collecting the bets as the next two fighters came out and started trading punches. Outside he giggled stupidly, “Boy you had me scared to death. How you feel?”

Wendell stood dazed, his eyes were still wild. “You have the money?” Dickson had a handful of money and coins in every pocket. He started counting out money. “Twenty-five dollars.” Wendell said.

Dickson lit a cigar and smiled, “My boy I’ve got a fortune here and I think you done real good. Real good! So I tell you what I’m going to do,” He finished counting and the rest of the money disappeared in his jacket. “Here’s thirty-five dollars because I think you deserve it and I think we’re going to make a lot of money later on.” Dickson looked at Wendell in his crazy eyes. “You hearing me boy?”

Wendell didn’t even seem to register that Dickson was standing in front of him. He reached out took the money and walked away. Dickson laughed, “See you tomorrow night kid,” he called. He’s probably headed to Miss Roberta’s. Dixon patted his pockets. He was excited. He reached down and adjusted himself in his trousers. “Think I’ll make a late night trip to Miss Roberta’s myself.”

 

 

6

 

Wendell went home and collected the rest of his money. He bundled his clothes in a belt and headed towards Miss Roberta’s. All the girls jumped up, asking did he win? “Theresa?” he said.

“In her room, she’s sick.” One of the girls said.

Wendell went up the back stairs and down the hall to the third door and knocked. “Go away. I’m off tonight.”

Wendell opened the door and stepped inside.

Theresa looked up from her little table where she sat, annoyed at the intrusion, “I said I’m…” she stopped. “Wendell!” she jumped up, grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him inside. “Are you all right? You didn’t go, did you?” she hugged him for a moment and realized something was wrong. She stepped back and looked into his eyes, “Wendell?”

“I’m going to take Julia away tonight,” His eyes were wild.

“Wendell, did you go to the crossroads?”

Wendell nodded his head, “Uh huh, just like you told me? I’m the greatest fighter in the whole world now. I made a deal with Nick.” He sounded slow and lost. His eyes were unfocused and far away.

Theresa started to shake her head, her eyes filled with tears, “No, Wendell you shouldn’t have gone. That wasn’t me that was…” Theresa trailed off. “I saw you. You didn’t have to go,” she started to cry. “If he made you that deal it means you already was the best. Him can’t give you nothing you ain’t already got. Him can only take and push you towards something else.”

“I’m going to take Julia away with me tonight.”

“Wendell Miss Roberta ain’t gonna let that happen.”

“I’m going to take her with me.” Wendell started to sound angry.

Theresa knew by his tone she was not going to stop him. “Okay, let me go talk to her,” Wendell nodded.

Theresa slipped quickly down the hallway to Julia’s room. From the commotion on the other side of the door, it was obvious that she was busy, and it did not sound like she was being treated very well. She came back. Wendell looked up. “She’s busy right now.”

Wendell looked confused.

“She’s with someone right now.” Theresa said nervously.

“But she only for one person.”

“Yes, I know she is. He’s with her now. You best wait till he leave.”

Wendell remembered Julia’s face and stood.

“Wendell. Now. You don’t want to be doing this. Miss Roberta…”

He moved Theresa and went out into the hallway.

One of the girls from the front saw him coming. She covered herself with a gasp, turned and ran back down the front stairs. At Julia’s door Wendell heard crying. There was a slap and a scream. Trying the knob he found it was locked. He put his weight against the door and shoved. It gave easily and he burst in.

Julia screamed. A fat naked man stood with his back to him, blocking his view of the bed.

“What the hell?” Dickson turned. “What are you doing here boy?”

Wendell stood in shock, staring into the annoyed eyes of the man who had been his benefactor.

“What the hell do you want?” Dickson asked annoyed.

“I…” Wendell didn’t know what to say. Dickson was holding a leather strap in his right hand. A tiny sob came from the bed and a fury washed over Wendell.

Dickson didn’t see the fist coming. The hit sent him sprawling into the corner by the bed. He landed with a crash against the nightstand.

Now with a clear view of the bed Wendell saw Julia. She was lying on her side, naked with her knees pulled up to her chest. Wendell quickly moved to her, and gently touched her shoulder, she twitched. “It’s me.” He said softly.

Julia slowly looked up, her eye was worse. In fact, her whole face was badly bruised. The area under the eye had a large gash and a cut on her forehead. Blood ran from both openings and dripped on the bed. She had welts and bruises on her arms and legs. The shoulder he touched was blue, maybe broken. Wendell felt a rage explode in him beyond anything he had ever known. He clenched his fists and his knuckles cracked. He turned back towards Dickson. He was furious, oblivious to the heavy footsteps coming down the hall.

The large man Wendell had seen sitting at the piano, suddenly appeared in the doorway. Luke held a blackjack in his right hand and stepped into the room heading right for Wendell. Two girls poked their heads in while sounds in the hallway said others were coming.

“Come on boy,” Luke said, “Time to leave.” This is what he always said to give the person one chance to come peacefully. They never took that option.

Wendell stepped away from the bed as the big man approached and brought his fists up. Luke smiled. They always fought. He rushed Wendell, swinging the blackjack and throwing his body against him.

The two men moved across the room. Wendell hit the dresser with a crash. Luke stepped back and held Wendell up. He hit him in the side of the head with the blackjack. Wendell was already hurt from the earlier fights and felt the solid knock, but his anger had become a fever. He caught the hand holding the blackjack and stared. For the first time in his life, Luke felt afraid.

Wendell grabbed him by the throat, punched him once in the stomach with so much force that the big man began choking. Luke stumbled back from Wendell and fell to his knees heaving on the floor before he vomited.

Wendell moved back to the bed. “Can you move?” he said to Julia.

Julia began to slowly unfold herself, trembling with pain. Wendell gently ran a large hand over her head and she looked up with a little smile and nodded.

Wendell heard the heavy footfalls and noticed all the girls in the doorway looking down the hall. Wendell ran for the door.

Darrel was moving as fast as he could down the hallway, his blackjack out and ready. The girls cleared the way, but as he reached the open door a large dark figure came barreling out of the doorway headed right for him. He had no time to stop, but he ducked the fist that was headed for his face. He opened his arms wide to throw his shoulder into the man’s midsection.

Wendell let out a great grunt as the wind came out of him. Darrel blocked up with his left arm and quickly brought the blackjack around to jab into Wendell’s groin. Wendell winced at the impact. The pain shot down to his knees. His legs buckled and he dropped to the floor with pain filling his stomach. He gagged.

Darrel stepped back as Wendell fell incapacitated. Miss Roberta came pushing through the girls, “What the hell is this, get back to your rooms.” Some of the girls retreated a few feet and stopped. They wanted to see how this was going to play out.

The room looked as if a tornado had hit it. Mr. Dickson was in the process of standing, using the bed and the nightstand for balance. He was still naked and Miss Roberta not wanting to embarrass a good client any further than he obviously was, made a fierce gesture to the girls in the doorway. All of them stepped back. On the far side of the room, Julia was crying and trying to slip a dress over her shoulders. Her arm hung limp and blood still ran from the two wounds. Luke lay at her feet, in a puddle of his own vomit.

“Get the hell out of my way!” Miss Roberta yelled walking out of the room shoving two girls into the wall. “What the hell happened?”

“Miss Roberta, I ain’t for sure, but…”

Darrel looked into the room and saw Julia struggling in the corner, obviously in severe pain. “Who did that to you?”

Julia choked through her tears and looked over to a weary Dickson who had just got to his feet.

Darrel made an angry face and began moving towards Dickson,

“No!” Miss Roberta said, again stopping him like a dog. “He pays for that,” she mumbled through gritted teeth.

Darrel made a face of shock and disillusionment.

“What the fuck is he doing out there?” she motioned towards Wendell.

Wendell was getting to his feet, hunched over and trying to catch his breath. One of the girls, who had seen everything, whispered something into Miss Roberta’s ear. The big woman glared at Julia, “So you was planning to leave me was you?”

Dickson was now moving towards his clothes.

Julia began backing up as Miss Roberta came at her with a severe look in her eyes. “I paid good money for you!” She yelled. “Your poppa didn’t want you. He sold you to me for thirty dollars. You’re mine, I own you.” Julia backed up to the wall. “You’re not going anywhere!” Miss Roberta slapped Julia hard in the face then reached down and took a severe hold of the girl’s crotch. “This is mine!” Julia screamed. The girls by the door winced in familiarity.

In the hallway, Wendell stood. Theresa came running up behind Wendell. “Stop!” Theresa said grabbing hold of his arm.

Wendell turned to look at Theresa. His eyes didn’t have any rational thought in them. She let him pass. The girls stepped back from the door to give Wendell a wide birth.

In the room, Darrel was trying to help Luke who had completely passed out. Dickson stood in the corner fumbling through his jacket mumbling “Ungrateful sonofabitch.”

Miss Roberta was yelling incoherently and slapping Julia. “Darrel!” She called, “Bring that black bastard in here.” Darrel left Luke and began moving back to the door.

Dickson had reached into his coat pocket and found what he wanted with a sigh and smiled.

Darrel turned to the girls, “All of you need to go back to your rooms now,” he said stepping to the doorway. The fist that came around the corner was the answer he received and sent him stumbling back against the bed. His hand went instantly to the blackjack.

Wendell did not waist anytime. He delivered two heavy punches to Darrel’s stomach that doubled the big man over. Wendell spread his legs, stepped in and threw a right cross followed by a heavy uppercut that laid Darrel out on the bed.

“Sonofabitch!” Dickson screamed. His hands shook as he tried to aim the small gun he pulled from his coat. He did not hesitate. He fired the first shot that hit the wall a few feet from Wendell’s head.

All the girls by the door screamed and ran.

Wendell moved forward as a terrified angry Dickson fired another shaky shot. Only a few feet away, the bullet grazed Wendell’s left shoulder, but had no effect. Wendell grabbed the hand that held the gun and squeezed. There was sound of a snap and Dickson screamed dropping the gun to the floor. Wendell released Dickson’s hand, took hold of his shoulder and began to punch Dickson repeatedly in the face until he was just as dazed and bloody as Julia. Then he took hold of the fat man the way his father taught him to handle the big hogs. Wendell spun once and slung the big man towards the window.

Dickson couldn’t stop the momentum. He landed and stumbled. His upper body smashed through the glass and he tumbled ass over tip, screaming as he fell to the ground below. He landed on his head, with a sickening pop of his neck.

Wendell turned towards Miss Roberta who was shocked and scared holding a limp Julia by her broken arm. Wendell punched the big woman once in the face with everything he had and scooped Julia up as the big woman fell to the ground with a squeak.

Julia was half dressed and dazed after the continuous slaps from Miss Roberta. He gently wiped off some of the blood, while moving her hair away from her face. “Can you move?” he said softly.

She slowly opened her eyes to him. With a pained exhausted look on her face, she tried to support herself, stumbled and passed out.

Wendell looked around the room. He shoved Darrel off the bed and set her down as gently as he could. Then he stepped around to the dresser and grabbed Dickson’s coat. He rifled the pockets and took the big wad of money. He returned to the bed and wrapped Julia in the blanket, scooped her up and walked towards the door. All of the girls, including Theresa, stepped back.

Wendell stopped and looked down at Theresa with sad, unfocused eyes filled with pain and anger. Silent tears trailed down Theresa’s face as she looked up at the big man. Wendell gave her a nod of thanks before continuing down the hall. He walked down the front stairs to the lounge and out the front door without looking back. He walked right out of town, down the road and all through the night.

In the night, Julia stirred twice in his arms and then no more.

Wendell did not know for sure when she finally went, but his tears fell in thick continuous streams. By the time the sun rose he had picked a spot far away from the road at the base of a tree. He dug a deep hole with his bare hands and buried her there. He cried until he had no tears left. Then he stood.

Crazy Kid Wendell, the greatest fighter in the world, followed the sun into the west and never again looked back.

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