Barking hounds and sporadic gunfire spurred Madeline Sterling through the Alabama woods. With each step, her wound throbbed and her sides ached. Low branches of pine needles slapped her. How far had she and her partner run? She fell against an oak, grabbed a few gulps of air, then pushed deeper into the forest. Finally, she tripped on a tree root and couldn‘t rise.
Barely missing a step, six-foot, two-inch Socrates Gray wrapped her good left arm around his neck and hauled her up a rise. He was so much taller than Sterling her feet skimmed the forest floor.
A boom behind them quieted crickets, angry squirrel chatter, and bird songs. Even the mob and their dogs fell silent. Then came the sound of whoops, gunfire, and yelping dogs set off on a hunt for the couple. Thick black smoke swelled over treetops behind them.
―Burned our car,‖ Gray panted. ―Come on, Sterling.‖
No one had called her Madeline since she entered training to become a civil rights investigator for the top-secret organization Justice Tomorrow. Odd thing to remember as she and Gray ran for their lives.
They scrambled down the rise, along a ridge, and up to a clearing at the top of the hill where they could see a lake in the distance. Surrounded by an ocean of green leaves, the blue water promised relief from the hellish heat and humidity. Sterling licked her dry lips, mesmerized by the patterns of light across the water. Ducking between the trees below them, a shallow rocky creek thirty to forty feet wide wound around the base of the hill and headed to the lake. Gray adjusted his grip on her hand and her waist.
―Pickup . . . there?‖ She wheezed. ―Lake in Little River . . .?‖
JACKIE ROSS FLAUM
No answer. Broad-shouldered and stronger than anyone she knew, Gray‘s labored breathing huffed in her ear. Rivulets of sweat stained his blue shirt as he half-carried her down the hill. The muscles in his brown arm strained with the effort of helping her along.
―Leave me,‖ Sterling panted. ―Th-hey won‘t shoot a white woman. They‘ll kill you — or worse.‖
Gray rested her against a maple overlooking the creek they‘d seen from the hilltop. Strands of her red hair snagged on its bark and tugged on her scalp. But blessed relief. The wound throbbed less when she lay still.
―Go . . . please.‖
―I‘ll get water.‖ In two or three steps Gray jumped into the creek bank. She inhaled fresh pine then choked on a God-awful stench.
―Phew-w.‖ With some effort, she turned from the sickening odor of something dead or dying. Suddenly a wet strip torn from Gray‘s shirt whipped across her face.
―Your shoes.‖ Gray yanked them off her feet without waiting for her and ran back the way he came.
Sterling let water drip into her mouth then sucked it from every fiber. Enough moisture remained to wipe off a little. Better. What could she remember from all those weeks of Justice Tomorrow self-defense, survival, and interrogation training that would help? She reached in her jeans hip pocket for a red bandana she‘d worn around her neck when this day began.
Wincing, she peeled away a bloody wad which used to be a white handkerchief. Gray had stuffed it against the wound in the moments after a bullet blew through the upper part of her shoulder. Pretty disgusting, but she might use it later somehow. She tucked it in her shirt pocket. Next, she dabbed the edges of the bullet hole with the damp cloth. Finally, she tied the bandana around her arm, trembling from the effort.
Light-headed and nauseated, she leaned her head back against the tree and admitted she‘d never make it to the lake. She would die here like whatever rotted close by. She would die a year from becoming twenty-one, a legal adult. Without graduating from college, being an FBI agent, or taking a lover. She‘d never go to Paris, vote Lyndon Johnson out of the White House, or taste crème brûlée.
The barking and howling sounded clearer. Closer. She closed her eyes and willed herself to die before they tore her apart.
Another death in the fight for desegregation in America. No doubt Justice Tomorrow would investigate her murder. Which of her teammates would uncover her killers and preserve the evidence that would lead to a conviction someday? How long would her family wait until the day these white murderers could be convicted in an Alabama courtroom?
Her poor mother. Sterling had resented her father‘s forbidding her to join Justice Tomorrow—a man who marched for civil rights and pounded protest signs in his yard to the horror of their Boston neighbors. But her mother‘s words had seared her heart: ―Danny‘s in the Marines. I already have one child in harm‘s way. Please. Don‘t do this. For God‘s sake, you‘re only eighteen!‖
Odd how easily she accepted death. She never thought of it back then. Sterling imagined herself stronger. Her shame kicked at her exhaustion in hopes of jump-starting the will to live. She‘d given no thought to death when she signed with Justice Tomorrow. Instead, she celebrated the righteousness of the cause, the excitement of learning investigative skills, the joy of having someone value her talents.
Sterling dragged in a breath. Where were the angels of God the priests talked about? All she heard were dogs. Where were the angels?
―Hey, open your eyes.‖ Gray thrust her shoes at her and hauled her into his arms. ―Got an idea.‖
The forest spun in crazy colors. Of course, Gray had an idea. Next to her father, Gray was the smartest person she‘d ever known — even though he went to Yale.
He carried her down the steep creek embankment until they reached a hole gouged into the side of the bank. Covered by broken branches, piles of leaves, and rocks left by the last spring storm, the hole in the creek bend was deeper than it seemed at first glance. And God, the awful smell.
―You okay?‖ His mouth twisted with concern.
The half-eaten deer hung over the hole surrounded by dozens of
scattered paw prints left by predators who‘d feasted on the body. Besides the bugs and worms, the gnats swarmed around it.
Her nose wrinkled. ―Gross.‖
―Complain to the management.‖ Gray laid her in the hollow with the top of her head nestled under a small overhang, dropped dry branches across her, curled around her then sat up enough to throw leaves and rocks about. Some leaves and twigs he tossed in the air fluttered down on them. Then he peeled himself away with care. Puzzled, she sat up to slip on her shoes. The world spun like a Tilt-A-Whirl.
―Don‘t move!‖ Gray tried to obliterate his footprints with a pine branch and handfuls of forest debris. ―I‘ll be back quick as I can. I gotta gather branches and stuff from the other side of the creek. Then I‘ll walk backwards in my footprints. I already made your prints.‖
―Tear this . . . nasty thing in pieces.‖ She handed him the handkerchief in her pocket with shaky hands. ―Tie on a rock. Might confuse dogs.‖
― ̳Gross,‘ ̳hunky-dory,‘ ̳nasty‘—does Justice Tomorrow know you talk like that? Lay down.‖
JACKIE ROSS FLAUM
She stuck her tongue out at him and eased into the hole again. Tired. Her eyelids fell. The noise of splashing water, the faint crash of stones or wood thrown into bushes, more splashing, then a strained grunt as though Gray struggled against a herculean force. Suddenly a suffocating weight fell across her. Her head swiveled to find a deer eye staring at her. With a shriek, she clawed against the weight, her mind a terrified blank.
The deer‘s body lifted enough to let Gray scrape his way underneath it. He slapped a hand over her mouth as he grabbed her in a sideways embrace. She twisted and heaved and screamed. When she sagged against him at last, he leaned forward and threw handfuls of rocks and leaves where the deer‘s body had been. Satisfied, he rearranged the hiding place to cover him and snuggled around her again.
―Be still.‖ Gray‘s lips moved against her ear they lay in the hot putrid hole. ―No matter how close they come, how the dogs bark, how the men talk, don‘t stir or make a sound.‖
Every time Gray moved or dug, the darkness in their small pit grew until she saw only specks of light, felt the wetness of perspiration or blood, the smell of dirt and decay. Her hearing became acute.
The men drew closer. Drunken voices hollered, ―string ‘em up,‖ ―nigger,‖ ―nigger-lovin‘ whore.‖ Why did all these voices sound familiar, all the words the same? Had she said ̳hey‘ to them on the street? Gone to church with them? Shared a joke with their wives?
A green leaf slid down next to her lips, then another. She let them stay. The men and dogs crashed through the underbrush and down the embankment.
Gray gripped her tight and sent a ―sh-h‖ of air in her ear. Adrenaline lanced through her and created a fiery resolve. The seconds ticked in her head: ―one one-thousand, two one-thousands, three one-thousands. . ..”
A dog‘s sniffing nose burrowed so close the hairs on her head moved. Another dog dug near her throat. With the racket the dogs sent up, she heard only fragments of the men‘s words.
―God . . . John,‖ hollered one man. ―Thought ya had a tracking dog. He treed a dead deer.‖ Laughter.
―Come on, boy,‖ another man grunted. ―She-et. Git! What‘s . . . with you, dogs?‖ A dog yelped. And another. Men stomped around the deer. Swoosh, crack, whoomph noises sounded like men beating the hounds away.
―Stinks. Phew-hee. Poke it, Charlie. See something move beside them maggots.‖
More raucous laughter.
―Give me another swig, John.‖
Sterling clenched her teeth, waiting for gunfire. Instead, a whack—the blow vibrated down the deer carcass and through Sterling‘s injured shoulder. A vast blackness punctuated by pulsing stars and burning pinwheels burst in her brain. Only Gray‘s soft breath against her earlobe kept her grounded.
A crunch-thud-thud outside sounded like running. ―Hey, y‘all! Got footprints cross the crick. Bring ‘em damn dogs yonder.‖
―I‘m tired traipsin‘ all over hell and half of Alabama,‖ whined a deep voice.
―We must a kilt the girl, let the nigger starve in these woods.‖ The second man‘s complaint trailed away.
Sterling craved light, to see what happened outside this hell. It became urgent, powerful. She closed her eyes to control the darkness, to make it her decision when there was light. The seconds ticked by. She counted them, ―One one-thousand, two one-thousands, three one-thousands, four one-thousands . . ..”