The next morning the three men of the Taylor household were up at 7:00 fixing breakfast and packing a lunch. They ate, cleaned up and left to pick up Andy and the second boat at quarter of eight. Sally Ann was still asleep when they left. Jamie had written her a note so she’d know where they were.
Randy was waiting for them at the highway entrance to Arkadelphia as Pleasant Grove’s entrance was further north. Ethan was surprised and puzzled when Scotty said he and Andy would ride with Randy because they needed to talk cows. ‘Why did they need to talk cows on Saturday and if they were talking cows, why wasn’t Jamie included?’ Ethan smelled a rat. As soon as the two were in the truck with Randy, both trucks headed to the river.
“Jamie, what’s going on?” Ethan asked.
“Well, I asked if I could ride alone with you, Ethan. One reason was because we never have time to talk anymore. I mean I know you’re madly in love with Scotty and I think that’s great. If anyone deserves a little happiness, you do, but I miss having time with you.”
“Damn, Little Brother, I wish you had said something. I didn’t mean to neglect you and Sally Ann. Yeah, I’m as sure as I can be that I’m ass over teakettle in love with Scotty, but I can love him without neglecting my little brother and sister. And by the way, you two have given me a lot of happiness and you sure as hell kept me going which I didn’t think I could. I am just going to have to set aside time for you two. You and Sally Ann are about the most important things in my life.”
“Well, maybe close to the most important,” Jamie laughed. “There’s something else I wanted to talk about ...”
“I hope you’re not going to ask me about sex!”
“Well, I am, but not about fucking. I’m damn sure I know more about fucking than you do. Well, maybe not, but your kind of fucking and mine are a bit different. At least half the tools used are different!” Jamie laughed.
“Not sure I should say it, but I have no experience fucking ... and when Scotty and I get around to what you call fucking, it won’t be fucking to us. It will be making love.”
“Okay, I understand what you’re saying, but I like the word ‘fucking.’ What you mean by fucking I would call screwing, banging, tearing off a piece of ass, you know, showing absolutely no respect for the woman, well, your partner.”
“Then call it fucking if you like, so long as you keep that understanding.”
“Ethan, what I wanted to ask you is how do you know you’re in love?”
“Little Brother, I think you’re going to have to ask someone else!” Ethan laughed. “About the only thing I can tell you is when it happens, you’ll know it. Well, look, the first time I saw Scotty was in the PE class and I noticed he wasn’t a jock, but built nonetheless and moved, well, like a cat. Then one day I saw him when he was headed for the showers, I saw his bare ass and got an instant boner. I didn’t understand what was going on. I really hadn’t admitted to myself I was gay. Then at the after-graduation party I was really attracted to him. To make a long story short, I discovered Scotty had the same feeling for me. When he told me he was falling in love with me, I knew I was in love with him. I just knew it. I knew I wanted him in my life, always. When I wasn’t with him, I thought about him. I suddenly got a smile on my face when I remembered he said he loved me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of lust there. He can give me a boner in a nanosecond, but he can also make my heart skip a beat with a soft, quick kiss or a smile. I can’t imagine living without him. When Fr. Mason told us about his fiancée dying, I got sick when I thought about that being a possibility for any of us at anytime, but I was really thinking about it happening to Scotty. I know that doesn’t answer your question, Jamie, but it’s the best I can do.”
“Wow, Ethan, that’s a lot. And I said I knew you wouldn’t be a lot of help when it came to fucking, what I wanted to know was about love and sex. I mean, I know about lust and I know that all my screwing around, and I have done some of that, it was pure lust. The only thing I was thinking of was my cock and getting it in a hot, wet hole so I could shoot a load. Love had absolutely nothing to do with it. I guess I was a bit selective since I never screwed a girl I didn’t like and in some way found attractive, but I was thinking of Jamie and at best hoped I gave her a ride for her money, but that was secondary.”
“Not sure how to tell you how to know you are in love beyond saying I think you will. And you have to remember, I’ve never done anything sexually with anyone besides Scotty. In fact, if love-making only means intercourse, we have never made love, but if you include everything from heavy making out up to just this side of intercourse, I can tell you that love-making is all about the other person. You make love to try to tell someone how much you love them. I guess to put it plainly, you are more concerned about making the one you love feel good than feeling good yourself. Of course your lover is trying to do the same thing so it’s sky rockets and pinwheels!”
“That I can understand. Ethan, I think maybe I’m falling in love with Kathryn. When I am with her she can get me really, really hot—well, you saw the evidence last night, but I’m really concerned about her and what she wants. Your little brother has talked a few girls out of their panties and I know I copped at least two cherries, but when Kathryn says she wants me as much as I want her, but she doesn’t want to go all the way, I stop on a side road on the way home and jerk off. Well, I didn’t a couple of times when I’d already creamed my jeans without her or me touching my dick.
“And, Ethan, I mean it. I’m glad you have Scotty. I even like the guy myself. He is a joy to work with. I expected him to be a spoiled brat who was allergic to work. He’s small, but he turns in a man-and-a-half’s work and balks at nothing. I was sure he’s be afraid of getting cow shit on his rubber boots, but he wades right in when it’s called for. Sally Ann loves him too.”
“You don’t know how pleased you saying that makes me,” Ethan replied.
They reached the river before 8:30. When they pulled up, a truck with a River Bend Plantation logo on the door was parked near the boat ramp; Eli was somewhere on the river. They got the boats in the water. Jamie walked over to where Randy was climbing in his boat and joined him and Andy. Scotty climbed into their boat with Ethan. In spite of their not having gotten to the river early, the fish were biting and the four were busy pulling them in. Around 10:00, the fish stopped biting. After not getting a bite for half an hour, Randy looked over at the other boat and motioned with his head for them to go upriver. They soon spotted Eli in the same place he had been before. Ethan looked at Scotty and grinned. Scotty grinned in return and said, “Lot of water down the river since we were here.” Ethan nodded in agreement.
They paddled the boats closer to Eli and Randy asked him how fishing was going. He hauled a large string out of the water and said, “Very good.”
“We caught a bunch downstream,” Randy said, and he and Scotty pulled strings from the water, then he added, “then they just stopped biting.”
“They’re still biting here.” The four added to their strings, then, as had happened downstream, they didn’t get a bite.
“Y’all bring lunch?” Eli asked.
“Sure did,” Randy responded. “Want to join us for lunch?”
“Sure do. It’s quarter of eleven. I’m ready to go in.”
The three boats headed down the river. When they reached the ramp, Randy introduced Andy and said, “His dad was a crew boss at a pecan place up near Glen Stockade until a corporation bought it. He was demoted and only got part-time work. Ethan hired him and I took on Andy to work cows. He, Jamie and Scotty are my cowboys.” Eli and Randy talked about what was happening at Arkadelphia as the four young men loaded their boats, then Eli’s.
Randy and Eli continued their talk as they walked over to the old oak. Before they sat down, Eli opened his cooler, took out two beers and handed one to Randy. When the boats were loaded, the four joined them. As they walked up, Eli asked, “You guys want a beer?” Andy and Jamie said they would stick to coke, but Scotty and Ethan each accepted one. When they finished their drinks, they cleaned and filleted the fish.
“We have nearly enough for the whole plantation,” Jamie said.
“I have more than I need,” Eli said. “All I want is enough for the wife and myself.” Randy thanked him and accepted most of Eli’s catch.
The fish in the coolers, they washed up in the river and again sat under the oak. As they took out their lunches, Eli passed out four more beers as he said, “Randy, I asked you guys to meet me here because something strange is going on at River Bend and I wanted to see if the same thing was happening at your place.”
“What’s going on?” Scotty asked, “I mean other than the usual nonsense from Aunt Lily.”
“River Bend has had the same black families living and working on the plantation ever since I got there. Over the last couple of months, they have, one by one, left. They told me they had found better jobs, but definitely didn’t seem happy about it. In fact, they seemed scared. Met Asa Martin, who manages a plantation north of Braggton, at a cattle sale last week and he told me the same thing was happening to them.”
“Davis has used pick-up labor at Arkadelphia since I’ve been there,” Randy said. “I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t budge. I was really surprised when he decided to have permanent employees. We have the guys, Andy’s father and now a woman who is a disease and insect expert. He’s got experts and youngsters, but all are new.”
“An expert and a veteran manager? Ethan, guess you got demoted.”
Randy laughed, “You’d be surprised.
Ethan said, “You’d think so, but both work for me. They knew they would be working for an eighteen-year-old. No, I’m still pecan operation—we call it the pecan station—manager. Andy’s dad was glad to get a job which paid well. He’s making a lot more than he made when he was working part-time and, in fact, makes almost as much as he did when he was crew boss. He was grossly underpaid. He’s now paid well and has free housing.”
“The fact that Ethan hired Andy as well was another plus,” Randy added.
“Well, back to what’s happening on other places. Asa told me one of the men who was leaving said something about Rudy Ballock and Braggton’s police chief, but clammed up when he asked him a question. That’s all I know.”
“Nothing like that going on at Arkadelphia,” Randy said.
“Wait a minute,” Ethan said. “The night of the fight ... Jamie, what was the girl’s name you were dating? Sue something?”
“Yeah. When her dad picked her up he said he didn’t want to get involved in Rudy’s and the chief’s business and was very frightened.”
“Rudy’s nephew, Jake Ballock, has been a pothead since eighth grade according to Ginger’s niece who is his age,” Randy said.
“He started dealing enough weed to supply himself when he was in the tenth,” Jamie said, “but word around now is that whatever you want, he can supply and he sure seems to have money these days. Maybe a connection there, maybe not.”
Back home, Andy took as many fish as he wanted and Sally Ann did as well. There were still plenty left to share with the Edwards and Ash and Kathy.
Sunday morning, Ethan and Scotty were late leaving for St. Matthew’s. As a result, they saw Miss Mattie’s Buick in the parking lot, but she was not with it. As they approached her pew, they saw two men sitting beside her. Ethan did a double-take and whispered to Scotty, “I see the backs of two heads I have seen before,” and nodded toward Miss Mattie’s pew.
Scotty looked again, got a grin on his face and whispered, “I believe you’re correct.”
They entered the pew and when Doug looked up and saw Ethan, he whispered, “What are you doing here?”
“I came to church,” Ethan whispered back. “The question is, what are you doing here?”
Just as he spoke the organist started the prelude and he quickly added, “After church.” Doug nodded.
After church, Miss Mattie said, “We’ll take care of business at my place. Scotty, follow me.” The three-car caravan moved through the nearly empty Audubon streets to the quiet neighborhood where Miss Mattie had lived since she got back from her honeymoon. Inside the antebellum mansion, the maid was waiting with a tray of drinks—Jack Daniel’s for Doug and Miss Mattie, Scotch for Rich and Virgin Marys for Ethan and Scotty. Miss Mattie had the maid bring the drinks tray to her, opened a bottle and poured a jigger of vodka into the Virgin Marys. “Now she’s no longer a virgin,” she laughed. As the maid left, she said, “How in the hell are young people going to learn to be responsible with alcohol if they never have any until they have been voting three years? Elizabeth Jane won’t serve alcohol to anyone under twenty-one, so I have to do the honors. So where were we?”
“Well, seeing Rich sitting beside you was a surprise, but Doug was a double surprise,” Scotty said. “Doug, I thought you were chained to a desk in a lecture hall. Actually, seeing Rich was also a double surprise. I was afraid you had fallen down a rabbit hole since we’ve seldom seen hide nor hair of you since Doug left.”
“I feel like I have most days,” Rich replied. “My investigation so far has turned up nothing but little stuff. Something is going on in the African-American community—but no-one talks. People living out toward River Bend Plantation and north of Braggton act frightened, but I can find out nothing. Hell, people living within five miles of my front door know something’s going on, but are tight-mouthed about it. Very frustrating and I’m on it at least ten hours a day. Decided to hell with it this weekend and told Doug to get his luscious as ... self down here.”
“I gave Monday’s class a day to do research,” Doug said. “They need it. I got their first papers a week ago and more than three quarters were so dumb they didn’t bother to change the title of the paper they downloaded. They all about fainted when I passed out the college policy on plagiarism. They have the option of writing an original paper which has to be a ‘C’ level paper for a zero or accept an ‘F’ for the course. Any who do not turn in a paper Wednesday or a statement accepting an ‘F’ will be turned in to the faculty committee. I’ve had it with cheating your way through school!”
“You and Scotty enrolled this term?” Rich asked, looking at Ethan.
“We registered, but then decided to give school a pass this semester. We were very short-handed after you, Art and Jeff left. Joe is pushing all of us very hard and Ash, who arrived this week, is tutoring us. We decided we’d have more time spring semester.”
They had a great Sunday dinner and the conversation never lagged, but you’d expect that at Miss Mattie’s place. As the four were walking to their cars, Ethan said, “Rich, we need to talk. I may have some information you’ll find interesting. I know you want to spend as much time with Doug as possible, so Tuesday is fine.” Rich nodded acknowledgment as he got in the car.
Monday, Ash, Dek and Ethan were back at Pleasant Grove, this time bush hogging the groves. It would take longer than spraying would because they had to make several passes between rows and then as many across them. Finally, they made a circle around each tree as close as they could without damaging it.
The fence crew was back at their job. Jamie and Andy joined the fence crew after school to the surprise of Randy. He thought they would be at track practice. Both had been on track teams since they had been in high school. Later, when questioned, Jamie told Ethan they’d pass it up this year so they could work. Ethan really questioned them about that, remembering how much he had enjoyed baseball. “Ethan, baseball was all you could do because you had so much responsibility. Thank god, you had that little bit of time for yourself. I don’t have the burden you had. I love what I am doing, so giving up track is not a sacrifice for me like giving up baseball would have been for you.”
“Sorry, Jamie,” Ethan said. “‘So long as that’s what you want to do, go for it.”
The phone rang just after Jamie and Scotty finished cleaning up after supper. Jamie answered it and called to Ethan who was watching TV in the den. “Ethan, Rich on the phone.”
Rich said he had been called to Atlanta the next day and asked about coming over in a few minutes. Ethan told him to come ahead. When he arrived, Ethan took him in the living room. “Rich, may or may not have anything to do with your investigation here and may or may not help you, but Eli from River Bend Plantation called Friday night and asked if we could go fishing Saturday morning. That was strange because we have seen him on the river, but we never asked each other about going.” Ethan then told Rich what Eli had said.
“Ethan, I think you may have saved my butt. One of the things that has been driving me nuts is exactly what Eli had observed, but I haven’t been able to find a clue as to why workers claim they have a better job, but look defeated and frightened. If they are being run off, that would make sense of what Eli, Asa and I have seen. The question is why.”
“Something else which involves Jake Ballock, Rudy’s nephew,” Ethan said, then told Rich what Jamie said about Jake probably having moved up the scale of drug use and dealers.
They talked a few minutes more and as he was leaving Rich said, “Keep your eyes and ears open and your thinking cap on, Ethan. I’ll call when I get back from Atlanta.”
Two days later, Joe Maddox called and asked if Ethan would be free to spend a couple hours with him. He had been asked to inspect a grove and had discovered a fungus infection seldom see in the area. Joe wanted Ethan to see it so he could recognize it. With Andy and Jamie in school, the fence crew needed two of the pecan people working fences, so Ethan told Davis what was up and that Dek and Ash would work with Randy and him.
He was to meet Joe in the infected grove, which was at a plantation about half an hour north of Arkadelphia. When he arrived, Joe and the manager, a fellow named Joseph Rogers, were waiting for him. Joe introduced Ethan and told Joseph he was manager of the pecan operation at Arkadelphia. He laughed and said, “I guess Old Man Edwards wants to raise one to please him.” Ethan felt the dig, but ignored it. As they walked to the grove, Joe said, “Ethan, you know there’s an infection here, but that’s all I have told you. I want you to inspect the grove carefully, spend an hour, more if you need it, to find out everything you can about the grove I’ll point out. I want to look at another project Joseph has going on, so I’ll just leave you to it and come back in an hour.”
Ethan had been inspecting the grove less than ten minutes when he spotted something he had never seen before, but recognized as disease. He was sure it was a fungus infection and it was rampant. That was not all that was wrong. Some sections were getting too much water and some others got practically none from the faulty irrigation system. He wasn’t sure whether it was caused by the uneven irrigation or fertilizer, but some of the ground cover was lush and green and some was doing poorly. Overall the grove looked uncared for. He did not know why, but the thought ‘Someone who doesn’t know what they are doing has been working here,’ suddenly occurred to him.
As he was looking at the last tree in the row, he caught a glimpse of something at the edge of the piney woods bordering the grove. When he looked carefully, he saw a person try to get up and then collapse. He ran to where the person had fallen and found a half-naked young man, a Latino. He was all scratched and his back looked as if he had been beaten. Ethan took out his phone and dialed 911. When the 911 operator answered he suddenly realized there was no way he could tell the dispatcher where he was beyond giving the name of the plantation. He did that and then gave her the situation. She said she’d send an ambulance and notify the sheriff since it appeared the person had been attacked.
Ethan tucked the phone under his chin and knelt beside the man who had started groaning and trying to turn over. Ethan helped him, then placed his arm around his back and lifted him slightly so he could drink from the water bottle he held to his mouth. Ethan then called Joe and quickly explained the situation to him. Joe said Joseph would stay and direct the ambulance and he would come to Ethan.
When Joe arrived, he looked at the man and shook his head. While they waited for the ambulance, Joe asked what he had discovered about the grove and Ethan told him. Ethan was just finishing when they heard the ambulance’s siren and then saw it driving as fast as possible through the grove. Ethan stood and waved his arms since he wasn’t sure the driver had seen him and Joe kneeling beside the man, hoping their shadows would offer some relief from the sun. The ambulance stopped beside them and the crew jumped out. Two started examining the man while the third asked what had happened. Ethan said, “I was inspecting this grove when I thought I saw someone at the edge of the pines. I looked carefully and saw him fall. I rushed over and he was lying face-down. He started struggling to turn over and I helped him and called 911.”
“I’m Dane,” he responded and they shook hands. “You know the man?” Ethan shook his head, “Actually, I live west of Braggton, over half an hour from here.” The two working on the man had him on the gurney, covered with a sheet. “We’re ready to roll, Dane,” one said and they climbed in the back of the ambulance after getting the gurney inside.
The ambulance was moving out of the grove when a sheriff’s car pulled up. Sheriff Jackson stepped out of the car and asked, “What’s going on here, Ethan?” As he walked toward Ethan, Rich stepped out of the car.
“What are you doing here?” Ethan asked as Rich came up.
“My job,” he said. “We’ll talk later, but now, why don’t you tell me and the sheriff what’s going on here.” Ethan told them what had happened.
He had just finished when the sheriff’s radio beeped and he answered, “Sheriff Jackson.”
“Sheriff,” the dispatcher said, “I just got a call from the EMS crew that was out there. The man they picked up is semi-conscious, but muttering something about ‘the others.’ The EMS guy thinks there were some other people with him. You got some people to do a quick search?”
“There’s five of us,” the sheriff responded.
The sheriff put two on his right and two on his left. “We’re going to sweep the pine grove. I’m standing where the man collapsed. I want you to stay as far apart as you can and still see the fellow beside you. That way we’ll cover the maximum ground.” They had walked about a quarter mile before they saw anything. Joe, who was the last person on the sheriff’s left, shouted, “There’s a man here.” He barely had the words out of his mouth before Ethan, Joseph and the sheriff had all shouted. They had found four other young men, all in as bad or worse shape that the first. The sheriff called the 911 dispatcher and told her there were four more to be transported to the hospital.
When the four were on their way to the hospital, the five started searching again. They had walked almost a mile from where the first man had fallen when they saw a clearing with a large corrugated metal building surrounded by a chain link fence. The sheriff looked at the setup, then turned and looked at Rich as if to say, ‘What next?’ Rich shook his head and the sheriff said, quietly, “Fellows, let’s get out of here.”
When they got back to the grove, the sheriff said, “We’ll check that building out, but I need to get a search warrant. Joseph, I suggest you avoid that place. With the fence around it, they doesn’t want anyone coming around.”
When they got back to the grove, Joe asked Ethan how he’d treat the infection and Ethan told him what he would use, but would send off samples to check to make sure it would work. Joe asked him if he would wait until he got the report before starting treatment and Ethan told him the trees needed a treatment with a fungicide anyway, so he would do it immediately. “You heard the man,” Joe said to Joseph.
“And you need to be careful about coverage,” Ethan added. “Seems the fertilizer was kind of hit and miss and the irrigation is definitely uneven.”
“What I keep telling the owner, but he likes cheap labor.”
Joseph went to get the fungicide rig and Joe and Ethan walked back to their trucks. “Excellent job, Ethan. Joseph is a good man, but he has been handed an impossible situation. How’re things at Arkadelphia? Missed getting by the last couple weeks.”
“We’re discovering how short-handed we are. Going to add to the permanent crew.”
“Well, don’t see how little you can pay. You get what you pay for.”
“You know what we are out to do, so we need good people. What we need now are people who are willing to work hard and follow instructions.” Ethan laughed, “We’ve kinda got too many queens and not enough worker bees right now.”
“I don’t believe you said that!” Joe laughed. Ethan realized what he had said and turned bright red.
The next day, Rich came by carrying an Atlanta Journal-Constitution with the front page headline “Human Smuggling Ring in Georgia.” He handed the paper to Ethan and waited for him to scan the article. “Got your name in the paper,” Rich laughed. Sure enough, the article said a young pecan grower, Ethan Taylor of Arkadelphia Plantation in Bragg County, had found a young man who turned out to be one of thirty undocumented Mexicans being held in horrible conditions.
“Did you get a gold star?” Ethan grinned as he returned the paper.
“Afraid not. We got those poor souls out of hell, but we didn’t catch anyone responsible for it. There was a couple who fed them and a couple of guards, but they knew nothing beyond being told what to do by phone. Well, they knew how to cash a more-than-generous paycheck. I suspect they were also skimming the money they were given for food, etc. The people who bring in the men and take them away all wear masks. The five who had been beaten had been brought back and the couple told to take care of them and that someone would come for them in a week.
“You wouldn’t believe the conditions in that building. Corrugated metal, no insulation, no air conditioning, south Georgia summer. You can see how that adds up. There were filthy mattresses on the floor and nothing else. There was one toilet which had overflowed more than once. Well, it was literally and metaphorically a stinking hellhole.
“Of course the men spoke no English and my high school Spanish got me squat. When we got an interpreter, we learned the men had paid the equivalent of a thousand to fifteen hundred dollars to a man in Mexico. They were put on a boat and taken off somewhere on the coast, put in a trailer behind an eighteen wheeler and brought to Braggton. From here they are rented to plantation owners. They are paid practically nothing, live in whatever the owner provides. The owners soon discover they had to do as they are told because they have knowingly hired undocumented men, not reported their earnings and not paid social security taxes, etc. The men are not going to talk because they are here illegally and have been told the man in Mexico will harm their families unless they do as they are told. I still haven’t found out how the people running this racket are driving off people who have worked on a plantation for years. There’s where things stand right now.”
A few days later, Davis asked Ethan to join him in his office before going to work in the groves. When Claire Bell brought in coffee, Ethan noticed she was very nervous, completely out of character for her. After she had gone, Ethan asked Davis if he had noticed. He said, “Well, to be honest, I haven’t, but now that I think about it, she has been jumpy for a week now. I’ll ask Molly about it.”
A few minutes later, Molly came in with reports for the three of them to discuss and Davis asked her about Claire Bell. She, too, said she hadn’t noticed it, but on reflection, she said she dropped a pan the day before and Claire Bell jumped and turned real pale. “Yes, something has certainly got her upset. I’ll speak to her about it.” Later in the day she told Ethan she had spoken to Claire Bell and she had said nothing was wrong, but had been very evasive. “Something is going on that has her very upset and edgy.”
The reports showed a real drain on Arkadelphia’s resources, but Molly said there was no reason to worry. “We got a good rate on the loan to purchase Pleasant Grove and Ash agrees that we will have a bumper crop this year barring any disaster. Even with all the renovations, we haven’t dipped into the reserves.”
“How about hiring more permanent people?” Ethan asked.
“I figured that in,” Molly replied. “I assumed we’d renovate at least two more houses—we have one more at Pleasant Grove that is in pretty good shape and will not require the major outlay your place did. It won’t even require the outlay Scotty’s did.”
“There’s a possibility Scotty’s place will be available,” Ethan said as his face turned red. Molly and Davis laughed.
“That’s entirely up to you two,” Molly said. “I guess you two are pretty serious.”
“I think that is a safe statement,” Davis laughed, “considering the color of the Pecan King’s face.”
Over the next several days, Ethan had a chance to observe Claire Bell three or four times and each time she was more nervous and not herself. Friday when he came in from the groves, Molly met him at the equipment shed and asked him if he could take Claire Bell home. She and Davis were going to a dinner party in Audubon and Randy and Ginger had plans as well. “I’d ask Dek or Ash, but Claire Bell likes and trusts you and she doesn’t know them.” Ethan said he would as soon as he got cleaned up. Claire Bell really lived at Arkadelphia, but spent weekends ‘at home,’ actually the home of her son and his family. Scotty had planned to prepare supper to give Sally Ann a break and to allow her to get pretty for a date with Keith, so Ethan would be taking Claire Bell home by himself.
As they approached her son Albert’s house, Ethan saw something burning in the front yard. When he reached the house he saw it was a cross. “What the hell!” he exclaimed. Claire Bell sat in the seat, moaning and rocking back and forth, obviously terrified.
When they reached the house, Claire Bell wouldn’t get out of the car until Ethan found out what was going on. When he walked in the door, LaLisa, Albert’s wife, was hugging her son Samuel to herself. When she saw Ethan she screamed. Samuel was clutching his mother’s dress, but when he saw Ethan, he shouted, “It’s Efen.”
“It’s alright, LaLisa” Ethan said. “Please, can you help me get Claire Bell out of the car? She won’t get out until she’s sure it’s safe.”
Claire Bell came in and LaLisa fixed ice tea and they were all seated around the table, Samuel in Ethan’s lap. “Okay, Claire Bell has been on edge for at least a week and when I come driving up, there’s a fuc ... funny cross burning in the front yard. I want to know what’s going on.”
“Nothing, Mr. Ethan, nothing. Just kids pulling a prank.”
“Claire Bell, I may be young, but I’m not stupid. Most kids today probably have never heard of the Klan, and if they have, certainly would never think of burning a cross in a black person’s yard as a prank. Furthermore, you wouldn’t have been a nervous wreck over a prank you didn’t know would happen. Spill the beans. And where did that ‘Mr. Ethan’ come from? You’ve never called me Mister Ethan in the years I have known you.” Claire Bell sat, rocking and moaning softy. “LaLisa, what gives?”
“Ethan, you know Albert manages the feed and seed in Braggton. For some months he has heard of people who have worked on a plantation for years just up and leaving. He told me the workers were talking about it, but none of the owners. He found out two weeks ago that they were being run off. Men in white sheets—and you know all us black folk know about the Klan and have heard our parents or grandparents talk about them. Albert finally found someone who would talk and found out the men in sheets would show up at a worker’s house, tell him he had a week to pack up and leave. If they did not, they promised to hurt his family. A week or so later after the black family had left, the plantation owner is panicking for lack of workers. A man shows up, says he understands the plantation is in need of workers, then tells the owner he operates a temp agency and can supply workers. The agency takes care of benefits, withholding and social security taxes, etc. The fee is above usual wage, but the owner is desperate and pays it. The workers speak no English and the owner has to hire an overseer who speaks Spanish and is paid well.
“Albert started trying to get workers to resist, so this evening those apes in white sheets show up in what looked like full Klan regalia. They put the cross in the yard, lit it and told me it would be a pity if S-A-M-U-E-L caught fire like the cross. They had just left when you got here.”
Ethan was furious. “When does Albert get home?”
“He should be here any minute now. I won’t draw a decent breath before he’s here.”
“Get what you need for your family. You are going to Arkadelphia. Does Albert have a cell phone?”
“What’s the number?” She told Ethan the number and he punched it in. “Albert, Ethan Taylor. Are you on your way home? ... Take a detour to Arkadelphia. I have your family with me and I’ll see you there ... No, they are okay, but you’re not staying here this weekend. I’ll explain it when we both get to Arkadelphia.” He closed the phone and asked LaLisa if she was ready to go and they were on their way.