8. Excuse Me, Sir

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The late afternoon sun cast a warm light over the woods separating Hester Heights from Hester's lower valley. The tall maples and elms extended east to west like a protective arm, offering a barrier to keep feuding communities apart. Of Hester's 968 acres, the woods accounted for 239, pretty close to twenty-five percent. For the natural wildlife of the area, it was home, pure and simple. For its human visitors, the woods served either as a peaceful retreat, or in situations like today, a cover for escape.

Henry emerged from the woods, pushing aside thickets. He lumbered forward. Dropped to his knees on the wild grass a few feet from a wide dirt road. Breathing labored. Heart thumping against his chest. He lowered his head between his hands, cradling his temples, feeling the non-stop drumming of an intense headache against his fingers.

Willy came up behind Henry, sucking in air, and tapped his friend's shoulder. "We got to keep moving."

Henry tried to talk but his throat was as parched as a Midwestern drought despite rivulets of sweat cascading down his face and neck. He lifted his head, blinking away tears, and let out a low groan at the sight ahead.

Jim Crow Bridge, a rustic arch of stone constructed in August of 1776. Wide enough for three horse-drawn wagons side-by-side, it stood as the only man-made structure connecting the northern and southern halves of Hester. Beneath the bridge, a stream flowed west all the way to the Ohio River. Originally it was named Union Bridge. In 1912, then-Mayor Garrison Pritchard called it the "Jim Crow Bridge" in a town hall meeting and the nickname spread faster than the fever.

Truth be told, Jim Crow was the name given to a set of laws that enforced racial segregation throughout the Southern United States. Made legal by state governments in the late nineteenth century after the Civil War and Reconstruction period, the laws mandated segregation in all public facilities. Passenger trains. Restrooms. Buses. Restaurants. Theaters. The whites called it, Separate but equal. But there was nothing even remotely equal about it. Truth was, anything named "Jim Crow" meant a dishonor to colored folk.

Willy got down on one knee beside Henry, resting an elbow and other hand on the upright knee.

Henry swallowed hard. "We're almost there." His voice sounded coarse and the words came out less upbeat than he had hoped.

Through the woods, Henry had plodded along the trails on his own, favoring his left leg, and struggling to keep up with Willy which was a first. A dozen or so colored folk hurried past them at different points. Frightened spectators from the game fleeing the aftermath. Most kept to themselves. A few shot Henry some harsh glances. And he wondered if maybe they blamed him for this mess.

Now Henry wondered if his leg would hold up. Unsure when he had hurt it, probably during the fall after getting hit, he grimaced as a lightning bolt shot through his left thigh.

Willy's eyes rounded wide. "You need a doctor."

Henry met Willy's gaze. "I told you, no doctor."

Big Willy pressed his lips flat. A second later, he jumped up and looked around frantically. Like something was wrong.

"What?" Henry said.

Willy grabbed Henry under the arm and hoisted him up like he weighed a penny.

"Listen," he whispered.

Henry turned his head. A cool breeze brushed across his ears, carrying the distant echoes of dogs barking. The cops must have gotten control of the riot, and now they were sweeping out. Pushing the colored folk back to their homes. Like the ones in the woods.

Or maybe they're looking for me, Henry thought. If they found him, they'd probably night stick him a few times for good measure before dragging him to a dirty jail cell for instigating a riot. And they'd arrest Big Willy too for aiding and abetting a fugitive.

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