11. The World's Changing

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Sometimes, even a small town like Hester can seem like a vast trail tonowhere—especially on a day when everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

The boys left Albert's repair lot with Henry clutching his head. Sarah slipped a clean rag into his free hand before he stepped off the porch. Henry had lingered a look into Sarah's wistful eyes, taking it to be her way of offering a silent apology. Later, he realized the balled-up rag Sarah had given him concealed something hard in the center. When he unraveled the cloth, there was the miniature bottle of laudanum.

They made their way along a back road, the distant barking giving way to quiet. After concluding the police had pulled back from the border, they headed east to Willy's shanty in the Black Ghetto. If they did encounter any trouble, they could easily take cover in the surrounding woods.

Off in the distance, a loud metal bell clanged through the air. Union Steel. The mill's second shift had just ended. Soon workers would start trampling the dirt pathways back to their modest and, in some cases, lacking homes.

Anger strained in Henry's chest and he didn't know why. Didn't care why. Raw emotion pulled the tendons tight in his neck. Drew his jaw shut. He didn't want to talk about it. Just wanted to shut the world out. But Big Willy had other ideas brewing in his head.

"What was his problem?" Willy said, shaking his head like a slow-moving pendulum.

"I don't know," Henry said, annoyed. "He probably thought we were troublemakers. Can't say I blame him."

"How you figure? We didn't do nothing wrong."

"Don't matter. We're colored."

"Oh, you in one of those moods," Willy said, slowing to a halt.

Henry stopped and met Willy's watchful gaze. "What's that supposed to mean?" Henry's pulse started to drum in his ear.

"Some fights you can't win," Willy said. "All you can do is brush it off and move on."

Henry snorted. "Let's hear you say that after you've been clocked in the head with a baseball and then blamed for a riot."

"Hey, why you so angry?"

"I'm not angry," Henry said, even though he was. Then he shook his head. "Okay, maybe I am angry. Maybe you should be angry too. Trouble follows us everywhere."

"There's no trouble here," Willy said, casting his hands around him.

It was late afternoon. The sun had started to wane in the milky blue sky. The trees in the woods were quiet save for the faint rustling of branches still bare from the harsh winter. A cool, light breeze passed over Henry's cheeks and whisked through his sweat-damp hair.

"See?" Willy said. "Life can be peaceful. Sometimes people gonna try to rile you. But it only works if you let 'em."

Before Henry could bat a reply, the quiet was broken by the sounds of stamping feet and rowdy cries. Henry and Willy peered down the dirt road. Mill workers. A half dozen, all female, maybe seventeen or eighteen years old, if that. They were joking and giggling and slapping hands, clearly overjoyed work was over. The six of them, covered in filthy work clothes, fell silent as they shuffled past, discharging a nose-wrinkling odor of sweat mixed with sulfur and finding every reason to stare at the ground or into the trees. Once they passed a ways down the road, they picked up where they left off, whooping it up and carrying on as if they didn't have a care in the world.

Trailing behind the group, a gangly black man, swearing under his breath, approached Henry and Willy. The man's eyes drooped in a way that made him look like a heartbroken hound dog with the world on his mind.

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