37. Friend

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After running laps, Henry came into the clubhouse by way of the dugout. The locker room banter had echoed in the hallway, and it sounded loud, loose, and playful. A lot like the old Rooks' locker room. But when the players noticed Henry, all talking stopped.

Henry strode past the benches and stools, hurrying straight to his locker, and the players' chatter resumed under hushed whispers and guarded conversations. The lockers stood side-by-side like six foot soldiers with wire-mesh doors, each no wider than a phone booth.

Henry wasted no time, peeling off his uniform and throwing on his street clothes. Pulling his duffel from the locker, he spun around and came face-to-nose with third baseman Cletus "Red Dog" Barker. The man was an all-beef patty of lean muscle. Cletus gave an evil-eyed look and a growl, refusing to budge.

Henry scooted around Cletus, weaved past the other players, and made his way out of the clubhouse. He stepped outside into the fresh air and released a sigh of relief.

But that relief was short-lived. Henry felt a twinge of worry, and he looked around. Concerned that someone might be following him. Or looking to jump him while his guard was down. It had happened before. But in the past, Henry had always had Willy by his side. Willy's size and imposing presence was usually enough to send any potential attacker running along. Henry couldn't help but think how vulnerable he felt without his big friend.

Henry walked briskly along the pavement around towards the front of the ballpark.

"Henry! Wait up!"

Henry's entire body tensed as the voice rang from behind. He turned around, warily.

It was Dale, jogging over to him with a grin and an easy wave.

"Hold up!" Dale called. "I'll walk with you."

Henry smiled, glad for the company. Glad that it was Dale and not Jake or Cletus or any of the other Pioneers for that matter. Henry and Dale rounded the corner of the ballpark, coming to an abrupt halt when they saw what awaited them only several yards ahead.

A dozen reporters and photographers from the white press.

Henry's eyes widened. "What's going on?"

Dale shook his head. "I don't know."

"I'll tell you what they're doing here!" This came from Jake, who with his three cohorts, had come from the work yard. "They're here to see a star," he said, his expression smug as he led his posse up to the journalists.

Jake and his lackeys marched up to the crowd. The photographers were about to snap his picture when one of the reporters looked over and shouted, "Henry Louis!"

The journalists pulled away. Jake's mouth hung open as he watched the group flow past him, like a stream around a stone. They rushed toward Henry. Shouts rang out and cameras flashed. The wave of journalists swelled as it converged around Henry, surrounding him in a frenzy of questions, camera clicks, and flashbulb pops.

One of the reporters rushed over to Henry. He was a tall man in a gray suit with slicked-back gray hair and large front teeth. He stood so close that Henry nearly gagged from the overwhelming gush of cheap cologne.

Henry took a step back, and several of the other journalists immediately swarmed around him, shoving Dale off to the side. Henry blinked rapidly as cameras flashed. Pop. Pop. Pop.

Henry felt absolutely dumbstruck. He knew that he must look like an absolute fool, staring around like a deer about to be run over. Everything around him seemed to slow down. The lights popped and reporters called out his name. Henry had never received such attention before. Even in the Negro league, the black press had never converged on him like this. They'd never chased him down like he was some sort of a celebrity. Henry had no idea what he should do or say. He was more out of his element than he had ever been before.

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