81. The Return

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"I just don't know, Charles," Henry groaned.

Tyson's Pub was peppered with a smattering of colored workers from Unions Steel. Most of the patrons from the last shift had already left, and the current shift of workers wouldn't arrive for another couple hours. The room was filled with the sounds of quiet conversations and occasional chuckles. This was where men came to put their troubles aside, and Henry was one of those troubled men today.

Old Man Charles set a frosty mug of beer on the counter. "What don't you know?"

Henry slid a dime across the counter top. He'd known Charles since their days on the Rooks. After the Rooks folded, the left fielder went into retirement. But after a couple months, Charles couldn't make ends meet, so he ended up here. Tyson's newest bartender.

Charles reminded Henry of his grandfather, a man who listened before speaking and used words like tools to mend a troubled mind the way a doctor fixes up a gash.

Henry sighed, his own troubles pressing down on him in a way he couldn't shake. His eyes drifted over to a dusty window where the last desperate rays of sunlight flickered in from the horizon, soon to be snuffed out by the impending night.

"I told Frank Bell he could count on me," Henry said. "Now I'm supposed to play like none of this racism even matters." He took a swig of beer, the icy cold liquid sliding down his throat. "Heck, who am I kidding? I'm never really going to be a part of the Pioneers. The only people who want me on the team are Mr. Bell, Coach Taylor, and this one white player named Dale."

"And all of us colored folks," Charles added.

Henry considered that as he took another sip.

"That's what I don't get," Henry said. "Why should any of the black folks care? The way I see it, I'm just making all of us look like we don't belong? The white players, and all those white fans, they don't want me there. I'm forcing color on them. Maybe what I'm really doing is showing why black and white folks can't get along."

"Nah," Charles said, waving his hand dismissively. "We care." Then he leaned forward, placing one hand on the counter. With the other hand, he began thoughtfully stroking the thin white beard that covered his double chin. His cider-brown eyes widened in sympathy beneath his bushy white eyebrows.

Behind Henry, the door pushed open as someone entered the bar, bringing in a cool draft and the clack of hard-soled boots.

"Yeah, you're getting a lot of push-back," Charles said, a sense of calm in his words. "I get that. But you're playing on a white team. You're playing alongside white players. It's an important step towards equality for all coloreds. So you see, it matters to a lot of people. It might rub some folks the wrong way, because it's so new. But that's because they just aren't used to the idea yet. It-"

Charles' words stopped abruptly, his gazed fixed on a point well above Henry's shoulder.

"Hey, Big Fella!" Charles called. "I thought you were done with this town. What're you doing back?"

There was a quick burst of greetings from the other patrons.

Henry turned to see who Charles was talking to. His heart jumped, shuddering his entire body.

He was greeted with big brown eyes and a familiar smile.

"Willy!"

********************

Big Willy strode over to the bar and shook Charles' hand. "Hey, Charles. Yeah, I'm back. Things didn't work out with my cousin."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, son."

Then a patron at the other end of the bar began waving Charles down.

"Excuse me, boys," Charles said. "Willy, I'll be back to catch up with you."

Henry rose from his bar stool and just stared at Willy like he was looking at a very tall ghost, wearing overalls with spots of caked paint and cement.

After several loud heartbeats, Big Willy gave Henry a bear hug, lifting him off his feet and squeezing the air out of his lungs.

"That's enough," Henry said, wheezing the words out.

Willy set him down. "Hello, Henry!"

"Hey, Willy," Henry said, still stunned at the sight of his buddy.

They took their usual seats at the bar.

"Man, I'm sure glad to see you," Henry said. He leaned forward and gave Willy an exuberant slap on the shoulder.

"It's good to see you too, Henry. I guess it was a dumb idea to run off looking for work. It didn't go like I planned at all. Plus, I missed this old town. And of course I missed you and all of the other fellas."

"Well, I missed you too. You wouldn't believe everything that's happened since you've been gone."

"Oh, I've heard some of it," Willy said with a laugh. "How's it going being the only black player on the Pioneers?"

"I don't even want to get into that tonight," Henry said. "It's all too much. But hey! What are you planning to do now that you're back?"

"I was thinking of getting a job over at Union Steel. I know a lot of the guys working at that mill. It's hard labor, but at least it's honest work."

An idea struck Henry then, and he blurted it out before he could contain himself. "What if you come and play for the Pioneers instead?"

"What?" Willy said, a look of doubt in his eyes. "Seriously, Henry?"

"Well, why couldn't you?" Henry's heart started racing at the possibility.

Willy chuckled. "They already have one Negro player. I doubt they're itching to sign a second."

"You're a fine baseball player," Henry said. "We should at least try. I could talk to Mr. Bell and see if there's a spot for you."

"Stop it, Henry. That's a dumber idea than the time when we were kids, and you tried to train that stray bulldog to dance and charge everyone a quarter to watch."

Henry snickered. "That was a pretty silly idea. But it almost worked."

"Yeah, until that dog got angry and scratched your arm up good."

"This isn't like that though," Henry said. "I mean, do you really want to give up baseball? Do you really want to spend your days wasting away at the mill?"

Willy shook his head. "Just let it go, Henry. It's nice that you want to help me out, but not every colored man can play on a white team. This is your good fortune. I'll be fine working at the mill."

Henry nodded, but he was already plotting away. Taking another gulp of his beer, he felt his lips curving into a smooth grin. Having Big Willy on the Pioneers would give him another ally on the team.

Henry was sure he had a way to make this happen.


Author's Note

This is now my new favorite chapter. Yeah, I knew Big Willy would return all along. IMHO, it's a pretty big moment in the story line.

It's special moments like these that I can't wait to get out to all of you. And because you keep coming back week after week, and giving me hope, I am eternally grateful.

Well, there are many more surprises on the way, and they won't stop until pretty much the end of the story.

Thanks again for all your wonderful support!

All the best!

Tom

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