CHAPTER NINE: HEX (1/3)

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Ceferino hit the dirt hard—to the delight of the pack of children watching from the pavement

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Ceferino hit the dirt hardto the delight of the pack of children watching from the pavement. They cheered as he rolled and scrambled back onto his feet. His hat was lying on the ground several feet away. He went to retrieve it, but a man's foot stomped on it and pinned it down.

"I told you to get the hell away from my store," the man said.

"Lo siento," Ceferino replied, not daring to meet the man's gaze. He pointed at his hat. "Por favor, mi sombrero."

"What are you still standing there for? You want me to beat you down again, boy?!"

"Hey!"

The man turned to see Sol walking briskly down the road towards him.

"What's going on?" Sol asked.

"None of your damned business," the man replied, having to lift his chin to meet Sol's eyes.

"The man you just knocked down is a Private in the United States Army."

"And?"

"And that hat you're standing on is the property of the United States government."

The man spat on the ground. "I told him not to come into my store. I even put a goddamn sign up and he walked right in!"

Sol looked over the man's shoulder at the small store behind him. A crude sign had been nailed to the door that read, "WHITES ONLY". Sol's heart started to pound.

"He doesn't understand English," he said.

"Those two words are all he needs to know around here."

"Other than go inside your store, did he do anything else wrong?"

"He picked up a bottle of milk. I can't sell it now he's touched it."

Sol looked at Cef who was staring at his own feet, half his body covered with dirt. If Colonel Hayward hadn't made the entire regiment swear to refrain from violence in the face of adversity, he wasn't sure he'd have reacted as he did.

"How much is the milk?" he asked.

"Twenty-five cents," the man said.

Sol knew that was most likely a lie but he reached into his pocket all the same and took out a quarter. He offered it to the man but the man just looked at it blankly.

"What's that?" he said.

"For the milk," Sol replied.

The man sneered. "I don't want your money."

"Why? Is my money black, too?"

The man blinked, his eyes locked on Sol as Sol's were on him. For a moment, Sol thought he'd made a terrible mistake and that the violence was about to begin. Instead, the man removed his foot from Cef's hat.

"Stay away from my store," he said, and he walked away. The children on the pavement were no longer laughing. "Get away!" the man yelled, and the kids scattered.

Cef waited until the man was back inside his store before collecting his hat from the ground. He brushed the dirt from it and replaced it on his head.

"You OK?" Sol asked him.

"Si," Cef said. "Thank you."

"I never thought I'd say this, but I think the sooner we get to France, the better."

The two men walked off together in the direction of the camp.

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