98. True Enemy

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At the end of the day, Henry proceeded to the payment center at the end of the Union Steel docks to collect his pay.

He entered a cramped office where a mousy man with thick black glasses sat at a desk buried under time cards, papers, and a green metal cash register. The man took Henry's card, gave it a quick look, and scribbled his signature at the bottom. Then he tapped the keys on the cash register until the drawer dinged open.

The day had been long and weary. Thank goodness the pay was decent. Not great, but at least it would allow him to provide for Sarah and the baby.

Henry collected five dollars and sixty-four cents for twelve hours of work. He pocketed the money and headed out to the main road, beginning his trek home.

Ten minutes into his walk, Henry was crossing Jim Crow Bridge, his boots clopping against the wooden planks. He'd reached the middle of the bridge when he heard the stomping of footsteps from behind. He whirled around just in time.

Hans and Karl were marching towards him, dressed in overalls as if they'd just come from the mill. Hans' eyes looked as fierce as a lion's before the attack. Karl scowled like he was carrying a fifty-pound chip on his broad shoulder. They didn't have any weapons. But then again, they didn't need any. Their hands were already balled into fists.

Henry's heart skipped a beat. He turned around, determined to make a break for it.

But Clayton, Garvey, and Bracken appeared at the other end of the bridge. They looked like ghouls lumbering forward, their faces covered by soot. Garvey carried a billy club in his hand.

"Come on, guys," Henry said, his tone full of angst. Stepping back, he felt a mallet of a fist pummel the back of his neck, and he tumbled to his hands and knees.

"I hear you jumped my boys the other night!" Clayton said. He launched a kick into Henry's ribs, and Henry collapsed onto his back.

"What?" Henry said, debating whether to get up or not. "They were vandalizing the black bunkhouses, and you know it." He couldn't believe he was arguing the point. Clayton wasn't about to admit the truth.

Hans and Karl yanked Henry to his feet and secured his arms.

"You calling my boys liars?" Clayton asked.

Henry thought about how he was going to respond. "Yeah, I am."

"Nobody calls me a liar, boy," Bracken said, before he sucker-punched Henry in the chest. "Especially a jungle bunny like you."

Henry groaned. "Don't you think you're taking this a little too far?" he said with a trace of sarcasm, trying to pull away. Garvey rammed his billy club into Henry's gut, and he doubled over.

Then Hans and Karl shoved Henry forward. Clayton clocked him with a right cross, and Henry toppled backward to the ground like a felled tree.

Before Henry could get up, Clayton was standing over him, his lips curled into a vicious grin. "Sweet dreams!" he said, and he drove the sole of his boot into Henry's forehead.

The back of Henry's head thudded against the hard wooden plank of the bridge.

Pain exploded inside Henry's head.

And everything went black.

* * * * * * *

The very next thing Henry remembered was the murmuring of distant voices as his brain started to awaken. Peeling his eyes open, everything looked like a murky blur. It was nighttime, that much he knew. A warm breeze drifted past, carrying with it the tangled smells of burnt wood, human sweat, and moonshine.

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