by Sean Taylor
"Ain't never been a day like it," the old man said, "and ain't never gonna be one."
He sat rocking in a rickety chair while a calm November wind whistled through the chimes that hung above his paint chipped steps. Nearly eighty six, his hair was grayed and thin, and his scalp showed through in frequent, scattered patches. He spoke clearly and thoughtfully, a trait common to the Southern elderly I'd interviewed.
"You sure you want to hear 'bout this? 'Cuz it might take a while. I still get really choked up when I think on it even though it happened sixty some odd years ago."
I nodded. "Take all the time you need, sir."
"Alright..." he said, and shifted in the rocker, bringing it to a stop. The quiet squeaking died, and all was silent save the whistle of the breeze through the wind chimes. "Suppose it's best. This old county's got its ghosts lying around, and this one's probably due for a resurrection."
* * * * * *
William Emmett Johnson was sheriff then...Will, all us deputies called him. He was a real card, not a lick like the old sheriff. Will always used to win the Liar's Club's gold cup every Saturday night. That man could tell the most outrageous, but just barely believable untruths out of the whole Liar's Club. Heck, even at the jailhouse, we weren't ever really sure when he was giving it to us straight or just pulling our legs.
And he had this old confederate shirt he used to wear all the time. He said his grandmother gave it to him, and that it was sent back to her from General Lee with a letter saying how his granddaddy had been killed by a Yankee Negro. I guess because of that, you could say old Will had his teeth sorta set on edge toward colored people. He wasn't mean outright to them, but he sure didn't take a liking to them either. Will, Joseph, and I were the only ones at the jail, usually, so it was just the three of us who were there when it all happened. July twenty third, nineteen hundred and twenty six, I marked that day on a calendar in my head, and I'll never forget it. Jimmie Baker from the drug store came running into the jailhouse, shouting like Gabriel's trumpet was blowing outside and the good Lord was coming back.
"They gonna string him, Will."
"Who they gonna string up, Jimmie?"
"That little Jenkins boy, the youngest one."
"Albert Jenkins..." Joseph always did his thinking out loud. "Why, he ain't never been in no kind of trouble before."
"Well, he's gone and done it now. Lee Dunsten says he's the one what raped his little girl, Winnie."
Will just stared like he always did when he was thinking. "They got any proof, witnesses or personal things found at the site?"
"I don't think so, Will, but I don't think the lack's gonna slow 'em down any."
Joseph and I had already got our gun belts on, and were getting ready to go arrest the Jenkins boy, when Will gave us the call to arms, "Well boys, negro or no, ain't nobody getting lynched in Cherry Hill without Will Johnson looking it over first."
So we all packed into the new car the town had just bought for us, and rode out to the Dunstens' farm.
That Lee Dunsten and his boys done had the Jenkins boy down and bleeding all over God's green earth. They had a rope 'round his neck, and were jerking him here and there like a wild dog on a first leash. Cussing and whipping out his arms and legs, the boy was fighting the rope for all he was worth, but he just wasn't a match for Lee Dunsten mounted on his horse holding the other end. He never could get more than two or three steps before the rope would yank him to the ground and drag him 'round the farm some more. The Dunstens were making darn sure the boy didn't have any fight in him for when they got ready to dangle him in the wind.
Sheriff Will just stepped out of the car, and walked right up to Lee Dunsten's horse. He jerked the reins right out of Lee's hands, and brought the animal to a stop.
"What's going on here, Lee?"
"Now sherf, this here ain't none of the law's business. This boy's the one raped Winnie, and I'm gonna see he pays for it. You boys can get back in your fancy automobile the good people done bought for you, and go back to the jailhouse. There ain't no kinda trouble here for you to pay a mind to."
"Rape's a right strong accusation, Lee. I sure hope you got some proof the boy's guilty."
"Proof! What in Hell! Will? Since when do you need proof to string up a nigger boy?"
"Since we lost the war, Lee." Will was a lawman through and through.
"Well, Sherf Johnson," Lee said to him, "I don't see that it's so all fired important, but if it'll get you off my farm, we found the boy in the back of the house, half in and half out of Winnie's window, just like he hadda do the other night to get to her."
"Now Lee, you know there ain't no love lost 'tween me and colored folks, but laws are laws, and I got to enforce them. If this boy's the one what did that vile sin against the Lord and your girl, he'll pay for it...but through the courts, not s winging from a rafter in your barn."
About then, one of Lee's boys spoke up, "Sheriff Will, I ain't no fancy lawyer or nothing, but laws or no laws, there ain't nobody gonna tell me that courts are for anybody but white folks."
Will just ignored the boy, and walked over to Albert Jenkins. He was scared, that boy, half to death, and shaking like he was freezing in the summer. I guess being on the wrong end of a hanging rope will do it to a fella. Blood was everywhere he wasn't nothing but a dark open sore by this time, a sixteen year old blood and puss sore. His clothes were torn into rags from being drug over the farm, and he might as well have been stark naked for all the covering they gave him.
"Tell me the truth, boy. What was you doing coming out of Miss Winnie's window like you was?"
"I didn't do nothing to Miss Winnie, sir. She always been good to me, treatin' me nice and all.
"What was you doing coming out of the window, boy?
"I weren't coming out her window, sheriff. I was jes' pokin' my head in to smell the chocolates she's been getting."
Dunsten's oldest boy blurted out then, "You calling me a liar, boy? Sheriff, you ain't gonna take no word of a dark boy over me, are you?"
"Shut up, Lewis," his daddy told him, then back handed him hard across the jaw.
"Will, my boy said he found him coming out Winnie's window, and I believe that's what happened. My boy's word's all the proof I need."
"You ain't the court, Lee."
"You know what the court'll say, Will. There ain't never been a negro jury in this county yet, and ain't no white jury gonna listen to this malarky you've been giving me about laws."
"Maybe so, but you folks pay me to do a job, and by the good Lord, I'm gonna do it the best I can."
Joseph and I got Albert Jenkins, and put him in the car. Will told Dunsten and his boys to get back to the house and stop fooling with the "little nigra boy," and they went, but not without the last word.
"This ain't the end, Will," Dunsten yelled, as he let the screen door slam
shut behind him.
You know how some folks just can't leave well enough alone. Well, Lee Dunsten was one of them folks. The whole time we had Albert locked up, Lee and his friends were out raising all kinds of cain 'round and 'round the courthouse and the jail. I still think to this day that old Will put the boy in jail as much to protect him from the Dunstens as for the accusation of rape.
Lee was a deacon down at the Baptist church, but you wouldn't have ever known it by the way he was cussing and carrying on outside. "It's a right fine day for a hanging, sherf," he'd shout 'bout every half hour or so.
Little scrawny Albert was still scared half to death sitting in the cell where we'd put him. So, I'd gone over to help the boy calm down while Will was outside trying to get rid of the Dunstens and their hundred or so friends that had gathered.
"Mr. Deputy, sir."
"I ain't ready to be no merter yet."
"Yessir...One of them folks that gets killed for doing nothin' wrong, just mindin' they own business, then right out of the blue somebody wants to kill them for one fool reason or another."
"There's a lot of good company with the martyrs, Albert, but don't you worry none...you ain't gonna die today."
"He's right, that Mr. Dunsten. Ain't no jury gonna believe me over a white boy."
All I could do was nod in agreement with him. Albert Jenkins' eyes were as brown as his skin, maybe browner, and big as baseballs, but when he looked at me full in the face, I saw how pretty they gleamed when they glazed over with the starting of a little tear.
"How come you and the sheriff trying to keep me from 'em, if I'm gonna die anyhow?"
"Boy," I said, "There ain't nobody on God's earth deserves to go out like them Dunstens want to send you."
By now 'bout half the town was outside shouting for the boy to hang. Lee Dunsten had almost started himself an all out riot. Will came back in sometime 'round then wearing a big look of misery.
"Joseph...Get the boy."
"Excuse me, sheriff?"
"Get the boy."
"But they gonna kill him, and he ain't even gone to trial yet."
"I ain't got no time for this, Joseph. Get the boy, now!" Will looked like a man whose whole family had just passed on all at once.
Joseph got up and fetched Albert from the cell, and brought him right up to where Will was.
"Albert, I got something to say to you, and I want you to be a man about it."
"I don't know if you was the one what raped the girl or no, but out there they say you did. They want you to hang."
"Yessir, I know."
"I tried my best, good Lord have mercy, to keep you safe 'til you could get a trial and a chance."
"But Heaven above, boy, they just threatened to burn down my jailhouse to get you, even if it means they have to kill me and all my deputies."
Albert didn't say "yessir" then. No, he didn't say nothing. All he did was to spit right in Will Johnson's face. I wanted to spit in Will's face, too.
We tried to talk him out of it, Joseph and I, but in the end, he had his mind all made up. He told us not to get in the way none, else the town would fire us both as deputies.
I ain't never felt so small in all my life, as I did looking on as Albert
Jenkins stood there all by himself, 'bout to be strung up an untried man.
He didn't cry, but he sure cussed and hollered and kicked and punched and
bit when the two oldest Dunsten boys, Lewis and Vincent, came in to fetch
him out. They fought with him a good five minutes or so before they could
wrestle him to the ground for a chance to tie up his hands and feet. For
a scrawny sixteen year old kid, that boy could throw his fist like a trained
fighter, and none of us interfered while Lewis and Vincent got a few bruises
to carry out with them. But Albert knew he couldn't fight them all day long,
and even if he did, there were more than a hundred others waiting outside
to come in all at once, so he quit. He just gave up licking them Dunsten
boys, and lay there on the floor gawking for breath. Lewis Dunsten came up
then and kicked him hard in the stomach. Albert Jenkins coughed and spit
blood, then fainted dead away.
The crowd had their fun with the boy, slapping and kicking at him, and taunting with no end of horrible names. I guess they just wanted to make sure he was good and awake before they killed him.
"Devil boy," somebody yelled out, "Black as soot from the Hell pits."
"Ain't never known nothing but stealin' and hurtin' good people."
Lee Dunsten just took up on that, and sounded like he was making church out of it. "We know, all of us here, that this little Negro had every opportunity to do right." He took care to drag the word Negro out real clear and loud. "He knows what the rules have always been: Don't no black folks associate with no white folks. He was born knowing it, even if we never hadda told 'em. It's inborn, the natural order." People were whooping and hollering like they were at a tent meeting, all stirred up by what Lee was saying. "But now this boy done stepped way over the dividing line. He's gone and done the unthinkable. No self respecting nigger with a brain in his head would force his affection on a tender, young white girl. But let me tell you...this ain't no self respecting boy."
You could have heard that crowd three towns away. Lee's accusation was all the proof they needed that the boy was Winnie's attacker, and they got thirsty for blood. It made you wonder who was really primitive, hearing a whole town yelling out a death chant like they were.
Next thing I knew, they had Albert standing under the oak tree across from the courthouse, and Lewis Dunsten was slipping the rope 'round his neck one more time. It was happening too far away to know for sure, but I swear that the Dunsten boy was grinning from ear to ear as he tightened the rope.
Then, "Crack!" The explosion of gunpowder stood everybody as still as if death had frozen all of them right where they were standing. Sheriff William Emmett Johnson was standing on the front steps of the courthouse with his rifle pointing up at the clouds.
"This ain't court," he shouted to the crowd, "and you ain't the jury what's gonna decide whether or not the boy hangs."
That yelling and screaming lynch mob got quiet right quick, waiting on Lee Dunsten's reaction.
"Sherf, me and all the good folks here aim to see this boy hang, and ain't you or nobody gonna stop us."
"I can't let that happen, Lee."
"Since when have you gone out of your way to protect a..."
Will cut him off with another rifle blast. "Since I believed in the boy's innocence."
"You ain't callin' my boy a liar, are ya, Will?"
"Nope. Just saying he misunderstood the situation as he saw it. It just ain't evidence enough for a hanging."
"We think it is, sherf."
"I'm right sorry to hear that, but I don't reckon it matters much since the police from Pineville are waiting on him to show up at their big, new jailhouse. I just called them, and they said they had plenty of room to hold him 'til his trial."
Lee turned every shade of red in the book, and stormed right up to Will on the front steps. "Will, the boy ain't gonna make it to Pineville..."
"That's obstructing justice, Lee, and that's against the law."
"Fine." He turned and yelled out to Lewis, "Go ahead, boy. This fine lawman of ours wouldn't shoot no white man for giving out justice to a Negro."
Lewis once again tightened the rope, and got ready to dangle Albert. A bullet whizzed by about two feet above his head, and he flinched, but only for a moment.
"You almost scared me, sheriff. I almost thought you were really gunning for me."
He put on a smirk, stepped off of the box, and raised his foot to send Albert swinging out into the air, when the rifle thundered one last time, and Lewis Dunsten fell to the ground like a dove over a hunter's field.
About half the mob screamed while the other half ran off in all different directions. Lee Dunsten didn't do nothing but drop to his knees crying like a newborn. In the confusion, Will picked up the shaken Lee Dunsten, and took him into the jailhouse for being a public nuisance.
Joseph and I made over to where Albert was still standing on the box, terrified. We took the rope off from his neck, and cut it down from the tree as a safeguard. Albert was bleeding pretty bad from the licking he'd taken, and his wrists were cut deep and rubbed raw down to the muscle from the coarse rope. After we cut his wrists loose, and he tried to bring his arms 'round front again, there was a loud scraping noise like bone rubbing bone. The boy was a sore mess with his body covered in blood and bruises and his right arm broken, but he was still breathing, and he wasn't swinging from an oak tree in front of the Cherry Hill Court House. That, at least, was something.
We carried the poor kid over to the new police car, and then Will Johnson did something I'll never forget. He took off his granddaddy's old confederate shirt, and standing there before God and everybody all bare chested and sweaty, he tore it into three long strips to make a sling for Albert Jenkins' broken right arm. As soon as we'd put him in the car, it wasn't forty seconds before the boy fell straight off to sleep, right peaceful even, all things considered.
Will told us to get in the car, and drive him up to Charleston.
"Yeah, Charleston. Even if a jury was to find him innocent, folks 'round here wouldn't care a bit. He'd still be in as much danger of hanging as he was before the trial. But in Charleston, he can live...land a job on a ship...sail off a few years. Nobody ever recognizes a man after the sea gets a hold of him. Heck! He don't even have to come back. No, he can make a whole new life. Anything's better than what he'll have waiting here."
"Sheriff, what about them folks up at Pineville? Ain't they gonna be sorely put out when he don't show up?"
"Naw," Will drawled, and started laughing himself sick to tears. "I lied." And he kept on laughing 'til long after we'd headed on up to Charleston.
* * * * * *
"We got Albert a job two days later, broken right arm and all. We waved good bye from the dock as he sailed off to be a cook's assistant aboard Elizabeth's Dream. It was a right odd name for a boat, so we just called it Jenkin's Dream, because of the chance it meant for Albert `cept he wasn't Albert Jenkins no more. Start over, we told him, fresh and clean. And he did. Grover Calvert Williams was the signature he left on the ship's work list.
"He even wrote once or twice, and said he'd married a little French girl, and that they'd moved back to the States...somewhere up North with lots of land and room for a family.
"You know, the Dunstens moved on right after the sheriff let Lee out of Jail. Rumor said they'd moved up to Pineville for a few weeks, then just moved on from there to nobody knows where. Old Will Johnson never got a gold cup for that one, but he sure should've."
I chuckled, and began packing my recorder and notebook away, all the while fighting November's breath as it sought to close the flap of my pack. "Thanks for your time and the story."
"Anytime, anytime at all."
He turned and entered the big screen door going from his porch to the inside of the small house, and I headed for my VW. But before either of us made it to our destinations, he stopped, the door half open, and looked over toward me again.
"Say...Nobody much cares for the old stories anymore. How come you're so interested?"
"Research for my doctorate...race relations in the rural South," I partially lied, and traced the G, C, and W of my grandfather's pocketwatch inside my windbreaker's front pocket.
©1992 Sean Taylor