Zach sensed the train had stopped. It was early morning, and when he opened his eyes he immediately became alarmed. Three men were standing over him. They peered down on him like buzzards eyeing their prey. Their clothes were filthy, their faces were full of scruff, and they smelled like they haven’t bathed in weeks.
“Well, well, well, what do we have here?” Lucas Diehl said. He was the leader of the bunch. He was in his mid-twenties. He was tall and lean, and his eyes were mismatched. The right was brown, and the left was blue with a nasty scar below it. His hair was greasy, and his face was pitted and oily.
Zach was frightened by him and thought he looked like a wicked man. He was correct, Lucas Diehl was a wicked man. He had police records in multiple states, in multiple cities, for multiple crimes—mostly theft. By the time he was fifteen, Lucas Diehl had over a dozen breaking and entering charges. In addition to his B&E and larceny charges, he also had over a handful of assault charges, and one pending assault and battery charge. The charge was pending because of his miraculous escape on the day of his trial. He was being held in Montgomery, Alabama for robbing a general store and beating the elderly owner nearly to death. It occurred over a year ago, and he had been on the lam ever since.
Lucas Diehl was a menace to society—A cancer that needed to be contained and destroyed. Even at an early age, killing things that were good and pure were natural to his psychopathic behavior. Evil flowed in his blood and nestled in his bones.
In addition to being malevolent, Lucas Diehl was a cunning man and that made him even more dangerous. Even the worst derelicts didn’t want to work with him. They all thought he was the devil and slicker than a snake.
The other two men with him were Byron and Vernon Buckelew. They were brothers from the hills of Tennessee. They were average height, wiry, and between the two of them, they barely had a full set of teeth. They also weren’t very bright, quite the opposite, in fact. Sometimes when they screwed something up, which was pretty common, Lucas would beat them and swear that they were dumber than a bag of rocks. They couldn’t think for themselves and did whatever people like Lucas Diehl told them to do, which also made them dangerous.
“Looks like some kinda freak,” Byron said with a whistle.
Vernon added, “Kinda small to be travelin’ alone, don’t cha think?”
Zach attempted to sit upright, but Lucas planted his foot on his chest, pinning Zach to the floor.
“Not so fast, little guy,” Lucas said.
“Leave me alone!” Zach said. “What the hell ya want?”
“We just want to see if you have any goodies for us,” Lucas replied. “Search him,” he said to Vernon.
Byron searched Zach’s overnight bag while Vernon searched Zach’s pockets. Zach struggled and tried fighting them off, but Lucas Diehl’s foot remained heavy on his chest.
Suddenly the train jerked forward and started to move again. Zach saw the opportunity before him and grabbed Lucas by his foot. He bit down hard on his ankle, sinking his teeth in deep into his flesh. Lucas shrieked and howled. He quickly retracted his leg, grabbing his ankle in obvious pain.
“Get that little fucker!” Lucas said.
Vernon was leaning over, searching Zach’s pockets when he received a sudden surprise. Zach pulled his knee to his chest and kicked straight up into Vernon’s face. The blow caused him to fall back and yelp in agony. Vernon wiped his nose with the back of his hand and saw blood. He became outraged and shouted, “Why you little—”
Byron stood and laughed at his brother, Vernon. “He’s a little scrapper, ain’t he?” Byron said adding more fuel to the fire.
Vernon became furious and stomped on Zach’s stomach, knocking the wind out of him. He followed up with a hard kick to his ribs, and then a punch to the face, knocking Zach out cold.
“Take that, ya little shit,” Vernon said.
Like vultures, they all began rummaging through Zach’s pockets until Byron found the small wad of cash. “Look at this,” he said. They were all amazed that Zach had that much cash on him.
“Give me that,” Lucas said. He snatched the money from Byron’s hand and began counting it.
Suddenly a thunderous voice came from the other side of the car that startled them. “Give him back his money!”
When they turned, Charlie stepped out from behind the crates. He stood in the center of the aisle. He was massive, and with his nostrils flaring and eyes wide, they could tell he meant business.
Lucas spotted a crowbar lying on one of the crates and picked it up. He stood with his chest puffed out as he gripped the crowbar tight in his hand. “What ya say, Nigga?” Lucas said. He took a step toward Charlie and continued to provoke him. “There’s three of us and one of you. What ya gonna do, huh, Nigga?”
Charlie stood still and waited for Lucas to make his move. He couldn’t afford to make any mistakes, especially with a crowbar in the mix. As much as he hated to fight, in this case he had no other choice. He knew that they would probably try to kill him and throw his body from the train.
Lucas took another step forward with a crazed look in his eyes. He swung the crowbar wildly at Charlie’s head.
Charlie snatched the crowbar in mid-air with his left hand. Then he grabbed Lucas by the throat with his free hand and lifted him off his feet. Lucas Diehl’s eyes began to bulge, and there was a gurgling sound that came from his throat when he tried to breath. His body soon became limp, which caused him to drop the money. Everyone watched helplessly as the money scattered onto the floor and sucked out the door.
Byron and Vernon became furious and charged at Charlie. When they got close to him, he hurled the crowbar into Byron’s face and threw Lucas into Vernon, causing them to fall to the floor together. The crowbar split Byron’s lip causing him to double over. “Damn, another tooth!” Byron said as he spewed blood into his hand. Before he knew it, Charlie grabbed him by the collar and by the seat of his pants. He dragged him to the door and threw him off the train. Byron knew that he was in for an uncomfortable landing as he sailed through the air.
While Lucas was still on the floor gasping for air, Vernon slowly managed to his feet. He threw a wild punch at Charlie, which turned out to be a poor decision on his part. Charlie caught his fist and squeezed it hard, practically crushing every bone in Vernon’s hand. Before he knew it, Vernon found himself gripped by the collar and by the seat of his pants and thrown out the door.
Zach slowly regained consciousness and saw what was happening. He watched how easily Charlie threw Vernon from the train. He was impressed and grateful. Then he spotted Lucas Diehl slithering from the floor with the crowbar in his hand. He was going for Charlie.
“Behind you!” Zach said.
Charlie ducked just in time, feeling the crowbar breeze over his head.
Lucas Diehl realized that he just blew his only chance at getting Charlie and threw the crowbar at him. Charlie was fast for such a large man and managed to dodge out of the way. Lucas took the only opportunity he had left and ran for the door. He managed to slip passed Charlie and stood at the opening with a malevolent look.
“Someday I’ll get ya, Nigga ... and that little freak too!” Lucas Diehl said. “Mark my words!”
Before Charlie could take another step, Lucas had leaped from the train. When Charlie got to the door, he saw him hit the ground hard and tumble out of control into the quagmire.
Charlie exhaled, relieved it was finally over.
“Thanks Mister,” Zach said catching Charlie by surprise.
“No need,” Charlie said, “I’d be wearin’ a nasty bump on my head if it wasn’t for ya calling out.”
Zach tried to sit up. He grunted in obvious pain.
“You okay?” Charlie asked.
“I think so.”
“Ya sure?” Charlie said. “Looks like ya took a pretty good beating. I thought I was the only one on this train ’til I heard some yelling.”
“Must be when I bit him,” Zach said. He managed to sit up with Charlie’s help. “At least I got one of them.” He said holding on to the little dignity he had left. He wiped his nose, and when he saw the blood he shook his head as tears formed in his eyes.
Charlie removed a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Zach. Zach gratefully took the handkerchief and held it under his nose.
“I’m Charlie, Charlie Franklin.”
“I’m Zach Mullins,” Zach said sticking out his hand.
Charlie wasn’t used to shaking hands with white people. He never came across a white person that voluntarily wanted to touch him, except for when Mrs. Huck gave him money.
Zach looked at Charlie with his hand out, waiting. Charlie wiped his hands clean on his pants and then shook his hand. They both smiled.
Charlie sat across from Zach with his back against a crate. He thought he was different, not because he was small, but because he didn’t seem to care about his color.
Zach immediately took a liking to Charlie. He didn’t know why. Perhaps it was his size and strength, or because he rescued him from Lucas Diehl and his men. All he knew was Charlie seemed to be a good man, and that was good enough for him.
“I wonder why people do the things they do?” Charlie said. “Especially to a ...”
“A little person?” Zach said. “I can take it, ain’t like I never been beaten before. I guess I’m an easy target since I’m small.” Zach tried to act tougher than he really was. He told Charlie about the beatings he got from Sullivan. He also told him all about Sullivan, Camille, Salvatore, and how he finally got his revenge on Sullivan.
Charlie was amazed with Zach’s story. “Remind me not to get ya mad.” After a few minutes of silence, Charlie asked about Zach’s parents. He was curious about their size.
Zach explained that they were average height and how his father, Edward James Mullins left them when Zach was a young boy. He told him how his father went to fight the Germans, and died in the Battle of Cantigny, in northern France, 1918. He continued and smiled when he talked about his mother, Clara Ann Cobb Mullins. He explained how she raised Zach herself, and home-schooled him. The Cobb family was affluent, and ensured she attended the finest institutions.
Charlie quickly discovered that Zach was extremely loquacious. He sat quietly and listened to Zach’s stories. He found them amusing.
Zach sat up straight against the crate and continued talking about his mother. “She met my father while she attended a semester at a prestigious university in Georgia. My father was young, poor and worked in a horse stable. He worked his way up from cleaning horses and stalls to being one of the youngest and best trainers. That’s how they actually met. My father was getting the horses ready for my mother and her friends to ride one day. When they met and started talking they immediately became attracted to each other. They eventually fell in love and began to see each other on a regular basis. Her parents didn’t approve of their relationship and had disapproved her from seeing my father. They preferred that she saw the son of her father’s business partner instead.
When my mother got pregnant with me, they ran off and got married. When her parents found out they disowned her. They referred to my father as ‘the penurious boy who shoveled horse manure.’ They never acknowledged her marriage or my birth. And I bet you if they ever found out about me being a dwarf, they’d say it was my mother’s own fault for marrying into an inferior bloodline.”
Then Zach bowed his head and softly continued. “She died of cancer when I was fourteen. I’ve been on my own ever since. How bout you, Charlie? Ya got any family?”
Charlie spoke gently for such a large man. Zach thought of him as a gentle giant. His voice was calming, but there was a strange sadness about him and it didn’t take Zach long to find out why. He stood up and went the door. He inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of honeysuckles that were lingering in the air; it reminded him of home.
“My papa’s name was James Ernest Franklin. He was a smart man and knew how to read and write, and do arithmetic. My mama’s name was Loretta, and she was so pretty. I had a younger brother too, Robert Smalls Franklin, named after the Civil War hero Robert Smalls.”
Then Charlie began to chuckle when he told Zach about his brother. “One time, Robert fell in the swimming hole with his Sunday church clothes on, and I had to go in after him and pull him out. Our mama got so mad when we got home. Lord, did we get it,” he said rubbing his backside as though it still hurt. “And another time, he kicked a hornet’s nest thinking it was empty. When I asked him why he done a dumb thing like that, he said it looked like a ball. I tell ya, for such a small kid, he always found big trouble.”
“Sounds like he and I have a lot in common,” Zach said. “Where are they now?”
Charlie stared up at the vast blue sky. “They was all murdered by the Klan when I was twelve.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be, it wasn’t your fault.”
“Seems we both lost people we loved,” Zach said.
He noticed a tear in Charlie’s eye and felt sorry for him. It was obvious he loved his family very much and missed them. Zach didn’t ask how or why they were killed. He figured when Charlie was good and ready he’d tell him.
“Do ya know where you’re heading?” Zach asked. He wanted to change the subject to something a little more cheerful.
“Nah, just far away.”
“I know what you mean,” Zach said, “I can’t ever go back.”
“Me neither, I got the Klan after me.”
“What did ya say?” Zach asked. He wanted to make sure he heard him right.
“I got the Klan after me.”
“The Ku Klux Klan?”
Charlie nodded his head.
“Man, ain’t we a bunch of somethings,” Zach said and then he began to laugh.
Charlie thought Zach was crazy, but after he had thought about it, a thunderous roar came out of him. Then they both just laughed and laughed.
Zach reached in his bag and removed an empty whiskey bottle from the bag and set it to the side. Then he removed two apples and tossed one to Charlie. “I’d offer you some whiskey, but I finished it off last night.”
“Thanks, but I don’t drink. I like to eat though.”
They sat and ate their apples in silence as they watched the countryside pass by.
Charlie thought Zach was interesting. He also thought he seemed honest. He liked the fact that he talked to him as though he was a person, an equal and not an ignorant second class citizen. And from the stories he told Charlie, he was undoubtedly clever. He liked Zach and thought he would make a good friend.
“Hey Charlie, what do you say we travel together? We both got no particular place to go, right? I’d feel a whole lot safer having a friend like you around, and I like your company.”
Charlie didn’t have to give it a second thought. He smiled. “Yeah, I’d like that. Where ya suggest we go?”
“Well, let’s see.” Zach said. He scratched his head and thought for a moment. “Is there any place ya always wanted to go?”
“Not really,” Charlie said, “I ain’t never been away from home before.”
Zach looked pensive as he thought. Then a smile stretched across his face. “Hey Charlie, ever hear of the New York Yankees?”