Zach and Charlie didn’t wake up until the following morning. They were more exhausted than they thought and slept through the entire night.
Charlie was an early riser and woke up first. He sat up, stretched, and went to the window. He figured it must have been about six o’clock by the position of the sun. He was hungry and looked out the window. He wanted to he see if there was a place for them to go for breakfast. He spotted a diner a few blocks away. He tried to remain quiet while Zach slept, but his stomach kept gurgling. He tried sitting still, but he couldn’t with the hunger pains that he had. He didn’t know what to do so he began to pace to distract himself, but each time he passed a certain spot on the floor it would squeak.
The constant floor creaking was finally too much for Zach, and he finally woke up. He noticed the expression on Charlie’s face. “Hungry, huh?”
“Sorry I woke ya,” Charlie said. “There’s a diner a few blocks aways. Ya wanna get something?”
“Sure, I’m a bit famished myself.”
On their way to the diner, Zach asked Charlie who Max was. He felt sorry for Charlie, and wanted to help him. He felt obligated, especially after Charlie saved his life twice in two days.
Charlie became embarrassed. He figured Zach must have heard him crying before he fell asleep.
“Max was my dog,” Charlie said. “He was my best friend.” He cleared his throat and began to tell Zach why the Klan was after him. He told him about Wally Huck beating his wife, Maggie, how he knocked Huck out cold, and how they killed Max. When Charlie finished his story, he had tears in his eyes.
Zach didn’t know what to say to make Charlie feel better. He knew it would be a matter of time before Charlie would recover from his pain and grief.
They walked to the diner in total silence. Zach thought some food would take Charlie’s mind off Max, but when they approached the door, they saw a sign reading NO BLACKS, taped to the glass.
Charlie bowed his head in disappointment. He thought it would be better there in Tennessee, but it seemed everywhere he went there was segregation and racism. All his life it’s been that way, so he accepted it for what it was.
Zach, on the other hand, couldn’t brush it off that easy. He knew Charlie was hungry. He also knew they didn’t have many options on where to eat. He thought it was wrong, and was determined to do something about it.
“Wait here, I’ll be right back,” Zach said. He entered the diner and a few minutes later, he came out carrying a small paper bag in his hands. He noticed a bench directly in front of the diner. “Let’s sit here,” he said as he opened the bag.
Charlie had a suspicion on what Zach was doing; picking a bench in front of the diner. The one that didn’t serve Blacks, so that everyone inside could see them enjoying their meal. He felt worried that they would cause trouble.
“C’mon,” Zach said. Then he removed a container from the bag. “There ain’t no sign saying we can’t sit here and eat.”
He handed the container to Charlie and then removed a smaller one for himself.
“I got us some grits,” Zach said. He removed two polished spoons from his pocket and handed one to Charlie. “Here, I took these when the waitress wasn’t looking.” He smiled as though he was proud of himself. “That’ll teach them.”
Stealing spoons wasn’t exactly getting even, but Charlie appreciated Zach’s gesture. He also appreciated the fact that the entire diner had a good view of him enjoying his grits.
It around noon when Zach and Charlie decided to enter the fair grounds. It was crowded with people. It was July 4, a holiday weekend, and it seemed like the entire town was there.
There was a petting zoo with a variety of animals on display, loud trumpeting rides, and vendors that had games for people to play.
The young men from town kept the vendors busy trying to win prizes for their dates. There were many games and rides that amused the people throughout the fair.
Charlie had never seen anything like it before. The loud games and rides took some getting used. It was so different from his life back in Holly Bluff. His only entertainment was reading and fishing with Max. He bought used books from time-to-time while in town when he needed to pick up supplies. His favorite book, other than the Bible, was The Count Of Monte Cristo. It wasn’t exactly something one would call a thrilling lifestyle, but it was all Charlie knew and could afford.
While they walked the fairgrounds, Zach gave Charlie the low down on the gimmicks and shows. He explained which games to stay away from and how the vendors had little tricks that ensured they’d get your money. He also explained that shows such as The Bearded Lady from Siberia were exaggerated. The woman was probably really a local with a hormonal imbalance, or a rare genetic disorder known as hypertrichosis—a fancy medical condition meaning excessive growth of hair in areas where hair does not normally grow. He learned this from a bearded woman named Peggy from his carnival, but she quit after Sullivan tried shorting her pay too.
Suddenly they came upon a crowd. A short portly man wearing a straw boater hat was standing on a wooden crate. He was about to make an announcement.
“Okay gentlemen,” the man said, “it’s time to impress the ladies. We’ll be starting the wrassling matches soon, and the grand prize is ten dollars, cash money!”
Zach looked up at Charlie like they just struck gold. “Charlie, why don’t cha enter?”
“Nah, I ain’t never wrassle before.”
“Ya ain’t never wrassle with your pa when ya was a kid?”
“Yeah, but we was just playing.”
“Same thing,” Zach said, “but this time it’s for ten bucks. C’mon, you can do it, I know ya can. Just watch the other guys. I’m sure they’re gonna go over the rules and all.”
Charlie scratched his chin while sizing up some of the men entering the contest.
“C’mon,” Zach said, “I’ll buy ya an ice cream cone afterwards.”
Charlie gave it some thought. Never had me no ice cream cone before, and we can sure use the money. Anyways, these fellas don’t look like much ... ’cept for maybe the tall one. How hard could it be? “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Zach cheered on Charlie as he headed towards the wrestling area. He was instructed to find a circle to stand in. There were four large circles on the ground made with chalk and each of the circles had four men standing in them. Charlie found a circle with three other men and stood in it.
“Okay, gentlemen,” the man in the straw boater hat shouted. “Now we’re ready to start. Here are the rules. There’ll be no biting allowed. Now if you quit, ya out. If you get knocked out, ya out. The winners of each match will move on to the next round until there is one man left. Any questions?”
The men look pumped up and ready to go. Some rolled up their sleeves while others removed their shirts. Charlie just stood in one spot and observed the other men stretching and flexing.
The crowd started to cheer when four judges worked their way to the four circles.
A large, round woman with five children stood and cheered for her husband. “C’mon, Buford, show ’em what ya got,” his wife shouted.
Buford removed his shirt. He was a burly man with thick black hair all over his body. It appeared as though he was wearing a Cashmere sweater. His opponent was a wiry hillbilly. The fact that he was ornery made up for his size.
“C’mon Jimbo, let’s see ya wup some ass,” his rowdy friends yelled out.
Jimbo wasn’t exactly what you would call a refined kind of man. He wore filthy overalls with holes in them and the way he spat his chewing tobacco on the ground, it was most definite nobody would confuse him for Errol Flynn. When Jimbo smiled at his buddies, a strand of tobacco dangled from where his front teeth should have been.
The judges chose two of the four men in each circle and instructed them to face each other. They reminded the contestants to stick to the rules or they’d be disqualified.
In the circle where Charlie stood, two other men were selected to go first. One was an average looking farmer that wore overalls. He was a stocky man with dirty bare feet. The other opponent was a tall, slender man who was bald. When he removed his shirt, Charlie thought he looked strange. He had milk white skin, and he didn’t have any eyebrows or body hair whatsoever. He had a medical condition known as Alopecia Universalis. Charlie never saw anything like it before and couldn’t help but to stare at him.
Another man also stood outside the circle. Charlie assumed he was his opponent. He glared at Charlie with a wicked smirk. Sure some strange lookin’ people around these here parts Charlie thought.
The man in the straw boater began the wrestling matches. “Okay, gentlemen ... ready-y-y ... begin!” the man said.
At that point, each of the men in the four circles began to wrestle. They grunted, scrambled, and shoved each other. Some of the men were tangled up in wrestling holds while other men were pummeled violently with fists. From a distance, the wrestling contest looked like a rumble with dust kicking up around the men making it difficult to see.
After a few minutes, some of the men submitted to wrestling holds while others were knocked unconscious. The judges immediately raised the hands of the winners in each of the circles.
The man in the straw boater hat instructed all the winners to stand outside their circles, so the next round of men could go next. When those matches started they too grunted and scrambled.
Charlie circled the ring, playing defense. By his size, everyone could see that he could easily beat his opponent. Charlie didn’t want to hurt him, so he waited for him to make his move.
Suddenly Charlie’s opponent rushed in on him, he threw a wild punch that just missed Charlie’s chin. Then he followed up with another punch, but this time Charlie blocked it. Then Charlie stepped forward and quickly threw his arms around his opponent. When he locked his hands, he squeezed the man in a tight bear-hug. The pain was unbearable, and within seconds, his opponent submitted, making Charlie the first to be declared the winner of that match. Charlie would move on to the next round.
Thirty minutes later, the wrestling contest came down to three finalists: Charlie, Buford, and a Swedish looking man.
The Swedish looking man had red-blond hair and a full kinky beard. He stood a good five inches over Charlie and eight inches over Buford. His muscles weren’t as large as Charlie’s, but they were defined. He was also young, strong, and cocky.
Buford and the Swede were the first to go. They met a few yards from the crowd and faced each other.
When their match started, they immediately began exchanging blows. It was an even match at first. Buford held his own against the giant until the Swede stretched out his long arms and grabbed Buford. He held Buford’s head and drove his knee deep into his stomach, forcing air to escape him. Buford fell to one knee gasping. Then the Swede did the unthinkable and threw a concussive kick to the side of Buford’s head.
The crowd fell silent and watched in horror as Buford crumbled, face first into the dirt. His wife was horrified. She stood in shock covering her mouth. Her children began to cry as their father lay motionless on the ground.
Charlie became angry. He felt the Swede didn’t have to kick Buford in the head like that. It was obvious he wasn’t going to get up after he got the wind knocked out of him. Now, he may be dead, and his family had witnessed it. He didn’t like the Swede. He watched in disgust as the Swede stood over Buford admiring what he had done. Charlie thought it was time someone taught him a lesson.
Zach swallowed hard. He could see Charlie was angry. The last time he saw him like this was on the train fighting the thugs.
Suddenly two men carrying buckets of water dumped them on Buford. He immediately came to and managed to sit up. “What happened?” he said dazed and confused.
The crowd cheered, relieved that he wasn’t dead or seriously injured. His wife ran to him. She helped him up then hugged and kissed him. She held his arm and led him to their children. The man in the straw boater hat wiped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. He too was glad to see Buford was okay.
Charlie watched the Swede and couldn’t believe his eyes. The Swede stood with his hands on his hips and laughed. Then he noticed the way Charlie was looking at him and didn’t like it. “What you looking at?” the Swede asked.
Charlie didn’t respond. He just stared at the Swede with scorn.
“Keep looking at me that way and I’ll give ya a beating you’ll never forget.”
“Ya didn’t have to kick him in the face when he was down,” Charlie said.
“You’re right I didn’t,” the Swede said. “But I wanted to.” His expression was defiant and menacing. “And you’re next, boy.”
“Bring it on, Blondie,” Charlie said.
Zach looked on, covering his mouth. What did I get Charlie into? We could have earned some money another way. He dropped his hand to his stomach. He felt as though he was about to vomit.
The crowd had grown into a huge mob. They cheered with excitement knowing that the final match was going to be a real battle. After witnessing what the Swede had done to Buford, most of the crowd cheered for Charlie.
Then the man in the straw boater hat congratulated the two remaining contestants. He made his announcement that this was the final match for the grand prize of ten dollars.
One of the judges made his way to the area where Charlie and the Swede stood. They both stared at each other with malevolence in their eyes.
The Swede stuck out his hand, but Charlie knew better and became suspicious. He was reluctant to take it, but he did anyway. The two men’s eyes locked as they stood just a few inches from each other. When the Swede squeezed Charlie’s hand, Charlie squeezed back harder. Their strength seemed evenly matched.
The judge tried wedging himself between them. It was like moving two mountains, but somehow he managed to get them apart. “Okay gentlemen,” the judge said already exhausted. “This is for the grand prize. Remember the rules.”
When the man in the straw boater hat started the final match, Zach couldn’t watch. He immediately shut his eyes as the crowd cheered wildly.
Charlie and the Swede circled each other. They were waiting for the other to make his move. The Swede was getting impatient and after a few seconds reached for Charlie. He managed to grab Charlie by the back of his neck and when he went to drive his knee into his stomach. Charlie blocked the knee strike. He expected the Swede to try it since it worked successfully on Buford. However, he was still in the Swede’s grasp and needed to escape from it quickly before the Swede tried his move again and possibly got lucky.
Charlie tried to pull back, but the Swede’s grasp around his neck was too tight. Suddenly an idea came to him. Charlie would push the Swede back slightly, and when the Swede pulled on Charlie’s neck he would go with it and slam his forehead into the Swede’s nose. Charlie’s plan worked wonderfully, causing the Swede to release his neck and stumble backward. Blood began to trickle from the Swede’s nose. When he wiped his nose and saw blood on it, his eyes widened. He showed his teeth like a mad dog and attacked Charlie with wild punches.
Charlie managed to block most of the Swede’s punches, and when the Swede threw another wild punch, he was ready and looped his arm up and over the Swede’s arm, locked it tight to his chest, and with his free hand, he struck the Swede on the nose again. The Swede staggered as he threw a weak, wild punch. This time when Charlie ducked, he leaned into it, and lifted the Swede up into a firemen’s carry. He carefully steadied himself and then slammed the Swede hard to the ground. Clouds of dust erupted around him like a volcano.
The crowd cheered when the Swede lay face first into the dirt in pain. Zach had his hands over his eyes when the man next to him tapped his shoulder.
“Hey, your buddy’s winning,” the man said.
Zach dropped his hands. A smile came to his face when he saw Charlie standing over the Swede.
“C’mon, finish him off,” someone shouted.
Charlie stepped back and waited for the Swede to get up.
“Finish him,” someone else in the crowd shouted.
“Finish him! Finish him! Finish him! Finish him!” the crowd chanted.
Charlie turned and stared at the crowd with uncertainty. They wanted him to finish off the Swede. They condemned the Swede for what he had done to Buford, and now they wanted Charlie to do the same thing, but he couldn’t do it. No matter how much he hated the Swede, he couldn’t hit him while he was down.
The Swede managed to get to his feet. His legs were still wobbly, but he was determined to defeat Charlie.
Zach tried to warn Charlie, but he couldn’t make out what Zach was trying to say with the noise from the crowd yelling over him.
The Swede finally composed himself and attacked Charlie from behind. He caught Charlie behind the ear with a sucker punch. It caused him to stagger and nearly fall. Then the Swede immediately grabbed Charlie by the back of his neck. He wanted to try his move on Charlie while he had the advantage. He set himself up in perfect position to drive his knee hard into Charlie’s stomach. This time he would finish Charlie off for good. He slid his leg back like a bull about to charge. He thought he had Charlie now, until from out of nowhere he was pulled into a tight bear hug. Charlie had managed to slide into position before the Swede knew what was happening. Charlie wanted to end the fight once and for all, so he squeezed with everything he had until he heard a snap. The Swede cried out and waved his arm frantically, signaling for surrender. One of his ribs had snapped in half, and he was in excruciating pain. It was finally over, the Swede had enough.
One of the judges ran over and stopped the match. When Charlie released the Swede, he collapsed to the ground and held his side. The Swede gasped laboriously for air and conceded that Charlie had beaten him and won.
The crowd cheered. Zach was pleased that Charlie wasn’t hurt, but he felt terrible. He knew Charlie didn’t like violence and yet he persuaded him to enter the wrestling match for money. Zach never imagined it would have come to such violence. He thought it would have been the way young boys wrestled for fun. He ran over to Charlie with his eyes swelled up with tears. “I’m so sorry.”
Charlie was exhausted. He was covered in sweat and dirt. He looked at Zach as he brushed himself off. He saw the look on Zach’s face and tears in his eyes. He placed his hands on his knees and looked Zach straight in the eye. “I believe ya owe me a very large ice cream cone,” he said. Then a smile formed on his face that showed off his pearly whites.
“You got it, champ,” Zach said. He was relieved Charlie didn’t hold any grudges and blame him for the mess he got him into.
After the crowd had dispersed, the man in the straw boater hat handed Charlie ten dollars. “Well done,” he said to Charlie. “We don’t see many folks with your natural talent and strength. Ya can go places with this ya know.”
Charlie took the money and politely smiled. “Thanks, but just the same, wrasslin’ ain’t for me. Besides we got places to go and things to see.”
“Well, it was certainly a pleasure watching ya wrassle. By the way, I didn’t catch your name, I’m Clifton Mydland,” he said. Then he stuck out his hand.
Charlie hesitated for a second. He still wasn’t used to white people wanting to touch him. “I’m Charlie Franklin.” They shook hands. Then he gestured to Zach. “And this is my friend, Zach.”
“Well, it was a pleasure meeting ya both,” Mydland said. “If ya ever change your mind ‘bout wrasslin’ just look me up.”
As the three of them were talking, a suspicious looking man was watching them from a distance. He was leaning up against a tree, smoking a cigarette. He was in his late-thirties. He had a chiseled face, thick neck, and a pushed in nose like a boxer. He was well dressed in a hat and suit.
When Zach and Charlie went on their way, Mydland nodded to the suspicious looking man. Then the man began to follow Zach and Charlie.
A teenage boy and girl were buying ice cream cones when Zach and Charlie arrived at the ice cream stand. “What flavor would ya like?” Zach asked.
“What flavors they got?”
“Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry, I think.”
“Okay, I’ll have vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry,” Charlie said.
“Ya got it, champ,” Zach said with a chuckle.
After the young couple paid the vendor and strolled away licking their cones, Zach and Charlie stepped up to order their cones. Charlie was eager to have his first ice cream cone. His throat was dry from the dust, and the thought of something cold sounded good.
“What can I get y’all?” the vendor asked.
“We’ll have two ice cream cones please,” Zach said. “One small vanilla and one large with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry.”
“Coming right up.” He began scooping ice cream from the large containers.
“Bye the way,” Zach said to Charlie. “Ya did real good wrasslin’. Ya showed a lot of class out there.”
“Awh shucks, it wasn’t nothing.” Charlie said.
When the vendor was finished he handed them their cones. “You must be the large with all three,” the vendor said to Charlie.
“Yes sir,” Charlie said. His eye widened as he took the cone. A big smile stretched across his face. He started licking where the ice cream began to drip. He thought it was the best thing he’d ever tasted. The cold, sweet, creamy texture had him hooked.
Zach took the small vanilla from the vendor. “What’s the damage?”
Zach handed him a quarter, and they went on their way. They found a log on the ground to sit on to rest while they ate their cones. Zach noticed that Charlie was devouring his cone. He remembered how he wolfed down his Coney Island and Nehi soda pop as though it were nothing. “Hey, Charlie, don’t eat it so fast or you’ll get—”
“My head!” Charlie said. He slammed his palm against his forehead and began to stomp his feet.
“—brain freeze ... too late,” Zach said.
Charlie jumped to his feet. He started rubbing his forehead with his palm. He didn’t understand what was happening to him. It was the first time he ever experienced brain freeze. He began pacing back and forth somehow managing not to waste a single drop his ice cream in the process.
Zach continued to lick his cone as he watched Charlie. He chuckled to himself. Maybe that’ll teach him to slow down when he eats.