Zach and Charlie had just finished lunch and were relaxing in their room. The fight scheduled for that evening would be Charlie’s sixth fight. He rested on his bed reading the comics while Zach sat in the chair near the window browsing through his newspaper’s stock market section. This was their typical routine on the days Charlie fought.
“Son of a gun, will ya look at this,” Zach said. “I knew this stock would go up. If only we invested, we could have made a ton of money.”
“So, why don’t we?”
“Yeah, you’re always lookin’ at the stocks, and we have money now.”
Zach rubbed his chin and thought about it.
“We’ll have five hundred dollars when we leave here,” Charlie said. “But I wanna make sure we have enough to last us, so I never have to fight again. I hate this fighting, and I wanna get as far away from here as possible. If it wasn’t for that agreement with Mr. Graziano, I’d leave right now.”
“Well, we have been making good money so far, but it’s not enough to invest,” Zach said.
“How much more do you think we need?”
“I don’t know, maybe five hundred, maybe a thousand,” Zach said. “I don’t think we have enough, but maybe if we start making side bets we could earn some extra dough.”
“Maybe Smitty can help us.”
“Yeah, maybe ... just maybe,” Zach said. He looked pensive while he rubbed his chin.
Later that evening, it was turning to nightfall when Zach and Charlie arrived at the old mill. Smitty was standing outside smoking a cigarette. He tossed it to the ground and stepped on it before he greeted Zach and Charlie with a smile. He was fond of them and always enjoyed talking to them whenever he had the chance. He thought they were a little naive, and he always got a kick out of their reactions whenever he told them a story. They were usually gruesome stories, and they could never tell if the stories were true or not. He sure was no Hans Christian Andersen, but he did have an abundant amount of stories for them. He also thought their conversations were refreshing because they never talked about business. However, tonight was different, Zach and Charlie wanted to talk business.
“Hey guys,” Smitty said. He greeted them with his usual smile. He always prepped Charlie about his opponents before each fight. He thought it was essential that Charlie knew what he was up against. “This guy tonight is supposed to be pretty tough. He’s got his buddies with him and these guys are laying down some heavy bets.”
“Heavy bets, huh?” Charlie said. He glanced over at Zach who was thinking the same thing.
“Hey Smitty, ya think maybe ya can do us a little favor?” Zach asked.
“Depends what it is,” Smitty said.
“Well, Charlie and I have a little cash, see, and we were wondering if ... um, if—”
“Ya want me to bet it on Charlie for ya?”
“Yeah, would ya?” Zach said.
“Trying to earn some extra dough, huh?” Smitty said. He thought about it for a moment. “Oh, what the heck. How much we talking about anyway?”
“All of it ... two hundred and fifty,” Zach said.
“That’s all of your money,” Smitty said. “Ya sure ya want to do that? This guy’s pretty tough.”
“Don’t ya have faith in Charlie?” Zach asked.
“It’s not that I don’t have faith in Charlie, I do, but ya need to know that anyone can be taken out at any time. All it takes is one lucky punch, or ya can break your hand, and the fight can turn in the wrong direction real fast ... believe me, I know.”
“I’ll be careful,” Charlie said.
“Ya sure ya don’t want to set some of it aside just in case?” Smitty asked.
“No, we need to bet it all or none,” Zach said.
Smitty looked at both of their faces. He could see that they were serious and desperate. “Okay,” Smitty said holding out his hand. “But I’m just saying ... ya should keep some of it just in case.”
“Thanks Smitty, I know you’re just lookin’ out for us,” Charlie said.
“Yeah, thanks pal,” Zach said.
“It’s your money,” Smitty said. “I’ll play the odds being that these guys hate niggas ... uh, no offense, Charlie. These guys are Klan boys from Mississippi, and when they heard their fighter was fighting a colored fella, they really started betting heavy.”
“Klan boys? From Mississippi?” Charlie said. He looked like he just saw a ghost.
“Yeah, why?” Smitty asked.
Charlie looked worried and began to pace nervously.
“What’s the matter?” Zach asked Charlie. Then he suddenly put the pieces together. “Oh, crap! Ya don’t think?”
“What? What? Think what?” Smitty asked. He wanted in on the scoop.
“It’s a long story,” Zach said, “but when we lived in Mississippi, Charlie got in a little hot water. We think it might be them.”
“Them who?” Smitty asked.
Zach explained to Smitty what had happened at Huck’s house. Then he explained how Huck and his Klan boys went looking for Charlie and killed his dog, Max.
“They killed your dog?” Smitty said. “Sonsabitches! Don’t worry, we’ll fix them dirty bastards.”
When they went inside the old mill, Charlie began to feel sick to his stomach. He found some crates to sit on and rest while Zach stood behind him and worked on his neck. He tried to loosen his muscles, but they were tight from stress. Charlie was worried whether he’d run into Huck again. He was afraid to look over to where his opponent sat. Just the thought of Huck leering at him with those cold steel blue eyes of his sent chills up Charlie’s spine.
The other fighter had a group of men gathered around him. They were cracking jokes and laughing obnoxiously while drinking from flasks. They acted like immature college frat boys, only they were old and ignorant.
Charlie couldn’t resist any longer. He had to look and see if Huck was among them. When he quickly glanced over, he saw four men drinking and carrying on. He could feel the hair on the back of his neck stand straight up, and his stomach twist into a knot. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Huck was there, he was one of them. He was wearing the same khaki pants and suspenders from the last time he saw him, but this time he looked uglier and fatter than before. The buttons on his shirt looked as though they were about to pop, and he had sweat stains under his arms. Not that it mattered much, he was still ugly, obnoxious, and a bigot, in addition to being a murderer.
Huck stood in the center of the group. He was the loudest of the bunch, always needing to be the center of attention. Then he cracked a joke, and when he laughed out loud his fat belly shook. Charlie thought he looked like a fat slob.
Huck happened to glance over the exact moment Charlie was staring at him. He looked surprised at first, and then a smile grew on his face. He nudged the man who was standing beside him and said something in his ear as they both peered at Charlie. Then they began to whisper to the other men as they gawked callously at Charlie.
After a few minutes, Huck decided to swagger over to Charlie as his friends looked on. He was chewing his gum with his mouth open. He wore a cocky smirk on his face when he approached Charlie while keeping a safe distance. “So, this is where ya ran off to,” Huck said. “Ya think you’re safe now, huh?” Then he removed a handkerchief from his back pocket and patted the beads of moisture that gathered on his shiny forehead. He carried on like a cowardly bully picking on a schoolmate, knowing that his friends had his back, in case anything happened. “Only problem is, now you gotta fight our boy, Hank. And he ... well, let’s just say he really hates niggas. Ya gonna be in for a treat tonight ... gonna be a dead nigga for sure when he gets done with ya.” Then a burst of laughter came from deep inside him as he turned and sauntered away back to his Klan boys.
“Pay no mind to that fat-ass,” Zach said. “He’ll get his.”
Smitty was observed the entire conversation from a distance. Then he winked at Zach and Charlie before he walked over to Huck and his friends. When he approached them they began to place heavy wagers with Smitty, now that they were aware that their fighter was up against Charlie. And of course, Huck had to outdo his friends with the biggest wager of all. He took it personal that Charlie had the gall to strike him. He wanted to see him get a good beating, and if he could make some money in the process, it was even better.
After a few minutes, Graziano appeared. “Evening fellas.” He sounded excited about the fight. He was in a good mood. He probably anticipated winning a lot of money that evening. “I assume Smitty already told you about this guy? These guys are betting some pretty heavy cash on him. He’s supposed to be pretty good, so be careful and don’t take any unnecessary chances.”
“Don’t worry,” Charlie said sounding determined. He remembered the name of the man who shot Max. It was Hank, and he wanted him to pay for what he did, and he wanted him to pay dearly.
“Ya okay, Charlie?” Zach asked.
Charlie didn’t answer Zach. He just warmed up quietly with his eyes focused on Hank.
Zach knew that Charlie wanted revenge against Hank, and thought he deserved it. He knew this was going to be a war, but what worried him most was people in wars wound up either injured or dead.
Clifton Mydland appeared in the center of the room. He asked the fighters to join him. Charlie immediately removed his shirt and handed it to Zach.
“Ya be real careful out there, ya hear.” Zach said with a lump in his throat. He had a bad feeling about this fight. He never saw Charlie this way before, even with the Swede, and it scared him.
When Charlie approached the fighting area Myland looked happy to see him, but he needed to remain professional and unbiased. Hank stood facing Charlie and looked malevolent. He was the same height as Charlie, and he was also strong.
“Okay, y’all ready?” Mydland asked.
“You’re gonna wish ya had it as easy as your dog when I’m done with ya,” Hank said to Charlie.
Charlie didn’t say a word, he didn’t have to. His eyes focused on Hank as though he was a wild animal ready to attack his prey.
Charlie’s typical routine was to circle his opponent and try to anticipate their attack. However, when the fight began, he immediately attacked Hank with rampant punches as though he wanted to take Hank’s head off.
Smitty began yelling instructions over the cheering crowd. “No, no, use your head. Take your time, you’re gonna run out of gas that way!”
Charlie continued throwing wild punches. The only thing on his mind was how bad he wanted to hurt Hank for killing Max.
Suddenly a punch connected, but it was Charlie’s legs that wobbled. He didn’t see Hank’s punch, but he certainly felt it when it landed on his chin. It made him stagger backward a few steps. He tried to steady himself and not fall. He knew Hank would attack strong to try to finish him off, and before he knew it, Hank was all over him.
Charlie covered himself up the way Smitty taught him. He had to shake off the punch fast, or he would be in deep trouble. Not only would he lose the fight, but all the money he and Zach had saved. They would have to start all over, and that meant less money to invest, which meant more fights. And more fights was something Charlie didn’t want.
Charlie made a tight fist and threw a punch without looking. To his amazement, it landed square on Hank’s chin and managed to stop the barrage of punches causing Hank to stagger.
Soon the fighters realized they needed to be more cautious since neither of them were going down as easily as they initially thought. They began to circle each other each as they regained their composure.
Smitty was happy to see Charlie finally fighting the way he was trained and not like a mad man. When he threw his punches, they more conservative and strategical. However, the two men still seemed evenly matched.
After a grueling five minutes had passed, Charlie and his opponent were still exchanging punches. Neither of them held back or tried a submission hold. They just pounded on each other endlessly. Nobody could believe that they managed to remain standing after the beatings they were giving each other.
Ten minutes later, both of the men were thoroughly exhausted and bloody. Charlie decided to change his strategy. Instead of punching, he was going to try something else and hoped that it worked. He waited for Hank’s next looping punch, and when he threw it, Charlie ducked and lifted him up into a fireman’s carry. Then he body slammed him onto the floor, causing dust to erupt around them. Then Charlie quickly climbed on top of Hank. He had the advantage and could easily throw crushing blows that would cause serious damage to Hank’s face. Hank knew he was in trouble, and needed to do something quickly. He grabbed Charlie from behind the neck and pulled him in close. That’s when he broke the rules and sank his teeth deep into Charlie’s ear causing him to cry out in pain.
“He bit him!” Zach protested.
Charlie placed his hand on Hank’s face and pushed him away, tearing what was left of his earlobe off. Blood began to gush down the side of Charlie’s neck.
Suddenly Charlie cried out again. This time Hank’s teeth were sinking deep into his index finger. He became infuriated and turned into a mad man. He began pounding on Hank’s face until his finger was released. In his rage, Charlie grabbed Hank by his throat and began choking him. Then he had a vision. It was vivid, clear, and reminiscent. It took him back to when he was young boy.
It was dark except for the lit torches. His mother was on the front porch holding a shotgun. A man wearing a Klan outfit had crept up on her and struck her from behind. When she fell to the ground the man had forced himself on her. He was tearing her blouse and fondling her breasts.
Charlie could still hear the man’s laughter echoing in his mind. He remembered watching her from the window as she fought back. She had managed to pull off the man’s hood and dig her fingernails deep into his face. He remembered how the man cried out as she ripped pieces of flesh from his cheek. He also remembered the blood that poured from the man’s face as he struck her again and again.
Charlie squeezed Hank’s throat with such rage that crushed his windpipe like a beer can. He could feel his delirium subside as his hands released his throat. Charlie watched as Hank’s body became limp and lifeless on the floor beneath him.
The room suddenly became silent. Charlie remained still beside Hank, starring at him in shock.
One of Huck’s men was making his way through the crowd. He was heading toward Charlie carrying a switchblade in his hand. He snapped it open; the blade was long and sharp. He gripped the knife tight, and just when he was about to thrust it into Charlie’s back, he froze. He felt the cold, hard metal of a gun pressed against his spine. Smitty was on the other end of the gun. “I wouldn’t try it. Drop it!”
“C’mon, just let me give what’s coming to that dirty nigga,” the man said.
“I said drop it, and I ain’t gonna say it again!” Smitty said shoving the gun harder into the man’s spine.
When the knife hit the floor, Smitty picked it up and slid it in his pocket. When he looked up, he realized he was surrounded by Huck and his men, and they all had their guns aimed at him.
Graziano saw what was going on and nodded to one of the men standing amongst the crowd. Suddenly a dozen men appeared with guns drawn and surrounded Huck and his men. When they realized they were surrounded and out numbered, they dropped their guns without any resistance. “Everybody out,” Graziano shouted.
All the men that came to watch and bet on the fight that night began to file out the door. Huck tried blending in with them as they were leaving.
“Nah, nah, not you chubby, you stay,” Graziano said to Huck. He noticed that Charlie was still standing over the dead fighter and couldn’t take his eyes off him. “Why don’t you fellas go back to the hotel,” he said to Zach and Charlie. “Smitty and I have a little business to take care of. We’ll square up with you later.”
“Right,” Zach said. He grabbed their things and led Charlie away. “C’mon, let’s go home and fix up that ear and finger.”
Then Graziano stood before Huck and his men. He looked like a drill Sergeant rebuking his platoon. “Not only was your man a dirty fighter,” he said, “he also injured my fighter in the process. He broke the rules and paid for it. You also broke the rules and brought weapons here.“He stood directly in front of Huck who was sweating profusely as he glared into his eyes.
“But, but,” Huck spat out, “we didn’t know.”
“You knew. Everybody knows the rules,” Graziano said escalating his voice. “No weapons!”
“What about you?” Huck said.
“What about me?” Graziano asked. He unbuttoned his jacket and removed it, exposing his white dress shirt. Then he spun around slowly as he spoke. “I have no weapons. Do you see any weapons?” He glared directly into Huck’s eyes again. “I understand that you have a bit of history with my fighter. And since he’s an investment of mine, that’s going to be a problem ... and the last thing I need right now are problems. So, we’re going to take care of this once and for all.”
“Big Al?” Smitty asked.
Graziano nodded his head.
Back at the hotel, Zach’s hands shook as he poured whiskey into a glass and gulped it down. Charlie sat on his bed facing the wall. He was wearing a blood spotted bandage on his ear and another bloodied bandage on his finger.
“Want one?” Zach asked. He knew Charlie wasn’t a drinking man, but he figured he might want one considering what had happened that evening.
Charlie didn’t answer. Zach tried to get Charlie to open up and say something, but he didn’t know what to say, so he poured another drink and gulped it down. He immediately refilled his glass and placed the bottle gently down on the table beside it. He stared at his drink for a few minutes in silence. “They came after ya and killed Max. They’re bad men, Charlie.”
“I know they were bad!” Charlie said startling Zach with his sudden outburst.
“So, why ya so upset? They got what they deserved.”
“Because I’m like them now!” Charlie said.
“No, ya ain’t! How can ya compare yourself?”
Charlie began to pace the floor. He was full of anxiety, guilt, and needed to get it out. “I killed a man tonight.” He held up his hands and stared at them strangely. “With these hands, I crushed his throat!”
“But ya was fighting and he cheated! He bit ya!”
“Yeah, and now he’s dead!”
“It’s justifiable,” Zach said.
“Is it?” Charlie asked. “I killed that man tonight. I did a bad thing in front of God and my family.
“Ya worried about what God and your family think? Those men killed your dog!”
“Ya don’t understand, they also killed my family,” Charlie said. “They’re murders.”
“Yeah, and they got what they deserved, so what’s the problem?”
“You still don’t understand,” Charlie said. “I wanted to kill that man, I wanted him dead, and when I did kill him ... it felt good!”
“You’re worried because it felt good and ya think that makes you like them now? How do you think God feels about those men? They’ve been going around terrorizing and killing black folk for years, and tonight they were fixin’ on killing you! They got what they deserved, Charlie! By killing that racist pig, you did the world a favor!”
“I did the world a favor?” Charlie asked. “Says who, you?” Then he stormed out of the room, slamming the door hard behind him. The noise jolted Zach where he sat.
“Charlie, wait!” Zach said, but it was too late and he wasn’t about to go after him. Maybe he just needs a little time. Yeah, that’s it, he just needs a little time. He’ll be his old self by morning. He grabbed his drink off the table and gulped it down. Then he stared at the closed door. Yeah, he’ll be back by morning and everything will be okay.