Young man learns not to judge too quickly.
LEE COUNTY, ALABAMA 1933
It was only 37 miles to Shelby, yet Eric felt he had sat hours on the train. The old engine could be seen through its belched clouds of steam and smoke when the track curved. He watched the pines gliding past the grime-streaked window then, switching focus, studied his reflection.
He felt this trip would be different somehow and, unable to define the reason, was impatient with the train's shuffling progress.
The one passenger car was almost empty. There were four others scattered about, all men. A salesman slouched in front, his sample case on the bench across the aisle. The three in back were mill hands, their rough clothes, and coarse language in stark contrast to the salesman's white summer suit.
While stopped at Threetree, Eric tried to lower his window but couldn't persuade the rusty latch to give up its hold. He felt suffocated as the oppressive heat bore down.
He was still twelve miles from Shelby though now, at last, there were no more stops before his. Two new passengers boarded just as the engine shrieked its departure warning. Eric's attention turned to the pair as they came down the aisle and took a bench one row ahead of him and on the other side of the car.
He noticed how different the men were from each other. The one who sat by the window had walked slowly, his arms in front as if the hands were clasped together just below the crotch; Eric couldn't tell as they were covered to mid-arm by an old mackinaw. The man walked with his head down and darted his eyes quickly, taking in every detail of the car and passengers. Eric started as the man's rapid yet intense gaze met and held his own for a moment. He sat as though tired or perhaps defeated. Leaning against the window, he stared out. Though Eric could not see the man's face, he assumed by the figures stillness,that he looked out but studied only inner thoughts. Eric's attention turned to the older man who had escorted the other. He was well dressed, hatless, and projected the dignity of one used to being accorded respect. It was he who chose their seat after quickly observing the others in the car. Settled, he opened a newspaper left by a previous traveler.
Eric noticed then the change in volume coming from the mill hands in back. They had not ceased their talk but were hushed. Eric swiveled to see them. Each was studying the backs of the two new travelers and, with heads close together, were obviously discussing them gravely. Though he could not hear clearly enough to understand, Eric had no doubt there was something exciting going on. The largest of the three, brutish and dirty, stood up with clenched fists and started to move aisle ward. His companions restrained the notion and persuaded him to retain his seat. They continued speaking low, punctuating with grunts and oaths.
Frightened, Eric turned forward, looking for some sign of normalcy. He wished for the boredom of the previous two with no more to think about than the heat. He began to wish he had stayed home where his mother's kitchen was the safest place in the world. It was at her insistence he was going to Shelby anyway. His stepfather had, for two summers, hired him out to a farmer in Lee county. Carl said the money was needed, but Eric felt it was to get him away from his mother. He hated the farm work but looked forward to free hours spent in the woods hunting the big gray squirrels. his will be the last time, though, Eric reminded himself. Once he turned 16 next spring, he'd get a job in town and spend his money helping his mother.
A crash startled the boy out of his daydream. Looking forward, he watched as the salesman placed the sample case back on the bench then settle again to doze off. Eric found comfort in the man's casual attitude and felt secure enough to look across the aisle.
The younger man said something, and the other took out a cigarette, lit it, and offered it to the lips of the one by the window. He went back to his paper and seemed to be intently reading a front page item.
Eric noted the familiar LEE COUNTY MESSENGER logo at the paper's top. His eyes fell on a large headline, Manhunt For Rapist-Killer Ends. His heart raced. He felt riveted, an icy chill displaced the stagnant heat. All the strangeness of the two men suddenly made sense. Thoughts flashed, visions of sitting in his mother's kitchen reading and re-reading about the savage triple murder galloped through his mind. He thought over again how a Jackson county farmer, his wife, and son were murdered, the woman raped. A statewide manhunt had raged for two weeks. Eric recalled a description of the hired man who was suspected by police. The one on the train, not eight feet away, could have fit that description. Eric shivered as he thought to himself. He decided the older man was a sheriff and must be escorting his prisoner to the Jackson county seat for trial. Those guys in back must have figured things out too, he concluded.
Though nervous and apprehensive, he thought about the letter he would write to his mother telling her of his train ride. He envisioned the prisoner trying to make an escape, overpowering his guard only to be subdued by the quick, heroic action of the one Carl called 'boy' and hired out like a mule. Maybe, he thought, the three guys in back might come forward as the big one had started to do. They would try to lynch the killer right in the car or at least beat him up real bad.
Eric considered whether he would join in their vigilante action or protect justice by defending the prisoner for trial. He felt the latter course would make him a greater celebrity and enjoyed for a moment a picture of himself accepting thanks from the law for his courageous stand. Carl would have to then treat him like a man.
Engrossed with dreams, Eric noted their arrival at the Shelby station only as the train came to a wheezing stop. The mill hands exited through the rear door. As Eric came back to reality, he saw the prisoner and guard rise, as did the salesman. Moving up the narrow aisle, the lawman threw the newspaper back on the seat. As the two passed the salesman, there was a small confrontation when his sample case again slipped off its perch and fell into the aisle. The younger man had to quickly sidestep, and in an effort to maintain balance, he reached out to grab a bench-back. His mackinaw fell to the floor and a piece of paper fell from its pocket and slid under a seat.
Eric couldn't clearly see all the movements of those several seconds but did note the paper falling. Since the others had straightened themselves and continued their exit, Eric guessed no one but himself had witnessed the lost paper. He gathered his cardboard suitcase from overhead and quickly went up the aisle.
Getting onto all fours, he retrieved the document and stood to hail its owner or his guard. Curiosity, though, made him pause. He turned the official -looking page over and read its bold title. His heart sank. He scanned only the first several lines then rushed to overtake the two men.
Stepping onto the platform, Eric saw them enter the station. He walked quickly and caught them at a ticket counter. He overheard an agent addressing the older man as 'Doctor' and informing him that the train for New Orleans would be through later that afternoon. Eric approached him and, handing over the paper, said only, "This was dropped back on the train." The other nodded and put it in his coat pocket. Eric couldn't look at the younger man's eyes and quickly turned heel, having glimpsed one of those hands which surely had been handcuffed but now were covered with white gauze.
Later, on a bus that would take him past the farm, Eric couldn't erase the image of that paper or the gauze covered hands. Nor could he shake a feeling of confusion. He would need time to put the day in order. He had been so sure. So had those mill hands. But that paper. He knew he would see those words again when he tried to sleep that night:
STATEMENT of COMMITMENT