We lived across the alley from the Casa Loma, an African-American beer joint where they played ear splitting music with the back door open until daybreak. Henry C. Rucker ran the place. He drew a lot of water in the neighborhood. Husky and fifty, he was a lawyer, but black lawyers played hell of making much living around there.
Jobs were tough in the early fifties. Ma could only get part time at the chicken plant and we hadn’t seen the old man since he ran off with the waitress from Topeka the year before.
Mr. Rucker was dumping garbage in the can in the alley when I walked by. He was always first rate, probably a little sorry for the loud music. “Mornin’ kid,” he said.
The age limit to get a paper route was twelve, but I’d lied and jumped the cut early. Most weeks I could make ten bucks. They tossed out the bundles at Nelson’s Drugstore three blocks up Southern Avenue, the border between blacks and whites. Sacking up out of the wind in Nelson’s entryway, I heard gunshots shatter the chilly dawn quiet. Gunfire was common in the neighborhood – I could tell the short, staccato barks were pistol shots.
Waving a revolver, Mr. Rucker, in his white apron, was chasing a no account pimp called Jingles. Jingles was jerking at his automatic pistol. It must have been jammed. Two more blasts and Jingles went down like a soppy, wet rag. I hid behind the concrete pillar in front of Nelson’s. Mr. Rucker came closer, saw me. I had the switchblade, okay, a little fat, blue-handled one I always carried. Mr. Rucker had a big damned pistol.
I’d seen men kill and be killed. His eyes…they were cold, not a trace of the anger men who’ve just taken another’s life usually showed. He stood and studied me, maybe looked into my soul, I thought. Without a word, he stuffed the pistol under his apron and walked away.
I beat it the hell up into white people’s land. Nobody ever got shot there. In a half hour the cops found me. Mr. Rucker was handcuffed in the back seat, still wearing his white apron, his placid brown eyes calm.
“Boy, we know you saw him shoot that pimp Jingles,” the fat cop stepped out. He smelled of sweat and cigars.
Yeah, I was plenty scared alright, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let that redneck know. “Cleanin’ the bar at his joint when I walked by there this morning. Couldn’t a’ shot nobody. Sir, that Jingles meaner ‘n hell…I heard shootin’, then saw him on the sidewalk. Never saw no shooter. Not many folks gonna be sorry Jingles got kilt.”
“White trash.” He slapped my face. I stayed down, hoping he wouldn’t kick me, but he did anyway. He’d had half a smart, he’d looked in my britches pocket and found the switchblade. Then, I’d be in a fix.
That fat, outsider cop was too dumb to realize a good man like Mr. Rucker just didn’t go around shooting people who didn’t need killing.
Gary Clifton is a retired cop drawing on his own experiences to write great crime stories.
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