Once you become visible, it’s hard to disappear into the shadows again, but Hank White was doing his level best. His life depended on it. People looked right through you when you were flipping... [+]
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The intense yellow sun was high in the sky. The fields were hot and the earth burned the feet of the men running in front of him – they wore no shoes and no one knew why.
There were fifteen of them, running since dawn. Joshua and his son had risen just after daybreak. They had tidied away the sheets from the sofa, opened a can of beans, shared the fork, been to the bathroom. He had stood outside, facing the window of their bedroom-kitchen-bathroom-toilet. A radio was playing loudly somewhere in the building.
Joshua was swaying slowly backwards and forwards. He was turning the pages of a newspaper. On the other side of the glass was Gordon, who was washing the bean can. Gordon was his son.
“Found something? Any work for us?” he asked his father.
Joshua continued swaying, and whistling. The day was hot and humid, already large drops of sweat were running down his back.
Then the music stopped and they heard a brief sound followed by an announcement:
“We wish to inform the inhabitants of the county that the criminal John T. Pearson escaped from jail this morning. Be vigilant, he is dangerous. He is of stocky build, average height and of Afro-American ethnicity. Any information helping us to locate him will be rewarded...”
Joshua shut the paper with a great clicking of his tongue.
“We’re going on a manhunt, Gordon. Fetch my rifle.”
Gordon picked up the rifle and the last two cartridges they had left, closed the door, and together they set out along the county road. Ahead of them, there were other men, dressed in patched pants and stained shirts. Joshua put his hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Let them hurry, I know which way he went. He’ll try to cross the county border as soon as he can. By the shortest route.”
“We could tell the police then.”
“If they’re paying $50 for information, they’ll give us up to ten times more, I don’t know, maybe thirty times if we capture him.”
“We’re going to catch him?”
Joshua stroked the barrel of his rifle.
“Dead or alive,” as they always say.
They walked as far as the wood, then took a long dirt road, through the middle of the wheat fields. Rabbits scattered in front of them.
“Remind me to come back and hunt them when we return. Then we’ll have some meat for dinner.”
“We’ve only got two bullets left, Dad.”
“That’s one for him and one for the rabbit. I’m a good shot, you know.”
They walked for another hour, the day was set solid, nothing was moving, neither the earth, nor the sun, nor the trees.
When the heat seemed too strong to him, Joshua began to speak. He explained that this rifle was a gift from his father, well, an involuntary gift, an inheritance. It was the only thing he owned of value and this rifle might prove its worth to them. “A weapon, son, is all you need here. It’s a tool for work, for self-defense, for persuasion. You’ll see, it will serve us very well yet," he said. The sweat ran down his eyelids but he made no move to wipe them. He was still standing. He was walking. With his son.
Far off they saw people running through the wheat fields. They could hear them shouting. Joshua slapped his son’s shoulder and they began to run. Faster. A band of pain appeared inside Joshua’s skull, it grew rapidly, just over his eyebrows, it took up a lot of room, he tried to concentrate on those wheat fields, over there, on the reward after he fired, on the arguments he would have to present to prove it was really his shot, he had everything ready in his head: he used caliber .243 Winchester cartridges. But soon there was nothing but the huge band of pain, bigger and heavier than his own head. Each step made the weight of his body more awkward. Then he looked at Gordon and told him they would do it, together. The sun was getting to him and the metallic heat was restricting his every gesture. His knees were growing weak, he didn’t know how he could go on.
“Run ahead, catch up to them, catch him yourself or stop them from catching him. I’m coming. I’ll be there. I’m right behind. Not far. Right behind.”
Gordon set off. He quickly reached the path all the men had taken, and then he forked left. The fields were hot and the earth burned the feet of the men running in front of him – they wore no shoes and no one knew why.
When he had overtaken them all, he thought of his father and of the man he was pursuing. He did not know him but remembered the description on the radio: the fugitive was black and stocky. Ahead of him, there was only one man left, he looked rather squat but it was impossible to tell if he was black. It had to be him, the man who was going round a hillock, the one who could no longer be seen. The men behind were yelling. It couldn’t be anyone else. Then a shot rang out across the plain and Gordon collapsed. Joshua lowered his rifle, he was panting, sweat was running down between his eyes, he wiped it with his cuff and his vision misted over again. The men had stopped running, they had formed a group around the body. Joshua went up to them and, suddenly, all the tears of his body seem to come to the surface at once, pouring down his face. It was his son. It was Gordon. His son.
The men slowly backed away one by one, turning back toward their homes, and Joshua crouched down over the body. Then he stood up, he lit a fire. And another shot rang out.
In the evening, Joshua presented himself at the sheriff’s office, his back bent double. Behind him he was dragging a body. The sheriff leaned over the body: the black face had been pierced right through by a missile and the tips of his fingers were burned. He was unrecognizable.
“What’s this, Joshua?”
“I’m here to claim the reward, Sheriff. I’ve just killed a dangerous fugitive. I’ve just killed John T. Pearson.”
Translated by Wendy Cross