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We were gathered in the barbershop when Delroy came in with his right arm dangling crooked out his sleeve. His face was comical in surprise, like he’d been splashed in the rain by a car or shit on by a bird.
       But Delroy’s arm was broken. A bone stuck out a hole in his wrist and piss stained the crotch of his overalls.
       “Jesus, Del,” we said. “What happened?”
       “That sunbitch hit me with a claw hammer,” he said, then fell to the floor as only a six-foot-six, three-hundred-pound man would—all in a piece, like a tree.
       We knelt over him. “Who hit you, Del? Was it Junior?”
       His eyes were closed and his skin was a mix of green and gray like the linoleum tiles beneath him.
       “Of course it was Junior,” the barber said. “Who else would it be?”
       “Anybody,” a salesman said where he sat for a trim. “Who wouldn’t hit that sunbitch if he had the chance?”
       Delroy opened his eyes and smiled. “I won’t be down here forever,” he said. “When I get better we’ll talk, you and me.”
       “No need for that, boys,” the barber said, and then to the salesman, “I’d disappear if I was you.”
       An ambulance came, though when the driver and his man tried to help Delroy onto a gurney they found the task beyond them, and a couple of us pitched in. He moaned when we lifted him, though he hadn’t stopped smiling. The salesman was hiding behind the magazine rack, but Del’s eyes found him nonetheless. “I know you,” he called out. “Your name’s Bradshaw. You sell shoes at Mercy’s.”
       “Jesus, Del,” Bradshaw said. “Be mad at Junior. He’s the one hit you.”
       Delroy laughed. “Never mind Junior. Worry about your own smart mouth.”
       The ambulance drove away, and we stepped into the street, blinking like parolees in the sun. We found Junior in the drugstore and stood around him. He was drinking ice water at the counter, spilling on his chin each time he put the glass to his mouth. His hammer was back in his tool belt, hanging from a loop. The marshal sat beside him.
       “I ain’t a violent man,” Junior said.
       “I know you ain’t,” the marshal said.
       “He walked up on me like a bear.”
       “Anybody would hit back at a bear,” the salesman Bradshaw said. He nodded at the marshal. “That’s clear self-defense.”
       The marshal didn’t look at him. Nobody hit back at Delroy Sykes. He was a trapper sometimes and hog farmer mostly, and when he came to town—Saturdays, as a rule—we gave him a wide berth. You might not understand if you come from somewhere bigger, but Mount Moriah, Illinois, was less than three hundred souls, and when even the law’s afraid of a man, it’s open season on the rest of us.
       “I’m as good as dead, ain’t I?” Junior said.
       “Maybe not,” the marshal said. “You drew blood. I don’t know another man who’s done so.”
It started with Junior building a coop for Delroy’s wife Connie, she having seen Blue Sumatra chickens in a magazine and wanting a pair herself.
       When the coop was done and the chickens installed, she said the job wasn’t up to snuff and refused to pay. Junior told her the structure fit her specifications exactly and he wanted his money. Connie Sykes was half Delroy’s size, but she’d been a dancer in Champaign and wore knee-high boots and was the one person, male or female, Del was scared of. She told Junior she’d pay him when the roof kept water out, and he answered that a sideways rain through the door is what got her chickens wet, not any flaw in his workmanship.
       “I may have added that a woman don’t know the difference between a chisel and a chalk line,” Junior told us later, “which ain’t the same as calling her stupid, but that’s how she took it.”
       Afterwards Delroy let it be known Junior had insulted his wife and that a few of the shingles responsible for her wet chickens had already blown off, and he planned to bring one to town and shove it sideways up Junior’s ass.
       Junior was the latest of a hundred people Delroy had fought with, and we watched their comings and goings, all the while thanking our stars it wasn’t us. They finally met outside the drugstore where Junior, rather than take the beating we expected, unlooped his hammer and broke Delroy’s arm. The druggist saw it all and reported that Delroy’s face was a thing to behold, when he looked and saw a bone sticking out his wrist.
       “Like he was surprised to be flesh and blood,” the druggist said.
When Delroy came home he wore a cast from elbow to thumb. Connie drove him to town in their pickup and sat buffing her nails while he stood on Main Street and smiled this way and that. We’d be fools, his look said, to think he was humbled by what happened.
       Finally the marshal went out and faced him. You’d have to of been there to appreciate the picture. The marshal was a twitchy man with eyebrows that moved independent of each other. Delroy’s forearms were already huge, but the cast made him look like Popeye the sailor.
       “There’ll be no trouble in Mount Moriah,” the marshal said.
       “I’m only here to get what’s mine,” Delroy said.
       “And what’s that?”
       “Justice. That blind lady you’re sweet on.”
       “That lady’s about process and rules,” the marshal said. “Not vigilantism.”
       “You confuse me, constable,” Delroy said. “I’m a simple taxpayer.”
       The marshal stepped close. From where we watched he appeared to be looking up Delroy’s nose. “I can’t arrest you for what you haven’t done,” he said, “but I sure as hell will if I catch you doing it.”
       “You’re a little bee, ain’t you?” Delroy said.

Over the next week Junior walked the streets like a man under quarantine. He knew we were keeping our distance and didn’t blame us for it, but he’d catch our eyes on the street and mumble, “I’m a ghost, ain’t I?”
       “Maybe he’ll let it go this time,” we’d say as we passed him by, though we all knew better. Junior was as fine a man as you’ll meet, yet none of us had the hair to even stop on the street and chat, let alone stand with him when the storm came.
       “You need to look after Junior,” we told the marshal, and he answered that he couldn’t very well put a twenty-four-hour guard on someone over what might happen.
       Bradshaw was all for Junior moving away—a good carpenter could make a living anywhere—but Junior’s mama lived in Mount Moriah and sometimes got lost on the way to the mail box, and there was something about being chased out of town that a certain man can’t stomach anyway, whatever the consequences.
       We found him in a farrowing shed he was adding onto, hung from a wall stud with his own tool belt. Each of his hands was nailed to a neighboring stud, and his head was caved in by a blunt object the law couldn’t locate.
       “It’s the cast,” we told the marshal. “Look and see if it ain’t caved in itself.”
       He called in a couple of state troopers and they went out to Delroy’s place. The marshal told us later that Del laughed when he saw them drive up his lane and laughed again when they examined his plaster cast, which was unmarked as the day the doctor wrapped his arm.
       “That sunbitch broke my wrist only two weeks ago,” Delroy said. “I ain’t about to break it again over his head.” Then he said something that got everybody’s attention. “Was it me, I’d of hit him with the hammer he hit me with.”
       After that the law examined the hammer every which way, but it had been wiped clean—even Junior’s prints were missing from it—and there was no trace of blood on the handle or head.
       Connie said Delroy had been with her the whole day Junior died, and, while there was no denying a motive, there wasn’t any proof, and they had to let Del go.
       “It’s an outrage, "Bradshaw told the marshal. “This won’t be tolerated in Mount Moriah.” The marshal stood it as long as he could and then said Bradshaw was welcome to his job if he wanted it.
Delroy had gone from town bully to something else altogether. There might have been this woman bothered or that man shoved aside, this window broken or that debt unpaid, but now we had a killer among us. We still gathered at the barbershop, but Junior’s death put a bit in our mouths. We’d sit and pick at idle threads on our sleeves and sneak a glance at the next man like he was to blame.
       For his part, the marshal redoubled what he could do, which was issue parking tickets and arrest shoplifters. Otherwise he walked the streets with his chin down, eyebrows going like two cats on a fence rail.
       Then one day Bradshaw told us Connie Sykes had smiled at him.
       “She stops outside Mercy’s and stands looking in the door,” Bradshaw said. “I nodded to be polite, but she just smiles and turns on her heel.”
       “She was window shopping,” we said. “She was looking to buy a new pair of knee-high boots.”
       Bradshaw shook his head. “She buys all her clothes up in Champaign,” he said. “She never bought a shoe in Mount Moriah.”
       “It probably don’t mean anything.”
       “You know just what it means,” Bradshaw said. He was pale as block soap. “I know I ain’t Junior. I know I ain’t liked like he was, but Delroy means to give me a beating for what I said the day his arm was broke.”
       He was right. Nobody cared for Bradshaw. His stomach hung over his belt like a sack of meal, he was too quick with the remark, and he called dibs on women customers so he was the one to handle their feet.
       He was right, too, that Delroy hadn’t forgotten what he said and was after his pound of flesh.
       We called the marshal in. He listened to the story and told Bradshaw, “He means to slap you around, is all. You been slapped before.”
       “And that would be the end of me,” Bradshaw said. “I got a bad ticker and a hernia both. If he was to hit me, it’d be another murder for you to leave unsolved.”
       If you think the barbershop was quiet before, it went still as death now. The marshal stared at the salesman and then let his eyes range over the lot of us.
       “There’s only one of me,” he said finally. “And I swore an oath. What have the rest of you done except gawk like looky-loos at a house fire?” He stared another minute and said, “You’re all a bunch of Bradshaws.” He turned and left.
       Bradshaw looked around. “What’d he mean by that?”
       “He just called us cowards,” we said.
       “I swore an oath,” the druggist said quietly. “He wasn’t the only one.”
       “Same as me,” the barber said, “You can’t cut hair without one.”
       “I ain’t a coward,” Bradshaw said. “I was in the war.”
       Somebody laughed and spat. “You was a typist. You went where they sent you and ate all the food when you got there.”
       “There’s no call for that, boys,” the barber said, though he needn’t have bothered. Our spirits were too low to get angry.
The next day Bradshaw saw Connie on the street. He hadn’t meant anything by what he’d said in the barber shop, he told her. He’d always liked Delroy and thought he was on the whole misunderstood. He was a hard man, yes, but these were hard times, and—
       “She laughed in my face,” Bradshaw told us. “She said I was fussy as her chickens and that she might talk to Del after all about not wasting a beating on someone like me.”
       “Well now,” we said. “Looks like you got away with it.”We were relieved, even though it wasn’t our own necks on the line. Mount Moriah didn’t need another incident, and if Connie meant what she said—
       Bradshaw went hangdog all of a sudden. “Only…her laugh got under my skin.”
       We looked at each other. “Better a laugh than a beating.”
       “I couldn’t let it sit.”
       “What does that mean?”
       He glanced from face to face.“I told her we’d gotten together, that we were going to put a stop to Delroy’s nonsense once and for all.”
       We rose and stood close to him. “What the hell did you say that for?”
       He stuck out his chin. “Because it ain’t right,” he said. “After Junior it ain’t right for Del to come in and take another pelt. What kind of people are we to—”
       “What did Connie say?”
       Bradshaw stared at his hands. “She said Del would be very interested to hear that. I tried to take it back, but she was already walking away.”

Everything had changed. Up until then the man who hadn’t offended Delroy had just two things to think about: how to keep it that way, and what side of the street to walk on when he came to town. Now we were all in his sights.
       We met that night without Bradshaw and went over our options.
       “Bradshaw forced our hand.”
       “The marshal as good as told us to fix it ourselves.”
       “Delroy’s ready for us. He’ll be watching.”
       “If we was to face him as a body.”
       “Like a pack of wolves.”
       “He’d come for us later, one by one.”
       “Ain’t there another way?”
       “I never hurt a man.”
       “My wife wants to move to her mother’s place in Decatur.”
       “We’re all targets now.”
       “If we don’t do something, you mean.”
       “Bradshaw and his goddamn yap.”
       We took stock of the weapons we owned. There was nary a man among us who didn’t hunt, so we had an abundance of firepower. Everything from your .22 pistol to your twelve gauge to your .30-06 Springfield.
       The barber fetched the hand broom he used to whisk off shoulders. He snipped straws from it of various lengths, and each man drew to see who’d do what.
       “After this it’ll be done,” we told each other. We went to our houses and ate supper and then sat with our wives until the hour came.
       At midnight we gathered outside the barber shop. A man among us owned a flatbed truck, and he’d gone home to get it. The barber crawled into the passenger’s seat and the rest of us onto the back. We drove without headlights to Bradshaw’s house, where we honked the horn until he came onto his porch. He lived alone and was stuffing his shirt into his pants as he peered at us.
       “Who’s that?” he said.
       “Climb on,” we said.
       “Where to?”
       “To put a stop to Delroy like you said.”
       He looked happy and excited as we hoisted him onto the bed. He sat among us and smiled back and forth. “It’s the right thing,” he said. “There had to come a day.”
       No one answered. We sat, each man to himself, as the truck jolted over the road. A full moon was our only light, and someone broke the silence to comment how a moon on the horizon seemed bigger than a moon overhead.
       “I always wondered why that was,” he said.
       The road changed from pavement to dirt, and the tires jounced from rut to rut like a speed boat over waves. The man who’d spoken about the moon spoke about it again. “I don’t guess I’ll ever look at a moon the same after tonight.”
       It hadn’t rained for weeks, and dust stung our faces and left a pink cloud in our wake. When we stopped at the lane to Delroy’s place the dust caught up and hung over us.
       We sat quietly, the engine ticking, crickets where before there’d been truck noise. Delroy’s house was dark, though in the moonlight you could make out the skins—fox and raccoon—stretched on his barn to dry.
       No one moved until Bradshaw piped up. “All I want is a chance at him,” he said. “Once we get him down, I mean.”
       We’d been waiting for a cue to take the next step, and that must have been it, because the man who’d drawn the straw to do so pulled a pistol from his belt and shot Bradshaw in the forehead. His shoulders bunched like he was shrugging off a jacket. He sighed and nestled into the man beside him.
       Again we sat quiet until someone said, “It ain’t done yet.”
       A few of us climbed down and a few stayed on board and lowered Bradshaw into our arms. We handled him as gently as we could. He wasn’t the worst man in the world, Bradshaw. We wouldn’t have done him any harm otherwise. We laid him in the center of the lane, where Delory and Connie couldn’t miss him in the morning.
       We stood over the body and tried to think of something to say. “That’ll feed the bear,” someone offered at last.
       “’Til he’s hungry again, anyhow.”
       Someone pointed toward the house where lights were winking on. “I believe they’ll find him tonight.”
       A door flashed open and we heard a shout.
       We climbed onto the truck as it turned toward town. The dust still hung in the air. The druggist choked. “I’ve violated everything I believe in,” he said.
       We knew what he meant. There wasn’t a soul among us who didn’t feel the same. But there’d been a debt to pay in Mount Moriah, and only us to pay it.

© Bob Johnson 2019

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