They Walk Among Us, Chapter Five: New Black Panthers

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The wreck was five miles on down the line, with traffic backed up for two. I switched on the CB. According to the chatter, a big rig had gone into self-destruct mode, caused an umpteen-whatever pileup. Additional cop cars, a second ambulance, and two more fire trucks wailed on by, nervously threading the left shoulder.

“Looks like it’s going to be a while.” I shut the Pontiac off, rolled the window down to enjoy the fine spring day. Except, considering this was late June in western Iowa, it wasn’t really all that fine. I’m no expert on Iowa–only been through here once, going the other way on a bus, six years earlier–but things looked a tad too dry out there for my Idaho-raised taste.

Corn country here, and yeah, the corn fields were mostly green and growing, but there were dry, brown patches of ground visible in places. Shouldn’t this part of the country–especially in June–be all green?

“Need Rain Dancing Rabbit,” I muttered.

“What?” Tania sounded honestly curious. “What’s a rain dancing rabbit?”

“Not a what. A who. That’s his name, Rain Dancing Rabbit.”

My lady was quiet for a time, just looking and listening. Bumper to bumper cars as far as you could see, ahead or behind, some still running for the sake of air conditioning, some shut off like ours and snap-popping as engine metal cooled to meet the ambient temperature. The cornfields as mentioned, and above them the crows pestered by tiny, dive-bombing, crow-hating songbirds. A meadowlark doing its thing nearby, its call a sound no man should be able to hear without being uplifted.

Blue sky overhead, not a cloud in sight.

My city girl’s voice was soft when she spoke. “It’s a whole different world, isn’t it?”

“It is. You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, either. I mean, yeah, this corn country is certainly not the ‘hood in Hartford–”

“No kidding.”

“–but wait till you see the Rockies.”

“Seen ’em on TV and in the movies.”

“Not the same. But…like it so far? Out here, I mean?”

“I do. I really do. Scares me a little. It’s so big. So much space. And compared to the city, so quiet. Those were the first sirens we’ve heard in, I swear, days.”

“But you really do like it? Really do think you can live away from the city forever? ‘Cause, you know, a lot of urban-raised folks can’t. They just can’t.” I looked at her, admiring not only the lush curves I’d come to know so well, but the strength of her cheekbones, the quirky way she twisted her lips in a half-smile when things were going right, the shine in her eyes.

“I really do like it. Honey, going back to Hartford? Even if it weren’t dangerous there for me, especially now…I don’t think I could do it. Feels like, I don’t know…like I escaped from prison or something. You’re not going all citified on me are you?”

I laughed at that. “Hardly. Sweet thing, first thing we gotta do when we can find a Corral West–which won’t be till Rapid City, at least–”

“Rapid City?”

“Number two sized town in South Dakota. On the west side of the state. What I was saying, first Corral West we find, it’s a sort-of discount western clothing store, I gotta re-clothe myself. Everything I own right now, I look like I just escaped from the mighty metropolis.”

“Me too?”

Was that excitement in her voice, or apprehension? Touch of adrenaline either way.

“If you want.”

“Can I get a pair of boots?”

Excitement. Definitely excitement.

“Absolutely. Sh*t-kickers all around for Tree and Tania.” There was enough left for that. I’d had five thousand in cash when we started. It was going fast, staying in motels most nights and eating out at least once a day, but yeah. Enough to get us looking right, if I watched the price tags and she didn’t go all Imelda Marcos on me in the store. Which didn’t seem to be her style. I’d hooked up with that rarity of rarities, a frugal female.

She actually laughed in delight. Warmed the cockles of my heart. Wait till she found out a bit of black cowboy history, Bill Pickett and all that. The Negro men who’d helped found the United States of America, even fought in the Revolutionary War. And the buffalo soldiers, and the black gunfighters, yada yada yada. They didn’t teach any of that where she went to school, despite being big on Black History Month. The Founding and the West: Totally ignored.

“Tell me about Rain Dancing Rabbit.”

There wasn’t all that much to tell. My Mom’s boss, Sim Bowles, had originally come out of the southwest before settling in Idaho. He said the legend of the rabbit came from there, down around Phoenix or Tucson or maybe Tombstone. It wasn’t even a legend so much as a simple little rhyme kids passed around to their classmates.

“It’s pretty much summed up in a few lines of verse. Let’s see if I can remember….

“When the river’s running dry and the people start to fear

“That’s when Rain Dancing Rabbit will magically appear

“He’ll be jumping and a-thumping with his big feet off the ground

“Beating out a rhythm to make rainfall come around

“So when your canteen’s empty and the pebble in your mouth

“Is not helping any longer in the desert way down south

“Just do the wiser thing, make it your daily habit

“Relax and leave the weather to old Rain Dancing Rabbit”

Tania smiled big, put her hands together, gave me a standing–well, a sitting ovation.

“You can sing! Baritone man!”

“Not according to this one smart-a**ed plumber back in Rexburg. Dude heard me once, karaoke contest at the high school. Told me not to give up my day job.” I grimaced at the memory. Still wanted to punch that guy out. “Not that I had a day job at the time, other than helping with chores and summer haying on the ranch. I’d just turned fourteen.”

She patted my thigh. “Naysayers everywhere, darling.” Then she started to sing, working on Rain Dancing Rabbit. For the next half hour, we practiced.

What she could do with her voice was incredible. I stuck to a simple melody line, but my girl…wow. Her baseline sound came out in a sort of husky alto that was sexy as Hell, but every once in a while she’d throw in a sudden run or even an out-of-nowhere high note that soared wa-ay up in soprano country.

Between the two of us, we had something. We could make records. Try out for American Idol, except that wouldn’t work, ’cause I’d get cut and she’d go on to stardom and leave me behind when fame and fortune rocketed her out of my orbit, and–

“I think we should take Jack Hill up on his offer.”

That startled me some. “You sure? It hasn’t even been a full day since you were considering him the ultimate in creepy.”

“Woman’s prerogative,” she said primly.

“Huh?”

“To change her mind.”

“Oh. Well, I like the idea just fine, if you’re sure.”

“Sure enough.” She shrugged, doing things to those D cups again. Which I wouldn’t mind doing things to, myself, but the Grand Prix’s windows weren’t tinted quite dark enough for that.

Besides, the line was starting to move.

Be a minute or two before the movement got back to us, though. I fished the cell phone out of my pocket, punched “3” and “Send”.

“What,” Tania stared at me, “you’ve got him on speed dial?”

“Forgot to mention it.”

“Uh-huh. Thicker’n thieves, you two.”

Heh. If only she knew, referring to thieves like that. I hadn’t yet gotten around to filling my lady in on my past. Not completely, anyway. Not the sheer number of times and places I’d thieved between the ages of 14 and 17.

Jack answered on the third ring. We chatted for less than a minute; the line was starting to move faster than I’d figured, and I purely hate to drive with a cell phone stuck to my ear. Besides which, I wasn’t sure if Iowa had outlawed that yet or not. Some states had.

When we got up near the wreck, easing through the one lane they’d managed to get open, it became obvious there was more to it than a self-destructing Kenworth. The 18-wheeler, or what was left of it, still dominated the slow lane and right shoulder. Front end entirely gone, like maybe a car had rammed it right out from under the frame that now rested on–and partly gouged down into–the asphalt.

I’d seen the results of something like that once before.

Mom and I’d been staying in Wallace, Idaho, at one point. A drunken Irish silver miner, heading home from the bar late one night, had swerved over, taken out a trucker’s front axle just that way. Word on the street was, when the Highway Patrol got to the scene, the truck driver was still sitting in his cab, shaking like a leaf.

“That’s some kinda feeling,” he’d told the first responder, “ripping down across the barrow pit, trying to steer and stop the thing with no steer wheels and no brakes.”

The drunken Irishman, interestingly enough, had survived. Sort of. The hood on his pickup was flattened down like an empty sardine can under a bootheel, but he was still breathing. Short a few billion brain cells, pretty much a semi-vegetable for the rest of his life, but still sucking wind and passing gas.

Heard he did quit drinking, though.

Riding shotgun, eyes glued to the twisted metal, Tania shuddered. “They do tear them up rather well out here,” she remarked, “Plenty of bad wrecks in the city, of course, but you don’t usually see one of the big trucks all torn to ribbons.”

Fortunately, it was smooth sailing after that…for a while. We hung a right, shortly before reaching the Missouri River, rolled on north up I-29, through Sioux City, pulling off the highway to refuel and chow down at a truck stop in North Sioux. Jack Hill had stopped for the day at Sioux Falls, South Dakota, waiting for us to catch up, but that was still another 90 miles up the road.

“How’d he get past us and so far ahead?” Tania asked.

I squeezed her leg. “It ain’t like we been exactly hurrying, hot stuff.”

“Well, no, I guess not.” She returned the squeeze. Missed my leg, sort of. Come on, Sioux Falls.

The truck stop food was edible, though the coffee sucked. Odd for such a place, but you can’t win ’em all. I gave Jack a quick call, told him we were just leaving North Sioux City. He said he’d reserved us a room at the Marriott where he was staying, his treat. A room with a whirlpool tub. Come on, Sioux Falls.

We’d been the only non-Caucasians in the restaurant, something my sweetie still wasn’t used to. Once we were out of the building and away from prying ears, she observed, “Sure is white around here.”

“Not white enough,” I muttered suddenly. “Get in the car. And keep your hands away from that fanny pack.”

“Wha–?”

“Yo, brotha! That’s one fine looking sister you got there! Piece like that meant to be shared, eh?!”

“Oh.” She didn’t argue, scooted on around and in, locked her door.

Might have liked to do the same with mine, but instead I stood with the thing open, right hand resting casually on the top corner. An ’89 Pontiac door can be a highly effective weapon in certain circumstances.

No point in responding verbally to the pack coming our way. Four brothers, moving away from their ten year old Caddy–Illinois plates–strutting over to see what they could see. They’d been lounging off to one side, apparently looking for trouble.

Far as I was concerned, they’d found it.

Anybody halfway sensible would have thought twice. Believe I mentioned, I’m no runt. Six-two, two hundred even (give or take), solid. But their fearless leader was even bigger, though not quite as King Kong as my uncle B.J. Llikely thought himself invincible.

Him and his posse of meth-head pilot fish.

There was a skinny little jacked-up dude, all mouth and no brains, speeding like a derailed Amtrak locomotive headed off the edge of a cliff, and then two more, neither big nor small and clearly wanting nothing to do with the deal, just playing follow the leader.

The scrawny one, however, started chanting as they came. “Share, brotha! Gotta share! Gotta share!”

They were just about up in my face when I replied, straightfaced, “This is one brotha don’t share with no muthas.”

It must have taken Big Boy close to five seconds to process my defiance. That he was unused to being calmly rejected was more than obvious. The skinny pants dancer guy–he was bouncing aound on his toes, sticking his face in between me and the big man, smirking and taunting–was about to get squished like a bug between us unless he was lucky.

Him, I had half a dozen ways to take out, enroute to the real action.

Except it didn’t work out quite that way.

Boss Dude started to cock a fist. Truth be told, he was faster than he looked, even taken by surprise. Which didn’t matter. I was coiled and ready, wound a thousand times tighter than I’d realized. Having the Hood Rats after Tania, then having to sweat their two hired killers on our tail for more than a thousand miles of highway…man, I really wanted to hit somebody.

So I did.

Fool started talking while he was cocking. “Looks like you need a lesson, ni-”

My left jab broke his concentration. Followed by the right cross, which broke his nose. Then ye olde signature uppercut, my favorite finisher to the combo, delivered like a Smokin’ Joe Frasier left hook, only my hook goes vertical, up under the chin.

I’m right handed, but there’s twice the power coming from my left side with the arm curled up and under like that, shoulder hunched and hips swiveled for extra oomph.

Skinny’s eyes went wide in shock when his suddenly unconscious hero toppled backward, crashing to the gravel and hopefully splitting the back of his head open on the rocks. By the time Bully Boy was halfway down, the same left hand that had delivered the knockout punch was throttling the Scrawny One’s windpipe.

Coulda crushed the thing like a grape, and believe me, I was tempted.

“Tree,” I heard Tania say. The girl was afraid I was going to be facing murder charges, the way I was going.

“It’s okay, honey,” I told her without turning my head. “I’m under control.” Now I was, true enough. Nothing like cutting somebody down to size to help me find my center.

One more thing to do. Skinny’s eyes were bulging. Had he been Caucasian, he woulda been turning purple. His hands scrabbled at the fist gripping his neck, without effect.

I pulled him close, loomed over him, eyeball to eyeball.

“New Black Panthers,” I growled, and his bugging eyes bugged out even farther.

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I had to give Tania credit. We were back out on the highway, tooling north, before my lady exploded in helpless laughter.

“New Black Panthers!” She hooted. “Oh no he din’t!” Then she answered herself, using a different voice. “Oh yes he did! He mos’ surely did, chile!”

Frankly, her hilarity got so far out of control, it seemed likely she mght hurt herself. Catching, too. Before long, she had me laughing right along with her, laughing so hard I had to wipe the tears out of my eyes.

There could possibly be police pursuit, but unless the almost-giant I’d knocked colder’n a mackerel was injured beyond repair, or dead, it didn’t seem likely.

By the time we’d hit the on-ramp, the big man’s posse had their Caddy over by their fallen leader and were loading him into the back seat. Or trying to; one scrawny pants dancer with a sore neck and piss in his pants, plus two medium sized ordinary guys hoisting what had to be 250 pounds of dead weight into a car…that’s no sure thing.

The shades in the truck stop windows had been drawn against the setting sun. Nobody had come in or out of the truck stop while the action was going on. And the speed freaks weren’t going to talk. They had to be crapping their pants, thinking they’d offended the New Black Panthers. Who mostly seemed to be calling for race wars with whitey these days, but hey.

Tania was settling down finally, maybe thinking about that whirlpool tub waiting in Sioux Falls. Or maybe turned on by watching her warrior whup butt.

She hadn’t actually seen me do anything before this evening, now had she?

Hm. Maybe I should just out and out ask her. She’d tell me; we had that kind of relationship.

“Honey?”

“Mm?”

“What–I just need to know, okay? What got you turned on the most back there? My awesome expertise in the manly art of self defense?”

She giggled. “Not that. I mean, Tree, that was good–that was awesome! Impressive. But what got me going the most?”

“Hm?”

“It just turns my little crank, knowing you’re one brutha don’t share with no muthas.”

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