The beach on the island was black mud emitting an unpleasant odor of sulfur. Hundreds of land crabs scattered in every direction. The mud sucked at Flo’s feet and she held on to Tucker’s arm. They were surrounded by the small pirates.
It was unbearably hot and the humid air was thick with horseflies. May, still carrying the revolver, had donned a straw hat and sunglasses. Flo thought she looked remarkably like the old mare that pulled Mr. Thompson’s ice wagon down Elm Street.
“Lock them up in the shed with the girls,” May ordered, “and leave somebody outside the door. If they get away, you’ll pay the price.”
“Why don’t you just shoot ’em and get it over with,” the Captain said. “It’s too hot for games.” He fanned himself with his cap.
“Not on a bet,” May retorted. “I’ve been waiting too long for Miss Droopy-Drawers to get hers.”
The shed was a low structure of bleached cypress with a corrugated metal roof. It was dwarfed by a pair of large oaks providing shade from the merciless sun. Windows on each side were covered with heavy wire mesh nailed into the wood.
When the padlocked door swung open, Flo peered into the dark interior. At first she could make out nothing, then something moved. She heard a whimper and the shape of a young girl stood out in the gloom, her arm held back, as if ready to throw a rock she clasped in her hand.
“Stay back, or I’ll clobber ya, ya little devil,” she cursed.
Flo held up her hands. “Don’t throw,” she pleaded. “We’s prisoners, like you.” The girl lowered her arm as the door swung shut with a bang behind Flo and Tucker. It took a few moments for their eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight, but slowly the girl’s face became clear.
She had round cheeks and a pug nose, covered with freckles. Blue eyes, bright and sharp, took everything in. Her mounds of red curls reminded Flo of Little Orphan Annie. She was thin and probably thirteen or fourteen years old.
“I thought it was the little devils come to get us,” she said, pointing to a corner cot where three young girls sat bunched up with their arms around each other.
“I think they gonna take you away tonight,” Flo said. “I don’t know what they’s gonna do with us.”
“Nothin’, If I can help it,” Tucker broke in. “We needs to put our heads together and make us a plan. We ain’t got much time.”
“I’m Flo and this here is Tucker. What’s yo’ name?”
“I’m Rosie O’Toole,” the girl answered with a smile that exposed a chipped front tooth.
* * *
May kicked off her shoes and stretched out on the small cot. “May Alderson Nichols,” she thought to herself, balancing a glass of whisky on her chest. “That’s what they’ll be calling me. Miss Nichols, for a change, and I’ll have money to back it up. No more ‘Dirty May’, like in the old days. ‘Dirty May does it for pay’.”
May Nichols had been run out of Opalaka, Georgia in 1920, when she was sixteen years old. Not for prostitution; every man in town knew that, but for something far worse: for being less than pure white.
No one would have been the wiser. Her looks didn’t give her away. She was light, like her German mother, with the same green eyes. What gave her away was Macon Davis, a sometime sharecropper and bootlegger. When the Klan strung him up to a cottonwood tree for insulting a white woman, he called out May’s name.
“You dumb bastards thinks you knows it all. You been layin’ up with and puttin’ yo mouth to a black girl. May Nichols is my blood. None o’ you is better than me.”
* * *
“If we stay here, we got no chance,” Tucker said, looking around the shed. “We’s like rats in a cage.”
“Even if we gets out, where we gonna go?” Flo questioned him.
“We hides and takes our chances. At least it’s better’n this. We tries for the other side of the island and a way off.”
Rosie whispered softly so the girls in the corner couldn’t hear. “I overheard the Captain say there’s a rowboat over there, used for bringing in supplies.” Then she put her hand on a small metal cross around her neck. “He said there’s only one way, through the swamps and quicksand.”
“Oh, Lawd,” Tucker sighed.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen