Me and Rooster had just ditched a couple railroad dicks who’d caught me trying to snap the flimsy metal band off a boxcar’s door when we stumbled upon the lean-to. It lay snuggled in a stretch of cottonwood thickets that ran alongside the tracks. We never would have noticed it but for a low growl coming from what appeared to be a stack of dead branches.
I stopped and threw my hand out like a school crossing guard. “What the hell is that?” I whispered.
Rooster shrugged his shoulders and raked a hand over the stubborn shock of red hair that jutted from his head like a rooster’s comb.
As if in answer to my question, a mangy cur that looked like it had once been the color of a cue ball stalked around the corner of the piled limbs. Its head held low, hackles raised, lips curled back baring gums lined with yellowed teeth, the growl rumbled from its throat like faraway thunder.
“Nice doggie,” I said, slowly backing away.
“Here pooch,” Rooster coaxed, taking a step toward the snarling mutt.
“What the hell you doing, Rooster?” I kept my voice hushed so as not to entice an attack. “That dog might be rabid.”
“Nah.” Rooster moved closer. “He ain’t foaming at the mouth. He just protecting something.”
A twig snapped on the other side of the stack.
“Or somebody.” I took another step backward.
A man appeared next to the dog, gray, sweat-stained Fedora yanked low on his brow, eyes narrowed and sharp as barbs on a strand of razor wire, the stub of an unlit cigar plugged tight in the corner of his mouth.
“You boys itchin’ fer trouble?” A blade of sunlight piercing the cottonwood canopy sparked off something in the man’s grimy hand.
“He got a straight razor, Rooster.” I chanced a quick peek over my shoulder to make sure my escape route was clear.
“We ain’t looking for no trouble, mister,” Rooster said. “We running from it.”
“What kinda trouble you hightailin’ from?”
“The badge with billy club kind,” Rooster answered.
The man craned his neck and glared past us. “You shake ‘em?”
“Long ways back.” Rooster swiped a hand over his tenacious cowlick.
The dog’s growl grew a little louder.
The man shifted his gaze back toward us. “At ease, dog,” he said.
With a whimper, the dog’s hackles flattened, and its tongue lolled out in a pant.
“Why the law nippin’ at the heels of you two?”
Rooster glared at me. “They interrupted a shopping spree.”
Dammit, Rooster. Why you gotta be so blabby? “We’ll be on our way, mister,” I said. “C’mom, Rooster.”
The man thumbed his hat back on his forehead a couple inches. A raised purple scar ran diagonally down his cheek, through his lips, and ended at the side of his chin. “Railroad bulls?”
The hardness in the man’s expression softened somewhat. He pocketed the straight razor. “Ya ought not be messin’ with ‘em yard bulls. They ain’t no joke. They catch yous they’ll give you a what for.”
I puffed my chest up a bit. “They ain’t fast enough or smart enough to catch us, mister.”
“That so?” He scratched the top of the mutt’s head with dirt-embedded fingers. “A regular coupla Olympic sprinters with rocket science degrees, huh?” He chuckled.
Cursed as an easy blusher, the heat of one scorched my cheeks. “We know that railyard good enough we could run through it blindfolded,” I said, defiantly. “Them dicks can’t get over those train cars fast as we can.” The same two yard dicks had been after us for months and hadn’t even got close.
“Whatcher dog’s name?” Rooster asked.
The man stroked his grizzled chin and studied the treetops as if the leafy branches held the answer to the question. After a few seconds he lowered his gaze. “I just call ‘im, Dog.”
“When he need to.”
“Can I pet him?”
“Up to him.” The man withdrew the soggy end of the cigar from his mouth and spit a fleck of tobacco off his tongue. “Dog’s his own master. We just bummin’ partners,” he said, then replanted the stogie.
Rooster had a fondness for dogs that bordered on obsession, though he could never have one of his own due to the rules of the housing projects we lived in. We were only allowed to keep small critters. So he made do with a calico guinea pig he’d named Lassie.
“Wanna be friends, pup?” Rooster said, his tone soft and soothing. He stuck his hand out palm side down for the mutt to come over and sniff.
Dog eyed the outstretched offer of friendship, then looked up at the man and whined.
“Up to you, Dog,” the man said. “Though the boy ‘pears friendly ‘nough to me.” He grinned at Rooster. “Livin’ on the bum makes ya wary a strangers.”
Dog inched toward Rooster’s hand and took a couple cautious sniffs. Then—as if it could smell the affection seeping from Rooster’s pores—the mutt’s tail thrashed the air like a sickle blade working a patch of weeds.
“That’s a good boy.” Rooster scratched the underside of Dog’s jaw. “We friends now, huh?”
“Well, I ‘spect if you good ‘nough for Dog, you good ‘nough for me.” The man doffed his hat. “Name’s Louie.” He extracted the mushy cigar nub from its corner and flashed a sparse-tooth smile. “Louie The Bum.”
The wax paper crinkled in Louie The Bum’s hands as he unwrapped the fried spam sandwich—garnished with a slice of government surplus cheese and a slather of mustard—that Rooster had brought him. I brought a peanut butter and jelly. Dog squatted on his hunches next to Louie, a thread of saliva dangling like a gooey icicle from the corner of his mouth.
“We thank ya boys for the grub.” Louie tore a chunk off the sandwich and tossed it to Dog, who caught it mid-flight and gulped it down with the exclusion of any teeth involvement. He lapped his tongue over his snout and returned his full concentration on Louie’s sandwich-filled hands. “Mighty neighborly of yas,” Louie said, then he took a famished chomp.
“How’d you get that scar?” Rooster asked.
I elbowed Rooster, who sat next to me on the log Louie had dragged over by the fire pit. “Didn’t your mama teach you any manners,” I whispered, secretly thrilled at Rooster’s bluntness. I’d been pondering over that scar since I’d first laid eyes on it a week ago.
Louie flipped another hunk of sandwich toward Dog, polished the rest off himself, then loudly sucked a dribble of mustard off a sooty finger. He belched, leaned forward, and fished a silver flask from a rear pocket. “Got this here scar goin’ hand-to-hand with a slanty-eyed nip on a blood-soaked grain a hell called Saipan, way out in the ‘cific ocean.” He uncapped the flask.
Dog, seeing the handout done for now, moseyed over to Rooster and flopped down at his feet.
Rooster reached down and gingerly pulled a clump of burs from the dirt-matted fur on Dog’s belly. “You kill him?”
Like the windows of an abandoned house when nightfall creeps over it, Louie’s dark eyes grew even darker. “Yer talkin’ to a ghost if I didn’t.” He tipped his head back and took a long pull from the flask, his whiskered Adam’s apple bobbled up and down. “Ahhh,” he sighed and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “I killed lotta men. War taught me I’d a knack for it. Come easy to me.”
I shifted on the log and Louie seemed to sense my sudden apprehension.
“At ease, boy.” He cracked a grin. “People I killed earned it fair and square. I just signed their checks.”
Rooster shooed a gang of harassing flies away from Dog’s ears. “Those people you killed all happen during the war?”
Louie took another chug, recapped the flask, and slipped it back into his pocket. “No,” he said. “Killed people after the war. Killed a bum ‘bout a month or so ago just this side of Buffalo after he kicked Dog. I put the boots to that dog-kickin’ bum. Stomped his head into a pile a mush, then shoved his dog-kickin’ ass outta the boxcar we was riding in.”
“Sweet Jesus,” I murmured.
Rooster motioned with a nod of his head toward the book Louie had laid his chewed cigar nub on. “You read that book or just use it for a setting place?”
As if reminded of the cigar, Louie snatched it up and jabbed it in the corner of his mouth. “Read it cover to cover twice over, and workin’ on the third.”
“Don’t that book say killing’s wrong?”
Rooster wasn’t quite the heathen I was. In fact, he even went to church service ever Sunday.
Louie snorted. “Boy,” he said. “This here book’s chock full a killin’, and for a lot less cause than bootin’ a dog.”
“Sixth commandment,” Rooster counterpunched.
“All in the ‘terpretation.” Louie ducked and weaved. “My take is the book says ya ain’t ‘pose to murder. What I did was killin’. Big difference ‘tween the two. I only killed in defense of my or another’s hide.” He fixed an accusatory glare on Rooster. “Speakin’ a commandment-bustin’, weren’t it breakin’ the eighth what got them yard bulls at yas?”
“Was just gonna lighten the load of that boxcar, some,” I said, coming to Rooster’s defense. After all, it wasn’t his fault he’d made best friends with a thieving sinner.
“Paint it how you like.” Louie grabbed a stick off the ground that had a charred tip. He stirred the ashes in the fire pit and pinpricks of hot embers glowed like stars in an ashen sky. A cloud of smoke swirled upward. “’Sides, I ain’t one to point no finger of righteousness at a body who’s filched a loaf a bread when they’s got the hunger gnawin’ at their belly. Not when my own fingers are grubby with sin.”
Rooster’s familiar glare of rebuke nailed me to the cross. “Louie’s right, you know. No matter how you justify it, it’s stealing. And even if all I do is watch out for you, I’m just as guilty.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sakes,” I said, my back up against the wall of eternal damnation. “How’d this turn into an outdoor revival?”
Louie slapped his thigh and let loose a cackle. “Boy, you look like a treed coon.” He eased his Fedora back. Strands of salt and pepper hair lay plastered to his forehead. “What say we call off the bayin’ hounds a judgment for the time being, Mr. Rooster? Cause sooner or later we all gotta face our own day a reckoning.”
From the train yard in the distance came the faint sound of couplings clinking together, the creaking sway of slow moving train cars, and then a couple sharp toots from a whistle.
“Switcher engine must be moving in a line of cars,” I said, trying to control the fingers of excitement strumming a high note on my vocal cords. But I could tell by the frown on Rooster’s face he’d heard it.
And Louie The Bum must’ve, too, because an ever-expanding grin spread across his scarred face. He snickered and said, “Looks to me ya got somethin’ on yer mind other than redemption.”
Rooster slowly shook his cowlick head. He lowered his gaze to Dog and stroked his ear. “Gonna come to no good, someday.”
We crouched in the high weeds that grew alongside the cinder access road of the train yard. “Yep,” I whispered. “A new line of cars. And they all got bands on their doors.” I rubbed my palms together like a kid on Christmas morning gazing upon a pile of unopened presents.
“Ain’t right,” Rooster muttered, his copper-brown eyes bright as new pennies. Dog lay next to him, fly-chewed ears pricked as if he could sense the situation called for alertness. After a week of visiting with Louie The Bum, Dog got to where he’d tag along with Rooster whenever we were around.
“Look, Rooster,” I said, once again trying to justify my boxcar looting, “it’s not like I’m swiping money from somebody’s piggy bank, or snatching little old ladies’ purses, or rolling drunks. I’d never take a nickel from a regular person. But the railroad’s different. They got insurance, and so do the companies that freight their stuff.”
“Sinning’s sinning, no matter which way you do it.”
“Didn’t you tell me the other day you’d had a wet dream about Sally Meeker?”
Rooster stabbed me with a fierce glare. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“It’s got to do with you lusting.” I knew I was stretching the whole sinning thing a bit, but I was desperate. “Like you said, sinning’s sinning, no matter which way you do it—in your sleep—or while choking your chicken like I do.”
“You moron!” Rooster’s face flamed as fiery-red as his hair. “I don’t got no control over my dreams.”
I put a finger to my lips. “Shhh…keep your voice down.” I searched around till I found a stick, then glanced up and down the access road and under the cars for the legs of yard dicks on the other side. “Coast looks clear. You gonna be my lookout, or what?”
“Only cause I don’t want you to get caught and get the thumping you deserve,” Rooster said, begrudgingly. “Go ahead and dance with the devil.”
We crept out of the weeds and onto the road. Rooster squatted down next to the tracks so he could keep watch on both, the road, and under the cars, Dog pinned to his side. I hurried to the closest boxcar.
After another cautious look around, I poked the stick through the center of the band’s loop and twisted until the flimsy metal snapped and fell to the ground. Heart bongo-drumming in my ears, I separated the latch, pulled the long handle up, and yanked. The door rattled open on its track. “Jammed pack full,” I murmured.
“Just hurry up,” Rooster whispered back.
I read the label on one of the stacked high boxes and gasped. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”
“What is it?” Rooster said.
“Whiskey? Then leave it be.”
“You kidding?” I clambered up the boxes like a squirrel after a fat nut. “I’ll make a killing selling this stuff to those rich kids down on South Shore.”
“Devil’s Brew is what my pastor calls it.”
“That’s cause he’s a Baptist. The Catholics call it, The Lord’s Dew.”
“You made that up.”
“Didn’t,” I lied, adding another red check to my ever thickening book of sins. “Come over here and catch these boxes when I drop ‘em down.”
“No way, Thomas. It’s your dance and I ain’t cutting in.”
I knew Rooster was ticked with me when he called me Thomas instead of Tommy. “If you don’t catch ‘em, they’ll smash on the ground.”
“Come on, Rooster,” I pleaded. “Just catch ‘em and put ‘em on the ground. It ain’t stealing unless you take ’em off the tracks, and I’ll take care of that.
Rooster chewed on my sugarcoated reasoning for a bit, then spat out, “One condition.”
“Aww, not that condition again,” I grumbled. “Look what happened the last time you made me agree to that condition.”
“Well, this time try not to break wind during silent prayer.”
He had me by the short and curlies. “Okay, okay.” I shifted a box of pints to the edge and it almost toppled over in my excitement to unload the liquid riches. “I’ll go, I’ll go, just get over here and catch these.” I could practically feel the dollar bills of rich kids being slapped into my sin-tarnished, self-gratifying hand.
Reluctantly, Rooster straightened from his squatted lookout position and moved to the open door below me.
“Ready?” I asked.
Rooster held his arms out.”Go ahead,” he said. “I’m ready as I’ll ever be to catch the burden of your sins.”
“For Christ’s sakes, Rooster.” I dropped the box down to him. “I agreed to go to a church service with you, didn’t I?”
“And you better hold to it,” he said, gritting his teeth with the strain of the dropped load.
As we worked, the train yard broiled in the oven of an afternoon sun, its heat shimmering in waves off the metal boxcars. The tarry smell of creosote from the gooey bleeding of the railroad ties hung in the sultry air. Dog lay next to Rooster, droplets of saliva plunking off the tip of his panting tongue.
Rooster’s head whirled left and right in constant lookout for the yard dicks, the scowl on his sweat-glistened face growing deeper with each looted box he caught and placed on the ground.
After the sixth box landed in his arms he glared up at me. ‘“Better is the poor who walks in integrity than he who is crooked though he be rich.”’
“Sweet Jesus,” I said. “Don’t start with the Bible quotes. This is the last one.” I let go of a box of fifths.
Dog suddenly sprang to his feet, ears pricked, nose sniffing the air.
“He caught wind of something,” Rooster said.
I leaped from the boxcar. “Since you ain’t gonna help me lug these into the weeds, can you at least close the door and bend the band round the latch so it doesn’t look like the car was broken into?”
“Just hurry,” Rooster said, eyes wide and bright, forehead creased with concern.
I toted the first case toward the thick weeds, from behind me Rooster muttered, ‘“For the wages of sin is….”’
The rest of his biblical quote got swept away by distance.
“Man oh man is Louie gonna be surprised with this,” I said, lowering the box of pints from my shoulder and setting it next to the smoldering fire pit.
“Wonder where he is,” Rooster said.
Dog sniffed inside the lean-to and whined.
“Probably out bumming.” I stepped into the shelter and peeked around. “Wonder what kind of stuff bums keep?” I didn’t let on to Saint Rooster, but I was hoping to spot a couple nudie magazines. Surely even old bums needed to whack off now and then.
Rooster sat down on the log and stroked Dog’s forehead. “Don’t go snooping round in Louie’s property. It ain’t none of your business what he keeps.”
“At ease, boy,” I parroted Louie’s saying and kept investigating.
On a piece of clothesline strung from one branched wall to the other, hung a pair of striped boxer shorts, a couple black socks with holes in both heels, and a white, button down shirt with sweat stains under both armpits. In a corner of the lean-to lay a rolled up, olive-green army blanket. Next to it, atop a King Edward cigar box, rested the Bible Louie had set his stogie on. I picked the book up and thumbed through its dog-eared pages, thinking Louie might’ve stashed some bills. But the only thing the pages contained was a few yellowed newspaper clippings and pencil-marked sections that Louie had underlined.
“You taking a sudden interest in the good book, Tommy?” Rooster said with more than a dash of sarcasm.
“Something like that.” I tossed the Bible on the blanket.
“What it do, burn your hands?”
“Funny.” I grabbed the cigar box and something metallic jingled inside. “What we got here?” Opening the lid I gave a soft whistle. “Louie got himself a shitload of medals.” I riffled through them and recognized the heart-shaped one with George Washington’s profile because my dad had one of them from being wounded in Korea. Only one of the medals had a neck ribbon—blue with a cluster of white stars at its base. I slipped the tip of my finger through the ribbon’s loop and lifted the five-point, star-shaped medal from the cigar box. On its face was a lady pressing a shield down on some guy who held a fistful of snakes in both hands. “Wonder what this one’s for.”
“A body apt to part ways with its nose, pokin’ it where it don’t belong.”
I jumped at the sound of Louie’s voice and the cigar box flew from my hand. Both box and medals clattered to the ground. “Oh, shit.” I turned my head and stared into Louie’s dark eyes, then slowly lowered my gaze to the pocket that held the straight razor that now also held Louie’s hand. “I-I-I was just—”
“Snooping,” Rooster interjected.
I shot a dagger-eyed glare at Rooster and silently damned him and his smug grin.
“At ease, boy.” Louie withdrew his hand from his pocket and a wave of relief washed over me when I saw it wasn’t holding a straight razor. “I ain’t gonna harvest that sniffer of yers.” He unplugged the cigar stump and spit tobacco. “A bum’s gotta travel light and I ain’t bouta lug round that big ol snout a yers.” He stuck the stogie back between his lips and let loose a chuckle. “Now busy yerself pickin’ up my belongins’.”
“Sure, Louie.” I stooped down, snatched the cigar box, and scooped up a handful of medals.
“What’s this here?”
I glanced over in time to see Louie toe the box of whiskey with his boot. “A gift for you.” I said, proudly.
He tore open the top of the box and pulled out a pint. “I take it this here come courtesy of the rails.”
“Yep,” I said, lifting the medal with the blue neck ribbon from the dirt.
“Well, I thank ye, boy, and I’ll put it to good use, but yer jerkin’ the devil’s tail chancin’ a run-in with ‘em yard bulls. They’s itchin’ to bust heads, and they’s meaner than a poked hive a yellow jackets.” Louie twisted the cap off the bottle. “I done seen the aftermath of their handiwork, and I’m here to tell ya, ya don’t never wanta find yerself at the business end of those noggin-whackers they’s tote round with ‘em.”
“I ain’t worried bout it none.” I dangled the medal in the air above the open cigar box. “What’s this one for, Louie?”
A stony seriousness hardened on Louie’s face, his eyes glazed with a faraway look.
After what seemed a full minute he finally answered. “For not leaving a man behind.” He spit the cigar from his mouth and held up the bottle. “May ya be half an hour in Heaven ‘for the devil knows yer dead.” He tipped his head back and drained three quarters of the pint.
Rooster’s snicker drew my attention from the booze-guzzling Louie. “Boy, Tommy, are you ever gonna need those thirty minutes.”
Hunkered down in the weeds I stared out at the line of boxcars on the first track and licked my lips. “I can’t believe they left them here overnight,” I whispered.
“Just leave it be,” Rooster whispered back. “You made enough from yesterday’s haul. Don’t push your luck.”
“Luck’s got nothing to do with it.” I glanced up and down the cinder access road, and checked under the line of cars. “Those fat old yard dicks ain’t got the legs or brains to catch us.” I nudge Rooster with my elbow. “Looks clear. Ready?”
He swiped at his cowlick. “You’re on your own this time, Thomas. I’m done staining my hands with your dirt. Me and Dog’ll wait here.”
“C’mom, Rooster,” I pleaded. “One last time, cross my heart and hope to die. I really need you to catch those boxes and keep lookout. You don’t want me to get a what for like Louie said, do you?”
“He also said not to be messing with those yard bulls, in the first place.”
“Listen,” I countered, “I’ll even go to church with you two weeks in a row. And I’ll get right down on my knees and report my sins to the Lord.”
“Your sins have already been reported to the Lord, you dope.” Rooster shook his head in disgust. “The word is repent.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll repent.” I was desperate to get my hands on more of that booze. I’d agree to join the priesthood if that’s what it took to get Rooster’s help. “Last time, I promise.”
Rooster glanced skyward. “Why hath thou given me this cross to bear?”
I didn’t know what that meant but it sounded biblely and I was sure it had something to do with me, so I peered toward the clear blue sky and said, “Please help Rooster bear that cross.” I grinned at Rooster.
He returned my grin with a dirty look and said, “‘For the wages of sin is death.’”
This time the last words of the quote didn’t get lost in the space of distance. “Sweet Jesus,” I said. “I already agreed to repent, what more do you want, blood?”
“Three Sundays and a bible study.” Rooster scratched Dog’s ear and stared out toward the boxcar. “That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”
I’d lied to myself about that priesthood business, but I figured with pockets stuffed full of cash, I could easily snooze my way through three church services and a bible study. Hell, I might even feel generous enough to replace that buck I’d nipped from the collection basket last time Rooster bribed me into going. “It’s a deal. But stop pelting me with bible quotes.”
We crept out of the weeds and onto the access road, scanning the yard for any signs of the two railroad dicks who’d been hounding us the past few months. Dog sniffed the air then snorted.
I weaseled over to the boxcar. The broken band was still in place. I smiled. The ruse had worked and no one had noticed the boxcar had been broken into. With the tip of my finger I flipped the band off, disengaged the latch, and yanked the sun-heated handle back. The door clamored open.
Sunlight leaked through an open door on the opposite side of the boxcar. By the time my mind registered its meaning, the yard dick was leaping out the door I stood in front of. Frantically, I backpedaled, arms windmilling. “Run!” I managed to scream before my feet tangled together. Sharp-edged cinders chewed into the back of my head when I hit the ground. Out of the corner of my eye, an off-white blur sped by me.
“Ouch! Get off me you goddamn mangy mongrel!”
Dog had the yard dick’s leg in his mouth and was shaking it like he was trying to tear the shinbone out for something to gnaw on later.
I sprang to my feet just as the second yard dick landed on the ground outside the open boxcar door, billy club in hand. I dashed for the weeds, my eyes on Rooster’s back a few yards in front of me. From behind came a riot of snarls and curses, then a piercing yelp, and a storm of dull thuds.
Rooster braked and whirled around. “Dog!”
“Keep running, Rooster!”
I grabbed at Rooster as he rushed by me, but his sweaty arm slipped out of my fingers. I turned to go after him, but stopped, remembering Louie’s warning about being on the business end of the dick’s noggin-whackers.
I tore off to get Louie The Bum.
Chest heaving, I crashed into Louie’s camp.
He sprang up from the log he was sitting on, open bible in his hands. “What atcha, boy? You white as a skinned ‘tater.”
“They got ‘em,” I cried.
“Who got who, boy?” He looked past me. “Where’s Rooster and Dog?”
“Yard dicks.” I pointed back toward the tracks. “I think they hurt Dog. Rooster ran back for him.”
All traces of human emotion drained from Louie’s face and in its place was an animal-like indifference—that of a wild beast devouring its prey while it still kicked and bleated. His dark eyes grew as black and cold as open graves. “Let’s go, boy.”
Back at the tracks we followed blood-streaked drag marks to the thick weeds alongside the access road. We found Dog.
“Sweet Jesus,” I whispered when we got closer. Dog’s head was a bloody glob. His tongue lolled from the side of his mouth, eyes glazed over with death.
I glanced at Louie. Moistness glistened his eyes. He pulled his Fedora low, but not before a tear escaped and ran along the track of his scar.
A few feet away—beneath the low branches of a sumac tree—lay Rooster, face down. A sound gurgled from his throat, his cowlick plastered to his head with sticky blood. Louie gently rolled him over. Frothy pink bubbles streamed from the corner of Rooster’s ballooned lips, his eyes swollen shut and already bruising.
I turned away and puked.
“Let’s get ‘im home, boy,” Louie said softly.
Three days later Rooster died. And the day after that the bodies of the two Railroad dicks were discovered in an empty boxcar—both had had their throats slit.
It wasn’t till a week after Rooster’s funeral that I worked up the nerve to go to Louie The Bum’s camp. It was empty, like I knew it would be, the fire pit long dead of flame and glowing embers. I looked inside the lean-to. Vacant except for the medal with the blue neck ribbon. It dangled from the piece of clothesline that had once held Louie’s striped boxer shorts, hole-riddled socks, and the stained shirt. Directly below the dangling medal—on a bed of twigs—lay the careworn bible. A piece of paper stuck out from its pages. I stepped inside, stooped, and picked up the book. I opened it. The hand writing on the note was surprisingly graceful.
Drape this medal over Rooster’s headstone. He earned it.
The Bible is for you. Put it to better use than I could.
Louie The Bum.
Beneath the note lay some of the yellowed newspaper clippings. I unfolded one. On it was a picture of a much younger Louie The Bum in a military uniform. A man with round eyeglasses and dressed in a suit was clipping the medal with the blue ribbon at the back of Louie’s neck. Louie’s scarred face wore the same blank indifference as the day the yard dicks got Rooster and Dog, his dark eyes had the same faraway look. The Headline read—
Local Man Awarded The Congressional Medal of Honor.
Louie’s words came rushing back to me—“For not leaving a man behind.”
And then the words of Rooster’s last Bible quote—each one a spike piercing my soul—nailing me to the cross that I now understood was mine to bear for the rest of my life.
‘For the wages of sin is death.’
Terry Dawley is a former juvenile delinquent who grew up in the housing projects of Erie, Pennsylvania and later became a police officer. His work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, The Cleveland Review and Law Enforcement Today. He is an award winner of the Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition and a three-time award winner of the Pennwriters Annual Writing Contest.