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RIVER OF FIRE

By Darrell Case

Rearing back, Whitey brought the whip down again. Billy bit down on the rough material of his homespun shirt. He tried to hold on but at the tenth blow, he lost consciousness.

Letting go of Billy’s arm, George screamed, “Stop! Stop, you’ve killed him.”

“Naw,” Whitey said. “He ain’t dead.”

“I’m gettin’ outta here,” Rudy said, taking to his heels.

“Me too,” George agreed, following his brother. The boys ran down the snow-covered road leading to Pottsville.

“Cowards!” Whitey called after them.

Both boys disappeared over a small rise. Kneeling beside Billy, Whitey rubbed snow in the boy’s face. Billy moaned.

“Don’t hit me again; I’ll get the jar for you.”

“You better,” Whitey said, his face inches from Billy’s. “And iffen you tell on me, I’m gonna whip you harder next time and I’ll get your momma too. You hear me?”

“Yes,” Billy whispered.

“What?” Whitey said, shoving his fist in Billy’s face.

“Yes, I hear you” he shouted, using his last ounce of strength.

Jenny Hayman was taking fresh loaves of bread from the oven. She wasn’t worried about Billy’s tardiness. Many times before he had stayed behind to help Miss Winters clean the schoolhouse. She cut off a thick heel of a loaf, buttering it heavily, then putting it in a pan on the stove.

“That’ll keep it warm ’til he gets home,” she said, humming to herself. She always fixed a snack for Billy before he did his chores. She smiled, breathing in the aroma of the fresh baked bread. It made the house smell so nice.

She heard the front door open and close. Thinking it strange since Billy always came in the kitchen door, especially on baking day, she called out to him.

“Billy, is that you? I’ve got a slice of bread for you on the stove.”

There was no answer, only the sound of the bedroom door closing.

Entering the kitchen, Owen Hayman asked, “Where’s Billy? I saw him come in.”

“I guess he’s in the bedroom.”

Billy peeled off his shirt, wincing at the pain. It was covered in blood; balling it up, he hid it in the corner of the room.
His father entered the bedroom without knocking.

“Son, when you feed the pigs tonight, I want ….”

Owen stopped in mid-sentence, his eyes drawn to the open wounds on Billy’s back.

“What happened? Who did this to you?” his father demanded, his thick hands clenching into fists.

Billy’s mind raced. He knew what Whitey was capable of. His father might stop him but if he didn’t, Whitey would hurt his mom. He had to protect her.

“Billy, tell me now.” Owen Hayman demanded.

His father would be mad at her but he had no choice.

“Teacher,” Billy said. “Teacher did it.”

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