RITE OF PASSAGE: Blood & Iron
Milton J. Davis
John Henry opened and closed his massive fists, giving relief to his wrists, which ached from the rusty, iron cuffs clamped around them.
He shuffled up the long hallway, his feet unable to move more than a half foot at a time due to the shackles on his ankles.
His four escorts – all clad in navy blue jackets, trousers and constabulary hats and spit-shined, black boots – were in stark contrast to his black and white striped prison uniform. All five men walked in silence toward the double doors at the end of the hall.
Upon reaching the doors, the escort at the head of the detail knocked.
“Enter,” a rich, tenor voice commanded.
The escort pushed the door open and then they all sauntered in.
John perused his surroundings. The gaslight chandelier cast dancing shadows upon the light green walls. A mahogany chest sat against the wall in the west corner. Atop the chest were several trophies featuring brass casts of pugilists or wrestlers standing on bases of cherry oak.
In the center of the room was a desk, which matched the chest. Behind the desk sat Victor Clemmons, Warden of Virginia’s James River State Penitentiary, smoking a meerschaum pipe carved in the image of a snarling hound.
“Prisoner number four-nine-seven to see you, sir!” The lead escort bellowed.
“Prisoner number four-ninety-seven…John William Henry, correct?” Warden Clemmons inquired.
“Yes, suh,” John Henry replied.
“Take a seat, son,” the Warden said, pointing toward the chair opposite his.
“Much obliged, suh,” John said, taking a seat.
The Warden smiled broadly. “How would you like to get out of here, John Henry…to feel the breeze on your face and to smell that Virginia dirt once more?”
“I’d like that very much, suh,” John said, his heart racing with excitement. “My appeal come through?”
“Your appeal?” Warden Clemmons said, tilting his head and squinting. “You’re still insisting that you didn’t rob that bank, boy?”
“I didn’t, suh,” John replied. “It was…”
“Sylvester Roper,” the Warden said, rolling his eyes.
“That’s right, suh,” John said.
“The inventor of the – what was it – the steam-powered pony?” Warden Clemmons asked.
Snickers escaped the lips of the escorts.
“He call it a motorcycle, suh,” John replied. “Mr. Roper robbed that bank ‘cause he needed money to build a motorcycle from steel instead of wood like the first one he built. I was Mr. Roper’s driver and I did all his heavy liftin’, too. When the law come callin’, he put the blame on me.”
“Well, no appeal has come through for you, John,” the Warden said. “However, Ican offer you a freedom of sorts.”
“Suh?” John inquired, leaning forward in his chair.
“The C and O Railway needs some boys with muscle to lay tracks and drive steel,” Warden Clemmons replied. “You’ve got more muscle on you than a prize bull and you’re stronger than any two of those other boys out there put together.”
The Warden took a long draw from his pipe and then blew the smoke toward the ceiling. “If you want, I can release you into the custody of the C and O. They’ll feed you, clothe you and even pay you two bits a week. So, what you say, John? You in, boy?”
John flexed his thick forearms. His fingers had gone numb and the tips of his toes were just as dead. “Yes, suh…I’m in.”
TO READ THIS STORY IN ITS ENTIRETY, PLEASE VISIT: http://chroniclesofharriet.wordpress.com/2012/06/07/rite-of-passage...