Chapter One

Willie Shorter’s office smelled like shit. Manure to be polite, horse manure to be specific. The odor drifted up from the deserted Morganton Livery Stable downstairs but Willie hardly noticed any more. The afternoon heat however, was inescapable. The black oscillating fan simply moved the heavy air around the room and Willie found it hard to stay awake. He pushed himself out of his rump-sprung chair, headed out the door and down the back stairs in search of a breeze.

“Villie! Come, come!” Sol Goldman urgently summoned him.

Willie walked across the street to Gold’s Mercantile where Sol stood beside a colored man wearing faded overalls.

“This is Mr. Cunningham. He’s a good customer, but he’s got himself some big trouble.” Sol looked at Cunningham and jerked his thumb toward Willie. “Tell him.”

Experience had taught Nelse Cunningham to avoid dealing with white men whenever he could, but Mr. Goldman had always treated him with respect, so he couldn’t very well refuse.

“Well Sir, Mr. Bull Rutledge, he hired me….”

“Harman Rutledge’s son?”

“Yes, Sir. You know him?”

“I know of him,” Willie said.

Sol looked disgusted. “Bad man, he would kick a dog just to hear him yowl. Go on, tell Villie vat he done.”

“Well Sir, he said he’d pay me $5 to clean out a couple’a acres back’a his house and I done it. Then he said I’d busted up part of his fence. Now he’s not gonna pay me. ‘Sides that, he’s gonna

take my mule to pay for the fence. How I’m gonna farm without that mule?”

“You are lawyer, Protector of Poor, Villie, so you help him, yeah?”

“Sure, I’ll help.”

Nelse shook his head. “I ‘ppreciate your help Mr. Goldman, but I ain’t got no money to buy a lawyer.”

Willie smiled. “Don’t worry about that, I’ll think of something.”

From the time he first opened his law office, Willie’s main thought was his political future. In gold letters he introduced himself to the world, “Willie Shorter, Attorney at Law. Protector of the Poor.”

How could he possibly say no? Willie had known men like Bull Rutledge and Nelse Cunningham all his life. And God knows he knew about being poor. He’d been born out of wedlock and by the time he was three, his 18-year-old mother, gave him to a widowed neighbor, climbed aboard a Greyhound bus and disappeared.

Aubrey Shorter was left with a skinny, silent child. Aubrey had a knack for saving lost, injured animals and Willie certainly looked the part. He carried the boy into the kitchen and pulled a chair up to the big wooden table. He padded the seat with a couple of Sears Roebuck catalogues and sat Willie on top. The boy watched as Aubrey mashed up some cornbread in pot likker and offered it to him. “Go ahead try it, Boy,” Aubrey said gently. “You’ll like it.”

That was the beginning. Aubrey not only gave Willie his first taste of real food, he also gave him comfort, a home and a last name.

Willie had come a long way in the intervening years. Although there wasn’t much legal business in a town like Morganton, he was slowly building a reputation by taking cases like Nelse’s, cases no one else wanted. Willie had big dreams. In his secret heart, he planned to be governor of the state someday and maybe even president. He hadn’t decided yet. He was only 29, so there was plenty of time.

Willie brought his attention back to Nelse’s predicament. Everybody in the area knew the Rutledges. The old man was mean as a snake and Bull was trying to live up to his father’s dubious expectations.

“Mr. Cunningham, you come by my office about 3:00 next Monday. I ought to be able to sort this out by then.”

Willie didn’t need a week to deal with the likes of Bull Rutledge, but it never hurt to let the client think you had expended a lot of time and effort on his part.

Right on the stroke of 3:00 Willie saw Nelse’s form through the frosted glass of his office door. The old man hesitated and Willie got up to open the door for him.

Nelse walked in slowly, took off his hat and looked around. There was no place to sit. Books, newspapers and boxes of legal papers covered every table, chair and desk in the room and a good portion of the floor as well. Willie transferred papers from two chairs to the top of his desk. Then he sat down and motioned for Nelse to sit opposite him.

“Make yourself comfortable. Hot enough for you?”

Nelse was not accustomed to making small talk with white folks, so he just nodded and waited for the younger man to continue.

Willie took a deep breath and smiled. This was the best part of his job…well the second best part. Matching wits with wise-asses who thought they could push people around was fun, but elaborating on the story afterward ran a close second.

“Mr. Cunningham, I reckon you’d like to know what happened.” Nelse nodded. “The first thing I did was to call Bull and tell him I wanted to talk to him here in my office. Well, of course he balked at that idea until I threatened to talk to him at his daddy’s office. He sure didn’t want that. When he showed up, I asked him if he had a contract for the work he hired you to do, something that laid out the terms of the agreement in writing.

“I was pretty sure he didn’t and when he admitted that, I started reeling him in. I carefully explained that since I had taken your case, he’d have to hire a lawyer too and that was going to cost a lot of money. Then I explained that when I got him on the stand… under oath …before a judge… at the courthouse… in front of all his friends… I was gonna ask for that contract. When he testified he didn’t have one, the judge would probably throw the whole thing out of court and he’d be stuck paying court costs.

“He was sweating bullets by that time. I let him suffer a minute, then I pointed out that ole mule was gonna cost him a whole lot more than it was worth. I also suggested that his daddy wasn’t gonna be impressed when he realized he’d be the one footing the bill for Bull’s foolishness. On top of all that, his friends were gonna have a good laugh at his expense.”

Nelse knew better than to interrupt a man in the middle of a yarn, so he waited.

“By then Bull was up pacing the floor, begging me to help him out. I took my time, but finally I admitted there might be a way to make the whole thing disappear. In order to keep it strictly legal, he’d need to pay me a consulting fee and then I would do my best to talk you out of taking him to court.

“I quoted him $25 and he started pulling money out of his pocket as fast as he could. He finally came up with $24.95 and I told him that would do.”

Nelse appreciated a good story as much as the next man, but he still hadn’t heard anything that would solve his problem.

Then Willie carefully laid three five-dollar bills on the desk. “I took the rest of the money as my fee, and this is your share.”

Nelse just stared at the money.

“Go on, take it. It’s yours.”

Carefully Nelse reached out his hand, took the bills, folded them one by one and pushed them deep into his overall pocket. “Mr. Shorter, I’m much obliged to you for gettin’ me all this money. I think I knows where I can get me another mule…”

“No, no, no!” Willie grinned from ear to ear. “You get to keep the mule free and clear.”

“I gets to keep the mule and the money?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Praise the Lord! My Misses been prayin’ for a miracle and it looks like you done made one sure enough.”

Nelse stood and Willie knew he was anxious to leave. At the door the old man turned, “Mr. Shorter, if there’s ever anything me or my family can do for you, you just let me know.”

Willie smiled. “You never know, Mr. Cunningham, you just never know.”

After Nelse left, Willie walked home to Miss Dorothy’s boardinghouse. An afternoon thunder storm had settled the dust and lowered the temperature slightly. All in all it had been a good day, but instead of feeling satisfied, Willie was restless.

After supper, he decided to get the car and go for a drive to cool off and clear his head. He left the boardinghouse through the back screen porch and walked to the end of the block where he parked his Model T Ford. That 13-year old car was his pride and joy. It was a two-door touring car, with a tan body, black fenders and a black canvas roof.

Under normal circumstances, Willie could never have afforded such a car, but he had won the Ford in a poker game. As a rule he wasn’t much good at poker, he could never keep a straight face. That night however, Lady Luck smiled on him and the fact that his opponent cheated, made the win that much sweeter.

As he drove along the gravel road leading out of Morganton, Willie thought about Nelse. Then he let his mind wander back to his days selling Peruna and Bibles on the back roads of Georgia with Uncle Aubrey. Between the 20 percent grain alcohol in Peruna and the solace offered by the Good Book, they brought a lot of comfort to their rural customers. Those years also taught Willie the value of a good story.

When Willie was 17, Uncle Aubrey passed away. The boy felt like a part of his body had been amputated; he was wounded and unbalanced. Gradually he healed, but even after all this time, the smell of collard greens and cornbread still hit an empty spot in Willie’s soul.

Don’t worry, Boy, I won’t ever be far away. Just keep listening, I’ll be here.

Initially Willie sold the remaining stock of Bibles and Peruna to another salesman and bummed around for a couple of years. He did odd jobs, lived in boardinghouses. He played cards and shot pool with men twice his age and learned about the ways of the world. The men he met bragged about their conquests and Willie also got a varied—if somewhat lopsided—education about women.

Until he met Hannah. She was a particularly helpful young widow who owned a boardinghouse where Willie lived for a summer. She took a special interest in his sexual education; smoothed out the rough edges and taught him the finer points of dealing with women. Willie smiled at the memory.

“I haven’t done so bad, Unk,” Willie said out loud, “Managed to get in and out of law school, mostly because of all the books you made me read and the savings you left. You told me to do some good, and I’m trying, but damn it, Unk, I’m just not moving fast enough.”

But he was making progress. One of the habits Willie picked up from Uncle Aubrey was reading as many daily newspapers as he could get his hands on. At the time, the south had very little industry and south Georgia had even less, but according to the New York Times, that was changing. The big cotton mill owners from New England knew high-grade cotton grew well in Georgia red clay and as unions took over up North, the mill owners turned to the ready, eager supply of cheap labor in the south. By 1920, much of the cotton mill industry had moved south, and with it came cotton mill injuries. That’s where Willie fit in. For several years he had taken workers’ cases no one else wanted.

Normally, when a serious injury occurred at a saw mill, paper mill, or textile mill, the company doctor took care of it and then the injured party was fired. Willie had been building his law practice winning small settlements and doing a little good for his fellow man in the process.

He took the mill owners to court. The judgments weren’t large and Willie took half of the settlement. Even so, his clients might end up with as much as $100. That was almost six month’s pay for most of them and a hell of a lot better than nothing. Because he didn’t ask for too much, the big employers weren’t too concerned and his clients were grateful. Willie made enough to pay the rent on his office and his room at Miss Dorothy’s boardinghouse.

What he needed now was something a little bit different, a little bit bigger; a case that would get him noticed throughout the state. Something to catch the attention of the big boys in high political places like Atlanta.



There were no children in Ford Crossing. From the time they were born, they were destined for life in Claxton Mill. The town just accepted the fact that on their tenth birthday, kids quit school and started working twelve-hour shifts, six days a week. Since this was south Georgia and the Bible Belt, God still insisted on Sunday as a day of rest.

Laine Becker was no exception. For all her 18 years, dull cotton fields with white cotton bolls growing on black stalks defined the boundaries of her life. Gravel-road dust painted everything tan. The hot Georgia sun sucked the color out of clothes hung out to dry, while it burned people brown. By the end of summer even the grass and trees looked faded. The only color—if it could be called that—was red Georgia clay. Just a little bright color was all she wanted. Was that too much to ask?

“Elaine Becker, don’t make me come in there. We gotta get the weedin’ done. Now get up!” Louise Becker yelled to her daughter from the back porch.

Slowly Laine swung her long legs over the side of the bed. Still wearing the old dress she slept in, she shuffled outside where Louise handed her a hoe and headed across the hard-packed dirt of the back yard to the garden. It was late April in south Georgia and the pre-dawn air was still cool, but as soon as the sun came up, the temperature would rise quickly. Laine started chopping weeds as she moved along the rows of tomatoes, squash, cucumber and pepper plants that were just coming up. Nearby, Louise looked for grub worms and crushed them underfoot. “Sonofabitch,” she hissed under her breath.

Laine smiled. If confronted, she knew her mother would deny ever saying such a thing. As much as she hated weeding, Laine knew how much her mother loved that garden and the small patch of zinnias, which were the only flowers hardy enough to survive in the heat and fight it out with the weeds without much help. The flowers in the garden were the only thing that set their house apart from every other house in town.

Like match boxes laid out in neat rows, mill houses for workers all looked alike. White washed, two rooms wide, a tin roof, a front screened porch supported by four-by-four posts, a small fenced in front yard. The front door opened directly into the living room, a narrow hallway gave access to the front bedroom where Jeb and Louise slept. The girls’ bedroom was in the back separated by the bathroom; the boys slept in the living room.

About 5:00 the two women stacked their hoes against the back porch. Louise went in to fix breakfast. “Better get in the bathroom while you got the chance.” Laine nodded.

“Mornin’ Lainie,” her dad said as he walked out of the bathroom and headed into the living room to wake up JW, his oldest son whose lanky body was sprawled on a roll-a-way bed. His younger boy, Bo, slept on the couch.

Although Jeb loved all his children, he had a soft spot for his first-born son. JW had been working in the mill nine years and was the hope of the family. He had a knack for mechanics; could just listen to a machine and know what was wrong with it. He was next in line to be a fulltime fixer, the best job in the mill. Fixers kept the machines running and without them the whole operation shut down. Even now while he was learning the job, JW made 10 cents an hour more than Jeb, who’d been working in the mill for 20 years. “Get up boys, time’s a wastin’.”

In the bathroom, Laine splashed water on her face, brushed her teeth, pulled on cotton underwear, a loose, faded dress and tied a kerchief over her hair. She stuffed her feet into a pair of shoes run down at the heels and went into the kitchen.

By the time she got there, Jeb and the boys were seated in mis-matched chairs crowded around the kitchen table with its faded oilcloth covering. The room was so small the icebox was kept on the back porch. Louise wouldn’t allow curtains because they blocked the air. Her one indulgence however, was to always have fresh flowers on the table. Zinnias when they were in bloom, wild flowers when nothing else was available.

The family gobbled down cold biscuits, coffee or milk. The shift started at 6:00 and anybody who was late stood a good chance of being fired. More workers than jobs meant the bosses had a never-ending supply ready to step in at a moment’s notice.

Jeb knew he was lucky to have his whole family working for Claxton. So far, they had avoided getting the common mill diseases and with all of them staying healthy, the Beckers just managed to get by.

Louise insisted her family eat a balanced diet and sent them to be examined every time the mobile clinic bus rolled into town. Standing up during 12-hour shifts, six days a week took its toll on even the young, strong ones. Laine knew people thought her mama was crazy cramming vegetables down her family and cleaning everything with lye soap or alcohol, but she understood. She’d seen too many of her friends and neighbors get pellagra or typhoid or TB. If somebody working for the mill got sick, they went to work anyway or got fired.

Breathing lint was an unavoidable part of millwork, but Louise did her best to protect her family from everything else. Everybody’s worst fear was getting injured at the mill. Humans were no match for fast-moving, spinning machines and limbs didn’t grow back.

The Beckers worked hard and were proud to be one of the few mill families who didn’t owe their souls to the company store. They tried to pay their bills on time and once in a while have a little left over.

Jeb and JW finished breakfast, grabbed their lunch pails and left for the mill. With practiced skill mother and daughter gave the dishes “a lick now and promise to do better later” as Louise always said. That done, they ran to catch up with their men. Bo left with them but headed in the other direction to Claxton Mill School. The school provided lunch for five cents a week. The big red brick building housed grades one through five. Since kids went into the mill at ten, there was no use for the higher grades.

At eight, Bo was too young for mill work, but he helped out earning a little extra money “haulin’ dinners.” He left school at 3:00 p.m., picked up lard cans full of food from Ole Miss Hattie and delivered them to the workers. He did the same thing at 6:00 and again at 9:00 p.m. While the workers ate, Bo watched over their machines. He couldn’t wait to go to work at Claxton Mill full time with the rest of the family.

Bo knew Laine would be upset when he quit school, because that would be the end of the free library books he brought home by the bag full for her to read. He made fun of her because she always had her nose in a book, but she just swatted him. “You may be plannin’ to spend all your life workin’ in the mill, but not me. Just because I had to quit school after fifth grade, don’t mean I’m not gonna get educated one way or another. I’m leavin’ this place just as soon as I can.”

Laine dreamed about leaving every morning as she make the short walk from the her house to Claxton. It lay like a big brown lizard along the banks of the Senoia River. Inside, the machines and the people were covered with gray fuzz. The dark wooden floors were seasoned with an oily compound that was supposed to keep the dust down. It didn’t.

Everybody worked standing up. Constant attention was required to spot broken threads quickly and tie them off immediately. The work was repetitive, boring and nerve racking. The huge room was always hot, the humidity kept high with mists of water sprayed from the ceiling to keep the static electricity down. It didn’t help much either.

On her first day at the mill, Laine was terrified by the ear-shattering noise, the whirling machines and the concentration it took to do her job and not loose a hand or an arm. For the first week, she went home every day with a splitting headache. Louise went out on the back porch, took the ice pick and chipped off a handful of shards from the block in the bottom of the icebox. She put them in a rag and held it to Laine’s head. “Hang in there, Baby, it’ll get better.”

It didn’t get better and Laine never accepted the fact that the mill was all life had in store for her. JW, however, genuinely enjoyed going to work. He finally showed his sister how to live with the noise. He taught her to listen to the rhythm of the room. She gradually came to see the whole thing as a huge dance floor where people and machines moved in and out together with prescribed steps and motions as elaborate as any cotillion.

Point, touch, turn, change, watch your partner, mind the rhythm, point, touch, turn, change. She listened and dreamed of real cotillions, with beautiful people in rainbow-colored gowns, who lived exciting lives far away from the dusty cotton mills of Georgia.  

The six o’clock whistle signaled the shift change and Laine caught a glimpse of her twin sisters Callie and Bessie as they headed home from working all night. The girls made as much as grown women by working the night shift. They would soon be sound asleep in the bed Laine had just vacated.

Bessie had hated to quit school, but she had no choice. The family needed the extra income to keep going. Callie, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to get out of school and start work. She knew the town kids called her a lint-head but she didn’t care. Her life centered on Claxton Mill, the mill town and the mill families. She took things one day at a time and squeezed as much fun out of life as she could.

Once inside the mill, the Becker family split up to go to their assigned jobs. As she walked down the line of machines, Laine felt the heat closing in and knew that by the time her shift was up, she’d be covered in lint and sweat that flowed from the kerchief covering her hair into her eyes and ran from her arm pits down her sides.

The supervisor told JW to start filling batteries, the wheel-like contraptions that held a number of spindles of thread that fed the looms. It wasn’t his normal job, usually beginners did that. However, he did what he was told.

The deafening clatter of the machines pressed down on Laine’s shoulders, but she hardly noticed any more. The lint particles, which everyone breathed, swayed and danced in the rays of sun that came in through the high windows. The rhythm and the noise stayed at a steady roar. The heartbeat of the mill was as constant as the air in Ford Crossing.

High above the floor, a tiny sparrow sailed in through one of the open windows. It disturbed the dust and the light and distracted one of the dancers. JW glanced up for just an instant as he leaned over one of the whirring machines. As if irritated by his lack of attention, his spinning partner grabbed his right hand and pulled him into her metal embrace. He screamed in pain.

Although the clanking noise in the cavernous room became second nature to the workers, a human scream cut through all the mechanical clatter and buried itself in the heart of every person on the floor.

Louise heard it first. She’d heard it before. So had most of the old-timers and they knew what it meant. It took Laine a split second longer to realize what had happened. Instinctively she looked to where her mother and father worked and saw each of them looking back at her. She breathed a sigh of relief.

Then she heard a second scream and realized it was her mother. But Louise wasn’t hurt; Laine could see both her arms and she was running, running toward the far side of the building. Then she saw her father run in the same direction.

Instantly she thought, “JW! It must be JW. He didn’t work in one place; he went wherever he was needed. But it couldn’t be him. He couldn’t be hurt. He was too quick, too strong, too steady.”

Only family members left their machines to investigate when somebody got injured. Everybody else kept working. Veterans had seen enough in their time. They had no curiosity left.

As Laine ran down the center aisle, she saw people’s eyes. Sorrowful, starring, resigned. Just as she saw her mother’s back and her father kneeling over a body on the floor, the shift supervisor caught her. Although he did his best to hold her, she wrestled loose and caught a glimpse of JW as her father and three other men lifted him onto a stretcher. Her brother’s arm was bloody up to his shoulder, his face pale, his teeth clinched against the pain.

She tried to follow him through the aisles, but hands kept holding her back. In the background she could hear the supervisor yelling for everyone to mind their business and keep working.

“I have to get to him…”

“Leave him alone, Child.”

“Let the men handle it.”

“There’s nothing you can do.”

“It’s in God’s hands now.”

She pulled away from the workers holding her. “That’s my brother. I’ve got to get to him….” Things started to close in and Laine saw her mother’s stricken face just before the world went black.  



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