“So you got a guilty conscience and came back,” said Teece.
“No, sir, I just brought the bicycle.”
“What’s wrong, couldn’t get it on the rocket?”
“That wasn’t it, sir.”
“Don’t tell me what it was! Get off, you’re not goin’ to steal my property!” He gave the boy a push. The bicycle fell. “Get inside and start cleaning the brass.”
“Beg pardon?” The boy’s eyes widened.
“You heard what I said. There’s guns need unpacking there, and a crate of nails just come from Natchez—“
“And a box of hammers need fixin’—“
“Mr. Teece, sir?”
“You still standin’ there!” Teece glared.
“Mr. Teece, you don’t mind I take the day off,” he said apologetically.
“And tomorrow and day after tomorrow and the day after the day after that,” said Teece.
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
“You should be afraid, boy. Come here.” He marched the boy across the porch and drew a paper out of a desk. “Remember this?”
“It’s your workin’ paper. You signed it, there’s your X right there, ain’t it? Answer me.”
“I didn’t sign that, Mr. Teece.” The boy trembled. “Anyone can make an X.”
“Listen to this, Silly. Contract: ‘I will work for Mr. Samuel Teece two years, starting July 15, 2001, and if intending to leave will give four weeks’ notice and continue working until my position is filled.’ There.” Teece slapped the paper, his eyes glittering. “You cause trouble, we’ll take it to court.”
“I can’t do that,” wailed the boy, tears starting to roll down his face, “If I don’t go today, I don’t go.”
“I know just how you feel, Silly; yes, sir, I sympathize with you, boy. But we’ll treat you good and give you good food, boy. Now you just get inside and start working and forget all about that nonsense, eh, Silly? Sure.” Teece grinned and patted the boy’s shoulder.
The boy turned and looked at the old men sitting on the porch. He could hardly see now for his tears. “Maybe—maybe one of these gentlemen here … ” The men looked up in the hot, uneasy shadows, looking first at the boy and then at Teece.
“You meanin’ to say you think a white man should take your place, boy?” asked Teece coldly.
Grandpa Quartermain took his red hands off his knees. He looked out at the horizon thoughtfully and said, “Teece, what about me?”
“I’ll take Silly’s job.”
The porch was silent.
Teece balanced himself in the air. “Grandpa,” he said warningly.
“Let the boy go. I’ll clean the brass.”
“Would you, would you, really?” Silly ran over to Grandpa, laughing, tears on his cheeks, unbelieving.
“Grandpa,” said Teece, “keep your damn trap outa this.”
“Give the kid a break, Teece.”
Teece walked over and seized the boy’s arm. “He’s mine. I’m lockin’ him in the back room until tonight.”
“Don’t, Mr. Teece!”
The boy began to sob now. His crying filled the air of the porch. His eyes were tight. Far down the street an old tin Ford was choking along, approaching, a last load of colored people in it. “Here comes my family, Mr. Teece, oh please, please, oh God, please!”
“Teece,” said one of the other men on the porch, getting up, “let him go.”
Another man rose also. “That goes for me too.”
“And me,” said another.
“What’s the use?” The men all talked now. “Cut it out, Teece.”
“Let him go.”
Teece felt for his gun in his pocket. He saw the men’s faces. He took his hand away and left the gun in his pocket and said, “So that’s how it is?”
“That’s how it is,” someone said.
Teece let the boy go. “All right. Get out.” He jerked his hand back in the store. “But I hope you don’t think you’re gonna leave any trash behind to clutter my store.”
“You clean everything outa your shed in back; burn it.”
Silly shook his head. “I’ll take it with.”
“They won’t let you put it on that damn rocket.”
“I’ll take it with,” insisted the boy softly.
He rushed back through the hardware store. There were sounds of sweeping and cleaning out, and a moment later he appeared, his hands full of tops and marbles and old dusty kites and junk collected through the years. Just then the old tin Ford drove up and Silly climbed in and the door slammed. Teece stood on the porch with a bitter smile. “What you goin’ to do up there?”