Ray Elliott knocked the policeman down and rolled him across the floor until he beat out the flames. He was under an all-out attack on a scale he had never witnessed. A series of bottle bombs were assailing the courthouse in Sherman, Texas. The two men moved into a more interior room better, shielded from the onslaught.
The policeman said, “Captain.” He trailed off, words failing the officer. Ray Elliott nodded, releasing the man from the obligation to comment further.
Ray Elliott pushed a note in the man’s shirt pocket. “I need you to get to a telephone and call Colonel McGee in Dallas. The information is in the note.”
The policeman said, “I can’t leave y’all—”
Ray Elliott yelled, “You’re not leaving anybody. You’re going to get past the mob and get us some help.” Ray Elliott slapped the man’s shoulder and then tore off into the bowels of the courthouse.
Even breathing was difficult for the policeman laying in the floor. His clothes were drenched in gasoline from what were known as poor man’s grenades. He reached into his pocket and read the note.
The mob will overtake us soon. I have been ordered not to fire on the crowd under any circumstances. I recently convinced the governor to activate your unit. I intend to lock myself and the prisoner in the records vault.
Captain Ray Elliott
Ray Elliott was short of breath. He hadn’t run any distance in a number of years, and even getting down the hallway was a chore. He burst into the County Clerk’s office. Two sheriff’s deputies were there with the prisoner.
Ray Elliott shoved the inmate into the records vault, and the deputies helped him swing the door shut and locked. The vault room was about thirty-by-thirty with a ten-foot ceiling. There were shelves and shelves of bound volumes and a chest high desk holding stacks of documents clipped together and sorted into different groups.
The prisoner asked Ray Elliott. “Are you sure there is enough air in here?” The two men collapsed on different sides of the room, leaning against the bookcases.
The corners of Ray Elliott’s mouth moved upward. He laughed, under his breath at first. Then he couldn’t help himself.
The prisoner said, “Call me crazy. You white people are the crazy people. Whole country out there trying to get in here and lynch me and you laughing.”
Ray Elliott composed himself. “I haven’t studied on the air. I been figuring on how long it would take to get through those hinges with an acetylene rig or whether more likely they will dynamite us.”
“Why are you helping me?”
Ray Elliott dropped the magazine from his Colt 1911. He began pulling shells from his pockets. Firing over the crowd’s heads had not produced the intended effect. His prisoner tired of awaiting a response and looked at the wall.
“Prisoners don’t get lynched on my watch, not while I’m the law.” After Ray Elliott holstered his pistol, he lifted a weathered Winchester lever-action rifle.
“Not what the deputies said about you.” The remark drew a harsh gaze from Ray Elliott, prompting the prisoner to soften it. “I don’t know for myself and you have done me a good turn. I don’t want to seem like I’m ungrateful. You could have let them have me. You haven’t even asked if I’m guilty. My name is George Hughes.”
Ray Elliott looked as if he would laugh, yet he only sported a thin smile. “I know your name.”
“So, you think they will get an acetylene torch and cut through the door.”
Ray Elliott answered, “Hopefully, because otherwise they will blast it off and there is no way to know how much dynamite it would take. Doesn’t matter much anyway, because I guarantee you, they will use too much.”
George Hughes smiled. “I understand what you found funny.”
There were a series of dull thuds against the door and what were probably voices shouting that were barely audible in the vault. George Hughes asked, “Do they have torches?”
“Rest easy. It’s too soon. They are likely beating the hinges with sledge hammers. We still got time.”
“Time for what?”
Ray Elliott was puzzled, “I don’t know.” The words surprised him, yet they were undeniably true. No way guardsmen would reach him in time, even if everything went right. He knew in law enforcement, especially in a crisis, there was little which went right. The governor might change his mind on calling out the guard. The soldiers might get beat back by the mob, especially if ordered not to fire. Logistical concerns might delay the national guardsman. There were a thousand reasons they couldn’t make it in time while only the thinnest sliver of hope.
Then a thought struck him as even worse. What if the soldiers fired into the crowd? It was an unfit comparison, but still his mind jumped to school book pictures of the Boston Massacre. He looked at George Hughes. Was he worth it? Was a rapist worth killing some hot-headed farmers? Ray Elliott remembered when he would have spent his life farming.
Until the day he crossed paths with Dock Baxter, any other life never occurred to him. He knew what it was to be a farmer; how precarious an existence living on the difference between rainfall and a late frost was. Hardest of all, he remembered, was the work scrabbling through the rocky soil of East Texas.
Most of the farmers were scared and willing to follow anyone pressing for action, showing out for other men or their own wives. Some of them wanted no more than the distraction of a day away from the hopelessness of the Great Depression in one of the hardest hit sections of the poorest region in the nation—the Deep South.
Even the elements favored a mob. Unusually heavy rain prohibited field work. Hence, there was a large concentration of idle people in town. Ray Elliott didn’t need thirty years in law enforcement to identify such circumstances as a fertile seedbed for wickedness. Many times impromptu courts of racial intolerance replaced the legitimate criminal justice system.
The foul system of racial laws was an older form of governance, existing in most places prior to the arrival of courthouses and lawyers. The tenants of the practice had been necessary to keep an ancient labor system from collapsing of its own inherent wickedness.
It was a disgraceful and insidious holdover from a time when slavery was considered in the South as indispensable as soil, water, and sunshine to King Cotton. The entire process was marked by an overhanging fear; a horror so foul it dares not be confronted, only forever avoided at all costs—the sheer terror of righteous judgment at the hands of the oppressed. The antithesis of loving your neighbor as yourself.
Ray Elliott was lost in deep thought when he was startled by the memory of waking in the jail cell in Oklahoma so many years ago. A look revealed George Hughes had urinated down the leg of his overalls. Ray Elliott assumed the additional foul stench revealed George Hughes had soiled himself as well.
George Hughes said, “You hear. No more hammers. Means they giving up, right? Or the soldier boys are here, right?”
George Hughes’s countenance fell when Ray Elliott pointed out what he believed was far more likely. “The acetylene rig is here. We don’t have too much longer now.”
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