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Fiction #231
(published June 16, 2005)
Nine Mile Post
by Patsy Covington
They were fighting again up by the highway. Andree snuck out the back door to go watch.

Nine Mile Post isn't a town. It's a point on the highway that's exactly nine miles from the center of the city. It got its name back during the Civil War era. A road turns off the highway at the point and dead ends at a bayou about a quarter mile from the highway. There's only one way in or out.

All the houses on the strip were built during the Second World War. One man owned them all. His name was Luther Banks—a big man, over six feet tall, and he was dark, and he never smiled. Andree stayed away from him. Her mother had told her to.

Luther demanded his rent on time and he watched the narrow entrance off the highway from his house which towered over the area. Even the giant oaks around his house seemed to loom watchfully over the other smaller cabins along the strip with their gnarled and dying cypress trees. Nobody ever came or went that Luther didn't see them.

Andree had been afraid of Luther ever since they'd moved to the strip. She heard him speak disrespectfully to her Cajun father on that day, and had noted how her father had lowered his head and called Luther, Sir. But one day when she was six years old, the school bus dropped her off on the highway, and she fell and got gravel embedded into her knees. Blood ran down her legs into her socks and shoes. She didn't want anybody who might be looking to see her cry so she bit her lip and blinked back the tears.

There was an outside faucet attached to Luther's house. She went to the faucet and turned it on a little bit to wash the blood off her knees. Luther came outside and frowned at her. She quickly turned the faucet off and started to leave, afraid to look at him. But his big dark hands caught her arm. He wasn't rough. He sat her down on the grass next to his house, took a big handkerchief out of his back pocket, and wet it under the faucet. He gently dabbed at her knees until he'd cleaned the gravel and dirt out. Then he told her to sit still while he went inside. When he came out he put something on her cuts that stung but he rubbed really hard around the scrapes first to deaden the area. Then he put a huge bandage on each knee. His voice was soft as he lifted her to her feet. "There, that oughta fix you. You gotta be careful about running on gravel." She went home and put on a pair of jeans and never told anybody about Luther. She sensed her mother would fret about it.

Making her way behind the houses up toward the highway, Andree felt the tension before she got to the fight. A crowd of people had gathered around. Andree had never seen grown men fight but she'd heard about Luther beating other men down who had tried to sneak their belongings out in the middle of the night without paying the rent. Sometimes the men ended up in the hospital. Andree had heard her mother worrying about a man down the street who hadn't paid his rent in two months. There were rumors about him sneaking out some night soon. Neighbors had donated what they could but it wasn't enough. Her mother had shaken her head in disapproval. "It's brutal. Like animals. Grown men—no better than dogs." But her father had said, "Pete won't sneak out. If he has to do it, he'll do it in the daylight like a man."

The tone of her father's voice put a chill down Andree's spine. Her mother said, "You stay out of it. You got kids of your own." She said it quietly, but almost as if her teeth were set hard and her words had to escape by force.

When she reached Luther's house, Andree squirmed her way to the inner circle of the crowd until she found a place to watch. Luther stood in front of Pete's old pickup. The truck was loaded with all his furniture. Pete's wife and two little girls were in the front seat with him.

Luther kicked the front of the truck. "Get out and face me like a man!"

Pete reached under his car seat and pulled out a pistol. His wife gathered the two little girls close to her and buried her face in their hair.

Luther didn't move. "You better shoot me now you son of a bitch 'cause you ain't gonna get another chance."

People around Andree gasped and moved back. She was rooted in place—scared but fascinated. Pete's wife had cancer and she was dying. They were from West Virginia where there were no jobs. They'd come to Louisiana to work but the aluminum plant he worked at had shut down. Andree had heard her mother talking to a neighbor about it. The neighbors' collections had been enough for Mr. Pete to take his wife back home to her family.

Andree's eyes were fastened on Pete's hand. It shook as he pointed the gun at Luther. Luther walked around to Pete's door, yanked it open, and took the gun from him and threw it into the bushes by the road. Then he pulled Pete out of the truck and said, "Gimme me my money now and I'll let you go."

"I ain't got enough to pay you and get my wife and kids back home too. I told you that," Pete said.

"That's your lie, not mine. You give it to me or I'll take from you."

Pete just stood there.

"Be a God damned man and hand me the money so I don't have to take it from you!"

Pete reached into his back pocket and got his wallet out and handed Luther the money. Then he hit Luther with his fist and smashed Luther's nose.

Luther stood dazed for a minute, wiped his nose with his hand, and looked at the blood. Then he walked over to a woodpile at the edge of his yard and picked up a piece of stove wood that had splinters in it.

A man in the crowd said, "That ain't fair, Luther."

Luther tossed the stove wood to Pete, who caught it with his right hand and shifted it in his hand to get a better grip. Then Luther got another piece of stove wood and the two men circled each other for a minute before Luther struck the first blow. They fought all over the road. Luther's face had rock and gravel embedded in it the same way Andree's knee had that day.

It went on for a long time. Each man was beaten and bleeding when it finally stopped and Pete got into his truck and sat there, defeated. Andree gasped and moved back into the crowd when she saw her father step up in front of Pete's truck. He bent down and picked up the stove wood Pete had dropped.

"Try me now," he said to Luther.

"I ain't got no beef with you, man. Mind your business."

"I reckon I'm makin' it my business. This man ain't got the money to take his dying wife back home. You livin' in that fine house . . . A man ought to have compassion."

"I got my own bills to pay. If I listened to every lie I'm told—"

"He ain't lying."

Luther stood quiet for a moment. Blood ran down his face. Andree wanted to get a wet rag and give it to him clean his face but she was afraid to move.

She watched the fire wood in her father's hand, fearing that he'd hit Luther with it.

Other people in the crowd started talking about how her father was right. "Pete's wife's gotta go back home, Luther. Give'im his money back," one man said.

Luther looked at Pete's wife and went around to her side of the truck. He gave her the money and said, "It's for you. I ain't got no use for a man who don't take care of his family."

Andree watched Pete's face as he jammed the truck into gear and drove away. She stumbled blindly into her back yard and sat down behind the pump house and didn't go inside until she heard her mother calling for her at dark.

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