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Harlem like the rest of the city is made up of small enclaves, tribes if you will. The southern edge of the known world for him was 135th street. Lexington Avenue formed an uneasy border to the east, where Spanish and Jewish gangs were ever present; Amsterdam to the east formed a quiet boundary with the Irish who were small in number but who would never back down from a good fight.
And, then there was the northern edge at 145 Street. No one he knew was crazy enough to crossover alone. There had been bad blood between the two neighbors since he could remember. He had been there last year to witness one of the confrontations.
It had only resulted in name calling and soda bottles being hurled across the busy thoroughfare. Then the coppers arrived and everyone scattered. But, he had heard the stories of conflicts past where boys were killed: bludgeoned to death with a bat or slit open by a blade.
“Hey, what’s cookin’, Clayton,” asked Blue. “You did right pulling my coattail. Them Colonial Boys ain’t to be taken lightly. Thought we tag along to keep matters on the up and up. I know a few of them from Cooper High School up in the Bronx.
Glad to see you young bloods keeping the tradition alive. Sometimes we got to blow back their caps to let them know who they messin’ with. That little Todd and his bunch had no business boppin’ through our turf anyway. Now he gonna play for the intrusion. Is this your boy?”
Yeah, this hears Deacon; he’s the one I was telling you about,” said Clayton, beckoning to his friend. Deacon stepped forward portraying a brave face.
A few of the older boys started to chuckle. “I hope that he’s more hard boiled that he looks,” said Lil’ Danny Red,” turning to the others. “This is the one that going to fighting Todd. “Seems like a long walk for nothing,” Red joked, invoking more laughter. Clayton quickly stepped in, “no, he’s going to be fighting Spike, one of Todd’s gang.”
“I knew that kid,” said one of the boys that Deacon didn’t recognize. “He a real wild man and you think your friend can’t get the bulge on this cat. I don’t know. You friend looks like a pancake to me.”
“Oh yeah, my friend is more than ready, dig! Now, what we goin’ do fight, or stand around here jaw-jacking?” There were scattered nods and a few cheers and the group began to move north.
“Hi, young scholar, lend me your ear for a tick-tock.”
“I catch up to you,” said Deacon and he drifted away from the thong of boys and over to the newsstand.
“Come close to me, son,” said Pop, reaching out with his old but sturdy hand. “Is this something that you’re committed to,” young scholar, he said in a near whisper.
“Well, it’s not something that I can get around. It’s like one of those dilemmas. It might be bad now, but will only get worse if I don’t do this.”
“I understand. Lords knows I got myself mixed up in a few of them over the years,” Pop announced followed by a playful laugh.”
“Deacon, break a leg.” But, Deacon could hear his friend calling from the next block, Clayton’s voice displaying his impatience.
“I know you got to skedaddle, but there is one thing that you must remember, served me well in the past. The call of battle will summon the demon within. He will bring with him the burning fire of hell’s fury. And, you will need him. Just remember to stay in control of the fire, or you will perish in the flames.”
Deacon nodded, pretending to understand. Then he thanked Pop and ran to catch up with the others. He dismissed the sage words as the remnants of an old man’s life and he and more important things to occupy his mind with.
It was on the corner of 138th street that he caught up with his backing. When he arrived he was surprised to find Jade in a screaming match with Clayton and some of the other boys.
“Jade, Colonial Park is no place for you and Mandy,” Clayton pointed out loudly.
“If you don’t take us, I just march over to Deacons house and have a little talk with his mother. Get the picture, boys. Either we go, or nobody goes!” Jade stood firm, entwining her arm in Mandy’s who stood with a nervous look on her face.
“Look, little mamma, shouldn’t you two be home baking church pies with you mothers,” said Blue.
“Shouldn’t you be somewhere preparing to steal one, Blue? My sister gave me the lowdown on you.”
“Okay baby doll, but don’t come crying to me if things get out of hand and you get that pretty little face of yours messy.”
As the boys plus two began to move up the busy main street, it drew the interested stares of passerby’s. Blue ordered the crowd to cut across to Bradhurst in order to avoid the coopers or some noisy do-gooders. Deacon’s mood soured with Blue’s recommendation.
It put an end to Deacon’s hope that he might run into his father coming home from work or into Reverend Thompson. Running into either one would be an answer to his prayers. But, with the fading of his last flicker of hope, he was forced to face his predicament headlong.
He hadn’t had time to think. Everything happened so quickly. But, as they neared their destination, doubt about his own fighting prowess started to weigh on him. He hadn’t had a real fight in his whole life. The two incidents that Clayton had talked about were just shoving matches, no real knockdown, drag out scuffles. And, that’s what this was going to be.
Though best friends, he hated Clayton at the moment for his silver tongue and his ability to talk him in to anything. Bradhurst Avenue was a cemetery compared with 7th Avenue. As the passed the quiet tenements, rusty cans (old car), and caved in garbage cans, the mounting fear began to drain the life from his legs so that he could barely keep up. And, then there was the idea of Jade and Mandy seeing him get a shellacking.
No, I had to call this off, he thought. No, I can’t, anything is better than being taken for a twist. It was too late for entertaining thoughts of turning back, he was at the center of the whirlwind and just had to ride it and see where he came down.
Up ahead sat 145 Street and Bradhurst, and just beyond was the sprawling city park. The park was separated from the rows of tenements, cigar stores, storefronts by a wide cobblestone street. A phalanx of naked trees: there leafs long since fallen, stretched down park side accompanied by chain link fence a few inches above the ground. Angry clouds pushed across a pale winter sky, giving the place a foreboding emptiness.
The group paused at the corner waiting for the traffic to thin. Once across, they move to the heart of Colonial Park using a narrow walking path. The oasis of brown and stubborn patches of green took up ten city blocks. The park climbed into rock-strewn hills to the south with to an overhanging Sugar Hill Terrance staring down.
Pass several small structures and they entered onto the main field and found it deserted. Sunset was quickly approaching, and Deacon was beginning to see the white breath of his companions as a deep chill creep over the park. Seeing the field uninhabited led Deacon to entertain the thoughts of a forfeit. But, his hopes were quickly and dramatically dashed.
“Here they come,” someone cried out and all heads turned toward the large throng crossing the street. As they entered to the park, their numbers became discernable, enough to start Deacon’s heart to pounding against his ribcage. Gone was the chill, the clouds and the honking horn of nearby traffic. Even time was rendered idle.
“You give that Spike what for,” said Jade, pretending to box the air. “Do it for us, Deacon,” she said, turning to Deacon. “Do it for me!”
“You don’t have to go through with this, Deacon. They can’t make you fight. We can just turn around and go home,” suggested Mandy, her appeal instantly rebuffed by Blue.
“Let me handle this. You all wait here,” said Blue as he and his crew of three moved to meet the looming mob. There was some talking, although Deacon could only guess at what was being said.
Then, without a warning, the whole group moved toward him like a giant shadow about to swallow him. He felt Clayton tugging at his coat, as he was too engulfed by the pending menace to remove it. There he stood, the opulent buildings along the Terrance baring witness to his stupidity, wondering how such a small boy could make such a colossal mistake.
But, it wasn’t he who arranged it, it was Clayton. He had long since known that his friend’s envy at his success in school and the way Jade sometime made a fuss over him. Maybe, a shellacking in front of Jade was just what his friend wanted. And, he had fallen right into the trap. Deacon could see Todd occupying the front row and smiling as though he had a secret, more like a secret weapon.
As the group moved closer, they began to fan out revealing their exact numbers. They were outnumbered by about four to one. As the group loomed closer, Deacon began to sweat, even as he hadn’t thrown a punch. Blue and his counterpart called the two combatants into the breach. Finally, Deacon got a look at his opponent. Clayton had lied about his size.
One look at Spike and Deacon’s blood began to run thin. Spike’s face was a hard and dirty as the city streets. He clothes were little more than rags and his shoes were worn beyond their soles. In fact, the whole gathering resembled the hoards of homeless men sleeping in shacks by the river. Strangely, Deacon suddenly felt overdressed for the event.
“No weapons are allowed and keep this a fair fight,” said Blue. There’ll be no jumping in,” said one of the Colonial Boys.” Then the crowd exploded with a bloodcurdling roar and before Deacon knew it, Spike came bolting at him with the speed of a cheetah, his eyes pointed and fist clinched.
The first punch landed square on Deacon’s nose, catching his by surprise, and sending him tumbling backward to the ground. Before Deacon could shake off the blow, Spike was on him pounding with both hands. Even as his friends exalted him to get to his feet, he could do little but try and cover up.
Then Spike landed a hard kick to Deacon’s side, causing him to cry out in pain. The air rushed from his lungs and he felt the sky and the earth change places. Instead of finishing his off, Spike stood admiring his work, all the while taunting his helpless foe to make a fight of it.
As Deacon panned the faces of the crowd, he spotted Todd, his ugly mug twisted with hate and urging that his minion to finish the job. While his friend yelled for him to fight back, it was the picture of Mandy crying, her hand covering you mouth that fixed in his mind.
“Stop this. Someone has to stop this,” Mandy screamed.
“Get up, Deacon,” said Jade. “Deacon, he’s nothing but a little punk.”
“Look y’all, the schoolboy has brought his girlfriend,” Spike yelled to the crowd. Then Spike grabbed Jade and mashed his lips to hers, received a slew of light blows for his efforts. “And, she hit harder than him,” yelled Spike, playing to his supporters. Clayton then stepped in and pulled Jade clear.
Suddenly, Deacon was filled with a fury that had been hidden all his life. The pain that he felt was gone, and his legs felt reinvigorated. He climbed to his feet with fire in his eyes. Both boys circle one another as the outer circle tightened around them.
Deacon was boiling over with rage, take wide swings and missing badly. Two punches that Deacon received for his effort started blood to trickling from his nose and down his chin. Growing increasing frustrated and again starting to tire, he heard Pop’s voice: “control the fire.”
With that, Deacon flicked out a series of jabs, each finding its target. Remembering the boxing lessons his father had given him a small boy, Deacon went on the attack. The momentum was beginning to shift. Spike’s look changed from one of overconfidence to one of surprise. As the boys circled each other, Spike tried to reassert his dominate with a bull rush. Sidestepping the attack, Deacon landed his Sunday punch to the boy’s face sending him stumbling off-balance to the cold, hard dirt.
Deacon stood watching, his guard up high and his chest rising and falling in rapid fashion. Spike now appearing confused, looked to Todd for directions. Todd bolted from the crowd and yelled at his subordinate.
“One way or another you gonna finish off this soft-boiled schoolboy.” Todd reached into his coat and withdrew a blade with black tape forming a handle. After glancing over a Deacon, Todd tossed the blade at the feet of his beaten disciple.
“Get the girls out of here, Loveboy,” yell Deacon, his voice echoing off the gargantuan wall and cutting through cold crisp air. Loveboy had to wrestle with Jade to get her to leave, but was aided by Mandy who was bordering hysteria.
The sun had set by now and the face-off was carried out in the half-light. Spike slowly picked up the blade, giving it a long look. Then his eyes lifted from the weapon to meet Deacon’s eyes head on.
“Deacon, we got to get out of here,” cried Clayton, his interruption adding to the growing tension. Then Spike did something unexpected. He tossed the knife back at Todd. With that Spike walked dejected from the field of battle with Todd demanding him to return and fight.
“This is not over yet, schoolboy,” warned Todd, slowly closing the distance between he and Deacon. Todd’s eyes widened with anticipation of the kill. Blue stepped forward but was quickly discouraged when Todd to a wild swing in his direction. Deacon attempted to back up but, felt himself flush up against a wall of bodies. He could try and push through, but there wasn’t enough time. Todd was nearly on top of him.
Todd rushed at him, bladed hand raised high in the air. “This will teach you to keep your nose out of my business,” scolded Todd, his eyes filled with blood rage. But, before the blade had time to descend upon its target, a small body flashed into the clearing and tackled Todd hard to the ground. A silence waded in to calm the mob throng was caught by surprise.
In one mercuric move, Hannibal had drawn a knife of his own and waded into to Todd. As the two tumbled to the ground, Hannibal came out on top, his blade pressed to Todd’s throat, blood forming a slow trickle.
“Where I come from, you never pull a knife on someone without taking care to use it, Hannibal said, now in complete control. “Dat is where you messed up.”
“Hannibal, don’t,” cried Deacon. He isn’t worth it.
Hannibal gazed up looked up a Deacon, surprised by his plea for leniency. As the mob awaited the curtain of eternal night to fall on Todd, the sound of a whistle cut through the air like a shrill of a rusty door hinge through a dark and empty house.
“Beat it, it’s the coopers,” someone cried as the crowd dispersed away from the on-rushing uniforms armed with flailing Billy clubs and brass badges.
Risking his own capture, Deacon dashed to Hannibal’s side kneed down and whispered something so only Hannibal could hear. As he rose to his feet, Hannibal cursed his prisoner, delivered a hard kick to his side and bolted to north hills of the park.
In no time they caught up with Mooch and Clayton. Avoiding the walking path, the four made their way over the rocks until they reached gate leading g out onto Sugar Hill terrace. Once one the street, they scanned the neighborhood for the coppers.
In the weeks to come, news spread of Deacon’s brush with death in Colonial Park earning him somewhat of a local rep. In fact, kids in the hood had a new perception of all of them. By the time the story had circulated the neighbor, Deacon and his crew had faced down the whole of the Colonial Boys. Even some of the older boys were impressed, patting them on the backs as the passed the pool hall, or offering up a cool skin (palms) as they passed on the street.
But, it was Hannibal that everyone was talking about. One day a nobody they next day everyone knew the little dark boy with the big heart and even bigger knife.