It sure was a beautiful night for a hunt, Robert thought, glad his father had finally realized he was old enough. He’d heard the older boys and men talk about hunting for so long, it had started to seem as if he’d never be included, never get the chance to be a man. He’d told all his friends, and anybody else who would listen, that he was going tonight, that he was finally going to run with the Dog Boys. Mama wasn’t happy but he was too old for her to hold back, too nearly a man now, and not her baby any longer. She’d cried, in fact, but he’d pretended not to notice. She was a woman, she didn’t understand.
Robert’s footsteps sounded sharp in the shadowed forest, his boots breaking down into dead leaves and snapping back low brush as he hurried to keep up, to follow. All the sounds seemed stark in the darkness, as bright and clear as visions. The far off cry of owls and things unseen, the whining of hounds as they whuffled at the ground, paws scrabbling in eagerness, in anticipation; their low slung bodies pulled forward by their snorting noses. The men were further back, silent now but for the occasional curse, heavy men breathing hard, liquor on their breath, longing for a smoke but keeping up, as anxious as their animals.
A branch, yanked up by the boy in front of him, slapped back hard into Robert’s chest but he didn’t grumble. The scent was clean, fresh, and the dogs were good. Rifles slung low, the men followed behind. Ahead, their young legs leaping over rocks and sidestepping fallen trees, boys gripped tethers strained taut as the dogs chased after the scent they’d been given.
Robert breathed deep, loving it, this running through the California night, flying, free as the four winds and part of the pack. The boys and their dogs, patiently trained but summer lazy, unwilling to move fast, until they got the scent. The smell of fear, a whiff of danger, and they’d be off, the older men trailing behind. Like now, like tonight, running under the full western moon, pale plump pumpkin up in a field of stars. White moon, long shadows. Crackle of leaves.
Whines escaped the dogs’ mouths almost without them realizing, whimpers of desire, of anxious joy. The men and boys felt it too, felt a palpable presence, the prey’s heat calling to them all, reeling them in, drawing them close. Robert felt the pull, felt his heart ache for success, the end of the chase, for the primal hunter straddling the bison, lifting his head and keening his kill to the heavens. Conquering death in his moment of triumph. This day, the hunter did not die.
The shivering thrill racing through Robert’s body, as he gasped for breath in the humid woods, echoed back down the ages. Hunter victorious, his kill on the ground. And the sound of the dogs was a rhythm his young body knew better than he did, an ancient imperative, their lungs and hearts all straining together towards victory. The sweat under his armpits was something the old bison hunter would have understood too, and how fear drives you forward when you run with the tribe, a man among men.
Somewhere behind him, his father and the other men picked their way more carefully, stopping occasionally for a smoke; when their gnarled hands would cup light, hiding it from the darkness. Smoke rising up, wreathing above them. A bottle would change hands. Then, far off, ahead, the dogs would break out yelping, unable to contain themselves, and the men would start forward again, pulled back by the sound, by the wild feeling in the wind.
Robert was the youngest boy hunting tonight, barely old enough, face smooth but heart thrumming a song of manhood, of childhood discarded and things unimagined. The world of men. And the world of men began with rites like this one, men and boys hunting in the night, baying with the dogs at the moon. He felt his heart would burst open, ripe as a melon, spilling his happiness out onto the ground like seeds. He was one of them, he was a man now, no matter what Mama said. Robert’s gone a’hunting. Daddy’s little man.
The leather lead cut into his hand where he’d wrapped it tight, the way the other boys showed him. It hurt, but that didn’t matter, he’d sooner die than complain. Tonight was something special, the men had told him, tonight he’d be blooded; after tonight, he could be proud. His father’s eyes had followed him as he’d walked away to join the other boys; Robert had felt the gaze on his back like heat. He wasn’t going to disappoint his father. He’d done enough of that already.
Robert swallowed hard, tripping over a ditch and regaining his stride awkwardly, feeling the dog’s momentum yanking at the sinews of his shoulder, making the muscle burn. Brambles tore at his pants legs; sharp edged leaves and branches caught his exposed skin here and there, tracing light cuts, almost delicate, that ignited where sweat met the scratches. Robert wiped the moisture from his forehead with the back of his free hand. He squinted ahead, unable to see much but counting on the dog, on the wet nose snuffling in the dirt.
All at once, they broke out of the trees, into a meadow, houses dotting the far edges with lit windows. It was suddenly easier to breathe. But then the dogs howled and picked up the pace, drawing the boys through the grass like anchors, dragging in the wake of powerful ships. As they pulled away from the tree line, Robert heard men breaking noisily through, huffing and straining to follow.
There was a movement between the houses and the far trees, something shadowed that sent a wriggle through all the dogs, communicating itself up through the leads to the boys, who whooped and called back to the men behind them. Almost as one, they charged ahead, bringing up reserves of strength. One deep voice yelled out something unintelligible, a premature but heartfelt shout of triumph, as they all sailed across the pasture, an ungainly flotilla of panting, heaving bodies, moving forward as one.
The noise seemed to break harshly onto the clearing, and the lights in the windows went out, one by one, until the houses were no longer visible in the shadows. The men were closer now, their ragged breathing louder, and their acrid smell of sweat joining the lighter tang of the boys themselves, all of it layered over with the strong scent of dog. The movement ahead seemed silent, something dark, crouched and running through the grasses, a strange and fast shadow.
But it was no shadow. The dogs knew, and so the boys knew, and thus the men knew, all smelling victory in the air, tasting it on their lolling tongues. There was a babble of voices, and a single sharp command. The lead Dog Boy whistled his signal and the four older boys ahead of Robert dropped their tethers, freeing the biggest dogs to bound forward, thrashing through the whipping grass, whining and exuberant, toward their prey.
Robert’s heart hammered against his chest, thrumming time, his blood beating drums that filled his head, dizzying him with excitement. This was hunting! He ran with his dog now, close on its heels, the other boys alongside him. He was among them, he was of them, the men pulling up closer, gaining now that the end was here, heaving chests and aching legs were nothing, had no place in the equation as the whole surged forward.
The four freed dogs, just ahead, came to an abrupt halt, snarling and snapping; the ones behind, maddened with desire, urged the last spurt of speed from their boys then they, too, stopped. The dog Robert held sat back hard on his haunches, as Robert nearly fell over him, and gave a deep baying howl. The other dogs joined him, canine voices lifting up to the moon, a joyous cry, an eerie sound of triumph. The men thrust themselves through the boys and dogs.
“Get them nigger dogs back.” said one man, unidentifiable in the dark.
“Light the lantern,” said another one, “We gotta make sure, gotta know what we got here.” There were murmurs of agreement from the men, as the boys were pushed back from the center, back from the lead dogs and what they’d brought down. There was a snicking sound, a brief smell of sulphur, then light glared out from the glass of a hurricane lamp, shadows moving across faces as it swung in the hand that held it.
After the dark, it seemed brighter than it should be, piercing through the mass of people to light the occasional face or form Robert could recognize. Another lantern was lit, and then another. The moon seemed dimmer in the closer brightness, the manmade light shrinking the pasture down to the garish circle it defined, where bodies were moving, restless, hunters catching their breath as they took in the scene.
“Over here, Jonah.” said a tall man that Robert didn’t recognize. A lantern moved closer to him, and Robert saw that his father carried it, then held it aloft as he reached the other man’s side. His father nudged something at their feet, something that Robert couldn’t see in the press, anxious as he was to know what they’d brought down, the thrill still singing through his blood. Another man, Mr. Harris, the portly man who owned the San Jose feed store, joined them, his face red and slick from his exertions.
“Well?” Mr. Harris asked. Robert’s father kicked out, harder this time. The dogs hushed as, one by one, they finished their sounds; wolf-like, primal, they unloaded the burden of their success with their voices. The boys’ breathing had slowed, their bodies calming as they looked towards the men, most of whom were silent, their eyes gleaming where the light struck them, making them appear to be wolves themselves as they focused on the heap at their feet. The staring men struck Robert as strange, and it cooled his heartbeat. He couldn’t look away. There was an odd feel to the air, an odd smell above the scent of sweating men and blown dogs, and undercurrent of fear that he couldn’t understand. The hunt was over, right?
Robert saw his father lean down and grasp something, pulling it up with him, raising the trophy.
“That him?” He heard his father’s voice ask, harsh and loud in the quiet circle of light. Robert stood stiff, struck solid with shock, for the thing in his father’s hand was no animal, no fox or deer or cat. It was a boy, not much older than Robert. He was held up by his collar, his face shiny with sweat. The whites of his eyes as he rolled them back and forth, fearfully, helplessly, in panic, were a stark contrast to his dark skin.
Robert stared at that face, rooted to the spot. The silence around him seemed ethereal, a frightening magic, as if all the others were struck dumb, too, caught in the spell of that frightened young face in the circle of men. That couldn’t be, couldn’t possibly be, thought Robert, his brain churning for coherent thought. A hunt. A hunt with the Dog Boys, out with the men. His mother, crying. His father’s eyes as he’d taken up his dog’s lead. Robert couldn’t move his eyes from the dark boy’s face just ahead.
The boy’s eyes were closed and he was crying, sobbing without sound, the tears and sweat mixing on his smooth cheeks. The men didn’t notice, conferring among themselves as the Dog Boys watched, the hounds at their feet. Robert couldn’t make out the boy’s features, what with the crying and the taste of fear in the air. The boy dangled from his father’s grip.
“Well, Bill? That him or not?” His father asked impatiently. The other man hesitated, and then nodded.
“Yeah, that’s him. He’s the one she said did it, I know that boy. I seen that boy around town.” At this, the men seemed to exhale collectively, relaxing; shoulders and tongues loosening, and the chatter began again, but low, purposeful. Robert’s father released the boy’s shirt, and then conspicuously wiped his hand on his pants leg. Someone laughed. Another man cupped his hands around a cigarette, lighting it gently, carefully. The boy’s sobs were inaudible, his very self was invisible, as he knelt under the ring of white faces. The hurricane lamps closed them into a private world of light and shadow, a separate place, inviolate, an island adrift.
Robert stood straight, watching, his feet planted beside the dog who’d led him here, whose leash, and eagerness, had left deep marks on the palm of his right hand. The pain seemed unreal, unconnected with his actual body. He remembered fairy stories when he was small, stories where the hero could disappear by wishing it, willing himself elsewhere, and it would become true. They were just stories.
Just then, the boy looked up, his brown face shiny with fear and tears, and opened his eyes. He looked around slowly, carefully, as if in a daze, at the white faces that surrounded him, at the men who stood over him. He looked at the boys standing behind them, young men watching him with hard faces, laughing behind their hands, conspiratorial, keeping boyhood secrets in the world of men. His eyes moved over them all, and finally to Robert, then widened. If he gasped, Robert didn’t hear it.
“John?” Robert whispered, his voice rough, low, as if unwilling to leave his throat. Those dark eyes stared into his blue ones but there was no expression in them, they seemed empty. Dead eyes. The boy looked away without changing expression.
“I got it here, you’ all let me through.” The men moved aside as Mr. Harris came forward, a coiled object held high. The boys tittered, then went silent, a dozen pair of young eyes on the rope. The dogs watched quietly, knowing the outcome of a hunt. Robert swallowed hard.
“Johnny?” Robert asked, his voice suddenly loud in the quiet, and several men turned to stare at him. He saw his father frown, saw those ice eyes and shivered, but forced out more words.
“Daddy, that’s John, you know John, he used to--” Robert said, raising his voice and wincing when it broke, going higher than he’d intended.
“What’s he saying?” Mr. Harris asked his father, who shook his head, anger making a clenched line of his jaw.
“Nothing. You were right; he’s too young to hunt with us. I shoulda left him with his Mama tonight.” His father’s harsh voice said, as he finally looking away from his son. The other boys laughed, and the one beside him pushed, making him fall against the dog. He scrambled to his feet. This was a dream. This was not how it was supposed to be, not tonight.
The men lifted the boy, pulling him up by his shirt and dragging him across the pasture, bringing the lanterns with them, moving the circle nearer the trees. The boys and dogs all followed, watchful, expectant, taut as piano wire, waiting. Eager. Ready to howl at the moon. There was blood in the air, they could taste it.
Robert shoved past the others, pushing them aside, careless of their reactions, as they all followed the island of light. The group stopped at the first tree, an oak, tall in the ground, smooth up for the first eight feet, then splitting off a branch. One of the men tossed the coil through that fork and began tying it off. As the other men passed the bottle, one of the older boys made a grab for it, and the men laughed indulgently. The men under the tree began cutting off clothes with a knife. There was a sound of tearing fabric. Some of the watching boys giggled and leaned in for a closer look.
“Johnny!” Robert’s voice was louder now, surer, and carried over the others. The men grumbled, angry, turning to look at him again, and then back at his father, helping to put the rope where it belonged. The boy’s face was a blank; his eyes saw nothing. His tall, thin body was naked but he didn’t seem aware of it. He moved loose in the men’s hands like a rag doll.
“Somebody take that boy of mine home to his Mama.” His father’s voice cut through the insults and laughter around him. Robert pushed against the men in front of him and one turned, grabbing him tight by the arms. He struggled uselessly against the larger man, but then, overwhelmed with what he was trying not to feel, he went limp in the man’s hands.
“Johnny.” Robert said again, but like a prayer, a plea in an empty room, and it was barely audible.
“Shut up,” the man growled, “Don’t you think we know what we’re doing? What the hell’d you come for, if you couldn’t take it? Now be a man and watch, that’s what you’re here for, boy.”
Robert heard Mr. Harris tell them to get ready to kick it out from under him. Kick what? He shuddered; the man’s fingers bit into the flesh of his arms. He could smell whiskey breath and rank sweat. The silence was thick, heavy, like fog in the night. The hunters leaned forward, not breathing, eyes gleaming in the lantern light.
“Ready?” Mr. Harris asked, his voice booming out, loud and laced with satisfaction.
The man spoke in Robert’s ear. “You watch now, boy, and you remember.”
But Robert closed his eyes.
It sure was a beautiful night for a hunt.
Lynching of John Holmes, November 26, 1933
San Jose, California
This photo appeared in the morning edition of the San Jose
newspaper. The city fathers were sufficiently offended by
the nude male figure on the front page that they had the
entire edition confiscated.
Photo and notes from:
Without Sanctuary photo collection by James Allen
Visit his website at: http://www.westernpicker.com/WS/main.html