Chapter 23

The only Jew in Clanton was Mr. Harvey Kohn, a dapper little man who'd been selling shoes and handbags to ladies for decades. His store was on the square, next door to the Sullivan law firm, in a row of buildings he'd bought during the Depression. He was a widower and his children had fled Clanton after high school. Once a month Mr. Kohn drove to Tupelo to worship in the nearest synagogue.

Kohn's Shoes aimed at the higher end of the market, which was tricky in a small town like Clanton. The few wealthy ladies in town preferred shopping in Memphis, where they could pay higher prices and talk about it back home. To make his shoes attractive, Mr. Kohn put shockingly high prices on them, then slashed them with deep discounts. The local ladies could then throw out any price they wanted when they showed off their latest purchases.

He ran the store himself, opening early and staying late, usually with the help of a part-time student. Two years before I arrived in Clanton he hired a sixteen-year-old black kid named Sam Ruffin to unpack inventory, move stock, clean the place, answer the phone. Sam proved to be bright and industrious. He was courteous, mannerly, well dressed, and before long he could be trusted to run the store while Mr. Kohn went home every day at precisely eleven forty-five for a quick lunch and a long nap.

A lady by the name of Iris Durant dropped in around noon one day and found Sam all alone. Iris was forty-one years old, the mother of two teenage boys, one in Sam's class at Clanton High. She was mildly attractive, liked to flirt and wear mini-skirts, and usually selected shoes from Mr. Kohn's more exotic inventory. She tried about two dozen varieties, bought nothing, and took her time about it. Sam knew his products and was very careful with her feet.

She was back the next day, same time, shorter skirt, heavier makeup. Barefoot, she seduced Sam on Mr. Kohn's desk in his small office just behind the cash register. Thus began a torrid affair that would change both their lives.

Several times a week, Iris went shoe shopping. Sam found a more comfortable spot upstairs on an old sofa. He would lock the store for fifteen minutes, turn off the lights, and dash up.

Iris's husband was a sergeant in the Mississippi Highway Patrol. Alarmed at the number of new shoes in her closet, he became suspicious. Suspicion had been a way of life with Iris.

He hired Harry Rex to investigate. A Cub Scout could've caught the lovers. Three straight days she walked into Kohn's at the same time; three straight days Sam quickly locked the front door, eyes darting in all directions; three straight days the lights went off, etc. On the fourth day, Harry Rex and Rafe sneaked in the back of the store. They heard noises upstairs. Rafe barged into the love nest and in five seconds gathered enough evidence to send both of them packing.

Mr. Kohn fired Sam an hour later. Harry Rex filed the divorce that afternoon. Iris was later admitted to the hospital with cuts, abrasions, and a broken nose. Her husband beat her with his fists until she was unconscious. After dark, three uniformed state troopers knocked on the door of Sam's home in Lowtown. They explained to his parents that he was wanted by the police in connection with some vague embezzling charge at Kohn's. If convicted he could be sentenced to twenty years in prison. They also told them, off the record of course, that Sam had been caught having sex with a white lady, another man's wife, and there was a contract on his head. Five thousand bucks.

Iris left town disgraced, divorced, without her children, and afraid to return.

I had heard different versions of Sam's story. It was old gossip by the time I arrived in Clanton, but it was still sensational enough to find its way into many conversations. In the South, it was not unusual for white men to keep black mistresses, but Sam's was the first documented case of a white woman crossing the color line in Clanton.

Baggy had been the one to tell me the story. Harry Rex had confirmed much of it.

Miss Callie refused to talk about it. Sam was her youngest, and he couldn't come home. He had fled, dropped out of high school, and spent the past two years living off his brothers and sisters. Now he was calling me.

I went to the courthouse and dug through drawers of old files. I found no record of an indictment against Sam Ruffin. I asked Sheriff Coley if he had an outstanding warrant. He dodged the question and wanted to know why I was poking around in such an old case. I asked him if Sam would be arrested if he came home. Again, no direct answer. "Be careful, Mr. Traynor," he warned, but would not elaborate.

I went to Harry Rex and asked about the now legendary contract on Sam's head. He described his client, Sergeant Durant, as a former Marine, an expert marksman with any number of weapons, a career cop, a hothead who was horribly embarrassed by Iris's indiscretion, and who felt the only honorable way out was to kill her lover. He had thought about killing her, but didn't want to go to prison. He felt safer killing a black kid. A Ford County jury would be more sympathetic.

"And he wants to do it himself," Harry Rex explained. "That way he can save the five grand."

He enjoyed delivering such dire news to me, but he did admit that he hadn't seen his client in a year and a half, and he wasn't sure if Mr. Durant hadn't already remarried.

* * *

Thursday at noon we settled down at the table on the porch and thanked the Lord for the delicious meal we were about to receive. Esau was at work.

As the garden ripened in late summer, we had enjoyed many vegetarian lunches. Red and yellow tomatoes, cucumbers and onions in vinegar, butter beans, snap beans, peas, okra, squash, boiled potatoes, corn on the cob, and always hot corn bread. Now, as the air was cooler and the leaves were turning, Miss Callie was preparing heartier dishes - duck stew, lamb stew, chili, red beans and rice with pork sausage, and the old standby, pot roast.

The meal that day was chicken and dumplings. I was eating slowly, something she had encouraged me to do. I was half through when I said, "Sam called me, Miss Callie."

She paused and swallowed, then said, "How is he?"

"He's fine. He wants to come home this Christmas, said everybody else was coming back, and he wants to be here."

"Do you know where he is?" she asked.

"Do you?"


"He's in Memphis. We're supposed to meet tomorrow, up there."

"Why are you meeting with Sam?" She seemed very suspicious of my involvement.

"He wants me to help him. Max and Bobby told him about our friendship. He said he thinks I'm a white person who can be trusted."

"It could be dangerous," she said.

"For who?"

"Both of you."

Her doctor was concerned about her weight. At times she was too, but not always. With particularly heavy dishes, like stews and dumplings, she took small portions and ate slowly. The news of Sam gave her a reason to stop eating altogether. She folded her napkin and began talking.

* * *

Sam left Clanton in the middle of the night on a Greyhound bus headed for Memphis. He called Callie and Esau when he arrived there. The next day a friend drove up with some money and clothing. As the story about Iris broke fast around town, Callie and Esau were convinced their youngest son was about to be murdered by the cops. Highway patrol cars eased by their house at all hours of the day and night. There were anonymous phone calls with threats and abusive language.

Mr. Kohn filed some papers in court. A hearing date came and went without Sam's appearance. Miss Callie never saw an official indictment, but then she wasn't sure what one looked like.

Memphis seemed too close, so Sam drifted to Milwaukee where he hid with Bobby for a few months. For two years now, he had drifted from one sibling to the next, always traveling at night, always afraid that he was about to be caught. The older Ruffin children called home often and wrote once a week, but they were afraid to mention Sam. Someone might be listening.

"He was wrong to get involved with a woman like that," Miss Callie said, sipping tea. I had effectively ruined her lunch, but not mine. "But he was so young. He didn't chase her."

* * *

The next day I became the unofficial go-between for Sam Ruffin and his parents.

We met in a coffee shop in a shopping mall in south Memphis. From somewhere in the distance, he watched me wait for thirty minutes before he popped in from nowhere and sat across from me. Two years on the run had taught him a few tricks.

His youthful face was showing the strain of life on the lam. Out of habit, he continually looked right and left. He tried mightily to hold eye contact, but he could do it only for a few seconds. Not surprisingly, he was soft-spoken, articulate, very polite. And quite thankful that I had been willing to step forward and explore the possibility of helping him.

He thanked me for the courtesies and friendship I'd shown his mother. Bobby in Milwaukee had shown him the Times stories. We talked about his siblings, his movements from UCLA to Duke, then to Toledo, then to Grinnell in Iowa. He couldn't live like that much longer. He was desperate for a resolution to the mess at home so he could get on with a normal life. He finished high school in Milwaukee, and planned eventually to go to law school. But he couldn't do it living like a fugitive.

"There's a fair amount of pressure on me, you know," he said. "Seven brothers and sisters, seven PhD's."

I described my fruitless search for an indictment, my inquiries to Sheriff Coley, and my conversation with Harry Rex about Mr. Durant's current mood. Sam thanked me profusely for this information, and for my willingness to get involved.

"There's no threat of being arrested," I assured him. "There is, however, the threat of catching a bullet."

"I'd rather be arrested," he said.

"Me too."

"He's a very scary man," Sam said of Mr. Durant. A story followed, one in which I did not get all the details. Seems as though Iris was now living in Memphis. Sam kept in touch. She had told him some horrible things about her ex-husband and her two teenaged boys and the threats they'd made against her. She was not welcome anywhere in Ford County. Her life might be in danger too. The boys repeatedly said they hated her and never wanted to see her again.

She was a broken woman who was racked with guilt and suffering a nervous breakdown.

"And it's my fault," Sam said. "I was raised better."

Our meeting lasted an hour, and we promised to get together in a couple of weeks. He handed me two thick letters he'd written to his parents, and we said good-bye. He disappeared in a crowd of shoppers and I couldn't help but ask myself where an eighteen-year-old kid hides? How does he travel, move around? How does he survive day to day? And Sam was not some street kid who'd learned to live by his wits and fists.

* * *

I told Harry Rex about our meeting in Memphis. My lofty goal was to somehow convince Mr. Durant to leave Sam alone.

Since I was living under the assumption that my name was on a not-so-favored list somewhere on Padgitt Island, I had no desire to have it added to another list. I swore Harry Rex to secrecy, and had no trouble believing he would protect my role as the intermediary.

Sam would agree to leave Ford County, to finish high school up North, then stay there for college and probably for the rest of his life. The kid simply wanted to be able to see his parents, to have short visits in Clanton, and to be able to live without looking over his shoulder.

Harry Rex didn't care, nor did he want to get involved. He promised to relay the message to Mr. Durant, but he wasn't optimistic it would get a sympathetic ear. "He's a nasty sumbitch," he said more than once.