D'MON BROWN WAS BORN IN AFRICATOWN, a community near Mobile that was begun by people smuggled into Alabama in 1860 on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to deliver human cargo to this country. His mother was a prostitute, a drug addict, and, according to some, a witch. She named her son D'Mon because she believed his father was the devil.
When he was five or six, his mother's pimp tied him up in a sack and threw him off a bridge into the Alabama River. He would have drowned had a man on a passing barge tug not fished him out of the water. He always remembered what the man on the tug said when he called the police: "Somebody threw a kid off the bridge again."
After that, D'Mon was in and out of the foster care system, now and again back with his mother on occasions when she tried to get clean. Mostly, he grew up on the streets of Africatown and Mobile, an unschooled criminal, twisted of mind and fleet of foot. He had committed hundreds of crimes, large and small, but it wasn't until he sought revenge against the pimp that he faced hard time in the system. Lucky for him, a couple of radical lawyers got him out and petitioned to foster him until he reached majority.
And so Abner Cole III and Suzette Langtree took D'Mon to rural Crockett County, to an old, abandoned stone church they had bought and refurbished on the edge of a swamp that locals called "Hell's Back Forty." They enrolled him in Crockett High School and prevailed upon the coach of the track team, who was also the county sheriff, to find a place for D'Mon on the team.
Thus, D'Mon joined AJ Crockett, Charlie Hawk, and Horace King on Crockett High's 4x400 relay team. Already a formidable force in Alabama track and field, the Crockett team became championship contenders with D'Mon running anchor. He had never before so much as laced up track shoes, but he was the fastest and most natural runner the boys had ever met.
But D'Mon and Horace didn't get along. Though they were both black, they were as different as night and day: one, an illiterate inner-city thug, the other, a high-achieving intellectual, aiming to be an engineer. Horace had been the anchor until D'Mon came along. One day at practice before the state finals, a dropped baton. Each blamed the other. They got into a fight. The coach told the four of them to go do something together to reclaim their team spirit and chemistry.
So they went on a hunting trip into the swamp of Hell's Back Forty. After it was all over, D'Mon went to prison for a double murder and the others, friends since childhood, kept running--from each other, from their beloved old coach, from the hope he thought they symbolized, but mostly from a sound they could hear at night: the sound of a baby crying in the sack of a boogeyman named Rufus.