FOR THIRTY YEARS OR MORE, a black man people called Wavin Willie wandered the roads of Crockett County, Alabama, flapping an old burlap sack up and down, over his head. In the biting winds of January or under the roasting August sun he walked and flapped, sometimes mumbling, sometimes shouting, often silent but with an intense watchfulness. No one knew why, other than he was crazy.

He seemed to have a thing about children, and keeping them out of Hell's Back Forty, a cursed parcel of swamp and briar that was, legend has it, the haunt of a boogeyman named Rufus--a black man with a sack who snatched up children who wander away from their neglectful parents. A lot of people said Wavin Willie suffered from an identity disorder in which he thought he was Rufus. Others said he really was Rufus, and instructed their children never to go near him. But most knew he was from a respectable and prosperous family in Crockett. In his youth he had been a brilliant student with a promising future, and then schizophrenia put him on a different path.

Only once did Wavin Willie snatch a child. A little girl named Lizzie Crockett. They were found in an old, abandoned church on a seldom used dirt road. The Crocketts at first demanded Willie be prosecuted for kidnapping. But Lizzie would have none of it. They were friends, she said. He was protecting her from Rufus, she said. And so Wavin Willie was left free to continue his sack-flapping, prayer muttering, wandering ways.

No one ever found out what went on between them that day when she was six. But ever after, Lizzie and Willie seemed to share some mysterious bond, perhaps a secret, and not even her closest family and friends knew what it was.

One day when Lizzie was home with a two-year-old child of her own, a neighbor of hers noticed Wavin Willie out on the road nearby, acting unusually agitated. The woman ran a daycare in her home and became afraid for her children. She called 911. Chief Deputy Jake "the Snake" Boone, who had once arrested Willie King for a murder he did not commit, answered the call.

And then, what started with a viral video of police brutality became within a few short days a massacre known as the Rufus Rebellion.

WHEN CHET KIMBALL WAS THE SHERIFF OF CROCKETT COUNTY, he liked to stay involved in the community as a "civilian," and having been a track and field athlete in his youth, decided to start Crockett High's first serious 4x400 relay team.

There were three boys he had watched since elementary school--Horace King, AJ Crockett, and Charlie Hawk--who just so happened to be best friends and the fastest runners in their age group. In the summer before the eighth grade they added a fourth member to their little "tribe," a refugee from New York City named Cooper Benjamin. Coop's family had arrived in Crockett County by accident when their car broke down on their way to Florida, having fled the violence and bullying their boy had suffered in the big city.

"Coach Kimball" took a special pride in molding these boys into a formidable relay team, in part because of their fierce determination and competitiveness, but more so because of what he thought they could represent to the world: Four boys of quintessentially diverse American backgrounds--black, white, Indian, and Jew--with a natural friendship who could work together to achieve greatness. Four kids, from Alabama, no less, who would show the world how to overcome the 400 years of oppression and injustice with laughter in their hearts rather than chips on their shoulders.

As they went into their senior year, the team was aiming high: the state championship. But it wasn't until two radical lawyers moved to town that they realized their hope could be a reality. Abner Cole the third and Suzette Langtree were social justice warriors of the first rank, and they brought with them a troubled young man they were fostering from south Alabama named D'Mon Brown.

The "Trippentrees," as the boys called the lawyers, pressed Coach Kimball to give D'Mon a chance to make the team. He left it up to the boys, and so they decided to have a race. D'Mon won. In fact, without a shred of experience or training, D'Mon Brown was the fastest runner any of them had ever known. He would replace Coop, who, only by a step, was the slowest.

With D'Mon on board, the team was not only winning, it was breaking division records. But no one could have guessed the intensity of evil that smouldered in the heart of D'Mon Brown. Coach Kimball's dream of their being a symbol of reconciliation and redemption turned into a nightmare of sudden, unimaginable violence and a slow, tragic unraveling of the most beautiful friendship he had ever known.

And all because the boys told D'Mon the story of a local boogeyman named Rufus.

GROWING UP ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE OF MANHATTAN, Cooper Benjamin learned to use his unusual foot speed to run away from the bullies that tormented him in and out of school. But when he wound up in the emergency room, unconscious and with a broken orbital bone from an encounter with a player of the knockout game, his parents, Melvin and Millie Benjamin, packed up and moved the family South, with a "Florida or Bust" sign in the back window of their minivan.

They were heading for the panhandle when their car broke down in Crockett County, Alabama, a place Melvin thought was as close to the middle of nowhere as you could get east of the Mississippi. But they found a local man named Lamar Hawk to fix their car, and while he was working on it, Lamar's son Charlie invited "Coop" on a jaunt with him and his friends, AJ Crockett and Horace King.

Lamar had fixed the Benjamins' car by the time the boys got back that evening. But when Melvin said, "OK, hop in, let's go," Coop just stood there. He looked at his new friends and back at his mom and dad, and he said, "Y'all go. I'm gonna stay here." It just happened to be Coop's thirteenth birthday, and it was the first time in his entire life that he had used the word "y'all."

It didn't take more than that to convince Melvin and Millie to give Crockett County a try. At that time they were, as far as anyone knew, the only Jews in the county. But the way Charlie, AJ, and Horace welcomed him into their little tribe gave Coop a sense of belonging and camaraderie that turned his anxiety into confidence better and faster than any of his therapists back in New York ever came close to doing. Coop never missed a chance to gig frogs or shoot a rifle or eat grits and bacon or do anything that would burnish his country boy bonafides. But when the boys found how fast a runner he was, the die was cast. He was what they had been looking for: the fourth piece of the 4x400 relay team they had long dreamed of being.

But there was another reason Coop wanted to stay in Crockett County that day their car broke down.

Her name was Lizzie Crockett. She was AJ's 200-proof redneck big sister, and she was the most beautiful, sensual, beguiling creature he had ever laid eyes on. And when she gave him that wicked grin and winked at him, he thought it was the best bar mitzvah gift any Jew had ever gotten in the whole history of the world.

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