Hunter had garnered little information about his prey from the vengeful Englishman. But there was something about that name Helland that scratched at him. He’d heard it spoke before. Somewhere. Within the itch, he couldn’t recall the who or the when. Most of his life was spent on the road. When it was on the ground he was a ghost in the shadows. He had no friends, few acquaintances, no one to call upon. But in his search for the new target he wasn’t quite restricted by all of the points of the compass. The Englishman had told Hunter that he’d done a little digging for himself. Most importantly that the last direction that Helland had been seen pointing in was Rolling Fork in Sharkey County.
It seemed that this man Helland had a past of living by his own laws, even when employed by The Law. Busted from his job as a small town deputy for murdering the Englishman’s daddy, he’d been sent to Parchman. Rather than allow it to be a demotion, Helland had used his new role to torment anyone under his control: torturing for fun; killing when the fun was done. By the sound, Helland had loved his new role. Hunter knew well enough how the taste of blood on a tongue was apt to create an appetite. Folks believed that it took a certain type of man to be that way, but that wasn’t the truth. It just came more naturally to some.
Riding through just another Mississippi town where the cemetery was the most populated site, with nothing but a few streets of houses and a road running through it, he decided to stop. He wasn’t yet sure what he would do when he arrived in Rolling Fork. A man from out of town come to ask questions was sure to set tongues a’blazin’. By what he knew of the man, Helland was not a man who would take to questions being asked about him.
Hunter pulled up his vehicle in the dusty street. An old boy sitting out in the forecourt of the one-pump gas station watched him leave the car, walk over the porch and through the doors of Blue Front Cafe. Country blues was playing on the juke. Pairs of bright white eyes in black faces turned to peer at the vagabond in the door. Hunter’s head turned slow, meeting each pair. ‘Negra town,’ he muttered. Helland, he had been told, was a man full of hate, malice and racial aggression. No way that he would be found here. But Hunter was, and he was thirsty.
He walked towards the bar, each step watched. The man behind the rickety table that served as a counter slung the dishcloth he was holding over his shoulder. Gravity had taken his cheeks and shoulders; scleritis his eyes: red and yellow.
‘Help you?’ he asked.
‘Gotta beer?’ Hunter asked, looking at the row of bottles above the man’s shoulder.
‘You gonna take an’ git?’
Hunter peeled a pair of dollars from the roll that the Englishman had given to him: his advance of a quarter, plus expenses. ‘I give you this pair, you give me a pair an’ I’ll slide.’ The old man stared at the paper money, and then at Hunter’s face. Hunter cocked his head. ‘Well?’
The old man shuffled to the shelf, reached on his toes and pulled down two bottles of beer. Hunter tossed the bills on the counter. The old man quickly swiped them into the front pocket of his apron. ‘Go on now and git,’ he said.
‘Glad for your ‘quaintance.’ Hunter picked the two bottles up in one hand, chiming them. He grinned at the faces, still watching, ‘Boys,’ and left.
Leaning against the wall of the Blue Front, Hunter popped the cap of the bottle on his belt buckle. The old boy across the street continued to play the game of Stare. With time to kill and fundamentals to process, Hunter was happy to compete. Defeated, the old boy found his way into the gas station. Dipping his hand into his pocket, Hunter slipped a pinch of tobacco into his mouth. As he sipped at the beer, the sun on his face, the sound of the blues drifted to Hunter through the open window of the café. It was followed by voices.
‘You think he Klan?’ a gruff voice said.
‘Nah’n,’ another replied. ‘Had him a weapon at his side. He n’t of pay. He’a just shot n’ then git.’ That brought laughter, broken with staccato coughing.
‘They ain’t call theyself Klan round here no mo’,’ the voice that Hunter recognised as the old man who sold him the beer. ‘They goin’ by The Knights of the White Camellia again. Like in daddy’s day.’ Hunter leaned his head closer to the window. ‘They come over the Louis’ana border, I hear. Roll right through here on they way to the Delta Forest, recruitin’ up they some locals, gettin’ together to do some badness.’
Hunter looked back down the naked road that he driven in on. The one that stretched all the way to the Delta Forest. A bunch of men down that way “gettin’ together to do some badness”. He asked his gut what it thought about that.