On his way the previous night to find a boarding house, Hunter had rolled through the Delta National Forest on the route road. With the sun setting over the plantations, the poplars and magnolias, he’d changed his mind about where he’d spend that night. The car spitting dust as he turned in the road, he drove back the way he’d come.
This was floodplain land, long stretches of flat green waste, pockets of lakes, the greenest trees in the country. There was nothing out here. ‘Perfect place for a Klan meet,’ he mumbled. A blue heron flapped out of the trees and over the plain. Cruising past the forest, Hunter watched it all the way to the horizon. A little further on, a track road ran into the forest. Turning off the main road, he travelled into the forest and made bed in his car for the night. Except for the wildlife and the wind through the trees, nothing stirred in the forest that night.
Pushing his hat from his face, Hunter awoke to a tap of steel on the window. Three men were standing beside his car, either side, staring at him through the windows. The one standing in front of the car was diminutive, peering over the bonnet from beneath his peaked cap and along the barrel of his rifle. Through the passenger side, Hunter could only see the midriff of another man moving alongside the car. In his thick hand, the rifle was pointing downward. The one who had tapped on the window, peering in at him, was lined deeply around the eyes, made deeper by the narrow eyes of malice. He was wearing a beard, with the moustache shaved. Hunter made to open his door; the man on the driver’s side nudged it closed with his knee. Hunter lowered the window.
‘What you doin’ out here, boy?’ the man asked. His trigger finger stroked along the steel guard. Hunter looked again at the one in front. He shifted slightly as Hunter moved, resettling his aim.
Hunter leaned back in his seat, put his hat on his head. ‘Sleepin’,’ he replied. ‘Just sleepin’.’
A hound jumped up at the passenger side, its feet clawing at the glass and slipping to the ground. It jumped again, caught hold of the frame. First a bark, then a growl. It was yanked away by the third figure, pacing beyond the passenger door. It bothered Hunter none. Wasn’t going to ever bother the owner of the vehicle either.
‘You been poachin’ in my woods, boy?’
Hunter turned to face the man by his door. ‘Let me out my car,’ he said.
The man laughed. He looked at the other two. Neither of the others joined him in laughter. Hunter pointed at the little man beyond the bonnet.
‘You wanna stop pointin’ that thing at me, son.’ He took a pinch of tobacco from his pocket, tucked it in his cheek. He thought of reaching for his pistol. It was beneath his backside. He measured the chance of reaching for it unseen. He weighed the quiet of the forest. Instead, tugging on his moustache, he smiled at the man beside his door. ‘Just let me out.’
The man’s smile disappeared. ‘You didn’t answer my question.’
‘Told you I was sleepin’.’ Hunter shrugged. The pistol dug into his flesh. ‘I was sleepin’.’
‘What else you doin’ in my woods?’
‘These here is your woods, huh?’ Hunter nodded. He ran a finger along his chin, a sound like sticks through gravel. ‘I was always of opinion that these was free for all an’ any soul.’
‘Not this part, it ain’t.’
‘I didn’t know. Now I know.’ Hunter adjusted his backside. The barrel of the pistol was beneath him, but the grip was freed, covered by his coat. He put his hand on the seat. ‘How’d you get you a piece of land such as this? I been thinkin’ about living just like you good ol’ boys for some time now.’
‘You bein’ smart with me?’ The man rested the barrel of his rifle on the open window. His finger stroked the trigger.
‘Ain’t bein’ smart with no one, boss.’ Hunter adjusted one last time. As he did, he pulled the pistol from beneath him, holding it down against the side of his seat. He cleared his throat. ‘Ain’t been doin’ no poachin’. Was just sleepin’, truly. Now. Just let me get out the car, stretch my legs, and I’ll be on my way.’
The man looked at each of his companions. Hunter looked at the lean waist of the one holding the dog, shirt tucked into his beige trousers; the thick arms. The rifle was removed from his open window. The man in front of the car seemed confused, as to whether he should also lower his rifle. The door was opened for Hunter.
His pistol remained in hand as he stepped from the car. He stretched out his shoulders, pointing the gun to the sky. ‘Don’t recommend sleepin’ in a ve-hicle over the night,’ he said. ‘Man!’ He wiggled his waist and reached over each shoulder, the pistol waving around. He rolled his head. He jumped, knees up, a few times. Without looking at any face, he slipped the pistol into the waist of his trousers.
‘So I told you what I was doin’: sleepin’,’ he said with a smile. ‘What are you ol’ boys doin’ out so early?’ He turned to look at the man on the other side of the car. He had long hair, a beard to match, salt and streaky pepper. There was nothing distinguishing to his features, save the scowling glare. Hunter nodded at him.
‘You can lower that now, Leo,’ the closer man said to the man at the front of the car. Leo’s feet continued to jitterbug. He didn’t seem keen to look Hunter in the eyes, not now that his sight was clear through the air, rather than along the length of the rifle. ‘What we doin’ out here is no business of yours, stranger,’ he said to Hunter. ‘Not like your business don’t mean nothin’ to us. See, we can’t just have folks walkin’ around in our business. ‘Specially if they stealin’ from our hunt stock.’
‘That’s what you doin’? Huntin’?’ Hunter asked.
The man shared a look with the man holding the dog on a leash. ‘Ain’t your business, but it’s about that, yeah.’ The man took a step closer the Hunter. ‘And you ain’t got no huntin’ gun there, stranger. So what is your business?’
‘Could say that I’m huntin’ too.’
‘Would that be bounty?’
The dog barked. Hunter heard the chain leash jangle. He looked over at the man on the far side of the car and nodded; smiled at the little one in front of the car. He pulled his coat tight. ‘That’s my business,’ he said into the eyes of the man standing next to him.