Before reaching the end of the narrow track Hunter noticed that a truck was following through the dust kicking up from the tyres of his bumpy ride. Peering through the window, he saw that the road he was driving on was a raised bank dissecting the terrain. If he tried, all he’d get was stuck. Better suited to the outback land than his car, the truck was steaming along behind him. ‘Well Goddamn,’ he said. There was only one way, so he continued forward.
The track led around the side of the barn. Through the breaks in the cladding, Hunter could see bodies moving around inside, shadows in the sketchy light. When he pulled the Plymouth round back, other cars were already parked on the flat land. The occupants of the truck and the car that he’d seen in town were disembarking, closing their doors behind them. Hunter pulled up behind the car and killed the engine. All the faces turned; no one paid a second look.
Hunter remained in his car, the sun creeping down beyond the far away trees, firing the burnt-colour wood of the barn to red. The truck pulled up behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he recognised the three good ol’ boys from the forest. There was only one way that he could deal with this situation that he had landed himself in. After checking that his revolver was in his pocket, he stepped out of the car.
‘Howdy, boys,’ he said, tipping back his hat. ‘Didn’t expect to see you out here.’ He plucked a finger of tobacco from his pouch and slipped it in his mouth.
The two taller men walked towards him. The smaller man, who had been standing with a levelled rifle pointing at him – Leo, he remembered the man calling him – looked from each to the other. They seemed to be unarmed. Hunter made a show of readjusting his pistol. The one with the long hair, who had been with dog on leash, looked over Hunter’s car. The main man stopped in front of Hunter. ‘Fuck you doin’ here?’ he said.
Hunter spat out a line of tobacco, smiled at the man. ‘Hear me that there’s a meet goin’ on out here tonight. Been lookin’ for The Knights for a whiles, to join with. Without knowin’ ya, seems that I found ya.’
The man looked at his companions. His head swung back towards Hunter. ‘How d’you hear that, city boy?’
‘Y’ask the right folks the right questions then you tend to find the right answers.’
‘So who’d you arkse these questions?’ The man’s eyes were narrow as the clouds, lit under by the last of the sun.
‘Didn’t ask the name, boss. Wasn’t that that needed the knowin’, just the place to be.’ Hunter sucked on the tobacco, spat the rest out. ‘This is the place to be?’ Silence and a hard stare answered him. ‘Say, didn’t get your name, neither. All y’all’s names. ‘Cept for little Leo here.’ Hunter winked at Leo. Leo’s mouth opened and closed like an angry fish on a dusty bank, his feet dancing from side to side.
‘That don’t need knowin’ either,’ the man replied, a trace of humour, or something like, picking at the corner of his mouth. ‘You said that you was huntin’. So tell me now, what’s your prey then, hunter?’
‘Maybe the same thing as you, I’m guessin’, seein’ as all us boys find ourselves out here now.’ Sucking his lips, the man slowly began to nod. ‘But even if you ain’t exchangin’ y’all names with me, you just gone done guessed mine. By name and by nature,’ he said with a smile, flicking the rim of his hat.
Hunter followed the three men around the far side of the barn and in through the open doorway, the doors missing. Inside, other men were gathered in posses, leaning against straw bales. They were all dressed in much the same way: denim pants, heavy jackets, Stetsons and cowboy boots. Dressed like hunters. Even with the looks shooting towards the new face, Hunter blended in like swamp weed to dark water. Staying on the fringes, he listened in to the conversations. Eyes would trip his way, either including him or appraising him. When he was asked where he came from, he’d answer the same each time: ‘From the city.’ Down this way that meant Jackson, without further question. With the range that he imagined these local boys had most likely travelled in their lives, Hunter guessed that they wouldn’t have common acquaintances.
‘An’ what made you wanna join in with The Knights?’
‘Well,’ Hunter would reply, thumbs tucked in behind the waistband of his pants, the heels of his boots at ninety degrees to each other, cocksure and blending, ‘daddy was a confederate an’ his daddy before him, an’ back beyond. So I was just brung up in the way that any good confederate boy should be. If ever I have a boy of my own, he’ll be just like his daddy, too.’
The Knights that Hunter met were whoopers and hollerers, especially receptive to anything that resembled racism. His response to their outpourings of vitriolic hatred was muted – they seemed not to have the wit to recognise that his expression of contempt was anything more than the countenance of the rough-looking new fella. They were just wild dogs, small town boys such as these. The alpha begins a chase, the others follow. Promise them a bone and they’ll gnash their fangs. Throw the bone and they’ll demonstrate just how feral they are. They might be family men, some, but they were pack dogs first.
Hunter regretted not bringing beers for his stakeout. He’d not foreseen actually joining in with the Knights; not that night. There were a few bottles of moonshine being passed around. He took a few slugs, when offered. The State of Mississippi was something else. Out of state he could go into a bar and get some of the good stuff. The contents of the bottles being passed around tasted like it had been brewed in a trough before the swill had been washed out.
Slipping from one group to the next, Hunter studied the faces. Not one looked like they had ever been in the employ of The Law. None looked as if they’d ever washed in anything more than a bucket. Each man smelled the same as the next: of dry stale sweat; of dirt and earth. Each probably with only the set of clothes that they were wearing; all bought at the same store in town.
What Hunter had stumbled upon was not what he’d imagined at all. If this was some kind of organisation preparing an uprising, they were pretty damn short on the organising. Just as he was about to find his friend who had no name to offer him, so that he could move his truck and Hunter could get the hell on his way to somewhere useful, someone that Hunter had not yet met moved into the centre of the barn.
He watched the way that the man walked. Head down, rim of his hat facing the dirt floor. He was tall; his long and straight legs seemed not to bend as he stepped forward. Different to the rest, he was wearing a leather jacket, short at the waist of his khaki pants. His hands were in his pockets, walking head down as if searching for a key lost on the floor. Beneath his hat, also leather, his hair was shorter than the most of them, scruffy beneath the rim, mid-length. As he skulked, the man kicked at the dirt with the pointed toe of his boot. In the dim shadows in which the man was standing, Hunter could not see his face. Until he looked up.
The man scoured the groups standing around and shooting the shit. His eyes were raptor-like, picking his prey. Hunter saw his eyebrow twitch, something uncontrollable, desperate to escape. Hunter hadn’t noticed that he was carrying a shotgun until he began to raise it. As he stripped the faces of the men with his glare, his eyes locked on Hunter, staring back at him. The man might have had a few days of beard growth, but that didn’t hide the deep pockmarks in the leathery face. Pulling thumbs out from behind his belt, instinctively Hunter made to reach for his pistol. He managed to stop his hand, instead rubbed his stomach as the eyes of the former sergeant of Parchman Farm Penitentiary, the fugitive, his quarry, continued around the barn.
Helland fired the shotgun into the roof of the barn, scattering roosting birds, showering one group of White Knights with rotten debris. Splintered parts of the ceiling continued to rain as dust.
‘Hey, buddy,’ one of the men in the group said, looking at the fallen parts of roof on the floor around him. He was the tallest in that group. One that Hunter had met. An alpha. ‘What the hell you think you doin’, new boy?’ Helland was striding stiffly towards the man. ‘Ain’t no way that you – Hey.’ The man lifted his hands, defensive, warding off. ‘Hey!’
Helland smashed the stock of the shotgun into the man’s face. Hunter saw the burst of blood. The other men in the group stepped backward. Following the man down, dropping down to his knees, Helland pressed the level barrel of the shotgun across the man’s throat. Easing his weight down. On the floor, the man was squirming; his feet kicking up dirt. His hands grappled with the shotgun, trying to pry it away from his throat. Helland pressed down harder.
‘Hey, man,’ another of the group began. Don’t you think – ?’
Shotgun in hand, Helland sprung up. He pointed the shotgun into the man’s face, less than a hand span away. ‘Don’t I think: what?’
Stepping quickly back, the second man also raised his hands. ‘Nuh-nuthin. Nuthin’.’
‘By . . . dothse,’ the bloodied man on the floor said, struggling for air, still writhing, boots scrabbling in the dirt. Hunter noticed that the man’s hands were reluctant to touch his face, desperate claws pawing the air. ‘He broke by dosthe.’
‘Anyone else want a broke nose?’ Helland said, scanning the barrel of the shotgun around the room. ‘Anyone else got anythin’ they wanna say?’
The room remained silent; the men all sliding their feet towards the barn walls. Feeling a little exposed, Hunter too shuffled backward. He could feel the weight of the pistol in his pocket as he moved. Shotgun now facing the floor, one handed, Helland moved back towards the centre of the barn. Now his head moved from each group at a greater pace. Hunter watched the fugitive’s chest rise and fall. Whether it was from exertion or that same brooding violence just waiting to erupt, he couldn’t be sure.
‘I see y’all standin’ gossipin’ like a bunch of homegals,’ Helland called. His voice wasn’t loud, yet it carried on electric-fired lines through the silence. ‘I hear ya talkin’ ‘bout families at home an’ yard duties you gotta tend to.’ No one responded. Hunter heard the man beside him cough quietly into his palm. It gained the fury of Helland’s glare. ‘Some of y’all is sayin’ what you’d do to nigger when you catch him. I heard it.’ Helland allowed each of his observations to float above the men and settle upon them like the fallen parts of roof each time before he continued. ‘But I ain’t seen you do nothin’ ‘bout goin’ out an’ catchin’ you one, sweatin’ out some justice. Standin’ an’ talkin’ is nothin’. Since I come here, ain’t seen no one do nothin’. I come here because I was told that there’s this group of tough guys, The Knights of the White Camelia, revengin’ history for themselves. Puttin’ history right. Well,’ Helland said, beginning to pace up and down the centre of the barn, ‘maybe there is. But it sure as hell don’t look like you bunch of fuckin’ pussies. So tell me this . . .’ He stopped centre again. The shotgun raised, moving in an arc. ‘Any of y’all wanna actually go out an’ get some nigger blood on your hands?’
No one answered. Helland took a step forward. ‘I won’t kill any man who says that he don’t,’ he said. ‘But I might kill y’all if not one of you wants to, an’ I’ve dragged my ass down to this shithole for nuthin’.’ He broke the barrel of the shotgun, loaded another cartridge. The snap of the barrel as he jammed it closed. ‘ So I’ll arkse again: do any of y’all want to come with me and kill niggers.’
The men hollered in response. Some pumped arms; others raised their bottles.
‘Well, all right,’ Helland said, lowering the fully loaded shotgun. ‘Then I’ll tell y’all how it’s gonna be done.’