When The Last Leaves Fall

*This is a short companion story to the novel The Reputation of Booya Carthy.
It  contains spoilers apropos to the original story.


 

The Meeting

Greenwood, Mississippi

1943

It was five minutes before the town bell would announce noon. The door to The Mississippi Jug breezed closed behind the stranger. Leather case in hand, he straightened his waistcoat. His gaze judged the face of each man. Only the women reacted to the new arrival in the juke joint, appraising the tall stranger, foreign to their midst. They were of no significance to him. One approached him, a petite woman of the darkest skin; missing buttons of her dress hinting at her lures.

‘You lookin’ for some limonade, honey?’ Her fingers played with one of the remaining buttons, half-slid from its fastening.

Withdrawing his shoulder, he evaded her touch. ‘I am not.’

‘Say, you sure you in the right place here?’ Her hand found her hip. ‘You gov’ment or revenue?’

‘No,’ he answered. ‘Neither.’ He tipped his hat. ‘Good day.’

He had been told that he would be found, to wait inside The Mississippi Jug at midday. He knew that he would not be able to pick out the man that he sought. It could be any man, at any table. Not one that he could see was unaccompanied. They played craps, cards, entertained girls, they drank.

Removing his hat, he patted his brow with a handkerchief. The air was close; the smell of stale damp wood. Daylight turned to dirty yellow where it worked through the deep dust covering the few windows. The stranger watched the same girl sit upon a man’s knee, point at him. The man lifted his head. His look lingered long: slow up and slow down. Interest lost in the stranger, he spat on the floor. The girl’s hand slid inside his shirt; her tongue around his ear. He pushed her from his knee and resumed his game.

The interest the barkeep kept to the stranger was the only one that remained. As the stranger met his glare, one of the barkeep’s hands withdrew from the counter and settled beneath it. The stranger approached. The muscles in the ‘keep’s arm tightened.

The stranger placed his hat and leather case upon the bar. ‘I’d like a drink,’ he said.

‘You gov’ment or revenue?’ the ‘keep asked. ‘Ain’t legal not to say, if you is.’

The stranger glanced around the room, smiled at the ‘keep. ‘A stranger such as I am,’ he said, ‘alone in here with intent of stirring trouble? I rather think not.’

‘Might git trouble even if you ain’t stirrin’,’ the barkeep replied. The corner of his lip twitched. The stranger’s smile faded, but his gaze did not falter. Argument arose from one of the tables: slammed fists, raised voices. The barkeep’s eyes slid to the side and back. Laughter replaced dispute. Through the windows, the toll of the bell told noon.

‘I’m meeting here with Hunter,’ the stranger said. ‘He advised me to mention his name if I encountered issue.’

Blinking for the first time, one of the barkeep’s eyebrows jerked upward. His lips shrugged. Lifting his hand out from beneath the counter, he sighed. ‘You from the north?’ he asked. ‘Ain’t from round here. Wouldn’t come in here if you was.’

‘I’m from the east,’ the stranger replied.

‘Florida?’

‘No no.’ The stranger chuckled. ‘Over the seas. England.’

‘An’ findin’ yourself here?’ The stranger offered no response. The barkeep slapped the counter. ‘Well, if you arksin’ for Hunter someone sure has trouble headin’ their way?’

The stranger yet kept his silence. He felt eyes upon him. Glancing further along the bar he found them. A thick moustache hid his lips; the low hat disguised all but the glow within his staring eyes. The skin was sun-darkened, pricked with dark stubble. One hand was around a cup, the other in his pocket. In the warmth he was wearing a thick jacket of animal hide. He lifted the cup, drank, lowered it. It remained in his grasp. He stared.

‘Said you want a drink?’

The stranger returned his eyes to the barkeep. ‘Whisky, if you have it,’ he replied.

‘Ain’t got barely nothin’ but,’ the barkeep replied. ‘’Less you want warm piss.’

The stranger placed his hat beneath his arm, leather case in his hand, and took his cup to a table next to the opaque window. He didn’t wish to place his arms upon the table, lest it should dirty his suit. He looked again around the room, into the wooden rafters, certain that he could see the day outside through gaps in the boards. A bird of some breed was strutting along one of the beams.

The assembled in the room were mostly white men and black women, all with skins of a darker shade. Even though the stranger had lived in this country in his youth, he was not acclimated to this Mississippi heat. His blood was for moist green lands; his suit for the Royal Courts of Justice. This place a more than just a step back into his personal history.

The stranger tapped his fingers on the table. The wood felt soft. Turning his hand over, he found dirt beneath his fingernails. Reaching down into his bag, he retrieved a nail file. As he straightened up he looked directly at a pistol.

The man who had been standing at the bar was staring at him again. This time from directly across the table. The stranger looked up from the gun at hip to the weathered face. The dark eyes, less obscured from below, were heavy-lidded. Beneath the wavy line of his moustache, the man sucked spit between his teeth. His front teeth remained bared.

‘Mister Hunter, I presume,’ said the stranger. ‘Please, take a seat.’ With a hand on the top of his pistol, Hunter did so. ‘I contacted you. My name is –’

‘Don’t tell me you name,’ Hunter growled. ‘Don’t need it. Don’t wanna know it.’ With his hand still cradling the cup, he thumped it upon the table. ‘Hunter ain’t my name neither. It’s my living. So . . .’ Fist in hand, Hunter cracked his knuckles. ‘Who you want hunted?’

The stranger leaned back from the table. The chair creaked behind him as he crossed his legs. ‘There is man who was a sergeant at Parchman Farm Penitentiary. In his time there he committed gross crimes against inmates under his guard. This man has murdered many, as well as designing the killings and attacks of many more persons, undertaken by criminals under his command. I was committed to seeking charges against this man. But before this sergeant could face justice, he fled. He is a threat to any and every society. It is justice that I seek.’

‘Justice is what I do,’ Hunter replied. ‘Mostly.’ He pulled a wodge of tobacco from his pocket, stuffed it into the corner of his mouth, sucked and chewed.

‘Do not misunderstand my motive, of course,’ the stranger continued. ‘I would rather that this man is captured alive to face the consequences of the horrors that he inflicted upon humankind. I am not a vengeful man, yet I do not trust the system of those who allowed this treatment to continue.’

Hunter was staring at the stranger. His jaw rolled as he chewed. He spat a line of tobacco from the corner of his mouth; the stranger watched it hit the floor, threads of tobacco floating in the puddle. Hunter was appraising the neat side-parting in the stranger’s blonde hair. The pale complexion. The tidy little line of moustache. The appearance of this smart, educated man in a land of outlaws. ‘What personal harm did this sergeant do on you?’ he asked.

‘I’m sorry?’ Through his description of the fugitive, Hunter noticed that a slight flush had raised high up on the stranger’s cheeks.

‘You say that you ain’t vengeful, but you want revenge. I get a sense that this ain’t just about correcting the wrongs of the state. You on the side of The Law, but you ain’t usin’ them; you usin’ me.’

The stranger’s thin lips tightened to flesh. Like, his eyes narrowed. Hunter stopped chewing. He spat the rest of the tobacco onto the floor.

‘There is evil in this world,’ the stranger replied. ‘There always has been, since creation; there always will be. We will encounter it but we can never eradicate it. This man . . .’ The stranger put his fist to his lips. He tightened his fingers. Pensive, the stranger watched shadows of folk passing by on the other side of the window. Turning, he smiled at Hunter. ‘Recently I rescued a friend of mine from this sergeant. Like many others, I have come to learn, my friend had been illegally incarcerated, serving his imprisonment in the cruel care of this sergeant. Part of the reason why he was treated so badly? Because the sergeant recognised my friend from his past. My friend knew the sergeant’s true identity. As the man who murdered my father.’

‘I see,’ Hunter said. ‘Sounds to me like reason enough for revenge. An’ you want him dead?’

‘That would be justice,’ the stranger answered with a nod. ‘But it would also save the lives of others.’

‘What’s his name, this sergeant?’

‘Jacob Helland.’

‘An’ where can I find Jacob Helland.’

Through the window, the sun was directly on the stranger. Again he dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied.

   *     *     *

Scenting the Trail

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.

   *     *     *

The Forest

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.

   *     *     *

The Holly House

‘An’ if they was just good ol’ boys, out for a hunt,’ Hunter argued with himself, back once more on the same route of the previous night, ‘then why the needle? Ain’t no way that they own a part of the forest.’

Most of the fugitives that Hunter trailed simply didn’t want to be found: trails became faint scents became dead ends. Yet sometimes fate decreed that whatever way he pointed, there they would be. There had been a time when his target was fishing on the river right outside the hometown where Hunter had been employed; that catch had only taken half a day. Another time, an itch had brought the fugitive right back to the scene of the crimes, when Hunter had only just begun searching for clues. Most of the time, though, Hunter felt that he was just around the corner from where the shadow of his target had just slipped into shade. It was only a feeling, but one that kept his boots on the move. However, the same fate that handed out a run of winning hands at a card table was more inclined towards laughter in failure.

The comment on those Knights of the White Camellia that drifted to Hunter through an open window in a town of nothing was a gift, Hunter was sure of that. The feeling that trailed thread from the target right to the toe of his boots had made him half expect that one of the boys in the forest would have been this Helland. But the man had been described to him: the deeply pockmarked face, the skin like leather, hatred and death in his eyes and heavy on his shoulders. Hunter had a feeling that he’d know Helland when he found him.

If he found him.

Still, those good ol’ boys were jittery over something. Small town fellas like that could just get on their high horse about their land having no right of way for strangers, sure. Could even be that they simply like to pick fights when they’re in a posse. It felt to Hunter more like they had been warning him away from the area. But the main man had given him a couple of opportunities to declare if he shared their interest, of that he was sure now.

On his way out of the forest, Hunter had driven around a big old beaten Chevy truck, presumably the transport of the good ol’ boys, standing to the side of the track road. With a glance behind him, he’d hopped out and taken a peek into the cargo bed – nothing but a few sheets and what looked like pickaxe handles. Nothing in the cab, either. He knew, now, how he’d find out what their real pastimes in the forest were.

Hunter drove on to Holly Bluff, the nearest town. The town was even smaller than where he had stopped to pick up drinks – that there was a town so far out here in the basin at all was more than he was used to. There was a post office, a bar and a few stores, but not much else except for the small wooden building that pronounced itself as The Holly House. More than that, there was a sign in the window that said VACANCIES. Hunter drove his car round back. He slipped his pistol into his holdall, swung it over his shoulder, and made his way round front.

The folks that he saw ambling along the street were mostly of age. Their concerns would mostly be leant to groceries and gossip, he knew, not a stranger in town. Bare few vehicles were standing or driving through the street. The way of the small southern towns: no one needed to be fixed for ever leaving. Hunter stepped onto the porch of The Holly House and pushed through the door.

The reception counter was unattended. The windows were open, a light breeze playing with the curtains, stirring up the damp smell. Hunter peered through into the breakfast room, three tables covered with gingham tablecloths. No one. He tapped the bell on the counter. Tapped it twice more and a girl wearing a dress, perhaps made from the same red and white patterned tablecloths, sauntered along the hall. Hunter had been quite unprepared for her appearance. Her dark hair was made up with curls, sculpted and shaped, as was her figure. He looked from her chest to her face. Her lips were thick with rouge, her skin youthful, unlined. Her eyes were large, full of life and health. She looked fit for a picture house, rather than a boarding house.

‘Help you?’ she said, hand on hip and tongue in cheek.

‘Was lookin’ for a room, honey,’ Hunter said, slipping his holdall on to the floor.

‘Got money?’

Hunter pulled the roll of bills from his pocket. ‘How much you want?’

The girl placed her elbows on the counter and cupped her head in her hands. ‘Depends how long you stay,’ she said, drawing her eyes up from the money.

‘Let’s just say two nights, for now. Although if you give me good service . . .’ Hunter began to peel notes from the bundle. The girl chuckled.

‘Half dollar a night,’ she replied, swaying her head in her hands. She smiled, her teeth as white as her eyes. ‘That’s the usual rate.’

Hunter handed her two bills. ‘You just hold on to these for me, just in case I need the room for longer.’ As she went to take them, he held them tight in his grip. Time for their eyes to meet. He loosed his hold.

The girl stuffed the money into her brassiere, adjusting herself after. ‘I don’t do this,’ she said.

‘How d’you mean?’

She laughed again, a flick of the hair. ‘I mean that this ain’t my place, silly. Just lookin’ after it for my olds. They’re out just now.’ Another flick of the hair.

‘That right?’ Hunter said.

‘Uh-huh.’

‘So my board? Just keepin’ it warm?’ He looked at where the girl had concealed the money.

The girl pouted. ‘Safest place in town.’

‘That right?’ Hunter said again. ‘Say, what’s your name? Pretty girl like you, I’m guessin’ that it’s Frances or Connie, something sweet like that.’

Leaning her head back, she laughed from her chest. Hunter watched. ‘Couldn’t be further from right, mister,’ she said. ‘And I ain’t tellin’ you, a stranger in my house. But I will show you to your room.’

He followed her swinging hips along the hall and up the stairs, where she walked up almost sideways. Old fashioned pictures lined the wall, mostly pictures of the town and the countryside: old wooden buildings and sepia landscapes. When they reached the top of the stairs, Frances or Connie or Sandra, whatever, with her back to the wall, simply pointed towards a door at the front of the building. ‘That’s you,’ she said. He tipped his hat as he passed her by, sparing her a wink.

Hunter put his holdall on the bed. He was grateful that she’d left him be; pretty girls could distract a man like Hunter from how he had come by a thick roll of bills. He looked around the room: wardrobe, dresser, bed with a floral spread, little table with a chair next to it by the window, a picture of The Man on the wall: sombre with the ills of the world on him. After the previous night, he could do with catching a few winks before the coming night.

Moving the chair away from the table, Hunter pulled back the curtain, glanced up the road in each direction. He opened the window a fraction. The only sound of the day that ventured through was light conversation, and even that was quieter than the wisping chatter of the leaves on the breeze. He couldn’t have positioned a better place to settle for a time. Hunter stared out of the window onto the bar directly opposite for a while, before kicking off his boots and settling onto the bed.

*     *     *

Hunting

As soon as he woke, Hunter was standing and looking out of the window. The truck wasn’t there like he thought it would be. But the past had taught Hunter that stray dogs don’t creep too far from their lair. They’d be here someplace. Or heading this way. Even if they didn’t, if this wasn’t their town, he had a good idea where he’d be able to find them.

Tipping the jug that he found on the dresser, full of clean water, he washed his face and torso in the basin bath. The pretty girl had been kind enough to leave a fresh flannel; now it was covered in a few day’s dirt. Hunter took a clean shirt from the holdall, black. His hunting uniform. On his way out, he didn’t see anyone downstairs. Too bad that he didn’t feel that he’d be sticking around to find out how deep the girl’s interest was in dirty cash money. Maybe. But if it came to a chase, he didn’t think that he’d be seeing the inside of Holly Bluff again any time soon. Maybe he could stop by on his way to collecting the rest of his loot. Share a little cash for a victory dance with the girl.

Hunter slung the holdall in the trunk. The pistol was inside his jacket. Didn’t want to be caught out without, like he had been that morning. The track road had seemed like a safe enough place to sleep a night, even if he had been prospecting for what happened in the forest of a night. Turns out that it might just be the viper’s nest that he was seeking. There was only one way to find out, but the day was still too broad.

Standing outside the bar, beer in hand, Hunter watched the street. If anything it was even quieter now than it had been earlier. Watching was just a part of his job. Hunter never felt the need to hurry anything. He had deep satisfaction for the vocation that had chosen him. Like this Helland, he too had worked for The Law. The pay was too lousy and the authority too oppressive to keep him; realised that young. Trained by the way of the cannon was all that Hunter needed to take with him, on to his new path of content.

The view up the road was straight and clear, giving him time enough to retreat back across the road if he saw the truck coming. Nothing came but a few motors carefully driven by old timers by the time that the dusk was settling in. He hadn’t seen the one other thing that he’d been watching for either. He had seen only white faces. He smiled to himself. It was time to bring the car out front.

 *

 A little further on from the bar, Hunter sat in his car at an intersection of streets. Soon enough, a truck pulled out from a side street, heading towards the Delta Forest, followed by a smaller car. It wasn’t his truck, but they had crept so slow that Hunter had enough time to see what he had wanted. Inside the truck were two older boys, bearded and rough like the good ol’ boys of that morning. A few younger bucks were in the car behind, their expressions severe: not young fellas heading out to raise sand. Sure enough, the nocturnal animals were coming out to play. With headlamps off, Hunter followed behind from a distance. He had been pretty certain of the track that the convoy would be heading for, so was surprised when they instead carried on down the road, with the forest to their right.

Waders were out in the swampy land to the left, catching supper. With the windows open, Hunter could hear the restless noise of the forest critters, the wild before the quiet of night. Ahead, the cars had disappeared around a corner. He’d allowed the gap between them to grow. His Plymouth wasn’t the sort of vehicle that came bumping around out here when the sun was going down. When Hunter rounded the corner, they weren’t to be seen.

Smiling to himself, he continued on past a different track road, tighter and more inconspicuous than the one that he’d woken up on. Parking up in the forest would be to announce his arrival. Hunter’s intention was watch, see what was exchanged, hear what was said. It might yet be that he’d only stumbled upon a bunch of wild hick geese. Somehow he didn’t think so; his guts told him different. Small town folks have their small town predictable ways about them. Without The Law around, they govern the way that things are done. Without The Law around appealed to Hunter and his vocation.

Ahead he saw a building of some sort, a barn away from the road, a scar on the horizon half-hidden within the tall grasses. That would do as a fine place the leave the car; maybe shelter for the night if the meet ran late or the good ol’ boys fancied themselves a hunt. Crawling forward, he found the road that led towards it. The chassis of the car didn’t like the deeply-potted road. Hunter held onto the window frame, bumping his head a couple of times on the roof of the Plymouth.

Now that he was closer to the barn, he could see that it was large and in an extreme state of disrepair. The roof had multiple lengths of wood missing. The sides were as sparsely clad as a row of teeth in the gums of an old boy out here in the wilderness towns. Within the last light of the disappearing day, the lights that were coming from inside the barn hadn’t shown up from the road. Heading along the track, nothing on either side of him but impassable terrain, nowhere to turn, Hunter noticed that in the shabby dereliction someone was home.

*     *     *

The Barn

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.’

*     *     *

The Face of Evil

Trucks and motorcars were ahead of Hunter and behind him. With a feeling in his gut that was foreign to him, Hunter drove back towards the town. He thought that he had known all that he needed to of Helland. Having seen him in the flesh and heard his speech, he had stared into the face of evil; evil had stared right back. He remembered now why he recognised the name.

Hunter had underestimated a target once before: a domestic abuser who the brother of the victim had wanted treated. A Mexican, that man had been rabid; just didn’t know how to die, even leaking heavily out of multiple wounds. Hunter hadn’t been scared of that man, just exasperated by the energetic denial of his ride down into hell. The man that he’d seen this night had the fires of that furnace stoking the rage within him.

The Knights of the White Camellia had been much as he’d expected: a mix of boys with time on their hands and little order about them. Small town sects could get nasty, but usually only after they’d tasted blood. They had little wisdom to draw from, and could scare like sheep. Ex-lawmen were a little tougher; trained killers, mostly. But if revenge was their sole mission, it could blind them into making mistakes. They’d been above The Law once, and that was a hard rattle to shake. The man that Hunter had seen was merciless. Driven only by hatred and malice.

He had once heard of a deputy in small town, a known acquaintance of bootleggers and villains. Most lawmen found ways of making a little extra cash beneath the laws of the land. Hunter had been one himself, visiting illegal gambling rings, taking kickbacks for his silence. Heck, he’d even sat in with them on occasion. But this deputy that he’d heard rumour of used criminals and the poor, instructed them to do his bidding: be it extortion, incitement of violence that he could then step into firing, or coldblooded murder. Word was that he cared not for monetary gains. He enjoyed the manipulation of the weak minded; got a sadistic kick out of seeing the world turn wild. He had wondered if this deputy really existed, or whether he was a fabrication of the minds of men justifying their own lawlessness. The name that the Englishman had spoken was a name that Hunter had not heard of for a long while. In the way that the monsters in the nightmares of youth vanish, he had dismissed those tales as folly. Even so, the name had remained tenant eternal of the dark mind.

Hunter felt for his pistol. Thinking back to that moment when he’d first realised that he was facing his man, he wished now that he’d laid him out dead on the floor right at that moment. Maybe that way he would never have heard the voice of the devil.

With his car parked around the back of The Holly House, his head low, Hunter walked in through the entrance. A man of middle-age was sitting at the desk, peering over his glasses at papers, tumbler of bourbon beside it, pen in hand.

‘You got a phone?’ Hunter asked.

Carefully putting the pen down, the man looked up. His complexion was ruddy; his skin blemished with dots of drinker’s acne. His eyes had that half-closed look of a man who knows his way to the bottom of a bottle. ‘Who are you, son,’ he asked, ‘to come in here and ask if I got a phone?’

‘I’m stayin’ here,’ Hunter replied. ‘I paid. Today. A girl. Your daughter?’ She hadn’t told Hunter her name. That seemed to be the way towards strangers in this forgotten town. He remembered her hiding the paper that he’d given her down the front of her dress.

‘Name?’ the man asked, moving the papers and peering down at a ledger.

‘I didn’t give it,’ said Hunter. ‘She didn’t ask.’

‘Well what is your name?’ the man asked, brushing the pen against his chin.

‘Billy James,’ Hunter said. Different town; different name.

‘Well, Billy James, your name isn’t down here.’

‘I told you that I didn’t give my name to the girl,’ Hunter said. ‘But I did give her two dollars.’

‘If you gave her two dollars to stay here then your name would be writ down in this here book.’

Hunter pulled the roll of notes from his pocket. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you two dollars more, if that’s what it takes to use your phone. Don’t need the lodging no more, just the phone.’

‘We don’t have a telephone here, Mister James,’ the man replied. Eyes over the top of his spectacles, he lifted the glass, meandering until it found his suckling lips.

‘Where can I find one in this place?’

‘In the town?’

Hunter nodded

‘Just one that I know of, for the use of a stranger in the town. In the post office. And that’s closed ‘til Monday noon.’

Two days away. ‘There a central operator’s station, or the like?’

‘I’d say that’s in the post office, too,’ the man replied. In between conversation, he was eyeing the notes. ‘You can stay here ‘til they open,’ he said. ‘Dollar a night.’

‘Told you already I don’t need to stay,’ Hunter replied. ‘I don’t have the time to wait out, neither. All I need is to use a phone. You know anyone who’s got one that I can use?’

‘Mister James, I’m not certain that I could recommend you in the state of high disarray that you’re in. I’d suggest bedding down until the public phone is in use.’

Hunter stuffed the money into his pocket. ‘Thanks,’ he said, and walked out of the door.

The Knights and their new leader wouldn’t be leaving the town until dawn at the earliest. All that Hunter could do was to start heading in the direction that they soon would. He had to speak to the Englishman as soon as he possibly could. He had to warn him that Helland was heading his way.

*     *     *

The Englishman

Hunter didn’t know the town that the Englishman was staying in, just that it was near to a place called Honahee. He’d settled there for an unfixed term while he helped out a friend of an old friend of his. Someone from his youth. Something to do with the murder of an escaped convict. He hadn’t given the name of where he was staying; just a number that Hunter must call.

With all the money that he’d need for a year burning in his pocket, Hunter knew that he could likely be able to trace FDR’s daughter, if he wanted. If he was in a city, he probably could. Mississippi was a world unto its own. Things down here moved at the pace of field plough being drug by a weary horse. The only way to find someone was for chance to lead you to someone that they knew. Even then they wouldn’t give away anything easy or for free. There was a natural scepticism; a wariness of anything unknown.

Damn this situation. Fugitives were almost always just one man. Even if they joined in with crews, they were still just a man. If Hunter cut and run he doubted that the Englishman would ever be able to trace him. He knew better than anyone the ways that a man could stay hidden. He had been instructed to call with updates once a week. He could call as he headed over the state border, maybe head down to the sun in the west, find work searching out errant progenies. He’d been travelling this way for three days and already felt that this might be the job to end his days – either alive in a small town seeking a peaceful life, or in a field in a creeping puddle of blood. If the Englishman knew who he was truly dealing with then he might have decided to leave well alone. You don’t mess with the devil and come away with only a few burn scars.

As he drove north, the thought of fleeing continued to play through Hunter’s thoughts. Yet thoughts of the man Booth kept troubling him. Assassinating Lincoln had changed the world, especially down this way. Hunter had heard what the man Helland had said. Had seen for himself how he rallied the crowd beneath a hailstorm of threat. If that man was left free to raise an army of hate, not a single person in the entire south would be safe. Where the devil walked the earth, hell would follow.

Hunter headed the nose of his car towards Clarksdale. The town was coming to life as he pulled the car into a lot off Main Street. Stretching his legs, he wondered when Helland and his crew would begin their venture north. He rubbed his eyes. He was tired, brain-weary. After the call was made he would stop for coffee, before heading on.

He found a phone in the back of a general store, dipped in his pocket for cents, and phoned the number written on a napkin. Hunter heard the phone picked up at the other end.

‘Oxford Garden,’ the voice said. ‘You’re speaking with Marcia. How may I help you today?’

‘I need to speak to the Englishman,’ Hunter said, leaning on the booth, his voice low.

‘Do you have a name please, sir?’

‘Don’t know his name,’ Hunter said, repeating a new routine. ‘He’s tall. Fair. English.’

The voice at the other end hesitated. Hunter could picture her: prim in her neat waistcoat; long, manicured and varnished nails; blonde hair tied back. He could feel the dirt of a night’s drive sheening his skin. ‘Do you have a name please, sir?’ the girl repeated.

‘Still ain’t got a name,’ Hunter said. ‘He’s waitin’ upon my call. He said to just ask for the Englishman.’ And then Hunter remembered: ‘He said to say that it’s about his cousin.’

‘Very well, sir,’ Marcia replied. ‘I’ll put you through now.’ Hunter heard a loud click, and then a quieter one a few moments later. The sound of someone clearing their throat, and then breath trickled into the line.

‘Have you found anything?’ the English voice said.

‘I found your man,’ Hunter replied.

The Englishman hesitated. ‘Is he dead?’ he asked.

‘Not even close,’ Hunter said. ‘He’s too busy aimin’ to kill.’ Hunter explained the situation of chancing upon The Knights of the White Camelia, in the direction of where the Englishman had said that Helland was last spotted. He told how he had stumbled upon the clan meet in the barn opposite the forest. ‘He got them all on his side, quick enough. Told them what his plan was. That The Knights had been chased away with their tails between their legs, after some of their number was killed in some ongoin’ battle in a town. That they’d lost an opportunity to show the world what they was standin’ for. He said that the only way to announce that they wasn’t gonna go away was to go back to that town an’ show them that they still as alive as ever.’

‘Helland is in control of this group?’ the Englishman asked.

‘Man, they was probably only fixed to drive up to the next town along and tie some negras in sacks, beat ‘em a bit, these boys. Helland wants them to go back to lynching. Public execution. An’ that ain’t the least of it. He said that he knows how to recruit The Law into the game. He said that he ain’t gonna stop until the land is rid of the negras. Thing is, I get the impression that when he’s done with them then he’ll just about go on killin’ anyone he wants.’

‘Mmm.’ Hunter heard an expulsion of air through the phone. ‘What else did he say?’

Hunter thought back to Helland’s last words, when the good ol’ boys’ whooping reached peak level. ‘He repeated that there was plenty of unfinished business to be done in this place Honahee, an’ that –’

‘Where did you say?’ the Englishman asked. ‘Honahee?’

‘Sure,’ Hunter continued. ‘He said that it’s a town that’s more black than white. He wants to take it back; said that it would be their new base once it was rid of the negras. A place to spread out across the south.’

‘Did he say anything about any individuals in particular? Did he mention names?’

‘No names,’ Hunter said. ‘Just that while he was there he had something personal to revenge. That they all did.’

‘Where are you now?’ the Englishman asked. ‘How soon can you be here?’

‘Clarksdale. Just gonna get me a coffee an’ I’ll be on my way,’ Hunter replied.

‘Get here now,’ the Englishman said. ‘Quicker than you can. I’ll have a coffee waiting for you.

‘I know exactly where Helland is headed.’

*     *     *

Honahee

As soon as he was within sight of the Oxford Garden Hotel, Hunter could see that the tall English gentleman was waiting outside, standing close to the curb and the cars buzzing by. Bobbing up and down on his heels, he was staring long at each car that passed, assessing those inside, and then on to the next. A few of the locals passing by were wearing something close to apposite attire as the Englishman, but none looked quiet so well fitted and clean. Standing tall and pale, he stood out like the president at a southern rally. Hunter saw that the Englishman had a hand in one pocket, holding something in the other.

With his window already lowered to let the breeze blow out some of the humid air, Hunter pulled up alongside the Englishman, staring in at him. He saw the gold chain of a pocket watch leading into the waistcoat pocket. There were few places in any city in the country where a man could stand in the street the way that the Englishman was, advertising his wealth about him, no matter who he was.

The Englishman handed the cup that he’d been holding through the window. ‘There’s your coffee,’ he said. ‘Follow me.’ He turned and walked to a car a few paces away, a black Buick.

With the coffee gone in a sip, Hunter was happy to keep with the pace that the Englishman was driving at, not the usual way that he drove when heading to a job. If it wasn’t for the car in front, there was no way that he would corner at the speed the Englishman was. More than once the Buick skidded sideways, making use of the entire width of the road before powering onward. Hunter could see the figure jolting around as the car sped over mounds in the road. He noticed the faces of the folks out for a drive as the bulking black monster roared past them.

Within the hour, the car in front had slowed, breezing alongside the river, past ponds and flowering shrubs, past the town sign dotted with Magnolia leaves that welcomed them to Honahee. For a southern town, this was one of the prettiest that Hunter had seen. As they cruised onward, he saw honeysuckle and clematis growing up the front of the wooden buildings. People stopping to talk to each other as they passed; children hoop-trundling down the street, folks steeping out of their way with a smile and a pat on the head. A bunch of people were gathered outside a local store, Huck’s Place. Some were sitting on the steps of the porch, others in the street; some with frowns punctuated with quizzical expressions, others laughing behind their hands or openly smiling. With the sound of fife and drums, whatever band they were watching was sure making a hullabaloo.

Hunter wasn’t certain what expression crossed over his face when he saw a strange-looking little fella marching along, weaving through the crowd in time to the shrill sound he was blowing. There was a little lady standing nearby, barefoot, kicking a floor drum and rapping on a snare, her long dark hair jumping around her. He looked for the rest of the band, but could see no one else accompanying them. The Englishman was heading onward towards some taller, brick buildings. With a last glance at the street musicians and the entertained crowd, Hunter followed.

In the centre of the square of buildings, they skirted around a tree. The bright flora around the base of the tree could not disguise the ominous presence of the dark, twisted trunk. Redemption Square, a little plaque said. In a little southern town, the undertone of such a centrepiece required little explanation.

Beyond the far side of the buildings was like travelling into an entirely different town. The fronts of the buildings, also wooden on this side, were in disrepair. To fit into anything like the same town as they had driven through, it was desperate for gentrification. Fitting with the abundant divide, there were men lying in street outside juke-joints and bars; he saw a couple of men arguing, pushing each other, a girl grabbing at one of them; mangy-looking dogs were scavenging dropped morsels, their litter dotting the road; shifty stares on scowling faces. The sounds of the music on this side of the town beat with dangerous, lowering tones. Hunter wondered how long the Englishman and his pocket watch would be able to stand out here before being approached. The people in this underbelly of humanity were watching as the shiny Buick slipped between two buildings and down a side street.

Away from the main street, the houses were small; but the further that they headed, the streets were once more lined with trees, flowering gardens and painted picket fences. The Buick stopped outside one, a chinaberry tree in the yard with most of its leaves littering the floor by the trunk, and the Englishman stepped out of the vehicle.

‘We must move the motorcars in a moment,’ he said, meeting Hunter in the street. ‘I wanted to show you first where we will be waiting this evening for the arrival of Helland.’

For all of that morning, now into the afternoon, Hunter had not been out of his car. With his hands on the base of his back, he leaned backwards, eyeing the drawn curtains and the dust-covered windows. ‘By the look, ain’t no one home.’

‘You’re right,’ the Englishman replied, watching down the street. ‘There hasn’t been for sometime. There was family here. Because of Jacob Helland, that family had to flee. And because of others. But mostly him. They’re lucky to be alive.’

Hunter watched the Englishman, his head turning in all directions. When he looked along the street, he saw curtains twitching. The Englishman’s hands were restless in the pockets of his smart trousers. The Englishman pulled out his pocket watch, glanced at the screen.

‘We must move soon,’ he said. ‘We’ll leave the cars further up the road, and then return.’

‘You keep saying we,’ Hunter said. For the first time the Englishman looked directly at him. ‘You ain’t gonna stay around here, are you?’

The Englishman’s lips tightened. The lines beside his eyes snaked outwards. Hunter took a half-step back. ‘For the brief time that you have been searching for the man, all I could think of is that he’ll get away. Somehow. That somehow he’ll continue to spread his violence. I did not leave the hotel in the time that you were tracking him, hopeful that you would give word of his demise. Yet I did not think that I would ever believe it. That I could never rest easy without seeing for myself that Helland has reached his demise.’ The Englishman looked away, towards the street that they had driven in upon. He looked at the house, a couple more of the last leaves falling from the tree. ‘I realised that all I wished for was to see Jacob Helland die. And this night I shall.’

*     *     *

The Dying Light

As the day continued to drift towards darkness, the Englishman had told Hunter of the link between Helland and this house. The then Sergeant had arranged the petition for the release of a convicted murderer and rapist, a horror of humankind in his image, and fed him instruction to travel to this house to commit a grave crime upon an innocent woman and child. It was providence that had saved the lives of the two innocents: a fellow convict, released by pardon, had arrived in time to disrupt the attack. The convict, Two Cell, had promised to deliver a message from the wronged woman’s husband that he was alive, illegally stolen from his life by The Law. On that night of terror, the Englishman told him, Two Cell had murdered the sergeant’s stooge before he could do his bidding. And for that he was now incarcerated on death row, the reason why the Englishman had remained in the state of Mississippi.

‘An’ all that happened here in this house, huh?’ Hunter asked, sitting across the breakfast table from the Englishman.

The Englishman nodded. ‘Which is why I am certain that this is where Helland is headed. He is the most hateful of men. He will not ever cede to anything but evil. Revenge is his byword.’

‘That don’t sound much like revenge to me,’ Hunter said, spitting tobacco into his hand and then disposing of it in a flowerpot, next the dried-out plant. The Englishman watched each movement. ‘I’ve seen revenge. Hell, it keeps me in work. If they was just innocents, sounds nothin’ but coldblooded to me.’

‘Helland has a sick mind –’

‘I’ve seen it myself,’ Hunter said.

‘Indeed you have. In the wildness of his diabolical judgement, he wanted to hurt my friend in compensation of his own sins.’ The Englishman unlinked his hands and closed them into fists. ‘He wanted to punish my friend for his association to my father.’

The lights were not on in the kitchen; the waning light through the window almost too weak to create shadow. Hunter looked down at his pistol, sitting next to the flowerpot on the table. When he looked up, the Englishman was staring out of the window. ‘Why’d Helland kill your ol’ man?’ Hunter asked. ‘What was that revenge for?’

‘A disagreement over the project that my father was working on.’ The Englishman was now looking at his thumb as it smoothed over the nail of his unadorned ring finger. ‘An excuse for disagreement. And it is pertinent to this situation; to my reasons for wishing the man rid of this world.’ Through the semi-darkness, he looked up. His finger continued its movement. ‘On the night that he murdered my father, somehow Helland had raised a mob to rally with him.’

Maintaining eye contact, Hunter leaned back in his chair. ‘The more I hear of Helland, and from what I seen, I couldn’t agree more; that he needs to extinguished.’ That same feeling that had plagued his guts when leaving the meet in the barn stabbed again at Hunter’s insides. He knew it for what it was. He noticed that he was grinding his teeth together. In attempting to make a fist, his strength felt beneath its custom. ‘Most of the time this is just a way to earn a livin’, for me. Nothin’ personal. Just bein’ paid to do a job. But with this man? After I first saw him I wished that I’d killed him cold, soon as I knew who he was. I had that chance. After I hesitated I saw the worst of man that I ever seen.’

‘You’ll have your chance this night,’ the Englishman replied. ‘He will come.’

The Englishman stood and walked to the window. Lifting the drawn lace curtains, he peered into the street. It was quiet, still, grey in the dusk. Lights showed in the windows of opposite houses along the street. A cat took his attention, darting in front of the house, beneath the chinaberry tree, and down the far side of the house next door.

Turning to face back down the street, a vehicle was travelling at low speed. The Englishman stood back from the window; a single finger lifting the thin material. With another finger, he signalled to Hunter to make no movement. The Englishman watched through the slither of a gap. There were two figures in the car, the passenger much smaller than the other. The windows of the vehicle were narrow; at this distance hard to glean anything of those inside. The figure that was driving was half-hidden, yet revealed enough for the Englishman to discern that he was wearing a hat. He narrowed his eyes, trying to gain better sight in the dying light.

The car was nearing the house; the pace consistent. On the street nothing else moved.

‘Is it him?’ Hunter whispered. The Englishman ignored him. A wave of the finger.

The car was now passing the house next door, down the street. The beam of the headlamps breezed through the curtains, speckled dots dancing over the walls. The noise of the engine rattled the windows. The Englishman pushed his head against the wall, biting his lips together. He could see enough of the passengers to discern that the passenger was also wearing a hat. The silhouette showed a bob of hair beneath it. And then he recognised her as a woman, little and old. Next to her, the driver was peering intently through the windshield, focused on the road ahead. The Englishman stepped back from the window.

‘It’s no one,’ he said. Picking up his cup from the table, he poured himself water from a jug. ‘We should get into position,’ he said. ‘Night is upon us.’

*

With Hunter waiting in the front room, the Englishman sat on the bed in the room at the back of the house. He had first turned the mattress to obscure the blackened stains. He looked at the heavy blanket that they had hung over the curtain rail. They had agreed that the only room that should have light, to show that someone was in, should be the bedroom, where he would stay hidden. Helland would approach through the front door, where Hunter lay in wait for his arrival.

The Englishman put the cup down on the floor by his feet. The bedroom door was open ajar, allowing the yellow light from the lamp to escape into the hallway. That he had never before seen Helland, had only had pictures of the man painted for him by description, that he would only ever see the man in death, didn’t concern him. By all, the portrayal of him had been of an unearthly spirit. Back home they said the same of the Führer, the antichrist, yet he was just a man. And he, too, would be defeated; of that the Englishman was sure.

It had been more than an hour since he had come through to this room alone. He looked around, to see if there was a book, anything to read to pass the waiting time. The house had been mostly left in the way that it had been vacated; only clothes and belongings that could be carried had been taken. In this room, other than the bed and the mattress, all that remained was a wardrobe, dresser, and the small side table that the lamp was standing upon. With his hands between his thighs, all that the Englishman could do was sit, watch the door, and listen to the steady rhythm of his breathing in time to the ticking of his pocket watch.

Soon, through the silence he heard a dull pop, a tinkling of falling glass as if broken by a stone. Standing, he adjusted his waistcoat. He opened his mouth to call out to Hunter. Held his words. He heard the front door open. Another muffled report, a little louder than the first. He heard footsteps. Heading towards the bedroom. He lifted his chin; hand in one pocket. A shadow filled the gap, lighting upon beige trousers. The door began to open towards him. The Englishman looked into the face of the man that he knew so much about. The man who had never left his thoughts since he had learned his name and his crimes.

The two men stared at each other. Beneath his leather hat, Helland’s head tilted to one side. He rubbed his chin; the sound of rats scratching behind a wall. His head tilted to the other side. The light of the lamp in what could be seen of his eyes, petals on oil. The pockmarks in his cheeks corrugated as a smile began to rise. He pointed his pistol at the Englishman.

‘I see you now,’ Helland said, nodding; punctuating the words with small gestures of the weapon. The light breathed shadow into the contours beneath his cheekbones. ‘You’re the son.’ He looked up to his right. ‘Wilmington,’ he said, smiling and nodding again, stabbing the pistol towards the Englishman. ‘That’s the name. Never do forget one. You never know when you might need it again.’

‘And I have never forgotten you,’ the Englishman replied. ‘I knew that there would be a day when we would meet.’

‘Bein’ truthful, I did too,’ said Helland. ‘Always thought you’d want to put some revengin’ on me some day. Don’t matter who you are, revenge is the most beautiful thing. Stronger than forgiveness; more inspirational than just hatin’.’

‘Not if revenge is inspired by justice, not hate.’

‘It’s interestin’ you say that,’ Helland said, the gun moving up from his side again, waving with his words. ‘It was for justice that we went to see your daddy that day. He was just so arrogant about not hearin’ what we all had to say that we had to give him some of our southern justice. I’d warned him first.’

‘You used violence to get your own way,’ the Englishman replied, the tone of his voice rising. A flush had risen high up on his cheeks. He glanced at the open doorway behind Helland. ‘You weren’t going to get your way so you murdered a good man. That is the stigma of this country. Even the state uses execution as punishment.’

Helland shrugged. He tapped the pistol against his leg. Again the two men stared at each other. Again Helland smiled. ‘So you’re just the same, then,’ he said. ‘That man layin’ dead out there?’ Helland gestured to the doorway with a tip of his head. ‘I knew that someone would be headin’ out for me before long. When I met with this small town crew an’ there was another new face suddenly shows up from outta town, no one knows his name, just that he’s on a hunt of some kind? You’d have to be some kind of stupid to not keep some vigilance about ya.’

Helland slipped his arms from the sleeves of his jacket. He stared at the Englishman, standing like a royal. The lamplight glistened on his teeth. ‘What a treat it is to find such a prize as you here, too,’ he said. ‘Just like your daddy. Don’t know where you’ve hidden that big nigger away what I come here for. But I’ll find him. That can wait for another night.’ He stood looking at the pistol for a moment, and then placed it on the floor. ‘Nah. This here’s a bare-hand job,’ he said.

*     *     *

The Dark Surface

He stepped out of the house and pulled the door closed. The wind had picked up, taking the last leaves on the tree from their final grip to life. He looked along the quiet street. Lights were on in most of the houses. But there was no soul on the street. Using his hat as a shield to the wind, Helland lit a cigarette. He saw the blood of the man on his knuckles. He thought of wiping it away. Instead smiled. At least the kid had given a little bit of fight. Helland didn’t like it when murder without a weapon just felt as easy as stepping on a bug. His hand was swinging as he strode up the road towards his car, parked behind the Buick and Plymouth.

It hadn’t been as Helland had intended to begin The Fury. Two could never appease hell’s gluttony for the fresh dead. But it was a satisfying start, just the same. The Knights had travelled with him, also to commence their new wave in Honahee that night, as he’d instructed them. Slipping into his car, Helland made his way to them.

Driving down the street, he thought about what was to come. When this town would burn. There were more sects of the Knights of the White Camellia to persuade to his ways. If he could turn those small town boys as quickly as he had, he knew that others would only have to see their achievements to want to join with. Those small town boys had responded dutifully to threat.

As he turned out onto the main street, his pistol started to appeal to him. He looked at the faces, this society of vermin. The potential that lay in his firearm. He eased off the gas. Keen for some kind of approach. Any excuse to kill. Temptation tickled at him. Yet no one paid any particular attention to the vehicle. Helland picked out faces; individuals to recognise when he returned for them. The walking dead. Not one of them would ever know that death had driven through their midst.

The town slipped away behind him until it became a dot in the side mirror, one that Helland could not take his eyes from. Eventually the view behind turned to black, his headlamps blazing into the dark ahead. It was not long before they lit upon a gathering of trucks by the side of the road, alongside a bridge. Helland slowed. The boys from the delta town were standing about the trucks.

‘Fuck you doin’ waitin’ here?’ Helland said, stepping out of his car. ‘Told you we’d meet further outside town.

‘Got you your revenge, boss?’ a man asked, looking at Helland’s hands in the headlights.

‘Arksed what you doin’ out here,’ Helland said, stepping up to the man.

They were of equal height. The man’s long hair and beard hid most of his face; the light creating pits in the shadow of his eyes. ‘We got somethin’ that’ll make you mighty pleased, boss,’ he said. ‘Down under that there bridge. Had us a little revengin’ of our own.’

‘What is it?’ Helland asked.

‘The body of a man not yet dead.’

‘Whyn’t you just kill him. Why do I gotta see you do it?’

‘It was you said to create the fear first,’ the man replied. ‘Before The Fury.’

With a glare at the man, Helland walked towards the bank. Flashlights showed him the way down. The other men followed him. ‘Just down under,’ one said. Helland turned to him, paused a moment until the man looked away, and then continued down.

He faced into the darkness beneath the bridge. A man stepped to his side, between the river and Helland. He shone his flashlight beneath the bridge, towards the water. ‘Here,’ he said, taking a step forward. Helland followed.

Out of the darkness, a pickaxe handle jarred into Helland’s face, breaking his nose and knocking him down. He was up again in an instant, withdrawing his pistol. From behind, another thick handle smashed into his hand, knocking the gun to the floor. From behind him, a handle hit across his head at the same time as one slammed into his legs, sending Helland to his knees. Two handles in his collarbone pinned him down, piking into the flesh each time he made to move.

The hidden man stepped out of the darkness, a tall, stooping shadow, the bandage over his nose stark beneath the depths of the bridge. ‘You come into my clan an’ think that you can start takin’ control, huh?’ He stopped the length of a man from Helland, looking down at him.

With his chin jutting out, Helland looked long at each face, storing the details. He shifted. The handles dug into his skin. ‘You think that you can kill me?’ he said, smiling. He coughed. Spat blood into the dirt. He spat again at the feet of the man. ‘You think that pussies like y’all is match for me? I’ll raise another crew an’ wipe y’all out first, even before the niggers.’

‘Your ways ain’t how we do down here,’ the man said. ‘We ain’t but one sect of the Knights. Plenty more boys out there doin’ their way an’ we do ours, stickin’ to our own agenda. We have our turf, an’ we do what we do just fine where we are. Ain’t comin’ out here an’ stormin’ a town.’ The man looked around at the other men. They nodded, lifted their handles, and hollered their agreement. ‘Say we pussies now, boy,’ the man said, stepping closer. ‘No? Well, okay.’ He turned from Helland. ‘Prove to the man that we can kill him. Just don’t do it too quick,’ he added.

The pack fell upon Helland. Handles beat down on him. He fought to stand. Attempted to pluck a handle from an attacker. He yelled. He threatened. He spat. And the handles rained down. His knees broke. His arms. Helland squirmed on the floor, still trying to fight back, screaming threats. Growling; spitting; lurching; grabbing. There were too many for him to cause harm; too fierce an onslaught. A handle landed on his back, creating a spasm in the writhing body. Another crumpled his jaw. And the handles rained down, one breaking upon his hip. And the handles rained down.

The leader of the Knights of the White Camellia watched on from beneath the bridge. Some looked to him. He looked back, impassive. He did not interrupt his men. Only when he saw that the man was nearly dead did he speak: ‘Throw him in before he’s all dead, boys. See if he can float with them broke bones.’

A glimmer of life returned to Helland as he broke through the dark surface. As his head splashed above and beneath the surface, gurgled growls rippled over the water. Flashlights shone on him, the men watching the helpless struggle. They laughed and pointed at the broken creature’s desperate failing lurches for life.

The leader of the Knights was watching from halfway up the bank. When he was saw that the struggle had ceased, Helland floating face down in the water, he spoke to his men. ‘We ride home now, boys,’ he said. ‘Ditch the sticks in the river.’

As he walked up the bank, the sound of the sticks plunging into the water followed him. At the top he looked one last time at the outline of the figure in the river, floating with the fallen leaves.

He stepped out of the house and pulled the door closed. The wind had picked up, taking the last leaves on the tree from their final grip to life. He looked along the quiet street. Lights were on in most of the houses. But there was no soul on the street. Using his hat as a shield to the wind, Helland lit a cigarette. He saw the blood of the man on his knuckles. He thought of wiping it away. Instead smiled. At least the kid had given a little bit of fight. Helland didn’t like it when murder without a weapon just felt as easy as stepping on a bug. His hand was swinging as he strode up the road towards his car, parked behind the Buick and Plymouth.

It hadn’t been as Helland had intended to begin The Fury. Two could never appease hell’s gluttony for the fresh dead. But it was a satisfying start, just the same. The Knights had travelled with him, also to commence their new wave in Honahee that night, as he’d instructed them. Slipping into his car, Helland made his way to them.

Driving down the street, he thought about what was to come. When this town would burn. There were more sects of the Knights of the White Camellia to persuade to his ways. If he could turn those small town boys as quickly as he had, he knew that others would only have to see their achievements to want to join with. Those small town boys had responded dutifully to threat.

As he turned out onto the main street, his pistol started to appeal to him. He looked at the faces, this society of vermin. The potential that lay in his firearm. He eased off the gas. Keen for some kind of approach. Any excuse to kill. Temptation tickled at him. Yet no one paid any particular attention to the vehicle. Helland picked out faces; individuals to recognise when he returned for them. The walking dead. Not one of them would ever know that death had driven through their midst.

The town slipped away behind him until it became a dot in the side mirror, one that Helland could not take his eyes from. Eventually the view behind turned to black, his headlamps blazing into the dark ahead. It was not long before they lit upon a gathering of trucks by the side of the road, alongside a bridge. Helland slowed. The boys from the delta town were standing about the trucks.

‘Fuck you doin’ waitin’ here?’ Helland said, stepping out of his car. ‘Told you we’d meet further outside town.

‘Got you your revenge, boss?’ a man asked, looking at Helland’s hands in the headlights.

‘Arksed what you doin’ out here,’ Helland said, stepping up to the man.

They were of equal height. The man’s long hair and beard hid most of his face; the light creating pits in the shadow of his eyes. ‘We got somethin’ that’ll make you mighty pleased, boss,’ he said. ‘Down under that there bridge. Had us a little revengin’ of our own.’

‘What is it?’ Helland asked.

‘The body of a man not yet dead.’

‘Whyn’t you just kill him. Why do I gotta see you do it?’

‘It was you said to create the fear first,’ the man replied. ‘Before The Fury.’

With a glare at the man, Helland walked towards the bank. Flashlights showed him the way down. The other men followed him. ‘Just down under,’ one said. Helland turned to him, paused a moment until the man looked away, and then continued down.

He faced into the darkness beneath the bridge. A man stepped to his side, between the river and Helland. He shone his flashlight beneath the bridge, towards the water. ‘Here,’ he said, taking a step forward. Helland followed.

Out of the darkness, a pickaxe handle jarred into Helland’s face, breaking his nose and knocking him down. He was up again in an instant, withdrawing his pistol. From behind, another thick handle smashed into his hand, knocking the gun to the floor. From behind him, a handle hit across his head at the same time as one slammed into his legs, sending Helland to his knees. Two handles in his collarbone pinned him down, piking into the flesh each time he made to move.

The hidden man stepped out of the darkness, a tall, stooping shadow, the bandage over his nose stark beneath the depths of the bridge. ‘You come into my clan an’ think that you can start takin’ control, huh?’ He stopped the length of a man from Helland, looking down at him.

With his chin jutting out, Helland looked long at each face, storing the details. He shifted. The handles dug into his skin. ‘You think that you can kill me?’ he said, smiling. He coughed. Spat blood into the dirt. He spat again at the feet of the man. ‘You think that pussies like y’all is match for me? I’ll raise another crew an’ wipe y’all out first, even before the niggers.’

‘Your ways ain’t how we do down here,’ the man said. ‘We ain’t but one sect of the Knights. Plenty more boys out there doin’ their way an’ we do ours, stickin’ to our own agenda. We have our turf, an’ we do what we do just fine where we are. Ain’t comin’ out here an’ stormin’ a town.’ The man looked around at the other men. They nodded, lifted their handles, and hollered their agreement. ‘Say we pussies now, boy,’ the man said, stepping closer. ‘No? Well, okay.’ He turned from Helland. ‘Prove to the man that we can kill him. Just don’t do it too quick,’ he added.

The pack fell upon Helland. Handles beat down on him. He fought to stand. Attempted to pluck a handle from an attacker. He yelled. He threatened. He spat. And the handles rained down. His knees broke. His arms. Helland squirmed on the floor, still trying to fight back, screaming threats. Growling; spitting; lurching; grabbing. There were too many for him to cause harm; too fierce an onslaught. A handle landed on his back, creating a spasm in the writhing body. Another crumpled his jaw. And the handles rained down, one breaking upon his hip. And the handles rained down.

The leader of the Knights of the White Camellia watched on from beneath the bridge. Some looked to him. He looked back, impassive. He did not interrupt his men. Only when he saw that the man was nearly dead did he speak: ‘Throw him in before he’s all dead, boys. See if he can float with them broke bones.’

A glimmer of life returned to Helland as he broke through the dark surface. As his head splashed above and beneath the surface, gurgled growls rippled over the water. Flashlights shone on him, the men watching the helpless struggle. They laughed and pointed at the broken creature’s desperate failing lurches for life.

The leader of the Knights was watching from halfway up the bank. When he was saw that the struggle had ceased, Helland floating face down in the water, he spoke to his men. ‘We ride home now, boys,’ he said. ‘Ditch the sticks in the river.’

As he walked up the bank, the sound of the sticks plunging into the water followed him. At the top he looked one last time at the outline of the figure in the river, floating with the fallen leaves.