The men sat around the large table in the dining room of the abandoned mansion. They were thirteen in total, all of them stinking and wasted. They picked at the game meat with their knives and fingers, then wiping them on their filthy rags. Their hats lay on the table beside them like miniature dome monoliths.
The youngest and newest man they had found locked in a room of an old hotel in the company of a young girl with a withered leg. The girl’s bladder had ruptured and she naked lay in a pool of blood. The boy they took with them. Now he spoke with the man nearest him.
“What if them things is out West too?”
“Shit almighty son, then I guess you ought to learn to swim real fast.”
The young recruit shook his head. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
The slaver had been listening to this and he pointed to the only black at the table. “It’s the hand of his god! I have witnessed it myself, by God! I’ve seen them dancing, dancing to their god!”
Johnson looked at the slaver unblinking. “I ain’t got no god.”
“Any slave caught praying to his god on my property received a hundred lashes, and if I heard him calling on his god hence then he’d git a hundred more.”
The company were used to the slaver’s exhortations and they paid him no mind. They talked among themselves of the journey. A small fire burned in the iron hearth and a pot of coffee hung over the flames. The room was airless and the evening hot and the fire and the oil lamps gave off yet more warmth to make it wearier still.
The slaver looked at Johnson and grinned. Johnson’s nose was burnt off to the bone, both nostrils wide open and denuded of flesh. “I bet you was the most terrible nigger there ever was to have done deserved that.” Johnson’s expression didn’t change. He simply regarded the slaver. The men watched. “I ought to reckon with you right now.”
The Captain spoke up. “Enough.” He had been sitting with his head lowered and his palms flat on the table as though in prayer and now he raised it to look at the men.
“I don’t believe that any god would witness an insurrection such as is here.”
The Captain looked at the man. “What you witness around us ain’t nothin more than an operation of some greater plan. They’ll resolve themselves back into the ground by and by.”
“I reckon the devil opened the gates of hell.”
In the dim light the Captain’s eyes were empty wells that bespoke a terrible darkness. Cold fireplaces beneath the mantel of his brow. “There ain’t no god and there ain’t no hell. We don’t serve no purpose, we’re just here.” Then he looked around the table. “You believe in the devil?” he said, “This is him. The devil. Here I sit. This is as close to the devil as you’ll get. Believe that.”
One of the men had fetched a bottle of whiskey. The others threw the water from their dented tin cups and Hitchcock refilled them with the brown liquid. They raised their cups and held them before them briefly in silent contemplation before drinking the whiskey.
Hitchcock distributed the rest of the fluid between the cups evenly. “Drink it up boys. It’s a long distance between this one and the next.” The men drank again. They sat in silence. Outside the horses whinnied and stepped and snorted in the barn. A breeze hissed through the oak trees surrounding the plantation house.
The slaver sneered at Johnson. “I see you.”
Johnson sat cleaning his fingernails with the big blade. When the slaver sang it again he stopped and put the knife down. He regarded him wearily. “God damn, you just don’t know when to quit do you?”
The slaver stood and drew his revolver and pulled the hammer back. “You thought that you would go unseen? I seen you. I seen you right away.”
Johnson stood. The rest of the company watched in silence. “Shoot and be damned, because you’ll only get one shot.”
Only the cap of the gun exploded and in a bloodbeat Johnson’s Bowie knife was buried to the handle in the slaver’s neck. The slaver turned his eyes to the other men before collapsing to the floor clinging to the knife like love. Johnson walked over to the body and retrieved the knife. He wiped it on the dead man’s clothes. Then he walked back to his seat. Some of the men chuckled.
The Captain sat smoking and drinking coffee. “Get him out of here. But save his powder and weapons.”
Two men had stood with the intent of dragging the body elsewhere when the zombie threw itself through the boarded up window. It came forth stinking like some vulture rookery and the company to a man emptied the cylinder of his revolver into the creature in a terrible percussion until it lay still, bubbling like a stew from the heat of the volley.
The men stared at the horrible. The air still reverberated with the noise and was clouded with pistol smoke. A few started recharging the chambers of their pistols.
“I guess we ought to get on then.”