Company Message - Company Message
Devil's Due
Then one of the judges of the city stood forth and said,
Speak to us of Crime and Punishment.
And he answered, saying:
It is when your spirit goes wandering upon the wind,
That you, alone and unguarded, commit a wrong unto others and therefore unto yourself.
And for that wrong committed must you knock a while unheeded at the gate of the blessed.
—From The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
October 1897
    Murder. It was all Jesse could think about as he walked along the river road that would eventually wind past his meager shanty. He had plowed until the last rays of light faded from the sky, and now the ever-moving shadows of a brightly-lit night danced around him in all directions. His stomach growled hungrily and seemed to mingle with the night sounds that came on the wind. On his right lay the Neches River, and through the trees to his left floated the yellow orb of the harvest moon.
     His overalls were worn almost threadbare and the sole of his right boot flapped against the road, pulling in bits of rock that hurt his foot. He concentrated on the sounds around him—the night birds, the autumn crickets, the rustle of the wind through the old cypress trees and the great live oaks. Here and there he could make out the outline of a lone pine reaching up toward the starry sky. He knew this country well, knew the road even better, and he made a silent bet that he could find his way home blindfolded and point out every landmark to boot.
     He had walked this road many times, back and forth to the ten-acre tract his mama's master had given him. All his life he'd suspected that Master Hall was his real father, but mama never spoke of it. When he attempted to question it as a child, she just raised her hand in a gesture to hush him, but the signs were there. His skin was lighter than most other Negroes, and his lips were on the thinner side of thick. Where his papa had been a fragile sort of man, Jesse was strong and tall like Master Hall. And, of course, why would Master Hall have granted him ten acres when slavery was abolished? Jesse would never know the truth now; both his mama and Master Hall were dead.
     The river spoke to him. In a rush louder than the wind, louder than the night bird, it flowed hastily through the East Texas countryside and spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. He was not afraid of the river, nor did he fear the other sounds around him. It was what he couldn't hear, couldn't see, that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. It was that uneasiness that forced him to look warily from side to side as he moved on along the road. He knew the woods were filled with the spirits of the dead, the nzambi. He knew some were good and some evil, and so he chanted an ancient prayer, his words barely audible, asking the good nzambi to protect him until he reached his destination. He was a devout Christian, but the gods of his ancestors still beckoned to him. Passed down from his grandmother, he possessed the knowledge of the Vodoun. It was a part of his heritage that could not be laid to rest.
     She had taught him the secrets of the bokor, the sorcerer who brings life to the dead. Indeed, he knew of the bokor before he ever heard the name Jesus. He tried to remember the ingredients of the potion that turned men into zombies—venom from a bouga toad and a sea snake, ground millipedes and tarantulas, tcha-tcha seeds, pomme cajou leaves, leaves from the bresillet tree, the skins from white tree frogs and the poison of a puffer fish. Oh, and he couldn't overlook the remains of the dead, the ground white bone powder that guaranteed the successful rising of a zombie. The entire mixture must be buried in the ground for two days before it would reach its optimal state of potency. Of course, he would never attempt such a thing. It was enough to have the power of the knowledge, enough to know he could call on the tribal gods when he needed their special guidance.
     He walked on along the river road. Up ahead he could see the bend in the road and the great live oak that marked the last leg home. When he made his way around that bend, he would see the lantern light through the window, and it was that thought that kept him trudging onward as the cold wind pierced the thin cotton shirt he wore beneath his overalls. When he did see the outline of the shack and the soft glow emanating from within, he stepped up his pace as much as the torn sole would allow.
     As his eyes made out each intricate detail of the house—the smoke rising lazily from the chimney, the stack of wood resting neatly on the porch, and his son, Simon, sitting in the old rocking chair waiting for him—he felt he was safe, safe from the bad nzambi...and safe from whoever was murdering the women in Cypress Bend.
     Murder. There it was, creeping into his mind again. Miss Joanna, Miss Harriet, and Miss May were all white women and all dead. It had been his business to know and like each of the women in a congenial way, for he had been asked often to perform tasks that they, being single and alone, could not handle themselves. And now he was overwhelmed with the feeling that having known them might be a tragedy. It gave him an uneasy feeling, the kind that twists and ties the stomach in knots. News of each murder had spread quickly through the little town that rested on the Neches River. Why, it was even said that Miss Harriet's head had been cut clean from her body. Jesse wondered how anyone could do such a thing. Must be a demon clear out of his mind, he thought.
     He reached the porch, leaned up against the support post, and removed his boot. As he shook the rocks from it, he ran his hand playfully over his son's head and told him it was too cold to be sitting out in the night air.
     "Boy, you gonna catch your death out here." He smelled the potatoes cooking just the way he liked them, with a little onion added for flavor.
     "Come on in now," he said to Simon,
     "Let's help your mama set the table."
     Emily was standing over the old wood stove, a bright red kerchief tied neatly around her head. She smiled, and Jesse walked over and kissed her on the cheek.
     "Is that your stomach talkin,' or do you got other things on your mind?" she asked. Jesse glanced around the room to make sure the boys weren't watching, and then gave her a little wink and pat on the bottom. "I thought so," she said.
     The inside of the shack was warm and toasty and looked much nicer than a stranger might imagine. Over the windows hung curtains of broadcloth with a delicate flower pattern, one of those little luxuries Emily had scraped to save for, and now Jesse took note of how quaint they made the three-room house seem. The rough wood floors and walls were all scrubbed clean, along with the kitchen table and chairs that Jesse had built himself. Yes, Emily took pride in the few possessions they had, and Jesse wanted so much to give her more, to make all her dreams come true. But Emily's dreams were seldom for herself.
She dreamt of her sons growing into strong, educated men--men who would take a stand for the Negro race. She dreamt of a future filled with loving grandchildren and a corn crop that would bring in enough money to feed her family through the next winter. In fact, there was only one thing Jesse knew of that Emily wanted for herself, and that want had not even been a spoken desire. He had seen her eyeing a dress of rich, green velvet on their last trip together into town, and even the four-dollar price tag had not swayed him from his decision to make that dress Emily's Christmas present. He had pulled the storekeeper aside and made arrangements to pay it out, and he was already over halfway there. Yes, indeed, Emily would have that dress.
He could hear Simon reading to the other boys in the front room of the house. It was a good thing to be able to read. Jesse had taught Simon himself, and Jesse's mammy had taught him. All in all, they had a good life. Jesse believed that as long as they had each other, that was enough to satisfy his heart until the day he died.
     "Jesse, supper's ready," Emily said over his shoulder. "Will you call the boys and say the blessing for us?"
     It was a blessing to the God of Christianity, and they all bowed their heads reverently as he gave thanks for their food and their happy life. The food tasted as wonderful as its enticing aroma had suggested, but two bites after the "Amen," the meal was interrupted by the sound of horses and a wagon approaching. Moments later, a din of angry voices was carried through the walls. 
     Emily looked at Jesse fearfully and followed him to the front window, wringing her hands in front of her. He pulled a corner of the curtain back and counted seven angry men with torches.         
     "Jesse!" Emily screamed. "What do they want?"      
     "Now calm down, Emily. How can I know that till I ask?"      
     He let the curtain fall back over the window and wiped a thin line of sweat from his forehead. The boys were standing in the doorway between the front room and the kitchen, their eyes as wide and round as the full moon he'd seen earlier.
     "Open the door, Jesse Hall, before we break it down!"
     And the door did start to splinter and bulge, as the mob pounded furiously against it. If he went for his Winchester, they'd be certain to shoot him with no questions asked.
     "Jesse, we know you're in there. We saw you through the window. Don't make us hurt your family!"
     Emily took her place beside him at the door and motioned to the children to stay in the kitchen. She was trembling, and Jesse had no time to comfort her. He pushed her away.
     "Go," he said, pointing to the kitchen.
     "Do as I say, woman."           
     Obediently, she moved away. Jesse saw the tears in her eyes, smelled her fear. It melded with the scent of his own fear, as he stiffly turned the knob and pulled open the door.
     "Jesse Hall, we found your axe in the brush behind Nell Lindsey's house!" said a bearded man with torch in hand.
     "What do you have to say for yourself?"
     "Mistuh Thorne, you know I been chopping wood for Miss Nell," Jesse said. "You know I been helping her with her chores since her daddy passed away."
     Another man stepped forward. "All we know is that Miss Nell is dead, hacked to death. She was found this afternoon, along with your axe, Jesse, and it was covered with blood."
     "Yessuh, I was there this morning, like I was there yesterday morning, and I was going back tomorrow. I left my axe, yes, but Miss Nell was alive when I left at noon. I swear it."
     "You killed the others, too, didn't you? You're just a white-woman lovin' nigger, ain't you?"
     Jesse shook his head and backed into the house, but they were quickly upon him. Emily screamed somewhere behind him, and he wanted to tell her everything would be all right, that this was all a terrible mistake. But they were dragging him down the porch steps and across the yard before he got the chance. That's when he saw the rope in the lawyer's hand.
     "What you gonna do?" he wailed, struggling against three of them with all his strength. "You gonna hang me on my own land, in front of my wife and boys? I didn't kill nobody!"
     "Take him to the big oak at the bend," the lawyer said, "and shut him up!"
     "But, Mistuh Kurtz, you's a lawyer," Jesse pleaded. "You know this ain't the right way!"
     "I said shut him up!" Kurtz pulled a shorter length of rope from his saddlebag and shoved it at one of the men. "And tie him up. We don't want him getting away."
     Jesse was too stunned to resist when they bound his hands and shoved a dirty handkerchief into his mouth. He was too stunned to feel the pain in his shoulder when they threw him into the back of the wagon and tossed a quilt over him. He faintly heard the voices, felt the wagon begin to move, but he couldn't accept any of it. This can't be the end, he thought. My boys!
     The wagon arrived at its destination too quickly with no time remaining for Jesse to devise a plan of escape. He tried to kick the quilt off, but he couldn't manage it without the freedom of his hands. He could sense they had moved away from the wagon and for a few precious moments, he thought he could manage to escape, thought he could get back to his family and run from this God-forsaken town. For the chance to grow old and see his boys become men, he would have given up his home and the ten acres; he would have given up almost anything. He rolled blindly to the edge of the wagon and wriggled off in an attempt to free himself from the quilt, but he had barely hit the ground when he felt rough hands around his ankles. They were dragging him across the distance between the wagon and the oak tree, and now he did feel the pain as his head and shoulders met with each obstacle in the path. He moaned and was rewarded with a swift kick to the side that only caused him to cry out louder. The quilt became tangled around his head, and he thrashed violently, gasping for air.
     "Get that thing off him," he thought he heard Kurtz say. "We don't want to be cheated of our justice, do we? Why it wouldn't be justice at all if he died before we got him to the tree."
     The journey across the ground seemed infinitely longer than the journey in the back of the wagon and by the time they reached the tree, Jesse had quit struggling altogether. He sat on the dirt beneath the tree that no grass grew under and stared up at the branch that would take his life in a few short moments.
     "Who will be my judge?" he asked. "And who will be my jury?"
     Not one of them could look him in the eye. The silence was overwhelming, and it occurred to Jesse that he ought to pray—pray for his own justice that he might live, and pray for his soul lest he die.
     "Hear me out," he said when they hoisted him up onto the horse.    
     "Please, hear me out!" he screamed when they slipped the rope around his neck.
     "I guess we can allow that much," Kurtz said. He stood at ease with his hands crossed in front of him, and his expression of amusement was accented by the glow of a nearby torch. "Well, go ahead," he said. "Let's hear it."
     Jesse sat erect in the saddle and when he opened his mouth to speak, it seemed even the night sounds died away, leaving an eerie silence that made some of the men move uneasily before him. Stretched out long and thin behind them, their shadows seemed the shadows of demons waiting to engage in a sacrificial dance of destruction.
     "I'm just a poor man with a wife and four sons," he began, "and all my life I minded my own business. I ain't messed in nobody else’s' affairs. And all my life I believed in the white man's law because it seemed fair—that a man is innocent until proven guilty. But tonight, there ain't no justice and all of you is being cowards—pulling a man from his supper, from his family, to hang him in the dark. No, there ain't no justice here tonight, but I swear on the good life I've lived that justice will find each and every one of you."
     "That's enough," Kurtz said. "Boys, let's get this over with."
     Nobody moved, and Jesse thought he'd gotten through to them. He imagined they were waking from some sort of spell and coming to the realization that what they were doing was terribly wrong.
     "Damn it, are we going to stand out here all night in the cold?" Kurtz stared menacingly at the others. "Am I going to have to do this by myself?
     Thorne, the bearded man, started toward the horse and looked back at the others, who still seemed unsure of what they were doing out in the darkness, beneath this tree and the black man with the rope around his neck.
     "Justice will find you all," Jesse said, as the bearded man walked over to the rear of the horse. "All of you!" he screamed when the final command came.
     They all stood solemnly, as he struggled in the open air. The rope seemed to tighten around his neck with every pass his body made through the space that belonged to him alone. As long as he dared to breathe, he knew no one would cross the invisible line into that space.
He didn't know if it was the Christian God, the Vodoun gods, or the devil himself who granted him one last favor, but at the moment their faces started to fade and he felt the embrace of unconsciousness, he had a vision. It was a glorious vision of heightened proportions, and suddenly the truth came shining before him like a burst of lightning. He knew who the real murderer was, and that knowledge tore at him, consumed him, until the act of dying was just a mere technicality, an obstacle to be overcome.
     It was during the very last moment of his life, with his very last breath, that Jesse Hall forgot about the God of Christianity and called upon the spirits of his ancestors. Give me the power, give me the will, and give me the immortality to make right this terrible wrong.I offer my soul to you for the soul of the man who caused my death and the deaths of innocent others. Use me in whatever way you must to avenge this injustice. I am yours.
     The struggle for life ended with the last twitch of the body, and one of the men turned away, as if ashamed of the picture before him. Kurtz took a knife from his pocket and walked hesitantly beneath the limb from which Jesse's body still rocked slowly back and forth in the river wind.
     "Justice will be mine," the swaying rope seemed to whisper. Justice will be mine.