Smitty’s, 10:51 a.m.
Kemper had missed Smitty’s on the first pass. Upon retracing his steps, he finally located the foundry. He was relieved to find it closed. The more people around, the more likely his prey could be alerted. He hoped to surprise his old ‘friends’ if they were still thereabouts.
He considered his lack of weaponry, but his fervor imposed itself on his reasoning and he forged ahead unarmed. He nosed his way around the compound, however, and found an iron bar that would have to suffice if violence came up.
The main building was chained up at the wide front doors and all windows secured. He was aware of his exposure beneath the sun to everyone under it. He was sweating more than he had in years. He wiped his clammy forehead, swilled some of his happy juice and moved off toward the back of the weathered structure.
He tripped over a fat, rusty cable hidden beneath a layer of dried mud and caught himself before he went down. The iron bar fell from his grasp, striking a sheet of scrap metal. The clang echoed about the yard and he froze, waiting for some sign he had been discovered. He only heard the squawking of the river birds fighting over a morsel in the shallows of the nearby banks.
He continued on.
The foundry abutted an old abandoned building. Kemper stopped, for he thought he heard a voice.
He did. Through the puckered boards he heard it again.
“Help! Is there someone out there? You must help me!”
Kemper tried to place the source and soon decided it was coming from inside the foundry, close to where he stood outside.
“Hello? Who is that?” He asked through the wall. He turned his back to the siding and slid down till he sat on his haunches.
“Who is calling for aid?”
“Who is out there?” A pitiful voice asked from inside, “That you, Romeo? Listen here! They all left and now I think it only fair that you unhang me. I swear I won’t say nothing to nobody. Please, Romeo! You know I been a good friend to you. I can’t feel my legs nor arms no more!” The voice was rising in desperation. “I am afraid it may become permanent!”
Not being aware in the slightest what the pleading man meant, it was clear to Kemper this man was being held against his will. That fact couple with the foundry being the last known destination of McDonough and Bennet spurred Kemper into action.
He moved along the wall and found a plank which was rotted and warped at the bottom. He wedged the iron bar between the planks but stopped.
“Are you alone in there, friend?” He stared at the wood as if he could peer through.
“Yes! Yes, I am! Who is that?” The forlorn tone turned hopeful.
Kemper did not answer, but instead put what modest muscle he still had into prying out the bad plank. It cracked a few feet up from the dusty ground. He tossed it away. He was unable to slip through such a narrow opening, so he plied the bar to the adjacent plank and soon had a generous crawl space. He tossed the bar in before him and snaked through.
Going from the blinding morning sunshine into the dark building, it took time for his eyes to adjust. He held still, crouched in the opening, listening for anything beyond his own heartbeat.
Pie noticed Kemper in the gap and pleaded to his would-be savior. “Please, mister! Over here. In the corner. I’m hangin’ on this hook over here.”
Kemper made his way toward the voice and stood looking down on Pie. The man before him was bound about the ankles with hemp rope strung over the hook of a rusty block and tackle used to lift the heavy forge equipment. His hands were tied behind him, his face a truly frightening shade of reddish-purple.
Even upside down, the man’s hideous bowler clung to his head. A chewed up rag lay on the ground below him. Kemper knew this fellow had been hard at work but only managed to remove his gag.
“Please unhook me, sir.”
Kemper was about to oblige, but a thought struck him. “Who are you and how do I know you are not some dark character? What do you know of Hercules Bennet and Silas McDonough? Are you friend or foe to these men, for I will tell you now, I am conscribed by a blood oath to bring those scoundrels to justice. If you be their friend, I would just as soon leave you trussed up, and move along to find them.”
“What manner of fool are you, Mister? Why would a friend of those bastards be strung up so in their lair?” He bucked sideways to add emphasis. He swung slowly and the beam above groaned.
“Careful, Mister; such talk will not get you down any faster. I will un-hogtie you if you give your word you will tell me where to find them and thereafter stay out of my way.”
“A deal is only struck on a handshake, and as you can see . . .” He tipped his head to indicate his predicament.
Kemper wrapped his arms around the man, lifted him and slipped the ropes binding Pie’s legs over the hook. Not having much more strength than that, Kemper let go. Pie landed on the top of his head and the rest of his body slapped down against the floor in a cloud of dust.
“Ouch! You didn’t have to drop me on my cranium.” Pie complained, writhing in pain.
“Apologies. You’re fatter than you look.”
Pie stopped writhing long enough to fire Kemper a testy look. “I shall not take offense and will assume your direct and mean talk is just your brand of humor.” He squirmed artfully upon the floor, slipped his hands from behind him under his legs and rose, teetering as he greeted him. “Many thanks, my friend! You wouldn’t happen to have a knife of some kind upon you?”
Kemper gave no answer and soon Pie hopped about with legs tied, searching the room, ultimately finding a jagged saw on a nearby bench. “Over here. If you wouldn’t mind lending me a hand?” His hat was as flat as a mesa, tilted askew, but it never came off.
Kemper did as asked, and though the rough work in the dim lighting resulted in a snag or two on the flesh of the rescued man’s wrists, the rope was cut in a short time. Pie took no chances with the leg work, as he cut his own ropes.
Kemper noticed the man had but one shoe. “May I ask what happened to your footwear? Why are you half shod?”
“A dirty trick played on me by the scoundrel Herc,” Pie proved the hat was not glued to his head as he plucked it off and punched it back out. As he wedged it back on his sweaty skull, he grinned. “The name is Pie—just Pie, and I sure do thank you mightily.”
He shook Kemper’s hand vigorously yet briefly and went back to rubbing his sore wrists, streaking them with blood from the bad saw work. “Though you may have just saved my hide from an undefined sentence here on the hook, I am obliged to let you know you have done missed your quarry by no more than an hour or two—though it is damned hard to measure time when trussed the way I was. Hell, it could have been longer. It sure seemed like it. You ever sleep hung up-side down? Well, I will let you know, you should just skip right on by the experience if it ever comes around. I may have passed out for a minute or two by sheer exhaustion, but in all, I remember every second that—”
“Could you pipe down for a minute, Pie?—if that’s your real name,” Kemper had the strong urge to slap him, but knew it may staunch the flow of information. “You say I just missed them? How do you mean? Did they leave by wagon or train? Horse, perhaps?”
“No, Sir. Well, they did have their horses, though I might have gotten them as balance due me if it hadn’t been for that little wench.”
Pie searched the area, picking up various items. He inspected a wrench, shook his head as he replaced it, and went looking for the next thing of value. He found a battered corn cob pipe on a workbench and blew into it, blowing a puff of dead tobacco. He pocketed the pipe and kept searching.
Kemper was short on patience. “What are you doing?”
Pie sifted through a crate of rivets on the floor against the wall. Without looking up he said, “I may as well get some compensation for my incarceration.”
“Sir! How did they go?” Kemper was seconds away from hurting this man badly. If he strayed one more word away from the information he wanted, he knew he would certainly choke him.
“They just paddled off on the Lula Belle, that dirty Captain Smitty’s wreck. I am fairly certain they had their horses and that girl, but she is now disguised as a boy. I wonder if you know why that would be? Are you a bounty hunter? Did them boys get in some real trouble? I sure do hope so. How much are they bringing in bounty? Is the girl a ransom point? She acted as if she was with them, why she even knocked me on the head, is what little Dee Dee said. I done figured out Dee Dee is actually a she, y’know? Why all this time—”
He could endure no more, so Kemper slapped him lightly with an open palm. He tried not to hurt him, but if an egg must be cracked to make an omelette, then there it was.
“Hey!” Pie said, rubbing his cheek. “Ain’t no call to get rough, mister.”
Kemper resisted his urge to slap him again, settling on patting the oily, funky man on the shoulder. “I apologize, Pie, but I fear the blood may be gone from your head. You are rambling and if you want to help me catch up to those vermin, you need to focus clearly.”
“I understand, but hot damn, did you have to hit me? I been banged up and tossed about more in the last day than a bastard stepchild.”
Then something Pie had said a moment ago dawned on Kemper. He had seen them with his own eyes aboard the paddle-wheeler earlier. This sent a jolt of urgency through him. “You must help me, Pie! They are slipping away as we speak. Is there any boat you can get me aboard? I know you are in the employ of one loading now.”
“Hold on one moment, mister,” Pie said with an eyebrow cocked. He removed his hat and smoothed the stray hairs, streaking his scalp with blood. “Now, if them fellows is worth something and you all are pulling down a bounty on them, I believe I am due some recompense for the trouble I have gone through. I can earn my keep here and get you aboard a boat, but I ain’t gonna just sit on my hands. You gotta pay the bird if you want to hear it sing.”
“There is no bounty that I am aware of, though I do assume the law is in pursuit as well. My motives are purely of the selfish nature.” He straightened and his face grew calm. “I have four dollars and it can be yours if you can gain me passage on the next boat out.”
That left him a mere two dollars and change, but being this close made him even more nonchalant about his financial standing. If he could close the gap quickly, he would even go the remainder of his funds to this disgusting opportunist.
“No, Sir. I know you stand to make a sight more than four dollars bounty. I will consider it a down-payment, but I need some assurance that I will be given my due once I get you your passage. You got anything else of value? I heard them pockets clinking . . .”
The elixir was worth more than gold to Kemper and the thought of bartering with it made him nauseous. “That noise is my medicine and I shall not bargain with it. Can you simply take my word that I will return and reimburse you?”
It sounded feeble and suspicious even to him. He knew there was only one deal that would be brokered there in Smitty’s foundry.
“Oh really?” Pie slowly raised an eyebrow. “I bet Smitty even has a bible lying around here for you to swear that pretty oath upon . . .”
As puerile as it had sounded to his ears, Kemper was amazed Pie was so gullible, yet there was that river rat, nosing around for the Good Book to swear a deal upon.
Kemper contemplated the iron bar over near the opening he had come through earlier. He knew he was facing an obstacle he himself had made by releasing Pie.
Pie continued his searching and asked absently. “Medicine, you say? Are you ill?”
A route around the obstacle formed in Kemper’s mind. “Yes. Quite ill. The doctors say I have not long to live. I was truly hoping I could find . . .” he looked directly at Pie, no emotion in his own gaze, ” . . . revenge. I doubt you would understand. They committed an act that, to this day, is burned upon my soul and I feel I may find no rest unless I balance the scales of justice.”
This indeed resonated with Pie. “You may not believe me, but I understand fully what treacherous opportunists those men are.”
“Might I suggest a solution that could prove advantageous to both our needs?”
“I will listen,” Pie answered, hands tucked in his trouser pockets, looking thoughtful like a salesman hearing a counteroffer.
“What would the weight of a signed promissory note carry?” Kemper asked, inching a closer to the iron bar.
“I do not understand.”
“What if I were to give you a written promissory note stating I will pay you eighty percent of the bounty upon my turning them in?” Kemper lied, knowing there was no bounty, and that he planned to never see this man again. “A square deal between gentlemen of a united cause. After all, I will not live long enough to spend this money. The doctors will try to take it from me anyway to reimburse them for their services. I would rather see you spending that cash in good spirit than to see them stuffing their already fat wallets.”
“I see. And for this note, what do you ask of me?” Pie rocked on his mis-shod feet.
“Simply a similar promissory note, a letter of reference to the captain of that ship you work for. You tell him to ride me down after the men and after I find them, I return them here for the money and we shall divide it.”
Pie smiled wryly, his eyes narrowed. “He is a hard man. He will not take you aboard unless you pay a fare or work in trade. You do not seem hale enough to take on a deckhand position. No offense.”
“None taken. You are just stating a pathetic truth. I must confide, however, the closer I draw to this rabble, the more I am enlivened. I assure you I can do the job if it aids my quest. How do you reply? Do we have a bargain?”
Pie took all of two seconds to contemplate. “There is a clerk’s desk near the door to the yard. Perhaps it will have paper and pen.”
He watched Pie make his way past the forge pits. Kemper went to the hole in the wall, picked up the iron bar where he had tossed it and tucked it carefully into his waistband. He closed his jacket over it.
Kemper drew up his contract first, on the back of an old work order. The sum was unspecified, but with his signature, he agreed eighty percent of the imaginary bounty would come back to Pie.
Pie perused the document. He stroked his chin, contemplating some detail. “It says eighty percent, but it don’t say eighty percent of what.”
Kemper shivered in anger. He held his ire and said flatly, “As you know, bounties vary depending on the condition of the wanted persons. One rate alive and one dead, so . . .”
Pie’s eyes widened and a sinister grin crept from one side of his lips. “You plan on killin’ them?”
Kemper took a deep breath. “Can you just . . .” He nodded to the paper in Pie’s hands.
Pie read it twice, folded it neatly and stowed it in his hip pocket before scribing Kemper’s introduction letter.
While he fulfilled his side of the deal, Pie gave Kemper the rest of the information he had. He explained that despite being locked inside, he heard most of the discussion between the men and Captain Smitty—including the snag boat contract and the final destination.
Pie’s letter was a potent reference. If he were a steamboat captain, Kemper would be remiss to not hire the man being described.
Kemper took his letter, pocketed it and asked Pie, “Can you think of anything else which may be a boon to me? Any other information?”
Pie scratched his chin in thought. Kemper wanted to be done with this buffoon, but he stayed his anger.
“Now that you mention it, they was talkin’ about goin’ down to Houston,” Pie said, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “Yessir! Houston to get something or other and then on to Arizona. Yessir! Prescott, Arizona. Some old man named Colson is waiting for them.”
Pie was so proud of himself he nearly burst.
“Arizona . . .” Kemper whispered to himself, lodging the word deep in his mind. “Fine, anything at all else? Anything?”
“No sir, I have given you all I know.”
“Good. Tell me, do you have a weapon of any kind? A pistol or knife, anything of that nature?”
“If I had any such thing, don’t you think I would have used it to avoid capture? Why do you ask me this?”
“Oh, just curious,” he sighed, as he produced the pipe.
The iron bar did not register with Pie as being a weapon until it was too late. He looked at it with innocent curiosity as Kemper lifted it high and swung as hard as he could manage, striking Pie’s face with a thick, wet thud.
Kemper felt Pie’s cheek bones crumbling as subtle vibrations down the length of pipe, through his fingers and trailing off at his knuckles. Blood sprayed in a vaporous cloud across Kemper’s eyes. Pie was going down fast but the swift sideways blow snapped his head to his right and the bowler lifted upward off his head. As Pie slumped to the ground, Kemper reached out and snatched the tumbling hat in mid-air and put it on himself. It fit loosely, but comfortably.
Kemper did not feel any remorse or bloodlust when he gave Pie two extra whacks on the skull where he lay. As with money and food, blood meant naught to him. These last two blows had made certain Pie’s fate. Blood had poured freely from his nose and mouth, but soon slowed to a mere dripping. As he had learned from the countless dying soldiers in Andersonville Hospital: when the heart stopped, the blood always did too.
Searching the pockets, Kemper found his note of promise and two dollars. He had turned a profit today—if he cared about such things. He used Pie’s soiled handkerchief to wipe the blood from his face and neck, then shoved it back in the dead man’s pocket.
Kemper picked up Pie’s legs and dragged him to the hole in the wall. He stuck his face through the opening and found nobody nearby. He climbed out first and, with much effort, pulled the dead man through, smearing a thin crimson swath in their wake. He secreted the body away behind a stack of rusting sheets of iron.
Not wasting another moment, Kemper sipped his early lunch of opiate and found Pie’s steamer of employment.
Timing could not have been more fortuitous as the ship was ready to launch. He was directed to the captain, a sour-looking man who also appeared to take a liquid lunch—but of a different flavor. Kemper showed the note from Pie and after a brief but intense grilling he was aboard.