Aboard the Steamboat, The Cairo Star, on the Mississippi, 5:55 a.m.
“Hey, Kemper?” A voice growled from across the darkened cabin. “Psst! Kemper? You awake?” The words bounced about briefly in the small space until the rough wood walls absorbed them.
“Yeah, Rausch,” Kemper croaked. “What the hell you want now?”
Earlier in the day, when the Cairo Star was poised to shove off, she was one hand shy, for Pie had not shown up. At the last moment, however, Kemper arrived with a note from Pie to fill in as proxy for the missing man.
Despite many questions and several protestations from the foreman, a seasoned man named Ebenezer Rausch, the captain decreed “a hand was a hand” and Kemper was assigned Pie’s quarters and put to duty.
Ebenezer Rausch had been aboard the boat for more trips than even the pilot or the captain. He was as fixture, like the boiler or the tall-stack. His twenty-eight years working the river gave him an encyclopedic knowledge of every port, portage and person for this stretch of the Mississippi and made him well-known and fairly well-liked by most every man.
He did not harbor ill judgment against any man based on first impressions, but something about Kemper bristled his mane. Pie was Ebenezer’s bunk mate and they got along marginally, but Kemper’s convenient arrival and the note, or proxy, or whatever the hell the man wanted to call it, stunk like bilge water to him, which set him against the man from the start.
“What really happened to Pie? What is the story?”
“I told you and the same thing I told the captain. He had to stay behind in St. Louis for health reasons.”
A silence hung and began to weigh on them both.
“That is a fine fable, but I know Pie and he was as hale as you or I. He would not lose this job here. Too much money for too little work.”
Kemper sighed. He knew the work was hard enough, for he had done it.
Kemper threw himself into any work he was tasked with, yet Ebenezer was never fooled. Kemper’s eagerness to please any crew member, his strange ability to be in every place at once, and his constant questioning of men coming back aboard from the wood stops, all these things and a few more stoked Ebenezer’s suspicions.
“I know you been asking after the Lula Belle and some of her passengers. What is it about that boat?”
“I have no idea what you are going on about, Rausch.” Kemper said to the ceiling. “Can you leave off the interrogation till sunup?” He was growing tired only of his bunk mate’s suspicions, but not in his own spirit.
In all, one or two mentions were made about the Lula Belle, and those were fleeting comments as to how fast she was paddling downriver. She made one or two fuel stops and no crew dallied or gabbed about any odd passengers aboard. However, Kemper had heard sufficient news to make him confident he was close behind.
He knew in his bones two of the men aboard had to be his men, but was still unclear as to the young girl’s role in this drama. Pie had told him she was a girl disguised as a boy, but he did not puzzle upon it, for his path was one of righteous redemption aimed straight at the two men. Others stood in his way and had been dealt with and many more would be hewn down yet if need be—man, woman or child.
Ebenezer, a taught, gristle-and-bone Bavarian, may be harder to cut down—especially in light of his position and popularity aboard—but sacrifices might have to be made to reach the promised land.
Kemper knew the men would tell him about his interest in the snagboat. The men might go so far as to mention Kemper asking as to the passengers, two men and a boy, specifically, all with horses.
Let him ask his questions, Kemper had thought. He will find out soon enough.
Kemper’s mere curiosity was not proof of any wrongdoing, but wondered how long he could let Ebenezer’s investigation go on.
“I know you got a problem with the laudanum, too my friend. I wonder what the captain would have to say about that.”
Kemper snorted. “Hell, if being too fond of a nip or some such got one thrown overboard, the Cairo Star would have no crew at all—the captain included.” Kemper knew first hand most men aboard had the persistent stench of cheap whiskey distilling from their pores as they toiled.
Rausch had no response to that, as the truth was often met with silence.
Kemper rolled onto his side, his back to the man and watched as the dawn light grew through the small window of the cabin. The engines slowed and the splash of the sternwheel ceased. They had not signaled the crew for a landing, yet both men sat up in their beds.
Kemper rose to the door. He opened it to find they were drifting midstream in the mighty river and had tied up with another steamer packet heading upcurrent. The captain, a peg-legged Irishman, clomped down the steps and greeted the sister ship’s captain mid deck along the rope rail.
Ebenezer pushed past Kemper without a word and stood outside the cabin door to hear the meeting.
By the lamplight swinging from each boat’s upper decks and faint morning cast, he saw the captains speak and shake hands. Seeing many of the crew about the decks of both ships, the captain of the north-bounder addressed all in a loud baritone, “We got word of a snag boat—the Lula Belle—exploding just shy of The Bend, on the Kentucky shore. So far, there is no word of survivors nor the dangers of the wreck herself. I bear the news sadly, but it may be useful for those going south to keep your eyes to the eastern side so as to avoid her. The authorities from New Madrid are likely there a’ready, so I doubt you will be enlisted, unless she’s causing a stoppage. Just thought ye should know.”
“Thank-you’s” and “good voyages” were flung back and forth as were the mooring ropes. The ships fired up their engines and soon they were both underway once more.
Kemper stood wondering what impact this news had on his agenda. He even panicked over the idea his prey had possibly died before he could kill them himself.
Kemper saw the old man staring at him, a perverse grin upon his mouth.
“What the hell is so funny about that news?” Kemper said levelly.
“Oh, nothing.” He cackled. “Except that boat exploding yonder sure does change that tiger’s spots for you, don’t it?”
Kemper was too troubled by the news to address the Bavarian idiot and ridicule his butchery of the idiom.
Kemper entered the cabin and paced, absorbing the news. Ebenezer stayed out on the deck. He would likely go to the captain soon about Kemper’s interest in the wrecked vessel and the discovery of his addiction. Kemper had no idea how the captain would take such news, but knew he needed the Cairo Star to bring him closer to the doomed ship.
A crewman coming off duty passed Ebenezer on the way to his own room when the man stopped him. “How far yet to Hickman and the wreck?”
Kemper heard the man outside reply, “Nigh on eight, perhaps nine hours yet. Y’all are sure to be the first to sight her for you are up on shift.”
Thorston slipped into the cabin and the two men eyed each other suspiciously. Ebenezer changed into his work togs, slipping his long knife into its scabbard on his belt.
As he left the cabin, Ebenezer asked another passing man, “Is the captain about?”
When informed the captain was not about and in fact, was already back abed, Ebenezer asked the man to send word that he would like to speak to him about an urgent matter as soon as he woke.
“I’ll be on duty, so tell him I shall be somewhere aft.”
Kemper heard the entire exchange as he donned his own clothes, feeling the bottles in his pockets, calming them and himself.
Kemper waited until the sun, still below the horizon, splashed an orange cast to the thin strips of clouds stretching across the pale morning sky. He made his way aft, finding no other souls in sight, which pleased Kemper. In all, it was a beautiful morning and uplifting sight to behold.
Truly a wonderful morning to address a nosy so-and-so, Kemper thought as he drank his dose and heaved the empty bottle into the river.
He trod the planks silently, moving aft to the last cabin at the corner. He crept behind Ebenezer, who sat in a weathered old chair just to the side of the huge, churning paddle wheel. His feet were propped up on the railing as he tipped the chair back, balancing on two legs. The constant splash and churn of the paddles masked Kemper’s approach.
Kemper’s eyes caressed Ebenezer’s knife in the scabbard at the man’s hip. He looked one last time for any witnesses and, finding none, he reached out for the weapon.
He knew he could do it. He knew he would even enjoy doing it. Very much.
He saw himself pressing the blade against the man’s neck, drawing a thin stream of blood which would flow down the blade onto Kemper’s white knuckles.
“You were right about me, you know,” Kemper would whisper in the man’s ear as he felt Rausch shiver with rage. “I am one to be suspicious of. I am nosy as well, but in your instance, nosiness can be an unhealthy trait.”
Kemper would not wait for last words and would draw the knife fast and hard, the old riverman’s knees buckling then he slumps forward. Kemper would give Ebenezer a push and he would spill forward onto the downward plunging paddles. His head, neck, shoulders and then arms would be swallowed up by the giant wheel like bait being taken by a giant fish. He would be thrust under to sink below the churning green and white foam.
But…the more his emotions surged, the more his reasoning was in doubt. He would stand, breathing deep and contentedly, watching the body of Ebenezer Rausch drift off, face down, into the distance.
But…the more his emotions surged, the more his reasoning was in doubt. Kemper had no problem killing, but he knew when it was pointless and would actually cause more problems than it would solve. Now was not Ebenezer’s time, for Kemper needed to keep aboard the Cairo Star just a little longer. He doubted anything Rausch could tell the captain would get him thrown overboard, but if Rausch came up missing, perhaps he had mentioned his suspicions to someone else on the crew and then all eyes would look to Kemper.
Kemper turned and padded back to his cabin to await the call for his next shift, or the wreck of the Lula Bell, whichever came first.