Chapter Thirty Five

Aboard The Cairo Star, on the Mississippi

North of Hickman, Kentucky, 9:28

 

Kemper was standing at the bow of the steamer, finishing off the last of the biscuit when the call was sounded to cut speed. The scene was still a ways off, but the dramatic tragedy of the wreckage was there near shore. His heart beat rapidly and he felt he may push up the few crumbs he had forced down. Several tugs, steamers, and a raft and dingy all surrounded the half-submerged, charred corpse. The most striking sight was one snag boat lifting the crane from the dead snag boat. It resembled some kind of mechanical cannibalism to Kemper, so he smiled.

With midday creeping up, some of the crowd on land had repaired to the shelter of a nearby stand of mossy oaks. A steady parade of townsfolk came and went through a path in the woods. Kemper realized they were picnicking as he spied a hog roasting away on a huge open pit. None of this stirred him. The tragedy and loss of life, the vulturous picking away at the boat’s bones, and the disrespectful air of a town fair stirred his interest no more than if he had a biscuit belch climbing to his mouth. No, what bothered him was not knowing for sure if it was for fact the Lula Belle, and what may be the fates of his prey.

He leaned so far over the railing, one crew member jested he was “near to going swimming.” Kemper ignored the man and worked his tired eyes through the distance. He watched as workers, like ants in a colony, took planks and other debris form the wreckage and sorted them in neat piles as to their usefulness. Any planking or length of chain deemed salvageable was dutifully placed in piles accordingly.

Bodies covered with long canvas cloths were lined in rows along the gently sloping banks, perpendicular to the Mississippi. Kemper anxiously wondered if McDonough, Bennet or yes, even the girl companion, lay silent beneath the shrouds.

As the Cairo Star slid along past the scene, a few citizens on land waved. He did not wave back, but continued searching for some sign or clue. This clue came when a young black man climbing a low branched, fat elm was calling to another fellow below him to look out as he dropped down a long plank of bright white wood. The rather dumb-looking fellow below was slow to react and nearly got a whack on his cranium.

The fellow below caught the immense plank. Struggling with the weight alone, he dragged it across the dry, rough terrain. There was lettering along the length of it. It was up-side-down, but despite this, Kemper still made it out:

“Lula Belle, Salvage/Snag, St. Lo, Mo., F. Smith, Cap’n.”

Kemper limped along the deck from fore to aft, hand over hand on the rail, not taking his sight from the Lula Belle sign and the bodies. He noticed another young black man sitting beside the last covered corpse. This boy was unconcerned with the teeming crowds of the living, but was serenely perched and silently immersed in some private vigil. He would need to speak with this boy about the grim roll call

As the boat was passing the wreckage, he kept following, nearly running into Rausch, who leaned against the rail, glowering at Kemper.

“So,” Rausch sighed, picking at his cuticles with the long-bladed knife, “there’s that boat you been getting in a twist about—or at least what’s left of her.” He did not even give Kemper a flick of a glance.

Thick woods once again filled in the scenery along the shore. Not being hailed to assist at the wreck, the captain of the Cairo ordered the boat full ahead and gave a long, mournful farewell whistle to a sister steamer lost.

Rausch shook his head. “Ah, well, looks like whatever it is you are looking to find out will be washed off with the currents, for the Captain ain’t stopping the circus for one little monkey like you.”

Some old hunting blood sped through his veins. He smelled the fresh trail here and instinct told him staying aboard and chugging on down Memphis way would lead him farther from the answers he sought.

Without preamble or by-your-leave, Kemper snatched the knife right from Rausch’s hand. Rausch was too stunned to protest or even cringe. All he did was paw wildly at Kemper like some child who had a bully steal his toy. That is, until Kemper spun the man around and flicked the knife to his neck. He slipped his free arm through Rausch’s armpit and slapped his hand at the back of the man’s neck, pushing his head forward.

Rausch knew the fellow had him and he stopped struggling.  Kemper looked about to find no one in sight. He pressed the knife harder against the man’s neck.

The canopy of trees on the Eastern shores thickened. It would have sated Kemper’s blood lust to swipe the blade quick and fast, but he knew the satisfaction would not last and the blood he wanted to spill was passing beyond his reach quickly. One dead man here and his absence would be an instant death sentence, the hounds and the law would be soon to follow.

Whether Hercules and Silas were under one of those shrouds or running about cheating death yet again, he would not know either way if he finished this pimple of a boat man.

Kemper did not speak but forced Rausch aft and across the deck above the churning pitman arms. He stopped at the last starboard mooring cleat, facing the river. A large coil of thick jute rope lay at their feet. He pushed Rausch away from him and wagged the knife at his face. “Tie the end around your waist. Use a good knot there, sailor boy.”

Rausch bent slowly, fumbling with his fingers and never taking his eyes from Kemper or the knife—his own knife. He had often thought of the ways he would die, mostly all varieties ended on the river, but none included the sourest note of it being by his own knife.

He lifted the rope, taking in a few loops. “Why should I tie myself off if you’re going to kill me anyhow?”

“Are you really that stupid?” Kemper laughed. He looked over his shoulder taking in the growing distance from Hickman and the wreck. The entire scene was in an eclipse of the bend. “If I was going to kill you, you would have been dead in your sleep the night I came aboard. Now tie yourself off, you gum-flapper.”

Rausch, somewhat relieved at Kemper’s words, threw himself into the work, tying a dandy knot to the length of line wrapped about his rib cage. He lifted his arms and smiled, perhaps about to ask if Kemper approved of his ropework, when Kemper kicked him in the stomach, sending him into the swirling water.

Kemper carefully tucked the knife at his waist in his back and proceeded to shout to the rest of the crew, “Man overboard! Man overboard!”

The words chilled everyone and the crew anywhere within hearing came running to help. It was a deck hand’s worst nightmare that they would slip off the boat and not be heard in time for a rescue before the boat, their home, drifted away and they drowned.

As the men crowded around, Kemper pointed out that it was Ebenezer Rausch who had lost his boat but he had tossed the line to him in time. Every fellow took a spot on the line and they enthusiastically yanked the line, pulling Rausch closer and closer.

Whether the soggy foreman was telling the crew that it was Kemper’s fault or not, Kemper did not know, for he had already made his way to the port side and held the knife away from his body, preparing for his escape. With his free hand, Kemper pressed his hat tightly on his head and dove into the Mississippi.

Though the steamboat was, at the time, in the center of the river, his mania controlled his limbs. He had always been a fair swimmer, but he had been much younger—and less infirmed—when he had last been in water this deep. He bobbed and splashed more than he swam, but slowly he was nearing the bank.

Kemper was afraid.

He was not afraid of drowning, but of losing grip on the one solid thread he had. Desperation kept his arms pushing and his lungs bulging.

He felt the river bottom rising up beneath his legs. He stood and found the river reached up to his collarbone. Kemper waded ashore and swayed with fatigue, dripping, yet he was relieved at having reached safety. He took off his bowler and drained the excess water back into the river and plopped it back on. To bring his body up alongside his spirits, he drank another draught of his elixir. He tossed the emptied bottle into the woods and probed about his pockets to find he only had three left. He had two demons to pursue, but capturing the one first helped lead him to the other.

Kemper, wanting to sit for a moment and let the drug take effect, pushed inland instead of either north to the wreck or south to where he thought the town of Hickman lay. He crashed through many tangled vines and vexingly rough, thick bushes to find a good-sized clearing. He surprised an odd-looking fellow who was crouched beside a long-dead campfire.

The stranger looked off to Kemper for a moment, but returned to his task of picking up a few medical instruments of some sort. One by one, the man picked each up, meticulously brushed them off and set them in a wide-mouthed, square black satchel. There was a tinkling of glass against glass from inside as he worked.

Kemper had lived a life bereft of Grace or good fortune, therefore he was positive there was no God above watching over and caring for him and he knew any man who preached otherwise was a delirious fool . . . yet, in this moment, with need upon him, he pondered his stand on The Almighty. Here before him was a man who possibly had what he needed most.

“You wouldn’t happen to be a doctor, would you?” Kemper asked between gasps for air. Kemper had the distinct impression he was still trying to breathe between strokes.

“I have never seen a more out of the way spot in my life that was so danged busy,” the doc replied. “I spend the better part of my morning finding no living patients and then, in a matter of an hour or two, I am besieged by a flurry of near-drowned ones. Are you a survivor from the Lula Belle? Where have you been this whole time?”

Nothing the doctor said registered with Kemper, for he felt a pressure on his chest and deafness overtook him. He saw the man’s lips move as he rushed over to Kemper, but he did not hear his words. Kemper was a dangerous man with great strength, but despite his desire, Kemper’s limbs no longer reacted to his bidding. He felt the doctor’s arms supporting then lowering him to the ground. He lay on his back gazing at the small patches of blue sky shining brightly through the gaps of branch and leaf above. These all swirled and danced to the rhythm of his blood and the ringing in his ears.

In his diminishing mental state, Kemper wondered hazily if he had taken too much of his laudanum, but just the one bottle proved insufficient lately. The doctor’s face swam in ripples before him and soon all faded to blackness.

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