Chapter Forty Five

Hickman, Kentucky, 8:22 a.m.


Not a refined town by any means, Hickman still had pride in itself. Every resident knew every other one as well as they knew their own kin—and for as long. One tragic event solidified their pride and sense of community.

Yellow fever had spread its grip of death far and wide up and down the river, and it found roost in Hickman. The vicious disease swept through the river town just two years prior. Though they said Yellow Jack would not sting Kentucky, sting he did, to the number of one hundred and fifty of its beloved residents passing.

A ravaged populace of strong Kentuckians stood in the face of death and stared him down. They did not flee as they did in Memphis, where the specter of the disease caused over half the town to evacuate, collapsing a healthy metropolis. No, these stubborn folks tended to the sick, even opening a hotel as a hospital. Those who were not burdened by the plague buried the dead and bound themselves even more tightly together, rising stronger, a bastion of hope and promise along the Mississippi bluffs.

One truth emerged from this trauma and even from the late war. A city’s real strength and place in the modern world and the future lay in the children. That is why Hickman loved and nurtured the young, rich or poor.

Myra and Jackson descended the bluff and weaved along the avenues of manicured lawns, bright red brick houses with white wooden trim, paved streets on central avenues and even a lovely park or two built amid old trees that had seen the town grow up around them.

An atmosphere of endurance and timelessness slowly pulsed in these old river towns. Though the trains had slowed boat traffic and commerce, though long-time residents may seek greener pastures elsewhere, though the river may sometimes rise and threaten to wash it all away, there was a quiet assurance that towns like Hickman cradled gently in the spring breezes. As katydids buzzed and flung themselves from blade of grass to branch, as dogs barked lonely yelps in the lazy sun, these towns looked out on the rolling waters, sure they would always be. While the rest of the country heard the clang and rush and crash of progress, Hickman heard nothing but a distant thunder of a far off storm they were sure would pass them by.

These ancient oaks and elms towered over the two youngsters, providing huge patches of shade as they cut across the park toward the doctor’s house.

Dinsmore Elkins, the haberdasher, waved to the children as he crossed their paths on the way to his shop on Clinton. Though Edgar Forrest was considered an odd and rough fellow by many, his children were spared their father’s label and were well-liked by the general populace. They were the future and they were shined upon. This is also one of the reasons Jackson was indulged when he tromped all over the town with his rifle. He was allowed such freedom, for one day, he may be one of Hickman’s great leaders. Besides, the image of a young Kentucky boy racing about with a long rifle was simply too powerful a nostalgic elixir to deny. The old folk drank it up.

Jute Parker, one of the few town layabouts, removed his cap and hailed to young Jackson from a bench near the rear of the park. In his typically indolent manner, he waved, but did not, of course, rise from his shaded sanctuary.

“That man . . .” Myra said, shaking her head in disapproval, “he just sits there like he is too pooped to pop. It ain’t even hot yet and he makes it seem like August has telegraphed and said it was on it’s way.”

“Well,” Jackson replied to Myra as he returned Jute’s wave, “he’ll be a movin’ like mercury soon as Sheriff Dobbs comes along to roust him. Dobbs abides no vagrants—no matter the heat.”

Jute waited until they got nearer when he said, “Hey ho, Jackson! Bell’s shop just got in some fresh shiners—in case you was thinkin’ of dippin’ your rod in the river later!”

Jackson was about to pass him by when he was shocked by a round mass of purple flesh around Jute’s eye. “I bet them shiners ain’t as big as the one around your eye.” He usually had a more respectful tongue in his mouth when he spoke to his elders, but Jute was a drunk and in Jackson’s mind, it made him ripe for ribbing.

“Aw, now Jackson, you oughtn’t tease me so,” Jute replied, touching the bruise. “I got this respectably this time.”

Myra was growing impatient, she lifted her chin in the direction of the doc’s and tugged at Jackson’s arm. “Let’s go. Momma made clear we wasn’t to dawdle.” She was almost set to release some sour comment upon Jute but by the way he gingerly poked his face, she didn’t have the heart to injure him further. He was not a bad man, and like so many folks in Hickman, he too had been scarred by the fever’s brutality. His mother and wife had been among the victims of the yellow fever two years back. Since then, he spent most nights sleeping his liquor off in the cemetery by their graves.

Jackson sensed a story in Jute ‘s comments, so he plucked himself from Myra’s fingers, folded his arms with rifle in the crux of an elbow and stood at ease. “Respectably, huh? How you mean, Jute? I figured you just got in another fight over a bottle at the saloon.”

Jute chuckled and shook his head. “No sir, not this time. I got this-un by way of some feller what survived the wreck last night. Well–he survived the wreck yesterday, but the doc done found him in the woods nearby and had me help bring him back to the doc’s office. We carried him up from the woods and he was sleeping all peaceful like, but as soon as we got him inside, he done went wild and started swingin’ on us both. Doc managed to duck, but I was too slow.” He reached up to poke his bruise again, but forgot which eye it was and poked at the healthy one for a second before noticing. He glanced up under sly lids to see if the children had noticed. “He was goin’ on and on about some other fellows who was supposed to be on the boat, but Doc put him under real quick and got him tied up for his own safety.”

Jackson shared a questioning glance with his sister. “You say he was looking for some fellows was on the boat with him?”

“Didn’t I just say those words?” He wrinkled his face at Jackson and looked to Myra for help with the fool child. “Didn’t I just tell him that?”

Myra ignored his need. “Now I heard there were no survivors.” She slipped an elbow into Jackson to keep him quiet while she poked around the drunk’s brain.

Jute rubbed the back of his neck as if that was where the puzzle lay. “Well, doc told me a few three men had made it. He said he done looked over one and he was real sickly. He told them to take the fellow somewhere dry in town, but now that I think on it, he didn’t tell me no more than that.”

Myra pulled on Jackson’s arm more insistently. “We need to get to doc’s and get that medicine for Francis.”

Jackson knew she was in a hurry, and not just for the medicine, but he pulled free once more to ask, “You sure this fellow was from the wreck?”

“Now when did you get so thick-headed, Jackson?” Jute asked, real concern blooming in bloodshot eyes. “I just told you–”

“We got to go, Jute,” Myra interrupted.  She tucked her arm through Jackson’s and threw her head over her shoulder to hurriedly add, “I hope your eye gets better.”

“Why thank you, Myra!” He rose as the two walked away. “You always was the kindest of the Forrest lot.”

They got a few steps away when Jute began to follow. “You know, I think I best come along, just in case that fellow is still feelin’ a little cranked up. I would sure feel bad if he got loose and was to try and hurt you all. He caught me off guard the one time, but I am sharp and onto his manner now.” He straightened up and strode behind them with purpose, though weaving a little.

Myra glanced back, making sure Jute was not too close to hear. “Silas and Herc said there were no survivors except them, the girl and the black fellow. Could they be mistaken?”

“No,” Jackson replied as he locked his sights on the doctor’s house. A seriousness arose which she had not seen in her little brother before. “I was there, remember? Myra, I sure hope the doc didn’t tell nobody the boys came to our place.” He was calculating events as they neared the house. “They said the law may be looking for them from St. Louis.”

“You think this fellow Doc has trussed up is the law?”

“I ain’t sure, but we best ask the doc what really is going on. I fear this don’t bode well for Mister Herc.”

“Or Silas,” Myra added quickly.

No one mentioned the girl.

Kemper lay still and struggled to not react as Doctor Holloway poked at the lacerations on his ankles with a drug-soaked swab. The pain was but a pin prick compared to other wounds in his life, but it was a surpise for he had his eyes closed still.

He was lightly rocked back and forth as the doctor sat on the lower edge of his cot and reached across to untie his other leg. Kemper risked alerting the doctor as he carefully twisted his hands in the restraints at his sides.

The doctor gave no sign of noticing as he unfurled the last of the bandage, tossing it up into a pan on the counter. Kemper looked down and saw the doctor bend ever closer to the wounds, dipping another swab in a tincture bottle.

Rose bushes grew tall on either side of the Doctor’s front porch and they greeted the Forrest children with their perfume. A long, wooden ramp with sturdy hand rails for the wheelchair-bound patients ascended from the curb up to the porch.

Myra and Jackson clomped loudly up the long grade with Jute scuffing his feet close behind.

As Mrya came to the door, she turned to Jackson. “You have to wait out here. Momma said you ain’t had the measles yet and those twins may still be contagious.”

Before Jute could bring up the rear, Jackson noted, “But I need to ask the doc if he told anyone about the boys coming to our home. And we need to find out who this fellow is that Jute helped bring here.”

Myra raised the knocker and brought it down twice lightly. “Don’t worry, I will find all that out right after I get the medicine. Trust me.”

Jackson sat on the edge of the porch, legs dangling. He carefully rested the rifle butt in the ground below and leaned the barrel against his legs. His hat came off next as he placed it beside him on the porch.

Jackson leaned over the edge of the porch inspecting the shadows of the space beneath.

“You gonna have to knock harder than that,” Jute offered idly, leaning against the wall, trying to decide if his hands should go in his pockets or folded across his chest.

Myra peered through the window beside the door, but could not see beyond the drawn curtains. She hesitated knocking again. “I do not want to bother the twins if they are sleeping.”

“Porter says them sisters of his don’t never sleep—even if they ain’t sick,” Jackson said as he hopped down into the dirt and crouched low to better survey the crawlspace.

Doctor Holloway heard the knock and sat up. Kemper looked at him from behind, the doctor’s head turning toward the front door and then slowly turning towards his patient.

His gaze was curious at first, but when he locked eyes with Kemper and found him awake and aware, he flicked a glance at Kemper’s legs, then saw him working his hands from the wrist bindings, but it was too late for the good doc.

Kemper drew his right leg back, swung it down hard on the back of Holloway’s neck, then used his feet to pull the doctor in closer, wrapping his legs completely around the man’s head.

The crazed patient released his death-grip on the throat only long enough for the doctor to answer his question. “Where are they?”

The doctor slapped at Kemper’s legs, croaking out, “Whoooo?”

“Silas and Hercules!” Kemper shouted as he gave a violent shake to the man in his grip. He wrested his hands from the bindings and bent forward, deftly replacing his legs with his fingers around the doctor’s throat. “The survivors of the wreck! Where are they!”

Myra had lifted the knocker again when they all heard the shouting from inside.

“Tell me where they are or I will kill you!”

Jackson jumped to his feet and ran to the door, pushing the others aside. It was unlocked and he threw it open and crossed into the house. Myra and Jute exchanged stunned looks, but the town drunk had a grand moment of sobriety as he stepped around Myra aside, reached in and snatched the back of Jackson’s collar just before he darted out of reach.

With a strength he hid behind his liquored up facade, he lifted Jackson, who kicked and thrashed, and turned to place the boy gently by his sister in the threshold. “You two stay put. It may just be this fellow is having a bad recovery, but I will take a look.” He lumbered a few steps into the long hallway, stopping at the foot of the stairway leading up to the second floor. “Stay put.”

Kemper loosened his grip once more, but the doctor only coughed, tears draining down the sides of his cheek. He stood and pivoted himself so the doctor was now laying back on the bed, his legs curled under. Kemper released his hands from the doctor’s throat, clutched his collar with his left hand and slapped him across the face with the right.

“Where are they?”

Nothing but a whimper as the doctor shielded himself from another blow.

Jute hurried down the hallway and turned the corner. He grabbed the door knob and shook it, finding it locked.

Jackson looked at his sister and down the hall. “To hell with this!” He bolted after Jute, leaving Myra stunned.

It only took a second before Myra found her wits and darted after the others.

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