Hickman, Kentucky 9:05 a.m.
Hunting a man proved easier to Jackson than hunting deer. And much scarier, too. Though a man’s mind was undeniably harder to figure than a six-point buck’s, this fellow with the bloody hands was easy to follow.
It gave Jackson an odd sense of power, greater than he felt when following and bringing down wild game. Men were predictable in the sense they too followed certain routes just as any deer on a trace, but the route this fellow took was the main road between the bluffs and the marshes. Deer took the more direct paths dictated by common sense and shorter distances.
Jackson’s prey was already on the road, yet, by taking the more grueling, path straight up the bluff and through the wooded plateau, he knew he was able to get ahead of the man. He forded the creek at the rocky bend and tore through the undergrowth, not especially concerned of his noise, for he knew there was yet much land between him and the man on the road. He knew every rabbit burrow and gulch in this acreage, for this section was the start of the family property.
They were in Jackson’s playground, but it was no longer a game. He was not chasing down possums or turkeys for his mother to cook later, he was trying to stop a man from harming his family. A sickening bile rose in his throat. A stitch of pain ran across his lower ribs. He worried if he could rise to the threat and be courageous when the time came for action.
As he neared the point where the road leveled to the plateau, Jackson slowed, mindful of alarming his prey. He looked for the soft, mossy patches to step in and avoided the long branches that might crack or snap. Any chimneys of sunlight beaming through the canopy above were skirted outright. He kept his rifle closely parallel to his body, left hand gripping mid barrel and right hand around the stock below the trigger. The end of the barrel was above his head yet he eyed it constantly so as to not let it strike the errant branch above. All this was done whilst he simultaneously watched the road to his right.
Jackson found the first pit which signified the real property line of the southern edge of their land. His father had spent many years setting up these perimeter traps and he had bade Jackson and Doodle learn them all by heart. The boys were told they were strictly for wild game, but they had secretly come to the conclusion some of them were large enough to snare, trap or, even in some cases, kill any man who was unfortunate enough to venture too close to the Forrest property.
His father often expressed his distrust in government—local and national— and was often heard espousing his readiness for when “things fell apart.” These fortifications were his first defense, but they also brought in a good amount of meat, so any more questionable reasons for the traps were easily explained away.
Jackson found the huge fallen oak near the roadside and ducked behind the moist skeleton. He rested the barrel of his rifle between the bright green algae and the pale plates of bracket fungus that had overtaken the dead husk long ago. Here he trained his aim to the road and awaited the madman. He was not worried for even one moment that he had let the man get ahead of him. Jackson wondered how he may possibly slow down his pounding heart, for it was near to jumping from his chest, through his throat and out into the roadway.
He watched the road intently and did not take his eyes from it. Jackson was close to the swamps across the path and he felt the morning mosquitos as they surveyed the boy’s body for fertile acreage. Jackson merely pulled his sleeves down as far as they reached and closed the collar tightly around his neck.
He heard the familiar faint barking and huffing of a nearby deer. Soon the crackling of branches and slow hiss of leaves against deer hide grew fainter as the unseen animal moved away.
The hollow scraping of boots and the pebbles scattering in the roadway arrived at Jackson’s ears first. He did not have a clear line of sight, but saw the odd bowler of the madman slowly bobbing between the branches. Jackson checked his weapon and readied himself.
He realized he had not decided if he was aiming to maim the man or something else. He tracked the fellow with the sights as he quickly tried to come to a decision.
As far as Jackson knew, this man had killed the doctor and Jute and was planning on doing some harm to Hercules or Silas—or both.
Then again, what if this fellow was a friend of the men and was for some reason being held by the doctor against his will? What if he was trying to reunite with them in their travels but panicked from being tied up? Also, hadn’t Hercules himself told Jackson some men may be looking for the girl, Emma? What if this was a lawman who—it was too much to think over, so Jackson stopped thinking about it. He decided to merely wound the man to slow him down long enough for Myra and himself to get home and warn everyone.
The fellow was approaching the bend where the road swung east and went for another quarter mile before it turned up north to the property. Jackson had a decent shot at the man’s legs but the man’s trousers were extremely baggy. Jackson wondered if he could strike one of the bony legs hiding somewhere beneath. He was confident of his marksmanship. He once brought down a buck with a shot that went clean in one eye and out the other—and from a far greater distance, to boot. He raised the sights, aiming for an upper appendage, when a robin landed on a branch a few rods from him and directly in his line of fire. He snatched a clump of leaves and dirt and threw wildly at the bird, who took the hint and winged away.
When he retrained the sight, the man was gone. Jackson silently berated himself for not taking the first shot. He reasoned the man must have kept straight north and entered the woods. If he found the right path, he would avoid many of the snares and be on route, right toward Jackson’s home. The boy leapt to his feet, vaulted himself over the fallen log and tried to close in on the lost prey.
Kemper knew walking right up the main road telegraphed his approach, but by that time, the meddling spies had likely gotten word out, and God knew who was after him. He had taken enough of a risk lighting out for the home on the main road this far, but he had a feeling he was close enough to cut through the woods ahead.
He realized he had no idea exactly where he was or even if he was on the right track. The buffoon in the park may have been suspicious of him and lied, or he could have been the town simpleton who sat sucking on apples and talking nonsense to anyone who wandered by.
Kemper was driven but knew he would be losing strength soon. His last meal was some time ago. He walked straight off the road and into the woods.
Stepping from the sun-baked roadway to the darkness beneath the leafy canopy, Kemper allowed a moment for his vision to adjust. Spots floated about his periphery, but he saw well enough to navigate. He moved ahead. Fifty rods in, he came into a rare clearing and began to move through it. He noticed a low pile of many long, thin twigs laying parallel to each other in the center. He had not noticed it due to the dead leaves strewn over. He was mid-stride and was shifting his full weight onto the downward step when a shocking thought burst upon him. He hopped aside, landing on his feet beside the cluster of scrub.
He groaned as he bent down and inspected the scene. He lightly pushed down on the pile, causing the whole heap to fall inward. The sticks clacked and the leaves rustled as they struck the bottom. He leaned over the edge of a deep pit lined at the bottom with thick, sharpened wooden spikes. He reckoned he was headed in the right direction, for the trap was not intended solely for some wild beast—nor was it likely the only one. To pass through the suspected gauntlet ahead, his progress must be more closely calculated.
As a precaution, Kemper removed his coat, careful to not raise a ruckus of clinking glass from the bottles in his pockets. He he took out the scalpel and carefully slipped it in his tousers and rolled up his jacket, carrying it before him. He skirted the deathtrap and forged ahead.
Desperation hastened Jackson’s pace and slackened the care the young boy took as he pushed ahead to find the madman. Many an errant and unaccounted for twig swung back after his passing, striking loudly against tree or crashing against shrubbery. He winced in self-reproach at each misstep and forced himself to slow his pace.
When Jackson stopped, he listened for and heard some slow movement up ahead. He stepped out onto a trace and moved silently in the empty animal path. He kept low, moved swiftly, scanning for any movement between the trees. In a curve ahead, he saw what looked to be the man’s jacket strewn on the open ground ahead. Jackson raised his rifle and crept forward. He came upon the clothing and looked about as he slowly lowered his rifle and knelt on one knee to pick it up.
Behind him to his right, a dense pile of leaves and weeds burst forward.
He saw the mass of foliage cascading off of a figure beneath.
It was too late for Jackson to react as the wild-eyed man rushed him from behind.
Kemper slammed his shoulder into the boy’s back, causing him to fall face-first into the center of the path. The impact stole the breath from Jackson’s lungs. He lost his grip on his rifle and it flew into the brush.
Kemper stood over the boy, then sat right in the middle of the boy’s back, facing his legs. Jackson kicked impotently. Kemper leaned forward and pinned Jackson’s right leg to the earth. He held Doctor Holloway’s scalpel in his right hand. He tore off the cotton patches with his teeth, revealing the sharp edge beneath.
Jackson squirmed under Kemper’s weight.
Kemper lowered the blade, slashing it through the boy’s trouser—and across Jackson’s Achilles tendon.
North of the impending massacre, separated by a quarter mile of underbrush, clover and thickets of pine, elm and oak, Edgar Forrest grunted under the weight of the ten point buck he carried across his shoulders. The buck was bled but the dressing was to wait until they reached the farm. Edgar made quite a racket, for his steps were shortened by the load bearing down on him. Hercules had offered to tote the game back to the house since Edgar had done the fine work of bringing the game down, but for whatever reasons he kept to himself, Edgar insisted.
“You sure you would not like me to—” Herc asked once more. He carried both rifles so Edgar was only burdened with the deer.
Edgar smiled, shifted the load a bit. “Now, if you keep pestering me, I may begin to wonder if you think I am not in such good a shape. I will manage just fine. That turkey nest should just be up here a ways near the crick.”
“Ain’t it a bit early for the hens to be layin’?”
“No sir,” Edgar said, slipping in a patch of mud. He kept his balance and went on. “Now is nigh perfect timing. I want to get them eggs before they get bony. I sure do prefer the taste of a good turkey egg over any old chicken.”
They skirted a tangle of thorny ivy hammocked between two pines when the hounds both stopped dead and barked frantically. They immediately tensed their muscles and were about to bound ahead when Edgar made a clicking sound with his tongue. This silenced the dogs and they obediently rounded out in a wide circle and fell behind the men.
The men stood together picking through the distance to see what had spooked the hounds when they heard a horrifying shriek.
“It’s Jackson! It’s my boy!”
Edgar threw his burden aside and was already at a full five rods away when the deer flopped onto the forest floor. Hercules was right beside him, stretching out his arm to hand off Edgar his rifle. Edgar took it and tapped Herc on the shoulder pointing for him to follow to the left.
“There’s a line of snares up ahead, come this way.”
Herc fell in behind him. They ducked and bobbed through the thick growth yet were still ripped and scratched at their pace. The hounds kept close at heel.