Jackson heard the scream and had no idea it had come from himself, for his attention was fully absorbed by the searing pain in his leg. It felt as if a hot poker was shoved into the back of his leg and slowly and mercilessly pushed up into his calf. This was immediately followed by what felt like dozens of tiny snakes with jagged teeth crawling up his leg and chomping away as they squirmed.
Jackson had underestimated many things about Kemper. He could not have assumed this sickly looking fellow had the might to subdue him so completely, but his mind flashed back to the fight at the doctor’s office and how fiercly he had battled. What terrified him was his strength. Kemper spun around on top of Jackson and delivered a savage blow to the back of the head, smashing Jackson’s face into the ground, blinding him temporarily
“You ain’t gonna be hunting nobody ever again, little man,” Kemper growled as he effortlessly flipped Jackson onto his back. The boy tried to bring his hands up to his nose, which bled profusely, but Kemper slapped each one away and lifted the young man straight up by his collar.
“You followed a little too closely, boy!” Kemper said as he hefted him off his feet and slammed him against a tree beside the trail. “You one of them that interrupted me at the doctor’s?”
Jackson sneezed and coughed blood into Kemper’s face. The madman held Jackson up against the tree with his left forearm and wiped his face with his right, scalpel in hand.
“Where are they?” Kemper asked calmly as he pressed the knife against Jackson’s neck. “You know what happens when I flick this blade through this vein right here? I seen a man do it to himself back in Andersonville. His blood shot nearly twenty feet, I tell you. He dropped like a sack of wet cats and was dead before he hit the ground.”
There was a sickening gleam in Kemper’s eyes as he squinted and smiled. Jackson smelled rotten gums in the man’s breath. Kemper snorted as he laughed again, causing Jackson to flinch. The blade was already cutting into his flesh.
“Talk, boy! I have spent all my patience on you already. Where is your house? Where are they hiding?”
Jackson realized he was done. He knew no matter what he said, how hard he cried or pleaded, the outcome would be the same. “You’re gonna kill me anyway, so how ’bout you kiss my ass?”
This surprised Kemper and his eyes widened. He drew his face away from the boy and gave him a toothy, incredulous up and down assessment. “That is an impressive outlook considering your current predicament. I have to applaud your bravado, but your courage is wasted. Yes, I am going to kill you and then I am going to kill those two coward rat shit bastards.”
Hercules saw Edgar stop dead, drop to one knee and raise his long rifle in one fluid motion. He himself came beside a tree and shouldered into it with a thud as he raised his rifle and tried to sight down whatever Edgar had seen. There, over a hundred rods away was a man in a bowler with his back to them. Hercules was about to ask what he should do when Edgar fired. The clap of thunder in a barrel rang out and clouds of smoke whipped about the breech and end of the rifle.
There was a thick, wet smack as the bullet ripped across Kemper’s deltoid. He lurched forward and groaned. The bullet burst through Kemper’s shoulder ripping a small hole in his shirt and spraying blood across Jackson’s face and nearby leaves.
The report from the weapon bounced from the trees far away then echoed back toward them, sounding like a string of firecrackers lit a mile away.
Kemper knew it was futile to try locating the shooter. Even if he could, he had no weapon to return fire. He released the boy, who slumped heavily against the tree trunk. He dropped and rolled to his jacket, snatched it up and headed south. He knew it was leading him away from his prey, but whomever was firing at him was in that direction and closing in.
He clenched the handle of the scalpel in his teeth and pulled the useless, injured arm up though the sleeve as he raced along. The wounds to his wrists and ankles and the more serious injury to his shoulder bothered him far less than he expected. It’s not to say he felt no discomfort, but knowing he had plenty of anesthetic in his pockets made the injuries far less distressing to him.
Herc closed his left eye and found his target moving rapidly to the right. He drew a deep breath and led his aim out of ahead the man. He fired. The bullet struck a tree beside the man, sending splinters in the air. It ricocheted into the man’s bowler, ripping it off his head and high into the air. Flashes of the man were to be seen dashing through the trees, but immediately both hunters were at a run and reloading.
They did not pursue him, but headed straight for where they first heard Jackson’s cry. Edgar made another clicking sound to his hounds and the dogs peeled away and dove into the brush after the man. Their urgent bawling became a distant, unearthly moan as Herc and Edgar drew upon the poor young man.
Jackson sat slumped against the tree, legs curled beneath him allowing his hand to press upon his leg. Only a small amount of blood seeped through his fingers. In a heartrending pose, with blood smeared below his nose and along his chin, Jackson tilted his head up, squinting with one eye open and crooked little smile. “Hey now, Poppa, Herc. Y’all boys showed up just in time,” his voice grew shaky and weak, “I reckon if you’d a been a frog’s hair longer, I would . . . be . . .”
He fell unconscious and slumped away from the tree. Edgar lunged to his boy and surveyed his grim condition.
Inside the barn, back at the farm, Silas had Emma’s horse’s leg bent back across his thigh. He was picking around the shoe with a hook as Doodle was pitching off hunks of hay into the stalls. They both stopped what they were doing when they heard the reports from the rifles.
Doodle tossed the fork aside and said to Silas, “Poppa don’t like to hunt that close to home, the gunplay spooks the animals—and Momma. I wonder what happened.”
Silas lowered the horse’s leg and stood, looking out into the thick woods to the southeast. “Perhaps they . . . hell, I don’t live here, I don’t know.”
Myra was yelling as she came running up the road from town. As she drew closer, near-breathless, her words echoed loud and clear enough. “Some fellow’s cut up the doc! He was askin’ after you boys! Jackson says he’s comin’ this way!”
Lenora came running from the house as Silas and Doodle trotted from the barn. They encircled the exhausted Myra as she panted, leaning over with hands upon her thighs. “Jackson . . . stayed behind . . . but he said . . . to come tell you all . . . the fellow that slashed up the doc, he fought Jute, he’s comin’ here.”
Doodle was left standing with Myra as Silas bolted back to the barn and Lenora to the house.
Silas slid a bridle on his mount and wrapped his gun belt around his waist. As he buckled in, the two children came to him.
“Let me get our horse,” Doodle said.
“No. You stay here with your mother and the girls,” Silas replied as he climbed upon his bare-backed mount. “We ain’t got time for debate. Get your guns and hunker down and wait to hear from us.”
He exploded from the barn and raced right toward the path beside the house. As he sped along, he passed Lenora who was running from the back door, shotgun cradled and open, shells being loaded.
He caught Lenora’s eye as he flew past and gave her a grim nod. She nodded back. He glanced back to spy Emma joining the group outside.
She was dressed in a pale blue, borrowed nightgown tucked haphazardly into her trousers, Stetson on her head and pistol in her hand. Despite the dire events unfolding around them, he felt a surge of pride at the vision of her and no uncertain amount of endearment. Silas knew she would help steel the general family resolve, yet at the same time he hoped to stem the tide of any danger before it rose near her.
One last glance back before throwing himself into the woods.