Chapter Forty Nine

The Forrest Property, 9:39 a.m.

 

Kemper propelled himself forward stopping only briefly to note the location of the hounds. They were coming directly for him and closing in quickly.

One was close, the other swinging up from behind to the north. He judged this as a boon, for he may be able to fend off one at a time, but definitely not two in tandem.

He heard a train sounding its approach to Hickman. He crossed the tracks but knew the engine would not reach his location in time to block the hound’s pursuit. He ran toward the river. The thick growth ended just ahead. He knew he was above the river at the northern bluffs. He reached the limit of the woods to find the land dropping off to the Mississippi below.

He chose this place to make his stand. Kemper was unable to fully manipulate his hand and arm, but he could, with the help of his uninjured one, raise it to a defensive height. He wrapped the coat around his forearm and held it as a shield before him.

The first hound came, jaws dripping spit and eyes wild with the hunt. Kemper planted his legs and crouched down facing the onrushing beast.

He felt the subtle brush of the open river breeze against his back.

The hound sprung from the ground as it reached striking distance. Kemper had to admire the fierceness and abandon of the hunter. The animal had invested his whole being into that one attack.

Unfortunately, the play was ill-fated. Kemper let the dog bite into the coat as it flew toward him. In a fluid motion, Kemper dipped to his right and used the animal’s momentum to swing him up and out over the river.

The hound released Kemper’s arm as he instantly realized his predicament, paws flailed at nothingness and his fearsome baying turned to pitiful yelps as he plummeted down to crash against the cliff walls. Kemper did not have time to note the fate of the first attacker as the second one emerged with similar ferocity.

Kemper made no dramatic acrobatics with this hound. He merely let the pup clamp down on his sheathed forearm as he swung the scalpel up and under the dog’s neck. Slashing repeatedly, Kemper forced the dog to retreat. It did not bay, it did not bark. It managed a solemn retreat of only a few rods into the underbrush where it swayed in its tracks and fell dead on its side.

Kemper exhaled heavily. He slumped, grimly noting his exhaustion and the searing pain from his shoulder wound. He unraveled the coat and pulled it on. He fished in a pocket and drank a whole bottle.

As the effects of the injury were slowly lifted, he reminded himself the riflemen would soon be upon him. He turned to face the river and looking down the cliff, he doubted it as a viable point of egress. He held onto a sapling with his right hand and leaned out so as to have a better look below.

Though many trees had miraculously found purchase in the soft sandy cliffs, he doubted any had sufficient rooting to hold his weight.

He noticed the first hound had not, in fact, died. It limped pitifully, far south along the sandy shore.

Kemper was about to lean himself back when the sapling uprooted and lifted in his grip. He tried to shift his weight to compensate, but the thin layers of moist stone gave way beneath his feet. A neat, semi-circular crack formed in the slab of rock. The tiny shelf tilted toward the river and slid downward. Kemper silently rode the rock plate over the edge.

 

Silas hunkered close to his horse’s neck so as to not get knocked off by the flurry of tree limbs. Within minutes, he had located the group. It took him no time to assess what had happened.

“Put the boy on my horse and get him back home,” Silas said to Edgar. “Hercules and I will head out for whoever done this.”

“Silas, you think they may be in numbers?” Herc inquired as he helped Edgar tie off the boys wound and get him on the horse.

“No, Herc, I reckon this is one fellow—one crazy fellow. The girl, Myra, said she and Jackson here saw this man attack the doc and and another fellow and he was asking after us.”

Herc whitened at the news. “I was afraid we would bring danger to these folk’s door if we stayed. Damn.”

Edgar had balanced the young man face down across the horse’s back and was about to lead him away when he turned to the guilt-ridden man. “Listen, Hercules, when I asked you here, I knew you all was being looked for. This here fellow ain’t no lawman. This is something worse, if there is such a thing. You are not blamed. I have to go, but once my boy is safe at home, I will return to aid you finding this scoundrel.”

“Stay with your family, Edgar,” Silas said. “We done been hunted and we done some hunting, too, so you stay and make sure they’s all safe. I reckon we can track down one man.”

Herc bent and cupped his hands beside the horse. Edgar took the offer and swung up in front of his son. As he trotted away, he said, “He’s headed toward the river. Stay to the paths as much as possible, but be vigilant of my traps.”

The men both nodded and set off after the fugitive.

Silas drew his revolver and they raced a few rods down the path when Herc spotted the tree he had struck while trying to bring the man down. “Look there, Silas. It’s the man’s hat. Shot it off his head when I was rightly intendin’ to shoot his head off his neck.”

Silas picked it up and held it before his friend. “Look familiar?”

“Why, yes, a might, but I can’t say exactly who—”

“That rotten son of a bitch, Pie! This is his bowler, dang it.”

Silas threw it on the ground and stomped on it. They quickly moved on.

“I did not get a clear look at the man, Silas, but I am damn sure that weren’t Pie I shot at. Pie is all round in the middle and has that real shiny pate. When I blew this fellow’s hat off, it weren’t shiny.”

“So whoever this is, he at least knows Pie. Hell, Pie wouldn’t give up his ratty hat to nobody . . . not willingly, that is.”

They both looked at each other when Silas spoke that conclusion.

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