Part 5: Bounty
The steamboat adjusted coarse and moved through the waves towards the torches. I could feel the boat strain under the weight of the attached leviathan. The creature seemed to have temporarily ceased its resistance, though faint rumbling sounds still murmured from below.
When we neared the shore, I surveyed. An enormous cage, three times the size of our barge was sitting in the water, ajar. It was attached to a hefty carriage, which adorned at least a dozen stallions at its reigns. But as we got even closer, I saw the strange silhouettes of those who were holding the torches. It was a waiting party of sideshow freaks, no doubt some of the same ones who were illustrated upon the posters at the barn. Some were tall, others short. Some were paper-thin and others were pudgier than pudding. But they all had one thing in common. Their cacophonous, unintelligible chatter sent shivers up my spine.
“How do you want to proceed?” asked Captain Finnegan as we neared the cage that was ten boat lengths from us.
“Would it be a conundrum to make such a transfer?” asked Conrad.
“Nope. Just have to steer this old thing at an angle. Once the stern aligns with the cage, the big devil should swim right in the cage when the line’s severed.”
“You hear that, my fair Fritz?”
“I did, sir.”
“Can you manage such a maneuver?”
“I can, sir.”
“Very well,” said Conrad, reaching into his breast pocket as he climbed the steps up to the deck. “I suppose all that’s left is payment.”
We rested upon the lower deck and sighed in relief at the thought. The monster stared coldly from its bindings.
A shot pierced through the air from atop the deck. A thick thud from above and the boat rumbled to a standstill. We scurried to the steps, but a dagger wisped through the air and stabbed into the wood ahead.
We reared. Fritz the Fire-Breather was standing there, his waist one dagger short. He shook his head with his arms poised.
My heart quickened. I could hear faint murmurs and possibly even laughter from the shore.
“Yes,” said Conrad’s voice from above. “Paid in full. Next up, we have John Gray, I do declare.”
I grabbed John’s wrist as I would a child’s before he was about to walk in front of a stampede. Fritz growled and readied two fresh, moonlit daggers. I sorrowfully let go of his wrist.
“John, good sir…your bounty awaits,” said Conrad.
John Gray stood and slowly stepped up the wobbly steps.
I closed my eyes. Something like a pulling click sounded.
Another shot. Another thud.
Sweat and tears married and became as one upon my face. I shut my eyes.
“Richard? Yes, come reap the fruits of your labors, Sir Richard.”
I could hear him crying next to me when he too arose and ascended the steps.
A pulling click.
“Bill. Oh, Mr. Prescott. I do look forward to bestowing upon you tokens well above and beyond your merit.”
But when I peaked my eyes open, Bill Prescott was standing tall and erect, his face emotionless.
The monster rumbled. It seems it was regaining its strength.
“Bill…now, please,” said Conrad like a school teacher.
“No,” he said before spitting.
But Fritz would have none of it. He walked over to Bill and yanked him by the hair and hurled him up the steps.
I heard a few more potent curses from Bill Prescott.
The gun fired. And it fired a second time, followed quickly by a third. And then the thud sealed the matter.
I stood below in a desperate panic. I readied my stance to leap over the edge when…
“Sonny? Sonny-oh-boy, do join us up here, won’t you?”
And something impulsive, something stupid even leapt inside my chest. It told me to obey. I slowly made my way to the steps, thinking that if I could only endure the rants and veiled threats of this maniac for but a few more moments, I could possibly collect what was truly owed to me and run for brighter pastures. Just maybe.
So I climbed the steps. When my boot reached the top deck, I felt a wet squish. I looked down at the pool of blood that had all mixed into one mass from separate tributaries that led from four tangled bodies, all of which had been alive and well just blinks ago.
I looked up. Fritz was at a slight angle behind the wheel, fixing the controls to move forward. Conrad held a revolver that was pointed straight at my face. I lifted my hands a tried-and-true fool.
“Sorry, Sonny, but when you’re in an industry as tough as mine, you must know when to cut your losses.”
He pulled back the pistol’s hammer.
I turned my head and shut my eyes.
In a blink of revivification, I leapt forward. I yanked two daggers from the back of Fritz’s waist. I slashed at Conrad. He ducked and struck me across the face with the butt of his pistol. As we scuffled, Fritz joined, leaving the ship to coast slowly towards the open cage. I felt the huge, powerful grip of Fritz’s palms around my neck. The three of us tussled and slammed against the edge that overlooked the lower deck. I swiped with what little strength I had at no avail, so, I forced myself over the edge, bringing Conrad and Fritz down with me. We slammed onto the wood, which winded us all. But soon Fritz towered above me. I scurried away on my back until my head dinged against the corner of the black apparatus that held the main line, which fastened the beast against the boat. I parried a smack of a whip that nearly blinded me.
“Aarrrrgggg!” cried Fritz, swinging a tattooed arm towards me.
I ducked. He smashed the slab of boat with a stark thump. I looked at the monster that was stirring. I looked at the single rope that held all the others. Just as Fritz reared his fist back for a second blow, I began sawing at the rope with both the knives and all of my might. I severed the line just as Fritz’s fist pummeled the side of my head.
I fell to my side in a daze. With the main line torn, every rope weakened and slid downward. I saw the distant trees swerve as the boat coasted and bumped into the floating cage. The monster must have seen this and I reared back from the dead ropes.
“No…NO!!!” Conrad cried.
He lunged for the beast but Fritz stopped him and signaled that he would make the amends. The giant grabbed three of the dangling lines, desperately searching for the other two.
The monster reared its head back, free and untethered, which sent Fritz dangling over the edge. And to my dazed horror, a second neck, identical to the first sprang forth. The two necks rose from the depths. They were limbs for the thing’s eyes. Then I saw the source of the rumbles. A mouth peeked up, and teeth the length of shovels protruded from a round abyss of vile roars. Fritz hung from the railing in angry defiance. And monster reared its full, true head face, mouth agape, eyes dancing about, and the monster snapped down upon the tattooed giant.
I shut my eyes to the horrific, grinding sounds, which suddenly became muffled. It had started to rain. After mere moments, I looked across the deck again, through the thick, misty downpour. Past the drenched gray back of a dumbfounded Conrad, I saw the monster of Lake Van Buren slithered away from the rocking barge. It’s long, neck-like limbs that held its eyes shot a final, terrifying gaze of moonlit majesty before plummeting beneath the waters once more, leaving the vessel in a violent shudder.
The rain poured, and shouts and deranged cries resounded from the shore. I stood, staring at Conrad Conundrum, whose back was still facing me.
I approached, two knives in hand.
He turned around. His drenched face was one of utter loss. A chilling, maniacal loss.
“You…” he started in a whisper. “You…” he continued, louder as he stepped towards me. “YOU!!!” He lunged. I did not parry, but let the knives rest in my hands just as they were. He met the cold embrace of two sharp blades. He paused. I looked down. They were sunken into his chest. I do not know how I felt while I gripping two red handles that stuck from his naval and left lung, but sadly, strangely, he grabbed me with his bloodstained gloves and embraced me. We shuffled over to the edge, almost in a strange slow dance in the rain, blood spewing between us. He looked at me with mere seconds of life left in his wide, sun-yellow eyes and said,
“S…S…Sonny…send…me…into…the lake…o…fire, would…you?”
I gave a gentle push.
Conrad Conundrum careened over the edge and smacked the water and sank into the dark abyss, whip in fist.
I heard shouts and screeches through the downpour. I do not know if they were running to or away, but I cared not. A staggered up the steps and smashed down the main lever, not possessing the slightest clue as to its operation. It turned left and right like a drunkard. I kept it blazing through the waters, full speed, until the cage and torches were out of sight. I let the barge drift to any shadowy shoreline it desired. When I approached I leapt from the top frantically, thumping my knee in the shallow depths. I treaded water until it became land and fell to the ground. I lay there prostrate with twigs and pebbles in my slobbery mouth, my head wedged into the wet sand. I began to weep like a child. I mumbled the names of the men aboard the barge, dead and gone.
After quite some time, I sat up. I pulled out the three dollar bills from my pocket and tossed them to the dirt. Through misty eyes, I peered out at the moon-lit, rain-trodden waves of Lake Van Buren. I could not break the stare.
I sat and pressed my back to an old rotted stump, my eyes still inextricably bound to those dark depths. Oblivious to the rain, I pulled out the matchbook that Joseph Honeycutt had given me. I swiped the impotent matches against the soggy material numbly. Still, I stared out beneath the torrential tempest in a dumb, dazed hope, wishing that nothing would spring forth again. How very long I sat in that rain.
It has been three summers since that hellish night and I have not returned to that town to see if my wish remains granted.
Nor do I believe I shall.