The Devil Gets His Due and Other Mystery Stories, as with my other books, comes with a disclaimer that the characters in the various tales are entirely a product of my imagination. However, unlike my other books, Devil has one
The footbridge that crosses the Missouri River at Fort Benton is the most historically significant bridge in Montana. Certainly, it is one of the oldest, built in 1888, a year before the Territory became a State and the first bridge to ford the Missouri in Montana. For seventy-five years, the steel-truss bridge carried traffic—horses, carts and wagons in the early days, and later motor vehicles—but in 1963, a new bridge was built a quarter-mile upstream, and the old steel bridge was closed. The striking quartet of trapezoidal trusses connecting to the east bank remains intact; however, the original swing span that was constructed to allow the passage of steamboats was replaced when the centre pier was washed out in a flood in 1908. Today, the west bank connects to the original structure by a long camelback span, supported, like the original trusses, by concrete piers sheathed in metal plates. The old bridge now serves as a pedestrian feature of the river park, although it can only be accessed from the west side, as the cottonwood-laden east bank is privately owned. So while the traffic in and out of Fort Benton motors across the Chouteau County Memorial Bridge by the Grand Union Hotel, tourists strolling the river path can walk out over the old bridge and look back towards the unique little town that constitutes the birthplace of Montana.
However, on a Saturday morning in September, tourists are a rare commodity, and the locals, long used to the black metal span yawning over their river, rarely deem it worth the crossing, knowing that they simply have to return again. Walkers and joggers stick to the river path and feel no temptation to turn onto the concrete walkway that leads to the bridge. But children are another matter, and the young Mason boys and their friend, Rory O’Mara, considered it an adventure to walk out along the wooden planking and stare down at the swirling waters below.
As they reached the point where the camelback truss ended and the trio of Baltimore trusses began, the boys turned back to see one of their schoolmates walking her dog along the river path. The German shepherd was bounding ahead, and as it came to the bridge, Jack Mason whistled and yelled out, “Hey, Shep! Here boy!” As an afterthought, he waved to the girl and added, “Sally, come join us.”
Shep darted onto the planked walkway. Sally waved back and followed the dog onto the bridge. She was only part way along the camelback span by the time the dog reached the boys. Ralph Mason gave the dog a perfunctory pat and then leaned out over the railing. He liked to see the powerful water surging up and curling around the metal plates.
Jack and Rory started to play with Shep, but Ralph remained mesmerized by the water below the bridge. Something that looked like a sack seemed to be bobbing against the concrete pier.
As Sally reached the end of the first span, Shep abandoned Jack and raced back to meet her. Rory turned to see what had transfixed his friend’s brother.
“There’s a sack down there,” said Ralph. “It’s caught on the pier. It’s full of some stuff, and there’s bits of cloth attached to the back of it.”
“No way,” said Rory. “A sack wouldn’t float.” He moved to the railing and stared down into the water.
“Jeez, you moron,” he said. “That’s not a sack. It’s got legs. That’s a body down there.”
Jack abandoned Shep and came to the railing.
As the boys stared downwards, the body lifted, and an expanse of tan cowhide rose and subsided, its tattooed insignia of interlocking antlers hovering momentarily in view before it glided back under the slate grey water.
“Holy moly, that’s The Colonel!” said Ralph.
Jack’s eyes bulged and his face went white. Then he gasped as the force of the current rolled the torso against the pier. He felt suddenly sick. He reeled away from the railing and threw up.
“What are you guys staring at?”
Sally’s voice behind him made Ralph look round. She and Shep had reached the centre span.
“We gotta get the sheriff,” said Rory. “There’s a body down there.”
“No,” breathed Sally. “Are you serious?”
She moved towards the railing.
Ralph stopped her. Even at the age of ten, cowboy-country gallantry was ingrained in his psyche, and he had already seen the effect of the corpse on his older brother.
“Don’t look,” he said firmly. “He doesn’t have a head.”
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