February 6, 2012 by JRD Skinner
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and forty-two.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Gatecast.
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, Thomas Blackhall, master frontiersman and student of the occult, finds himself listening to a bawdy tale of questionable veracity.
That Which Remains: a Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 3
Thomas Blackhall had been working hard to avoid the puffy-faced private dogging his steps around the icicle-laden settlement of Perth. The frontiersman’s first tactic had been to simply leave with no indication as to his destination, and two-days hunting along a river sheltered by drooping pines had provided him with a formidable store of venison, but it was not enough to put off the messenger.
Upon returning to his rented room, he’d discovered the youth still lollygagging about the Bucking Pony’s main room, obviously in anticipation of his reappearance.
There had been a time, not distant, when Thomas would’ve gladly answer the summons, but his former comrade-in-arms, Captain Fitzhugh, had begged a favour too far, while offering little recompense.
In truth, the slanted houses and chattering townsfolk pressed at Blackhall. He ached for the solitude of the trees, and a path to his Mairi.
His foul mood drove him to seek strange pleasures, and, for a pair of afternoons, he’d busied himself with shadowing the lad assigned to locate him.
Winter weather made trailing the watchman a chilly preoccupation, but Thomas was no stranger to cold, and found company, at many odd hours, in the bent form of Wesley Shea.
Shea was an ambling man, who was happy enough to tell his story, and discuss his unconcealed infirmity, as his injuries had left him with conversation as his only trade.
Before his tribulations, he had managed to pay down his land, so that he owned his parcel and furnishings outright, but, some three years previous, he’d become lost, west of Kings Creek, for a bitter week in January. Fresh signs of deer had enticed him into unfamiliar territory, but, as darkness fell, a flurry had blown in, and he’d found himself disoriented. As he’d wandered, he’d survived on melted snow and chewed pine needles.
It was only luck that brought him out of the forest again, but he had not made the journey unscathed. The cold had blackened his fingers, and there was no option but to remove nine of the ten. He’d retained the right thumb.
When receiving a shocked eye regarding his gnarled stubs, it was his joke to suggest that, if the gawker found the view unpleasant, they would do best not to look at his toes.
He now filled his mornings with meandering about the town, and trading greetings with the wash-women. By noon he would have, more often than not, located an invitation to supper, and hopefully even claimed a seat at a visiting farmer’s lunch table.
The variety in his dining companions made Shea a man knowledgeable in local scandal, as well as the tall tales of the moment.
While breaking bread with a fellow known as Punchy Hank, the roving man had heard the news of Ethan Wright, a mutual acquaintance who lived to the north.
“Well,” Shea was telling Blackhall, as the pair stood beneath the snow-laden shop awning across from the Bucking Pony. “Punchy implies it’s about done for Ethan.”
Thomas was tiring of the chase with each sight of the resting private that the inn’s swinging door provided. As he continued to listen, he stomped his feet to dislodge the clinging flakes, and silently envied his foe’s position by the black iron stove.
“Now, I preface my account by saying that, while you’ve mentioned interest in any news of strange events, I can not speak to the truth of the report I provide. It is certainly not the most outrageous story I’ve failed to believe.”
“Given the length of the introduction,” replied Blackhall, “I suppose I should prepare myself for an epic tale of minotaurs and mewing maidens.”
Producing a tin from within the interior of his greatcoat, Thomas retrieved a fine paper from his collection of goods, and placed a pinch of pungent Virginian tobacco upon its creased surface.
“It won’t be so long,” said the fingerless conversationalist, “it is only the braggartly nature of the thing which gives me hesitation. As Punchy tells it, Ethan took to the woods just before the snow arrived. He’s never been one to hold onto coin, and his family depends heavily on the hundred acres of swamp which flanks their homestead. The land is the King’s, but he has yet to find a fool to stick with the purchase, so Wright is left to make use of the game. It’s a hard walk, even when it’s frozen, and Hank says he’d set up something of a shanty amongst the trees. I imagine it was nothing fancy, but those who exist in poverty often learn many talents, and it must be sturdy enough to keep passing bears from the cache of foodstuffs he apparently kept within.
“You see, the eldest is nine, and he stands in a line with six others. The strain of their birth put Mrs. Wright in ill health – which leaves Ethan little assistance, and no leeway regarding the locating of sustenance.
“Now, the leaves were down and crisp, forcing a patient hunt. At the end of his first day he was without meat, so, instead of making his way through the treacherous dark, he opted instead to rest within his meager hut.
“It was unseasonably warm, and he thought he might surprise his dinner at breakfast.
“After saying good night to a bottle of rough scotch – another supply he made sure to keep on hand at his retreat – he slept soundly till dawn when he was awoken by giggling.
“Ethan vows that he pinned the door tightly, but there was a woman in the room with him then, leaning upon the nearby wall. She’d been watching him slumber beneath the skins he used as bedding.
“Though Punchy’s description was largely gestural, my understanding is that she was rounded in all ways a man might ask for. He did mention, however, the oddity that her flesh appeared the colour of shale.
“It’s not for me to say what matter took place next, but you might well guess what happens between a buxom harlot and a half-drunk woodsman. I cannot speak to his heroic assertions that the circumstances lasted, at a fever pitch, for a week.
“Despite the arguably pleasant nature of the visitation, however, a black mood clings to him, and, as I mentioned, Hank seems to think it probable that the once hardy Ethan will soon come to a pitiful end. He guesses love sickness, and if the nymph doesn’t come to reclaim him, the memories will likely put a treacherous blade in his fist, or a condemning load in his pistol.”
At the tale’s summation, Blackhall disposed of the last of his smoldering vice in a nearby tuft of snow, and contemplated the recital.
The street was empty, and frigid – worse, as his considerations deepened, the heat of the Bucking Pony, and the smell of Mairi, seemed all the more distant.
Finally, with his breath hanging in wisps about his face, he cracked the silence.
“You know the way to the Wright’s?”
“As a wolf knows where the sheep gather to drink, aye,” replied Shea, “we spent evening enough dicing. It’s arguable that I owe the western corner of my plot to his gambling habits.”
“What matters do you have pressing?” asked Thomas. “It seems to me a sleigh trip to the north country might do you good. I’ll secure your food and hospitality along the route, and there will be plenty of opportunity to haggle a fair wage for the guide work.
”I warn you, though: I suspect we have yet to realize the depths of this shadow.”
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