FP285 – Grip: a Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 3
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and eighty-five.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Subversion.
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, we join master frontiersman and student of the occult, Thomas Blackhall, as he finds himself upon a wild path in the northern woods.
Grip: a Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 3
James Bell had suspected the drunk from the outset – though, in truth, at that moment he suspected everyone but his round-faced wife, Clara. James had spent the majority of his life within the arc of his father’s whiskeyed hands, and evaluating sobriety had become a skill critical to his ability to collect dinner instead of a bruised chin.
Even from his limited vantage point, Bell had discerned that the supposed liquor-monger was putting on his wobble.
The sleigh was a large one, with three rows of seating, but the blankets necessary to fend off the chill of the onrushing air and drifting snow greatly restricted the movements of the passengers. The inability to keep an eye on the rearmost bench, while also staring down the back of the driver, Mr. Arseneau, had left young Bell restless and fidgeting.
It was Clara’s loud disapproval of his nervous habits – nail chewing, lip biting, and general griping – that had drawn the conversation of the third occupant of their bench, a matronly woman who, to the couple’s estimation, seemed all too old to be venturing into the shadows of the northern woods at the onset of winter.
Mistaking the source of James’ agitation, she said, in her sweetest tone, “have no worries, any fellow with that much drink in his belly will likely spend the second half of the journey in unconsciousness.”
“Are you traveling with him?” asked Mrs. Bell.
“No, I go it alone – after many years of having done so, my son and his Rebecca have offered me a bed in which to wait out my old age.” The woman paused to present a toothless grin. “I know how improper my behaviour may appear, but I’ve yet to meet an adventure that I could not conquer.”
“Yes,” replied Clara, as she provided a thin smile of her own, “but it’s the adventure that you don’t that’s always the problem.”
Turning from their conversation, her husband found the spruce and pine marching past on either side of their path provided no better counsel.
Behind them, the drunk loudly spat, then gave the dapper man to his left a piece of advice that would require incredibly intimacy with every member of the royal navy, as well as the moral degradation of his mother. The dandy, wearing a tall beaver hat and a cloak more appropriate to the theater than the wilds, responded with a disapproving harrumph, but nothing more.
The language was enough to irk James into attempting to attract the attention of the reign handler, but Arseneau, alone on the fore-most bench, seemed to note only that which was in front of him. A load of five on the northward trail was a rarity of late, and the ignored man suspected the whip-holder did not wish to ruin the warm glow his coin-filled pocket was providing him.
When the sound of a pistol being cocked reached his ears, however, his head came about sharply.
The dandy had set his knee on his seat, so that he might better survey the forward rows. His well-tailored left glove rest on the sled’s wood frame, while his right made clear his firearm’s intentions were serious. Beside him, the drunk straightened his spine, produced his own weapon, and announced, “This, then, is our collective destination.”
Arseneau drew the horses to a tight halt as the coxcomb muttered, “You’re lucky that we made it this far, given your carrying on.”
It was in the brief silence that followed that they heard the drumming.
“Is – is that a man in a boat?” asked Clara, with her gaze on the treetops.
* * *
The trouble had truly begun that morning, outside the King’s Inn.
Arseneau had been atop his transport, talking of the pox that had struck the French lumber camp at the Blackmouth Rapids, and of how the disease had destroyed his business of ferrying the axemen between their work and the town’s ale kegs. As he spoke, the hired man shuffled luggage and directed the travellers to their seats, and, given his preference to situate the loudmouthed gin-swiller in the rearmost, this meant the wobbling passenger waited longest on the ice covered slats of the public house’s boardwalk.
Blackhall had passed the scene without interest until the drunk had stepped across his path, knocking roughly into his shoulder then rebounding to the ground.
The upturned man’s apology had been so hasty, Thomas hadn’t even broken stride.
It was only once in his rented room, after removing the weight of his pack, and fumbling off his greatcoat with numb fingers, that Thomas had discovered the disappearance of his possessions. The awkward altercation came immediately to mind, but so too did the intervening time.
Blackhall had thought briefly on the loss of his waxed pouch; of the fine rolling papers, Virginian tobacco, and yellowed letter that resided within. He’d thought of the braid that had recently joined the small collection that marked the extent of his worldly comfort – the braid he’d clipped from his dead wife’s locks a month previous – then, reaching for his satchel of arcane implements, he’d made for the door.
* * *
Learning the group’s destination was as easy as handing two shillings to the innkeeper who’d arranged his guest’s conveyance, but overtaking them was another matter. The path through the forest was close, and fear that he’d lose the thread had forced Blackhall to pilot his occult ship with care – if such a concept were possible when riding the crests and dips of a wildwood come alive to bare him across it’s back.
Still, some four hours into the journey, with aching shoulders and frosted brow, Thomas had located his objective.
When, not minutes later, those below came to a sudden halt and marked his passage, so too did Blackhall attempt to bring his craft to a stop. He’d had little involvement with The Green Drum since the first occasion on which he’d used it to knit a longship of living branches, and his inexperience, mixed with his haste, brought disaster. At the cessation of his rhythm, the ribbing that held him high, and the reaching timber that moved to carry him, fell away, but his momentum did not. The nearby pine which he’d intended to use as a method of descent rushed past, and he found himself falling through the barren limbs of a broad oak, a hundred meters on.
His landing was not a pleasant one.
Dazed, Thomas took stock of his kit, and, after collecting his Baker rifle from a drift some feet off, he laid a hand on the hilt of his saber, as if it might help steady him, and set himself towards the rough-hewn road.
The air grew thick with clumping snow, and the sky blackened in warning of the blizzard to come.
Stumbling onto the cleared path, Thomas unshouldered his rifle and turned his boots in the direction of the stalled sled.
For some time he was accompanied by only the chill cotton and the chewing of his boots, then a regular thudding came from the blur of white before him, and he stepped under the shelter of a pine bough.
The team of horses he’d been seeking came pounding past as if death followed, and, given the blood flowing from their flanks, Blackhall considered that it might well have been the case.
Another ten minute’s walk proved him right, for there alone in the middle of the path bled the sprawled corpse of Arseneau, the rig’s master.
The driver’s mouth seemed open, as if to collect a descending flake, and his jacket had been seared by gunpowder flame. Seconds later, with a curse that only the dead man heard, Thomas noted a set of soon-to-be-buried footprints leading into the darkening hinterland.
As his hat brim grew heavy with precipitation, and his heart heavier with the thought of the exertions ahead, Blackhall longed for his smoking tools.
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