Welcome to Flash Pulp, Episode Twenty-Two.
Tonight’s story, The Charivari: A Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 3
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Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – 400 to 600 words brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
This evening we bring you the first chapter in a new serial featuring Thomas Blackhall. In this episode, he encounters the town of Bigelow, a small settlement at the edge of civilization.
Flash Pulp 022 – The Charivari: A Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 3
At the point where the Kakibonga dripped into the Winipekw, Thomas Blackhall stumbled across the town of Bigelow.
The hamlet was little more than a line of houses scratched into the riverbank, its center point marked by a single spoke thrust into the woods.
After weeks of scrambling through dense brush, eating only deer jerky and hand-caught fish, Thomas was startled to find himself at the end of that spoke, the mouth of an immaculate roadway open before him.
He ran his fingers along the weeks of growth at his chin, eying the scene.
The road itself rolled gently away towards the shore. Along the water’s edge ran another road, and at this corner stood a house that had grown beyond its seams, boxy additions thrusting out in every direction, some of the extensions connecting onto extensions of their own. The walls of the rambling structure were a solid white, but the doors and window frames had been marked in the brightest of the rainbow’s palette.
From a green door in the rear, a mustached man exited, an axe cocked over his shoulder.
He began to walk towards Blackhall, humming.
“Come to raise a glass?” shouted the man, when he finally spotted Thomas. There was scorn in his voice.
“In truth, I didn’t know there was a glass nearby to be held, but if yonder sprawling castle is an Inn, I could certainly find my thirst.”
Blackhall had moved to close the distance, and now offered a more formal greeting.
“Thomas Blackhall,” he said.
“Morton Van Rijn,” the man replied, taking the offered hand. “Welcome to Bigelow. I apologize, I mistook you for Lefevre, one of the local farmers. He often aims to walk the road before drinking himself into blindness, he claims it keeps him from getting lost on his way home. His beard is nearly as wild as your own, I dare say. Anyhow, whatever the foul excuse, the more whom use the road, the happier I am.”
Blackhall noted the man’s discreet attempt at wiping his hand clean as he talked.
“Well, if I might find a basin and a scrap of mirror, I’d be happy to do away with the confusion,” he replied, tugging at his whiskers. “I’ve come from the Western District, and it’s been some time since I’ve had to worry on polite company.”
Van Rijn’s face brightened.
“You’re more than welcome to board at The Loyalist. If you’ll honour me with news from the South over dinner, I’ll be happy to give you a room free for the night. Your thirst is your own affair however – while I run the finest Inn in two hundred miles, I do not sell ardent spirits. My wife and I are the founders of the Bigelow Temperance Society, whose ranks include the majority of the members of Bigelow worth acquainting. The town itself houses three hundred, with the same number again of farmers who’ve settled the clearings in the surrounding area – of those some twenty-five are members of the Temperance Society, no small feat for a place largely made up of woodsmen and mosquito-bitten field tenders.”
“Whiskey must be no small problem if it was deemed necessary to organize against it.”
“Yes, well, what I meant was, outside the ranks of The Society, in Bigelow polite company is as scarce a commodity as sobriety. Despite the population there are no less than three public houses – well, two proper public houses and Ginny Melbain’s parlour. There is no proper law however, as Constable Melbain has little interest in enforcing against his sister’s enterprise, and the drunks would not stand to have the law applied inequitably.”
“What of this road then? This doesn’t seem like the work of lackadaisical liqour hounds,” Blackhall asked, glancing in the direction of his promised bed and basin.
Van Rijn’s hands swung wide, the axe still firmly in his grip, his broad face breaking into a grin.
“This road was founded by Arthur Bigelow, who also gave his name to the town, as its first inhabitant. I have taken up his worthy task, knowing full well that the legislature will not step in to regulate the principality without ease of access, access I intend to provide with this highway. Each summer I have pushed the forest back further than Bigelow’s original cut, and each spring I salt the ground to prevent the brush from retaking my progress. I regret that my duties at The Loyalist have prevented me from making it my full time occupation, but it is my hope to one day bring the full might of The Society to bear on the problem.”
In Thomas’ minds-eye, a vision of twenty-five of Bigelow’s most upstanding citizens zoomed out to encompass the distance required to interlink with the nearest settlement of size. His legs ached. He eyed Van Rijn’s single axe.
“A worthy task, and if you’ll pardon my currently grizzled appearance, I’ll gladly take you up on that offer of dinner. Who might I speak to at the Inn about a room?”
* * *
The accommodations were cramped but comfortable. After bathing and scraping clean his face, Blackhall found himself suddenly coming awake to a sharp rapping at his door, scarcely aware that he’d set his head upon his pillow.
“Yes, coming,” he muttered, running his fingers through his mussed hair.
To Thomas, supper seemed a long time in arriving, although the gathered members of The Bigelow Temperance Society filled the period with much talk. In the end, every aspect of the meal was too dry for his liking, but he found himself pleasantly surprised at how quickly the plates were cleared and the gathering dispersed.
As he stepped onto the veranda that faced out upon the river, Blackhall began his ritual of pinching Virginian tobacco into one of the fine Spanish papers he carried. As he completed his task, a passerby who’d been strolling the water’s edge set a booted foot upon the entryway’s lowest step.
“Well, this is certainly the first gentleman I’ve ever come to encounter as a stranger on this porch, might I ask your name?”
“Ah, then the name’s not been twisted amongst the gossip. I am Constable Gareth Melbain. Do you have business in town?” The lawman called up a wad of phlegm and deposited it on the wood planks at his feet.
“I thought I might wet my throat, little more,” replied Thomas.
“I wasn’t sure of your character, given your meal company. Still, it seems to me you’ve come a long way to nowhere for a drink. Mayhaps it is because you’ve heard of Ginny’s parlour, found in the blue-washed house at the end of this same street. She’ll likely give you a sample if you mention my referral.”
With that, the constable moved off the stairs.
“One last thing: do not take Van Rijn’s word on Bigelow as gospel. I knew Arthur, and he was a good man, whatever his wife may have become.” The man walked a step, and turned back to face the still silent Blackhall. “- and yes, I fully admit my younger brother ought know better.”
He strolled on.
By the time Blackhall had burned his fingers upon the smoldering stub of his cigarette, the weight of the food and the song of the river had lulled him to a rest. Deciding to forgo town politics, he instead retreated to the interior of the inn, and took to chasing after his interrupted slumber.
* * *
He was brought awake hours later by the sound of two mares whinnying outside his window.
Cracking the thin white curtains, he took in the scene.
Some twenty drunks had gathered at the edges of the town’s sole crossroads – some along his window, some across the way, along the graying timbers that he’d been told were the outer wall of Pullman’s General Store. Many of the bystanders held lanterns high as five men stumbled about in the center of the gathering.
Two of the men were busy harnessing blinders upon the spooked horses, while another pair fended off the increasingly animated protests of the muddy shirted fifth.
Through the pane of glass, Thomas’ ears could make out the back and forth of betting amongst those arrayed along his vantage point.
Satisfied with their results, the two men who’d been working the lashings stepped back, one of them giving the guardsmen instructions to clear the way – as the man shouted Blackhall recognized the face as that of Constable Melbain.
With no little force the brutes emptied the road of the pleading man, and without delay Melbain began a countdown from three, which ended with both animals receiving a sharp whip blow. The sudden pain sent the beasts hurtling up the salted path and into the darkness between the pines.
Laughing, the crowd began to stream along behind, leaving the corner once again silent.
His sleep disturbed, Thomas dressed and shuffled into the common room.
Pulling a book from the shelf adjacent the fireplace, he settled into a nearby rocking chair.
* * *
As the embers sank into ash, a chapter’s worth of the history of Canterbury had been enough to once again put him on a path to sleep.
He slipped into his room, taking a moment to peek between the lace to ensure a lack of further disruption.
Motion amongst the shadows of the store caught his eye.
Creeping from the darkness came the shape of a man, the moon illuminating the white pillowcase that was taut about his face. The mask was held fast with a thin rope at the neck, and to allow vision, two ragged black holes had been cut from the linen.
The man moved away down the forest road, but before Thomas might stray from the window, the meager light gave away a second ragman, the gin bottle in his hand catching the night sky’s reflection.
His stupor forgotten, Blackhall strode quickly about the room, collecting together his satchel. Pulling his greatcoat over the sabre he’d strapped to his hip, he snatched up his Baker rifle and shouldered the pack that once again contained the entirety of his possessions.
With a last look into the lane way – now empty – he exited his room and stepped from the green door at the rear of the building, the night insects roaring their greeting.
Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm. The audio and text formats of Flash Pulp are released under the Canadian Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 License.