Welcome to Flash Pulp, Episode Ninety-Eight.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by the art of Michael Mongello
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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 arts, encounters a town of shambling monstrosities.
Flash Pulp 098 – Up From The Depths: a Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 1
The summer previous to his final migration westward, Thomas received word that his assistance was required at a mining operation in the sparsely populated northern stretch of Lower Canada.
The man who sought him out had heard of his reputation as it slipped from ale-heavy mouth to whiskey-sodden ear, and his distrust of the nature of Blackhall’s business was obvious as he made his request.
“You’ve dealt with the other-worldly before?” was the man’s abrupt opening.
It wasn’t his habit to answer the question openly, but the sling which held the interrogator’s right arm had piqued Thomas’ interest.
“I’ve been to the church, and they have no interest in what I have to say.” As the man spoke, his animated gestures sent gushes of barley brew to the inn’s floor. “It’s hell they opened in that mine to the north, and I expect someone better close it before it tears the world asunder.”
“It’s my understanding that it takes something more than a shovel to reach the devil’s playground,” replied Thomas, “but, first, might I inquire as to your name?”
“I apologize. My name is Teasdale, but the Englishman is what they called me these last ten months. Not so much based on my port of departure, but because I was the only anglo on a site full of francos.”
“What leads you to believe a group of earth diggers has opened the maw of the nether realm?”
“Until recently I was camp cook at a small iron operation to the north. Two dozen men and a whip cracker of a foreman. We were working a fresh shaft when I was sent southwards to gather the groceries, but upon my return I found the site in chaos. The tents and shanties had been knocked about as if hit by a storm, and the boys -” the grip which held his mug of lager began to tremble. “The fellas were on hand, but they were not the men I knew when I left.”
“What difference did you notice?” asked Blackhall.
“When I first arrived I saw a few of them wandering about, almost as if in a trance. It was only once I’d gotten closer that I noticed their stuttering walks and contorted faces. They – their limbs were muck covered, and as they approached a groaning gibberish emanated from their mouths.”
Teasdale smacked his dry mouth, then quickly wet it from his cup.
“I’d no sooner stepped into his sight than I was rushed by Old Tim Steiner, a man I’ve passed many hours with over cards. It was he who chased me from the parcel, and it was during that flight in which I stumbled. A bad break, and still I made the travel in record time, even though I only thought to lighten my load of the provisions upon the second day.”
His damaged arm seemed to have little slowed his off-hand’s drinking.
Thomas raised an eyebrow.
“You doubt me, sir?” the former kitchen-master asked. “I do not make my assumptions in haste. There was no recognition in the eyes of Steiner – nor in any of the others which I noted as they gathered at Old Tim’s gibberish calls. If you’d but seen his ragged march or distorted countenance, you’d have no room for skepticism.” He spit on the floor. “Demon possessed, the bloody lot of them.”
* * *
So it was, after eight day’s rugged journey, that Blackhall found himself set high in a birch, observing the a cluster of men as they rummaged about the remnants of the camp’s structures. As he watched, a filth-encrusted man, of some girth, tottered towards the shattered lumber of a former shed, shoving aside the smaller man who’d long been hunkered there listlessly stirring the rubble.
Across a branch adjoining his perch, Thomas had carefully laid out the tools necessary to sustain fire if his Baker rifle became the only option. He had yet to cock his weapon.
At the crossing of dirt paths that would have constituted the site’s major intersection, a pair of legs lay unmoving, partially obscured behind a cold pile of cinders.
As he shifted his weight for a better vantage point, the tree limb beneath his left boot groaned and gave way. Although quick footwork saved him from any peril, the snapping did not go unheeded by the shambling men below.
The nearest, possibly Old Tim himself, speared Blackhall with a finger, then began to stagger in his direction.
His enthusiastic tones roused all surrounding, and shortly Thomas’ roost was encircled by a cluster of men – some with still bloody wounds, but all ensconced in grime – and yet the frontiersman did not put his rifle to bare upon them, nor unsheathe the silver-bladed sabre which was his usual retort to circumstances of the supernatural.
He understood now why Teasdale had felt such fear at their nearing; their manner seemed not like that of sane men, instead it was as if their higher faculties had suffered grievously.
It was then that he realized many in the group were, in low and mangled french, requesting assistance.
Slinging his rifle, Blackhall descended. Within moments he was distributing what rations remained in his pack.
* * *
By late afternoon,Thomas had begun to form a plan to rescue those of the men that he might. He could little guess what had happened in Teasdale’s absence, but he felt certain it was unlikely to be related to the preternatural.
In his review of the ruins, he found the still smoldering fire whose plume had helped him locate his destination, and yet now he was uncertain as to which, if any, of the mine’s survivors might have had the wits to light such a thing. They seemed docile enough once fed, but their speech was limited to even simpler phrases than Blackhall’s french would allow, and they held no answers as to what had transpired. What he had also found was a lack of food – what little might have been left after Teasdale’s departure was long consumed.
Although the bones of wild game scattered about did leave him to wonder.
* * *
Well before he was forced to implement his desperate plan, answers arrived at the freshly stoked fireside, in the form of a limping Francophone by the name of Joseph. He’d approached with a double handful of partridge, and as the entirety of the camp had gathered in a circle about the fire, he quickly cleaned and set the fowl to spit.
Later, as they all licked the bird fat from their fingers, the newcomer finally ceased the delighted prattle he’d maintained as he worked, and delved into a deeper explanation.
“I was Teasdale’s assistant, and out getting berries up the hill when it happened – trying to stretch supplies, you understand. There was a sound from the throat of the shaft, like a belch, and a smell as if a musty hell, and then I collapsed. I do not know how much time might have passed while I slept, but it was dark when I rose. Everyone else had been closer than I, and most of them were still scattered about the ground. When my head was clear enough, I went down to find whoever I could.”
The storyteller paused in his tale, the idiot faces of his compatriots eager for him to continue the story they could little understand.
“After they all woke up, I realized how they were. Who knows how long they were breathing the released vapour – it crippled their minds. I knew it was up to me to get them south, so I went hunting, to find enough meat to carry us. Although the first day I came back I managed to keep them together, on the second one of them went searching in the buildings, with a flaming branch to act as a torch. He burnt down part of the bunks, and when I saw how black the smoke was, I came. I managed to get most of them, all except Pascal, away from the dynamite hut before it was too late.”
Thomas passed across his canteen, freshly filled at the nearby river, and Joseph drank heartily before continuing.
“I was trying to reach him when it exploded. That’s how my leg was crippled, a condition which has made it impossible for us to make our escape. At least the blast put out the flames.”
The conversation waned for a time before Blackhall ended the hush.
“Tomorrow I will do the hunting – after I have a looked over your trauma.”
Within the fire, a knot popped, throwing sparks against the night sky.
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.