Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and eighty-seven.
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, master frontiersman and student of the occult, Thomas Blackhall, finds himself witness to a murder, and a mystical metamorphosis.
Grip: a Blackhall Tale, Part 3 of 3
James Bell sat naked, holding his wife. Though her countenance was now several shades darker than it had been but the morning before, he took some solace in the fact that it was still Clara’s squeaking snore that emanated from the transformed face buried in his chest. The couple had been forced to nestle close beneath the three itch-inducing wool blankets that had been nailed to the floor at their lowest edges, especially as the second gale of the morning set to rocking the shanty’s timbers, but James had found no respite under the unwavering gaze of the family of ebon-skinned corpses that leaned awkwardly against the opposite wall. Four weeks on the run had hardened his sensibilities, but not to such a point as to be able to stare down the dead.
The slat roof and splinter-filled walls had no doubt once sheltered a double row of beds, but all furniture had been removed from the long building except a single stool, upon which squatted their current guard, the youngest of the Wheeler brothers.
Elijah Wheeler, catching Bell’s envious glance at the musket which rested across his knees, gave his prisoner a goading smile.
“You want the weapon? Come and try me. I grow chill, even beneath this donated finery, so perhaps a scuffle will warm me. Better yet, once I’ve done you in, I’m sure your wife will gladly provide ample heat.”
The wind gusted, and an unfilled knothole amongst the planks howled its outrage at the cold.
Unable to hold his tongue, James replied, “you speak loudly for a man thoroughly pummeled, just the evening previous, by a woman thrice his age.”
Standing, with gun in hand, Wheeler approached his prisoner with puckered face and heavy boot. Before he might repay Bell with a kick, however, he noted a flicker of motion at the corner of his vision.
The cadavers had been left as a warning after the family – Scots heading north to a homestead they’d seen only on paper – had attempted an escape. The brothers had found their carrion amongst the pines, stiff and huddled uselessly against the sleet.
Since their retrieval, the bodies had occasionally briefly warmed to the point of regaining pliability, only, at dusk, to refreeze in whatever state they were left by weight, gravity, and the Wheeler’s comedic whims.
It was Elijah’s short assumption that this shifting was simply the process again renewed, but his illusion was shattered when the shadow of the youngest, a girl of five who had once had ginger hair, stretched and giggled.
The shades of the remaining three appeared then, though their faces did not match those of the bodies they had left behind. Upon passing unhindered through the cabin’s latched door, they gathered to raise fingers of accusation.
As the specters approached, Elijah Wheeler began to weep.
* * *
Earlier, Thomas Blackhall had stood at the edge of the former lumber camp, with his Baker rifle hung on a nearby branch, and his stance set firmly in the powder’s depths.
Above his head he’d swung a silver chain of arcane provenance, and with each loop of the ornate hook at its end the storm about him had worsened.
The frontiersman’s skull ached with lack of sleep and nicotine, but the fury at the loss of his pouch had been further deepened by the death he’d witnessed only hours earlier, and he refused to acknowledge any fatigue.
Still, it was with some satisfaction that he’d observed the approach of the homesteaders phantasms.
As they’d cleared the treeline, the apparitions had made no effort to approach the buildings within which they’d once sheltered – instead their curiosity lead them towards the man who’d summoned them.
“Have you come then, sir, to avenge our metamorphoses? Our murders?” the bearded ghost that led them had asked.
“No, I have come to beg a favour – and to apologize for what I must do,” Blackhall had replied.
* * *
The storm had kept the elder Wheelers in their shared bunkhouse, and near to the cast iron stove which had consumed the rest of the camp’s furnishings.
As their younger brother stood watch, they passed the time with cards and extravagant lies, which they punctuated with complaints regarding the lack of punctuality on the part of their business associates, though the southern slave traders had yet several hours to make their appointed arrival time.
Brian Wheeler, with his fingers stained from the ink he’d busily applied the night before, was laying a four of clubs upon the table, and speaking loudly of a pair of siamese twin prostitutes he’d known in a lesser Boston district, when the girl again made a sudden appearance.
Neither men noticed her, however until she loudly exclaimed, “I’ll eat your eternal soul!”
The pair stood, startled at the noise.
“Grrrr,” she added, clawing the air theatrically.
If it were not for her translucence, and frostbitten extremities, the men might have been tempted to guffaw.
Instead, they bolted, and made it nearly ten paces from the building’s lowest wooden step before noting the weapons leveled at them.
Five minutes earlier, when Blackhall had asked Clara if she could shoot if needed, she’d replied, “it will not be the first time I’ve killed a man – in honesty, it won’t be the first time this month – but I only do so when the need is unavoidable.”
Thomas had raised a brow at the comment, but he’d handed across his Baker rifle nonetheless.
Now, with the trio captured, and his arm aching from its constant rotation, he was glad of her steady hand.
He was finding his own considerably less reliable.
Having closed the distance, Blackhall was eager to have his possessions returned, and to feel again Mairi’s braided lock within his palm.
Addressing the eldest Wheeler, he said, “sir, I have come for the goods stolen by your brother on the morning previous. I have asked him directly, but he refuses to cease his keening long enough to provide a clear answer.
”Return my pouch now, or I will provide a true reason to weep.”
The man pointed to the shack he’d just abandoned, and Thomas, with a nod of his cap to the gathered spirits, allowed the silver trinket to wind its way about his sleeve. As the winds dissipated, the forms of the departed farmers seemed to shift, then disappear.
When Blackhall finally returned from the Wheeler’s quarters, smoke billowed behind him.
Tossing James the finest garments he’d been able to locate for the couple, Thomas spoke a single flat word to his captives.
It was the steel behind Clara’s smile, and the rise of the muzzle of her weapon, that convinced them.
Within moments the Wheelers found themselves strapped prone in the same shackles which had so recently held the Bells.
“I do not have your skill with calligraphic conjuration,” said Blackhall, as he entered the room with the girls’ remains in his arms, “but I’ve a fair bit of practice skinning game, and the Jesuit who taught me to sew was a master.”
What followed then was a bloody hour with knife and needle.
Once the operation was complete, and each brother’s back held a transplanted flap of skin under a tight grid of thread, Thomas stepped to the open air, needing to clear his lungs of the stink of iron.
The Bells awaited him.
They’d been efficient in the tasks they’d been asked to accomplish, namely transporting the remaining carcasses to the same structure as held the Wheelers, and to set the remaining of the camp’s buildings alight.
“I wish there was some better news I might deliver,” said Thomas, his gaze moving between the couple’s altered faces. “I believe I may be able to return you to your birth state, but it will not be a pleasant process, and the scars will remain with you for the rest of your life.”
It was James who replied, though Clara’s insistent grip on his arm seemed a confirmation that she agreed with his sentiment. “There are many things I have seen this day that I can not explain, but we owe you a debt beyond measure, and I feel perhaps we owe you at least some small confession.
“In truth, though these are certainly not the guises we expected to wear throughout our lives together, perhaps these will better serve. A warrant awaits us to the south, where the corpse of my inebriate father moulders. It was Clara’s too-true aim which put him there, but, if she had not done so, it is unlikely I would be here to offer this tale.”
Thomas only shrugged and retrieved a burning plank from the ruins which had housed the couple.
Once the temporary prison was thoroughly aflame, Blackhall released the manacle pins and let the Wheelers free to stumble, naked, into the snow, where they came up short at the sight of the armed Bells.
No longer were the brothers recognizable as the pale skinned bandits who’d so recently waylaid Arseneau’s sleigh.
Reaching into the depths of his pouch, Thomas produced a fine slip of paper, and a pinch of tobacco. As he spoke, his fingers began their ritual of construction.
“You let the majority of your hostages die, then spoil the operation with a bit of petty thievery. This whole undertaking reeks of little men overreaching.
“What now, though? I’ve taken your inkman’s thumbs, to prevent any future craftsmanship, but I believe there is some justice in leaving it simply at that.
“In all likelihood your compatriots will arrive well before the fires die down – considering the cost of traveling such a great distance, they are almost certainly anxious to recoup their investment in this enterprise. I’m sure they’ll be happy enough with such a collection of hardy replacements, even if one of you is short some digits.”
Blackhall paused to roll his tongue across his creation, and to lend a meaningful eye to the brothers’ transformed disposition.
“On second thought,” he said, “you might attempt an escape amongst the trees.”
With a steady hand he set the end of his cigarette to the farmers’ pyre, lighting his vice’s tip.
After a satisfied exhale he nodded his hat to the frantic trio, then motioned for the Bell’s to join him at the clearing’s edge.
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