Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and ninety-three.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by View From Valhalla.
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, encounters a reclining concern while visiting whisky-soaked civilization.
Flash Pulp 193 – Support: a Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 6
Blackhall had been adrift in the western districts for some time, the route to his missing wife, Mairi, having been temporarily hidden from his scrutiny. It was with the hope that he might once again take up the trail that he’d set his ear towards any happening which seemed to be of an occult nature, and this tact is what lead him to the workshop of a cooper named Harold Bowman.
Perth was a bustling settlement, filled beyond capacity by farmers looking to supply, and inbound transplants waiting out various legal necessities before being allowed to claim their muddy plots. The same river that brought settlers, also carried whisky, and Thomas had heard it boasted in the Bucking Pony that they arrived in equal amounts, but it was only the drink that quickly found its way to the dirt.
Chronic unruliness necessitated authority, and, as such, the town was further bolstered by a strong military presence – as often cited as the cause of trouble as its solution – and, while bunking within their purview, Blackhall had walked a straight line, with his hat brim low, in hopes of remaining below notice.
It was at having avoided a well-decorated officer of his former acquaintance that Thomas wore a smile as he entered the saw-dust strewn works, a grin which was at first mistaken by Bowman as the token of a pleasurable encounter.
“In need of barrels, sir?” said the carpenter, “I make the strongest in these parts. Plenty tough to send home a trove of pickled fish, or a gold strike cleverly labeled as a barrel of pickled fish, or even yourself, should your dreams of a gold strike, or pickled fish, have been a bust. Let me know how many you lack, and I’ll let you know how long you can expect to wait.”
Thomas did then smirk in honest enjoyment, but it was short lived.
“While I may yet require such a stingy homecoming, I’ve not come for your labour, but, instead, your lad.”
The barrel-smith flattened his grin.
“What would you want with that layabout?” he asked.
“I believe I might help him.”
Ripping a crescent of nail from his index finger, the father spat the paring onto the floor.
“Fine,” he said, pushing aside a frayed green and white blanket which had been hung as a curtain across a darkened opening at the rear of the room.
To Blackhall’s first glance, the space appeared little more than a large closet, with a knitting woman in the corner to his left, and a ragged honeycomb of floor-to-ceiling shelves running along the wall to his right.
“Ms. Amelia Burton, once the sluggard’s intended,” said the establishment’s proprietor, by way of introduction.
The needles continued to clack as she gave a nod at their approach, but, as she finished her row, she set aside her work to curtsy from her stout furnishing, and Thomas felt compelled to provide a small bow in return.
“Mr. Bowman, I again request that you do not speak as if Christopher has passed. He may perish, surely, but I may also marry him yet, and I’d rather you not pass pronouncements till it’s come to one or the other.”
The target of her admonishment simply harrumphed in response.
“I do apologize at the interruption,” said Blackhall, “I’m no minister, but I believe it within my skills to help see you to the aisle. I’m here on the matter of your betrothed, and his condition.”
“Any solutions you might provide are welcome,” she replied, “but it’s been many a quacksalver and charlatan who’s given my Chris a thorough prodding, and none have yet brought him awake. After several hours of sweating, the last fellow claimed we’d a corpse equipped with a bellows, and declared the whole thing a fraud – which seemed quite the affront, as he had arrived in town with the intention of retailing a dysfunctional ointment claiming to cure baldness and syphilis.”
Her voice softened as she continued. “If only it were artifice – truly, my days are spent on the verge of joy or sorrow, with never a resolution. Despite his lack of nourishment, he does not die, but neither does he stir.”
A silence fell then, and the distant din of the street beyond drifted through the kinks in the building’s rough-hewn planking. Finally, Thomas broke the still with an inquiry.
“If it’s not too impertinent, I might ask as to where the lad is laid up.”
“Why, amongst yonder rack,” replied Amelia, pointing towards the motley array of slabs and brackets that dominated the opposing side of the room.
Following the line of her finger, Blackhall discerned an immobile forearm resting below a rusted saw, and a boot set askew upon a short piling of lumber scraps, salvaged for their fine grain and possible use as trim in future projects.
By squinting, and stooping slightly, Thomas began to see the outline of the enduring sleeper, as buried beneath a stacked grave of carpentry flotsam.
“How did it happen?” he inquired of the woodworker.
The ragged curtain taut in his fingers, Bowman scowled, shook his head, and remained mute.
“I’ve watched the structure rise around him,” said Ms. Burton, turning from the curmudgeon. “The longer it seemed he would slumber, the less concern Mr. Bowman was prone to show – and it was a decrease from an already short supply. Once this room had only a low bench for adornment, and it was upon it that they laid Christopher when they carried him here from the woods. Mr. Bowman constructed the first tier of storage atop it, during a period in which I was away soliciting assistance, and by the time I’d returned – empty handed – there was already a rickety tower overhead. As the months wore on, he continued his construction, and my pleas have changed nothing. I feel as if a life of accusing his son of laziness has driven all sympathy from his heart – as if this were simply another Sunday on which Chris has slept through the pastor’s sermon.”
“- and has he had nothing more than the ministrations of mountebanks then?” asked Thomas
“I’ve done my best, but, unmarried, I am barren of assets with which to obtain the services of a skilled physician. In truth -” she broke off with a glance to her intended in-law, then cupped her slender hand to Blackhall’s battered ear. ”As in the fairy stories of my youth, I have tried on more than one occasion to wake him with a kiss. Despite the sincerity of my efforts, I’ve seen little result. Hopefully you will not think less of me for the silly notion, or the impropriety, but I felt as if it were my responsibility to test all avenues.”
Rubbing at the three-day’s growth at his chin, Thomas squared his shoulders, and shrugged off his ashen great coat. Offering the crook of his arm, he escorted the premature dowager into the main room, and returned to his position, so that he was now speaking past the reticent craftsman.
“Perhaps if his father had not been so rushed to lose his child amongst his business, you would have had the opportunity to properly examine him.” Damning himself for the notion, Blackhall removed a fat sack of coins, and dropped it at Bowman’s feet. “Take what I’ll owe for the damages, and leave me what change you think your boy’s life is worth.”
Giving no further warning, the frontiersman grabbed up a heavy-headed mallet, which had previously rested five askew platforms above Christopher’s sternum, and swept the majority of the contents near to the lad onto the floor.
The work was not so different from wielding an axe, and with a series of deft strikes – each one accompanied by a gasp issued from the bloodless face of the senior Bowman – Thomas was able to free the slumberer from his timber-cocoon, all while avoiding the total collapse of the lofty storage.
Draping his snoring load on the heavy chair’s backing, Blackhall lay a hand forcibly upon his shoulder, and began pounding at him as if the beating alone would be enough to rouse the boy.
“Come now, sleeping beauty,” he muttered.
It was the third blow that brought up the desiccated fruit – after a spit, and a pop, what appeared to have once been a bite of crab-apple arced across the room and landed with little bounce at the threshold to the adjoining workspace.
With a snort, Christopher gave a yawn, then stood, his face contorted as if in a daze.
Blackhall steadied the boy with a firm hold on his shoulders.
“Was it the old woman then, offering you a snack?” he asked.
“Yes,” came the yawned reply, “Do you know her? A strange crone, that one.”
“Which way did she go?”
“I don’t know – I must have fallen asleep?”
Winded from his exertions, and his disappointment, Thomas steered the awoken to the seat that had so recently constituted Amelia’s post, and eyed the elder Bowman.
The man kicked back the sack of coins, and Blackhall stooped to arrange it in his pocket, as well as retrieve his coat, before exiting the establishment.
He was carried out on the sound of Ms. Burton’s joyful tears.
The following evening, as he sipped a cup of ale at the Bucking Pony, and made effort to think little of his woes, or his missing Mairi, Thomas wondered if he’d been too hard on the man, and if he’d possibly taken the girl’s words regarding callousness too close to heart without provocation. He dismissed the concern, however, when a pair of uniformed Corporals arrived, and informed him of his detainment under considerations of property damage, as levied by the town’s respected cooper.
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