HCE received a lot of high-quality submissions for The Brutal Issue – sadly, too many to fit inside the magazine! So we offered some of our shortlisted contributors the chance to be published on our website.
Keep an eye on our social media for more great writing like this, in the run up to the release of The Brutal Issue…
Dawn crested across the peaks like a yawn of light, cold and emotionless. Down below the cabin, late autumn mist rolled off a shallow oxbow lake just beyond the banks of the reckless Saint Anders River. The unpredictable ether wafted through green grass valleys like a ghost trail ascending long stairs. The air was sharp and crisp. This did not deter life from pulsing through the early morning veins of the region.
Jean-Pierre stood sentry on the small cabin’s porch. Sleepy fingers gripped a steaming tin mug of prudent coffee. He blew across its black, mirrored surface as a loon took up an early morning salutation. The flannels, buckskins, and pure stubbornness proved enough armour against the morning chill. Down in the oxbow, an egret hopped into flight. It was too far to hear the ‘whoosh’ of the fanning wings, but JP’s eyes were forest hardened. He did not miss its journey, nor the flickering of a near squirrel on a high branch. His senses were driven by the ebb and flow of the woods. The sharpened silence of a spruce grouse and the soundless jerks of a downy woodpecker in the dead branches of an elm spoke to him of a hunting snake. So acute were his wits that he needed only the nothingness to identify the veiled clues that piece together the story of the landscape.
JP read no better than a child, even if he had possessed the wire-rimmed glasses that his eyes sorely needed. Counting too high was a strain, no matter how pressed. Yet his mind was a catalogue of well-oiled gears, as sharp as the knife edge at his hip. Life had taught him everything and he was an astute learner. You could see it in those squinty eyes, a little too observant for the pure comfort of most civilized folks.
Through pursed lips he drew in his first sip. It burned the tongue, heated down his chest, and sent a warmth into his bones. One eye blanched as hot liquid passed over a tooth that began the morning with a cinch of pain.
“Going to touch the pliers to that,” he said.
He took another sip, ignoring all sensation. That was easy now it was categorised and locked away. Once, out on the plains, his mule broke a leg running up a talus sided gully. It rolled over the top of him like the last whiskey keg on New Year’s Eve. Luckily, nothing was broken on old JP, but his knee swelled up like a late summer melon. For three days he hobbled through hostile territory on that knee. That was real pain to ignore, and he ignored it with a stolid stubbornness that got him through the whole daunting occasion.
Along with the memory, so dwindled his coffee to slosh and dregs. He returned inside to the stove. Dropping to a knee, not the one that ached on cool morning such as this, he stirred until dancing embers pirouetted into flames. He dipped a dirty spoon into an open-faced pot of the thickest, black-brownest liquid that the devil himself would have declined to drink. Trails of shiny, oily yellows and purples followed the path of greasy remains at the spoon’s edges that stirred dregs to flotsam about the pot.
“Morning, Ralph.” JP nodded to his hands-on business partner at the meagre table, the man’s eyes still slatted to the morning. “Still not talking, eh?” The eloquence of his French still danced on a few syllables here and there, from youthful years spent in the tenements of Quebec.
Grabbing the warm handle, JP syphoned off another cup of ichor. “You stay in today. You look a little yella’ there, friend,” he said, staring down at Ralph then at the rough chessboard ground into the table before him.
This was Ralph C. Hampton, the same that rode with Bill Miner in ‘78 and shot in ‘84 holding up a stagecoach transporting not one, but two Wells Fargo Detectives. He recovered nicely in the facilities of the South Dakota State Penitentiary. Four years of black and whites helped reform this malicious criminal. People changed. A little.
“I’ll run seven traps up creek and boil off the other five tomorrow.” He paused. Fury began to rise at his partner’s insolent silence. “Fine!” Red hate sketched his eyes “…polecat, split tail muttering son of a bitch,” he mumbled. Whatever altercation had erupted last evening was still as fresh as a new blister.
JP stomped out the front door like a spoiled child, slamming it and spilling coffee over his knuckles. “Don’t know if I can do it, all winter up here collecting pelts and furs, me doing all the work.”
For long moments the hot coffee was gulped in rage, cooling on his hand. Not so slow did the fire in his heart dwindle, but eventually it too returned to a simmer. Both cup and heart emptied at about the same time. His mind returned the forest. This rebalanced his soul, calibrated his thinking. His head on straight, he returned inside for absolution. For coffee.
“OK,” JP blurted out. Leaning over the heavy wood table, he plucked a pawn from the chess board whittled atop the table. His conversation completely disappeared as his mind contemplated, then crowded the pawn down slyly.
Ralph had carted in a partial set of chess pieces up the mountain, whittled out two pawns, a tower, a knight, and someone had to use a candle stump as the white king. It took only a few slow suppers to teach JP the rules and some simple strategies. He caught on fast.
“My tooth’s been achin’ me,” he stammered. “That makes me get dog mad and fast. This afternoon, I’ll boil those other five traps and butter them up for tomorrow. You rest.”
The table was just big enough for the two of them. There would never be company. Its top was smooth enough, just don’t rub your hand across. In the middle was the prize – Ralph’s rough chess board, straight enough for their mountain top games. JP had had the idea to dye every other square just a hint with some over-used coffee grounds.
“I’ll set all seven traps up creek at that pond,” JP said.
He moved the black knight on Ralph’s behalf, a smart move, not a blunder. Ralph accepted with no reluctance, still not talking. JP turned to the coffee for another, still speaking as he flinched at the heated handle and used his dirty shirt for cover. “I know you had a, ooh, oww, rough night. Shoot-fire, we both did.”
JP rubbed his singed hand on buckskin pants and flexed it under a scrutinising eye. Blowing on it with his acrid morning breath, coffee, parcels of disintegrated food, and rotted teeth and gums made even JP give a wrinkle. Not for long, he couldn’t abide too much silence unless he was outdoors among the elements.
“Let bygones be…” JP wasn’t allowed to finish.
Another voice rose, one of anger, full of finality. “You know he’s dead, right?” the sobering voice flushed from the back wall.
JP’s eyes searched and stared, halting on the sloppily mounted elk head just above Ralph’s flaccid rope cot. The Raptor’s eyes narrowed. Anger returned in spades as if thrown from a bucket down over his head. It left him drenched with ire and wrath.
“He is deeaaad.” This time it came louder, provoking the revulsion within.
He could take no more. “You!” He rushed over. “Shut!” Jumping on the tattered cot, he came nose up with the stuffed animal head. “The Hell!” Spittle left a trail of shotgun patterns. “Up!” His left hand poked the stretched fur in the forehead, his right slid the knife blade beneath its wood-backed throat.
The savagery returned. Anger conveyed truths as well as deepened the lie. The antlered mount was as lifeless as the drying cords of wood around the house. JP turned. Ralph was also just as lifeless. Numerous punctures were in his upper chest, and a deep line ran his left arm, laying open the flesh. The worst, his throat was cut. Crimson velvet crusted down like a ruffled collar.
“Well, that’s why you weren’t talking, my friend,” he said. His face jellied.
With that, he returned to take the last of the coffee, careful not to get grounds. The make-do coffee pot clinked on the table and he moved a blackened skillet onto its place. The hardened grease settled, gelatinous grey inside, but soon would be hot as a sizzle for breakfast. JP nestled into his rough seat with coffee. He squinted at Ralph. The voice began again, “You know…”
“Shut up!” JP cried out, too loud and serious considering the calm features of his face.
A long silence penetrated the room as if two gunfighters were ready to pull leather. A nameless span was given life in the unblinking stare that one man would win by default.
JP leaned over, slid his queen down. “Check.” His grin widened, championed only by his partner’s neck smile. The smell of last night’s supper perfumed the air like the passing of a lady of the evening. JP stood. He strode to the slim-lined iron stove where his grin engulfed his nose and eyes as they pulsed and closed in hungry ecstasy.
“That queen looks tight, but you check to make sure ya know.” The knife came into his hand, becoming a tool of the kitchen. He jerked to halt. Turning, he stared hard into the black, stony eyes on the far wall, challenging them to speak. Dared them to utter a single sound. The intention of the knife ghosted the kitchen to become an executioner’s axe.
Turning only his body, JP pulled a leather-strapped whetstone from a wall peg above the trim wood stove. Still chasing out of the corner of his eye, he spit on the stone and pulled the blade methodically, rhythmically, up, down, up, down. If that blade wasn’t sharp enough to shave the Pope’s own whiskers, it was now. His gaze slid away.
“Give up yet?” he asked his silent partner.
JP rolled up one of the man’s dirty sleeves to the shoulder. “She’s in there tight, is she no?” He placed the blade at the top of Ralph’s bicep and further opened a layer of skin. Sliding the blade below the muscle, he shaved upward until he portioned off a hunk about the size of a fillet.
“Don’t figure too long now,” he said and spit into the skillet as a tester. The grease inside hid no whispers. It hissed satisfactorily. Lowering the meat, grease attacked the muscle with an eruption of sizzles and sputters, which gave to a fizzling drone.
“Ha, checkmate, I knew it.” He clapped one hand triumphantly across the table edge, just enough so as not to disturb the stalking stance of his queen. A genuine grin returned for the first time in weeks to his weathered cheeks.
“Cheater.” The word came soft, and not from the far wall.
“Why, I never,” JP said in defense, his mouth dropped, hurt, childlike. He kicked the back of Ralph’s chair as a little boy kicked rocks after a scolding.
“Cheater.” The word was a whisper. Ralph’s head lulled backwards like a dead tree snapping to the ground.
The tantrum grew like a fire, hot and raging. “Am not!” The knife flashed downward. “Not a cheater!” JP stepped back panting. The knife hilt did not waver as his hand slipped off one finger at a time. It protruded skyward, perfectly edged along Ralph’s hairline and his greasy widow’s peak. Eyes stared into nothingness, channelling dead blame towards JP. He had already turned and was flipping over his breakfast to sear the other side of his morning meat-cake.
“Oh! Susanna, don’t you cry for me…” He reached for a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper.
CHAD VINCENT is a teacher in rural Missouri. He lives on a farm with his wife, 3 kids, 30 chickens, 6 guineas, 3 dogs, and one rogue cat that refuses to officially join the family. His work can be found in Trembling With Fear and the anthology 9 Tales Told in the Dark #21.