Black-Cap gets his gun.
Once inside, I laid out the rifle on the workbench, and began to clean it thoroughly. I soon had Hans watching me, and as I slipped off the three barrel bands, he whistled again.
“That is a lot faster than with those pins,” he said. “Now how does the lock come off?”
Three minutes later, I had the gun entirely stripped, and as I began to carefully clean the barrel, I said, “I never shot a deer before.”
“That deer did not know that,” said Hans, “and the way it dropped, it acted like it was hit by a roer.”
“Hans, maybe you ought to try shooting this gun,” I said. “Is there such a thing as liniment?”
“What is that?” asked Hans.
“It's good for when you're sore,” I said. “Now that I think about it, didn't one of you say Geneva works for that?”
“Yes, and it is good I made some that Monday after you did that cough medicine,” said Hans. “I can get you some, and you can rub the sore place.”
By the time I had the 'musket' cleaned and lubricated, Hans had returned with a cup and a rag, and I thought to take off part of my 'shirt'. When I did so, I was surprised to see what looked like the beginnings of a bruise showing. Anna came, then looked carefully and gently touched the area with her fingers.
“This might not be as bad as what Hans had happen with that roer, but I would be careful loading that thing up like that. How much did you put in?”
“Three fourths of a measure,” I said, “or sixty grains.”
Anna looked at me in stunned amazement, then gently dipped a rag into the Geneva and began massaging my shoulder. Within seconds, the feeling of gentle warmth seemed to seep out the pain, and as I watched, the bruise vanished before my eyes. The tingling sensation of Geneva as a 'topical rub' was worth its nauseating aroma – provided said aroma wasn't too strong.
“I do not believe this,” said Anna. “Do you still feel sore?”
“A little,” I said. “I'll have to keep some of that liniment handy when I get a bag like what Hans has – only I think I want one that's a bit larger.”
“Why is that?” asked Hans.
“I don't want to just carry shooting things in it,” I said. “I'd like to carry a bit of food...”
“I thought so,” said Anna with a knowing tone. “I wanted to ask you about that, as I've been saving up some things to help you make one of those over Festival Week.”
“Things?” I asked.
“Bronze rings, buttons, more leather-thread, wax, a prick-marker for even stitching, and the leather we've been getting back. You might want to take that deer's hide over to the tanner's, and see if he's done anything with the latest ones.”
I went with Hans and the deer's hide to the tanner's, and to my surprise, we both came back burdened down with hides of one kind or another. Anna took charge of them once the two of us were home, and after greasing the buggy's wheels, we went off to a nearby woodlot.
The dead stillness and complete lack of traffic made for wonderment, and once at the woodlot in question, filling the buggy partly took but a short amount of time. I wondered if any deer or elk would show, so much so that as I carried an armload of wood to the buggy, I wondered if I was hearing correctly.
I was hearing a muffled crackling.
I went to the buggy and retrieved my rifle, then began stalking toward the source of the noise. The noisemaker was tentative in its stepping, with frequent pausing and slow movements when it moved. I could just barely discern the outlines of what was either a large deer or smaller elk, and as I went to a kneeling position, I drew the hammer back to full cock. I waited, then when I saw clearly the stub-horned head of an elk, I fired where the neck joined the body.
The deafening thunder-like crash seemed to bring down an avalanche of snow from every tree that I could see as the elk dropped in place, and as Hans ran past me with his musket, I wobbled slowly to my feet to follow after him. I was feeling 'punch-drunk', much as if I'd tried punching a straight-horn bull and the bull had punched back with both of its hind legs, and when Hans yelled, I drew closer.
“W-what is it?” I asked in a drunken-sounding voice.
“You got an elk here, and that thing is as dead as a corpse-box,” said Hans. “We will be walking back together and leading the horses doing it, as this one is enough for a month's pie-filling.”
“I'm not so sore, though,” I said.
“I saw it that time,” said Hans, “and you might want less powder for close deer.”
“Close deer?” I asked, as I came up on a large blood splash. It was wider and shorter than that of the deer.
“The usual shots for them,” said Hans. “I am glad we have the axes, as this one needs them.”
Walking home while leading a pair of straining horses was a long and tedious labor, and when we came home it was nearly lunchtime. I came in weary and resumed cleaning my rifle, then once I had done so, I collapsed on a stool.
“I'm surprised I didn't mash that thing to the floor,” I murmured. The noises I'd heard upon sitting down, as well as the straining sensation transmitted directly to my rear, made for no little worry.
“What took you so long?” asked Anna.
“He shot an elk with that thing,” said Hans, “and it was as dead as a corpse-box by the time I got to it.”
“Where did he hit it, though?”
“In the shoulder, same as the deer,” said Hans. “They were talking at the Public House about how there was a potful of meat that needed drowning in vinegar, as that thing hits like a roer.”
“Are you sore?” asked Anna.
“I think the way that stock is cut has something to do with it,” I said, “something about if you fire from a rest, it hurts more, but if you fire kneeling, or offhand, it hurts less.”
“And it tries to get away from you more,” said Hans. “I saw it jump up some when you fired it.”
Between lunch-time of the rest-day, and Monday morning, I worked feverishly on Black-Cap's weapon, with some minor 'adjustments' to mine as they occurred to me. I turned the set of reamers needed for his barrel, turned the cherry for the mould, 'machined' the castings for the powder measures, rolled the tubes for the two larger ones, carved the patterns for a 'lubricator-sizer', turned a 'sizing die', and filed to shape the two screwdrivers needed for maintaining the equipment.
By the middle of the week, Black-Cap's weapon was completed, and ready for test-firing, with all of the parts needed to load and look after the weapon present in sundry cloth bags. I had needed to answer a number of questions, chiefly why I wished to tie it to the tree in the rear for testing, but when I pulled the lanyard the first time, the thundering roar of the weapon had the others running for cover.
“What was that?” asked Gelbhaar when he poked his head up from behind a barrel. “It sounded like a cannon.”
“Why, it's the Iron Pig Special,” I said. “He can have it, too.”
“What did you put in there?” asked Georg.
“A measure of powder,” I said. “The bullet is much heavier than the usual sized ball, though he could use those if he wanted to, provided he uses patches on them.”
“And yours?” asked Johannes.
Georg began muttering, then said, “first, he shoots a deer at a good range for artillery, and the thing goes down as if hit with a round-shot. Then, about three hours later, they go wooding, and he drills a hole clean through an elk, and people are talking about him using a roer on it.”
“No, no roer,” I said. “I'm not shooting balls out of it, and I did something to the powder to make it more suitable for smaller bores. Now does anyone want to try that gun offhand?”
Johannes was willing to try, provided we could find a ball suitable for it, and some asking produced three large musket balls. I loaded the gun, then presented it to him – and when he shot, the roar was almost as loud as with the ounce-and-a-half slugs.
“How was it?” I asked.
“I wish I knew how to use those things you got on it,” he said, “as this one shoots uncommonly hard.”
“Are you sore?” I asked.
He nodded, so much so that I went inside and fetched a small jug, saying, “here, get a rag, put some of this on it, and rub the sore place carefully.”
“What is it?” asked Georg, as he looked to uncork the jug.
“Some Geneva Hans made,” I said.
“I thought you did not drink that stuff,” said Georg.
“I don't,” I said, “nor do I enjoy the odor. I've used strange-smelling liniment before, and that works about as good as any I've tried.”
As Johannes began rubbing himself, I carefully got upwind of the fumes, as did Georg. He then asked me, “now what is liniment?”
“Something you rub on sore places,” I said. “That stuff reminds me of some stuff called, uh... I cannot remember the name of this stuff. I think Hans would have liked the name, though.”
“Why is that?” asked Gelbhaar.
“The second part of its name had 'bomb' in it,” I said. “Was it 'Tannenbaum'?”
After showing the others how to use the sights, they each fired off the remaining balls. Each time, the thundering roar of the gun brought forth visions of artillery, and during the cleaning session afterward, I answered the questions of the others.
“Now what is that thing there?” asked Johannes, as he pointed to the lubricator-sizer.
“That permits bullets to be lubricated without making much of a mess,” I said, “and that lubricant is not fifth kingdom axle grease, but a mixture of tallow, beeswax, blacking, and uncorking medicine. I used my stamps to make up the recipe-card on some sheet brass, so he will know how to make more.”
“And that thing there?” asked Georg.”
“That is a more-accurate powder measure,” I said. “I made three of them, and I kept one for my own use.”
I paused, then said, “this lever transfers the powder, while this knob adjusts the amount the thing will load. You turn the lever up, shake the measure slightly, then turn it down with the spout going into the muzzle of the gun, and follow it by either the bullet or a patched ball.”
“I saw some pieces of black rags in there,” asked Gelbhaar. “What is that?”
“That is the bullet lubricant,” I said, “and it has blacking in it, which is why it's black and not a light yellowish color. You saw how I loaded the balls.”
“Why didn't you make a mould to take those?” said Georg.
“Making moulds for those slugs is much quicker and easier than for balls,” I said, “and when I made the mould for the revolver, I had to make multiple cherries before I had one that was 'decent'. The other type are a lot simpler.”
With the finishing of Black-Cap's weapon, Georg took charge of the entire thing, and I left for home when the others left the shop. I was willing to assay four or five hour workdays for a day or two so as to rest, as I had gone well beyond 'burning the candle at both ends'.
I had tossed the candle into the heat-treating furnace without benefit of a proper send-off, and I felt sore enough to want to spend a long time in the bathroom soaking in the tub.
However, once bathed, I found myself bored, and within half an hour, I was doing some further work on the revolver, this being reaming the cylinder and fitting a new cylinder pin. Both Hans and Anna were gone, as was the buggy and the horses, and when they came home just prior to 'sundown', I was glad to help them in with their supplies.
“Is this food?” I asked.
“For the most part, yes,” said Hans. “I got some more powder, and a bit more lead, also.”
After helping put the food away, I wondered if we needed to run more aquavit mash.
“Yes, when the mash is ready,” said Hans. “That still is the easiest thing to run I have ever used.”
“And it's the easiest thing to clean imaginable, also,” said Anna. “I actually don't mind it running in the kitchen.”
Here, Anna paused, then said, “and I hope you can work on more of those heating lamps soon.”
“I have three part-finished ones,” I said, “and I should finish all three of the shop portions tomorrow. The home portions might take a day or two longer.”
Black-Cap did not show the next day. As I cleaned up and 'stowed' the barrel-making supplies and dismantled the rifling setup, I kept an ear open for galloping hoofbeats, and even when I resumed doing copperware, I still paused now and then to listen.
Looking at the others showed they were doing much the same, even as the two men whittled on knife patterns, cut copper pieces, or took periodic stints at the drop-hammer.
“That die works for wagon-parts, too,” said Gelbhaar.
“And we're running low on good metal, also,” I said. “Are you doing things with scrap metal?”
“Mostly cleaning and cutting the stuff up,” said Johannes. “I never thought we'd have much use for that stuff, but those barrels you did, and all of the other things, have used their share.”
“Keep saving the off-cuts and bad pieces,” I said. “The new year is coming soon enough.”
“And in the meantime,” said Johannes, “people will laugh, sing, eat, drink, and be merry...”
He paused, then said, “and keep their powder dry and their guns loaded.”
“Black-Cap?” I asked.
“He's before Festival Week,” said Johannes. “Supposedly, he's due tomorrow early, if rumor proves true. I'm more worried about what tends to show after Festival Week.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“Those northern people and their pigs,” said Johannes.
The mention of swine seemed an indicator of a needed intermission, and during the morning guzzle, I brought out the revolver and laid it on a clean rag. The 'patchwork' aspect of the thing, with temper-colors showing here and there amid a sea of mottled gray, and some few worn places where the original streaky blue finish still showed, seemed to emphasize its less-aesthetic aspects. I knew most people would not approve, if but little more.
The extent of what I recognized was the minor nuisance aspect of non-matching colors and the much worse portion of frequent cleaning that was needed to prevent rust. Rusty weapons were more likely to malfunction.
“I did some more work on that pistol,” I said. “Now it should be a bit more accurate.”
“How is that?” asked Georg.
“The cylinder was a bit loose on the pin,” I said, “or rather, too loose, with a rough out-of-round bore and a sloppy pin. I reamed the bore carefully and made a new cylinder pin, then corrected the lockup so it indexes closer to where it should be. I'll lap the cylinder's chambers next.”
As if to buttress the matter with truth, I indicated where I had replaced parts most recently.
“This thing might not look like much,” said Gelbhaar as he felt it, “but it looks like you went through it completely.”
“No, not quite yet,” I said. “It still has a few parts I need to go over completely, even if everything has been cleaned up at least once since I got it and many of the important parts are new. I'm still learning about these.”
I paused, then said, “is there a way to color the metal other than case-hardening?”
“If there is, I do not know of it,” said Georg. “I know you tend to turn out tools that are not full-polish, unless someone specifically asks for them. I wonder why?”
“It takes about ten minutes on the buffing wheel,” I said, “and it makes the tool more prone to rusting...”
Knowing looks were exchanged among the two men, then Georg said, “I see. I know you are not fond of rusting tools, no more than anyone else is.”
“And if there was a way to prevent rusting, I'd do it in a hurry,” I said. “Otherwise, I either leave them in their casehardening colors, or their temper colors.”
I finished up the three heating lamp 'vessels' that afternoon, and I left but minutes after the others. As I worked at home on the 'critical' portions of the devices, I had the intimation that Black-Cap would indeed arrive tomorrow, and he'd show at the time of the morning guzzle.
And somehow, I had the impression things had changed from the time he'd gone to that magistrate.
At dinnertime, I was glad for the thick and hearty nature of deer stew, and as I finished my second bowl, I noted how the skin had stretched itself over my bones. I hadn't been eating enough, most likely.
“I know that,” said Anna, as she saw me looking, “and you were too busy to eat properly. I have no idea how much weight you lost, but it was more than I felt good about.”
“Tomorrow?” I asked.
“The coopers will be carrying their weapons, as will the carpenters, and the two of us will be also. I would take both of what you have, so you can deal with that wretch if you must.”
“If I must?” I asked.
“Didn't you say such people understood cold steel at the back of their heads?” asked Anna.
“I have the impression something positive has happened to that man,” I said, “something about he's acquired a measure of manners and lost some of his inclination toward potable paint remover? Perhaps a gentle reminder of some kind will suffice in his case.”
I paused, then said, “though I wonder more than a little about that magistrate. He hasn't changed much at all.”
Friday dawned with a feeling of something resembling a splitting-head hangover, almost as if I'd used Geneva as a beverage instead of as liniment, and I went to the shop with a full bag of tricks over one shoulder and a shouldered rifle over the other. I felt as if burdened heavily in both mind and body, and at the shop proper, I worked over casting patterns for knife pieces of one kind or another. The others had been busy with their knives, and now I needed to be busy with knives, rasps, chisels, and scrapers.
The stacked lines of stovepipe behind Georg's desk ran nearly to the ceiling-crossing beams, and as I counted the stacks, I knew we'd accumulated well over a hundred pieces. The number of in-process parts, however, was at least twice that, and I knew stovepipes would become a sizable responsibility within weeks after the year began. I looked at the medium-sized knife-blanks I'd forged as 'breaks' during the last two weeks, along with the other two sizes, and their rough-ground faces seemed to accuse me of a measure of laziness.
“Not true,” I murmured. I knew better, and I was not falling for such accusing thoughts.
Faint on the wind, I could hear the coming of a horse or two, and the slip-sliding nature of travel intimated that a buggy was in use and not a single horse. Most of the roads in the area were slick enough that either sleds or the lighter species of buggy was the best idea for horse-travel, and if on foot, one needed hobnails to not come to grief.
“Have any of you seen sleds recently?” I asked.
“They come with the hay every two or three days,” said Georg. “Why, have you been looking for them?”
“It seems horseback isn't that good of an idea in this weather,” I said, “and most people either ride buggies, if they have the right type, or in sleds, or they walk if they have hobnailed shoes or boots.”
“And one wants full hobnails now,” said Johannes. “Partial hobnails are not much help.”
I wondered for a moment how Johannes could speak that way, as I found mine to work especially well. I did not speak of the matter, however. I could feel Black-Cap coming, and he wasn't that far off.
“I wonder if he'll see the remains of that coach and its mules?” I asked softly.
“I think so,” said Georg. “It's hard to miss that mess, as that dynamite scattered the coach, those people, and their mules, and the pieces came down in a lot of trees. I hate to think of the stink when it starts thawing next year.”
The sounds of travel – jingling harness – came steadily closer, then something slid into the shop's yard and nearly came to grief doing it. Georg got up from his stool, then walked slowly to the doorway and opened it a crack.
“He's here,” he said, “and he brought someone else with him dressed similarly.”
I gathered my supplies, checked my revolver carefully, and made certain it didn't show. The two men came in – and the instant they did so, the intense reek of strong drink melded with rotten meat nearly made me spew.
Georg presented the gun, with all its accouterments, and laid all out upon his desk. I slowly edged closer, for I discerned a significant difference between the two men looking at the equipment; one smelled a good deal worse than the other, while Black-Cap...
“He's ceased with the bad food and strong drink,” I thought, “at least for the most part. He might have some Geneva now and then for his digestion.”
I paused in my thinking, then I looked at the other person – and in his case, I could see something I didn't much care for. I just hoped he would keep a lid on it while on the premises.
One the men looked up, then saw me standing near. I could hear people coming from the north and south as I looked at him.
“I have never seen anything like this,” he said. I recognized the voice as that of Black-Cap. “What is all of this equipment?”
“Those are adjustable for aiming,” I said, as I reached for my rifle so as to demonstrate how the sighting equipment worked. “I did this one for practice, as that one was a real piece of work.”
“You did two?” he asked.
“There were a number of new machines and new processes involved, most of which needed a fair amount of trial and error to come up with workable outcomes,” I said. “That one has the sixth barrel we tried, while what I have here has the third.”
“Why is the barrel so thick?” he asked. “Is it heavy?”
“It is that,” said Georg, “and you'll want that, as it shoots uncommonly hard.”
The atmosphere became a trifle tense, then I said, “that one can take slugs or balls. There is a mould for the slugs, two precise powder measures, complete tools, a lubricator and sizer, small vials of lubricants, cleaning equipment, and the recipe for the bullet lubricant – which is otherwise a trade-secret.”
The two men looked at each other, and as their eyes met, I said softly, “no, it is not a wall-hanger. It was one when you brought it here, and all save the wood is new.”
“The bronze pieces?” asked the other man.
“The original parts were so rusty that corrosion-resistant non-stressed parts were thought likely to be helpful,” I said. “I used many of the same patterns on this one, which permitted me to verify that the parts would indeed work as intended – and both weapons do work quite well.”
“How well is that?” asked the smellier of the two.
“With what I'm holding, I made a shot on a deer that was so far I have trouble believing it,” I said. “The deer dropped in its tracks.”
“How far was this?” said the smellier person.
“Three hundred and fifty paces,” said Hans, as he came in the door, “and I counted them myself. Then, he shot an elk the same day, and it went nowhere except down.”
Here, Hans paused, then said, “and if that thing is good enough, then you will burn your paper in front of the people that are coming now, and you will do it before you leave with your stuff there.”
The bristling aspect of 'Mister Stinky' was such that I drew and cocked the revolver so fast I was stunned. He seemed to take the matter in stride, even to the point of attempting to draw a weapon of his own.
“Now, take that dagger out slowly, and lay it on the table, sir,” I said evenly, “and then remove all of that ceremonial hardware and do likewise with it.”
He looked at me as if to question my intent. I stepped closer, laid my rifle on the table, and with movements nearly too quick for my mind to follow, I reached into his muffling cloak and drew the dagger in question, then laid it on the table in front of him.
“Try that nonsense again and you'll sup with Brimstone today, witch,” I snarled. “Dump that stuff on the table like I told you to, and quit wasting my time.”
With the greatest reluctance, Mr. Stinky began to unburden himself of his weapons, even as first the carpenters showed with loaded muskets, followed by the tanner, two people from the Public House, and two of the coopers.
“What is happening here?” whispered someone.
The witch was about to shout something, and as he turned to speak, I leaped across the six feet or so and grabbed him by the front of his stiff-starched clothing.
“Pay them no mind,” I said acidly. “Your responsibilities are to me, not them. Keep dumping that stuff like I told you.”
“And if I don't?” he asked.
“Do you wish to die?” I asked, in a tone I could not name.
I placed the muzzle of the revolver such that it was but inches from his face, then with my left hand, I picked up his dagger. I put the point of the thing at his throat, and began pushing such that he backed up. I continued pushing until I backed him to the wall.
“You are a very stupid man, witch,” I said icily, as I poked him with his own dagger. “Give me the slightest excuse at all, and I will cut your throat with your own death-knife.”
I flicked the dagger, and then looked at its now-bloody tip for an instant.
“Seems I struck oil, witch,” I snarled. “How about I expose your ink-markings?”
The witch glanced around and saw he was cornered. For some reason, I felt more than a little inclined to cut his head off, mount it on a pole, and then cut up his remainders and hang them bagged in a tree.
“You signed that paper, for your own reasons, didn't you?” I snarled. “You weren't out to just get me, witch – you wanted to sacrifice your co-signer too, and then add every person in this town to your own personal slave-warrens to live and die for your pleasure. Answer me!”
I didn't wait for an answer; I cut off a square piece of the man's shirt with the dagger to show a goat-head tattoo, with the whole now outlined in blood weeping from the cuts I had made.
“That's just the first one, witch,” I snarled. “Now tell me the truth, and no lies.”
The shop now felt uncommonly crowded, and the whispered talk was such that I wondered more than a little. The witch's eyes were darting around, much as if he were cornered, then with a sudden move, he tried to draw something from a hidden pocket. I didn't hesitate.
I shot him between the eyes at powder-burn range, and as his eyes rolled up in death, I sank the dagger into his guts and ripped him open from chest to groin. He now lay gutted at my feet with his brains splattered on the floor and the wall but feet away.
I tossed the dagger such that it spiked him in the chest, then followed his hand to remove from a hidden pocket another revolver. I handed it to Hans after lowering the hammer to half-cock, then turned to our customer.
“I'll search that witch later,” I said, “and then I'll deal with him properly once I show you how to use this equipment.”
I gave Black-Cap a quick course in how to use the various pieces, as well as how to adjust the sights, then led him around back to show him how using my rifle.
“I'm using this one so as to show you better,” I said, as I demonstrated with mine. “A lot of people seem to be tactile learners, which means they need to touch things to understand them.”
I paused, then said, “that, and I don't cope with small explosions going up in my face.”
After he fired two balls and surprised himself by actually hitting what he had aimed at, I led him back into the shop. The place was now moderately crowded, and in front of everyone, he pronounced himself fully satisfied. He then brought out another pouch of money, and Georg brought out the paper.
“No, show it around first,” I said. “Let everyone see all of those curses that witch put on that thing.”
I paused, then said, “those were his idea, weren't they?”
He nodded nervously.
“No, seriously,” I said mildly. “You might know a handful of those things, and those by rote,” I said. “He actually understood – or, I should say, he thought he understood them – fairly well, and made himself out to be quite capable in their use. Now, a few questions.”
I paused for effect.
“First, did you come here looking for Hieronymus, or someone else?”
“H-Hieronymus,” he said.
“He left some time ago,” said Georg.
“Secondly, when you saw me, what did you think?”
“I thought you were doing your traipsing, and had just started,” he said, “at least at first.”
“Thirdly, when you spoke with him” – here, I indicated the body – “did you say something about desiring a weapon?”
“There was another piece of paper that seemed to identify the goals of all of those curses,” I said. “I have that paper here, and I'll read it. Tell me if it's accurate or not.”
I then read the following, emphasizing each word that seemed appropriate:
“I desire a new weapon, and I shall have it, come
what may, and I will compel that witch to do my
bidding, as is my decree and his duty to me as his
lord and master. I have the desire, the money, and the
position, so all shall be as I wish, with no possibility
of denial whatsoever. As I will it, so shall it be.”
“It is,” he said, “and I thought that I could do all that it says.”
“And you went to that character there and had him apply those curses,” I said. “Now, is it true that man owns a great number of slaves?”
“He does,” he said, “and he was said to be very cruel.”
“And finally, did he wish to cause trouble for me personally?” I asked.
“I would not be surprised,” he said. “When I saw that lock, it was as if the old tales I'd heard as a boy had become real and tangible, and when I spoke of it, some listened, others ignored me, and a few became very angry. He was one of those that became angry.”
“Oh, one more thing,” I said. “What could you have done with that paper, had your mind not been read perfectly as to what you wished? It wasn't, by the way – we all did our best.”
“He spoke of being able to take over this shop,” he said, “but I suspect he wasn't telling me everything. I know that to the south such papers are regarded much as if they are first-rank royal proclamations.”
“Meaning, if you have one in those regions, you can more or less do what you want to the people it deals with?” I said.
He nodded, then said, “much of the power of those things in this area is dependent on one's underlings. He had a great many such people, and knew many who had yet more.”
“And with his demise, that whole cabal no longer exists,” I said. “I'm not sad to see it undone.”
After the man burned his paper in front of the gathered group, he took his weapon, and left in his horse-drawn sled. I now had a 'burning' question regarding the disposal of the witch's corpse.
“Did any of you search Stinky here?” I asked.
“Didn't you say you were going to do so?” asked someone in the crowd.
“I did, but I was mostly concerned with the other individual,” I said, as I knelt down to begin looking.
The witch had little else on his person beyond his clothing, a few folded papers which I pocketed to examine later, and a sizable money-pouch. This last I found as loathsome as a block of semi-solid lard, and I moved it over to the side of the shop with my shoes. As I came back to 'Stinky', I said, “now what do we do with this character?”
The silence that descended was such that I marveled, even as the crowd began dissipating.
“While I was questioning him,” I said, “the thought occurred to me to put his head on a pole, then bag his cut-up remains and hang them in a tree. Has anyone heard of that being done?”
Hans looked at me through narrowed eyes, then said, “that is common in those old tales.”
“It is?” I gasped in horror. “Where did that thought come from, then? I don't know any of those tales!”
I then looked down at the floor, and saw my clothing was spattered with blood. For some reason, I didn't faint, even when I looked at the witch's ripped-open guts and bullet-blasted head.
“Oh, no,” I said. “I shot a witch...”
As if in a dream, I saw the revolver the witch had been in the process of drawing, and saw him attempt to not merely shoot me, but shoot anyone and everyone he could – and as I looked closer at the man's face, I spat, “he was one of them...”
“One of who?” asked Georg.
“Th-that dream,” I said. “That man there was one of those thirteen witches, and he was as murderous a thug as anyone I can think of.”
“So now he is dead,” said Hans. “If you want to hang him up like that, then we will need an ax, as well as a bag and a rope.”
“H-hang him up where?” I gasped. I no longer cared about where he was interred or how he was disposed of as long as he wasn't making a stink or a mess.
“If you are going to hang him like that, then you will want a tree to hang the body parts from,” said Hans. “Let me go home and fetch Anna, and she can get everyone out so as to watch you do him up right.”
The horror that now washed over me was of such magnitude that I wobbled over to a stool, then wept with my head in my hands, moaning as I did so, “what have I done? I've done more evil than the worst witch that ever lived.”
And yet from somewhere, I seemed to hear a voice, one that I'd heard before coming here. This gender-neutral voice seemed to speak words of rationalization, saying the man wished to kill us all, and had actually attempted to do so when I had stopped him by the only workable means.
As this voice of rationalization continued speaking of my doing the right thing, I saw over and over, much as if I were viewing a film-clip bent and twisted into an endless loop, the man drawing his revolver and emptying it, then doing his utmost to kill everyone he possibly could with his dagger before being riddled with musket balls. Only his death stopped his killing.
“But who am I to do such a thing?” I moaned, even as someone's hands touched mine. I looked up, expecting to see some horrible avenging spirit, and instead, I saw Anna.
“I'm not surprised,” said Anna. “Hans is rounding up some people so as to help you take care of that witch.”
“But I s-shot him d-dead, and then cut him open,” I said. “Have I become a witch?”
“I think you saved our lives,” said Georg. “He was about to shoot us all.”
“C-cut his head off and p-put it on a pole?” I gasped. “Then cut him apart and bag his remains, and hang them in a tree to rot?”
“I wonder about that,” said Anna. “You've not heard many tales, have you?”
“Other than what little you and Hans have spoken of,” I said, “I've not heard any. What significance does doing such a messy thing...”
I broke down weeping and nearly screamed, then I murmured, “c-can't we j-just b-bury him s-somewhere?”
Anna shook her head, then said, “if you knew how to deal with him that way, and that without being told or knowing anything of those tales, then I think what you said is what needs to happen. You'll want an ax so as to cut him up, as there are no swords in town.”
I staggered to my feet after Anna, and upon seeing the dead witch, I saw his features animated with billowing red flames, almost as if he were still alive. I could hear a crowd gathering out front, and as I passed out of the door and into the watery gray light of midmorning, the number of musket-toting townspeople was staggering.
“There must be half the town here,” I gasped.
“No, not quite,” said Anna. “Still, this is a fair number of people. Where do you want to spike the head?”
“I have no idea,” I gasped. “Perhaps near where that coach went to pieces?”
While I walked with shouldered rifle and drawstring bag, the townspeople followed in a wake behind me down the middle of the street. The witch was being dragged, as if a dread reminder of the horror I had manifested, and the wind-whipped soft murmurs coming from behind were enough for a year-long blood-soaked nightmare.
With each house I passed, the procession grew in length, and as we passed the Public House, I looked to see a stoop lined with patrons. Their grim mood made for a feeling of horror, much as if I were marching to a gibbet to be dangled for the amusement of migrating carrion crows, and now and then, I wept.
I felt horrible, and ashamed of myself. I was being punished for not keeping my thoughts to myself as I should have, and with each step south from the town, the sense of unease and doom steadily grew. I wondered if I was sane now, and I wondered if I would be sane after what was to be done. I felt utterly alone, without help, and without anywhere to hide, and with each gentle turn of the road, I felt more and more hidden from my home, and more cut off from life, from friendship, and most importantly, God.
Somewhere ahead, I smelled a place filled with the multiplied stinks of death, and with each slow-stepping minute, the various reeks commingled with one another to form a nauseating miasma of torment. There was a potent barnyard reek, a smell of distillate, what might have been a fainter odor of strong drink, and a smell of offal fully as potent as that of the dead witch slow-dragging behind me on a rope – and each smell set up camp within my nose and within my mind.
After what seemed an hour's plodding, we came to a snow-blanketed scene of awesome desolation, with a broad shallow crater usurping the roadbed and some feet to each side. Snow-splashed fragments of flesh and clothing hung in the trees, while a faintly smoky scent spoke of a recent fire, as did the thinner snow over a circle well over a hundred feet across, and faint darkened places amid the drifts spoke of soot borne down by snow and thrust beneath a white blanket of powder.
The ring of an ax against wood began as the witch was brought into the clearing made by the explosion, and as the people gathered around in a semicircle, Hans came up to me with one of the axes I had made.
“That pole should be cut shortly,” he said. “I would cut off his head first, then begin cutting him up.”
“H-his head,” I thought morosely, even as a faint nightmare recollection seemed to flutter faint on the winds of my mind. “Double-bladed ax...”
I had made three single-bitted examples, none of them particularly large. I was handed one of them, even as the corpse of the witch came through the semicircle which gave way before it. I saw what looked like a faint splotchy blood-trail, and the bloodless chill rigor of the corpse seemed to communicate a secret – a secret known only to the damned, and a secret I could neither name nor know.
I wondered how to make peace with the man I had killed, and the horror that continued was now conjoined with further horror: I was to mutilate his corpse, and that in a slow, measured fashion, each slow stroke savored by a bloodthirsty group that gathered round to see vengeance done.
Vengeance upon the witch, for interrupting their slow sleepy life with his foul aroma and bad manners.
And vengeance upon myself, for not keeping the secret entrusted to me. I looked around, and it seemed it was time.
I advanced upon the witch with grim set features, and swung the ax at his filth-clustered neck. The bit sliced deep, and with a crush of bone, the blade went nearly all the way through his neck. I saw the dagger, knelt down, and began slowly slicing with apparent grim relish the gory talisman of my conquest from my fallen foe, until the last strand of flesh parted, and I moved aside the filthy token of my lethal hatred.
I laid the dagger aside, then kicked the head like a football as I stood up to my feet. A grim resolve had taken over my mind, and with a sure slice, I removed the right arm at the elbow, then at the shoulder, much as if the man were firewood for the cooking of Brimstone's favored meal. The left arm went the same, two pieces; and the legs, foot, shin, and thigh, leaving nothing save a torso. I flipped that over with my foot, and then buried the ax haft-deep at the waistline, then at mid-back, and finally, diagonally so as to cleave the shoulders apart.
With each such gory slice, the numbness of my mind increased and the gobbets of flesh multiplied, and when the ax seemed clumsy, I used the dagger of the witch to slice his flesh apart. The blade worked well, surprisingly.
The gore that now caked the ax needed a rubbing with snow, and when I looked around the small 'clearing', I saw a sizable cloth bag, rope, and a coarse-cut sapling nearly eight feet long. I took the sapling and began cutting a point on it with the ax, and once I had a sharp point on the one end, I began cutting another in the oppressive silence.
My hands knew their business, even if my mind had gone blank and retreated to an ocean of insanity, and from somewhere deep inside, that insanity thought to come out in the form of insane-sounding laughter. Yet in some fashion, I almost wanted to scream, even as two counterposed currents of thought ran through my mind:
Was it the witch voice of the nightmare, the one that spoke of death by torture, and the increase of fortune by Brimstone, even as that reptile was hailed as God?
Or was it another's voice, one that spoke of neither mercy, relent, nor tears in the fearsome day of retribution?
Both of these thoughts drove my brain further into the folds of darkness, even as I took the pole and wondered how to actually spike the head. I then quit thinking on the matter, and used the thick skewer and speared the meat of my conquered foe, such that it was impaled with brutal savagery.
I laid the head aside, and now picked up the bag. I opened its mouth, noting faint stains. There was no use in wasting a good bag on the bad rubbish of witchdom, and as I began piling in the body parts of the witch, I noted the ragged hacked pieces of his clothing, his numerous evil tattoos...
How could I see his tattoos as evil when my mind was gone?
...His slimy skin that felt as if dipped in lard, the traces of blackened datramonium ointment, his coarse scrabbling hands that would never kill another innocent victim...
As I put the last of his body in the bag, I noted his boot-hidden weapons, and I saw where I had cut apart his boots to show his feet. No toes remained, and the broken-looking scarred skin of what once were feet made for an instant of wondering as to why...
“You are a very stupid man, witch,” came the voice of recollection. What I was seeing proved it utterly.
The rope went next, and here, I had assistance. My knots were as bad as my blood-handed slaughter was otherwise, and once the knot was tied thoroughly and well, I was handed a sheet of tin and stylus. In a strange hand, I wrote, much as if hearing dictation:
“These remains are to hang until they fall rotten to the ground,
and any fool that disturbs their rotting shall join them to rot.”
The tin was taken from my hands and tied to the bag, then as I staggered to my feet from where I had knelt to write, I looked around. Again, the silent watchful ring of hard-eyed faces looking down upon the object of their adoration. I picked up the rope, and began dragging the slowly-reddening bag across the snow until I found the nearest tree. There, I flung the end of the rope over the branch, and began hoisting it aloft, until I had found the place where it could be tied. There, again, I had help.
It was now time to plant the brutal totem of my rage and hatred, and I was handed a narrow-bladed spade. I dug the deep narrow chasm, and there buried my spiked trophy: my first head, my first sacrifice to my inclination of the moment, my...
I had not kept the index fingers of my prey, nor had I fed the Desmonds, and the howling demons of hell were angry with my keeping back their righteous blood.
I turned to face the crowd, and with gore-clotted mien, I seemed to see a change, almost as if justice was finally done, and when I took up the witch's dagger, I said but one thing to it.
The dagger abruptly blazed red as if a furious distillate-fueled blaze, and amid this blaze, I saw trickles of bluish-white glowing. The initial appearance of the bluish fire was such that I wondered how it could be so, until with a sudden fierce spring, it crushed the reddish guttering flames and the dagger went to rust and soot instantly – and my once-blank mind came back to me as if brought back by an explosion. I looked at my gore-clotted hands, looked at those around me – and fell face-forward into blackness silhouetted by shining white powder beneath my feet.