Bloody Broadhorn, by Henry Brasater
My name is Timothy Bree. I am owner and captain of the Bregia, named for my place of birth in County Meath, Ireland.
Everything that I write here is true. I know. I lived it, am living it, in this year of our Lord, 1844.
My Bregia is a 100-foot broadhorn that we float and pole down the Mississippi to Vicksburg and Natchez, sometimes on to N’Orleans. The Bregia is my home and work. My Ark is covered fore-and-aft and port to starboard with canvas, patched here and there by assorted tree barks. Under this cover animals can be penned aft with my captain’s pilot house and living quarters forward. Windows starboard-port-and bow are small open rectangles with shutters. Double-doors are angled slightly inward and located amid ship, port and starboard, these entrances and exits are for crew, passengers–which I sometimes carry–animals and merchandise. There are loopholes placed intermittently in walls through which guns can be fired if an Indian attack should take place against my floating fort. A long, great steering-oar is controlled by one man, who stands aft on the roof to steer clear of sandbars and any other debris that might also be freely floating south on the Mississippi. Front and side sweeps are also used for navigation; they resemble giant horns, especially at night in full moonlight.
The Bregia’s usual crew consists of four indentured men, besides myself. On this last trip returning north, there were two Africans, a black/Indian mix. I had to hire a white man at the last minute on the N’Orleans docks. The fourth crewman that we had anchored with, suddenly disappeared. The new man did not speak much, but could sign his name–‘Larkin’–on limited indentured papers when he came aboard. A man educated enough to sign his name was encouraging to me; perhaps I would have a chess-playing partner to pass the time during off-working hours! Within a few hours, I heard from the rest of my crew–who had been with me on previous trips–that Larkin had as mean a reputation as a stirred up river moccasin. Larkin was purported to have killed many Indians in sundry battles and still more white men in jug groceries on the Mississippi and around N’Orleans. Larkin was wanted by the spurious frontier law, and somehow, always escaped being taken into custody by yokels who would hang him in a minute and make a party of it. Some of those locals were eventually found torn to pieces in an unnatural way. This is information that my other three crewmen reported to me, which they had gathered as a result of drinking in taverns along the N’Orleans docks before our tow back north began the following morning.
Larkin’s age was uncertain and he did not look like the average _voyageir_; his body was small, thin, wiry and supple, almost like that of a boy. Larkin’s face seemed old in daylight and younger at night; his skin sometimes had a gray pallor about it, and other times looked so white as to suggest albinism. Larkin did not like bright sunlight–said such brightness hurt his eyes, which always looked blood-shot. The rest of the crew did not know where the little man had come from and made sure that at least two of them always tried to work with Larkin. The exception was when Larkin took his turn with the steering oar at night; then, he would stand on the _Bregia’s_ aft roof surveying water, shore lines, and the sky above.
It was the second day out on the river–having paid for a steamer to tow the heavily laden Bregia north to Paducah–when I saw something that caused me alarm, in more than one way. A rotten barrel split and its wooden hoops splayed into several bits with one such splinter shooting into Larkin’s arm. I witnessed Larkin pulling the hefty hoop splinter out. There was no blood from the wound. “What’s going on, with your arm?” I asked, walking over to give assistance to my injured crewman.
“It’s the way I am, now,” was Larkin’s response.
My blood ran cold in an instant. All sorts of ideas raced through my mind. I had long since heard of Larkin’s kind down in Louisiana, but I never believed such tall stories.
I looked long and hard at my new crew member. “Is there going to be any trouble?” I asked.
“No, sir, captain,” Larkin replied. “Not with you, sir. I am from Kaskaskia, in Illinois, and I jist wanna get home,” Larkin told me.
My mouth flew open. “Why, damn it man!” I said. “That’s my territory!”
Larkin went on. “Nearly a year ago, I was shanghaied on a flatboat and forced to work all the way to New Orleans, where I jumped ashore and run fast as I could.” I had no money. I wondered for days and nights, eating garbage, mostly left in back of low down eating places. Until….until….”
Larkin’s speech faltered. He seemed to suddenly have a problem with his jaw moving in a normal way. He looked about him, wild eyed.
“Well, go on man!” I insisted.
“I fell in with some people. Queer people. Voodoo worshipers, they called themselves. They…killt me, I think. Anyways, I ain’t felt the same after they overpowered and bound me when I said I wasn’t interested in no religion. Once in a while, one of them would come and bite me. At first that hurt. Eventually, when one of them did that, I felt nothing. They left me days and nights while they went out foraging. I knew I was dead. But, somehow, I was aware. I could see out of my dead eyes. Sometimes I could hear, other times I could not. Finally, they poked at my body and took turns biting me. One night, one of them–the leader, I think–said to the others: ‘He’s ready to be one of us, now.’ The leader turned to me. ‘Are you ready to join us, now?’
“I wanted water. I wanted food. I wanted to wash my body. Weakly, I said: ‘Yes. I’ll join you!’ I was lifted to my feet. I could barely stand on my own. One of them took a bite out of my arm and chewed my flesh with its blood dripping down his chin.
“I looked at my wound. I did not feel pain. I felt nothing.”
Larkin held up his left arm. I saw a scar which had formed over what looked like a hunk of missing flesh.
Larkin put his arm down and went on talking. “I found myself beginning to walk slow and in a crippled fashion. And…I was always hungry. For human flesh.” Larkin stopped talking and stared out into the waters of the Mississippi.
I braced himself, ready for an attack by the new man on my scowl.
Larkin turned back to me. “I have a sickness. It comes’n’goes, near as I can figure. So far, I can think for myself and do things normal-like. I can choose what I do and don’t do in my days’n’nights. Most of the time.”
Larkin turned again, and spit into the water. With his back to me, he said: “I’ll give you more’n a fair days’n’night’s work. I’m no slacker. I’ll do my share. Signed on till we get t’Illinois an’ Kaskaskia landin’. Want to see my home again. Want to be buried aside my kin folk. That is, if I can be put into the ground and rest at peace for eternity!”
Larkin stopped talking.
During the silence that followed between us, and with Larkin’s back still to me, fast decisions were in order on my part. “I need a fourth crew member,” I finally said. Hired you fair and square. Let’s keep it that way. Behave yourself with me an’ the other crewmembers. We’ll get another tow at Paducah. The Bregia’ll eventually put you in at Kaskaskia landing. I pass there going to my home docking farther north at Plattin Creek, near St. Louis.”
As usual, the towing days were slow and filled with tedious routine. I made every effort to keep the crew reasonably busy. In one of those towing days, during a break and when we were alone, Larkin revealed his plans. He would search out cousins and uncles and the one love of his life, a half-Kaskaskian Indian by the name of Maria and see that she was all right. He would then visit the old Kaskaskia cemetery; he planned to seek help in obtaining a plot next to his parents, if one could be had.
When we finally arrived in Paducah, it did not take long for me to negotiate for another tow that would take us farther north on the Mississippi to Kaskaskia, where the crew and I would rest, then hire another day’s tow to the Bregia’s home birth near the mouth of Plattin Creek.
Just off Kaskaskia landing, we cast off our tow lines and poled our way to remnants of a dock. Mooring the broadhorn took longer than normal because of making certain that our hawsers were latched to poles that were not going to float away. Kaskaskia village had been inundated by the Mississippi overflowing its banks.
Larkin shouted: “Look! The old capital building is next to the river!” The area was devastated. Immediately the Bregia had been secured, Larkin came to me for his wages and indentured release. He trembled with what I took as excitement.
“Where will you go?” I asked as he made for the port side double-doors.
“I’ll find’em! I’ll find’em! My last chance!” Then, he was gone and I heard splashes in knee-high water several yards beyond the Bregia.
Curious, I went to the double-doors from which Larkin had exited and looked out. Off at a considerable distance from the broadhorn, I saw Larkin sloughing his way through water, walking in a crippled fashion and flailing his arms hither and yon.
The three other crewmen stayed on board the Bregia, as did I. We agreed that on the morrow, we would signal a northbound steamer passing by and arrange for towing.
But, the following day, I was laid by the heels in my captain’s room bunk. I felt feverish, and generally dyspeptic. At times, I was disoriented. Something I may have brought up from N’Orleans, I thought. I ordered the remaining three crewmembers to stand by until I regained strength enough for another passing steamer to tow us on to Plattin Creek.
At dusk I must have fainted. Later, I woke in the dark with a great pain in my right side. I yelled out and put a hand to my wet and sticky side as I scrambled from my bunk and stumbled to the table, searching for matches. When I got the lantern lit I looked down and saw blood and flesh ripped from my right side.
There was a stir outside my cabin door. I looked up. Larkin stood there chewing on something with saliva and blood dripping from one side of his mouth.
Leaning against the table, I cried out in pain once again. I then asked: “What are you doing here? Why did you do this?” I was looking at my torn shirt and bloody flesh.
His voice was deep and hollow. “A compulsion come over me. It was necessary.”
“Why are you not with your kin?” I asked, stupidly.
“They are gone.” He said this without any emotion in his voice or expression on his face. “All were drowned in the flood. Their graves buried in water which has set Kaskaskia afloat as an island from the mainland. All are gone,” he repeated. “My Maria is dead.” He stopped speaking. He looked at me without seeing eyes. He said again: “Maria is dead.” Then: “As am I.”
Larkin turned and fled toward amid ship, and with the other three crewmen following behind into Hell. My impulse was to go after them, but the pain in my side was too incapacitating.
That was the last time that I saw the man called Larkin, and the rest of my crew.
I did not want to admit what had happened to me. I was sick to death about it. And, trembled with fear of what lay ahead for me. I staggered back to my bed, falling once. Unconsciousness took over as I pondered why Larkin had attacked me, when he had promised that I would never be in danger.
When I became conscious again, the lantern on my table had gone out and daylight was breaking in the eastern sky. I touched my side and felt caked blood on my shirt and pants. I pulled the shirt away and put my fist into the cavity that had been bitten out by Larkin. I was shocked that there was no blood flowing, not even a trickle. And, I was free of pain. I looked over at my bunk and saw that the sheet upon which I had lain was stained with a dark mass.
Was there nothing for me to do? Was I doomed to a state of perverted death? And, when? Had it taken place already, or would it be within the hour, days, weeks? So, I sat down at the table to begin writing this missal for any and all to eventually read, begging forgiveness for any future actions of mine which might violate social norms, and God’s commandments. Anyone reading this, pray for me–intercede for me–with Holy God that I not be turned away from his mercy at the gates of Heaven.
My writing hand is losing some of its strength. I see that I am beginning to scribble. I move my arms, my hands, a little more slowly than ever before. When I rise from this chair, I know that I may walk with a crippled gate, perhaps dragging one foot slightly.
I feel less mentally encumbered than ever before in my life. Soon, I know that I will have no mind of my own; I will have no thoughts with which to express my will to go about daily chores. Never again will I float the Bregia down the mighty Mississippi! For I am…I am…God help me…I must admit to myself…that I am now among the dead ones who do not rest.
I do not believe that Larkin and the other crewmembers are still on my broadhorn. Everything is too quiet.
I now end these words which have been penned to inform authorities, and any other interested persons, regarding how zombies came to be in the state of Illinois. These torn pages, from my captain’s log, will be in a tobacco tin next to the table lantern. I trust that what I have penned can be read, even though I am developing a palsied and otherwise distrustful hand.
Bless my soul. Bless all good men’s souls. And, Amen.
Henry Brasater served with the United States Army Security Agency in Asmara, Eritrea. As a civilian he was a radio-television newsman before going into academia. Brasater’s Ph.D. is in Rhetoric & Public Address. He has taught at various colleges and universities, including Cairo University as a Fulbright Senior Lecturer. Brasater’s stories are published in ezines, print anthologies and magazines. His novel, Upheaval, is published by Spanking Pulp Press. A nonfiction book, A. E. van Vogt: Science Fantasy’s Icon, is available from Booklocker. Henry Brasater lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
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