To celebrate our WEIRD TALES week, here for the first time is AN EMBRACE AT BELL CHAPEL, written by my grandfather, Paul S. Powers. Judging from a return envelope attached to the original manuscript, (he had sent it to ESQUIRE but it was returned), this was written somewhere around the beginning of 1953.
This story will be one of the never-before-published stories written in the spirit of the old pulps that will be published next year. The first book will be a collection of Westerns; the second book will be a collection of mixed genre stories, including horror and noir. Keep checking back with us for news as to when they will be released.
Happy Halloween, everybody. I'll be returning tomorrow and going back to our Western roots, and I'll be kicking off November with a fantastic contest co-sponsored by OutWest.
AN EMBRACE AT BELL CHAPEL
Paul S. Powers
Steve stopped the car at the first culvert south of Lundstrom's. He left the headlamps on and the engine running, and he handed me six dollars. I got out with the flashlight, slid off the dirt road into the shallow ditch, and turned the beam into the drain. There was nothing but some rocks and dried mud at that end, so I went to the other side of the culvert and looked there.
"No dice," I called to Steve.
He got out of the car, took the flashlight and looked for himself. “Jim must've got drunk and forgot all about it, the crazy old foo1,” he said.
"Do you think it could have been highjacked?”
"No, the can isn't here, either, the can we were supposed to put the money in. He hasn't been here," Steve said, disgusted.
In the glare of the headlights he brushed the knees of his gray flannel pants. He was wearing white-soled black oxfords and a silk shirt striped brown and green. Because of the heat, our blue serge coats ware folded up in the back of the car. We both wore cream-colored Panama hats with fancy ribbons. We were snappy, Steve and me. We had class.
It was a July night in the middle 1920s. Prohibition times in Kansas. The harvest and the threshing were finished and we were out for a whingding. What we had failed to find under the culvert was the sixteen-ounce druggist's bottle of alcohol that we had arranged for.
"Think we should wait?" I asked.
"No; it's past eleven o'clock right now. I know two or three bootleggers in Ferguson, and we can be there in half an hour. Come on, Doc, let's step on it."
We climbed into the brand-new roadster that Steve's father had given him as a present for graduating from the agricultural college. Steve's folks owned a whole section of wheat, and they could afford it. I had worked beside Steve all that summer, but our friendship went back farther than that; we had gone to grade and high school together, and we were almost like brothers.
"Yay, Ferguson!" I cheered when we were under way again.
"Ferguson, here we come!" Steve yelled. "Hot diggedy dog!"
Ferguson was a railroad town of maybe forty thousand, the biggest within a hundred miles. There was a red-light district there if you knew where to look for it, and Steve and I knew our way around.
"I hope my little blonde is still at the Midland, Steve said."Oh,boy!"
"First let's hit the Belmont Rooms," I said. "There's a redhead there that'll knock your eye out."
"She's my darling, she’s my daisy," Steve sang.
She's cross-eyed, and she's crazy….”
The near-beer that we’d brought along to spike with alky was warm now, so we tossed the bottles out. I lolled back on the leather cushion and cocked one leg over the door, letting the wind slap my pants leg. The roadster was sure sporty; there was a lamp on the dash, and even a lighter that you unwound at the end of a long cord. The engine was a six, and we had a cutout for the muffler and were making a noise like an airplane. It was fine, rolling along like that between the hedgerows, and at that hour we were alone on the road. Every once in a while we would pass a grove of big cottonwoods, and there would be swarms of leaves overhead, all green and silver in the headlights.
We sang “Ma, She's Making Eyes at Me" and "Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight?” and then Steve started another one:
“Oh, we’ll sing, sing, sing of Lydia Pinkham.
And her l---o---v—e for the human race….”
All of a sudden, out of the big, yellow swirl of dust behind us, a vehicle appeared, pulled up even with us and went on by, going lickety-split. It passed us as though we'd been standing still. And it wasn't a car; it was a horse and buggy.
I could hardly believe it. The horse was pacing, and the rhythm and beauty of its motion was something wonderful to see. Sailing behind was a red-wheeled buggy with a man and a woman in it. We saw them only for a flash --- the driver was grinning, and she was waving at us --- and then they vanished behind a yellow curtain of dust that our lights couldn't penetrate.
Boy, are they traveling!" Steve said.
I laughed and laughed. "You and your super-six. Why even a horse and buggy can go around you."
"We were doing forty." Steve looked a little mad.
“Who are you kidding?"
“We were doing forty. We’re making forty-five right now."
I looked at the speedometer and thumped it with the flat of my hand, thinking it had gone haywire. But it hadn't.
"I didn't know a horse could step along this fast,” I said.
“It’s a pacer. They can go like blazes for a quarter mile or so. I wonder who those people are --- I didn’t get a good look at ‘em; did you?”
"No; let's catch up with them and have some fun. Or can't this car do it?"
"Of course it can --- we can make seventy miles an hour," Steve said. "But I can't see through the fog they're kicking up, and we might ram into 'em. They'll have to slow down pretty soon."
"There must be a shindig around here someplace. Weren't they in costume? Old fashioned, kind of?"
"I don't know. Maybe some country dance."
We seldom saw rigs, even in those days. Sometimes, when the roads were muddy or full of snow, the farmers would drive into the towns in wagons or carriages, but since Henry Ford had hit the jackpot, about ten years before this, horses had become scarcer. There were plenty of draft animals, sure. But fancy or racing stock had become about as rare as hen’s teeth.
“I'd like to get a closer look at that pony,” I said.
"And I'd like to get one at the jane," Steve answered.
The billowing dust ahead of us thinned out. The gay couple had turned off the road and stopped.
"They've pulled in at Bell Chapel," I told Steve.
“Yes, there they are, signaling to us, flagging us down. Maybe they've got a bottle," he said, hopeful.
"More likely they think we've got one. You're not stopping, are you?"
"Sure we are, Doc," Steve said, laughing.
Our brakes squealed, and the rear wheels skidded around toward the edge of the ditch before we came to a standstill a little beyond the rutted side road that led to Bell Chapel. Steve snapped the tail and parking lights on, and opened the door on his side. I was slower. Before I got out I shoved my billfold down under the cushion. It wasn't that I was overly suspicious, but the wheat harvests used to be followed by some pretty rough characters.
The man and the girl had got out of their rig and were standing on the low platform porch in front of the white-painted little building that stood a dozen yards from the road. They seemed to be waiting there for us. I was nervous, somehow, and with the excuse of rolling and lighting a cigarette I held back a bit and let Steve walk on ahead of me.
Bell Chapel had first been a country church, then a schoolhouse, but for several years it hadn't been used for anything at all.
Right behind it was an old burial ground, with some of the gravestones still standing, and in front was a caved-in well and a rusty pump. Weeds grew knee-high everywhere, and vines had forced their way through the rotted boards of the platform.
"Hello! What's the good word?" I heard Steve say. "Say! That's some nag you've got.”
It was a warm, sultry night. No breeze was stirring now, but overhead big masses of cloud drifted fast from west to east. There was a nearly full moon, but most of the time it was hidden; it would shine silvery bright now and again, then bury itself in the moving darkness. In the north were occasional winks of sheet lightning, far off.
The only answer to Steve's remark was just a low and sort of husky laugh from the girl. "This is Doc,” he said, trying again as we came right up to them. “My name’s Steve.”
I held out my right hand to the man. I couldn't make out his face, because it was very dark then. I couldn't tell whether he was young, or old, but he was straight and tall and he was wearing a long, light-colored duster that came below his knees. On his head was a flat, sailor straw-hat, with a brim too wide to be fashionable, tilted jauntily.
"Pleased to meet you, boys," he said.
I've mentioned that I extended my right hand. Instead of taking it, the man reached out and grabbed my left hand, and in a rather odd way he shook that. It surprised me, but then I figured that it was the greeting sign of some sort of lodge. Well, I didn't belong to it, that was sure.
“You don’t happen to have any drinking liquor, do you?" Steve asked humorously.
"No," the tall man said, and then I got another shock. The girl -- or woman; I couldn't tell how old she was, either -- pressed up close against me and put her arms around my neck. "I can go for you, Big Boy,” she whispered. “I can go for you, Doc.”
I drew back from her, understanding the play now, or thinking that I did. Although I'd never heard of them traveling by buggy before, such pairs showed up at barn dances now and then, plying their trade pretty openly and doing a land-office business.
The girl transferred her attentions to Steve. "How about you, Good Looking?” She had a tight grip on him, and while they talked together quietly her panderer just stood there. He looked bored.
"Come on, Steve, let's go," I said.
“He came over to me. "Do you want to take her, Doc?" Didn't I say we were like brothers?
"No,• I said. “Let's get out of here.”
I didn’t hold myself to be too nice for that sort of thing, but the layout didn't look good to me, and besides, I was cold sober.
"Listen, Doc; they don't want any money."
"Then what in hell is this?"
"I got a good look at her, and she's beautiful. Doc, she's beautiful, more than any girl I ever saw. You wait here. Watch the car. I can't help myself," Steve said, and he had that foolish, rapt look on his face that men get at such times.
After all, we'd been on the prowl for this kind of adventure, and in turning my back angrily on Steve I wasn't being very consistent. I waited, simply because there was nothing else I could do. And you can be sure that I kept my eye on the tall gink who was with me on the platform.
His behavior had been so queer from the first that I suspected him of being cockeyed drunk. I could smell something on him, even at two paces away. It wasn't any ordinary booze. I decided that he'd either just had a haircut, or he'd been drinking perfume. It was “kiss me or kill me” stuff – it stank like decayed carnations and rotten roses. I moved farther away from the guy.
“She’s taken him back where those old graves are,” I said, finally, when his silence was beginning to jangle my nerves.
“Don’t you think that an appropriate place?” He seemed amused at the whole thing.
"No, I don't think so," I told him. I had no use for the geezer; to me he was scum.
The horse was grazing on the rank, weedy grass of the Bell Chapel yard. Above the drone of locusts in the cottonwoods I could hear the animal's steady cropping as it moved the buggy slowly away from the side of the platform.
"I never saw a horse step so fast, Mister," I said. “I was at the State Fair in Ferguson, but I didn't get to see all the harness races. Did you enter him?"
"No,” said the fellow with the antique straw hat. “And she's a mare."
“Oh? What's she called?"
"She has a Greek name. It wouldn't mean a thing to you. "
"Are you a Greek?" I asked.
To hell with you, I thought. Then I said, "Care if I have a closer look at her?"
"Go ahead," he said.
"I won't scare her, will I? Wouldn't want to cause a runaway.”
"You won't scare her."
I walked slowly and quietly over to where the racing mare was feeding. As I approached from the left side, soothing her with a "Whoa, lady," the clouds scudded away from the moon and the little clearing in the trees was filled with light. My hand was extended to stroke the animal's flank. I didn't do it. Instead of the sleek, glossy skin I expected I saw a roughened, matted hide hanging loosely over jutting bones. And it was all in shimmering incessant motion, the movement being the terrible industry of thousands of small, pale worms.
While I stood nailed to the ground, with my stomach sinking, the mare took another step forward to reach a tuft of grass, and three or four maggots dropped off at my feet where they writhed, squirmed and turned flip flops. Slowly the mare lifted her head and turned it to look at me. I saw empty sockets and lipless teeth.
I started toward the man on the platform. At first I could make no sound that meant anything.
"That horse!" was all I could say. "That --- that horse!”
"How do you like her?" he asked pleasantly. “You know, she's never lost a race? And she never will."
For the first time, I had a good, close look at the face under the slanted straw hat. I started running then, sprinting toward the road and shouting.
"Steve! Steve!" I yelled. "Quick, Steve! Hurry!"
I scrambled into the car, and if the key had been in the ignition I would have driven away without him.
Steve showed up, finally, just as I was about to jump out and go running across the fields.
He came leisurely along the side-road, adjusting his necktie, and came up to the car. I had the door open for him, but he took his time about sliding in under the wheel.
He was peevish. "What's eating on you, Doc?” He stared at me, hard.
"That horse of theirs --- it's dead. I tell you, Steve, it's dead!"
"He makes pretty good time for a dead horse," he said, laughing.
I was shaking, and sick. Steve had turned the ignition key, but instead of stepping on the starter he adjusted the rearview mirror, took a comb from his pocket and began smoothing his rumpled hair.
“Don't, wait to do that! We've got to get gone from here!"
"Are you bats, Doc?"
“The man is dead, too!”
"What you need is a drink. Soon as we get to Ferguson---”
"That man is dead, and he's been dead for a long time,” I said. "I saw his face as well as I can see yours, and Steve, there was a little gray moth walking in and out of the place where his nose should have been."
Steve grinned, but then a thought seemed to strike him and his grin stiffened and went away. He looked back toward Bell Chapel.
So did I. The couple had got into their buggy again, and they were coming down the driveway into the road, behind that awful horse. Steve kicked the starter and threw the car into gear. We jerked forward into intermediate and high, and he jammed the accelerator down to the floorboards.
The drum of the speedometer crept past fifty, then fifty-five. An all-hiding sandstorm of dust roared out behind us as we went careening on, bouncing over ruts and chuck-holes. A stretch of washboard nearly shook the teeth out of us.
“Doc,” Steve said, "I'm going to tell you something. About that woman. She was excited, all trembling with excitement, but her body was as cold as ice."
"We're almost at the Corners," I reminded him.
"Anything behind us?"
"All I see is dust. Better slow down now."
At the Corners the dirt road connected with the paved highway that led into Ferguson. We came near overturning when Steve spun the wheel, but with our rear tires screaming and skidding sideways we just managed to hang to the asphalt. When we'd straightened out we were booming better than sixty-five. The new road was as straight as a string for eight miles west, hugging the tracks of the CRI&P.
There was a train ahead of us, and we gained on it steadily. Soon we saw the tail-end of the observation car, with its round, illuminated emblem reading Golden State Limited. In a minute we were abreast of it and slowly pulling past darkened Pullmans, so close that I could spell out their names: Glen Cove, Forest Park, Appalachicola. Then we overtook the diner,brightly lighted, where a waiter was serving something from a tray to a lone occupant. Next, the chair cars, with some of the passengers tilted back and asleep and others reading magazines and newspapers. Seeing all those people so near to us was comforting somehow. I rolled and lit a cigarette, put it between Steve's lips, and made another one for myself.
Steve didn't puff on his quirly, and it went out. I could tell that he'd seen something in the mirror, and I squirmed around on the seat and looked back. There was no dust now, and the moon was high and bright in a clearing sky.
"Is it them?" Steve asked.
"Yeah,” I said.
The object on the highway a quarter of a mile behind us was the horse and buggy; it carried no lights, and of course it couldn't have been anything else. It was gaining rapidly.
Steve couldn't go any faster. The speedometer was sticking at past seventy, waves of heat from the engine were blasting us, and the floor of the car was so hot that my shoe-soles began to curl.
The motormeter on the radiator-cap registered boiling and was spurting steam. We overhauled and passed the rest of the Rock Island train, the express and mail cars sliding behind us one after another. In one of them a clerk in striped coveralls watched us from the bright doorway, and I could see him grinning and thumbing his nose. Then the huge, thundering locomotive, with the engineer hanging on the throttle, and the fireman heaving scoops of coal into the red maw of the firebox. We drew past it, and its great headlight drowned us in a white blaze.
The beam caught the thing behind us, too. The buggy was only fifty yards away, and it hung there, neither lessening nor increasing the gap. Did you ever see a pacer going at a seventy-mile-an-hour clip? Silhouetted against the dazzling light, her mane and tail whipping in the wind, that mare, in spite of all the horror, was wondrous to behold. Steve turned his head for a moment and looked.
"The woman is throwing you kisses," I said.
Steve's hands relaxed on the wheel, and again I saw that silly, slack look that had been on his face at Bell Chapel. He eased up on the gas, and the speedometer number rolled backward. The buggy began to gain on us and so did the Golden State Limited.
The locomotive’s whistle was shrieking right in our ear, and looking ahead I saw the white cross-arms of the warning that marked the intersection of railroad and highway. We had to make that turn ahead of the train, or ram a rocky embankment, head-on.
"Step on it, Steve!" I yelled. "We can't slow down now! The crossing!"
When he answered, his voice seemed to come from afar off. "The woman? I don't care what she is, Doc, she's wonderful. You know, I think I'm in love with her."
I tried to jump, but there wasn't time. We took the turn, but the locomotive was there at the same instant. Everything flew to pieces around us, the whole world flew to pieces with a crashing sound that seemed to last for hours, and I came to myself in the hospital at Ferguson. Wreckage of the roadster, they said, had been scattered for a quarter of a mile. Steve had been killed instantly.
I was lucky. All that happened to me was I lost my left hand.
One summer night, three years later, I saw the buggy once again. There had been a barn dance, but it was late, and most of the people had gone. I was at a roadside stand, eating a hamburger, when I saw a rig coming hell-bent up the country road. It flashed past in a cloud of dust, and it was the same red-wheeled buggy, the same beautifully pacing mare. I recognized the woman, too.
But there was a new guy driving, a guy in a rakish Panama. And he looked very much like Steve.
-- END --
Copyright 2010 by the Estate of Paul S. Powers.