Abraham lincoln vampire.., p.12
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       Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, p.12

           Seth Grahame-Smith
 
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  And then, the candle having burned out, and the whole of the settlement having gone to sleep, he would don his coat and go out into the night in search of vampires.

  II

  With no Henry to guide him, and tethered to within a few miles of New Salem (for he had to be back to open Offutt’s store every morning at seven), Abe’s vampire-killing streak ground to a halt in the summer of 1831. He wandered the surrounding woods at night; ventured up and down the banks of the Sangamon. But save for investigating the occasional noise, there was no excitement to be had. It wasn’t long before Abe began to put more stock in rest than reconnaissance, and stopped venturing out altogether.

  That’s not to say there weren’t opportunities to fight.

  About a half-hour’s walk from New Salem was the settlement of Clary’s Grove, home to the rather unimaginatively named Clary’s Grove Boys, a gang of mostly related young men with a penchant for getting drunk and raising hell.

  They were good for no less than two brawls a night in poor Jim Rutledge’s tavern, and were known to break up river baptisms by throwing rocks at the parishioners from the woods. One dared not cross them, or they might put out your windows—even stuff you in a barrel and leave you to the mercy of the Sangamon.

  Above all, the Boys loved to “wrastle.” They prided themselves on being the “meanest, toughest, rowdiest wrastlers around.” So when word came that there was a “big fella come to work” at the general store in New Salem, they considered it their duty to size him up in person and, if need be, put him in his place.

  Abe knew the Clary’s Grove Boys would be looking for a fight, just as they’d looked for one with every able-bodied man who moved into their territory for years. That’s precisely why he’d avoided them at all costs, hoping they would simply grow accustomed to having him around. He’d managed to go nearly two whole months without a confrontation (a local record). Unfortunately, Denton Offutt was a little man with a big mouth, and on seeing some of the Boys about, bragged that his new clerk was not only the smartest man in Sangamon County, but that he was “big enough to lick the lot” of them.

  They came unannounced to the store and called me outside. On seeing ten or more gathered there, I asked what business we had. One of them stepped forward and said they intended to put their “best man” on me, on account of Mr. Offutt’s having described me as “the toughest man he ever saw.” I told them that Mr. Offutt had been mistaken. That I was not tough at all, and that I had no use for such wooling around. My refusal was not taken well, for I was then surrounded and threatened by the whole of the gang. They would not permit me inside, they said, until I’d had a go. If I refused, all of New Salem would know me as a coward, and they would turn our store over from “top to bottom.” I agreed, but insisted it be a fair fight. “Oh it ain’t going to be much of a fight at all,” said one of them, and called Jack to the front.

  Jack Armstrong was a brick wall of a man, four inches shorter and twenty pounds heavier than Abe. He was the Clary’s Grove Boys’ unquestioned leader, and it was easy to see why.

  He had a mean look about him, and kept his arms and chest taut as he moved around me, as if his whole body was a drawn bowstring that could be released at any moment. He pulled his shirt over his head and threw it to the ground, circling around me. Preferring to keep mine on, I began to roll up one of my sleeves. I had scarcely begun this when I was suddenly on my back—the air pressed from my lungs.

  The Boys cheered as Jack sprang to his feet, and booed as Abe struggled to his.

  Clearly, my insistence on a “fair fight” was to have no bearing. Jack came at me again, but this time I was ready—meeting his outstretched arms with mine, our backs and shoulders forming a tabletop as we leaned forward, pushing against each other. Our heads down; our feet kicking up dirt behind us. I suspect he was a good deal surprised at my strength. I was certainly surprised at his. I felt as if I had locked arms with a Russian bear.

  But as mighty as Jack Armstrong was, he was nothing compared to the vampires Abe had grappled with in the past. With his lungs again full, Lincoln reached up and grabbed Jack’s neck with one hand, and the waist of his pants with the other.

  Holding him thus, I lifted his body clean off the ground and over my head, keeping him there as he squirmed and struggled and cussed. This spectacle produced in his friends no shortage of distress, and I was suddenly set upon by the lot of them, punching and kicking at me in a group. This was an injustice that I could not allow.

  Abe’s face went bright red, and he brought his full strength to bear, throwing Jack Armstrong against the side of the general store and yelling, “I’m the big buck of the lick!”

  I grabbed the man nearest me by the hair and struck him in the face with my fist, rendering him insensible. The man nearest him caught another of my fists in his belly. I was quite content to whip the lot of them, one by one, and would have done so, had Jack not risen to his feet and called off his men.

  Now it was Lincoln’s body that tensed like a drawn bowstring, his eyes fixed on a pair of Clary’s Grove Boys just out of arm’s reach.

  Jack pulled a splinter or two from his side and stood next to me. “Boys,” he said, “I believe this man to be the toughest son’bitch ever to set foot in New Salem. Any man’s got a quarrel with him’s got a quarrel with Jack Armstrong.”

  It was perhaps the most important battle of Abe’s early life, for word quickly spread from one end of Sangamon County to the other: here was a young man possessed of strong mind and body. A man they could be proud of. Their inauspicious introduction aside, the Clary’s Grove Boys quickly became some of Abe’s staunchest supporters, and would prove invaluable political assets in the years to come. Some of them even became his close friends, though none so close as Jack Armstrong himself.

  I regretted losing my temper and embarrassing him in front of his relations. So, on the evening after our match, I invited him to share a drink at the store.

  Abe and Jack shared a small bottle of peach brandy in the store’s back room, the sky still slightly blue even though it was approaching nine o’clock. Abe sat on the end of his bed, having offered the room’s sole chair to his guest.

  I was surprised to find in this burly Armstrong a quiet, thoughtful man. Though four years my junior, he had a maturity surpassing that of many men twice his age, and an ease of conversation that one would not expect given his appearance. On seeing my copy of Kirkham’s Grammar, he spoke of the value of reading and writing, and bemoaned his shortcomings in both.

  “Truth is, it was more important to be rough,” said Jack. “This is rough country, and it takes a rough man.”

  “Must you choose one or the other?” asked Abe. “I’ve always found time for books, and I know something of rough country.”

  Jack smiled. “Not Illinois rough.”

  Abe asked what he meant.

  “You ever seen somebody you love tore up and scattered all over the ground?”

  Abe had not, and was clearly surprised by the answer. Jack fidgeted a little; looked at the floor.

  “I gone walkin’ with a friend one night,” he said. “We was both nine, and the two of us was headed home from throwin’ rocks at flatboats, twistin’ down a trail we knew by heart. One minute he was right there next to me, chatterin’ away in the dark. Next minute he’d been pull’t up by a bear’s claws—pull’t into a tree by his head and drug clear to the top. I couldn’t see nothin’ up there in the dark. I could only hear him screamin’. Feel the warm drops on my head… on my lips. I ran and fetched help, and the men came runnin’ with their flintlocks. But there was nothin’ for ’em to kill. We spent half the morning pickin’ him up off the ground. Jared. Jared Linder was his name.”

  There was silence now, and Abe knew he mustn’t be the first to fill it.

  “Folks live ’round here know there’s somethin’ about these woods,” said Jack. “They know a man who don’t have his wits about him—a man who ain’t strong enough to take all comers—well
, they know that’s a man liable to get himself killed walking one place to the next. People say us Boys stick close on account of our being kin. ’Cause we like raisin’ a ruckus. The truth of it is, we stick close ’cause that’s the only chance we got at growin’ old. Truth is, we act rough ’cause a weak man’s a dead man.”

  “And you’re certain?” asked Abe. “I mean, you’re absolutely certain it was a bear?”

  “Well, it sure as hell weren’t no tree-climbin’ horse.”

  “I mean… might it have been something a bit more… unusual?”

  “Oh,” said Jack, beginning to laugh. “You mean was it somethin’ like out of a story? Some kind a ghost?”

  “Yes.”

  “Hell, those stories’ve been goin’ up and down the river for years. Wild stories. People talking about witches, and devils, and—”

  “Vampires?”

  All trace of humor left Jack’s face at the mention of the word.

  “People talking nonsense. Just scared is all.”

  Maybe it was the half a bottle of peach brandy in his blood, or the feeling that he’d found a kindred spirit. Maybe he just couldn’t stand to keep all those secrets to himself anymore. Whatever the reason, Abe made a very sudden, very risky decision.

  “Jack… if I tell you something incredible, will you promise to hear me fairly?”

  III

  Abe paced back and forth… back and forth over the soft dirt of the street, throwing the occasional glance toward the newly finished courthouse on the other side of the square and at the second floor of the saloon across the street, where a light still burned behind the curtained window of a whore. The late-summer weather was much more agreeable this time around. So was the company.

  It had taken no small amount of persuasion, but Jack had at last agreed to come to Springfield. At first, he had refused to believe a word of it—going so far as to call me a “damned liar” and threatening to “thrash” me for thinking him a fool. I begged his patience, however, and promised that I would either prove every word true, or pack my things and leave New Salem forever. I made this promise with every expectation of success, for that very morning a letter had at long last arrived.

  The letter was addressed exactly as Abe had instructed above Henry’s fireplace:

  ABRAHAM LINCOLN

  WEST OF DECATUR, ILLINOIS

  CARE OF MR. JOHN HANKS

  It had been delivered to his relatives two weeks earlier, and forwarded to New Salem. Abe had torn it open upon seeing the familiar handwriting, and read it a dozen times at the counter throughout the day.

  Abraham,

  My apologies for not having written these many months. Vanishing is, I regret, a necessary part of my existence from time to time. I will write more often when I have settled into a more permanent home. In the interim, I hope you have settled into yours happily, and remain in good spirits and health. If you remain agreeable, you may visit upon the individual named below at your leisure. I believe him only a short ride from where you are now. I must warn you, however—he is quite a bit cleverer than those you have visited on in the past. You may well mistake him for one of your own kind.

  Timothy Douglas.

  The tavern near the square.

  Calhoun.

  Ever,

  —H

  Abe knew the tavern well. It was, after all, the site of his greatest vampire-hunting embarrassment. Could I have been right all along? Had the half-naked man who’d run off screaming for help been a vampire after all?

  We walked in, plainly dressed (my long coat stored in my saddlebag outside). I took in the faces at each table, half expecting to see the curly-haired gentleman glaring back in his snow-covered long shirt. Would he run at the sight of me? Would his vampire nature compel him to attack? But I saw him not. Jack and I made to the counter, where the aproned barkeep busied himself polishing a whiskey glass.

  “Pardon me, sir. My friend and I are looking for a Mr. Douglas.”

  “Tim Douglas?” asked the barkeep, his eyes fixed on his work.

  “The same.”

  “And what business might you and Mr. Douglas have?”

  “Business of an urgent and private sort. Do you know where he is?”

  The barkeep seemed amused.

  “Well, sir, you needn’t look far, that’s for certain.”

  He put down the glass and stuck out his hand. “Tim Douglas. And your name, sir?”

  Jack burst out laughing. There had to be some mistake. This inconsequential little man—a man who spent his nights polishing dirty glasses and playing matchmaker to whores and drunks? This was Henry’s vampire? Of course, I had no choice but take his hand, and did so. It was as pink and warm as my own.

  “Hanks,” said Abe. “Abe Hanks, and I beg your forgiveness, for I mistook you to say ‘Tom’ Douglas. Yes, Thomas Douglas is the gentleman we’re looking for. Do you know where we might find him?”

  “Well, sir, no. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with anyone by that name.”

  “Then I thank you for your trouble and bid you a good night.”

  Abe hurried out of the tavern, Jack laughing all the while behind him.

  I resolved to wait. We had come this far, and Henry had never failed me in the past. At the very least, we would wait for this barkeep to close up and follow him home in the shadows.

  After hours spent wandering the courthouse square, Abe (who’d since donned his long coat) and Jack (who hadn’t stopped teasing him since they left the tavern) finally saw the lights go dark and the barkeep make his way into the street.

  He walked down Sixth Street toward Adams. We followed discreetly, Jack a good three paces behind; the ax ready in my hands. I darted into the shadows with every twitch of the barkeep’s head—certain he meant to turn back and discover us (Jack could hardly contain his laughter at the sight of my doing so). The little man kept to the center of the street, hands in his pockets. Whistling. Walking as any other man would walk, and making me feel a fool with each step. He rounded Seventh Street, and we followed. He rounded Monroe, and we followed. But on rounding Ninth Street, after letting him escape our sight for the briefest of moments, we saw no trace of him. There was no alley he could have slipped into. No house he could have entered in so short a time. How could it be?

  “So… you’re the one.”

  The voice came from behind us. I spun around, prepared to strike—but could not. For here was mighty Jack Armstrong, standing on his toes. His back arched. His eyes wide. And here was the little vampire standing behind him, a sharp claw pressed to his throat. Had Jack been able to see those black eyes and shining fangs, his terror would have been twofold. The barkeep suggested that I lay my ax on the ground if I did not wish to see my friend’s blood spilled. I thought his suggestion a good one, and let the weapon fall from my hand.

  “You’re the one Henry spoke of. The one with a talent for killing the dead.”

  Though Abe was surprised to hear Henry’s name, his face betrayed nothing. He could hear Jack’s panting quicken as the claw pressed harder against his throat.

  “I’m curious,” asked the barkeep. “Have you ever wondered why? Why a vampire takes such an interest in ridding the earth of his own kind? Why he sends a man to kill in his stead? Or have you simply done his bidding blindly—the unquestioning, undyingly loyal servant?”

  “I serve no man but myself,” said Abe.

  The barkeep laughed. “Avowed as only an American could.”

  “Help me, Abe,” said Jack.

  “We are all servants,” said the barkeep. “However, of the two of us, I have the fortune of knowing which master I serve.”

  Jack began to panic. “P-please! Let me go!” He struggled to free himself, but this only dug the barkeep’s claw in deeper. A trickle of blood ran over his Adam’s apple as the vampire gave a reassuring “shhhh….”

  Abe used the opportunity to slip a hand into his coat pocket, unnoticed.

  I must strike swiftly, lest my thoughts be
tray my plan.

  “Your beloved Henry is no less deserving of that ax than the rest of us,” said the barkeep. “He merely had the good fortune of finding you fir—”

  I pulled the martyr from my pocket and struck it against my buckle with all the quickness I possessed.

  It lit.

  Brighter than the sun—white light and sparks filling the whole of the street. The vampire retreated and shielded his eyes, and Jack pulled free. I knelt, grabbed the handle of the ax, and threw from my knees. The blade lodged in the vampire’s chest with a crack of bone and rush of escaped air, and he fell, clumsily clutching at the handle with one hand, dragging himself along the ground with the other. I let the martyr slip from my fingers to burn its last upon the ground, and retrieved my ax from the creature’s chest. That same familiar fear on his face. The fear of what hell or oblivion awaited. I did not care to revel in it. I raised the ax above my head and took his.

 
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