An Original Short Story

This story was originally published in Death Throes Literary Ezine, which as far as I can tell is now defunct.  More’s the pity; they showcased some good stuff.

 

Punkin Chunkin

An Original Short Story

©2013 Michael Chambers.  All rights reserved.

 

“Mornin’, Pete,” Jake said, leaning out the window of his patrol car as he pulled up next to the contraption.  It looked like one of those catapult things, he thought as he wiped sweat from his forehead.  For October, it was pretty damned hot.

“Mornin’ Sheriff,” Pete said, tightening a bolt on what looked like an oversized garage door spring with an ancient socket wrench.  “Looks like we finally got that rain we been needin’ last night.”  Pete’s overalls, which were generally never that clean to begin with, were positively filthy.  His orange baseball cap was almost black from the bill to halfway up the sides.  To Jake, he looked a bit peaked, and he wondered if Pete’s angina had been acting up again.

“Yep, sure did.   Whatcha up to there?” Jake said, hauling his considerable mass out of the car and putting his hat on.  He was too tall to wear it in the car.  He knew darned well what Pete was up to; he was fixing to start flinging things again.  

“’Bout what it looks like, I figure,” Pete said.  He checked the bolts holding down the other three springs, giving each a final tweak.  Good Lord, Jake thought.  Four of those springs could probably send a good-sized motorcycle flying.  No wonder Albert Mullen from the hardware store had been so nervous when he called the office this morning.  He wondered idly why Albert didn’t just refuse to sell him the damned things and save everyone a headache, but Albert Mullen had never met a dollar he didn’t like.  

“Now Pete, we talked about this before,” he said, hooking his thumbs in his Sam Browne belt.  His gut, which had never really been small, was starting to hang over it more than he cared to think about lately.  “Don’t suppose you recall that.”  

“Yep, you said no more flinging towards Sheldon Eggerman’s place,” Pete said. “Well, his place is in the other direction.  And Sam Berry’s place is a good four miles away in this one.”

Damned if he didn’t have a point.  Still, he couldn’t let it be until he knew just what Pete was going to be flinging.  Last time he’d gotten up to this nonsense, he’d had half the animal rights hippies in the state yelling and screaming that he was throwing live pigs.

“Nonsense.  I’d never throw no live thing like that,” Pete had replied when asked about it, talking around the old Dr. Grabow pipe that was semi-permanently attached to his dentures.  The PETA folks had started to calm down when he finished.  “That’d be cruel.  I shot ’em all in the head first, good and proper.”  It had been as close to a riot as Big Jake Wilson ever wanted to see.

“So, whatcha throwin’ this time?” Jake asked, dreading the answer.  Knowing Pete Northrop, there was no telling.  “Not more pigs, I’m hopin’.”

“Nah,” Pete said, giving the catapult a good shake here and there to look for weak spots.  He’d damned sure built it solid this time.  Jake wondered if he needed to go count Pete’s hogs, just to be safe.  “It’s a surprise.  Ain’t nothing ‘gainst the law, though.  You got my word on it.”

Pete might have been crazy as a shithouse rat, but he wasn’t a liar.  If he gave his word, that was good enough.  “Alright then.  Just make sure whatever it is don’t end up on someone else’s property.”

“Will do, Sheriff.  Best to the missus,” Pete said, and they shook hands.  Jake left him to his business, wondering just when he would start getting the first complaints.

 

***

 

After the Sheriff was gone, Pete gave the bolts another once-over to make sure they’d hold.  He’d built a good one this time, no doubt about that.  He was a little disappointed the Sheriff didn’t notice the wheels.  He took hold of the front end, grunting as he lifted.  He side-stepped until the catapult was facing due north, just over the cliff.  

 

***

 

“Well?” Sheila asked as Jake walked back into the office, her hands on her ample hips.  She’d been the city dispatcher for longer than anyone cared to remember, and had been going through a packaged of Russell Stover chocolate every day she’d been on the job.  

“’Well’ what?” he said, easing down into his chair.  His back was acting up again, and he couldn’t get in to see the doctor for another week.

“Well, what in the world is that crazy old man up to now?  Sheldon Eggerman’s been calling here non-stop, says he can see Pete building another one of those damned catapults from off his back deck.”

“He’s right,” Jake said, gently putting his feet up on an open drawer.

“Well, you told him to knock it down, right?”

“Nope,” he said.  “He’s not breaking any laws.”

“Well then, next time Sheldon calls, you can tell him that,” she said, and went back to her own desk.  He watched as she thoughtfully selected a piece of chocolate from the box on her desk and popped it in her mouth.  He didn’t bother replying.  The street fair was going to be starting up soon, and he needed to rest up before spending the afternoon walking around the square.

***

 

“Damn but that bastard’s heavy,” Pete said out loud, straightening out his aching back.  He was getting on in years, and he figured maybe this was his last flingin’ season.  Well, it’d sure be one to remember.  It’d better be, he thought; it was costing him a damned fortune.  He gave the whole machine a once-over.  Satisfied it was solid and stable, he picked up the sledge and positioned the first stake, driving it into the ground with one good swing.  A few more, and the catapult would be sure to stay put this time.  His last trial run he hadn’t anchored it, and the damned thing had rolled right off the damned cliff.  He’d intended to time everything with the last street fair, but his catapult rolling off and crashing had set things back a bit.  He took a good look, and decided to peg it down some more.  This was the last street fair of the year, and he didn’t want to miss it.

Satisfied the catapult wasn’t going anywhere, he hopped in his truck and started backing up the livestock trailer.  

 

***

 

“Mornin’ Sheriff,” Emily Bergman said as he stepped out onto the square and placed his hat on his head.  He’d never admit it, but he felt like big Jim Arness as Matt Dillon every time he did that.

“Mornin’ Miss Emily,” he said, resisting the urge to mosey down the sidewalk.  “You entered in the Best Pie contest again this year?”

“Oh, you betcha,” she said.  “You a judge this time around?”

“Nope,” he said, patting his ever-growing gut.  “Doctor said to lay off the baked goods.”  She didn’t lose the smile, but just like that he could tell she was done with him.  He let her get on her way.  

Every year from May to October, the town held a street fair on the square the last weekend of the month.  This was the last one of the year, which meant only one thing to some folks:  the best pie contest, and it was serious business for some.  He’d been happy when the doctor told him no more pie solely because it meant he had a good excuse for not judging the contest any more.  Emily Bergman had been runner-up the last four years to Pamela Adams, and it had all the makings of a classic feud he wanted absolutely nothing to do with.  He’d happily charge headfirst into another meth camp before he tried to get in between those two.

Aside from the Pie Wars, his only real problems with the street fairs were the vendors, most of whom never bothered to sign up for permits for him to revoke.  He’d adopted a live-and-let-live attitude so long as they didn’t try to fleece anyone.  He found that being visible on the square for the afternoon took away the temptation for most of them.

He started his rounds, purposely avoiding the pie judging table as long as possible.

 

***

 

Pete worked the levers on the forklift, and his payload finally centered in the catapult arm.  He set it down and crawled out, leaning against the machine.  He pulled his old Grabow out and filled it, checking his pocket watch.  He still had a good hour before things would really be in full swing.  

Yep, this was the one to go out on.  He patted his projectile, then struck a match from his pocket against the side of the catapult.  He lit the pipe in long draws, tamping it down with a heavily scarred and calloused thumb.  

He grabbed a cold beer from the truck, cracked it open, and drained half of it in one pull.  “Goin’ to be a good one,” he said, tipping his beer toward the catapult.  He took a peek inside the trailer, where the rest of his ammo sat ready to go.  He just hoped he had enough propane in the tank to run the forklift for all of them.  

Ignoring the pain in his chest, he finished his beer and cracked another before fishing his pills out of his shirt pocket and slipping one under his tongue.  He’d be damned if he was gonna miss this one.

Yep, this was turning out to be the best flinging season ever.

 

***

 

Jake gave a couple of kids skateboarding in the street a scowl that had them picking up their boards before he could say anything, and he let them go.  It’d been years since he actually had to write a ticket for anything during the street fair, and he hoped to keep it that way.  Other than the cattiness from the pie contest, the street fair was like a little break for him.  No traffic duty, no meth cooks, no domestics.  Just kids on skateboards, and he could handle that easily enough.

He walked past the pie judging table with a look of longing on his face.  He almost wanted to cry when he turned down a slice of peach pie someone offered him.  He made himself keep walking, determined to put it out of his mind and just enjoy the last fair of the year.  If he’d known that in just a few minutes all hell was going to break loose, he would’ve just had the damned pie.

 

***

 

“Damn it all to hell,” Pete said, clutching at his left arm as the pain shot through him.  “Be damned,” he said again, slipping another nitro pill under his tongue.  He was starting to think this wasn’t just his angina kicking up its heels.  Still, he had some flinging to do, and he’d be dipped in shit if he was going to miss this one.  

He looked at his watch; ten minutes to two.  Perfect.  He picked up his binoculars and took one last look at the aiming; with any luck, it should land right in the middle of that damned ugly concrete “park” in the middle of the square.  

Back in his day, parks had trees and playground equipment, not some ugly damned conglomeration of concrete.  It looked like some giant’s set of blocks, and he’d hated it since the day the plans were drawn up.  He’d pushed for a gazebo and a bandstand, but the mayor and his artsy-fartsy designer had wanted something more “modern.”  Well, what they ended up with was a modern damned eyesore.

“Let’s get to it,” he said.  After a quick glance down at the park to make sure he had an audience, he pulled the lever and sent the first one flying.

 

***

 

Jake was debating on just how much damage one slice of apple pie would really do when the first cow landed in the square.  Blood, meat, bone, and fur flew across the square in all directions, splattering windows, storefronts, and some very surprised people in gore.  Something hit him hard in the cheek, and he felt blood trickle down his face.  One window, hit by a particularly dense chunk of bone, shattered onto the sidewalk.  He saw a foot-long dagger of glass falling too late to warn the man standing under it.  He watched helplessly as it impaled him through the upper body, nearly splitting him in half.  He recognized the man as Albert Mullen from the hardware store.

The previously noisy crowd was dead silent for a moment, and then Emily Bergman, who was standing by the pie table with what looked to be a bit of intestine hanging off the front of her dress, started screaming.  He snapped to and started running for the park, hoping to head off any panic.  He climbed up onto one of the cement blocks and held up his hands.  People were starting to run in all directions, bouncing off the buildings and each other.

“Everybody settle down!” he said in his loudest crowd voice.  Most everyone froze where they stood as his voice boomed over them.  People had been known to jump almost a foot high when he decided to bellow.  “Now I want everyone to move off the square in an orderly and calm fashion.  I don’t know what’s just happened, but panicking won’t help–”

He was halfway through when the next one landed on top of him.  Later someone would comment in a very hushed tone on the irony of a man who’d always wanted to be a cowboy being killed by a flying cow.

 

***

 

“Let ‘er rip!” Pete yelled, and pulled the lever again, sending his third cow flying down toward the square.  He wished he had better binoculars; all he could see from his perch was a couple of big red smears.   He turned on the winch that pulled the catapult arm back down, watching for telltale signs of stress in the wood.  Sure enough, there were small cracks in the cross brace that stopped the arm moving forward.  Should have padded the damned thing, he thought.  He hoped it held up a bit longer.

He still had three more left, and he didn’t want to waste any of them.

 

***

 

Without Big Jake to keep the peace, people started truly panicking.  Most were trying to simply get off the square, although there was a large knot of people trying to get inside the late Albert Mullen’s hardware store.  Unfortunately for them, Pete hadn’t staked down his catapult as well as he thought, and it had drifted.  

The next cow, a large Hereford named Sally that Pete had bottle-fed as a calf, crashed through the genuine canvas awning Albert had been so proud of and crushed to death in its entirety the four-person pie contest judging panel, along with the defending champ Pamela Adams.  Buck Vanhoffer of the City Works department (and the Mayor’s nephew) would find one of Pammy’s diamond earrings in the street the next morning, with a chunk of her earlobe still attached.  This wouldn’t deter old Buck, who would drive into Springfield later that week and trade it for a new deer rifle.

So far, a little over three thousand pounds of dead cow had fallen on the square, and killed eight people.  The townspeople, usually a solid, level-headed group, now went into full on panic.  Before the crowd could find their way off the square, Tammy Baker, the reigning Homecoming Queen, let out a loud, piercing shriek.  

“Oh God, another one!” she yelled as the largest cow yet, a fourteen hundred pound Holstein named Bessy, came plummeting to Earth.  Poor Bessy hadn’t been killed by the captive-bolt gun old Pete had used in an attempt to be humane, only knocked out.  Those who were closest to where poor old Bessy landed heard her mooing in pain and confusion before she slammed into the street, cracking the blacktop and exploding like a water balloon.  

Tammy had the good sense to curl up in a ball on the sidewalk, and narrowly missed being skewered by what turned out to be a large length of splintered Bessy shinbone.  Poor Nelly Talbot, who’d run the craft and sewing store Thread-Bare for almost forty years, wasn’t so lucky; old Bessy’s shinbone speared her through the temple.  Little Tammy, who by now was virtually catatonic, was covered in a shower of liquefied Bessy from head to toe.  She would spend the next three months in a psychiatric ward in Springfield, alternating between uncontrollable sobbing and violent laughing fits.

 

***

 

“Last one,” Pete said, now barely able to move.  The pain in his chest and left arm was excruciating, and there was little doubt in his mind that he was in the midst of a full-blown heart attack.  No matter; he’d been around long enough.  “Just let me see it through, Lord,” he said.  “Holy hell, that hurts.”

It took some doing, but he managed to maneuver the last cow onto the launch arm and lower it down with one hand.  Thumbing the lid off his pill bottle, he shook several into his mouth, and climbed down off the forklift.  He struggled the three steps to the catapult, collapsing against the throwing arm.  He’d made a few changes to the design this time; the lever was close enough to kick.  He looked up at the cracked brace, and hoped it had one more good shot left in it.  The bolts holding the springs down were beginning to work their way loose.

“Let’s go, Punkin,” he said, sitting on top of the dead cow.  He closed his eyes and kicked the lever, and man and cow were thrown skyward.  The brace, which was on its last leg, broke as the throwing arm slammed into it.  The springs tore loose, and if he’d been standing where he usually stood when firing the catapult, good old Pete would have been cut in two as they broke loose.

Pete opened his eyes, and as the heart attack finally killed him, he saw the ruin of the cement park, and smiled.  

He’d finally gotten their attention, he reckoned.

 

***

 

By the time Pete and Punkin made their grand entrance, most of the people had managed to escape the gore-splattered square.  Most had found their way inside the storefronts around the square, although a few had simply taken off running.  Several had climbed over the bloody mess that had been Pamela Adams, the judges, and poor Sally the cow and were watching from Albert’s barred windows when Pete and Punkin came back down to Earth.  Among them was Sheila Walters, the city dispatcher.  She was quietly sobbing as she stared at the spot where Big Jake Wilson had been standing before being crushed by a half-ton of falling cow.  The imitation mother-of-pearl grips on his Colt .45 pistol were visible, miraculously unstained amid the buckets of flesh and blood that coated everything around them.  

“Oh my God,” she said.  For the next five years, she’d swear “on a stack of Bibles” that she’d seen old Pete Northrop, the crazy old bastard, riding in on a flying cow just as it crashed into the old Civil war cannon that sat at the entrance to the park.  Never mind that Pete had flown clear of Punkin by several yards, and in fact landed several seconds later in a completely different spot; that’s what she saw, and no one was changing her mind.

The impact of Punkin the cow broke the axle of the cannon’s carriage, and the old cannon cracked as it hit the concrete.  For years, it was generally agreed that, other than Big Jake, the loss of the cannon was one of the bigger tragedies of what came to be known as the Cow Incident, at least when spoken of in public.  Privately, many people referred to the events of that unseasonably warm October afternoon as Pete’s Punkin Chunkin Party.  

Needless to say, no one ever said those words in front of Sheila Walters, who never quite got over the loss of her friend and not-so-secret unrequited love.  

 

***

 

News vans descended on the formerly quiet little town within hours.  Reporters swarmed over the carnage, interviewing anyone and everyone who could put words into sentences.  Pictures of the catapult and the ensuing carnage, heavily blurred, dominated the evening news for weeks.  Buck VanHoffer made a lively side-business of selling supposedly authentic pieces of bone from the cows that fell that day on Ebay, until the new sheriff quietly but firmly told him he knew damned well the bone he was selling was from the slaughterhouse.  

The police found papers in Pete’s house detailing his long-standing hatred of the park in the square, and outlining his plans for the Punkin Chunkin Party.  The catapult itself was dismantled and taken into evidence.  Professors from all the local universities came to study it after the State police rebuilt it for examination; all agreed it was a splendid piece of engineering, if not exactly authentic to the time period due to Pete’s use of the metal springs.  

Eventually the concrete park (which most people agreed was ugly to begin with) was torn down after it was discovered that no amount of acid power washing would remove the bloodstains.  The Sheriff Jake Wilson Memorial Gazebo was erected in its place.  The old Civil War cannon, which had been at least cosmetically repaired, was put back in its place, although everyone agreed it just wasn’t the same now that they couldn’t shoot it off on the 4th of July.  A plaque commemorating those lost in the Cow Incident was placed next to the cannon, although some louse stole it within a year.  A new one, this time more permanently attached to a concrete base, was put in the following year.

Eventually the sleepy little town returned to normal; the street fairs continued, and the pie contest was still the biggest event of the fall.  Emily Bergman won the following year, and in a move generally accepted as awful big of her dedicated her win to the memory of her friend, Pamela Adams.  

Life goes on, as they say, and so it was there, although many new citizens were heard to wonder why it was so damned hard to buy a burger in this town.

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