Black Hand

by David L. Day

MARSHALL SHERWOOD SITS ON A MOLDY LOG across from me, his little fire crackling between us, his Pall Mall smoked nearly to the nub. The warmth of the fire’s glow fails to crack the coldness in his gaze. He’s clean-limbed and thin, like sticks bound with twine, his beard a coal scribble, his head clean-shaven.

Weak and doughy from years of research and teaching. I don’t believe I’ll last the night.

Autumn wind rushes through plump maples and weary elms. Marshall flicks his cigarette to the fire then picks up the large burlap-wrapped stone from among the decaying leaves. He leans in slightly, thin tendrils of smoke caressing his face.

“Long line of my family carried this around. All your books and research make you think you know our history, but you don’t.”

I shift, try to stretch but give up as the handcuffs bite into my wrists. “I have to, uh… use the bathroom.”

Marshall settles back, pokes at the fire with a stick, and studies me with deep-set obsidian eyes. “Shoulda gone before we left.”

I raise an eyebrow and nod at the stone. “You know, that thing can’t be authentic. Anyhow, the sign at the flea market said ‘All Sales Final’, right?”

Marshall’s face creases in the firelight and he drawls out a response in a thick, rural Ohio accent. “‘Tweren’t for sale, professor. And if it’s a fake then why’d you bully my grandson into selling it? You must think there’s something to the Black Hand, even though I bet Drew told it all wrong.”

He mumbles under his breath as he lights another cigarette. “Dumb as his father, that one. Can’t swing an axe for nothing, either.”

Whippoorwills chatter in the distance. I stare out into the Dillon Nature Preserve looking for some hope of escape among its hundres of acres. Even in the chill weather a few thin beads of sweat cling to my forehead. I try to keep my voice steady as I bargain.

“Whatever you may believe about the Black Hand, I assure you what you have in your lap is not genuine. The Ohio Historical Society documented its destruction during the building of the Erie Canal. In 1856 a group of engineers blasted it–and themselves–to bits. Thirteen men killed because someone used too much black powder.

“If you let me go, I won’t tell the police. Hell, you can keep the damned thing at this point, just take me back to my office–“

Marshall kicks a stray stick into the fire. “Blah, blah, blah. Ther eyou go again, spouting nonsense. Only twelve of those engineers died, and it wasn’t from the blast. My great granddaddy would have been number thirteen if he hadn’t figured out what was going on. You think anyone wanted a bunch of murders associated with the canal?

“It’s happening again because you swindled the stone from my grandson, and it’ll keep happening until Wacousta gets his hand. Or until he’s gotten enough scalps to beat Lahkopis. And professor, there isn’t any record of how many scalps that other fellow got. It’s at least twelve, but he’s a Hopewell warrior. More than likely it was hundreds.”

Marshall whispers, a soft sneer on his lips. “You want your scalp hanging from his belt?”

The cuffs bite my wrists again as I tense. Three bodies found in as many days, heads stripped clean from the hairline up. One body found at the base of Black Hand Rock, one at the old interurban tunnel, and one in the Deep Cut where the B&O rail line used to run, three deep scars in the earth made in the name of progress.

Marshall sets the stone aside, checks his watch, then helps me up from my seat. “You still gotta take that piss?”

*          *          *

Marshall leaves the cuffs off after I relieve myself, forces me carry the stone instead, his Ruger trained on me as we hike. We approach the ridge from the west, following the old B&O rail line along the river. The path is overgrown with briars and nettles, and as we traipse along the air takes on a heavy feel, thick with the stench of mud and wetland creatures.

We reach the base of Black Hand Rock and Marshall stops me. A faint glow emenates from the top several hundred feet above us, and a low rumble of voices drift down, barely audible over the soft song of the river.

Marshall finds an old stump and sits, Ruger still steady on me. He pops a smoke out of his pack and fires it up. “I’m not so young as I used to be. Just need a minute to catch my breath is all.”

He eyes me through the haze of his cigarette. “You know, I actually sat through your lecture some years back. You’re a smart fellow. Know a lot about the area. But this land isn’t ours. It’s full of mystery and legend, and you know what, professor? Legend demands sacrifice.”

The voices atop the cliff peter off, the wind drops out, and even the river lowers to a whisper. Marshall stills, cigarette half-way to his lips, cherry glow illuminating his narrow eyes.

The rock weighs heavier, as if the earth, filled with a powerful yearning, had turned up her gravity. I listen too, although I suspect Marshall is simply trying to get my blood pumping and adrenaline flowing so I’ll be more pliable. And just as I’m about to call his bluff, I hear the swift rustle of leaves and the sharp snap of a branch. Something whooshes past my head and thunks hard into a tree behind me.

Marshall is up before I have a chance to turn around. “Move,” he whispers as he lifts me by an arm and shoves me forward. “On up that path there.”

I try to glance over my shoulder but Marshall pokes my ribs with the Ruger.

“Never mind that. Just get on up the ridge and it’ll all be over soon.”

*          *          *

We break through to a small clearing at the crest of the ridge, woods on three sides, the open air of a clifftop on the fourth. The night wind, heavy with the earthy scent of the river below, plays against our faces.

Thirty or so men bearing flashlights and lanterns stand along the tree line. A young couple shivers hand-in-hand near the edge of the cliff, both rail-thin, hair darker than the night, each clad only in their underwear. The boy is Marshall’s dim-witted grandson. The girl is unfamiliar.

Marshall takes the stone and unwraps it, the dark etching of the Black Hand just visible in the ambient light, drawn as big as my head, an image so old even the Hopewell had lost its origins. Marshall gives me a sidelong look, approachs the couple and places the stone at their feet like a mother settling her child into a crib, then stands with his back to me.

The young couple, a strung out pair of empty-eyed whisps, features drawn longer by night shadows, continue to stare at the trees behind us.

Marshall hugs them each then fetches a hatchet from the grass nearby.

A sharp howl rises as the wind dies, a death-heavy scream from the woods. My innards grow cold as the battle cry dwindles, leaving only thick silence in its wake. Marshall looks over his shoulder to the gathered crowd. “Look alive. He’s coming.”

The young man kneels down and places his hand on the rock. The hatchet glints in the faint moonlight as Marshall raises it high with both hands. It would come down hard and severe Drew’s hand from his arm, and I couldn’t just stand and watch.

Marshall had left me uncuffed.

I launch myself at him, and even though I am fast, two men from the crowd are faster. They catch me just before I reach Marshall.

I shout between labored breaths. “You can’t do this. There’s no Wacousta. It’s just a story, for Christ’s sake. The stone’s fake, and even if it isn’t, this was sacred land. No Hopewell would want blood spilled here.”

Marshall watches with hard, patient eyes, hatchet dangling at his side. I wasn’t getting through to him at all, and my two captors tighten their grips.

I twist to face the crowd, raise my voice further. “Don’t any of you think this is wrong? He’s going to cut off this poor kid’s hand, and for what? To ward against the spirit of an old warrior? He’s crazy, can’t you–“

The deep cry rises again, this time much closer, and though the crowd is unaffected by my plea, they shift and twist at the renewed howl. I scan the men’s faces for one who might share my doubt, but find none.

Someone off to the right cries out and I twist again in time to see one of the congregation disappear into the woods, plucked away like a ripe apple. The men on either side grow ever restless but do not retreat or scatter.

Marshall calls out, “Hold steady. We’ll be done soon and the great Wacousta will rest again. We’ll have us another year of hearty fields and strong children.”

I pull a hand free and grasp at the hatchet, knocking it from Marshall’s clutch. It clatters against the stone and plops into the grass at the girl’s feet. I gaze up expecting her to take advantage of the opportunity, and as she stoops to retrieve the weapon a fleeting hope slices through me. But as she stands again, she looks at the hatchet with only faint recognition, then hands it back to Marshall and resumes her position.

Another scream punches through the night, a crippling noise that stabs my ears, and I collapse to my knees until it dwindles away. My throat clentches up, belly thick with dread, and my eyes burn as hot vinegar tears work free.

Something flutters through the air, a bat straying into the clearing, but the bat-like thing arcs and falls into the grass nearby. Marshall steps over and scoops the thing up, brings it back and dangles it before my eyes.

Blond hair clings to a large swatch of bloody skin.

“See this? You staid my hand and this is what happened.” The rancor in his voice cut me, and as he raises the hatchet I’m sure it will come down fast and steady on the crown of my skull.

But Marshall doesn’t swing. Instead, he curls his lips and flexes his fingers on the hatchet handle. “Don’t worry, professor. I’m not going to hurt you. No sir. Got something better.”

Marshall nods to one of my captors. The man lets go of me, pulls a gun with practiced skill, and trains it on my temple. Marshall holds the hatchet towards me. “Frank here’s a cop, in town from Indiana. Been coming here for, oh, I reckon five or six year now. That right, Frank?”

Frank grunts and never wavers.

“None to friendly, though. No matter. Point is, professor, you do what I say or this man will lodge a bullet in your head. Got it?”

I nod as a thin streak of urine traces down my leg.

“Now you take this here hatchet and cut Drew’s hand off. You cleave it clean, toss it into the river, and Wacousta goes away for another year. Got it?”

Another scream scratches at the night. I don’t have to look this time to know one more man has been plucked away.

Marshall thrusts the hatchet at me. “Can’t you hear? That poor man’s suffering something horrible. Wacousta will keep taking scalps until you cut off Drew’s hand.”

The squall stings my ears and scrambles my thoughts. The blade glints in the wane moonlight. Frank taps my temple with the barrel of his pistol. Marshall’s cold eyes puncture my soul.

I wrap my fingers around the smooth wooden handle. The weapon is weighted well, as if built for me. I contemplate whether I can swing fast and hard enough to knock Frank down, then the suffering scream ceases and another scalp flutters into the clearing.

Marshall’s hot breath washes down on me, an effluvium of stale cigarettes and old meat. “Hurry now. That’s five already. Wait too long and another man will die.”

I scan the faces of those with me, looking for some sign of an ally, but the men only hold fevered anticipation in their eyes, and the young couple looks as if they broke long before this evening.

“Wacousta,” Marshall whispers repeatedly. Then Frank joins, as does the other man who holds me. And shortly the whole assembly is chanting, their voices cluttering my thoughts. I’m at a loss, staring at the hatchet, thinking now that the boy could live with just one hand, because a lot of people do, and it isn’t my fault those men died, not at all, but I could stop the whole evening with just a little blood, and we aren’t too far from town, the boy would be fine, and no one else will die, one quick slice and I’m done and gone forever, and Wacousta goes away for another year…

I bring the hatchet down hard.

The chanting stops. Drew doesn’t yell but just lets out a sharp gasp as if he’d been holding his breath. He pales and his eyes glaze over, then he teeters for a tick and topples over, dragging the girl with him. He lay motionless. She lurches and vomits, but remaines next to Drew.

The spray of blood burns on my face and I can’t catch a breath against the heavy dullness in my chest. Bile rises in my gullet, and I lean over and puke the half-digested remains of a flea-market hot dog.

I wipe the slime from my mouth then settle back on my knees. Marshall scoops up the hatchet and holds it loosely at his side. Frank retrieves the severed hand and gathers Drew up in his arms, while my other captor scoops up the girl, and together they carry the couple off toward the ledge.

I look up at Marshall, wanting to slice the smug satisfaction from his face. But I’m spent, need to get back to my apartment, collapse on the couch, and sleep for days. “Am I done now? Can I go?”

Marshall’s brow furrows in mock confusion. “On no, professor. You’re far from done. You spilled blood on sacred land. Like the rest of my friends here you’re bound to the hand now. Legend demands sacrifice. We’ll see you again next year unless you want Wacousta to come give you a haircut.”

Frank and his companion toss the young couple over the cliff’s edge. After an eternal pause the night is broken by two heavy splashes in the river below.