Featured Story • June 2015
Editor’s note: The following story comes with a content advisory.
“Kid” Cooper & the Blackwood Ape-Man
We jumped off the train at dusk, hiking through the darkening woods till by full dark we reached a small settlement of tents inside a clearing. The forest was all sawed down to nubs around it, stacks of felled trees piled up like great wooden pyramids. It was quitting time at the logging camp. Pop collared a logger on his way to the saloon-tent, and asked the feller where we’d washed up, cuz it wasn’t marked on Pop’s map. “Blackwood,” the man grunted, barging past us when he saw our bindles. “And Boss Taggart ain’t hiring no hobos,” he threw back over his shoulder.
Offended by the man’s ill manners, Pop hurried us inside the saloon-tent. He eyed the room over. The usual strong backs sat hunched along the bar. Beery-red faces glared at us. Pop gave me the nod and I went into my sales pitch.
“I can’t sing and I can’t dance,” I called out, “but I can whip any sonofabitch in town!”
I never liked speaking in public, and it’d taken some time, and many other working camps just like Blackwood, before I learned my lines without my voice shaking. Usually we could count on at least one drunk being so riled by my challenge that he bum-rushed me, and I’d lay out that jackass just to prove I meant business. After that, they’d bring up their best man. Bets would be called. A chalk-line scratched on the barroom floor. The crowd would form a living ring around us. And then we’d have at it till just one of us was left standing. After it was done, Pop’d count up our winnings, buy the losing man a drink to show there was no hard feelings, and then we’d be on our way, riding the rails to the next town.
But that’s not what happened here.
No one took a swing at me. Instead the place went pin-drop quiet. The loggers drinking inside the tent only stared at us, all of them smiling the same queer smile, like they knew something me and Pop didn’t.
“No man here will fight you,” a voice growled from the shadows at the back of the tent. It belonged to a ruddy-faced hog of a feller; all that was missing was the apple in his mouth. He wasn’t dressed like the other loggers, in their filthy working clothes; he wore a natty three-piece suit that strained against his bulging gut. He was sitting at a little round table with just a bottle of liquor for company. A cane was perched on his knee, to switch anyone who encroached on his privacy, or that bottle. He flicked a match with a thumbnail, firing up a cigar big as one of the trees laying out in the camp yard, the flame lighting his face like a jack-o’-lantern. He snuffed out the match with a dainty flick of his wrist. “But if it’s a fight you’re after . . . ” He blew a lasso of smoke above his head. “Then take it outside and I’ll fetch you one.”
The fat dandy’s name was Boss Taggart. He led us outside the tent, strutting through the crowd like a prize rooster, carving a path through the jostling bodies with wicked switches of his cane, men yelping like scalded cats as it landed. Boss Taggart might not have been hiring—like the logger told Pop when we first come to Blackwood—but he surely believed in keeping his workers entertained; the men smelled blood, could hardly wait to see it spilled.
Marching through the crowd, I stripped off my shirt to the waist, Pop pushing and shoving to clear my way. Hollering over the noise—all that jeering and cussing—Pop gave me the usual game plan, and I nodded, said “Yup,” made out I was listening. But it’s hard to prepare without knowing first who you’re fighting. If he’s a slugger, a slickster, or a swarmer. And everyone’s got a plan till they’re punched on the nose. After that something else takes over: the animal that lives inside fighting men. A fighter’s job is to keep that animal on its leash till it’s time to let it loose n’ wild.
Boss Taggart stopped suddenly, his cane tucked under his arm like a swagger stick. There was no boxing ring I could see, just a solid wall of men all around us. Violence baked off them like a brushfire burning out of control. I shot Pop a nervous look. The old man’s expression did nothing to reassure me.
“What’s the rumpus here, fellers?” Pop said.
Boss Taggart just stared at him, chewing his big ole cigar.
The crowd packed tighter around us.
“There’s been talk of a ringer,” Boss Taggart said, finally. “Young pup. About your boy’s age.” He stabbed the angry red eye of his cigar at me. “Riding the rails with an old man.” Pop’s chest puffed up at that ‘old’ business. “The way I hear it,” Taggart said, “they been lickin’ all comers and linin’ their pockets, all the way up along the Trail.”
“We wouldn’t know nothing about that,” Pop said. But he looked like a dog caught crapping on the porch.
* * *
Back home, they’d called me “Kid” Cooper. Age sixteen, and I was about the most feared fighter in the county. I’d made my name in boxing booth bouts at the county fair, fighting grown men twice my size, dropping ’em cold with the corkscrew right hook that folks came to call my Widowmaker.
Kid kicks like a mule, Pop’d tell folks, a proud trainer.
Mama (when she found out I was fighting) hadn’t approved, but she didn’t say no to the prize money neither, cuz the bank was already circling our farm like a shark smelling blood, and the money I won helped hold them off for a spell, at least until Mama got sick and needed medicine.
By then the money wasn’t enough, for Mama or the bank.
No one hits as hard as life, Pop used to say. And life never hit harder than the fall of ’33, the week we lost Mama to the fever, and then the bank took our farm. Talk about your one-two punch. Life sure can stick it to you sometimes. I tried to stay strong like Pop told me. Bit down on my gum shield and soaked up the pain. Cuz it wasn’t just us. Folks was hurting all over in them days. We’d see ’em sometimes, starved scarecrows dressed in rags, dirt caked in the cracks of their old-too-soon faces, skulking along to Lord knows where. Someplace better they hoped. But where was that anymore?
We buried Mama under the old sycamore, on land we no longer owned, and then Pop packed our bindles, with my boxing mitts in mine, and we hit the road.
Since then we’d been hoboing north through the mountains, riding the rails or our thumbs when we could, tramping when we couldn’t, passing through working towns and putting my God-given talent to use in the prize ring.
Pop told me, I kept winning the way I was, by the time we reached the city I’d have served my apprenticeship and be ready for the pros.
One day, he said, you’ll be Heavyweight Champ of the world . . .
But before that was Blackwood, where it seemed my reputation had preceded me.
* * *
Boss Taggart offered his terms, smiling a smile that never reached his eyes.
It was the biggest wager I’d ever heard. Crazy money. All we had. Everything I’d won. But before I could stop it, talk some sense into Pop, he’d shook Taggart’s hand to seal the deal. Maybe it was the talk of ringers that shamed Pop into taking such a damn-fool bet, cuz it’s a fine line between a ringer and a grifter, and Pop prided himself on being a good honest Christian. Or maybe Pop was afraid what the crowd would do if he didn’t take the bet. Whatever it was, it was too late now.
Pop wiped his hand that’d shook with Boss Taggart on the leg of his pants, like he’d just made a deal with Old Scratch. “Alright,” he said, “now who are we fighting? Where’s your man? Bring him up!”
With a twirl of his cane, Boss Taggart pointed past the crowd, the loggers shuffling aside like he was Moses parting the Red Sea. As the last of the men moved away, I saw a giant wooden door embedded in the ground. Solid oak. Bolted shut with a rusted steel bar. Like some kind of storm shelter, or the world’s biggest root cellar. Boss Taggart strode through the crowd and out onto the door, the heels of his boots clacking on the oak, the wood groaning under his bulk.
“Must’ve been a couple-few years back . . . ” he said, slashing his cane in the air like a carny barker. “When we first started grubbing these woods, the camp cook come told me, someone was breaking into the storehouse at night and helping hisself to our food rations. Now, my boys know better than to steal from me.” Taggart glared around at his workers, who nodded and murmured their agreement. “So I figured it’s gotta be some runaway chain-gang nigger. Cuz whoever it was left his bare footprints in the dirt outside the storehouse. And they was . . . big.” He gave a chuckle and the crowd brayed like jackasses, like it was some kind of joke me and Pop weren’t privy to. “Now if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a thief,” Boss Taggart proclaimed, “and if there’s another, it’s a nigger. So I set a trap for that stealin’ black sumbitch. And I caught him, alright. ’Cept it wasn’t no nigger like I thought . . . ”
With that, Taggart stamped his boot on the oak door.
The hellish cry that came back—like some roaring beast from the Book of Revelations—turned my blood to ice.
Stepping off the door, Taggart gave his men the nod.
The huge steel bolt was slammed back, the door hauled up on thick rope. A black cloud of flies billowed out behind it. A fetid animal stink wafted up from the pit. I staggered back, retching, my eyes watering at the stench. I swiped the flies from my face, not believing what I was seeing down below.
Huddled in the gloomy pit was some kind of ape. I’d seen one before at the carny, something like this, only much smaller. It was hard to believe they was even related. This ’un had to be seven foot tall, easy. It was tethered to an iron post in the middle of the pit. A rusted length of chain dangled between the post and the leather choker the ape wore ’round its neck. Its coarse black hair was mangy in patches, and crawling with so many lice it looked like the wind was blowing its fur. Its body was a mess of scars, some old and faded white, others fresher and festering, all courtesy of a whip or—I thought more likely—Boss Taggart’s cane.
The ape peered up from the shadows of the pit, glaring hatefully at the jeering crowd, its mud-brown eyes pitted in a shovel-flat, leathery black face. Its head was a boulder on broad slab-like shoulders, its arms like something the loggers had felled, stretching damn near the length of the pit. Its ham-hock fists were clad in boxing gloves, the thick black leather all chewed up, as if the ape had taken to gnawing at the gloves like a dog with an old slipper. He was wearing a pair of ragged old long-shorts, crudely stitched from oilskin, probably from a tent; and I could tell he was a he on account of the bulge at the front—else he had a snake stuffed down there he was keeping warm.
The ape saw me up in the crowd and growled, baring teeth that were filed down to nubs, just like the trees around camp. Thick ropes of saliva drizzled off his chops in a mad dog foam. I teetered back in shock, bumping into Pop, who clutched at my arm in terror.
“Don’t you worry ’bout those teeth none,” Boss Taggart told me. “He don’t bite.” He seemed to consider this. “Well, he might nibble you a bit, I s’pose,” he allowed. “We caught this ole boy at a good young age—I figure he wasn’t much more than a pup when we snared him—and we taught him right.” He whapped his cane in his hand and the ape flinched at the sound. “So it mightn’t be Queensbury rules exactly,” Taggart said, “but you’ll get a fairish fight.”
“Taggart,” Pop said, “you must be crazy, you think I’d send my boy down there with that damned thing!”
He took a step towards Taggart, holding out his hand.
“Bet’s off,” Pop said. “Now you give us back our money—”
Taggart’s cane slashed down on Pop’s palm. Pop let out a yelp, snatching his hand to his chest, shocked as a scolded child. In the next swipe, the cane scythed across Pop’s jaw, knocking him to the ground. I crouched down beside him. He was bleeding at the mouth, dazed, his eyes rolling in different directions. A cold fury burned through me. I glared up at Taggart, ready to pounce-
He was grinning, holding a pistol on me.
“Save your energy, scrapper.”
“I won’t fight,” I told him.
Taggart’s shark’s smile widened. “Either you fight him, like was shook on—or we toss your pappy down in there instead.”
Pop squeezed my hand weakly. “Don’t listen to him, son . . . you don’t gotta do nothing,” he rasped. But he didn’t sound none too confident. I brushed his hair back off his face, bent down and kissed his forehead. Then I stood up.
I looked Taggart hard in the eye. “Are you a man of your word, mister?”
The question seemed to confuse him.
“I want your word,” I said, “that when I whip this monster of yours, you’ll hand over our winnings and let us leave here.”
Well, that tickled him plenty; he threw back his head and roared with laughter.
But he finally quit laughing, and shook my hand.
“Sure, kid. Whatever you say.”
I wiped my hand on the leg of my pants, just like Pop’d done; shaking hands with Boss Taggart was like petting a toad. Then I looked around at the loggers. “You all heard him,” I called out loud, so even the men at the back of the crowd could hear; and my voice was not shaking. “He gave his word.”
I laced up my mitts.
“First you gotta win, boy,” Boss Taggart sneered. “And my ‘monster’ ain’t never been beat.”
A ladder was lowered into the pit. The hole was twelve foot by twelve, and eight foot deep; like something the devil hisself had clawed up from the ground. At each corner of the pit, torches burned up on flagpoles, the flames lighting the hole like a vision of hell. I started down the ladder, glancing back to see Pop being hauled to his feet. Boss Taggart slung an arm around Pop’s shoulder like they was bosom buddies. Pop’s head was clearing. He gave me a little nod for luck . . . or maybe it was goodbye?
Descending into the pit, I could hear the loggers making their side-bets. No one was giving me hardly any chance at all. The ladder was yanked up behind me. Down in the pit, the smell was worse than ever. The ground was strewn with a rancid mess of rotten vegetables and ape-shit.
The ape stood up, and up, and up; towering over me. His little jug ears flicked at some flies buzzing ’round his head. The beast’s back was hunched from so much time spent huddled in the pit, his shoulders ridged with thick quivering muscle. His body looked carved from teak, those tree-trunk arms dangling down past his knees. Glaring at me, the ape gave an angry snort of breath that frosted in the cold night air. He started pacing ’round the pit on his chain, stomping his canoe-size feet in the dirt.
Between the hollering crowd and my own hammering heart, I could hardly think straight, get it clear in my mind what I needed to do. I told myself that a creature his size couldn’t be fast. I’d stick and move, let him chase me; tire him out before pulling the trigger and putting him to sleep—if I could . . . .
But the moment Boss Taggart called “Fight!” robbed me of that notion.
Damn, he was quick.
He lashed out a jab that snapped my head back, spreading my nose across my face like butter on bread. My legs did a dance like a jazz club Negro. I’d never felt nothing like it. It shook me right down to the soles of my boots. And this was just a jab! I shook my head to clear my vision-
Just in time to see the uppercut surging towards me like some leviathan from the deep. It detonated on my chin, hurling me back off my feet. I thudded against the hard dirt wall of the pit, sliding down it, landing heavy on my ass.
The crowd cheered.
The ape charged.
Head still swimming, I could only watch, helpless, as it thundered across the pit towards me, before the chain tethering it to the post snapped tight, stopping the beast in its tracks. A fist like a leather-wrapped wrecking ball whistled past my face, ruffling my hair. The ape waddled back like a drunken sailor, releasing the pressure of the choker around its neck, the tether-chain going slack.
Bracing myself against the wall, I spat blood, and then heaved myself up onto rubbery legs. Knowing he couldn’t reach me with my back to the wall, I circled around the giant, looking for an opening. There was plenty of him to hit; it was what he threw back that worried me—I’d barely recovered from that jab, let alone the uppercut. I kept circling, getting dizzy. The crowd cussed and heckled my tactics—I heard Boss Taggart say to Pop he had a sissy for a son—but to hell with them, I was just trying to survive down there.
The ape circled ’round with me, windmilling those tree-trunk arms, nearly blowing me off my feet as they devilled past. I started to wonder if the sonofabitch would ever tire, cuz I was sure feeling the pace. I needed to do something—fast—before I gassed or my fear overwhelmed me.
Still circling, I started timing his shots, the old training coming back. I bobbed and weaved—that seemed to confuse him—then I darted inside and hit him a solid shot to the breadbasket, darting back out to the wall before he could counter. I kept it going. Circling. Darting in. Hitting him hard and fast with everything I had. Darting back out before he could tag me.
But my best shots didn’t even faze him; all they did was piss him off and hurt my hands. And every so often he’d catch me a good ’un before I could get out of range, and I’d know I’d been caught. My knees would buckle and the world would cartwheel, a black veil fluttering before my eyes. Behind that black veil I’d see Mama standing out under the sycamore where we’d left her, the setting sun bleeding across the horizon behind her. She was smiling sadly, like she hadn’t expected to see me again so soon.
I don’t know how long we had at it. No rounds were ever called. It felt like forever. My face must’ve looked like I’d gone bobbing for apples in a hornet’s nest. My mouth felt like I’d been chewing broken glass. Half of my teeth were studding the ape’s gloves. My lungs burned, my broken nose whistling as I snorted for air. Blood streamed in my eyes where the brows had split like peapods, blinding me, but I just swiped my face with my gloves and fought on.
Then he pole-axed me with a jab that felled me to my knees.
Pop used to tell me, A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t. But I was done. I couldn’t beat this thing. On my hands and knees, crawling in bloody mud and ape-shit, I gazed up from the pit, filled with a shame I’d never known. My blurring eyes found Pop amid the frenzied crowd. Boss Taggart was gloating. He still had his arm around Pop, the pistol cradled in his hand, patting Pop’s chest like a deadly promise. The fear in Pop’s eyes cleared my head like a dose of smelling salts.
I sucked a deep ragged breath, and hauled myself to my feet.
The ape backed up a step, maybe surprised at my sand. Then he pounded his gloves together, the leather clapping like thunder, and came back at me.
Launching myself off the wall, I met him head-on. Ducking under his arms and bulling my way to his body. Chopping him with hooks that cratered his midsection. Pounding his ribs till they cracked. Grinding my knuckles in the splintered bone. Roaring with pain, the ape threw me off him. I bounced off the wall and sprang to my feet. I’d hurt him, at last, and if he could be hurt, he could be beat. I swarmed back in and kept mauling his body. Up close, his arms were too long to do me much damage; best he could do was clinch and avalanche his weight down on me, though that was plenty, my tired legs buckling under the strain.
He wrestled me into a clinch, clamping my face in his swampy armpit, bristles raking my eyes like he was lacing me with his gloves. Well, if he was gonna fight dirty, then so was I. I stomped my heel down hard on his foot and he let out a howl and released me. As he staggered back, I sledged a shot to his liver that woofed the wind out of him, and he grabbed hold of his tether-post for balance.
I swooped back in. He was covering up now, trying to protect his cracked ribs from my hooks, leaving his head unguarded—just like I wanted.
Feinting with a left to the body, he dropped his guard and I suckered him with my Widowmaker. Right on the button. Point of the chin. Lord knows where I found that punch; and if God don’t know then the devil surely does, cuz it flew straight from hell. The ape’s head snapped back, spraying sweat and lice. It damn nearly sprang off his shoulders, out of the pit and up into the crowd. The ape’s arms flailed. His eyes rolled over white in his skull. And then he hit the deck with a crash, the ground quaking beneath him, loose dirt raining down from the walls of the pit.
Standing over the fallen giant, I got an idea how David must’ve felt when he whipped Goliath. I went to raise my arms but didn’t have no energy left. I sank to my knees in exhaustion. Looking down at the ape, his great hairy chest heaving as he snorted for breath, and then up at the crowd, bug-eyed and hollering for blood, I couldn’t decide which was more beast-like.
In the confusion, Pop fought free of Boss Taggart and dropped the ladder into the pit. He scrambled down it, dragging me into his arms and then hoisting me onto his shoulders, carrying-on like he’d never had no doubt I’d pull through. Boss Taggart spat out his cigar—it probably didn’t taste so fine now—and came down the ladder behind him, the pistol hanging loose by his side. He couldn’t bring himself to look at me as he passed; just tossed a heavy coin-purse, with our wager and the winnings, at my feet. Pop snatched up the purse and pocketed it. Taggart waded through the bloody mud, crossing the pit and standing over the ape, cursing it. Then he raised his pistol and thumbed back the hammer.
It sickened me that Taggart would just kill it in cold blood, this beast who’d fought braver than any man I’d ever known.
That’s something about fighters; you can go life and death with a feller, but after it’s over, he’s your brother in blood.
Taggart looked over at me.
“You let that critter go now,” I said.
He gave a little snort. “The hell you say.”
He started raising the pistol again, but I caught his arm at the wrist, and he bit back a yelp as I squeezed. We fought for the pistol, the gun barrel hovering over the fallen ape, Taggart’s finger teasing the trigger. After battling the ape, I was damn near spent, and Taggart knew it. His jack-o’-lantern face lit up as he started getting the upper hand. Then I wrenched his arm and his shoulder popped so loud for a moment I thought he’d fired off a shot. Taggart shrieked in pain. I tore the pistol from him, and he staggered back, shroud-white and sweating, his dislocated arm dangling from the socket by a thread. He tripped over his feet and fell on his ass in a big pile of ape-shit. Someone in the crowd above us gave a wild hoot of laughter; I wondered if the feller would still have a job tomorrow.
“I’ll see you hang for this, you sonofabitch—” Taggart hissed. “You, your old man, and that damned abomination!”
I pointed the pistol at him.
Taggart shut up right quick and closed his eyes, whimpering.
I held that pistol on him for some time, not sure what I was going to do . . . .
And then I turned and shot through the chain tethering the ape to the post. Sparks spit and the broken chain dropped from the post, coiled in the mud like a rusty snake. Boss Taggart started sobbing. He looked scared enough to be adding to that big pile of shit he was sitting in. I stuffed the pistol in my waistband.
I kneeled down next to the ape, petting his big bristly head to let him know I meant him no more harm. He looked at me and gave a little grunt like he understood. When I tore off his ragged old gloves, he gave an all too human sigh of relief, rubbing his huge leathery hands together like he was trying to warm them. Then I removed the leather choker from his throat. Under the choker, the fur was worn away, the skin gray and raw like a mangy cur. I flared with anger at how Taggart how mistreated this wretched creature, and for forcing me to add to his misery.
With the last of my strength, I helped the ape back to his feet. Still groggy, he steadied himself against the iron post, and rubbed his throat where the choker had been. Something like understanding flashed across his face. He seemed to realise he was free. He looked up out of the pit and roared at the men peering down at him. In the blink of an eye, there wasn’t a logger to be seen, just the dust of their fleeing feet. The ape turned back towards Boss Taggart—cowering in terror and shit—and started stomping around him, growling down low in his throat and bunching his wrecking ball fists. It seemed he had one last fight left in him. One last score to settle.
But me and Pop had seen enough.
We climbed the ladder up out of the pit, and started out of Blackwood, Pop with his arm around me, helping me along. No one tried to stop us. Frightened eyes peered out from tents as we passed. Boss Taggart’s high, hog-like squeals echoed over the camp behind us. Pop didn’t look back, didn’t even slow down. But I did. The last thing I saw before my swelling eyes puffed shut, was the ape vaulting up from the pit and loping away through the camp till he vanished in the woods. He was carrying something. Something round and dripping red, his fingers sunk into it like a bowling ball. My swollen eyes pinched shut before I could tell what it was. And maybe that’s for the best.
Pop guided me back through the woods to the rail-line where we’d first hopped off the train. Dawn birds were chirping. On the next train to pass, we hitched a ride and travelled the rest of the way to the city without any more stops, not saying a word about what’d happened in Blackwood.
Patching me up in the boxcar, Pop told me he was proud of me. I was ready for the pros, he said. That was good to hear; I hated to think what else I’d have to do to prove my mettle. We made it to the city and I won my first pro bout KO1 and we never looked back. And the rest, my journey to the title and my reign as Heavyweight Champ—well, the rest is in the sports record books.
After fighting the ape-man of Blackwood, it was a cinch.
Adam Howe is a British writer of fiction and screenplays. Writing as Garrett Addams, his short story Jumper was chosen by Stephen King as the winner of the On Writing contest, and can be found in the UK paperback and eBook editions of King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. His short fiction has appeared in numerous publications including Nightmare Magazine, Horror Library 5, and One Buck Horror. His first book, Black Cat Mojo, a collection of offbeat crime novellas, is available now from Comet Press. His second book, Die Dog or Eat the Hatchet, is due to drop in October ’15. He has recently completed work on a new novella, Damn Dirty Apes, and is currently wrestling his first novel, One Tough Bastard. You can tweet him at @Adam_G_Howe.
About “‘Kid’ Cooper & the Blackwood Ape-Man,” Adam says, “This story is a collision of boxing legend and the Bigfoot myth . . . According to boxing legend, the young Jack Dempsey served his apprenticeship the hard way. This was long before he became heavyweight champ, way back when the title was still worth a damn. Riding the rails between logging and mining camps, the boy brawler challenged all comers in the prize ring, slugging it out against some of the roughest toughest meanest sonsofbitches you can imagine, winning more fights than he lost . . . While researching an unrelated project, I read some historical reports from miners and loggers, describing terrifying encounters with the creature we now know as Bigfoot. And I had my magical ‘What if?’ moment. There’s no record of ‘The Manassa Mauler’ ever having slugged it out with Bigfoot—for what it’s worth, Mike Tyson did once agree to fight a silverback gorilla—but I liked the idea enough to imagine how it might’ve panned out.
“Thanks to my friend ‘Wild’ Bill Chaney for helping me red-pen this story.
“This one’s dedicated to George Liosatos.”
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