A flash fiction response to a challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at terribleminds.com. Crime fiction + gun porn = a challenge that pushed me out of my comfort zone.
The Backahasten is a creature borrowed from Scandinavian folklore. It is briefly mentioned in my book Tenderfoot and a featured villain in my next book, Blinded. Marta is the great-grandmother of Jules Jennings from Tenderfoot.
This flash fiction is historical. What that means, dear readers, is that I spent 15 hours researching early 20th century Swedish life, military, and guns (including the translation of Swedish text to English) and 3 hours writing. I tried to make it as accurate as possible. If I got anything wrong, blame the internets. Enjoy!
There’s something there by the edge of the shore. Through the spindly trees, it looks to be the bloody remains of some unfortunate animal, crushed and torn apart.
I walk down the slope to get a better look. Could it be what I think it is? And then I see something move in the reeds. I freeze. To my disbelief, an enormous white horse emerges from the lake before my very eyes. Water streams off of its larger-than-life body as it climbs onto the shore. Then it looks up at me.
Devil be damned, it’s a fearsome thing. The withers of the horse are easily as high as the top of my head. Wet mane clings to its massive neck which twists forcefully as it shakes itself dry. Bits of dark green lake vegetation stick to its body, as pronounced against the white coat as the brown spot on the right front leg. The wet tail flicks back and forth like a cat preparing to pounce as it lifts hooves larger than a cabbage, each step deliberate, powerful. The creature is so big it’s a wonder the thing can move at all. At twenty meters, the beast opens its mouth to reveal teeth no horse should have. Fangs. Then it advances.
Not quite believing my eyes, I lift the Swedish Mauser 96 rifle and aim it directly at the beast.
My blood runs cold. I’d have one shot, maybe two before it made pulp of me too. I check the bolt action. It clicks and slides easily into position. As always, the wooden stock fits comfortably in my hand. I hold my ground, staring down the shiny barrel to the sight. Between hunting and time served for Sweden, the gun is like another limb. This time, it needs to be.
Silently, I curse. I should have known when I spotted the bloody mess of fur and jagged bone down by the water’s edge. It looked identical to the remains of that little girl ten years ago on these same shores, a horrifying scene I would never forget. There was intense mutilation of the girl’s body, as if someone deliberately intended to destroy it. Around what was left, blood pooled in giant hoof prints. This inexplicable death was worse than anything I saw serving conscription in the Vaxholm Coastal Artillery regiment. In the end, we identified Elsa Lindstrom by her shoes. Her killer was never found.
When the police union sent me from the new police academy in Uppsala to Varmland, the other men joked my primary duty would be rounding up lost pigs.
But then this.
There were no suspects, for whom among us would do such a thing to a child? The only clue came from Marta Karlsdottir, age twelve, a friend of the dead child. She saw Elsa playing with a white horse and described it down to the dark round mark on the front leg. But even if I found said horse, what was I going to do, arrest it? And after a few days, Marta refused to speak further. The child was scared, as she should be. She was a witness to an unsolved crime. Whomever perpetrated this act still walked among us.
There was talk in Varmland. At first, I ignored the village chatter. After a while, I realized the low comments I heard when I entered the blacksmith’s, the sawmill, and the bakery were all the same. Beware the Brook Horse. It will drown you in the lake. Tales of the creature and its prior victims repeatedly endlessly. To my surprise, the child’s death was readily accepted. But one thing caused consternation among the villagers. Why did it stomp little Elsa to death? Why didn’t it drown her like the others? I dismissed the gossip that passed for folklore outright. It was all superstition. And yet, with so little, my only hope was to catch the killer during the next attempt.
Here before me was a matching scene, ten years after the father gathered what was left of his precious child and buried her in the church yard. There was no doubt in my mind, her killer and this horse were one and the same.
Sunlight glints off the upside down brass disk on the right hand of the stock into my eyes. I shift it, watching. I no longer need to glance at the disk to plan the shot – after all these long years, I still know this rifle better than my own wife’s face. I bet my life on the stamped articles of faith: torped, overslag, the triangular mark above the “2” for a 6.52 millimeter bore. How many hundreds of times had I polished the receiver stamped with the year “1907” or the smaller disc of my dear regiment KA1? The stamp of crowns across the weapon applied by “J.V.” were an oath, an oath of the precision of Swedish-built weapons. This was a fine straight-bolt rifle with no strek, no rust in the bore, and it shot as true as any firearm could. Today, it would have to.
Through the metal sight, I line up the cross between the creature’s ears and eyes. I picture the brass round nose bullet originally destined for a buck when I left to hunt this morning. One shot. The palm holding the smooth walnut stock begins to sweat. I curl a finger around the trigger, waiting.
The beast freezes. Its head swings to the side as if to get a better look at me. The enormity of its jaws is breath-taking. The fangs are hidden now but the look is sinister. With the smallest of movements, I set my sight to the spot between the questioning eye and the flickering ear. I fire.
To my surprise, the beast suddenly rears back and gallops down the slope. And with that, it ducks into a stand of spindly trees, putting obstacles between itself and my bullet. I can barely make it out as it runs. And then I hear the splash. The horse is in the lake.
I lower the rifle to rest the metal buttplate against my foot. The Backahasten sinks quickly beneath the surface of the water. For as long as I stand there, it never resurfaces.
The sun starts to set. At last, I turn to leave.
It’s in the foliage covering the ground on the hill just above that I spy a single blue Forget Me Not. I pluck the delicate flower between first finger and thumb. As I pass the church on the way home to kiss my wife, I stop in the graveyard to leave it with the dead.