By the Skin of a Colonel

Death, Delusion and Bourbon on the American Frontier

Illustrations by Pablo Iglesias

On an evening in the fall of 1887, the darkness along a country road outside the small town of Frankfort, Kentucky, parted with the advance of a bobbing lantern suspended from the front of a carriage drawn by two horses, their flanks steaming in the cold air. It was not an unusual sight at this time of year, but the gilded insignia stamped on the front of the carriage just above the cloaked driver was a little out of character for the surrounding region, which was one of horse breeders, limestone streams, shimmering beech forests, and distilling operations, as well as a general sort of toothlessness. The insignia, which caught the flickering light as the carriage made its way along the rutted dirt track, was in an elegant, flowing script, and consisted of just one letter: R, for Rothschild. It was a name known across this vast land and even beyond its shores, a name that commanded awe and fear, a name whose agents were not to be trifled with — no, sir.

The carriage, in this case, bore two men of impeccable dress, bearing and distinction, seated opposite each other in the cabin on plush, regal benches of the deepest red velvet. Sipping something golden from exotically curved glasses, they were engaged in a spirited discussion that almost drowned out the sound of the heavy wheels displacing stones on the trail.

The taller of the two, Lainsbury Marlotte, wore a trim, dark blue suit that had been tailored in London’s Savile Row on a voyage that previous spring to the Highlands of Scotland. Lainsbury’s thin tie was high and tight against a starched collar, with his dark hair smoothed back by imported pomade. His beard was of the darkest black, with a moustache he intermittently and carefully twisted and twirled upward and outward — a habit that was known to make society ladies back in New York fan themselves daintily. A vein of silver flashed at his temples, and his smile, frequently broad, revealed two gold-capped molars.

The other man, one Bartholomew Poppenridge, was the less striking of the two, his beard and comportment slightly unkempt. But he was nevertheless a presence, wearing a three-piece wool suit the colour of deep emerald and a striking tartan tie. His wispy auburn hair, dislodged by the tribulations of age and the rigours of deep thought, was slicked back by fluids unknown (likely secreted), as much as it could be, beneath a tall chapeau. He had a lighter, longer beard — which observers usually equated with a short fuse, or, more problematically, a bit of mild cholera. A pair of spectacles balanced above his aquiline nose and in front of bright blue eyes, which flicked occasionally with diligence toward a watch he pulled like clockwork from his breast pocket during the vigorous debate in which the two were presently engaged. The nervous tic did little for the New York ladies.

“I repeat, there is simply something about San Francisco,” Lainsbury was saying. “Its cosmopolitan streets, its sense of risk and abandon, its frontier essence, the fact the city has opened its bosom to the wide seas. I say, it is a superior city — flawed though it may be in certain districts and sensibilities, and ceding acknowledgement of its relative youth among world cities — than London.”

“Poppycock,” Bartholomew said dismissively. “It is a crass place, crasser even than the public transit system of New York, than the cotton mills of grim old England. It is a place I shall be happy to never have to see again, in your company or not, for as long as I am blessed to walk this land. London, on the other hand, and here I do concede the comparatively ludicrous nature of our debate, given the sizable and — I would expect you to admit — glaring differences, is the fairer of the cities. Fairer even, I would say, than our dearest New York.”

“You did not just venture there, dearest Poppenridge.”

“Indeed, I did, dear Marlotte. I ventured quite there.”

“I may just cable that comment back to Mr. R, if you do not pass me that bottle of thirty-year-old, which MacDougall was kind enough to —”

“Do that and you’ll probably end up with a pervert replacement as a travelling companion, you —”

In a cacophony of hoof clattering, the horses whinnied and drew up on two feet, and then brought the carriage to a standstill. But for the sound of the wind whistling through the leafless beech trees of Kentucky and the panting of the horses, there was silence. Bartholomew and Lainsbury stared at each other; the former raised an eyebrow quizzically; the latter swirled his whiskey thrice, and then sipped.

“Driver, what’s the matter?” Lainsbury asked.

“There is a horseman up ahead, sir.”

“That is all very well and interesting and perhaps even poignant, but why did you stop?” Bartholomew asked.

“He is blocking the road.”

“Well, that is poignant,” Bartholomew said.

With an air almost of ritual, the two men took silver keys from their breast pockets, unlocked hidden drawers on either side of the carriage, removed a pair of pistols each, and slid them into the tops of their trousers.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

***

Bartholomew and Lainsbury unlatched the doors and jumped out into the road, sending up a cloud of dust. A gust of wind blew their tailcoats out behind them as they strode forward, each waving their right hand above their head. About thirty paces in front of them, a horseman dressed in a black cloak stood like a sentinel.

“Ho, fellow traveller!” Bartholomew called out. “How fare you?”

The horseman stood still for a moment, a shadowy mass on the back of a black horse; he did not appear to have eyes. Then, the figure seemed to rouse, and let out a raspy laugh before speaking.

“Well, I do say, it is you, isn’t it?” the man said in a Southern accent. As he dismounted and his hood fell back, thin white hair shone in the moonlight. He was an older man, and as his cloak blew about him as he walked toward them, the two travellers could see he was well-dressed, with a silk tie and purple kerchief.

“I apologize, I do, for mayhaps giving fright to y’all. I’ve been waiting here for hours, and may have slumbered as I sat. In fact, I’m surprised I didn’t tumble clean from Billy here, right into the roadway! Billy’s my horse, you see. Well, he’s the Colonel’s horse, to be sure and proper and correct — the Colonel’s, like most of what you’ll see around these parts. Not that you can see much in the dark!”

With this the man began a sort of chortle, which began amusingly enough, only to descend rather rapidly into wheezing, panting and then an unpleasant hacking. As he quieted, the man stood upright and resumed a more formal air.

“I was sent here to wait for you by my employer, a true Southern gentleman, one Colonel Blandton,” the man said. “My good name is Terrence, and I am the Colonel’s manservant, errand-runner and all-around gentleman adviser. I do believe that I now have the pleasure of addressing Messrs. Marlotte and Poppenridge?”

“You do, kind Terrence, you do,” Lainsbury replied.

“And you two were sent here by your own employer up there in the North, I gather, to examine in detail, catalogue, and retrieve from here the region’s finest bounty for the family’s personal collection? That miracle whiskey aged in stout barrels of good old American oak that have been charred over an open flame. Bourbon, in other words, is what you are here to collect, I gather: bourbon for the Rothschilds.”

“You are correct,” Bartholomew said warily. “Though I’m wondering, just slightly and with obvious deference to your experience in these parts, how you know of our plans so intimately and thoroughly.”

“There’s little that goes on about these parts that escapes the notice of the Colonel,” Terrence replied, “especially with regard to gentlemanly affairs, a matter that such fine folks as yourselves most certainly fall into, and, of course, with affairs regarding that matter which is closest to his heart: the tasting and distilling and bottling of the region’s most pleasant bourbons.”

Lainsbury and Bartholomew, gentlemen stewards of the Rothschilds’ ocean-straddling whiskey collection, carefully counted and stored in estates from Boston to New York to London to Paris, were connoisseurs known the world over. From the Highlands of Scotland to the ancient sake distilleries of Osaka, the two men were known for their careful selection and curation of the largest private collection of whiskey known to mankind; it was their duty, executed in these United States with the solemnity and seriousness of a royal decree in older parts of the world, to ensure the Rothschilds’ global estate was well-furnished, in perpetuity. The pair were also well-known by the sheer heft of the purse whose strings they were wont to loosen in order to buy an impressive crate — payable in full, in cash, on delivery to New York, and not a moment before. In these matters, as in most, it was wise for gentlemen not to turn down unofficial invitations or suggestions or guidance, however unusual, if it offered potential avenues to success. And besides, this talk of bourbon was making them both quite thirsty. Deathly thirsty, even.

“Take us,” Lainsbury said after some deliberation, “to your Colonel.”

***

The cloaked horseman led the men’s carriage off the main road to Frankfort and down a series of narrower dirt paths where the trees seemed to press closer and closer. The two men, looking out their carriage windows, felt mildly claustrophobic, so low were the trees’ overhanging boughs; they scraped the carriage’s roof and their driver’s cheeks. Fog drifted out from between the trunks, and Bartholomew and Lainsbury, though experienced travellers, could not help but feel ill at ease. They sipped whiskey to soothe their nerves, and after some time the narrow roads ended and merged with a larger cobblestone thoroughfare. Sparse sheds and buildings began to cluster, and soon the carriage was clattering down what seemed to be a small-town avenue; saloons and hotels and hardware stores lined the road, though few had lanterns on, as it was approaching midnight. One lantern illuminated a torn poster: WANTED: Suspects sought in mysterious death of O.C.

Bartholomew glanced at his pocket watch, then at a compass, and then finally unfolded a map and disappeared behind it. Lowering it after several minutes, Lainsbury discovered one of Bartholomew’s eyebrows was much higher than the other.

“Well?” Lainsbury asked.

“Would you believe a town of this size could escape the shrewd notice of Rand McNally’s surveyors?” Bartholomew replied.

Lainsbury loosened his tie and took a sip. Then he opened a cabinet, drew out a half-empty, unmarked bottle, uncorked it, and looked at it for a few seconds. Then he drank from it.

“Lainsbury,” Bartholomew said. “That’s the 1787 bottle of Armagnac from Napoleon’s private collection.”

“We bankrolled that fellow,” Lainsbury said, pulling it away from his lips. He swished it a second, swallowed. Both eyebrows rose, and he nodded satisfactorily. “But I’m glad we got this back at Waterloo.”

Suddenly they saw in the distance, just beyond the town and looming larger as they clattered down the main street, a turreted mansion atop a small hill, silhouetted by the half moon in the night sky.

“Well, I wonder if that is our destination,” Bartholomew muttered sarcastically to Lainsbury.

“Indeed!” Terrence called out from twenty paces in front.
“How on earth did he hear you?” Lainsbury asked in a hushed whisper.

“It’s quiet out!” Terrence yelled back.

Bartholomew adjusted his tartan tie and swallowed, and the two turned out the windows again and watched as an immense iron gate swallowed them up.

From afar, the mansion seemed to stand alone. But as they slowed just past the gate in a wide cobblestone junction, the two men saw it was just one structure among dozens. As they gazed out upon myriad buildings, all connected by looping pipes, some of them hissing steam, the two men spied through the moonlight a massive brick warehouse, a stone bridge traversing a bubbling stream, several small guard cabins scattered about, more warehouses, a half-dozen enormous copper stills, and a long building that appeared to be some type of office, lit with lanterns hooked along the wall. A narrow stone road from this junction cut into the side of the hill on which the mansion stood.

“I do say we have arrived,” Terrence said, drawing up his horse. “Welcome to Cripple Creek Distillery of Fine Bourbons and Whiskeys. A limited liability venture.”

Dismounting slowly, he took down a lantern from the wall and met Lainsbury and Bartholomew, who were beginning to warm somewhat to their kindly guide, as they descended from the carriage.

“This way, please, gentlemen, we have a late supper and two beds prepared for you,” Terrence continued. “And perhaps it goes without saying, but the Colonel awaits.”

The three men began the steep climb, and as they rounded a bend in the winding road, caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a man in the window of a den — a crackling fire behind him cast a chiaroscuro cutout down to the travellers below. As the flames flickered and shadows moved about the room, the heavyset man in the window seemed to change forms before them, his body a shimmering illusion. Bartholomew, who was unsure whether it was his walking or the fire causing the trick of the eye, blinked several times as he stared up at the man, before the figure turned and walked away from the window.

“I suppose that was our mysterious Colonel in the flesh,” Bartholomew said out loud.

Terrence turned back suddenly, and the trio stopped short.

His face lit brightly by the lantern, the horseman regarded Bartholomew with an uncharacteristically hard, narrow-eyed stare, as if he were about to scare an idiot child with a ghost fable. Then, he seemed to lighten, and with a sudden dawn of understanding, he chuckled.

“In the flesh, indeed.”

***

The mansion’s front door was in the middle of a plantation-style veranda — all awning and columns and chairs and tables for mint juleps — despite being at the top of a hill that, around midnight, appeared as windswept and barren as the snowy crags of the Yukon. The three men climbed the short staircase and knocked. The oak door wheezed open with a long groan and there he was, one hand on the inside doorknob, illuminated by the warm glow of a hearth behind him: the Colonel.

He was a thin, elderly man, and seemed to drown in an ill-fitting seersucker suit. But he looked distinguished nonetheless, with a bold aquiline nose and high cheekbones over hollow cheeks, and a full white moustache that was meticulously combed. His grey eyes crinkled at the corner, and liver spots were visible at his temples beneath an inch-and-a-half of bushy sideburns. He wore a white tie, and a sparkling red kerchief protruded from his breast pocket. His white hair was side-parted, slick with a healthy heaping of pomade; the coiffed appearance, in this obscure locale, struck the two visitors as slightly desperate, grasping.

“Gentlemen,” he said in a welcoming drawl, throwing his arms wide. “I do say, welcome to the Blandton estate. Humble though it may be, we and our staff — and our whiskeys — are entirely at your service.”

“Colonel, the pleasure is indeed ours, and I’m sure our employer will hear of your selfless hospitality on such an inhospitable evening,” Bartholomew said as the Colonel ushered them through the front door, past the front hall’s hearth and down a small hallway to the den — and its large, crackling fire — that they had seen during the climb.

“We’ve travelled a long way,” Lainsbury added as the Colonel welcomed them into plush chairs. Beside each was an ornate oak table laid with a flight of three stemmed whiskey glasses, at the bottom of which were shimmering amber pools refracting the firelight.

Bartholomew lost himself in the flickering lines of yellow and orange as the Colonel regaled the pair of weary travelers with the history of the distillery, and had Terrence bring course after course of catfish soup, fried whole chickens and puffy waffles with honey. He also topped up their glasses repeatedly; as the Colonel’s yarns unfurled, his vast collection of aged bourbons was depleted by more than a few choice bottles. The distillery, they learned, had been founded by his grandpappy nearly a hundred years earlier. He had been fleeing the tumult of the great Whiskey Rebellion in 1792 when he pushed his way to the edge of a field of Kentucky bluegrass, tripped on a stone, and slid face-first down a steep hill of loose dirt into a bubbling limestone stream. Although it cost him his four front teeth on a sharp rock in the shallows, the iron-reduced water was the first sign for Grandpappy Blandton that this here was the spot for bourbon making. Looking up from the creek bed, his toothless face streaked with blood and clay, he next saw the hill — on which this mansion now stood — and on top of that hill he saw a wild but lopsided buck with only a single antler twisted grotesquely into a giant, calcified, fur-covered horn that resembled a thumbs-up.

“And that’s where some of our most popular bourbons get their name,” the Colonel continued. “Damn Stone at the Top of Bluegrass Gulley Twelve-Year-Old. Toothless Old Grandpappy Single Barrel. Gonna Build a Mansion on That There Hill Twenty-Three-Year-Old. Old Gross Horn Reserve. But I can see the road and those snifters of Gross Horn have taken their toll on you two gents. Why don’t you let Terrence show you to the guest rooms, and I’ll have Clarice whip you up something mighty filling in the morning. Not some dainty, Northern sort of New York breakfast. I do say, I do, the North still does confound me. Dainty breakfasts with nary a biscuit in sight. No grits. Chickens roasted, and only in the evening time. Blacks and gays and other unseemly types cavorting publicly along the streets, holding hands and speaking in tongues and dripping salty evil! It’s enough to dejollify even the most gentle Colonel, I say.”

“You should see San Francisco if you think that’s crazy!” Lainsbury blurted out from the confused depths of his drunken stupor. “I once saw a six-hundred-pound man in a tiger-skin suit let loose on a lady with five —”

“Please forgive my friend,” Bartholomew cut in, rising from his chair with as much dignity as his own drunkenness permitted. “He is simply showing his passion for the golden liquid the best way he knows: by drinking too much of it!”

The trio roared with laughter for a long while, and when it died down the Colonel clapped Lainsbury on the shoulder with a skeletal hand and chuckled. “A tiger-skin suit! I do say that’s truly, truly remarkable.”

***

Darkness. Darkness. The fog of sleep and more darkness. Fog. Shadows. An open door. The shape of a man. A large, thick man. Sagging skin. Drooping jowls. The smell of . . . spices? Fried chicken? A grin of white teeth, dripping fat. Whose lips? How many spices? Twenty-four? Too many! The lips! Four lips? Too many! Dripping fat. Four fluttering eyelids. Hollow cavities. Everything dripping fat. Spices. Twenty-four special spices. Too many spices.

“Mmrgh,” Lainsbury mumbled, half asleep.

Fog. Shadows. A groaning door. Spices. Chicken. Shadows. A doorknob click. Darkness.

Bartholomew, fast asleep, rolled over. He lay for a while thinking of the Colonel’s hospitality and unusually strident Southern opinions. Then his eyelids fluttered open. Had his door just shut? Lazily and deeply affected by the stupor of sleep and dreams, he shifted his head away from the damp pool of chicken fat on his pillow and drifted back to sleep.

***

“Gentlemen,” the Colonel called out, sashaying into the dining room as Clarice cleared the dishes. “Now, do concede, please: it sure is difficult to want to go and engage in Northerly activities after a heavy, Southerly, jollified breakfast of fried chicken and eggs and pickles and clotted cream and pepper steak and whatnot — am I not correct? Am I not correct in saying so, fine sirs?”

“I don’t think anybody, man or woman or child or beast, could engage in the Lord’s work after such a feast,” Lainsbury conceded. “I feel like I have eaten breakfast, lunch, dinner and the next day’s breakfast — and then some. But now! Is it time to sample some of your whiskey?”

“You mean, Clarice didn’t . . . ?” the Colonel began. “Clarice! Are you meaning to tell me that you let our friends from the North enjoy a Southerly repast without bringing them a selection of fine, aged bourbons with fried pickles and chicken? Do you call that jollification? Do you call that Colonelling? Is that how I eat my breakfasts — devoid of the golden fuel? Simply unacceptable!”

“Colonel, it is quite all right!” Bartholomew interjected.

“How are we supposed to go taste whiskey on a dry tongue?” the Colonel asked, throwing his hands up like a spoiled child.

“I think we’ll manage,” Bartholomew said.

“Well, I do say, I suppose we’ll have to now, won’t we?” the Colonel said. “Now, on with your coats, sirs, and let us venture down to my distillery.”

The Colonel led them down the hall past an enormous portrait: from an elaborate, gold-rimmed Victorian frame peered a regal-looking Colonel, indeed. The fleshy man had dimples and a cleft chin hidden slightly by a wispy white goatee. His eyes had unusually long lashes behind rectangular spectacles and he sported a thick-lipped grin that, it could certainly be argued, put the jolly straight into jollification.

“The O.C.,” Colonel Blandton said reverently as they walked by. “The Original Colonel.”

“That sign on the way in . . .” Lainsbury began.

“I say,” the Colonel said quietly. “You are observant. He recently passed, he did, a veritable pillar of the Colonelling community. Nobody knows what happened.”

But the mood shifted when the Colonel pushed the front door open to reveal a cloudless blue sky and a leafless horizon of oak and beech trees. Below them, the distillery stretched out like an unfurled carpet of brown brick and cobblestones. It smelled like a damp, mossy forest floor in the early morning, like primordial peace. But there was a sour aftertaste on the breeze: fermentation.

“This way,” the Colonel said, leading them down the path toward the buildings.

Lainsbury and Bartholomew tightened their ties up against their crisp collars. This was their element — within which few had faculties and skills and perception to match; it was how they had ascended the heights of an obscure and highly restricted industry, and had excelled and then secured for themselves a sort of pseudo-consigliere role at one of America’s most powerful households. They had scraped their tongues upon waking with a special brush and gargled with a patented palate-cleansing rinse, though their mouths, admittedly, were now compromised by fried chicken and clotted cream. Nevertheless, they were now on.

***

They walked up to an aging four-storey warehouse. The Colonel lifted a rusty latch and pulled the heavy wooden doors open. They walked in and like an early morning mist they could sense it: that smell. That damp, musty atmosphere where, upon sniffing deeply, it was possible to veritably taste the whiskey evaporating ever so slowly through the charred oak barrels.

“In these parts,” the Colonel said reverently, “we call that the angel’s share.”

The first few flights of whiskeys were, indeed, otherworldly; the two tasters, who worshipped the secular Northern gods of ambition and dedication to craft, gave thanks of a more careerist sort to a god who looked after the Rothschilds’ interests. The Colonel, clearly, had kept a deck of aces up his cufflinked sleeves: a twenty-year-old single barrel flavoured with additional shafts of burnt French oak; a twenty-three-year-old blend that, unbelievably, had spent the last five years aging with tiny nuggets of gold rolling almost imperceptibly around the bottom of the barrels as they were shifted (bumped off their wooden peg holders and rolled along the floor) from the temperature-fluctuating top floors of the warehouse to the stable first floor. On this occasion, at a tasting table of burnished oak, the Colonel even pulled down from the top shelf an unlabelled bottle covered in dust, with a mouldy cork disfigured by a little white lump.

“This,” he said, “is from the first barrel.”

“The first?” Bartholomew and Lainsbury gasped.

“It is ninety-five years old to the day,” the Colonel said. “Corked by the toothless legend himself. Look here.” He held up the cork to show them a pale yellow object, like an arrowhead, embedded within. “One of his teeth.” He removed the cork, poured, and they sipped.

“It tastes like wisdom,” Lainsbury said breathlessly. “Like history. Like gold.”

“I think I can taste Abraham Lincoln’s courage,” Bartholomew enthused, staring wide-eyed at his snifter as if liquid Jesus had poured forth to perform miracles on his tongue. “Hints of ageless caramel. And notes of ephemeral cherry. My forefathers’ cheek stubble.”

The tasting went on like this until lunchtime, during which the tasting continued between mouthfuls of seared venison; and when lunch was done, it continued in much the same manner — eighteen-year-old preceded by twenty-three-year-old followed by a fifteen-year-old, et cetera — except with the addition of various snacks, including pickles and tiny breaded bits of deep-fried boneless chicken.

“There was a particularly innovative Colonel about these parts,” the Colonel began, picking up a morsel and turning it over in his grease-sheened fingers, “who bravely pioneered this style of chicken. A man named Colonel Harland Van Drinkel. And — oh, who am I foolin’? You recognized his portrait in the hallway! He was as innovative a Colonel as these parts have ever seen, he was. His skin often had twenty-four or more spices — but no one ever knew for sure. He took that secret to his grave, presumably. He disappeared recently, mysteriously — people say they only found his skeleton. But no one’s sure. It’s a shame, I say. I absolutely love his skin!”

In the increasingly drunken melee, this comment went unremarked, except for a slight nod from the pair of tasters, whose thoughts were where their tongues were (some restaurants in the North had Colonel Van Drinkel’s chicken on the menu). By 6:00 p.m. the two men were positively sassafrassed. And then, as Bartholomew began lowering his head onto the sticky tasting table, Lainsbury looked up and realized the Colonel had vanished without a word. Dusk was deepening and the shadows were growing longer and they were very, very drunk in a strange distillery and entirely alone.

Almost.

***

“What’s that smell?”

Chicken.

“Fried chicken?”

“Indeed.”

“You’re drunk.”
“So are you.”

“Wait, what was that?”

“Sounded like shuffling.”

“Jesus, let’s just go and find him.”

“I don’t like this one bit.”

Cackling.

“Golly.”

“That’s definitely fried chicken.”

“Now I’m hungry again.”

“How can you be hungry at a time like this?”

“Look!”

Among the rafters, fluttering shadows. Then, at the window, a wrinkled, sagging face.

“Bloody hell, Bartholomew, run — the Colonel’s flown the coop something fierce!”

The two men scrambled for the door, crisp dress shoes clattering across the wooden floorboards. Lainsbury got there first. He skidded into the door with a thud, grabbed the doorknob, and wrenched it open.

The Colonel.

***

FT11_P66_Iglesias

He stood there — in the flesh blocking the doorway. But it was not just the Colonel; Colonels might be a more apt description. For the genteel Colonel from the previous night was no more: he was now bedecked grotesquely in a hideous suit made from the preserved skin of another human — the Original Colonel, Harland Van Drinkel, a man so famous across this land for his chicken experimentation that even two petrified, shivering Northerners could recognize the resemblance.

And the resemblance wasn’t easy on the pair’s eyes. The O.C. was notoriously fastidious about his recipes, trying them over and over and over again, and refused outside help with his chicken tasting; he was not a light gentleman. And now, his hollowed-out countenance sagged off Colonel Blandton’s bony structure like a child’s ghost costume on All Hallows’ Eve. Van Drinkel’s excess skin creased around Blandton’s slighter joints, and hung off his fingers like a barrel cooperage workman’s gloves.

But the face, or visage, or whatever one wanted to call it — the Colonel’s mask of human flesh was the most terrifying thing of all: Blandton’s pupils peered out from flapping, lash-heavy lids, and the larger Colonel’s lips — scraped hollow, stitched full of Southern cotton and preserved with formaldehyde — hung ominously below Blandton’s own, making his face look like that of a big catfish swallowing a smaller catfish from behind. The Original Colonel’s white goatee had gone yellow, and his neck sagged off Blandton, pulling the collar and tie tight, and the O.C.’s belly now filled out the Colonel’s previously ill-fitting seersucker suit. All horrifying developments considered, he looked pretty dapper, but the two whiskey adventurers now found themselves facing a highly unenviable situation.

“What on earth do you want from us?” Lainsbury screamed girlishly, as Bartholomew backed up, hyperventilating, searching for an escape.

“I couldn’t help myself,” the Colonel muttered from beneath stuffed lips. “I wanted to try out the final recipe. Deep-fried boneless bits of Rothschild. But you awoke! All the spices. All the . . . and now you know too much!”

As he said this, Lainsbury lunged forward and kneed the Colonel in his groin, or more accurately, his groins (discovering in the process that the Colonel’s skin suit was complete in all details) — one of which registered excruciating pain. The aging Colonel doubled over in double, collapsing in his excess skin like a clumsy, shedding snake. Lainsbury, sensing victory, turned around and yelled, “Come on, Bartholomew!”

But he was gone. “Bartholomew, where are you? You —”

And then Lainsbury saw him: tossing venison gristle and empty bottles aside, he was on the far side of the room, at the bar, searching desperately for something.

“The first bottle,” he repeated deliriously. “I must have it!”

“Bartholomew, the master would understand!” Lainsbury shouted, running over to Bartholomew, grabbing him by the shoulder. “We’ve got to flee!”

They both turned and saw the Colonel(s) starting to stir, rising to one knee (two, really) slowly, shaking with pain but pulsating with the foul, ominous strength that comes after a heavy meal of Southern chicken. The Colonel was blocking the only exit. The room’s windows were too high and looked out on the limestone river below: they seemed trapped. As Lainsbury mulled this all, time seemed to slow; and then Bartholomew, who had broken free of his friend’s grip, felt the mouldy tooth cork. He had it. “Aha,” he slurred. “Let’s go.”

But, turning, he saw the Colonel had arisen.

The first bottle in hand, Lainsbury and Bartholomew felt invincible, feeling that their youth (relatively speaking) and their partnership gave them an advantage over this sickly, strange man. Staring at the bizarre Colonel rising before them, Lainsbury reached back and, almost casually, grabbed a bourbon bottle by the neck and gave it a hard underarm toss toward the freakish figure. It sunk into the folds of his excess skin with a sound like that of a pebble disappearing beneath a pond’s surface. Lainsbury and Bartholomew gulped.

“I do say,” the Colonel gasped from within himself. “You do not seem to be reciprocating my Southern hospitality with gentlemanly —”

Smash!

Folds and excess and creases aside, Lainsbury had grabbed another empty bottle and sprinted alongside Bartholomew toward the Colonel, blasting him in the face with it and jumping over the bloodied mass toward the door. Racing into the hallway, the two left the slumping figure of the Colonel in the tasting room, and ran toward the exit. Pushing the heavy doors open, they spied the stable on the other side of the courtyard, where their horses and carriage awaited.

Taking care with the first bottle, Bartholomew jogged alongside Lainsbury, who was looking back toward the building suspiciously.

“Well,” Lainsbury huffed. “That was most interesting.”

“Indeed,” Bartholomew added, cradling the bottle.

**

This story was originally published in The Feathertale Review No.11

 

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