Reapers’ Portraits: December 1890

I was stopped on Main Street by the voice of a child who called me by name. When I turned around I saw a small Indian boy. He was wearing a fine suit and carrying a valise, which was easily twice his size. I looked at him, wondering why this child would know my name and thinking of the few women I had known during my travels in the Indian Territories when the child spoke to me in the language of the Lakota Sioux.

“No, Duncan, I am not your child. I am here to speak with Mr. Aldrich,” the child reaper informed me. “Will you take me to him?”

I told him I would, and I did, though I could tell that Thomas was not pleased with it. He had become skittish of the reapers following the deaths at Johnstown.

When Thomas tried to prepare the reaper for his portrait, Thomas was told to wait. The reaper needed to be in the proper clothes first. Thomas escorted him to a small room and then returned to my company to extract a bottle of spiced rum from his desk. He did not offer me a drink, nor did he pour himself one. Instead, he uncapped it and drank straight from the bottle.

A few minutes later, the reaper stepped out clad in native garb, and he allowed Thomas to help prepare the seat for him. Soon, the photograph was done, and the reaper changed once more into attire, which would garner no attention.

“Will you walk with me, Duncan?” the reaper inquired. I said I would and promised Thomas to return later.

As the reaper and I walked toward the Cross Train Station, he looked up at me with sadness. “Your friend will die this night by his own hand.”

My shoulders sagged, but I nodded my understanding.

We stopped at the entrance to the station, and I asked, “Where are you going?”

“West, of course,” the reaper replied. “Tell Thomas to put the name, ‘Wounded Knee’ in his ledger.”

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Reapers’ Portraits: May 1889

Thomas and I were sitting together, and I was expressing my concern for the man’s health. He was thinner than he should have been, and his hair had gone stark white in a matter of days earlier in April following the death of his wife and their youngest daughter. While I spoke with him, the door to the studio opened, despite it being locked and the blinds drawn.

An older man strode in wearing the medals and accouterments of the War of the Rebellion. He smiled at us both, and neither Thomas nor I moved.

“Gentleman, I have come to request a portrait to hang with those of my siblings. I regret that I must be so impolite as to force the issue. I have only a few days in which to travel to my destination, and to complete a rather large task.” His voice was calm, his tone commanding.

Without a word, Thomas rose from his seat and prepared the subject for his portrait. As this was taking place, the reaper nodded to me.

“Duncan Blood,” the reaper said. “I have seen you a great many times in battle.”

“Have you?”

He nodded and winked. “I was there, you know, when you attacked Quebec. Your marksmanship has always been impressive. Did you know that you accounted for thirty-eight that day?”

I shook my head. It was a strange sensation to be complimented by a reaper.

Thomas interrupted our conversation, took the photograph, and asked a single question.

“Where are you headed, sir?”

“To a town in Pennsylvania. It is an interesting place. Quite close to a dam. I trust you’ll hear of it soon enough. I will leave you with this thought, be ready to send coffins.”

Thomas and I watched him leave.

A few short days later, we learned of the flood at Johnstown, and the carnage wrought there.

Cross sent coffins.

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Reapers’ Portraits: October 1888

Thomas Aldrich was not nearly as verbose as his father had been when it came to the reapers.

Invariably, when I stopped in the studio, there were more portraits upon the reaper wall. Some years more than others.

In November of 1888, Thomas took me aside and asked me to sit awhile after he had closed his shop. I agreed, and soon we were seated at the same table where we had read of the fires in 1871. Sixteen years had aged the man, and he had several children of his own. While he did not drink as heavily as his father had, Thomas still drank.

We sweetened our coffees with brandy, and I waited for him to speak.

After nearly half an hour, he brought my attention to the image of a pretty girl, and he told me that she had been in early in October.

“What did she say?” I asked him.

Thomas hesitated, added another dose of brandy to his nearly finished coffee, and then he answered me.

“She said she was traveling to a place called Mud Run station in Pennsylvania.”

The name tugged at my memory. “I think I’ve heard the name. Recently, too.”

Thomas nodded and let out a pained laugh. “Aye, I’m sure you did, Duncan. She told me to keep an eye on the papers, just as all her damned siblings had before her.”

“What did the papers say?”

Thomas finished his coffee, and for the first time, I noticed the dark circles beneath his eyes.

“The papers said there was a train collision there,” Thomas said. He looked wearily at me. “One train, ‘telescoped’ into another.”

I winced at the word. I’d seen such crashes before, hideous sights where engines and cars were buried in the train ahead of them.

“Sixty-four dead, Duncan.” Thomas’ voice was little more than a whisper. “Sixty-four.”

His eyes drifted to the image of the reaper. “How could a small child do that?”

“Because she’s not a child, Thomas,” I told him, finishing my own coffee. “She is a servant of Death.”

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Reapers’ Portraits: December 1876

Thomas Aldrich had only been in possession of his father’s studio for three months, and he didn’t believe the letter which his father had written to him describing the reapers. His father had told Thomas to seek me out to verify the truth of what was written, and finally, the son did that.

I arrived at the studio on December 5th, 1876. While he and I were sitting together, having coffee – Thomas was a teetotaler, having seen the wreck his father had become from drinking whiskey – and I was explaining to him the veracity of Victor’s statements when a gentleman arrived at the studio.

The stranger was tall and stately, every inch the proper gentleman with gentile manners and a calm, sedate mien. He requested a portrait, and I remained while Thomas went about the process of posing and photographing. When he finished, Thomas asked when the gentleman might like to pick up his portrait, and what name should be placed on the back of it. The gentleman smiled.

“My siblings and I have no use for names, and I have no wish to have the portrait anywhere than upon your wall. Hang it with my siblings for the next to see. As for myself, I must catch the train to New York. There is an event at the Brooklyn Theatre, and I must not be late for it.” The reaper smiled at us both. “Look for news of me on the morrow. It shall be interesting, though I doubt entertaining.”

He took his leave of us, and Thomas was silent as he processed the information. After a short period, the younger man asked if I would be so kind as to stop by the studio in the morning. I assured him I would be there.

On the morning of the 6th, we learned of a horrific fire at the Brooklyn Theatre. A conflagration that claimed the lives of 278 people.

With the paper in front of us, Thomas took a whiskey bottle out from beneath the table, opened it, and took the first of many drinks.

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Reapers’ Portraits: May 1875

Victor Aldrich had been photographing reapers for 25 years when he stumbled onto my porch on May 28, 1875. I was recently returned from an excursion into the Hollow, and to say I was tired would have been an understatement. Nonetheless, I let him in and brought him into the parlor. He was exceptionally pallid, his eyes wild, his hair a mess and his clothes disheveled.

When I asked him what was wrong, he handed me the morning’s paper. I sat down and read of a church fire in Holyoke, Massachusetts and the deaths of 78 people.

“Why me?” he asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.

I set the paper down beside me. “I have no answer for that. I doubt anyone does, other than the reapers themselves.”

He shuddered and looked away. “I am no Papist, Duncan, but no one deserved to die the way they did.”

“Few people deserve any death they receive,” I told him softly. “Remember that, my friend.”

He nodded. “She told me that was going to pray with a congregation, and that before they died, they would suffer what they imagined Hell to be.”

“I suppose she was fairly on the mark there.”

Victor winced. “There is something else, she said.”

“What’s that?”

“She’ll be back tonight.”

I eyed him warily. “For whom?”

He didn’t answer.

“For you?”

Victor nodded.

“Thomas will take over the business when I pass away,” Victor whispered. “They know this. It is my time, she said.”

“I cannot do anything to stop death, Victor.”

My friend smiled at me. “I have not come here to ask you that.”

“What then?”

“I have come to ask you not to try.”

That, unfortunately, I could do.

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Reapers’ Portraits: October 1871

“He is going to Wisconsin.”

Victor Aldrich greeted me with this sentence when I entered his shop on September 30th. He showed me a photograph of a young man, and Victor’s hand trembled as he held the photo. Victor smelled faintly of whiskey, and I could find no fault with him for it.

There was a baker’s dozen of reaper portraits on the wall, and there were the ledger entries to accompany them. Victor knew there was no way to stop the reapers, no way to slow death. Yet it bothered him nonetheless.

“Tell me what he said exactly,” I invited.

Victor did so.

Several days prior, the young man had entered the studio and requested his portrait in the fashion by which Victor was all too familiar. When he finished, Victor asked the young man where he was headed.

“I am going to Wisconsin,” the young man replied. “Look for news of me on the eighth of October, though you may hear of my brother in Chicago first. We will be working close to one another.”

“What news might it be?” Victor asked.

The young man smiled broadly and answered, “Wisconsin. October. Remember them.”

Victor found this reaper to be far more disturbing than any of the others. He closed his studio on October 9th, and he and I went to the Cross Train Station early in the morning to see what the papers in Boston had to say and to learn if anything was sent over the wires.

Chicago was burning, but that was where the reaper’s brother was.

A short time later, we learned of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The death toll was well over a thousand, perhaps much more.

Victor had his first heart attack that day, and surprisingly – or perhaps not – he survived.

After all, his son wasn’t old enough to run the studio yet.

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Disaster and Calamity: Secrecy

I often mention the Cross Militia and the valuable service they provide the town. The Militia is called upon more times than I care to think about, and they have made more sacrifices than can be mentioned.

I have been with them when they faced down creatures that escaped from Gods’ Hollow, and when things dark and fierce have arrived in Cross from doors opened by the learned professors at the Cross branch of Miskatonic University.

The men and women of the Cross Militia face these challenges with remarkable courage. Remarkable because what they see is horrific and frightening, each incident representing a disaster in the making.

Each member of the militia must be vetted, and they must be sponsored by at least four previous members and one current. As the times have progressed, so too have the tests the prospective member must face. There are stress tests and those which measure the amount of psychological pressure someone can withstand. Finally, before they can begin their training, new members must sign a series of waivers, including a promise to never speak about what they see outside of the confines of the Cross Historical Society.

When these waivers are signed, there is a last test which I alone administer. I bring them into the basement of the Cross Historical Society, and I lead them to a door which, in turn, opens upon a set of stairs. We descend these side by side, and in a disturbingly large room, I show them artifacts of the creatures we have fought.

I am proud to say that the citizens of Cross are made of stern stuff. Few are those who cannot bear the thought of facing such enemies.

Those few, I might add, never leave that room.

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