by Patrick J. Hurley
No one in Bridge could remember exactly when the legend of the Pusherman began. As folk began to go missing, the stories just appeared, fully formed, as if they had fallen from the sky. Some in Bridge whispered that the Pusherman was an old graybeard who hunted children playing along the Edge because he was envious of their youth. Others said he was a jealous husband who pushed his cheating wife over the Edge and came to enjoy the taste of murder.
There had never been disappearances in Bridge, the town between all worlds. Oh, there had been accidents, sickness, and even violence, but even these had been infrequent. These vanishings were different, and seemed to occur with the changing of the seasons.
A few years after the trouble started, a Caught man named Jack was found in the nets that trawl the River of Souls far below Bridge. The Caught are not like other Bridgefolk. They have a far-away look in their eye, as though they haven’t quite forgotten what death is like. As Jack slowly revived, the people learned that he was a watchman in his past life.
“What is a watchman?” they asked.
“A watchman protects people,” explained Jack. People in Bridge found this interesting. Their magister, a wizard of some repute, usually tended to such matters.
Now Jack was clever and Jack was quick. After he regained his strength, he heard about this Pusherman and decided something needed to be done. He spoke with the magister about organizing a posse of men to keep watch over Bridge and catch this Pusherman. The magister had no wish to create such a police force, but so many of the Bridgefolk asked for it that he finally agreed to Jack’s request.
When the Pusherman heard of this posse, he became angry. He, too, was clever and knew trouble when he saw it. The best thing, he decided, was to make Jack and his men look useless. So he went back to his pushing, only this time he was twice as careful.
Jack and his men kept careful watch over Bridge and laid many traps for the Pusherman, but try as they might, folk continued to disappear. Then one day, as Jack walked past the catchers hauling up nets from the docks of Bridge, he came up with a plan. Over the next week, he made his preparations, telling only a few people until he was ready. Then he summoned all of Bridge into the main square to make an announcement.
This night, he proclaimed, he would patrol the Edge completely alone. He was sick of hunting for the Pusherman and would face him in a fair fight, man-to-man, just the two of them. To prove that he wasn’t lying, Jack then drank a magical truth serum, prepared for him especially by the magister, and proceeded to swear that if the Pusherman met him tonight, he would be facing only Jack.
The Bridgefolk were astonished, and most thought that Jack was going to meet his end. His men did not like this plan either, but there was no arguing with their captain. There was one who heard Jack’s plan and felt both elation and fear. The Pusherman had long been dormant, but the magister had personally prepared Jack’s truth serum and knew that the watchman would be waiting for him alone.
For you see, it was the magister himself who was the Pusherman, though none suspected it. It began long ago, when the wizard first came to Bridge in search of new magic. In the forgotten recesses of the caverns far beneath the town between worlds, he found what he sought. A dark wind lay imprisoned there, and when the wizard set it free, it poisoned his mind. The dark wind whispered that for every man, woman, or child the wizard pushed over the Edge, another year would be added to his life. So the wizard emerged from the caverns, settled down in Bridge, and eventually became its magister. Now, whether the dark wind spoke the truth isn’t known, but the magister had lived in Bridge for a very long time.
All that day, the Pusherman debated whether or not he should go after Jack. If he didn’t, he might miss out on the best opportunity to rid himself of the troublesome watchman. Yet he felt unsure. Jack was clever and Jack was quick, and this desperate plan seemed unlike him. Moreover, when the magister looked into Jack’s eyes, the watchman didn’t look desperate or afraid.
Finally, the Pusherman decided he would finish Jack. He would mask his face behind a veil of shadows, so that all Jack would see before he plummeted over the Edge was a hooded ghost. The magister imagined the terrified look on Jack’s face as he fell and smiled.
That night, all of Bridge stayed in their houses except for Jack and his enemy. As the watchman walked his beat alone, he saw Bridge in a new light. The stone buildings and thatched houses were safe and they were home, yet they were also something else entirely, a haven and a secret, ancient and powerful. The night air was wet and cold, so Jack wrapped himself in a thick leather cloak as he began his patrol along the docks that reached over the Edge. It was here he would wait for the Pusherman. It was here he would make his stand.
The Pusherman crept from his tower like a hooded ghost, quick and quiet. With his magic senses, he sniffed the night air. He could smell the watchman, could taste his fear and it made him grin a madman’s grin. Tonight would be the end of Jack.
Jack walked along the Edge alone, slowly, measuring every step. The night was cold, the wind little more than a dull breeze. The clouds were thick overhead, hiding the stars.
He walked from one end of the Edge to the other. His thick boots rang out loudly in the night’s silence. He began to wonder if his quarry would meet him.
Then, just as he was half-way through his circuit, he felt a cold terror down his spine and knew the Pusherman was walking behind him. Though he could not hear him or see him, Jack could feel him there, watching. Pushing down his fear, the watchman kept walking as if he felt nothing.
Almost soundlessly, the Pusherman followed.
Step. Step. Step.
Each step brought them closer.
Step. Step. Step.
He couldn’t turn until the appropriate place.
Step. Step. Step.
The Pusherman couldn’t believe the cloddish watchman hadn’t noticed him yet. This would be easier than he thought.
Step. Step. Step.
Jack turned. Only a few feet behind him was a tall, hooded shadow, black against the black night. It said nothing. It made no move.
“So you’ve come,” said Jack. The Pusherman did not respond.
“Who are you?” asked Jack. Still the Pusherman did not speak, but he began to move toward Jack. The watchman drew his sword. The Pusherman held up one hand. Jack felt his arm go limp and watched his sword fall from deadened fingers. He couldn’t see the Pusherman’s face but he could feel the creature’s smile, hidden though it was by shadow.
“Perhaps I was a fool to come here,” Jack admitted. “Still, before you kill me, at least show me who you are.”
The Pusherman paused for a moment, as if to consider the watchman’s request, then Jack felt his throat tighten and he could no longer speak. The Pusherman resumed gliding forward, inexorable. Jack’s back was to the Edge. With wide eyes, he watched the madman stop directly in front of him. In one smooth motion, two gloved hands shoved him. He fell off the Edge without a sound.
The Pusherman turned about, expecting a trap, though he’d not sensed any whilst stalking Jack. Seeing that he was still alone, he made his way back to his tower, well-satisfied with this night’s work.
The next morning, when the magister arose in his tower, he expected to feel uneasy and strange, as he usually did on the morning after a night’s hunt. It was as though whatever made him the Pusherman fled with the coming of the sun, leaving him alone, a sad man to face the day with secret guilt and shame.
Not this morning, though. This morning he felt calm, assured that the threat was over. After checking over his potions and books of spells, he left his tower and made his way to his office in the main square, waiting to hear news of Jack’s fall.
They were waiting for him.
At first he wondered why everyone was staring. Then he saw Jack’s men, standing at every exit. And standing in the center of the square—
For a moment the magister thought he had gone mad. There Jack stood, with armed men on either side. His face was drawn and pale, and his eyes looked even stranger and more far-away than usual.
“Pusherman,” said Jack, his voice hoarse, “you are under arrest.”
Before the magister could move, several strong men seized his arms. With a rough shove, he was knelt to the ground. Jack came to stand over him, his face looking grim.
“How?” shouted the magister, realizing he was admitting his crimes and not caring. He had to know. “You went over. I pushed you over. How are you still here?”
Jack smiled coldly.
“You did push me. Over the exact spot where I had instructed the catchers to lay their nets, far below, out of sight in the mist. There I waited until morning for them to reel me back in.”
The magister’s eyes widened. He’d never heard of such a thing, hadn’t even known it was possible for anyone to survive below the Edge. There was far more than just physical space between Bridge and the River of Souls. Then he thought of something else.
“I kept my face in shadow,” said the magister. “How did you know it was me?”
Jack shuddered. Without warning, he grabbed the magister by his collar and pulled him in close so that their faces were almost touching.
“Over the Edge is not like anywhere else,” Jack whispered so no one else could hear. His breath felt hot and his eyes were haunted, and the Pusherman, the demon of Bridge’s nightmares, felt afraid. “Long in the night I lay in those nets, shivering as the wind-that-blow-between-worlds bit at my skin. Soon I began to hear voices. My mother, my father. Then … others. Those you had pushed before.”
He seemed to be looking far off, as if seeing something the others could not. When he regarded the magister again, his eyes were once more his own, hard and determined.
“It was they who told me who you were. It was they who told me what you were. It is for them now that I speak.”
All the townsfolk watched as Jack’s men bound the magister in chains.
“I strip you of rank and title. You will leave Bridge as your victims did, over the Edge, where they wait for you.”
And so the Pusherman was carried to the Edge, where he was thrown over, plummeting to his doom. For a short while, the Bridgefolk listened to his echoing screams. Then, nothing came from the Edge but wind and silence.
That was how the Pusherman was driven from Bridge, and Jack, even now called Twice-Caught, became the town’s first sheriff, while his watchmen became known as the Catchers.
Yet Jack’s victory was not without price. He never lost the far-off look in his eye, nor the hoarseness in his voice. There were times that he seemed to speak with those who were not there, times when faint screams could be heard coming from his house. Only when he died of extreme old age did his features once again appear peaceful—when they lowered his body back into the River of Souls from whence it came.
After working at The Great Books Foundation in Chicago for almost a decade, Patrick Hurley now works as an editor for becker&mayer! book producers in Seattle. He has had numerous short works of fiction published, including stories in Penumbra e-magazine, Big Pulpmagazine, Allegory e-magazine, and The Drabblecast podcast.
“Jack Twice-Caught and the Pusherman” is a folktale that serves as the backdrop for a fantasy novel that Patrick has been working on for the past few years: The Constable of Bridge. To find out more about how the writing is going, or about Patrick’s life in general, please check out his blog Patrick’s Stories at http://ph-storyteller.blogspot.com/ .