Black Petals Issue #93 Autumn, 2020

A Horse for Us All

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Justin Alcala: A Horse for Us All-Fiction
Matthew Penwell: Bless Be Him-Fiction
Shiloh Simmons: Coffin Birth-Fiction
John Cox: Don't Teach Cats Latin-Fiction
Ken Hueler: I, Said the Fish-Fiction
R. A. Busby: Not the Man I Married-Fiction
Jude Clee: Notes from a Bathroom Stall-Fiction
M. W. Moriearty: Scarecrows-Fiction
Robert Masterson: Sharper Than She Ever Imagined-Fiction
Michael Steven: The Mirror-Fiction
Kevin Hawthorne: The Song-Fiction
Marlin Bressi: The Man on the Box-Fiction
Terry Riccardi: Winter Hunt-Fiction
Stephen J. Tillman: Angry Tammy-Flash Fiction
Andreas Hort: Pay the Price!-Flash Fiction
Sam Clover: Piety and Parm-Flash Fiction
Deisy Toussaint: Parasite in the Shadows-Flash Fiction
Outnumbered-Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Mickey Sloan: Basement Beldam-Poetry
Daniel G. Snethen: Grandmother Screamed-Poetry
Daniel G. Snethen: Pumpkin Tanka-Poetry
Daniel G. Snethen: Yellow Death-Haiku
Theresa C. Gaynord: The JuJu Man-Poetry
Theresa C. Gaynord: The Widow Paris-Poetry
Theresa C. Gaynord: Funeral at the Louisiana Bayou-Poetry
Theresa C. Gaynord: The Old Hag-Poetry
Loris John Fazio: Halloween Prayer-Poetry
Marilyn Lou Berry: My Darling, My Sustenance-Poetry
Chris Collins: Nature-Poetry

93_bp_ahorseforusall_afknott.jpg
Art by A. F. Knott © 2020

A Horse for Us All

Justin Alcala

          There’s three things in life that can keep a man satisfied. One sits in a bottle, the other between a lass’s thighs, and the third demands gunpowder. There isn’t much more, and damn your eyes if you think elseways. The only problem, all three are expensive habits to keep. So when a man like me is down to his last copper, he answers the night’s call. And that’s exactly what I was doing here in the Old Swan Inn.

          Crow Pox, Witch’s Rash, whatever you want to call it, the disease killed in hours. No one dared enter a tavern within a hundred miles of London. It made work difficult for an honest thief. Nevertheless, riches respect a patient man, so I waited for my contact to return from scouting a convoy on The King’s Road. Until then, there was only one thing to do. 

          I thumbed the handle of my stein, letting the whiskey’s burn baptize my throat. I used to get so knackered before a job that I couldn’t hardly mount my horse. People died. Nowadays, I drank just enough to take the edge off. No one likes a twitchy highwayman. A stein of boot polish helped maintain professionalism. 

          It was a stone’s throw from midnight when a set of horse hooves trampled along the front lawn. The inn door opened. I watched from a spot by the hearth as my squealer, Oisin, approached the bar. Oisin was a short man with cheeks like dried beef and a fat pickled nose. He plucked a farthing from his long coat and offered it to the innkeeper.

          I’m looking for Killian Black,” Oisin’s gravel voice muttered. The Inn Keeper crossed his arms. My eyes wandered outside to see if anyone had followed him. There were no signs of lantern light or extra horses.  

          I’m here ya’ cheap fool,” I called from my comforts. Oisin’s forehead creased as he pocketed his farthing before making towards my corner. I kicked over my footrest for him to perch on. He sat, the stench of piss and tobacco fuming from his clothes. 

          You need to keep that name off your tongue,” I demanded. “It’s reserved for folk who want to put me in irons.” Oisin smiled like a Jack-o’-lantern, his wide gummy gaps browned between teeth. 

          No need to be so rugged,” Oisin pleaded while helping himself to my stein. “We need each other.”

          Oh? Has our majesty finally sent out the treasury then?”

          Uh, not sure,” Oisin winced from the whiskey. “An armored cart went out at dusk. It’s making its way to London as we speak.”

          Draft horses?”

          Six Clydesdales running slow.”

          That must be a lot of coin.”

          Perhaps.”

          I kicked my scuffed suede boots onto the footrest. “Why are you speaking in riddles Oisin?”

          That’s an interesting question.” Oisin produced a coffer from his patchy coat. He removed a worn pipe resting in a nest of tobacco from the box. He stuffed the gully weed into his bowl, then used a nearby candle to light it. “It strikes me odd that there aren’t any guards accompanying it.”

          And you’re sure it came from the royal estate?”

          Sure as the sunrise.”

          How sure is that?”

          Well, uh,” Oisin turned his head and blew smoke onto his shoulder, “it came from that area. Ain’t nothing along that road but that palace.” I licked my teeth and spit this evening’s sausage skins onto my plate.

          So we’re not even certain it’s a royal convoy?”

          Times are hard with this plague going round. The King won’t let anyone near the royal grounds. This fever is too contagious. This is the best I could do. Is it a sure thing? Maybe not,” Oisin bit at his pipe’s stem, “but I’d bet there’s something valuable being stuffed in that cart.” I smirked.

          If only there was an Irishman bold enough to take a look inside.”

          Dare I say a dashing one?” Oisin puffed smoke from his dried lips. I cocked my brow.

          Just tales,” I grunted before standing up. I gathered my belt from under my chair and buckled it, straightening the cutlass and cavalry pistols.

          Maybe, but one tale says that Killian Black danced with a man’s wife during a robbery.”

          I told you to keep that name from your wagging tongue,” I placed my hat, cocking the tricorne’s brim over my eyes. “Now, there’s work to be done. Shooter’s Hill seems like a good place to say hello.”

          None better,” Oisin agreed before taking another sip from my stein. “So,” he held out his dirty hand. “Can I get my cut?”

          Cut of what?” I asked while stretching into my leather gauntlets. “For all I know I’m about to stick up a carriage filled with peat.”

          It’s just my brother, he, uh, has the Crow Pox. It’s spreading quick.”

          Loscadh is dó ort,” I said in Gaelic, wishing Hellfire on him. “If your brother had the pox he’d of given up the ghost already. It don’t take but few hours.” Oisin lowered his head, staring at the bones left on my copper plate.

          May I, uh, help myself to your scraps at least?” I dug in my pouch and flipped him my last shilling.

          Get your fill, poor fool,” I nudged over to the innkeeper before draping my cape over my shoulders. “When you see me next, I’ll hopefully have a dozen more.”

          I left out into the cold. The English air ran through my bones. I went to Bailey and untied her reigns from the post before mounting her. Bailey must have smelled the black powder from my flintlocks, because she went silent like I’d trained her to. Only the keening of the wind and rustle of leaves sang in my ears.

          A mob of hungry clouds suffocated the moonlight. I knew the countryside like the back of my hand, but I still needed to be careful without a lantern. An unforgiving rain had only just let up, and the mud and loose rocks were sure to be obstacles. I took Chandeen’s Pass into the bluffs before cutting into Hangman’s Alley. There was a time when I had a whole pack of outlaws. Most of their bones now sway on the gibbet, or they were scorched to ash after dying from Crow Pox. Then there was Wild Harrison. I slit his throat myself.

          In this world of epidemic, famine and brutality, there was little appeal to go straight. I hated the royalists, but they had one thing right. Enjoy it often and enjoy it quick. Life was too short for anything else. With that said, I don’t take pity on any nobleman because they don’t take pity on me. I don’t like to kill, but if one of society’s men wanted to test my aim, it was one less rich leach hiding behind the law. Crime is the province of the poor.

          Shooter’s Hill sat on the bend of a ruddy road. Even the lightest carts suffered from its unleveled path. A highway knight on a horse could close the distance below in an instant, catching the riders off guard. Bailey and I waited atop, scanning the horizon. A tiny pair of flickering orange eyes from carriage lanterns approached. I had time. The cart was slow. Maybe Oisin was right. Perhaps this was a tax collector’s cart or the royal reserve. Whatever waited inside, I was sure the whigs spent more gambling at whist parties in an evening compared to what I’d take.

          The cart finally neared during the small hours. My night eyes had adjusted, and I didn’t see any king’s men. A lone coachman slouched in his seat, occasionally lashing his horses. This was perfect for a lone wolf like me. I pulled my scarf over my nose and kicked my spurs into Bailey. The old race horse’s instincts kicked forward.

          Whatever whiskey had dulled my senses faded. The rush of the wind and flux of blood excited me. I cut through the path, stopping in front of the carriage. I removed my belt fastened flintlock and pointed it at the coachman’s chest. The driver tugged on the reigns, drawing the horses to a halt.

          For the first time, I took him in. He wore frills under a black long coat with a matching clerical hat. His flesh stretched tightly over his cheekbones, hugging his aquiline nose. He had a powdered complexion with painted ruby lips, a drawn birthmark and a whig of silver. As a precautionary measure, I kicked Bailey to a halt and produced my second pistol. The coachman glanced at both barrels. His nostrils flared and his mouth drew into a hard line. He sat frozen.

          I don’t suppose you require an explanation,” I called out, narrowing my eyes over my mask. The man stared. The plated cart was fastened with a bronze lock. I spotted the royal crest along the door. This might be the prize I’d dreamt about since I was a wee lad.

          I don’t think that was ever in question,” he said with a low, highborn accent.

          Good on you. Now, down off the bench.”  The coachmen sighed before hopping down from the cart. He raised his hands without me asking, moving a pace from his horses. “Well done, lad. Now, kindly unlock that door.”

          I’m afraid I can’t do that,” he asserted, taking another step, so he was blocking the door.

          I’m sorry,” I drew the flintlock hammer from one of my pistols back. “I’m a bit hard of hearing. I think I heard you say as you wish. Am I right?”

          No.”

          Well, look at this loyal dog. Must be something really important in there.”

          There is.”

          Tisk, tisk,” I pointed up at the coachman’s head, “you’re a piece of work. Why are you protecting his Majesty anyhow? You’re nothing to him.”

          Indeed,” the coachman nodded, “but I still won’t be opening this cart.”

          Do you know who I am?”
          I do.”

          Oh?” I ground my voice, making it grimier and more gruff. “Out with it.”

          You’re Killian Black.”

          Great, now that introductions have been made, this is your last warning. Open that door or you’re dead.”

          No,” the coachman’s face hardened. He clenched his fists. Some people learned the hard way. I fired with my bad hand, shooting the coachman in the leg. Ruby spurt from his thigh. He screamed as he fell prone, grabbing his wound.

          Take that for your manners,” I barked while placing the hot flintlock in my saddlebag. I hopped off of Bailey, my second pistol still pointed at the fool as he ground his teeth. I hovered so close over him so he could likely smell the whiskey on me. I watched for a moment as he struggled with the pain, the wind blowing in my ears. “Where’s the key?”

          No,” he hissed, spit spraying from the cracks of his teeth.

          Do you have something against me? Did I sleep with your sister or something?”

          I swore an oath,” he protested while managing his way upright. “It’s a matter of honor. And even if I didn’t, I would never submit to a rapscallion like yourself.” I could feel my chest stomp as my face get heated. Now it was personal.

          Fancy talk for a man working for the worst pickpockets in England.” I pulled my mask down, showing my face.

          Shame. You are handsome.” His odd insult confused me.

          Well, remember it. You’re not leaving this miserable spot now.”

          I looked up at the black hills. The moon leaked just enough from clouds to brighten the bister grass. I thought about what a wretched place this was to take your last breaths. Most people wouldn’t even stop to piss. I’d give the fool one last chance to redeem himself.

          I have to know. Do you not like me because I’m Irish?” I spat at his feet. “Or is it because of my trade?” The coachman dragged himself to the cart’s wheel and used it as a backrest. He took the time to staunch his wound with his hands, wincing. He had spirit, I’d give him that. He also had a mouth.

          I don’t like you because of what you are.”

          And what is that?”

          You’re the broken cog of society. Your ignorance is what makes people need nobility. My name, as lowborn as it may be, is still noble. My father, and my father’s father, have been hanging you and your lot since they produced rope.”

          I fired. The bullet found the space between the coachmen’s eyes. The hole was black. Red dripped down, and grey plumed up. I stared at his body as it twitched before going limp. Then I stared a few minutes more. There’s three things that keeps a man satisfied, and one demands gunpowder.

          I slopped through the wet grass and searched his belongings. Sure enough, a long brass key sat in his side pouch along with a scroll fastened with the royal seal. I removed my gloves to handle it more delicately, broke the wax, then unrolled it.

          To the receiver of this shipment,

          We are transporting the content of this carriage for your safekeeping. Guard it within the deepest, safest place in the barracks. We’ll send for someone to collect the cargo when the time is right. Until then, only allow the most trustworthy of men know about it. The load is far too tempting.

          The highest regards,

          Duke of Cambridge

          “Well, well,” my heart smiled. I gave the coachman a once over, raising the parchment like a glass of port. “To honor.”

          I hurried to the door. I was so ecstatic that I could hear buzzing from the rubies and gold inside. I twisted the key and let open the door. The buzzing grew louder as a swarm of black flies flew at me, pelting my face. The overbearing smell of rancid meat drew in my lungs, burning their insides. I doubled over, coughing and spewing. When I finally regained my composure, I found myself on hands and knees. I wiped the tears from my eyes and looked inside the cart.

          Stacked one on top of another were corpses of men and women in silks. A web of black veins colored their faces, twisting around sickly yellowed eyes. At the top, a plump man adorned in the king’s cape and crown gripped a scepter. His mouth froze in a scream. I leapt backwards and hurried to my feet. I ran to Bailey, but the howling I hadn’t noticed coming from my own mouth must have spooked her. The horse stampeded up Shooter’s Hill.

          I reached out, begging for her to return. As I did, I looked at my hand. As if drawn in sharp pencil, a thin obsidian line traced over my veins. I watched as it slowly, but insistently, slithered up my sleeve. I stared at the black hills and bister grass as I drew lightheaded. What a wretched place to die.


Justin Alcala is a novelist, nerdologist and Speculative Literature Foundation Award Finalist. He’s the author of three novels, including Consumed, (BLK Dog Publishing) The Devil in the Wide City (Solstice Publishing) and Dim Fairy Tales (AllThingsThatMatterPress). His short stories have been featured in dozens of magazines and anthologies, including It Snows Here (Power Loss Anthology),The Offering (Rogue Planet Press Magazine) and The Lantern Quietly Screams(Castabout Literature). When he’s not burning out his retinas in front of a computer, Justin is a tabletop gamer, blogger, folklore enthusiast and time traveler. He is an avid quester of anything righteous, from fighting dragons to acquiring magical breakfast eggs from the impregnable grocery fortress.

           

     Most of Justin’s tales and characters take place in The Plenty Dreadful universe, a deranged supernatural version of the modern world. When writing, Justin immerses himself in subject matter, from stuffy research to overseas travel. Much to the chagrin of his family, he often locks himself away in his office-dungeon, playing themed music over, and over, and over again. Justin currently resides with his dark queen, Mallory, their malevolent daughter, Lily, changeling son, Ronan, hellcat, Misery and hound of Ragnarök, Fenrir. Where his mind might be though is anyone’s guess. 

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