A Horse for Us All
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
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
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
“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.”
“Six Clydesdales running slow.”
“That must be a lot of coin.”
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
“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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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?”
“Well, look at this loyal dog. Must be something really
important in there.”
“Tisk, tisk,” I pointed up at the coachman’s head, “you’re
piece of work. Why are you protecting his Majesty anyhow? You’re nothing to
“Indeed,” the coachman nodded, “but I still won’t
“Do you know who I am?”
“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.
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
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
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?”
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
“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
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
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.
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)
Lantern Quietly Screams(Castabout Literature). When
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.