April 15, 1830
my money, then?"
cringed at the captain's words, his small head drawing down between his shoulders until it seemed it would be swallowed by
the collar of his greatcoat; his shaking hands clutched the edges of the table. Captain Schlussel's dark eyes scoured him
and he could not bear to look at them. Berger's eyes darted around the room, then dropped to search the tabletop as though
it held some answer for his plight. Valentine swallowed, licking his dry lips. He prayed Kimmel would bring their drinks soon.
you stupid sot!" Captain Schlussel demanded, slapping his small hard hand down on the table. The candle between them guttered
and near went out. The captain's hand shot out, strong fingers circling Valentine's skinny wrist. "Speak. Have you my money?"
rose a notch, lighted on the captain's hand, on the little sparks of light shimmering on the silver ring on Schlussel's white
hand. He mumbled.
"A horse, Captain." Boldly, he looked into Schlussel's eyes, saw the glimmer of interest. Captain Schlussel was mad for horseflesh
as some men are mad for women, cards or drink.
a horse? Are you saying you have a horse with which to pay your debt?"
at that moment, the innkeeper came with their drinks. Berger seized his mug. It sloshed in his shaking hand and ale splashed
over Abram Kimmel's foot. Kimmel glared at Berger. "You could wait until I get the tray on the table," he growled. Berger
ignored him, quaffing a healthy slug. He took it down too fast and the ale choked him. The captain glowered at him as he sputtered
but Berger didn't care. He felt as though he might shit his pants any minute. Oh, God, he didn't want to be here.
would loan money to any man who worked at the mill. But, he expected to be paid back (with healthy interest) at the exact
time he specified. Berger's repayment time was long past and he didn't have the money and that was why he had left town and
gone into hiding. But, they had found him and made him come back for tonight. And, God knew, he didn't want to be here. God
knew, he'd never been a brave man.
was empty except for the two of them and Kimme. Berger wondered how they had contrived that. Normally, the place was thronged
with noisy mill-workers and farmers from round about. The captain did not often frequent the keep and, if he noticed the sparsity
of the trade this evening, he said nothing. Other concerns occupied his thoughts, as Berger well knew.
the familiar surroundings, musing on more pleasant eves spent here. Abram Kimmel's establishment was nothing so fancy as Berger
imagined the captain's parlours must be, yet it was good enough to suit him and had been his favorite place of repose after
a day's labor. Those good nights of laughter and song and fellowship were as redolent in his memory as the reek of smoke and
spilled ale that hung like a cloud in the small, dark, over-warm room. That table over there in the corner where a low fire
now smoked on the hearth, that had been his habitual place. In his mind's eye Berger could see even now its familiar scarred
stained bottle-ringed surface as clearly as he saw his own features in the speckled mirror hanging over his washstand at home.
captain was pressing for an answer and Valentine knew it wouldn't do to keep him waiting. Twitching in his seat, Valentine
wished it all was over. Oh, why had he agreed to be a part of this? Why did they have to find him and bring him back? A log
burned through and rolled in the fireplace and Berger started.
"Why are you
so nervous?" Schlussel asked. "If you can pay your debt, there's nothing to worry about. Now, tell me about this horse."
worry about, Berger thought. If he but knew the half of it. What if the plan didn't work? What if .. But, he mustn't dally
longer; the captain might get suspicious.
him a look with scared eyes, his neck jerking around like a bird's.
forward, both hands clasping the mug from which he had not yet drunk, eyes, dark penetrating orbs, boring into Berger's, expectant.
Valentine gulped another dose of courage from his own mug and blurted, quickly, loudly, as though the words and the volume
at which he spoke them could separate him farther from Schlussel, "A race horse, sir; a noble racing mare!"
The case clock
by the door ticked a counterpoint to his words which hung as though suspended in a vacuum. The captain's eyes widened, glittering
in the candlelight.
heavy eyebrows arched, a muscle twitched along his jaw as his eyes narrowed again, expressing his disbelief. "A racing mare?
Come now, where would the likes of you get such a horse?"
knew the captain would not believe such a story. He sank deeper in his chair now, raising one hand before him, prepared to
ward off the blow he anticipated. But, the captain didn't attempt to strike him.
face took on a softer expression as he sipped at his ale and lounged back in his own seat. Unbuttoning his waistcoat, shifting
his weight to get more comfortable, the captain flicked at a speck on his sleeve with one long white finger. "Tell me more,"
he said, his voice barely a whisper but the tone revealing his curiosity.
At the bar,
Abram Kimmel paused in his task of hanging cleaned mugs on a rack, tilted his good ear to catch their conversation. Kimmel
was known as one of the captain's spies but he was also as nosy and prone to gossip as any woman and not above spying on his
master as well. Berger despised him. He was not to be trusted. Berger knew Kimmel would remember what passed here this night
and he would have to be careful of his words and his actions. Cautiously, he glanced at the window beside him. He detected
no movement through the dark pane. When would it happen? Were they already out there, skulking, concealed in the darkness,
waiting, pistols primed? What if someone saw them? Would they implicate him? He shuddered.
"Tell me, man,
did you steal this horse?" the captain was asking.
"Oh, no, sir!
You know I would not dare to offer you a stolen horse even had I sunk so low as to steal one."
did you come by her?"
in Lancaster-town, Captain. He owed me money as I owe you. That's why I left, sir -- to see if I could claim from him my due
and so make good on my own debt. Alas, he had no coin. All he has in the world is this wonderful horse with which he has been
earning his bread for the past year.
getting on in years and he wants to settle down and enter into trade. So, we struck a deal. He gave me the horse to bring
back for your appraisal. She's worth much more than I owe you, captain. We thought perhaps you would purchase her -- deducting
my debt, of course -- and I would deliver him the balance for his purpose and, possibly, have a bounty for myself as well."
it so quickly and with his guts in such turmoil he could hardly believe he said it so well as they had rehearsed it over the
past few days. Done, he hoisted the mug and drank deeply, watching the captain over the rim to gauge his reaction.
busy filling a pipe. He did it slowly and carefully, tamping the tobacco firmly into the bowl before lighting it with a taper
from the candle. Still, Berger saw that the captain could not conceal his interest in the piacular horse. He saw it in the
way Schlussel's hand shook as he lit the pipe and he read it in the captain's failure to express disbelief or attempt to dissect
his head, eyes fixed rigidly on the empty mug, rough fingers squeezing his thighs through his woolen trousers. Though he was
relieved the captain had accepted his tale he was still nervous about what was to come. He pushed back in his chair, consciously
putting more distance between himself and Schlussel. His eyes swept round the room, avoiding the captain's.
The light of
the candle fluttered shadows against the wall behind Captain Schlussel and, in each movement, Berger saw a figure lurking,
waiting, watching for the opportune moment when he would fire the shot destined to change the history of the village. In his
fear, Berger did not envy the man who held that pistol. It was true the captain had many enemies, but there were also many
who were dependent on him. What would they do if something went wrong? Would he be held responsible? Berger trembled.
He didn't even
know the identity of the men who had brought him back. None of this could be construed as his fault. He didn't have the captain's
money and he had only wanted to get away. With some time and distance his hope had been to improve his fortune and either
repay his debt or avoid it permanently.
Then they caught
him in his sleep, blindfolded him, spoke in whispers as they revealed their plot. Berger was shocked that anyone should even
consider such a mad scheme. He wanted no part of it. He begged them to let him go. He didn't want to be involved.
They gave him
no choice. Pressing the cold muzzle of a pistol against his throat, the one who appeared to be their leader said, in a hoarse,
unrecognizable voice, "Your options are a bullet now if you refuse to help us or a tote of silver and freedom from Schlussel
forever if you do as you're told."
across the table from Schlussel Berger felt like Judas and, though the captain was certainly not Christ, he could not help
remembering the Iscariot's end had come on a rope. If they did not keep their bargain, if something went wrong, his fate would
be the same. And, he did not even know who the plotters were!
won?" the captain was asking.
you fool! I asked how many races has she won."
For a moment
Berger sat mutely, toying with the empty mug, actions designed to give him time to find words with which to answer and to
conceal his trepidation. They hadn't prepared him to answer questions about the mythical horse. He was too agitated to invent
a pedigree. But, he could not stall forever. Oh, why didn't they act?
his breath sharply, Berger raised his head then. Rashly, his eyes met the captain's dark steady gaze.
A haze of smoke
from the pipe drifted slowly along Schlussel's clean-shaven jaw and circled round his head. He brushed impatiently at his
thick, wavy brown hair and his thin lips pursed petulantly as he awaited Berger's reply.
a sort of little laugh and his own lips twisted in a stupid grin. "She's a winner, sir, a real winner," he said.
At the same
moment he voiced the words, Berger saw, peripherally, the flash and the glass exploded inward, spraying stinging shards against
his cheek and shoulder. Instinctively, Berger blinked, threw up an arm to protect his face, scuttled back in his chair. At
the bar, Abram Kimmel shouted, "Sweet Jesus!" Berger saw the captain catapulted from his seat as though he had no more weight
than chaff on a breeze. A spray of blood rained hot and sticky against Berger's face.
A chair tumbled
over, echoing the shot which still reverberated across the room.
slammed against the wall, gave a grunting exhalation, wheezed a frothy stream of blood from between clenched lips. His eyes
widened and the life went out of them as the color drained from his face. His weightless body slid slowly down the wall trailing
red slime against the plaster.
shaking, breathing in the acrid stench of gunpowder, staring down on Schlussel's body and he felt the wetness spreading between