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Schlussel's Woman

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Schlussel's Woman
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Short Story

For those who might like a sample, here's Chapter 1 of SCHLUSSEL'S WOMAN

April 15, 1830
"You haven't my money, then?"
Valentine Berger 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.
"Answer me, 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?"
Berger's eyes 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.
Valentine coughed. "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.
"What about a horse? Are you saying you have a horse with which to pay your debt?"
Fortunately, 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.
The captain 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.
The tavern 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.
Berger scanned 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.
"Well?" The 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."
Nothing to 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.
Berger shot him a look with scared eyes, his neck jerking around like a bird's.
Schlussel leaned 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.
Schlussel's 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?"
Valentine Berger 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.
Instead, Schlussel's 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."
"Then? How did you come by her?"
"A kinsman 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.
"But, he's 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."
Berger said 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.
Schlussel was 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 story.
Berger bent 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."
Sitting here 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!
"...has she won?" the captain was asking.
"The horse, 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?
Drawing in 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.
Berger gave 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.
The captain 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.
Berger stood, shaking, breathing in the acrid stench of gunpowder, staring down on Schlussel's body and he felt the wetness spreading between his legs.