THE HORSES • by Rebecca Schwarz

The four of them arrived yesterday and stayed up late drinking and talking. I lay on my bed and listened from my room above the inn’s kitchen. I couldn’t make out what they said, only an unbroken stream of conversation spiked with laughter. Sometime later a shout woke me. Chair legs scraped against the floor. Warren’s baritone rose above the others followed by a chuckle. He didn’t like to fight when he wasn’t on the clock.

I’ve worked at exclusive stables before, but none like this. I can’t remember exactly how I found the place. There’s no address, just a road that narrowed to a slender trail through a copse of young oak trees. The boss said he’d never had anyone who really understood the horses. But I’ve always had a way with them; it runs in my family.

It was early when Victoria came out. I was moving bags of feed in the cool before dawn. She looked sensible and dangerous in suede-lined jodhpurs and tall boots. Stunning. I left the bags and went to Conquest’s box; a white stallion, regal and hot-blooded like her. He didn’t tolerate mishandling or mistakes, and Victoria never made any. Some say she’s sick, carries some contagion. I don’t believe it because that’s not what’s written in the Book.

When Conquest saw me carrying his tack, he began to blow and stomp. I started talking as I settled the saddle, telling him how they were going to have a great ride. I slipped the bit into his mouth and led him to the courtyard where Victoria waited. She swung into the saddle in one graceful motion, turned him and cantered through the trees that hid the suburban sprawl beyond.

I had just finished setting bales in the pasture when Warren strode across the courtyard still a little drunk. He stopped at the shaded pad where I wash the horses, splashed water on his face and took a long drink from the hose. He wore his Kevlar vest and had his service pistol clipped in its holster.

At Admiral’s box, I grabbed a handful of oats for the big blood bay stallion and stroked his neck while he buried his nose in my hand, crushing the grain behind warm, sweet breath. Since Warren liked to saddle up his own horse, I fetched Admiral’s tack, opened his box and let him follow me to the wash pad. I heard Warren gallop him out as I was raking the bedding in the two empty boxes. I hoped that would be the end of it for today.

When Fanny came out at lunchtime in her jeans and cowboy boots, my heart sank. Still a teenager, she always slept into the afternoon. She came to where I sat in the white plastic chairs convened under the ancient, twisted apple tree, slouched in an empty seat and waved off the tortilla I offered. She was too skinny, even for a kid, so I dug around my lunch bag for an apple.

“Go on,” I urged.

She took the fruit sullenly and checked the calorie counter app on her phone. I left to get her horse. I’d never known a girl to own a Belgian. Limos was a plow horse bred to labor in the field, not carry an anorexic teenager.

The black mare regarded me with unfathomable brown eyes, nickered and bobbed her stout head as I saddled her. In the courtyard, Fanny was already standing on a chair. She fed the apple to Limos, climbed on and said, “Later.”

I watched her thin back sway with the mare’s staid pace as they ambled through the trees. Acrid smoke now scented the air. A muted thud reverberated through the soles of my boots, then another. They multiplied, some near some distant.

No one knows the day, I thought.

I stood there watching massive columns of smoke paint the ashen sky a darker shade. When the boss stepped up next to me, I jumped.

“Sorry to startle you,” he said with a warm smile. He wore his black shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons, his gray hair kept neat with pomade. I’d asked him once if he thought of it as the last day or the first day. He said, as far as he was concerned, it was just another day.

He refused to name his palomino mare, her coat yellow as sunlit straw. She could be finicky despite the fact he exercised her daily. Today, she didn’t want to leave her box. I didn’t want her to go either. I pulled her halter on with shaking hands. I called her chica and coaxed her into the aisle where she let me saddle her. I found a linty carrot in my pocket and we lingered while she ate it, her head against my chest. Then I walked her out to where Death waited in the courtyard.

“Thank you, Juan,” he said but made no move to mount. “They’ve all left?”

“Yes, boss,” I whispered, my mouth suddenly dry. I swallowed and said, “I have people.” I’m just a man and I’d never asked him for anything ever. “My brother in Louisville, and my abuela, she lives with his family.”

He nodded and I bent to offer him a leg up. Once mounted, he looked around the courtyard, the inn and the empty boxes. The afternoon heat was thick with dust and the rich aroma of manure and animal sweat. The mare shook out her mane.

“This place is yours if you want it,” he said. Then he turned the mare toward the path through the trees and kicked her into a trot.

I stood there under a sky now dark as night until the sound of her hooves disappeared into the buzz of cicadas and the growing roar beyond. I went to each of their boxes, refilling their nets with hay and topping off their water even though I knew I wouldn’t see those four horses again, not in this world.

An ex-librarian and ex-cocktail waitress, Rebecca Schwarz has always been a writer. By day she is a mild-mannered Editorial Assistant for a scientific journal, by night she writes science fiction and fantasy stories.

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