The Uncanny Rider

The Salted Orchard Part VI
(Read Part V here.)

“Pleased with the meal, sir?”
“Very,” Cusack said. “I can’t say how much I needed it.”
“We have your room ready. I’ll take you to it when it pleases you.”
“I’ll go now.”
The innkeeper hesitated. Cusack moved to rise, but before he could, the innkeeper said, “Pardon me, sir. Your horse—you’re riding without a saddle.”

Cusack shifted back into his seat. He should have expected this, and he wished he’d come up with a story for it. He was very tired, and his only intent was to sleep. Otherwise, he’d have been back on the road.

“Stolen from me,” he said. “On the road, yesterday.”
The man was dubious. “Took the saddle? And not the horse?”
“The man had a horse, and not a saddle for it. I suspect he liked his horse. Left me mine. Now I ride without comfort or speed, and I’m weary. I’d be glad to be shown my room.”
The innkeeper paused again. Then, “What did he look like?”
“Friend, under other circumstances, I’d gladly answer your questions, but I have had a rough journey, and it continues early.”

Cusack realized his voice had become loud. He looked about the inn at the other patrons and noted that while they weren’t open observers of the conversation, they were aware of it. All talk had hushed and they were obviously listening in. The innkeeper noted this, too, and moved to include them.

“It’s only that we’ve had recent trouble with highwaymen. There’s a band arrived in the last month that have struck many times. You understand we’re all a bit suspicious of strangers. And now you come on a horse with no saddle. And I don’t mean, sir, to accuse you of something. Why, we’re more fit to believe your tale than anyone. But this is our place, and we want to know what goes up in it.”
Cusack regarded the patrons. He relaxed. “Fair enough. It’s as I say. I only met one man and he was shorter than me, and thinner. Dark black hair and mutton chops. He wore a ragged green coat and carried a pistol. Took from me all I had but the horse and this satchel, which only contains a dirty blanket and some barley.”
“That ain’t the man,” the innkeeper said, more to the other people than to Cusack.
“I said he was,” Cusack shot back.
“No, friend, you misunderstand. Your story’s likely enough. What I mean was that your man ain’t the one we found. If you have a minute, you’ll hear an odd account.”
“A minute,” Cusack said.

The innkeeper remained standing, and the patrons shifted, making themselves comfortable for the telling of what seemed to be a popular tale.

“This morning we found ‘em. Not me, but Charles Dodderidge there, who saw them as he was coming in. Well, he came in immediately and rounded up some of us. He led us back out there and we took it in ourselves. It was a ghastly sight, the kind you never want to see, the kind we’ve been fearing since the robbers came to our roads.

“Two men, none we’ve ever seen before. One was cut at the throat, right under the jaw, a long gash and a mess of blood all around. He was drained white and had his eyes open. Mad fear marked him, I’d say. The eyes were bulged and the tongue was fat and thick between his teeth. Don’t think I’m morbid. These things struck me. The man died scared and in a brutal way.

“The other man wasn’t dead, but he was hardly better off. Shot tore through his elbow. A doctor was fetched and that arm was taken off this afternoon. He was stuck in the belly, too. Bleeding and crying, crawling in the leaves. We had a hell of a task in bringing him in. He thrashed like a mule. Finally, he passed out and we set him up in the room back there.”

Cusack turned to see only a closed door. He thought it must lead to some ground-floor bedchamber.

“He’s there, but if it don’t mean anything to ye, I’ll tell ye he’s dead. Doctor fixed his arm but the belly was beyond him—too much was carved up to be saved. Died a little while after the doctor left. But we got words out of him, or they come out without provoking. There was too much to tell, I think, and nothing to protect, so he said it.

“I mean that he wasn’t a victim of the highwaymen, but one himself. The other, too. He said it without shame or fear, said that they had been holding up travelers on the road for these last few weeks and last night they fell on a man who was better than them. Find what sense in that word that you will. He was a better killer. I don’t know what man kills a man and nearly kills another and doesn’t stop down the road to tell what happened. We never saw him. And what I know from the dead man makes me glad of it.

“He said they came upon him late in the evening. They had a scheme they stuck to: one man stood in the road with his pistol aimed at the rider and called for him to halt. The other man hid in the bushes with another pistol and came up behind the rider after he’d stopped. And this they done, but just this time the rider was faster.

“He had his pistol ready when first he saw the man in the road, before anything was done. So this man—the one in there—calls to him to halt. Well, the rider shot him through the crook of the firing arm without slowing. And as he reaches the man he jumps down from the horse and stabs him four times quick in the belly. He knows, too, about the other man before he hits the road. He takes up the fallen pistol and aims it at him as he’s coming through the bushes.

“’You stop there. Raise that pistol and you’ll be shot in the head,’ he calls out. The man does as he says, though he keeps the pistol at his side. This the observation of the man on the ground, stunned by the pain in the arm and not yet knowing the suffering in his belly, which will black him out and save his life—for a night.

“The rider walked quickly toward the other man and shouted at him, like a sheriff or some authority. I think the man was surprised by it. The rider walks right up to him and points the pistol at his face. Tells the man to drop his firearm and turn around. Well, the man’s scared. He’s some ha’penny brigand, not Robin Hood. He does what the rider says and just like that the rider pulls the blade across his throat.

“It wasn’t five minutes that passed from his stopping that he rode off again. We never saw him.” Here all were in agreement. They looked at Cusack as though he might have some answer, being a stranger himself.

“What do ye think of that?” the innkeeper asked.
“Did you get an account of his appearance?” Cusack asked.
“That he was of average height, though lithe. He was well-dressed for a rider. Clean-shaven. He wasn’t a local, nor a worker or farmer. He was a London man, a nobleman. I can’t imagine why he’s on this road. But he was well-matched for it.”
“Like some devil,” Cusack said. “Suited for anywhere man puts his works.”

Here, Cusack stood. “I’m traveling alone. I don’t know about your phantom.”
“Aye, well. He may have done us some good. So long as he stays away. I shouldn’t like to meet him. Here, I’ll show you the room.”

Cusack followed the innkeeper upstairs. When they came to the room, after the innkeeper had opened the door, Cusack said, “I’ll be leaving early. Please have my horse ready at dawn.”
“Sorry for the loss of your saddle. And I’m sorry to hear there’s more brigands out there than the ones that died. If I knew someone with a saddle to sell, I’d say it, but I can’t think of any. But I have an old bridle. It’d be better than that rope.”
“I haven’t much money.”
“Oh, I’ll let you have it. It’s hard luck you got robbed.”
“I appreciate it.”

The innkeeper left and Cusack wearily stripped off and prepared for bed. He was here, he thought, just last night. He’s moving slowly. I can have this sleep and overtake him well before Bibury.

It was good news, the first to come in a long while. Cusack smiled. He crouched achingly into the bed and pulled the blankets over him. Food in his belly, ale in his head, a warm bed, and his enemy likely a short few miles away. He fell fast and heavy into sleep.

Read Part VII here.


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