Short Story of the Month

A Conversation with Twelve Men and a Horse

 

“Here are the facts. Late last night somebody broke into Maggie Bead’s home, shot her three times and left nothing but a –”

“But a fuckin’ horse.” Augustan interrupted. He slammed his fist down on the long table for emphasis. It echoed in the otherwise empty room, save for the twelve men, their chairs, and the horse.

“The horse was fucking?” Harlem raised his sleepy eyes and tried to look sober. Why had he gotten so drunk the night before? Or better question, why did the promiscuous horse and dead woman business have to happen last night?

“No,” Matthew raised his hands and tried to retain his position as leader of the men. There were twelve of them and they were not leaving this room until the mystery was sorted out. “Somebody, the murderer, left a horse behind. And now the horse is here for evidence.”

“Are we going to question it?” Friedman asked, his voice heavy with sarcasm. He had a business to get back to and none of this concerned him. He was no murderer.

“No!” Kasey yelled, loudly enough that everyone, including the horse, jumped a little. His cheeks reddened and he looked at a section of the wall until he was sure nobody was looking at him anymore.

“Kasey.” Harry hissed across the table. He cupped his hands around his mouth in hopes that it would direct the sound only to his nervous friend. Kasey pretended not to hear him. “Kaseyyy.” Harry hissed again, dragging out the name until Kasey finally responded.

“What?” he hissed back, also cupping his hands around his lips. Little bits of spittle were gathering on the expanse of table between the two men.

“What are we going to do?”

“Nothing.” Kasey whispered loudly. He went back to staring at the wall until Matthew cleared his throat and went on. Kasey could feel beads of sweat rolling down his neck. From the corner of his eye he could see Harry moving his head wildly about, trying to meet his eye. His friend even waved his hands around, as if flagging him down.

“Let’s start from the top,” Matthew was saying. “Who here has a gun?” Nobody raised their hands and everybody avoided each other’s eyes.

“You’re going to blame your friends and neighbors already?” Friedman scoffed.

“You eleven men were the only ones who stayed home from the festival last night.” The deputy pointed out. “It had to be one of you.”

“And you heard the sheriff,” Matthew said. “None of us are leaving this room until the perp is discovered. I know we all have things to do so lets make this quick. Only one of us is guilty.”

“It was him!” Jenkins cried, standing up so quickly that the oak chair screeched across the floor, causing all the men to cover their ears. His ancient finger trembled as it pointed at Axl. The horse whinnied.

“It was not!” Axl insisted. “I have a good excuse for staying home.” Everyone waited to hear it. Axl steadied his voice, avoided eye contact with the horse, and said, “Charlie asked if he could come pick up carrots last night. I was waiting for him.” Already the others were protesting but he held up his hands. “You can ask the Sheriff; he knocked the basket over when he came to grab me this morning.”

“So Charlie never got his carrots?” Stan said, stroking his chin. “Very curious.”

Charlie leaned forward and everyone stopped to listen. His blonde hair fell into his eyes and he blinked hard. There was a moment of concentration and then he said,
“I like carrots.” Everyone agreed that carrots were great.

“Well I believe his story.” Augustan said. Everyone nodded in agreement.

“Thank you,” Axl said, relaxing a little.

“Not yours,” Augustan said. “Charlie’s innocent, but you’re not in the clear.”

“What?” Stan said, shocked. Everyone ignored him.

“Why didn’t Charlie get his carrots? Was it because you were out murdering Maggie Bead?”

“No!” Axl protested. “He just never showed up. I thought maybe he had gone to the festival after all.” He could feel the horse watching him as he spoke. The damned horse. It couldn’t be the same one could it? No, that was impossible. Maybe it was a brother to the one he had shot only a week earlier. And there was someone else watching him too. Jesse was staring at him.

“We’ll return to you.” Matthew said.

“I say it’s the man from out of town.” Friedman said. “Stan the conman.”

“I agree,” Kasey and Harry shouted in unison. They both blushed, looked at each other, looked away and the looked at each other again. They began another whispered conversation across the table as the other men looked towards Stan.

The thirty-two, well okay forty-eight but not half-bad looking for a man his age, year old laughed and then realized the men were taking the accusation seriously. “It can’t be me!” He said. “I didn’t even know this Maggie person. Why would I kill her?”

Jenkins stood again, his chair almost tipping over this time in its loud screech back. “It was him!” He cried, finger pointing at Stan. This finished; he sat back down and tried to remember what his wife had said she was cooking for dinner. Pork-chops? No maybe it was…and then he was once more dozing off as the others argued.

“I think we should question Charlie.” Stan said. “He never showed up last night and he wanted carrots.” The men stared blankly at him and he sighed. “And what animal likes to eat carrots?”

“Horses like carrots.” Charlie said with a boyish smile. “I like carrots.” The men agreed once more that carrots were great.

“See?” Stan said.

“I see nothing but a desperate conman.” Friedman said. Even he would not consider Charlie as a suspect. The idea was ludicrous.

“This is unbelievable,” Stan said, his voice rising an octave. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped sweat from his brow. “I am a simple man. I sell bibles for Christ’s sake.”

“Now don’t blame this on Christ,” the deputy said. He considered himself a very religious man and insisted on monitoring the conversation in secret hopes that he could ask the perp to repent and have his soul saved. And then the sheriff could hang him, leaving the deputy with a clear conscience, knowing he had saved a man that day.

“I wasn’t-” Stan started.

“You said it was for Christ’s sake that you’re here.” Harlem interjected. He had dosed off for a little while but was awake enough now to halfway follow the conversation. But Christ, did his head hurt. If Mary found out he had been drinking, instead of sick in bed with the cough as he had told her, she really would leave to her mother’s house this time.

“Its an expression.” Stan rolled his eyes. “I am a bible salesman. I would never kill a woman. And-” he hesitated and stopped.

“And what?” Friedman said.

“I’m afraid of horses.” Stan muttered so quietly that nobody heard him the first time. He had to repeat himself three times before everyone at the table realized what he was saying. “I am afraid of horses!” he practically shouted. The horse nickered at the outburst and Stan shrank back. The other men looked at each other and began to laugh. Stan glared at them all and cursed them under his breath.

“What kind of man is afraid of a horse?” Freidman shook his head in disgust.

“For Christ’s sake.” Stan muttered again.

“Don’t go blaming this on Him again,” the deputy said.

“It was him!” Jenkins yelled from his sleep.

“It was not Him!” the deputy said.

“I have something to say.” Jesse said. He was staring right at Axl still. Axl swallowed loudly. “I saw Axl with a gun.”

“When?” Matthew asked.

“About a week ago. He was going towards the road on the west side of town.”

“Maggie’s house is on the west.” Kasey said. He was eager for someone to be blamed and if it fell on Axl’s head, the better.

“It seems pretty clear that Axl did it.” Harry nodded. “It keeps coming around to him.”

“But that was a week ago.” Harlem said, feeling smart for the observation.

“Alright,” Axl said and stood. He began to pace around the room, keeping clear of the horse. “I guess its time I tell you the truth. I did go out with a gun about a week ago and I did use it,” he held up a finger to silence the ensuing chatter, “But not against Maggie Bead. I shot a horse.”

“Arrest that man!” Jenkins shouted. He was awake again and very hungry. His back hurt from the chair and he wanted to go home and rub oils on his various aches and pains.

“It was a different horse,” Axl went on. “And I thought…I thought that maybe this horse was its brother or something. Maybe it came for revenge.”

“Hah!” Stan said. “He’s afraid of the horse too!”

“He has good reason to be.” Kasey said. The men all agreed with this.

“But a horse doesn’t come for revenge.” Stan protested. “Its ridiculous.”

“You seem to be quite the expert on horses for someone so afraid of them.” Harry said, also eager for the blame to placed on someone, and soon before they started digging further into their stories.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen.” Matthew hushed.

“Gentlemen.” Augustan echoed, oblivious to Matthew’s glare. “The real question is why did you shoot a horse?” He looked to Axl who reddened.

“I thought it was a deer.”

“You shot a deer?” Harlem frowned. The headache was worsening and he was back to paying only half attention.

“A deer has been getting into my carrots.” Axl huffed. “It left a trail so I followed it and from afar, and in the dim light, it looked sort of like a large deer. So I shot it.”

“A deer has been getting into my wife’s garden.” The deputy offered. The men considered this.

“Well I think he’s innocent,” Matthew said. “At least of killing Maggie.”

“And he has enough problems to worry about,” Friedman agreed. “That horse does look angry and he is staring right at you.” Axl paled.

“Kasey,” Harry hissed. “It’s narrowing down.”

“I know,” Kasey hissed back. “Shut up.”

“How do we know it wasn’t you?” Matthew turned to Augustan. The younger man looked taken aback.

“Me? I went home early from the festival to sleep off a couple pints. My wife can attest to that. But how do we know it wasn’t you?”

“That’s right, how do we do its not you?” Friedman challenged.

“I was in the bath when the sheriff came.” Matthew said easily.

“Washing away the evidence?”

“Washing away dirt and sawdust. I was working on a rocking horse for Annie.” He looked towards the deputy who confirmed this. He had been with the sheriff when they came for the men.

“Oh congratulations by the way,” Augustan said. “When’s she due?”

“In a month.” Matthew beamed proudly.

“What’s your story?” Friedman turned to Harlem who fought to keep his eyes wide.

“I stayed in. I was sick,” the last two words slurred a little but he thought no one would notice.

“Sick with Augustan’s disease?”

“I was never that drunk.” Augustan said.

“I’m not drunk.” Harlem protested. “And nobody go telling Mary that.”

“He was even worse when we got him.” The deputy said.

“I don’t think he could’ve hit a target in such a state.” Matthew said. “But what about Jesse?”

“I thought Axl did it,” Jesse admitted. “I would never shoot anybody. But I did see something else.” He glanced at the two friends deep in whispered conversation. “I saw Kasey and Harry walking down the road together, a while after most people had left for the festival.”

“It’s true!” Harry cried. “Oh it’s true!”

“Murderers!” Jenkins cried. This time his chair did fall over, with a loud crash. The horse reared up, its hooves pawing at the air. Stan screamed, pulled a bible from his inside coat pocket, and cowered behind it. Harlem frowned, trying to decide if he been cleared or not. Axl prepared himself for an attack from the startled horse. None came.

“Tell them Kasey!” Harry moaned. Everyone began to calm once more and turned to Kasey.

“Well,” Kasey began nervously, “We were walking together.”

“Enough of this,” Friedman said. “Did you two shoot Maggie Bead?”

“No. But we saw the horse and we saw Maggie.”

“Tell us what happened.” Matthew said.

“We were on our way to the festival when I saw a horse.” Harry said. “I was talking to Kasey and I say, ‘look at that horse’. And Kasey says, ‘I’ve never seen that horse before. I reckon nobody’s going to come looking for it’. And then we had this idea that we could…” he looked at Kasey who was very pale. “That we could split it.” He finished.

“Split it?” Matthew raised an eyebrow.

“I would take the hide for my shop.” Harry said. “And Kasey would take the meat for…” he trailed off.

“For his butcher shop?” Friedman looked horrified. So did Jenkins, whose wife frequented said butcher shop. In fact his dinner tonight had come from there.

“That’s just wrong.” Stan felt like he might actually be sick.

Kasey turned on him. “Don’t your bibles say something about judging?”

“Judge not, that ye be not judged.” The deputy quoted. “The book of Matthew.”

“I am being judged!” Stan cried.

“Finish the story.” Matthew said to Harry. It was Kasey that spoke.

“We went home to grab our rifles and I got back first. But the horse was gone. The dirt was soft and I followed its trail all the way to Maggie’s house. There it was, face buried in the garden.”

“Ahah.” Axl said under his breath.

“Maggie comes running out of the house.” Kasey continued. “And the horse starts running too but in the wrong direction. It nearly knocks her down and runs right through the front door, with her running right after it. That was the last time I saw her alive.”

“I showed up soon after that,” Harry said. “At first I didn’t believe what he was saying but then we got close to the front door and we heard a gunshot.”

“We thought maybe she shot the horse,” Kasey said. “But I guess…” He trailed off, face burning in shame. Maybe if he had run in there, he could have saved Maggie or at least seen who shot her.

“We ran off,” said Harry. “We didn’t know someone had shot her.”

“Did you see anything?” The deputy pressed. He had a notepad in hand but no pen. No matter. It was the appearance of being in charge that mattered.

The two men looked at each other uneasily. Harry spoke. “There was a pie in the window sill. A carrot pie.”

“I like carrot pie.” Charlie offered. He was still smiling. The other men could not agree with him this time; there was no other man alive who liked carrot pie. It was a terrible creation that only Maggie Bead would make, and only then for Charlie.

“Well there you have it.” Stan said. He was actually smiling. “I knew it from the beginning.”

Jenkins lifted a finger, frowned, and put it back down. Matthew and Friedman looked at each other and nodded. Friedman whispered to Jesse and Matthew whispered to Axl. They also nodded in agreement.

“Well then,” Friedman said. “I think we can all agree on who to hand over to the sheriff.”

“It’s agreed.” Augustan said.

“Murderer!” Shouted Jenkins. Now his finger did point at someone.

“Take Stan.” Matthew said to the deputy as he began gathering his coat. The rest of the men stood and pulled on their coats and hats, nodding in agreement.

“What?” Stan howled. “But it was obviously Charlie.”

“Charlie wouldn’t kill somebody.” Friedman scoffed.

“But…but,” Stan sputtered as the deputy came towards him. “But what about Kasey and Harry? They probably did it. What sort of man sells horse meat?”

“What does horse meat have to do with the murder of Maggie Bead?” Jesse rolled his eyes. “Besides they didn’t even kill the horse, it’s right here.” He put his hand on the back of the horse.

“For Christ’s sake!” Stan yelled.

“I’ve heard enough.” The deputy said as he grabbed Stan’s hands and forced them behind his back. “You’re going to see the sheriff.” Then, whispering in the bible seller’s ear he said, “We can talk about your path to repentance later.” Then he dragged the struggling man off.

“Tell Annie I said congratulations,” Jesse said to Matthew.

“Do you remember where you shot that horse a week ago?” Harry asked Axl.

“I’ll point you that direction when we get outside.” Axl smiled.

“My butcher shop will be having a sale this weekend.” Harry announced to the other men, who all cheered except for Harlem who covered his ears and groaned in pain.

“My wife grows sage,” the deputy said to Axl over Stan’s wailings. “If you wave that around it wards of bad spirits. Might help protect you against horses too.”

“Thank you.” Axl felt relief as he exited into the bright sunlight outside. He called goodbye to the other men.

“Goodbye Charlie.” He said last of all.

“See you later Charlie.”

“Have a good day Charlie.”

“Bye now, Charlie.”

Charlie grinned and walked off towards home where he had a slice of pie waiting for him. He liked pie.

Finally the last of the twelve men left the room and shut the door. The horse was left to pace around the table, unaware of the events that had just transpired but very confused as to why there were no trees or grass. It was like the place he had been when it was darker outside. For him, it had been all confusion and loud noises until a man came along to soothe him and lead him away.

If any human had been in the place the night before they would have seen a horse kick out in fear, knocking a display rifle from a shelf. The rifle was never supposed to be loaded but since nobody ever shot with it, nobody realized there was still a bullet there. In a freak accident the gun had fired as it fell, hitting Maggie Bead right in the heart. The only person that might have seen all this had been sitting in the kitchen, eating a slice of pie that Maggie had offered him and so he saw nothing, only heard some screams and loud noises that he did not mind.

Now twelve men, and one horse, went their separate ways. One went to his butcher shop, another to his workshop. One went to see his wife about some pork-chops and another went home to sleep off a horrible hangover. One man went to the jailhouse, and another went with him. And one horse went around and around a table in a meeting room where twelve men had, sort of, figured out the mystery of Maggie Bead’s murder.