Horse woke from a dream of blood and death and lay still, listening. Had he heard something or was that just hangover from his dream? No, there was something going down in the alley beyond his dumpster. He pulled himself into a crouch. No man wants to be helpless on the ground when attacked. If he hadn’t learned that in the war, living on the streets had taught him that much. He crept to where he could just see the mouth of the alley beyond his shelter where two men faced each other. One man was young, powerfully built, and too well-dressed for this part of town. He was scared, but trying not to show it. The second was about the same age, but no longer young, and had a jittery look to him. He held a knife. Could be a drug deal gone wrong, or just a case of someone wandering too far off the beaten path. It was going to get ugly, though.
Life had taught him to mind his own business, and it was a hard-won lesson, so Horse crouched behind his dumpster and forced himself to stay out of it.
“Let’s see your money, pretty boy,” the man with the knife said.
“C’mon man, I just want to get home. I don’t even have much on me,” the bigger man held his hands out and shrugged. “Put the knife away and let’s forget this ever happened, okay?”
The mugger slashed the air with his knife, “I’m not going to ask again. Money. Now!”
His victim fished in his pocket, fumbling his wallet out and opening it up. “Look, dude, I’m telling you, I don’t have much, just a couple of tens. I mean, who even carries cash these days?”
The mugger snatched for the wallet and the younger man pulled it back, startled. “Hey! I’ll give you the money, but I need my wallet, man!”
Horse winced. The kid was handling this all wrong. Just give the man with the knife whatever he wants. The kid was going to get hurt. Probably used to getting his way because of his size and social class. None of that meant anything against a knife.
The mugger seemed to lose patience and slashed his knife across the kid’s knuckles, causing him to drop the wallet and lurch back.
“What the hell, man!”
“What else you got?” the mugger asked as he fished the wallet out of the muck.
“You cut me! Look at this, I’m bleeding!”
The mugger ignored him and tucked the wallet into his jacket. “Let’s see those shoes.”
The victim turned away as if about to flee, and the mugger raised the knife.
Before Horse could shout, a third man was suddenly just there. Horse did no more than blink and the man appeared. He was tall, athletic, but no bigger than Horse himself, dressed in nondescript clothing. While the victim’s back was turned, this new arrival grabbed for the mugger and lifted him into the air and slammed him into the ground. The stranger tapped the mugger on the back of the neck, hard, and he went limp. It all happened so fast that Horse had no time to react. The victim was only a few paces away when the new arrival had the mugger subdued. A blink of the eye later, he was just gone. Horse didn’t see him go any more than he had seen him arrive.
Startled by the scene, Horse stumbled from hiding and took several paces toward the mugger. The victim turned, either because he had heard some of the scuffle, no matter how quickly it had all gone down, or just to see if the mugger was chasing him. He faltered to a stop at the sight of a bearded, scruffy homeless man bending over a unconscious mugger.
Things happened quickly
after that. The victim hadn’t seen the mysterious stranger, only Horse,
and assumed he had been the one to capture and subdue the mugger. Horse
tried to explain at first, but after the first few tries, he gave up.
A rising politician heard about Horse’s heroics and got involved, using Horse as a poster boy for crime reform and homeless initiatives. Horse’s story went viral and donations rolled in for the homeless hero and soon he was sleeping in a real bed and getting a makeover, no more beard and scruff, and eating regular.
For the first time in forever, someone wanted to give him a job and, with the help of the donations, he even got an apartment. It was kind of funny being called by his given name, Frank, instead of Horse, but he got used to it. The job they gave him wasn’t much but it got him off the streets and the donations made up the rest.
Horse had been working his new job, greeter at a discount store, for a few months when someone came through that he thought he recognized. He pulled the shopper to the side and stared at him. The lighting in the alley hadn’t been the best, but Horse had always been good with faces. It’s what made him a good greeter – he always remembered repeat customers.
“You’re him, aren’t you?” Horse demanded. “You’re the guy from the alley.”
The mysterious man smiled and shrugged as if to say, no sense denying it.
“Why’d you do that? Why’d you stop that mugger and then just vanish, letting me take the credit? Forget why, how did you do it? I didn’t even see you go!”
“Why? Because I can. You would have stopped it if you could have, wouldn’t you?”
Horse started to shake his head and then thought about it. Yeah, if he could have done what the man in front of him had done, hell yeah, he would have. That punk with the knife was out of line and needed to be stopped. Hadn’t he been wishing he could help when it all went down?
“I guess,” Horse said, “but how did you do it? You were there and gone before I could blink.”
The man shrugged.
“Look, buddy,” Horse said, “these people have gone nuts, giving me stuff, stuff I don’t even need. You should take it. Well, I don’t have much left, but I have some. Let me give you what I’ve got. I feel bad taking all of this when it should have gone to you.”
To be honest, Horse hadn’t felt all that guilty about taking the kudos and cash after the incident in the alley. After so long without anything, he was just so glad to have a safe place to crash and a new chance at life to worry much about right and wrong. But, somehow, looking at this hero’s rather ordinary face, he felt all of the guilt he maybe should have felt for taking credit for the other man’s deeds.
“That is very kind, Frank, thank you. However, I don’t need your money. I just wanted to stop by and thank you for not telling anyone about me.”
“I tried, but they wouldn’t listen,” Horse admitted.
The stranger laughed. “Fair enough, but you did keep my secret and that means a lot to me, thanks.”
“People should know about you. You’re the hero,” Horse started to say, but the man cut him off.
“I’m no hero, but if people knew about me, I couldn’t do what little I do. Life isn’t like the comic books, you know. People with extra – abilities – can’t dress up in spandex and capes and save kittens from trees. Not only would that look ridiculous and be highly uncomfortable, it would make you really conspicuous. Better to blend in and keep quiet, right?” His smile was so warm and full of mirth that Horse couldn’t help smiling back.
“I don’t know, a cape might come in handy sometimes. The spandex not so much.”
The man’s eyes crinkled. “Thanks for taking the credit, Frank, it allowed me to stay out of the limelight. No need for secret identities when no one knows you’re operating at all, right?”
“Makes sense to me. Well, thanks for the visit. You might want to stop by the bakery, they take out the fresh batch of muffins about now.”
The hero, super or otherwise, shook Horse’s hand. “Thanks, I might do that. Good luck, friend.”
Horse blinked and the man was gone, as if he had never been there. He stood for a minute longer, thinking, then shook his head and went back to work, the scent of fresh muffins wafting towards him from the bakery and the sounds of the busy store filling his ears. He wondered if he’d ever hear from or about the stranger again, but he thought he probably wouldn’t – as long as he stayed out of dark alleys.