a short story series by lawton von emelen
Benjamin Bristol contorted his face as he scratched at his beard. A Colt .45 laid across his lap as he rocked back and forth in his wooden rocking chair. From his porch, he gazed out across his property, which in the night was lit by nothing but the twinkling of the stars, and a lamp which was tied to a hitching post near the front steps. The breeze nudged the lamp to and fro, though just barely, and to Benjamin it looked similar to the metaphoric light at the end of the tunnel he heard spoken so often.
The breeze felt good to him. The air had been stagnant for the past few days and it stifled the throats of both him and his wife, Katherine, whenever they stepped outside. Benjamin enjoyed quiet evenings of taking in the domain of his land, all from his self-proclaimed ‘throne,’ with a fresh glass of overly-sweetened tea that Katherine made sometimes. Benjamin trusted few other recipes for the ‘sweet nectar,’ choosing to remain stubbornly partial to his wife’s mixture. It eased his aging pains, which he would feel more frequently as the days passed.
It was here on this night, in the throes of Americans manifesting their destiny out west, that Benjamin was especially vigilant. He did not normally arm himself, though he felt the precaution necessary on nights like this when he felt he and his guests were threatened.
These guests were slaves, who aimed to unshackle themselves from the South’s inhumane business methods. They yearned for a life of more than cotton-picking and rotting away; they yearned to be free. Benjamin did not quite understand their plight, but certainly believed it, and while he stomached war and violence as a veteran of his nation’s Army, he could not stomach the submission of men to others. It simply did not connect with him. So, two years prior, he announced making his estate a station of the Underground Railroad through the proper channels. Ever since, he had harbored slaves safely, and he would not break that streak with this group of ten slaves that were hiding in his home.
A source he paid to alert him to unusual activity had made a report that morning of bounty hunters hailing from the South, sniffing around town in Havre de Grace a few miles east. Since then, Benjamin stood his post on his porch, watching and waiting while Katherine took care of their guests inside. As the sun began to set, Benjamin began to feel more uneasy. He had a feeling these bounty hunters liked to prowl under the cover of darkness, for that was when aspiring men and women of freedom followed the Drinking Gourd in the sky.
And so he sat, on his wood-carved throne, awaiting a threat he hoped would never come.
Seconds became minutes, then hours passed by. At first it had just been dusk, then before Benjamin’s eyes, there was not a ray of sunlight left. He occasionally stood up from his chair to pace across the width and breadth of the porch. Katherine appeared only once, with a gift from God; a fresh glass of sweet tea. Benjamin salivated as he graciously accepted the surprise.
He sat back down with his treat, the rocking chair creaking as he situated himself, and just as he raised the cool glass to his lips, there came another light in the darkness. He interrupted his sip to peer forward, making sure he wasn’t just seeing double of the lantern. Sure enough, there was another light, though it was too difficult to discern whether it came from a candle, a lantern, or something else entirely.
His mind began to race, but he did not show it. Benjamin remained calm, his left hand holding the glass of tea while his right hand laid over the grip of the Colt revolver. He knew it was loaded. He had checked at least four times in the past hour.
The light drew closer, and the closer it came, the more uneasy Benjamin felt. It certainly wasn’t a candle, nor a lantern. It was too early in the season for fireflies, he thought to himself. The glow had an eerie sort of luster about it. It reminded Benjamin of a time when he was young, when he stayed with his Aunt Margaret in Havre de Grace while he had the consumption. Surely it couldn’t be…
“Can I help you, stranger?” Benjamin asked as the light drew ever closer. Two more joined it; they were smaller, much smaller. Benjamin leaned forward now, squinting in the darkness. He held his Colt tighter.
Finally, he could make a guess as to what the lights were; the two smaller ones seemed to be… eyes. Benjamin could hardly believe it. It simply couldn’t be what he thought it was. He refused to believe it.
The lights came forward quickly now. The sound of jogging was heard. The larger light was a sort of aether, some glowing light levitating in the palm of the figure’s hand. He wore an overcoat Benjamin had only seen once before. Benjamin knew it now. He could not deny it. It had been over forty years, but The Gambler didn’t seem to have aged a day.
“It can’t be…” Benjamin said as he stood up slowly.
The figure quickly jogged up the stairs. “Benjamin Bristol?” He spoke in a Scottish accent, his voice robust and weighted.
“Speaking,” Benjamin replied.
“Do you remember me?”
“How could I forget? Aunt Margaret called you ‘The Gambler.’”
The Gambler closed his fist tight, squeezing the aether glow out of existence. “How lovely, you remember. You’re going to need to use that thing soon.” He pointed to the Colt that Benjamin held.
“You heard me. Armed and ready, Benjamin.”
Benjamin heard a rustling in the bushes, not far from the hitching post. The Gambler reached two fingers into the depths of his overcoat and withdrew a metallic playing card; from the looks of it, a king of hearts, as Benjamin noticed. But the letters and symbols glowed with a golden luster, and it seemed as if the twin faces of the king moved. After a quick glance at the card, The Gambler threw it toward the rustling with superhuman accuracy. It sliced through the air with a haunting whistle, before meeting its target; a slicing sound echoed, and then Benjamin saw the card rebound and return toward The Gambler’s grasp at blistering speed. Benjamin could hardly believe his eyes.
“What did I just see?” Benjamin asked.
“A card being thrown,” The Gambler said with an air of finality. “And a bounty hunter felled.”
“So there was somethin’ up in town,” Benjamin said to himself.
“Quite. We should prepare.”
“We’ve got it covered.”
“Covered, you say? With a Colt revolver and six bullets?”
The sound of a rifle blast pierced the air. The Gambler and Benjamin ducked to squats.
“Where’re them slaves?” Both The Gambler and Benjamin heard the Southern drawl.
Benjamin glowered at The Gambler. “You led them here?”
“Led? I’m here for a completely different reason. This was purely coincidental.”
“But now they know somethin’s wrong. Now they think there’s somethin’ here worth protecting.”
“Guests,” Benjamin corrected.
Another rifle blast, followed by a third. The window behind Benjamin and The Gambler shattered into many shards of glass.
“Ah, shit,” Benjamin growled, “gonna be spendin’ all week fixing that.”
“Bullets are flying and you’re worried about a window,” The Gambler said.
“Yeah, because we have this covered.”
“You need to revisit your definition of ‘covered.’”
“And why’s that?”
Barely a second passed between The Gambler’s question and the front door opening. A woman, easily in her fifties from The Gambler’s perspective, with long gray hair, raised a percussion cap rifle and promptly fired into the brush. Voices cried out in pain as easily a dozen individuals scattered from their hiding place, their shadowed figures barely made out in the darkness.
“Get the hell off my lawn!” the woman cried.
Benjamin smiled, while The Gambler was genuinely surprised. “Who is she, and why is she not my wife?” The Gambler asked.
“She’s mine,” Benjamin replied, “and her name is Katherine. She’s got it covered.”
Katherine smirked before ducking next to the two men and beginning to reload. “Benji, get on it darlin’.”
“Yes dear.” Benjamin promptly set down his glass of tea and rose from the cover of his porch, firing at one of the trespassing bounty hunters and hitting him square in the back.
Katherine looked to The Gambler and noticed his golden irises. She immediately remembered the story that Benjamin told her often, of some golden-eyed figure delivering him a cure for the consumption in his youth. She cocked her head to the side. “Who are you?”
The Gambler withdrew a jack of spades from his coat before looking to Katherine and smirking. “Simply, The Gambler.”
Katherine peered at him for a moment. “Okay.”
And they both went to work. Once reloaded, Katherine fired again, missing another of the bounty hunters narrowly. The Gambler bounded from the safety of the porch and vaulted into the yard, drawing forth cards and throwing them at rapid speeds. While reloading, Katherine watched as The Gambler held up two fingers and waved them in the air. The cards stopped mid-air and moved as his fingers did, slicing into the trespassers at intense velocities. Little surprised her, certainly less than surprised Benjamin, but she was amazed by The Gambler’s mystical display.
Appearing to become bored with directing the cards, the Gambler beckoned, and the cards soared back to him; he then threw them individually, spinning around as cards viciously whistled toward their targets, carrying imminent death. They carved through and promptly rebounded back to The Gambler’s fingers, where they then immediately soared back into the fray, over and over again. Benjamin barely spent six bullets, and Katherine three, before the battle on the front lawn of the Bristol property was over. There lay fourteen bounty hunters, scattered across the lawn.
“Thank God,” Katherine muttered under her breath. “I don’t enjoy doing that.”
The Gambler buried his glowing cards into his pockets as Benjamin drew near. “Why are you here?” Benjamin asked.
“Oh, to check up,” The Gambler replied, although Benjamin felt he wasn’t being entirely honest.
“You cured me of the consumption. You disappear for forty some years, then come back with fourteen trespassers and then help me kill them.”
“Yes, yes… and yes.”
The Gambler swiftly turned to Benjamin, staring him down, his own eyes mere inches from Benjamin’s. There was a moment, certainly longer to Benjamin than it likely was to The Gambler, before The Gambler spoke. “There’s a slave-”
“Guest,” Benjamin corrected once more. He had stared death itself in the face several times during his journeys out west, but even then there was a certain finality of it; The Gambler, who was as wild as his cards, was scarily unpredictable. Just as he had cured Benjamin of the consumption, he left Aunt Margaret and Benjamin to narrowly escape from the flames and the British in Havre de Grace. Just as he had helped Benjamin and Katherine defend their home against trespassers, there was a mystery to how either group even arrived there at all. He was unpredictable; he was a mystery. Aunt Margaret had called him an angel, but Benjamin questioned his late aunt’s description as he stared the very Gambler in the eyes.
“Guest,” The Gambler restarted. “There’s a guest in your house that’s drawn my attention.”
“He goes by the name Adam. A gentlemanly fellow in his twenties.” The Gambler reared his head, and began to walk around Benjamin. “I sought to reach him at the plantation where he was enslaved, but it seemed the conductors already sent him on his way down the tracks.”
“The Underground Railroad,” Benjamin commented.
“Right. I commend the little system you abolitionists have concocted; it took me five months to track him to this house, where he arrived last night.”
“Why do you want him?”
“That’s between me and Mr. Adam.”
“Does he know you’re coming for him?”
“No. And I certainly don’t wish to detain him, Benjamin; no amount of currency the slave owners could promise would ever rival the potential of Mr. Adam being my ally.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I have my own agenda.”
“Could you enlighten me?”
“I’d prefer not. Let’s call it even, Benjamin; I saved you from the consumption, in return, you allow me to ensure Mr. Adam’s safe travels to the freedom of Canada.”
Benjamin frowned. He prided himself on never losing a passenger on the Underground Railroad while under his care. And yet… he owed this ‘angel.’
“You make a promise to me that he ends up in Quebec, a free man.”
“You have my word, Benjamin.” The Gambler had a sincere look on his face, a look of genuine determination and promise.
After a moment of second guessing himself, Benjamin nodded toward the porch. At once, The Gambler swiftly made for the door, entering slowly and tentatively. Minutes passed, while Benjamin surveyed the makeshift battleground of his front lawn, before The Gambler returned with the runaway slave named Adam. Adam looked confused, nervous, perhaps a little frightened. Benjamin nodded to Adam. “You’ll be fine, Adam,” Benjamin said to Adam. “You’re in good hands.”
“Mr. Benjamin,” Adam replied, “who is this man?”
“A savior,” Benjamin said finally. He hadn’t quite made up his mind on what The Gambler was, but one thing was certain; he was a savior.
Adam turned to The Gambler. “Where are you taking me?”
The Gambler pointed to the sky, to the Big Dipper. “We’re going to follow the Drinking Gourd,” he said with a wistful air, “to freedom. With a few stops on the way.”
Adam looked to the sky and seemed inspired. With a wordless nod to Benjamin, he followed The Gambler into the forest and out of sight.
Benjamin watched the two figures as they disappeared amongst the trees. He narrowed his eyes as Katherine came to stand by his side. “You think he’ll be back?” Katherine asked Benjamin.
“Yes,” Benjamin replied. “Twice now, he’s crossed paths with me. Golden eyes or not, he’s the type to make sure there’s a third time.”
“Mhm,” Katherine hummed in agreement. “We got these bodies to deal with, Benjamin. We don’t have time to think on the future too much.”
“Yes dear,” Benjamin said, looking back at his wife before taking one more glance toward the trees. He knew The Gambler would be back.
The two men were nearing the edge of the Bristol property when The Gambler turned his head to look back. Adam looked to The Gambler and furrowed his brow. “Didn’t you say we were in a hurry back in the house?”
“Yes, I did,” The Gambler replied. “This family… the Bristol family… It is sentimental to me.”
“In what way, sir?”
“Comprehension would certainly befuddle you.”
Adam paused for a moment before nodding.
“But I’ll be back,” The Gambler said finally. With that, he continued with Adam deeper into the woods.