a short story series by lawton von emelen
The smoke and brimstone forced Margaret indoors.
It was a warm April night in the year 1813. Musket and cannon fire rang in the distance. Margaret peered quickly between drawn curtains out the window of her home, toward the billowing chimneys of smoke that choked the sky. An explosion frightened her away from her window, drawing the curtains tight to a complete close before moving to the bedroom.
Margaret knew all too well of the war that raged on in the countryside, but she had not expected it to reach Havre de Grace. She did not know who was attacking them — she assumed it to be the British, having heard rumors that they were sailing up the Susquehanna — but that did not make her situation any more desirable. She would have left in the evening prior, if it had not been for Benjamin, her nephew, who was afflicted with the consumption. Margaret’s brother had requested she take care of Benjamin for the week while he and his wife were out of town. Benjamin was bedridden, and thus not able to be moved, so Margaret stayed by his side, even as cannonballs and bullets were flying.
“What’s going on out there?” Benjamin croaked quietly, all but his arms and head firmly tucked under the covers. “Is that… Is that gunfire, Aunt Margaret?”
“Don’t be afraid, dear,” Margaret consoled in response. “You’re going to be alright.” She herself was not confident of this, but she hoped that the feeling of safety would somehow stave off Benjamin’s illness, even for a little while.
She rested the back of her fingers against his forehead and felt drips of sweat. He was feverish, yet his hands were cold and clammy. She offered Benjamin a sad smile before moving back into the living room, pacing about as she decided her next move.
It wasn’t long before there came three pounding raps upon her door.
“Open up!” The command was British-accented. It only confirmed her fears.
Margaret did not immediately respond. She feared that if the door were opened, smoke would steal into her home and worsen her nephew’s condition.
“Open up!” Came the command again, after more knocking. “We see the glow of candlelight in there.”
“Please,” Margaret pleaded loudly enough to be heard over gunfire, “let us be! I assure you, we mean no trouble!”
“Open up, and we will not have to force ourselves in. I assure you, you do not want that.”
Her options dwindling by the second, Margaret felt pressure from all sides as she slowly made for the door. Reluctantly, and with much hesitance, she unlocked the door and opened it wide, for two British infantrymen to barge inside, each armed with muskets. One of them pointed his musket toward Margaret, while the other searched around the room.
As she feared, smoke ominously drifted from outside into her home, threatening to approach the bedroom door.
“Please!” Margaret begged. “Please! Close the door! My nephew has the consumption, the smoke will worsen him-”
“Quiet, miss,” the soldier who held her at gunpoint barked. She trembled where she stood, her jaw quivering as she stood on the verge of tears. “Please,” she pleaded regardless, “my nephew-”
“Be quiet!” He took one hand and grabbed her, shoving her towards the wall before readjusting his aim, planted firmly on her forehead. She stood frightened against the wall, her hands raised, tears flowing down her cheeks. “Please,” she whispered, “please…”
“Your prayers have been answered.”
Neither Margaret nor the British soldier spoke, nor his companion who was searching the room, but a third party instead; the voice was Scottish-accented and robust, though with much weight behind it. The soldier whose sight was trained on Margaret turned around to see who had spoken, but by the time he completed his turn, he was already flying in the air and thrown into the wall next to Margaret. Margaret screamed as she dropped down into a curl, looking up to see a well-groomed man, who looked to be in his late twenties, opening his left palm and pounding the second British soldier’s chest with it, forcing him into the wall with such power that it left behind a crater. She sat gawking at what had just occurred. Both soldiers were rendered unconscious.
How did he get in? Who was he? What was he doing here? Why? Why save her? Dozens of questions like these rattled through her mind. All she could muster saying was “I- I, um… uh-”
He turned around, revealing the most interesting detail of his character; golden-colored glowing irises, which offered a heavenly sort of presence. She blinked wordlessly, still in pure shock, as he glanced to the door, then the bedroom. After a moment of contemplation, he quietly closed the door to the house, before turning his attention to her.
“Apologies,” he offered, extending a hand to help her up. Without even thinking about it, she accepted his hand and hoisted herself up. “Who… who…?”
“Simply, The Gambler,” he introduced himself. “And you must be… er… hold on…” His hand retrieved a leather notebook from the depths of his overcoat. “Let’s see… Margaret? Aunt of Benjamin, sister of Thomas?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“It’s in others’ best interests that I know things.”
Margaret stared blankly at The Gambler before simply nodding. “What… Your eyes…!”
“These things?” He pointed to his golden irises. “Oh, don’t bother worrying about those, lass.”
“I’d like to say that you were the damsel in distress, but unfortunately I’m here on more pressing matters. It certainly felt good to give a good whooping to those craven redcoats, however.”
She smiled slightly at his damsel comment. “What… what business?”
The Gambler plunged into his leather journal again, scratching the back of his head as he surveyed its contents. Margaret tried capturing a quick glance at any details she could, but he snapped it shut as quickly as he had opened it. “Benjamin is here, yes? With the consumption?”
“How did you-”
“Nevermind that, lass! He is here?”
“Yes. He is here.”
“Thomas entrusted you with his care while he was away?”
“He did, yes.”
“And with something else, I’m assuming.”
Margaret looked away. She felt he knew exactly what he was talking about. Thomas had given her an item, some sort of locked chest, too small to fit anything of note as far as she could tell, along with Benjamin for safekeeping. She had attempted to pick its lock out of curiosity, to no avail.
“No,” she lied. The Gambler was a stranger, despite having just saved her. Her loyalty to Thomas was stronger than any she could give to this stranger.
He offered a small smile. “Feeling a bit conflicted, are we? If anything, my endeavors to save you should amount to something. I’m already aware you have it, and I would like to settle retrieving it diplomatically-”
“He told me not to give it to anyone,” Margaret interrupted.
“Do I seem like anyone to you?” The Gambler responded quickly after.
“No,” she said after a moment of thought.
“Then the matter is settled,”
“No, it isn’t,” Margaret stood her ground. She judged The Gambler to be more civilized than the soldiers who had barged into her home, so she felt more comfortable standing her ground against him. His strength and eccentricity, as awe-inspiring as it was, strangely didn’t matter.
The Gambler sighed. “What would be necessary to procure the chest he gave you?”
“Nothing. If you want it, you will have to take it by force.”
“I don’t want to take it by force,” he replied.
“Then I see the matter is settled.”
The Gambler furrowed his eyebrows. “I see the Bristol women are just as stubborn as the men are renowned.” He smiled slightly, before digging into the pockets of his coat. After stashing away the journal, he retrieved a small vial, with a clear liquid contained within.
“This I brought for Benjamin,” he stated. “Regardless of whether I retrieved the chest or not, this is to be administered.”
“What is it?” Margaret asked.
“It contains a cure for the consumption.”
Margaret shook her head. “There is no such thing.”
“Ah, but there are no such things as supernatural strength or golden irises either, are there? Where I go and where I come from, there are possibilities that are limitless in number.”
Margaret narrowed her eyes. Frustratingly, The Gambler had a point.
“What does it do?”
“You administer a quarter of the contents of this vial once a day. By the fourth day, the consumption will have been banished, and Benjamin will be free to live out his life.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“You should. The cure will work whether or not you have faith in it.”
“I don’t believe you,” Margaret corrected herself. “Why should I believe you? You might be as much a charlatan.”
“That, Margaret, will depend on your faith in me. The cure will work regardless of your belief, but whether you accept it relies on your faith in me. Will you deprive your nephew the chance at being rid of this white plague?”
“It could just as well be poison,” Margaret responded.
“It could just as well be the cure,” The Gambler retorted. “It’s a gamble. And with my being a gambler, I suggest you go all in.”
Margaret contemplated this for a while. I’ll be thought a fool if I took this man’s ‘cure’ and it turned out to be nothing. And Thomas will hate me forever for having lost the chest. But the cure… the cure… Benjamin will die soon anyway. I have to try.
“Fine,” Margaret said at long last. “I will show you the chest, and you will give me the cure.”
Margaret found the cure in her hands as The Gambler waited patiently. She beckoned for him to follow her into the bedroom, where Benjamin laid quivering. She reached underneath the bed, retrieving a small wooden chest with an ornate golden lock on it. She handed it, ever so tentatively, to The Gambler.
“Make him consume a quarter of that vial a day, Margaret,” The Gambler reminded.
“I will. What do you want with the chest, anyway?”
The Gambler thumbed the chest, which was small enough to fit in both of his hands. There was a pensive expression on his face.“Clarity, Miss Bristol. Clarity.”
Margaret nodded slowly, unsure of what he meant.
“I suggest that you give him the quarter of the vial now and be off. The British are coming,” he suggested.
Margaret nodded, and popped off the top of the vial before carefully tapping a quarter of its contents into Benjamin’s mouth. He swallowed, with difficulty, and coughed a few times. She looked up to look to The Gambler, but he was already gone. She swore she could see faint wisps of golden light where he had just stood a moment before. She looked to her living room and saw the two British soldiers still unconscious. She then looked to the window and saw a blur of golden light speeding far into the night, shortly swallowed by the cannonfire over the Susquehanna.
She closed her eyes as she prayed that this potion would work – prayed that she had made the right choice. She looked to Benjamin, and she reached for his hands. They were warm.