Free Story: The Return of The Black Gun
A little more Old West fun…
Long Branch, New Jersey
“All this water sure is pretty,” Ellie said. “But I declare honey, I don’t see how them folks coulda come all the way across from England. It just looks too far!”
“Probably wasn’t far enough for some,” Solomon said. “I figure there was a lot of folks already here and folks over in Africa that wished them pilgrims never set sail.”
They were standing on the sand together, gazing out at water that stretched out to the edge of the world and met the sky. There were a few other folks out strolling this morning, and a handful of fishermen with their lines in the ocean. As the day warmed, more people would make their way to the beach.
It was just past dawn, and the June day was pleasant; just warm enough to feel right, but early enough yet for the salt breeze coming off the water to carry a chill. Solomon took a glance at Ellie, and noticed that she kept her shawl pulled closed around her bosom against that chill. He decided that they wouldn’t stay out here too long. They’d just wanted to come out to see the sun rise up over the edge of the world.
“Well, I know folks suffered,” Ellie said, “Indians and Africans both. But I’m thankful them settlers came on over here. If they hadn’t, you and me wouldn’t be standing here together right now. Everything that happened – all of it – was to get us right here to this here place on this pretty day. It’s like The Good Lord made everything happen just so you and me could be standing here in love this morning, Solomon. When they stole our kin from over yonder in Africa, it was so you and me could be standing here in love today.”
Solomon didn’t say anything to that. When Ellie got to talking woman talk, he couldn’t come up with much by way of a sensible reply.
Instead of answering her, he squatted and pried a seashell out of the damp sand. He turned the shell over in his hand, examining its smooth interior surface. He wondered if whatever critter had lived in the shell had died and washed up on the shore, or if it had come out of the ocean living, only to be set on by the seagulls circling overhead. He wondered if the poor dumb creature had come up on the shore in Long Branch trying to escape something in the sea that wanted to kill it and eat it, not knowing it was coming here to die anyway.
He and Ellie had come to the New Jersey Shore to escape what was chasing them, too.
After they’d outrun the posse back in Nevada they’d come east, looking for a place to settle. They visited the big fancy places like Philadelphia and New York City, and even traveled as far north as Boston. But those places hadn’t set right with them. There were too many people wanting to move too fast. But this town by the side of the ocean in New Jersey – Long Branch – felt about right.
Besides the big, pretty ocean that Ellie liked so much, there was a lot of good, fertile farmland here. Solomon had bought a cottage on a patch of land on the west side of town, and while he didn’t plan to bust dirt for a living, Ellie had enough space to grow her garden. Later on, when their young ‘uns came along, there’d be room for them to run and play.
Solomon thought that he might try his hand at dealing cards in one of the gambling halls in town on Friday and Saturday nights. They didn’t need much money, so he didn’t need to take up regular employment. If they didn’t act the fool, they had enough funds from the jobs he and the Sundown Raiders had pulled out West to last for a spell. But dealing cards would give him something to do besides rocking on the front porch.
Long Branch wasn’t a dead town. There was plenty going on, so much that the presidents of the United States going back to Ulysses S. Grant came here for their vacations. Hell, Long Branch was a good enough place that when President Garfield got shot, he came here to die.
Considering how the day was already turning out, Solomon figured that Long Branch wasn’t a bad place to die, if it came down to that. He wondered if today might be that day.
As if she’d heard what he was thinking, Ellie said, “He’s watchin’ us.”
The man was standing south of them and to their rear down the boardwalk. He’d shown up just after they’d arrived on the beach, so Solomon figured that he’d followed them from the house.
“You want your pistol?” Ellie asked.
Solomon was wearing fancy city duds and no overcoat. He’d had no room to tuck away his Colt Peacemaker, so Ellie was toting it in her bustle.
He stood up and side-armed the seashell, and watched as it skipped twice over the blue-green water and disappeared into the wall of an approaching wave. He said, “No, it’s all right. No point in showing the Colt and getting folks out here all worked up. You shoot good enough, if it comes to that.”
That was no exaggeration. Back in Techatticup, Nevada, Ellie had put a hole dead center in that barkeep’s forehead from two dozen feet away, and with a derringer to boot. Most men couldn’t shoot that accurately.
Still gazing out at the ocean, Ellie said, “Solomon, I will kill him.”
“I know, Ellie. But try to hold on ‘til we see how it plays out.”
The man’s name was Harper Gillette. However, because of his long blonde hair, which he kept tied back like a horse’s tail, the people in the gambling parlors in New Orleans, Natchez and Memphis called him Palomino. That name had followed him out west.
He was tall and slender, and most women favored him as handsome, and he never failed to win them over with his warm brown eyes and charming smile. Men who knew of him considered him a skilled gambler and a vicious killer, if you crossed him wrong. When Palomino killed a man, it was often with the same charming smile with which he graced a lady as he untied the laces of her bodice.
Palomino stood on the boardwalk facing the ocean, but most of his attention was focused up the beach, toward Solomon and Ellie. They hadn’t been hard for him to find, because he’d had better information to start with than the other three.
Sheriff Coke Benson had offered Palomino and the other three a five thousand dollar reward to find Solomon Hanks, also known as The Black Gun, and who now went by the name Solomon Gray. Benson told them that they could collect the reward by either shooting Solomon dead on sight, or bringing him back to the Oklahoma Territory to hang. Sheriff Benson wasn’t particular, as long as Solomon ended up dead. The man who killed or captured The Black Gun would get the reward.
Coke Benson wasn’t thinking about bringing Solomon to justice because of the banks, trains and stagecoaches he’d robbed as the leader of The Sundown Raiders. Benson only wanted vengeance: Personal vengeance. Benson was walking around missing part of his lower left jaw thanks to a bullet from Solomon’s Peacemaker. Every time people looked at him, they saw the proof that a colored man had gotten the best of him. Benson couldn’t live with that, and would have no peace in his soul until he’d seen Solomon Hanks put down.
Palomino watched Solomon and Ellie for a while. He didn’t see a holster on Solomon’s hip, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t armed. Palomino knew that Solomon usually kept his derringer for a backup. He knew that he’d have to keep his eyes open when he made his move to the couple, and not just to watch Solomon. That little hellcat Eloise Parker bore watching, too. Palomino had seen with his own eyes how she could shoot holes in tin cans at twenty paces. And rumor had it that she’d gunned down the bartender who’d sold her services to his customers. So Solomon wasn’t the only danger standing down on the beach.
With those cautions in mind, Harper Gillette, who was also known as Palomino and was one of The Sundown Raiders, stepped off the boardwalk and onto the sand.
When Palomino neared the couple he put on his charming smile, and hoped that he looked peaceable enough to keep them from slinging hot lead his way. As he drew close enough to make out their expressions, Ellie stepped away from Solomon, putting some space between them.
He stopped a few paces away from Solomon and said, “Well, well…Mister Gray.”
Solomon tilted his chin and said, “Harper.”
Palomino looked up the sand, to where Ellie stood glaring at him with her left hand on her hip and her right hand behind her back. He brightened his smile up, tapped the brim of his derby and said, “Good Morning, Miss Eloise.”
Ellie replied to his greeting by spitting on the sand.
Palomino said, “Now Ellie darling, you know you love me. Why don’t you leave this here horse breaker and run off with me? I’ll do right by you.”
Ellie’s glare turned into a scowl. She said, “The day I run off with a no account white tomcat like you is the day all that water out yonder dries up.”
“What’re you doing here, Harper?” Solomon asked. “I figured you’d be south, at somebody’s poker table.”
“I haven’t been south, Solomon.”
“Then where’ve you been?”
Now Palomino’s smile died. He said, “A man dug a hole in the ground, about eight feet deep. He lined the sides of the hole with pine boards and put iron bars on the top, and called it a prison. But the truth of the matter is that that hole wasn’t fit for the rats I had to fight off every night. That hole in the ground is back in Oklahoma Territory.”
Now Solomon turned to face him fully, frowning. “Coke Benson?”
“That would be the bastard. He got all of us; had three posses and the Texas Rangers trap us about a day’s ride from Santa Fe and bring us to him in chains. He put all the Raiders in that hole, Solomon. Except you, of course. You had the good sense to go collect your woman and get the hell away.”
Solomon turned back to the ocean and stood silent for a while. Palomino waited. This was Solomon’s way, when he was playing things out in his head. He wouldn’t speak until he’d worked things out, or had figured out the next thing he needed to work out. Finally he asked, “When were you caught?”
“Six months ago.” Palomino knew what question was coming next, so he said, “We were in that fucking hole – pardon my language, Ellie – for forty-two days. Leland took sick for a while, but he pulled through.”
Leland was Leland Wilcox. At thirty-six, Leland was the oldest member of The Sundown Raiders by ten years. He was the gunslinger who’d taught Solomon how to shoot when Solomon was just a boy.
Solomon said, “Harper, you still haven’t answered my first question. What’re you doing here?”
Palomino took a deep breath and said, “A man offered me five thousand dollars if I’d kill you or escort you to the gallows.”
Palomino was looking at Solomon, but he heard the click of the gun’s hammer as Ellie drew down on him. Solomon’s hand came up as fast as lightning, and Palomino flinched, expecting to die. But his friend’s hand was empty. Solomon was signaling Ellie to put the weapon away.
Palomino looked back at Eloise Parker. Her hands were empty.
Solomon Hanks was the fastest he’d ever seen with a gun, but goddamn if his woman wasn’t pretty quick herself. She’d drawn her gun, aimed and cocked it, and then put it away, and he’d never seen it. So she could look a man in the eye, shoot him dead, and he’d never know what had sent him to Heaven or Hell.
Palomino smiled at Ellie, thinking that for the moment he was safe from her pistol, but that if looks could kill he’d be laid out on the sand right now.
He thought that it must be a sweet thing to have a woman so enamored of you that she’d cut a man down in broad daylight just for voicing a possible threat to you. He knew many ladies who were fond of his intimate abilities, but he wouldn’t bet his life that any one of them would kill for him. Solomon must put it on Ellie right good.
“Where’s the rest of ‘em?” Solomon asked. He was talking about the rest of their gang.
“We all agreed to come after you because we all wanted out of that hole,” Palomino said. “After Coke let us out, we met up about a day’s ride outside of town. Leland said to hell with the reward; said he was going down to Mexico for a spell. Yellowhawk said he was going up the other way, to Canada.”
The Apache Jay Yellowhawk was one of the five men that made up The Sundown Raiders. He’d joined them as a way to take back some of what had been taken from his people.
“And Dudley…well…” Palomino stole a glance at Ellie.
Seeing the look on his face, she asked, “What about Dudley?”
“He’s caught again,” Palomino said. “He got caught robbing the bank right where you two are from, in Cherokee Outlet. I heard that Coke Benson arrested him personally.”
Solomon had gone quiet again. Palomino watched as Ellie went back to him and walked around so that she was facing him. She put both hands on her hips and said, “Solomon, no.”
“Dudley is your cousin,” Solomon said.
“And you’re my man, and I don’t want you going back. This here’s our life now.”
“Ellie, I was going to have to go back one day anyway,” he said. “I need to finish what I started – what started all this.”
Ellie shook her head. “Solomon, you killed the Greenwoods and the Turners – all of ‘em – their whole families. Ain’t that enough? What good’s one more dead man gonna do?”
“Coke Benson was in on it, Ellie. He had a hand in my momma getting burned to death in our house and my daddy getting strung up by the Greenwoods and Turners. And you just heard Harper say it – he wants me dead, too. So I need to go kill Coke Benson. Until I do, we ain’t never gon’ know real peace, because he won’t never stop looking for me.”
Palomino watched and listened and stayed quiet. He didn’t want to get in the middle of a dispute between a man and his woman. But he knew that Solomon was right. Just because The Sundown Raiders wouldn’t betray Solomon didn’t mean that Coke Benson wouldn’t stop trying to bring him down.
As Palomino watched, Ellie spun away from Solomon and stormed his way, kicking up sand as she moved. When she reached him, Palomino discovered that Eloise Parker wasn’t just quick with a gun – she was quick with her bare hand, too. She slapped him so hard and fast that he staggered back and almost went down.
As he rubbed his burning cheek and blinked the lightning flashes from his eyes Ellie said, “This is your fault, Harper Gillette. If you hadn’t come here, my man would be stayin’ home safe with me. Damn you to Hell!”
Solomon didn’t comment to Ellie about her stomping around the kitchen and banging pots like she didn’t have a damn lick of sense. It was best to just leave her be while she was hot and smoking, and hope that she didn’t burn up breakfast too bad.
Harper sat across from him at the dining room table as they waited to eat. His cheek was still fiery, and a little bit of purple bruise was creeping into the red.
“You sure your jaw ain’t broke?” Solomon asked, trying not to smile.
Harper ran his tongue around the inside of his cheek and muttered, “I’m starting to wish that little wench had shot me instead. Might a hurt less.” He lowered his voice and leaned over the table. “So what do you think about Dudley?”
“I’m thinking it don’t smell right,” Solomon said.
“You said that posse, and the Rangers too, got on your tails the day after you hit that bank in New Mexico. They had you boxed in from all directions. So how’d they know to come after you so soon?”
“I was thinking telegraph.”
“And I’m thinking that even with a telegraph, it would take some time for three posses and the Rangers to organize and get riding, and then to find you, especially with Coke Benson’s bunch coming outta Oklahoma. It’s almost like they knew where you was gonna be before you got there. And you say this bank job was Dudley’s idea?”
“And now after getting outta that hole in the ground, Dudley was fool enough to go to Cherokee Outlet and try to hit that bank, right in Coke’s lap. So he’s caught again, by the man who let him go.”
“It does seem a might peculiar,” Palomino said. “I never took Dudley for a fool.”
“But he does like money, and likes to spend it. He ain’t never been in the habit of putting something away for when times get slim.”
“So you think Benson paid him for this whole thing – to set us up to get caught and offer us a reward to get you?”
“Not just that,” Solomon said. “I’m thinking this whole reward business ain’t right. I’m thinking that what Benson really wants is for me to come back to Cherokee Outlet to get Dudley outta that hole in the ground, which I’d bet a gold bar he ain’t in right now.”
Ellie came out from the kitchen with two plates. She set Solomon’s down in front of him. Then she walked around the table and almost threw Harper’s plate into his lap.
Harper smiled up at her and said, “These biscuits look mighty fine, Ellie. They aren’t poisoned, are they?”
Ellie clicked her tongue and said, “The biscuits ought to be just fine. Can’t make no promises ‘bout your molasses, though.” As she spun away and headed back for the kitchen she said, “If the poison don’t kill your sorry white ass, I’ll put some salve on your face after you eat.”
When Ellie was out of earshot Harper said, “You got you a good woman there, my friend. I wouldn’t blame you if you let this business with Coke Benson go, and took her up to Canada. You could do a lot worse than living your life between them sweet thighs of hers and never touching a sidearm again.”
“I like it where I am, Harper. Ellie likes it more. So I need to settle my affairs back in Oklahoma. After that’s done, then I’m gonna stop movin’ and live between her sweet thighs. You can just count on that.”
“Uh-huh. I figured you might say that. So what you gonna do about Dudley? He’s your woman’s kin.”
Solomon said, “If I find out he set ya’ll up and is working with Benson to get me, I’ll kill him, too.”
Harper sopped up molasses from his plate with a biscuit, smiled and said, “I figured you might say that, too.” He lifted the dripping biscuit, said, “Here’s to Ellie’s sweet poison,” and popped it into his mouth.
(To be continued…)