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Goddamned GunslingerThe Devil is an artist, a con-artist. He dearly loves to spin deals. And with the exception of thin covenants between utopians and materialists, the coy Prince of Darkness loves dearly to peddle revenge.

Jan Coleman was a man with an insatiable dream of vendetta, a dream in need of a financier. He found that the Devil was his willing banker. Jan’s vendetta would not need traditional capital however, rather the true aim of a bloodthirsty slug.

Jan Coleman rode into Ivanhoe County, Texas in 1870, at the peak of Reconstruction. From the west he rode on a jet-black mare that matched his sooty hat and scraggly ebon curls. Though there is no proof of his actual origin, it is believed that Jan came out of the Hill Country west of Austin. At that time the region was still swarming with untamed Comanche. His ruthless means of torture indicate this likely possibility, for the Comanche were notorious for their elaborate means of inflicting pain. The stranger often times mimicked these practices. But perhaps his alleged association with the tribe is fictitious. Perhaps he was cruel simply by nature. The few that had made Jan’s acquaintance, prior to his embarking into the realm of revenge, say that he was a mediocre shot at best; we can only deduce that he learned that otherwise innate art… from Hell itself?

To his fellow, bedraggled, rebel soldiers crushed by the War Between the States, Jan was something of a hero. To the southern ladies he put into action the venom they so terribly coveted. But to the Northern Provisional government and the Union forces that occupied southeast Texas, Jan Coleman was known only as that, “Goddamned Gunslinger.”

Still, once his rampage had run its course, the man would be embraced by no one. Well, no one earthly that is.

The summer that Jan entered Ivanhoe County a hard drought lingered. Cracks scurried across the ground on their way to rainier days. Emerging from the piney woods in the north, the stranger made his way into a small settlement on the edge of the county. The smell of manure stuck in the air. Lifting off of his saddle, shaking off the pain and the dust, he entered the Spartan Hotel. With hat drawn down below his eyes he addressed the clerk,

“I need a room – maybe a week, maybe a month – I just don’t know.”

“Rent rooms by the day here, friend.” The weathered clerk dryly replied.

Lifting his head up, the look of agony across his sweaty, chiseled face, he repeated himself.

“Well friend, policy ain’t changed since yer first request; rooms by the day.”

“How much?”

“Fiftteen-cent.”

Reaching into his filthy pocket, the stranger, as well as a fist of dust, procured two silver dollars.

“This is all I got.”

“I can work with that, have to wait for the manager – get into the safe. You don’t have to wait though. I’ll bring ya yer change. Room 13, right up-them upstairs behind ya.”

As the stranger turned and began towards the stairs, the clerk continued, “With that kinda money might wanna think a-gettin’ a whore.”

“All I want is a room.” The stranger said over his shoulder.

“You sure friend, we got some fine beauties here. Lotta Belles whose ivory tower done fallen down.”

The stranger, who had by now made it to the mid-point on the raw wood stairwell, stopped. With his back still turned to the clerk, he retorted, “Stop calling me friend.”

The clerk, a veteran of two wars, was unperturbed.

“Suit yerself stranger.”

Once up to his room Jan tossed his only luggage, a dried leather knapsack, onto the narrow, single bed. Among its contents were a bottle of whiskey, a wide, long buck knife and a copy of the Texas Constitution of 1869. Passed just the year prior this document did to the Lone Star State what could not be tolerated: it centralized authority. The stranger sat on the gray blanket that covered the sagging mattress, and began to read. Pulling a plug from his pocket, he bit off a square.

Some miles away, at the Wamba Saloon, the ranking officer of the occupying army, Colonel Jay Houser, sat with his newly arrived wife. Mrs. Houser had traveled all the way from Ohio to be with her husband of less than a year. Separated shortly after their wedding day due to Jay’s reassignment, Mrs. Houser considered her trip to Texas a kind of belated honeymoon. The two sat at the bar festively drinking. Across the room at a solitary table, the black Republican, Simon Shaw, sipped Scotch while browsing the local paper, the Ivanhoe Eye. His silk derby sat on the table next to his glass.

As well as the dreaded constitution, Jan had in his possession a map of the county. He drew a small leather notebook from his back pant pocket. Fumbling through its pages he stopped at a list of some sort. Tapping his index finger on some scribble written on the first line of the page, he spit a wad of tobacco at the floor. A sliver of sweat dripped from his nose and onto the paper, causing the ink to smudge.

The summer sun in Texas is stubborn. It wishes to never rest. It was 9:30 before the last shadows had evaporated from the ground. The stranger mounted his horse and headed further into town.

By now the bar was filled to capacity, some of which were friends of the colonel, officers he had met in the last year. They had arrived to meet the wife of their commander and to get drunk. Simon Shaw continued to sip Scotch and read his paper.

The sound of the stranger’s boot shifted timbre from the parched street to the porch plank of the saloon. Few noticed this dark character as he ordered at the bar. Lifting his whiskey to his lips, Jan Coleman turned and surveyed the room. The Wamba pianist, an eccentric who would later be known as the Sage of Ivanhoe County, began to play as he had every Saturday night for years. As the thick rouge of the music filled the cloudy tavern, the stranger saw an out of place ‘negro’ sitting solitary across the room. Killing his drink, setting the empty receptacle carefully down behind him, he made his way through the maze of chattering tables.

Shaw, looking up from his paper, could barely get a greeting out before he was shot in mouth. The stranger kept shooting, emptying his entire cylinder into the politician’s face. As the mass of meat, that was formerly Shaw’s head, collapsed onto the table, the Union men at the bar drew their side arms. Jan was an observant man. His senses were as acute as a predator’s. From inside his Long Rider coat he pulled out his companion Colt. With the precision of a snake he shot down the partygoers at the bar before they could even cock their weapons: Five bullets for five Federal soldiers, one for Mrs. Houser. A corrupt cloud of gunpowder and cigar smoke pervaded the startled Wamba Saloon. The stranger was nowhere to be found.

Back at his hotel room Jan sat on the cot and, with a pocketknife, cleaned the gunk from under his fingernails. A knock at his door alerted him. Jan, wishing to hide, lifted himself slowly off of the bed, but its creaking gave him away. The knocking continued.

“Who is it?” He half whispered.

“Why it’s me you silly man!” The voice answered from the other side.

The stranger, reluctantly opening the door, found a strikingly handsome man standing in the doorway. He wore a black suit with gray pin-strips, topped off with a black starched derby. An unlit cigar hung from his ring-laden left hand. From his right hand swung a black briefcase.

“Can I come in?” The dude asked in an aristocratic English accent.

“What do you want?” The stranger asked desperately.

“Why to see how my new investment is doing, that’s all.”

“You didn’t tell me the Blue Devils’ would be there! And what about that woman, she was innocent!”

“Please refrain from using the words ‘Blue’ and ‘Devil’ together would you, Jan?” The dude entered the stark pine room. After setting down his briefcase he lit the cigar.

“Innocent people die everyday, most for no reason at all. You’ll get over it my boy. The taste of blood is addictive.”

“Why are you here? Are you following me?”

“I follow everyone. Another entry for my book, you haven’t lost it have you?”

Jan pointed to the nightstand that stood next to the bed. The dude placed his cigar in the ashtray and picked-up the thin leather notebook. Scribing a name with an exquisite fountain pen, he then handed the book to his client.

“It looks like my handwritin’!”

“Yes, it still amazes me that you can actually read. The sooner you get done the sooner I can collect. Oh, before I forget…a change of clothes.” The dude said pointing to the briefcase. “The authorities will be looking for that awful outfit of yours. Your discretion is almost as bad as your taste in clothing. But, they’ll get no help from the locals, at least.”

With that the dude left. Jan sat on his cot and stared at his fingernails. He creased his eyes as a painful memory trespassed into his consciousness; he reached for the bottle to chase it away. From around his dirt-specked neck he removed a locket. A graying chest hair sat wedged in the ornament’s small door. Pulling out the hair, tenderly prying open the gateway, Jan softly blew out the dust – revealing a portrait of a woman. Tears formed in the corners of the murder’s eyes, but this was a face used to fighting back remorse. After closing the locket, he placed it delicately on the nightstand and then opened the leather book.

It was sunup before all the commotion in and around the Wamba Saloon would settle. Word went out in the next addition of the Ivanhoe Eye, (the press of which was now run by the Federal government), to be on the lookout for a man dressed in black. When the details of this alarming event were revealed to the populace however, it was met with silent consternation. For the Yankees were plain hated. No one dared declare it, but the dark stranger was a local hero. The clerk at the Spartan Hotel had a notion as to the man in Room 13, but decided not to act on it.

Raymond Clark was a Carpetbagger from Vermont. He had come south four years prior. In the past year he had settled in Ivanhoe County. Buying up cheap, foreclosed farmland, Mr. Clark was making a fortune in the rice and cotton markets. Dispossessed whites hated his guts. As the short, pock-faced, tubby man wobbled his way to the county courthouse, the women he passed ignored the tipping of his top hat. Once inside there was much work to do, as Mr. Clark had several hundred more acres of land to file under his name. Fumbling through Bills of Sale and Warranty Deeds the repulsive purloiner stood oblivious to the resentment that loitered about him.

The stranger stepped into the mid-day sun a new man. Having bathed and changed his straggly clothes, Jan Coleman resembled a gentleman. But this was no gentleman. The subtle regret that had invaded his conscience the night prior had dissolved like the past night’s moisture. Mounting the black mare he made his way into the heart of the county. All that remained of his former garb was the sooty hat, which flopped to the rhythm of the clomping hooves.

Raymond Clark was just finishing up while the well-dressed stranger tethered his horse. As the squatty yank exited the courthouse, the black-hatted gentleman came walking towards him. As the carpetbagger on this occasion had his pants on, Jan Coleman did not recognize him. For an instant he pondered Shaw’s likeness to that which was stored in his memory.

“Mr. Clark, Mr. Raymond Clark?”

“Why yes, do I know you from somewhere?”

“Mr. Clark, I’ve got some real estate that you might be interested in. It’s several thousand acres of good grazing land just south-a-here.”

“Grazing land? Cattle grazing land? I’ve been contemplating the cattle business. Soon to boom, soon to boom! Lots of hungry folks up north. Mind if I ask your name stranger?”

“I’m sorry sir, my name is Coleman.”

“Uh, don’t recall any Coleman. White Republican you are Coleman?”

“Why yes.”

Through silver-tongued persuasion the gentleman coerced Raymond Clark to accompany him to the southern edge of the county, a wild area of salt grass and sand dunes. After several hours on horseback, filled with fabricated banter and business talk, the two made it to Jan’s desired local. Stopping his horse and dismounting, Jan took his horse by the reins, guiding her under a lone oak. Still mounted, Raymond Clark followed behind.

“Nice sea breeze Mr. Coleman. But I’m not sure if this would make for adequate grazing.” The carpetbagger said looking about from atop his mount. But as he turned towards his guide he was startled at what he found. Coleman had drawn his Colt, and it was pointing right at him!

“Alright, off the horse – now!”

“What’s this all about sir, I meant no offense.”

“I’m sure you meant no offense back in Marble Falls!”

“Marble Falls! I’ve never been that far west in my life!”

“Had you not been so successful stripping Southern patriots of their heritage, you’d have made a fine actor Mr. Clark!”

Clark, in a spark of untapped courage, wheeled his horse around and took off across the weedy flats. Jan cocked his Colt and with unthinking sagacity hit Clark in the back of the knee. The man fell violently from his horse. The gentleman in the sooty hat, after pulling a rope from his horse’s satchel, approached his victim as he lay writhing in agony on the ground.

“What’s the meaning of this sir? Please, I implore you!” Clark cried out coiled in pain.

Jan fitted the noose around Clark’s neck. Whistling to his mare, she trotted to him at command. After mounting Jan dragged Raymond Clark back to the oak. But a simple hanging would be too merciful. Lifting the noose from the carpetbagger’s throat, Jan tied Clark’s arms and legs together. The man was now hog-tied.

The fire was getting hot. Jan made another round around the surrounding countryside to gather up more wood. Once the flames were churning with sufficient zeal he grabbed the free end of the rope and mounted the mare. Using a large limb as his fulcrum, the gentleman lifted the whimpering Yank some four feet from the ground. Drawing a large buck-knife from his saddle he cut off his victim’s clothes. Raymond Clark hung naked, waiting to be roasted.

It took several days, but word finally made it into the streets of Ivanhoe County that a man had been cooked alive just south of town, in the same manner used by the Comanche. Though it was met with alarm, the sheer terror of it was somewhat abated by the fact that the clothes found beside the charred body were of a certain hated carpetbagger. Many of the county’s most avowed racists considered it a fitting end for a, ‘nigger-lover.’ The occupying garrison was now fanatically preoccupied with finding a certain stranger.

A tap, by now familiar, sounded in Room 13.

“Style my boy, what style. I think I’m rubbing off on you.”

“The man was a sick pervert!” Jan retorted.

“I would have castrated him as well, sever the offending appendage.”

“I don’t have the stomach for that.”

“Really?” the dude asked with a swagger of doubt in his voice.

Once the dude was finished with their formal business, as he was leaving, he turned to his client, “You do understand that our deal is nearly complete?” he said smugly.

“Of course I do!”

The dude lifted his baby soft hand and patted the stubble-rough cheek of the murderer.

“It won’t matter if you do or not.”

****

Jack Gideon had left Texas for good at the outset of the war. Had the South won, he would have been hung as a traitor if he had ever returned. But the South had lost. Jack Gideon, though by now in the latter stages of syphilis, was a Yankee confidant. Jack Gideon was the most hated of creatures: a Scalawag.

Tertiary Syphilis had settled in on the 45-year-old traitor. Gummas had formed on his forehead, thus making him (to the natives) as hideous physically as he was ideologically. Jack was the sole survivor of one of the most prestigious families in all of Ivanhoe County. His status as a turncoat hurt deeply.  The traitor was recently elected to the state legislator as a representative of his district. But Jack was no representative; Jack was a Republican. Having made Simon Shaw’s aquaitanence in Ohio during the war, the egotistical native of Ivanhoe County adopted the guise of what would best promote Jack.  Wealth usually accompanies power and Jack was no exception. Excruciatingly vain, corruption found in his rotten soul fertile ground. Using his disease as an excuse to act in the most bankrupt of fashion, Jack had entered upon a scheme with his Yankee friend, the president of the First National Bank of Ivanhoe County. Bribes were offered to the areas ailing landowners: a bounty of wives and daughters. Jack and his banker buddy were also involved in a myriad of other schemes as well. As a result the Scalawag had built considerably on his modest inheritance. On this particular day Jack Gideon was on his way to First National to see his fellow scoundrel.

Jan Coleman finished making his cot. He had not slept well. The same troubling nightmare that had troubled him for several years troubled him further. Running his hand across the woolen gray blanket, he took particular care in making sure the top crease was perpendicular to the bottom. The thirsty sun was by now shouting into his room. Today was the day. The score of seven years would be settled. From the black briefcase he removed his new set of clothes. Placing them on the mattress, he sat exhausted on the edge of the tightly made bed. Peering into the corner across from his cot he saw a fold from his black pant leg protruding. The authorities were looking for the man who walked in those trousers. Looking back at the fresh outfit sprawling beside him, then back at the satchel, he rose.

Back at the bank, the two “associates” were finishing up.

“Well Jack, the kickback will be enormous. And we’ll get the last of their fertile soil.”

The obese banker said to his mildly deformed cohort.

“Can’t believe there’s anything left – with this drought and all, Ruben.”

“This is the last of it. I just hope we can bleed it dry before it turns into a blasted desert.”

Jan Coleman left the key to Room 13 on the clerk’s desk. The dark stranger mounted his ebony mare. The further into town he trotted the more noticed he became. But Jan was a keen observer. Through the duration of his stay in Ivanhoe County he had ascertained the patterns of the soldiers and police. With careful avoidance he made his way to the FNBIC. Punching his horse in the side, the mare trotted up the low hill where the location in question sat waiting. The bank was bustling. Behind him, a trail of townsfolk – mainly adolescent boys, followed behind.

“Well alright, Ruben, I’ll let you know my final decision no later than Friday.” Jack Gideon said rising to leave.

“By the way Jack, I’m sorry to hear about your friend Simon Shaw. Seems a madman’s loose!”

“Yes Ruben, Shaw was perhaps the only righteous one among us. He did what he did for principle and not profit.”

“Well, fools meet an early grave!” Ruben declared with a garish chuckle.

The two shook hands and parted. Jack noticed a commotion going on outside of Ruben Shultz’s office. But before he could investigate his ears rang with gunfire! One moment there was a panic of screams, then a moment later, nothing. The terrified banker and the Scalawag hunched down behind the large wooden desk in Ruben’s office. The thud of boots filled the creepy silence. Through a haze of gun smoke the faint stain of a man appeared in Ruben’s doorway.

Outside the loquacious horde of onlookers was broken by the thunder of a many horses. The rotund banker panicked and ran to the windows that lined the front of his office.

“We’re in here!” Here – help…!

In mid-sentence Ruben Shultz’s arm was blown off by several rounds of the Goddamn Gunslinger’s .45.  Collapsing to the floor, blood pouring from his shoulder, the hysterical man grasped for what was no longer there. The sound of empty shells hitting the floorboards echoed from the next room; followed by the snap of a cylinder then the click of trigger. The dark figure emerged from the vapor and stood over the corrupt banker.

“No…no…no…!” The fat man whimpered, shaking his head in unison with his own plea.

A second later that head was gone.

The front door of the bank burst open and two soldiers plunged in! Springing into action the Gunslinger did a one-eighty, shooting both in the neck. The floor, which was already running with blood, would momentarily be carpeted with it.

“Don’t – don’t come in!” A timid voice hollered from behind the desk. “This is Representative Jack Gideon! Don’t come in – he’ll…he’ll kill me!”

Jan Coleman turned and saw, peering from around the desk, a man who he believed had destroyed all that he had lived for. Snot giggled from the weeping man’s disfigured nose. The Gunslinger stared at him with characteristic agony…and pointing his pistol at the Scalawag’s face,

“Tell them, ‘you’re my hostage.’ Tell them to, ‘pull back or I’ll kill you.’ Tell them, tell your Yankee friends – now!”

Jack repeated his orders. The soldiers began dropping back like a receding wave.

“Get up you wretch!” The Gunslinger ordered.

Trembling, Jack rose from behind the desk. Desperately trying not to step in the mess that was his former friend, he carefully made his way before his captor.

“In the back maggot!” The Gunslinger said pointing his firearm towards the other room. The Scalawag was suddenly confronted with a litter of bodies.

Outside the army argued amongst themselves as to the best approach.  Things had, up until this recent arrival, gone peacefully. The soldiers had gotten adjusted to approaching their jobs with a particular ease. The reality of the Goddamn Gunslinger had not yet found equilibrium.

The screams of the scalawag filled the lead vault but they did not transcend it. As strips of flesh, like slices of beef jerky, fell to the floor – the Gunslinger’s victim pleaded in unfathomable torment.

“Don’t you know why it had to come to this!” Jan, pontificating asked.

“No! I don’t know! Please I’ve money – lot’s of money!”

The Gunslinger laughed a vermiculated laugh,

“Money? Money, in this instance, is not the motivation sir!”

“Why, what do you want of me!” Jack pleaded struggling to stand. His severed Achilles tendons impugned his efforts sending him tumbling to the ground. A jab into his kidney was followed by a serrated yell. While the poor Yankee sympathizer lay in the fetal position in agony, the Gunslinger cut off his shirt and began skinning the man’s back. The thrashing was so violent that the Gunslinger’s knife punctured deeply into the wretch’s spine.

Through pathetic sobs the scalawag begged for mercy. The Gunslinger answered,  “Jenny Coleman.

“Jenny who!”

“Coleman!” The Gunslinger yelled in the proximity of his victim’s ear. “Jenny Coleman, the young woman you and your Yankee friends’ raped and murdered outside of Marble Falls seven years ago!”

“Marble Falls – seven years ago! I was in Ohio seven years ago!”

“You lying pig! And what do we do to lying pigs?” Grabbing Jack by the face, forcing open his mouth, ready to sever the man’s tongue – a door opened and shut outside the vault.

“My goodness Jan, you’ve really outdone yourself this time, haven’t you?” It was the dude! “And where are you my boy?” he called from the lobby of the bank.

“I’m in here!” Jan Coleman announced, letting go of the scalawag’s head. Jack Gideon fell in a bloody collection of abused parts.

“Ah…and what do we have here? You should really finish him off my boy. Those clowns outside are coming in any minute.” the dude commented.

“He told me that he wasn’t even in Texas back in ’63!”

“Is that right? Hmm…” The dude replied striking a match on the sole of his supple leather boot.

“I don’t think he’s lying!” Jan declared quizzically, realizing what it might mean.

“Perhaps; I don’t know; maybe not.” A smoke ring contorted upward.

“Maybe not – what are you saying?”

“You’ve got your pound of flesh, literally. What’s the difference my boy? You asked for a nigger Republican, a Carpetbagger and a Scalawag. That’s what I delivered. Location, time and vivid description.”

“That’s what you delivered? You told me these were the men that defiled my wife!”

“Please, please kill me.” The figure on the floor begged.

The Gunslinger removed his Colt and shot the man in the head. Then, with the look of betrayal ground into his gaze, he pointed the barrel at the dude – who continued,

“When we met at that dingy saloon in Burnett County, I was so moved by your tragic, drunken tale. I simply wished to help. Do you really think that’ll do the trick, my boy?” In the vortex of a deafening ring the dude, though laughing, dropped abruptly to his knees. And removing his hands from his torso…he found that his palms and fingers were covered with blood. The Gunslinger was gone! In his wake lay ten dead Union soldiers; not counting the twelve innocent bystanders slaughtered in the FNBIC.

Westward the Goddamn Gunslinger fled, into the arid unknown. A puff of dust was followed by a larger puff of dust. Sometime afterward the deliberate, forked cloud of a well-dressed rider would trail behind.

The Yankees were unsuccessful in apprehending the vicious murderer that had contemptuously squatted in their county. However, a certain man, his deliberation vindicated through the annals of time, a feeder on all things that make life worth the struggle, would indeed collect a debt. It was finished.