Published on Sunday, September 12, 2010
By Edward A. Grainger
"No Cash, I would like you to hold onto them." The robust Penn waddled behind his desk, sat down, eyeing the rugged six-foot marshal. "Smile all you want, but I'm telling you be careful."
"Chief, the Kid is behind bars. It's just a matter of bringing him in. Why so concerned?"
Penn leaned forward on his desk, shoulders slumping. "Kid Eddie is fast. Real fast. You can see the trail he's left. Thankfully, a bounty hunter named Randall caught him north of Vermillion."
"Well, now that he's robbed a federal bank and crossed state lines the marshal service is interested and I'll bring him back to stand trial," Cash said.
"Yes, but it's two days ride back from Vermillion and I want you to be careful. I'm telling you, I've met the Kid before and. . ."
"What is it, Chief?"
"Just, be careful. Keep those posters as a reminder and bring that dog back so we can put him down."
Cash had been in Vermillion the year before tracking a trio of dangerous owlhoots who ambushed him and left him for dead. He returned the favor by ventilating two and returning their ringleader to prison but he still cringed at the thought of his near-death experience as he rode into town.
He nudged his pinto down the narrow main street to the building marked Sheriff Office and Jail. A shingle dangling in the morning breeze read, "Gary Ramey." Cash tied his horse to the hitching post, beat the trail dust from his shirt, and entered. A thin and watery-eyed, old man sat behind the desk.
"Yes, can I help you?"
Cash extended his hand. "Marshal Laramie from Cheyenne." The palm that greeted his was as feeble as the old stump pumping it.
"Sheriff Trumbull moved on? I worked with him last year."
"Nope, 'fraid didn't move on but gunned down three months back stopping a saloon fight. I was brung out of retirement to take over until the town hires a new peace officer."
Cash was sorry to hear about Trumbull, who had aided him during his shoot out with the hard cases.
"What can I do ya fer, marshal?"
"I'm here to pick up Eddie Morash."
"Oh." He scrunched his face up which without the benefit of teeth had a prune like effect. "I'll be glad to be rid of him."
"Gives me the willies just looking at him."
A perplexed look crossed Cash's face.
"You'll see." He grabbed a set of keys on a nail behind him. "Kid Eddie is in the backroom. Follow me."
He unlocked the door leading to the cells where one lone occupant sat in the first cage.
He had blond hair, cut schoolboy short, with innocent blue eyes. He was skinny but proportionate to his height around five-foot-two inches tall. A wide smile broke free of the youthful face.
"Mr. Ramey, is this the man taking me back to Cheyenne?"
"Yeah, Kid, he is. This is Marshal Laramie."
"Hello, sir." His hand extended up through the bars to the lawman who shook it.
"Eddie," Cash said.
"Eddie. Why I haven't heard that in a spell. Well, actually that's not true, the bounty hunter who brought me in also called me by Eddie and he was ok too. He had a sawed-off Winchester. What kind of iron do you carry?" He peered closer. "Oh, a Colt. I guess most of you marshals carry Colts these days don't ya? I carry-or mean, I carried a —"
"Kid, the marshal and I have some paperwork to fill out."
"Oh, ok—ok Sheriff Ramey. Sure nice to meet you, Marshal Laramie."
Cash nodded and stepped back through the door that Ramey closed before assuming his seat again.
"See what I mean," Ramey said pulling a pen from his desk to fill out the prisoner release forms. "That boy is the most polite, respectful young man I've come across." The sheriff then placed Eddie's belongings on the desk which included a billfold, timepiece, and Navy Revolver.
Cash snagged a cheroot from his pocket and lit it. The tobacco aroma filled the office as he sat across from Ramey signing his name. Finished, he pushed the paperwork back to Ramey and scooped Eddie's personal items off the table.
"Well, there you be," Ramey said double checking the documents. "He's all yours. And a good thing."
Cash released a lungful of smoke. "How's that?"
"Another day of holding that boy and I'm liable to set him free. I just can't imagine he done the things he's accused of."
They made camp along a picturesque creek with grassy banks and plenty of kindling about. The day was pretty much spent and the horses needed a rest before the next full day of riding.
Cash reclined against his saddle lying on the ground in front of the fire that he had built with Eddie's help. He stirred the coals into a blaze with a long tree branch and watched as his prisoner strode to the creek's edge. The youth sat down on a small rock removing his boots with some difficulty because of his bound wrists.
"I've brought plenty of food," Cash said.
"Yeah, but nothing beats a fresh cooked trout. Now you watch, marshal, my pa taught me how to fish barehanded." He began wading out into the stream, stopped and spun around. "Don't ya know, marshal, this would be a lot easier with the handcuffs off."
"I know, I know," he grumbled, turning back to his task.
Cash couldn't help recalling his own childhood when his stepfather, Chief Lightning Cloud, had taught him how to live off the land. Memories of snagging fish from Fall Creek during the hot summer months brought a grin to his square face.
"Gotcha!" Eddie yelled. His shackled hands flew up to the left then down to the right as he clasped tightly onto the squirming trout until he lost his footing and fell into the water. The fish swam away while Eddie rose up shaking his head like a wet dog and sputtering a string of curse words.
Cash guffawed at the scowling youth. "You sure that's how your pa taught you?"
The Kid's face broke into a beaming smile. "Ok, marshal, for that, you don't get any. Enjoy them bacon and beans."
Eddie took his time for the next one, waiting patiently, quietly. In a burst, he drove his hands into the rolling creek and brought out a medium size trout. He held this one with a steadier hand as he carefully made his way back to the bank where he lifted his catch triumphantly above his head, letting out a big whoop.
"Now, marshal," Eddie said setting the fish along the fire. "What say we strike a deal? Some tasty, cooked-to-a-golden-delight trout for my freedom."
"Wouldn't you like to think so," Cash said with a wink.
"Aw, hell," Eddie said. "It was worth a try, I reckon. I'll still share my fish with you."
"Now, Eddie, I've told you not to fall back any farther."
"Sorry marshal. I'm not use to riding such long distances over ground like this." With his wrists handcuffed in front of him, Eddie tapped the reins on his Morgan coming alongside Cash.
"That's hard to believe. You're wanted in half a dozen states."
"I normally ride by coach or rail, marshal, but I didn't commit those crimes." The dropping sun bounced off the youthful chagrin. "But, I guess, I don't expect you to believe me."
"Son, it's not for me to believe you—that's up to the judge and jury in Cheyenne. What's hard to believe is so many posters could be wrong."
Cash pulled the creased over papers from his saddlebags and unfolded them. "Burning down the Methodist church for starters ain't going to win you any accolades."
"Now, I admit I set a fire in the trash. But it wasn't just me, it was also D.J. Robinson and Corey Ward. We was just kids farting around to get out of church. Now whoever stole the church money is beyond me."
"And murdering a widow in Texas?" Cash handed the next wanted over. A faint smile ticked in the corner of the Kid's mouth.
"Ah, heck, marshal. This makes it sound like she was a gray-haired, old marm."
"What difference does it make? You killed her."
"That's just it. I didn't. Look here. I went to Galveston, or I should say pa sent me to work on Clayte Johnson's ranch. Why heck, the moment I hit Galveston, Andi, or I guess I should say 'old lady Johnson,' was all over me. Heck, she jumped in my bed as soon as her old man rode to town overnight on business. I tried to do my best and fend her off but eventually. . . well, heck, like I said, she's no marm."
Cash's mouth twitched a grin.
"You know what I mean, don't ya, marshal?"
"Yeah, we've all had a Mrs. Johnson, but we don't end up killing her."
"I said I didn't." Anger tinged his voice. "Look here, Mr. Johnson comes back early from buying cattle in Dallas and catches us in bed. He gives me a helluva lambasting, within an inch of my life, but I manage to escape out the window and down the lattice. I'm saddling my horse when I hear the gunshot. I should have went back to help her but I was real scared. I just skedaddled. I guess he up and killed her."
Cash opened a canteen and took a swig of water.
"You do believe me?"
Cash placed the posters back and passed the canteen to the earnest-looking face. Sheriff Ramey's trouble believing the Kid's guilt was becoming clearer to Cash. "Like I said before, it's up to a judge and jury to decide."
Eddie went to take a drink as a bullet sliced the air knocking the canteen from his grasp. Hot lead dotted both horses, hammering them to the ground. The pinto fell on Cash's left leg trapping him under its weight. He struggled to shake clear as Eddie crouched low behind his own fallen horse. The shots were coming down from a steep cliff towering above them.
Cash yanked the keys from his belt and tossed them to his prisoner. "Get the hell of here!"
Eddie unlocked his shackles, snagged his Navy Revolver from Cash's saddlebags and took aim, returning fire. They ducked again as horse flesh ripped away.
"Marshal, let me try moving this mare off you."
"Not a chance with them pinning us." Cash grabbed the shotgun from the saddle boot. "Head for those trees yonder and see if you can get around them. I'll lay some cover. Ready?"
Cash peered above his dead horse. "Go!"
From his angle Cash couldn't get a clear bead on a target but began pumping buckshot high, into the rocky fortress. Eddie sprinted across the open plain with a trail of dirt rippling behind him, diving behind a large oak tree.
The ambusher's had two targets to contend with now. Only one shooter's bullets continued to blow chunks of horsemeat in a splattered arc over his head. Cash's plan was working. He spotted Eddie, out of the corner of his eye, now making a run for the base of the cliff to flank them. Cash cranked out a few more shots, and then hid behind the pinto after running out of shells. Dammit, if he could just use the shotgun for leverage to free his trapped leg, but it wasn't possible while being held down by searing lead.
Silence fell around him, followed by random shots belonging to Eddie's revolver. A few more slugs tore into his pinto and then the firing came to an abrupt stop.
Cash lifted his head to see Eddie on the hill's edge approaching a lone gunman who threw down his rifle and raised his hands high. The youth began firing into the attacker's abdomen, and as the bushwhacker doubled over, Eddie emptied the rest of his rounds into the back of the man's head. He stomped over and kicked the dead man with the toe of his boot.
Cash shifted his weight to his right leg, shoving the rifle under his pinto. The rocky terrain made it difficult to get under his mount but working the rifle up and down, he finally managed some solid leverage, freeing his other leg. Cash watched Eddie reload with bullets he'd swiped and move back to a body not seen before. Eddie pumped it full of more slugs and with his heel pushed the cadaver off the cliff.
The young outlaw spotted Cash and ran toward the path leading down the hillside.
The marshal thumbed fresh cartridges into the Colt's cylinder and limped to the base of the cliff, his leg throbbing, weapon trained straight ahead. The third assassin was sprawled on the ground, his face peppered with bullets and neck slashed. This must have been the first man the Kid had disposed of. Eddie appeared a moment later walking boldly across the wind swept ground his unkempt hair flying in the breeze.
"Now, Eddie, lower that piece."
The Kid pointed at Cash's Colt with his left hand. "Is that a bluff, or do you mean it for real?"
"I mean it, Eddie."
"Not a chance, Marshal. I ain't going back to jail." His twisted smile tugged at the corner of his lips.
"What's so funny, Eddie?"
"I should have known. But I thought maybe you was different. Just maybe, I saved your ass and you would let me go, but no." Spittle flew from the Kid's mouth in angry bursts. "I knew who you were when you showed up at Sheriff Ramey's jail with that Arapaho arrowhead 'round your neck. You have a reputation for being a bit different, a kinda outlaw marshal, but I should have known better. Just like my dad, friendly one minute and beating on me the next."
"There was no reason to grind those men into the ground like you did."
"Why the hell not? Those bastards would have shot us and left us for dead. Maybe for the bounty on my head but more likely for our clothing and gear. So, why the hell should we give a damn."
"It separates us from them, Eddie, that's why—"
"I don't need a sermon. I had all I can stomach from Reverend McQueen."
"Is that why you burned the church down?"
"I was good enough to be saved, but not good enough for Millie."
"Yeah, the reverend's daughter." Eddie's voice softened over her name but his eyes remained hard.
"And, yeah, I murdered that whore Johnson." Cash watched the Kid's stance straighten as he unloaded more of his short life.
"She laughed at my pecker, said I'd never be able to satisfy a woman, but after a good cattle prod and sucking on the end of my steel gun, she didn't laugh much longer."
Cash squinted at the monster rising. "And then I waited around and killed her no-good, shit-for-brains husband for the hell of it. I guess they still haven't pinned that on me seeing as they can't find the body that I fed the pigs."
A dust devil skirted the base of the cliff and danced away as dark clouds moved in.
"Eddie, the — "
"The name's Kid Eddie, Marshal! Kid Eddie! Just like Billy the Kid. An outlaw. A — "
"William Bonney is dead, Eddie," Cash said raising his voice to a steady pitch. "And you will be too if you don't put that gun down. I can get the judge to spare you some time for aiding me here and explain you need some help."
"I don't need anyone's help," he leered, tightening his grip.
He fired but a flash before Cash dropped low, and as Kid Eddie's lone bullet whistled past Cash's head, careening away into the distance, Cash tripped the hammer of his Colt onto a cartridge.
Eddie's face grimaced in pain, his left hand plunging to cover the hole in his stomach. He took a halting step forward, raised his pistol again, but Cash's second round tunneled into the outlaw's chest knocking him back and down.
Cash rushed over, surprised to see the boy had life left in him, though it was draining quick, a red ocean making an island of his body in the dirt.
"I'm here, Eddie."
"I can't see."
Cash placed his hand under the Kid's head, lifting it from the rocky ground.
"Tell—tell the story good. That I was fast. That I died — strong." Some blood slipped from his mouth as his lips quivered with words.
"Sure, Eddie." Cash watched the eyes sparkle and then fade, the facial muscles relaxed. Cash closed Eddie's eyes with his hand.
The first faint sprinkle touched his forearm, and by the time he had the Kid underground and was fixing a cross in place, a warm steady rain watered the landscape. Cash had never been much of a religious man but on bent knee and one hand wrapped around the tip of the cross, he mumbled, "Lord, he started out as somebody's boy."
The word "boy" stuck in his trembling voice as the rain bounced off the makeshift headstone.
Not knowing what more to say, he walked to the hilltop where the ambush had begun and collected the belongings of the departed cowboys. The crows would feast on their worthless pieces of skin. They didn't deserve a burial to his way of thinking.
He led the cowboys' horses down the hill and hoisted his own saddle on the back of the strongest stud and headed across the water drenched prairie toward Cheyenne.
"So, that's it?" Devon Penn queried.
Cash nodded. He pushed the tip of his cheroot into the flame of the lucifer and drew. He watched the end of his cigar burn an even red and dropped the match into the ornamental bronze spittoon beside the desk.
"Good. Kid Eddie won't be doing any more harm."
Cash sat across from Penn in the Chief's office, the door ajar to combat the oppressive heat that hung in the air.
"What's the matter, Cash?"
He rolled the cigar between his fingers. "I wanted to believe him."
"What changed your mind."
"Well, Eddie coming straight at me with a revolver, of course, but before that, those wanted posters you gave me, stuck in the back of my head. I considered letting him go after the ambush and then tracking him to the next town, somewhere else, where I could waylay him without a fight. But the way he ground those men down—" Cash's voice trailed off.
"You would have had to face him down one way or another and you may have saved lives by finishing it when you did."
Cash stood, taking his black Stetson from the corner of Penn's desk and adjusting it low to his brow. He moved the cigar to the corner of his mouth.
"What kind of marker did you leave?"
"Half the truth. 'Here lies Eddie Morash. Fast gun and beloved son,'" Cash said heading for the door.
The broad shoulders stopped in the frame of the door, tilting his head to the side.
"You were just doing your job."
Cash rubbed his chin and slowly nodded.
"Yeah — that's the hell of it."
Edward A. Grainger's first western, "Cash Laramie and the Masked Devil" was featured in A FISTFUL OF LEGENDS and the second, "The Wind Scorpion" will appear in the forthcoming BEAT to a PULP: Round One anthology. He lives in Maine with his wife.