Short Stories

Early's Gift

James Early made the trade–an extradition order for a killer.

"Heck of a thing for you, huh," the Oklahoma deputy said as he pocketed the paper. "You gotta travel on Christmas day with this miserable lump."

"Could be worse. If you hadn't caught him, I'd have to be out there chasing him."

"Well, glad I could be of some help."

A steam whistle sounded, and Early, in a sheepskin coat and leather gloves, his work-stained cattleman's hat pulled low, prodded his prisoner up the steps of the caboose while the Oklahoman ambled away toward his car.

Early pushed his prisoner on inside. "Anything to say for yourself, Bailey?"

The man, a shade taller than Early and longer in the leg, gandered around the inside of the railcar tagged at the end of a forty-car freight train. "I got away from you once, Jimmy," he said. "I can do it again."

"You got away from my jail, not from me. There's a difference."

"Your jail's a sieve."

"I hadn't thought so until you slipped out. So I'm going to bunk you at the state prison until your trial, in a cell so deep in the basement you'll bleach white from lack of daylight."

The man flopped down in a wooden chair that rocked, one leg was shorter than the others. "You sore, Jimmy?"

"Disappointed. You never should have run for your daddy's ranch. All I had to do was send word to all the sheriffs down the line. One of 'em was bound to getcha."

"That was a mistake on my part, wasn't it? But I had a merry old time for a while. Drank me some high-quality hooch on the road, too, Jimmy."

"Brag about it to the judge."

The whistle sounded for a second time, and the car jerked as the train hauled itself away from the station at Braman, bound for Wichita, Salina, and points north. Early intended to switch at Salina from the Katy Railroad to the Union-Pacific, for an eastbound train that would take him and his prisoner through Manhattan and Topeka to the state penitentiary at Lansing.

The man looked around the caboose again. "I don't see a latrine here, Jimmy. What if I gotta go before the next stop?"

"Guess you'll just have to hang your fanny off the rear steps."

"That's gonna be cold."

"It's December. Just be glad there's no snow out there to whistle up your butt."

"Can I have some coffee?"

"You're in luck. The conductor left a pot on the stove." Early rousted a tin cup out of a locker by the caboose's pot-bellied smoker and filled the cup halfway, the steel wheels of the car clicking over the rail joints at an ever faster rate. He set the cup on the table in front of his prisoner.

The man stared at the cup and its jiggling contents. "How am I gonna drink it with my hands cuffed behind me?"

Early pulled off a glove. He extracted a key from an inside pocket of his sheepskin. He then elbowed the prisoner. When the man leaned forward, Early unlocked one bracelet and snapped it shut around a pipe that ran from the floor to the ceiling. "Where you go, the pipe goes and it's not going anywhere," he said.

The prisoner, Bailey Koppel, gripped the cup in his free hand. He slurped up a swallow and smacked his lips. "Ooo, hot and thick, Jimmy. You could float a horseshoe on this, just like the coffee we made back in 'Forty-Four in them Belgian woods. That was some time back there, wasn't it, fightin' winter and the Germans? Least we beat the Germans."

Early filled a cup for himself. He took it to a bunk at the side of the caboose and sat down, the car swaying. "We did that," he said before he sipped at his coffee. "It was an awful time, though. We lost half our squad before we got out of those woods."

"I told you if you looked out after me and I looked out after you, we'd come out all right. Some of our guys, though, they got caught solo and picked off. We never did." The prisoner downed more coffee. After a time in thought, when the only sound was the clicking of the wheels and the snap of wood burning in the stove, he said, "Those were good times, Jimmy. I shoulda stayed in the Army. I'd have my sergeant stripes and be in the catbird seat."

"You'd be in Korea, knothead, with the Chinese after you."

"And I'da never married. Least wise, not Raylene."

"Bailey, I told you at the time she was a bad match."

"Oh but, Jimmy, she was built, and, my Lord, she was good in bed—a wild ride every night. And, you've got to admit, I got one sweet baby girl out of it. Four years old now." He looked long at his coffee before he peered, his face ashen, across the caboose at Early stretched out on the bunk. "You think they're gonna kill me?"

"For putting your baby's momma in a grave, I expect so."

"She should'na never run out on me. Will you stand up for me at my trial, Jimmy?"

"I'll have to think on that for a long while."

"Your word might get me a life stretch instead of a seat in Old Sparky. The judge likes you."

"The only thing he likes is I'm hauling you in. Zip it now. I want to get some sleep."

* * *

Koppel glanced up from his dinner plate polished clean. "These Harvey Houses are nice, ain't they, a Christmas tree and all. An' the grub, I'll tell you, Jimmy, it's the best, particularly since you're buying."

Early inspected his fork. "I haven't decided. I may just let you wash dishes."

"Aw, come on, just because I beat you at pinocle on the train."

A Harvey girl—a waitress—set a slab of marble cake on a white china saucer in front of Early.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said.

"And for your friend?"

"Him? He's skipping dessert. He porked out enough on that sixteen-ounce steak."

Koppel threw Early a sorrowful look. "I kinda wanted some ice cream."

"If you're still hungry, gnaw on the steak bone."

"Have a heart, buddy."

A train whistle whooped twice.

Early looked up at the waitress. "That's our train, so we gotta go. Would you mind putting this cake in a sack for me?"

"Not at all," she said and whisked away.

Early rose. He prodded his prisoner to stand up. "Hands behind you."

Koppel complied, and Early cuffed the man's wrists. He then stooped to unlock the shackle that tethered Koppel to his chair.

The moment the shackle fell away from the chair's leg, Koppel kicked Early, banging him into the table. The table and Early went over in a jumble, and Koppel ran, his leg iron clanking on the terrazzo floor.

Early, dazed, came up. He caught sight of Koppel nearing the door to the street side of the restaurant and galloped after him. He tackled Koppel as Koppel slammed his shoulder into the door, to open it.

The two fell to the floor in a jumble.

"You dumbhead," Early said after he rocked himself up on his rump.

"Jimmy, I had to try. It looked like my best chance."

"And your last." Early snapped the open shackle around Koppel's free ankle. It squeezed Koppel's boot top tight.

Early left him lying in a heap and went back to the overturned table. There he snatched up his hat, slapped it on his head, and grubbed some folding money from his pocket. Early swapped the money for the sack the waitress held out to him.

"Does this happen to you often?" she asked.

"Only every thirteenth Christmas. That ten ought to take care of supper and any broken dishes."

The other guests in the restaurant applauded when Early recovered Koppel. Early flushed, then yanked Koppel to his feet and shoved him toward the train-side door.

"You better pray we don't miss that train," Early said. "If we do, I'm gonna rent me a horse and drag you to prison at the end of a lariat."

"That's more'n two hundred miles."

"So you remember your geography from eighth grade. Are you praying?"

Koppel shuffled, the leg irons restraining him, keeping him from developing any foot speed. "It wasn't personal, you know. You mad?"

"How'd you guess?"

Koppel tripped on the doorsill.

Early hauled up on the prisoner's arm, to steady him. He hollered at the conductor. When the man didn't turn around, Early whipped out his Forty-five. He fired the big gun into the air.

The blast caused the conductor to jump. He jerked around.

Early holstered his pistol. "Mase, it'd be nice if you'd hold the train. My prisoner's a mite slower than when we came off the caboose."

The conductor—Mason Tremelow—waved, then threw a hold sign to his engineer forty cars away. That done, he trotted over to Early.

"Sheriff, I wouldn't have left you," he said. "You want me to help you get him up in the caboose?"

"No, old Bailey can do the work. He can hop up a step at a time."

"That message you wanted telegraphed to your office, it's done. I expect you'll have an answer waiting for you at Salina."

"Mase, I appreciate that."

Koppel stopped at the steps up to the caboose's rear platform. He stared at them. "Jimmy, you really expect me to hop up these? I could break my neck."

"The toe of my boot in your butt'll help you."

"Not necessary. Not necessary."

With an effort, Koppel hopped both feet up onto the first step. He sucked in a breath, then hopped up each of the remaining two steps to the platform.

Once inside, Early pushed Koppel into the wobbly chair that he had warmed for three hours. He again handcuffed his prisoner to the pipe next to the chair.

Koppel peered down at his boots. "You gonna free my legs?"

Early ignored him. He settled himself on the bunk and reached into his sack for his slab of cake.

"You're not gonna eat that, are ya?" Koppel asked.

"Yup."

"You gonna offer me some?"

"Nope."

"Jimmy, it's Christmas."

* * *

At Salina, well into the evening, Early stepped down and Koppel, still shackled, hopped down from the caboose.

There stood the train's conductor. "The eastbound U.P.'s idling over there," he said with a nod toward the crossing tracks.

Koppel was doing a little dance. "Jimmy, I gotta pee," he yammered. "I gotta pee bad."

"They'll wait for us, I guess. There's a bathroom in the depot. Hop to it."

"Funny. That's really funny, buddy." Koppel started away, then stopped. "How am I gonna get my fly open with my hands cuffed behind me?"

"Well, I'm not gonna do it."

"Then you better cuff my hands in front of me."

Early, grimacing, produced his key. He uncuffed and recuffed Koppel's hands in front of him, then waved him on.

A telegrapher, a young kid, came dashing out of the depot, shivering in a light shirt and a vest. He eyed Koppel as he passed him. "I-I don't see many like him," he said to Early, his teeth chattering. "Are-are you the Riley County sheriff?"

Early thumbed his coat's lapel over, revealing his badge pinned to the underside.

The telegrapher held out a paper, his hand quaking. "This-this is for you then."

Early read the message. When finished, he stuffed the paper in his pocket.

"An-any reply?"

"Send them the arrival time of the U.P. train in Manhattan. Tell 'em we'll be in the caboose."

"Con-consider it done." He raced away for the warmth of the depot.

A Union-Pacific conductor, in an overcoat with the collar turned up, hop-stepped across the Katy's tracks and came up to Early. "You the man we've been waiting for?" he asked.

Early reached out his gloved hand. "James Early. I've got a prisoner relieving himself in the can. How long are you gonna stop in Manhattan?"

"Normally, a couple minutes to throw off mail and take on any that's going eastbound. A little longer, tonight. They've got two boxcars on a siding they want us to take on."

"So, what, ten minutes?"

"That's a good estimate."

"Could you make it fifteen?"

"Why's that?"

"There's gonna be a Christmas present waiting for my prisoner. He needs a little time to enjoy it."

"Important, huh?"

"Yeah, it is."

"Where is this fella?"

"As I said, in the can."

"Well, you better get him. We need to be going."

"Right."

Early trotted away to the depot and on inside. He spotted the men's room sign and pushed on the door.

It didn't give.

He pounded on it. "Bailey, get your butt out here. It's time to go."

No answer.

Early pounded again. "Bailey, do you hear me? Didja you lock this door?"

Again no answer.

Early rattled the doorknob, then he put his shoulder into the door. On the second try, the jamb around the lock splintered, the door flinging open. It banged against the sink.

A voice came from beyond the window. "Could you help me, Jimmy?"

There on the men's room side of a smallish window, the sash pushed up, hung Koppel's rear end, legs and boots, the shackles still in place around his ankles.

"I'm stuck," he said.

"What the name of Kris Kringle were you trying to do?"

"I thought if I could get out the window, maybe I could get away."

"Brightness was never your strong suit."

"You gonna help me or just jabber?"

"Where's a newspaper editor with a camera when we need one?"

"You'd take a picture of me like this?"

The telegrapher leaned in. "I got a Brownie Hawkeye with a flash."

"Good, come on." Early led the way outside where he posed, hauling on Koppel's arms, with a foot braced against the depot wall.

"Yer enjoying this, ain'tcha?" Koppel said as the flash went off.

"I intend to put a big blow-up of this picture on my office wall." Early again hauled on Koppel's arms, this time with a stern effort. "Man, you really are wedged in there."

"You just figured that out?"

"If you got only this much of you out before you jammed, we ought to be able to pull you back in from the other side. Now don't go 'way."

"Hurry it up, will ya? This ledge is cuttin' my gut."

Early led the charge back in with the shivering telegrapher right after him. He again posed, facing the camera, this time pulling on Koppel's belt with both hands and again with his foot braced against the wall. There was an explosion of light, and Early rapid flashed his eyelids to get rid of the stars.

"Son," he said to the telegrapher, squinting hard, "how about you run outside and push on his head, and we'll get him out of here?"

The telegrapher disappeared. A moment later, from outside he called back, "Sheriff, you ready in there?"

"I'm ready. Push."

"Don't I get anything to say about this?" Koppel squalled.

"No. Push!"

Early felt something give, some movement, as he pulled on Koppel's belt. "Put your shoulder into him," he hollered.

Koppel came unstuck. He shot backwards through the window, like a cork out of a seltzer bottle. He knocked Early back, and Early fell into the waiting room, an exhausted Koppel on top of him.

Early wriggled out from under. He went for his hat, squared it on his head, then pitched Koppel over his shoulder and ran. "Send me the pictures, eight-by-tens," he called back.

* * *

Early felt something shaking his shoulder.

He opened his eyes.

There leaning over him, rocking with the motion of the caboose, stood the U.P. conductor. "Manhattan in three minutes," he said and went back to his desk.

Early laid still for a moment, getting his bearings, then he hefted his feet off the bunk. Early stretched and worked at getting the kinks out. When fully awake, he slapped Koppel's knee, Koppel asleep shackled to his chair and the pipe.

Koppel's head jerked up.

"Bailey, it's almost midnight, but we still got a little Christmas left." Early unlocked the prisoner's leg irons and handcuffs.

Koppel massaged his wrists.

The train slowed, the time between the clicking of the caboose's wheels over the rail joints expanding. Early gave a jerk of his head toward the backdoor of the caboose. "I gotcha a present."

"Yer lettin' me go?"

"Hardly. Come out on the platform."

Early led the way. He felt something brush the side of his coat when he stepped out the door and swatted at whatever it was.

Koppel yelped.

Early snarled. "Bailey, you go for my gun a second time and I'll pitch you off the train head first so you break your neck. Now get out here."

Koppel came through the door into the cold night air, the sky clear of clouds and spangled with stars.

"Lean out and take a look ahead," Early said. "See that tall guy outside the depot?"

"I got him."

"That's my deputy. That girl bundled up with him, that's your daughter, Bethy. She's waiting to see you."

Koppel pulled back in. He stared at Early lighted by the single bulb burning inside the caboose. "This isn't some kinda joke after what I done to you, is it?"

"Nope. It's Christmas, Christmas for the two of you."

"How long?"

"Fifteen minutes. If I was you, I'd sure spend it giving a baby girl a good memory of her daddy. This may be your last chance for that."

 

© Jerry Peterson.

Early's Winter by Jerry Peterson