By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. Soon, there'd be no trace of the man who'd killed me.
The old oak was Fall-dry and fixing to burn. The flames licked at its bark as though they liked the taste. I just stood there, watering the dirt with my blood, sipping Old Crow from a chipped bottle. Edward Laramy dangled like a messed-up piñata; his dead eyes open in an accusatory fashion. The rope at his throat had turned the flesh purple and burst blood vessels bloomed like flowers beneath the skin of his cheeks. The mob had long high-tailed it out of town, but they needn't have bothered. No one in Salvation would have fingered the trigger over a rat bastard like Laramy. Not even the Sheriff.
It was hard to say who had taken to lighting the tree on fire after Laramy's lynching. He'd wronged so many, he'd earned himself the title of the Devil's Apprentice. Some adopt such names in the hopes of a reputation that might someday give birth to legend. Edward Laramy needed no such self-promotion.
There had been a time—when Edward was just a boy—that reports of missing animals got to spreading. One or two caused no concern, but when the list grew as long as a grown man's arm, growing alarm came with it. Alarm gave way to dread when some of the critters were found with their insides on the outside.
There was relative quiet for a time and the young man's greatest crime was simply airing his lungs in the thoroughfare: telling folks what he thought of them without invitation. But that wasn't enough for his spirit of inquiry. Edward was changing. His shoulders grew broad and his limbs grew thick. His eyes became charcoal-black: a match for his hair. His soul was the same hue. Soon he was nestling up to every lady he saw, it was no matter to him how many winters they'd seen. Or how few.
The law answered the growing list of complaints by storing him in a cell for the odd stint. Not even the hoosegow could clip his horns. He continued to slake his every thirst—indulge his every need. More than one young lady came forward, testifying to violation and degradation and exposing him for what he was: an agent of evil.
The townsfolk had had enough. They seethed. They massed. They gathered every pistol, rifle, pitchfork, and shovel they could lay their hands on and came at him from every angle. Cornered and outnumbered, Laramy spat a colorful array of venomous threats into the face of the collective beast. Then he was gone.
Fate being the curly old wolf that he is, it wasn't long before Laramy met some like-minded folks at the Whistlewater Saloon, not half a day's ride south. In his eyes, his appraisers saw the flicker of Hellfire. And they liked it. He would come to lead those boys on a campaign of horrific proportions throughout the territories. They must have ticked off every one of the Good Book's seven deadly sins in alphabetical order. Then they discovered some that even God hadn't thought up yet.
Word trickled back of the gang's exploits. There were stories of whole towns laid to ruin—every soul fed to the Earth. And every man, woman, and child in Salvation lost sleep for months on end. It wasn't a question of would he return? Just a matter of when.
It was just on dusk when the so-called 'Hellfire Gang' appeared. The siege would go on for days and soon, there were more of Salvation's residents in the Bone Orchard than left standing on two feet. That's when the messenger found me. I thought I'd done a good enough job of keeping to myself. I was wrong. Their detective work rivaled that of the Pinkerton's—they'd been at it for months. Good for them.
When I blew in, Edward took one look at me and stood his men down. I'd been a fast hand in my day and my reputation was such that more duels were refused than accepted. Edward knew me. He looked deep into my eyes and he saw, not Hellfire, but all the judgment of Revelations. And it was all aimed squarely at him.
"How about we sit a spell, old man? Take a drink and shoot the breeze a while," he said.
"Well, I'd like that just fine, Edward," I replied, surprising myself.
We sat in that empty saloon, enjoying the twang of whiskey and the scent of cigars, looking for all intents and purposes like a couple of long-lost buddies. Moments became hours and our conversation turned to past exploits. I felt as though we were trying to outlast each other—test each other's mettle. I was wrong about that too. For in the depths of that black soul, I beheld the spirit of a child; a child that sought acceptance. Redemption. Love.
When the mercenaries I'd hired on the way into town arrived and promptly took to murdering Edward's men, I saw a look of betrayal on his face that nearly broke me. I should have borne him no forgiveness. No mercy. No tenderness. But in those black eyes was a glimmer; barely perceptible, but it was there. Was there some humanity left in there after all? If there was, had I stamped it out like last night's campfire?
That's when he shot me in the chest and broke my heart for real. As the gun smoke cleared, I could see Edward staring at me. Reading me like a book; a book he would never fully comprehend. There was regret in that shot: it was off-kilter enough that I was able to rise to my feet and tip my hat to the man—the man who’d finally bested me. He took one more hit of neck-oil before running out into the embrace of that same old beast; the beast that had forced him out of town once before. Only this time, it wanted him strung.
This here is the confession of Jonas Costlow: occasional drinker and sometime gambler. Husband to a woman who was better than he deserved but too loving to call him out. Formerly Jonas Laramy. Negligent father to the late Edward Laramy: The Devil's Apprentice.
Please Lord, accept my repentance on the latter.