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The Outlaw

by Charles Blackburn, Jr.

August 6, 2008

“Hate to see you commit suicide,” Weekly Umbrage Publisher James W. Peabody declared, firing up another coffin nail. The cancer ravaging his lungs had turned his complexion ashen, but hadn’t yet cured him of the habit. He was referring to my ongoing news reports about the criminal exploits of the Fireball Catlett Gang. “Those boys don’t mess around,” he added, his head wreathed by smoke. “Dynamite is their weapon of choice.”

But what choice did I have? The Umbrage was practically down for the count. I had been brought on board by the Palmetto Newspaper chain to try to turn things around. But the signs were not favorable. For one thing, Lilesville was unusual for its size in that it was a two newspaper town.

When a local lawyer won a big court case, he wanted the story in the Lilesville Record, because, as its masthead declared, “Twice Every Week Everybody Reads The Record.” If, on the other hand, he had a legal notice that he’d just as soon nobody saw, but was required by law to publish, he cheerfully walked the extra three blocks and buried it in the Weekly Umbrage.

It got back to us that our biggest advertisers were delinquent in paying their accounts because they were betting we’d fold and save them the trouble. So we gradually increased our press run over in Monroe to 5,000 copies—just in case anybody asked. Then, on the strength of “booming” circulation, we sent out rate increase notices with the following appeal: Man is dust. Dust settles. Be a man.

Some were and did. Even so, the minute the postman delivered the insurance bill, James Peabody dashed across the street to the agency with a check. And each week, after the two of us had pitched 3,500 surplus copies of the Umbrage into the basement under the cover of darkness, James bowed his head in silent prayer.

“What are you praying for?” I asked him.

“Spontaneous combustion.”

* * *

Russell D. “Crusty Rusty” Harrington, owner of the local seed and feed, was foremost among those who declined our invitation to pay up. To hear James tell it, Harrington was notoriously tightfisted, a condition that had only worsened with age. “Crusty Rusty owes everybody in town.”

“Well, he doesn’t know me from Adam,” I pointed out. “Maybe I can ambush him.”

There was nothing to lose by trying. I walked into the store, bold as brass, asked for the owner, and introduced myself. He lived up to his name. A big bald rascal with a neck like a bull and biceps to match, Crusty Rusty was wearing a red Polo shirt, blue jeans, and work boots. You could look at him and tell he was the sort of fellow who had exactly two emotions: happy and mad.

“I’m mighty glad to see you,” he said, beaming. “Been meaning to pay my advertising bill. Let’s step into the office.”

Once there, he fumbled around a cluttered desk until he found a coffee-stained ledger checkbook. “Let’s see now,” he said. He picked up a pen, wrote a check, tore it out, and handed it to me. “Is that the correct figure?” It was for $2,500—the full amount owed.

“A pleasure doing business with you,” I said, shaking his hand. As I walked out the door, it was obvious to me that Crusty Rusty Harrington was one of the most badly misunderstood individuals in the community.

But when James Peabody clapped eyes on the check, he didn’t bother to congratulate me. Instead, he grabbed the telephone and dialed like a demon.

“Janice Thomas, please,” he said into it. She was his cousin at the bank. “Janice. Crusty Rusty just cut me a check for $2,500. I know he’ll call to stop payment on it. He has already?” James rolled his eyes at me. “Listen, he’s been owing me this money for a year. If I run over there now, will you send it on through? Bless you, darlin’.”

And that’s how Crusty Rusty inadvertently paid his Umbrage advertising bill.

* * *

It taught me that minor victories can be sweet, even when faced with the creeping inevitability of ruination.

Then there came that bleak sunless morning when we realized we’d be unable to meet the weekly payroll. We sat in James’s office staring at each other, pondering our next move. The publisher seemed to be shrinking before my eyes day by day. He had lost a lot of weight. His pinstripe suit was on the verge of swallowing him whole. And there he sat, puffing away on a cigarette.

“Don’t suppose anybody in your family owns a gold mine,” I ventured glumly. Funny how a chance remark like that can spark a bright idea.

“No,” James said, slowly rising from his chair. “But we’re sitting on top of a silver mine.”
His eyes wide with wonder, he had the look of a man who had finally glimpsed the Promised Land after wandering aimlessly in the desert for years. His meaning suddenly dawned on me. “The negatives in the basement,” I said, rising up from my chair.

In recent months, for some mysterious reason, the price of silver had gone through the roof and beyond, to the point that an ordinary silver dime was fetching $10 and a silver dollar was worth $25.

Meanwhile, down in the basement, we had nearly 10 years’ worth of newspaper page negatives that heretofore had been considered useless. But as luck would have it, this was the only time in history when the value of the silver on those negatives would more than offset the cost of recovering it. We sold every last one of them. It gave us 10 weeks’ operating capital.

Two months later, silver took a nosedive when it was revealed that Texans Nelson Bunker Hunt and his brother William had driven up the price by trying to corner the global market. They had been quietly buying up as much silver as they could for years. The feds swarmed all over them. Overnight, a silver dime was reduced to face value. But not before we had cashed in.

“All I can say is God bless the Hunt brothers,” I remarked.

“Should we send them a ham?” That was James. Ever thoughtful.

* * *

These stopgap measures brought only temporary relief. What we really needed was a healthy boost in circulation. In a world full of Faustian bargains, Alvin Christian “Fireball” Catlett, age 24, was the best deal I could get. His news value was enhanced by the fact that our competitor, the Lilesville Record, had never given his exploits the coverage they deserved.

Fireball’s criminal enterprise was a marvel of corporate diversity. His gang dealt in stolen property, primarily burgled from houses around Lake Norman. They ran numbers, dabbled in extortion, and trafficked in illicit substances. And whenever they had cash flow problems, they donned colorful skiing attire and robbed the bank in Jasper.

For three consecutive quarters, Catlett, Inc. had such severe cash flow problems that robbing the bank in Jasper became a habit. Then one day, as they were leveraging capital, so to speak, a sharp-thinking teller slipped an exploding dye-packet in with the loot. It went off in the trunk of their Mercedes, staining every bill with telltale traces of felonious scarlet. But for reasons unknown even to him, Avalon County Sheriff Augustus P. “Gus” Pendergrass failed to issue a public alert for two full business days.

In the meantime, when Betsy D. Trueblood, a veteran cashier at the A&P, was handed a $100 bill in payment for a case of beer, she remarked aloud that Dr. Franklin had a bad case of the measles—before slapping it in the register and making change. Soon the tainted bank notes were circulating freely in five counties.

A week later, as reported in the Weekly Umbrage, deputies Peter S. Miller, Jr. and Peter T. Davis, aka Pete and Repeat, were cruising toward lunch at the OK Truck Stop on N.C. Highway 109 when they spotted a black Mercedes and gave chase. They had not gone many miles at a high rate of speed when the suspect sedan suddenly veered onto the shoulder and slid to a stop. The doors flew open. The occupants bolted into the pinewoods. Deputies Pete and Repeat, weighing in at about 300 pounds each, had neglected to bring their jogging shoes with them. The alleged miscreants got away.

But at least they had captured the Mercedes. Its red dye spattered trunk was found to contain two black garbage bags full of reefer, a set of Ping golf clubs (minus the nine iron), and seven sticks of dynamite, plus four ski masks, diverse weaponry, and light fishing tackle. Convinced the car was stolen, the authorities Telexed the serial number to the manufacturer—who denied its existence. It was weird but they got over it. Under the new drug laws, the Mercedes was now county property, since it had been used in the commission of a felony.

Three weeks later, at high noon on a Friday, the luxury automobile rolled up on the Avalon County Courthouse lawn, all lights flashing, in front of a crowd gathered on the courthouse steps. The horn blared once, and Thomas Wilder Harris, county attorney and perennial state senatorial candidate, leapt out of the Mercedes with a cry of: “Gentlemen, what am I bid!”

The bidding at first was fast and furious. But one by one they fell by the wayside until only two remained. When a bid of $17,500 was met with silence, the gavel fell. The winner came forward. She was a stunning, statuesque redhead, with her hair pulled back. She was wearing a two-piece navy women’s business suit and a big flouncy white tie and carrying a smart black briefcase. Nobody knew who she was.

“Maybe she’s a car dealer from Charlotte,” Lilesville Mayor Harold V. Goforth speculated. “She favors my fourth wife a little.”

“Every woman reminds you of another,” a local wag observed.

The crowd followed her inside and watched her place the briefcase on the desk of Avalon County Clerk of Court Chester A. Burnside. She opened it and proceeded to count out $17,500 in cash in front of the ancient clerk.

Fearful that he was seeing spots before his eyes, Burnside held one of the bills aloft in a trembling liver-spotted hand and squinted at it. Benjamin Franklin did indeed have a shocking case of the measles. Each and every bill was stained with red dye. The clerk shook his snow white head and made out a receipt.

“The gods do love a jest,” T. Wilder Harris noted. “Looks like Fireball has bought back the company car!”

* * *

No matter how many times I visited James Peabody in the hospital, I never got used to seeing him under an oxygen tent. He kept bouncing back, but it was only a matter of time before lung cancer got the better of him.

“Anything I can bring you?” I asked.

He smiled behind the cloudy plastic. “Cigarettes,” he croaked.

He was clearly dying. What difference did it make now? There wasn’t a cigarette machine in the hospital, so I had to walk down the street and around the corner to the drugstore.

When I got back, James had nodded off. I placed a pack of Marlboros and a book of matches on the bedside table and took my eye off him just long enough to pull up a chair. Next thing I knew, I turned around and he had a cigarette in his mouth up under the oxygen tent and was fumbling with a match to light it.

“James!” I yelled.

He gave me a sheepish look. “I forgot,” he said. “Help me get this damn thing off. Wouldn’t want to blow you up before Fireball does.”

* * *

My series on the Fireball Catlett Gang had become so popular that I only had to throw 1,000 surplus copies of the Umbrage in the basement each week. It seemed we just might turn the corner. Even James had rallied and was looking better than I’d ever seen him.

It was true that the Catlett Gang was bad to blow things up. But nobody ever got hurt. They liked to dynamite sheds and out-buildings, mostly. Or they might blow a good size crater in somebody’s yard, to help focus his mind on what was important in life. The public at large was inclined to write it off to youthful exuberance.

But there were indications all along that things could get out of hand. And late one night Fireball & Co. chanced upon Travis J. Flowers hitchhiking by himself on a lonely country road. He was a former member of the gang who had recently turned state’s witness. Needless to say, they welcomed him into the car.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d just as soon walk,” Flowers said upon realizing the dicey nature of the situation.

They’d have none of that. They were so happy to see him that they drove straightaway to the Taylorsville Bridge over the Stony River to celebrate their reunion by dangling their former comrade by his heels over the rocks below until he saw the error of his ways. Flowers managed to escape his captors as a pickup truck was crossing the one-lane bridge. He jumped in the back of it and got away. My front page article on the incident included a dramatic photo of the bridge from water level, emphasizing its height.

Understandably, the authorities took a dim view of this development. Fireball Catlett was declared an outlaw, which according to state statute meant he could be shot on sight by anybody. A couple of days later he surrendered on his mother’s front porch in Lilesville to WSOC-TV reporter Carson Farber in time for the 6 o’clock news and was whisked away by the gendarmes. Bail was set at an immobilizing $500,000.

“Fireball should’ve surrendered to me!” I complained to T. Wilder Harris. “I made him famous, not some blow-dried TV character from Charlotte.”

“There’s a lotta ham in cousin Fireball,” Wilder said. “You can’t expect the boy to go against his principles.”

The ingratitude of it was galling. Our next edition carried a scathing editorial calling for the maximum sentence in the event of conviction. I had almost finished stashing the surplus Umbrages in the basement when part-time sports editor Elridge Jackson came roaring up to the loading dock in his truck to deliver the news.

“Fireball made bail. They gave him this week’s Umbrage as a coming out present. Says he plans to pay you a visit.”

That night I slept in a Motel 6 on Highway 74 near Rockingham and spent 30 minutes next morning inspecting the chassis of my Pontiac LeMans for wires and explosives. But after a few days of this routine, when nothing blew up in my face, I got tired of looking over my shoulder and went home.

* * *

A month went by, which saw a lull in criminal activity. But there were many pressing issues in the community that required endless meetings. A contentious public hearing was held about a proposed Military Operations Area that would allow low-level jet training flights over the county. Local poultry farmers were in an uproar over it. And there was a school board row over the transfer of a popular high school principal.

Innumerable other items of public interest were vying for my attention. And adding to the general chaos, our crossroads columnists discovered the concept of collective bargaining and banded together to demand a $5 raise for their weekly reports on the social scenes in their respective townships. I was sorely tempted to issue them stock in the company instead.

In the midst of the whirlwind, I forgot all about my own personal safety.

Late one night, I was working alone at the newspaper office when I heard a knock on the front glass. Without thinking, I got up and opened the door, and in they piled—all nine of them. I recognized the lead hooligan from his television appearances. Fireball Catlett looked fit to be tied.

“You been writin’ this stuff about me?” he demanded, brandishing a rolled-up newspaper.

“Yeah,” I confessed, mentally composing my own obituary.

“Give it to him, Weasel!” Fireball commanded.

One of the gang stepped forward, reaching into a paper sack for something I wasn’t sure I wanted. His hand emerged. It held a can of beer. I took it.

“Got any extra copies?” Fireball flashed a made-for-television grin. “My Mom wants to send some to the folks.”

“We all want some!” another yelled.

I popped the top and drank to life, liberty, and the pursuit of journalism.

“Boys, you’ve come to the right place,” I told them. “I’ve been savin’ some copies for you down in the basement. You can help yourself. On one condition.”

Fireball gave me a wary look.

“Next time you surrender to anybody, make it me.”

“Will you take pictures?” was all he wanted to know.

***

A shorter version of “The Outlaw” was originally published in the Sunday Reader section of the Raleigh News and Observer. © 2008 Charles Blackburn, Jr.

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