He tried to control his temper, but don’t ever make him mad. Blood Land. Chapter 5 – 2
April 25, 2013
A VG Serial: Blood Land
Chapter 5 – 2
Blue smoke choked the air in the small bar. Pruett liked to drink in the Wooden Boot—one of three Wind River bars—because of the clientele: mostly roughnecks from the gas patch, many of them transplants. The locals that frequented there were a rough bunch too, and kept mainly to themselves. Ty McIntyre hung his hat there some nights, when he was a free man anyway. Tourists avoided the Boot; it was dingy, seedy, and could be downright dangerous. Because of these untoward realities, however, it was a popular hideaway for people who shirked the public eye.
Sheriff Pruett was off-duty and wearing a plaid hunting shirt, jeans, and a fresh pair of Justin work boots. His felt hat occupied the stool beside him on the right and he had just drained a third Heaven Hill blended whiskey when Carter Lee Holcomb walked up and dropped his butt in the stool to his left.
“Sheriff Pruett,” Holcomb said, tilting back his natty, sweat-ringed straw hat but leaving it fixed atop his head. He motioned to the bartender. “Jenny. Two bourbons and a Bud back.”
Holcombs were about as popular in Wind River as McIntyres. Sonny Holcomb, the father, ran one of the two local filling stations; twenty-year-old Carter Lee worked at Jonah Field for a Canadian natural gas company, Encana, doing miscellaneous scuttle work—roughnecking, mostly. That is, when he wasn’t drinking or roaring his truck up and down Main Street, cruising for high school seniors or drunken divorcees.
Pruett kept quiet and tilted his head back to Jen Werner, signaling for another Heaven Hill.
“What, you don’t talk to us respectable folk anymore?” Carter Lee said.
“Would you mind adding a little clarification, slick?” Pruett responded. Though it was a rough bar, he never pushed his sheriff weight around unless it was necessary. Most of the regulars respected the distance between him and the badge. In a place like this, even the law could remain anonymous.
But to Carter Lee Holcomb, no one got a free pass. Carter Lee was every town’s fallen high school hero. Three years before he’d made Wyoming All-State in football. Halfway through his senior year, with no real college prospects, Carter Lee dropped out of school and started working the gas fields. He put on fifty pounds that first year, most of it padding the considerable muscle on his short, wide-body frame. Word in town was that Carter Lee’s biggest contribution to the old man’s business was drinking away what little profit Son Holcomb’s station mustered.
“Fuck you, boy,” Carter Lee said, his eyes looking at Pruett in the mirrored backstop. “Heard you keepin’ old Ty fuckstick McIntyre all nice and fatted up in the jailhouse. Probably sneaking him his favorite whiskey too. Just saying that maybe you ought to think about the good respectable folks in this town ‘stead of catering to the scum.”
“First class, eh, Carter Lee?” Pruett said. “That what I have sittin’ next to me? Well, shit, I am honestly sorry. Here I was thinking since you walked in here that the God-awful stench of white trash came right in here with you.”
Pruett normally controlled himself better than this. He never allowed himself to be bullied into a bar fight; you couldn’t carry out the office he held and have an unchecked temper. But the sheriff had been drinking. And “fed up” didn’t begin to describe the assault he’d been feeling against his awful, inflammable pride.
“Least I don’t lower myself to playin’ grab-ass with my own wife’s killer,” Carter Lee said.
James Pruett didn’t jump, so much as explode, sideways. When he drove his shoulder into Carter Lee Holcomb, he hit the man so hard it lifted Holcomb clear of the barstool. Pruett kept moving, as if he was carrying a practice dummy across the field, doing a fine football crossover step as he barreled through the five or six empty barstools between them and the pinewood wall at the front of the Wooden Boot.
As Pruett carried the stunned man through the air, Holcomb’s arms and legs flailed wildly, like a windmill that had lost its equilibrium. When Pruett slammed Carter Lee’s back into the solid wall, the man’s lung spewed a final reserve of breath, his red face went pallid, and the fight drained from his eyes. Pruett let Carter Lee drop mercifully to the floor, both the oxygen and the mighty pith stolen from him in just a few short moments.
The big man leaned down, face to face with the young roughneck—who was still searching for his wind—and looked him straight in the eyes: “You be careful who you think to bring up in conversation, Carter Lee. Next time, there won’t be any stopping it.”
* * *
The fight awoke a different kind of demon inside Sheriff James Pruett. Once the fever of bloodlust took him over, he felt rejuvenated—reborn—as if he could physically challenge his pain; as if he could bust his guilt the way a crack rider broke a wild mare. It felt so good to put Carter Lee Holcomb down.
Later, on his front porch, nursing his bum knee, he realized he’d not felt this good since long before Bethy died. There was a time in Vietnam when a young, scared boy decided it was time to find himself or get sent home in a bag. Some kids never figured that out—or at least they never were able to summon the requisite courage.
Pruett took a pull from a bottle of Beam and remembered the jungle hooch his platoon discovered one rainy afternoon, marching through the tangled middle of the Quang Tri Province. The sky still bellowed heavy rain, but the sun was also out, and water was literally turning to steam the moment it landed on the heated branches, leaves, and soil. It gave the whole scene a mystic, otherworldly feel.
And so a sense of deep foreboding came over PFC Jimmy Pruett when his commander instructed him to clear the small villa; a feeling of dread so overpowering that he froze for the first time in his forty-two days in country. Jimmy Pruett stopped in his tracks halfway to the entrance to the hut; fellow soldier PFC Jo-Jo Barney, walking half a step behind, nearly ran him over. The platoon commander barked at Pruett to move ahead, follow his orders.
But Pruett couldn’t move. He thought of his girl back home; he remembered the ashen, blood-caked faces of the friends he’d already seen zippered and shipped to a first-class burial in the States.
Eventually the platoon commander pulled him back by the straps on his pack and sent another man in his place. The hooch was empty, abandoned for weeks. That evening, when the platoon dug in and set up a perimeter, no one spoke to him. But they whispered to each other. Nineteen year-old Jimmy Pruett knew what was on the men’s mind: the putrid danger of a coward in their midst.
You could abide almost anything in the bush. You came to admire—and even love—all sorts of people you probably wouldn’t stand within ten feet of back home. The most popular guy in the platoon—Rag Top Willy—was a good old boy from Texarkana who admitted one night to Pruett that he’d once viciously beaten a black boy for nothing other than the color of his skin.
Yet some of Rag Top’s best friends in the platoon were black, and though they knew his story, these self-respecting men trusted Rag Top—and Rag Top trusted them. Men would abide almost anyone squatting in the hole next to them if it meant they’d likely wake up for another day—because waking up for one more day meant you were that much closer to going home.
But a coward?
Cowardice had its own color. If you abided a coward, you might as well be carrying a one hundred and eighty-pound grenade with the pin pulled; death was just a matter of time.
PFC Pruett stewed all day. He pretended not to notice the sideways looks. He’d been a popular soldier right from the start, but that was fading fast. He volunteered for point on that night’s patrol. The fact that the countryside all around them was hot as a fry-cook’s griddle only made PFC Jimmy Pruett happier: he prayed all day to find Charlie out there in the jungle; knew the only way he was going to redeem himself was to choke down that motherfucking fear and get some.
Kill or be killed. Either way, Jimmy Pruett was returning to camp a goddamned hero.
The patrol found the shit, all right—came upon a small contingent of Vietcong who were unaware how deeply the Americans had penetrated into their perimeter. The eight members of the night patrol killed all nine of the Vietcong encampment without firing a shot. PFC Jimmy Pruett killed two for himself. He also took a finger from every enemy killed. When he returned to the camp, he stood in the middle of them—those who’d returned with him, those who were trying in vain to sleep, those who stood post. Eventually the platoon gathered around him. PFC Jimmy Pruett—the soldier who failed them earlier; the man whose courage had become an ever increasing doubt in the minds of those he’d sworn to stand beside and protect—laid the gook fingers down, one by one, in a small pile that resembled kindling that might start a small campfire. Jimmy Pruett shined his standard issue flashlight on the trophies for exactly one minute. He timed it on his watch. Sixty seconds of silence; one minute of a prayer-like atmosphere. Then he extinguished the light and crawled into his sack.
He fell asleep without ever saying a word and no one questioned the courage or the will of the soldier named Pruett again.
Chapters of the serial are published Monday through Saturday.
You can learn more about R. S. Guthrie’s novels on his Amazon Author’s Page.