How deep did the feuds run, and would they be responsible for murder? Blood Land.
May 24, 2013
A VG Serial: Blood Land
PRUETT SAT in thundering silence. They’d known Ty was protecting someone. In his mind the sheriff could see Honey holding Bethy in her lap, stroking her hair as she had a hundred times before. Her baby. Her little girl.
“Why would he say that?” Hanson said.
“Because he meant it,” said Wendy. “What I mean is, he’d never make up something like that.”
Pruett still said nothing. Even if Honey McIntyre was conspiring whatever was happening in his town, she wasn’t the murderer. There was no way she held the whip.
“Is Ty ready to talk about who did the killing?” Pruett finally said.
“He said he would only talk to you,” Wendy told him.
“Only to me…”
“Says he owes it to you.”
“I need to talk to you first, Wendy,” Pruett said.
“You’ve never called me that.”
“It’s your name, ain’t it? Can we walk to the park?” Pruett said.
* * *
Pruett and his daughter sat on the bench; the same bench where he’d sat not long ago and held her close to him, remembering when she was a little baby, how perfect he believed their love would always be.
“Things are getting dangerous around here,” he said. “I’ve never been afraid of my duty, or shirked it, and I never will, but I do fear there are things going on that we hadn’t thought of; things that might be more than a small county sheriff’s department can handle.”
“Things you can share with me?” Wendy said.
“Things I’d rather not. For your own safety.”
“I get it,” she said, and put her hand in his.
“Before this goes any further—before anything happens—I wanted to have this talk with you,” the sheriff said. “And I want to do it sober. You deserve at least that much from me.”
“I don’t like the way you’re talking.”
“I don’t like what’s happening in this town. I know who I can rely on. Problem is, I am not exactly sure who I can’t.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
Pruett looked skyward. He was avoiding what he really wanted to say to her.
“Things are going to get worse around here,” he said. “Not what you’d call normal small town worse. If anything should happen, there’re things we’ve still left unsaid.”
“Wendy, I know why you hated me all those years.”
“I never hated you.”
“Fair enough. Then I know why you stayed away.”
“I don’t think you do,” she said. “I’m not sure I know those answers anymore. You know how things build up inside a person? It gets to the point where you can’t blame only one side or the other. The silence—not giving you a chance to know what I was feeling inside. I played my part.”
Pruett squeezed her hand tighter. “For a long time I thought the deck was so stacked against us we’d never find solid ground again,” he said. “Vietnam, that damned medal I didn’t deserve, the affair. And the election…”
Wendy looked up into his eyes.
“Yeah, girl, I know. At least I know now. Back then, I guess I looked at it in a different way. As if I could pretend I was something—someone—different than who I was.”
“That’s just it,” Wendy said. “There is nothing about you—least of all the color of your skin—that makes you less a man than anyone in this town.”
“I never felt less of a man. Never. Growing up black in a town like Wind River, well, there are going to be challenges. And you figure out that you deal with those challenges by either fighting them every chance you get or by not giving them any heed. I just chose to make it go away by ignoring it—by letting the people of this town voice their acknowledgement of me as a man—not a man of color, but as their sheriff—by the vote.”
“I know that now,” she said softly.
Pruett turned to her but he was looking at a place far from where they sat. “I know you needed me to defend myself. And not just you. Bethy. My lineage. Not just for what it meant to me, Sheriff James Pruett. I know now that was selfish.”
“You want to hear something that will surprise you?” Wendy said.
Pruett nodded his head.
“It was the first time in my life that I ever felt we were different.”
* * *
Pruett was reelected his first three additional terms. In fact, he was unopposed in all but the first election, when he won his Sheriff’s badge. In the fourth reelection, however, a rancher named Percy Villines announced his candidacy.
The campaign, it got heated. And dirty.
James Pruett knew his family—young and old—went against everything most small western towns considered “normal”. But there, in his town—his ancestors’ town—he’d never really felt out of place. There were times. Times when families like the McIntyres, in fact, made it known in somewhat covert terms that they didn’t ever really accept, deep down, that a black family could be pioneers and landowners in a western town.
But the Pruetts had been in Wind River before it even had a name. When it was nothing but prairies, mountains, and people with the courage and determination to stay alive. They’d stuck it out. Made a life for themselves just like any other family.
And generations later, when James Pruett—only a child—fell in love with Bethy McIntyre, even one of the meanest, most racist families in the township could not stop them from being together.
That wasn’t enough for James Pruett, though. He had wanted to prove to the McIntyres and to any other family that harbored secret, deep-rooted, unacceptable beliefs that a black man could be elected sheriff in a Wyoming town, that they were wrong.
And he had won his first election by a landslide. Wind River loved James Pruett and it had nothing to do with the color of his skin. Even the McIntyres had eventually accepted his presence in their lives, if only for the merit of his heart and the quality of man he was.
Then, in the fourth term of Sheriff James Pruett’s office, Percy Villines took it upon himself to try and rally those old school men and women in the county—families like the McIntyres, and the Holcombs, and at least a few others.
Villines called out Pruett’s record, which he defended.
The candidate said it was time for a change, and Pruett told the town it wasn’t; told them he’d serve them as he had always served them.
Percy Villines then used his platform to get people to speak up. He said a black man had no place being the Sheriff of Sublette County; that the good people of Wind River could not place their trust in a man like James Pruett. Villines said the fact that the Pruett family was even allowed to stake claim to land in the territory had always been an injustice, and a permanent blight on their community. He commented, too, on Pruett’s mixed marriage, making deep innuendos that the sheriff’s family was a disgrace and Villines was taking it upon himself to be the one to say so; the one to try and make things right.
James Pruett refused to comment on the accusations. In truth, he never had to. The residents of the county spoke their minds in the vote. Never before had any elected official in the state (or maybe anywhere else in the country) won an election by the margin Sheriff James Pruett defeated Percy Villines. The challenger received exactly three votes. Presumably himself, his wife, and his eldest son. Whether the McIntyres or the Holcombs ever voted would never be known, but they did not vote against Pruett, and that made a statement, too.
A week after the election—after more than a few death threats—the Villines ranch house and every building on the property were burned to the ground while the family watched in horror. They left town the next morning and Pruett went on being sheriff. The debris of the Villines ranch was cleared away, the land auctioned to the highest bidder.
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.