She said she hadn’t come to see him to open old wounds. Blood Land. Chapter 3 – 2
April 16, 2013
A VG Serial: Blood Land
Chapter 3 – 2
Pruett heard the car before he saw the headlights. He did not get up as Wendy Steele walked the path toward the house. The two hadn’t spoken more than a dozen words in the past few years, including at Bethy’s funeral. There was a time when Pruett wanted nothing more than to forgive her, and to ask the same in return. He figured after Bethy died, seeing his child would reignite those desires.
It did not.
She’d married Todd Steele, a local ranch boy, straight out of high school. Mostly, the sheriff always thought, to spite her old man. The two annulled the marriage less than a year later. She kept the Steele surname and joined the Peace Corps. Anything, it seemed to Pruett, to stay away from Wind River. Away from him.
“Can I come up?” Wendy said from the bottom step.
“Give it a try.”
She climbed the steps slowly, walked over to the table, and stood next to the extra chair. It had been her mother’s. Pruett motioned for her to sit.
“You look underfed,” Pruett said.
“More glasses inside,” Pruett said, waving an arm toward the front door.
Wendy shook her head slowly. “I’m okay. I thought you gave up on that stuff.”
Pruett did not answer. Wendy sat down.
The two withstood the silence for a while, soaking in the peace of the Wyoming night. Pruett finally dropped his boots to the solid decking. A gesture. Prelude to saying what had been wandering around in his head all day.
“You know, you’re allowed to hate me all you want, but you didn’t have to let it keep you from visiting your mother. She never did anything but love you, girl.”
“I always hated it when you called me that.”
“A punctuation mark on the inevitability of chance. A son would have been nice.”
“I never regretted a thing about you. Except your leaving.”
“I didn’t drive up here to talk about this. I came to talk about uncle Ty.”
Pruett drew back. “Your murderous uncle Ty, you mean.”
“Maybe. I figure a jury will decide that. But he’s still family. He’s still Mom’s brother, and she loved him.”
“She did love him,” Pruett said, “and he’ll sit before a jury of his peers.”
“I guess it surprises me to hear you say that.”
“I don’t know. You never struck me as the merciful type. Now with what happened to Mom, well, I just…”
“You seem a little matter-of-fact about the whole thing yourself. Did you think I would have already strung Ty up in his cell?”
“No. I didn’t mean it that way. Honestly, Sheriff, it’s because I would understand. However you are feeling.”
“Speaking of hating a name. When exactly did you start? Referring to me in the professional, I mean, rather than the paternal.”
“You never did understand. I always meant it respectfully.”
Pruett poured another drink for himself. “You know, I had my reasons. I never asked for that medal. It would have been wrong to accept it.”
“Because you didn’t deserve it.”
“That’s right, because I didn’t fucking deserve it,” the Sheriff said.
“Makes people wonder why,” Wendy said.
“See, that’s the difference between you and me. Always has been. Man who murdered your own mother deserves more mercy than…”
“Than your own father.”
“I didn’t drive up here to open old wounds.”
“You’ve said that. Why did you drive up here, then?”
“You know, you hated your old man. Why should it be any different between us?”
“Maybe it shouldn’t,” Pruett said. “But you owed her a hell of a lot more.”
“I did owe her more. And honestly, I owed you more too. That’s the real reason I drove up here.”
“That and to tell me you got an attorney for your uncle Ty?” Pruett said, sipping on his whiskey.
“That too. Though he hasn’t said yes.”
Pruett did not answer for a long moment. When he spoke, he measured his words:
“Ty carved out his life, just like the rest of us. People put themselves into their own drama. There’s due process; setting aside personal feelings and doing what the job says you do.”
“You feel like that’s in the cards—Uncle Ty getting a fair shake?”
“’Course I do. It never ceases to surprise me, the way you see your old man.”
“Yeah, well, I asked you to defend yourself a long time ago. So did a lot of people. You declined.”
“A man shouldn’t have to defend himself to those that love him.”
“Sometimes that’s all he can do.”
They sat quiet for a bit, again awash in the peace of silence.
“The booze isn’t going to help anything, you know.”
“Not a thing I care to debate with you,” Pruett said. “You’re a long way from knowing what makes things better or worse for me.”
“I’m with him. The lawyer.” Wendy said. “I didn’t plan it. It’s reckless. But it’s the kind of thing that chooses a person, rather than the other way around.”
“What’s his name?”
“Congratulations,” Pruett said, and finished another glass.
Wendy didn’t respond and Pruett didn’t get up when she left.
The whiskey no longer held back the coldness of night.
* * *
In nineteen-ninety-eight, the Army decided to award the Soldiers Medal to a pilot and three crewmembers that landed as part of a helicopter evacuation and ended up putting themselves between their own U.S. comrades and fleeing Vietnamese villagers in the Hamlets of My Lai.
The team, led by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., stopped American troops from further firing on unarmed civilians. Specialist Four Jimmy Pruett was a door gunner, and one of the team who were to receive the decoration—the highest award the Army gives for bravery not involved with direct enemy conflict.
James Pruett made history by choosing to become the only United States veteran ever to turn down the Army’s prestigious award. The story made national headlines, in large part because Pruett refused to communicate—publically or in private—his reasons for refusing to accept the honor. The act generated significant speculation that his refusal might represent a silent protest against a false tale of heroism; that perhaps the military was once again trying to spit shine an otherwise horrendous event by drumming up a handful of convenient heroes.
Pruett knew that wasn’t the case. It took a hard will to keep his reasons to himself. He knew that Thompson and the rest of his team acted just as bravely as suggested—more so, actually. Pruett could not guess how many innocent lives the men saved that day. Yet the only images in Jimmy Pruett’s mind—images that still burrowed their way into the nightmares of Sheriff James Pruett—were the ghosts of those innocents brutalized and murdered before they arrived; slaughtered by soldiers representing Pruett’s own country—his own chain of command.
For Pruett, the decision was simple: he could accept no award—no honor—for an event so heinous, carried out by his fellow compatriots. He never begrudged or dishonored those who accepted the medals. He loved them like brothers, though he knew his refusal forever cast a shadow across the glint of their heroism. But he also knew that, ultimately, orders begat action—and orders came from on high.
To James Pruett, there could be no honor salvaged from such a day.
The press, they’d wanted answers. And when they didn’t get them, they assumed there was a cover-up. They did not understand. No one did.
It also took the town of Wind River a long time to reconcile the reasoning behind Pruett’s silence. In truth, Pruett figured they never really did comprehend it better than anyone else did; the townspeople simply accepted him back into the community. Like a mother opens the door for a wayward son. Reasons become less important than the faith of family.
The deepest wedge driven, however, was between Pruett and his daughter.
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.