The end comes in a lot of ways, sometimes with a bullet. Blood Land. Chapter 1 – 2
April 4, 2013
A VG Serial: Blood Land
Chapter 1 – 2
The Willow Saloon was a billiards parlor from the late eighteen-hundreds. Sage, Wyoming, sat eight miles northwest of Wind River, a one-horse town made up of the saloon, a post office, and a small country store. A previous owner converted the upstairs of the Willow from bordello to residence in the early nineteen-hundreds.
Pruett put his hand on the hood of Ty’s truck. It was the only vehicle in the small dirt lot. The metal had long since cooled, the engine quiet. The sheriff unholstered his revolver. He checked the cylinders and eased up the stairs, peering through the dirty glass of the saloon door, his nerves dancing expectantly.
Ty sat alone, stooped over the Springfield. A weathered Stetson and a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey sat next to him on the bar. Pruett saw no one else. Owner and barkeep, Roland Pape, was in the wind. Or worse.
Pruett opened the door slowly. He targeted the sweaty, thinning hair on the back of Ty McIntyre’s head. The door creaked loudly, but the old cowpoke remained motionless.
“Sheriff,” Ty finally said.
“Yep,” Pruett answered, his finger steady on the trigger guard. “That rifle loaded, Ty?”
“Wouldn’t be much of a rifle if it weren’t.”
“You know where Roland is, Ty?”
Ty pointed toward the back door.
“Took a powder,” he said. “Weren’t much jaw in him. Not like usual.”
“Ty, I’m taking you in. Just two ways that happens.”
“Takin’ me in?”
“I’ve got big questions need answering,” Pruett said. Streams of sweat ran down the nape of his neck and into the middle of his back. His stomach bucked and kicked like a wild horse. His mind screamed at him, questioning, wanting to know why he didn’t put a bullet in McIntyre’s spine. The law seemed insurmountably distant from Pruett. Frail. Unworthy of such moments in a man’s life.
“I said I got to arrest you,” Pruett hissed.
Ty did not answer him but he slowly raised the bottle and guzzled from it.
Hate swirled inside Pruett, no chimney for escape. He cocked the hammer of his weapon. The loud CLACK snapped the tenuous still of the bar. Ty’s head rose up. His shoulders tensed.
“Need you to put those hands on the back of your head, Ty. Slow and easy. Like you mean it,” Pruett said.
“Or it could end right here,” Ty said. “That’s what you was thinkin’.”
“End comes in a lot of ways,” Pruett said. “It doesn’t have to go down ugly.”
The tension in Ty McIntyre’s back and shoulders suddenly gathered itself. His head tilted back and forth, neck joints popping.
Pruett braced himself. He knew Ty had deceptive, bobcat quickness. The sheriff once saw the old cowpoke punch three college-aged drunks in the face; three in a row before any of them figured the situation.
Pruett put his finger on the trigger, exerting just enough pressure to be a fraction from discharge.
“Ain’t no use no more,” Ty said, and reached for the Springfield.
When the brain gets nervous, time slows down. It’s a coping mechanism. Processing cycles. The sheriff’s world dropped into quarter speed.
Movement in the shadows near the back of the bar.
Ty’s hand curling around his weapon.
The smoothness of the Smith and Wesson’s curved trigger.
Sweat running freely.
Ty McIntyre’s skull.
The ache in his heart.
The avenger inside, demanding vengeance:
Him or you.
Then, at the moment he needed to react, Pruett froze.
The soldier training did not fail him. The years of law enforcement experience did not fail him. His mettle did not fail him.
It was his will to live that quit on him.
Pruett eased off the trigger.
Let the chips drop where they might.
Ty McIntyre hesitated, as if he’d read the old sheriff’s mind—and then he slid his rifle the length of the bar, raised his arms, and placed his hands on the back of his head. Roland Pape shuffled out from behind a table near the stairs to his home.
The sheriff used his left hand to put the handcuffs on Ty. He read the man his rights and escorted Ty out to the Suburban, wishing he could wash the stench of cowardice from his own skin.
* * *
The funeral and wake proved nearly unbearable. Pruett’s mind struggled for oxygen, drowning deep in a murky sadness. He feigned connectedness with the guests, stomached the canned epitaphs, returned the heartfelt handshakes. All the guests knew Bethy in one way or another and most of them Pruett considered friends. But today they were all outsiders. Spectators on the periphery of his devastation.
And there was Sam, his adult child, returned home only because of the death of an estranged mother; Sam, most peripheral of all. Pruett could not help but think of the biblical story of the prodigal son. In the bible’s version, the father waited with open arms. The sheriff’s own arms had been closed so long he feared they might never be pried apart again.
Pity confounded Pruett, challenged his self-respect. He knew when given purchase, pity anchored itself to a man’s heart, soothing him, making promises—keeping him company in the low hours until a man cleaved to it; until he worried more about it leaving than staying.
Mourners oozed pity. The stench of it emanated from them like perspiration, spoiling the air Pruett breathed.
And the old sheriff felt naked; exposed to the elements: a stumblebum amongst the agile; emotional cripple amongst the stalwart. The barber had trimmed Pruett’s gray, thinning hair earlier in town and the old sheriff wore loose, wrinkled trousers tucked unevenly into brown Abilene roper boots. He hid behind a felt-brown, Charlie 1 Horse hat; held it before him like a talisman: protection against the omnipotence of the mighty torment in his heart.
Pruett stole glances at Sam. His blood. A part of him. Out of his and Bethy’s lives since turning eighteen.
The deputies all stood with their sheriff.
Red Horse Baptiste.
In the end, Pruett waved as the four-wheel drive taillights disappeared back down the mountain; back the way they came.
Sated by sandwich wedges, comforted by cake, and warmed by coal-black coffee, the mourners and the prodigal child receded.
And the pity receded with them.
* * *
The steep south flank of the Gros Ventre range sliced up from the distant coniferous canopy, timeless and severe, sharpened by God’s whetstone and left to protect the northwest Wyoming territory like a tyrannical king’s castle spire. Sheriff James Pruett stared out through the cold, misting rain. Across the expanse. Pruett land. Twenty-two coniferous acres scattered with a dozen sprawling patches of prairie, full of gorgeous wildflowers and on most days a wondrous, heavenly integrity of light.
The land belonged to the Pruetts since before Wyoming gained statehood. It contained a small family cemetery, marked on three and a half sides by a weathered, two-rail fence. Behind the newly refinished log house, the burial ground sat just past two oak trees that grew together as one in the middle, separating again as they prayed, open-armed toward the sky.
Against the land, the cemetery appeared austere; as cemeteries went, it struck one as describable and unassuming. The Pruetts buried three generations there, including his mother, father, and baby brother, lost in childbirth. They also buried several hired hands there—men from the ranching days who had no other family. Some were from a tribe of Nez Perce who came across the Idaho border in the early nineteen-hundreds—Deputy Baptiste’s kin.
Pruett stood before the cemetery’s newest grave. The calluses on his palms and fingers paled next to the malignant lesions on the surface of his soul. The icy Wyoming rain offered no purgation; shame and guilt secreted from Pruett’s pores, dripping soundlessly with the sweat and rain into the black opening beneath him.
So much of a man got wrapped around the axle over a forty-four year marriage. The task of unraveling seemed impossible; it lay before Pruett, terrifying and enigmatic, like an unfinished nightmare. He spat tobacco into the rivulets of rainwater that spread like spider webs at his feet, then stared toward the heavens.
I always said to do your worst. Guess you were listening.
His old man had been a preacher, but Pruett always found faith a tough nut, even as a boy. And it didn’t get better. Things happened in a man’s life.
Things done in the name of war.
Things left unsaid.
Only death promised relief.
Memento mori—everyone dies.
But while they lived, men grew regrets. And some regrets made strong men emotional wanderers. Pruett’s regrets bore teeth. Guilt, however, was far stronger than regret.
Guilt swallowed a man’s faith whole. Left him with nothing but a gaping, loveless, inescapable void.
And the burden of seeing Sam, his once beloved child—seeing his betrayer firsthand after all these years—caused more guilt in his own heart than Pruett anticipated. It cleaved the sheriff like the honed edge of the sword drawn across an unhealed wound.
* * *
Light, diffused by the storm, began its retreat. Pruett could no longer see the spattered earthen floor in the shallow hole. He kissed the cold metal urn and bent stiffly, placing Bethy’s ash remains in the ground. He picked up a shovelful of muddy earth, but stopped short of dropping it in.
His wife would have demanded a prayer; would have said no body deserved burying in the ground without some words spoken to God on behalf of its soul.
Anger notwithstanding, Pruett did his best to speak to God:
“We’ve had our disagreements. Neither one of us lives up to the other. I can’t apologize for that now. Don’t want to. But I loved Bethy with everything I had. And she loved you. Now, since you took her from me, I am asking you to open the gates of heaven wide. You welcome her into your arms, because she’s never done anything to hurt another living soul, and she damn well deserves it. Amen.”
He stared again at the shovel in his hands.
Tools felt nothing.
They existed only to make trails for men; to build homes for them; to make their lives more productive.
And tools existed to bury them.
Arthritis seared Pruett’s joints as he dropped the muddied earth on Bethy. Towering there in the freezing mist—implement in hand, prostrate inside—Pruett lamented the will of God.
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.