“I got a letter today,
how you reckon it read?
It said, ‘Hurry, hurry,
yeah your love is dead.’
I got a letter today,
how you reckon it read?
It said, ‘Hurry, hurry,
you know that gal you love is dead.’”
Eddie “Son” House,
SHERIFF PRUETT toed the edge of the obsidian, geometric opening in the earth. Approximately four feet by two, and shallow. The big man ached all over. He’d cried, shut himself up, and cried again. His heart felt so worn down it did not beat so much as murmur; a utilitarian thing without feeling or sound. The loss consumed him, and his will would not rise—muted by a damp, negative space swallowing his physical being. Pruett was shattered; broken in ways he might never fix. He did not know loneliness, or at least he had no memory of it. Now this singularity encased him—an invisible, merciless force threatening to erase all he was or ever would be.
Like the victim of a holocaust.
Sorrow made the old man feel weak. Exposed to the emotional elements. But like everything else, he made room for it. A man got good at tamping emotions down—one here, one there—or at least Pruett had. The problem arose when there was no more room for packing.
And this last tragedy was far too oversized for his soul to bear. Even were his stowaway places clean and emptied, he’d still never have figured a way to subjugate this much devastation—at least not for long.
What reconciliation could stand up to a fate as twisted as this?
Pruett occupied a world now where all the songbirds had flown and only carrion remained. Elemental tasks tested him: waking, standing, breathing. He was a sheriff; how did he go forward from here? Just how did the balance sheets get equaled on all sides?
A phone rang, interrupting the late afternoon boredom of a slow Saturday at the Sublette County Sheriff Dispatch in the tiny town of Wind River, Wyoming. Sheriff James Pruett occupied the desk and answered the call.
“Sheriff’s office,” Pruett said
A thin, rattlesnake drawl tickled his ear: “There’s been a shooting over to the Rory McIntyre place, Sheriff. Things ain’t good, you need to come fast.”
The caller disconnected.
Pruett couldn’t move. He tried to reconcile the words; repeated them in his mind, hoping they’d scatter, reform, and produce a different result.
Deputy Red Horse Baptiste was on patrol. Pruett reached for the radio, his hand trembling under the sovereignty of fear.
“Baptiste,” he spoke into the mike.
First, what seemed infinite radio silence, then: “Deputy Baptiste here, over.”
“Get to Rory’s place, Red Horse.” Pruett said. “Get there now.”
“Yessir,” Deputy Baptiste said. Pruett didn’t give orders that often. When he did, his deputies knew there was no point in discussion.
“Load your shotgun.”
Pruett dialed the emergency volunteers. Then he called his other two deputies at their homes. He locked the office and belted his holster; loped down the courthouse steps two at a time, his considerable girth bouncing in concert. The fringes of his vision felt blurred. He would remember later that the town seemed eerily quiet with a Saturday night so soon at hand. He would also never forget the foreboding that scampered like a river of ants up and down his spine.
The county Suburban reached ninety miles per hour before Pruett got to the dip at the edge of town, took the flattest spot, and still nearly tore the front bumper off.
He drove west of town, toward the Green River Valley, straight into the glaring, tragic beauty of the Rocky Mountain sunset. The blacktop flowed beneath him, a river of opaque charcoal, its surface pocked and crackly like old, broken skin.
There was one name playing through Pruett’s mind:
Again and again, as if looped on reel-to-reel.
God, don't you let it be her.
Not a prayer, exactly, because he hadn’t done that in damn near forty years. More of a demand.
Bethy Pruett was the nexus of Pruett’s whole damned universe. He’d known her originally as Bethy McIntyre—back when she was the cutest little pigtailed missy in grammar school. Pruett figured he’d loved her all his life, or at least as long as memory served him.
Before Sheriff Pruett.
Before the war.
A shiver slid through him as easily as the point of a sharpened spear pierced warm flesh. He thought about the profound force of the inevitable.
You do not always see things in time, he thought.
Not even a sheriff.
Pruett had not paid heed to the thunderclouds gathering on the horizon of their lives. But he should have. The McIntyre feud was well over a year ongoing. Father, Rory, and his two sons, Rance and Cort, made several million dollars from the gas companies that had invaded Sublette and Teton counties; like many ranchers in the area, the trio received a fortune for the mineral rights they owned. But by the bad luck of hellfire, Rory’s youngest son, Ty, got nothing. As the legalities played out, Ty owned only surface rights on his inherited parcel; an oversight by the original Will and Testament of Rory’s father. The county owned all rights beneath Ty’s ground, so in the end all Ty McIntyre got were ruined roads, damaged irrigation, and a further hatred of democracy.
Rory, Rance, nor Cort had any legal obligation to Ty at all. And they didn’t feel any. Luck of the draw, they often said after whiskeys in the Cowboy Bar or across the street in the Wooden Boot.
Ty blamed them for it, as any person might, and he did so openly—to anyone who would listen. Hate was Ty’s common-law partner but toward his family, well, Pruett knew that hatred burrowed even wider and deeper.
Bad blood had spilled in the local saloons half a dozen times. Fists opened flesh wounds and words opened worse. Bar patrons paid the drunken scrapes little attention. Fights between Ty and anyone else were nothing new. And folks held no particular admiration for the McIntyre family. Most figured such business was typical feuding; father versus son, brother versus brother—a few small tumors that would die off once the oxygen quit flowing to them.
But Pruett knew it would go on, and so did Bethy. She knew her family was bad cement, poured from generation to generation and mixed with hateful blood. The McIntyres were racist and old school mean. Pruett appreciated the fact that he’d cut a sweet filly from a corral full of surly, untamable stallions. And though he suspected what boiled down deep, he chose to ignore it. Some of his reasons were out of respect for his wife; she was sweet-hearted to a fault and still loved all of them—naive love from the innocent, offered unrequited to cantankerous, oily hearts.
Bethy Pruett died a fair stretch before the sheriff arrived. As if she’d never existed. In less than an hour’s time the world changed so much it was as if Pruett had lived the past forty-four years in a vacuum. Deputy Zach Canter called from the ranch and tried to warn the old man off, told him to turn back; told the sheriff his team of deputies could handle everything just fine. But of course, Pruett came.
And when he arrived, he was not prepared. All the talking himself into being ready for the worst did no good. Bethy’s frail, elderly mother, Honey McIntyre, held the lifeless body in her lap, quietly stroking that magnificent auburn hair—the hair Bethy had tended to every other Thursday at the salon in town. Dark, chocolaty blood dripped off the porch and pooled in the dirt at Honey’s bare, arthritic feet.
Pruett couldn’t decide whether he wanted to burst apart or cave inward; he wanted to both scream and be forever silent. In the end he was capable only of doing his job. It was his only handhold on sanity. So he directed his deputies, orchestrated the scenario, as any good cop would. He motioned to Deputy Melody Munney:
“Secure the crime scene, Mel.”
“Honey,” he said to Bethy’s mother. “You’ve got to let her go. Let us take care of her now.” Pruett fixed his attention on Honey McIntyre’s red, swollen eyes, avoiding the horror just beyond the peripheral.
“Canter,” he said to his youngest deputy. “Gather everyone inside the tack room. Get statements. The barn’s heated…no sense anyone suffering this damn chill. Baptiste. You send the ambulance home. Get Scoot and his Coroner wagon. Cordon the whole front of the house, kitchen too. Nobody touches anything.”
The remaining sunlight gave up its attempt to escape the horizon and the gloaming sky, suffused by clouds the color of an angry bruise, turned brick red. Night descended then, and quickly. Sheriff Pruett’s team continued their mercifully robotic tasking.
“Ty got here in a rush,” Zach Canter told his boss an hour later, after the interviews. “They were all inside the kitchen, playing cards. They heard a truck come up the road, a big diesel. Vance Dustin, the hired hand, heard the same thing from the bunkhouse. By all accounts, each of them figured it was Ty, and knew for sure when he started shouting. No one can say for sure what he was sayin’ exactly, or who he was sayin’ it to. You know Ty. He was drunk and mostly incoherent.”
“Tell me the rest,” Pruett said.
“Bethy got up and walked out on the porch. All the witnesses said they heard just one shot. It had to be a clean one, Boss. No way she suffered.”
“Now that’s hard to say, ain’t it, Deputy?”
“Yessir, I guess it is.”
“Ty fired the shot?”
“Dustin was the first outside,” Canter said. “But he was so drunk he was seeing double.”
“It’s okay, Zachary. Go on.”
“They all saw Ty drive through the lawn and down the road to the south entrance. Didn’t see anyone else.”
“Make casts of those tire tracks,” Pruett told Red Horse Baptiste, motioning to the deep impressions in the grass at the corner of the side yard.
The sheriff opened the door to the Suburban and climbed in.
“Where you headed, sir?” Baptiste said.
“I know where he went,” Pruett said, and drove away south.
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.