Monday, October 15, 2012

The Time In Between

I’m sorry, monkies.  The only thing in my head these days is Dillon.

~~The Time In Between


Summary:  A prequel to my story, “After the Gallows.”  Contains spoilers for the episode “The Gallows.” 

If you only ever watch one episode of Gunsmoke, watch that one.


A/N: As usual, I’m too vain to let anyone edit my writing.  All my fubars are belong to me. 

~~~
After leaving Pruit Dover to hang, I stayed off the roads between Hays and Dodge City.  I faded into the brittle, bleached prairie grass, angry and hung over, my insides aching from  grief and cheap whiskey, unsure if I was going back to Dodge or turning south to break for Mexico or the Texas coast, where I would live among the fishermen and forget this dry, hard land.

Of all things evil in the world, there are few things worse than injustice.  Pruit Dover held me blameless for the terrible iniquity perpetrated upon him but I could not be absolved for my part in it.  My penance was to share the last hours of life with this vibrant, good boy and then to watch him die. 

On the way to Hays, he rode ahead of me, singing a made-up cowpoke song, his hat pulled low on his forehead, the breeze parting the sun-kissed hair that curled on the back of his neck.  I followed behind, on my pale horse.

I sat with Pruit the night before his execution. I brought him a good steak, cob corn and roasted potatoes.  I stayed and took the meal with him; or rather, I watched him eat. Dover ate with the gusto of a hungry child.  I had no appetite.  As I watched him plow through his supper, I noticed again his good table manners.  He ate quickly but he chewed carefully and swallowed the food in his mouth before talking.  He used his napkin like a gentleman.   I felt a rush of sadness and looked away, swallowing past a lump in my throat.

During the three weeks he waited for trial in Dodge, I discovered that Pruit loved to read.  I brought him David Copperfield and watched the expression on his face go from wonder to delight to fierce concentration.  He talked about the characters as if they were real people and felt so bad for Pip, that he couldn't finish reading Great Expectations. A French clergyman who worked for the War Department kept a large collection of books that he and his son didn't mind lending. I escorted Pruit there every couple of days.  It was the War Department office but everyone called it the library. We’d linger there, drinking coffee.  Pruit listened with wide eyes as Father Lemieux told stories of the places he’d traveled as a missionary, many of which were in the books Pruit read. I left him in the care of the pastor more than once when I had errands to run. I couldn't bear to leave him locked up.  When I was in the office, I kept his cell door open – even while I slept.

To feel too kindly toward a prisoner is never a good idea. Men are tricky.  Someone you thought was innocent would then turn at trial and confess to the worse crimes.  Dover was different. I knew down to my bones that he was innocent -- and I liked him. We all did. Kitty really took to him – hugging on him, bringing him sweets and kissing his cheeks.  Pruit would duck his head and grin, his ears burning bright red with pleased embarrassment.  I once brought him with me to share Sunday dinner at the library.  He emerged from his cell with his threadbare shirt buttoned to the neck and his hair damp from his vain attempts to tame it. He was quiet during the meal but during a lull in the conversation he looked up from his plate. 

“This is nice,” he said.  He smiled at each of us -- Doc, Father Lemieux and his boy, Chester, Kitty and me.  “I never had better than this. I never had no family. You all are the closest I come.”

Usually, my job ended at the foot of the gallows.  I had no desire to see even the baddest of men swing from a rope and I never stayed around for hangings.  But I wanted to stay in the Hays City jail with Pruit until the end -- as much for him as for myself.  

After we finished eating Pruit's last meal, I gathered our dishes to take back to the café. I rose to leave, and panic flared briefly in Pruit’s eyes.

“I’m taking these to the café then I’m going to get us a couple of bottles,” I said.

Pruit bobbed his head and smiled.  “I’m proud to drink with you, Marshal,” he said.

As I left the jail, it took every ounce of strength I had left in me not to smash my fist into the smirking face of the low-rent deputy kicked back in the sheriff’s chair with his feet on the desk.  I glanced back and saw Pruit watching me expectantly, his hands wrapped around the cell bars. He was still standing there when I came back a half hour later.

Pruit and I drank through the night, neither of us managing to get very drunk.  I listened as he rambled on about a wide range of subjects and told me long-winded stories of his adventures drifting, laughing hard and slapping his thigh at his always horrible luck. 

“You know, Marshal, I always paid my debts first so I never had no dollar for a saloon girl. I was finally going wet my whistle with some of that hundred dollars Ax owed me.  Just my luck. I never had ice cream and I’ll die a virgin.”

“I’m sorry Pruit," I said.

“Whew,” he laughed.  “I’m drunker than I thought. I never told nobody that.”

“Your secret’s safe with me.”

“Miss Kitty’s your girl, ain't she?”

“Kitty’s her own woman.”

He gazed at me in silence, his eyes suddenly old and infinitely tired.  “Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero pulsanda tellus,” he said.

“Did the padre teach you that?” I asked.

“Nope. Louie Pheeters.  It means, “Now is the time to drink, now the time to dance footloose upon the earth.”  Some guy named Horace said it. I think he was a philosopher or a poet or something.”

“He was both.”

 “You have to grab life, Marshal.  And hold tight.” He held up his hands and squeezed his fists. “You find someone, you grab her hand and you take to the sunlight, the two of you.”  He reached out and gripped my forearm.  “Don’t be alone. Promise me, Matt.”

“I’ll try,” I said.

Pruit leaned back and studied me with his head cocked.  “I've been thinking,” he said.

“Oh?”

“That Frenchman preacher’s boy don’t make me feel like he’s a boy.”

I coughed on the sip of whiskey I was swallowing. “What are you looking at me for?”

He grinned and pointed two fingers at me. “You’re of the same mind. I can tell.”

“Pruit --.”

“Ah,” he said, waving a hand.  “I’m just hurrahing you.”

“That’s a hell of a joke.”

He poured us another shot.  “Take to the sunlight, Mr. Dillon,” he said.

He drifted into to sleep at about four in the morning, laying his head on his folded arms.  His lashes made shadows on his cheeks and I resisted the urge to smooth his hair from his forehead.  I settled for resting my hand on his.  After a moment, I gently gripped his fingers and held his hand until he woke.

In the end, I couldn’t watch Pruit die. 

He stood on the trap door beneath the noose and held my eyes for a long moment. He gave me a brief nod then turned his gaze to the bright morning sky.  I walked away but stopped when I heard him drop.

I stood in the middle of the street listening to the creak of the rope as Pruit Dover swung in the dark belly of the gallows.

Back in my hotel room, I gathered my things.  I folded Pruit’s short, thin jacket and put it and his battered felt hat in his saddlebags.  There was a book in the bottom of one of the bags.  It was a copy of Great Expectations.  On my way out of Hays, I gave his horse to a scrawny boy lugging burlap sacks of wood along the side of the road.

I stopped at a leaning shanty of a saloon on the outskirts of town.  Behind the building, Irish and Mexican prostitutes sat on the steps of a row of tiny, door-less shacks called cribs, where they serviced their customers.  They hiked their skirts and cooed at me when I tied my horse at the rail.  I slipped my badge into my pocket.  My stomach was sour from no food and last night’s whiskey but I ordered another bottle.  I bought a couple of rounds for the house so I could drink in peace and so no one would steal my horse. I don’t know how long I was in that saloon and I lost count of the number of bottles of whiskey I drank, but it was late morning when I went in and dark when I bought yet another bottle and took it with me out back.

I had to be drunk from all the whiskey and an empty stomach but I couldn't feel it.  I couldn't feel anything.  A dark, slender girl walked over and rubbed her hand over my sex, murmuring in Spanish.  Another woman with red hair and a flattened nose gripped her bodice and bared her breasts.  The Mexican girl hooked a finger in my waistband and gently pulled me to her crib.  She knelt before me and began to unfasten my belt.  I stepped back and leaned out of the doorway.  I motioned to the redhead. She laughed and sauntered over, her hair and eyes shining in the moonlight.  I sat on a narrow bench built into the wall while the dark-eyed girl finished unfastening my pants. I watched her slide my cock into her mouth.  The redhead sat next to me and wrapped her hand around my shaft. She jacked me in rhythm with the other girl’s mouth.

“Ooh,” she purred. “You’re big as a horse all over.”

The rest of the night was a blur.  Hours later, the saloon keeper rousted me from the crib. The redhead was gone but the dark-eyed woman sprawled naked across my body. The barkeep pulled her off me and threw her dress at her.  She stumbled out, cursing.  My cock was chafed.  I hadn't even taken off my gun belt.

The barkeep gave me a crude grin.  “You certainly got your money’s worth,” he said.

My horse had waited in front of the saloon for almost a day so I walked him for a mile before I mounted.  We turned off the road into the prairie and I let the horse chose the direction.

I was in the grips of an ague of self-pity but I didn’t care.

I swigged from my canteen of stale water and rode until my horse found a creek in a small stand of trees.  The sun was high but I made camp because I was too tired to go on.  I unsaddled my horse and rubbed him down with a handful of grass.  I let him graze while I built a fire and heated a can of beans.  I was bone weary but I slept in light, fitful snatches until the sun went down.  I lay awake all night and broke camp well before dawn. I repeated this pattern for the next couple of days, stopping to make camp only when my horse got tired. On the third day, I realized that I was on the road to Dodge. 

My dumb horse had brought me home.

“Damn you, Buck,” I muttered.

I stared toward Dodge for a long time.  I could see the lights of the depot from where I was, just over a mile away.  I almost turned back. I turned instead, to the prairie again, where an outcropping of rock perched on the crest of a hill and where I knew an underground spring bubbled into a deep, clear pool hidden in the center of the boulders.  I would drink and bathe and head into Dodge when the sun rose.

I stripped and laid my filthy clothes across the rocks to let some air blow through them. I stretched out on a flat boulder next to the pool.  The rock was cool against my bare skin but the breeze was warm.  The stars swirled in the sky and the world seemed to tilt beneath me. I felt weightless and safe, the way I supposed a child would feel being rocked in his mother’s arms.  Finally, I slept.

My eyes fluttered open.  A wild-haired Negro girl wearing only loose, cut-off pantaloons stared down at me.  She was spindly, almost painfully thin, with incongruously full breasts perched high on her narrow chest. Her eyes were large and grey – the color of smoke and gunmetal. I watched the expression in those unusual eyes change from concern to compassion then to alarm when she finally noticed that I was awake.  She gasped, rose to her toes and spun away.

I heard Pruit Dover’s voice in my head. 


My hand shot out, quick as a draw.  I grabbed her ankle, yanked her off her feet and pinned her to the ground.  I peered into her face.

“You’re a girl,” I said.


~~End
girl6
10/12








1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This made me cry like a baby.