My Global eBook Award-winning novel, The Snake Den, has been re-released by Western Trail Blazer, which is ramrodded by Troy Smith. Through no fault of Troy’s, this book has one of the most wicked of the wicked playing an important supporting role. Think of him as Bruce Dern, perhaps, or maybe Lee Marvin, Michael Biehn, or Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. His name is Tarkington. He probably has a name that his mother gave him, but everyone in Yuma Territorial Prison, which Tarkington is sergeant of the guards, calls him Bull. Bull Tarkington. He’s the man who introduces Shawn Brodie to the hell hole that is Yuma Prison.
“It’s only three years, Shawn,” his Ma said with tears in her eyes. “You’ll come back a grown man.”
Shawn didn’t answer. He was still dazed by what had happened, and he didn’t really come to until they slammed the gate shut at Yuma prison, stuck him in a stone-walled room, and stripped him.
“Skinny tinkle of a kid, ain’tcha?” the guard sergeant said. “How come you’re at Yuma?”
Shawn kept his head down and shrugged. The man backhanded Shawn across the face, sending him to the floor in a naked sprawl.
“I ask you a question,” the thick-set man said, rolling his shoulders, “you give me an answer.”
Shawn swiped a hand at his bloody mouth and stood up on shaky legs. “They say I took a cow.”
The sergeant laughed. “A thief.” He threw a set of striped prison garb at Shawn’s feet. “Climb into those, thief,” he said. “An’ don’t forget the hat.” He tossed a straw hat onto the mound of clothing.
Shawn looked sideways at the sergeant as he pulled on the drawers and pants and shrugged into the shirt. Then, dressed in dingy black-and-white horizontal stripes, Shawn stood as straight and tall as his five-foot one-inch frame would let him. The pant legs jumbled on the ground around his feet and the shirt was definitely meant for a much larger man.
The sergeant laughed again. He lifted Shawn’s chin with the end of his thirty-inch truncheon and leaned over to stare into his eyes. “My name’s Tarkington,” he said. “You stay on my good side and life here in Yuma can be pleasant enough. You buck me and you’ll find out why they call this place the hellhole. You’ll end up in the Snake Den.”
Shawn gets taken to the barber by a guard named Turkey Bills and then hustled across the prison yard, through the sally gate, and up the stairs to the warden’s office.
The warden shuffled some documents, and, finding what he wanted, spoke to Shawn again. “Mister Brodie, I’m assigning you to a cell where I think you can accomplish what is expected of you. There are three other inmates in the cell, although it was built for six. The inmates assigned are Shoo Lee, a Chinaman, Sylvester Blanchard, also known as Shark, because he’s a gambler, and Gary Pringle . . . the Kid.”
Shawn’s ears pricked up. Everyone knew of Kid Pringle, the gunfighter, and he was going to be in the same cell. Maybe I can pick up some pointers, he thought. He could shoot all right with a rifle. Lots of times his rifle was what kept meat in the Brodie pot. But he’d never had the money to get a short gun. Then he realized he was in prison, and the Kid wouldn’t have a gun to teach him with.
“Are you listening to me, young man?” The warden’s voice took on a hard edge.
“Yessir. Nossir. I mean I was thinking, sir. Beg your pardon, sir.” Shawn blurted his apology but hadn’t the slightest idea what the Warden had said.
“Very well. We’ll have you ready to rejoin society at the end of three years, son, or my name is not Justin Strickland.” The warden smiled.
Shawn kept a straight face.
Back in the prison, Tarkington has designs on Shawn Brodie.
“Can I ask a question, Mister Tarkington?”
“You got a question? OK. Ask away.”
“What puts me in the Snake Den?”
Tarkington grinned, a wolf closing in on its kill. “First off, you try to escape from here and you’ll find yourself wearing a ball and chain. You get caught with opium, you go into the Snake Den. You steal, you’re in there, too.”
Shawn nodded. He’d stay outta that dark hole. The one thing he hated most was snakes. “I understand, Sergeant,” he said.
“See that you do,” Tarkington barked. He moved closer.
Shawn heard the sergeant’s heavy breathing, but didn’t dare turn around. Tarkington’s belly came up against the back of Shawn’s head, big hands grasping his shoulders.
“Thief, you be a good boy and we’ll get along just fine.” Tarkington’s voice was low and husky, and Shawn felt something poking him between the shoulder blades.
Tarkington tightened his grasp on Shawn’s shoulders and jammed his pelvis at the boy’s back. Now Shawn knew that the hard thing poking at him was the sergeant’s pecker.
Shawn cleared his throat loudly. It was all he could do in protest, but Tarkington kept shoving his pelvis up and down Shawn’s spine while pulling back on his shoulders. The guard’s breath was hard and fast. Shawn couldn’t think what to do, and he felt mighty uncomfortable.
Tarkington’s bumping picked up speed. Shawn’s senses sharpened. He could hear pots and pans clanking in the kitchen through the east wall, and he heard boots crunching on gravel. Someone was coming toward the yard office.
A rap on the door stopped Tarkington in mid-hump.
“Yeah?” he said, in a strained voice, relaxing his hold.
Now you know what Bull Tarkington’s after as far as Shawn is concerned. Still, even at fourteen, Shawn has a modicum of pride. Like this.
Turkey opened it. “Come on, turd.”
“What?” Turkey looked surprised.
“My name’s Shawn, and I ain’t no turd.” After Tarkington, Turkey Bills wasn’t so scary.
“You be careful about talking back to a guard, thief,” Tarkington said. “First thing you know, you’ll be in the Snake Den.”
“Sorry, sir,” Shawn said. Then in a small voice, he continued, “It shouldn’t be all that much trouble to call a man by his name.”
Turkey cackled again and Tarkington snorted. “Was there a man nearby,” Tarkington said, “you’d have a point. But any way you look at it, you ain’t no more’n a button. Was I you, I’d let it slide. I can call you ‘thief’ and Turkey can call you ‘turd’ if we got a mind to. We run things around here, not you.”
Shawn ducked his head and shut up. He wasn’t gonna push the point and get himself in trouble. The last thing he wanted to do was to sit in the dark and wonder when the sidewinders would drop in.
One of Shawn’s cellmates is oriental. Everyone thinks he’s Chinese and he goes by the name of Shoo Lee. Every day he practices the martial art called Kara Ti (Chinese Hand) in his native land. Inmates don’t mess with Shoo Lee, and Shawn decides he must convince Shoo Lee to teach him Kara Ti in order to stay alive. Shoo Lee finally agrees to, which does not sit well with Tarkington.
|Inmates wore horizontal stripes|
The inmates of Yuma Prison were lined up double file for count off when Shawn slipped into line behind Kid Pringle.
“You run into a fence post?” Shark Blanchard asked.
“Not hardly. I ran into Bull Tarkington’s right boot. More times than one.” Shawn swiped at his nose with the arm of his prison shirt. “Stopped bleeding now,” he said. “Ain’t no need to worry.”
“You get on the bad side of the Bull, kid, an’ you got trouble,” said Blanchard. “One way or another, that rowdy’ll get you.”
Shawn nodded, but he didn’t want to talk about it anymore. He hurt too much. No doubt the places where Tarkington had kicked him would be blue and purple by morning.
Then Tarkington sets Shawn up for the Snake Den, the dark cell where snakes come to get out of the hot sun.
Tarkington’s smile looked like a wolf’s. “Now, I don’t want to accuse no one of thieving without proof,” Tarkington said. “So I’m going to ask you all. Shark. Kid. Shoo Lee. Did any of you put that watch in the boy’s bunk?”
“Looks like a ‘no’ to me,” the guard sergeant said. “OK, thief. You put your clothes on and come along with me. We’re going to see the warden.”
|The dark cell now has a sign|
Shawn could do nothing but follow Bull Tarkington across the yard to the sallyport and on to the warden’s office.
Tarkington rapped on the door frame.
“Sergeant Tarkington, sir.”
Warden Strickland looked surprised to see Shawn.
“Young Shawn Brodie, sir, has proved himself a thief again, Warden. My own silver pocketwatch was found hidden under the tick in his bunk, sir. No doubt about it, he’s still a thief, sir.”
“Tsk, tsk,” said the warden. “You do know the penalty for stealing, do you not, Mister Brodie?”
“No, sir,” Shawn said.
“You must go to the dark cell, Mister Brodie, the one they call the Snake Den. You will spend your time in the dark cell reflecting on the wrong of your actions in stealing Sergeant Tarkington’s watch.”
The two days in the dark cell, in the Snake Den, teach Shawn things he could not have learned on the outside. Still, it was not a pleasant time. Of course the wicked Tarkington is not finished with Shawn. He sets Shawn up to fight Goliath Franklin, the prison’s bare knuckle champion. This for the entertainment of the citizens of Yuma, who come to the prison on Sundays to purchase items the convicts make and to watch the fights.
“Ladees and gennulmen!” Bull Tarkington shouted from the center of the ring. “Standing in the corner to my right, Goliath Franklin, Yuma’s greatest pugilist, who ain’t been so much as knocked down in nearly a hunnert bouts right here in Yuma.”
“We know all about Goliath,” a spectator shouted. “But who ya got to fight him?”
|Cells at Yuma Prison|
Tarkington ignored the interruption. “And in the corner to my left . . .” He paused.
Shawn stood with his back to Tarkington, making no move to shuck his hat and shirt and climb through the ropes.
The Bull started again: “And in the corner to my left, a modern-day David!”
Shawn looked around as if surprised.
“A modern-day David who hails from Grant’s Crossing up in Apache County.”
“Get on with it, Tarkington. I came to watch a fight, not listen to your poison voice.”
Tarkington glared at the heckler, but resumed his introduction. “From Grant’s Crossing on the Little Colorado,” he droned, “the Yuma Territorial Prison presents a bundle of dynamite named Sha-a-a-wn Brodie!”
Shawn shrugged out of his shirt, shed his hat, hitched up his britches, and stepped through the ropes into the ring.
A groan went up from the watching townspeople.
“Tarkington, you gotta be kidding. The kid’s a runt. He can’t even reach Goliath’s jaw, much less punch him in the face.”
As might be surmised, Shawn ends up in the hospital with a broken arm.
Naturally, Tarkington shows up. He doesn’t want any goldbricking, he says.
Tarkington brought his truncheon down on the cot’s metal headboard. Shawn flinched and drew his body into a tight ball. Tarkington smashed the cot frame again, laughing at Shawn’s wide-eyed reaction.
|The hospital was in the building |
on the right in the foreground
“’Bout time you hustled outta that there soft bed, ain’t it, thief? You’ve had it easy for two days a’ready. Get up, I say!” Tarkington rapped the truncheon on the cot frame like he was going to start rapping on Shawn’s skull next.
“No, sir, Sergeant Tarkington. No, sir. I ain’t playing hookey. Honest to God.” Shawn had to say something to get Tarkington to believe him. In his shape, he sure didn’t need for Bull Tarkington to pound him on the head. “Ever since Goliath clobbered me in the head, I can’t seem to keep my balance.”
Tarkington glared at Shawn, but didn’t hit him.
“I couldn’t hardly stand up the first day, Sergeant. But yesterday, Shoo Lee helped me and I walked around a good bit. I’ll be outta here soon, I swear, Sergeant. I’ll be right back out there busting rocks . . .” Then Shawn remembered his broken arm.
Tarkington took another whack at the cot’s headboard, making Shawn jump.
We could go on and on, but I don’t want to give you the whole book. Just this one last little part.
“Mister Tarkington, tell me. Would you be willing to have Doc Townshend verify your version of this story?”
Tarkington puffed up his chest. “Sure. Bring that creaky old sawbones in. He don’t know from nothing.”
The warden smiled, but his eyes were cold. “Mister Trent, fetch Doctor Townshend, please.”
|The sally port at Yuma Prison|
Trent left the office at a run.
The ensuing silence lengthened. Shawn swayed and ached. The warden indicated a seat for Shawn but he shook his head. “I don’t want no preferential treatment, Warden.”
Few minutes had passed, but it seemed a long time, when Doc Townshend stepped into the warden’s office. The doctor nodded at Shawn, said, “Trent told me what happened,” he said.
“Thank you for coming so quickly, Doctor Townshend.” The warden held out the hickory truncheon. “Could you take a good look at this, please, and tell me what you see?”
Doc Townshend nodded, then took a pair of rubber gloves from his pocket and pulled them on. He accepted the truncheon and commenced his examination.
Shawn’s bum throbbed at he watched.
When he lifted his head from examining the truncheon, Doc Townshend looked directly at Shawn. “Turn around, Shawn,” he said.
“There are blood stains on this truncheon,” Doc Townshend said, “along with traces of fecal matter.” The doctor pointed at the rivulets of dried blood on Shawn’s legs. “I imagine the blood on this weapon is the same as the blood on Shawn Brodie’s legs,” he said. “If you want my professional opinion, Warden, I’d say this truncheon had been inserted into the anus of Shawn Brodie with sufficient force to lacerate the lining of his colon and cause considerable bleeding.”
Warden Strickland turned bleak eyes on Bull Tarkington. “Sergeant Tarkington,” he growled, “you’re fired.”
So Tarkington’s wickedness continues on the outside. At one point, he even tries to hire an inside killer to do away with Shawn. To find out how Tarkington ends up, you’ll have to read the book. The publisher tells me it will be free for the downloading from Amazon beginning on September 1. You’re welcome to read about this wicked man. And review the book on Amazon, please.
How’s that for a bit of self promotion?