It’s always interesting to come up with bad guys. Many have psychological problems, many have power lusts, many think doing bad things will make them famous. In 2011, my novel The Snake Den won the Global eBook Award for western novels. It’s a western in a way, because it occurs in the late 19th century in the Arizona Territorial Prison at Yuma. The Hell Hole.
You may have heard this before, but here’s how it happened. In 2000, I sailed a Westsail 32 from Olympia, WA, to La Paz, BCS, Mexico, with a three-month stopover in San Diego. I parked the boat in the marina at the far end of San Diego Bay, and drove a car across the state to Yuma, on my way to visit family in Mesa and Gilbert. Passing through Yuma, I went to the State Park that once was Yuma Prison. In the records, I found that the youngest inmate ever incarcerated was only 14 years old. The novel began from that instant. After the protagonist, 14-year-old Shawn Brodie came antagonist Sergeant Tarkington. Here’s how they met.
“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.”
Tarkington, the one they call Bull, has a thing about young boys. He’s got power, and he thinks no one can touch him. He obeys the warden on the surface, but does what he pleases inside the prison gates. It’s not long until he’s after Shawn in earnest.
“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 was in a Christmas Pageant but I don't know if the Yuma Prison Band played.
Of course, in a place like Yuma, the prison population is whites and Mexicans and blacks and Orientals. Each has its power men. Shawn tangles with the Mexican strongman first.
“Gringo boy,” Zapata sneered. “I think you must learn a lesson about who truly commands the yard at El Carcel de Yuma.”
Zapata swiped a hand at the side of Shawn’s face. He automatically put up a hand to ward off the blow. In an instant, the knife pierced Shawn’s hand and was gone.
“What happened to your hand could well happen to your eye or your ear or your tiny little boy’s cojones, gringo.” Zapata’s voice sounded in his right ear. Shawn sucked in a sharp breath against the stabbing pain in his hand. He squeezed his eyes shut and willed Zapata to walk away.
But he didn’t.
The Mexicans in the circle tittered.
Shawn opened his eyes. Zapata stood before him with his arms folded. The bloody tip of the nail-knife protruded from between his index and middle fingers. Shawn couldn’t take his eyes from it. He backed away. The circle of Mexicans moved as he did, keeping him in the center with Zapata.
Shawn’s breath came in short gasps. His brain clouded. He didn’t know what to do. No one had ever threatened to kill him before.
“You are helpless, gringo perro. You have no choice but to be the slave of Zapata the terrible. You will obey my commands, or you will be without your cojones, comprende? Do not as I say, gringo, and you die. In your sleep, perhaps, or right here in the yard of El Carcel de Yuma.”
The Mexican held his slim knife between thumb and forefinger as if it were no more than a needle. Slowly, he raised his hand until the nail-knife was aligned with the throbbing pulse in Shawn’s temple.
Zapata grinned, a cat toying with a wounded bird.
Shawn tried to summon saliva to his parched mouth. He looked askance at the nail-knife approaching his head.
A whistle blew from the corner of the yard office, signaling time to return to the cells.
The main guard tower, much as it was when Shawn was in Yuma Prison
So you can see that life for a 14-year-old in Yuma Prison is no walk amongst the daisies. Still, Tarkington is Shawn’s nemesis—beginning to end. But one of Shawn’s cellmates is a “Chinaman,” who is really an Okinawan who takes Shawn under his wing and teaches him Kara Ti, the predecessor of karate, which he uses to take Tarkington down at last, fighting him in the dusty streets of Yuma.
“If you wanna kill me, Tarkington, you’re gonna have to do it with a gun. I’ve got no gun, except for that wood one, so you’d be shooting an unarmed man.”
“Don’t need no gun,” Tarkington growled. “I’m gonna make you wish you was never born.”
Shawn said nothing, but started a slow circling movement that gradually closed in on Tarkington and made him keep shifting position to face Shawn.
“I’ll – kill – you!” Tarkington’s roundhouse swing came at Shawn’s head.
Shawn stepped in close, moving under Tarkington’s arm to hammer two sharp blows to the big man’s midriff, just like he’d punched the adobe wall in prison.
Tarkington doubled over, grunting at the power of the blows. Shawn Brodie was no longer a docile boy in Yuma Prison. Tarkington cocked his fists in the best John L. Sullivan style.
Shawn circled, sliding his bare feet one after the other, keeping his body weight centered. He intoned his shinju and watched for Bull Tarkington to telegraph a move.
An opening came, and Shawn stepped into it, bashing the two hard knuckles of his right hand into Tarkington’s chest just above his heart. Shawn followed the right with a straight left that smashed the Bull’s nose against his face. Blood spurted, then dribbled down Tarkington’s chin and dropped onto his shirt.
The Bull roared. He spread his arms wide and rushed Shawn, trying to get him in a bear hug. Shawn pivoted, grasping Tarkington’s right hand with his left. He ducked under Tarkington’s arm and threw him into the dirt with the same move he’d used on Orlando Baca.
As Tarkington measured his length in the dusty street, Shawn dropped on the Bull’s stomach with both knees, sinking nearly to the backbone.
Shawn bounced to his feet.
Tarkington turned over and retched the morning’s whiskey into the dust. He crawled to his hands and knees. Blood dripped from his nose.
Shawn stood over the former guard sergeant. “You had enough, Bull? Or do you want me to really hurt you?”
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Tarkington mumbled, and staggered to his feet.
“Don’t do it, Bull,” Shawn warned.
Tarkington rumbled deep in his chest. He charged Shawn with his head down, aiming to butt him.
Shawn stepped aside, jumped lightly into the air, and brought the point of his elbow down on the base of Bull Tarkington’s skull with crushing force. Tarkington fell face down in the dust. He didn’t move. Shawn saw tiny dust devils near the big man’s nostrils. He was still alive.
So we see, power monger Bull Tarkington was the first bad man Shawn met inside Yuma Prison and the last he faced off against in the streets of Yuma. Full round.
You can next read about Shawn in Diablo, a novel about the rough town of Diablo on the rim of Canyon Diablo. Diablo only lasted ten years, but its main drag, Hell Street, lived up to its name. Samuel Jones, whom you know from the Wolf Creek series, shows up in Diablo as well.
Wicked men add spice to your stories, but they’ve got to have a character flaw that causes their evil ways. My take on it.
Vivid passages of emotion--power, fear, and revenge. Great piece of writing, Charlie.ReplyDelete
That is some powerful writing, Charlie. Wonderful stuff. Tis no wonder it won an award, a well deserved one.ReplyDelete
Holy smokes! My heart is pounding. Such vivid writing, it was like I was there with Sean. I have to get this book!ReplyDelete
Charlie, your writing always blows me away. It's so raw and visceral. Powerful stuff!ReplyDelete
Charlie, I had no idea about the youngest prisoner in Yuma. No wonder it inspired you so much! And loved your excerpts. Do you realize you're adding to the TBR pile in a giant sort of way????LOLReplyDelete
Well, heck. You're my new hero now that I know you sailed a Westie. I've wanted one of those since I was thirteen and I saw a magazine article that challenged me to "Westsail the world"ReplyDelete
Anyhow, nice writing.
What a way to grow up. Your writing is powerful, Charlie.ReplyDelete
Marc, Westsail 32s must be the best oceangoing sailboat ever. Easily singlehanded. Plenty of room for three or four. Built like a Sherman. 19000# displacement (you don't see Westies breaking up like some of the ultralights that pass themselves off as oceangoing yachts in this day and age). Ah, I could go on, but this is a blog about western stuff.ReplyDelete
Amazing. Loved the post. Having spent twenty years working with youthful offenders this post resonated with me. In Colorado we had an 11-year old, Anton Woode who shot a Denver businessman and robbed him (he took a gold watch), serve a 25 year sentence for murder in the Colorado Territorial Prison, starting his sentence in 1893. Although not Yuma, his story is also fascinating. It has been turned into a biography.ReplyDelete
Wow! That is powerful stuff, Charlie. Many congratulations on the award.ReplyDelete
Renaissance: Anton's story is obviously nonfiction. I attended a WWA convention as I was writing The Snake Den. A couple from California who dealt with juvenile offenders said, "the biggest problem is going to be sexual." My answer: Yup.ReplyDelete
'Tiny dust devils near his nostrils' - that's the kind of detail I like in your writing, Charlie. Snake Den deserves a very wide readership indeed!ReplyDelete
Chuck, and you are correct. Juveniles in an adult system are victims in more ways than most realize and sexual is huge. DorisReplyDelete