Author's Note: I wanted to write some fanfiction about Charlie without it being all crappy and stuff. I decided to start from when he was young right up until he meets Ben Wade, or maybe all the way up until he dies, or whatever. It's written in first person from Charlie's perspective, so some 'mistakes' in the grammar are intentional, to give the text the feel of Charlie's voice.
Disclaimer: Charlie Prince belongs to Elmore Leonard, author of the short story 'Three-Ten To Yuma', and my interpretation uses the 2007 embodiment of Charlie Prince, courtesy of the screenplay writers Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas and the actor Ben Foster. No profit is made from this.
THE BLACK WAGON
Papa Prince was never in the same mind when he was choosing what he wanted to dub me in ordinary conversation.
'Mordecai,' he says.
'Don't dub me so,' says I, with irritated, squinty eyes, nudging the tender age of six years.
On most occasions he would land upon 'Charles', and this I allowed Papa Prince to call me, though I was already in the early stages of knowing that it wasn't what I wanted to be named for the rest of my life, as though it were a hat that did not and never would fit me properly. I had a feeling that I was destined for greater namesakes and things like that, and a status that would let everyone know I'd be in the habit of regularly expending vast amounts of currency on fancy things that I probably didn't need. Just shy of six years, I would envision my future wealth in the shapes of silly, useless things like dancing Arabian horses, fine gold fastenings on a stylishly tailored jacket and a talking parrot, like the ones those pirates had in the stories the one-eyed farrier used to tell me when he came to shoe our horse.
I also dreamt of having a black glossy wagon like the one I had seen in town, though that was on very rare occasions. I didn't know what it was for to begin with, I only knew that it carried the same long, low boxes from the church that I've often seen men carrying on their shoulders, up over the crest of the hill where crooked, wooden crosses jutted out of the dust. I asked Mama what the boxes were after the first time I saw the wagon take one to the hill. 'Coffins, a bed for a corpse,' is what she said, and with that I was given stern orders from Mama and Papa Prince that forbade me to explore the hill where they buried the coffins. I didn't consider the warning much, all I wanted was that coach. I loved the way it was so highly polished that I saw my face reflected in its surface as it trundled by. It was probably the cleanest thing I'd ever seen in my whole life. I yearned for it so badly, and that kind of yearning often blocks reason and warning from any mind, least of all the mind of an ignorant child. I wanted to go where the coach went, to be as lustrous and awe-inspiring as the wagon, as if being the wagon would be as good as having the wagon.
I chose a clear, star-shot night to 'play wagon' and sneaked from the cabin where I lived with Mama and Papa Prince, my left arm pretending to be a wheel as the right arm gee'd the imaginary horses ahead of me. I skipped and rolled and trotted all the way to the coffin hill to see what mysteries my parents had told me to never go near.
It was a night in which I was to experience the kind of fright even grown men may shirk to imagine. I have no doubt in my mind as I write this now that these experiences played heavily on the fates of my parents (which I will tell you about later). I think often of this night, how it sent out deep ripples that stretched far beyond me and did not die until I myself died. I think death comes around in full circles. I yearned after a thing that existed only for death and followed it, and death is what later walked back to me from that very place, where I believe my life took a direction that I don't think could have led to many other places, nor could have successfully deviated onto a happier, better track.
Thus, my misfortunes started in the bone orchard. I had never seen one before, though I suspected they all looked the same, just a fenced area with warped crosses poking out of the ground in vaguely uniform rows. A gnarled and twisted Piñon pine hunkered over one corner of the cemetery, the ground beneath it lost in yawning darkness. I stared into the black, fantasising about what may be lurking there. What dangers had my parents worried I might walk into? I snapped a long, whippy twig over the rumps of my imaginary wagon horses, and again my left arm churned around in imitation of a wheel. I parked my wagon at the edge of the blackness beneath the pine and watched intently. Suddenly I was a brave, daring outlaw, stalking the toughest, meanest Indians ever known. I crouched and flitted noiselessly upon them; my index and middle fingers were my barrels, my thumbs were the hammers. In my fantasy I had been clever enough to remove my spurs so they wouldn't clink and alert the Indians that the famous outlaw Charlie Prince was coming for them. They wouldn't hear me until my hammers cracked like knuckles and thunder poured from both my barrels. I crept to the very edge of the shadow, preparing to jump in as if I were just about to jump ship into a fathomless ocean. But I was not afraid, I was the famous Charlie Prince! I, who hunted fearsome natives and drove black, shining wagons, would now ambush the most ferocious of all Indian chieftains and his entire posse. Papa Prince hated posses, so I hated them too, though at that age I wasn't really sure what they were.
Abruptly my heart seemed to stop. I saw a flash of something metallic inside the shadow, snarling for a split second by the light of the stars or moon. My heart started up again wildly to the point where I thought it would flop out of my chest, whilst my breathing decided to stop instead. Gradually, as my eyes adjusted, I saw two pale shapes floating beneath the gloom of the pine. Both shapes were looking at me with eyes like bullet-holes. I stared at them, morbidly distracted from thoughts of my own safety, straining hard to see more. I hadn't wanted to, and yet I felt as though I needed to. It was two men, both with shovels, digging up something between them that I couldn't see because the shadow was too thick. One was tall and skinny, the other short and stocky, and it was that one who growled and swiftly started towards me. He was like a bear, huge and hairy and he moved an awful lot faster than seemed natural. I turned and ran as hard as I could, but I was just a small, weak child. I did not get more than half way down the side of the hill afore the Bear Man lifted me in the air with a grip that I imagined felt just like the jaws of a bear. I remember the way he was snarling, as mad as a lynx with a stick of dynamite stuffed up its bung-hole.
I yelled like a moon-freak in his ugly, ruddy face, pulling hard on his tangled beard the way I knew Papa Prince hated.
'PAPA WILL BREAK YOU.'
I don't recall what occurred between then and when I awakened with a dreadful headache in a squat, stone-walled hut. I could have mistaken it for an over-sized shitter, the way it stank so terribly. I had been thrown on the dirt-packed floor in a corner with my wrists and ankles bound and a gag to shut my mouth. There was a pail near my feet, so I kicked it hard, angry, spilling the liquid in it and screaming wildly through the cloth in my mouth. I couldn't see all that much, but I could tell that there was a fire in an adjoining room and that I was alone in the room where I had been dumped, at least until my hollering brung one of the men stomping through, roaring at me to shut my fat yap. It was not the ferocious Bear Man, but the other, a stringy fellow with very bad yellow teeth, all snaggly in his mouth like he'd made hisself some dentures from the teeth of a horse.
I growled at him, but he bent over and smacked me violently across the side of my face. I fell quiet and still, for Papa Prince had taught me that the first blow was always just a warning and not as heavy as what would come if that warning was not heeded, but even as I lay there silent and unmoving as a dead fish, my eyes stinging, the bastard struck me again. He did so over and over, probably waiting until his arm got tired, and then he kicked me once in the stomach, figuring he hadn't done enough already. After that he stood over me, huffing like a buffalo, then dragged me by the hair into the next room where the Bear Man was sitting, poking at the embers of the fire with a stick.
I cried hard that night, so hard I thought I'd cry my own brains out, right through my eye-sockets. Not even Papa Prince ever beat me that brutally, and he was a real curly wolf, especially when he'd downed more shots of whiskey than me and Mama could count on our fingers put together. These men weren't like that, nor criminals by any standard regular folks would have ever run into about town. They were the kind of God-dodging lunatics the old crone at the bar liked to tell spook stories about.
They were grave-robbers..
At that time in my life I didn't really understand grave-robbing. There was one time I asked Papa Prince why people went grave-robbing, though I probably shouldn't have asked him, least not when he was drunk. He probably did know a proper answer, but no amount of luck or patience could help a person get any manner of sense out of him when he was blowing whiskey breath. He told me something about doctors and surgeons, how they needed to look at dead bodies because of science and medicine. I suppose those were the bare bones of the truth, but I could never understand what a doctor would want with a dead person. We dead'uns are a little beyond medicinal help, really.
I peered at Toothy and the Bear Man, both huddled opposite each other on either side of their fire. They looked curiously distracted by the flames, intently watching as though waiting for something glorious to happen. Intrigued, still lying on my side, with snot and tears drying unashamedly on my face, I managed to shuffle a few inches one way so as to get a better view of the fire, and saw they had a little hotpot, with steam and not entirely unpleasant cooking aromas ascending from inside. The Bear Man seemed to be in charge of the pot. He swirled at whatever was inside with a small ladle, whilst in the other hand he delicately flicked a rolled cigarette. His hands held their designated implements with disproportionate care and grace; the ladle he manipulated with such fastidious professionalism so to be called... loving?
Intrigued more by what I was seeing of the Bear Man, and stupidly slipping between false quilts of security, I openly continued to watch them, taking in the peculiar clash of scents, the earthy floor beneath me, the hotpot, the cigarette and the general outhouse stench from the rest of the hut. I watched as Toothy got up and moved towards a dark shape in the far corner of the room, hidden in flickering shadows. I hadn't noticed it before, and it wasn't until Toothy had dragged it a little ways into the light and began slicing away at it with a knife that smouldered in the firelight that I realised they had a dead body with them. It was a woman; she was partially naked where they had been teasing and fiddling with her death frock. She lay stiffly crooked like a child's dolly that had been forgotten halfway through a rearrangement of stance. A network of puce veins showed vividly through her waxy skin.
It was in those moments that I realised I'd pissed myself. Toothy carved her flesh, taking his chosen cuts, favouring the liver and kidneys and the fleshy areas around her chest, thighs and rump, throwing them in the hotpot over the fire. My britches were wet and uncomfortable and my nose was running into the gag like a biblical flood. The fear of being killed and chopped up and eaten is too big to fit inside a child. It's the kind of fear that fills you right up and then overflows, making it so you can't even move your limbs or think straight. I just lay paralyzed on the ground, covered in piss and snot, with blood dribbling in my eyes, whimpering for my beastly father to come and beat the loonies into the dirt and save me.
I seen Papa Prince break a man before. It was when a worn traveller came by our cabin, riding a nag fit only for the crows, begging at our door that we may be kind enough to let him sleep in the barn for the night, and maybe have a chunk of bread or something. Papa Prince had been at the bottle already and was in that jolly kind of drunk mood (the kind that me and Mama preferred), and invited the creepy, haggard stranger right inside. Straight away I figured Mama wasn't so keen when she didn't offer him anything to eat or drink, and just stood with a buttoned-up mouth beside the stove, disallowing me to stray further from her side than the distance her apron strings would stretch.
The stranger stayed in the cabin a while, drinking with Papa Prince and talking about the boring stuff grown men talk about. He had badly kept hair and watery eyes that didn't point in the same direction. He was the first person I'd seen with black teeth. His mouth was kind of foamy and those soggy wall-eyes wandered a little too liberally, something even Papa Prince picked up on through the haze of the whiskey. He pointed a finger on one of those giant hands that I both loved and sorely hated.
'What choo eyeballin'?' He slurred. He had the undertone that made me and Mama cling together at the back of the house when he used it on us. 'You eyeballin' ma woman? You eyeballin' ma boy?'
The stranger blinked and licked at the foam around his lips. 'Not like I'm touchin' her, is it? Can't touch someone with your eyes.' A quavering smile hung a little too long on his repulsive lips, right afore he licked them again, his eyes roving all over Mama.
Papa Prince moved so fast I didn't even realise what was happening until I heard the stranger screaming and choking. Papa Prince had one of them shot glasses (I think that he stole from the bar) and was stuffing it hard into the stranger's mouth. The stranger was flailing violently, his fingernails scratching lines into our wooden floor and his bandy legs kicking at our supper table. I screamed for fear at the awful sounds he was making, and then ran and hid under Mama's apron when I saw one of his fingernails snap clean off on the floor. Mama was screaming too.
I didn't watch what Papa Prince did to him, but I will remember the sounds I heard that night until I die. I heard the stranger choking hard, and then a sickening gurgle and a crack. What I heard after that I recognised as the sound of Papa Prince's fists crunching into a face. That sound went on for what felt like the whole night, and maybe it was the whole night, because when he was finished there was nothing left of the stranger's head, just a pulpy, runny mass on our floorboards, spread far around the stranger's shoulders like a blossoming halo. I saw chipped bone in the red puddle, and teeth and hair and an eyeball. I don't know if Papa Prince used only his fists to do all that, but I remember feeling profound wonder and fear at the awesome rawness of his sadism.
Me and Mama both wiped his fists and face clean that night, her sat to his right and me to his left on the bed. He shook and breathed hard like a wild animal, but he let us clean him with no protest. My Papa was a monster, and monsters eat cannibals.
But Papa Prince wasn't there. I was lying on the floor, just about to get turned into a stew and my monster of a Papa wasn't there to beat the cannibals' brains into the ground. I wailed hard through the gag, not particularly caring that my noise might make Toothy come over and kick me in my little lily-liver again.
'Quiet yourself, you flaxen runt,' the Bear Man snarled. 'I can't stand any of that bitchin' and whingin'. Shut your fuckin' trap, boy.'
Tooth was licking at his hands, seeming to be lost in thought. 'Y'know...' he started off carefully. 'We can't turn him loose. He'll talk.'
'No shit,' said the Bear Man, shaking his matted head and dipping a ladle into the hotpot to swirl the woman's meat around in the liquid. 'We're gonna cut his throat and dump him in the desert for crow bait.' He blew on the ladle and sipped to check the seasoning. 'After we eat.'
'We're gonna dump him?' Toothy turned to look at me all over, and I looked right back, my eyes as big in my head as those of an owl. I didn't realise that I had been holding my breath whilst they'd been talking about what to do with me. He looked back at the Bear Man. 'We're just gonna throw him away? All that meat?'
The Bear Man became still, his eyes fixing on his cannibal friend, before rolling right around in his fat head to fix on me. He thunk long and hard about something whilst he was staring at me and it made me squirm, like there was a thousand worms trying to wriggle their way out from under my skin. He flicked the ash of his smoker to the side. 'He's kinda skinny.'
Toothy snorted and gave an ugly honk of laughter. 'But he's young! And fresh, not been in the ground. Like lamb meat, I'd bed. Think of that liver. Imagine it.' He gazed down on me with the glint of the Devil himself in those eyes. 'Just imagine it, fried in butter...'
The talk of my freshness and lambiness and how my goddamn lily-liver was gonna taste fried in butter was too much. I had felt the faintest sparkle of hope when the Bear Man said they were gonna dump me in the desert, there might have been a small chance to escape between being taken out there and having my throat cut (unless they was gonna cut my throat first), but now my brain was saturated with the purest fear that every human prays to avoid. They wouldn't need to take me anywhere or hide me or whatever if they really were going to eat me. They could do it right there and then if they wanted to. My little heart was ready to beat its way right out of my ribcage; it was pounding so hard that it sent the sharpest pain right through my body and all along my backbone. I was sobbing again, but I had no tears left and it just felt like my head was turning inside out. I howled through the gag, trying to beg them not to eat me, but my words were lost and came out as a muffled parody through the snotty cloth. They roared with laughter. They could have brung the roof of the hut down with that raucous noise, and it made me sick to my stomach. I felt my guts churning hard; felt the hand that rises up through the chest and into the back of the throat, then clutches at the tongue and makes it feel tight. I whined as my stomach started pumping and the acid burnt my throat, but I couldn't spew right because of that fucking gag. I remember watching ribbons of vomit shooting out of my nose across the dusty floor. It was the worst thing I'd ever felt. Papa Prince's fists were like feathery kisses compared to that ache and shame.
'Shit!' I heard one of them shout. 'Fuckin' brat's gonna choke on his own vomit afore we get to kill him right! Fuck, take it off!'
Toothy leapt over to me and ripped the gag off my head, tossing it into the corner with a disgusted face. He cursed sharply and put his foot into my gut, which only made me spew more horrid bitty slop, blooming on the ground in front of my face. 'Ah shit,' he grumbled. 'Look, he pissed hisself, too.'
The Bear Man grunted. 'Go get water out of the well. We'll splash him down afore we butcher him.'
Toothy was gone, going to get that water like his bear friend told him to. My mind was elsewhere, in a different world by that point, so potent was my despair. It was like I'd come out of my body, because I remember what happened next as though I was watching it from someone else's view. The ear Man trudged over to me, careful not to put his boots into my puddle of vomit and hauled me to my feet. He had to slap me real hard several times before I could stand by my ownself without slumping straight back down like a sack of dead rats. He was angry at me, that much I could tell. I figured the fat bastard was just cranky because that dead woman's meat wouldn't cook fast enough. He blew the smoke of a fresh quirley into my face, making my nose wrinkle. I stared hatefully into his rage-filled face, though somehow his anger was considerably pale compared to what washed over me and nearly drowned me in my own home when Papa Prince was on the war path. I carried on staring into his hideous, beardy face as hard and serious as any six-year old runt could, not caring that I had blood and vomit, tears and snot smeared all over me.
He just sneered at that, backhanding me and sending me reeling into the wall. I coughed, fresh tears bubbling over the rims of my big marble eyes. So I wasn't all that tough, not back in them days at least. I flinched when he marched toward me with a blade in his hand, thinking that was it, the moment when he was going to cut me and bleed me and then slice me up into steaks and stuff, but he didn't. He cut my bonds and barked at me to strip, because they were gonna wash me off and then hang me by my ankles. He said it was to let the blood pool in my head. Then they were gonna cut my throat and let it all drain out, skin me and cut me into strips, make me into jerky so that they could stretch me to last their appetites until they arrived in the next town, find the next bone orchard ready for the plundering.
Needless to express, I was shaking too ferociously to even make my little paws into fists, let alone direct them to undress myself. I just cried and gurgled. He was getting ready to beat me again when I nearly coughed my heart up at the sound of a booming gunshot, right outside the hut. I turned into a statue, my eyes nearly falling out of my head. Toothy had never returned with that water. The Bear Man kicked me to the floor with a snarl, spitting out his quirley as he drew his pistol in his spare hand, fleeing the room and running into the night. He might have thought it was his friend shooting at something in the distance that probably wasn't even there, but I sure as Hell knew who it was firing that gun outside. That gunshot was the hallowed battle cry of an 1869 Smith and Wesson Schofield. The same as Papa Prince used.
The Schofield blasted once more and I heard a man yelling like the hand of the Devil was trying to drag him down to Hell through a hole in the ground. There was a dull thudding afterwards, fairly rhythmic and steady, and I imagined Papa Prince was pounding on whoever he shot out there with his almighty fist, or maybe his boot. Maybe he was even using that Schofield like a club to stove the side of that cannibal's head in. I seen him whack a man upside his head with that Schofield in the bar when he realised he'd been cheated in a game of poker.
The thudding stopped. There were no more shouts from Papa Prince's gun. I was pissing down my leg again, shaking like a rattle-snake tail, watching as the woman stew started to boil over and make the fire hiss. There was a nasty scum on the surface of the water in the hotpot and as it bubbled out and into the flame it made a horrid stink. My tears were all gone.
'Papa!' I wailed. I knew it was him out there. 'Where are you?'
I heard the scuffing of footfalls in the dirt. Papa Prince barged into the room, his Schofield now holstered, which let me know he'd done taking care of the cannibals. He was staring hard at me where I stood stupefied in my own puddle of vomit, snot pouring abundantly and my fingers plucking at my uncomfortably wet britches. I howled, 'Papa!' I left worrying my damp crotch to hold my arms and hands aloft for Papa Prince to scoop me up and take me home to the cabin, but he didn't do that. Instead, with his face all red and his eyes popping, he came across the room in three giant strides and lent the back of his hand to my cheek. I howled, stumbling over and hitting my head against the rough stone wall. 'Papa!'
'Idiot boy!' He bellowed. 'Stupid boy! What was you thinking, runnin' away and gettin' snatched?'
Right then I didn't know what I was thinking; my brains had been knocked sideways that night more times than I could count. 'I just want to go home, Papa!' He hit me again, and I fell into my pond of vomit. 'Papa, I wanna go home! Take me home!' He hit me one last time, and started with his shouting again. My ears were filled with a noise like the sound of a rushing river and I couldn't hear anything that came out his mouth, even as he leant over me. I was weeping and whining. No doubt my face was as red as his. I managed to croak out my wish once more in a small, shuddering voice, 'I wanna go home, Papa.' He was stock still then, and I realised that he'd seen that dead woman on the other side of the fire, with her clothes all ripped off and her belly cut open wide with things hanging out, square chunks of her hips and thighs and breasts missing. Then he saw the hotpot, still bubbling over, the meat roiling violently. I couldn't see his face. He spat on the fire, then turned to grab my wrist, dragging me outside like a three-legged sheep. I saw the bloody mess of the Bear Man near the wall by the door.
'Shut your face, Charles.'
He dragged me over to the well where I saw the body of Toothy slumped beside it, the bucket by his head. Papa Prince grabbed the bucket and set about filling it, and as he did so he ordered me to strip and throw my clothes and shoes away on the ground. 'You ain't never wearing those clothes again, boy.' I did as I was told, though I struggled with my still shaking hands. When he seen that I was fully stripped, he turned to me with that bucket, now filled with water. I stood waiting like a thick mule. I was only a young'un and I was severely shook up, considering I nearly got ate by two cannibals, but I guess anyone should have known what was coming next.
He threw the bucket of water, icy cold, all over my little candlestick body. I yelped. 'Papa!' He filled the bucket again. 'Papa, no!' He held the bucket still for a second. 'You're gonna rub yourself down.' Then he chucked the water over me. 'Get yourself clean, Charles.' It made me gasp like a lunger caught in a dust storm, how cold that water was, but I did as Papa Prince said and rubbed myself all over, cleaning my face and between my legs. I was painted with big ugly blue patches, mighty bruises from where that bastard had beat on me. Papa Prince was breathing hard through his nose as he surveyed me, frowning like he does when I know he's thinking deep. 'Your Mama's gonna have to make you a bath when we get back. She's gonna have to get that soap on you.'
I wasn't crying anymore. Papa Prince took off his over-jacket and wrapped me up tight in it, afore jumping on his horse, a red, dome-faced stallion as tall as a building in my young eyes. We dubbed him 'Dollar Bill', but sometimes he would walk to us from the paddock if we just dubbed him 'Dollar' or 'Bill'. Papa Prince found his stirrups and gathered the reins in one hand, whilst leaning from the saddle and stretching out his other hand. 'We're goin' home, Baby Prince.' I put my tiny paw into his, wide as an atlas, wrapping all the way around mine and pulling me up to sit in front of him. He told me to hold fast to the saddle horn, but I had a preference to burying my fingers in Dollar's dusty mane, who carried us home with a gentle canter. It wasn't until we got back to the cabin that we realised the cannibals' two black mules had followed us back. Papa Prince put them in the barn with Dollar.
When he carried me into the cabin to pass me to my weepy Mama, he did as he was told by her whilst my bath was made, got me some food when he was told to. He remained completely silent before he decided to put hisself to bed. He turned at the threshold and looked at me in the half-barrell bathtub.
'Goodnight, Charlie Prince'.
Author's Note: 99.9% of this was written at stupid o' clock in the morning, and when I was really hungry, so it's going to be weird. I kinda know what's going to happen. Let's see how fast I can update. If ever.