The Green Mile
by Stephen King


“We thought he was still doped from the tests,” Dean said late that afternoon. His voice was low, rasping, almost a bark, and there were blackish-purple bruises rising on his neck. I could see it was hurting him to talk and thought of telling him to let it go, but sometimes it hurts more to be quiet. I judged that this was one of those times, and kept my own mouth shut. “We all thought he was doped, didn't we?”

Harry Terwilliger nodded. Even Percy, sitting off by himself in his own sullen little party of one, nodded.

Brutal glanced at me, and for a moment I met his eyes. We were thinking pretty much that same thing, that this was the way it happened. You were cruising along, everything going according to Hoyle, you made one mistake, and bang, the sky fell down on you. They had thought he was doped, it was a reasonable assumption to make, but no one had asked if he was doped. I thought I saw something else in Brutal's eyes, as well: Harry and Dean would learn from their mistake. Especially Dean, who could easily have gone home to his family dead. Percy wouldn't. Percy maybe couldn't. All Percy could do was sit in the corner and sulk because he was in the shit again.

There were seven of them that went up to Indianola to take charge of Wild Bill Wharton: Harry, Dean, Percy, two other guards in the back (I have forgotten their names, although I'm sure I knew them once), plus two up front. They took what we used to call the stagecoach - a Ford panel-truck which had been steel-reinforced and equipped with supposedly bulletproof glass. It looked like a cross between a milk-wagon and an armored car.

Harry Terwilliger was technically in charge of the expedition. He handed his paperwork over to the county sheriff (not Homer Cribus but some other elected yokel like him, I imagine), who in turn handed over Mr. William Wharton, hellraiser extraordinaire, as Delacroix might have put it. A Cold Mountain prison uniform had been sent ahead, but the sheriff and his men hadn't bothered to put Wharton in it; they left that to our boys. Wharton was dressed in a cotton hospital johnny and cheap felt slippers when they first met him on the second floor of the General Hospital, a scrawny man with a narrow, pimply face and a lot of long, tangly blond hair. His ass, also narrow and also covered with pimples, stuck out the back of the johnny. That was the part of him Harry and the others saw first, because Wharton was standing at the window and looking out at the parking lot when they came in. He didn't turn but just stood there, holding the curtains back with one hand, silent as a doll while Harry bitched at the county sheriff about being too lazy to get Wharton into his prison blues and the county sheriff lectured - as every county official I've ever met seems bound to do - about what was his job and what was not.

When Harry got tired of that part (I doubt it took him long), he told Wharton to turn around. Wharton did. He looked, Dean told us in his raspy bark of a half-choked voice, like any one of a thousand backcountry stampeders who had wound their way through Cold Mountain during our years there. Boil that look down and what you got was a dullard with a mean steak. Sometimes you also discovered a yellow streak in them, once their backs were to the wall, but more often there was nothing there but fight and mean and then more fight and more mean. There are people who see nobility in folks like Billy Wharton, but I am not one of them. A rat will fight, too, if it is cornered. This man's face seemed to have no more personality than his acne-studded backside, Dean told us. His jaw was slack, his eyes distant, his shoulders slumped, his hands dangling. He looked shot up with morphine, all right, every bit as coo-coo as any dopefiend any of them had ever seen.

At this, Percy gave another of his sullen nods.

“Put this on,” Harry said, indicating the uniform on the foot of the bed - it had been taken out of the brown paper it was wrapped in, but otherwise not touched-it was still folded just as it had been in the prison laundry, with a pair of white cotton boxer shorts poking out of one shirtsleeve and a pair of white socks poking out of the other.

Wharton seemed willing enough to comply, but wasn't able to get very far without help. He managed the boxers, but when it came to the pants, he kept trying to put both legs into the same hole. Finally Dean helped him, getting his feet to go where they belonged and then yanking the trousers up, doing the fly, and snapping the waistband.. Wharton only stood there, not even trying to help once he saw that Dean was doing it for him. He stared vacantly across the room, hands lax, and it didn't occur to any of them that he was shamming. Not in hopes of escape (at least I don't believe that was it) but only in hopes of making the maximum amount of trouble when the right time came.

The papers were signed. William Wharton, who had become county property when he was arrested, now became the state's property. He was taken down the back stairs and through the kitchen, surrounded by bluesuits. He walked with his head down and his long-fingered hands dangling. The first time his cap fell off, Dean put it back on him. The second time, he just tucked it into his own back pocket.

He had another chance to make trouble in the back of the stagecoach, when they were shackling him, and didn't. If he thought (even now I'm not sure if he did, or if he did, how much), he must have thought that the space was too small and the numbers too great to cause a satisfactory hooraw. So on went the chains, one set running between his ankles and another set too long, it turned out, between his wrists.

The drive to Cold Mountain took an hour. During that whole time, Wharton sat on the lefthand bench up by the cab, head lowered, cuffed hands dangling between his knees. Every now and then he hummed a little, Harry said, and Percy roused himself enough from his funk to say that the lugoon dripped spittle from his lax lower lip, a drop at a time, until it had made a puddle between his feet. Like a dog dripping off the end of its tongue on a hot summer day.

They drove in through the south gate when they got to the pen, right past my car, I guess. The guard on the south pass tan back the big door between the lot and the exercise yard, and the stagecoach drove through. It was a slack time in the yard, not many men out and most of them hoeing in the garden. Pumpkin time, it would have been. They drove straight across to E Block and stopped. The driver opened the door and told them he was going to take the stagecoach over to the motor-pool to have the oil changed, it had been good working with them. The extra guards went with the vehicle, two of them sitting in the back eating apples, the doors now swinging open.

That left Dean, Harry and Percy with one shackled prisoner. It should have been enough, would have been enough, if they hadn't been lulled by the stick thin country boy standing head-down there in the dirt with chains on his wrists and ankles. They marched him the twelve or so paces to the door that opened into E Block, falling into the same formation we used when escorting prisoners down the Green Mile. Harry was on his left, Dean was on his right, and Percy was behind, with his baton in his hand. No one told me that, but I know damned well he had it out; Percy loved that hickory stick. As for me, I was sitting in what would be Wharton's home until it came time for him to check into the hot place-first cell on the right as you headed down the corridor toward the restraint room. I had my clipboard in my hands and was thinking of nothing but making my little set speech and getting the hell out. The pain in my groin was building up again, and all I wanted was to go into my office and wait for it to pass.

Dean stepped forward to unlock the door. He selected the right key from the bunch on his belt and slid it into the lock. Wharton came alive just as Dean turned the key and pulled the handle. He voiced a screaming, gibbering cry - a kind of Rebel yell - that froze Harry to temporary immobility and pretty much finished Percy Wetmore for the entire encounter. I heard that scream through the partly opened door and didn't associate it with anything human at first; I thought a dog had gotten into the yard somehow and had been hurt; that perhaps some mean tempered con had hit it with a hoe.

Wharton lifted his arms, dropped the chain which hung between his wrists over Dean's head, and commenced to choke him with it. Dean gave a strangled cry and lurched forward, into the cool electric light of our little world. Wharton was happy to go with him, even gave him a shove, all the time yelling and gibbering, even laughing. He had his arms cocked at the elbows with his fists up by Dean's ears, yanking the chain as tight as he could, whipsawing it back and forth.

Harry landed on Wharton's back, wrapping one hand in our new boy's greasy blond hair and slamming his other fist into the side of Wharton's face as hard as he could. He had both a baton of his own and a sidearm pistol, but in his excitement drew neither. We'd had trouble with prisoners before, you bet, but never one who'd taken any of us by surprise the way that Wharton did. The man's slyness was beyond our experience. I had never seen its like before, and have never seen it again.

And he was strong. All that slack looseness was gone. Harry said later that it was like jumping onto a coiled nest of steel springs that had somehow come to life. Wharton, now inside and near the duty desk, whirled to his left and flung Harry off. Harry hit the desk and went sprawling.

“Whoooee, boys!” Wharton laughed. “Ain't this a party, now? Is it, or what?”

Still screaming and laughing, Wharton went back to choking Dean with his chain. Why not? Wharton knew what we all knew: they could only fry him once.

“Hit him, Percy, hit him!” Harry screamed, struggling to his feet. But Percy only stood there, hickory baton in hand, eyes as wide as soup-plates. Here was the chance he'd been looking for, you would have said, his golden opportunity to put that tallywhacker of his to good use, and he was too scared and confused to do it. This wasn't some terrified little Frenchman or a black giant who hardly seemed to be in his own body; this was a whirling devil.

I came out of Wharton's cell, dropping my clipboard and pulling my .38. I had forgotten the infection that was heating up my middle for the second time that day. I didn't doubt the story the others told of Wharton's blank face and dull eyes when they told it, but that wasn't the Wharton I saw. What I saw was the face of an animal - not an intelligent animal, but one filled with cunning ... and meanness ... and joy. Yes. He was doing what he had been made to do. The place and the circumstances didn't matter. The other thing I saw was Dean Stanton's red, swelling face. He was dying in front of my eyes. Wharton saw the gun and turned Dean toward it, so that I'd almost certainly have to hit one to hit the other. From over Dean's shoulder, one blazing blue eye dared me to shoot.