This photo of A. Kelly Pruitt was taken by an unknown friend and given to Kelly who kept it in his home. The photo of the photo was taken by David Crum.
A. Kelly Pruitt, renowned Western painter and sculptor, became a cowboy early in his life and by age 12 was catching wild mustangs in the Fresno Canyon area of the Big Bend. He helped bring trail herds from Mexico across the Rio Grande at Presidio and worked on ranches in several states. Kelly’s paint- ings and bronzes are much prized on both sides of the border, and he touched people’s lives with his philosophy of liv- ing simply, his kindness and unique spirit.
A few weeks before his death, Kelly had begun digging his own grave at the old cemetery located near where he lived with two dogs, a Mexican wolf, two horses, a burro and 35 sheep. Kelly had bought an old school bus, and it was his home at La Junta Farm, owned by the Bishop family of Presidio and Marfa.
This spot near the Rio Grande was important to Kelly. He had returned to live here several years ago, first only dur- ing fall and winter but this past spring had chosen to stay all year. As a young boy, he would ride here from Presidio to watch vaqueros work cattle, hoping to learn their trade. Noticing Kelly’s inter- est, the vaqueros taught him their skills, first teaching him how to rope. The his- tory of this spot near La Junta de los Rios, where the Rio Conchos and Rio Grande join, was well known to Kelly, and he talked of how the Spanish had buried Indian slaves in the cemetery facing south instead of east because they were not Christian and of Confederate soldiers killed here.
Kelly missed the large cottonwood trees he had known here as a boy, cut down years ago so air- planes could dust crops, and he was interested in developing uses for the tumbleweeds and salt cedar trees that are invading the no-longer-used farmlands.
Kelly remembered the Rio Grande used to be closer, and he was disappointed that the levee prevented him from riding his horse down to the river and maybe crossing it again.
In February 2009, Kelly invited a group of his friends to camp with him at La Junta Farm to discuss his vision of creating a non-profit organization whose mission would combine art, history, conservation, sustainable building and sustainable agriculture. The first of these friends to arrive found Kelly unable to rise from his outdoor cot near the old school bus.
He told them he was dying. “I was fixing one of Samson’s shoes and fell over. Once I got up I could make it only this far. My arm hurts and my heart. There’s nothing like dying. I know the Great Spirit has made such a magic world. Little old Pawnee would like to know when I die here, but wait until the dust settles.”
Kelly refused to even consider going to see a doctor or of letting one come to him. “I have not been to a doctor since 1947, and if I go now they will want to cut me open. I do not want that.”
Kelly asked his long-time friend Terry Bishop to take care of the animals and dispose of his belongings. “I want to be buried here in the old cemetery, in my canvas bedroll. Please see to it I am not embalmed. There should be an easier way to leave this world. I hope it will be quick, and I will not linger.”
Kelly’s friends began a vigil and made Kelly as comfortable as he would allow. During the next several days Kelly talked of many things and all of the fol- lowing quotes are Kelly Pruitt’s words, written down as he said them:
“I would like this dying settled with- out my family. But afterwards someone will need to tell my little daughter Angelique. She is married to a movie producer in Hollywood.
She loves me very much and will need to know. My second wife Donna is still in my life. She has an art gallery in Taos and has a large collection of my paintings. I have sons and daughters, and Terry knows how to get in touch with them.
“No, I will not go see a doctor, and I am tired of you mentioning it. I will get up from here and fist fight you if you bring it up again.”
During the vigil, many other friends, hearing about Kelly, came to see him. A Presidio County deputy, the justice of the peace and his clerk came. Kelly dictated and signed his will. A nurse stopped by and tried to talk him into going to the doctor. He flirted with her and said no.
“Isn’t this wonderful? A great funeral and I am here for it,” Kelly declared after most everyone had left.
He finally agreed to drink some water. He had been fasting before his trouble and allowed a little water would not break his fast, but he would not drink from plastic bottles. At sundown, he became cold and decided he could probably make it inside the old school bus where it was warmer.
The next day found Kelly a little stronger. He drank more water but still refused to eat. He took an aspirin that made him sick. From his cot he watched clouds, and from time to time he continued to talk of his life: “I honor the Great Spirit who creates clouds and transports water to where it is needed. Clouds are a gift. I have kept the commandments as best I could.”
“My birthday is not really known. My mother was not sure.”
“At one time I was a Mormon and was married in the Temple.”
“I was working on a ranch in Colorado. One day an old vaquero got off his horse, sat down, leaned on a big rock and died. That is a good way to go.” “I was a paratrooper in World War II.”
“I have always had a strong connection with the spirit world. I need to stay close to the river. I am connected to the Rio Grande.”
“The totality of A. Kelly Pruitt is three trillion cells, and when the spirit leaves the body, each cell is an energy that leaves with the spirit.”
“We think our children are special, but sometimes enemies from past lives sneak back in their form to torture us.”
“I was never a natural parent. We have no guidance. Teach the Warrior’s Way.”
“I was shoeing my horse when my left arm began hurting. It got so bad I had to lie down in the manure. Laid there for a couple of hours. I thought it a fitting way for an old cowboy to go, wearing my spurs and hat.”
“Please notify Pawnee, my ex-wife, after the fact. She also has a collection of my works. She is a warrior woman.”
“Somehow the Universe works. It is a marvelous system. Yesterday I was involved in the business of the world. Today I am not.”
“A bobcat killed one of the sheep and bit another that won’t make it. A man in Redford will come and get the sheep. I wish we had a video of Wolf herding the sheep.”
“What a marvelous prayer – Yea though I walk through this valley. Today the world is full of fear.”
“Its for the best my horses ran away last night. I can’t take care of them anymore.”
Kelly appeared to gain strength, and everyone hoped his crisis had passed. He finally ate some food. His friends watched him closely. Too closely sometimes, and Kelly would tell them, “Dying is a private thing. I need you to go away now and just come back every once in a while and check to see if I have passed.”
Early Sunday morning, February 15, 2009, Kelly called friends to him. “I have been trying to die all night and just cannot get it done. I am in pain and do not think I can stand it any longer. I guess you should call the ambulance so they can come out here and give me a shot.” The Presidio ambulance was on a trip to Alpine, and the Marfa ambulance did not make it in time. Kelly died peacefully, with friends at his side holding his hands.
Kelly’s friends finished digging the grave he had started, and he was buried as he wished, in his bedroll, in the old cemetery at the Bishop’s La Junta Farm.
Kelly’s dogs and the wolf mourned with worried eyes, low moans and howls as Kelly’s friends covered his body with shovels full of dirt and gravel. A combination of “Amazing Grace” and “Home on the Range” was sung accompanied by harmonica and guitar.
Kelly’s vision of a non-profit as described in the story is being pursued: The recently formed La Junta Heritage Center is an IRS recognized 501c3 non-profit, with a 16-member board of directors. Terry Bishop and his family have given LJHC a 99-year lease on 72 acres of their La Junta Farm for the center. Richard Galle, executive director, can be contacted for more information about the center at 432.684.6827.
by David Crum, Fourth Quarter 2009 issue
David Crum has worked in land and minerals management, mostly in West Texas and is the executive director of Trans Pecos Water Trust, a non-profit organization helping to keep the Rio Grande flowing. David grew up in Jack County, Texas and is a graduate of Sul Ross State University. e-mail: email@example.com.