Six year old Henry watched impassively as his mother poured a few drops of whiskey over–and into–the slice on his left index finger. He was getting this stoic-when-in-pain thing down rather well.
“Think you might remember to cut away from yourself from now on?” Penny wasn’t criticizing, jist asking. Boys weren’t born knowing how to be men. They had to learn along the way, and that often meant getting dinged a bit in the process.
“Hope so. Can I go now? Dad’s riding out to check the east fence; if I don’t get Chickie saddled in time, he won’t let me go with.”
“Sure son. Off with you.” The redhead smiled fondly at her eldest as he bolted out the door, running toward the barn as fast has his legs would take him. Tripped over his own feet sometimes, Henry did, but not once this past week. He was growing up fast.
“Pregnancy becomes you,” I told her. “You got that whole glow thing going on again.”
“Thanks, Dawson. Here, Marie, I’ll take Sadie. You two need to git going.”
Our daughter didn’t complain about the transfer. Hard to believe she and Phyllis Tamson were both closing in on their second birthdays.
My wife and I were practically on holiday. Except fer the morning chores (already done) and a few errands in town, we had the day off. Together. All by ourselves. Of course, ranchers don’t jist go wasting days willy-nilly. You gotta have an excuse to quiet that nagging voice inside that’s always reminding you of the thousand things needing to be done on, around, or for the place. Our excuse today was Manuel Garza. We needed to go see the gunsmith as I’d promised Martin Cross I would do. Evil city folks up there in Denver, you know; hideout shooters are a must.
“It’s even got the right name,” Manuel pointed out. “the Schofield 1875 Hideout Revolver. Brand new on the market this year, chambered fot the .45 Schofield, three and a half inch barrel.”
“Kind of heavy fer a hideout, ain’t it?” Marie asked, hefting the pistol. “Must be, what, two and a half pounds at least?”
“Right on the money. Unloaded, that is precisely what it weighs.” He looked at my wife with new respect. When we’d walked into his shop, it was clear he’d been taken by her beauty–a given with any man whose blood still flowed in his veins. Fer the first time, he looked beyond that…and his eyes widened at the .44 Russian hanging on her hip.
Nobody who works firearms fer a living could miss the way she’d had the hammer tooled.
“You’re a fanner,” he said softly. “Madre de Dios!” His eyes, more than his words, told us clearly: He knew.
The former Trisha Cobb, my Blue Eyed Angel of Death, is nothing if not quick on the uptake. Twinkling her midnight blue eyes at this virile man, she told him, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
“Yes, they have. They have indeed.”
“We’d prefer that not become public knowledge, of course.”
“Of course.” He drew his right thumb and forefinger across his mouth. My lips are sealed. “It is an honor to meet you…Mrs. Trask. And in honor of that honor, I believe I will entrust you with a secret no one in Walsenburg knows about me.”
So saying, he lifted the hem of his shirt, revealing the butt of a revolver stuck behind the waistband of his pants, angled to take advantage of the natural line between thigh and abdomen.
“If that thing went off,” I observed, “it’d turn you into Manuela.”
He flashed a grin my way. “Good thing it does not go off until I want it to, eh?”
When he drew the weapon and handed it to Marie butt first, I seen it was a pepperbox–but different than most. Better balanced, seemed like, and when my sweetie passed it to me, she was beaming.
“I like it,” she enthused. “Fits right in the hand.”
“It would not be easy–mabye not even possible–to convert it for fanning,” Manuel admitted.
“I can thumb cock, Mr. Garza.”
“Oh, I’m sure you can. I was just saying. And please, call me Manuel.”
“All right then, Manuel it is. Husband?”
“Yeah. I like it, too. But this isn’t factory issue, is it?”
“No. I am a simple frontier gunsmith who does not like to waste things. One day I was looking over the spare parts lying around my shop, and this shooter just kind of…came together. The barrel cluster is from a Blunt & Syms Dragoon model pepperbox, mounted on a .36 Colt Navy 1851 frame. I, too, like the balance, and it shoots well.”
“But it’s the only one you have,” Marie noted. “We wouldn’t think of asking you to part with it.”
“For you, Mrs.–Marie, I would do so. But that is not what I was proposing. As it happens, I have enough parts in stock right now to assemble…three more of these, I believe. I will need to inspect one of the barrel clusters a little more closely, but if it’s in acceptable condition….”
“Three?” I was curious. “Why three?”
“One for your wife, Dawson, and two for you. A lady has a great advantage over us poor men when it comes to carrying a concealed weapon. Her curves and her clothing provide any number of workable places, plus there is the purse or bag which is useful for holding spare ammunition.
“You, however, cannot wear a cartridge belt and get away with it. Someone would bump into you–deliberately, perhaps–and feel its presence. Just for example. Plus, the place I wear my little Garza Surprise is where you must wear yours, and you’ll need one on each side for balance so that your clothing does not look lopsided and give you away. Additionally, two guns will give you twelve shots of firepower.”
“Wait a minute.” I was already flinching inwardly, thinking about having two shooters aimed at my cojones on a full time basis. “What you’re saying makes sense, but do we have time fer you to git ’em all put together?”
He shrugged. “I could have them done in a week’s time. You are not leaving that soon.”
“No,” I sighed. Sometimes I have this problem with buyer’s remorse. “We are not.”
My wife had to go and say it. “Relax, honey. If one of Manuel’s little Garza Surprises does go off in your pants, you won’t have to worry about having your privates shot off.”
“Nope. The muzzle flash alone will fry ’em up nice and crispy before the bullet can even git there.”
Dawson was headed up with Scrap to investigate Crack in the Rock Cave (which we’d gone to calling Crack Cave till further notice), so he’d asked me to pick up the pepperboxes from the gunsmith while I was in town. My pleasure, especially since my partner intended to crawl inside that mountain right along with Hannigan iffen there was enough room, take a looksee fer himself.
“This is some excellent work, Manuel. Better than excellent. Absolutely freaking marvelous, in fact.” The actions on all three shooters were tuned fine as frog hair, the balance was every bit as good as Dawson and Marie had described, and the heavy barrel clusters would keep muzzle lift down to manageable levels.
“I’m glad you approve, Tam. I must admit I was hoping to see the expressions on the faces of the Trasks when they first held them, but one can’t have everything, eh?”
“No, I don’t suppose we can. I must admit to being curious about something, though.”
“It might go better over a few shots of tequila. You feel up to closing a bit early today? I brought along a bottle, jist to ease the pain of losing all that business if you say yes.”
He laughed. “There is not likely to be any more business for me today. Besides, everyone in Huerfano County knows I am the best gunsmith this side of Denver. If my door is locked, they’ll come back another day. Sure. You’ve got me curious now.”
It took a while and three shots outa the bottle to persuade the man, but in the end he agreed to tell me the story. See, I needed to know why he’d had such a positive reaction to Trisha Cobb being a lot less dead than he’d thought. It jist seemed like it was too much; there had to be a story behind it.
“You should ask Marie,” he said. Well now, I’d done that, but she claimed not to know. I was sure she was hiding something, but I couldn’t very well push at her.
So I pushed at Manuel. Or at least, I pushed the bottle at him.
In the end, though, he agreed to tell me the story, and it promised to be a good one. A legend, in fact. I settled in to listen with both of my jug ears fully extended.
This would make a powerful addition to my stock of tall tales…though I’d surely have to be careful where I shared it. If I ever did.
The rancho was owned and operated by a three-family combine: The Hernandez family, the Hidalgo family, and the Cruz family. They were hardworking people, all of them, a total of eighteen Souls with two more on the way, and they were content.
Friends and relatives had attempted to dissuade them from moving so far north, too far from others of our people to come to their aid in times of danger. They had not listened, and for seventeen years they had prosperred, untouched by the depredations of marauding Indians and blessed with solid crops and a growing herd of cattle as well as human babies. Life was good.
Until one day, nearly at sunset, when the raiders came. They pretended to be simply seeking water and asked permission politely for their horses and themselves to drink from the pond situated a few dozen yards south of the great casa.
They were given permission, and the children of the families gathered out in front to see these strange men. Few visitors came to this place, and they were curious. Several of the girls were nicely endowed; it is thought this may have been a problem for men long without women.
Only two adult men were at home that day, but there were seven of the strangers, all heavily armed. White men, but not Spaniards, and with no sense of honor. Their horses drank, they drank, and then they walked straight back toward the people, laughing and shooting with their great rifles as they came.
None of the nicely endowed girls were struck, but the two men of the families died immediately. Two of the male children were shot also and lay screaming in pain as their blood watered the Earth.
And then there was another scream. A different scream. A battle cry like the cry of the redtailed hawk, only full of rage and a thousand times more powerful. From the top of a low rise to the west, there came an Angel, an Avenging Angel with hair on fire from the rays of the setting sun, flames shooting from her rifle as she rode her great mare to battle.
One of the raiders died, shot through, drilled dead center by a bullet fired from the back of a galloping horse, before the rest even understood they were themselves under attack.
Then she was upon them, sliding her mount to a haunch-dropping stop at an angle to the evil ones. There was no time to replace her rifle in the boot; she simply threw it to one side and her pistol was in her hand, the other palm fanning the hammer fast, so fast, a little Gatling gun that could only have been crafted by a Higher Power.
“Damn.” I stared at Manual Garza. “That does sound like our Marie.”
“Oh, it definitely was, Tam. It definitely was. Long before she was your Marie, of course. She could not have been more than fourteen at the time.
“Her brother and father rode in behind her. Some of the people understood English, at least a little. The brother was heard to call her Saint Sister in some disgust, presumably not thrilled that she had charged to the assistance of people in need without discussing it first.
“She hadn’t killed all of the raiders; three had to be finished off by the Cobb men. But she had knocked down seven armed marauders with seven bullets in something under seven seconds, a feat never duplicated by any male shootist, before or since.”
“The kids who’d been shot?”
“Both died. The people say Hija de la Puesta del Sol cried rivers of tears as she rode out with the other Cobbs, bitterly sorrowful that she had come too late to save them.”
“Hija de–Daughter of the Setting Sun?”
“So…that’s the end of the story? Except fer the obvious fact–did you know the dime novel folks called her the Blue Eyed Angel of Death?”
“Yes. I have heard that. They are wrong, of course. She is an Angel, but of Life, not Death.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more on that one,” I nodded, pouring myself a shot of tequila. I needed it. “She stood side by side with my son in a shootout one time, big-belly pregnant and fanning that .44 Russian jist the way your legend describes it.”
“That does not surprise me. There is just one more thing in the legend of Hija de la Peusta del Sol, by the way.”
“Shoot. So to speak.”
“When the Cobbs arrived at the rancho that day, they had been running from a posse–a very determined posse–for more than a week. The posse rode up to the casa no more than an hour after the Cobbs had ridden out.”
“I presume they got sent on a wild goose chase.”
“Even better. The Marshal leading them looked over the bodies and recognized a couple that had rewards posted. Lashed them down over their own saddles and headed back the way they came.”
“Happy endings all around.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. We were both thinking about the four innocent Souls who’d been murdered in cold blood. “There is that.”
On the way home, thinking things over, I come to a couple of conclusions. Fer one, it was no wonder Marie hadn’t wanted to spill the beans. She wasn’t one to toot her own horn, nor did she feel she’d done enough at the Hernandez-Hidalgo-Cruz rancho. On the other hand, Dawson deserved to know. She was his wife, after all.
“Smokey,” I told the grulla, “do you realize we got a living legend living among us, the gunslinging Angel known as Hija de la Puesta del Sol?”
“Speak English, boss,” the horse spoke in my head. “No habla Español.”