Morning Cloud and the Spanish Angels

Mexico, 1889.

The riders came on Palm Sunday.

As was usual for the celebrations, we had a procession to the church. We were all carrying palms in commemoration of our Lord’s triumphant arrival in Jerusalem. There was music and singing…

And the guns…

Despite it being early in the year, the sun suspended in a cobalt sky was broiling the land and the dry heat of the plains swept in like someone had opened the gates to the pits of Hell. The light was so bright it reflected off the white stucco of the town’s buildings and hurt the eyes. I pulled my sombrero low over mine to shield them from the harsh glare.

By the summer time, the river at the back of the town would be little more than a muddy ditch as the incessant scorching sun evaporated the water, but this early in the year, despite the heat, it was still a plentiful source of clean drinkin’ water and flowed fresh and clear, so’s you could hear it from the main square.

And on that searing hot day in late April, Pancho Cabrera and his band of desperados rode in with the tumbleweed, seeking gold and blood, not much caring which. They rode down past the procession – scattering the townspeople who ran screaming from the bullets that flew about their heads – with their shooting and the horses thundering hooves, to the front where the padre stopped the procession with a raised hand.

He turned to look directly at Pancho. He appeared small and insignificant in his red liturgical vestments, a slight man with thinning hair and slender frame, standing there defiantly facing the leader of the desperados head on. Unarmed and vulnerable. A man of God staring down a man of the Devil, for Pancho was the Devil incarnate; a violent, amoral man who valued only that which he could steal and human life even less. He wheeled his horse around as he brought it to a stand right by the padre.

“Go!” the padre commanded. “There is nothing here for you. Leave these people to worship in peace.”

Pancho sat back in his saddle all easy like and complacent as he chewed on a fat cigar. He grinned scornfully, with the knowledge of a man who was in command of the situation and was enjoying the power. An ugly man, with a black heart.

“Padre,” he said, “you people pay us our dues and we will leave. And no one will get hurt.”

“This is a poor town, there is nothing these people can give you. They have nothing. You have taken everything already, jefe hombre. We have nothing left. So leave. Let us worship our Lord in peace.”

“There is always something. And if the people haven’t got it, the church will provide.”

“The church is poor also, Señor jefe, we have no money.”

“You have gold.”

“We have no gold, this is a poor parish. There is nothing, I tell you. Please go.”

My Poppa stepped forward from the crowd and reached for the pistol in the holster on his belt. “Go Pancho, you are not welcome here.”

Pancho turned to him with a sneer on his face, chomping on the cigar butt clenched between his teeth. He lifted his pistol and shot Poppa dead without a flicker of feeling on his fat face. Right there, between the eyes, like he was stepping on a fly. Momma and I screamed out together and rushed to Poppa’s body, but there was nothing we could do; he was dead. Sightless eyes stared up at the azure sky, blood trickling from the wound in his forehead and out the back, a dark stain on the dusty street.

Momma was inconsolable, unleashing a primal scream that came from deep within her broken heart, for she loved Poppa intensely and couldn’t live without him, which was why she took Poppa’s gun from its holster and raised it, pointing it at Pancho, her hands trembling with rage and fear as she held the unfamiliar weapon. She knew what would happen and it did, Pancho’s gun spat death at my poor dear Momma and she was thrown back by the power of the bullets that plunged into her chest. In the matter of a few moments, I was orphaned. I stared back at the man, his moustaches, split aside to show his yellowed teeth as he grinned, basking in the bloodletting.

“Go on, boy,” he goaded as I glared my hatred at him. “Go for the gun.”

The padre came to my side and crouched down with me over my mother’s body. He placed a hand on my arm, gripping it tight. “Don’t, Phillipe,” he said. “Two dead is enough. Your parents are with God now, they are at peace.” He crossed himself and looked Pancho in the eye. “I said there is nothing for you here, please go now. I now have two funerals to arrange.”

Pancho holstered his pistol. “Tell you what, Padre, I give you a week. I am not entirely without compassion.” Cynically, he crossed himself and I hated him all the more for it. “I will come back on Easter Sunday. You will give me the gold from the church and I will take tribute from the villagers here. If there is not enough, well, I cannot protect you from what may happen, can I?”

He wheeled his horse round and lifted his hand and the dozen riders with him followed, leaving dust in their wake, loosing off shots in the air as they rode – and me, grieving for the loss of my parents.

At that moment, the desire for revenge burned deep in my heart and I stared after the departing riders with loathing consuming my soul. I wanted to kill Pancho. I wanted him to die painfully and slowly to feel the pain I now felt. Never had I experienced such violent rage overtaking my every sense.

I reached for my father’s gun. The padre cautioned me against it for the meek shall inherit the Earth, he said, but it seemed to me that the meek were going to get themselves killed. But the padre was right, going after Pancho would just add me to the dead in the cemetery.

I needed help.

It was my cousin Jose who told me where I could find it. We had laid my parents out for their funerals and he came to offer his condolences. “They are with the Spanish Angels,” he said.

We have a saying here, that when we die, seven Spanish Angels will come to take us to Heaven. Like me, Jose was eighteen and we had grown up together and being cousins, we looked much alike with the same dark hair and brown eyes set in round faces.

“There is a gunfighter in Arizona,” he told me. “Go find her and ask her to come and help. She is good, they say.”

“A woman?” I asked, surprised.

“Sure,” Jose replied. “She is the fastest gun in the territory. No one has outdrawn her. I will come with you Phillipe.”

“But we have no money.”

Jose grinned, his white teeth flashing in his dusky, impish face, “The padre has gold. He lied to Pancho. Better to give her the money and we will be free of Pancho forever.”

Once my parents had been laid to rest, Jose and I saddled up two of my father’s horses from his livery stable – my livery stable now, I realised – and rode north to America, seeking an angel of our own. An angel of vengeance and retribution.

***

I first saw Sinistré loading up her saddlebags with provisions from the local store. She and her travelling companion, Lucy McClure, were stocking up for a ride by the looks of it. She was a fine looking woman. They both were. Sinistré was dark where Señora Lucy was fair.

Sinistré wore her long raven hair in plaits either side of her face and they hung down falling across her cotton shirt worn underneath a light buckskin jacket. She wore her wide brimmed hat pulled down low so’s you couldn’t see her eyes too well, but I stared ’cos I was fascinated. They were dark I noticed, so dark you could get lost in ’em. They drew you in like a twister sweeping across the desert. Yet there was a kindness that lurked deep in those nihilistic pools and her mouth was pursed like it was resisting a smile and not quite succeeding. I was captivated.

She spoke easy to Lucy as she took provisions from her and slipped them into the saddlebags. To all intents, they was just two ordinary women, but at her left hip, there was a pistol. It hung low in a well-worn holster. It was tied to her thigh, pulling against the cotton of her dark pants, and she wore riding boots adorned with silver spurs. She was just an ordinary woman, if it wasn’t for her being a hired gun.

Señora Lucy was dressed similar, but she didn’t carry no gun. She pushed her hat back, allowing her fair curls to fall beneath the brim and across her face, and paused as she caught sight of Jose and me. She nudged Sinistré and nodded in our direction as she pushed the hair back under her hat.

I pulled my horse up and slid down to the ground, the dried dust of the street felt gritty under my sandalled toes. I looked up at Jose and gestured him to join me. Likewise he slid off his horse and held the reigns. I handed the reigns of mine to him and he took them and stood back as I walked up to the two women.

Señoras…” I started tentatively, tipping my hat, then deciding that taking it off would be more respectful so I did and held it in front of my body.

“Sonny,” Sinistré said with a smile playing across her mouth, lighting up her face with gentle humour. “What do you want?”

So I told her. She listened easy like. She pulled a pipe out from her saddle bag and sat on the edge of the wooden sidewalk where she gestured to me to join her. I sat down and she listened mostly in silence prompting me occasionally, and from time to time she would take a puff of the pipe, blowing the smoke into the clear sky.

I told her about Pancho and the killing of my parents, of the raids on our small town and how Pancho Cabrera and his banditos was bleeding us dry – taking what we had as a tribute, leaving the townsfolk destitute and frightened for their lives. Tribute he called it, extortion was what it was. If we didn’t pay, we died. If we tried to stand up to him as my father had done, we died. I told her how he was coming back and how we couldn’t defend ourselves. I begged her to come and help.

“We will pay what we can. We don’t have much,” I said, “but what we have is worth it to stop the killing.”

Lucy McClure sat next to her and listened too, taking the pipe when it was proffered and takin’ a puff of the tobacco smoke. After I’d finished telling our tale of woe, Sinistré said nothing for a while. She just smoked the pipe in reflective silence. Eventually, she stopped smoking it and tapped the ashes out onto the dust of the street.

“How many of ’em are there, sweetheart?”

“Twelve, and Pancho makes thirteen,” I replied. “Does that mean you will help us?”

“’Course we will help,” Lucy said, looking pointedly at Sinistré.

Sinistré nodded. “And I don’t want your money, boy. Pancho Cabrera is a poison and I’ll come to help because it’s the right thing to do. ’Cos I can’t abide no bullies and I don’t hold with no murderin’ innocent folk. But you and the other townsfolk had better be prepared to fight as well. I ain’t gonna do it all on my own. I’ll show you what to do. I’ll get you ready – even if time is short – and I will fight alongside y’all. But you have to be ready to fight for yourselves. Okay?”

I nodded eagerly and Jose joined in. “Sure thing, Señora,” I said.

“Well,” she said. “There’s someone else we need to see.”

Lucy raised an eyebrow.

“Pat,” Sinistré explained. “We need some munitions here and he has access. Got a jailhouse full of Winchesters last time I looked. So I guess we will have to go and ask nicely, like.”

“You reckon he will?”

Sinistré smiled that easy smile of hers, exposing even white teeth against her dusky face and her dark eyes lit up with amusement. “Pat has a thing for me, don’t he? Besides, he’s a good man and will be likely enough to want to help if I know him well enough.”

Miss Lucy laughed then, her laughter like gentle music. “That he does. Reckon that man will do anything for you, Morning Cloud.”

So it was that we two peons saddled up and rode alongside an ex-whore and a half Comanche gunslinger to set right a grievous wrong.

***

Sheriff Pat Benson was dozing in a rocking chair on the wooden sidewalk outside his jailhouse. The sun was high in the sky and he was clearly making the most of the shade from the porch outside the building to keep a little cool in the sultry heat of the day. His hat was pulled down across his face and his booted feet rested on the rail opposite.

Sinistré slipped with a natural stealth from the saddle, her boots landing like the padded feet of a large cat on the dusty street, not even a jingle from her silver spurs disturbed the enervating silence of that scorching afternoon. She slunk silently to the sleeping man and tipped him back in the rocker. He woke with a start then saw who it was.

“Morning Cloud!” he exclaimed. “What brings you here?” There was genuine joy in his face as he looked upon his friend and grinned in recognition.

“Howdy, Pat,” she replied. “You sleepin’ on the job again?”

“Quiet day today,” he said easy like. “Quiet town, too. Low crime rate means I’m doin’ a good job, I reckon.”

“You got a coffee on the go in the jailhouse?” she asked. “We need your help,” she added, comin’ straight to the point. That was one of the things I learned about her. She was direct to the point of being brusque sometimes.

Pat stood. A lanky man edging into middle age, he wasn’t as supple as he once was and stretched and creaked as he lifted himself from the rocker and reached up to straighten his hat on his head. I noticed that there was silver in the dark hair and lines around blue-grey eyes that sat in an otherwise youngish face. Like the other two, he was dressed in cotton shirt and pants.

His boots echoed on the dry wood of the sidewalk as he walked. He led the way into the jailhouse and lifted a coffee pot from the stove, pouring cups for himself and the others. He looked up at Jose and me with a raised eyebrow. I shook my head. I found that coffee was too bitter to my taste, although Jose took a cup and sipped at the hot, dark liquid.

“This is Phillipe and Jose,” Sinistré introduced us and he reached out a hand to each of us in turn and shook ours with a firm, dry grip. She went on to repeat the story I had told her about Pancho Cabrera terrorising our town and how we needed help to rescue the townsfolk.

Pat looked critically up and down the two of us. Raggedy boys of eighteen dressed in simple clothes. No weapons and sandals on our feet. He met her eyes and the question hung in the air.

“I trust ’em,” she said. “We both know this kind of stuff goes on. Them desperados prey on the towns and villages south of the border – it’s easy pickings. Pancho killed Phillipe’s parents. Shot ’em down in cold blood. Time something was done about it is my thinkin’. It’ll keep goin’ on if no one does nothin’.”

“So you plan on taking on an army of bandits?” he asked. “Alone?”

She smiled with gentle guile. She was playing him and I reckoned he knew her well enough to know what she was doin’ but liked her well enough to play along.

“I was figurin’ you might be inclined to ride along with us, like,” she said. “Even the odds a little. And, you have a rack full of them Winchester repeaters that would come in kinda useful…”

He laughed. “Sweetheart, you ain’t even subtle.”

“Well?”

He sighed the sigh of someone who knows he’s beat. He went over to the rack of Winchesters on the wall and started taking them down and placing them on the desk. “Okay,” he said. He said it with a hint of something more unspoken.

“Go on.”

“And, yes, I will be ridin’ with you,” he said, castin’ a sly wink at her.

“Pat, we would be delighted and you know it,” she smiled as she picked up a weapon and checked it out before replacing it. “We ride early tomorrow. We need to get there and prepare in good time before Pancho rides in on Easter Sunday. Time is tight.”

“You ain’t kidding,” he replied.

Señora Lucy turned to Jose and me. “You boys better get some rest too. I’ll get you a room at the hotel.”

“We ain’t got no money for no hotel, Señora Lucy,” I said.

She sighed. “You don’t need none, Honey. We will look after that, won’t we?” she said looking pointed like at Sinistré and Pat.

Pat nodded at her and gave her some dollar bills. I started to protest, but she silenced me. “You boys need to be fresh for the ride tomorrow, so do as I say, okay?”

We nodded and did as she said. It struck me then that maybe Señora Lucy was as tough as the other two in her own quiet way.

***

We set out early the following morning while the sky was still grey and the air cool. It was a full day’s ride south to my home across the border. We rode mostly in silence, each dwelling on their own thoughts. As the day drew on, the baking sun was enervating and talkin’ became tiresome. We stopped briefly to rest and water the horses and chewed on some jerky and drank from the river and refilled our canteens. By late evening, I could see the church standing out on the horizon. “Here we are,” I announced.

I had expected a better welcome when we rode in, though. When Jose and I arrived in the town square and dismounted, the padre came out and scolded us for running off like that. He stared disapprovingly at the other three. “Who are these gringos?” he asked.

“They have come here to help us fight Pancho,” I said.

“You stupid boy! They will get us all killed.” He was angry. I had suspected that he might not approve, but I ain’t never seen him like this, real furious with me for disobeying him and for bringing in hired killers to do violence.

Sinistré dismounted and stood in front of the padre. “That ain’t none too polite, Padre,” she said amicable like. “We came here to help you folks.”

As we were talking, townsfolk started to gather. I saw my uncle Emilio in the small crowd and he watched as we talked.

“Go away,” the Padre said. “You will do more harm than good. We don’t need more violence here.”

“Seems to me,” Pat said, “that you got it anyway.”

He stepped down from his horse and held out his hand to the Padre. “Pat Benson, I’m a sheriff back in Arizona. Like my companion says, we have come here to help you folks with your problem.”

The Padre took his hand. “Señor Benson, you have had a wasted journey. I am sorry, but we will manage without any gunfighters here.”

“And if you do nothing?” Sinistré asked.

“God will provide.”

“And what about my Momma and Poppa?” I asked. “What about them? Pancho killed them in cold blood. Where was God then?”

The Padre shot me an angry glare. “Don’t blaspheme my Son. What happened was God’s will. He will take care of them now.”

“And if I kill Pancho, is that God’s will as well?” Sinistré asked placidly.

“No! No, God does not condone violence. The Lord tells us to turn the other cheek, for the meek will inherit the Earth. You will burn in hell for all eternity for your bloodlust and violence as will Pancho. It is for God to deal with him, ‘vengeance is mine,’ sayeth the Lord. You are not welcome here.”

“Seems to me,” she replied evenly, “that the meek get killed pretty quickly. Sometimes you have to stand and fight. And who is to say that I am not your God’s vehicle for vengeance?”

“Our Lord does not condone such violence. I forbid it. Our Lord God will look after us.” He crossed himself as he spoke.

“If I recall right Padre, your Lord got hisself killed doin’ that and for what?”

The Padre was genuinely shocked. He hissed at her. “You vile heathen savage! Go! Go away from here! Before you get all these people killed.”

She was unmoved – although I did notice Pat raising his eyebrows at her. Señora Lucy just smiled.

“These people have a choice,” Sinistré said. “They can do nothing and give up all they have, leave it to God to help them and get killed, or they can fight. Some of ’em may die doin’ so, I confess is true, but better in my thoughts to die fightin’ for what you have than to just give up and die anyways. Still, it’s up to them, not you and not me. If the townsfolk want me to go, I’ll go and leave you to your fate and your God. If they want me to stay, I’ll help and fight alongside y’all. And die alongside you if it comes to that.”

My uncle Emilio stepped forward. “I say we fight!” He cried. He turned to the others, who were watching the exchange. “Well? Are you all cowards? My son and nephew went to get help. These people came to our aid. They are willing to die for you. Will you let them go away and leave Pancho to ride in here on Sunday? Do you not remember last week when he shot down my brother and sister-in-law, unprovoked just because he could? Did you all not see what happened? Do you not think he will do it again? I say fight!”

There was a cheer from the townspeople as they cried out together “We fight! We fight!”

Sinistré turned back to the padre who looked upon the scene with undisguised horror. “I guess that settles it, Padre,” she said. “Looks like the meek got some grit in their bellies after all.” She turned to the crowd. “We fight! In the meantime, get some rest tonight and we will gather here at first light tomorrow morning. We have plenty to do in a short space of time.”

So we dispersed to our beds. I took Sinistré, Lucy and Pat to my house next to the livery stable my parents had run and gave them beds there. At least now there were people in the place after the emptiness left by Momma and Poppa.

The following morning we were up at first light and made our way to the square. Sinistré started to sort out the rifles ready for the folk when they arrived. Before long, they started to congregate; an awkward mix of peons more used to working the land than to shootin’ rifles, but some of ’em, the older men, had served in the army and could use a gun.

She surveyed the crowd that had now gathered. “How many of you folks can handle a gun?” she asked. Several of the older men raised their hands, including Emilio. “Good,” she said. “Pat will give you a rifle. Take some ammunition and get practisin’. Those of you willin’ who haven’t used a gun before, I’ll teach you what I can in the time we have. So as we don’t have much of that, come with me and we will make a start.”

I followed her along with Jose. “You two boys sure?” She asked, knowing the answer.

“Yes Señora,” we replied almost in unison. I wanted to kill Pancho for what he did and I was old enough to learn to shoot.

She was a patient teacher – but she was a task master. She taught us how to strip and clean our weapons, first off. “These guns will save your life,” she said. “So you treat ’em with respect. You keep ’em clean and look after ’em. And you don’t never, never point your gun at a man unless you is plannin’ on killin’ him and if you do, then you shoot to kill so’s he don’t get up again and kill you. You got that?”

Si, Señora,” we said in unison.

She spent time with each of us as we held the unfamiliar rifles, making us practice then practice again, despite how tired we got. She drove us hard that day. Holding the rifle close to me, making me tuck it well into my shoulder before pulling the trigger, she watched closely at how I handled the gun and was pleased with my progress. I was still taken back by the discharge at first and stumbled back with the recoil until I got the feel for it.

“You can stand or lie down,” she explained. “Or you can squat or kneel.” She showed me; dropping down into a squat, she lifted the carbine to her shoulder, took aim and shot the bottles we had lined up as targets without a flinch. We spent the rest of that day shooting bottles and by the end of it, I could mostly hit what I aimed at, which was better ’n’ I was at the beginning of the day. Meanwhile Pat was putting the others through their paces, honing their skills like a sergeant major in the army.

“Which way did they come into town?” Sinistré asked later when we was takin’ a break.

Me ’n’ Jose walked her to the edge of the main street. “They come from over that way,” I pointed to the plains out west of the town where the tumbleweed blew in on the hot desert winds. Turning eastwards, we could see the main street with the square at the end where the church dominated the fountain in front of it.

“A good place for an ambush,” she remarked. “I want folks to get all of their furniture and any other items that might be used, to make a barricade. We put that right at the end of the street at the entrance to the square. Then some of the men need to get shovels. I want a ditch diggin’ jest before it. Do you folks have a supply of lamp oil?”

Si.

“Well, get a couple of barrels. Jose, I have a job for you if you is willin’.”

“Yes, Señora,” he said eagerly.

“I want you waitin’ at the edge of the ditch once it has been dug. You will light the oil when I give the signal.”

So we made our preparations. The week was slipping by for now it was Thursday. We rested up for a bit and I went back to the house where I once lived with my parents and was now a temporary home for Sinistré and her companions. Once I had stashed my rifle, I left Señora Lucy messin’ about at the stove. She shooed me out and told me to go git out from under her feet while she prepared supper. So I went and got. I knew better than to cross her.

***

I went to the cantina with Jose and we found Pat there. He gestured to us to join him. He asked how we were getting on with our shooting training.

“Sinistré drives us hard,” Jose said.

Pat laughed. “I guess she got that from Sam Langman.”

I asked who he was, and Pat explained that Sam had rescued Sinistré when she was a child.

“Her mother was killed by the US cavalry,” he explained. “Sam was a scout with the army at the time and he took her in. He taught her how to shoot like that. Him and Frenchie Bresson. He and Sam rode together for a while.”

“Where are they now?” I asked.

“Both dead,” Pat sighed. “She’s alone now except for Lucy.”

“And you,” I said.

A cloud passed briefly across Pat’s face. “I wish it was so,” he replied. “But I ain’t so sure about that. No one but Sam, Frenchie and Lucy have ever got close to her. She’s careful about who she lets in.”

I was surprised. “She values you,” I said. “You can’t see that?”

He smiled. “Maybe, son, but she’ll never give me what I really want.”

We drifted into companionable silence for a while, then the talk moved on to what was to come and how we was gonna deal with Pancho.

“I’d better get back and see if Señora Lucy needs any help.”

“Sure,” Pat said. “I’ll be right along, too.”

***

Señora Lucy was still fixing supper when I got back and asked me to get some more kindling, so I went out to get some firewood down by the river. “Where is Señora Morning Cloud,” I asked as I left.

“I’m not right sure,” Lucy replied. “She will be out preparing somewhere, I expect, but if you see her, tell her to get back here sharp for supper or it’ll get cold and I ain’t doin’ any special for her, mind.”

I walked down to the river, picking up sticks for the fire. There was a pool near the town where the main river created a small lagoon of still water. We used it for bathing and washing clothes. That was where I found Sinistré. She was swimming stark naked. I stopped and looked at the sight of her lithe body as she swam, legs kicking out and arms stretching before her, oblivious to me watchin’. Despite myself, I stared, fascinated by this delicious, arousing sight.

Eventually, she swam to the shore and stepped out. I was mesmerised as my eyes swept up and down her body from pert breasts to her trim waist and dark pubic thatch. I noticed a scar on her thigh – an old gunshot wound, I figured – as she reached for a towel and started rubbing herself dry. I didn’t realise that she had seen me at first, for I was too transfixed by this glorious, erotic apparition.

“Hello, Phillipe,” she smiled, breaking my reverie.

I started and looked away. “Oh! Sorry, Senora!”

“Bit late for that,” she laughed, her eyes creasing with amusement at my discomfort. “Ain’t you never seen a woman’s nekkid body before?”

“No, Señora.” I kept my eyes averted for all the good it did, the damage having been done.

“Really? And you ain’t never laid with a woman, then?”

I was deeply embarrassed and could feel my face colouring up. “No, Señora.” I wanted the ground to swallow me up and kill me now.

“Well, don’t you worry none, you will find a girl who will want to lie with you soon enough. You can turn around now, I’m decent.”

I turned around and she had pulled her pants and shirt back on. She put on her buckskin jacket and came over before sitting down beside me. “Sit with me a while, Phillipe,” she instructed. So I sat by her and she placed an arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. I could feel the warmth of her firm body and smell the soft musky scent of her skin as she cuddled me. I loved her in that moment and snuggled close in that warm feminine embrace.

“I’m sorry, I stared,” I said.

“Oh, there ain’t nothin’ to be sorry for. It’s natural and I ain’t got nothing I’m ashamed of.”

She let go of me as she fished around in her buckskin jacket and pulled out her ornamented pipe. She proceeded to fill it with tobacco and lit it. For a few moments she puffed at the burning leaf and the air was sweet with the smell. She offered it to me.

“I ain’t smoked before.”

“Y’know, Phillipe, you remind me of a boy I knew once. You’re much like him. Wanna try?”

Tentatively I took the pipe and sucked on the end. The acrid taste caught in my throat and my eyes watered up as I coughed my lungs up. I glared at her as she burst into girlish laughter.

We sat there for an hour or so just being companionable and I understood why Pat Benson was so in love with her, even if she would never love him in the same way back and why those who met her were so captivated by her easy charm and girlish humour. Who could believe that this desirable woman would be the harbinger of such violent death?

Eventually we walked back in comfortable silence to the town where Lucy was waiting to dish up the supper.

***

That night, Lucy came to me. I had just settled down to sleep when there was a gentle knock at the door. She opened it a crack and I could see her face illuminated by the lamp she was holding as she stood there in the doorway.

“May I come in?”

I nodded and she came in, closing the door softly behind her. She was wearing a light robe. She placed the lamp on the table and stood looking at me as she opened the robe and let it slide to the ground. For the second time that day I found myself staring at a naked woman.

Lucy had a fuller figure than Sinistré and my eyes feasted on the delightful sight and she watched, her mouth pursed in a half-smile as her eyes followed mine as they traversed her magnificent body, from full breasts to the light brown thatch between her delicious legs. She came over to the bed where she sat next to me. She said nothing for a while, just sat there, gently holding my hand as she stared into my eyes.

“Take off your nightshirt,” she said eventually. “One day, Phillipe, you will meet a nice young woman and she will expect you to know what to do to please her. Tonight I will show you, eh?”

I hesitated, so she reached across and lifted the baggy nightshirt over my arms as I complied.

“Move over,” she instructed softly, so I edged further on the bed. She lay down next to me and caressed my body with her fingertips, sending pulses of pleasure through my skin. Eventually, she reached the top of my thighs and slowly started to manipulate me as she kissed me on the mouth. She lay there beside me for a while, her hands still caressing me. Then she moved across, straddling me. She leaned forwards to kiss me as her hips moved on me in a gentle rhythm.

It was all over too quickly. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It was your first time. You just need more practice.” As she spoke, her hand again started to move down my body.

When I woke the following morning, she had gone. No one said anything at breakfast but I was pretty sure they all knew. I felt different. That evening I went to bed as a boy, I came down to breakfast as a man. Lucy smiled at me and I returned the smile. I would forever be grateful for what she did for me that night. Sinistré looked up from her coffee and winked an eye with a broad smile on her face. Nothin’ said, everythin’ understood.

***

As the week wore on, we made ready. People emptied their houses and a barricade took form across the entrance to the square. And the men got out shovels and dug a ditch several feet before it. And we practised our shooting. It was a dangerous place our town for empty bottles that Holy Week. I learned to handle the Winchester repeater like it was an extension of my body. I learned how to strip it down, clean it and put it back together. I learned how to aim and shoot, and while I was not going to be a crack shot, I could pretty much hit what I was aiming at each time I pulled the trigger by the end of that hectic, life-affirming week. And they were there – the half Comanche gunslinger with a soft centre and her companion, the fair-haired ex-whore with a generous heart, and Pat the lawman, who loved them both. Jose and I, like brothers clung to their every move, their every word, for we loved them too.

The padre was in despair. For most of the week, he retreated to the church and prayed for our immortal souls for he was convinced we were bound for the fires of Hell led by the heathen Indian. But as the week grew old and Good Friday was upon us, we went to church as we always did and he came to accept that the inevitable was gonna happen no matter what, so he decided that, perhaps, he should bless us rather than curse us and forgive us our sins.

This year, it fell to Emilio to do as my father had done in previous years and to carry the cross though the town to the church where the padre held the mass. Sinistré didn’t join us although Lucy and Pat did.

“I don’t worship no gods,” she said. “Never saw the point. If there was a god, then why did he allow the suffering to go on? Reckon I’ll go take a swim in the river while you is all worshippin’.” She grinned conspiratorially at me and gave me a huge wink and I smiled back.

The padre tried to tell her that suffering was our Lord’s way of showing that he loved us and that his was the key to eternal salvation, but she weren’t convinced. “You pray for me if you want,” she said, “but I’ll wait out here, making what preparations I can for Sunday after my swim, eh, Padre?”

So Pat and Lucy joined the congregation. They weren’t Catholics, but they played along all the same and they prayed with us for the coming days. The padre was resigned to the coming fight and preached of the Sermon on the Mount, but then he surprised us by talking of Ecclesiastes 3:8.

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

So, I guess, he did understand and his opposition to Sinistré’s presence was from fear for his flock.

After the service Pat went and sought out Sinistré and found her at the edge of the town, checking out the likely route in for Pancho and his desperados. “How’s it goin’? Good swim?” he asked.

“Oh, well enough,” she replied.

Pat nodded. “Padre gave a fine sermon today.”

“Uh huh?”

“Mornin’ Cloud, I think, before the fight starts, you and he better make your peace. You’re both on the same side here and I think he understands that now.”

She smiled that easy smile of hers. “Sure, Pat. I ain’t one for holdin’ grudges.”

I followed as they walked back to the church. The padre came out to greet them. “Howdy, Father,” she said.

“Come in, come in,” he replied. We walked into the dark interior and sat at a pew. The hard wood was cold and uncomfortable, but I figure that was the point. There was an awkward pause before she made the first move.

“Padre,” she said, “I meant no disrespect ’n’ all. I want these people to be free of Pancho – same as you. It’s jest that we have different ways of goin’ about it. My way may involve violence and I may burn in Hell for my way of livin’, but I will fight for these folk and die if needs be.”

It was a big speech for her and I could see that it didn’t come easy. She was a woman of deeds rather than words.

“My child,” Padre said, “I sinned the sins of anger and pride the other day and I apologise. You mean well, but I do stand by my beliefs. I cannot condone violence. I never can. But I will not stand in your way. The Lord will give absolution if there is repentance in your heart.”

“I ain’t no Christian. I never followed no gods.”

“Then I will ask you this, for these people, will you allow me to baptise you? Before you risk eternal damnation of your soul?”

She looked at Pat. He reached out and squeezed her hand. “Won’t do no harm, sweetheart. Why not?”

So that Saturday, we had another mass and Sinistré the heathen was baptised in our church.

At the end of the mass, the padre took her to one side. “Wait here,” he said and went off to the vestry. He came back holding a small silver cross on a fine silver chain. “Please, take it and God will be with you.”

She took the cross and hooked the chain over her neck. “Thank you, Padre,” she said. “I will value it.”

He nodded and between the two of them there was an understanding of sorts.

***

Easter Sunday.

We were up early that Sunday. The men lined up behind the barricades in the cold grey dawn. Jose took his place by the trench and we poured the lamp oil into it all ready. The doc was on hand to deal with the wounded and had set up a makeshift hospital in the church. Sinistré patrolled the barricades like a general in readiness for the impending battle. As she walked she fingered the little silver cross the padre had given her the previous day. She wore it on its chain around her neck along with the strings of beads she usually wore. She was a mixture of cultures and faiths, a complex conundrum; one that won over hearts wherever she went – apart from those who wanted to kill her that was.

And we waited.

The morning passed slowly. The padre came out with water to keep us hydrated in the rising temperatures. We drank thirstily and thanked him as he moved among us. There was a sadness in his demeanour for he knew that come sundown, some of his flock would be no more, the Spanish Angels would have taken them. He crossed himself and blessed us as he passed each of us.

The previous evening we had gone to confession and I had told him of my night with Lucy. I felt lighter in heart knowing that God had forgiven me for my carnal knowledge, but part of me was glad that should I die, I would die having had the experience. I looked across at her and she smiled back, cradling her rifle. Then she moved her gaze to Sinistré and there was a sadness in her eyes. She was afraid, I felt, that she would lose Sinistré this day. The tension in the atmosphere was palpable, like a pulse in a vein when there is the coldness of fear in the heart.

Sinistré had placed a watch at the end of the town to give us advance warning.

And we waited.

Time passed slowly, the sun rose further in the sky and the day grew hotter.

And we waited.

The church bell rang out the hour. A lonely, portentous and melancholy sound.

And we waited.

Eventually they came with the hot wind sweeping in from the desert. A shout from the rooftops warned of their approach. “Riders comin’ in!”

They charged down the street at full gallop and as they drew closer they started firing their pistols in the air. We watched and waited for Sinistré to give the command. She raised her hand looking at both the riders and Jose, who lay down concealed by the edge of the ditch waiting for her signal. She waited and we waited, breath bated and they got closer, closer, closer…

She dropped her hand and Jose lit the oil. The horses reared up in fear, eyes rolling and nostrils flaring, at the sudden conflagration. One of the riders fell and landed in the burning oil. He screamed in pain as he tried to stand, batting frantically at the flames engulfing him. The others started shooting at the defenders behind the barricades. Sinistré took aim and shot the burning man. He started, staggered and then dropped as his screams went suddenly silent.

The shots continued to go back and forth as the riders tried to get control of their frightened mounts. Two of the townsfolk fell to the shots. I took aim and pulled the trigger and one of the riders sat back as the bullet hit him in the shoulder. He swung his horse round and returned fire. Uncle Emilio shot him down as he pulled the trigger, the two shots sounding as one in the chaos. The man’s eyes opened wide in a face half covered in coal dust stubble and the pain etched in his mouth as he gagged soundlessly, for he was dead before he fell from the saddle. I didn’t feel the impact at first.

The noise was loud and chaotic as riders and defenders exchanged fire, the repeaters discharging with deafening reports and the fire and smoke drifting across the square made it feel like we was at the gates of Hell itself.

I was aware of Pat beside me shooting with his Winchester and two riders dropped to the ground, their horses rearing up and running off in panic, their eyes wild with fear. Lucy shot another, the man reeling back in the saddle and dropping back off his horse and landing with a thud in the dirt, twitching slightly before falling still, his gun dropping from his dead hand.

Sinistré walked through the smoke shooting rapidly and one by one, the riders fell. Then she took a bullet. I shouted out, but she turned to me, “Stay down,” she said before taking aim again and dropping another of the banditos. Then she dropped her pistol as she dropped to her knees in the dirt.

Then suddenly, as suddenly as it had started, the noise of the shooting stopped. Of the thirteen riders who had rode in that mornin’, only Pancho remained. He slipped down from the saddle and walked towards Sinistré, eyeing her with a combination of sneering contempt and rage. Her left hand hung uselessly by her side, blood pouring from her injured shoulder as she watched him approach. Her pistol held loosely in her right hand from when she picked it up after taking the shoulder wound. She pushed herself to her feet, the pain etched in her face as she squared up to him.

“So, lefty,” he said. “It’s down to you and me, eh? And you have only your useless right arm to draw. I’m gonna kill you for this, if it’s the last thing I do,” he hissed with unconcealed venom.

He assessed her injury with a practised eye. “Tell you what, I’ll make it easy, you don’t have to draw, just lift your hand and shoot. Try to take me if you can with your other hand, eh?” He laughed a dry, flat laugh. There was no humour in it, merely the hatred of a man who has lost and has nothing left to lose. Killing her was the final act of defiance. Even so, he had to play a game, to taunt her, for she was disabled now. Easy prey.

She said nothing. She did what she always did. She watched her opponent, waiting for the twitch that told her when to react.

He didn’t know. He couldn’t have known. None of us did until she told us afterwards.

***

Sam Langman watched the girl as she practiced. She learned fast, he thought, responding well to his tuition. Her shooting was accurate and her draw was as quick as any professional he had seen. One day, he reflected, she would outdraw him. He walked up to her and took the gun gently from her left hand. He spun the chamber before loading new slugs. Then he took her right hand and placed the pistol in her palm open.

“But,” she protested, “I cannot shoot with my right hand.”

“Sinistré,” he said, “This weapon will keep you alive. But to be able to do its job, you need to be as proficient with your right hand as you are with your left. One day, that ability will save your life. So, from now on, you practice with the right and the right only, until you shoot as well with that hand as you do with the left.”

Awkwardly, she lifted the gun and took aim…

***

The fire had died down and now only acrid foul smelling smoke drifted up from the ditch. An uneasy silence settled on the scene of devastation. The dead lay on the ground and their horses had run off away from the fighting. I stood up and watched mesmerised. I became aware that my stomach hurt and I looked down, putting my hand to the pain. It came away covered in blood.

Pancho was taking his time. He was confident that he had the upper hand. He swaggered in a perverted show of triumph. He had lost the battle, but killing her would be the final defeat for us and ours would be a pyrrhic victory.

Then he went for his gun. But he weren’t quick enough. Three slugs pumped into his chest in rapid succession, the force throwing him back so his feet lifted from the ground and he fell back first into the smoking ditch. His sightless eyes froze in disbelief, his cigar fell from his teeth and a dribble of tobacco-stained saliva seeped from the corner of his mouth. Pancho was dead. The threat was gone. Strangely, I felt nothing. No relief, no euphoria, no nothin’.

Sinistré dropped to her knees clasping her injured shoulder in pain and the gun slipping from her grasp as Pat and Lucy ran over to her and Pat held her, lifting her up to take her to see the Doc. That’s when Lucy noticed me.

“Phillipe’s been hit,” she cried out. I too fell to my knees as everything felt faint. I was aware of people around me of arms grasping me and the pain in my belly.

“We did it,” I said before losing consciousness.

***

When I woke, I was in my own bed. Señora Lucy sat by the bed, bathing my forehead. I was sweating a fever, despite feeling so cold. On my other side, Sinistré sat. Her left arm was in a sling. “They got the bullet out?” I asked.

“Sure thing, sweetheart,” she said. “It hurt like crazy, mind. The Doc had to dig it out and Pat cauterised it with his Bowie knife. It’s throbbin’ still.”

“Will you still be able to shoot?”

The Doc came over to me and checked my pulse with a worried frown. “She will be fine providing she rests up and lets it all heal properly.” He exchanged glances with the two women as Pat came in from outside and asked after me. There were low mutterings and the Doc was shaking his head.

“I’m dying, ain’t I?” I said.

Lucy had tears in her eyes and didn’t know what to say. Sinistré placed her right hand gently on my shoulder. “You’ve been very brave, Phillipe. Now you’re gonna have to be even braver for what is to come. The Doc can’t get the bullet out ’cos it’s a gut wound.” She stopped then, choking back a tear. “I’m sorry, darlin’, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I said, It ain’t your fault. The Spanish Angels will take me to my Momma and my Poppa. I’ll be ok, you’ll see. Is Jose there?”

“Sure thing Phillipe,” he said stepping forward where I could see him. He had tears in his eyes.

“Don’t cry for me,” I said. “I will be okay. Will you look after Poppa’s horses for me?”

He nodded tearfully. “Sure thing, Amigo.”

I looked at Lucy then. “At least I will die a man,” I said.

“Yes. Yes, you will.”

“You are more a man than many I have known twice your age, sweetheart,” Sinistré said.

Then, as if by a miracle, the pain went and I felt better. I sat up and swung my legs over the bed and stood. “Señoras…I am fine,” I said. “Oh…” I looked back at the bed and they sat, weeping over the body. They couldn’t see me or hear me.

“He’s gone,” Sinistré said, reaching out to close my eyes. Then she leaned across and embraced Senora Lucy.

***

They stayed for the funeral. The padre held a fine funeral mass and gave a sermon about how I had saved the town and died bravely, that the town owed me a debt of gratitude and I was now at peace with my parents and with God in Heaven. Sinistré said grand things about me as she stood by the grave after they had lowered the casket and they waited around, not quite knowing what to do and united in their grief.

I wished I could speak to them. To tell them I was okay, to reassure them. But they couldn’t hear me or see me. Although there was a moment, when she looked straight at me, and I wondered if she could sense something. There was always something otherworldly, and heathen about Sinistré, so I wondered.

She embraced Lucy then. “I’ve had enough,” she sighed. “Of the killing. I’m tired of it.”

Pat placed a hand on her shoulder. “Mornin’ Cloud, I made you an offer once. That offer still stands. To come back with me and be my deputy. It’s a quiet town. You can rest up…”

“Oh, Pat…”

Señora Lucy nodded. “Why not? You need the time to recover. It will be good for you. Change of pace, like.”

Sinistré turned to Pat. “I do love you, Pat, just not…”

“Yeah, I know and I understand. It’s okay. I’m okay with it. I’ve always known you can’t love me the way I love you, and I don’t mind, just havin’ you around makes me happy. I won’t hold you to stay forever, but take some time. Consider it, eh?”

“I could do with restin’ up my arm and getting’ my strength back,” she said. “This deputisin’ lark, it ain’t too onerous, then?”

“Not unless you consider throwing a few drunks in the cells to sober up on a Saturday night onerous. You won’t have to kill any of ’em as they will be too drunk to pull a gun. Besides, I operate a no-gun policy in the town. And I’d prefer it if you didn’t go shootin’ no drunks anyways. That funeral parlour don’t need no more work.”

She nodded as she wiped her face. “Yeah, no guns, ’cept when I rode in and shot the desperados tryin’ to kill yer,” she laughed despite her tears.

He smiled and took hold of her good hand and dropped a star onto her open palm. “That’s a deal, then?” he said.

“Deal.” She closed her fingers around the star. Then she looked straight through me. “Farewell, Phillipe,” she said. “You rest easy, y’hear?”

I looked on as they saddled up and rode north. Pat helped Sinistré mount her bay, giving her a shove up as she lifted herself awkwardly in the stirrup with only one free hand. Then they rode out of the town. The townsfolk stood by and waved ’em off.

Jose ran after them and reached out to hold their hands one more time. “Farewell, amigos,” he said as they moved out of his reach, waving as they went.

I walked along behind them to the edge of the town and watched as they rode away. It seemed a long time waitin’, but they was tiny dots on the horizon when I felt it happen. The seven Spanish angels came to collect me and take me to be with my Momma and Poppa.

 

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Kate Pegler

Another masterpiece! Thank you.