But Wouldn’t Admit It
-This weathered old gun once belonged to Camila Niblo. Caravans that move between California and Arizona carry the tale of the legendary quick-draw known as the Wolf of Spain, who came to America and established a name for herself as both a talented trick-shooter and duelist. Though shunned by most of the locals in the towns she visited, she found her niche within communities of roaming foreigners, even if she preferred to do most of her travelling alone.
The word “Marl” is etched into the side of the barrel.
Having missed their train, Bill and his two companions found themselves holing up in Buena Suerte’s saloon and inn, the Santa Mugre. He wasn’t particularly happy about it, by the time night had fully fallen the only others left in town were other folks waiting for their trains the next day, and the people who lived in or nearby, who were mostly Mexican. At least there weren’t very many of them, Buena Suerte had the saloon, a general store, and the ticket platform, and not a plank more to its name. Of the ten tables in the Santa Mugre, only one was taken aside from theirs, and the old man behind the counter had, for the most part, left them alone.
They had been playing cards for hours, and by the time two-o-clock had rolled around, his two companions were starting to look tired. Elroy, a grisly man and long-time friend, had all but lost interest in the hands he was dealt. Beside him, Wink –who was more or less just a tag-along wanting to get his feet wet in the gang business– had begun to pick at his crooked teeth, his eyes glazed and struggling to focus. Bill, however, did not feel tired. He didn’t trust the small town, or the tan-skinned proprietor of the Saint, and was determined to stay up through the night. The train would arrive at five, and they could sleep on the ride to Little Folly.
A minute had passed since he’d last dealt them each another card, and neither seemed on the verge of an enthusiastic response.
“El, hit or stay?” Bill said.
Elroy made a noncommittal grumble in response and glanced at his cards for the fourth time. “Gimme a minute.”
“How ‘bout you, Wink?”
“Uh…” Wink at least pretended to seem interested as he scanned his hand over again. Bill swore that if he looked closely enough, he might have seen smoke grinding out from the kid’s ears. “I think…yeah, I’m gonna stay. I got seventeen.”
Bill looked back to Elroy, expectant, but the bulky man just set his cards on the table. “Bust.”
“Alright,” Bill said, and took up another card, only to drop his hand a moment later. “Shit, same.”
They’d stopped betting for money by then, but Wink seemed happy enough to take the victory as it was. When he saw the cards, Bill decided not to mention that the total had been fifteen. In the day or two he’d known him, Bill had come to realize that Sticks was not arithmetically gifted, but then, none of them really were.
He finished what was left in his glass, then looked to Elroy. “Your turn to get the drinks.”
“Like hell it’s my turn, you lost too and I got’em last time. You just don’t wanna talk to’im.”
“Well then how about as a favor you go again?”
“I don’t wanna talk to’im either.”
Bill sighed and got up, giving Elroy the middle finger as he made his way to the counter. He stepped heavily and pulled the side of his over-shirt off of his hip, revealing a new leather holster cradling an old and weathered revolver. He didn’t plan to shoot the barkeep, but establishing a little dominance never hurt when it came to dealing.
The old man looked up from his book, and his eyes immediately fell to the dull glimmer of the pistol under the lamplight. Bill forced a bucktoothed grin.
“I’d like another bottle, por fa-vor.”
With a nod the barkeep retrieved another bottle of whiskey, but Bill did not reach for his wallet. Instead, when the bottle was placed upon the counter, he simply continued to grin at the old man.
“Now look, amigo, we’ve been buying from you all day. What do you say to a little bit of recognition for our patronage to this business?”
Bill shouldn’t have expected the man to understand him, but the confusing he received annoyed him all the same. He leaned onto the counter, grin a little thinner. “A bottle on the house, savvy?”
The man couldn’t quite commit to shaking his head fully, and muttered some inaudible protest or another under his breath. Bill could feel his patience shriveling.
“My companions and I would be most grateful for the generosity.”
This time he was met with only silence. The barkeep had his eyes averted to the counter, and the bottle, but Bill wasn’t about to back down so easily. He kept his place, one hand on his hip, not touching the pistol but not hiding it either. He would grin a hole through the old man’s head if he had to, he didn’t care if it took all night.
When the door opened, Bill didn’t hear it, but the hairs on the back of his neck stood up when he felt there were eyes on him. Turning, he saw a figure standing at the entrance, and though it took him a moment to realize it, it was in fact a woman. The duster, trousers and vest over her shirt had thrown him off at first, but he’d seen enough Mexican women to know. The oceanic blue of her eyes unnerved him as they met his. They looked as though they ought to have been soft and kind, but were held within a hard glare.
The moment passed, their gazes broke from one another. Elroy and Wink exchanged looks with her, but Bill didn’t pay her any mind until she took up a place at the counter next to him and signaled for the barkeep’s attention.
“Gin por favor, pequeña,” she said, handing him the due.
The barkeep nodded hastily and went back to the assortment of liquors. When he handed her the small glass, she nodded to the bottle in front of Bill and passed a dollar across the table.
Bill turned to her, brow cocked. She did not turn from her own drink. “Well gracias sen-or-ita.”
“I speak English,” she said flatly.
The sudden change took him by surprise. There weren’t many Mexicans around the ranchlands that spoke English well and without an accent, at least as far as he knew.
“Then you have my thanks for the drink.”
Her eyes went to the bolero cap atop his head before they met his own again. He felt the need to shift his stance, to face her fully and put up a proper stand against those eyes.
“Odd time of night to be ordering a bottle of whiskey, ain’t it?” she asked.
Bill shrugged, taking the bottle up and holding it close to his chest. “We’ve had a long day, having a longer night. Odd time for a woman such as yourself to be wandering into a town like Buena Suerte.”
“It’s not particularly easy for me to go around during the day.”
“No,” he scoffed. “Dressed like that, I reckon it isn’t. You some kind of lawwoman?”
She paused, as if unsure, but eventually shook her head. “No sir, though I’d consider myself a woman of the law.”
“As do all us good citizens.”
He saw Elroy and Wink approach out of the corner of his eye, and the woman turned to face them, leaning her back and elbows against the countertop.
“Hello boys,” Bill said.
Elroy either didn’t hear or didn’t listen. “Who’s the Mexican?”
“I’m not Mexican.”
“Y’look Mexican,” Elroy went on.
“Spaniard and French,” the woman said.
Bill’s back straightened up, and his nerves tightened despite the fact that the woman’s eyes weren’t on him. He started to look at her more closely, at how worn and tattered the duster was, how her boots were nicked and spattered with every flavor of dirt under the sun. She had a belt, he noticed, bound tight around her waist that vanished along the far side of the duster, and the buckle was an anchor.
Elroy spoke Bill’s mind for him. “Gypsy then, whatever. I’m lookin’ for a name.”
“These your friends or your colleagues?” she asked, looking to Bill once again. Elroy didn’t seem pleased.
“We’re a little of both, ma’am. Your name?”
Her eyes snapped back to the burly man, the static line of her lips twitching towards a frown. “They teach manners in the sticks or did you just come out rude?”
Elroy didn’t have a response, but his face boiled. Bill tried to share a glance with him but the big man wouldn’t pry his eyes off of the lady. He’d seen him hit women before, but never because they’d snapped at him.
“I think he just wants to know who he has to thank for the drink,” Bill cut in. “I’d be interested to know myself. You could say we’re just the curious type.”
Her eyes went to Wink, who seemed the most unnerved by Elroy’s temper. She clicked her tongue at him to grab his attention from the floor, and motioned to the deck of cards in his hand. “Tell you fellas what, I’m just such a type myself, so why don’t we play a game, get to know each other?”
“We were just playin’ some twenty-one, if you’re familiar with it,” Wink said.
The woman shook her head. “Got a different game in mind, easier than twenty-one. No math,” she said, and started over to him, her hand stretching out to him. “May I?”
Bill gave Wink a nod, and the boy handed over the deck. They followed her to their table, and she pulled up a chair, leaning in when they sat down across from her. She shuffled the deck absently, inspecting each of them once again.
As her hands settled, she tossed three cards from the top onto the table, and turned them up to reveal two red aces and the Jack of Spades, then set the rest of the deck aside. Elroy let out a distasteful huff.
“This little game is called ‘Find the Jack’. I suppose the parameters are clear?”
“Yes’m,” Bill said. “How about the rules?”
She held the three cards delicately between her fingers, then set them face down once again. “You find the Jack, you ask a question, if you don’t then I’ll ask a question, savvy?”
Bill blinked and adjusted himself. “Pardon?”
“I said ‘are you ready?’”
With one last glance to Elroy and Wink, Bill nodded, and she began to swap the three cards’ positions. It was slow at first, but over a few seconds the speed picked up. He’d seen the game played before by plenty of gypsy folk, though he’d never stepped in himself. As far as he’d heard it was more or less a scam, but he wasn’t about to be fooled by the quick hands of a woman. When she let the cards be, he tapped the middle one, and asked his question before she even flipped it over.
“So what’s your name then?”
“It’s not your turn,” she said, and turned over the middle card. An Ace.
Bill’s brow went heavy, and he saw Elroy with a similar expression. Wink’s bewilderment came as no surprise, however.
Without skipping a beat, she took up the cards between her fingers and set them back down once again. “So what’s got you boys coming through Buena Suerte?”
Elroy looked too frustrated with the loss to answer her, and Bill didn’t have any particularly great lies stocked up.
“Wink has family out in the ranchlands,” he said, jutting a thumb out at the boy. Wink, thankfully, nodded without hesitation.
Still, the woman looked skeptical. “And you two just decided to accompany him?”
“One question at a time, wasn’t it?” Elroy snipped.
She began to shift them again, and again Bill kept his eyes fixated upon his suspected Jack. This wasn’t how he’d seen it done, usually the con would start out slow and lose a few times before things sped up, but the woman gave them no such quarter.
“Middle again,” he said once she had taken her hands away.
“No,” Elroy said. “It’s on the right. Our right, I saw it.”
Bill scoffed. “C’mon El I saw it too, and it’s in the middle. She doesn’t think we’d pick the middle twice, it’s there.”
“Uh, fellas,” Wink muttered, only to wither when they turned their eyes to him. He swallowed whatever lump clogged his throat and croaked out, “it’s on the left.”
Elroy didn’t give them a chance to think it over. “Bullshit it’s on the left, it’s on the right. Flip over the right card.”
“Just do it,” Bill groaned.
She did, and to the sole surprise of Elroy, it was an Ace. He snatched the three cards up, only to find that the middle one was also an Ace. Both he and Bill looked back to Wink, but the twiggy boy just kept his eyes to the side.
“Wink’s part gypsy, great,” Elroy spat, throwing the cards back.
The woman merely took them back up and placed them face-down again, clearing her throat. “Well, seems I’m on a tight rope. How about this, you meetin’ anybody where you’re going?”
Something sparked then, as he looked at her, if only for a moment. There was more to her eyes than just their unsettling nature, there was a familiarity to the way they unsettled him. Somewhere, he’d seen it before.
“And just what for, miss? I’m afraid we don’t have much of a vacancy for company at the moment, if that’s your wonderin’,” Bill said.
“Not lookin’ for company, just some answers.”
“To some mighty interesting questions, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“A deal’s a deal,” she said.
Bill found himself searching her, and for the first time drew his eyes from her face. He’d looked there plenty and found nothing, but he felt the spark again when he looked at her vest. He’d have forgotten the eyes before he’d forgotten the bronze flowers woven into it, and yet he was still left with the “when” and “where” open and unanswered. His eyes went back to hers, and he made a decision.
“We’ve got friends in Little Folly,” he said. “Ever been?”
She took his return question with a shrug. “Can’t say I have, though I’m sure it’s a fine place.”
“Far enough from the border to be,” Elroy said, and Bill caught a quizzical look from him.
“Who might these friends be?”
This time Bill shook his head, tapping the table. “Why don’t we see if you’re lucky enough to find out?”
The woman pursed her lips, her eyes darted to Wink, but she shifted the cards again all the same. This time Bill let the other two watch and went back to observing her, looking to her vest again, but nothing else came to him besides the dwindling spark of familiarity. She finished before he could eye her too much longer.
“Wink,” Elroy said expectantly.
The boy didn’t hesitate before he opened his mouth to speak, it was clear he knew which card was which. But the woman, leaning back in her seat, beat him to it.
“You’re gonna ask for my name, so allow me to preface my answer. I’m not going to tell it to you. You will never know my name, but you do know me, and I know you, Bill Simms.”
Bill felt a sense of dread when she said his name, and for a moment his mind went into a frenzy, scrambling to remember anything about her. The vest no longer helped, he went back to the eyes, those ocean-blues that, even now, wouldn’t allow him the slimmest sliver of a moment to relax. When he noticed her hand was resting over her hip, his own drifted to the handle of the revolver at his side. He saw Elroy shift in a similar way.
“What is it exactly that you want?” Bill asked, discomposure dulling the edge in his voice.
The woman looked to Elroy, then to Wink, and finally came to a rest at Bill. “I’ll start with that hat,” she said, nodding to his cap. “Then I’m going for Savvy Jack.”
“How the hell do you know Savvy Jack?” Elroy growled.
Bill wasn’t sure what it was that changed, but in that moment the woman’s whole being shifted. What had seemed curious and strange was suddenly dangerous, and the dread only clutched its razor fingers tighter around his heart. His pistol felt heavier than usual.
The spark took flame, and had he the time to he might have cursed himself for not making the connection sooner. The vest, the eyes, and she was a Spaniard. Practically a ghost. Elroy drew quickly, like he was scratching the oldest itch, but throughout the years Bill had always been the faster of them, and his pistol cleared the holster before the big man had a firm grip. It didn’t matter.
She was pulling the trigger before either of them lifted their arms, he hadn’t even seen her draw. The first crack split the air, and Elroy’s head jerked back, then before Bill could take aim the second shot cratered his chest, and when he opened his eyes again he was on the ground.
“I take it you’re the colleague,” he heard her say.
Wink had his hands in the air, nodding like a mad man. The woman stood up, and nodded to the door. “Go on, then.”
And like that he was gone, scrambling out of the saloon and vanishing from sight. Elroy lay splayed out on the ground, and Bill wondered if arming the boy would have made any difference.
“Little Folly then, much obliged,” she said.
He saw her take the hat up, dust it off, and put it on her head. A wet cough took the place of any words that might have tried to crawl out of his throat, and with every ticking moment he felt connected to less and less of his body. With the last pulses of energy in his veins, he lifted his trembling arm, fingers refusing to release their grip on the revolver.
The woman only sighed. “Gonna cheat me out of giving you a slow death, huh?”
He didn’t listen, he barely even heard her. She didn’t move as he got her in his sights, situated her head between the iron. Pulling the trigger proved nearly impossible, and as soon as he managed to cock the hammer back, her hand whipped up and shattered the air again.
-Vest worn by the Wolf of Spain. The nebulous black fabric is embroidered with a bronze floral pattern that became part of Camila’s professional identity. Two bullet holes in the back speak of the dishonest and mysterious end that befell her. Even those who had not been fond of her ways say she’d deserved better.
A great deal of trouble went into digging it up, its pristine color having endured.
Jack was laid out on a bench at the train station, his feet up on the armrest, and a hat over his face. Between the absence of visitors and Little Folly’s church service, he had nearly the whole platform to himself. The hot air reeled in on chains of cool breezes offered quite the relaxation while he waited, with nothing but gentle, rolling wind and the ticks of the station’s clock to fill the silence. The simplicity was nice, and for a time he pushed all of the thoughts of meeting his gang from his mind, let himself forget about Bill and Elroy, and the others bound to show up in some days. He wasn’t one to get bored, he enjoyed every last second of his life no matter what happened in it, but that certainly wasn’t to say he didn’t appreciate the excitement that accompanied his ventures.
When at last the distant rumbles began to draw closer, he found himself hard-pressed to sit up. The train stirred up its own little storm of dust as it ground to a halt, and though he waved as much away with his hat as he could, it lingered in the air for a while. People began to shuffle off of the steel giant, most of them suits or other city-dwelling folk. He didn’t catch any of their faces through the dust, but Elroy was a big man and would be easy enough to pick out.
He waited, but even when the dust had settled and all but the last of the passengers had meandered off into town, Jack was the only soul left standing on the platform. He peeked inside the train, and it was empty, and when he looked around he saw only a handful of people shuffling about the town.
The church bells rang, he looked to the wooden double doors of the adobe building and felt his breath catch. Bill’s hat was impossible to miss after fifteen years of him refusing to take it off. It was black as the night and always rose too high on his big head, but it wasn’t on Bill. It rested upon the head of a woman, and even amidst the people trickling out of the church he didn’t lose sight of her. She just stood there for a while, and though he couldn’t make out her face, he could feel her eyes like brands on his skin.
Then she turned and walked into the church, and Jack had to restrain himself from jogging over. Instead he waited until the doors bore no more people, and proceeded inside, hand hovering over his hip.
There were two columns of long pews with an isle between them that ran the length of the church, and for such a shoddy exterior the inside, squat as it was, had a magnificent glow to it, and the candles at the altar painted everything sepia.
As he moved down the center he thought for the briefest moment that he’d imagined everything. Surely Bill and the others had just missed their train, or perhaps he’d even missed them amidst the dust at the station. The law had few eyes out so far as Little Folly, and Jack was certain that wherever Bill was coming from had even less. But the moment passed, and he turned just in time to see the woman shut both doors, Bill’s hat like a glove atop her head.
“I would take that hand away,” she said, stepping down the aisle. “We got a little bit of time before you’ll need it.”
Jack cleared his throat but did as she asked. He took a few sauntered steps forward, arms on leisurely pivots, and dipped his tongue in silver. “Usually the names come before the threats, ma’am,” he said.
“You’re Savvy Jack, that’s about the only name that matters here.”
He got a good look at her then, tan skin and duster over a vest and long shirt. She looked like law, but had no badge, and no apparent interest in arresting him either. He wasn’t particularly afraid of her, but damned if the eyes didn’t spook him when the light hit.
“So then, Miss Stranger, am I to assume my friend gave you his hat out of the goodness of his heart?”
“I shot your friends,” she said flatly.
Jack had figured as much, but still a curse slipped from under his breath. Just about any big man with a love for cash could replace Elroy, but Bill was competent with a gun, and could hit a target on horseback like a professional. Besides, twenty-odd years working together had endeared the man to him, but it wasn’t the time for mourning.
“I must say, while I’m not a man to judge, you’re not making a very good first impression.”
“I’m not too worried about it.”
“Listen, before this gets too out-of-hand why don’t we–” Jack stopped. He hadn’t taken a full step towards the woman before she reached for the pistol at her hip. He put his hands up. “Okay, okay easy now. You come all this way just to shoot me and be done with it?”
She nodded, Jack felt a pit in his stomach.
“Well now that doesn’t seem fair. In fact, it seems like a downright dishonest thing to do in a house of God, what sort of justification is there to puttin’ down a man with no chance?”
“You want a chance?”
“That, or you can tell me why it is you’ve done all of this, maybe be civil. I’m a man of reason, I’m sure we could figure something out.”
He waited for something from her, but she merely slid the duster from her shoulders and tossed it onto the pews. With it gone, he realized she looked too flashy to be a lawman.
“Fine, then, you get your chance,” she said, and walked until she stood only a few feet from him. “Turn around, count ten steps, I take it you understand the rest.”
A duel it was then, Jack was admittedly disappointed. He wasn’t so much God’s man that he wouldn’t shoot her down in the church, but it had been awhile since he’d shot a woman, and he’d meant to keep himself off of the habit the last few years. Bill had teased him about a conscience growing like a tumor on his heart, but the truth of it was he’d just lost interest. It wasn’t chivalry, it wasn’t faith, it wasn’t guilt, it was boredom. But then, most of the ones he shot didn’t have guns, and none of them had killed his friends, so he figured one last time, he’d indulge.
Grin on his face, he twirled around on the heel of his boot and turned his back to her. “The Lord and I thank you for your fairness.”
“Those ain’t very good last words,” she said. “You count it out, we turn on ten.”
“As you wish, Miss Stranger,” he stepped forward towards the altar, and heard her step towards the door behind him. “One.”
Another step, he brought his hand over the handle of his gun, his pride and joy. In the holster it sat like any other pistol, weighted with purpose and pride but not so much that it sagged the belt around his waist. In his hand though, the metal was like cotton, the thing practically flew from his hip when he drew it, and never did its red-painted sights steer him wrong. “Two.”
Once more he moved, and her steps echoed his. A breeze floated through one of the open windows, and he felt the sweat on his brow stiffen. When had his last proper duel been? He had a scar on his armpit from their last big heist, but before then he’d only had a handful of stand-offs and step-counters. Still, he had no fears about his speed, he knew without a doubt that he would kill her. “Three.”
By the fifth step, he had figured out how loud his steps were, how they sounded when he pivoted his ankle slightly and when he didn’t. Her steps had begun to fall at identical times to his as well, which meant that it would be harder for her to hear just when his foot landed, so she would have to take his count for law. “Six.”
Jack started to turn, slowly, but he started to turn. Only his upper body at first, he kept his feet straight as he could until he was halfway to halfway around. What he did even quieter than that was begin to lift his pistol. “Seven.”
The next step had his leading foot sideways on the ground, but he made sure it had sounded proper. The moment his gun cleared the holster he felt relief hit him, all the seconds leading up to his turn were the dangerous part of the duel, but now he was at a distinct, even definitive advantage. The woman, like all the others, wouldn’t ever see it coming. He made the last movement and pivoted the rest of his body around, his boot squeaked on the wood, but even if she heard it, it wouldn’t matter. “Eight–”
Jack turned to a level view of her revolver’s barrel, and the still-water of the woman’s face behind it rippled with malice. Every muscle, every tendon, every last nerve in his body squeezed itself into the tightest ball. He let out a shaky ghost of a gasp, and the woman shook her head.
“Put it back.”
He did as she said, and she kept the gun pointed at him until his hand was clear of his holster. Then, she too returned hers to her side.
“This time you do it right.”
Another breeze rolled through the church, but this time Jack could only feel the heat carried with it. He knew she was ready, that her hand was closer to a gun than his was, but there was no escaping her eyes. The twin oceans were roiling and angry, and when the sun shown brightest through the windows he could just barely see that a couple waves had broken free onto her cheeks.
When she drew, her fingers were lightning, but Jack’s hands were lead cannonballs.
-Bolero worn by Camila both in and out of her shows. Camila had no husband to speak of when she arrived in America, only a daughter. Though she appeared in a few of her mother’s shows, when Camila died the girl vanished, and questions of her survival eventually turned into speculations of her very existence.
“From Wolf to Wolf” is woven in tiny letters inside of the hat.