By Michael M. Pacheco
Jake had seen a six-shooter from a distance but never up close like the one in his hands. It belonged to his sister’s beau, Billy.
“It’s heavier than I thought,” said Jake. He placed the cold barrel up to his face. It felt good in the hot, late afternoon sun. Every now and then a stray breeze moved down the hillside, ruffling the grama grass. Overhead the weather vane on the barn would creak back and forth, moving a fraction of an inch one way before jerking again in the opposite direction.
“Yeah, I thought that too, when I first got it a coupla years ago, but you get used to it,” said Billy. “I used to have a lighter one, but that was a single-shot Colt 44.” He pointed at the cylinder. “This one here holds six bullets.”
Jake’s eyes got bigger. “What happens if you’re in a shootout and run out of bullets?”
Billy smiled and pointed at his bandolier. On his right and left sides, the belt held a row of bullets pointing down at the ground. “Gotta be quick and hope you don’t get hit before you can reload.”
Jake’s sister, Paulita, called from the house. “You boys come on in here. It’s time for supper.”
Paulita and their brother, Pete, had taken over the family reins after their parents died of consumption. They were in heaven according Paulita and Jake believed her.
Paulita was a good cook despite having been raised in a wealthy family and attended by maids. She knew how to pick just the right vegetables and spices to turn a mundane meal into something special.
Jake could tell by the love and effort she put into her cooking that it gave her great pleasure in seeing others, especially Billy, enjoy her meals. Today, she had prepared shredded pork, beans and diced nopalitos in a tomato-chili sauce. As an added treat, she had heated up candied yams. Jake’s mouth watered.
He handed the heavy weapon back to Billy. Despite being only twelve, he was almost as tall as Billy. He looked him boldly in the eye. “Are you gonna marry my sister?”
“Boy, you’re fairly straightforward, ain’t you?” smiled Billy. “I been thinking about it.” He pushed up the brim of his hat. “How would you feel, if I did that?”
“Okay, I reckon.”
Actually, he liked Billy a lot, the way he joked with him, the way he taught him to ride a horse and the way he let Jake handle his Colt pistol. It was Pete who had a problem with Billy.
Shadows began to sweep across the valley as they strolled into the house and confirmed Jake’s thoughts. The meal was delicious. Pete was a husky young man and helped himself to a second serving of the pork. Paulita smiled at him. “I assume the meal meets with everyone’s approval?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Billy. “You know you’re a great cook.”
“Good enough to be someone’s wife!” added Jake, smiling down at his plate.
Pete retained the serious look on his face. “She’s gotta find herself a rich suitor first. That way you don’t have to worry about where your next meal comes from.”
Paulita and Billy glanced at each other. She changed the subject, raising her fork and pointing somewhere toward the door. “Pete, did you see anyone we know in town?”
Earlier Pete had made his weekly run into Lincoln for supplies. Jake picked up a barely noticeable hesitation in Pete’s response.
“Nope. Well, except for Mr. Wilson at the feed store and Mrs. Jones at the grocery store.” Pete moved his food around on his plate with his fork, as if looking for the next words to say. “I saw Jose Jaramillo. He said to tell you hello.”
“Well, that was nice of him,” said Paulita, “but I was wondering whether you’d seen Pat Garrett and his boys.”
Everyone stopped chewing. Billy lowered his fork slowly onto his plate and waited for Pete’s answer. Even Jake knew Pat Garrett was a lawman trying to locate and apprehend Billy for alleged crimes, like murder, unlawful escape from jail and horse thievery.
Every newspaper in New Mexico and some as far as New York City had carried stories of Billy’s escapades, though Jake knew most of them exaggerated the facts to sell papers. Some credited Billy with as many as twenty-one murders. The truth was closer to four or five.
Pete cleared his throat. “No, I . . . I didn’t see him.” When no one spoke for what Jake thought was the longest time, Pete added, “But I did hear he was on his way.”
“What!” exclaimed Paulita. “Why didn’t you say something?” She regarded Billy with a pleading look. “Don’t tell me you’re going to leave us again, please.”
Billy was a confident man. He was also an accomplished escape artist, once freeing himself from cuffs and another time breaking out of jail. He lifted his glass of water and took a small sip. He wiped his lips with the sleeve of his shirt. “I came back to be with you, Paulita. I promise I won’t leave you again. If Garrett shows up here, well . . . we’ll deal with him then.”
That was another thing Jake liked about Billy. He seemed to live with a purpose larger than himself.
That evening was quieter than usual at the Maxwell residence. By the time supper was finished, the hot New Mexico sun had sunk completely beyond the horizon. The stars were already twinkling on this moonless night. The blackness was so thick that even the mountains behind their house had disappeared in the sticky air of evening.
Jake helped Paulita scrape the food off the dinner plates and put them in soapy water in a metal basin. When they had finished washing all the plates and utensils, Paulita patted Jake on the shoulder.
“Thank you, Jake. I like it when you help me.”
“It’s okay. You do a lot to get food ready for us, so I don’t mind,” he said.
Paulita dried her hands with a towel and nodded toward the front porch. “Come, let’s go sit with Billy and Pete for awhile.”
Jake followed her to the front porch where the two men sat in silence looking into the dark night. A small lantern sat on a tree stump that served as a side table to Pete’s rocking chair. A hint of honeysuckle floated in the air.
Pete was puffing on a smoking pipe. Everyone knew he hated the taste of tobacco but he’d taken it up because he thought it made him look more important. He coughed as Paulita and Jake stepped out onto the porch.
“Put that thing away, Pete, It’s not good for you. Besides, there’s no one to impress out here. It’s just us and we’re not impressed,” said Paulita.
“You do what you like,” said Pete, “And I’ll do what I like.”
“But I thought you didn’t like that smoke in your lungs,” said Jake.
“Now don’t get smart with me, Jake. I’m talking to your sister,” said Pete.
Jake noticed that Billy continued to stare into the night, as if waiting for someone to arrive or maybe waiting for the Maxwells to stop bickering. Jake looked at their house guest. “Billy, you ever try smoking a pipe?”
Billy turned to Jake, as if someone had shaken him from a deep slumber. “A pipe? No, but I did try smoking cigarettes one time. I choked on the smoke and the men who were with me had a good laugh. After that, I never tried them again.”
“Maybe you just didn’t do it right. I mean, the inhaling part,” offered Jake.
“There’s no right way to do it,” said Paulita. “The whole thing is a disgusting habit. It leaves you smelling like a burnt pile of weeds.”
“Well,” said Pete, “It is a form of plant, you know.”
Jake looked at Paulita who threw her chin in the air and looked away. It appeared she was not going to dignify Pete’s comment with a response. Billy smiled briefly, at the conversation devolving into ridiculous banter.
Within an hour’s time everyone had bid each other goodnight and Jake was in his bed. He lay there staring at the ceiling, listening to the cooing sounds his sister was making downstairs. He knew Billy and Paulita slept together, though they pretended they didn’t.
Pete’s room was on the first floor and to the left of the front door. Paulita’s was across the hall. Pete had claimed his bedroom after their parents died and no one had challenged his occupation.
Billy’s room was upstairs.
A barn owl hooted in the distance. Another giggle emanated from Paulita’s room and Jake wondered whether Billy would soon become his brother-in-law. Jake whispered a prayer asking God to look over his deceased parents as well as his brother and sister. He made sure to include a request for the Lord to provide a husband for Paulita, namely Billy.
Jake noticed the crickets stopped their usual nocturnal chorus and everything fell silent. Even his sister’s sighs of pleasure hushed. He glanced out his window into the night sky. The stars, billions of them, filled the sky with pinpoints of light and while they cast a barely perceptible glow over everything, Jake saw nothing unusual. He rolled over and slipped into a cozy slumber.
It may have been minutes or it may have been hours, but when Jake awoke later it was still dark. His skin prickled.
He sat up and glanced out his window. He caught a dark shadow moving in the direction of the hills behind their house. Was it a burglar or maybe a horse rustler? Jake knew unsavory bandits were common in these lands.
He peeled back his blanket and rose quietly. The night air had let in the absolute cold of empty space and stolen the day’s heat. He decided not to put on his boots in order to move stealthily down the stairs and warn his family.
He felt his way to the staircase by running his fingers along the wall. The newel post wobbled as he braced himself to descend. He gingerly felt the edge of each stair closest to the wall with his feet so as not to make them creak so loudly.
The closest room was Paulita’s. He skirted the edge of the doorway then turned to face it head-on. His night-adjusted eyes probed the velvet blackness as he approached her bed. The floorboards creaked and he stopped to see whether anyone had heard him. When he was convinced that no one had, he came to Paulita’s side. He was shocked to find the bed empty.
This was not usual. Something was terribly wrong. He rushed back into the hallway and out to the front porch. There, he saw the silhouettes of two men sitting on the edge of the top step. They were wearing large-brimmed hats like the sombreros worn by Mexican bandits. Each one held a rifle or some other kind of weapon in their hands.
“Quien es?” asked Jake. He asked who they were because this was his house and felt he should take on the voice of authority. Neither man spoke. The one on his right waved Jake off dismissively, as if they already knew who he was and he didn’t matter to them.
Jake walked backward slowly until he crossed the threshold and he was once again inside the house. He turned and hurried to Pete’s room, puzzled as to why his brother hadn’t heard anything like those men on the porch or Paulita’s leaving the house.
When he turned to enter Pete’s room, Jake saw two figures sitting in Pete’s rocking chairs. Pete was barely visible near his window and the other figure, harder to distinguish, was seated in the darkest part of the room.
A voice from the stranger in the dark repeated Jake’s own words. “Quien es?”
Jake recognized Pete’s voice and responded to the man saying, “Es el.”
Almost instantaneously, Jake saw a bright flash of light and a sudden impact to his right chest, spinning him around and throwing him onto the floor. He curled in excruciating pain into a fetal position, grabbing his right chest with his left hand. He could not form words but he grunted, “Ah! Ah!”
He couldn’t see it, but he envisioned a river of blood flowing from his body. He felt something hot coursing down his chest, sizzling against the cool of the New Mexico night.
A blood-curdling scream came from the doorway. It was Paulita. He would know her voice anywhere, even in the dark. She ran to Jake and eased him flat onto his back.
“What the hell?” Pat Garrett stood over the body of Jake Maxwell. He glared at Pete. “You said it was him! Now look what’s happened.”
Garrett still had his gun in his hand. He pointed it at Paulita. “Where’s Billy? I know you hid him somewhere, so you best tell me right now.”
Jake began to lose consciousness. He saw the two men from the porch in the hallway with their rifles at the ready. “Don’t tell him anything, Paulita.”
Paulita looked up at Garrett. “You just shot my little brother, you stupid fool.” She pointed a bloody finger at him. “You’re the criminal here. You can go to hell. Get out of my house!”
When Garret did not move, she stood and moved her face within inches of his. “I have a gun in my bedroom. If you don’t leave this minute, Garrett, I’ll go get that gun and you’ll have to shoot me too, before I kill you. Do you understand?”
“You’re all gonna regret this,” said Garrett, as he stormed out of the room.
Pete tried to shirk into the shadows of the room but Paulita would not let him. “You’re just as responsible for this. You know that, don’t you?”
“I’m sorry, Paulita. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. We thought he was Billy.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better? You just had our brother shot! Go get the doctor from town. Jake’s bleeding badly.”
Pete stood frozen. Then his knees began to shake, barely able to support him.
“Hurry up!” cried Paulita, shaking her head. She knelt once again at Jake’s side. “He doesn’t have much time.”
For a brief moment, Jake thought he might be in heaven. A ghostly image of his mother and father stood at the door with arms outstretched toward him. But the pain in Jake’s chest overwhelmed him and the apparitions vanished. That’s when he knew he was wrong, for heaven could not contain agony such as this.
If ever God was abundant in Jake’s thinking, it was now with his head in his sister’s lap. He knew she would take care of him no matter what had happened.
Michael M. Pacheco was born in Mexico and raised in the United States. As a retired attorney, he is concentrating on his fiction writing, presently polishing his fourth novel. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in various literary journals and magazines.