The roar echoed across the New Mexico valley as the bullet ripped a hole into the lower belly of the man’s figure. She hated the noise, but there was nothing to be done about that. Guns were like the men who created them– heavy, loud, cold and deadly.
The man beside her nodded slowly and stroked his long, gray-flecked black mustache.
” Be nice if you aimed fer the chest. A gut shot’s good. Man knows he’s dying when he’s gut shot –”
“But if he’s a hard man he can still get a shot off,” the woman recited. She’d heard the lecture a hundred times.
The man grinned, his straight teeth slightly browned from years of cigars. In the rare instance that he smiled wide, there was a gap where he’d lost a molar during a fight in which he took one to the mouth with a rifle stock. Had it been an inch lower it would have broken his jaw and he would have been living on milk and soft cheese the rest of his life. “Chest is best. Shock stiffens ’em up. Git close to the heart, they bleed fast, die quick. Can’t work the hands at all.”
Nora sighed. “I know, Peter, I know.” She dumped the spent shells from her chamber and began reloading. “Set him up again.”
The tall, lean man, slightly hunched from years of riding, running, camping and sitting over green poker tables, adjusted his tired tan Stetson and ambled over to the figure. He propped his rifle upright against the cactus.
“She’s gonna shoot his balls off this time,” he said to himself.
He sniffed knowingly as the young woman nodded, drew her gun and proceeded to put a bullet in the target’s chest, then the stomach, then the groin.
The last shot gave him a queasy feeling, as it always did. He looked away at the distant mountain, then down at the ground and cleared his throat. “I swear, a woman ain’t supposed to shoot like that.”
“You ain’t never been a woman.” She mocked his bad English but was deadly serious.
“Try it sometime.”
“He nodded thoughtfully. “Might be interestin’.”
“You wouldn’t like it.”
“What’s so bad about bein’ a woman?”
She lifted the revolver and fired again, tearing out the left shoulder, then the right. She shifted slightly and after careful aim, breathing quietly outward, she put a bullet between the eyes. She lowered the gun. God it was heavy.
“You play around a lot. Most men shoot to kill.”
“I’m not a man . . . and I’m not in it just for the killing.”
He lifted his hat as he did whenever he felt exasperated then sat it back down over his forehead. He looked away and spat. Baffling woman.
“I intend to inflict suffering,” she said as she concentrated on reloading. “Then, when they’ve suffered and they know pain and fear, when they feel what they’ve inflicted, then maybe I’ll show mercy.” She lifted the pistol and fired in one movement. The bullet tore a hole in the chest, knocking it over.
Peter shook his head slowly and would not have believed the woman’s accuracy had he not taught her. “Yer too pretty t’ spend yer life with murder on yer mind.”
Immediately he looked away, knowing he’d said the wrong thing. He’d done it before. It was just a lifetime of habit. Her brown eyes flared and gripped the pistol until her knuckles were white. Peter tried to remember the number of shots she’d taken and hoped the gun was empty.
“If you had any idea how much a woman suffers because she’s pretty, because she’s ugly, because she’s skinny or fat. Pretty! You sit back and worship it, then you destroy it! All of you!”
She stopped suddenly. “Almost all,” she said quietly.
She studied the distant bluish mountain, then put her gun away. “I’m done. Let’s have supper.”
* * *
Peter Clawson could live to be 90 and never forget the sunny afternoon she rode in on a dusty brown mare and dismounted with the ease of someone who had lived on horses. She was lean, young, strong and beautiful. For a moment he pictured her in his bed.
As she confidently approached, his hunter’s eye took her in quickly: medium height, thick black hair and high cheekbones. Beautiful. Like some kind of princess who doesn’t know she’s got royalty swimming in her blood.
Then he took in the eyes. Peter, who had spent 17 years tracking men, confronting many, remained alive because he read the eyes. It is the eyes that display everything — a man’s guilt, his dreams, his fears, and the amount of nerve he has on demand.
These large brown eyes held a world of dreams that had been shattered. They were unwavering, shielding by force of will a batch of hurt.
He was on the sagging porch of his small cabin, polishing his boots. He put his cloth down, tugged them on and waited till she was in front of him before he stood up.
“Peter Clawson?” Her voice was curt, businesslike, confident, and determined. But he could see the behind the unwavering stare a little girl, alone, and carrying more than her load of pain. Interesting woman.
He nodded. “And who do I have the pleasure of –”
“Nora Hawks.” She was a woman on a mission and he couldn’t read any more so he did what he always did when he wasn’t sure about a situation. He kept his mouth shut. “They say you’re the best man in these parts with guns.” He shrugged. There was a deadly earnestness when she looked him in the eye and without flinching said: “I want you to teach me everything you know.”
He didn’t break her stare. “Why would I want t’ do that?”
“Because I’ll pay you.”
He brought his index finger and thumb down the sides of his mustache, stroking thoughtfully. “I’m pretty busy these days.”
“You’re a retired bounty hunter who bought a ranch and live off your savings. You’ve got all the time in the world.”
He smiled. “You snoop for a livin’?”
“I did my research. I wanted the best. And I’m willing to pay — money.” The last word was meant to keep the record straight. It did.
He took a deep breath and stood up straight. He was a half a head taller than she. “Let me brew up some coffee and maybe we’ll talk. I don’t talk much and when I do it makes my mouth dry.” He shrugged. “Kind of a complicated situation.”
She hesitated, then followed him warily into the cabin. The little stove, the crude kitchen, the pine table, all reminded her of what she had once. She put it out of her mind, as she had done ten thousand times over the past year. At least ten thousand. . . .
True to his word, Peter didn’t say a thing until the cabin was filled with the warm, thick smell of fresh coffee. He clattered around behind the stove until he found a second tin cup, rinsed it in a pail of stale water and shook the drops out. He nodded his head for her to sit. When she did, he poured two cups of coffee and sat in the chair opposite her.
She started again. “I want you to teach me how to shoot . . . a revolver and a rifle, and a shotgun. I want to learn whatever skills you have that’s made you successful.”
He liked her. She was a strong woman who had experienced something horrible. He could tell by the careful way she selected what she had to say, by the lapses, by the tell-tale eyes that sometimes dropped their gaze to the table or the coffee cup she held so tightly at times her knuckles turned white. She had survived the experience and come out stronger. Mad as hell, but stronger.
The conversation had taken a bad turn at one point when he said, “Women ain’t born to be gunslingers.”
If eyes could kill, he’d be gutted and bled out, he knew. But he was curious.
“Nobody’s born to be a gunslinger,” she said with quiet rage. “Nobody’s supposed to kill and nobody’s supposed to die at the hands of another man.” She sat back. “But some do . . . and some will.” She looked at her cup. He knew she wasn’t finished. “And don’t ever say a woman ain’t —isn’t— meant to do something.” She looked at him squarely again. “Women are born to live and work and marry and have dreams, just like men are. There’s no difference.”
He sighed and itched at his neck. “Can’t argue.”
She looked at him. “I know you’re schedule is busy, but I want you to teach me. Will you?”
Her sarcasm was so subtle he almost missed it.
He sighed. “‘Appears you got yer mind made up.”
It brought a faint smile to her lips but relieved none of the determination in her eyes. He took the last swig of his now cold coffee. “I have a mind to say fifty cents a day –if I take the job.” She looked puzzled. “That’s for the trainin’. Dollar a week fer room and board, and you pay for your own ammunition.
Confusion, then anger passed over her face. “I never said anything about room and board. If you think –”
“I think you went through somethin’ awful. I think yer out to balance some books and if you wanna live to do it you better stay outa sight.” They were both thoughtful in this confrontational silence.
“You’ve made your intent clear, Miss Hawks,” he said quietly. “And I’ll certainly think about it. This is not what I had planned to do in my retirement.” He pushed his chair back, stood up, poured another cup of coffee and held the pot up with a questioning look.
Nora shook her head. “No. Thank you.”
He set the pot down on the stove top. “Before I make up my mind, I do have to know what you intend.”
She started to protest.
He held a hand up. “Whether you like it or not, yer in a man’s game. Men’ve been fightin’ and killin’ since Cain. You got a lotta catchin’ up.”
He took a quick sip of the boiling coffee then sat back down and looked at her. “Besides that, most men don’t like t’ kill. Git a little drunked up and fight maybe, but not intentionally kill. The few men who do like to kill are real good at it. Know why?”
A faintly bitter smirk formed on her lips. “You have the experience. Tell me.”
She was trying his patience, but, then again, he was alive because he was patient. “Because most of ’em are cowards who will ambush you and never give you a chance if you let ‘em.” He leaned back and stroked his mustache again. “And a few just don’t give a damn about nothin’. Those are the scariest ones . . . and the hardest ones to kill.”
He looked off into the distance, thoughtful. “Those mean ones . . . They hate dyin’. He shook his head thoughtfully. “Do anything they can to avoid it.”
He sat down, leaned forward and looked her in the eye. “Talk–” he nodded to the door “– or walk.”
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