The following story, “Ain’t No Gun In My Pocket,” is a First Place prize winner in a recent Houston Writers Hall Short Story Genre contest.
AIN’T NO GUN IN MY POCKET
Marley Peterson’s stomach felt like some vengeful demon gripped her insides and twisted. Was she in the wrong place at the wrong time? She stabbed the ivory handled Spanish lace fan at a puff of smelly train smoke that billowed through the open coach window. She flipped the fan to her face and coughed – discreetly, of course, as was proper for anyone who attended Miss Hennepin’s Finishing Academy for Proper Young Women of Pittsburg.
My God! What am I doing here? How does a lady maintain her composure amidst all these roughneck cowboys? Just look at these men! Armed to the teeth!
Her glance took in the dozen or so male passengers who rested loaded carbines across their laps or fingered heavy pistols strapped to their hips. The men swayed in rhythm with the clackety-clack of iron wheels on the steel rails that stretched across the South Texas dry lands. Some stood. Most sat. All scrutinized every clump of cactus and mesquite that rolled by. Such intense interest in the passing scenery made her nervous. Something wasn’t right.
Why all the guns? What are they watching for?
One man who had just boarded the train took a seat in front of Marley and her husband, Abe. He asked his seat companion. “You boys seen any Mexican bandidos up this way?”
“Not yet,” the companion said.
“Well, keep your eyes open. That civil war in Mexico is bound to spill over to the U.S. side.”
“Already has,” a third passenger said. “Them danged bandidos robbed and killed two more farmers over by the pump station just south of here.”
“That a fact!” another chimed in.
“Yep. Seems that these so-called bandidos are Pancho Villa revolutionaries turned sour. They’s about fifty or sixty of ‘em runnin’ around loose. They’s loyal only to theirselves.”
I knew it! I just knew it!
Marley took a deep breath and swallowed her near panic. She reached up with nervous hands and adjusted her new hat — a bird-like thing perched on a twig, ordered right out of Mr. Sear’s 1915 picture book. She fastened the hat to her upswept hair with a thrust of a pearl studded hatpin. As she smoothed the wrinkles of her traveler’s dustcoat, the brilliant diamond solitaire caught the light and sparkled on her third finger left hand.
The tidying up calmed her and she sat back, lost in thought. I can’t believe I let Abe talk me into this trip. “It’ll be a working honeymoon,” he said. Some honeymoon! A jillion miles from home in the middle of nowhere. “The last frontier,” he said. “Last chance to make it rich.” So, like every other dreamer we invested every penny we have in packs of trade goods and bolts of cloth. “Gonna peddle up one side of the river and down the other,” he said. I wanted to go someplace nice with trees and flowers and green grass. Instead, we end up where everything pricks, bites and shrivels in the sun.
Marley twisted in her seat and peered through the window again at the dreary landscape. What am I looking for? The more she thought, the more she wondered.
Is that why all those ragged looking cowboys outside of Weller’s Saloon were blasting away at whiskey bottles? “Practice,” they said. Practice for what?
“What are you so fidgety about?” Abe asked.
Marley turned to her husband. “When we were pulling away from Six Shooter Junction, did you see that woman with a pistol hanging from her apron pocket?”
“You’re letting all this talk about revolution and Mexican bandidos spook you.”
“Did you notice her kids? Scared! Where was the husband?”
Abe shrugged. “I don’t know, Marley. I reckon these folks have a right to be scared. Some say the bandidos raid cattle ranches and rob country stores on this side of the border in order to feed their armies. Others say they massacre anyone who gets in their way…and laugh about it later. They don’t-give-a-hoot about the bloodshed and violence one way or another. I sure don’t want to meet any of them.”
“Is that why these men are so heavily armed?”
“Could be; but the last I heard was that Pancho Villa was more than a hundred miles from here. So there’s nuthin’ to worry about.”
“Oh, no,” Marley said. “I’m really wondering do we belong here?” The intensity in her voice edged a note higher. “First, I let you sweet talk me into leaving Miss Hennepin’s Academy before I could even finish the course…”
“Next, we up and run away to St. Louey and get married without telling our folks!”
“Then without so much as a ‘bye your leave’ we’re on a train bound for the end of the world…Texas…Brownsville…the Mexican border…and nobody knows we’re headed there!”
“It ain’t all that bad, Honey.”
“It ain’t?” Marley sputtered. The Hennepin veneer vanished. “There’s a revolution goin’ on and all the men on this train are wearin’ pistols! You expect me to raise a decent family in the middle of all these guns?”
Tears welled in Marley’s eyes. She threw her arms around Abe’s neck. They held each other close as he tried to comfort her. “Oh, Abe. I don’t mean to take it out on you. I feel like I’m a character in a western dime novel, only I ain’t got a gun in my pocket.”
A sudden jolt catapulted both out of their seat. Passenger screams cut through the screech of steel on steel. The coach careened off the track and slammed to a stop. Gunshots exploded all around. Bullets zipped and chipped the woodwork.
Marley sprawled on the floor; she heard shouts outside.
“Viva la revolución! Death to all gringos!”
“It’s Pancho Villa’s bandidos!” a passenger yelled. “They’s a whole passel of ’em, and they’re packin’ guns!”
Marley raised her head and saw the man poke his pistol out a window and fire.
He fired four more shots before a brace of bullets crumpled his body in a bloody heap.
Marley popped up like a jack-in-the-box. “My ring!”
“Stay down!” Abe pulled her to the floor as a spray of bullets punctured the window frame above them. “Keep your head low and maybe we’ll get out of this alive!”
“My diamond ring slipped off my finger!” Marley protested above the gunfire noise.
Abe grumbled. “I thought I told you to notch it down to size before we left St. Louey.”
Marley scrambled to her knees. With one frantic swish after another, her hands raked under the seat.
The men in the coach traded gunfire with the bandits until the ammunition ran out. The man seated in front of Marley yelled, “Oh, my God!” His face turned white. He jumped up and dashed to the rear of the coach. “They ain’t gettin’ me!” The bolt to the lavatory door snapped shut.
The smell of cordite and dust hung in an ominous quiet. Moments passed. Passengers hunkered down between the seats and waited, fearful for what would happen next.
“Aha!” Marley shattered the silence as her fingers gripped the errant ring. “I found it!”
The vestibule door crashed open. Marley snapped upright, still on her knees. She watched two burley men wearing wide-brimmed sombreros and bullet ladened bandoliers storm into the narrow aisle, their pistols aimed at the terrified passengers.
“What’s the meaning of this?” one man demanded.
Blam! Blam! Two pistols smoked in reply. The bullets struck the man’s chest and propelled him through an open window.
“Now then, Señores y Señoritas! You weel place your money and your jewelry eento thees sack.” He gave the sack to his companion and prodded loose various “donations” with the tip of his gun barrel.
“But you can’t do this!” one traveler protested.
“I do whatever I want, gringo.”
Marley choked, horrified.
“Hold fast!” Abe hissed.
The wounded man collapsed in the aisle.
One of the bandits said something in Spanish to his partner who moved to the lavatory compartment. He put his ear to the panel, then stood back and fired three shots through the door. A loud thump answered from the other side.
Marley let out an involuntary gasp. The still smoking pistol whirled towards her and Abe.
“What ‘ahve we here?” The bandit’s chevron shaped mustache twitched. Without taking his eyes off them, he bent and picked up the Spanish lace fan peeking from under the
seat. “Perhops thees pretty thing belongs to
“Y-yes,” Abe stammered, “My esposa.”
“How nice. You espeak Spanish?”
“An’ you are married.” A gold tooth flashed in a leering grin of otherwise all white teeth. He examined the fan closer. “Perhaps you are from España, sì?”
“Sì!” Abe lied. “Very Spanish.”
The bandit cocked his pistol and placed it against Abe’s head. “Then you would favor Carranza, as el Presidente de Mexico?”
“Ulp! – Of course!”
The pistol pressed harder against Abe’s head. The bandit’s eyes narrowed to glints of steel. “Perhops you weel shout, ‘Viva Carranza’?”
“Indeed. I – I will.”
Marley froze with fear. Yet, from somewhere outside her, she heard a calm detached voice say, “Abe, give him some money. Maybe he’ll go away.”
The gunman whipped his pistol toward her and snarled. “Sì, I take your money, an’ thees pretty ring, too!”
His hand clamped onto Marley’s wrist. She closed her fist so the ring would not shake off her finger and wrestled in a vigorous non-Miss Hennepin manner.
“Abe – unh! Help me!”
Abe leaped to grab the bandit’s arm. The pistol swung toward him. Marley deflected the swing, but Abe’s head collided with the gun barrel.
The gun discharged harmlessly but knocked him out cold.
“Ey, Paco! Vamonos!”
The shout from outside diverted Paco still struggling with Marley. Without releasing his rough grip, he shoved her to the seat. He leaned through the window and shouted back. “Què pasa? What’s the matter?”
“Los Rinches – the Rangers. They are closer than we thought. They come. We go. Pronto!”
Marley took advantage of the distraction and with her free hand reached up and grasped the hatpin. She jammed it into the bandit’s buttock.
Paco recoiled in pain. He grabbed his rear with both hands and thumped his head back against the window frame. With all her might, Marley rammed her body against the bandit. Paco nose-dived out the window.
The outlaws saw Paco somersault head over heels and land on his rump. They laughed. One jeered. “Ah-ha, Paco, you always fall for the pretty ones.”
Marley did not feel very pretty just then. Her disarrayed hair tumbled about her face. The hat and the bird-like thing lay crushed on the floor, its severed stiff wing scuffed under the seat.
Paco scowled. He did not feel “very pretty” either. Someone plopped a sombrero on his head and two of his mounted friends laughed so hard they nearly fell off their horses. In between laugh spasms, they managed to reach under his armpits and scoop him up onto a waiting saddle. He shook his fist at her. Then, inexplicably, he grinned, waved, spun his horse around and galloped away, laughing.
“Of all the nerve,” Marley said, astonished with Paco’s audacity. “Laughing — after all this…this carnage!”
Abe groaned. She knelt and cradled his head in her lap. She had wondered how she would adapt to this raw untamed border frontier. All considered, not too bad. She and Abe were still alive. She still had her diamond wedding ring. She found an intestinal strength she never knew she had, especially with no gun in her pocket
Most of all, Miss Hennepin would have been proud. The hatpin! Her voice echoed in Marley’s mind. A lady of class never leaves home without one.