THERE IS NOTHING quite like the ratcheting snarl of a coiled diamondback to send fear into a man like a hot Apache war lance being driven into a hot, still-beating heart.
Friends and relatives...if there are any relatives here...we have gathered here today at the invitation of Louis Hammond Maxwell Prophet and Mathilda Lenora Anderson to share in the joy of their wedding...
The sound is something akin to coarse sand being poured slowly out of a hollow gourd and the ratcheting click of a gun hammer being drawn back to full cock. If you could marry those sounds and give them two beady copper eyes, flat with passionless savagery, two long curving white fangs, and a flicking button tail rising from the end of a serpentine body coiled like cold, scale-covered, sand-colored hemp, you’d have the very essence of what a man fears most in this world...the essence of what jerked Lou Prophet out of a dead sleep in the Mexican desert with a yelp.
This outward celebration that we shall see and hear is an expression of the inner love and devotion that Louis and Mathilda have in their hearts toward one another...
Prophet turned to see the copper eyes glowing at him from a dark nook in the nest of volcanic rock he’d holed up in. The viper was coiled tightly, looped upon itself, head sliding slowly toward where the bounty hunter slouched against the rock, blood running down from the deep gash in his forehead, into his right eye, and down his cheek. He couldn’t see through that eye. Only the left one.
That wasn’t good. Being right-handed, he was also right-eyed.
I, the Reverend Ezra Thaddeus Waggler, believe marriage is of God, and that Mathilda Anderson and Louis Prophet have come here today to stand before me and God who is truly Holy, desiring to be united in this sacred relationship of marriage...
Slowly, Prophet slid his Colt from the holster thonged on his right, denim-clad thigh, and, oh-so-very-slowly, pressing his tongue taut against the backside of his cut and swollen bottom lip, clicked the hammer back.
As he did, he kept his eye on the snake, which kept both eyes on him. The snake’s forked, colorless tongue tested the hot desert air, following the tongue toward its target, which was likely the vague, sunburned shape of a man and the smell of several days of desert sweat and soiled buckskin and denim and the spine-splintering fear of certain death...or something worse than death.
Now, Mister Prophet, Miss Anderson, will you please turn and face one another and join hands to express your vows of love and devotion each to the other?
The diamondback shook its button tail again.
“I, Lou Prophet, take you, Mathilda Anderson, to be my wife...”
The revolting sound turned Prophet’s blood cold. He stretched his lips back from his teeth as he slid the cocked Colt across his belly toward his left side. The snake was coiled in a nook behind the bounty hunter, over his left shoulder. He could see the viper in the corner of his left eye. It moved its head and slithering tongue forward, forward...ever closer...
“...to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer...”
The bounty hunter knew the serpent would strike at any second. He had to get the gun across his body and aimed behind him before he did. A snakebite on top of his other sundry injuries would without a doubt be the last nail in his already sanded and varnish proverbial coffin.
“...in sickness and in health...”
Boom! Boom! Boom-Boom! Boom!
Prophet had fired half-blind, afraid to make any sudden moves lest the viper should sink those razor-edged fangs into his left shoulder. Now, as the echoes of his gun reports still banged around inside his battered head, he turned to see the snake in several ragged, bloody pieces behind him. The head was still opening and closing its mouth, as though chewing something, and the button tail was still writhing.
But for all intents and purposes, the beast was dead.
“...in sickness and in health, I promise to love and cherish you.”
From somewhere around the rock nest, a man’s distant shout made its way to Prophet’s ringing ears. His shots had alerted his hunters to his position.
Wincing against the rotten-egg odor of powder smoke, he punched out the spent shell casings and replaced them with fresh from his shell belt. More shouts rose on the hot Mexican wind. The shouts were in Spanish.
Running footsteps grew louder. Spurs rang. A boot kicked a rock. The rock rolled past where Prophet was hunkered down in the stone outcropping rising up from a spur of a remote Mexican mountain range.
I, Mathilda Anderson, take you, Lou Prophet, to be my husband...
Prophet flipped the Colt’s loading gate closed and spun the cylinder as a stocky Mexican in deerskin charro slacks and calico shirt came running up on Prophet’s right from around a bulge of sandstone. The man turned his head toward Prophet. His eyes widened beneath the broad brim of his steeple-crowned sombrero.
He brought the two pistols in his hands around as Prophet’s Colt went to work once more, shredding the Mexican’s heart, blowing the bloody bits out his back, and punching him off the edge of the escarpment.
(The complete book, a sequel to The Devil's Bride, will be up on Amazon by February 15!)