She is Hettie Alabama — unlikely, scarred, single-minded, and blood bound to a revolver inhabited by a demon.
The first book in an epic, magic-clad series featuring the Wild West reimagined as a crosscultural stereoscope of interdimensional magic and hardship, The Devil’s Revolver opens with a shooting competition and takes off across the landscape after a brutal double murder and kidnapping — to which revenge is the only answer. Hettie Alabama, only seventeen years old, leads her crew of underdogs with her father’s cursed revolver, magicked to take a year off her life each time she fires it. It’s no way for a ranch girl to grow up, but grow up she does, her scars and determination to rescue her vulnerable younger sister deepening with every year of life she loses.
A sweeping and high-stakes saga that gilds familiar Western adventure with powerful magic and panoramic fantasy, The Devil’s Revolver is the last word and the blackest hat in the Weird West.
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Newhaven, Montana June 1895
Hettie couldn't say what had woken her; her eyes had simply snapped open and she'd known something was amiss.
Sure enough, she found the rope had been chewed through, the frayed ends still wet. Dammit, Abby. This was the third time in two weeks. She yanked her coat over her thin nightgown, grabbed her boots and Winchester, and padded quickly down the stairs. Outside, she pushed her bare feet into the cold, hard leather and checked her rifle's action, loading it quickly. Coyotes were often seen roaming the ranch, and there'd been rumors of a pack of wolves roving the hills. But out here, it was men Hettie feared most.
Silvery-blue light fringed the horizon like a cataract. She scrubbed the crust from her eyes and scanned the fields for any sign of her sister. Though she was nearly ten, Abby was small for her age and barely left footprints. Ma sometimes said she tread the world like a ghost. The long, dry grass bowed with a sigh beneath a sudden gust of wind, revealing a freshly trampled break in the fronds. Hettie headed in that direction.
She found Abby standing knee-high in the creek, her nightgown soaking up to her hips. Her glazed, unblinking violet eyes stared into the middle distance, mouth gaping open. She didn't even register Hettie's arrival.
Hettie slung the rifle across her back and sloshed into the icy-cold water. She gave her a gentle shake. "Abby, what are you doing?"
"Oh." The little girl blinked sleepily up at her and smiled. "I was just talking to my friends."
"What have we told you? You shouldn't be wandering away from the house." Hettie led her onto the creek bed, where she did her best to wring out her sopping nightgown.
"The water helps me hear them better," Abby said simply.
Hettie reined in her annoyance. Abby's "friends" always wanted to talk at the most inconvenient times. "Well, you're going to have to say good-bye to them for now."
She tilted her chin to the side, and her gaze clouded. "Okay. They say that's fine." She shivered. Hettie put her coat around her sister's shoulders, rubbing her arms vigorously, then led her back toward the house.
Over the edge of the embankment, she heard the crunch of grass as a lean figure trudged along the path. Hettie unslung the Winchester in a flash and pointed it at the man's heart.
He halted, staggering back. "Man alive, Hettie. What're you doing out here?" "Uncle." The thumping of her heart eased as she lowered the rifle. "Abby got out of her harness again."
The old man scratched his gray-white stubble, frowning. "You need to lock her in her room at night. Keep her from leaving."
Hettie swept past him without responding, urging Abby on with one hand protectively at her back.
"It's for her own safety," he insisted, trailing them back to the house. "There're protection spells all over the place she might accidentally stumble over and ruin. Magic ain't cheap anymore, you know. And I ain't responsible if she goes stepping into a fox trap."
"That why you're up so early, Uncle?" It was hardly a term of endearment, since they weren't related, but Pa had insisted she call the old man that. She noted his rumpled clothes and bloodshot eyes. His breath reeked of whiskey.
He glared. "I'm up 'cuz your pa expects me to keep watch over things while you're both in town. I'll be makin' sure this one doesn't wander off, that's for sure."
Hettie kept her mouth shut. If he watched Abby as well as he watched the cattle, her sister would be halfway to China by the time he noticed.
The three of them clomped into the house. Her father was already awake and brewing coffee. "Mornin', Jeremiah," he greeted Uncle, then raised one dark eyebrow at his damp, half-dressed daughters. "This something we need to tell your mother about?" he asked as they warmed up by the stove.
"We need stronger rope," Hettie mumbled.
"And a latch on the door," Uncle added.
John Alabama's thick black mustache twitched. He smoothed Abby's fine, white-blond hair off her wide brow and gave her a kiss. She didn't react, engrossed by the fire licking up the wood in the stove. He sighed. Abby had been born like this — touched, Ma sometimes said — and while they all loved her, it pained Hettie to see how much effort it took Pa not to show his sadness and frustration. Her father poured coffee for himself and Uncle just as Grace Alabama swept into the kitchen, swathed in her heavy dressing gown.
"Why didn't you wake me, John? I could've made you breakfast."
"We've got biscuits and cheese for the road. We'll be fine. Besides, I wanted to let you sleep." He pecked his wife on the cheek and cut Hettie a look. She understood his directive. Ma's health was delicate, so they kept as much out of her hands as possible. She quickly took her sister back to her room and got her changed out of her wet clothes before getting dressed herself.
"There are wolves in the fire," Abby murmured, blinking slowly as she returned to her senses.
Hettie chucked her under the chin. "You don't have to worry about them. Long as I've got my gun, you're safe." She brandished her Winchester rifle. "I'll get those wolves for you. Bang, bang!"
Abby silently followed her back to the kitchen.
"The Robson boys' shooting contest is today, isn't it? You could go and watch with your friends. Wouldn't you rather wear your church dress to town?" Grace asked hopefully.
Hettie looked down at her shirt and trousers — old, stained hand-me-downs from her brother, Paul. "It'll just get dirty on the drive. Besides, I don't want Pa looking like he has to protect a young miss on the road by himself."
Her mother heaved a resigned sigh as Uncle slurped his coffee. "Yer seventeen now, girlie. If you don't start worrying about your looks, you'll never catch a husband."
She ignored him. "Ma, can't you convince Pa to enter the contest?"
Grace's lips curved. "You say that as if I have any sway over your father's wishes."
"But it's only a dollar to enter."
"Money hardly worth gambling away," John said. "We don't have it to spare, you know that."
"But you wouldn't be gambling it away," Hettie argued. "You'd win it back, and then some."
"And the Robson boys would chisel themselves a handsome profit for doing nothing." He shook his head. "Besides, where's the fun for everyone else if I enter?"
"But Pa —"
"Not another word on it, Hettie. We earn our living honestly — with hard work."
Hettie didn't get why Pa was being so stubborn when they desperately needed the money — the talismans on the northern ridge had weakened, and the safety barrier surrounding the herd was at risk of collapsing. But when John Alabama said no, he meant no.
"Don't mind your father, girlie." Uncle Jeremiah leaned back in his chair. "He's just got an overdeveloped sense of fairness."
The wagon bounced along the rutted road, kicking up clouds of dust that whipped back into their faces. Hettie tipped the brim of her hat down, but Pa only squinted and drove on, ignoring the blast of grit. They kept their mouths shut and their eyes open, watching the distant rolling hills. They didn't have anything worth taking — even Pa's old mare, Jezebel, wasn't worth rustling, despite being magicked — but outlaws were always a threat.
They clattered into town, and John dropped her off in front of the mercantile. "Meet me at the blacksmith's when you're done with your errands."
"Yes, Pa." She shouldered her Winchester and took off.
Newhaven was one of the few mining towns that had survived after the gold rush, mainly thanks to the pocket of magic in the region. Some places were just stronger than others, Pa had explained, though that seemed to be changing, too, if the surging price of spells and talismans was anything to go by. Uncle grumbled constantly how magic wasn't "sticking" anymore, and complained whenever Pa asked him to shore up some of the spells around the farm. Hettie didn't know much about magic, but she suspected Uncle was just being lazy.
A knot of children playing Blackthorn Rogues crowded the dusty thoroughfare. Hettie paused to watch as the boys and girls walked in a circle around a stick on the ground, chanting the rhyme:
Round and round the circle whirls Red blood flows through boys and girls Who so e'er the black thorn pricks Is the one Diablo picks.
Young Jake Finney rushed to the stick and snatched it up. The other children scattered, shrieking. He wielded the stick like a wand of old, chasing the others around, tapping each in turn to make them a part of his "gang" until the group cornered the lone survivor, long-limbed Liam West. They tackled him viciously, and he cried out. Jake brought the switch down again and again. The beating didn't let up. Lanky Liam had always been an easy target.
Hettie waded into the fray. "Break it up, young 'uns. Let 'im up."
"But he's the last of the Blackthorns!" Jake Finney cried. "He's gotta be punished for betraying the gang!"
She snatched the stick from Jake's hands. "Don't make me break this over your thick skull, Jake. Let him up, I say."
They helped their playmate up and shot off in all directions. Liam sent her a rueful look, clearly ungrateful for the interference.
See if I help you next time, she thought, tossing the stick away. She got a splinter for her troubles and sucked the bead of blood welling up on her thumb.
Farther up the main street, Hettie gave a wide berth to a knot of Mundane Movement followers handing out antisorcery flyers. Their leader, a clean-shaven man, held the pamphlet aloft, spittle flying from his mouth as he proselytized about the evils of magic. "Hell and darkness and fiery damnation await those who'd suffer a witch to live!" he screamed. His gimlet eyes connected with Hettie's, and he glowered. "Sorcery is nothing but the devil's work. Repent! When magic gives the negro power over the white man, it is an abomination against God and nature, and He will smite the vile demons who perform such wickedness!"
Shock and anger surged through Hettie. She struggled to respond, wanting to yell at him and tell him to keep his hate to himself. Pa was gifted, after all, and he was the kindest and most forgiving man on the good green earth.
"Bunch of zealots," Henry Bale growled from the porch of the sorcerer's salon. She glanced up at the young sorcerer who worked in the town's magic workshop. Rumor was he was one of only a few Academy-trained gifted negroes in the whole county. The charms dangling from Henry's neck caught the light as he spat in the dirt. "Don't pay them any mind. They've conveniently forgotten magic's in everything, from the meat they eat to the coffins they'll be buried in. Might as well be trying to ban metal tools and air."
"Don't suppose you've got a mind to put a silence spell on them or something?" she said.
He grinned. "And waste good magic? They ain't worth the effort."
A fwoosh sound from within the magic workshop had Henry pushing off the banister. "God's knees, Julius, I told you not to mess with that potion!" He hurried inside as a cloud of blue smoke wafted out the door. Hettie moved on.
A newspaper seller shouted out the day's headlines, and she paused to listen. The Division of Sorcery was calling for able-bodied laborers and sorcerers to shore up the Wall on the Mexican border. The Duryea brothers were working with Mechaniks from England to make their new horseless carriage automobiles three times faster. A joint task force was being set up to hunt down members of the notorious Crowe gang. And four more children were reported missing in Wyoming and North Dakota.
The growing number of kidnappings disturbed Hettie, considering Abby's habit for wandering. Locking her up was not an option, though; and while her rope and harness helped keep track of her, they needed a more permanent solution.
At the general store, Hettie handed Ma's grocery list to the shopkeeper and browsed through the shop's selection of sweets, ribbons, and talismans, none of which she could afford. It was fun to imagine having a charm for extra wakefulness, or an amulet to alert her of encroaching coyotes, but Pa had warned her that she couldn't trust any talisman that hadn't been made by him or someone else she knew. A pretty bauble wasn't worth risking a geis, and too many mundanes had been taken in by rogue sorcerers.
She lingered over a catalog of exotic potions, magicked medicines guaranteed to cure all kinds of ailments. She turned to the page under Clarity of Mind she'd often pored over and traced her finger over a ribbon floating around the picture of the seductively curvy phial. The words Sound Mind, Memory, Spirit, Body and Faculty advertised its promises across its length.
"Thinking about ordering it this time?" Mr. Hooper asked cheerfully.
"I will if I win the contest today." She glanced up. "Don't tell Pa."
He smiled. "Wouldn't dream of it. I know you mean well for Abby."
Abby and Ma, she thought. There was enough in that dose to bring her mother back to full health; and maybe Abby would finally stop having fits and trances. That would be fully worth disobeying Pa.
When the hour of the shooting contest arrived, Hettie headed for the tannery at the edge of town. More than half of Newhaven had gathered to watch. Men made their way into the fenced-off contest area where the Robson brothers collected entry fees. Groups of boys pooled their nickels and dimes to enter their best shot. Older men with scarred hands and lined faces scrutinized their opponents from the sidelines before throwing in their dollars.
That entry fee was Hettie's only obstacle now. She spotted Will Samson hanging on the fringe of the crowd, long limbs dangling over the split-rail fence. She sidled up next to him and leaned against the fence post. "Rumor has it the prize is half the pot," she said by way of greeting, giving him her most winsome smile.
He pushed his bangs out of his eyes. "Hello, Hettie. You in town with your pa?"
"He's at your father's now, getting a wheel repaired. You thinking of entering?" she asked casually.
He gave a bark of laughter. "You know I'm a terrible shot."
"Thought maybe you'd enter just for fun. Maybe show off to a certain young lady?" She nodded toward golden-haired Sophie Favreau, a beacon of beauty and sophistication among the folks of Newhaven. Resting in the shade of a tree, she held court with a group of well-dressed young men and ladies from town. Sophie's grandmother, Patrice Favreau, the Soothsayer of the South, had made the family wealthy with her ability to see the future. Sophie was only in Newhaven because of her father's business interests in Montana — her status set her head and shoulders above everyone here.
Will jammed his hands in his pockets, and his cheeks bloomed with color. "I'm not making a fool of myself with them watching."
"You know, if you front me the dollar for the entry fee, I could double your investment."
"No way. They'd never let you in."
"'Cuz." He shuffled his feet. "You're a girl."
"All the more reason to let me try. They'll take my money and think they'll get a few laughs. But you and I both know I can tag a fox's tail at two hundred yards." She gave her most confident smile. "Spare me a dollar and I'll make it worth your while."
"Only if you win."
"You forgetting who my pa is?"
"You're not your father," he huffed.
Someone in the crowd shouted, "Last call! All entrants, last call!"
Hettie clasped her hands together. If she had to resort to waterworks, she would. "Will, please. You know I can do it." She waved toward Sophie and her entourage. "I bet you could buy Sophie a bunch of ribbons with the prize money. She loves ribbons."
Will licked his lips, and Hettie sensed his imminent capitulation. "Fifty-fifty split."
"Ten-ninety," she countered.
"Thirty-seventy, and not a cent more. I'm doing all the hard work, after all."
Yes! They shook on it, and she grabbed his money and hurried into the contestants' arena.
"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for coming," Tate, the elder of the Robson brothers, bellowed. "We're going to start shortly, but I want to make the rules clear. First: magical charms, spells, talismans, potions, lotions, creams, unguents, or any other non-mundane aids are prohibited. We'll ask that you strip off all jewelry and empty your pockets before entering the range."
"Might as well ask us to strip down to our skivvies!" someone shouted, and the crowd laughed. It was only a half joke, though; some people actually sewed talismans into their clothes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Devil's Revolver"
Copyright © 2017 Vicki So..
Excerpted by permission of Brain Mill Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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