Doña Inez was a most handsome woman, vivacious, small-waisted and high-bosomed, with sparkling eyes of black obsidian. She was married to a wealthy ranchero who owned some hundred thousand acres on which he ran several thousand longhorns. This husband of hers was also active in politics and involved in a number of businesses besides cattle raising. The marriage had been arranged between the two families concerned. The ranchero was twenty years older than Doña Inez. He was often absent on business–for days, even for weeks.
The ranch was managed by a ramrod called Miguel, a tall, swaggering, good looking fellow with a go-to-hell grin, gleaming teeth that seemed artificial but were not, a sweeping mustache, and a luxurious sideburns. In the husband’s absence Miguel often came to the main house with its many-columned porch to discuss ranch business with Doña Inez. He usually stayed for dinner and a glass of wine or a copita of arguardiente. Their discussions of ranch business often lasted for a considerable time.
Whenever Miguel went up to the big house to make his reports, he dressed with great care. He combed his mustache, donned a fine silk shirt, and put on his special visiting boots. His pride and joy, these boots were handtooled, richly carved with images of eagles and roses, and outlined with tiny bits of silver. Of solid silver also were his jingling spurs, equipped with enormous rowels. Thus ensplendored from head to toe, the eternal cigarillo dangling from his lips, Miguel set out to discuss business with Doña Inez. He always chose the finest looking horse for these visits, with a saddle and bridle to match the magnificence of his clothing.
Riding from his own place to the big house, Miguel had to cross an arroyo that was at all times pervaded with a foul, oppressive odor, the stench, it was said, of a giant diamondback, La Reina de los Cascabeles, the Queen of All Rattlesnakes. Fabulous and frightening stories were rife about this monstrous serpent that had not been seen for years but was believed to be still living in a cave deep inside the arroyo. Wise folks made a wide detour around this evil place, but not Miguel, who was not afraid of any snake, however large.
One night, having taken care of ranch business with Doña Inez while her husband was away, Miguel mounted his noble steed to return to his own dwelling. In the darkness the horse stepped into a gopher hole and broke its left foreleg. There was nothing to do but put the animal out of its misery. Not given to hesitation, Miguel unholstered his six-gun and shot the horse between the eyes, not without profound regret. He took off the ornate saddle and, sadly, continued on foot. In the uncertain light of early dawn, Miguel made out what seemed to be a tree trunk and sat down upon it to rest. This was a fatal mistake because the tree trunk turned out to be the Queen of Cascabelas, about a hundred years old, some fifteen feet long, with a back the width of a dog’s, and very much alive. The mammoth diamondback reared up into a coil and struck, its enormous fangs penetrating Miguel’s wonderfully ornamented boots, stabbing into the ramrod’s ankle. Miguel’s leg swelled up instantly and turned blue. As the sun rose, Miguel died, unshriven and unconfessed. Vaqueros found his body with the odor of rattlesnake still pervading the air around.
At Doña Inez’s suggestion, her husband gave Miguel a magnificent funeral. He ordered for his deceased ramrod an impressive headstone with the carved likeness of a cowboy boot encircled by a snake, held up by and angel, the whole surmounted by a a fluttering dove. As was fitting, Miguel was laid to rest in his finest charro costume, but with his plain instead of his ornamented visiting boots on. These had been appropriated, with all the vaqueros’ consent, by his best friend, Maclovio. The boot that had been struck by the monster cascabela had burst at the seam because of the dead man’s leg having swelled up enormously, and even so it had taken two strong men to pull it off. The busted seam was easily repaired. Maclovio was happy with his newly acquired fancy footwear.
Now this Maclovio succeeded Miguel as the ranch’s manager. He too was tall and handsome, and had an extraordinary set of gleaming teeth that he exposed in a hell-for-leather grin. It was not long before he also went regularly up to the big house to discuss the state of the cattle and related matters with Doña Inez in her husband’s absence. Like his predecessor, Maclovio also spruced up before these visits—combed his mustache and put on his dead friend’s gorgeous boots. On one of these visits Maclovio had taken his boots off. Why he had done such a thing nobody could imagine. Taking his leave, Maclovio put on his boots again with a flourish and great force. Doing this, he let out a cry of pain and jerked the right boot off again. Looking at his ankle, he saw imbedded in it one of the huge fangs of the Queen of Rattlers. It had remained, undetected up to that moment, stuck in the boot. The fang still contained a great deal of deadly venom. Maclovio’s leg turned first yellow, then green, and finally black. It swelled up and caused Maclovio unendurable pain. In a panic Doña Inez tried to suck out the poison with her ruby lips. Now Inez had been created, by god or the devil, depending on how one looked at it, with an absolutely perfect body, the body of a goddess made for love, a body like those one admires on the canvases of Titian or Goya. It had only one small blemish–a rotten tooth, invisible, far in the back of her sensuous mouth. The baneful toxin found this weak spot. Doña Inez and Maclovio expired in each other’s arms. The patrón sold his ranch and moved elsewhere. Don Ignazio, the village priest, saw in this calamity the finger of God. Now nobody dares to go anywhere near that arroyo in which the monster snake is supposed to live, or to have lived, because all this happened a long time ago and the Queen of all Rattlesnakes must surely be dead by now. But one never knows. It is better to be careful.
A Pair of Fine Boots, Excerpt from… Legends and Tales of the American West (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library) by Richard Erdoes. This book has 132 legends in it, grouped by region of origin and topic.