Foreword By
Marshall Trimble

I was in Oklahoma City in the spring of 1979 attending an event at the National Cowboy Hall of Fame when I checked into the host hotel headed for an empty elevator. I pressed the button and just as the door was closing the legendary Marty Robbins stepped in. l always make it a practice in the presence of famous people to give them their space, probably because I fear making a fool of myself. I pulled my hat down and humbly starred at the floor. Next thing I knew a face was peering at me from under the brim of my hat.

He grinned, stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Marty Robbins.” I’d heard he was one of the most popular members of the Grand Ole Opry, now I knew why. “Yep, I know who you are,” I replied then blurted out, “I used to see you on local television in Phoenix and I know your wife’s name is Marizona because she was born in Maricopa County, Arizona.” “How’d you know that?” he asked. “I wrote a book on Arizona history and the two of you are in it.” “How about you and me go to dinner,” he said. And that’s how I came to meet Marty Robbins.

We spent the next two hours talking about gunfighters and his ballads about gunfighters. He told me about how he came to write “El Paso” while returning from a family visit in Texas. Marty had deep roots in the Texas and Arizona history. He was the nephew of “Sandy Bob” Heckle, who was featured in Gail Gardner’s famous cowboy poem, “Sierry Petes” or “Tyin’ Knots in the Devil’s Tale.” It told the story of two drunken cowboys who were accosted by the Devil on their way back to the ranch after a wild night on Prescott’s “Whiskey Row.”

Instead of the Devil gatherin’ in their souls “Buster Jig” and “Sandy Bob” roped him, notched his ears, de-horned and branded him, tied knots in his tail and then rode off leaving him necked up to a blackjack oak tree.

Marty could sure tell a good story and that’s what he did with his ballads about gunfighters. Jim Varnado has taken those lyrics and created a literary postscript to three of Robbins’ best-known western ballads, “Big Iron,” “Feleena” and “El Paso,” blending them into an intriguing novel packed with action and romance that spans two generations.

He’s remained true to the lyrics in the ballads and expanded the story of the young cowboy who dies in the arms of the beautiful cantina girl, Feleena. We learn how the notorious “Texas Red” evolved from an eastern college boy into a ruthless killer. One of these two gunmen who meet on the street in the town of Agua Fria at twenty past eleven is the son of the young cowboy and Feleena, the young senorita who dances at Rosa’s Cantina in El Paso. I’m not going to give anything away so you’re going to have to find out for yourself.

I’m reminded of Bobbie Gentry’s haunting and mysterious ballad “Ode to Billie Joe” that went to the top of the charts in 1967 and around the country the hot topic of conversation was what did Billie Joe and his girlfriend toss off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Everybody had a different guess and we still can only speculate on what happened up there on Choctaw Ridge.

Like Ode to Billie Joe, Big Iron is chock-full of wherefores and whys. Some questions are answered and some left for the reader to decide. I think they will enjoy the creative way Varnado has taken Marty Robbins’ ballads and turned them into a gripping narrative. Stay tuned ‘cause Jim is already working on a sequel.

—Marshall Trimble
Official Arizona State Historian