It’s raining when I come to. I smell the rain before I open my eyes. I hear the rain in my dream that is not a dream, but a memory of rain. Nikko and I play in the mud that minutes before was burned desert. Our parents sit on the porch, Father for once not grumbling about the crop withering in the sun. Mother comes down the porch steps to play with us, muddying the hem of her skirt. Father smokes and smiles, a little.
I try to stay in that memory of home. The image of my mother and father is sharper than ever before. My mother wears a crooked smile because in that moment she’s truly happy, but she can’t forget the sadness of the empty desert. It’s a hard life out there. So she smiles with half her mouth and frowns with the other. Father is stoic, strong, square-shouldered, and looks like I remember Nikko looking, only all grown up, and with eyes that are deep set and dark and tired.
When I manage to sit up, I’m not looking at the shabby warmth of the old homestead, but into the clearing, from inside the bullet catcher’s tent. The rain patters on the canvas roof. The air smells of pine needles and earth.
I am stiff all over, and my chest is dressed in bandages, clean and bright white except for the perfect red circle just above my right collarbone. My right arm is tied to my body so I can’t move it. Besides the stiffness, there isn’t much pain, though I’m wrapped so tight it’s hard to breathe.
This is my first rainstorm since childhood, and despite everything, I can’t force down that deep, long-forgotten wonder that used to accompany all new things. On my hands and knees, I crawl out into the rain. I lie on my back in the mud. I close my eyes and open my mouth and drink in the cool rainwater. It is the cleanest, coldest water I’ve ever tasted. It’s the most water I’ve drunk at one time, and even though it hasn’t been so long since I was shot, I feel vital and alive in a way I never have before.
I lie on the ground and drink until my belly is full and I can’t drink anymore. Then I just lie there and let the cool rain pitter-patter on my sunburned skin. When I open my eyes the bullet catcher is standing over me, looking down.
“Only children and pigs play in the mud,” he says.
“But it’s raining. It’s actually raining.” It’s all I can think to say to the man who put a bullet in me. Who then dressed my wounds—it could only have been him—and let me rest in his camp while I healed. If I were keeping score that would make it twice he’s saved my life and once he’s tried to kill me. Does that mean he doesn’t want me to die or that he owes me one? The wound pulses with new pain, like it recognizes the man who made it.
The bullet catcher looks up at the sky, as though to confirm that it’s raining. He grunts and ducks into the tent. I lie in the mud, afraid to move, until he says, “If you stay out in the cold your wound will become infected and you will die of fever.”
Only when I’m back inside the tent do I start shivering. The bullet catcher points a bony finger to a quilt and I wrap it around my shoulders.
“You’re muddy,” he says. “When you’re healthy enough, before you leave, you will go down to the lake and wash the quilt and your dressings.”
A drunk at Dmitri’s once told me, “You don’t know what kind of person you are until you’ve been shot. After that you either jump at any loud noise or you become brave in the face of anything.” All I know is that right now I’m not afraid of the bullet catcher. And I’m not leaving.
The bullet catcher sits and crosses his legs. He grinds his jaw that’s crisscrossed with scars.
I clear my throat. “I’m not leaving.”
“That is not up for discussion. You will heal and you will leave, or you will catch infection and die, and I will bury you with all the others who have come to kill me over the years. Those are the only two paths before you.”
“I didn’t come to kill you.”
The bullet catcher pulls a blanket off a large chest in the corner. He opens the chest and it’s full of guns, some large and gleaming, like those of the gunslinger the bullet catcher killed in Sand, some old and rusted, some blood-splattered. My gun sits on top, small and pathetic-looking. How many guns does the bullet catcher keep here? How many people are buried out there, anonymous in the cold ground?
He picks up my gun and weighs it in his hand. His fingers are long and the gun is so small it looks like a toy. Then he tosses it to me. Its weight tells me the chamber is empty.
“There’s only one reason to draw a gun, young lady. To kill someone. Next time, keep it in your pocket.”
I look down at the gun in my hand, then back at the chest...