Once, many months ago, before we traveled to Los Cazadores, before Nikko came back into my life and everything changed, the bullet catcher told me that most people don’t understand what a gun is until they’ve killed with it. The frightening thing, he said, is how easy it is.
We arrive in Las Pistolas after a few days’ ride from The Bruise, where we had rested and regrouped with Nikko’s gunslingers after the shootout with the bullet catcher. Las Pistolas is a city, the first I’ve seen. Nikko tells me that it was once a booming water town, but when the wells ran dry the people left—everyone except those too old or young or sick to make it somewhere new. But when the gunslingers started to organize, they made the town their headquarters. And it grew. The old buildings were patched and reinforced. The town grew out, but also up. Now it looks like several cities stacked on top of one another. The buildings are a hodgepodge, like a child’s play blocks. Metal stairs wind up from one level to the next, and across each story stretches a floating metal boardwalk affixed to the sides of the buildings. They creak and groan with foot traffic and let down sheets of trapped sand on the people below. The sound of machines is everywhere: humming electricity, whirring engines, firing pistons. White steam. Black smoke. An airless, oil-slick sky hangs above the town. But the city teems with life and that makes it beautiful.
We dismount our horses and stable hands lead them away. I wait, standing in the middle of the street. I endured months and months of routine with the bullet catcher, of knowing exactly what was expected of me every hour and minute. Now that’s all gone and I don’t know what to do or where to go. Where is the bullet catcher now? What is he doing? Does he hate me for what I did? On the ride, Nikko asked me what I thought of the bullet catcher, and I lied and told him I didn’t think anything. Now, I wait for Nikko, who is ordering around a couple of gunslingers.
When he’s done, he comes over to me, wraps his arm around my shoulders, and says, “I have a surprise for you.” He leads me to a large building. The entrance is made of huge marble blocks. A man in a smart uniform opens the glass door for us and stands aside to let us in. He gives a half bow to Nikko and says, “Pleasure to see you again, sir.” Nikko smiles at him as we pass. At the other side of the large, open lobby is a bank of elevators. I only know them from books. An operator leans against the open gate to his elevator, smoking and reading a creased paperback. When he sees Nikko approaching, he snaps to attention, pockets the book, and forces a smile.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he says with an exaggerated salute. Nikko nods to him and we board the elevator. The operator closes the gate and pulls a lever. A jolt rolls through the compartment and up into my belly and we shoot upward. I cling to Nikko and he stifles a small laugh.
“Are these things safe?”
“Perfectly,” he says. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. You’ll get used to all of it.” The operator opens the gate at the top floor—ten stories up. I have never been in a building so tall. The elevator opens right into the largest apartment I’ve ever seen.
“What do you mean—all mine?”
“I mean it’s yours. Your new home. It was mine—well, one of mine—but I want you to have it.”
I go from room to room, from the bedroom to the sitting room to the kitchen and bathroom. There is a feather bed and plush couches. A writing desk. Shelves overflowing with books. Beautiful carpets atop polished wood floors. There is a claw-foot tub.
I turn the tap on. I turn it off. I cup my hands under the spout and fill them with the warm, crystal-clear water.
“It comes through pipes buried in the ground.”
“But where from?”
He laughs. “I just told you, through pipes.”
“Yeah, but where do those pipes lead?”
The humor drains from his face. He seems to examine me, suspiciously. But then he laughs it off and says, “It comes from nowhere special.”
I give him a cockeyed look, but when I see he won’t tell me more I let it drop for now. I leave the taps on, letting the bath slowly fill, and head into the study, where leather-bound books clutter the shelves all the way to the ceiling. I read the spines of ones here and there. Nikko pulls a book from the shelf. It’s a worn, leather journal, small enough to fit in a breast pocket, bound with a leather strap. He presses it into my hands.
“It was Dad’s.”
“What—where did you find it?”
“Doesn’t matter where. I have it. And I want you to have it, because it explains...