At the end of every month, the bullet catcher administers another test. And when it’s over I lie under my canvas roof and think about running away, and each morning, when I finally find sleep, I’m resolved to stay. Sometimes it’s because I’m too tired to run. Other times because I refuse to let the bullet catcher break me. And every now and then because I sense some improvement: a near dodge, a glimpse of the bullet.
I’ve been shot so many times I might actually be getting over my fear of it. When the bullet catcher puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “It’s time,” I don’t feel anything, only gray acceptance. I follow him out to the clearing, where we count out our steps, and I take the bullet like bitter medicine. My body has become tiger-striped with scars. I’m the tiger girl, barred and banded and unafraid of the hunter and his guns.
The mountain has circled around to winter. Our breath rises like muzzle smoke in the air. I count the months in the series of scars on my body. Eleven scars. Eleven months. Somewhere along the way, I turned sixteen. One year more than Nikko ever saw.
This morning, the lake is thick with ice. I break through and ease myself into the water. While I bathe, I watch the wind blowing snow across the peaks, a white sandstorm. It distracts from the subzero water, the feeling of my skin knitting back together from my latest test.
One of my only clear memories of my father is when he would kiss me in the middle of my forehead and call me his “winter child.” Nikko was his summer child. I never much knew what he meant by that. But now I think I understand. Nikko was charming and outspoken. I was insular and quiet. Nikko was warm. I was cool, though being close to Nikko warmed me by degrees. Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt so out of place in the Southland, under the beating sun and swirling, heat-stroked winds. Maybe I was meant for winter, the cold and rain.
I trudge back to camp blowing breath into my cupped hands, but the bullet catcher hasn’t started the fire. There’s no coffee brewing. Snow coats the ground, looking like confectioners’ sugar. If I were still a child I would delight in the soft, fluffy flakes alighting on the ground. I would forget everything and start cartwheeling in the snow.
But not anymore.
Most mornings I think of nothing but training and the morning exercises. The small tree branches the bullet catcher made me carry as I shadowed him through the woods in the early days have turned to logs that I easily sling over my shoulders. Despite my slow progress, my muscles have become steel ropes beneath my tiger-striped skin.
For the first time I can remember, the bullet catcher has broken the routine. In fact, he’s nowhere to be seen. I look in his tent, but he’s not there. I run into the woods, checking the traps. Maybe he fell into one of the pitfalls by mistake. But somehow I can’t imagine that. And, sure enough, the traps are empty. I’m heading back to camp when I hear a voice. No, not a voice. Two voices, speaking in hushed tones. I follow the sounds, making sure not to make any noise myself. And then I see them: the bullet catcher and a woman I’ve never seen before. She wears a brown coat, leather pants, and boots. Gray hair spills from beneath her wide-brimmed hat. Her dark face is tattooed with scars and one of her eyes is covered with a patch. She holds the reins of her horse in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
“He’s there, I know it,” the woman says. She doesn’t look at him when she speaks. She focuses on the cigarette in her hand like she can’t bear the sight of him.
“How do you know?” asks the bullet catcher.
“I seen him. I seen him clear as I see you here in front of me. Down at Los Cazadores, on the far side of the mountain.”
“Was he looking for me?”
“You? No one cares a lick about you. I’m only here because of the debt I owe. He was there talking some load o’ crap about water with the mayor.”
Then they start speaking a little more hushed and I try to edge closer to hear what they’re saying, and as I do, I break a twig underfoot. It cracks like an alarm going off. The woman draws her shooter, quick as lightning, and aims it right at me.
“Who goes there?” she growls.
The bullet catcher puts his hand on hers and gently lowers the gun. “Come out, Cub,” he says. His voice is gentle but rigid, and I do what he says.
“What’s this little thing?” the woman says, disgust in her voice.
“She ain’t nothing or she’d not be here.” She studies me a moment and then says, “She’s not? You’re not—training her?”
“She’s helping around camp. That’s all. I’m an old man.”