The gun trembles in my hand. I lift the muzzle to the bullet catcher’s heart.
And then the answer comes to me like a flash of light. I reset the hammer and crouch in front of the bullet catcher. He furrows his brow, his face a question mark. When I click open the chamber of my gun he seems to understand. He smiles. I take a bullet from the chamber, click it closed, and holster the gun.
“Open your mouth.” The bullet catcher does. I put the bullet on his tongue and he closes his mouth. I stand, wiping my hands. Cloak glowers at me, bemused. “Done,” I say.
“What do you mean? You’ve done nothing.” He spits.
“Like you said: The rules of the test are simple. You told me to take out my gun. I did. You told me to put a bullet in him. I did. His hands remained tied. He didn’t resist. I met all the conditions of your test.”
Nikko listens to my explanation, and I think I see a small smile cross his lips.
The bullet catcher looks up at Cloak and sticks his tongue out, showing Cloak the bullet. When he speaks, his voice is tired and scratchy. “Would you rather I swallow it? That way you could say she put a bullet in my gut.” That’s what sends Cloak over the edge. He cocks the trigger of his shooter and presses the barrel to the bullet catcher’s forehead. The bullet catcher leans into the barrel, unafraid.
“You know damn well what I meant, Imma! You’ve made your choice!”
I go for my shooter, but even before I do I know I won’t be fast enough. The shot rings out. Some in the crowd hit the ground; others crane their necks to get a better view. I twist away from the sound, not wanting to look. But when I turn around, the bullet catcher is still kneeling in the dirt. Nikko has grabbed Cloak’s gun and pulled it away from the bullet catcher. The gun fired harmlessly into the air.
“That’s enough, Cloak,” Nikko says.
Cloak pulls himself free from Nikko, and when he looks at him he doesn’t look angry, he looks hurt. He pushes his way through the crowd and disappears.
Nikko watches him go. He starts to follow him, but thinks better of it. He runs his hand through his hair. Then he turns to me and says, “I’m proud of you. You used your wits today. It’s a powerful tool, a person’s intelligence.” Then he says, low and serious, “But one day you’ll discover it’s not always possible to think your way out of danger.” Nikko raises my chin with his hand until our eyes meet, and says, “But don’t worry. On that day, whenever that is, I’ll be there with you.”
I grab Nikko’s hands and hold them in mine. “Promise me you won’t hurt him—the bullet catcher. Promise me.”
He hesitates, staring deep into my eyes. “Okay,” he says. “I promise. Then he turns and signals to the crowd. Two large gunslingers come up and, taking the bullet catcher under the arms, drag him to his feet. “Throw him in the cells,” Nikko says. As they haul him away, the bullet catcher spits the bullet into the dirt.
Nikko grabs me by the wrist and thrusts my hand in the air. The crowd goes crazy. There’s a mad rush as everyone makes for the saloons, ready for the party to begin.
Noticing my eyes, still fixed on the street where they hauled away the bullet catcher, Nikko nudges my shoulder, and says, “Smile! You’re a gunslinger!”
Nikko leads me and a procession of gunslingers to his club. There, a chair like a throne awaits me. It’s lined and cushioned in red velvet. A man in a smock stands beside it, smoking a cigarette down to the nub.
“Tattooist,” Nikko calls to him, “we need your expertise.” He leads me by the hand to the chair, where he directs me to sit. “If you’re going to be a gunslinger,” he says to me, “you need to look like one.”
The last of the tattooist’s cigarette dangles from his lips. He holds a half-finished glass of snakebite by the tips of his fingers. I can only hope it’s his first drink. He flicks his cigarette onto the floor and shakes my brother’s hand. Nikko stands aside and the tattooist takes his seat on the stool.
“This don’t hurt a bit, little lady,” he says, unlocking his case and flicking open the lid. He takes out a machine that looks like a sadist’s pistol, all exposed gears and pumps. On the floor is a tank of compressed air. He attaches one end of a hose to the valve of the tank and the other to the handle of the strange pistol and squeezes the trigger. It lets out a whirring, grinding sound that makes my hands and feet go cold. The tattooist hums to himself as he takes a bottle of black ink from his case and screws it into the top of the device.
He slugs the last of his drink, takes another cigarette from his top pocket, and, lighting it,...