PodCastle 514, ARTEMIS RISING: My Heart the Bullet in the Chamber

Show Notes

Rated R, for shootin’, cussin’, and rollin’ in the hay.

My Heart the Bullet in the Chamber

by Stephanie Charette

They said I wouldn’t feel anything from the waist down but that was a lie from the first contraction. Yet when the good doctor took away the baby — healthy, crying — and offered that blood-christened Spencer Repeater in her place, I cradled its stock and barrel and felt the fires of justice in my hands.

I will never know my daughter. She will be but one more child in the communal creche, just as I was, to be raised by women who choose not to take a gun.

I earned my gun.

For the rosewood in her barrel, and for my sister Rosamund, I named her Rosie.

Rosie would get me my revenge.

The doctor told me later I fell asleep with Rosie in my hands and would not let it go until the next morning. Had to pry it from blood-cracked hands.

Just so.

Two weeks later and I’m out from under Doc’s care. It’s the full-on miserable hot summer I’ve grown accustomed to hating, where the air is thick with flies and horse shit and everyone’s cross. I’m sore, too, chewing the doctor’s tablets while I lurk in the shadow of the saloon awning as a commotion starts up down the road. My tits are back to normal — Doc gave me a tincture to dry them right up — but my hips ache and sitting ain’t comfortable anymore. They tell me that’ll pass, so I just keep moving and hope my bones and insides knit together true.

I fidget with Rosie’s leather sling, made myself in my seventh month, her name and mine stitched with tiny beads of garnet and hematite. Carry Rosie everywhere. When it’s not wrapped around me, I’m naked.

Everyone’s like that with her gun. Guns of any kind: ones we’ve made, ones we’ve bartered for, ones we brought with us, ones we’ve stolen. A woman’s gun is her right, her privilege and her duty.

A duty all of us must be ready to carry out.

I watch him, a man, struggle to get up out of a muddy rut in the road. Three women not far behind him walk easy. They ain’t in a rush ‘cause they know, like everyone knows, there’s no place for him to go.

Man’s blubbering. He gets up onto both feet but a sharp shot from a sling strikes an inch from his heel and sends him careening forward. I see Connie, dark mane loose in blistering wind, ready another stone. Sasp is not far behind, no weapon in her hand, but fury ripples like a shield before her. She’s howling without words at the man running ahead.

Between the idiot and the two women is Abigail slotting in one bullet then another into her rifle, calm and unstoppable as sunrise.

I’m not the only one watching. Some take up positions by a fence, a post. Others hang out of windows, making bets, calling others to witness. Mostly women but a few men, too. Even the creche center, least the older kids, are being made to watch and learn.

The man, begging, thinks there’s another way out.

I look at Sasp again. Her shirt is torn, one breast exposed. Blood on her hands. I grip the railing under the awning till my fingers are white and hard as quartz. They’re hungry for Rosie but I keep them where they are. He’s not mine to take.

“I’ll leave!” the dead man screams.

Abigail, cold as January, says, “We told you what’s what when you came. You agreed.”

“It’s a misunderstanding.” He looks from face to face until he alights on one he thinks might help. “You know,” he says to another man nearby. “You know!”

That man — decent, been here since before I was born — wisely turns away.

“Please. Please.” He’s crying.

Abigail raises her rifle. “No.”

A singular shot rings through the town. The man crumples into the dirt. A few voices cry out in triumph, while others sagely nod. Sasp wanders over and kicks him several times. She’s not shouting anymore. I can’t tell if he’s breathing from where I am, but it don’t matter. It’s done. I watch two women move forward to claim the dead man for disposal as Connie leads Sasp away.

Town’s quiet. Will be for a while.

Now might be a good time.

I stop dithering and go inside the saloon.

A veteran is at a table near the entrance, gray-maned, scarred. Eyes red, lips grim, wreathed in tobacco and hashish. Her left leg’s wood from the knee down with the date of Founding carved into the calf and circled with thorny roses and rearing snakes. Her own gun, a six-shooter, is snug between arm and chest.

She sees me, and a smile splits her face. “Little Miss is a Matron now,” she says. “That’s a big gun for a girl your age, don’t you think?”

“I earned it,” I snap back. I show the tattoo on my arm — three kinked lines.

She frowns. “That you did. Mighty young for it.”

“Had to happen sometime.”

She narrows her eyes. “You’re Alice, ain’t ya?”

“What of it?”

“Glad to see you ain’t following in your sister’s footsteps.”

Spit catches in my throat. “What?”

“Never had much sense, that girl.”

My first instinct is something uncivilized and violent. I fight it down. Waited too damn long to blow it now for some veteran who don’t know my sister at all. I try to say mildly, “Why do you say that?”

“You’re putting down roots,” she says, leaning back with an appraiser’s eye. “What do you think a gun means?”

My fury is inarticulate. If I stay longer, I’ll say something stupid. “Good day, Matron.”

“And to you, Little M . . . Matron.”

I stalk over to the bar. Back before the town was abandoned and found again, so to speak, the saloon sold liquor. Town’s been dry since before Founding and all those shelves hold a range of repurposed liquor bottles filled with medicine, honey, dried herbs, teas, and of course, tobacco and hashish.

I’m only interested in the one.

To the bartender, I nod to the fat jar of knotted leaves. She asks me how much and I slide a fistful of dollars over the counter. In a minute she presents me a butcher-paper package tied with twine.

The remainder of what I’ll need will come from the General Store. With what’s left, I’ll buy everything else: rope, hard cheese, traveling bread, and anything I can spare the coin on. It’s all I have, every penny I’ve saved since Rosamund, and it has to be enough. I can’t wait anymore.

With the moon behind me, I set out on a borrowed horse that same night, heading to the mountains where Rosamund and I got lost.

I spare a thought back at Founding as it retreats behind desert rock and scrub brush as like to bite you as to shelter you.

Founding is only thirty years old. Those of us born here, borne after, don’t know what it was like before. You sit a Matron down with a fat cigarette after a long day and she’ll tell you why she left. Their stories are all different, but all the same, too.

The rule, no matter whether you’re white settler, ex-slave, Chinese from the coast or Shoshone, Navaho, or Paiute: no man shall touch a weapon and no man will take what isn’t given. Any and all who will live by our creed are welcome. We never speak of Founding to outsiders, hell never speak to outsiders unless we’re veterans ourselves. Break either at your peril.

That I can’t tell anyone in Founding what happened is on us, me and her. We broke our laws. Rosamund and I shouldn’t ever have been where we were. Founding means more to me than it ever did. I don’t want to leave, but Rosamund deserves her justice. If it takes some injustice to get it, well, I made peace with that the day after I got back and Rosamund didn’t and fucked that boy on the steps of the barn praying his fumbling seed would catch.

I think of her as I ride, remembering her face in the lapis lazuli and beaten gold smearing the horizon. The mountain rears ahead, holding none of the fascination it once had. I know near all its secrets now. I’ll get the last one if it kills me.

Rosamund knew the trails on the southwest side of Founding lands better than anybody. We had caches up and down our favorite trails and safe spaces to camp. We never went unarmed, but only knives and slings. We both learned to shoot — we all do, soon as we’re about ten — but you only get a gun after you’ve given life. She’d held off, like most do. At eighteen, Rosamund was near time to choose, Matron or Maid, but I held off on account of me. I did whatever she did, and having a kid at fifteen is pretty stupid.

Any Matron will tell you that.

We did just fine on our own. We’d take horses, bedrolls, sleep under the stars, be gone a week or more. Rosamund would point out Founding scouts watching us from afar on our first overnights. After a while they stopped, trusting we wouldn’t fall off a cliff or let a rattler bite us.

We showed them.

I get to the first cache sometime after dusk and send the horse back the way we came. No one will think to look for me yet, ‘cause leaving is allowed. Leaving is what everyone thought my sister had done — though they’re as wrong as they could ever be.

When they asked about my sister, I told them she had wandered out one night towards the setting sun and never came back. Told ‘em I cried, I searched, and after a day turned around and came back. That any of them ever thought Rosamund would leave the town, or me, behind, hurt nearly as bad.

Rosamund would have bred and bled for Founding, and for me.

Now I owe ’em both.

Night comes, and I send the horse on home with a slap to its ass. I don’t have to light a fire because the ground below me still bakes with the day’s heat but I do light a roll of hash and smoke deep. The stars above me are endless and cold. A thunderbird streaks across the cloudless sky, shedding lightning in its wake, and I take it for a sign. I sleep sound for the first time in ten months.

When I wake, I can feel her there beside me but if I try to look at her, any sense of her shimmers away. No matter. I pick up my pack, sling Rosie over my shoulder, and walk another day until the second cache, this one hiding our girlhood treasures. I bed down beside it, holding ‘em tight to my face — the lucky horseshoe, the broken switchblade, the old spyglass — trying to catch the scent of her, anything.

That’s when I see her.

She’s smiling and she’s sad and I think she knows what I mean to do. Can see through her, too, the sun-baked mountains becoming her body, the high clouds streaking west her hair. Ghost or dream or something else, I don’t give a shit anymore.

We’ll see if she’s still there when I’m done.

I walk the last few miles slow, my ears and eyes at full attention. The desert doesn’t change much, unless it’s by our hands, so the path is still mostly my own until I get within an hour of the mountain.

A cigar butt left to burn out in the rocks. Don’t know how old it is, but it’s about as obvious and out of place as a severed finger lying there. Powdery footsteps captured in drought-sundered earth head back to the mountain. I pull a mottled poncho around me, hunch over, and start picking my way from rock to rock. The shadows turn into long tongues while memories swarm thick as flies.

The smell of horseshit gave them away the first time. Rosamund and I climbed the mountain and spent a day watching those horses and the leathered men that came with ‘em. They came and went with a couple donkeys and a cart and all kinds of scrap they’d scavenged from god knows where.

It wasn’t until most of the rest had left for parts unknown, leaving two younger fellas behind to guard the cave, that Rosamund and I decided to see what they were up to besides being young and handsome. Founding is mostly women, maybe some third menfolk, so a few of us are a bit starved for company if we don’t find comfort among our own. One was tall and fair, with teeth round and perfect like a rattler’s tail, the other dark, smoky-voiced. He had kind eyes.

He didn’t know what was coming.

We threw rocks to get their attention, and surprised them when they ventured out to see what was causing the ruckus. We lied about where we came from, one well prepared. Daughters of a horse breeder, one that didn’t always buy and breed his own, a flourish we added once we were sure they weren’t above board themselves. We assured them we weren’t there to steal their horses and they assured us they weren’t about to steal our virtues — but were mighty interested should we decide to lend ‘em.

We spent a companionable night under the stars, passing their white fire moonshine in a tiny flask and sharing our hash. The boys bragged how they were in charge of the still, promised to show us some real dynamite they’d used in the caves. Rosamund took the fair one, and me the other.

An hour after the North star sunk below the mountain line and the moon marched out, the fair one asked if we wanted to see the still. Rosamund had an engineer’s eye and said yes to the pretense. “After,” she added with a wink.

The blond took her hand, and his friend took mine. Lanterns in their other hands, knowing smiles on all our faces, we entered the caves and found each of us a bit of privacy.

The cool earth beneath us warmed with our efforts. His breath was whisky-sweet on mine, his hands gentle.

I will never regret that moment.

I wish I could remember his name.

After, when we were satisfied, haphazardly dressed, and still drunk on it all, they took us to see the still. The machinery was a piece of work all right, and Rosamund was stricken. Asked lots of questions as the blond fumbled for answers. I was much more interested in pressing my body into my lover, listening only to his lips in my ear.

Never once occurred to me I might take him home, make him one of ours. Sometimes it keeps me up at night, thinking on it, long before the baby in my belly started kicking.

Rosamund pressed the blond when he fell short of answers, and then took up a wrench to look for herself.

“Hey now, that’s not for girls.” He put his hand on her.

She laughed but it wasn’t light and it wasn’t friendly. “Can’t I hold a wrench just as tightly?” Her eyes narrowed to gold slivers in the lantern light. “Held yours just fine, didn’t I?”

Even by rosy lamplight I saw his cheeks color, and the line of his mouth turn hard. “Not very ladylike, that kinda talk.” He hadn’t yet let go of her arm, the one with the wrench. Yanked her close, roughly squeezed. “I’ve shown you the still. Let’s get back to nicer things.”

She stood her ground. “Remove your hand before I’m not so nice.”

“We got ourselves a couple of calico queens! Looking to rob us, too.” He sneered. “I’d have paid good for you. Now I won’t.”

She tried to yank her arm from him but he held tight. So Rosamund clocked him with her other hand.

Blood spurted out of his lips and I think I heard a tooth crack. Silence as we all watched him put his hand to his mouth. Me and mine were not an inch apart, bodies stiff as we waited.

The blond jumped Rosamund and they fought like barn cats, swinging punches, landing kicks. I screamed, tried to leap in after, but mine held me back until I shrugged him. It didn’t feel like two seconds had gone when he came back and fired a warning shot into the cave. Bullet struck metal before it ricocheted and found peace in the stone. The pair stopped, red dirt covering their clothes, sticking to the places where they were bleeding.

I turned, cold and furious, to see the revolver in his hand still smoking, his expression afraid and angry all at once.

You have to understand — no man touches a gun in Founding. Man touches a gun, his life is forfeit. No excuses, no second chances. Founding learned the hard way. That’s our law, drummed into us from the time we can talk. Instinct.

Rosamund was just doing what she knew.

She leapt up, the blond beside her forgotten, and threw herself onto mine. They fell together, her with a growl, him with a cut-off cry, behind a rise of rock.

Grunting. Dust rising. A second gunshot.

Rosamund stood up. Shaken, whole.

Mine never got up again.

The blond shouted, “You whore, you dirty whore!”

Next I knew he had a gun, he was crying and spitting, and me and my sister were running ourselves deeper and deeper into the caves. She fired and missed but it was enough to let us bolt down a passage – going the wrong way. But there was no turning around. Bullets flew behind us, sending rock shards and dust onto our heads.

“I’ll fucking kill you both!”

He knew the caves. We didn’t. Rosamund only had the one gun and three bullets. No shooting blind. We’d need ‘em. Deeper we went, until Rosamund stopped and took a path that smelled like fresh air.

Back on the trail, that smell surrounds me now.

I shudder, push it away, look to the mountain.

It’s not the first time that I wonder if he survived that night.

That I might be nursing a grudge on a dead man.

Then I smell ’em. Horses.

They’re still using the place, even after. That’s one doubt dead, but it raises another. Indecision I can’t afford holds me still as I try to decide.

I know the way to the cave entrance. Rosamund and I had found it two years back before them boys took it for themselves. Bigger than we could ever explore and hidden on the south side behind a rise of rock. Stays cool, shady, and the caves run at least a mile deep.

But it wasn’t the way we left that last time.

I look to Rosamund, who has walked with me all day, her expression flat like a river rock. She turns her face west. Towards Founding.

“I have to look,” I say. “You would, in my place.”

She shimmers like a heat vision.

This takes more time because I have to pan through memories I don’t much like looking at. Not like I was paying close attention when I left, either. The split cactus. Rocks blackened from some ancient fire. I try hard not to think about the blood, but that was there, too.

Caucus blooms among the base of the mountains, tops crowned feathery-purple. I slink shadow to shadow, trying to retrace year-old steps, and stop when I smell something stronger than horse – moonshine.

Stomach churns like it’s making butter and everything I ate curdles hard and sour. Would do me no good thing to be sick, so I kneel, Rosie’s sling a rosary between my fingers while I wait for the urge to be sick, for the memory, to pass.

. . . running through the caves, searching for something familiar, tunnels getting smaller and smaller at every turn until we had to squeeze ourselves sideways against the rock.

I wasn’t making it easy. Kept turning around, fighting Rosamund with every step. “We can take him!”

But Rosamund, two inches taller than me and a good twenty pounds heavier, wordlessly hooked my arm with hers and forced me ahead.

The blond was right on our heels, his laughter certain and sharp.

Heard hissing. Memory flaring of him nattering on about his Daddy letting him light the fuses.

Sweat on my lip turns to mud with cave dust. “He wouldn’t!”

“No sense in his head,” she muttered. “Move!”

I planted my feet. “Just shoot him!”

Last time she touched me, she pushed me hard like when we were little and fighting and meant it even though we didn’t know what we meant back then. I stared at her, shocked, shoulder smarting, and our gazes locked like two snakes waiting for the other to strike.

Rosamund knew what was coming. She was the smart one.

She raised her hand to strike me proper and I shrank back.

It was just far enough backwards to put me where I could smell fresh air, see a different kind of black up above.

She turned and howled into the passage we’d just come down, shooting off her remaining bullets in a burst until click, click, click. The glow of what I thought was a tossed cigarette resolved into a lit stick of dynamite bouncing between stones.

Wasn’t thinking. Just leapt up, scrabbling at the rock.

The explosion busted my ears to ringing, but I climbed and scraped and bled.

And left her for the rocks to swallow.

Left her behind as I ran back to Founding unable to say a word.

My heart pounds like a tight Shoshone drum, as if everything has just happened, and I seethe. As if I didn’t wear a crown of grief a year old and hold a gun newly born? I clench my teeth, will not let my grief buckle me now, not when I am so close. I lean on Rosie and her cool barrel until I find myself again.

Moonshine means the still works deep in the bowels of the mountain. I pop the last of Doc’s tablets to ease both the milk and my pains, then skitter sideways, holding on to the rock and knocking pebbles loose until I find it, the spot where I came out. Invisible from outside, unless you know where to look or ’cause you came up from underneath. Looks like any old shaft that finally collapsed. Only a few finger-wide spaces between rocks that lead down and inside. Maybe an enterprising snake can slip between the cracks, but certainly not me.

Or Rosamund.

I sit and clean my rifle to settle my nerves. Every movement molasses-slow yet precise — a meditation as the sun dips below the mountain and the last of the day’s heat ripples off the rocks. I clean until I can’t smell moonshine.

Do no good to go in blazing. Not enough bullets, never mind the rights. I’m owed one. One bullet. Two if I’m careless. A long, slow hunt. That’s how I’ll play it until the end. We’ll see what happens after that.

I load two rounds and climb back up out of the hole. Head down the footpath that will lead me back to where it all started and where it all ended and where I’ll end it for good.

I slink across tumbled rocks. My streaked, hooded poncho masks my movements along the way. When I hear them — men, a good five or so — they’re shooting at bottles lined up along a plank of wood resting on two rocks. Drinking, eating, some kind of chili that makes my stomach groan, enjoying themselves while they wait on some younger boys to finish loading barrels into a cart with false walls. I watch all this chewing on cactus jerky and drinking the last drops from my water canteen.

It’s well dark when they decide to leave and I am one of a hundred shadows. I count by lantern light: ten horses, two carts, and eight men leave. I wait until their lights are firefly-faint along the horizon before I head down. My grip is tight around the neck of the rifle, which I hold close to make sure it doesn’t strike the rocks and give me away.

Dark entrance, but my eyes have eaten nothing but moonlight for long enough that I can pick my way across and inside.

Voices, male, warp and weft inside the cavern that opens wide before splitting off into many side passages. Torches set in the wall throw pools of light, places to avoid as I skulk around. Hard to get a beat on where I should go. My memories are donkey-stubborn and don’t want to give up any recollection of the layout of this place unless I want the good and the bad with it, too.

I can’t afford either right now. Not until I find him.

Passages narrow and widen; then I hear dice clattering on stone and the sound of clinking glass. Two voices, or is that three? No, two.

The impulse strikes me — to forget them and find Rosamund, wherever she lies — instead of the man that killed her. But where would I look, and what would I do?

Rosie, heavy on my shoulder sling, reminds me why I’m here.

I focus on their voices, slow my steps, hurrying only when they laugh. As I get closer to the lantern light, their shadows stretch like canvas onto the stone walls. I can smell moonshine and not just from the still.

I could take both of ‘em. My shot’s that good.

But only one deserves it.

“Graham, you snake shit. You’re cheating.”

“I ain’t! You’re just a poor player.” There’s a scuffling noise, as if a couple dollars are being snatched up from the ground. “Another round? Or are you chicken?”

Graham! The name falls into place like a loaded chamber.

Another game begins. Dice fall, they drink in turn.

“Ever bring a girl back here?” the other asks.

All sense of joviality ebbs back, and Graham says at last, “Not from town. Too far, and which of them would keep a secret?”

“Too bad.” I falter a bit; this one sounds young. “Guess yer pa would have your skin, anyhow.”

Someone spits. “I’m not his whipping boy anymore, and I’ve had a girl out here. Once.”

The hairs on my arms stand on end.

“Fucked her good not far from where we’re sitting. Tits like melons, but stupid. In the end, she got what was coming.” His voice dips low. “Goddamn calico.”

My insides burn and it takes all I have to not just fly around the rocks from where I’m hiding and tear his face off.

I throw a rock instead, a big one, and it thumps against a back wall. It’s enough to get them to stop their shit talking, but not enough to move ‘em. The second rock won’t be ignored.

A sigh. “Check it out, Clem.”

“Why me?”

“Not to put a fine point on it,” Graham drawls, “but ‘cause I said so.”

A mumbled curse, and then I hear the second man get up and leave.

I ready my gun.

He’s sitting all kitty-cornered with a glass bottle and a fistful of dice. His eyes are glossy and there’s a smear of haze from a guttering oil lamp nearby. He’s not really looking at me, this Graham, sure I’m his stupid Clem. I don’t look much like I did a year ago. Dust covered, cheeks smeared with rust-red mud, and my dappled poncho hanging loose on my frame. Never mind Rosie pointed his way.

Takes him a second, and every line of him tenses as he gets his feet under him.

Blinks hard, like he’s not sure he sees me. “You’re the one that got away.”

“I am.”

“You know how much trouble I got in? I went looking for you.”

“We’ll I’m here now, ain’t I?”

He gives up trying to stand and sits cross-legged instead, all while I stare him down my sights. He lets out a single chuckle.

“What’s so fucking funny?”

“You ain’t gonna kill me.”

“Why, cause I would have done it already?” I cocked the gun. “Shit, you’re dumb. That ain’t why you’re still breathing.”

“You want me to beg?”

I laughed. “Try again.”

“My friend will be back.”

“You mean Clem? I got bullets to spare.”

His bravado falters. “You were listening to us?”

“For a while, as a matter of fact. You never mentioned me.”

“Never fucked you.”

“Fucked your friend, though, didn’t I? And where’s he now?”

I twist the knife, but it cuts both of us. He slits his eyes.

I grind my teeth, all but shouting in my head, say his name, say his name. I don’t dare ask for it, ‘cause then he’ll never tell.

Guilt digs into me — I’m not here for some stupid boy I fucked. Rosamund. I’m here for Rosamund.

“Take me where she died.”

What color was in his face is gone. “Clem’ll get you.”


Graham gets up slow, deliberately knocks his bottle. His hopeful look that the noise might draw attention fades quick. I can’t be sure, but from the sounds of it we take a different passage than his buddy Clem, right to his left, narrower and dark, so I tell him to take the lantern. He does.

Dust is pretty thick here, and I get the impression from his sad-sack shuffle that he hasn’t been down here in a while. Nothing looks familiar, but then again we were running and it was Rosamund leading the way. After a few minutes, the walls look less like walls and more like rocks fallen together.

“Never told no one she’s here,” he says.

I don’t answer.

“Won’t tell them about you, either. When I’m done with you.”

I jab him in the back with Rosie’s nose. “Keep walking.”

“Guess you never told, neither.” He shifts around a spur of rock like he’s been doing it his whole life. “Else you and yours would have come right back for blood. No one to tell.”

I clamp my mouth shut, ‘cause I don’t need to speak. My thumping heart is talking loud enough for both of us.

He ain’t wrong. I could never go to the Founding elders and tell ‘em what happened. We broke everything — talking to outsiders, drinking, selling our hash. Being a part of Founding is a privilege, they are quick to remind us, one that can be revoked even for us born after Founding. Whatever it takes to remain sovereign.

The tunnel ends in a shambles of rock. I can still see, still smell, the scorch marks. Gunpowder and something oily-sweet underneath it all.

He’s standing in my way, all his lippiness and languor gone.

“Out of the way,” I tell him.

He doesn’t move, so I kick him and his drunk ass falls to his knees. The oil lamp falls, too, but rights itself after a tumble.

One skeletal hand sticks out from under the rocks.

All I see is red.

I slam the rifle butt into his head, connecting with a good hard crack, and kick him a couple of times. He curls onto his side, his own hand not far from hers.

“Fuck you,” he slurs through bloody lips. “Goddamn cunt. She got hers. Just like you will.”

Hurts to think. Too many things pressing in, and I’m not talking about the walls. “Maybe,” I whisper, leveling the gun at him. “And maybe I don’t care. Do you even remember her name?”

“Rosamund.” He spits, then his eyes gleam with understanding. “And you ain’t ever getting his.”

A shot fires, and it ain’t mine. Misses though, sending a rain of rock dust down on us both.

I turn and blast the shadow behind me without thinking.

And when I turn back around, fucking Graham is bolting up, hands reaching for my throat.

I fire straight into his face.

Silence, after that. I can’t look at Rosamund’s hand just yet, so I look down at Graham. The shot knocked him back — spread-eagled on the floor, face up. Blood seeping out of what’s left of it.

Two bullets, two down.

I spit.

My feet aren’t too steady, and my grip on the rifle is loose. Don’t want to carry it anymore. Too heavy. I lay it down next to Rosamund.

Dust is choking thick now. I just want to be out. I pass the other dead man, which turns out to be Clem. Took the blast square in the chest. Guess all my practice with Rosie was worth it, but I feel sick inside.

I’m caked in the red dust from the cave when I see him, their third. Just a boy, with his half chin of hair and still-round cheeks. Same age as me, if I were a betting woman.

Those eyes, though.

His eyes.

Was he sleeping somewhere else and heard the shots?

The boy takes one look at me with his brother’s eyes and goes sheet-white. I don’t know what he thinks he’s seeing: a ghost, a fury or just a woman, but he’s scared and he doesn’t have a gun.

“Still’s gonna blow,” I say. “Run.”

He does.

Easy to find the dynamite. I stare at those carefully packed sticks a long time before I move the whole crate beside the belly of the still, not caring a whisker if that boy might come back to do me in.

Hell, I might do me in.

I take one stick in my hand, turn it around a couple of times, deciding.

I light the fuse.

January shreds the clouds and brings nothing but old memories. Rosamund and Graham and that Clem ghost beside me no matter where I go, what I do. And every night, I see that moonshine-fueled fire burn phoenix-bright after the dynamite blew it all to hell.

My second child is due in three months.

I hate waddling but that’s all I’m good for, that and any work I can do that lets me sit a while. Doc assures me everything’s fine. She asks, gently, if there’s anything I want to talk about.

“Girls your age tend to stagger ’em,” she says, taking off a stethoscope that still bears the stamp of the New York doctor who used to own it. “Especially when you haven’t found a vocation yet.”

I tell her no, I got nothing to talk about and to mind her business, polite as I can manage.

I’m eager to go, as I have an appointment. Have to pass through the creche to leave Doc’s office. A whole passel of kids, toddlers up to eight-year-olds, playing, fussing, shouting, laughing. Older kids, already in their apprenticeship rotations, have outgrown the one-room classroom and are underfoot elsewhere. Several Maids, women who choose not to bear children, who will never bear arms, are frazzled but look happy as they corral their charges.

It is a privilege to defend Foundling but there’s a price. A fair one. Every life you take in this world must be returned in kind. I owed one more.

One Maid, only a few years older than me, carries a babe in a sling.

The girl-child is about the right age to be mine. Don’t want to look, but I do.

Those eyes of hers, so like his, that gentle whiskey-brown, and I know. And ache for him all over again.

Putting down roots, like the Matron said.

I rub the tears out of my eyes and leave. I’ve got to see a woman about a gun.

About the Author

Stephanie Charette

Stephanie is a raven-brained science fiction and fantasy nerd from the wilds of Canada. She’s an alum of Viable Paradise (Go Fifteeners!) and Taos Toolbox 2017. A cat fancier, tea sniffer, and wallflower with a taste for whisky, she’ll be off hoarding office supplies but not before asking you where you got that pen. Just don’t let her borrow it.

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About the Narrator

Robin McLeavy

Robin McLeavy is an actress best known for her work on AMC’s hit Western series HELL ON WHEELS. On the show she played the character of Eva, who was based on a real woman who was captured by Native Americans and given a chin tattoo to mark her as one of their own. On the show Eva starts as a prostitute who then forms a relationship with Elam, a freed slave, played by Common. By the end of the series Eva is running a brothel, and although relatively wealthy and independent, she eventually realizes that her true home is out in the wild with her horse, who she names Maat Kwissa Atev, meaning FREE SPIRIT in Mohave.

Originally from Australia, Robin trained at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, and one of her career highlights has been performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring as Stella opposite Cate Blanchett as Blanche and Joel Edgerton as Stanley, and directed by the legendary Liv Ullmann.

Robin lives in Los Angeles, and is currently writing and producing a feature film about her late friend and Aussie rock’n’roll icon, Chrissy Amphlett of the DIVINYLS.

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About the Artist

Geneva Benton

Geneva Benton is a self-taught illustrator from North Carolina, who loves working with colors, big hair, and drawing whimsy with a touch of realism and happiness. Her work has appeared in magazines, novels, editorial and advertising campaigns.

You can find her most often on Instagram, and support her work on Patreon.

Find more by Geneva Benton