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Six-Gun Snow White, Page 5

Catherynne M. Valente

  Snow White can’t quite call whether it’s her tits or her gun that grief her most. Sure, the grimy boys grab her even when she bands her chest down tight, but once she punches one of them plum down, she gets to like that, too. Turns out her shit-shoveling arm can clean a man’s plow no problem. But no matter how she pulls her slicker over Rose Red, some ganted grubstake whose claim don’t love him sees the grip and thinks he can take it easy.

  Probably it was always going to turn out like it did. Human nature only got a few tales to tell.

  In a silver camp name of Haul-Off, Snow White shot a man.

  It was raining fierce and the fella hadn’t eaten in three days. Any color he struck went eighty percent to the company and how can a man get ahead on those numbers? How can a man think straight with a gun like that in his sight, all those pearls and that opal glinting like a good life?

  There’s a heap of world Snow White doesn’t understand. She can ride and she can shoot and she can hold her rye, she don’t fare well in high company and she don’t know a thing about cattle. But getting beat down by a body twice your size who just wants to take the one thing you’ve got in this world from you—yeah. Snow White knows something about that. And she’s about the fastest draw til you hit the Dakotas. She did it out in the street out of respect to the piano girl. It feared her less than she thought. No different than a tin goose in a gallery, only she got no prize for firing true. Snow White felt a damn sight worse over the seagull she brought down way back. Funny how a gun can speak your pain so clear.

  When she sheaths her barrel, she sees it: one of the red pearls fell off somewhere in the mud. Nobody’s daddy is pleased.

  Ten miles out of town Snow White broke up sobbing into her pony’s mane. Charming stood bold, took all her tears so she could keep on going.

  Snow White follows the moon.

  Snow White

  In the Underworld

  Round about Nevada the grass gets scarce and the critters get shy. All those apples are long gone and the bullet situation is not promising. Snow White hitches up her need and goes looking for work. She suffers some worry over whether her femaleness will trouble her, but the truth is after riding those back countries down, most everyone looks the same.

  She finds what she’s looking for in a gemstone mine south of Blue Coffin. You could ride right over it and never know it’s there: the men live below snakes in the hollows left after the axes and drills have stripped the shine out of the rock. Coupla the boys even throw down rugs, perch a picture of the missus back home up on a spit of stone. One hollow’s set up for a saloon, a tilted splintery bar, whiskey so cheap and stiff the boys call it Who-Shot-John, a card table and seven stools nobody stops fighting over. Snow White stows Charming with the camp horses in a corral run by a woman just about as old as the wheel and heads underground. It don’t escape her this is her father’s mine. Nevada is his mother’s teat; where he made his fortune. Well, why shouldn’t Snow White have a fortune, too? Not that she expects one. She’s no fool and a night in a gold camp will straighten you right out on the odds of making your dimes on the lode. If you want to get straight, which most nobody does once they’ve seen the good blue and the hard yellow.

  It’s neither of the two down here. It’s the true red: rubies. Bloody knuckles; apple rinds. Snow White gets a skinnier cut on account of her being a girl and a half-breed heathen if ever the foreman did see one, but it’s something. It keeps Charming in hay and her in beans-on-griddlebread and on Sunday they get tinned peaches if the take’s been good. Way Snow White figures it, in a month she’ll have enough socked away to head back north, up to Montana which she has not forgotten, into the Territory. In a month she’ll have enough to quit worrying if she hasn’t seen so much as a badger stumble past her sights. The company man smiles and rolls his cigarette. It’s what they all say. Just a month and I’ll bring my people out. Just a month and I’ll move up top to Blue Coffin where they got proper houses. Just a month and I’ll be shitting rubies, that’s how rich I’ll strike. Opium ain’t got nothing on the promise of tomorrow turning up better than today.

  Snow White does not complain. She swings her ax and learns to see in the dark. She forgets what it’s like to smell nice. She gets so that her heart beats faster whenever she sees a glitter of red in the gloom. Just about every week some idiot tries to get her to wash their clothes or scrub them down or show that cook how to make a proper tuck-in. Just about every week some bruiser gets tied and bellows at her to show them her Injun witchcraft or tries to get their hands under her shirt. Give us a smile, Snowy. Give us a taste. We all share down here.

  Snow White has broken a fair number of fingers. Fingers count in this line of work. Fingers are a penny-bid on your future. All that separates a man from a dog is fingers.

  Folk stop galling her so hard. Snow White is aware that if she loses one fight it’s over for her. So she does not lose. She cuts her hair off after a short, burly mister starts touching it and allowing as how he’s heard heathen’s pussy’s got feathers instead of hair. I know y’all are just like a blackbird down there. She doesn’t miss it. No mirrors underground, and she’s grateful for that. She swings her ax and does not see the sun. It is like being inside the heart of her father. Close and dark and hungry, pumping wealth like blood.

  A month is not enough. Never is and she knows that now. Hell is a company town. Snow White owes the store for the food in her belly, the tools on her back, Who-Shot-John whizzing around her head every night when the all-stop blows. And she might have stayed, told herself the big lie, that tomorrow she’d find a bloody knuckle so big it’d pay her way to the moon with cash to spare. There’s an apple in that mountain with her name on it.

  But somebody’s looking for her. Someone’s knocking on the grass up there, and he wants to come in.

  Snow White

  Gets Hit On the

  Head With a Brick

  All right, all right. If you stand her a swallow of Who-Shot-John, the girl will fess up.

  Snow White lost one fight. Just one, but it was a fuss to be remembered.

  The man in question was a no-account out of Laramie. He’d been a cattleman before a flood took his flock and all his hopes came a-cropper. He’d seen his brother exalted for rustling and his wife dead of the lunger the winter after. It cripples a man in the morality to spend his days digging beauty out of dead rock for the pleasure of rich folk he’ll never meet, and this fella was right torqued up. Not that he’d been a stand-up aforehand. He wanted to punch down the hangman who took his kin and the angels who took his girl but they were not present. Snow White, contrariwise, had broken the fingers of a number of his friends and had to sleep sometime. A helpless man swings wide.

  So this man followed Snow White back to her hollow with a determination for trouble hanging on his hips. He had once allowed to the boys that she was pretty enough for a godless mix-blood bitch. He’d never ridden Injun, but he’d never et dog before, neither. The world of experience is a broad and unpredictable country. The way the cattleman heard it told, squaws got wolf’s fur on their tits and a tail fit for a lizard tucked twixt their flanks. Snow White being only half-squaw he’d likely have to settle for one or t’other but you can’t have everything. He’d considered it a long while and figured God owed him some pleasure in this life and if she didn’t like it, well, a good pound-down puts anyone in an amenable mood.

  Snow White lay asleep. Without thinking about it the cattleman took off his hat when he came into the hollow like he meant to call her ma’m and present flowers. She was awful nice-looking when she was asleep. No scowling or hissing or cursing. Why, if you squinted, she almost looked regular, like some rancher’s daughter who just needed a bath and she’d be respectable as a wedding. If she hadn’tve hacked her hair off he’d have judged her the second or third handsomest girl he’d had acquaintance of, and he’d been to Denver once. The cattleman felt a powerful need to kiss Snow White. Mayhap she liked being kissed. Mayhap she’d wake up and sh
ow her wolf-parts. In the storybooks, if you woke a girl up with a kiss she belonged to you. It was like a brand on a cow’s rump. A kiss round and black and permanent-like on the skin, telling the whole world who owned her. The idea of that big burning kiss made him hard enough to drill rubies.

  The cattleman kneeled down and put out his lantern. He kissed Snow White real nice, like you kiss a lady. Her fist cocked his jaw good, but the cattleman had the upper position and she could not reach her gun. He slapped her open hand and yanked on her sawed-off hair.

  “I weren’t gonna hurt you none,” he hissed in the dark, even though he would have if she hadn’t looked so damned daisy lying there. He’d kissed her just as sweet as his own wife but it weren’t enough for her, no sir. He popped her nose and that felt good. Blood sprayed on her mouth. Blood on her skin. Blood on the ground. Him sitting on her and watching her bleed. That felt good, too. Pretty soon she’d cry and that’d be just cherry.

  Snow White got her thumb into the cattleman’s eye and he grunted, grabbed her fingers, fixing to break them to show this cow how it felt, but she rolled him off her onto the floor of the hollow. It was dark and she slugged him hard. He hit her back. They clenched up, fisting and gouging in the dark. The cattleman did not like it. The whiskey in his blood had been surging for a fight with a woman, and a fight with a woman ends in her crying and shaking and a fella hushing her all over. Her dress torn and a bit of tit peeking out and quivering. Simple, righteous pleasures. But Snow White just bit him and pounded him and it was no better than fighting a dude in a barrel-house. Just ugly and bruising and the main thing was not to let anyone get to a gun or else it’d be over on the quick. She didn’t even put up her hands to defend herself. She didn’t even care if he cut her face. Must be the wolf in her, or the lizard.

  Snow White took her licks. Nothing she hadn’t done before. Bones creaking and wet blood on her hands, the dark all round and no one coming to help her. Point of fact, that was Snow White’s home country. That bloody punishing ground in the dark was real familiar. At least this time she hit back. At least this time she got hers. When you’ve been hit as often as she has, you don’t hardly feel it. You go to another place in your head until it’s over. Make yourself small and send the part of you that still feels anything to some tiny corner to wait it out. A corner full of tin ducks and red foxes and old bears, where the slots spin up summer every time. It’s just a body. Snow White doesn’t care about her body. A body is just a tool you use for walking around. Make sure it holds together and whatever else someone does to it matters less than spitting.

  The cattleman had his fill of Snow White. He staggered out of her hollow looking like hamburger. Never did find out if she had a tail. Wasn’t worth it. When an animal don’t even care if it lives or dies, kicking it holds all the fun of kicking a rock.

  Snow White

  Plays a Trick

  on Porcupine

  The dude is flummoxed. It’ll pass.

  Easiest track he ever laid his nose to, that’s the Dog’s honest truth. This girl is not sly. She does not know how to come to town and leave it so quiet the hooch-man don’t even remember how his bottle got so low. She does not know how to go so soft and fast her name never hits the ground. That’s okay. The dude knows. That kid has punched out some curly wolf in every shithole from home to the high country. Not a single town left unpunched. She even beefed that short-horn back in Haul-Off—right through the eyes, too. Lucky shot. Every soul gets one. The dude is not troubled by his little angelica blowing smoke through a man. Good for her.

  But the trail goes cold as a fish in January on the Nevada side of the Sierra range and the dude cannot re-acquire it. Either she’s had her temper surgeried on or been ascended bodily to heaven and he’ll be damned if he can say which. Nobody’s seen a girl with a ridiculous gun and a powerful eagerness to fight. Nobody’s got whisker or whisper of her. He’d been close enough to cut for sign—the hairs of her pony’s tail, the shed fuzz of her angoras, the shells of her parlor pistol. But nothing. The whole world clean of her. Now the dude’s got nothing but his dick in his hands. Chicago office is not happy. Who’s happy in this world? Maybe a mountain cat with a bead on an open sheep-pen. That’s about it.

  The dude is disappointed but his patience is vast. He has not been euchered, no sir. He just revises his notions on the girl. Most rich babies would have brotheled up or bucked out by now, but not her. She’s game. She’s in it for real play. She is heeled and she is sour as a new grape. It’s a different situation, that’s all. His employer did not give him the whole hoyle.

  When the dude was a boy his mother told him a story about a girl in a red dress that blew town, humping through the high country on foot. Even back then the dude thought that girl was done crazy. Somebody better help her, mama, or she’s gonna get et. Somebody’s gotta track her down and get her back home to her daddy. Well, sure enough this big old wolf pricks her up and starts after, and he’s got a shine on this girl more like a man’s than a wolf’s. It don’t go well in the end—girls and wolfs, they got nothing to talk about. But the dude felt a kinship with that wolf. A profundity, even. That wolf would follow red-dress all the way around the world once he got her in his nose. You could admire that. You could aspire.

  And when the dude asks the Great Dog in Heaven to show him the way, it’s the wolf he’s thinking of. Like God’s this powerful big cay-ote up there and the world’s his bone. In chapel with his mama he tries to think of a man up on a cross but it just don’t fix. No, it’s the tricky-clever lolly-tongued red-loving Dog for the dude, amen and all’s well.

  The dude prays on it a spell.

  It comes up in his head like a bubble in a lake. When a dog’s hurting, when a dog’s hounded and hard-up, what’s he do?

  A dog goes to ground.

  Snow White

  Cheats At Cards

  Snow White comes out of the earth. She blinks a lot; her eyes forgot how to suck up so much light. She don’t present much of a woman anymore: filthy with sweat-grime and ruby-dust, white scar on her cheek like a star, clothes hard done by and none too ladylike to begin with, being goatskins, buck trousers, linen shirt, a fish-slicker coat and her daddy’s hat like a creased-up crown. Her hair did grow out some. The sun hits her and Snow White feels like her whole body is baking up sweet and good, like she’d never been born before and is trying alive on for the first time. Charming sees her in the corral and starts hopping fit to stampede the mares, calling out her name in his horsey patois.

  The dude is waiting for her. Once he had the picture of it, weren’t no work in figuring which softheart company daddy would let a woman dig shine. Weren’t no sport in it. Easy as sleeping. Nevada is good to the dude, always has been. He’s itchy, waiting on her to pop up mole-like from the grass. He’s thought about just popping her on the head with the butt of his hog-leg gun, but he figures he deserves himself the treat of a sit-down with this calico. She’s given him a good run, best he’s had since the war, and that earns her a few more hours in her mortal coil. Besides, she’s been down underground so long. It’s a right human deed to let her look on the sun awhile before he sends her there on the permanent.

  He squares Snow White’s debts to the company man. It’s no skin off him. The dude is flush and he’ll be full fine when he hands over his proofs back in California. The abandon does not like it; she’s cagey and looking to bolt but no man on this earth ever declined to have his accounts cleared and she won’t neither. She asks his name; he won’t give over. Gets her horse geared and the dude enjoys letting her think of him as a black-chapped angel sent by the Dog to secure her. That’s just what he is.

  “Where you off to in such a lather?” the dude says. “Get yourself niced up a bit. I bet you haven’t had soap on you in a bear’s age.”

  The dude feels right fatherly. Takes her down to the crick to wash the underground off of her. Just can’t bring himself to shoot her while she’s filthy and starving. There’s time. Offers her a cake of
French-milled soap he brought all the way out from Chicago. Smells like gardenias if you know your flowers, and the dude does. Snow White knows something’s skewed but she grabs it, strips off like it’s nothing and climbs in the water. She don’t shiver even though that stream has to be as cold as a wagon tire. The miner’s crud comes off her in black ribbons. The dude watches another girl come out of the blind mole-skin she was walking around in. This one has muscles like a mountain cat and a kind of pretty he doesn’t know what to do with. For fairness he’d take her stepmother six days and twice on Sunday. The beauty Snow White’s got has nothing to do with him. She’s scarred up and suspicious and shameless. Her pretty’s not for him. It’s like saying the moon’s got a fine figure on her. Maybe true, but what good is that to a man?

  Snow White puts her men-clothes back on and makes to get on her spotted horse.

  “Where you off to in such a lather?” the dude says. He’s got a smile that’d knock down the Queen of England when he wants it. “Set a bit and eat, I bet you had nothing but brown beans and pig’s assholes down there.”

  Right there on the grass the dude lays out a nice spread like she can’t refuse. She can’t. Like most things, it looks like a choice but it’s not. He is being magnanimous and it feels good. In Blue Coffin he bought them a lunch fit for a boss: soft rolls, pemmican, applejack, some real tomatoes and mushrooms and a couple of red and white apples just as firm as fists. A bottle of spruce-beer with the bubbles still hard. Snow White knows something’s warped but it’s real food, the kind that’s seen sunlight. She eats and watching her eat feels good. The way she shakes when she does it. The way she takes such a big bite of that apple it almost sticks in her throat. The way she chugs down that jack like a man.