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Six-Gun Snow White, Page 6

Catherynne M. Valente

  “Why’d you run off from your mama?” the dude says real gentle. Snow White looks at him over the core of her apple. She knows the score and the score is not in her favor.

  “Ain’t your business,” she says back.

  “Let’s pretend it is.”

  “We can pretend that crick is the fountain of youth, won’t make it any more your nevermind what goes between me and my mama.”

  And Snow White gets up to go. Puts her hand on her cannon and backs off from the dude like it’s a choice she can make. But it’s too late for that. He’s chased her over hell and gone and she’s et his food and he’s going to do his job. Dog on High knows his soul and his soul is the job and the job will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

  “Where you off to in such a lather?” the dude says again. He’s got a voice to charm tigers when he wants to use it. “I got a deal for you if you stow that smokewagon and act civilized. I can shoot you faster than you can draw so don’t you twitch.”

  “Says you.”

  The dude just laughs. The day a dandy’s daughter can outshoot a Pinkerton is the day the Good Dog lays down his bone.

  “Pull in your horns and sit down, kid,” he snaps, and Snow White does it, instantly, unquestioningly. Her bones obey before her brain can buck. It’s a voice the dude likes to use on runaways. Daddy’s voice and daddy is not happy. Do what you’re told. Don’t argue with your betters. Somebody learned that girl good.

  “Now,” the dude says, “I’m gonna shoot you either way. I been contracted for it, I signed for the job, what’s gonna happen was always gonna happen and that’s above my bend. I am sorry on it, but we all got a bag of nails to carry.”

  “Then if it’s all the same I’d rather not talk it to death. If you work for Mrs. H I’ll allow you some pity; but you signed up for what you’ll get. She’ll thank you with a knife in the eye. We’re both walking dead.”

  The dude hesitates. “She beat you, I suppose?”

  Snow White just laughs. The dude feels that laugh in his spine. It saws there on the hard, old bone.

  He takes out a deck of cards. The sun prickles the backs. “Well, you and me, girl, we’re gonna draw cuts. Aces high. If I pull the high card I’ll shoot you where you sit and carve out your heart to bring back to your mama. I will not enjoy that part of this business but it is firmly stated in the terms of my commission. No accounting for rich folks’ morals—but I thank you for the warning on the matter of your mother and I will hew to it. If you draw the high card, we’ll walk off paces like gentlemen and you’ll have a mean chance at walking off clean.”

  “How do I know you have not got a cold deck?” Snow White asks.

  “If you want the shuffle of it, you may have it.”

  Snow White looks over the cards real careful. The dude does not cheat. He does not have to. He knows he will get his whether he draws a two of diamonds or the King of Diamonds. It looks like a choice but it isn’t. Snow White shuffles; the cards spill from one hand to another like a red waterfall. For a minute she looks like a statue of Temperance or Justice, pouring red water between two cups.

  Snow White cuts first. Takes her card and holds it. Passes the dude the deck to cut himself, nice and fair. He takes his and without agreeing upon it they turn over at the same time.

  The dude lays down the King of Clubs. He smiles.

  Snow White holds the Ace of Hearts.

  Snow White

  and Porcupine Contend for

  a Buffalo

  Snow White and the dude pace it off. The sky is bright and hot as the beginning of something.

  Of course she cheated. Don’t be silly. Snow White spent half her growing years shuffling cards for no one. She can cut false and she can cut true but she wasn’t going to lose when it counted.

  They stand in the green grass. Beneath them men are cutting apple rinds out of the dark and will be forever. Snow White’s got the sun behind her. It gives her golden ears like a doggy seraphim.

  A crack and a whistle. Another one, almost on top of it, like an echo.

  Wind picks up and it smells like rain.


  Snow White

  Said to Porcupine

  to Bring Him

  Out of His Hole

  Sorry about your knee, mister.

  And your shoulder, too.

  Remember that, if you’re cogitating on coming after me again. I can shoot twice before you shoot once.

  Also I will always draw the high ace.

  I got no soreness on you, mister.

  You wait here. There’s good black-tail in these mountains and I aim to help you even if you can’t see the help in it yet.

  You’re gonna take a heart back to Mrs. H. A deer’s heart, which is the best I can do.

  There is more blood in a deer than seems creditable.

  Mrs. H is not my mother and you should not name her that.

  She is a witch.

  I do not know what witches want with hearts but it cannot be anything nice.

  Take this heart and put it in a wooden box.

  Give the box to Mr. George Button who is the valet and abscond yourself if you aim to keep living.

  Forget your bounty. Take what you have already got and call it the bettermost part of luck.

  Mrs. H is dreadful clever and will probably not be fooled. That is why you cannot get your scratch.

  You will have to run away from her. Like me.

  One thing I have learned about running away is that once you start there is no end to it.

  I know you will have a hard sentiment about having your plow cleaned by a girl but if you think about it I am being as kind as anybody ever is.

  If you get yourself back to the corral you can rustle up a sawbones from the boss-man and get yourself patched.

  I am going to take your gun and your knife.

  That’s about all I can do for you.

  Snow White

  Races Herself

  Snow White hits the mountains with Charming underneath her, the dude behind her, a hot hurry on either side and a week’s wages in her pockets. A new knife strapped to her leg. A new gun on her back. She’s running again. Snow White never stops running. Her hands are still red. Blood don’t come off real easy. A space opens up between the shootout and Snow White.

  It looked like a choice but it wasn’t.

  Snow White burns the wind.

  Part IV

  Snow White Lives

  With Forty Dragons

  Snow White

  Hits the Road

  Snow White does not know it when she crosses over into the Crow Nation. It looks just like the country which is not the Crow Nation. Trees, river, rocks, clouds hunkering down low like they’re just as fugitive as she is. It is spring in both Crow Nation and not-Crow Nation. Puff blossoms on the bough and big tulip buds coming up like candles. Deer have velvet on their antlers in both Crow Nation and not-Crow Nation.

  Charming drinks from the swollen freshets. He finds the grass here choice. He is happy to be with Snow White again, happy to be running fast again, happy to prowl it over again with his favorite girl.

  Snow White comes over a country possessing many cliffs and high stones. A lot of blackberries here, and sap flowing from the trees like whiskey. She does not apprehend the geography, being dog-tired and shot up in the heart even if her skin’s still holding together. Snow White don’t know it but on the lee side of those blue rocks there’s a soft valley full of people. If she turned east a bit she’d clap eye on a village, buckskin huts, fires and a mess of horses. The people there look like her, but not like her. They wear two braids and high pompadours dyed and stiffened. It’s not her mother’s village—the Crow Nation is still something to see, and it so happens only one old fella with a black scar right through both his lips remembers a cousin’s sister’s bad-luck daughter by the name of Gun That Sings. But that’s one more than Snow White’s got in the way of folk fit to speak to who know her mama lived or died.

If she rides down into the valley, this is what will happen: a little girl will see Snow White and start up crying. Snow White will not mean to fear. She’ll get off her horse but the girl only cries harder and runs for her father. Other folk will know her now. They’ll look at her and they won’t smile. They won’t see her mother’s face on her and welcome her home. Snow White will try to speak but they do not have English nor want the burden of her handling. Her appearance will not comfort. They will not know her for one of them just by looking. Anyway, Snow White presents a figure like a barrow-tramp and she’s still wearing blood, some from the dude and some from the deer.

  She won’t know it, but the little girl whose name is Cold All the Time will say to her father:

  I don’t want to go with the white lady, Papa. Make her go away. I want to stay here. Why can’t we stay here?

  A tall man called Busy Horse will sing up with English in his pockets. He’ll turn her back.

  Go on your way. A white girl alone will only cause us grief. Someone will come looking for you and the price of you will be sky high. One white person is like one steelhead. Once you see the first one, the others are already coming. Go back to Brother John the American Man and eat a lot of good things. Do not speak to him about us. We keep to ourselves. We do not want white problems. White girls are bad luck.

  And that will just about be the end of Snow White. Once you take away the end in sight, not much left to do but pull up the ground over your head. Sometimes the next no is the last one you can take.

  If she turns west, Snow White will find something else, half again as strange. There’s a town out there, in the un-land between the dirt America’s bought and spat on and the territory they haven’t got around to snatching yet. Town goes by the appellation of Oh-Be-Joyful. Fitted out with run-off catalogue women, whores, cattle Kates, bandits, desert rats, and gunslingers. All women; all sour on the whole idea of going back where they came from. No law there, but no mercy neither. Do for outsiders all you please, but never for Joyfolk.

  Somebody there remembers Gun That Sings, too. She’s about as old as the ocean, but she’ll talk you dead for free.

  Come on, girl. Pick one. Ain’t no guarantee of peace either way, but turn that ’loosa’s nose toward something other than nothing at all or this time next year you’ll be freezing to death on the Arctic Circle with the ghosts of those boys who thought there was a passage straight through this country top to bottom. Those pompadours have no use for a runaway who’ll bring down the whole white world on them, and Joyfolk don’t give God the time of day. Pick a path and hit the briars.

  Snow White veers west.

  The setting sun hits her head like a bullet. Gold spills out, spraying the stones and the grass.

  Snow White

  and the Birds

  from Heaven

  These are the seven outlaws who run the town of Oh-Be-Joyful in the Montana Territory:

  Bang-Up Jackson, cattle rustler with a face like a hoofprint, dead shot, boss lady with hounds at her feet and the sun at her back. Never had no use for a husband after the one who drug her west got himself shot over a cooking pot in Laramie.

  Little Mab Volsky, bank robber, bandit queen, pretty as a spring lamb and twice as likely to kick your face in. Did a job at Billings Bank and Trust to the tune of a dandy fortune, and some train in Arizona plum full of horses and silver and oranges. She and her gang ate that gold for days. Took the horses and coin north. Still a few bottles of orange moonshine in Little Mab’s cellar. Still a lot of horses in town with an Arizona brand on their rumps.

  Cocklebur Macaluso, best wildcat on the Lode, five fat dollars just to kiss her, and not a man ever called himself cheated. Girl can cock a gun by squeezing her legs together. You know her by her green bustle and her big ruby mouth, you know her by her laugh and the shine of her knife—and you know her by the jags on her face where a broke down cattleman cut her up good because he wanted power over something.

  Woman Without a Name, horse thief, run off from the Crow Nation when her family went down red under gun. Her pompadour’s slicked up high and stiff and her hand on a mare’s head’s as sure and cool as rain. She’ll ride down a deer until its heart pops and have it skinned and trussed before it knows it’s dead.

  Old Epharim, bear of a woman, grey in the braid with half a beard coming in. Used to wrestle cougars for a dollar a match in some traveling show. If you can find blank skin between her scars you’re a better eye than most. Middle of town sits a big black pan as wide as a bull’s back, and the old girl fries up every night whatever she’s shot, wrestled, trampled, or scared dead. Shares it out fair-like. Smokes the whole time like a burning beast.

  Witch Hex Watson, scamped out of Maine when the snow-hump knocked the cattle down and all the pretty wives called witchcraft on Missus Watson. Girl don’t care. Just as well for a one who never liked the stink of cows, never had a hanker for marrying, never had a smile for anyone but scowls enough to go round. And maybe she did know a thing or two, maybe she’d highed to the woods with her skirts up and maybe the old Puritan cold dark boocraft hopped in her pocket like a frog o’ green.

  Astolaine Bombast, catalogue woman, ordered up like a rare steak, plees make shore she is pritty and a whyt gurl if you have enny. Well, she’s pritty enough for homesteading but takes no ribbons at the fair. After three dead babies that fellow wanted his money back, pack her up in a box and ship her east to the wife factory. Astolaine lit off before the new model could hit the doorstep, skinning rabbits and scooping mushrooms like her daddy taught her until she walked out of the woods and into a town full of banshees with no love for anyone’s history.

  Your past’s a private matter, sweetheart. You just keep it locked up in a box where it can’t hurt anyone.

  Snow White

  Meets the Red Ants

  Her heart’s balled up in her chest and she wants to be quit of it, just cut it out and leave it on the road. Shoulda let the dude have it. In the end she can’t hardly see no difference atwixt her and that deer she shot down. No use but meat. Charming carries her through a black oak forest and a mess of plum and peach trees and she don’t even stop to get that fruit. Snow White don’t care. Her body’s all her trouble and she won’t feed it any sweet thing. That girl’s frown sinks so black she don’t see them coming til they’re on her.

  Seven of them bolt riding down a rill in a spring rainstorm, a bunch of Kates dressed afright and hollering. They’ve got on deerskins and skunk skins and spotted cat skins, pink silk and purple and blue and green, black lace and harlot’s satin, cavalry coats with gold braid and tuxedo trousers, widow’s veils and stovepipe hats and one had a whole horse skull on her head like a helmet. Another has a belt of cattle horns. The biggest toad in the puddle has a silver breastplate strapped on and lord knows where she got it, robbing a museum train or playing Hamlet on some black-bellied stage in hell. A bunch of bushwhack Titanias looking blue at her and Snow White reaches for her gun. If they’re fix to knock her down, she’ll welcome it.

  That’s not what happens. Snow White fires wide. She does it on purpose. Come on. Just shoot back. Their horses skitter and the sound of seven hammers rocking back clicks up like cards shuffling. But they don’t crease her. Snow White She screams through the rain for no point but to scare them though they don’t scare and her hollering puts them in a forgiving mood, seeing as how they’re hollerers themselves. Snow White wants to cry but her but she’s dried out. She’s got ruby dust and grime and the shit of the deep earth in her and that’s about it. She looks up at the rain and noise comes out of her. Ain’t screaming or crying or talking, just noise, noise out of her blood. The rain fills up her mouth like milk.

  This is what the women of Oh-Be-Joyful say to Snow White.

  Ain’t you cut a swell.

  Stow that nail-pounder or we’ll blow you under the earth.

  Come you from the scrap of Crow Nation over the hill?

  A white girl alone is trouble on everything she touches. A
sk us. Don’t we know.

  Don’t you look at her like that, Bang-Up. Can’t bring her home. Can’t risk it. She’ll open the door to anyone who happens by and wonder why we ever locked it.

  Hush it. What’s the place for if not half rain-drowned wildcats.

  Come to town. I’ll pour you a pair of overalls myself and we’ll split up your sorrows seven ways between us.

  Snow White

  Puts a Saddle

  On Her Back

  Cocklebur sits Snow White down in a tin bathtub, peels her out: first the road comes off, then the gunfight, then the mine and then the running, the old mirror and the boardwalk, the bunched up tiredness of everything and all of her. The water’s black. Snow White frowns so deep you couldn’t dig her out with a shovel, lets the bath burn her, lets the lady brush her hair like it matters.

  The water’s warm. No ice melting inside her. It just smells like river and the kettle. Cocky don’t say anything and that’s as good as love right about now.

  Snow White stops doing and lets the rest do for awhile. Lets Old Ephraim feed her bunny and beans, lets Little Mab put her in some poor dead bastard’s kit. Snow White declines the mirror. Mirrors are an ugly business. She’s done seeing herself.

  Is she fixing to stay? She talks less than a lump of dough I’ll tell you what.

  For awhile Snow White lets Bang-Up Jackson give her a bed. It’s a little house but it’s stalwart. Snow White sleeps all the time. Lies on the bed with her eyes shut and doesn’t move. A moth lands on her nose and she don’t so much as twitch. It’s easy not to get up. Not to move. But Bang-Up won’t let that go.