“I won the game.”
I rode under the overcast sky and lost track of time as my mind became a gruesome landscape. I worried that I was dreaming and that I might wake up still trapped in the cowboy’s embrace. I felt as though I were in a dream or dead. Both seemed to be the only possibilities to my exhausted mind as I rode through the night.
When the sun rose again, I pulled on the horse’s reins at the sight of a pond up ahead. I jumped down from the saddle and nearly toppled over. I hadn’t realized how exhausting half a day’s ride would be.
My weakened legs shook as I led the horse to water. Keeping a hold on the rope, I wandered along the water’s edge. I pinched my arm several times and felt pain, so that had to mean I was not a ghost yet. I was simply living some other life that I was not yet prepared for. I traded in one living nightmare for another.
As my mind processed the full extent of my new reality, a sob emerged from the pit of my stomach. I sunk to the grass and cried for the first time in years. Helping Becky and Samantha had been the thing that kept me going while I worked for Max. With them out of my life, hopelessness ate a hole into the pit of my stomach.
“What the hell am I going to do now?” I cried.
I wiped the tears from my face as my thoughts shifted to my grumbling stomach and the need to keep going. For all I knew, Max was riding in pursuit at full speed. I realized that he could still catch me if I dawdled.
The tall cattails on my right rustled. I jumped at the sight of a straw hat appearing above the long grasses. My hand rested on the handgun that was secured in my belt. It had one bullet in it and the last thing that I wanted to do was use it at the beginning of my journey.
“Hello?” I called, forgetting to lower my voice.
A leathery face appeared from beneath the hat.
“Do ya really know how to use that thang?” asked a woman.
“I’ve been huntin’ since I was twelve, Ma’am.”
“Well, that ain’t no huntin’ rifle,” she said, eyeing my pistol.
I put the weapon down, realizing my mistake in pointing it at her.
“No threat intended, Ma’am. Sorry.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Runnin’ away from home, are ya?”
“Somethin’ like that. I should be on my way.”
She dropped the net that she was holding.
“I was huntin’ old bull frogs. I’ve grown tired of eatin’ potato soup and my shakin’ hands ain’t reliable for huntin’ these days. Ya hungry?”
I shook my head. All that I wanted to do was get away from her as quickly as possible.
“Help me catch some. Put ’em in that bucket.”
“I should be going.”
“People ain’t gonna buy that attempt at a boy disguise, y’know.”
I shot her a glare before turning around to walk back to my horse. She laughed as I remounted and rode away. Her chortling chased me on the wind like an evil spirit. Accustomed at last to the feel of riding a horse, I urged my mount into a gallop.
We reached the next town as the sun began to set. I kept my head down while I rode through the boisterous streets. I understood then why Papa hated town and I decided that I would avoid it as much as possible in the future.
After spending so much time in close quarters with all kinds of unsavory people, I found myself despising human company altogether.
A high-pitched shriek sounded down the street. A few heads turned, but then everyone resumed what they were doing. I caught sight of a handsome, well-dressed couple walking away from a commotion on the other end of the road.
My horse’s ears flattened against his head when a group of loud men passed by.
“Easy, boy,” I cooed, patting his neck gently.
I searched the streets for the source of the scream. My eyes found a group of boys across surrounding a much smaller kid.
“Hey!” I shouted.
Only one of the youths looked over his shoulder at me. I steered my mount closer to them as they shouted curse words. One of them shoved the little boy, who appeared no older than eight, into the side of a building.
I could barely breathe as rage burned from the pit of my stomach.
“Let him go, you bloody wolves!” I shouted.
“What’s it to you?” balked the tallest one.
They laughed at me. I got down from my horse and drew my weapon.
The boys backed away and I could not suppress my grin in the absence of theirs.
“Whoa. Who the hell are you?” asked the chubby one.
“Doesn’t matter. Get lost before I send one of you to the devil.”
The tallest one with eyes bluer than a robin’s eggs glared at me before signaling for his crew to bail. The three of them ran down the road like frightened mice.
My anger simmered down as the filthy, roughed up boy stared up at me with wide eyes.
“You alright, kid?” I asked.
He nodded, still leaning against the wall.
“Thanks for helping me, Ma’am.”
“Best be gettin’ home now.”
Without a word, he nearly tripped over his own feet as he ran the opposite way down the street. I watched him until he turned down an alley.
I took a deep breath and scanned the street. No one seemed to notice or care about the earlier confrontation. I shook my head with a loud sigh. It was the first day on my own and I nearly used my gun on one of those kids.
I remembered Max and that he might be on my trail. As I remounted, I took pleasure at the image of him searching frantically for me.
“I won the game,” I said coolly, glancing in the direction of home.
No one would have expected a willowy, wide-eyed saloon girl to kill someone twice her size, steal his horse, and escape into the night on her own, yet I had.
I rode out of the town and travelled half an hour down the road. I drifted off to sleep several times. I came to the conclusion that if I was exhausted, the horse probably felt the same way. I steered him off the trail toward a cluster of rocks and bushes in the middle of a field. It was doubtful that anyone would see us from the road. I decided to rest there for the night. Even in the absence of a mattress, it felt so good to sit down and rest.
I curled up into the fetal position on the hard ground with my blanket wrapped around me. I stared at the twinkling ornaments in the sky to take my mind away from missing Becky and Samantha. My stolen horse stood several feet away tied to a bush, content to sleep at last. He was a rather gentle animal and seemed to be in tune with me. Perhaps he was just as grateful as I was to escape from a monster.
In the melee of my retreat, I had not yet taken the opportunity to relish in that fact that I owned my very own horse.
“Did you know that your old master was a terrible man? No. Of course, you don’t.”
A chill tightened my scalp and raced down my limbs as the sound of approaching horses disturbed the quiet. I rose from the dirt and jumped into the saddle.
“Dear God, please don’t let him take me again!” I cried.
As I rode, digging my heels into my horse’s sides, my mind seemed to hover above me, watching the scene play out in horror. The pounding hoof beats and the delighted cowboy yells already hurt my ringing ears. One of the riders caught up with me and grabbed the reins away from my grip. I longed to cry, but fear immobilized me. Crying would have only made me appear more pathetic than I already was.
I choked on the bile rising from the pit of my stomach.
My new captor and I slowed our mounts to a walk as the other riders caught up with us. I couldn’t look at him yet.
As they surrounded me, I could see that Max was not among them. Their shadowy forms were too slight and clumsy.
One of them took my hat off.
“I told you she’s a girl.”
My heart nearly stopped as my vision adjusted to the grim darkness. I recognized their faces. They were the three little bullies from the last town. I could barely breathe as they quietly discussed what they were going to do with me. A new wave of fear settled over me.
“I-I was only attempting to defend the little boy,” I said. “I only threatened you to protect him!”
“Ya pulled a gun on us, bitch!”
“We’ll kill that there horse if ya don’t shut up,” said the tallest one.
Their laughter surrounded me.
“Fuck,” I said through clenched teeth.
I jumped down from my saddle and smacked my horse’s rump.
“Go!” I screamed.
He retreated, melting into the darkness like brown sugar dissolving in black tea.
“Now, why’d you have to go and do that?” asked the fat one.
I threw the full moon a final, desperate glance before they inflicted their idiotic vengeance on me.
They dismounted and surrounded me. I found myself longing for one of the regulars at the saloon instead. What drunken men wanted from a woman was predictable, but I had no idea what to expect from moody kids.
A part of me welcomed the finality of what was to come. I escaped from Max, killed a killer, and stole his horse. I saw Becky one more time and tasted freedom before it all ended. Maybe that was enough.
Surely, I would pass out after a few minutes of their torture. The tallest of the three shoved me into the dirt. I didn’t cry. I didn’t beg for mercy. Silence was my one power when devils tried to steal my dignity. I was not going to give it up.
I closed my eyes and hugged my knees in a futile attempt to shield their kicks. One swift punch in the stomach knocked the wind out of me. I emptied the contents of my stomach in the dirt, fighting for a breath of air. One of them shoved my head into the mess.
I breathed in a lungful of the cool air and a fist bashed into the side of my head. I longed to be my horse so I could throw them off and run away, but I was only a girl. I didn’t want to be a girl anymore. Soon, I would be nothing more than decomposing remains in the dirt.
One of them held my legs down while the other two kicked my already bruised, tender sides. I screamed as the pain became unbearable. My one power faded like life itself.
I begged for God to end it all. I longed for the black to claim me and take me away.
One of them took the unloaded pistol from my weak grasp before I faded.
“We’ll take your gun and kill that kid,” he taunted.
“No… leave him alone…” I groaned.
It was the last thing I remembered of that night before the pain gave way to streams of blood running down my face.
A screaming kettle and unspeakable pain awakened me from the oblivion. Panting, I struggled to open my heavy eyelids. I had never felt so thirsty in all my life.
“Where am I?”
“You’re safe,” said a woman.
Her voice was familiar, but I could not place where I heard it from. Her lined face loomed in my field of vision when I finally opened my eyes.
“Are you the woman that I saw by the crick?” I asked.
“Well, your memory sure ain’t ruined. You’ve been out cold for two weeks.”
“How’d you find me?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper.
“You can thank your horse for that. He came right back to the crick and grazed there all mornin’. I go there every day to catch them frogs – lucky for you. I knew right away that somethin’ was amiss when I didn’t see ya around ‘im.”
I tried to sit up, but the pain in my leg intensified. I moaned.
“It’s infected, isn’t it?” I asked.
The room fell silent after she poured boiled water into a basin.
“I didn’t see the sharp stone that was lodged in your flesh ’til this mornin’. Was wonderin’ why it was takin’ so long to heal. Just lay there, girl. I was hopin’ ya wouldn’t awaken ’til after this. Had to save my strength to get ‘er done.”
“Hush. It’ll only be temporary.”
She said something, but I couldn’t hear it above my pounding heart. A knife was in her hand as she sat down at the foot of my bed. I hoped that I was seeing things.
“Ma’am? Whatcha gonna do with that?”
“Close yer eyes. It’ll be over soon.”
Her calloused hands pinned my leg to the bed. I tried to struggle, but I was too weak to fight. Sharp pain sliced into my leg, forcing me wide awake. I screamed as she brought me back to agonized hell.
She cut me deeper.
She pulled the blade out of my leg.
I cried, fearing she had stopped only to repeat the torture.
“Please stop,” I begged.
“It’s over now. I had to cut your wound to draw the infection out. Better this than your entire leg.”
“I can’t breathe,” I panted.
“Take a deep breath, child. I’ll wrap up that wound ‘n give ya my infamous tea. It’ll help ya sleep.”
Her voice made my insides churn as I panted in fear.
“What fresh, new hell is this?” I hissed. “Can’t ya just knock me out?”
“I can’t. They already beat the living tar out of ya. I woulda shot ’em myself had I caught ’em in the act.”
I closed my eyes.
“Why did you help me?”
Without answering, she gently prepared hot water and gathered rags. I balled my hands into fists to keep from screaming as she cleaned the gash on my leg.
“They left ya by the riverbank,” she said. “Don’t know why they didn’t toss you in the river. Maybe somethin’ pricked their conscience enough to let ’em spare ya that fate.”
“I don’t think they have consciences,” I muttered.
“Broke your leg, they did. I set your leg while you were barely alive and out of it, so you can thank God for that mercy.”
I swallowed past what felt like the rock in my throat. I was alive, but I was not so sure that I should be grateful. If infection set in again and I had to lose my leg, death would be better.
“You have to keep fighting, child,” said the woman.
“You really believe that people can will themselves to heal?” I asked.
“It’s worth it to try.”
Trying at life was something I had already grown weary of. I wanted to succeed at something and enjoy it for more than a night.
I took note of where she placed the knife in case I needed to use it later. Before sleep took me away again, I promised myself that I would slit my throat if my leg did not heal.
The pain’s intensity rose and fell along with my consciousness. When I awakened, the woman helped me to sit up to take a big drink of water and take down some warm soup.
When I awoke one morning feeling a little less groggy, I met her gentle gaze. I guessed that she was around forty years old, but the harshness of life hadn’t yet broken the softness in her eyes.
I attempted to stand and she hustled over to steady me. I collapsed back on the bed as black stars filled my vision.
“You’re still a bit weak, but your wound is healing up nicely.”
“How can I repay you, Ma’am?” I asked.
“We’ll talk when you’re up on your feet again. Deal?”
Fatigue made it difficult to keep my eyes open for long. I hated my weakness, but I could do nothing more than submit to it. I had just tasted freedom only to have it taken away so quickly. It made me wonder if I would ever get out of there.
“Deal,” I whispered.
The days blended together and I lost track of time as I slowly gained my strength back. Max haunted most of my dreams like a devil. The chances of him finding me in an obscure house in the woods were slim, but I imagined that he did not take losing the game very well.
I wondered how far he went to try to find me. I prayed to God, if he was listening, that Max wouldn’t make one of the other saloon girls suffer in my absence. Possessions could always be replaced and he would find a new one in due time. The girls were terrible to me, but no one deserved the kind of torture that the man inflicted. If I were braver, I would face him, but all that I could think to do was run.
I wondered if there was just something about me that men wanted to control, which worsened my already miserable disposition. I was so far away from the person that I wanted to be.
My hand reached for a strand of my hair and grabbed the air instead. I touched my head and winced. Their damage to me did not end with my body. My hair had been lopped off at the shoulders.
“Bastards,” I said through clenched teeth.
“You ready to see if you can stand?” asked the woman.
“I can try.”
I stood shakily on one leg, careful not to put too much pressure on the healing one. The wound was tender, but I could stand on it.
I ran a hand through my short hair.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell ya they cut your hair, too.”
“It’s better you let me figure it out on my own.”
“Here, why don’t you help me with some chores now that you’re feeling better?”
“You can start with peeling these potatoes.”
I nodded and got to work.
“How is my horse?” I asked.
“He’s just dandy. Grazing on alfalfa.”
“He’s fenced in?”
“Yes, of course. It’s been no problem to keep him. Here, drink some tea.”
We sat and talked about the critters she had taken in and cared for over the last several years. She was the sort of kind heart that could never stand to see anything, no matter how small, suffer. It calmed my soul to be around someone who did not want to take something away from me, or teach me a nasty lesson. I also feared that my resolve to live a solo traveler’s life would soften from her presence.
Instead, as every day passed, my longing for freedom intensified. She hummed hymns and moved quietly about the home as she tidied up and I did the odd jobs about the place. Her cheerfulness, as she fed me all manner of bitter teas, herbs, and frog legs, became as grating as a dying cat’s mewling.
“Why don’t you wash up the windows today so we can look out and see the stars tonight?” she asked.
I poured water from the pitcher and grabbed a rag, feeling her eyes on me.
She would not stop looking. I thought about asking her why, but every time I was about to utter the question, I held it back.
“You’re a quiet one,” she mused.
“I have learned the price of asking someone the wrong question.”
“What kind of place did ya come from, then?”
“Never mind,” I said, rolling my eyes.
Her hands shook often and she seemed to tire by midday. It was clear that she suffered from some sort of ailment, but she never spoke about it. She did talk about the two of us growing vegetables and herbal gardens together in the late spring.
“You long for a companion, don’t you?” I asked.
“Yes, and you long for an adventure.”
My stolen horse was mine for the taking, but I was not ready to run yet. The woman deserved my help while I still possessed enough sanity to offer it.
I never asked what her name was and she never asked me what my name was. She likely knew that I would fly away one day like the other creatures she saved from nature’s cruelty.
Despite her kindness, I often wondered if my recovery was hindered by the meager food we ate.
“What if I wilt away and die?” I asked one day.
I sat on the window’s large ledge peeling potatoes with a growling stomach.
“You won’t be wiltin’ away on my watch,” said the woman.
“All we eat is frogs,” I said with a smirk.
She nodded sadly.
“I suppose they aren’t really enough for a young, healing girl.”
“We ought to go hunting soon.”
“My hands are too shaky to aim right.”
“I’d like to catch you some meat and then we can have a delicious meal together. I’ll find some wild parsnips out in the field to go along with the potatoes.”
Her wide smile softened her weathered face.
“I, er, fixed you up some overalls for when you are well enough to go huntin’. Those duds you wore before were way too big.”
“They were my Papa’s clothes. Um, thanks for the overalls.”
“A girl needs well-fittin’ clothes, even if they’re work clothes. Ne’er know when a handsome fella may come along.”
“Not interested even if one does come along.”
She grinned and gave me a wink.
“I said that once, too.”
I was about to ask her where that got her, but held my tongue.
“I owe you my life,” I said. “The least I can do is catch us some decent dinner.”
“The gun’s over there if you want to go tomorrow. Just don’t run away.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
She looked at me skeptically.
While I worried that cabin fever was going to drive me mad, I was not going to leave until I caught her a decent meal and helped her repair some of the holes in the house. I would be riding on the open road one day and I would miss my time spent with a good spirit, even if she made me want to pull my hair out sometimes.
I awoke before dawn one day with the same energy that filled me the morning that I ran away from the saloon. The draft whispered to my warm skin, coyly inviting me to come outside for an adventure.
As I slipped away from my toasty blankets, I found the tailored overalls and plaid shirt folded on the chair. I took them, got dressed, and then grasped the pre-loaded rifle from its resting place against the wall. I sneaked out of the house without waking the woman.
Inhaling the fresh early morning air, I looked to the field in search of my horse. I blinked back tears of joy at being able to step outside without feeling lightheaded or weak. I longed for true freedom again. It was so close that I could taste it.
My horse ran to the fence and greeted me with a soft whinny. I went to him and patted his smooth neck.
“Did you miss me?” I cooed.
He nuzzled me, nearly pushing me over. I laughed. I was happy that he missed my presence, for I needed him more than he needed me.
“I’ll take you for a run soon,” I promised.
I wandered toward the forest as the rising sun set the horizon aflame. I stepped slowly and lightly through the grass as my Papa taught me to do on our hunts years ago.
It felt so strange to be hunting again, for I loved it so. I lost myself the day that I walked into Max’s saloon and became his battered puppet. I shuddered and brought my attention back to the present. It was time to reclaim myself.
A patch of brown fur caught my eye. I held my breath as my finger found the rifle’s trigger. The rabbit froze, save its twitching nose. I aimed and pulled the trigger, closing my eyes as the gun powder’s pungent scent caressed my nostrils.
I stepped over to the kill. My aim had not faltered, despite my lack of practice. I picked it up by the ears and carried it back to the house.
My heart raced at the thought of surprising the woman. I owed her so much more than a good meal, but I knew that it would make her smile. We would share the best dining experience of the year together and then I would let her relax while I cleaned up.
I opened the door with a wide smile, but only darkness greeted me. I dropped the rabbit and stepped inside of the quiet home.
The woman still laid in her bed. The silence was eerie. She never slept past sunrise.
I placed my hand on her forehead to check for a fever and drew it back at the icy touch. I sat next to her and placed her lifeless hand into both of mine.
“I wish you hadn’t gone away.”
Regret at my ill thoughts toward her held me in a death grip. I fought the urge to vomit as I backed away from her corpse. I blinked back tears before I went back outside to skin and prepare the rabbit meat for cooking.
I returned to the kitchen and tossed a little bacon fat into the pan. I spoke softly to the woman, as though she were still alive, and I cooked the rabbit meat on the stove, inhaling the delicious aromas that I had not smelled in ages.
She would have longed for me to stay with her for a while after her passing. She had spent many years alone and I was her last friend. She deserved better company.
I prepared two plates and sat myself down at the table. As I ate, I watched the steam rise from the untouched food across from me.
After the hot meal, I went out to the old shed at the edge of her property and found a shovel. I chose her burial site by a cluster of wild daisies and started to dig.
After nearly finishing at mid-day, I went back inside to eat the second plate of food. I nearly fell asleep, but I forced myself to keep working.
I finished the rest of her grave before sunset. I went back to the house and wrapped her body up in her blanket. I dragged her out of the house and over to her final resting place.
I pushed her into the grave with shaking arms and quickly filled it with the loose dirt. I picked a bouquet of the daisies, placing them at the head of her grave.
“I will never forget your kindness. I am alive today only because of you.”
Exhausted, I returned to my bed and slept well into the afternoon of the next day. When I awoke, an uncanny coldness settled over me as I stared over at the empty bed.
I got up and shrugged into my oversized coat, noticing the Stetson hat hanging next to the woman’s dresser. I wondered if it belonged to a lost lover of hers. I picked it up and placed it on my head. It fit well enough and it was something of hers that could live on through me.
I took her rifle, promising myself that I would do her proud by it, never using it to hurt, only to kill.
“Beat me down but on the ground I the stand.”
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