And when they found her on her back in the coal shed behind the station, three railwaymen with just a few minutes in town lined up to each take a turn…the shame should have driven her out of town on the train.
…..But no, she’s still drinking and cussing in the saloon every night. Riding that heaving and steaming beast of a horse in those horrible trousers of hers. Still shooting bottles off every fencepost in town, waving all shapes and sizes of gun in positions you’d never think up on your own — trickshots you can’t shoot with the pistols respectable ladies keep tied to one leg on a ribbon. Each bullet in her chamber is one more blow to a blown reputation, but she goes on as if she doesn’t know.
…..The soldiers say she was quite a shot on the plains, her barrel as long and her powder as dry as a man’s. They say she was faster than any of them and having her rifle nearby was a comfort in the tent as they slept, her metal still warm from a busy day’s shooting, but you never see them talking to her here in town. Not in uniform and not in plainclothes — the cavalry pass her by on the street just the same as townsfolk, not a tip of their hats or a “Morning, Miss Jane.” But they have plenty to tell her at night when every route home from the barroom winds right past her door. And past my own house beside hers, the light step of heavy men as constant as snowfall is up in the hills, and as soft through my panes of Connecticut glass.
…..I’ve read about times when a woman like her would be burned at the stake, as soon as the battle was over. There are towns a few days’ worth of riding away where a woman wouldn’t be welcome to her own horse and gun — better to let the blackguards and blackhats escape than let one of us take up the chase. But we don’t have those luxuries this side of the mountains, where there are always strange eyes at the window and frosted, mysterious footprints disturbing the glazed morning streets. Even a good woman, a decent town wife, when her man is away in a posse or wending his way from the bar, might wish for more than a delicate pistol to wrap hands around under her linens. In the dark, empty hours she might be excused if she wants a warm barrel beside her.
…..A whole crate of reading came in from the East, our first since the tracks were laid down. Etiquette guides and household manuals and fashionable patterns for sewing, all wrapped in newspapers months out of date. On the train it came faster than the old prairie schooner could bring it, but the dust got in just the same as before, through the slats of each crate and like plough blades between the rich threads of the dresses we all waited for, their dark, heavy fabrics unraveling before they arrived. The pages of our books were brittle and browned, ink scraped away by the grating of sunshine and dust and long miles of rattling rail, and there was nothing left for us to read but one old melodrama — a single yellowed pamphlet about poor Mary Rowlandson, clutched away to the woods and away from her husband and kin, hauled off to camp in strong, savage arms during those long ago days when the East was still wild. Just the one copy of a very old story we’ve all heard before, time and again and again. The story was packed deep at the bottom of the crate, like it had been left behind or wasn’t meant to be in there at all, so hidden that even the dust overlooked it.
…..Who can help reading her story again and again, until the candles burn down to foul nubs of fat and our noses press closer to those shocking words in the weakening glow, our knuckles as white as the paper when it was brand new, breathing as hard as we can in our corsets. It’s all we have to get by on until the next crate comes in, and every twelfth night when it’s my turn to take the book home I read long into the night. When the saloon doors swing closed all I hear are the pages I’m turning, and the wind and the wolves and the soft scrape of boots at her knuckle-worn door. And I read until my body warms the bedclothes around me like a fresh-fired rifle must warm up her own. I read until my man staggers home, if he does, if he isn’t away in the mines or riding a posse up high in the hills.
…..Every one of us women takes a turn except her, every one of us women but Jane. She says she has no time for stories of women who can’t shoot their own way out of trouble. And some of the ladies here say all the better, glad to have the book sooner again for themselves, but when I’ve read my way to the end of the story once more, when Mary Rowlandson is once more among her own folk, I hear boots tramping into her house, clanking bottles and murmuring tongues, sometimes I wait a few minutes before going back to the start of the story. Sometimes I hope against hope, against the permanence of printed words, that this time it might turn out different. That she might stay in the wild instead of dragging herself back to town, where the rest of us can go on enjoying her stories whenever they come trailing in, behind our glass panes and lace curtains.
Steve Himmer’s stories have recently appeared in Hobart, The Los Angeles Review, and Camas: The Nature of the West, among other places. He edits the web journal Necessary Fiction, and teaches at Emerson College in Boston.