Counting Birthdays
by Tigerlady

Ellen was thirteen when she ran away from the orphanage. It wasn't a home; she hadn't had one of those since Herod and his hounds rode into her life.

She'd hunkered down in the back of a supply wagon headed north, a small bag of supplies and gold the only hope she took with her. She huddled in squalid fear of discovery for three days, with so little water she only had to piss once through the cracks in the boards. She ate very little, so when they finally stopped in a town she was nearly caught out because she could hardly stand for being stiff and dizzy. But she was more afraid of being taken back than she was weak, so she did it anyway.

She hid out there for a day, stealing food and skulking in the alleyways, but three days was still too close to Herod's territory. She spent the night with the horses in the town livery, then found another wagon to hitch in.

She lost track of how many times she did that, or where she went, but it was a good long while before the fear receded to an ache deep in her gut rather a constant buzzing shiver. Once that happened she stopped hitching and started figuring a way to get revenge.

She was fourteen when she got taken by a man.

She'd been stupid, got careless stealing, but it had been two whole days since she'd last ate, and the jerky was too tempting. Afterwards, she'd decided she'd rather've starved. The man, Leroy Cates (she could still remember that SOB to this day), he'd been real smooth. He threatened her with the law, then looked at her real smart and said something about an orphanage, and just like that she was agreeing to do anything he asked.

Being shot hadn't hurt as bad.

He kept her with him for two whole horrifying months, hands tied together as she sat behind the saddle of his horse. She cooked dinner over the open fire in the evenings, fetched water and curried his horse. When the stars came out she lay underneath him. Eventually it didn't hurt so bad, mostly just numb all over.

That's when she knew she had to get away or die trying.

She bashed his head with the skillet after he fell asleep. She didn't know if she killed him, and she didn't care. She just grabbed some food and water and the bag of gold nuggets he carried as coin, and got on his horse. She made it a few good miles before the damn nag threw her and ran off. Once she dusted herself off, made sure she could still move, she started walking. First stream she found she threw herself in clothes and all, scrubbing till her skin was raw and her dress was ripped. Only then did she start crying.

She should have died out there, wandering around in the scrub with no telling where she was and less horse sense than God gave a baby. It was the Devil's own luck that she finally wandered into a camp of Mexicans who took pity on her. They nursed the delirium from her and took her back to their town, got her work as a maid in the lone hotel.

She was sixteen when she learned how to shoot.

One of the local boys, a square-jawed mestizo that had taken a shine to her, traded her the knowledge for kisses in the hayloft. She found she didn't mind the kisses, but she liked the kick of the gun in her hand a hell of a lot more.

The day he put his hand under her skirt, she kicked him in the cajones and beat it the hell out of town. Found a group of nuns who were heading out to do good works and begged for passage. They were on the verge of telling her no when the padre showed up, said she could come along if she took care of the horses and the oxen.

She learned a hell of a lot about animals on the hoof that summer.

The padre took a shine to her as well, and not in a way that made the spot between her shoulders crawl. In between preaching the Bible and telling her about the new mission, he taught her about navigating by the sky and by a map, and how to watch for signs of hostile natives and marauding outlaws. She stayed with them for a good while, doing honest work pulling a place to live from a land that wanted them to die. She might have stayed longer, but the good padre up and died from pneumonia. The head sister gave her a handful of coins, an old map, and a look so curdled that Ellen decided that there wasn't enough room in the mission for the both of them. Truth was the sister was wedded to Christ, and since Ellen didn't hold much regard for the Lord, the two of them had never got along. So she packed up the little bits she had gathered for her own and made use of the padre's legacy.

She was eighteen when she learned how to drink.

She'd been making good on her own for a bit then, having bought a gun from the first man who would sell one to her. Her gut still ran cold at the thought of having to use it, but it made it that much easier to seek out a living. She had a dress for women's work, cleaning and cooking and serving and the like, and she had trousers for everything else. She mucked out stalls if she had to, but she'd also learned a thing or two about gambling from the saloons she hung out in from time to time.

So when a pair of ranch hands offered to put good gold on the line for a drinking contest, well, she took them up on it. It was rancid stuff, burning the whole way down and making her head throb and swim. She woke up with one of the men with his pants down and his hand snaking along her thigh. Looking down the barrel of her gun was enough to dissuade him, but after that she made damn sure she could handle whiskey, rye, and tequila.

She was twenty-three when she learned to fight well.

She'd hooked up with a gambler in a little town outside of Carson. She'd thought he was clever and he'd thought she was interesting, and so they'd formed a limited partnership through several towns. They didn't run a con, not exactly, but it was lucrative all the same. He was a small, pretty man, and he knew all the ways of protecting himself from those bigger, meaner, and just plain nastier. He taught her how to fight dirty and draw fast. She learned the lessons with an eagerness that had been missing most of her life.

He also taught her that what passed between a man and a woman in the night didn't have to be a bad thing. The next day she left him, galloping out of town like a lynch mob was after her.

She drifted even more after that, running cattle and horses, working saloons when the weather got cold. She made sure to practice her draw every night, and she practiced her fighting skills on any man who thought she was an easy mark.

She was twenty-seven when she caught word of Herod for the second time in her life.

She spent a whole week holed up in her hotel room, quaking with fear that he was going to sniff her out now that she knew he still existed. Finally her mind clicked back into place, and she decided that was no way to live. That there was no way she could let him live.

She was twenty-nine when she shot the man who stole her life.

She played by his rules at first, entering his stupid contest in that Hell on Earth that claimed to be the town she was born in. She watched, and she waited, and every time she tried to end it nice and easy the fear got the better of her. But finally she shook it off, and with the help of a few decent souls, she killed him at last.

It should have made her happy, should have plugged up the dead hole inside her. It was true, the fear that had sat on her shoulder like a hungry vulture her whole life was gone, but it didn't really matter. She supposed she should have felt free, felt like doing something with her life. The fact was she couldn't see how things would be much different, not until the day she died.

Because it all came back to one thing.

She was only ten when she killed a man for the very first time.


Silverlake: Authors / Mediums / Titles / Links / List / About / Updates / Silverlake Remix