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Imma once dreamed of leaving her isolated desert town and becoming a Bullet Catcher––an outlaw who can fend off bullets with a bare hand. But that was before her brother Nikko died, and before the Bullet Catchers were wiped out. Now Imma's stuck washing dishes with no prospects for a better future. But when a Bullet Catcher comes to town, everything changes. Her dream rekindled, Imma follows him, hoping to find answers and a purpose. What she finds will change not only her life, but her whole world.
From author Joaquin Lowe comes a magical western with a strong female protagonist, action and adventure, and a unique coming-of-age story
Read the whole series:
Bullet Catcher Season 1
Bullet Catcher Season 2: Shadows of the North
Published by Serial Box (serialbox.com)
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Read an Excerpt
It’s late at night when the memory comes for me, like it always seems to when the relief of sleep is ready to draw me under. The fire. I recall it as a heat on my face, a deep, quick voice that might be my father’s, my brother’s skinny arms around me, the glass of the windows blowing out, explosions that for the longest time I thought were fireworks. But they were gunshots; I know that now. The curtains going up like they were made to burn. The thick smell of smoke. Then darkness.
All I can do is lie on my cot in the corner of the washroom and wait for the memory to burn itself out. The room is small and square. Sand oozes up between the splintery floorboards. There’s the washbasin where I spend most of the day, and there’s my beat‑up writing desk in the corner, buried in books bought or stolen from traveling sellers.
Memory is a monster, far worse than anything lurking under a bed. I rub my eyes, slap my cheeks, anything to fight it off. But it’s no good. So I close my eyes and dig down deep into the past, trying my best to remember the good times in between the bad.
I think of my brother, Nikko. I think of the old stories he used to tell me. Of bullet catchers and gunslingers. Of good versus evil. In Nikko’s stories, good always won. I think of our parents’ old homestead, before the fire. I think we were happy then, but I was too young to know for sure. So young that when I try to imagine my parents’ faces, the image is blurred like a washed-out photograph. And then there’s the monster again, coming for me in the memory of the orphanage, in the glowering faces of the Brothers and Sisters who took us in.
“Immaculada Amaya Moreno!” the Sister yelled. “Get over here now!”
And there I am, peeking out from behind my brother. He was bigger than me and good to hide behind.
“Imma,” I said. “Call me Imma.”
The Sister grabbed me by the arm and hauled me in front of some fat old man, the latest prospective adopter. Some who came to the orphanage wore the nervous expressions of hopeful parents, but mostly they were people looking for cheap labor. Small hands are good for watch-tinkering or bullet-making. Small fingers are useful for polishing the inside of shell casings.
“This one’s ready for immediate adoption to a good home,” the Sister said. The fat man grabbed my hands and checked my fingers. Held me by the jaw and pulled down my lip and examined my teeth and the whites of my eyes like he was buying a farm animal.
“Too skinny,” he said. “She looks ready to keel over.”
“You’d be getting her at a significant discount,” the Sister said. But the fat man just snorted and moved on down the line, examining the other orphans. I hid back behind Nikko and he put his arm around me.
Back then, Nikko didn’t have much more meat on his bones than I did. He was starved-looking, cheeks pasty and sucked in, his smile crooked and forced. But he was always the strong one. He had a sorry little mustache that I remember him being so proud of. Whenever I think of him walking around with his shoulders back and his chin up to show everyone his new mustache, looking like a dead caterpillar stuck to his upper lip, it makes me smile, a smile so big my dry lips split and I taste copper. It’s my second favorite memory of my brother.
One day, he took me by the shoulders, stared straight into my eyes, and said, “Imma, after I get out of here, I’m going to join the bullet catchers. And all the wealthy families and banks and shop owners are going to want to hire me as their bodyguard.”
“What’ll happen to me?” I asked, my voice small and squeaky.
“I’ll earn enough money to get you out, too. I’ll buy a whole block of apartments in a wealthy town and we’ll live like royalty.” And I believed him. I loved so much the person he was going to be that my eyes would cloud over and I’d smile big, probably the biggest I’ve ever smiled, a smile that showed off all my missing baby teeth. Nikko was a dreamer. That’s my favorite memory of him.
I was nine the last time I ever saw Nikko. He had just turned fifteen, and he was proud of every one of those years. The night of his birthday, I helped him tie bedsheets together for a rope to climb out the window of our dormitory. We slept in a large room, crammed with rusty iron bunk beds and the sounds and smells of hundreds of orphaned children sleeping. He flung the bleached white sheets out the window and the full moon made them glow. The evening was so bright that I could see for miles into the desert. Nikko grabbed me by the shoulders the way he always did when he was excited and said, “I can’t take you with me now. You’ll slow me down and we’ll get caught. But I’ll come back for you.”
“Promise me,” I said, my voice breaking.
He looked at me and said, “I promise.” And I believed that, too, even though I cried as he slipped through the window and down the sheets.
I waited for him by that window every evening for three years, but I never saw my brother again. One day, Dmitri came looking for cheap labor and took me away to Sand. He put me to work behind the washbasin. For years I had to hold back tears, believing that when Nikko finally rode back to the orphanage, head up, his shoulders square and strong, a bullet catcher, he’d find me gone and not know where to look.
It’s been six years since then. I’m as old as Nikko was the day he hugged me and escaped into the desert. I’m fifteen and I know better than to cry. Now I know he never made it back to the orphanage. I know he died. Maybe the very day he escaped. If not from heat, then by marauders. Or maybe he was hunted down by coyotes, picked over by vultures. Before I was adopted, I saw flu and hunger take many children. At least Nikko died under the big sky of the desert and not in the orphanage infirmary. Now I know that in the end, death is a kind of escape.
And again the monster rears its head and I know there will be no fighting it off tonight. I untangle myself from the sheets, pull on a shirt and trousers, and shrug into my old frock coat. Stuffing my pockets with bullets, I grab my gun and head out into the desert to practice my aim.
In the Southland everyone has a gun, and I’m no exception. Though I’ve never shown it to anyone. It’s not exactly a gun someone can be proud of. It’s a lady’s pistol, tiny so as to fit under a bustier or corset or harnessed to a thigh, concealed under a dress. The space between the trigger and finger guard is so narrow most men wouldn’t be able to squeeze the trigger with their fat, stubby fingers. It’s low caliber, completely inaccurate, and a little bit of a curiosity. It has four barrels and holds four bullets: a barrel for every shot. Or that’s the way it’s supposed to work.
I bought the gun off a traveling merchant who’d stopped one afternoon to wet his whistle in the saloon. It was in piss-poor shape, rusted tight and clogged with sand.
It took me a while—lots of nights poking around under the lamp, the oil burning low and casting flickering shadows along the walls of my room—but I managed in the end to get it apart. I cleaned and oiled it. Salvaged parts. I got one barrel working. It’s a one-shooter. Which is a little scary, having only one bullet between life and death. But it’s better than nothing.
Overhead, the moon glows like a second sun, casting silver light and long shadows down Main Street. In Sand, Main Street is little more than a dirt track that runs between the ramshackle rows of storefronts. Potholes. Horse dung. Unspent bullets glittering like pennies in the gutters. Out here, where every little thing is precious, where water is a luxury, bullets are cheap. I pull my coat close against the cold desert night.
Just outside the town limits a rusted old sign, swinging on its hinges, reads:
Welcome to Sand: Population 500
Maybe once upon a time. Half those people must be buried in that mound of dirt we call a cemetery. Little more than rotten wood crosses surrounded by chicken wire to keep out the coyotes.
I walk into the desert that goes on forever, golden and featureless, so that if you look in the right direction, away from the mountains in the south, you can see the curvature of the earth. That grand openness can be terrifying, more dangerous than a man with a gun. They both promise the infinite. But the gun will send you there faster.
The only things that manage to grow all the way out here are cacti and scrub brush, brown and thorny. I make my way to the outskirts most nights to practice my aim on the cacti, which in the half-light of the moon can resemble a person—skinny, bent, and water-starved, like everyone else out here.