Story Summary: Tra-la-la, fa-la-la, here I am, little red riding hood, skipping through the snowy forest to the little cabin in the woods to deliver a basket of brownies to Grandma. Except Grandma died almost a year ago. I wonder who lives there now? Dark.

Chapter Summary: I think the only person more surprised than me was Slim when he gave me one more chance. But the look in his eyes when he sent me off with the delivery... if I don't do good by this? He'll carve me up, and with my own knives, too.


Once upon a time ...

I trudged through the snow through this desolate forest meditating on those words. That's how all faery tales start, right? And they always end with '...and they lived happily ever after.'

Mum was convinced I was fae, with my sea green eyes, an embarrassing spray of freckles across my face, and my hair ...

I wish I had straight hair, like other girls had, that fell down around the shoulders and was well-behaved and elegant, but, no. Even right after I washed it, as soon as the water dried, it curled and sprang out everywhere.

And the comments.

'Hey, put out the fire!'

'Better dead than red!'

Those kinds of comments shouldn't've bothered me, I suppose, but after you hear them the fiftieth time, the next guy or girl who comes along, gives me the stare and thinks they're so witty that you should laugh along with them?

Many's the time I've been tempted to let my babies talk for me.

My babies. I had five of them. The first was my bow for ranged work: it was silent, accurate and deadly. Then my pair of pistols, a six-shooter and the lady derringer when somebody wanted to get up close and personal with me. It had nice stopping power. Really nice stopping power. But then pistols are loud and sloppy, and eventually need reloading. I rarely use them. When I do, it's more to make a statement. A very loud statement. Which can be a very good and effective thing, particularly when your a girl in the New West. But my pistols weren't my favorites.

No, my real babies were my two fangs ...

Not literally 'fangs,' but I had two tempered steel hunting knifes that fit into my hands so perfectly, they were really extensions of my hands, my two talons, and when they sang, nothing that came near me went away unmarred.

People learned this. They learned it quickly. They come to me, and see: 'oh, a young girl, ripe for the plucking, I'll just rough her up a bit than then enjoy the taste of this little peach.'

I give those fools fair verbal warning, telling them to back the fuck off if they know what's good for them, ... that is: if they're not too drunk to hear. Then, if they are persistent and can't keep their hands to themselves, I let my babies sing.

I've been touched by more than my fair share of men.

I know what that's like. Being enjoyed by men bigger and stronger than me. I lost my parents when I was thirteen, so I had to turn to whoring to eat, and to stay warm, then when I was fifteen, I lost the only person I ever loved in my life when my sister, Anne, died in a bar fight. Just another victim of a card game gone wrong, and a dispute lead to gun-play, and there she was on the floor, a bullet hole right through her chest and her cold, dead eyes stared up at me as I cried and cried over just another dead whore that nobody cared about. Always plenty more where she came from.

That is: 'more' meaning 'whores,' not my-only-sister, my-only-family-left-in-this-world-who-was-now-dead .

That's when I had had enough of whoring, and struck out on my own, regardless of what my contract said. Anne's contract didn't cover 'whore until you're shot because you were near heavily-armed boys stupid enough to get caught cheating at cards,' so I kind of took that as my exit clause.

And I exited.

The thing about striking off on your own? You can do that, fine, so long as you are far, far away and never returning to where you started. That's fine, the West was big enough for me to go further West and keep going. The problem is, where do you get money to pay for food? for clothes? for a warm bed at night? for anything?

It's not like I fell out of whoring to turn to thieving intentionally. It just happened that way, is all, because what else could I be? A school marm? That job was taken, everywhere I went, already, and besides, you had to know more than the nice, prim, and proper school girls that you were supposed to teach. I'm smart, I suppose, but street smart, ... the last time I opened up a book was ...

... Well, I don't remember the last time I opened up a book. That is: to read it. I've opened books for the paper to get a fire going, or to wipe my bottom, but reading ...?

So, what else could I do? More whoring? Always an opening for that, but I knew that life, I wasn't going to spread my legs again so somebody else could take most the money I earned in exchange for imprisonment and abuse. No, thanks. If I were to take a man into my bed ever again, it wouldn't because I needed his money to fill my empty stomach. Nor to pay the bills, nor to feed ... my habit.

I looked down at my basket of goodies in the crook of my arm and prayed my hunch was correct. 'Grandma,' as I called her, had died last Spring — almost a year ago, and I ... missed her — and her cabin had been abandoned since I found her on her bed, appearing so peacefully asleep, but not answering my call at the door, and so, so cold to my touch.

But I got the feel — you know that feeling? when something seems changed? — that the cabin had a new occupant.

So here I was, not trippingly skipping down the forest path singing 'tra-la-la, fa-la-la' because there was no 'forest path,' and I wouldn't be singing anything at all. I wouldn't breathe, if I had the option. Why?

I was by nature ... okay, I'll admit it: a chickenshit. I've managed to piss off enough people in my life, to horny guys wanting to cop a feel for free to the previous owner of my six-shooter who though it would be a good move to shoot a girl in the back so he would walk away from her body with whatever money she used to have...

...he walked away, all right, just minus his Colt .45 revolver ... and his right hand.

I did give him a tourniquet after he passed out. He lived.

But then, when you're a little thief, just trying to get by, live day-to-day, you have to worry about the Law — and I do — but the scarier thing you have to avoid are the bigger snarks swimming in the criminal sea.

'Crime does not pay'? Says who? About the only activity thriving during these hard times is illegal activity, and I find myself a very tiny fish in a big, big sea of crime.

I find myself running from other criminals much more often than I find myself running from good citizens I rob or cops who want to pinch me for my crime or squeeze their percentage off the top.

And that's what I do: I run and hide.

I have to say, it works just great for me, ... and not so great for others.

There's this new blood in town, a new kingpin; this kid named 'Slim.' He's scary. Ruthless. He's swept through town and cleaned out all the smaller operations and put himself and his boys at the top of the pyramid, and he hasn't been shy in using threats, intimidation and murder to send out a very clear message: play by my rules or die.

For a while he was after me. I could feel it. He'd send some boys out to teach me a lesson to stay out of his territory, and I'd run and hide, and when I could I'd let my babies find one of his boys and make him smile a little wider or give him a fresh tattoo on his arm or make him walk with a gimp for the rest of his life.

Really frustrating for Slim, because he really put the screws down everywhere else, but he couldn't flush out this one little red field mouse no matter how hard he tried.

Really frustrating for me, too, because I was spending more time running, hiding and a bit of hack-and-slashing than ... well, eating and sleeping. The 'good times' that I had never had to begin with, were now over with Slim controlling basically the county.

A stalemate.

For me, anyway, because Slim just kept expanding his operations and reach. The cops were on the take and everywhere a girl looked was Slim's stamp, from prostitution rings, saloons, drug distribution, everything ... even legit businesses. There was nowhere that I could turn where I wouldn't be touching what was now his.

I was trapped.

So I did the only thing I could. I turned myself in.

Slim, as a person, is as scary as his reputation. Cold, hard baby-blues, tall, tall, broad-shouldered man, very comfortable in his own skin, and scars and pockmarks everywhere, ripped across his face, and ... as I came to find out, across his back and chest, too. He was a young man, but his face was a Picasso masterpiece. He was fucking ugly. And had a mean squint meaning business.

Scary. Very scary. No nonsense, kill-you-and-not-think-twice-about-it hard, ruthless, businesslike man.

And he was impressed by me. I think I pissed him off for long enough so that I had gained some measure of respect in his eyes. Enough respect that he didn't shoot me in the face when I finally met him. Enough respect that he gave me a little job in his organization: I did little deliveries for him to outlying areas that were too remote and too small for him and his boys to care about. I picked up the money for the delivery. And I got a tiny cut of the sale.

On balance, a pretty good deal. I got to keep my life, I got (semi-)complete autonomy, I got (pretty much) left alone by his boys and by him, when they weren't too drunk, and when they were I just made myself scarce.

And I got to pick my customers, too. People who, moving out West to get away from it all, had to isolate themselves even further by living outside town. They were quiet people, for the most part, and they liked my deliveries, but also, they liked a bit of company, you know, once a week, just like Grandma.

She'd prattle away forever, blah-blah-blah, talk my ear off as she made me a hot cocoa, and then I open up my basket and we'd share a brownie, leaving her the package, and any supplies from town she'd've asked for the previous week, and then she'd tell me to turn around, and I'd pretend not to know exactly which cabinet she opened and which emptied coffee can she grab her old wrinkled wad of dollar bills to pay for the package from her little red-haired delivery girl.

It was ... nice, while it lasted. It gave an air of legitimacy to what I did. It made me feel I was doing something kind for an old lady who lost her husband a long time ago and who wouldn't make it the long distance into town to pick up groceries over the cold and harsh Winter.

But then, good things end, and she died, and I was out a customer, and most people don't like living far from town. You slip and fall in town, a neighbor helps you up. You do that out here, on your own without a family ... you die.

I saw it in Slim's eyes, getting grimmer and grimmer over time as he looked at his balance sheets, and seeing all the profits, and then one little red mark for the balance for his little red delivery girl.

And I saw he was getting tired of accepting what I could offer in lieu of cash for what I needed to keep me going, to feed my habit.

And that was when I got the feeling, a warmth calling to me to cross over the Hay Creek bridge again. It was like smoke in the air; it had that lived-in familiarity to it. So I went to Slim and didn't ask for a favor, no: I told I had a new lead, and could he please give me one more package to deliver, and I'd back on top of the game again.

I remember how Slim looked at me. I saw him weighing my proposal. I saw the words running through his mind: "Kill the bitch, cutting the loss? Or take a chance on her hunch?"

You don't get to the top taking chances. And I knew him bedding me for the last few months raised my chances of living not one iota. Those were business transactions, after all, in his mind and in mine. He got what he wanted, a pretty girl to fuck, and I got what I wanted, a warm bed to sleep in to survive this God-awful Winter, and some black tar to chase away the jitters and to last me another week.

But that's all it was, and he was tiring of that arrangement, after all.

I couldn't rely on favors or his 'generous' heart.

On the other hand, my hunches kept me alive when others fell before him, as he threshed them like chaff for the burn pile, so ...

So here I was walking along, a red-haired girl carrying her one last delivery to a cold, empty house, or her first of many deliveries to the new occupants of that self-same cabin in a little red hood to keep her warm against this bitter cold, neither humming nor singing 'tra-la-la, fa-la-la' on a forest path, because a girl shouldn't be making noise which would draw attention to herself.

You never knew what would be coming at you.

So I had to keep my ear to the ground, and listen for what, if anything, came to me. It wouldn't be Grandma anymore, and maybe the new folks might not be so obliging.

And then, I heard it.

That is, I didn't hear it, because I didn't hear ... anything.

The forest is a living thing, did you know that? Everything in the forest has a place and in that place makes its home: the insects, the rodents, the birds, the game, the predators. The forest is never absolutely still nor completely quiet.

Unless somebody comes along that the forest says, 'Hey, this isn't right!'

It happens with me, when I'm walking 'town' into the forest. Everything goes quiet, until I adjust myself and my walk to the forest — little fae me, after all, right? — and the forest adjusted itself to me, and the flora and the fauna didn't see me as a threat anymore, but a part of them, as part of the forest.

The forest had adjusted to me a mile or two ago, that is, as I tread my way carefully and quietly through it, a long, long time ago, so it wasn't me, now, causing this silence.

I stopped, pausing, and opened all my senses, quieting myself as the forest had, and I looked, and listened, and quested with my whole being to see who or what was causing this disturbance.

Nothing. I felt nothing.

That's odd.

I have this ... 'sense.' I get a feeling when somebody is trying to find me, and then I do what any sensible girl would do in my position, I run away from where that feeling's coming.

I don't question it. I did at first. 'Why do I know when somebody's after me?' Now I just get that feeling, and I put a lot of distance between me and him, and then I look at him from a distance, and either decide to teach him a lesson and send him on his way, or I decide, 'hm, this doesn't look good for you, Red,' and I run.

Now, I got that feeling, but it was coming from nowhere, and it was coming from everywhere. It was if my sense didn't know what do with what it was getting, or it was like the whole forest just suddenly decided it didn't like me and wanted me dead.

And it couldn't be that.

Well, whatever it was, it was a threat, and I wasn't just going to stand here and get murderlized from any direction. Whoever it was had an advantage, and I never went into a situation where I didn't have a clear out, and here was the problem, because every way I turned felt like the wrong way.

I put my basket down by a tree and looked up the trunk.

Hm. If it were somebody, they'd be looking for me. Don't know why, don't care. I just knew I didn't want to be found. No, I wanted to see them first before they saw me.

So, if I had the advantage of height, like from a tree-top, and probably, if somebody were looking for me, they'd have their eyes on the ground. After all, who went through a forest by way of the tree-tops?

That is: who but Tarzan? But we're talking me, little red riding hood, not some fairy tale character.

I would've snickered at my humor, but I wasn't making a sound to give myself away. I leapt from a boulder to a low-hanging branch, and from there went silently from branch to branch until I was a good thirty feet above the forest floor.

I pulled the bow from over my shoulder and nocked an arrow as I scanned the forest all around and below me, looking for whatever was hunting me.

Nothing.

Whoever it was who was hunting me, they were good. They were careful. And they were here. I could feel it.

That was fine. I could play the waiting game. I was one of the best in the world at this game. I could sit in one spot and wait for hours, wait for the person after me to make a mistake and come to me. When somebody came to me, they had to let down some defense, and my babies always found openings. Or I could wait until they gave up and left, which was what happened the most often. When you're hiding and waiting, you're hard to find, and men got bored so easily.

'Eh,' they'd shrug, 'she's long gone by now, I'm callin' it a day' and off they'd go.

You notice that I say 'he' and 'men' because those're the only people who would chase after me, to kill me or take advantage of me. I've never had a woman try to hunt me down. Why would a woman want to? Every woman I ever met was only trying just to get by, and you do that by chasing the people in power out here: men, men who could give you protection, and a warm bed, and bring home something that you could eat, because he hunted it for you then traded the furs, or he was damn lucky and had steady work, and he actually brought home real money.

The only way a girl could make money out here was on her back, so why would a girl chase me? I wasn't a man. Men chased men and girls, like me, for only one reason: they had superior firepower, and it was time for them to use it again someone they thought they could bleed something out of.

So I looked for my hunter, be he a man or be he a wolf pack or other predator, and waited for them to make their move.

Once they made their move, one arrow through their shoulder, arm or leg would be enough to let them know it was time for them to cut their losses and go.

I waited.

I waited a long time.

Nothing.

I kept a sharp lookout on the forest floor.

Absolutely nothing, except the deathly silence that said either the forest hated me, or my hunter was still here, looking for me.

I was beginning to suspect that the forest had turned on me — but why would it? — and gave one more cursory look around the forest when, right by my ear, a very quiet woman's voice asked:

"So, did you see the big, bad wolf yet, my cute little Red Riding Hood?"

I screamed in shock and whipped around on the branch to see who had surprised me.

Nobody had ever, ever, surprised me since I started following my intuition. Nobody.

I saw nothing. I looked around in a panic, the arrow on my bow seeking a target that just wasn't there, and worse: I couldn't feel her who had just spoken to me.

Was the tar finally affecting me so much that I had started to hallucinate and lose grip on reality?

"Up here," the voice sang, almost gleefully.

I looked up to see an angel in all white leaping down from a branch high above mine. I couldn't process everything coming at me, as she was coming that fast.

But I don't make the mistake of processing things. In a fight, if you process, you die. I pulled back on the bowstring, and let my right foot ease back along the branch in my crouch.

But then she landed on my branch, and the whole thing shook hard, and the arrow loosed in a harmless sideways path, and I lost my balance.

Again, something that had never happened to me before. I was always perfectly balanced, and my opponents were always off-balance, helter-skelter and askew.

I fought to keep my feet beneath me and on the branch so I wouldn't fall. I would have won the fight, but the girl — blond hair, and incredibly: blond eyes — put on an expression of mock concern as she cried out an insincere "Oh, don't fall!" and leapt to my rescue.

But I saw. I saw how she slammed her feet down on the branch, further knocking me off balance. And I felt, when she reach out to catch me, intentionally missing me, how her hip bumped mine and shoved me right off the branch.

I was going to go down and hit the ground thirty feet below, and this girl could cry innocence, claiming that she tried to save me when I, the only witness, saw exactly what she was doing.

And she wasn't done doing it. She grabbed the top of my bow and shouted, "Don't let go!" But I heard the laughter in her voice. She was playing with me!

My arm nearly pulled itself out of the socket as it took my entire weight. It didn't help any that she jerked my bow up the same time that I fell, doubling the shock to my arm.

And then she twisted the bow in a direction counter to the way my wrist turned.

I could hold on, I suppose, if I let my wrist break.

Really, what could I do? I let go, and tried to bring my other arm around and grab the bow or the branch with it, but the bow was now out of reach, thanks to her, and the branch slipped through my fingers before I could close my hand to grasp it.

"You fucking bitch!" I screamed as I fell.

God damn it! I pulled out my Colt 45 and fired, hitting the branch by the trunk and heard it snap and saw, with grim satisfaction, her start to fall.

But then, the oddest thing! She didn't try to grasp at a branch or to the trunk. No, she ... smiled! ... and flung the bow from her, then bracing herself on the trunk of the tree, pushed herself ... down? toward me.

She launched herself at me, her hands reaching toward me like talons.

I was falling thirty feet down. Would I survive? Maybe, if I were lucky, and I fell just right. Maybe she saw that. Maybe she wanted to make sure I was really dead, because if she landed on top of me when we hit the ground? She'd be hurt, and badly at that, too, even using my body to cushion her fall, but my back wouldn't be able to take a hit of me and her on top of me.

She launched herself at me to finish me off.

I was planning to try to do a soft landing and a hard roll, but now I had a new plan. If she were going to land on me, then my plan would be pointless. Damn it! If she wanted me out of the picture, well, I'd take her with me.

"I'll see you in Hell," I cursed, and whipped my Colt around and squeezed off two shots in quick succession.

No. No way. How did I miss? That was all I could think before she crashed into me like a ton of bricks.

I shot at her from less than ten feet! There was no way I could have missed! But she didn't even flinch, and the arms that wrapped around me, and the hands that grasped me, were very much filled with power and strength and so not the death twitch as I had planned.

She slammed into me, and I tried to struggle free, but I couldn't. The force of her crash, however, flipped us over, and we careened into the snowy ground with a very sickening thud that I felt vibrate through my whole body, shaking me to the bones and snapping my jaw shut hard with a snap.

Justice, Western-style, I thought, both relieved and rueful. She tried to off me, and she gets flattened on the ground, saving me with her own body.

I rolled off her, moaning, every bone in my body hurting from the force of the fall, and used a tree trunk to help pull me up. I panted with fatigue, sucking in big gulps of air, knowing I had just escaped death, and felt the adrenalin pumping through my body, every muscle taut and aching. I rested my hand on the trunk, as I didn't trust my legs, and tried to catch my breath.

A tap on my shoulder. "So, you want to expl..." a voice began.

I screamed. I whipped my Colt around, but a hand caught me at my wrist. My hand squeezed, reflexively, pulling the trigger, but the shot fired off into nowhere, between my attacker and me.

I whipped my head around, and couldn't believe my eyes.

It was her. She was standing, holding my wrist, looking right at me, just like a girl who fell thirty feet to her death shouldn't be looking at me, smirking.

"Nice shot," she said, oozing sarcasm, and twisted my wrist around and over my shoulder, and back.

I grunted in pain, and felt the force on my wrist weaken the grip on my Colt.

Damn it! She was going to get my gun! In a panic, I reached in with my left hand for my little Lady D — my Lady Derringer 0.38 two-shooter — pulling it out to give her a good, hard shock and make her let go of my wrist, and put some distance between us.

Just too much was going on at once, and instead of me being in total control of the situation, it was her, causing all this chaos, and I could tell she was reveling in it, she was using the confusion to her advantage.

I pulled it out of my holster and fired, right into her gut.

Bang!

She was going to be hurting, but I didn't care. I had to get her off me. Lady D would hurt her badly, but it wouldn't kill her outright. I'd deal with the damage and patch her up after I reasserted some control.

I waited for her scream and for her to fall to the ground, writhing in pain.

I waited in vain.

The pressure on my right hand increased, and her other hand grabbed my left wrist holding my Lady D. Then she pushed herself into me, slamming me against the tree trunk, and I felt the air leave me in a whoosh.

"Missed me, missed me, now you have to kiss me!" she sang, humor bubbling through her voice.

I looked up at the girl who should have been missing a piece of her gut, and she shocked me by pressing her face to mine, and she pushed in, her lips finding mine, and I felt the icy coldness of her skin as she kissed me, hard.

I tried to squirm away, but she had my right hand over my shoulder and my left hand press across my stomach, basically tying me against the tree. The only way I could squirm was backward, but the tree wasn't going to be obliging and step out of the way for me.

Her lips, her face, were so cold, like mine, from being out in this sub-zero weather, but hers was like ... well, she must have been hiding in that tree for a lot longer than I've been out. I felt her breath on my cheek, and it was cold, her lips smashed against mine were white, completely drained of warmth. All my senses were overwhelmed, and I couldn't get away.

She gave one more twist to my right hand, and my Colt fell from lifeless fingers into the snow, then she broke the kiss — "Nice," she purred — and stepped back, and jerked my left wrist hard, pulling me into her, but then she stepped aside, letting my momentum carry me past her, but never letting go of my wrist.

Okay, I'm not stocky, but not a skinny girl, either, and my entire body weight rested on my left wrist. I tried to spin with it, to prevent every bone there from snapping, but she kept applying pressure, so I had to drop Lady D, too, as I finally did twist around, and, using my wrist as a fulcrum, I lifted myself off the ground, coiled both my feet under me, and then I lashed out, right at her gut.

She took the kick. It would have knocked a man, any man, over, but she must have braced for it, somehow, because she looked down at her stomach, then smirked at me, and scoffed: "Weak."

Then she showed me what 'strong' was. She shifted her hand from my wrist to my neck and slammed me down into the snow on my back.

I tried to breathe. I couldn't. I tried to think. I couldn't do that either. The whole world collapsed into a point, no: a line, and that line was my backbone, and it felt as if all my organs had been shaken up around that line and were trying to find where they now fit inside my body.

She looked down at her handiwork and snorted in contempt. Then she left my side, and, as casually as if she were picking daisies in a field on a Summer day, she picked up my pistols and looked them over. She pointed to the tree top.

"By the bye, that fall would have killed you, you know, so you're welcome for saving your life."

"Bullshit!" I whispered hoarsely, lying on my back, gasping for air. "That's bullshit! You pushed me off, and you know it!"

She tsked. "Tut-tut! Such language! I didn't push you off, I ... well, clumsy me, I misjudged my footing, and you fell."

The lie was so obvious, she didn't even bother masking her sarcasm.

"Besides," she continued, "you're trespassing on my property, so I had every right to defend it, anyway. Isn't that right, you cute little Red-head?"

"It's VICKY!" I screamed, panting. Then: "And your property? Yeah, right." I sneered. Another lie from her.

I tried to get up, but I couldn't even roll over onto my side.

I continued to suck in air. It didn't look like she was actively trying to kill me at the moment, anyway.

Maybe she was like a cat? She only played with you when it was ... fun?

I didn't like the thought of me being a mouse to her.

"Yes," she said easily, "my property ... Vicky," acknowledging me with a sneer. "And these woods? These are my woods."

"No, they're not!" I said. "They belong to ..."

I then realized I didn't even know the name of the little old lady who used to live out here.

She waited, rolling the cylinder of the Colt against her sleeve, the pistol making click-click-clicking sounds as she sighted each spent round pass by the chamber with a bored expression on her face. Then she returned her eyes to mine, watching me.

"Uh-huh," she answered disinterestedly. "There were no disputing claimants against the deed I filed at the county courthouse for this track of land. I own it, free and clear. So, I'll ask you again, what are you doing on my property?"

"I..." I panted, and lifted myself up onto my elbows. "I saw somebody had moved in here, so I came to say hello."

Her eyes narrowed at me. "...with enough firepower to take out a posse?"

"A girl has to defend herself these days!" I bit back defensively.

She sneered. "Yes, I see. Especially from intruders with hair-trigger fingers. Well, you've said your 'hello,' now run along back home, little Vicky, and don't ever come back. You're not welcome here."

Ooh. Bad. Very bad. I clawed my way back to my feet, standing unsteadily.

"Okay," I capitulated, "I'll just take my guns back, and head on out, sorry to bother you, Snow White."

I didn't add a sarcastic 'and thanks for trying to kill me, bitch,' because I didn't see how that would help the conversation.

"No," she corrected. "You aren't taking these guns, because they belong to me now."

"What?" I shouted angrily, in disbelief.

She spat back, just as angrily. "You come here uninvited, shoot at an unarmed woman, several times, and on my property? Well, in case you weren't keeping score, I won that fight, hands down, and so to the victor goes the spoils. You dropped these on my property: they're mine now."

"No, ..." I said, taking a step forward.

In a snap, the barrels of both guns leveled at me.

She glared at me, death in her eyes, her aim absolutely steady.

"You suck at shooting," she said mockingly, venom in her voice, "Do you think I do?"

She was standing ten feet away from me, right by the tree I climbed, right by the tree we fell out of. She was about the same distance from me as I was from her when I shot at her, but now we weren't flying through the air, ready to crash into the ground. Now, she was absolutely still and sure.

A light snow began to fall from the cold grey sky, making white-white her, dressed in all white, blend in even more with her environment, only her hair and her eyes, both blond-gold, stood out. Except for them, she would have been invisible in this forest.

Me, on the other hand, I had on my red hooded cloak, I had white skin, too, almost as white as hers, but it was sprayed with freckles, and I had a red mop on top that just screamed 'target!' and all black leather? It kept me warm, it kept me safe and comfortable. And the leather could take the force of a blow, it could turn a knife away and not be cut by it.

But could it take a bullet? ... actually, three bullets? No. I'd be torn up and ripped open, completely at her mercy. She she did not look like the merciful type.

And the guns were trained right on me, following me, locked on and tracking me even as I moved ever-so-slightly when I swayed and sucked in air. She had me dead-to-rights.

"No," I said, "you don't suck."

I shook my head ruefully. She doesn't suck. All my life I've won fight after fight, knives, guns, wits, whatever, but it's always been against guys, and the guys have always sucked, being the stupid, idiotic, careless morons that they were. This girl was none of these things, and she knew it, too, the cocky bitch.

If she kept those guns, ... if I didn't go back to Slim with something ...

I had nothing to lose.

And she may think she's all that, but she didn't know everything about me. She was lucky and dodged a few ill-placed shots, and she pushed me around for a bit while I stupidly relied on firepower and luck. I'll give her all of that.

But now it was serious. She had the guns, but I didn't need them to win a fight. She had had luck on her side up to now, but now it was time to take luck out of the equation.

I looked her right in the eye and slowly sunk down into a very low crouch. I reached down slowly, and pulled out my babies, my five-inch long blades, with cutting edges sharper than anything in the world, then I reversed the grips, 'hiding' the blades along my arms, forming two perfect, invisible shields: charcoal black blades against the slick black leather of my jacket.

I glared at her and hissed: "But, I'm getting those guns back, girlie."

I began to sway, back and forth, a little tiny bit, willing all my strength into my legs. I would have to close the ten feet between us and not get shot. Once I did that, the guns would be neutralized, and I could let my knives sing for me.

She had three shots left in the guns she took from me. Would she be careless and fire at will, wasting the rounds at a distance? I couldn't count on it. I couldn't count on a single mistake from her, because every move she did so far was flawless, orchestrating the fight to go exactly the way she wanted it to, and playing me like she was a maestro.

But she only had three shots, and my knives didn't run out of ammo. If I could avoid taking a bullet, she might be the one with a very stupid look on her face with one knife at her throat and another pointed right at her gut. I'd leave her a little mark or two to remember me by, ... not on her pretty face, that would be too cruel, and that wasn't me, no matter how pissed off I was, but she'd remember the mistake of messing with me for the rest of her life. And then I'd take my guns back and send her back home.

Her eyes widened incredulously, and then she laughed, lightly, but never took her eyes off me, and never let her aim stray.

"What?" she asked disbelievingly. "You think you can dodge bullets?"

"No," I said. "I know I can."

Actually, I just lied. I really can't dodge bullets. But I can see where a person is aiming, and know, pretty well, when he's pulling the trigger, and then not be there anymore. It really helps that I have this feel when somebody's after me, so I can tell when somebody's really going to shoot at me, or if they are just making a feint. All this has led folks from around town to believe I can dodge bullets, and that belief is reinforced when they shoot toward me, miss, and get cut up for their troubles.

And who am I to gainsay a little folklore that gets me more and more respect the more idiots try their luck against the little red-haired girl who can't get shot and who'll cut you bad if you try. I get left alone, I get respect, and sometimes I even get treated at the bar to a drink or two. Me. A girl!

Then I realized that Snow White over there just dodged, let's see, four bullets from my Colt and one from Lady D. Five bullets. That's pretty amazing, even if the firefight wasn't ideal for me, and was damn lucky for her.

"... I can dodge'm, ... just like you can," I glowered, letting her know that I was onto her magic, whatever it was.

Because I didn't believe in luck nor magic. I believed that a person made things happen the way they wanted it to happen, even the bad things. I made my parents die, crossing the Atlantic from England. I made my sister die ... the only person left to me in the world. I made myself be in this situation, facing this girl with my guns pointing right at my head. If I had been a better girl, my parents and sister wouldn't have died ... I would've found a way to save them; I would've begged to stay in England, forcing our family to stay so my parents wouldn't have died on our trek West, having been weakened from the voyage across the Atlantic; I wouldn't have let Anne and I whore ourselves, so she wouldn't ended up dead on the floor of a saloon, a bullet in her chest ... I wouldn't have fallen under Slim's spell and so ended up right here, facing her.

All this was my fault. Everything came to this moment. Everything that followed depended on how I played it.

Just like for her. She got her skills and luck somehow. She was up that tree for some reason, and everything that followed depended on her and what she did from here.

Her eyes narrowed.

"Just like me, hm?" she said, taunting me, but at the same time, testing me, seeing what I was made of.

"Yes," I bluffed, projecting absolute confidence. I was going to get my guns back, even if I had to run through a hail of bullets do get them, and I was going to pry them from her hands, whether she was conscious or not.

She regarded me. "Hm, ..." she pondered. "It's tempting to see you try, but ..."

In a thrice she whipped the guns out to her sides and started firing: bang, bang! went the Colt, shattering the forest with the twin thunderclaps, and while she did that she fired the Derriger: bang!

She took her time pulling each trigger, and I heard the click-click-click-click of the hammers falling on the spent bullets.

The whole time she stood there, firing the guns, she kept her eyes right on me, supremely confident in herself. She raised the Colt to her lips and blew across the muzzle, the smoke from the expended bullets swirling in the snow falling lightly around us.

I looked at her in utter confusion. She was now completely defenseless, and she just did that to herself.

"So you're ..." I shook my head, "so you're just giving up?"

She smiled at me. It was a predatory smile, the smile of wolves when they leap on a deer.

"Just want to make the fight a little fairer for you, dear," she said sweetly, but I was annoyed at her patronizing tone. "Besides," she continued, "guns are so ... ick!" She twisted up her face in distaste. "They're loud, noisy and only slow me down."

I straightened up from my crouch. It was painful to be, as it were, right on the knife's edge, ready to dodge or leap, ... or die ... or strike. Tension lanced through my whole body and I felt it, particularly, in my neck. I felt a really bad headache coming on, but I had to deal with this crazy situation with this crazy girl in front of me, and then high tail it out of this county, or even this State, before Slim got curious or bored and sent some thugs to finish me ...

... or worse, finish me himself. That man is scary in how ruthless he can be. I've only seen him smile when he's making other people scream. I've only seen him sad when they die too quickly, spoiling his fun.

"Okay," I said reasonably, "if you don't like'm, just give'm back. We both walk away, sayonara, and no hard feelings, okay?"

She snickered. "Oh, no, no, no, no!" she exclaimed. "Then what's to stop you from reloading and shooting at me again?"

I shrugged. "I won't. I'll just take'm and leave. You have my word."

"Uh-huh," she said, totally unmoved. "The thing here is, Vicky: I don't need the guns, but there's somebody back home who can make a shotgun sing! And she's been complaining she needs something ranged. And if she gets into trouble, I want loud and noisy, don't you see?"

I grimaced. I saw.

"What good are they going to be? You're out of ammo, ..." I ventured.

She tilted her head to her side, observing me if I were some lab specimen. She reached down by the tree that she was standing by and picked up my basket.

"Was this going to be for us?" she asked, lifting the paper and sniffing at the brownies.

"Yes," I said, waiting to see what she was doing.

"Hm," she said, noncommittally. Then: "Thank you."

She recovered the brownies with the paper, then placed the guns into the basket, dropping it behind her.

"You see," she explained, "there's this thing called a 'town' about five miles from here? And it has this thing called a 'store,' are you with me so far? And at that store I can buy these things called 'bullets' and then the guns won't be useless anymore. Do you get what I'm saying, or was that too hard for you to understand? I mean, really! Where do you cowboys get all your bullets to shoot at each other? Do you think they are in an endless supply and you never have to reload?"

Then she looked at me scornfully, and muttered : "Must be the red hair that's affecting her ability to think."

I snarled. "No. I got you, but you didn't get me, so I'll explain to you now so even you can understand, Blondie. You don't have bullets." I sunk back into my crouch. "I have these." I jerked my head left and right down toward my arms and my babies. "...and you've pissed me off, so give me the guns, or I'm gonna get them from you and you will get hurt."

I really hate the red hair comments.

Her eyes narrowed to slits. "No," she said, "and my name's not 'Blondie,' nor is it 'fucking bitch,' nor 'Snow White,' nor 'girlie,' nor any other pet name you can imagine. It's Rosalie. Rosalie Lillian Hale. And let me explain something to you. You can walk away, now, and never come back, or you can see what a total idiot looks like when I take your knives away from you, too."

"Girlie, ..." I said, just not believing how far gone she was.

"Ah, ah, Vicky: Rosalie." She corrected, as if this were the most important thing in the world to her.

"Okay, Rosalie," I said, conceding her her name, but then continued ominously: "this isn't a game, and I'm getting my stuff back. You aren't going to have that smirk on your face when you get hurt. I'm just telling you, okay? So back away from the basket, got it? Last warning."

She measured me, then smiled widely. "Oh, but this is a game, and I haven't had this much fun in a long, long, ..." She paused, considering. Then she giggled a tinkling, bubbly, happy sound that was even more scary for her complete lack of her grip on the reality of the situation. "No, wait: I've never had this much fun. And, oh, ... you? hurting me? I'd like to see you try."

"I'm serious," I said, trying to get through to her.

She actually put her hand up to stifle a fake yawn. "How many times are you going to give me your 'last' warning? Are you going bring it? Or are you just going to talk me to death?"

I looked at her. She was completely insane. She was good, but knives against nothing?

She waited. Then she shrugged.

"Goodbye, Vicky, ..." she said. "I'll see you ... never."

And with that, she turned away and picked up the basket, heading back to the cabin.

That bitch!

You don't turn your back on me like that.

I screamed and I leapt, knives out, dull grey, but sharp as fangs, in the dull grey forest.


A/N: Ooh! Next chapter teaser: Snow White verses Little Red Riding Hood! Who wins?

Posted an analysis/insight of Little Red's conundrum at twilight-dad-dot-blogspot-dot-com /2013 /01 /little-reds-conundrum .html