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The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley

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The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley

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Author: Mercedes Lackey
Publisher: DAW Books, 2022
Series: Elemental Masters: Book 16
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Annie Oakley has always suspected there is something "uncanny" about herself, but has never been able to put a name to it. But when Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show goes on tour through Germany, Bill temporarily hires a new sharpshooter to be part of his "World Wide Congress of Rough Riders": a woman named Giselle, who also happens to be an Elemental Master of Air. Alongside this new performer, Annie discovers that she and her husband, Frank, are not simply master marksman, but also magicians of rare ability.

As they travel and perform, Annie must use her newfound knowledge and rare skill to combat creatures of the night scattered across the countryside, who threaten both the performers and the locals. Annie's got her gun, and it's filled with silver bullets.



The broom felt as if it was made of iron, not wood and straw. Annie was tired, mortal tired. Then again, she was always tired. There was always too much work to be done in a day and not enough hours to finish it. So it wasn't surprising that the broom she wielded chattered a bit on the puncheon floor-and the uneven surface of the split logs didn't help.

"Small strokes with the broom, you lazy little tramp! You're sending dirt everywhere!" The woman at the stove turned and glared, her hand hovering over the stout cane switch she always had at her side, tied to her apron string. Annie thought of her as "She-Wolf," regardless of her real name, because she was as cruel and vicious as a rabid wolf. So was her husband "He-Wolf," though his cruelty manifested itself in other ways than just the beatings Annie was accustomed to get from his spouse. Hard words, punishments like being deprived of meals, being sent into the cold, dark root cellar for an hour among the black beetles, and long lectures on her inadequacies, while he watched her with a gleam in his eyes that made her shiver, though she didn't know why.

Annie Moses winced and ducked her head, murmuring "Yes'm," and tried to make the strokes of the broom smaller. It was hard, though, because she was small for her age, the broom was taller than she was at a mere ten years old, and she was already exhausted from an entire day of tending the baby, cleaning, helping to prepare food, chopping wood, and pumping water. Pumping water outside in the winter cold was brutal, and her red hands and feet were covered in aching chilblains. By her reckoning, Annie did most of the work in this household; all the She-Wolf ever did was stir a pot now and again, rock and feed the baby, and beat Annie.

And the moment she turned her back on her employer, she heard the quick steps on the wood floor, and braced herself for the blow of the switch. Inevitable and unavoidable, the blows came, raining down on her back and shoulders until she dropped to her knees. She was holding her breath to keep from sobbing, as She-Wolf scolded her for being impertinent.

The She-Wolf yanked the broom out of her hands and flung a tiny whisk broom and dustpan at her head. The dustpan caught her in the cheek hard enough that she knew there would be a bruise and maybe a cut, the pain bringing more tears to her eyes. "There!" the woman spat. "Now finish the sweeping!"

On hands and knees, shivering with cold in the thin calico dress and apron that were all she had to wear, Annie went back to sweeping the kitchen floor with the whisk broom. Every time she gathered a dustpan full, she got to her feet and carefully emptied it into the pail she'd be expected to take outside when it was full. Her hands and feet were numb with cold, but she wouldn't be allowed near the stove until after He-Wolf and She-Wolf went to bed, and by then it would have been banked for the night and barely warm.

All the time she swept, the She-Wolf kept up a running commentary about how useless she was, how when they had hired her, she was supposed to be able to cook, pump water, and tend the baby (just now, thankfully, asleep in his cradle) like a good strong woman, how she was useless at all these things, and how she should be thanking her lucky stars that the She-Wolf was keeping her on despite how she was nothing but a drag on the household and not worth the money it took to keep her fed.

She'd have broken down in tears if she hadn't been so used to it by now.

It was an old song, one Annie knew the words to by heart. And most of it was a lie.

She'd been "bound out" to the Wolves on the promise of fifty cents a week for a little light housekeeping and tending the baby. Her widowed Mama couldn't afford to keep all her children, and at ten, Annie was the most likely to get any kind of employment, so she'd been sent to the Darke County Infirmary-which was the official name of the county poorhouse-and from there she'd been bound out as the Wolves' servant with her Mama's consent. And Annie herself had thought it a fine plan; she knew how much of a difference that fifty cents a week would make to the little household, and it made her proud and happy to be able to help. And there had been the promise of school, too; the Wolves had pledged to the people in charge of the Infirmary, Mr. and Mrs. Edington, that there was a school within easy walking distance, and she'd be going every day. Since there was no school near the Moses home, that had seemed like a dream about to come true.

She'd thought she was prepared for the work. She wasn't afraid of hard work, after all. She'd done more than enough of the housework at home to know she could do a lot of things, and do them well, and she'd helped tend Baby Hulda, so she knew she was competent with an infant. What's more, she knew she could take up a rifle or snares and easily add to the Wolves' larder with her uncanny hunting skills-most of the Moses' meat came straight from her hunting efforts. And she'd have been happy if she'd been treated fairly. She could easily understand how a new mother, perhaps weakened by the birth of her first child, would need some help, and if there were no relatives nearby to lend a girl, obviously they'd have to hire someone. Annie's own mother was often paid to come be a midwife, and afterward to cook and clean for a few days while the new mother recovered.

But Annie was effectively doing all the chorework, a great deal of the housework, most of the baby-tending, almost all of the water-pumping and wood-chopping, and a goodly share of the cooking. She was supposed to be going to school during the day, not slaving from dawn to dusk.

As for the She-Wolf taking an adult woman's share of the work, well, mostly the She-Wolf sat in her rocking chair by the stove and glared at her, or retired to the bedroom to nap.

When this all began, she used to cry herself to sleep every night, wake up still crying, and have to hide her tears during the day. Now, all she felt was numb, and a dull, resigned fear. She was too tired for anything else.

She'd written to her mother several times, asking when she would be able to come home again, and pointing out that between her trapping and shooting she was probably able to supply more than enough meat to make up for that lost fifty cents a week, but what had come back had been short replies, not even enough to cover one side of a very small piece of paper, admonishing her that she was to be grateful for what the Wolves were doing for her, that she was to do everything exactly as the She-Wolf told her to do it, and not complain. All these "letters" sounded strangely alike, and none of them sounded like Mama. At least not to Annie.

As for the promise of school, it had been a lie from beginning to end. The school was so far away it took most of the morning to walk there, and most of the afternoon to walk back, and that was in good weather. And of course He-Wolf was not in the least interested in driving her over in the cart. Now that it was winter, it was impossible, so she hadn't been more than a handful of days in the autumn before the Wolves started piling work on her. It had begun to dawn on her that the Wolves lied a lot. Were they lying about those letters being from her mother? Had they written those replies themselves?

Had they even sent on the letters she had written?

The chores she got set were often more difficult than they needed to be, and wouldn't have been nearly so bad if the She-Wolf had just lent a hand. It wasn't just that she was only ten, it was that she was small for her age-probably because for most of her life she'd never really gotten enough food. Things in the Moses household had gone plummeting downhill with the death of her father, and had never really recovered. Back home, food was scant, a lot of it came from the children foraging and Annie hunting, and her mother was out working as often as she could get jobs. Wood was free for the chopping, thanks be to God, but everything else cost money the Moses family just didn't have.

But as hard as life had been back home, things were worse here. She got up at four o'clock in the morning, made breakfast, milked the cows, fed the calves and the pigs, pumped water for the cattle, fed the chickens, cleaned, rocked the baby to sleep, weeded the garden when it wasn't winter, picked wild berries in summer, made supper after digging the potatoes and vegetables or getting them from the root cellar in winter-and then was expected to go hunting and trapping if there was any daylight left. And if there wasn't, of course, she was expected to do other chores, like washing and mending clothing.

Finally the floor was cleaned to the She-Wolf's satisfaction. But there was no respite. A basket full of stockings was thrust into her arms with a grunt. "Put your lazy hands to work mending," the She-Wolf ordered. Well, at least she would be able to sit down while darning the stockings. She moved as near to the stove as she dared and began.

The She-Wolf settled back into her chair by the stove, and smiled; she seemed to take pleasure in making Annie's life as hard as possible, though Annie could not imagine why. Was it her size? How could she help being smaller than the She-Wolf had expected? It was her husband who had chosen Annie, after all. If she didn't like Annie's size, she should blame him. It wasn't Annie's fault. And it wasn't as if there was anything she could do about her height, or lack of it. So why blame her for not being a strapping, muscular woman, when they knew when they talked to the Infirmary that they were only getting a ten-year-old girl, and when the Wolf himself had interviewed her?

But they'd have to pay a big woman more than fifty cents a week, I bet. And that's why they came looking for a girl. But they could've sent me back and asked for another.... But maybe they'd known there wasn't anyone but her to be had. Most of the inmates of the Darke County Infirmary were either old people too feeble to tend to themselves, with no kin to tend them, or children younger than she was, either orphans or from families too poor to support them all.

Finally warm, and finally sitting down for the first time since dawn, she found her eyes drifting shut. Several times she caught herself just as she was nodding off, but eventually sleep ambushed her and her eyes drifted shut, the stocking, darning egg, and yarn-threaded needle falling from her hands into the basket in her lap-

For less than a minute.

And then She-Wolf was on her, digging the claws of one hand into Annie's shoulder while she slapped at Annie's face with the other, shrieking like a steamboat whistle the whole time. She-Wolf had beaten her before, but this was different. This was incoherent rage, and as the blows rained down on her, only the pain kept her on her feet. She found herself stumbling toward the front door, and only terror at what She-Wolf might do if she stopped kept her moving. This wasn't a mere slapping, such as the woman did when she was displeased, nor a whipping with the willow-switch. This was a beating, and the pain and fear were unbearable.

Step by step, Annie sobbed and apologized and begged forgiveness, all to no avail, as She-Wolf drove her across the room. She-Wolf kept on screaming incoherently, pulling Annie's hair until hanks tore loose, slapping Annie's face so hard her eyes began to swell and her face felt on fire. Behind her the baby howled with what sounded more like startled anger than pain.

She-Wolf snatched the switch from her belt and beat Annie with it until it broke, then retreated only long enough to seize the broomstick to use it on Annie instead. By this point, Annie was past thinking; like a whipped dog, all she had in her head was to try to escape the pain. Then, as they both reached the door, She-Wolf snatched it open and drove Annie out into the dark and snow outside, slamming it behind her as she stumbled and fell to her knees into a small drift beside the door.

Then there was nothing but silence and darkness, except for a single square of yellow light falling on the snow from the window beside the door, which was covered in greased parchment instead of glass, making it impossible to see what was going on inside.

She tried to get up; crawled to the door and pulled herself to her feet to pound on it feebly. "Let me in!" she sobbed. "Please! It were an accident! Let me in!"

More silence was her answer, and she fell against the door, and slid down it until she huddled against the rough wood, openly sobbing, as she had not cried in months. Her hands were so swollen she could scarcely bend her fingers, but the cold gave a very brief respite from the pain-

But not for long. Within a minute or two, she curled in on herself, shivering uncontrollably, as the cold easily penetrated her thin clothing. Her tears froze on her cheeks and her teeth chattered so badly she had to clench her jaw to keep from biting her tongue.

She could not help herself; all she could think about was that this was how her father had died when she was small. Alone, in the cold and the dark-

He had been on his way home with the wagon full of bags of flour made from the grain he'd taken to the mill, when a blizzard had blown up out of nowhere. She remembered it like it was yesterday: how the horse had managed to find its way through the blinding snow sometime after midnight, with her father perched up on the wagon seat with the reins around his neck to keep from dropping them, so still and snow-covered her mother had thought he was already frozen to death. She'd helped her mother get him down and into the house, while her older siblings tended to the poor exhausted horse and got the supplies inside.

Copyright © 2022 by Mercedes Lackey


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