A Decent Criminal
June stood at the back of the caravan, body chilled with adrenaline. She gripped her father’s saber in both hands, ready to swing it like a stickball bat. Sheriff took careful steps up the ramp. His boots crunched on small mounds of gun powder. He nosed a pistol through the curtains and lifted one up. Her sleeping bag had been tossed over the prisoner’s cage. Sheriff gripped the pistol at the end of his arms, pointing it at the cage. He flashed a glance back to her for a moment—his blue eyes had a childish look of alert, as if he was checking for monsters beneath a bed. He thrust his chin in the direction of the cage. She raised the saber over her head and tore the sleeping bag down off the bars. The cage was empty. Its door squealed open from the lopsided caravan’s gravity. Shackle chains were coiled neatly in a circle around an empty bowl.
“Shit,” June said.
“Shit,” Sheriff said. “I’m so sorry.”
She sniffed a sting out of her eyes.
“Thank goodness you folks are here,” Chambers said. He squirmed out from beneath the bench, holding blackened hands and arms out in front of his face. June smiled all the way into her ears. She pressed her father’s saber flat against the back of the prisoner’s head while Sheriff re-snapped the boy’s shackles. “I prefer the company of those who don’t want me dead at this very moment,” Chambers said. “But hey, at least we aren’t in Hastings right now—which is probably just a pile of ash by the sea. You can thank me for that.”
June stepped outside the caravan and walked for a bit so nobody could see her, then kicked at the trunk of a tree. It was just like Cabbage to have her worrying. Climbing trees. Falling out of them. Her horses were either stolen or burned in the stables. She pictured the front door barred shut in their old home; the fire closing in on Cabbage. His worried, freckled face. She sniffed, sniffed harder, and then spat. Sheriff was beside her. He held the handle of a big glass jug with one finger at his side.
“I should have brought my brother with me,” she said.
Kensington finished a long sip, “Not your fault.” He looked off the ridge and drizzled some of the liquid into his silver flask. He’d seen her wet eyes, but she knew he didn’t think less of her. They both had their backs to the carriage. She sniffed. He sipped. “Your father was my only real friend in life.”
Hemlock poked his bald head out from behind a tree.
“Soldiers are on their way from Hastings.” Hemlock shouted in the tone of a whisper—he’d been standing behind a tree when they searched the caravan for Chambers. “No parlor tricks or gypsy costumes will save you. Gallows will get to the end of the trail and realize I’ve lied, then he’ll double back towards us. I’ll be dead, you’ll be dead, Chambers will be dead.”
Kensington walked ten paces across the ridge and slapped Hemlock’s face so hard that the sound seemed to ring in the air—perhaps this man was worth marrying, she thought.
Chambers watched her from inside of the caravan. Through the bars, she could barely make out the greens of his eyes in the shadows. She’d never seen his face without that teasing smile or annoying glint in his eyes. He looked away, no smirk, no witty quip.
“We’re in checkmate,” Hemlock said. “Our so called plan is nothing more than the last words of a marvelous suicide letter. We have an ambush behind us, and an eventual ambush in front of us once Gallows realizes the note was false.” Hemlock lifted his face from his palms. “No man who’d want to keep his life will stay on this trail.”
“How can we trust a practiced coward?” June said.
The Sheriff was about to speak over June but Chambers spoke over the Sheriff.
“Sounds like you all just learned you’re gonna die one day. May I suggest something from a dead man’s perspective?” Nobody spoke. “We should ambush the ambushers. Let’s wait right here. Put dead men in your uniforms so they think they’ve won. Lull them into a false sense of security then stop their hearts—we have a house full of weapons, if you strategists haven’t noticed.”
Hemlock made a scoffing noise.
“You say we as if you’re one of us.”
“We either all live or all die tonight when they arrive,” the prisoner said with a shrug. “It’s called mutual interest, but I wouldn’t expect an instrument of monarchy to be familiar with the phrase.”
“Instrument of monarchy…” Hemlock repeated. Kensington and Hemlock formed a small circle in front of her, with their backs to the caravan. “Sheriff, I have a plan,” Hemlock whispered. “We kill the Chambers boy and leave him on the trail.”
Sheriff stood there, hands resting where his belt would have been if he wasn’t wearing orange gypsy silks.
“Spoken like a true religious figure,” Sheriff said.
June cringed at the thought. Any hopes she had of finding her parent’s murderers would stop abruptly with the prisoner’s heartbeat. She needed to deliver Chambers to Kingdom, alive. Kensington seemed to consider the option, but the Sheriff eventually deferred.
“Chambers is the one who has umbrage with the Vesper. Let him settle it alongside us.”
“And risk him slitting our throats once out of the cage?” Hemlock chirped.
“He will remain in chains,” Kensington said. “We can shackle him to the front porch.” The Sheriff looked to Chambers. “I never had a dog before.” Kensington smiled. “However many he kills in the process will lighten our load. We’ll wait in the redwood tree and ambush the house in the dead of night.”
“That’s not much of a plan,” June said.
She remained in her gypsy clothes, unpacking the uniforms and dragging freshly dead men up from the explosion site. Kensington wore regret on his face while threading a floppy arm through the Sheriff’s coat sleeve.
“I guess we’re officially not ourselves anymore,” Kensington said.
June fussed with a fat-handed slob. The smell of dead hadn’t yet overcome the smell of the bad hygiene he died with. She sniffed back more tears, buttoning her father’s jacket down the dead man’s stomach. Today she did not deserve the last name Foster.
“Boil thorns and toadstools over a flame and coat your weapons in their sap,” Chambers shouted after them. “A paper cut of that stuff will stun them.”
Kensington sat his lookalike against the wheel of the caravan, setting his three-cornered hat on the head to complete the illusion. To punctuate the lie, he stabbed his own scarecrow half a dozen times and left the dagger hanging out of the heart.
June slapped her lookalike with the shovel until the back of his head was sticky with blood. She laid him face down in a puddle with tiny water bugs skittering around the head. She stood beside Kensington, both looking upon dead versions of themselves.
“It feels odd to kill ourselves,” Kensington said.
“Only if you consider your uniform as yourself,” the prisoner said, and then laughed at his own joke for quite some time.
June followed the Sheriff to the front of the caravan.
“Sheriff, who is this boy?”
“No the other one…”
“Well,” Sheriff said. “I haven’t been completely honest with you about who Chambers is.”
“I’m listening now,” she said. Steel pennies had fallen from Pop’s jacket. She knelt down and rubbed mud off the surface of the King’s face with her thumb. “This boy doesn’t have a penny to his name, why does Gallows want him dead?”
“I can’t tell you,” Sheriff said, “but you need to know that we’re carrying this entire continent’s fate. This boy sits at the center of everything. It’s best if you don’t know, I promise.” He brushed the back of his hand against her cheek. “Toadstools you say?” he asked Chambers, loudly, aiming a pistol into the cage as he unlocked it. The prisoner handed the chain leash of his shackles over to the Sheriff.
“That is what I said,” Chambers said through a grin, “Toadstools, thorns, saplings—if it glows blue it stuns them.”
Sheriff nodded to her. She was glad to be alone, plucking glowing vegetation from of the bushes. Somewhere nearby a cicada bug moaned among grasshoppers. It reminded her of warm summer nights as a little girl back in Hastings—family waiting when she got home. Pinching a fern at the stem, she uprooted it from the soil. Stringy purple tendrils coiled out from the lump of dirt, as if they were cold out of the ground.
Below, Hemlock lifted the skirt of his robes and kicked rotten logs over the embers. Orange flames coughed up from the blue coals. A kettle of bog water hung between three balanced sticks. June stirred it with a knife. The mixture whirled to a steamy purple consistency. For a while, she just smelt the swamp water boil. Weapons were hauled out of the house and placed in the grassless halo around the fire. Sheriff lifted a ladle-full of the sappy water from the kettle and drizzled it along the tips of each weapon as he walked. She watched the stringy lines of lavender afterglow dry on the blades of five sabers, two farming sickles, a halberd, three tomahawks, a half dozen throwing knives, and a sharpened screw driver.
“Cut them and they’re sleeping,” Chambers reminded, he sat on the top step of the porch with his chains tied through the railing. “If you had any brains you’d set traps—dip fishing hooks in it and hang them eye-level from doorframes.”
Hemlock winced so drastically that it seemed to scrunch bald skin from the top of his head above his eyebrows. He pulled the white clerical collar out from around his neck and tossed it into the fire.
“Why don’t we just hang the prisoner from the doorframe?” Hemlock said. “It’s him they want. Why make it a struggle? Aren’t you escorting this boy to his death anyways? What difference does it—”
“All the difference in the world,” Sheriff cut in. “Everyone, get inside the house,” he shouted. Even out in the swamp, without uniform, the Sheriff’s command had traveled with them like stink on hogs. She felt not so lost. June dipped the end of her saber into the kettle and blew on it, watching the hot purple shine dull to a pink luster. She held it out towards the prisoner as she walked up the plank and around him on the porch. A bead of sweat cleared a line through gunpowder smeared on the boy’s forehead and nose. Broken red blood vessels made his eyes seem greener as he smiled up the blade at her.
Kensington was behind her in the shack. He lifted a bottle out of a glass hutch, uncorked it, smelled it, and turned to the prisoner.
“Chambers, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but which of these weapons do you prefer?”
She made her way through the house. The next few hours dragged in warped frames of time. She waited and then waited more out on the back porch, anticipation and dread mingling in her stomach. The toad was still on the log out back.
She brought her rucksack down from the caravan but didn’t open it. The picture of her family would only make her think of Dana more, and if he was gone than it was all she had left of them. She just couldn’t stand to look at it just yet. The prisoner sat on the front step with the black X of his suspenders facing her. Purple farmer sickles twinkled on the porch beside his dirty hands. Flies buzzed around him. Every now and then he’d move and jangle the chains. The hilt of a tomahawk was tucked into the back of his waistband with the poisoned blade tailing outwards. Sheriff and Hemlock argued over candles on the piano. She eavesdropped to keep Cabbage off her mind—if he was alive, he was a prisoner, so any hope came with pain.
“Killing Chambers would be a waste, he’s another sword for us,” Kensington whispered.
“It would stop their hunt,” Hemlock said, clutching a bible on his lap. “They would have no motivation with Chambers dead.” Through the crooked doorways, she caught the prisoner’s eye on the front steps. He smiled and straightened brown hair from his eyes, as if for her sake. She straightened a lock behind her own ear, hoisted her bag onto her shoulder, and went upstairs.
“Wake me when you expect them,” she said with a forced yawn. She didn’t look at the dead body in the bed, crawling straight down to the giant branch.
She dropped the rucksack inside the tree.
She was alone.
She let out a breath that seemed to take an hour to get fully out of her. Sleep would help. All the dread was made worse by the lack of sleep. She hadn’t known the position of the sun since setting foot in this forest. Late and early seemed to be in a sad knot at all times. A headache, she’d noticed, caught up with her.
Through the hole in the tree, she watched Sheriff and Hemlock place a burnt rocking chair in front of the prisoner. Chambers stepped onto it willingly. They pulled the chains taught over a column pillar above his head. She cussed. Chambers was going to die along with any hopes she had of making Blackguard, along with any hopes of finding the man who killed Mom and Pops. She thought of the tall grass of her pasture burning around their headstones back home. There was no home left. She wiped her eyes on an elk fur blanket. The treetop swayed back and forth in a breeze that creaked the redwood down to its roots. The only family that existed now was printed on the photo in her ruck sack. She lifted it onto the windowsill and pried it open.
Someone had gone through her damned rucksack.
Through the hole, Chambers hung freely in the air over the front porch. Chain tight around his neck. Toes dangling well above the floorboards. Scraggly hair hung down over his bowed head. Both of his hands were tethered behind his back. His chest didn’t rise or fall.
In her rucksack, the picture of her family sat safely at the top of everything, as if placed there with the delicacy of a rose petal.