A horse named Deceased
“How did that damned horse get on the roof?”
June Foster got up from the campfire. She walked around her cottage, twice. There were no ladders or nothing left out in the pasture, yet there that horse was, standing with all four of its hooves together up on their roof. It slumped its grey nose down to her and whipped its tail back and forth against the brick chimney. June stared up at it. It blinked.
Her younger brother sat flat in the grass by the fire and scratched at the little knob of flesh in his belly button. The back of his neck and shoulders were lobster red, again, from walking around shirtless all day, and he had these little brown spots in his skin and face that weren’t there in the spring. He stabbed a stick into the fire, shaking orange embers loose into the sky.
“Don’t kill Deceased, she’s a good horse,” Cabbage said.
“Shut up, Cabbage,” she said. “Put on a shirt tomorrow.”
June stared down the barrel of her father’s rifle and pulled the trigger. A spark flickered in the empty chamber—now if only she could find Pop’s old copper bullets that horse would not be on the roof long. She walked along the chicken wire, looking east out over the sea. The moon was white on top of the ocean and under the belly of the clouds. The newly named settlement of Hastings glowed in the valley. She traced a finger around the tiny village.
“Why is she named Deceased?” Cabbage asked.
June turned back around.
“That’s what she was called when Pops bought her for me—for my—damn my sixth birthday was more than ten years ago,” she said. “Every six-year-old girl on the continent of Librae wanted a pony except me, I wanted a rifle, got stuck with some brainless mule because that’s the kind of girl Mum thought I was.”
June placed her boot heel on a tin wash tub—there was a time she used to fit in the thing. It was full of rainwater and weeds had grown up the rusted sides. She could see her own handsome face staring back up, as if she was part of the dark sky above. She tipped the basin with her foot and let it spill onto the grass. A gust slapped black hair across her eyes and scattered the fire’s golden ash out over the sea.
Something shined in the bramble. June stepped over the chicken wire into a slim plot of dirt overlooking the sea. Their only bed sheet sagged heavy from the clothesline, air blowing through a ringed yellow stain. She knelt with a forearm on her father’s gravestone and reached into the brush. It was a brown glass bottle, with a neck wide enough for a garden snake to slither out. She peered down the throat. A black cork spotted with mold was lodged halfway inside.
“What is it?” Cabbage asked.
“Someone stashed the Devil’s drink of whiskey up here,” she said, picking the soggy label off the glass, “evidently a long time ago.” Cabbage rolled his eyes. “Spirits are illegal on the continent of Librae,” she reminded him, tossing the bottle at the moon with all the strength in her shoulder. She sat against her father’s gravestone, setting the rifle in the grass and pointing it over the ocean. The bottle plunked into the water somewhere below. A cool, constant breeze felt good on her skin—her pants had gotten hot against her shins from the fire anyways.
Cabbage plucked a raspberry from the bramble and sat cross-legged against their mother’s gravestone—he looked at her, one of his eyes was a little crossed inwards.
“Why isn’t your hair long like all the other girls in town?”
“Baby brother, one doesn’t become the first female in the King’s Blackguard by wearing corsets and bloomers.”
Cabbage chewed the berries as he spoke.
“Think you can make the Blackguard?”
“Of course I can,” she said, buttoning Pop’s old marshal coat to her neck. She tucked her black workpants into her father’s old boots and pulled the laces tight around her calf. “If Sheriff Kensington, that drunk, would let me do more than chase stray goats, I’d move up much faster.”
Cabbage grinned, scrunching freckles on the bridge of his nose.
“I think Sheriff Kensington fancies you.”
She smacked him on the back of the head, hard enough for his blonde hair to fall in front of his eyes but soft enough for the berries to stay in his mouth—less stains for her to scratch out later.
Yelling came from the valley. June got to her feet, dusting off the back of her trousers. She could barely see over the thicket. Below, all the sheep carved to one side of the field and lanterns tossed spokes of red light every which way over the bog. The men came from the forest.
“Stay here,” she said, punching into coat sleeves and hurrying down the path. She hurdled a three-rail gate and cut through a pen of hogs. A figure ran into the covered bridge at full stride.
“Halt!” she screamed.
She stood in front of the bridge’s dark mouth. Footsteps on the wood pounded louder and louder towards her, then, a naked boy, wearing only boots, shot out of the darkness and ran right past her. She chased after him into town, gaining on him, gaining on him. He slowed to a stop and keeled over with hands on his knees. She rammed a shoulder into his ribcage. They hit a cask, spilling rain-soaked apples all over the dirt road. June rolled on top of him and pressed his wrists into the dirt.
The boy looked up through wet strips of hair. He was her age—but hard lines wrinkled his cheeks and face like tree bark. Mosquito bite lumps, the size of musket balls, covered his face and neck. Half the fringe of his brown hair dog-eared back over his scalp. He stank of swamp water and feet.
“Hello Misses Officer.” He was panting, wheezing, raising his chest up and down beneath her legs as though he’d just been running his entire life. “You Hastings girls are mighty forward.” She slapped his face. It did not change the smile beneath those green eyes.
There was the sound of glass shattering inside the Sheriff’s office across the road.
“Sound the bells!” the voice boomed from the building. A tall figure fell backwards through the double-doors and out onto the porch. His three-cornered hat dropped onto the top step. For a moment, the Sheriff laid flat on his back as the double-doors flapped shut above his waist. “I said sound the—” DONNNNGGGGGG, echoed from the stone church tower. DONNNNGGGGGG. The Sheriff sat up against the porch railing, drool shining his bottom lip. A navy coat hung open over white undershorts; his pants were elsewhere, but he had his boots on. He stood with an arm around the wooden post, shook a lock of golden hair out from his eyes, and sniffed sinuses back into his face. His other hand set the hat back on his head and patted it down. He drew a long flintlock pistol from his hip and stepped sideways down the front stairs. His blue eyes found June. “Get him indoors!” Sheriff Kensington commanded. He spit into the dirt as he walked past, leaving a cologne of whiskey skulking in the air behind him. The Sheriff stopped. He looked sideways down his shoulder at an apple stuck in the heel spur of his boot.
“Please,” the boy said to her, “get me indoors.”
A flash of blue pierced the Sheriff’s hat. June ducked into the boy’s chest. The arrow stuck into the dirt behind her. She pulled iron rings from her back pocket and slapped them on the boy’s wrists, then pulled him with a long step over the stream—he was probably three inches taller than her but cooperated, for some reason.
They ducked behind the waterwheel, where moss grew over rust on the metal axel. A second arrow stabbed into the water just beside her knee; the current took its blue glow out to the ocean. Third and forth arrows pierced the rotten wood. Townsfolk hurried into the street; the black shapes of pitchforks and smith hammers were stark against the white moonlight coming off the sea behind them. Big Mrs. Kragal ducked out the front door of her bakery, front porch groaning beneath her massive frame, with a frying pan gripped in each of her thick hands. She walked with an untied apron swinging like a necktie on her chest, biceps bowing her arms off her torso.
“Return to the forest.” Sheriff Kensington screamed into the bridge. He wrapped a hand around a saber’s hilt, where the Kingdom Scales were etched in bronze filigree.
A dozen hunters walked their lanterns forward, crossbows trained on the Sheriff. Their pale flesh was clothed in a mixture of animal hides and militia garb.
“Chambers is ours,” the lead hunter demanded.
The Sheriff kept his boots rooted where they were in the dirt, should-width apart, tucking his thumb into the front waistband of his undershorts. He pointed the trumpet-like barrel of his pistol into the closest hunter’s face.
“You stop there,” Sheriff said, pulling the hammer down with his thumb. She noticed his fingers grip with hilt of his saber. “Chambers is under jurisdiction of the Kingdom now.” None moved—as if some unseen line was drawn between them. “Go ahead and cross a lawman, see if the whole Kingdom of Librae doesn’t fall upon the Vesper Forest.”
There was a crowd of townsfolk behind the Sheriff holding pitchforks and harpoons into the air.
“Thank you for saving me,” the boy said as June pushed him through the swinging doors. Their boots crunched over broken bits of a whiskey bottle, but he didn’t seem to notice. He sat on a barrel, looked his green eyes up and down the metal cuffs on his wrists, then yanked a boot off his right foot and shook water out of it. A stench of sweat and rot was released into the room as he pulled a bare foot onto his knee. He peeled a fat leach from between his toes and flicked it onto the floor. “On paper I’m a criminal, but I’m no criminal.”
“Is that why a hanging posse chased you into town?”
“Hanging posses usually chase people out of towns, not into them,” the boy corrected. “Those were bounty hunters.”
He shook out his hair and left it standing half-dry and wild on his head. Neon blue pine needles fell to the floorboards.
“You’re from the Vesper,” she said. She’s seen those deep green eyes somewhere before. “What’s your name?”
“Yasmen Lexifer,” the boy said.
Sheriff walked through the doors.
“If you’re going to lie about your name, I suggest you be a bit more creative than Yasmen Lexifer, the honorable Magistrate revered across Librae.” The Sheriff placed parchment onto the desk beside her. It was a wanted poster with the boy’s face. “Your name is Wesley Chambers.” Sheriff looked to her. He lifted his black pants off the floor and stepped into the right pant leg. “Ms. Foster, how many times do I have to tell you that you aren’t the Sheriff?”
“He was running mad into town,” she said.
When his belt was fastened, Sheriff handed her a broom and thrust his chin in the direction of the broken whiskey bottle, then looked to the boy. He stood over the boy with thumbs curled in his front belt loops. June set the broom against the wall.
“You’ve been evading executions,” Sheriff said.
“I have no idea what you’re talking—”
“Town of Bourgeshire—Lynching of Chambers, Wesley on November 33rd. You are listed as absent.”
“How rude of me,” Wesley muttered.
“Gorringham—Chambers, Wesley—to be executed via guillotine on December 6th. Absent.” Sheriff dragged his finger down the scroll. “Furszelow. January. Firing squad. Absent… Crenshaw. February. Absent.”
“Are the hunters gone?”June asked as Mrs. Kragar’s shadow eclipsed the window.
“For now,” Sheriff said, eyes still on the scroll. “But we must transport him by dawn. The bounty on his head is worth enough to buy any man’s ambitions, and that makes him dangerous to be around. By daybreak we’ll have the entire Vesper upon Hastings once word gets out he’s here.” Sheriff keyed open the boy’s cuffs, clipped heavier shackles over the boy’s pale wrists, then pushed him into the holding cell. “He’ll sleep in iron tonight, under close supervision.” Kensington locked the cell, pulling the key from the recess like a dagger from a freshly stuck victim. “Tell me Chambers,” Sheriff continued, “what have you done now that even the lowliest dregs in the Vesper underworld want you dead?”