Outlaw

By joe_gallagher All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Skullduggery

The fishing shack wore a golden crown of flames. Fire climbed up the branches of living trees and spread along the canopy, until swamp water below reflected bright thrashings of red and yellow. June could feel the heat all the way up on the ridge, where she wrestled her father’s uniform off a body in the mud. She folded the jacket into a tight square, gold buttons centered, and left it on the caravan bench. A sore, nauseous feeling grew below her stomach. Sheriff had sent her back up the ridge to “tidy” the carriage before their departure. And after seeing Chambers deliver that bundle of souls to their judgment, she didn’t complain. It was fine enough because she had woman’s work—a bad time of the month was upon her. Really bad. Her lower abdomen felt as though someone had tied it into a hundred little knots that pulled tighter and tighter. She puked, returned to sweeping for a few minutes, then puked in the bushes again. By a stroke of luck, she’d packed a few suppositories. She pulled a twined finger of cotton from her rucksack and looked around to make sure nobody could see. Pushing her jeans down her thighs, she stuffed the damned thing in; her eyes never leaving the fire on the horizon.

She lifted a wicker broom from under one of the benches and swept at the anthill-looking piles of gunpowder on the back ramp. In the sixteen years she’d lived on a farm, she’d never once swept anything, and didn’t see the point in sweeping now—people like the Sheriff, who like things clean, got something dirty on the inside. It was a fool’s task—she might as well try to sweep dirt from the forest. With every push the grains of black powder combed between the fraying ends of the broom. The ramp would just have to bear a permanent black smear. She swept and swept and swept until two pairs of boots were at the bottom of the ramp.

“Where are his shackles?” she asked, eyeing the pale bands of skin on Chambers’ wrists.

“You just saw him kill twenty men while tied to a front porch, and you’re asking me to put shackles on him?” Kensington said.

Chambers walked up the ramp. She stepped far out of his way, popping an acorn under her heel in quick steps. The prisoner walked with his head bowed into his chest and shut the cage door behind himself. Sheriff snapped the lock shut with his key and slammed the back hatch shut against the cage. His eyes noted the folded uniforms on the bench inside.

“Got the uniforms?”

“You’re welcome,” she said.

“You’re staying in those clothes.”

“I’m not wearing this anymore.” Sheriff stepped down the ramp, blue eyes rising from her chest to meet her eyes. She regretted voicing the complaint but stood by it nonetheless. “I’m no working girl, Sheriff.”

“It’s for all of our safety,” Sheriff said with an edged tone. “The only young women out here are working girls and the only spare tunic I have is for men…but… we should depart before those flames get to the moonshine stock. That’ll be a proper eruption. Ms. Foster, salvage any of that gunpowder you can.”

“Fine,” she said.

June bent over to scoop gunpowder from the dirt, just long enough to appear busy until the Sheriff was out of sight, then ran up into the front of the caravan. She pried open the lid of a wooden crate with a spoon handle, then tossed the bent silverware out next to the dead body. There were garments inside. She found the stitched fabric of a men’s tunic. It was woven thick. She raised it by the shoulders up to the candlelight. It was sleeveless, hemmed tight at the waist. Silver thread stitched the black fabric in diamond-patterns. Snorting phlegm up from her nose, she spit a wad of gunk down the front steps into the dirt, then tore the gypsy sleeves off her chest as if they burned, they landed in the puddle next to the naked dead man and a bent spoon. Her torso breathed easy for the first time in recent memory.

She tried to hawk up more of the phlegm from her throat but nothing was left. Chambers stood in his cell, eyes glued to her chest without the least bit of subtlety.

“Not very ladylike,” he said. His tone was observant.

“Exactly,” she said. “It’s time we both stop pretending to be things we aren’t.”

She found a small hand mirror and propped it on the shelf between ears of dried corn. Her fingers ran through her smooth hair. More lines of crow’s feet cut out from the side of her eyes than she remembered in the mirror at Hastings. Her default expression was always a hard one, but she couldn’t force cheerfulness any longer. Cheeriness was for the dumb cattle men call wives. Gripping a fistful of black hair at the root, she hacked it off with a knife.

“Ack,” the prisoner said, as if the sight of hair being cut made him queasy. She threw the handful of hair particles out the cabin door beside her. They fluttered in the air like old dust, glowing orange from the blazing tavern. She wiped sweat off her forehead and sliced another chunk of hair off, rubbing at the graze of stubble across the top of her scalp. “I’m supposed to be the unstable one,” Chambers said, apparently suspending his pouting to question hers.

“Shut your mouth and keep staring at chest, like a good little scullion,” she said with grit teeth, cutting away her bangs. Tucking her chin into her neck, she balled all the hair on the back of her head and sheared it. It, too, landed in a clump in the dirt outside. Holding the flat edge of the blade in four fingers, she raked the razor edge behind her ears with clean scrapes. She brushed away clinging hair and pulled the tunic over a bald head. The sleeve rings were tight around the shoulders. She tucked the bottom of the tunic into her black pants to disguise how far it hung below her waist. Bald June looked different in the mirror. Her black eyes seemed to be set lower on her face and the random freckles and brown spots on her skin stood out more. But her face was still girlish in the mirror. Her cheeks were smooth as a butter knife. She ran out back and pressed her hands into the pile of gunpowder, then dragged an oily smear down her cheeks in the mirror. It was a subtle darkness to her face, but just enough to seem grizzled. Only under the careful eye could an onlooker tell it were an illusion and not the gentle shade of scruff peeking through the skin.

The prisoner stared.

“What?” she asked, “do you want a lock of hair? A token? Cause I ain’t no knight’s wench.”

“Well,” he said “you certainly don’t look like a knight.”

“And you don’t look like a monster.”

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