A good Gallows Girl knows how to steady a man when he twitches at the end of the rope. She’ll take his hands and hold them tight, or grab him by the forearms if she needs to. The firm touch of a good Gallows Girl is usually enough: he’ll go slack, stop kicking, and let the noose dig. The death is just as ugly, but the passing is eased.
A good Gallows Girl will open herself a tiny bit, let him scrape off some of her innocence to carry with him as he goes. My sister told me that it hurts a lot. But it’s supposed to be a good hurt, and it’s the only way to know that you did your job.
“It’s a saintly pain,” she told me, her face somber and set like wax. After that, we stopped playing hideaway and throw-the-bones. She was needed by the town, and she took it on all at once, all that seriousness, after just one hanging. They said that she was a natural. They stretched her shadow bigger and bigger, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fit in it, when it was my turn. And that was fine with me.
Ellie, my tutor, took me to see my first sentenced man on the day after I turned twenty. He was shirtless and singing in his cell, a song made of nonsense words. I couldn’t find his navel among his belly hair and rolls of fat.
“He’s so big,” I whispered. “Can I quiet a man that big for my first?”
“How big he is in the world doesn’t matter,” said Ellie. I waited, and sure enough, she followed up with: “Your sister’s first man was over six foot.”
“My sister’s first man was the Hell-Pig Himself, and she tamed him without touching him, and he was probably eight feet if he was an inch,” I said.
“That’s enough, Kal.” Ellie looked down at me, beseeching from underneath her green hood. My parents would scoff or yell if I mocked Lillian’s perfection, but Ellie reacted as if wounded. She was reminding me that my reputation was braided with hers. And I liked her, so I listened.
“What did he do?” I asked.
“Killed some folks. Robbed their home. That’s all we know about, but I’d bet the T-bird he was riding on wasn’t his neither.”
“He has a T-bird?” I clutched at her arm. “Can we go see it? Please?”
“We’re here to see him. We can look in on the bird later.”
I nodded, fidgety. There had been terror birds in the town stables before but I’d never tended to them. I had looped by during my errands to catch glimpses of them eating, their huge beaks plucking at red slabs of meat with surprising daintiness. Their riders—couriers, doctors, hunters for hire—typically didn’t stay in town for more than a few days.
Ellie would be doing me a kindness by taking me to see the bird, and so I doubled my focus while we were in the jail. I squinted through the bars at the man, tried to get a sense of who he was. He had made his bed, but was he naturally neat? Did he always sing when idle?
He ignored us while I studied him, though he could see us perfectly well. He had to know why we were there.
Tomorrow, I would climb the ladder to my platform and wait for him to fall through the trapdoor above. There would be a bag over his head, and the noises coming from the bag would sound like a drain struggling to swallow mud. I would take his hands, and I would let him see inside me and paw at my bones until he found a gleaming part he liked. Then he would die, and I would let go, and because of what I had given him, he’d have a chance at forgiveness.
For now, we were strangers. All I knew was that he had murdered people and that he couldn’t sing very well. I fiddled with my skirts and tried one last time to learn something from his face, which was disarmingly normal. No beady eyes, no shelf-like brow. He looked like any of the men who sat in Jordan’s saloon in the early afternoon.
“You’re my Gallows Girl, then?” he said, abruptly cutting off his song. I straightened, adjusted my expression.
“Yes,” I said. I tried to imitate the even tone that Lillian used when addressing the soon-to-be-hanged. “Now we have seen each other.”
“Now we have.”
Our compact made, I glanced up at Ellie, ready to leave. But the man wasn’t finished.
“You’ll be the last thing I ever touch,” he said, stepping up to the bars. His eyes flicked to Ellie, and he smiled. “They couldn’t find me a pretty one, hm?”
“You won’t be able to look at her once you’re dangling,” Ellie said. She was defending me, thinking that his words had stung.
“You’re not pretty either,” I said, as though we were simply trading truths. He shrugged and turned away.
When we left the jail, the sun had risen high and merciless over Red Leg. The vendors on the thoroughfare were spreading sloth-skin awnings to shade their wares, and I saw old Hart flicking water over his cart of fruit, trying to keep up the illusion that the apples and berries were dew-spat. Braxton had arrayed his rings and bracelets—whittled from the bones of only the most respectable deceased—into the outline of a flower, ivory blooming against red silk. Others had already packed up for the day.
My eagerness to greet the T-bird had faded. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected courtesy of a murderer, but Lillian had said that her men respected her, barely spoke to her, sometimes sobbed in her presence. Would I have to snarl back and forth with my condemned?
The jail sat squat and long on the north edge of town, built far from the gallows so that the sentenced had to walk the full mile-and-a-quarter south. If I looked that way, I could see the cherrywood crossbeam stark against the sky.
Every small town brags about its gallows, but Red Leg had reason. It was so tall that it seemed a monument. Ellie had told me that the planners had wanted everyone to see the hanged, and so they had foregone a bell tower for the gallows, and from then on no building was allowed to reach beyond that beam in height. The wood was thick, sturdy stock that stopped a fist with blunt sound, no echo. When it creaked with a dying man’s weight, the creak was an acknowledgment, a thanks, never a threat of collapse.
Our Gallows Girls were likewise legendary, and Lillian was bearing out the rumors. She had departed for Broadcreek three months ago. It was a fine assignment, a crowded crossroads with a steady supply of the soon-to-be-hanged, and our parents had cried proud tears when the letter came. They knew that Red Leg was a birthplace, not a destination. It couldn’t hold on to the girls it raised.
Ellie and I turned off the thoroughfare and headed down Cratt Street to the stables. I could tell that she was nervous, thinking about how I would fare the next day. There was little hope that I could soothe the man as fast as my sister had soothed her first, but people now knew that there was innocence in our bloodline. They presumed that I would at least impress.
“It won’t matter if you aren’t as quick as her,” Ellie said. She was halfway talking to herself, but it seemed like she had scanned my thoughts.
“I know. I’d like to be close, though. I think I can quiet him quick. I’ll try.”
“Are you scared of the pain?”
“Can’t be worse than when that big ‘dillo bit me,” I joked. It was the wrong thing to say.
“You know it’s not like that. I’ve tried to tell you. It’s—”
“You’ve told me. Many times.” I sped up to avoid a lecture, bunching my skirts in my hands.
Ellie used to be a Gallows Girl herself, of course. She had trained Lillian, and given bits of herself to tens of dangling men. But a tutor can only teach you the rites and the sayings, peppering their lessons with memories. There’s no way to practice—you don’t get the full idea until your first man drops.
The smell of hot meat and hay rushed to meet us as we approached the stables. Packett, the mammal-hand, was ushering a horse into one of the stalls, the sweat on his bald head a testament to the effort.
“Packett, your west,” Ellie said.
“My west, your east,” Packett grunted. “Here we are.” He gave the horse a slap on its rump, pushed the stall door shut, and laid down the wooden bolt.
“We’re here to see the T-bird,” I said. Packett’s face scrunched upwards into skepticism, but it was the friendly sort.
“Don’t stick your fingers near his face, Kal,” he said. “He makes up his mind about people quick. He’ll be on your left toward the back.”
I jogged to the stall, grinning so hard that my bottom lip cracked. Packett could cheer me up just by saying my name. He wouldn’t have let Lillian back here, or Neal, or Jessa, or any of the jobless ones who were the same age as me. But I had helped him snap the antlers off of a stag-moose last winter when its shedding was delayed, heaving my entire body over a bough while the animal huffed. And I was unafraid of Big Meg, the town’s only ground sloth, who ate tree leaves broader than my head and ploughed the farmers’ ditches with her massive front claws. I wasn’t yet strong enough to file those claws during digging season, but Packett allowed me to climb up between her shoulders and brush out ticks. He trusted me to work with them, saw that I had a knack and let me test it.
A T-bird was no plodding draft animal, though. A T-bird was speed and snake-quick cunning. The sight of its hatchet beak above the grass was an omen of rancher’s loss, and to steal an egg was to outrun your death. The art of taming chicks left most wranglers short a few fingers at the least.
This one was a young adult. The feathers about his neck were still maturing into a ruff.
“Hello,” I said, and it was more of an awed breath than a word. I had never been this close to a T-bird before. Big Meg dwarfed me, but standing next to this predator—far above my head but still so close, eight feet at his bright orange eyes—was more intimate.
He looked at me dead on, which was strange. Most birds, they turn their heads and favor one eye to check you out. But a T-bird stares in a straight line over its beak, so everything on its face points right at you. I felt sighted, as if by a pistol.
He made a deep clucking noise, and I saw his throat pulse in and out. He sounded curious. I searched along his side for the vestigial wings and found their outlines, small and almost silly, against the bird’s bulk. I desperately wanted to reach out and stroke the deep-blue feathers on his long neck. But Packett had told me not to, and by now Ellie had caught up and was glaring at the T-bird, looking angry that he had deigned to grow so big and deadly.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“No teasing. Your parents expect you home soon.”
I glanced from her face to the bird and back again. The sooner the man was hanged, the sooner the bird would be without a claimant. My parents had bought Lillian new shoes and a cavebear skin cape after her first man. Now I knew what I would ask for.
Supper was a quiet rhythm of passing bowls from person to person. Mother and Father were skittish. They wanted to let me know that they were pleased, that my relative mediocrity was still a boon, but they spent the whole meal fishing for words without dragging any of them up.
“I’m not that nervous,” I told them. It seemed to smooth out their faces a bit.
I had spent so much time with Ellie that I had forgotten to think on my parents. And they hadn’t asked me much, throughout my training. The truth was that they were already screwed into their place in the town, and I was an extra piece that could go anywhere. They loved me fine, and I loved them back, but we had little to offer each other.
“You met him today?” Mother asked. I nodded.
“He was big. He murdered some folks a short ride out north. That bunch of houses, they didn’t have any gallows, so they brought him here.”
“A murderer, that’s nothing petty.” Father tried to kindle my ego, and I shrugged. “Think you can send him on his way in a minute?”
“Probably. Ellie thinks I’ll do well. It won’t be as fast as Lil’s first, but that’s fine with me. It means I get to stay here.” I bit into my cornbread as they both settled further into their chairs, appeased.
Later, as I stepped out of my skirts and prepared for bed, I relished the silence of my room. It was exhausting, reassuring everyone that I didn’t covet Lillian’s talent, that I wouldn’t throw myself into a long sulk once I emerged as the lesser Gallows Girl. But it would have been more work for me to deny the title, or to let them know that I wouldn’t make it my life’s center. Once a Gallows Girl is found, her sisters must also wear the gray hood.
Innocence is dwindling, Ellie had said. And so we must share.
I would quiet the man, I knew, with all the adequacy I had come to expect of myself and a bit of the natural talent instilled in my kin. I had no desire to excel in my role, and no fear that I would fail. My future looked to be a comfortable one: I’d have as much time between hangings as I would need to sample the town’s small joys.
Lillian had outgrown Red Leg in one swift sprouting. But I still felt like the perfect size for the place. I loved how I could nod to folks while I was on a walk, not saying anything, and still get my own name back in response. I knew which alleys shot upwards into walls, and which opened up onto streets. I helped to herd the big armadillos—“walkin’ houses,” most called them—to slaughter each year, and polished their shells into tents for children to huddle and play inside. I could draw what Red Leg looked like on the approach from any point on the surrounding grass plains. Sketching from the south was easiest, because the town was framed by the gallows, and all the buildings looked like they were bowing to the wood.
The hood was so large it almost hung in front of my eyes. I shifted my weight, testing the bounce of my platform, which was a skinny jut of planks attached to the east side of the gallows, yearning towards the middle. They had to measure the man and the rope several times. Too short, and he’d hang above me, out of reach. Too long, and I would have to clamber down the rope until I came to his scalp. I should be at the level of his chest, and close enough to pull him towards me without falling off the platform’s edge.
I could hear the group speak from the stage over my head. The seams of the trapdoor disrupted the grain of the wood, so the door itself looked out of place, a perfectly wrong square.
I preferred not to look down. Lillian had invented a rhyme to help with the dizzying height: 80 feet up means 80 to fall, grab his hands and let him call. When she shared it with me I thought it childish, but now I recited the first part over and over, wheezing it into the wind.
Most of the town had gathered on the thoroughfare, but I was too far up and away to discern faces. They all looked like stalks of grass stuffed into clothes. Jessa had told me once that people placed bets on how long a Gallows Girl would take to soothe a man, and I wondered, irritated, who had done that today. I wanted no one to win. I placed no bets on their livelihoods, on how long it took for the mammoth meat to cure or the bullets to sell.
Above me, they were reading him his rights and instructions. Soon the trapdoor would open, teasing a view of the sky behind the darkness of a falling body. I recalled lines of advice from Ellie and Lillian.
Dive into yourself. Feel the gleam in your bones, the light left by lack of sin, and shine, shine like shouting. It helps to close your eyes once you have him in your hands.
Two steps sounded from overhead, and he was standing on the trapdoor, that warped portal in the wood. I could feel every part of my hands in isolation, the slight bends in each knuckle on each finger, the tendons strung over bone. Both hands began to itch, terribly. And then he dropped.
Many sounds occurred in succession: the trapdoor clattered open, the fabric of his clothing hushed past the wood, the trapdoor swung so violently that it rapped the underside of the platform, the rope whined, and he choked, awful swamp sounds filling the black bag. No more singing, I thought.
He was huge, a suspended whale that blotted out the sun, but my hands were eager. I reached for his arms. When I gripped them, his fingers found my wrists and tightened, trembling.
I closed my eyes and willed my bones to gleam.
Memories from when I was little. Simple games. Chasing Lillian, being chased, her hair a dark streamer behind her. Tasks I loved, like sifting through the thickness of Big Meg’s fur, or beating cream until the waves in the white sea curled and froze. Ellie had taught me to think on such things, those that were easy and cherished. I imagined them trickling along my bones, bringing a glow, and it worked: the shine branched quick, like lightning. Each vertebra became a beacon. My teeth ached from holding light.
It made me feel trapped, like I needed to burst through my skin and join the brightness outside. I wanted to run and jump until the light exhausted itself and went dim. Standing here was maddening, impossible.
Straining to keep my bones contained, I was all the more unnerved when he began to grope at me for purchase. He swung and grasped, pulled, slid away, then returned. The hands he used inside ourselves were slick with something oily. I felt them trying to twine my light about them, and knew I was supposed to let it happen, to help, so that he could have hope as he passed.
But Ellie and Lillian had not prepared me for this. The pain, yes, I had expected. Even these unsuccessful swipes at my bones were agonizing. The feeling swept through places deeper than my body; there was the sensation of pulling, unraveling, and the knowledge that whatever went with him would always trail a thread, his clenched fist at the other end.
But they had not mentioned the trespass. All of my bones were screaming at him to get out. Each second he pried at me was counter to what should be, and I resisted despite everything Ellie had told me, trying to turn away from the hands that plunged in the darkness we shared.
There was nowhere to go, latched together as we were, and he finally managed to snag some of the light, to stab and hook part of himself through it. I screamed as he wrested it from me, a small piece of glow, a pittance, and yet at the moment it tore away it seemed the most essential kernel of me he could have chosen.
The snap of its separation shocked me into opening my eyes and pushing him, hard. I was sobbing. The hinge of my jaw was a knot of flame after screaming for so long. The rope keened as he swayed back and forth, all motion gone from his body. And there were creaks from below as Ellie climbed the ladder to the platform, hissing at me, “Kal, don’t faint! Don’t faint!”
I shuddered for days. Watching my blankets shake, it seemed as if they moved on their own, that they were jostling me.
Ellie sat with me and cajoled me into eating. Both of us knew that taking as long as I had, and wailing besides, was the worst thing that could have happened. Pity swam in her eyes like worms.
Jessa came to see me, held me and kissed my cheeks. We shared an odd picnic on my bedspread and entertained the idea that I was sick with something anyone could catch. But then she asked “What happened up there?” and I knew she had told people she was coming, had promised them news, and if I didn’t give it, she would say I was a stricken mess. Talk in Red Leg would spiral on either way. I shook my head, told her to get out.
My parents, blessedly true to their cowardice, brought me food and empty chatter.
I took to counting my bones. It wasn’t an exact art, but it helped me to breathe slow and recalled the welcome chore of counting heads in Packett’s stables. Taking stock of myself, feeling the slight hills under my skin where my joints connected, I came to a quiet appreciation of my body’s machinery. He had taken a piece of light from me, but what did that matter? My hands reported twelve ribs on each side, a cragged but sturdy spine, a laughably large number of small parts in my feet. I’m swimming in bones! I thought, only to shy from the image that the thought carried.
One night, weeks from the day when my first man had dropped, I made my bones gleam again.
I had started to visit my memory of the hanging more and more frequently. As much as quieting the man had hurt, filling myself with light had not. It had felt miraculous, and powerful, though these were words I could not touch at the time. I kept searching for the root of the feeling, and on this night, I picked at the first moments like they were stubborn weeds.
The light came back in a hesitant tide.
I closed my eyes, saw my bones shining. Again, I yearned to run and leap and swing my arms, to use up the light until my marrow emptied of it.
Just running—that wouldn’t do it. There was something else, some nameless action that would be perfect for the light, that would channel it and diminish it and satisfy me. I didn’t know what it was.
And there was an emptiness here, too. I ached for the light to reach every part of me, but it fell just short into a blank, throbbing sliver, the scar left by his thievery.
I counted bones as a way to ignore that gap. I had numbered them in each leg when Ellie knocked and entered.
“Kal, your north.” She sat at the foot of my bed, and I reluctantly let the light seep away.
“My north, your south. Here we are. Hi, Ellie.” I opened my eyes to read dread in her face. She placed a hand on my shoulder and waited, silent, for me to realize what it meant. When I did, I sat up and yelled.
“Kal, there’s no one else.”
“I won’t do it. I won’t quiet another one.”
“I don’t care what he did, you can quiet him, you know how!” She shook her head and I yelled louder, suddenly aware that I was furious, had been furious, and was just now allowing my fury to breathe. “It’s not like you said it would be!”
“We can never truly prepare you.”
“No. It’s not right. You said it was right, Lillian said it was right, but it’s not. The glowing means something, something I can do, and it’s mine!”
Ellie was close to crying, reaching for me. “Every man deserves to pass with some purity. You know this. This man, now, deserves it.”
I slapped her away. Her patience was an insult, an arrow through me. I aimed to shatter it. “I made my bones gleam because I wanted them to. Just now, I did.”
She stared at me, disappointed. “To wallow in our own innocence is prideful.”
“I don’t want to be innocent!”
“You’d keep it for yourself? You’re one of so few who can share it.”
“I won’t. I won’t.”
I had never driven her to anger before, but I did this time. She got up and walked to the door, the heels of her boots punishing the wood, and spoke low before leaving: “You would make the town a place for empty deaths.”
Just before dawn, I dressed in riding pants and took my father’s gun. The handle ended in the smoothed and lacquered joint of his mother’s hip bone, a pretty piece of work that had cost a great deal. It was evidence of his superstitious nature—duelists held that mother guns gave them luck. Fortunately, my father had never tested the belief during his tenure at the bank.
The handle felt disturbingly at home against my palm. It was as though my body welcomed another bone, an extension of those it already had. But the weird familiarity could not make up for the fact that I had never shot a gun this small before. I was accustomed to the heft of a hunting rifle, and this was a trinket in comparison. I considered filching the key to the shed, where the rifles were stowed, but decided against it. The key was close to my parents’ room, the shed door heavy and loud.
I didn’t want to leave Red Leg forever. But I couldn’t quiet another hanged man; the very idea set my skin screaming. I had to find Lillian. She’d tell me what was happening with my bones, and she could convince the folks here to seek a new Gallows Girl. Maybe she’d even come back, once she learned that both I and Red Leg were in need. Ellie would listen to her. As learned as my tutor was, she had admitted that Lillian surpassed her in ability. By the end, she had seemed frightened of her.
I crept downstairs and slid out the front door, holding the gun awkwardly in my right hand. The street was gray, waiting for the sun to lend it color, and the plains grasses shushed each other from behind the buildings. Even now, Jordan’s saloon would have someone at the counter, and the farmers who lived at the west end would be awake. I took a path flanked only by the sleeping, walking fast and quiet.
Inside the stables, the snuffling and shifting of the animals made me pause. These were the sounds of home, the great, comforting sighs from the beasts who knew me.
I was here for the one that didn’t.
The T-bird was already on his feet, bright-eyed in the gloom. I took a piece of jerky from my pocket and tossed it gently upwards, and he snatched it out of the air with his beak as casually as a person might take a coat off a hook.
“Will you let me ride you?” I asked. I put my hand on the latch of the stall door. The T-bird tilted his head. He had let the murderer saddle him, but murderers had the confidence to kill, and I was running scared from everything. He could probably hear my heart stuttering, smell my sweat, put the hints together quickly, conclude she is weak. I imagined myself opening the door only to have that weapon of a mouth clamp onto my neck and shake. Or would he use his talons?
Slowly, I undid the latch and pulled the door open. The T-bird took two quick strides forward so that his chest nearly pressed against my forehead. He was too fast, I had no time to move, and I tried to stand tall without flinching away. His feathers were so close that I could pick out the shafts running through each one, the stripes of gray within the blue vanes. I also smelled him for the first time—a strong dusty scent that reminded me of old paper, mixed with the gamy, coppery tang of meals that bled.
“Hello again,” I said. He trilled, and it sounded like bubbles rising from somewhere deep.
Figuring out his tack wasn’t too difficult. The bridle gave me the most pause, because at first I thought it was a feed bag. But the leather pouch fit snugly around his beak, and the reins clipped to raised loops on either side. It was more muzzle than anything else. He didn’t object to it, though I felt guilty for hiding the most powerful part of him.
The stirrup was too high for me, and I had to find Packett’s stepladder before I could mount up. The T-bird waited. He didn’t move when I set myself into the saddle, or when I turned to stash the gun in the side pouch. I wondered if they were all this obedient, once they had been reared to serve. If I needed him to attack, how would I tell him?
Just get out. Just go.
I touched his neck and squeezed gently at his sides with my legs. He walked.
Riding the T-bird for the first time felt like floating. Compared to a horse’s, his strides were huge, but they hardly jostled me at all. He comported himself like most birds, with an eerie sense of balance that kept his body still but bobbed his neck back and forth. I could feel the potential for true running coiled beneath me, a promise of maddening speed, of flying far and fast.
“Runner,” I said, petting his neck.
We moved at an easy lope down the thoroughfare. I saw the buildings from a new height, and it was as if I was a stranger, watching them pass. Eventually I stopped twisting my neck to either side and looked straight ahead, letting the town part before me. I pretended that I was merely traveling through, that I had no idea what Red Leg looked like as it came to life in the morning, that no one on the thoroughfare would toss me a bracelet braided from extra twine just because they saw me wandering by their stall most days.
Those same people bet on how quick you’d quiet him. They loved that you screamed, that you took so long. Something to talk about for days and days.
The gallows stood at my back. It itched at me, plucked at the hairs on the back of my neck until I shook my head. I didn’t want to turn and look at the beams. But when I heard the sound of hoofbeats, and Ellie’s voice yelling between them, I had to turn.
“Kal, stop! Stop! I’m with the law!”
Packett rode next to her, his face crumpled and sad. Sheriff Leed was at the rear. He hid under a hat and behind a huge brown beard and mustache, but I knew what he looked like without them. He’d called on Lillian when he was a clean-cheeked deputy, and they had gotten close for a while, until her training began in earnest.
If I had left the stables at a full sprint or ridden around the outskirts of town, they wouldn’t have caught me. I knew that then and I knew it as they rode up. But my anger was still too strange—I needed her to nurture it again so that it could keep its name. I needed her to prove that it should be there, pulsing, filling my bones with red. Of course, I also hoped that she might say something new that would break it, and open a window that led back to town.
“Ellie, your north,” I said.
“My north, your south. Here we are.” She spoke as though she had never been my teacher, had always been hunting me. I started to cry. “Oh, Kal,” she said, and spurred her horse forward. I pulled up on Runner’s reins and he backed away.
“I demand the right of disappearance!” I had chewed on the phrase for hours, but when it finally left me it sounded strident, like the beginning of a tantrum. I said it again, steadying myself through sobs. “I demand the right of disappearance from Red Leg.”
Ellie shook her head. Packett frowned deeper, and Sheriff Leed eyed Runner as if the bird had somehow planned this rendezvous. He spoke to me without meeting my eyes.
“Who will you duel for that right, Kal?”
Runner shifted his weight, mirroring my disquiet. “Whoever most wants to stop me. I’m leaving. I don’t want to be followed.”
“Oh, Hell’s teeth, girl, you’re turning nothing into something all right.” Ellie glared. I sniffled while she addressed me as an inconvenience. She thought me foolish. She thought me mistaken. The anger swelled in me, made my bones creak and whistle.
“Duel me,” I said.
“I wouldn’t waste you or a bullet.” She dismounted. “I can bring you back using skin alone. Get off that bird.”
“You’ll duel? Skin only?”
“I’ll call it that if you want.”
I looked to the sheriff, and he nodded. I swung one leg over Runner’s back, and as I thought about how best to jump down, he knelt so that I only had to step. His large orange eye was level with my own gaze for a brief moment. I almost reached up to undo the bridle straps. If I lost, I wanted him to run to the plains, then past them to places I couldn’t see. But there was no way for him to know that; and maybe his handler had ruined him for the wild. I left him standing indifferently, pawing the ground with one reptilian foot.
Ellie and I shed our clothes without ceremony. I had no plan. She was older but far from frail—I had seen how spry she could be, catching a cup I had dropped, clambering up a ladder to the platform where I screamed. Wrinkled and wiry, she crouched in front of her horse. She let her hair fall, loosing black and gray curls to lay behind her shoulders.
The air at the edge of town was crisp enough to give me gooseflesh. My shoes gone, I curled my toes against the hard dirt. I could feel the cold pathways on my face that my tears had left. Neither of us rushed the other.
“Until one yields,” the sheriff said, impatient. Packett was silent. He had to have been the one who alerted the other two, once he noticed that Runner was gone. But I couldn’t ration him any of my anger, not yet.
Ellie and I stared. I numbered the bones in my hands as though they were soldiers. When I reached the base of my right thumb, she charged.
Lillian and I had wrestled as children, but that had been years ago. I didn’t know where to grab Ellie when she hit me. She elbowed me in the stomach first, and I doubled over, coughing. Before I could catch my breath, her arm was around my neck, and she had me in a headlock.
“Come back now,” she said. “It will be fine.” I couldn’t answer her. My fingers scraped against her arm and I stabbed downward with my chin, but her grip tightened. She’d choke me until I fell unconscious, I realized, seeing gray dots that ate steadily away at the edges of the world. My nails raked until they found blood. She didn’t let go.
I felt warm. I slipped from sight into the other realm, saw my bones inside me. They glowed red-hot, their edges shimmering like the metal on an anvil.
They make swords from that, I thought as my windpipe tightened, sealed. I waved my hands uselessly upwards, trying to scratch at her eyes, her face, but her arm blocked them. I couldn’t reach.
They bend it to make swords.
My bones glowing, stretching, sighing as they vented some of the light. My arms reached and reached. My hands found her face and my fingers dug into the flesh of her cheeks, and I stretched them too, stretched them so they went deeper.
Ellie was screaming. Packett was saying, “Sheriff, what’s happening? What’s she doing?”
I crooked my arms in impossible ways, created angles that cracked. My fingers clawed and burrowed into Ellie’s face. She unwrapped her arm from my neck and I breathed. My sight flashed from bones to earth, bones to earth. Ellie turned away, still screaming, blood hitting the road, and I felt my fingers slide out of her skin.
The light in me said, You can bend, bend, bend.
I pulled my arms and hands back into the shapes I knew.
“Did you know what it was?” I asked. “Did you know I could do this?”
“You are cursed!” she said. She whirled, showing the four puckered holes on either side of her face, like shallow bullet wounds. I looked from her to the horses. The sheriff’s hand was on the butt of his gun.
“Skin only!” I shrieked at him, and he didn’t move. Didn’t draw, just sat there, pale. “Do you yield?” I asked Ellie. My light was still hot and spreading, and it felt right, using it, honoring it.
“You have to come back,” Ellie said. “You have to let me help.” She stumbled toward me. “To use your innocence like this, you can’t—”
I waited for her, thinking she could not walk straight. But she surprised me, lunging and grabbing my wrist, twisting hard, twisting until something snapped and the light flared. I cried out and knelt, but she kept her hold while I batted at her with my free hand. The light in my right wrist rushed to a new, jagged end, a break in my framework. And I saw Ellie’s bones wrapped around my own, glowing faintly.
“You can do it too,” I said, gasping from pain. “Or maybe you can’t anymore.” Her face crimped into an expression of disgust, and she shoved me toward the ground with a grunt.
Instinctively I put my arms out to stop the fall, forgetting that one was splintered at the end. When my chest landed on it, the bone rose through the skin, a white pillar jutting from where a doctor would take my pulse. The pain was a bear trap gnashing its teeth at my wrist, grating, fiery. I willed myself not to pass out. The light seeped from the wound slower than the blood, but the loss of it ached and brought my tears back.
“Yield, Kal,” Ellie said. But I could not. I’d die before I let a hanged man take any more of this from me.
They make swords like this, I thought. And smaller things. Daggers.
I clenched my jaw and gathered the light. It spiraled around the bone, smoothing it, lengthening it, pinching the end so that the break became a point. Long enough to grab, a blade birthed from the end of my arm, reaching over and past my palm. I breathed hard and watched the dirt spread beneath me when I exhaled. I pushed myself up on my good arm. I readied my daggered one.
“Yield, Kal.” Her footsteps came close.
“She’s holdin’ something,” said the sheriff, and I leapt up, brought my arm forward in an arc, felt my bone scrape between her ribs and pierce the softness behind them.
A good Gallows Girl wears the gray hood until she must hide the face of another. She does not abandon the town she was supposed to serve, a torn cloth around her bloody wrist. She does not flee on the back of a terror bird in search of her sister. She does not find her, drained of light and life in a town that hangs so many.
A good Gallows Girl does not carry a mother gun. She does not point it, clumsily, at the sheriff in Broadcreek who surrendered her kin to dangling men almost every day. She does not sculpt her legs until she towers over him in his office, or point her shoulder blades until the tips break through the blanket of her back. She does not become a monster until he weeps. She does not escape with Lillian’s too-skinny arms wrapped around her waist.
A good Gallows Girl does not know that all Gallows Girls can bewitch their bones. And if she does, she certainly does not tell the others, town by town, leaving feathers where she’s been.