Page 21 of Dreadful Skin

But Melissa heard another calling, as well you know. She demonstrated unparalleled courage when she defied her father and went to follow the camp. He could have chased her down and called her back, but it was only the Lord's hand that stayed him. Or so she had always thought.



Now she wonders if her flight was a sin after all, and God is punishing her for abandoning her parents. She wonders if her fervor was not a mistake, or a misunderstanding of youth.


I do not know how to answer her. The things she has told me—they make me question all of it. I've read the frail pages of my mother's Bible until my eyes are weak from the strain of it. Still, I have no answers—for Melissa or myself.


And so I write to you.


You knew something about the reverend, from before the moment you saw him. You came to Holiness to seek him out because you had suspicions—I know that now, or at least, I suspect it. Seeing him confirmed something for you; that's why you followed him into the night.


For many weeks after the meeting at Holiness, I read my Bible and prayed—trying to reconcile my own suspicions with what I'd gathered of you in the short time we knew one another. I have since concluded that you knew what was wrong with the reverend, and you intended to help him. I am certain now that you chased him from the tent because you meant to assist him in some way—that you knew what he needed, though the rest of us were confused.


He is dead, though. This is the part that leaves me with doubt.


The reverend is dead, and it is difficult for me to avoid the possibility that you killed him. But it might be that death was the only peace available to him, and you gave it to him as a gift, with God's blessing. If I am wrong, then I am only making matters worse by seeking you out.


But I do not think I am wrong. My conviction in this matter might be born from desperation, but that does not make it any less firm. If you cannot help her—if you cannot help us—then I'm afraid no one can.


Melissa has written me the most appalling letter. She's remained with the camp meeting, for the reverend's son Daniel has taken control of it. But now she is trapped there with him, and with someone else, too—a newcomer called Jack, who seems to be orchestrating some of the mayhem, or at least encouraging it.


Help us, sister. You said it once yourself, that we both pray to the same God when we close our eyes and fold our hands. That same God is being greatly offended, and His children are being led to the slaughter by these wolves who lurk among the flock.


I've been searching for you idly since the day you vanished, but now my quest has been given new urgency—and I hope I am not relying too heavily upon sources with too little credibility. I've heard that you were seen walking towards Presidio; and I thought perhaps you might be stopping at the southern missions. I wondered if you hadn't made your way south to seek representatives of your own faith.


And thus I began to track you, making enquiries wherever I could—from anyone who spoke enough English to humor me. I walked through the Navajo and Apache territories, but God protected me.


Your trail was faint, and I lost it more than once. In fact, I've lost it now, and I'm sending copies of this letter to several of the missions where I think you might be staying, or where I think you might soon arrive. I'm sending this out with a prayer that this desperate note might find you—and in turn, you might find me.


The camp is moving westward. Daniel Aarons, Melissa, and the horrible new Jack are on the road to Mescalero, and I believe they intend to hold a set of meetings at the settlement there.


I'm following as fast as I can, having only just received her summons through the helpful post of my father. We might already be too late, but if God is willing to grant us this one small favor, we'll catch them yet.


Please, I beg you, don't make me do this alone. I don't know how to defeat them. I don't even know how to approach them. But I'm going to try. Please join me. I believe in your strength, and I believe in your faith. We can do this together, outcasts in the desert, making a glorious charge in the name of our Father. I will wait for you—as long as I can—at Mescalero, in the old Mexican territory west of Texas.


Please, for Jesus' sake. Please.


~Leonard Dwyer


IV.


Dear Leonard,


My dear young man, I am overjoyed to hear from you—despite the news you've shared. I've long regretted the circumstances of our parting, and with the benefit of hindsight, I've come to realize that I fled you in fear, and that you deserved better.


I had my reasons, and I think you've guessed some of them, maybe all of them. Obviously we are both being veiled in our speech and composition, and with good reason—but I want you to know that I never intended you any harm, and I am deeply grieved by the reverend's passing.


He was an honorable man—and may you never suppose otherwise. I only wish I'd had a chance to know him better. I think we could have learned a great deal from one another. I wish things could have been different.


For a moment, he gave me hope.


But you—I applaud your caution and your strength of conviction. You are right to have your suspicions—you'd be mad or simple if you didn't—but it speaks well of you that you've overcome your concerns in order to help your friend. I know how my disappearance must have concerned you, and I hope with all my heart that I can prove myself worthy of your confidence, because you are right about this if nothing else: I'm a danger to you, and to everyone you love, but I might also be danger to those who oppose you


.


I've spent years now—more years than you'd believe, if I were to quote you a figure—chasing the thing who calls himself "Jack." I've followed him across continents, oceans, and half of America. He is a murderer and a fiend, and he will not stop until someone stops him. It brings tears to my eyes to think that he uses praise and scripture to draw victims into his fold.


Yet I almost feel a grudging kind of respect for this ruse. Such a ploy! I imagine he wonders how he never thought of it sooner. He travels freely and under the banner of Jesus, spreading his nightmare from town to town, in the pockets of civilization that smatter the western wilderness.


May Heaven have mercy on this country, too big to govern itself—and too sparse to unify against threats such as these, which arise from within.


* * *


I am doing my best to reach you, Leonard; but this letter might precede me to your location, and in case it does, I offer you everything I know that might help. If this message finds you in advance of my personal arrival, then may you gain some insight and assistance from what you find within it.


These are the things I know, laid out as simply as possible—but without extraneous information or clarification. You will simply have to trust me when I tell you things that sound absurd. It's been a lifetime of trial and error.


* * *


First, know that your adversary is no mere man. There are many things that slow him, but few things that will bring him to a halt. He fears and loathes fire, but I have yet to see a fire great enough to consume him—and I've seen great blazes give it an honest effort. He does not care to be shot, but bullets that land anywhere apart from his head can cause him inconvenience, not mortal injury.


I had heard legends that bullets made with silver might slay him, but this has proved to be incorrect. Still, I believe he must have weaknesses and I intend to find them. I've been experimenting with certain alloys, salts, and chemicals—trying to see what might give him pause and pain, but I'm meeting with only limited success.


But I digress.


He is weakest during the day, on days farthest from a full moon, but do not mistake me when I tell you that his weakness is still an astounding thing.


Not under any circumstances should you seek him out at night.


I tell you this not because I doubt your ability or sincerity, but because I know his all too well. I've seen him shot, burned, beaten, and stabbed. . .but still he rises. At best, with such conventional means, you can expect to put him off and buy yourself a few seconds. At worst, you can expect nothing at all except to die.


* * *


If it sounds like I'm trying to frighten you, then good. Jack is deadly, and by the sounds of things, he is not alone. Engage him only within the context of his deception, if at all possible—by which I mean, scout the premises during the day, while the charade is in full effect and while Jack is not as his peak of strength.


For that matter, engage him as little as possible, and with as much calmness as you can muster.


It might serve you well to approach him as if you'd like to rejoin the meetings. He may welcome you in; or then again, he might not. But it's as close to the truth as anything, and staying near the truth is always easier when one is out to perpetrate deception.


* * *


Oh Leonard, I hate this. It sounds like I'm encouraging you. I feel like I'm encouraging you—that I'm pushing you forward into the lion's den, unarmed and blindfolded, even as I try to open your eyes. I know with a terrible certainty how insufficient my warnings are, and how nearly useless my guidance is.


I try to console myself with assurances that you mean to assist Melissa with or without my thoughts on the matter. But still, it unnerves me—the thought of you fighting alone.


I'm not sure what else I can give you, though. I don't know what other advice or aid I can share in a letter like this that would give you measurable benefit. I can only close with a promise that I will join you as soon as I can, for whatever value my reinforcements can provide. Take care of yourself, Leonard. Be careful, and be wise.


And I would remind you of this, too: for all Jack's strength, and for all his cunning, he bleeds. And he can drown like any other thing with lungs.


Write to Melissa. Tell her to have hope, and to have faith. But be cautious in your language. Be cautious with what you tell her, and remember, whatever you send might not be read by her eyes alone.


I'll join you as soon as the Lord permits.


~Eileen Callaghan


V.


Melissa, July 2, 1881


My mind wanders everywhere, all the time. It may as well. It can't stay here—it would go perfectly twisted.

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