Page 25 of Dreadful Skin

I saw her standing alone in the desert, arms outstretched. She was gazing up at the sky, and the sky was gazing back. Clouds were unrolling, unfurling, and flapping like a blanket snapped to fullness across a freshly made bed.


In one hand she held a chain of black beads that dangled a metal cross. In the other she held a sword—and in the sword I saw the reflection of a mighty army, each soldier dressed in gleaming white armor.


The dream comforted me, even as it confused me.


I awoke in the room, by myself. The rain had stopped, and the sun was hours from rising. I laid my head back down and tried to dream again, but failed.


* * *


Morning began with a knock on my door. It was the desk man's wife, I believe. She was informing me that breakfast was served downstairs, but only for the next twenty minutes. I was hungry, and my belly churned with anticipation.


"I'll be down shortly," I said to her. "But could you tell me, has anyone come by to ask after me? I'm expecting company, after a fashion. I was hoping to meet with an old friend here."


"Sorry." She shook her head. "I haven't seen any messages down at the desk, save what you left in case of your visitor. Twenty minutes," she said again, and left.


I walked to the window and opened it. There was a muggy staleness about the room that made me uncomfortable, and when the daylight came inside, I understood. It wasn't even eight yet, but the heat was coming up fast, steaming the places where the rain had been closed out.


My clothes weren't completely dry, but the ones hung highest were fair to wear so I quickly donned them and went downstairs in time to find toast, grits, and eggs. I ate faster than I should have, but I wanted the day to begin—even if it meant hours of 'hurry up and wait.'


I finished up, washed up, and went outside.


Nine o'clock, and the world was on fire. It wasn't as if I'd forgotten how the heat of the desert feels. No, I think it was the way things were still shedding their moisture. I think it was the humidity, making the temperature feel sticky.


Cracks were opening in the ground. Where the water drained or evaporated, the dirt went dry and split beneath my feet.


I was wondering how to begin. Where to start? Where to enquire, and where to look? And behind me, I heard a woman's voice with an accent that came from across an ocean.


"There you are, dear boy. And you only beat me by a day."


X.


Eileen, July 8, 1881


I arrived in the evening of the seventh of July. The town was covered with a smothering layer of clouds, all colored up dark like a bruise on the sky, hanging low and heavy.


I hope Melissa's all right. She almost surely isn't, but I think Heaven knows what I mean. I hope Jack and this Daniel are alone in their mayhem, but they almost surely aren't.


Just as I was beginning to wonder if Leonard had been patient enough to wait for me after all, I found him—and it cheered me greatly to see him there.


He was wearing rumpled clothes that looked like they'd been dried over a set of railroad tracks, and he didn't have a hat. He was standing beside the street, scanning the buildings for—what? Signs of announcements, I imagined. Signs of Melissa.


I approached him without bothering to keep a quiet tread, but he didn't hear me until I called out, "There you are, dear boy. And you only beat me by a day."


Leonard jumped as if he'd been stuck with a pin.


"I didn't see you there!" His face broke out in a delighted grin that warmed my heart.


I had to laugh—to show that the sentiment was mutual, and that I was glad to see him, too. I honestly hadn't thought he'd stay in town. I figured that once he got here, he'd take off immediately for the camp. Men are so rarely called to be proper knights in shining armor anymore; and men like Leonard are the sort to leap at the chance.


He took my hands in his, and then threw formality out the window and embraced me in a hug. He was a bony thing under those loose-fitting clothes, but there was lean meat there as well. Maybe he was stronger than he looked. And why shouldn't he be? I am, after all.


"I've been thinking," he announced as he stepped back. "I've been thinking about. . .them. About what we can do. Would you like—I mean, I could buy us some tea. We should sit, and we should talk."


"Your American tea I can take or leave, but I could use a drink and there's a pub right down the way here."


He failed to look less than scandalized, then rallied, and stretched out his arm as if to let a lady go first. "After you," he smiled. "Perhaps I could use a dose of liquid courage, myself."


"Liquid courage? Now where did you hear it called that?"


"It's something my father and his brother used to say."


When we reached the pub, it was nearly empty but not quite. Three or four men loitered in the background, in the small tables up against the wall, behind a broken piano. Another lounged behind the bar with a book in his hand. The title was something sensationalist and silly. It was something about a cowboy with a violent reputation, I'm sure. But at least the man could read, which said something for his character, I guess.


The reader folded a page corner and shut the book around his thumb. He looked me up and down in an appraising sort of way that was too disinterested to be either offensive or flattering. "Huh," he said.


I ducked my head at him, meaning for it to be a polite acknowledgement. "Leonard?" I said. I tapped his elbow. "Ask if they have Irish whiskey. If they don't, the colonial version will suffice."


He agreed to these terms, and I chose a seat in the corner. I liked the position because I could see out the window without immediately being spotted myself, and there was no one behind me. I don't know when I became such a defensively-thinking woman. Perhaps it happened when I became such a dangerous one.


Leonard returned shortly with two small glasses, one for himself and one for me. He sipped at his with a wince, I swallowed mine with a grimace. Irish whiskey had been too much to ask.


"Tell me what you've been thinking," I urged him. "And I'll tell you what I'm thinking. Between us, we might have a good idea or two about how to proceed."


"Yes," he said, lowering his shoulders and his voice so that everyone who could see us could tell we were having a private, possibly interesting discussion. But no one inched closer, and no one gave us more than a sidelong glance. "It's about what you said in your letter—which I received shortly before I left for here—about how. . .they can drown like any other creature."


"Go on."


"If they can drown, they can choke. They can smother."


"And they bleed," I added. "Let me assure you of that much, they bleed. And if they bleed, they can bleed to death. I'm not sure how much abuse is required to cause it. It must be a monumental amount."


"A slit throat? A lost head?"


Now there was a thought. I murmured agreement. "I think the lack of a head might confound them. But it's one thing to propose removing something's head, and another thing altogether to perform it."


"I'm sure," he said, but he wasn't sure. He'd never tried to decapitate anyone before, and I could see him turning the idea over in his mind. He was wondering if he could do it—if he'd have the stomach, or the strength. I don't know what conclusion he reached before changing the subject. "So what plan is there, then? You're here, I'm here. She's there, somewhere. Outside town."


"And they're running for the west—to the mountains, and to more bleak deserts than this one, or so I hear. They're going to run out of water before long. What then? Maybe it will weaken them, or slow them to go without it. Maybe they haven't thought of it yet. But their location, their camp—it isn't a secret, I suppose?"


"No. It'd be easy enough to find them. Should we go then?"


"No! Not yet. Now we evaluate. It's morning, dear. There's time to weigh our options."


This frustrated him, I know. He wanted to take action, to seize the day, to rescue the damsel. And there I was, reigning him in.


"What then? This is what I really meant, when I asked you if there was a plan—what weapons can use against them? How are we going to retrieve Melissa? I don't know if she ever received my letter. I don't know if she will ever come to town, though I asked her to—in a veiled way, as you suggested. But she's been seen here, in the company of others."


"Others?" A warm, dense feeling in my stomach tightened, and dropped.


"Men." He spit the word across the table. "They're holding her hostage. They're keeping her there at that camp, and it's caught people's attention. They're guarding her, that's what they're doing. But you know how it looks. You know what people think."


"Of course I know what people think. But my boy, it's not half as bad as what it makes me think." I sank into silence. I had no proof of it, but I was increasingly sure: they were culling the women, whether they meant to or not. "Oh God," I breathed.


"I didn't mean it like that."


"Let the world think what it wants. Let the citizens of Mescalero assume the worst. They won't even be halfway there. We'll do what we need to do, and propriety be damned."


Again, there was that flicker of shock and disapproval, but he was learning.


"Look," I said. "You're sitting in a saloon with a papist and a handful of hard liquor. A year ago, this would have seemed improbable, at best—and embarrassing or unthinkable at worst. Yet here we are, you and I. And we know there are worse things than critical glares and the snubs of our fellow men. The rules are changed now, Leonard."


"Changed? By whom?"


"By me. By you. By Jack, and Daniel. They aren't playing by the rules, and neither are we."


"Then we become monsters too, in order to engage the monsters? I don't like that."


No, I wanted to say. No, of course you don't want to be the monster. You want to be the knight, not the dragon. "No, that's not what I mean. We aren't breaking any rules, we're writing new ones to repair the damage done by others."

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