Page 27 of Dreadful Skin

"Do you have any suggestions?"



"Sharp tools. Heavy tools. Things that might prove uncomfortable to carry, but will be necessary all the same. Tell me, do you know anything about guns?"


"Guns?" I was startled by the sudden note of pleasantness she applied to the word.


"Guns, yes. The kind that leave big holes wherever they're aimed. They seem an efficient manner of testing our theory of bloodletting, and maybe—with a good shot—even our thoughts on beheading."


"That's. . .." I was flabbergasted. She spoke so casually.


And then her eyes narrowed, and her conversation turned dark again. "I don't know what you think you're up against, boy—maybe you have no idea, after all. But this is not the time for niceness. This is not the time for the rules of ordinary thinking." She stopped on the street and faced me. I felt for the first time that she was reconsidering. . .something. Not the mission, but me.


She pulled me aside, off and up onto the nearest porch. It was the entrance to a barber's shop.


"Have you given this any real thought? Have you considered what we might be facing tomorrow? Or tonight—for that matter, if they learn we're here and what we intend. If Jack gets a gander at me, the jig is up and we'll be forced to move, now or never. I know you haven't seen. . .I know you don't know what's waiting for us. You have your imagination; but your imagination is fooling you. Until you set eyes on these things, you won't be ready to kill them. And if you never believe another thing I ever tell you, believe this: we will have to kill them."


I gave her monologue the pause it seemed to require, and then I spoke. "I'm ready to kill for Melissa."


"Good. But you're forgetting that these things were men once. And they could appear to us as men again. Would you kill a man for Melissa?"


"I'd kill an anything. I'd kill an angel, or the devil himself."


She stared at me hard, still working something out in her mind. I didn't know where the verdict would fall, and I didn't know what it meant when she went on. "Keep that in your mind, then. Jacob wrestled with an angel, but we won't have that luxury. By the time we resort to wrestling, the fight is nearly decided against us. Arm yourself, Leonard. Boys go into fights with their fists and their expectations. Men know better, and they bring lead."


"Then we'll fight like men!"


"And we'll die like dogs. Use your head, Leonard. And please, do as I say. I want to protect you. I want to protect her. But I need your trust—above everything else. And if you can't trust me, trust her. She's tried to warn you, and you know her better than you know me."


I was near to tears, but I bit them back and stood my ground. "I do trust you. And I trust her. But how are we supposed to fight this? What am I to do?"


"I've told you—arm yourself. Hunt for things with which to hunt, and meet me in a few hours, back at the Primrose."


She left me then, and I was confused, and I was afraid. She frightened me, as she meant to. I wish she'd given a better try at inspiring me.


XIII.


Eileen, Morning - July 10, 1881


He trusts us for opposite reasons. He trusts her because he knows her, and he trusts me because he knows me not at all. I can't make him understand, but I can't stop trying, either—even as I see that it pushes him away from me. He sees this as a simple thing: rescue the girl. He probably thinks they're dangerous, yes, but dangerous like a pack of wolves.


I shouldn't try so hard to enlighten him.


I do not fear frightening him out of his task; I don't think a legion of devils could manage that. He is invincible, because he is right. And there's no telling him otherwise.


Bless the boy, he doesn't understand anything important about the way the world works.


* * *


And now I realize I am being condescending towards him because of his faith. I never thought I'd find myself doing anything of the kind, but there I am—almost mocking him for it. Heaven forgive me.


How far have I wandered away from faith then, that I act from a point of pragmatism alone? Where is the balance between trusting in God and not behaving like a suicidal fool?


Since I do not have an answer for myself, I have no business criticizing Leonard for the place where he's drawn his line.


* * *


I've gone to the smith's and I've gone to the general store. I've bought things. I'll arm the boy. I'll arm myself.


David had his sling. I have my Colt and a knife. It's a big knife, called by slang after a dead Texan. The men who carry it joke that it's long enough for a sword, sharp enough for a razor, wide enough for a paddle, and heavy enough for a hatchet.


I do believe they're right. It's almost as great a weight beneath my skirt as the gun is. Mine is a Sheffield Bowie, and it's a mean-looking thing.


I've been practicing my aim with that gun. I've been teaching myself how to hold the gun straight and how to aim for the most vulnerable bits of a body. The silver bullets didn't significantly harm him; I decided long ago to spare myself the expense. Ordinary lead is good enough for Jack. And I know where to aim. I know which parts to destroy. He will not intimidate me.


This time, he will not frighten me into rash actions or sudden mistakes.


XIV.


Melissa, July 10, 1881


Daniel will be along soon, so I must write quickly. I do not intend to return to this tent, or to this journal, or to this camp. Not willingly. Not alive. So I'll leave a testament—just this last page, and I'll take the rest with me.


Read that part and weep, you brutes.


You wanted a record, didn't you Jack? Well I've written you one. It isn't what you had in mind. But it is true, and it is mine. All you'll ever see of it is this tiny epilogue.


I hope you choke on it.


XV.


Leonard, Evening - July 10, 1881


Eileen and I parted company in the morning. She was vague about what she intended, and I've learned it's useless to press her about her secrets. It reminds me of things I'd prefer to forget. It reminds me that, in some way I do not understand, she is one of them.


She believes that if she tries to explain herself to me that I might be afraid, or I might not trust her anymore. She might be right, but I don't like being left in the dark.


So I'm trusting her now. And I wish she would trust me, too.


* * *


I saw Daniel Aarons first. He was walking with an arm around Melissa's waist, and to see it made my throat clench. They were together with a minister, a stranger to me. As I watched and listened, I learned that he was a local man, a preacher who spoke at the clapboard structure with a graying steeple, down at the end of the street.


He was shaking his head, and telling Daniel that no, he would not join them tonight. He was folding his arms across his chest and saying, no. Not tomorrow night either. Nor would he encourage his flock to attend.


No.


I silently praised the man. Something was tipping, turning, and shifting. Whatever sway Daniel's pack of beasts had held over the wilderness. . .whatever spell they cast, or whatever ruse they held up as a magician's curtain—it was slipping.


These people, these towns, the ones farther and farther west—they were not the same as the southern and eastern towns, where hospitality was important and curiosity was lure enough. In these places, at the cusp of the desert, under the unblinking eye of the unforgiving sun, the population had learned a kind of toughness that did not leave them as vulnerable.


The pack in the desert—they want women and children. They want families because they want easy prey. I do not think they will find it here.


* * *


I stood on the corner, partially hidden by a horse that was tied outside a store. I examined the people who passed me by, and almost all of them were men. Almost all of them were sunburned and weathered-looking like meat that's left to dry and salt in strips. Or like leather.


They all had guns. Long guns with barrels that hang down to their knees. . .. or short ones in holsters, hanging out and open for easy reach. This was a town filled with men who worked, and men who shot. (I do not know how to even hold a gun. I've never done it before, and I don't think it will do me any good to start now. )


But I was standing, watching, and I began to imagine how I might lure Melissa away from Daniel. He was guarding her, but he was losing his patience, too. He wanted to argue with the man in the preacher's coat. Even before, when I was with the camp, Daniel was not the sort of man who would have easily realized how counter his behavior ran to his goals.


Then he stopped, mid-sentence.


He turned away from the minister and looked around, up and down the street. I swear he lifted his face up. I swear he held his nose up just like a dog trying to catch the scent of something faint but familiar.


I knew, without knowing why, that he was looking for me.


I stepped out from behind the horse and made myself known before he could accuse me of hiding.


"Daniel?" I said, trying to infuse his name with an old fondness. I don't know how well it worked. I could scarcely look at him. "Melissa?" I said, because it was easier to sound happy to see her, though it was harder to sound light when I said her name.


Her face froze. Her eyes were wild behind that mask, and there was elation there, too. She was controlling herself so much better than I was. She did better than Daniel, as well.


Once his surprise had passed, he frowned with open irritation before managing a more neutral niceness. "Leonard," he said my name slowly. He said it like he was trying to remember it. "Such a coincidence to find you here."


"Coincidence? I don't believe in anything of the sort." I steeled myself and approached them, resisting with every ounce of my rational self the impulse to grab Melissa and crush her in a protective embrace.


"Then what would you call it?"


"Careful planning. I heard that the camp was stopping here, and I wanted to come by. I've missed the meetings, and I've missed the fellowship."


"There might not be any meetings at all," he spit. "It appears that we're not wanted here. Can you imagine a thing like that? A fine spirit of Christian fellowship we have found here."

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