Page 28 of Dreadful Skin

The minister shrugged and backed away. "Take it elsewhere," he said. "It's not needed here, or wanted."



He turned on his heels and left us there, as another man approached.


This man identified himself as McKenzie—no first name offered—and he called himself the "law," though he didn't specify further. I saw no badge on his chest, but I got a fine view of the pistols hanging in the holster that slung around his hips.


His countenance inspired confidence and authority. I was glad to have him join us, even as I realized he assumed that I was one of them.


"You've been warned now. All of you, when you come to town. You've been asked to move along."


"We won't move along until we've had a chance to share—"


McKenzie cut him off. "You'll move along before you get any of that nonsense underway. Save it for the next town, or save it for the mountains, if that's where you're going. But save it. And pack it up, and move it out of our city."


"This is no city, and we're not within it. And you've got no call to send us moving along." Daniel's eyes were flashing. They weren't flashing in a poetic way, with emotion. They were shifting in their color. There was the brown he was born with, and it was flecked around the edges with something gold and unnatural.


If the lawman noticed the firestorm in Daniel's face, it didn't bother him any. "There are stories going around about you, and yours out there. I don't like the sound of those stories, and I don't want any new stories cropping up after you pass our humble settlement here. I want you gone before sundown."


"You won't have it. We're not going anywhere until we're heard this evening."


"You hold a meeting, and we'll show up to shut it down."


Melissa had been silent all this time, watching back and forth between them, and at me. But now she saw an opportunity, and she cleared her throat.


"Perhaps," she said, "I might be able to speak with the authorities on our behalf."


We all went quiet then, and Daniel's face was changing color, going red with anger, or frustration, or something else.


"Would you permit that, Mr. McKenzie? Perhaps you'd let me take tea with you or the mayor. The town has a mayor, doesn't it? Don't all of them? I think I could explain things more gently, and you might see the mission from our own point of view."


McKenzie wasn't stupid. He knew a plea when he heard it, even when it was delivered with so many meaningless words, hiding an impossible fear. He started to offer her his elbow as if to accept her proposal, and she kept talking.


"Leonard here—this is my old friend Leonard. He was once with our camp, and then he left us after Daniel's father died. I'm sure that Leonard would be able to help me outline our mission. And he's not staying with us at the camp, so perhaps you'll consider him a more impartial voice."


McKenzie looked me up and down, trying to tell me something with those green-gray eyes of his. Whatever it was, I missed the bulk of it—but caught the general idea and responded as best I could. It was half a prayer to him, and half a vain attempt to project my thoughts.


You're not one of them?


No longer.


All right. She comes with us.


Melissa turned to Daniel and gave him a wide, lingering smile that was full of venom and light. "You'll excuse me," she declared, and it was not a request for permission.


"You'll—"


"You'll excuse me. Leonard?" She put her hand on my arm and turned her smile to the lawman.


Together we three left him there. I did not realize until we reached the end of the block that I'd been holding my breath, unable to breathe until I felt he could no longer see me. Even McKenzie was wooden, for he too had prepared himself for some assault or resistance.


Melissa was silent again until the lawman stopped her, and I stopped too.


"I don't know what's going on here, but I don't like it. Am I to understand you'd like to leave that camp? Is that what this is for?"


"Yes sir," she told him, and this was the first time I'd heard her speak yet when she wasn't being monitored. "They've been keeping me there, and I cannot stay any longer. If you send me back, I'll be mad, dead, or worse by nightfall." The words were flat and perfectly formed, like they'd been cut out of a newspaper and laid out in a row.


"I don't know what's going on out there, but no group of men who talk about God and ask for women can be up to any good. Any woman who wants free of it has my support. Now what can I do for you? Where can I put you up, that you'll be out of their reach?"


She faltered then. She considered his question and I thought she was going to weep, but she did not. "Underground. There's nowhere else they can't find me. And I want you to know, they will find me. They'll come for me."


He thought about this. "Oh, they might come for you, but they can't have you. You're not wife or daughter to any one of them, are you?"


"No sir."


"Then they've got no claim on you."


She took a deep breath, and sighed another smile at him. "That will never stop them."


* * *


I did not care how it looked. I took her back to my room at the Primrose. She moved like a doll, unwilling to bend or step without being commanded to do so. I sat down beside her on the bed and tried to draw some speech out of her, but it was a losing battle.


She was full of things she wanted to say, and full of things that she thought she shouldn't say. She was filled to the brim, compressed like a steaming kettle. But nothing came out. Not even tears.


I think it might have made me feel better if she'd cry, or laugh. If she laughed hysterically and without ceasing, then I'd know she's mad and then I'd have an answer.


But this doll, this pretty woman who overflowed with grief, she sat still and drew short, quick breaths.


When she did speak it startled me so badly that I jumped, there beside her.


"Leonard," she said my name and it made my heart swell. "My God, Leonard. I think I've killed us all."


* * *


Now evening will soon be upon us. Eileen has returned, carrying more than her own weight, I suspect. All is curiously calm. We are all waiting for something. The three of us here, holed up in the room. The shop owners who closed up early. The gaunt, gray-haired lawman who paces slowly up and down the sidewalks though no one else is in sight.


I am at the edge of some precipice here, but I can't see it, and I have no idea how far I'm bound to fall.


XVI.


Eileen, Evening - July 10, 1881


We only have until tonight, if we have even that long. The winds are changing in this little strip of wood and weeds. Dust blows in the streets, now that the streets are dry. Horses whinny and strain at their tethers, and the tame mongrel dogs that live on scraps keep themselves low to the ground. They hide beneath porches and behind stables, and outhouses. They know the night is up to no good. They can smell the things that are coming.


The pretense is almost up.


There was a fit and a fight, almost this afternoon. The sheriff, or mayor—or whatever weird authority holds sway in places like Mescalero—he told Daniel that there would be no nighttime meeting out by the creek. He told them that no one was coming, and that there would be no prayers or hymns.


What a bold old fellow!


He's tall and lean, and probably as old as I am, though he shows his age where I do not. All his hair is gray, from his eyebrows to the curly tufts on the back of his hands. I have not spoken with him yet, but I've seen him pacing back and forth along the main street, under this window. Oh, he knows there is peril in the air tonight. He can smell it as well as I can.


* * *


The point remains, he sent them away. Leonard witnessed the exchange when he went to find his dear Melissa. And he found her, too. He brought her back to the hotel like a damn fool.


I wasn't prepared for what I saw, when first I laid eyes upon her.


She's a perfectly pretty and soulless little thing who has been stretched beyond the limits of her endurance. There's hardness around her eyes and a flinty set to her face. Her body is rigid when it moves, all tension and preparation. She lives as a woman braced for pain, moved by invisible strings.


There's intelligence there, too. There's a plot in her eyes, and hope that's been soured by agony.


She hardly speaks, even when I am gentle, and even when I am firm. Melissa shares what she thinks might help, and she holds the rest back. I can guess the things she doesn't wish to say, and I think Leonard can too—though he's happy to pretend otherwise. Let him. She's right, and he wouldn't know what to do with the information if she gave it to him.


At this point, it means far less to her than it would to him. Good girl. Keep it down. Lock it up and put it away. He's burdened enough as it is.


God willing, there will be time for her to pour her sorrows into some other vessel someday. But now, it is her duty to hold herself together. When Leonard had gone from us for a few minutes, I sat beside her and whispered.


"Use it," I said.


She looked up at me with those beautiful eyes of hers, so full of hatred and anger, and she nodded.


"Use it, hold it. Wield it like a weapon when the time comes. If your rage is the hardest thing inside you, pull it out. Hold it up. Make it a shield. If it's the deepest well of violence from which you can draw, then lift up the lid and drink your fill. You'll need it, tonight. You'll need every ounce."


She nodded again. Yes. Good girl.


Keep it down. Lock it up. Put it away. And when you're called upon, pull it out from behind your back and use it to strike.


XV.


Eileen, July 11, 1881


We didn't have time to go to them, but it didn't matter. They would come to us, as soon as the sun was down and they were stronger for its absence. We all knew it. We felt it in our very bones, we felt it moving beneath our skin, the dreadful pull of circumstance. The creeping alarm of certainty.


When I looked out the window, I saw the lawman alone, ambling back and forth in his black boots with the pointed toes. Here and there I saw other men too, closing doors and dimming lamps.

Source: www.StudyNovels.com