Page 29 of Dreadful Skin

They're all going to die, I thought.


Everyone I see. Every soul who lingers in this stretch of desert. Everyone who lives here, or who has nowhere else to go. Everyone who works late, or who lingers at the pub after a double-shot too many.


Leonard, who had been sitting quietly—holding Melissa's hand—saw me staring outside under the shade. "Is McKenzie still out there?"


"Is that his name? Yes, he's there. Pacing about."


"Good. I like him."


"I like him too," I agreed, though I'd never actually met him. "It makes me think I should do something for him."


"Like what? Warn him?"


"Something like that."


"We ought to run," Melissa said. It was her first sentence in an hour, and she didn't sound like she meant it very much.


"To where?" I asked. "Into the desert? Into the mountains? Where do you think we can run, that they won't follow? Better to meet them here, before they have time to grow their ranks any further. If we're ever going to have a chance against them, it's now—when they don't expect to be met with any real resistance."


If she agreed or disagreed, she didn't say.


"It's going to be a massacre," I said. "We have to do something before it gets any darker. We have to. . .evacuate them. All of them. The whole town."


"How would you recommend we do that?" Leonard asked.


I didn't answer him. I was thinking. I was staring out the window at the only town official I'd ever heard of in Mescalero. "Wait for me," I said.


"What?"


"Just wait for me."


I left them there in the room with all the blades I'd been able to get my hands on that day. I had two scythes, a plow blade half as big as I am, and a pair of navaja clasp knives I'd found at the general store. The woman behind the counter made big eyes at me, but didn't ask what I planned to do.


I took the stairs two at a time and pushed the front door open. McKenzie stopped his pacing when heard me. I ran up to him. He put his hands on either side of his waist.


"Can I help you, ma'am?"


"I doubt it. But I hope that I can help you. You're expecting trouble tonight, and you're right about it."


"It's that damned camp meeting, if you'll pardon my language. Those men I've seen here, they're. . .I don't like it. Have you seen that poor woman they drag around with them? She left with some young fellow today, I hope he's—"


"He's a fine lad. Name's Leonard. He came here with me, with the specific intent of rescuing her. I wish I had more time to explain," I said, as I found myself speaking so quickly I feared he might dismiss me for a maniac. "But she's been a prisoner for months now. We came to reclaim her, but sir, I must warn you—it will come at a cost and I don't know if any of us will survive this night. That's why I must beg your help. The whole town is in danger, and it's because of us—it's because of this girl, who they'll never allow to leave them."


"Ma'am—"


"Sir, please. If there were any safe and hasty way to evacuate this place, what might it be, and would you help me?"


He took a deep breath, removed his hat, and scratched at his head. He looked over my shoulder, then back over his—glancing up and down the street and seeing no one at all but the pair of us.


"I was thinking about starting a fire, myself."


I took a step back and stared at him.


"Unless you've got a better idea, that is?"


"I—I haven't. Wait, I beg your pardon?"


It was then that he reached into his jacket and pulled out a badge. "Ma'am, I've been following these folks since Snyder, Texas. I don't know what they're up to exactly, but I'm getting some mighty strange ideas. There's going to be trouble tonight, and I don't think there's a soul in this sad little strip that needs to be caught in the middle of it."


"This isn't Texas."


"They killed people in Texas."


We stared back and forth at each other for a minute. He sized me up like a man about to buy a horse. I don't know what he saw. I don't know what he guessed. "What are we going to do now?" I asked.


"They're coming, aren't they? When it gets dark out?"


"If not sooner."


"There's a stash of gunpowder back in the basement of the general store. Let's start with the saloon. There's enough alcohol in there to send the place back to Jesus. By the time it gets caught and burning good, the few folks left here will come running out to see or help—but it'll spread before anyone can do anything. I figure this place'll go up like a tinderbox. Except, you know. . ." He inclined his head to indicate the last stop before the town ended and the wilderness resumed—the one building set apart from the rest.


"Except the church."


"You go on up inside and get your friends. Get them to the church. It's a little thing, but it's sturdy enough. It'll be better than leaving them in that matchstick hotel you're hiding in now."


"Yes," I said.


"Hurry," he called behind me.


I ran back up inside with a new sense of purpose. I felt invigorated, I felt hopeful—honestly hopeful—for the first time in days. I was afraid, yes. I was terrified for the lot of them, and for us. But there was someone else here too. Someone else knew the score and was fighting with us, instead of against us.


I pushed the door open and Leonard and Melissa were sitting exactly as I'd left them.


"McKenzie is a Texas Ranger," I blurted at them. "He's been following the meetings. He knows—well, he doesn't know everything, but he knows enough to be a good help to us. Get your things together. Arm yourselves. Get a blade, get something you can carry and use. We're leaving."


Leonard rose quickly, pulling Melissa to her feet behind him. "Where are we going?"


"To church," I answered. "Quickly now. Move."


* * *


Church was a tidy, square building with a steeple that leaned slightly to the right if you stood on the front steps and squinted. By the time we reached the doubled front doors, the sun was nothing more than a gold-pink line on the horizon—and blackness crept up from the other side of the sky.


The doors were locked. I pushed my shoulder against them and lunged, and they caved inward.


Melissa's eyes widened. I didn't understand why until I looked at the doors as I pushed them shut behind us. They were thick and oak. They'd been braced with a fat peg lock that shouldn't have broken beneath a woman's shoulder.


* * *


I lead them inside, into the blue-gray interior lined with plain pews. Leonard gazed up and around, holding Melissa's hand. I felt a stab of fear for him there, standing with a large reaper's knife in one hand and Melissa in the other. He held the knife like a child holding a kitten up by one foot—like he had no idea what to do with it.


Outside I heard a slight commotion, something moving down at the end of the street. I recognized the ranger's steps, and by the sounds of things he was still alone.


I closed the door anyway. He'd knock. I'd know.


"You broke the—" Leonard began to say.


"We're going to start moving things around. Making barricades." The church was lined with long, slim windows that were wide enough to let a body in, but not much wider. They were four to a side, except for the front and back behind the pulpit—where there was only one window and it was square, with an inlay of the cross done in colored glass.


"The pews," Melissa said, letting go of Leonard's hand.


"Good," I told her. "Leonard, help her. Prop them up, yes. You start on that side, I'll start this side."


I wrapped one arm underneath the nearest bench and lifted it, pried it up and leaned it forward against the window. A corner went through the glass, breaking it, but it wasn't enough. I pushed harder, lodging the pew in the frame and leaning on it until it stuck. Behind me, I could hear my companions following my example.


One by one we plugged the windows. The glass broke, the wood splintered, and the floors creaked beneath us. The night was a symphony of small destructions.


Beyond the walls of the church, a new glow swelled and warmed the edge of the desert. I smelled the metal-tasting sting of gunpowder and smoke before Leonard raised his voice to announce, "There's a fire!"


"There'd better be," I said.


And as if to assure us that yes, here it comes—a bright pop sounded and was followed by the pattering rain of splinters, glass, and kindling dropping from the sky.


"Fire! Fire!" McKenzie was shouting. "Fire, and it's spreading! Everybody out! Everybody move, everybody get out!"


There was a faint sizzling beneath the commotion. I heard it crawling in a line, along the street. It made me think of a fuse, and when I cracked the front door, a lean trail of powder was sparking, sprinting along the streets, and up the steps, and around the porches and beside the walls of the tinderbox town.


At the other end of the street, the saloon was ablaze and men were emerging to address the situation, but they were confused and disorganized.


"Water!" someone demanded.


"Forget it!" McKenzie ordered. "Run. Grab what you can and make for Tularosa. This place is going up, and there's not enough water for a hundred miles to stop it!"


From out of the inn I saw the desk man and his wife stumble. The wife was screaming, the desk man was swearing. The first tongues of flame were brushing up against the foundation of their quarters.


The ranger held aloft a big gun, a rifle with a barrel half as long as a broomstick. He fired it into the air and the percussion was as hard and heavy as a brick wall.


"Evacuate!" he bellowed. His shape was all angles and black pitch, framed against the orange and white of the growing blaze behind him. I could not discern his face, but I knew he was looking at me, at the church. He dipped his head, a gesture I could only see by the shifting of his hat's shadow.

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