Page 30 of Dreadful Skin

He was coming.


I checked over my shoulder and saw that our job was more than half finished. I pushed my thigh against the door and dashed to the front of the church. The square window behind the pulpit was still uncovered.


Its cross was yellow, I realized when I came close enough to see it clearly. Behind it the moon was in motion.


I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and crossed myself.


The front door opened and McKenzie entered, taking off his hat and throwing it into a corner.


"Sir," Leonard began.


"Save it, son. We've got problems barreling our way. I've got a rifle, two revolvers, and enough shot to hold myself for a while."


"I've got a Colt," I added. "And bullets." I ducked down for the spot where I'd stashed the weapon.


Leonard steeled himself, as if seeing a woman reaching for her knickers was a tremendous burden that Christ was asking him to bear. "Do you think the fire will reach the church?" he asked, trying to change the subject or give himself something else to think about.


"I hope not," McKenzie drawled. "Unless it crosses the street, we should be all right. I didn't put down any powder that way, so let's just say our prayers and settle in. They'll be out before long, won't they, ma'am?"


He directed the question at me, so I responded. "Any time now. Is the town cleared out?"


"As cleared out as it's gonna get. They don't want those fellows anyway, do they?" He peered meaningfully at Melissa, who shook her head. "Well, we've got to catch them sometime. Now's as good a time as any."


"It's going to have to be," I breathed, because even while he was still speaking, I heard a shocking, sharp howl.


The girl heard it too. As the canine tone whistled through the air, over the crackling of the burning town, she twitched a delicate shudder. She fought it back, and down. She had resigned herself to something. But I had not. I'd not resigned myself, or any of them, to anything. The night was just getting started. We were all together, and unharmed, and prepared.


A second howl joined the tail end of the first.


A third chimed, harmonizing and clashing with the same threatening vowels, the same blood-curdling chorus.


Leonard was going pale. I wanted to urge him to sit down, but I didn't. No one was going to sit down, not yet.


One of the remaining pews was lying on its back. I went over to it and stepped on it, as hard as I could. It splintered and split. I grabbed the back plank and carried it to the door, where McKenzie helped me jam it onto the supports—replacing and reinforcing the bolt I'd broken to let us inside.


"Will this hold them?" he asked.


Melissa said, "Not for very long. Kill Jack, though. The rest will leave."


"Do you think?" I asked.


"They fight one another all the time. They'll scatter without him."


I couldn't decide if I found that thought reassuring or not.


The window behind the pulpit—it was still uncovered. I was reluctant to disturb it; the cross there comforted me, even as I knew it was a weakness in our fortress. I hesitated, but Melissa did not.


Made bold, or simply inspired, she walked to the pulpit and pushed it with all her might. It rocked, and she pushed it again. The heavy old thing teetered and fell backwards, flat through and against the cross, pushing it out into the dirt, in pieces.


I did not realize until she'd plugged that gap how much light the window had provided. We didn't dare light a lantern, not with the gunpowder and not with our own selves now nearly trapped inside. But with the last window broken and covered, the shadows within went jagged.


We looked at each other with a new wariness, a new resolve. Our faces were more hidden than revealed, and our movements were harder to track, but we were our own pack now.


A new dog-shout barked and whined, and another picked up the call.


I was counting. Trying to sort them out. How many? Two. One, two, three more. Four. Five. Seven altogether? More?


My heart was pounding, and it was not all from fear. I wouldn't have admitted it to any of my company, but I was excited, too. I'd seen the moon before it'd been obscured. I heard the pack hounds calling outside, and the monster inside my own breast was aching to answer.


But no, not yet.


Not a call and response. They knew where we were, or if they did not, they'd find us soon. They could smell us, as surely as I could smell the fire and powder and charred wood blowing through the cracks where the windows let the night air in.


I prayed for the town, and everyone who might be left in it. After all, only God could help them now. I prayed for this church, and for everyone in it. After all, only God could help us now.


But God had done this, hadn't he? God had sent Leonard to Melissa. God had sent me to Leonard. And, when I was sure I could not save them alone, He'd sent McKenzie to me.


God had done His job. The rest was up to us.


* * *


Padding footsteps slapped heavily up to the wooden stairs, and climbed them—one foot, two feet. Three. Four. The wood of the porch groaned under the weight.


The ranger lifted his biggest gun and aimed it at the sound, even though the doors stood between us and it. Leonard lifted his scythe, and wrapped both hands around the handle. Melissa picked up the biggest, ugliest blade that remained—one of the navaja blades with a curved tip that was sharpened almost all the way around.


I checked the chambers in the Colt's barrel, and they were all occupied.


"There," Melissa whispered, and the word sounded fierce to me.


I pointed the gun where she indicated, and yes, I heard it there too—more feet. More rustling steps shuffling through the dirt. And the sniffing, snorting of a hound on the trail of its quarry.


"Everywhere," I argued. My ears strained and heard too much, from too many directions. The fire in the background distorted the noise, but not so much that I couldn't tell we were surrounded. Some were holding back. Two were coming in close. I could guess which two.


I knew the scent of the one, and Melissa's black, angry eyes told me the other.


The two nearest monsters circled the church once and retreated to confer with the others. "They're leaving?" Leonard asked nervously, crazily. He knew better. I don't know why he bothered to say it.


"They're discussing," McKenzie replied. "They've found something they didn't quite expect."


"You can hear them?" I asked.


"Well enough. Not as well as you, I reckon." He stared at me, and through me. Who was this man, who deduced the meat of things so quickly? What else had he seen, and what else had he encountered in his work as a ranger that the prospect of human wolves did not shake him?


"They didn't count on you, did they, ma'am?"


"Eileen," I offered. I didn't think I'd ever told him my name. "But no, I don't think they did. And they won't be deterred by me. There's one of them—Jack. We've fought before."


"You must've won."


"No. Why would you say that?"


"Because you're still alive."


I moved the Colt, using it to track the things I heard beyond the walls even as I carried on the conversation with the ranger. "The first time I lost. I lost everything, including my humanity. The second time, I lost an opportunity to end him. I'd hardly count myself among the fortunate or successful."


"Eileen?" Leonard said.


"As if you didn't know." I was concentrating more on the night outside than the confusion in the church. "Why did you write me, if you didn't? I killed your preacher, you knew that."


Melissa gasped, a puff of surprised air.


I swiveled, and the ranger did too. We were aiming at nothing, at everything. Slowly, with fingers on triggers. Ready to aim for faces, for eyes, for throats. "He asked me to do it. He was one of them. One of us. He wanted out. You didn't tell her. I don't blame you."


"I didn't know, not. . .for certain."


"Of course you did. I told you in the letter, and I'm reminding you now. I'm a danger to you all."


"What are you?" Leonard asked, and for the first time I thought he really did want to know.


An expression like a smile, but not a smile, bloomed on Melissa's face. "I know what she is."


The ranger answered. "She's like them."


"No," Melissa insisted. "She's not. She's what they wanted to make me. And that's why they are afraid of her. They are afraid of you, aren't they?"


I wished she'd stop asking questions. It was hard enough to hear their movements without the distraction.


"She's the mother and goddess Jack wanted to make. Not a pack, but a hive. Not a wife, but a queen." She was speaking faster and faster, her words tumbling close together. "And terrifying, because she is beyond their control, because she answers to none of them and she is stronger than all of them."


Leonard moved to put an arm around her, but she pushed him away. "No, don't. Stupid men. All of them, stupid men. But not so stupid as that. Not so stupid as to come in here, when we are not alone."


"Melissa." I threw it with as much authority as I could muster.


She turned to me and with that same killing face that wasn't smiling, but showed all her teeth—she growled more cat than wolf. "Our Lady, full of grace."


On the other side of her face there was a window with a pew's raised end holding the moonlight out. But there was a crack, too—between the church and the night. And in that crack peered an eye the color of sunrise over smoke.


I fired.


Melissa squawked. The bullet grazed her ear but fully hit its mark and a screaming whine shrieked into the sanctuary, but the invading eye retreated.


And that was the end of our preparation, and our peace. The pack came fast, without patience and without any more caution. McKenzie shot again and again. When his rifle was dry he went to his hip holsters.


"Their faces!" I shouted. "Blind them, make them bleed. Take off their heads if you think you can do it in a shot or two."

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