Page 5 of Dreadful Skin

Nancy went to go stay with family. I'd say that between us, she sure got the better part of the deal. My wife had cousins down in Florida—on an indigo plantation, if I remember right. When the war came, these cousins of hers didn't just leave the state or the Confederacy, they left the continent altogether. They went to the Caribbean and waited out the conflict there on the sandy islands to the south and east.


In my private thoughts, I felt they were being disloyal. They should have stayed and fought with the rest of us. But if they were determined to leave, then it was just as well they took Nancy with them. I don't know how well she would have handled it, staying there. She could've been killed, or worse.


But when the war ended and the homestead was gone—or out of commission, anyway, since everyone who worked it was scattered or free, I didn't know what to do. Fortune hadn't favored us, to say the least. I was out of money, though Nancy was spared that trouble, being in the islands like she was. I am glad for that. I should speak better of her cousins. I don't know what would have happened if they hadn't taken her with them.


After my discharge, I sat down and wrote a very painful letter to my wife. I didn't go into any more detail than necessary; but I told her the truth about our money situation—and I told her that she should stay with her family as long as it was necessary, since I couldn't provide for her the way I did before. I told her, in short, that I'd made my fortune on the Mississippi, and I lost it to the Union.


I did not tell her how, exactly. It would not have mattered and it would have bothered her something awful. She didn't need to know about the camp. She didn't need to know about the drinking, the wandering, and the smuggling.


But I told her I loved her, and I meant to repair the rest.


For two years, I'd been rebuilding my reputation—transporting goods and people up and down the Tennessee River. I taught the roof captains how to watch and guide, and I helped apprentice the mud clerks until they could dock a boat without scraping bottom. I'd done it all before, and I believe that my advice and guidance proved invaluable. I was paid for it, anyway. They needed people like me on the rivers.


The south was being "reconstructed," as the politicians liked to say it. I had another word for it, but it was not a polite one that I would have used in front of my wife.


But any construction needs ready supply, and a man with my experience could make a fair living off a river. Granted, a man might need to make a few deals he couldn't share with his family—but I was accumulating a stash of such secrets, and I was getting better by the day at keeping them covered.


I might say, if anyone asked, that all it took was a stash of good scotch.


My wife would have objected, though. That's why I brought her a nice bottle of wine—a glorious green bottle with a foil-trimmed label, straight from France. I bought it from a dealer who was wending his own way down to New Orleans, or so he said.


Maybe it was a ruse, and maybe he had some other plans. He didn't owe me the truth, and I shouldn't have bothered him for it. I do know this much: the first two bottles I drank alone, and they were as fine as the labels promised.


I saved the last, and assumed the best. But Nancy never got to try it.


VI.


Supper was held at the same time, every night, and if you wished to partake, you were welcome to appear. I went every night, in part because I was bored for company, and also because I was hungry. The other passengers always asked me to say Grace, and I didn't mind. I was thankful for the food. The cook was uncommonly good; I would have ridden that boat another week to let him feed me.


I want to say he came from farther down the river. I thought I overheard—or maybe I just inferred—that he was from New Orleans.


There was always wine to go with the meals, but you had to be quick and beat the captain if he was there.


The poor man. I don't know what happened to him. It must have been tragic. He said he was on his way home to his wife; and when he said it, there was a blink and a twitch of his neck that told me one or the other wasn't true. He might have been going home, or he might have been going to his wife. I don't know which.


At the end of the night—after the captain had drunk himself to bed, and after the others had turned in for the night as well, I was left with Christopher at the table.


There was a serving girl, I think her name was Laura. She was pretty and dark. I made a joke with her once, about how we both kept our hair covered all the time. She smiled politely and ducked herself away from me.


Laura came and took our plates and Christopher was mellow, itching to play.


"You could deal some cards, if you like," I said.


His eyebrows went up.


"I know how to play," I told him. "I haven't got much money, but I can play for fun, if you like."


He thought about it and then laughed. "Listen Sister, I don't know if I'd feel right about that. But I do appreciate your offer. Would you like a little nip of brandy instead?"


"You'll drink with a nun, but you won't gamble with one, is that it?"


"I believe so, yes." He rose to get a set of glasses. From under the bar, he retrieved a square glass decanter with a glass stopper that looked like a doorknob. He poured me a splash, and then poured a bigger one for himself—a big drink for a big man.


"It won't be much longer now," I told him, accepting the glass and taking a swallow of its contents. "It's not much farther to Chattanooga. That's where you'll be leaving us, isn't it?"


"It is," he assured me. "I have some business to attend to there, and then in a few weeks, I'll be off for Denver."


"Big card game? That is how you make your living, isn't it?"


"Nothing gets past you, eh?"


"Not much. Oh, that's not true, really." I had to amend myself, since the purpose of my little river trip occurred to me, reminding me that I was a long way from as sharp as I needed to be. "All the wrong things get past me, or so it seems sometimes."


Christopher sat forward and took a big swallow from his glass. "Wrong things like what? Like missing a sermon about the evils of gambling?"


"Very much like that," I fibbed outright. "It's a pity, I must have slept late that day. I missed the ban on smoking too, though I maintain I can't find a verse for it in the Bible."


He gathered the hint and pulled a cigarette case out from the pocket just north of his watch. I accepted one, and leaned in for him to light it off a match. He held the flame steady in his palm and said, "I think there's one about treating your body like the temple of God, isn't there? Or did I dream that during Sunday school, too?"


"Very good, Mr. Cooper. Paul said so, in Corinthians."


"A very fine observation, ma'am. I couldn't have named a book for it if my life depended on it."


"That's a shame," I told him. "'Christopher' is a good Christian name. You should have listened closer at your lessons."


"Good Christian name, eh? Why, does it mean something?"


"It's from the Greek. It means 'Christ-bearer.' You're named for a Catholic saint, did you know that?"


He laughed again, for the wine always made him jolly like that. "I had no idea, and I assure you that my good protestant parents had no earthly idea either. It's probably best they're both passed on now, so I don't get the chance to tell them. But a saint, eh? So I'm saintly? What's in a name, after all? Roses and holiness for me, I suppose."


"As you like, Christopher. He is the patron saint of travelers, and people like ourselves—on long trips—often wear a medallion to invoke him for assistance. I have one on me, in fact, if you'd like it."


"You'd give it to me?"


"If you want it. I have others, you know how it is. It's only a little pewter thing, but if it would mean something to you, I'd like for you to wear or carry it."


The smile on his face told me that he felt like this was a furtive, naughty thing. "Sure, I'll take a magic charm off your hands. It's not like those beads you carry, is it? I've seen you sitting on the deck, praying with them. They're very pretty."


"No, this isn't like the beads. And thank you. They were a gift from my father when I entered the convent." And I'm not sure why, but I pulled them out from my pocket and handed them to him, just to show him.


He turned them over on his hands, stringing them through his fingers as if he might use them to make a cat's cradle. "Ebony?" He guessed, and I nodded. "And this on the back of this space, here? What's this? A wolf?"


"A wolf," I confessed. I hadn't expected the question. I wasn't thinking about it—the small silver link that held the rosary in the shape of a "Y." On the back was a tiny piece of art to remind me of home, and to remind me how the universe thinks in puns and patterns. "It's for my family, the Callaghans. Our crest has a wolf on it." I tried to say it with a gambler's nonchalance. After all, it wasn't important. It wasn't something worth remarking.


It certainly wasn't something to be nervous about.


But I was sitting across a supper table from a man who reads faces for a living, and I had a feeling he knew a liar when he spoke to one.


Christopher tensed, and I thought it must be because he was onto me. I was wrong. He shifted his eyes to the left and right like he was looking for something, or someone. Over his shoulder he cast a glance and, seeing nothing, called out, "Who's there?"


"I'm sorry?" I asked.


"Don't you ever get those feelings? Those prickly feelings like someone's standing nearby and watching?"


"Of course I do," I told him. I'd had those feelings ever since I got on board, when I deliberately trapped myself on that damned boat. I knew what I was doing; but that didn't make the tingling at the back of my neck any less unsettling. After so many hours, I suppose I'd simply become numb to it.

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