Page 9 of Dreadful Skin

There were only a few passengers on board that trip, which was a blessing, I figure. Here and there, they were coming out of their rooms. They wanted to know what that big noise was.

Yes, well didn't we all?

Somewhere on the other side of the storm, maybe out-side on a deck, I heard the gambling man trying to tell some of the others that it was just the mud drums being blowed out. I don't think he believed it himself, but you know how people get when they're scared and they're not sure why—and he was just trying to calm them down. I heard a phrase or two rise up over the rain, "Sounds bad, like the boiler's going to blow," and "Perfectly natural. Nothing to worry about."

I guess he was a man who bluffed for a living, so maybe he was a better liar than I am and he calmed them down. Maybe he sent them back into their rooms.

I remembered that the nun had ordered him back into the galley, though. That's why I was supposed to get the cook and we were going to hole up back there. That's what the nun told us to do, and when she said it, I believed she knew more than we did about the noise. She was afraid too, but it wasn't our kind of fear—mine and the gambler's. We were afraid because we didn't know what it was.

She was afraid because she did know.

Maybe she thought she'd spare us knowing, and that she'd be doing us a favor. I don't know. I don't know what she thought she was going to do about it. I don't know why we did what she asked, either—or why we made like we meant to, if the gambling man didn't stay inside the galley.

But I was going to find the cook, because that's what I was told to do, and because it sounded like a good idea anyhow. I said it before—he never gave me no trouble, and like the nun said, he was a big man and probably real strong. I'm inclined to take care of myself, when it all comes down to it, but there's no sense in being alone if there are others to help you out.

Jesus, I was running mindless. That miserable wail—it sent me all scattered inside. But I had that one thought—get the cook. I was going to go get the cook and bring him back and we were going to wait in the galley. It wasn't much of a plan, but it was better than nothing.

I dashed past the captain's cabin and I dashed right past the hole in the wall where the window used to be—I dashed so fast, I almost didn't see it. I drew myself up short and sharp. I slipped on the deck and fell down to one knee and I caught myself on one hand. I doubled back and I looked inside.

Jesus, Lord Jesus.

I should've just kept running.

The captain was in there—I knew it was him, he was wearing that waistcoat, the one that's got the blue and red on it. It was unbuttoned, and it was in pieces—some of it on the floor—but it was on him mostly; and on the floor by the basin I saw his black boots with the bright shine on them. They were set side by side how he'd left them.

But the captain was in there—and he was in pieces like his vest. The whole room was splashed with red, and his chin was turned up, cocked up like he was staring at the ceiling. Everything was red. Everything was shattered—there was a thin coat of wet glass and slick rain on every surface. Puddles were forming on the rugs and on the bed, since the storm had come on in and made itself at home.

I'm no doctor and no nurse, but I know a dead man when I see one.

But with Jesus as my witness, I couldn't have guessed what done that to him.

I turned away—I couldn't look too long. I turned away, and I held hard onto my knife even though my hands were wet, and I ran.


I'd told Christopher too much, I think. He was a smart man—probably smarter than I gave him credit for. He wasn't a fool and I shouldn't have tried to order him out of harm's way; but the moment I heard that ugly, beastly scream, I knew there was no such place of safety on the Mary Byrd.

I fled the dining area and slipped straight onto the deck, where water was pooling and sloshing as the boat rocked itself on the river and swayed with the gusts of the storm. I grabbed the nearest rail and clutched it hard. In my hand I was still holding the rosary my father gave me twenty years ago. The beads dug into my palm but I didn't want to put it away. I anchored myself with my feet and my other hand—and I wrapped the rosary around my wrist to hold it better.

I heard a crash, and a wet banging noise that could have been anything—but was certainly not anything good.

I followed it. Behind me, I heard Christopher disregarding my suggestion and leaving the dining hall. He had come out onto the deck in the rain, not coming after me but answering someone's question. There were more passengers on the boat, and I knew this—but they needed to stay in their rooms. They needed to hide.

"Get back in your rooms!" I shouted at them, but a resounding clang of thunder drowned me out. There wasn't time, anyway. If Jack had changed, there wasn't time for anything.

And us on that boat, in the middle of the river.

Anchor dropped.

I thought at first that I should go to the captain. It would be difficult to convince him that we needed to fire the boilers again and move; it might be difficult to even rouse him. But my only other plan was a short-sighted one and I didn't think it would work, but I had to try it anyway.

I ducked into a niche between a cabin and the pilot house and hiked my skirt up enough to reach down into my garter holster. I've heard it said that God made all men, but Samuel Colt made all men equal.

We'd see what Mr. Colt could do for a woman.

I checked the wheel to make sure it was loaded up, and snapped it back into place. They weren't ordinary bullets because I had no reason to think that an ordinary bullet would stop Jack Gabert. These were made specially for me, and for this. I held the revolver tightly, but carefully. I was wet—everything was wet, after all. The storm would not abate even the slightest, and I would have to work with it.

It could hinder or help us both.

The boat was tipping and turning on the river. It rocked with the thunder and the wind-blown water, and it made walking difficult. I could barely move through the storm, even under the shelter of the decks. I could barely see and barely walk, barely move. Soaked to the bone in a few short minutes, I dragged myself on—clinging at the poles, rails, and doorframes as I came to them every few feet.

I turned the rounded corner of the stern and found myself near the mighty wheel. Painted red, it looked blood-black in the darkness and it streamed storm water from every edge.

The boat shifted in its spot and the wheel turned a foot or two—creaking, falling, and stopping to lie still again. I stared at the oversized contraption and tried to hold myself still too, listening for some sign of the spring-heeled fiend.

Of course, by the time you hear him, there's precious little time to react.

He launched himself out of the night, from some tricky corner where he'd been hiding. He moved so fast that I barely had time to see him at all—those copper-gold eyes shining in a big black cloud of muscle, hair, and teeth.

I raised the gun and I fired it: once, twice. By the third time, he was on top of me—but slowed.

He shoved me back; he pressed me hard against the wall behind me and he shoved. I heard the boards crack and felt the skin along my spine begin to bruise. He was all hot breath and the stink of someone else's blood. He was all tremendous size and an imbecile's strength, with claws and a voice.

"What's this?" he breathed, and it was a hiss against the side of my head. With one big hand he pushed me back even harder, and with the other he grabbed at the gun but I held it fast and tried to reach the hammer with my thumb. "Is this all you've learned?" he asked, still trying to wrench it away.

"I've learned much," I growled back. I had nothing profound to tell him. I only wanted to distract him enough to cock the revolver again—one more shot, at such a close range. Anything to push him back.

"All your following, and watching, and waiting—and you think you'll stop me with silver?"

I twisted underneath him and moved my body so the gun was aimed his way again. I pushed it as close to his heart as conditions would permit, but I missed. Even in the missing, the kick of the firearm pushed him enough for me to duck away.

I was small, and I was fast. I was stronger than he thought, and I grabbed the hammer back again—another shot, into that tree-trunk-thick torso.

He threw his arms up and howled that dreadful bellow but I knew I hadn't hurt him much. It was for show, the way he cried. It was to intimidate me, and for a moment I felt a spark of triumph because he felt the need to frighten me. The triumph passed, and passed quickly.

He grabbed my wrist and hit it against the boat's rail. I held the gun firmly, but he hit me again and I dropped it—over the side and into the Tennessee. I let it go and he held me up by the one arm as I struggled. "Silver is no enemy of mine, little sister." He growled it at me, his hideous and misshapen mouth making the words obscene. "It is the metal of the moon, and the moon is my mistress—or didn't you know? She holds no harm for me. And neither do you."

He finished speaking, and with it, he lost his interest in me. He flung me—not overboard but back against the wall, and through it. I fell so fast and met so little resistance that I was perplexed when I found myself on a floor, half on a divan and surrounded by glass, wood, and water.

In one short burst he'd cast me through the window of a cabin and I was cut, I knew. I was terribly dazed, and I was bleeding, surely. But I didn't feel it. I pulled my feet up underneath myself and rose, hanging onto the divan, and the table, and using my hands to walk as much as I was using my legs.

I'd lost the gun, but I had the rosary still, tied around my hand and useless except for it made me feel stronger.

He hadn't killed me, though he could have—or maybe he couldn't. He said the silver meant nothing, but something had repelled him. Was it the rosary? Did the beads and the cross provoke him? I know what the folk tales say about other beasts of the devil. I know how these things are supposed to work. I've been researching them for years. I've been doing my best, and my worst, to understand.