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Authors: Gil Adamson

Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000

The Outlander (21 page)

BOOK: The Outlander
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“Someone sure killed him,” the Reverend said over her

They heard footsteps, and a moment later a tiny man beetled through the
back flap of the tent. He was buttoning up his pants.

“Pardon me!” he said. “Had to see a man about a dog.

” McEchern had a strangely soprano voice, and in the gloom of the
tent, his body seemed impossibly foreshortened, as if he were walking in a trough and
visible only from the knees up. The widow ventured closer to get a look at him. She
stood by the Reverend, who was already leaning one elbow on the long wooden plank that
served as desk, bar, and counter. She saw then that the man was a dwarf, no more than
four feet tall, stylishly bearded, wearing a bowler hat, and that he had pale blue eyes.
He grinned smartly at her but did not remove his hat. Behind him stood a pile of
moulding books, an old rifle hung on a nail by its trigger guard, and another bunch of
empty bottles, arranged in a line — evidence perhaps of what had been consumed on
the premises, or maybe advertisements for what McEchern could supply.

“How long have you been lurking?” he asked them.

“Hours,” said the Reverend. “I've grown

“You haven't either,” McEchern grinned.

“Don't you worry about someone robbing you?” the
Reverend said, smiling in turn.

“Piss on that. I'd know exactly who'd done it, and
I'd go skin 'em . . .”

“How could you possibly know?”

“Easy. How do you know what kind of animal's been in your
pantry? By what it took. I know the smokers, the drinkers. I know the dope fiends. I
know who has a sweet tooth.
And most of these boys wouldn't
steal a stick of wood if you put a gun to their heads. So that kind of narrows it

“Well, what if they took, let's say, a saw?”

“Then I'd know it was you. Now dry up, will you. Who's

With what seemed to the widow to be genuine solemnity, the Reverend
introduced her. “Mary Boulton, I'm pleased to introduce Charles McEchern,
merchant, entertainer . . .”

“Gentleman,” the dwarf postured.

“Oh, I think not. Mac is, among other things, the local drug
peddler.” McEchern put a hand to his chest and affected speechlessness. Then:
“Apothecary,” he corrected. The little man's amused face peered out
over the desk at her, the eyes betraying nothing.

“I got anything you need for what ails you. Or I can get it. Might
take a month, though.” And then, as if a switch had been snapped off, he spoke to
the Reverend. “What about the Americans? When are they due?”

“Very soon. A few days, perhaps.”

“How many horses have they got?”

“I'm not sure. Twelve maybe. Can you handle . . .”

“Look. I can take as many as you get. There's more buyers this
time, Indians mostly. So they'll go north directly.” This seemed to satisfy
the Reverend, and he smiled happily and slapped the dwarf on the shoulder.

“Will ya take a drink?” McEchern offered. But the Reverend was
apparently doing calculations in his head, and he walked away into the gloom of the
tent, his lips moving. If the widow had ever wondered what possible economy had kept the
most Reverend Mr. Bonnycastle afloat — and she
had —
there was now the shadow of an answer: The Americans were purveyors of stolen

Under the dwarf 's elbow lay a pane of thick glass, and under this
lay a small cabinet filled with unusual objects. A pocket watch, a monogrammed silver
shoehorn, a leather Bible with gold corner reinforcements, and a gun. The widow gazed at
the pistol's weathered butt where the letters colt were calligraphed in ropy
italics. The heavy cylinder, the long, cannonlike barrel.

McEchern regarded her sagely, and affected a posture of keen estimation.
“I'll wager, Madam, that you are a reader of the Good Book,” he said.
Obviously, he'd misidentified the object of her interest.

“Oh, she's that,” came a voice from the corner.
“You should hear her.”

The widow blushed furiously. Praise was dangerous, unwelcome. It might
bring demands for a performance, something she could not manage without her own
hieroglyphic Bible. The round, clear eyes of the proprietor did not leave her face. He
was a clever little man, she could see that, for he had registered her discomfort and
was considering various possible explanations for it. She hurried away and busied
herself among the shelves of salt and baking powder and baskets of dried apples. Great
fat bags of flour at her feet, and battered tins of tea.


day when the lunatic came through town.
His horse was moving fast and he wore a faded uniform — North West Mounted Police.
He was sitting forward in the saddle, coming in from the same direction as the widow
had, along the pass, out of the depths of Indian country. He came on at a gallop, the
horse scrambling over the stones, its hide white with dried sweat, its sunken flanks
marked with long smears of dried blood from the spurs. Horse and rider barrelled past
the mine head where workers were bent sullenly over their lunch bowls. The men looked up
in dumb surprise. Then he was gone. One or two miners wandered after him.

At a gallop the madman bore down on McEchern's store till the horse
balked in a wide spray of gravel and scrambled lamely sideways, suddenly choosing a
different direction, though all directions were the same to them. The dwarf had been
tidying bottles from his front stoop when he saw them coming, and his jaw went slack.
The animal's weeping eyes and crusted hide, and the rider fraught forward in his
seat, elbows held high as if riding down the banks of hell to trample the devil. He was
black-eyed and clearly mad, his rotted uniform a mere shadow on him now, staved-in
helmet corralling
the man's clogged hair. He made no sound,
though his mouth worked horribly as if he would chew the air. Unlike the miners,
McEchern did not freeze but moved with surprising speed, laterally, back into the
darkness of his tent. When he emerged again, rifle raised, the bizarre mirage was

On they went, horse and man, dashing in uncertain bursts uphill, past
tents and over laundry, kicking up pebbles against the walls of half-finished cabins,
bringing out a stunned audience that followed them on foot. In the end, it was the
church that caused the rider to haul back on the reins, and the disbelieving horse
understood that they were to finally come to a stop. Perhaps it was the building itself
that did the trick, a hollow and cockeyed impediment; or perhaps it was the sight of a
man in black, with a black hat, holding a huge and splayed hammer, standing on the
church's unfinished roof looking down on them, one hand extended in divine
. Those who ran uphill following the circus witnessed it: the
Reverend simply put out his hand, ending the madman's rampage.

In fact, the Reverend admitted later, he had fully believed the lunatic
would not stop, that his horse would not preserve itself but would instead hurl them
both against one of the building's questionable support beams and bring the whole
edifice down about them. The truth of it was, he had put out his hand to ready himself
for the fall.

Now the lunatic held his wreck of a horse among a gathering crowd and
swivelled his head on its scrawny neck in wild paranoia, like a man beset by wolves. The
horse's breath came ragged, with the deep, hollow-chested cough of the near-dead.
Gently, men stepped forward to take the reins and calm the dancing animal.

“Settle down now,” said one fellow, speaking to the man, not
the horse. A wordless howl from the lunatic, fists trembling at his throat. He was
looking up at the trees, the tips of the pines where wind hissed among the needles.
Poplar leaves flashed — light dark light dark — in secret insinuation.

“What's wrong with him?”

“Look at that horse. He's nearly killed it.”

The widow hobbled up and stood among the crowd. The Reverend clambered
down an outside beam in his claw-footed boots to stand at the gasping animal's
neck. He put his hand on the disintegrating leather of the police boot. It was a
strangely tender gesture, the hand with its missing index finger, as if the Reverend
were saying, “Trust me, we are comrades in ruin.” He shook the thin leg, and
slowly the rider dragged his terrified attention away from whatever the trees were
telling him. His huge eyes settled on the Reverend's kindly face. He let out a

“Arthur,” said the Reverend. “Get off that poor horse
and come with me.”

been cajoled into dismounting his horse,
and the two of them stood together with trembling, withered shanks and swimming eyes.
The Reverend turned toward home and the lunatic followed, mild as a lamb.

The horse was corralled in the empty church, not hitched, but standing
with its head hanging among the rough pews, tidemarks of sweat on its hide and dry froth
at its lips, eyes dull as granite. A congregation of worriers stood about, hands on
chins, considering its chances. Food was a bad idea. Horses can neither belch nor vomit,
so anything that
goes bad inside might stay inside. A simple kink
in an intestine can be fatal. Water was all right, but should it be warm? Cold? Finally
the horse was given a wet rag to suck. A tentative hand pushed the wad into its cheek,
but the animal would not suck, and eventually the rag fell to the floor. Finally, one
bright fellow exclaimed: “A blanket!” And they all ran in different
directions to find one.

Arthur Elwell — for that was the lunatic's name, as the widow
soon discovered — was not faring much better. He sat in the Reverend's
kitchen, a hollow-eyed cadaver, his razorous shoulder blades showing through the fabric
of his uniform, hands knotted up under his chin like an old lady with the panics. His
jaw worked constantly, and somewhere inside, the lunatic was speaking, for with each
breath, barely audible words floated out and others were drawn back. The widow stood by
the door and made not a sound.

“Give me your boots,” said the Reverend, kneeling before the
man, and the thin leg came up, knee bone creaking, and hung trembling as the Reverend
gently twisted it, toe and heel, and the boot slid off with a hollow sucking sound. The
sockless yellow foot slowly lowered to the floorboards and lay there, as bloodless as a
dead thing on a beach. The second boot came up.

“Bonny . . .” the voice croaked and then subsided. The
madman's head drooped and he shook it sadly. Unmistakably, it was an apology. The
hands wringing in the lap now, and the eyes canted sadly to the steamed window, beyond
which the wind continued to blow.

“Tell Mrs. Boulton about yourself, Arthur,” said the Reverend.
“She's never met you.”

“Mrs. Boulton?” Arthur repeated, then swallowed dryly.

“There,” the Reverend inclined his head sideways toward the
terrified widow.

The widow fought an urge to run out the door. How hazardous it was to be
fixed by those terrible eyes. To watch the white and red mouth open and the roiling
tongue work within. To allow this madman to speak to her — the shame of it!
— to share his infected thoughts, the illness spreading. The man sat there, an
indictment of herself, of her own madness, a leper in his cave, warning,
Touch me
not. It will bloom in you.

The Reverend put Arthur's sagging boots by the door. Then he turned,
smiling, and took the widow by her rigid shoulders — the second time he had ever
touched her — and guided her to a chair.

“Sit,” he ordered. “It'll be good for him. And
it's a fair story.” He went to the stove to make tea. There was silence.
Wind creaked among the shingles and moaned along every uncaulked seam in the place. The
widow barely breathed. She and Arthur sat in mutual terror.

“I'm sorry, miss,” the lunatic said.

“It's all right,” she lied. “Go on. I'd like
to hear.” And without further encouragement, Arthur started talking, the words
coming out smoothly and with uncharacteristic calm, as if rehearsed, or perhaps like a
psalm, something to stave off the darkness. At first, he would stop, waiting for a
comment from his audience, but neither of his listeners spoke. The Reverend didn't
even turn his head, and so the madman went on talking, the story after a while coming
out unbidden, in a dry, quiet voice, like he was telling himself who he was.

He had grown up in an enormous suite of rooms in a hotel among eight
bright, happy siblings and a phalanx of keepers
who scurried after
them, tidying. His mother was head of the women's auxiliary, so she was always out
visiting hospitals in her furs and silk stockings, wandering the wards with other
ladies, worrying over the lumps in the beds. His father was a political man who spent
much time in his library arguing points of policy with colleagues, while bouncing one or
another child on his knee. There were parties during which Arthur affected the role of a
butler. Guests chuckled and ruffled his hair. There were endless toys and trips out for
tea and cakes and skating on the river. At one such skating party, the ice had broken
suddenly and four young couples had drowned. And though Arthur had been there with
everyone else and had watched the doomed struggling and crying out at the crumbling,
frozen edge, he could remember none of it. A maid had dragged him stiff as a doll from
the ice and set him in a sleigh, his hands pressed to his face, and for hours he could
not be compelled to speak. It became a family story — Arthur's lost day. His
sister, playing the maid, would seize him round the middle: “Poor mite,”
she'd say, squeezing him, “Poor little weaklin'!”

At fifteen, Arthur realized others did not hear voices the way he did,
that others' heads were mostly silent. This he puzzled out slowly, over a long
period of time, watching the face of the cook as she rooted in cupboards, seeing no
distraction there, nothing calling her out of her thoughts, no demands on her patience.
He took to reading books because, for some reason, he heard nothing when he read. He
became pale from lack of sleep. His father, in the way of all bright and active men,
began to push the boy harder. Calisthenics, running, and finally military training.
Arthur was sent to an academy to train as an officer. A small, strange, troubled boy,
he had found only one friendly face at the academy, and it
happened to be Angus Lorne Bonnycastle. It didn't hurt that his new friend could

BOOK: The Outlander
10.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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