By Belinda Anne Ferrymen
I CAN'T TELL you
what Ted and Mike are thinking as we drive out to Skinner's place, but
I can tell you what I'm thinking. I'm thinking about how sweaty my
palms are despite the snow whipping across the front windscreen; I'm
thinking about Ted and Mike in the front seat with Ted's hunting rifle;
and I'm thinking about why we're here, tearing down the road faster
than the icy surface would recommend.
It was just this morning when it started. Ted, Mike and me were playing pool together at Johnny's Bar, like we do most mornings. Then the stranger walked in.
He didn't make no show of it or nothing. In fact, he just kind of slipped through the doors, like he didn't want to be too obvious. Of course that's kind of hard to do here when an open door drops the temperature in a room faster than a letter from the Tax Department in the mail box, and considering the fact that Fort Davy isn't much more than a half dozen buildings in the middle of nothing, where everybody's face is as familiar as your own spit.
A stranger, well, he's just kind of hard to miss.
Ted, Mike and me, we stopped playing our game and just stared at him. Bernie and Joe stopped sipping their drinks at the bar and looked at him, too. And Johnny, behind the bar, stopped wiping the counter.
The stranger stomped his feet to shake off the mounds of snow capping his boot toes, and gave a violent shudder, as though trying to return some circulation to his extremities. He pulled back the hood of his parka and began dabbing at the snow flakes melting across his brow.
He was on the short side and leaning toward being fat, with gray, thinning hair and the soft sort of face of a city fellow. He was wheezing a little too, like maybe he wasn't used to the dry cold.
At first glance anyone could tell that he wasn't from around here.
When he finished drying his face, even wiping at the sheen of snot on his upper lip, he cleared his throat, like it was dry or something, and spoke:
"Um, excuse me? I wonder if one of you could help me. I'm looking for a man named Skinner -- David Skinner. I understand he lives ssomewhere in this area?" His voice was soft, and kind of high, like a woman's.
When I heard him ask about Skinner, I figure my heart must have skipped a beat. It was as if all my nightmares had come true. I can't say what Ted and Mike thought.
Nobody answered, instead we all just stared at the stranger. Johnny shifted his gaze from the stranger to Ted then back again, real quick. The stranger was sharp though, I'll give him that. He caught Johnny's look and turned to face Ted, like he realized Ted was the important one.
"What about you, sir?" he asked, real polite. "Do you know David Skinner?"
Ted just sat on the edge of the pool table, cool as a cucumber, like it didn't matter one whit that the stranger was interested in Skinner. "Who wants to know?" Ted asked in that low growl of his.
"Name's Willis." The stranger answered quick, kind of nervous.
"You a friend of this Skinner fellow?"
"We have a mutual acquaintance."
"Why you looking for him, eh?" Ted asked, real casual.
"Uh huh," Ted grunted. "Well, I'm sorry Mr., uh, Willis, but I've never heard of this Skinner, eh? Has anybody else?"
Taking their lead from Ted the guys at the bar shook their heads. Me and Mike shook our heads too, not that we needed Ted to tell us.
As for the stranger, he thanked us for our time and walked out. When the door had closed behind him, Ted and Mike and me just looked at one another for a minute. Then, without saying nothing, we all put down our cues, grabbed our parkas, and went out after him.
By the time we got outside he was halfway down the strip of tire?dirtied white that passes for a main road. The three of us just stood on the porch of Johnny's and watched as he stopped old April Qamaniq as she was leaving Doc Samsons' place. Snow swirled about us as I pictured his lips forming the word "Skinner".
Ted looked at Mike and me. April Qamaniq was halfway deaf and her memory was bad and she distrusted white men -- she didn't like Ted or us at all, and I figured that would hold doubly for a stranger. She wouldn't tell him nothing, but...
"If this Mr. Willis goes on poking around," Ted growled, "he might become a problem."
"Even if he don't find out about Skinner, if someone talks about our-" I started, anxious.
"Shut up," Ted told me. "I have to think."
So we just stood there for a bit, watching the stranger, gradually losing the feeling in the tips of our noses.
In a way the stranger reminded me of Skinner. Not so much that he looked like Skinner as much as he had the same air about him. Skinner was a city fellow, too. Why he had wanted to move here, to the Armpit of God, when most of the rest of us dreamed of moving out, was beyond me. And now here was a second one. I wondered if he intended to stay too. Now wouldn't that've been dandy?
The stranger popped into Doc Samsons' place for a minute, then he began to stroll aimlessly around on the deserted strip. The icy winds bumped against him, sending him tottering back and forth like a drunken man.
Without a word, Ted stepped off the porch and started walking toward him, his footsteps squeaking in the snow. After looking at one another for a second me and Mike followed, keeping back a bit.
The stranger had sat himself down on the window sill of the general store when Ted stepped up beside him. Me and Mike were just in earshot.
"Hello again," the stranger said, smiling as if Ted were an old friend.
Ted just grunted in response.
"You find this Skinner yet?" Ted asked.
"Not yet." The stranger looked around the empty street, his eyes briefly passing over Mike and me before coming back to Ted. "Not that there are too many people to ask." He didn't ask Ted why he was suddenly interested. Maybe he just didn't want to provoke him, Ted being so big and all.
"No," agreed Ted. "Fort Davy is pretty small. That's why I'd have heard of this Skinner if he was here, eh? What makes you think he's here?"
"Oh, this and that. Things I've heard."
"Then a lot of people know you're here?" Ted asked, real subtle.
"Oh no," the stranger said, peering up at Ted. "I'm not looking to bring any trouble. Certainly not for Mr. Skinner."
Trouble for Skinner, that's a laugh.
Ted stood there, neither of them saying anything, and me and Mike just stood off a bit, shifting from foot to foot to keep warm.
"How'd you get here, Mr. Willis?"
"By car," The stranger pointed down the street. "I left it at that gas station to get a new chain put on one of the tires."
"And where you from?" asked Ted, seeming not to listen.
He grinned, as if he knew it was obvious. "South and east."
"Bet you're eager to get back, eh?"
"Well," chuckled the stranger, "I can't say your climate isn't a tad on the inclement side-"
"When you leaving?"
The stranger paused. "Well, I guess once I've found Skinner."
"But, like I've said, there's no Skinner here!"
"Well, if it's all the same to you, I'd just like to make sure of that myself. You see, I've got nowhere else to look and finding him is pretty important to me."
"Maybe it ain't all the same to me," Ted growled, getting angry. "You're beginning to make me mad, Willis, acting like I'm a liar or something."
"I never-" the stranger protested.
"I'm not used to taking that big city snobbery. And if you don't clear out soon, me and my friends just might get it into our heads to beat the living daylights out of you! What do you say to that, eh?" There's a time for subtlety, and I guess Ted had figured that time was past.
The stranger said, real quiet:
"Well I'll certainly have to think about that."
He got up then, and walked kind of stiffly toward the garage. Ted walked back to us and said to Mike: "Follow him, and make sure he knows you're keeping an eye on him. Maybe we can settle this without any trouble, by scaring him off."
So Ted and me went back to Johnny's to shoot some pool, and to wait.
It was just a little while later -- I was setting the balls up for another game -- when Mike came rushing in.
"That stranger, Willis," he said. "He just went into the post office, and when he came out he went right to his car and drove off."
"Which way?" Ted asked.
And we all knew what was south of town.
"But," I said, after thinking about it for a moment, "Willy Farkin doesn't know nothing important." We had made the decision that it would be best to leave the local post master -- a federal employee after all -- out of our little enterprise.
"That's the problem," Ted growled.
So the three of us went over to Farkin's booth inside the general store.
"Sure he came in here -- asking about Dave Skinner," Willy Farkin told Ted. "Why?"
"Never mind why. What'd you tell him?"
"I told him Skinner has a place outside of town. And that I hadn't seen him for a few weeks. Now why-?" We were out of there before he finished his question.
"Now what?" I asked, once we were in the street.
Mike said, "He probably won't find anything."
"He'll find Skinner's place without Skinner, and he'll know we lied," growled Ted.
"So, he just might go to the Mountie station at Yellow River. We know what they'd find if they started poking around."
"So what do we do?" I asked.
Ted looked at me kind of absently, then he said:
"We go take care
The jeep's winter tires scrunch to a halt in the thick snow in front of Skinner's house. I see the stranger's car parked in Skinner's driveway, the great ruts the wheels carved out of the snow indicating no one had shovelled it for a while.
"There he is," Mike says.
"Hello again," the stranger says, smiling, as he comes out of Skinner's front door. "Mr. Skinner doesn't seem to be around."
"He is," Ted says, lurching out of the jeep with the rifle in his hands. "He's over there, under the fire logs by the back fence. We figured we'd bury him proper come spring."
"And now you're going to kill me?" still smiling, the stranger asks, nodding at Ted's rifle. Like maybe he can grin his way out of the situation.
"Nothing personal, Willis," Ted says. "But we were worried you might go to the police if you found out too much. And we couldn't have that."
"He refused to pay our very reasonable protection cost. We had to make an example of him or some of the other locals might've refused."
"Lot's of dangerous things can happen to a man in this town, if he's not adequately protected." Ted grins.
"You killed Skinner to preserve a two-bit extortion racket?" the stranger says, for the first time sounding kind of indignant.
"Him and you." Ted raises his rifle, but suddenly the stranger darts back into the house.
"Go around back and cut him off!" shouts Ted, running after him.
Me and Mike jump out of the jeep. I've got a wrench and Mike's got a crowbar, just in case. Just as we reach the back door we hear a shot and without breaking stride we run inside.
Sure enough, there's the stranger lying dead on the floor of the living room, only...it's not the stranger! It's Ted, with his rifle still at his side.
"They were gonna pay me a hundred G's for offing that little stoolie, Skinner." We turn around to where the stranger's voice is coming from. Our weapons feel useless in the face of the big pistol in his hand, like the kind you only see in movies. "You cost me that money, you pushed me around and you tried to kill me. You're gonna regret that. Briefly."
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