Chapter 28: George Washington and the Shadows
The increase of shots fired into the night had told him that '23 was gone, but there were no shouts of jubilation to be heard from the somber pair at the table. The Priest ran his thumb around the rim of his coffee cup, occasionally glancing up at the young woman - the girl, really - sitting across from him. She hadn't said a word since she'd come back inside, and neither had he.
He didn't know why he stayed. The words of comfort he felt should come so easily to him didn't, so the best he could hope was that his presence, just keeping her from being alone, gave her at least the slightest bit of peace.
Perhaps he stayed because he felt in some way responsible. It had been his boarder after all. He should have kept a close eye on that man, on all his boarders for that matter. That man had probably had his eye on Addie for as long as he'd been in town, probably watched her each time she visited the Priest, thought vulgar thoughts about her in the room he rented from him. It could be said that the Priest had introduced his dear little friend to the man who defiled her.
And now this poor girl across from him, so very young, faced an equally cruel fate for merely doing the best she could to protect her family. He knew the human body was a most wondrous machine; the only thing that could possibly withstand more was the human spirit. But at the same time, life was terribly fragile if the Lord willed it so. Why He had willed it so this night he would never know.
The clip-clop of hooves and crunching of gravels beneath wagon wheels suddenly pulled him from these thoughts. The sounds ceased once in the backyard, and two distinct male voices could be heard, along with the braying and snorting of the hoofed creature.
"Damn it, George Washington, you cut that out!" said a gruff voice.
The Priest looked at Susan. "Who's George Washington?" he asked, arching an eyebrow.
Before she could answer, a clearer voice snapped, "That sumbitch better not kick me!"
The sound of this voice seemed to make the corners of Susan's lips curve ever so slightly upward. "A very contrary mule," she replied.
The Priest turned the explanation over a few times in his head before remarking, "George Washington is a fine name for a mule."
The sounds of the two men struggling to tie the mule to a tree continued for another minute or so, and then the back door opened. "Shoot! Colder than a witch's tit out there," said the clear voice. "Oo! Coffee!" A cabinet opened, two cups were set on the stove, and both were filed.
A moment later, two coal-black figures appeared in the doorway of the dining room. One was shorter than the other; this man wore a wool newsboy cap pulled down over his eyes so that they were just a tiny sliver of green beneath the brim. The taller man blithely flaunted his dark mess of hardhat hair, and wore a wide, white grin as he exclaimed, "Happy New Year!" He promptly leaned down to kiss his wife, leaving a black smudge on her face when he pulled away.
When he stood back up, his eyes fell on the Priest. "What're ya doing here so late, Doc? Everything alright?"
The Priest felt like a fool as he stared stupidly back at the young man, at a loss for the words required to answer his simple question. Finally, after what felt like far too long, Susan cleared her throat and said, "Honey, why don't you and Ralph just have a seat. This might take a while."
By the time the tale had been recounted, she was once again in tears. David had moved his chair closer to hers and held her in his arms as she sniffed and sobbed. He exchanged a meaningful look with Ralph, then addressed the Priest. "Do ya think you could show us?"
The Priest nodded and slowly stood. The other two men did the same, and David kissed the top of his wife's head and whispered something in her ear before leaving her alone in the dining room.
Once in the bedroom, they shut the door behind them. The scene there had remained unchanged. "And you're sure he's dead?" Ralph asked, almost in a whisper.
The Priest squatted and placed his fingers on his former boarder's carotid. Nothing. He looked back up at the two men and nodded. "I am sure of it."
Ralph lowered his head and began muttering obscenities under his breath while David nervously ran a filthy hand through his hair. "We knew him, Davey," Ralph observed, his rough voice still low.
David shook his head. "I don't know that man from Adam."
"Yeah, ya do. Come over here and look real good."
David walked around the body and squatted down to scrutinize the face, then shook his head again. "Can't place him."
"He probably looked more like this when you knew him," said Ralph, gesturing at his own face, covered in black dust.
David's eyes lit up with the realization. "The traveler."
David shook his head in disbelief. "We worked with him." He stood back up and ran both hands through his hair, staring down at the body. "What'll we do?" Both Ralph and the Priest stared blankly back. "Ralph, we can't let 'em take her to jail," he implored. Grabbing his friend by the arm, he pulled him over to the corner, where they began whispering non-stop between themselves.
The Priest stared down at the little bit of blood on the floor; if there was anyone who knew how to get blood stains out of hardwood, it was him. Then he turned his attention to the men in the corner of the small room, straining his ears to hear their conversation. "Reckon that'll work?" David was saying.
Ralph shrugged. "No body, no murder. Maybe."
"I just don't know, Davey. Dunno if it'll cover all the tracks." He raised his head so his eyes were fully visible beneath the cap, and glanced at the Priest.
David crossed his arms, knit his brows, and bit his lip. "Well, I'll tell ya what I do know," he said, returning to his speaking voice. "I know there's a dead man in Susan's bedroom floor and her granny's gonna be home any minute."
"Let's load him up, then," said Ralph, as though the solution were perfectly obvious.
They both cast an apprehensive glance in the Priest's direction. He knew they would be suspicious of him on a good day, so it came as no shock they would regard him as the enemy tonight. Without a word, he opened the bedroom door. The two blackened men exchanged unsure looks with one another, then straddled either end of the body and lifted it from the floor.
The Priest walked into the kitchen and held the backdoor as they carried the dead man out of the house, and he watched as they loaded it in the back of the wagon, those two shadows in the night. David returned to the bedroom and grabbed the wool blanket off the foot of the disheveled bed, then he and Ralph covered the body. By the time they headed back inside, Susan had joined the Priest at the door.
"What are you doing?" she inquired, her suspicion evident.
"Your granny and Kent don't need to see that," David replied, his voice soft. "Now why don't you go strip that bed and wash them sheets?"
"Wash them? I mean to burn them!"
"Alright, then, burn 'em."
While Susan ripped the tainted linens off the bed, the men returned to their lukewarm coffee in the dining room. After a period of silence, David began quietly singing Auld Lang Syne. It was terribly off key and he didn't seem to know any of the words beyond, "In the name of Auld Lang Syne," and despite the air of fear and gloom surrounding them, the Priest couldn't help but chuckle to himself.
When Susan had tossed the linens piece by piece into the fireplace and watched them burn, she returned to the dining room and sat back down. There was no conversation; David must have been embarrassed by the Priest's amusement with his singing, and had now resorted to humming instead.
The Priest sensed tension between the three young people at the table with him, but he couldn't quite put his finger on just what it was. Once in a while, he could have sworn he caught Ralph's eyes flash green in more ways than just the one, but he reminded himself to mind his own business. Nonetheless, he was uncomfortable and felt he should go home now that Susan wasn't alone anymore. But he resolved to stay until his neighbors returned home; perhaps those words of comfort that had been eluding him all night would return when they most needed them.
It wasn't long before they heard the front door open and the quiet voices of the old man and woman and the young boy. Upon arriving in the dining room, the three of them were as surprised as David had been to find their neighbor sitting at their table at this hour. Susan immediately excused herself, took her little brother by the hand, and led him into the front room. The Priest stood and offered his seat to the woman, and the man seated himself where Susan had been.
David told them what had happened as it had been explained to him. When the old woman gasped and began weeping, the Priest cringed, as he found himself still unable to provide the solace he so wished he could. As the woman shed tears for her family, the old man sat, quiet and pensive, sucking the plug of tobacco inside his lip.
Her voice nothing more than a trembling whimper, the old woman looked at her husband and said, "Hank, how do we go on living in this house? With what's happened here, how do we stay?"
The old man frowned and stared off into space. "I been praying," he said. "Praying hard. Praying for a sign."
"A sign for what?" she asked.
"Whether or not we ought to head on out to Cleveland." He looked his wife in her tear-reddened eyes. "It don't get any clearer than this. The Lord does work in mysterious ways."
David interrupted their exchange to ask Hank to join him in the kitchen and the old man obliged. In their absence, the silence in the dining room punctuated by the woman's weeping was stifling. Their return a few minutes later was a welcome relief.
The woman looked up at Hank and ran a hand across her eyes, attempting to wipe away the tears. "So you think we should go?"
He nodded in reply.
"When should we leave?"
He looked at David, then through the archway into the front room, and sighed. "The sooner, the better."
The next thing the Priest knew, there was a flurry of activity all around him as everyone began making preparations for the family's impromptu departure. He was used to being the outsider in this town, but he suddenly felt more out of place than ever. It was time for him to get out of the way and let these fine people handle this for themselves; after all, he wasn't contributing anything.
They were all so preoccupied that he was sure he could slip out the back door unnoticed. He quietly walked into the kitchen and slowly opened the back door, careful not to let the rusty old hinges creak. As he stepped onto the back step, a warm, calloused hand grabbed his. "Sir- Wait!"
The Priest turned to find the hand that grabbed his belonged to David. The young man looked him in the eye with genuine gratitude as he shook his captive hand. "I can't ask for your silence because I know you have obligations. But I do thank you. Thank you for taking care of my wife."
The Priest nodded as he squeezed the young man's hand, then turned and walked off into the cold, dark night.