Clyde regretted not buying a ticket to ride approximately three seconds before the conductor tossed him off the locomotive and into a stand of prickly pears.
His intestines knocked up inside his ears. His nether bits prickled with cactus needles. And a decidedly slimy object, smelling like viscera with a strong dollop of ipecac syrup, was wedged between Clyde’s cheek and the desert sand. He rolled onto his belly, his forehead flush against the mysterious sliminess, and burrowed his way out.
Rubbing the sand from his eyes, he squinted beneath the cactus. Beetles scuttled over a shapeless roll of flesh striped with bluish sinews and globs of fat.
Clyde heaved into a mesquite bush until there was nothing left to upchuck but his own innards.
The best Clyde could tell, the body was human. It had fingers and the globe of a head with two milky eyes. But whoever he was, he wasn’t wearing any skin.
Clyde went a bit woozy. He wiped the sides of his mouth with a stained handkerchief and scrubbed his face until his skin burned. Fortunately, the majority of his skin stayed intact—more than he could say for the fellow who’d cushioned his post-locomotive skid.
The least he could do was find the local sheriff and point him toward the poor son-of-a-gun’s final resting place.
And claim the reward the grateful family was surely offering.
A handful of buildings broke the flat desert. As Clyde hiked into Snake Canyon, he reckoned it was hardly big enough to merit a name. Hitching posts lined the road, but the only horses he saw were in front of a garish red brothel.
The mercantile was open, so Clyde stepped in. The air smelled of day-old bread, licorice, and paper-wrapped packages. When no clerk put in an appearance, Clyde grinned.
A full shelf was devoted to gunny sacks labeled as salt. Clyde hung a right and hopped the counter.
A glass container of horehound lozenges was looking mighty tempting when a distinct chock-chock sound made him pause. The only things Clyde knew of that went chock-chock were a rare species of Brazilian bullfrog and a twelve-gauge solid frame pump-action shotgun.
Since Brazil was a long way away, Clyde turned around real slow with his hands in the air and a guileless grin on his face. The tiniest woman he’d ever seen, no more than knee high to a knickerbocker, stood in the rear doorway with a shotgun braced against her hip.
“You stealing my candies?” Her voice was as deep as she was itty bitty.
“No?” Clyde said.
She walked around the end of the counter and aimed the gun at Clyde’s trousers.
“Yes?” he said.
“Put’em back. Lest you licked ’em.”
Clyde thought about shoving the handful into his mouth. His hand twitched.
The woman readjusted her stance.
Clyde put the lozenges back. He sucked on his sticky palm.
“Leave,” she barked.
The woman wasn’t much older than he was, but she looked tired, peaked around the eyes, like she hadn’t known a good night’s sleep since she left the cradle.
Clyde took off his hat. “I’m mighty hungry, ma’am. Perhaps I—”
“Be more wrong with you than a griping belly if you don’t get.” Her eyes flickered toward the brothel.
“Mind telling me how far the next parish is?”
“Therein lies my predicament,” Clyde said. “Down on my luck as I am, walking through the desert would be the death of me.”
“Staying in Snake Canyon’ll be the death of you.”
Clyde stalled. “I need to tell your sheriff where to find a non-breathing and rather nauseating discovery.”
“A corpse.” He dropped his voice. “Skinned. Alive.”
He didn’t know about the alive part, but it sounded good. Perhaps good enough to merit a stick or two of jerky. “Yes’m. I would love to tell you the more salacious details over an ice cold glass of—”
“Get out.” The shotgun poked him in the belly.
Hands up, Clyde scooted around the counter. He cast a longing glance at a tub of pickles. The shotgun nosed him in the chest.
“See that red building?” she asked. “Boo Daddy’s. Nothing but evil.”
Sounding like Clyde’s kind of establishment, he brightened.
The shotgun jabbed his nether bits.
Clyde took his cue. He walked out, thinking about a quaff of cold ale. But he felt her eyes pecking at his backside, telling him to hang a left and walk off into the sunset. He’d roast in the desert like a baked potato left too long in the coals. His stomach growled. Maybe Boo Daddy’s had victuals. Perhaps Boo Daddy had a Boo Mama he could negotiate with?
After a meander down the street, Boo Daddy’s was even more gauche. Three stories of shiny red clapboard were broken by crenellated woodwork painted black as tar. Each paned window looked like a giant mouth surrounded by rotted teeth.
Not the most inviting building in the world. The little shopkeeper had been adamant against the place. Maybe she just didn’t like red. Having no particular partiality against the hue, Clyde stepped onto the porch. Two men stumbled out the saloon door, reeking of whiskey and women. Clyde’s nose perked up.
The saloon doors swung inward. Clyde sucked in a lungful of tobacco-scented air, closed his eyes, and savored the mouth-watering aroma of pork ribs and baked beans. Heaven.
“You new, sugar?” A satin-gloved hand cupped his cheek.
Clyde opened his eyes. A head taller than him, she was a brunette, black eyed, full bosomed, and laced into the tightest red corset this side of the Mississippi.
Clyde’s heart did a little soft shoe routine inside his chest.
“I’m whatever you want, my dear lady.” Clyde kissed her gloved hand.
“‘Course you are.” She took Clyde’s hand. Her hips swished as she led him inside.
Clyde noticed she wasn’t wearing a bustle.
“I’m Suzette. Welcome to Boo Daddy’s. We make your dreams our own.”
Suzette deposited Clyde on a red brocade settee still warm from its last occupant—currently staggering up the stairs in the wake of a slim blonde.
Floorboards creaked behind Clyde.
“Daddy,” Suzette said.
Clyde was all for playing along but a voice colder than a block of ice answered.
“You owe me two tonight,” the man said.
Clyde craned his neck to see over the settee’s enameled back. His view was eclipsed by a broad shoulder and beefy arm straining against a white poplin shirt.
Suzette started to speak. The man cut her off. “One hour.”
“Yes, Boo Daddy.”
Suzette grabbed Clyde by the collar, her mouth set in a grim line. “You ready, muffin?”
She dragged him toward the staircase and he flinched. He tried to get his feet under himself, but resisting Suzette was like swimming against the tide. “Perhaps we should discuss price?” he asked.
She stopped on the bottom stair, her décolletage at eye-level. Clyde cursed himself for not merely running up the stairs. He remembered the hard muscle of the man’s chest and the bulging arm. Negotiating an IOU in this establishment wouldn’t be wise.
“I’m short on government regulated currency at the moment.” He thought she looked offended. Perhaps he had underestimated his own inimitable charms.
“Aw, sugar, I’m not that kinda woman.”
Happiness sweet as chicken gravy swelled in his chest. “You sure? I musta died and gone to heaven.”
Suzette resumed her march up the stairs, her grip tight. “Perhaps. That is, if I like you enough.”
Clyde clutched the polished banister. “At least you’ll die,” the little shopkeeper would have said.
But Suzette had her arms around his waist and her perfume in his nose and her soft curves pushing him into a dimly-lit room. Clyde shoved the little shopkeeper out of his mind faster than he could say sweet potato pudding.
The next thing Clyde realized was waking up.
The second thing Clyde realized was that he hated waking up.
Pinprick stars shone through the room’s solitary window. And the bed was far softer than a prickly pear cactus. Clyde hadn’t slept in a real bed since his long con in Topeka fell through. Seven years and never more than a night in the same place was hard on a man.
Exhausted, Clyde pulled the bedsheets over his head. He wondered at his state of full dress, even his shoes. Funny thing was, he couldn’t remember the particulars of what had left him so energetically depleted.
A harsh pinch to his rump made him grunt. The sheets were yanked back. Suzette dragged him out of bed. She hoisted him under the armpits and tossed him to the floor easy as a sack of cabbages. “Up and at ’em, sugar.”
From this angle, Suzette’s chin jutted out, perfection, save for a small cut at the juncture of throat and jaw. A flap of skin dangled from a red triangle of flesh. It made Clyde a bit queasy.
Clyde climbed to his feet. He brushed the wrinkles from his trousers and joined a line of weary men in the hallway.
The man in front of Clyde yawned. A chorus of groans ran through the men. Clyde got an uneasy feeling in his knees. Each man was fully dressed. Trousers fastened. Buttons done up. Shoes on. Clyde scratched his head. Either this was the tidiest bawdy house in the history of mankind or none of these men had gotten what they’d paid for. Except Clyde hadn’t paid—so he reckoned he couldn’t complain.
The line of men spilled through the saloon before being spit back out onto the dusty street.
Weak as a second day teabag, Clyde dragged his sorry hide over to the mercantile. He wedged his shoulder against the wood and pushed, but all he managed to do was slip-slide his shoe leathers against the sidewalk. He leaned his face against the doorjamb, slid to the ground, and decided he was about as comfortable as a body could be.
A shotgun barrel beneath his chin had never been Clyde’s idea of a good morning salute. And it still wasn’t.
The teeniest pair of button boots he’d ever seen filled his sight. If he chewed on the leather long enough, the teeny boots might be digestible. Clyde groaned and rolled over onto his back.
The little shopkeeper glared down at him. “Get,” she said.
“You got two legs.”
“Without nourishment, I have no choice but to loiter or wait for masticatory pleasures.” Clyde’s stomach growled.
She lowered the shotgun. “You went.”
Clyde tried to look remorseful. Which he was—if it would win sympathy.
A skinny, sunken-faced man wearing a tin star on his shirtfront and clutching a gunny sack in one hand stood next to the shopkeeper.
“Tell him.” She kicked Clyde’s foot.
“That’s the sheriff?” Fellow looked like he couldn’t say boo to a goose much less wrangle a posse.
“Is now,” the shopkeeper said.
The sheriff scrubbed his face and gave her a pointed look. “Mrs. Hudgins, who d’you think this one was? Miss Shively? Or the last Miller sister?”
“Shively’s a bit old. Miller was sixteen, but she was good sized. You heard from either their folks?”
Mrs. Hudgins tutted.
Clyde asked, “Might the grateful family have offered a reward?”
“Fella,” the sheriff said, “if I had a nickel for every skinned body, I’d be a rich man.”
“The hags work all night, stealing the men’s breath and giving it to their Daddy. About picked Snake Canyon clean of womenfolk,” said Mrs. Hudgins.
“Hags are big old things,” the sheriff said. “Can’t squeeze themselves into our little Mrs. Hudgins.”
Clyde’s skin prickled all over with gooseflesh. He thought of that long line of men shuffling down the red staircase, out the red door, into the dark. “Why me?”
She sniffed. “You’ve only been here a night. Rest of these poor devils been ridden to lunacy.”
“What about him?” Clyde pointed to the sheriff.
The sheriff grinned. Mrs. Hudgins spoke up. “Won’t let him in.”
“Ah,” said Clyde. “Big guns and all.”
The sheriff turned red as Boo Daddy’s paint.
Mrs. Hudgins huffed. “He don’t like women.”
Clyde nodded. “An excellent evolutionary advantage.”
The sheriff rubbed his nose with his shirtsleeve, looking as confused as frog legs in a soufflé.
Mrs. Hudgins shoved the sheriff’s gunny sack into Clyde’s arms. “Salt. Put it in the hags’ skins tonight.”
The idea of Suzette’s skin sliding off made Clyde’s upper lip sweat. “What about Boo Daddy?”
“Without his hags, he’ll starve,” the sheriff said.
A locomotive would come along eventually, and Clyde had plenty of practice running for a boxcar. He wrapped the gunny sack tight and tucked it in the back of his trousers. Best let these two think he was on their side long enough to skip town.
“Until tonight.” He tipped his hat.
He needed a shady place to lay low, stay cool, until locomotive exhaust curled up along the horizon.
On the far side of the jail, Suzette paced. She carried a black-fringed parasol. Her skirts swished up dust storms in her wake. Bluish smudges marred beneath her eyes and the tip of her nose was pink from broken vessels.
“Of all the people to run into.” She sashayed over and took Clyde’s arm.
The dry wind ruffled the tassels on Suzette’s parasol. A flicker of movement beneath her jaw caught Clyde’s attention. His innards twisted tighter than pretzels.
The flap of skin was the size of an apricot, only not as fragrant.
“Like what you see?” Suzette asked.
Clyde’s cheeks went hot; his spine went cold. “Of course.” He scrambled for an exit strategy. “Beg pardon, but I must perambulate elsewhere.”
“I don’t think so, sweet-cakes.” Her gloved hand clutched his elbow with preternatural strength. “It’s not polite to keep a lady from her breakfast.”
The streets were empty save for Clyde and Suzette. Panic rose with each wave of her skin flap. Clyde was a handsome fellow. What if she wanted his skin? Especially if the town was running out of women. And there was the sheriff to lure.
Clyde scrabbled to release her grip. Skin pulled loose within the confines of her glove. The odd sensation made him clammy all over.
Suzette hissed. He dug his nails into her arm. She snarled and dragged Clyde the last few yards.
Boo Daddy’s reared up like a gaping throat, red and meaty. Clyde dug in his heels, leaving deep furrows of sand in his wake, as Suzette towed him onto the porch.
“You don’t want me.” Clyde tried to sound brave. “I’m stringy. My breath smells dreadful. Poor molar hygiene. Nothing worth sucking.” His bowler slid down over his eyes. “I’m wanted in six states. People are looking for me.”
Suzette flounced Clyde through the door and across the lobby. He dropped to his knees, begging, but she hefted him up like a sack of potatoes. Clyde squawked. Suzette lifted her foot for the bottom stair. Clyde wrapped his hands around her ankle and hung on. His awkward weight toppled her backwards. They both smashed to the floor.
Suzette was heavier than she looked, knocking the breath out of Clyde. She struggled to roll off him. Clyde held tight. Suzette hissed, her heels rat-a-tatting on the floorboards. With a wet, sucking sound, swaths of skin peeled off in Clyde’s hands. He tossed them aside, shuddered, and grabbed more.
“Daddy!” she screeched.
Footsteps pounded. A blow to the crown of his head was the last thing Clyde remembered.
Clyde’s eyelids were heavy as hogs. Fully dressed, he curled on the floor next to Suzette’s empty bed. The fading sun made the room glow a sickly carnation red. The gunny sack of salt bulged against his spine.
Clyde ripped the sack open and filled his pockets, the cuffs of his pants, his tissue-thin socks. Anywhere he could fit a pinch of salt, Clyde poured it in. The rest of the bag he rolled tight and shoved in his skivvies.
The rustle of taffeta and the click of heeled boots meant Boo Daddy’s was open for business. Clyde tried the window. The red paint locked it tighter than glue.
Enthusiastic work boots clomped up the stairs. Doors closed. Clyde felt an unfamiliar flush of anger. Had he really been such a dupe to blindly follow the siren into her lair? Yes, he had. And should Suzette catch him now, he’d be man-breath-a-la-mode.
No way was he going out of this world on an empty, aching belly.
Clyde curled back up on the floor and played dead-to-the-world asleep. He didn’t have to wait long. All tantalizing whispers and breathy laughs, Suzette pulled a stubby man in worn dungarees through the door. She tossed him down on the bed. The man sighed. The bedsprings groaned. The man yelped then went quiet save the wet rasp of heavy breathing.
A quiet slurping sound curled Clyde’s hair tighter than a pig’s tail.
Suzette climbed off the bed next to Clyde, her feet slapping next to his face. He kept his eyes squeezed tight until he heard the door shut.
He scurried to his feet, ignoring the passed out fellow on the bed. He peeked out the keyhole. The slim blonde he’d seen before left her bedroom and re-entered the hallway. She passed Clyde. He heard a second door open. A curvy brunette passed, followed by the others.
When the coast was clear, Clyde cracked the door.
The empty stairwell beckoned him. He could almost smell his ticket to freedom coming closer with the locomotive’s surefire advance.
At the far end of the hall, the chatter of voices couldn’t hide the slippery noises followed by wet thuds. The hags were slipping their skins.
He knew he was many things: a connoisseur, a gambler, a conman, a lover . . . a coward.
But skinning perfectly good women in the desert and impersonating a bawdy house was not to be tolerated.
Clyde licked his numb lips. On tiptoe, he found a small linen closet and watched through the cracked door.
As the hags returned to their victims, skinless legs and buttocks traipsed past his hiding spot. Long, flat tendons down the side of their thighs shone silver. Perfused with blood, their muscles gleamed, strong and unnatural.
Clyde promised himself to never eat rare roast beef again, so long as he lived.
The hags disappeared into their rooms. Clyde counted to ten. The iron tang of fresh meat filled the air. For once, his stomach didn’t growl.
He eased down the hall until he reached the room with the hags’ skins. If an anatomist ever needed dermatological specimens, Clyde could’ve sold those flawless skins for a pretty penny, paid off every debt he owed between here and Pensacola.
A dozen piles, each the size of a plump goose, lined the walls. Corsets and satin skirts hung on hooks above each skin. Clyde poked the first skin, a sun-kissed brown, with his toe. The limp tube of an arm flopped across his foot and it took every ounce of intestinal fortitude for Clyde not to screech.
Using his boot, he tried to open the skin. The unnatural heat left in the skin by its owner was palpable through the thin sole of his boot.
Think of it as nothing more than salting fatback, he told himself. Pork rinds. Hogshead cheese. A side of bacon.
His stomach came back to life. Curing meat, he could handle.
Crouching, he gingerly moved the skin until he found a long seam running from the left armpit to the right hip. He scooped in his pocket for salt, and still thinking of fatback, he rubbed down the inside of that skin until the pink underbelly glistened with salt.
One after another, Clyde worked his way around the room. The last skin was Suzette’s. He’d recognize that smooth expanse of creamy décolletage anywhere—especially with all the chunks missing.
He shook out his shirt sleeves then his trouser cuffs to salt Suzette’s. His fingers burned, palms red as the paint.
Wiping his hands on the empty gunny sack, he shoved it back in his trousers, ready to make his escape. Watching the hags burn in their saline treated hides was not an image Clyde wanted in his mind’s eye.
He tiptoed to the hall and tried to block out the muffled sounds from behind the closed doors.
Suzette’s door cracked open.
“Sugar?” she called.
Clyde ducked back into the skin room. Moist slapping sounds marked her footsteps.
“Oh, sweet’ums, come on out.”
Clyde’s rump brushed a hanging dress. Taffeta rustled to the floor. Suzette laughed. She peeked into the skin room.
“Boo.” She waggled her skinless forehead, meaty mouth bared around sharp white teeth.
Clyde needed to void his bladder. And cry like a baby.
He wedged his hand into his skivvies and pulled out the gunny sack. It was nearly empty.
She crossed the room. Her warm, moist hand cupped his face. He quivered like eggs in aspic. Her mouth descended toward his, the wide muscles of her shoulders blocking his escape, her sticky belly pressed to his.
Clyde squeaked. He shoved the wide mouth of the gunny sack against her chest. The salt shifted under his palms as he ground the residue into her flesh.
Suzette screamed. She flung him against the wall. Clyde slid to the floor. Suzette slapped at her belly, face contorted into a horrid mask as she tried to wipe the salt away.
“Daddy!” she cried.
She snatched up her skin, unfurled the length of creamy flesh and jammed her legs inside.
Clyde froze. Trapped.
The other hags piled into the room. Like Suzette, each snatched up her own skin and pulled it on.
The stink of burning flesh overpowered him.
“You can’t hide, sugar.” Tears ran down Suzette’s cheeks, her face contorted in a rictus. “I’ll eat you alive for this.”
Clyde sniffed delicately. The room smelled strongly of corned beef. His mouth watered.
Boo Daddy charged into the circle of hags, each writhing and reaching for him. Their lovely faces twisted into piteous snarls as the hags burned from the inside out. Soft skin bubbled into raw red blisters.
Clyde scrambled under a pile of frilled petticoats. He peeked out, waiting for a chance to bolt.
Boo Daddy tried to peel the skins off his hags. He dug his hands into their flesh and yanked away big hanks of boiling skin, leaving behind oozing sores that only made the hags cry out louder. And still the hags clung to him. Begged him.
The hags collapsed to the floor, writhing into charred shells of themselves. Boo Daddy himself started to look worse for wear. His suit jacket drooped over his shoulders. His trousers sagged from his waist.
Suzette wrapped herself around Boo Daddy, her face nothing but an angry red sore. Blackened stumps of teeth showed in her peeled-back mouth.
Boo Daddy tried to hold her up. He gave it a go before the big hag was too much and they both toppled to the ground. Suzette curled into a burned ball of hag-bacon around Boo Daddy’s ankles. His hags gone, Boo Daddy didn’t have any more breath to hold him up. His face disappeared into an old, old man’s look, wrinkles etching their way across his skin.
Clyde crawled out of his hidey hole, careful not to touch what was left of the hags.
Boo Daddy stared at his stick-thin hands, greasy with ash. His shrunken body was so frail Clyde feared even his breath would break Boo Daddy into a thousand pieces.
Groggy voices called from the hags’ rooms.
The moon was out over Snake Canyon. The broken man’s face was a stark contrast—sharp cheekbones standing out like cleaver blades against the sunken cheeks.
Clyde had had a lady friend in Biloxi who aired her dresses out every day. Swore by it. He hoped the hags had been fond of a little fresh air. He picked a window and tried the latch. It opened. He almost sang a hallelujah hymn.
Clyde shoved the window sash up. The night air was sweet and cool, washing his face clean of salty death. Boo Daddy’s dark gaze was fixed on Suzette. His reed-thin body shook, his lips pressed tight.
The piles of ash swirled into smoky clouds, Suzanne disappearing into her sisters, until Boo Daddy was wrapped tight in choking, black dust.
Clyde took off his shoe and threw it into the maelstrom for good measure.
Boo Daddy shattered into dust.
The desert wind reached in through the opened wind and swept Snake Canyon clean of Boo Daddy and his hags. Clyde closed the window.
Mrs. Hudgins swept into the room followed by the sheriff. Her mouth pinched, she took in carnage. The sheriff looked pleased.
Clyde’s stomach growled. The air was quite redolent of salted beef. And his very fragrant sock in need of washing. He gave the little shopkeeper his best ingratiating smile, “Might I bother you for a cold glass of—”
“Yes,” she said.
Clyde’s stomach burbled.
He gave the now vacant premises a careful once over, chewing on a thought. Perhaps if certain debts were paid, he could stay here. “I have found my calling in life,” Clyde said.
The sheriff wiped his nose with his sleeve.
Clyde rocked back on his heels, envisioning the racks of ribs, the crispy pork belly, the succulent pommes frites he’d serve.
“Yes, Clyde Daddy’s has a certain ring to it,” he said. “Perfect for a restaurateur.”
© 2016 by Anna Yeatts
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