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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


A Skeleton at Bay

THE hue and cry was on. Bending low to the ground, the skeleton of Quintus Bland was running through the woods. And the woods were dark. At that moment the usually peaceful photographer would have been a dangerous man to meet. He was a fugitive from the mob, and his hand was turned against men.

The skeleton ran awkwardly. Ahead of him the black trees stepped ever higher up the steep incline until their wind-swept branches swayed among the stars.

Underbush lashed at the bones of the skeleton, reached out to trip him as he blundered on. And stones lay in wait to crush his feet as they fumbled blindly for a footing on the uncertain terror. Branches whipped against him and threatened the safety of his brittle bones. But still the skeleton ran, his breath rasping painfully through his naked teeth and an all-consuming bitterness burning where his heart should have been.

Behind him rose the sound of hoarse, excited voices, shouting through the woods. Those voices held a note of hateful triumph. Back and forth they fled across the night, troubling it with their sinister intent. Lights stabbed at the trunks of trees, and bushes thrashed viciously as the bodies of the searchers hurtled through them. Occasionally the sharp, efficient voice of a revolver stood out with disagreeable distinctness from the confused onrushing of sounds.

"Damn them all to hell," muttered the skeleton, steadying himself wearily against a tree. "Just because a man is different he doesn't necessarily have to die."

The sounds were sweeping nearer, spreading out and closing round him. He held his breath and listened, then swore softly up at the stars.

"At any rate," he reflected as he resumed his flight, "I've got one thing to be thankful for—a skeleton can't sweat."

Shivering involuntarily, he pushed deeper into the woods, the lone skeleton of a living man fleeing to escape the cruel, stupid fury of the self-righteous mind of the race.

Quite unconsciously Mr. Bland had selected an unfortunate moment for his return home. The mob was milling over his front lawn, calling aloud for his blood. On the front porch stood Lorna, and she was calling the mob inclusively and each member specifically every vile name that popped into her pretty, defiant head. Not knowing what it was all about, Mr. Bland listened to his wife with admiration. For the moment he forgot the harassing fact that his flesh was no longer with him. He was far too interested in hearing Lorna, loyally supported by Fanny and the partially drunken cook, defy this mob of masked men. When Lorna ran out of words she would turn to her two domestics, who eagerly replenished her exhausted stock with exceedingly common but telling contributions.

It was an unsavoury body of men that received Lorna's taunts and insults. And it was out for an unsavoury purpose—the mobbing and doing in of Quintus Bland. Its members were armed, masked, and mean—mean with the ruthless arrogance bred of numbers.

It seemed that their leader had been that morning most brutally assaulted, but not quite killed. This was too bad, for the leader and organiser of this viciously intolerant rabble, glorified under the name of the Guardians of America, was none other than Mr. Blutter, that superfluous member of the human race and flower of the advertising world.

He had been found rather badly banged up in his own woodshed, and when found he was raving wildly about a skeleton who was Mr. Bland and Mr. Bland who was a skeleton. Already rumours about a skeleton had been circulating through the village from several sources, Dr. MacQuirk being the most authentic. These rumours had come to the ears of the Guardians and were to be taken up seriously at their next secret conclave. The just retribution sustained by Blutter supplied the excuse for immediate and direct action.

With the Guardians the darkly sardonic Bland had become increasingly unpopular. He had gone out of his way to denounce them in public and to ridicule their avowed purpose to protect the home life of the nation. The delirious mouthings of a natural-born fool had been sufficient to furnish them with a pretext for going out after Mr. Bland and getting him good.

That a man should change himself into a skeleton was, to the Guardians, a sufficiently un-American act to warrant their violent intervention in the private life of their severest critic. This, together with the assault on their leader, enabled them to work themselves up to a mood in which they became dangerous and irresponsible members of the community, especially for Quintus Bland. Their sick, egotistical conception of patriotism, morality, and civic virtue made them far more undesirable citizens than the relatively honest gangsters of Chicago and New York. And because they were many while Bland was but one, the Guardians of America felt no fear behind their masks.

Unable longer to stand seeing these worthies deflowering his lawn, Mr. Bland deliberately took his skeleton through the mob and joined his wife on the porch. At the sight of the skeleton an angry buzzing sounded in the heart of the Guardians until it gained sufficient courage to swell to a roar.

"You damn' fool," breathed Lorna, "this is no time to come home. These slop-fed thugs are out to get you."

For the first time Mr. Bland noticed the pallor of his wife's face and the signals of fear in her eyes. She was afraid for him, and with reason. Already stones were falling around them and breaking the front windows. The mob was pressing forward, some of its more courageous members having one foot on the lower step leading up to the porch.

"Slop-fed thugs," repeated Mr. Bland, getting himself in front of his wife. "Lorna, my dear old love, your vocabulary grows more impressive every day. Have you called them that? If not I would like to borrow it."

"You don't seem to realise," replied Lorna in level tones, "That these masked devils have put you on the spot. Last week they dipped a girl in tar because she refused the advances of one of their members in preference to somebody else. God knows what they won't do to you. And in your condition you could never stand rough treatment."

"What have I done to them?" asked Mr. Bland.

"You're supposed to have assaulted their leader, a person who thrives under the horrid name of Blutter."

"I wish I could take the credit," said Mr. Bland. "In my heart I've assaulted that creature at least a dozen times." He paused and considered the mob. "I think," he resumed, "I shall endeavour to bewilder them."

Reaching in his pocket, he produced the longwhite beard and affixed it to his chin. For a brief moment an awed silence fell upon the mob while its members were recovering from the shock produced by this sudden alteration in their quarry's appearance. Then voices rose in anger as they realised they were being scorned and belittled by a skeleton.

"You swine!" shouted Mr. Bland. "You inferior grade of scum! It pains me to hear that your leader, that insufferable bore, Blutter, was not murdered outright and in his own cold blood. As soon as he is well enough to walk, I myself personally shall make it my business to correct this error. Now get the hell off my lawn or I'll wiggle my beard at you."

It was not a tactful speech. So far as the fate of Mr. Bland was concerned, it definitely clinched matters in the mind of the mob. There was a general scramble for the porch. The world seemed suddenly to have turned to a sea of reaching hands, but before they reached Mr. Bland he was seized from behind by three determined women and dragged into the house.

"Listen," said Lorna, speaking rapidly and very earnestly. "Please listen and stop cursing for one minute. Your presence in this house is a danger to all of us. You've got to do a bunk. Slip out by the back door and make for the woods. You know that little cave we used to play in years ago? Well, try to get to that. When things quiet down I'll come and let you know."

Disregarding his protests, she led him to the back door just as a loud crash gave warning that the front one had fallen before the assaults of the Guardians.

"Damn them," muttered Mr. Bland. "I wish I had my body back." He paused and looked at Lorna, started to place his hands on her shoulders, then quickly withdrew them. "Good-bye, kid," he said. "I'd like to kiss you if I had a couple of lips. Ah, to hell with it. I'm off."

Then with a wild yell of defiance designed to draw the pursuers away from the house, Mr. Bland sprinted across his backyard, climbed a fence, and vanished into the woods. Once he was among the trees he divested himself of his garments the better to speed his flight. For a moment he gazed thoughtfully back at his home until the sound of shouts and shooting assured him the chase was on, then he turned and ran as best he could in the direction of the little cave.

Eventually he succeeded in reaching it, but before he did so he had taken a far more serious view of the situation. There was a note in those following voices that sounded cruel and ominous —a note of blind antagonism not only against himself in the form of a skeleton but also against the way he conducted his life as a man. These men were dead set against frank and open living openly arrived at. They feared such an existence and were prepared to stamp it out. To them sin was a secret form of enjoyment derived entirely from sex. Therefore, sex was sinful, a subject to whisper about and smirk at from behind curtains. Mr. Bland realised, also, that he could not continue indefinitely being a peripatetic skeleton. Something had to be done about his condition or else he would have to withdraw permanently from all social relationships and live in the privacy of his home.

It was now late at night. The sound of his pursuers had died away in the distance. Mr. Bland had come out of the little cave and was sitting miserably at its entrance. Lorna had not shown up, and he was worried about her. The damp air in the woods seemed to have got into his bones. It was the first time he had realised a skeleton could be cold. A feeling of solitude and isolation settled down on him, and he knew fear. He was afraid of the little cave behind him. It suggested the grave or the tomb. And he was afraid of the possible dangers lurking in the woods—an unexpected shot in the dark or a sudden assault in overpowering numbers. Mr. Bland did not want to die. He was altogether too fond of Lorna. He wanted to carry on with her for some years to come, assuming his damn' unreliable body would only stick around.

Some yards off, Lorna stood and gazed with a curious expression at this skeleton who was her husband. For the first time she saw him as a man alone, sorely afflicted and brooding over his problems, in all of which she realised she played an important part. And once again she felt that tight little clutch at her throat.

"Sweetheart," she called softly, not wishing to disturb him.

The skeleton turned his blind face to the darkness.

"Sweetheart," he muttered. Then in a louder voice, "Anything serious, kid? I haven't heard that in years."

She came up to him quietly and sat down on the dried leaves of a dead year.

"You're cold," she said. "Here's a drink." She handed him a flask, which he eagerly accepted.

"I was just thinking," he said, rather diffidently, "that we could have a lot of fun—you know—you and I—if I ever got my body back. Don't you think we could?"

"I know," replied Lorna, with reassuring conviction. "There's nothing like losing your husband's body to find out how much you love him. Why, you horrid thing, I love you even as you are right now."

"Sure you're not playing futures?"

"Perhaps I am," she said, "but the present is very much with me."

"Is the coast all clear?" asked Mr. Bland. "Is it safe to return home?"

"That's just the trouble," she answered. "I can't be sure. I noticed nothing suspicious on my way here, but somehow I've a bad feeling inside me. I'm afraid for you—sweetheart." She stopped abruptly and looked at her husband with bright, defiant eyes. "Did you hear that?" she continued. "I called you sweetheart again, and I didn't hardly boggle."

"It embarrasses me a little," said Mr. Bland, "but I wouldn't mind getting used to it, although I've grown fond of being called a dirty dog."

"I'm afraid," said Lorna in a strained voice, dropping all attempt at lightness. "If anything happened to you now I think I'd go mad."

Instinctively he stretched out a hand towards her, then slowly took it back.

"Hell's bells," he muttered and rose impatiently to his feet.

There was a spurt of flame in the darkness and the sharp report of a gun. Mr. Bland whirled and made for the trees on the opposite side of the little clearing.

"Good-bye, kid," he called back. "Sweet-heart."

Another stab of flame. Lorna was running towards it. She never heard the explosion. In her ears sounded a choked cry, followed by a thrashing in the leaves. It stopped and the woods were still.

Then she found herself looking down at him. He was back in his long, lean body. Blood was flowing from a wound in his left breast. She was surrounded by a circle of masked men seen but dimly. Their lights were playing on the still body lying naked beneath the trees.

It was typical of the mind of the mob that somebody snickered, then looked slyly at the small, tense figure of the woman. She was a good looker, she was. There was something almost salaciously intimate in the situation.

"I'm not going to curse you," said Lorna in a voice of weary detachment. "If there's a God sitting in on this He has already done it for me. You are all damned for ever. Go away now. You have killed a man."

The lights flashed out as she knelt beside her husband.

"Sweetheart," she called in the darkness. Her voice broke. Lorna was crying.

The men had gone away, the sound of their receding footsteps leaving a trail of sound behind in the rustling woods.

Presently four of the men came back and carried the body down the hill. Lorna followed them, a blood-stained handkerchief clutched absently in her hand.

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