The heat of summer bled into an early October night, and the stubborn trees held onto their leaves. It was grim tidings, but the month was young and the moon was full. We drew the cots out onto the sleeping porch, where at least a breeze might give us a little surcease, and without prompting Houston began his tale.
"Being out on your lonesome can sometimes play on one's fancy—I don't know if you've ever noticed that, but I have. They grow inward on themselves, very queerly so. The strangest thing is that a person can go lonesome even when surrounded by other people! Why I know a town some hours from here...it is called Dead End, because the road stops there, at nowhere in particular, the town on either side of it, a little strip, with houses and a small wooden church branching off...but that is it. Folks live there because they live there, and some move off and don't come back, and some die and are buried in the church yard, or the little potter's field beyond it. I would go there, perhaps twice a year, to sell my goods, and that was always my impression of it."
"Father Busch was rector—I don't know the denomination, and I doubt it made a difference to the people of Dead End, for there was no competition. And though he knew everyone in town, presided at every baptism, funeral, and shotgun wedding, preached there every Sunday morning...he was as lonesome a soul as I had ever met. Because he wasn't from Dead End, you see, his church had sent him there. He had seen the world, and those folks hadn't, and as friendly as he and they had been, for perhaps ten years or more. I think perhaps he went a little mad, as a sailor might when denied the sea."
Houston sighed then, long and low and sad. "I think I knew it, too. But I did nothing."
"We were not friends, exactly, but we got to talking. Busch was grateful for outside conversation, though he was careful not to let on the fact. He projected contentment, but you could see it in his eyes—and his choice of subjects. The medieval church. The Inquisition. Witch hunts." Houston paused, and the night sounds came to us, the soft chatter of insects and the wind against the tall, dry grass. "It was a mixed population, you see. Some Mexican families, and the way the people intermarried, I think all of them had a little Mexican in them. So a curandero would come to visit, sometimes, often in the early summer and early fall. Busch didn't like it, but I thought that was mere professional disdain. Theological disputes."
"The next time I came to Dead End, it was over—and I had to pry the stories out of the locals, because not a one of them wanted to explain the burnt timbers of the church, or the black stake that was out in the potter's field. The cattle had been sick, and mold had gotten into the corn, and then a child went missing... I think, without Busch, they might have shouldered on all that a they did everything else, with indifference and corn whiskey. But they did something they were ashamed to tell me of, though I could guess it easily enough. Busch had shown me enough of his old books, Der Hexenhammer and all that...even told me he doubled as a Justice of the Peace in Dead End. I wish I could say I was shocked...but a sailor denied the sea might still still drown on dry land."
"The other part though...that I didn't understand. Not right away, anyway. They were all wearing gloves, those of them that I could see, which was odd for the time of year, because it was still warm out. Some of them didn't even have gloves, and wore mittens, or small sacks tied around their hands, and I thought that was quite queer too. I asked if Father Busch had died with his church, and they told me 'No,' so I went to his house. He was there, in his library. I stretched out my hand—plain and pink—and he stretched out his own, pale and white...and I could tell there was something on it, as I touched his palm to mine, and it came away at the touch. I heard him draw in a breath as I looked down..."
"It was paint. Dry white paint, that had flaked off. And the skin underneath it was black as coal dust."