The Outsider

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Authors: Penelope Williamson
mister—I’ve already seen plenty of it.”
    Blood had seeped in a starburst pattern through thewhite linen bandage. She leaned over him, reaching for the knot where the bandage ends wrapped and fastened around his middle. Her arm pressed against the hard sinewy muscle that encased his ribcage. He was still feverish, his skin sweaty and hot to the touch.
    His chest heaved beneath her arm as he drew a ragged breath. She glanced up, her fingers abandoning their battle with the knot. He was studying her, his gaze moving slowly over her prayer cap, her brown Plain clothing, then back up to her starched white cap again.
    “What are you?” he said. “Some sort of nun?”
    “What a notion. I’m a daughter of the Plain People.”
    His eyes were certainly blue, cold and sharp like broken shards of river ice reflecting a winter sky. And he was staring at her as if he were trying to crawl inside her skin.
    “I don’t know as I’ve ever heard of such a thing,” he said. He flashed a bright smile that showed off his even white teeth. “You sure don’t look plain to me. A bit starchy maybe, and undoubtedly a holy-howler. But definitely not plain.”
    It occurred to her that he was trying to be friendly. As if he could wave a six-shooter in her face one minute and expect to make it up with a smile in the next. His was a charming rascal’s smile, and she trusted it for about as long as it took to blink.
    He gave an exaggerated sigh. “I guess I should know by the scowl I’m getting that you are definitely a holy-howler of the serious sort.”
    “I don’t know what you mean by holy-howler. There’s nothing special about us, except that we raise sheep, so I suppose if you’re a cowman you might call that an aggravation. We follow the straight and narrow way, working and praying together and trusting in the mercy of the good Lord to take care of us.”
    “And does He? Does your good Lord take care of you?”
    It was a question only an outsider would ask. A Plain man was born knowing the answer. She felt no need to reply.
    A ragged silence fell between them, and his gaze went back to the window. She busied herself with unfolding the clean bandages, though she hadn’t finished removing the soiled one. “You aren’t from these parts, are you?” she said.
    “No.”
    “Were you just passing through, then?”
    He made a sound that could have meant anything.
    “I only ask because if you got folk expecting you somewhere they’ve likely worried themselves sick by now, and I could send them word if I knew . . .” She let the end of her thought dangle open for him to finish off. He didn’t even bother to grunt a response. Rachel was beginning to have some sympathy with the outsiders, who became so frustrated with the Plain People when their questions were met with silence and single syllables.
    She slid another glance at him. He was looking her bedroom over now; he seemed to be analyzing and cataloguing it the way he’d done with her.
    Her house was like most every other Plain farm in the valley, a simple structure made of cottonwood logs and a tin roof. Three simply furnished rooms: a Küch , or kitchen, and two bedrooms opening off the back of it. No curtains on the windows, no rugs on the floors, no pictures on the walls. Just a Plain house. But then he wouldn’t know that, so doubtless it seemed some strange to him.
    She had been looking around the room as he was, but now her gaze came back to him. His face revealed nothing of what he was truly made of, whether good or evil.
    As they stared at each other, the air seemed to acquire athickness and a weight. She had no idea how to be with him. She knew she could never manage a smile, but she thought she could try a bit of friendliness herself. He was after all a guest in her house, and they didn’t even know each other’s names.
    She wiped her hand on her apron and held it out to him, as was the Plain way. “It seems a bit late for a proper meeting, being as how

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