Hidden Moon (Chapter 6)

I dived for the entrance, struggling against the wave of locals and tourists headed in the opposite direction. The screams continued, their terrified cadence filling the air, preventing me from asking anyone what in hell was wrong.

I wanted to put my hands over my ears; the sound made my teeth ache. But I needed my hands to shove aside the last stragglers before I could burst into the store and, from the volume and nature of the screams, prevent bloody murder from continuing.

However, when I at last stood on the tile floor near the cash register, all I saw was a young Gypsy woman facing off with Mrs. Charlesdown, she of the earsplitting screams. Her husband the pharmacist, and her oldest son stood rooted a few feet away, staring at the Gypsy with wide eyes.

"What's the matter?" I shouted.

At least Mrs. Charlesdown stopped screaming. Mutely she pointed at the girl. I couldn't tell what was so terrifying about her. All I could see was her back.

Tall and willowy, she had long dark hair that reached over her white blouse to the waist of her colorful skirt. Her feet were bare, displaying golden rings on two of her toes; I didn't understand why that would make Mrs. Charlesdown lose her mind.

Then the Gypsy turned, and I saw what had. A cobra hung around her neck, undulating and sticking its tongue out in an age-old na-na-na-na-na gesture. I hadn't seen the thing because the girl's hair had masked the body looped around her neck. But from this angle, there was a whole lot of snake.

My gaze lifted to the Gypsy's face. She was perhaps twenty, with the olive skin common to the rest of her clan, though her eyes tended more toward hazel than brown. Strong nose, high cheekbones, there was nothing remarkable about her, except for the snake.

"She… she…" Mrs. Charlesdown continued to point.

"Relax," I soothed. "Miss?" The girl ducked her head so that her hair fell over her eyes. The cobra weaved back and forth as if dancing to a tune only it could hear. "You probably shouldn't come to town with your… pet."

Her lips curved, and she stroked the snake with one long-fingered hand. The golden bangles on her wrist clacked together, making Mrs. Charlesdown jump as if someone had goosed her. The involuntary movement brought back her voice.

"She was stealing."

Mrs. Charlesdown glanced toward her husband for support, but he'd already retreated behind the pharmacy counter and gotten back to work, as had her son.

"She was," Mrs. Charlesdown insisted.

The Gypsy's lips tilted downward, and she shook her head so vigorously her hair flew out of her face.

"Oh yes, you were," Mrs. Charlesdown insisted. "What's in your hand?"

The girl shoved the hand that wasn't stroking the cobra behind her back.

"See?" Mrs. Charlesdown said triumphantly.

"Just because she's got something in her hand doesn't mean she was stealing it," I pointed out. "You didn't give her a chance to pay."

"She was on her way out the door when I stopped her. Then that thing hissed at me."

This was really a job for Grace, but since I was here…

"Can we see what's in your hand?" I asked.

The Gypsy continued to shake her head; eyes wide, she reminded me of a horse, rearing and bucking and frothing at the mouth.

"I'm calling the sheriff." Mrs. Charlesdown picked up the phone.

The girl made a strangled sound of negation and shot her arm out.

"Put that down," I ordered, and Mrs. Charlesdown complied.

The fingers of the Gypsy were permanently curled inward, stiff, clawlike. What I could see of her palm was empty.

Mrs. Charlesdown's cheeks reddened, but her lips pressed together primly. "You can't blame me. Everyone knows Gypsies steal."

"Just as we kidnap children."

Malachi Cartwright stood in the doorway, the bright summer sun casting a halo around his head and throwing his face into shadow. His tone had been light, as if joking, but the way he held his body, tense, ready, revealed he was not at all amused.

"Sabina," he murmured. "I told you not to be coming into town alone."

The girl hurried out, head down, completely chastised or perhaps terrified. But of whom?

"We had a misunderstanding," I began.

"Which happens often enough with narrow-minded people." Cartwright stepped into the store, his bland expression somehow more accusing than a glare would be.

"If the child had just spoken up, there wouldn't have been a problem," Mrs. Charlesdown said.

"Except she doesn't speak, any more than she uses her right hand."

"Oh." Mrs. Charlesdown became flustered. "That's too bad."

"She does well enough with her snake," Cartwright continued. "They understand each other without the words."

"Was that a cobra?" I asked, though I knew that it was.

He dipped his chin.

"Aren't they poisonous?"

Mrs. Charlesdown gasped. "Poisonous? Are you insane, allowing that addled child to wander about with a poisonous snake?"

"She isn't addled, nor is she a child, and the snake's fangs were removed long ago. Sabina is a gifted charmer, but it's best to be safe rather than sorry."

"Snake charmer?" Mrs. Charlesdown repeated, in a voice that was more of a shout. "Next you'll be telling us you have a fat lady, two dwarfs, and a tattooed man."

"If you're wantin' a traveling circus, then you hired the wrong people." He shifted his gaze from the older woman to me. "I told you we performed like the Gypsy caravans of old."

"I'm afraid we're fresh out of old-time Gypsy caravans. You're our first."

"Your first?" His smile was so suggestive my face flushed.

Mrs. Charlesdown snorted, and I indicated with a jerk of my thumb that Cartwright should join me outside. A group of customers remained huddled on the sidewalk.

"All's clear now," I announced, and they filed back in, casting wary glances at Sabina over their shoulders.

The Gypsy girl stood a few feet away, running her good hand over the silvery mane of a snow-white horse.

"You rode a horse?" I asked.

Cartwright crooked a brow. "People do it all the time."

"In the nineteenth century."

"A simpler, better age."

Considering the price of gas, he was probably right.

I contemplated Sabina and the horse, which nuzzled her, despite the cobra. "Don't horses hate snakes?"

This one didn't seem to care that a cobra was within striking distance. He didn't even seem to notice.

"I trained Benjamin myself. He works the show, and he can't be afraid of the animals who work it, too."

"You're some horse trainer."

"Yes," he agreed, "I am."

"And so modest."

"Truth is truth. No one is better with horses than lam."

"Why is that?"

He hesitated for so long I didn't think he was going to answer. Finally he looked away, staring at the distant mountains. "I've had a lot of practice. First I trained the draft horses, our Percherons. Then I moved on to the show horses, which requires both patience and time."

"You train horses, and Sabina charms the snake." I glanced her way again. "That one doesn't seem to need a whole lot of charming."

"She's very good with them."

"Them?" My voice squeaked.

"You don't think one snake would make an act, do you now?"

I hadn't thought about the number at all. In my opinion, one cobra should be more than sufficient.

"How many?"

"Hard to say. She picks up snakes wherever we go. A rattler in Texas, another from New Mexico. Then there was the pet python, which grew too large for the owner's house in Mississippi."

"All dangerous reptiles."

"What good is charming those not in need of it?" he murmured, moving closer, crowding into my space just as Balthazar had.

Unlike Balthazar, I didn't want to give Cartwright a swift knee where it counted.

He smelled like water beneath the summer sun, like rain-soaked earth and moon-drenched night. The sudden desire to move even nearer made me take a quick step back. I glanced around, but no one seemed to notice my sudden weakness for a stranger; everyone was going about his or her business with a bustle that said, Festival coming, festival coming.

I needed to as well. I opened my mouth to say goodbye and what came out instead was, "Why doesn't she talk?"

Cartwright's gaze flicked to Sabina, who still cuddled the horse. "That's her tale to tell."

Frustration made me speak more loudly than I should have. "How can she tell anything if she can't speak?"

Sabina glanced in my direction, and I winced. She could obviously hear and now knew I was talking behind her back. She might be dumb, but she wasn't stupid.

"Sorry," I muttered, and she gave me a slight smile before turning to the horse.

"She could speak once," Cartwright said softly. "Then she stopped."

Some sort of trauma, I guessed, and felt a sudden kinship.

"After her hand was injured?"

"No injury. Sabina was born with the sign of Satan."

"The sign of what?"

My voice was too loud again. Sabina flinched and buried her face in the horse's mane. The animal whinnied, stomped his foot, and glared at me as if he knew I'd upset her.

"Her parents wanted to drown her," Cartwright continued, "but I wouldn't let them."

"What century are you from?"

"Just because it's a modern age doesn't mean there aren't barbarians everywhere."

I stared into his face. He didn't appear all that much older than Sabina.

I'd heard tales of Gypsy kings, although that was probably as much hooey as the Gypsies-steal-children axiom. Still, Malachi Cartwright behaved as if he'd inherited the mantle at birth.

"Have you taken her to a doctor?" I asked.

"She'll speak again when she's ready. Nothing but time can fix Sabina."

I knew what that was like.

"I meant for her hand."

Cartwright didn't answer, instead moving toward his horse.

"I'm sure there's a specialist somewhere who might be able to help."

He stopped, but he didn't turn around. "We have no insurance, Mayor. No means of payin' a doctor, either. Our life isn't like yours, and it never will be."

He motioned for Sabina to get on the horse, then swung up behind her in a movement so smooth and sure, I paused just to watch.

"Thank you for your kindness," he said, and they galloped away.