I didn’t want to do it, but soon after I finished writing in my diary, I went for a walk around the perimeter of our campsite. When I climbed the bank of the arroyo to get a good look at the surrounding area, I saw him.
He was moving slowly up the road on foot, peering into arroyos and sometimes following them for awhile before climbing back out and continuing on his way, backtracking the way we had traveled during the day. He had a flashlight which he used from time to time to scan for tracks, and there could be no doubt that he was looking for someone. Whether he was after us or not didn’t matter. He was up to no good and was heading our way. He had almost certainly murdered Gilchrist back at the lakes, and that meant he was dangerous.
I hurried back to camp and got my bow and quiver. I was already wearing my moccasins, so it was easy to sneak up on Tanner in the moonlight, as silently as the Nativist Indians who had trained me. I had only two large game arrows, but I could’ve had only one and it would’ve amounted to the same thing. I needed to kill or disable him on the first shot, because if he went for his gun Charlene would hear, and I didn’t want her to know I had killed him.
I found a good hiding place, fit an arrow to the string and waited for Tanner to climb out of an arroyo. I had nearly run out of patience when finally he came and stood at the edge, washed in the moonlight. I pulled back and let the arrow fly. It hit him in the chest, and he toppled into the arroyo.
I readied my second arrow and hurried over. I peeked cautiously over the rim of the arroyo and to my relief, Tanner lay motionless, the arrow jutting out of his rib cage. I had lowered my weapon and was scanning the ground for safe footing, when a shot rang out. I snapped my head up. How could I have been so stupid as to drop my guard? Tanner was aiming again, his eyes glittering in the moonlight. Before he could fire a second time, I released my other arrow, catching him in the throat. The gun dropped from his hand.
I scrambled down the bank, no need to worry any more about making noise. Tanner was still alive, glaring at me while he choked on the arrow in his throat. I unsheathed my knife and finished him off quickly, before I had time to think and become disgusted at what I was doing.
Now that I was sure he was dead, I went to check on Charlene. She had heard the shot and was clutching one of my pistols, looking around.
“It’s okay,” I told her. “I was just shooting at a coyote. He’s gone now.”
She nodded and went back inside the shelter. As soon as I thought she wouldn’t hear me leave, I went back to Tanner’s lifeless body. I’ve never felt right about taking things off the dead, but I had a long journey ahead of me and this was no time to be a squeamish little girl. I took everything I thought could be of use—weapons, money, a ring, and a clean kerchief. Then I covered his body with rocks, since I had neither the time nor the inclination to dig a grave.
I took his flashlight and went in search of his horse. Tanner’s boots had left clear prints in the dust, and I followed them to an arroyo where I found his horse and gear. His packs yielded food, ammo, jewelry, and more money. This would definitely get me to Kentucky, with probably enough left over to kit myself out nicely once I arrived.
But what to do about Tanner’s horse? I hated to leave her hobbled, but if I didn’t restrain her in some way, she might wander onto our path in the morning and set off Charlene’s suspicions. I removed the hobbles, found a length of yucca twine and tied the horse to a few spindly bushes. She could free herself without much trouble if she wanted, but she probably wouldn’t try it until she began to get thirsty or impatient. Hopefully that wouldn’t happen until Charlene and I were well down the road. If there was any justice in the world, some poor family would find her and see their fortunes changed for the better.
By now it was well past midnight and I was exhausted. I went back to camp, hid Tanner’s goods among my own, crawled into the shelter beside Charlene and fell asleep. I didn’t bother to wake her up to stand watch. There was no need.
When I woke up this morning I found Charlene making coffee. I had forbidden a fire the night before because I didn’t want to give away our location, but with the threat of Tanner gone, I didn’t pursue the matter. Besides, I was sleepy and the morning was cold. Coffee was welcome. Charlene also made a hot atole, and it was delicious and comforting after such a stressful night.
I had almost finished when Charlene said, “I thought you said you missed the coyote and he got away.”
For a moment I didn’t know what she was talking about. Then I remembered my lie about shooting at a coyote. “I did miss. Why?”
“Just wondering why you’ve got blood on your sleeve.”
I looked at the cuffs of my shirt. How had I managed not to notice? “I had to kill a snake.”
“Oh. What kind?”
Should I tell her it was the human kind? “It wasn’t good for eating, if that’s what you were wondering.”
She shrugged and returned to her coffee, then we cleaned up, broke camp and got back on the road.
It was an ordinary day of traveling. Nothing happened, and we spent the day crossing open scrubland.
I was in good spirits tonight and got us a rabbit for supper. I wasn't happy about having killed Tanner, but at least we were free of any obvious threats to our safety. Getting my hands on so much money was a nice feeling. I would have to sew the jewelry and some of the smaller coins into the hems of my clothing at the first opportunity.
I was relaxing, full and content in front of the fire, thinking maybe things were finally turning my way, when Charlene fixed me with an odd look. “You killed Tanner.”
“Why do you think that?”
She looked at me like I had said she was stupid, then she told me all the clues: the gunshot, the blood on my shirt, my implausible excuses and my sudden lack of compulsion to set watches. I swear Charlene could have a great career as a detective.
“I’m sorry, Charlene. He was looking for us in the dark, and it wasn’t with friendly intentions.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “There were plenty of clues about him from the beginning. I just didn’t want to see them.”
She went to check on the animals, then proceeded to get ready for bed. Before turning in though, she said, “It’s sort of strange, don’t you think, that we saved him only to kill him?”
I agreed it was ironic, and moved closer to the fire.
And now I’m sitting here wondering if there is such a thing as fate. If so, Tanner was doomed by his personal deities all along. Since we thwarted their will by saving him, we were given the task of finishing him off.
It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder just how much control we really have over our lives. But then, Tanner didn’t have to follow us. I was content to forget all about him. It was his own choice to pursue us, so maybe to some degree we’re the masters of our destiny, after all.
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