“I said he threw something in the bottomless lake!”
“Tanner.” She tugged at me in exasperation. “Come on.”
“Come on where? Why should I care who throws what in the lake?” I could just make out the Charlene’s shadow in the dark. “Turn on the lantern or something so I can see you. What were you doing at the lake? You could’ve gotten hurt.”
She switched on the solar lantern and explained that she had gone back to where Tanner left us, hoping he would return. Sure enough, he finally showed up riding a horse and leading his donkey. He took something big and heavy from the donkey’s back, tossed it into the water and rode away.
“I think it was a body,” Charlene whispered.
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. Why would he be throwing a body into the lake?”
“How would I know? Maybe we should stay a few days and investigate.”
Had she lost her mind? “Charlene, we’re less than a week away from your home. This is none of our business. Why would you—”
The look in her eyes brought me up short. “It’ll be okay. You’re a grown woman, and your parents have no business passing judgment on you. But if you’re that worried about what they’ll think, we’ll buy you a wedding ring in the town just up the road and you can say you were widowed in our civil wars.”
“That wouldn’t solve the problem of me having run away in the first place.”
“Well, that’s your business. But I’m still at least a month away from where I need to go, and I can't hang around here playing detective.”
By now we could see a faint light through the opening of our shelter and I suggested we have breakfast. “You’ll feel better after you eat.”
I left Charlene to build up the fire and start some coffee while I went to see if I could get some eggs or chorizo. We had seen a store the previous day—one of the few real buildings in the tent village. But when I got there, it was closed and there was a line of impatient people outside the door.
“What time does this place usually open up?” I asked a man.
“Half an hour ago.” He spat on the ground.
“Mr. Gilchrist has never been late before,” a woman added.
I waited with the others for a few minutes, but finally decided I didn’t need eggs or sausage that badly. Charlene and I could eat out of our packs and get more food in the next town. So I went back to our campsite and made an atole with cornmeal, water and some of our powdered milk. The family on the site next to ours woke up and the mother gave us a little honey in exchange for some coffee.
We were finishing our breakfast when a woman passing by nodded at our little group. “Morning,” she said. She turned her attention to the mother. “You hear the latest, Sylvia? Gilchrist’s gone missing.”
“What do you mean, missing? He was just there yesterday.”
The woman shrugged. "He didn’t open up shop, and when someone went around back and knocked on the door, they found the lock broken and no one home.”
“Was anything taken?”
“Hard to tell, the place was such a mess.”
While the women chatted, I started cleaning up and packing so we could leave. What happened to the local shopkeeper was no business of mine.
We loaded the horses and made our departure. We were at least an hour from town, so we started north without expecting to see much for awhile. We weren’t disappointed. It was desolate country, with only the occasional abandoned building to distinguish one mile from the other.
As we neared the outskirts of town, we came upon a boy riding a donkey. This shouldn’t have been remarkable, but Charlene turned to me in excitement. “That’s Tanner’s donkey!”
I took another look, and yes, it did look like the animal that Tanner had been riding for the last couple of days. Charlene and I approached the boy and in a friendly way I said, “Nice donkey you got. Any more where that one came from?”
The boy shook his head. “I bought it from a man who’d just bought a horse and didn’t need a burro no more.”
“So you didn’t get it from a ranch?”
“No. I was walking to town, and the man went past, saw I was on foot and stopped. He said Paco here was slowing him down, and did I want him. We made a good bargain.”
“I’m sure you did."
“When was this?” Charlene asked.
The boy looked at us both suspiciously. “It was earlier this morning, and why do you care? Paco ain’t stolen, is he?”
“No,” I said. “We know his former owner, is all. We were curious.”
We wished the boy well and continued on our way.
When we were a little way down the road, I turned to Charlene. “That’s odd. I wonder why he didn’t just sell the donkey in the tent village, or use it in trade when he bought the horse? Don’t you think—”
Charlene had her head down.
“What’s the matter?”
“Tanner couldn’t sell that donkey in the village because he didn’t want anyone knowing who he was. Remember how he kept his hat down and his scarf pulled up over his face yesterday afternoon?”
I remembered, but I had thought he was just cold.
“That Mr. Gilchrist who was missing this morning was Tanner’s old business partner.”
“How do you know that?”
“Me and Tanner talked a lot, remember? He told me he used to have a store and a business partner, but they had a falling out. Tanner took his share and was heading west when those thieves waylaid him in the woods. He seemed to think it was some kind of plot.”
“So you think he used us as his decoy to get back to the bottomless lakes and get revenge?”
“He killed Mr. Gilchrist and dumped him in the lake this morning, took his horse and money and left before anyone even knew he was back.”
“It’s a good theory,” I said. “It explains the facts, at any rate.”
We continued into town, speculating on the matter. There were a few more towns before we would reach the Llano Estacado, but they were only villages, and we couldn’t take a chance that we might find ourselves on the great desert plain without everything we needed, so we went into a few shops and topped off our food supplies.
“I wouldn’t mind getting a room or just squatting in an old building for the night,” Charlene sighed.
“Well, it’s your own fault. You know you’re supposed to be getting plenty of rest, but you stayed up all night playing spy on the rim of the lake. Of course you’re tired.”
We headed out again, following the road northeast. After an hour, we reached the Pecos, and unlike downstream, it was flowing clear, even though it wasn’t very strong. We watered the horses and had a snack before continuing.
Soon after we were back on the road, I began getting an uncomfortable feeling, like we were being watched. When I looked over my shoulder, there was nothing but sand, arroyos, cacti, and rocks. But time passed and the feeling wouldn’t go away. My unit commander in Unitas told us to respect these feelings because there was often something to them, so I turned to Charlene. “You notice anyone else out here?”
“No reason. I just feel like we’re being tracked.”
“It is kind of spooky that there’s no one else on this road.”
“That must be it,” I said. “It’s weird to be completely alone, no refugees or market wagons or anything.”
I pretended that my mind was now at ease, but the sensation of being watched kept getting stronger. When we finally stopped at an arroyo so Charlene could relieve herself, I made a point of getting the horses out of sight and finding a good spot from which to watch the road.
My persistence was rewarded. After a minute or two, I saw a dark speck on the horizon.
When Charlene came to see what I was doing, I waved a hand for silence and returned to watching the road. The speck had grown larger, but I still couldn’t see it clearly. What a shame I didn’t have binoculars!
By now Charlene was curious and crouched beside me. We watched for what seemed forever, hardly daring to breathe. Finally, she said, “It’s him.”
I had already guessed, but hearing it put into words sent a chill through me.
“Maybe he just wants to ride with us again.”
“If that was all, he’d speed up to catch us.” As I said this, he reined in and looked around. “Come on.”
We got our horses and walked them further down the arroyo, to where its twists and turns would hide us from the road. Once we had secured the horses, I told Charlene to stay put, then sneaked back to where I could watch the road from behind the cover of some rocks and Russian thistle.
It seemed to take a lifetime, but finally Tanner rode past, scanning the countryside through narrowed eyes. He was well-armed now, and his horse looked strong and fast. Just why he would be following us, though, was a mystery.
When I went back to Charlene, I told her we would camp here for the night and continue tomorrow, giving Tanner a chance to move ahead of us. “I don’t understand why he’s going to all this trouble,” I said. “There’s plenty of pretty girls in town, if that’s what he wants. And we don’t have much in the way of money and supplies. Not enough to justify this kind of effort.”
“We don’t have much money,” Charlene agreed, “But my father does.”
“What does your father have to do with it? You don’t think he’s following us so he can rob your dad when we get to Texas, do you? That’s silly.”
“He’d never be able to do that,” she agreed. “My father has bodyguards. But I don’t have any guards, other than you.”
It took me a minute to figure out what she was trying to say. “Are you telling me your family is important enough that you’d be worth kidnapping?”
“I don’t think so.” She ducked her head and her cheeks grew red. “But I may have exaggerated a little and given him that impression.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “He must just think we know what he did to Gilchrist. Maybe he knew you were at the lake when you threw the body in. Or maybe he met up again with that boy who bought the donkey, or. . .”
It was too much speculation for one day. I looked up at the sky. Already the sun was going down, the shadows lengthening. “We won’t be able to build a fire tonight,” I said. “I hope you’re in the mood for cold food.”
Since Charlene didn’t sleep much last night, I took first watch. There’s a nice bright moon tonight, which means I don’t need the lantern. I hope Tanner went on ahead and we’re through with him, but something still doesn’t feel right.
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