Day One Hundred Thirty One
I had gone to bed determined to stay up and help Charles keep watch. Instead, I woke up propped against the bed pillows with my gun in my lap. I went out into the living room, and found Charles slumped over his rifle, snoring.
What a fine pair of guards we were!
Having gotten only a few hours of sleep, I regretted we had no coffee. I made some birch tea, but of course it wasn’t the same. Charles stared into his cup, blinking like a sleepy little boy, and I’m sure I was no better.
I was trying to work up the will and the energy to go down to the barn when there was a knock at the door.
“I wonder who that is?” I said.
“Probably a neighbor wanting food or help with a project.”
“Maybe it’s the killer,” I said. “Maybe he’s polite. Asks if you’d rather he slit your throat or just shoot you.”
Charles got to his feet and ran his fingers through his hair, trying to smooth it. “You’ve got a strange sense of humor.”
He went to the door and I heard Rachel’s voice. This made me perk up. “I was thinking about you,” I told her as she entered the room.
“It’s been a few days,” she agreed. “But people talk, and I know you’ve been busy.” She turned to Charles. “And I’m very unhappy with you.”
Charles made a show of not knowing what she was talking about, but she wasn’t buying that for a minute.
“How long have we been friends? You know I would’ve helped you with Peggy.”
“I didn’t need help. And you have a reputation to think about.”
Rachel sighed in exasperation and turned to me. “How about we go look at that horse of yours?”
“So,” I asked as we walked the path to the barn, “Why does he think you’ll get a bad reputation for helping him out?”
“Oh, there’s still a few people who want to blame him for what happened the night Vickie and the Timmons children died. But most folks have forgiven him. They can see he’s a good man and is trying to make amends. But he’s determined to keep going around in sackcloth and ashes.”
I didn’t know what she meant by that, but I had a good idea.
“That’s why I’m glad you’re here. You’re good for him.”
“I don’t know if I’m here to be anyone’s salvation,” I said. “But he’s made me a tempting offer. He wants me to have Peggy’s property.”
Rachel’s eyes widened in surprise. “What a lucky windfall for you. But. . .”
“Yeah. I have other plans.”
“That wasn’t what I meant. I was thinking that established people in the community might not like it. There are plenty of poor people who’ve been here for generations. Giving that land to an outsider could be trouble.”
I hadn’t thought of that before.
By now we were at the barn. Flecha seemed happy to see Rachel, who went up to her cooing and asking, “How’s my buddy?”
We took Flecha outside and walked and trotted her. Then to my surprise, Rachel suggested we saddle her so she could check how she did with a rider.
“Oh, me and Flecha don’t need a saddle.” It had been a long time since I had ridden bareback, but we walked, trotted, and even did a brief canter. By the time I pulled up and slipped off her back, Rachel was beaming.
“You got so lucky with this horse.”
“She’s a tough girl.” I patted her neck. “And we had excellent medical care. So what do you think? When can I travel again?”
Rachel’s face clouded over. “Give her another couple days. But I do hope you’ll consider staying. You don’t have to accept Peggy’s land. You could stay with me. Or I’m sure if you wanted to stay with Charles, he’d like that, too.”
I shook my head. It was too much to think about.
“Well, whether you stay or not, Flecha will need some new shoes. And my husband got a deer yesterday, so how about you two come over this afternoon and stay for supper?”
What a great idea! Charles agreed, and after Rachel left we hurried to get the chores done. Then Charles hitched the donkey and I followed on Flecha through the woods to where Rachel and her husband, Tom, lived.
Tom was about as I had imagined a man married to Rachel would be—tall and sturdy, with an air about him that suggested he wasn’t easily put out over anything. Rachel and I took Flecha to the paddock so we could work on her hooves, and Charles and Tom wandered off, talking about whatever it is men talk about when they’re away from females.
Flecha behaved herself for the trimming and shoeing, and then Rachel rubbed some stuff on the outside of the hooves that made them look black and shiny. “It’ll come right off,” she told me. “But I’ve noticed that some horses really seem to know when you’ve made their feet pretty and it makes them happy.”
And it did. Flecha picked her feet up, tossed her head and swished her tail as if we had turned her into a princess. It was so funny that I put some ribbons in her tail and forelock, and she preened even more. “You silly girl,” I told her. “You’re still just a horse.”
We washed up and went to join the men, who were drinking some of Tom’s homebrewed beer and waiting to cook some venison steaks. I noticed they had a real old-fashioned iron grate for the brick grill and I was about to comment on it when I remembered that Charles had said they shut themselves off from the feds during the war. So of course they weren’t forced to give up their steel and iron, although a lot of people probably snuck out and sold it for scrap, anyway.
It was a nice supper. In addition to the venison steaks, there were potatoes, wheat bread, and a green salad collected partly from the garden and partly from wild plants. For dessert, Rachel brought out something she called a cobbler, which made me laugh because it looked and tasted nothing like shoes.
And then we sat around, sipping wine and talking, ignoring the dirty dishes as if we were rich and had servants. Rachel and Tom told stories about the town and surrounding areas, Charles told a few stories of his own, and at last I was asked to tell about my travels.
“That could take all night,” I said. But I told them some of the better stories, like about the white sands and the bottomless lakes. And I told them about the tornado and the dying people in Catalunia. And since I felt bad for having told them such sad stories, I went on to tell them about the carnival, which made them laugh.
I had just finished telling them about the parrot and was going to mention the fortune teller when I suddenly stopped cold. Wait a minute. Hadn’t the old woman told me she had seen green hills and white fences in my future? Hadn’t she said not to stay too long with the man with the boat? I looked at Charles. He was watching me with so much love in his eyes I could hardly stand it. I finished my story quickly and drank some wine.
It was dark when we finally headed toward home. Charles had a battery-powered headlamp for the donkey and some lanterns for the cart, and my job was to keep Flecha right behind him. She was a little more calm now, having gotten over thinking she was so pretty. She wasn’t too happy to be walking at a donkey’s pace, but I told her to be thankful I was taking her out at all, and we headed down the road into the night.
The road that had seemed so benign earlier in the day now seemed menacing. I had spent plenty of time in the woods, in the dark, and the forest had never felt like this. I kept peering off into the trees and looking over my shoulder, but saw nothing to justify how I was feeling. It was just a nagging instinct that something wasn't right. I was on the point of saying something to Charles, my nerves stretched so tight I thought they would snap, when I heard the sudden crack of a rifle.
Flecha balked in alarm and I reached for my gun.
There was a second shot, and it seemed to be coming from the left. I couldn’t make out anything to shoot at, but I fired anyway. Charles had grabbed his rifle by now and fired, too.
There was a rustling in the bushes and now I could see something—a dark shape among the trees. I took aim and fired again. Charles jumped off the wagon seat and ran after the shadowy form.
I thought he was a fool, but I jumped off Flecha and hurried after him, as if the world really needed one more fool.
I’m pleased to say that we got him. We dragged the body back to the road and put him in the wagon.
“We’ll bury him at home,” Charles said. “No one needs to know about this.”
“Are you sure someone won’t come looking for him?”
“Eddy lives alone.”
“How did he know. . .”
“Let’s not discuss it. It’s not important.”
He said it in such a way that I didn’t dare ask any more questions, and we finished our journey home in silence.
But when we got to the barn and lit a few lanterns, I noticed Charles had a lot of blood on his sleeve and wasn’t moving his left arm. “Did you get hit?”
“It’s okay. It didn’t hit bone.”
“That’s not the point.”
I put a temporary bandage on it to stop the bleeding, and then I put up Flecha while he selected some shovels and put them in the wagon. We buried Eddy on an unused corner of the property, under some trees. We covered the grave with old vines and shrubbery. “And now,” I said, “You’re going to let me doctor that arm properly.”
As it turned out, Charles was right. The bullet hadn’t hit anything important, although it had bled a lot. “Just you wait until this stiffens up,” I told him after I had cleaned it with iodine and wrapped it with a bandage. “You won’t want to use this arm for a few days.”
He flexed his fingers. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
I poured us each a measure of his strong moonshine whiskey and suddenly the whole wearisome last two days caught up with me. I was exhausted.
This morning, Charles tried to pretend like the arm wasn’t bothering him, but I knew better. Still, I didn’t say anything and pretended like it was normal for him to only use one hand for things. I think we were both emotionally drained because we didn’t do much of anything. Charles weeded the garden, I took Flecha out for a ride, and we settled in for an early supper, both of us knowing it would be an early night.
“Now that there’s no danger,” Charles said as we sat together on the patio after we ate, “You don’t have to worry about taking Peggy’s place.”
I ducked my head and didn’t say anything.
“Unless you’d rather stay here with me.” He reached for my hand.
Still, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t stay. But how was I supposed to tell him that?
“Do I have to decide tonight?”
“Of course not. Take as long as you like.”
Right. The longer I stay here thinking I’m not deciding, I’m deciding, aren’t I?
I have to go. I’ll tell him tomorrow.
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