Day One Hundred Twenty Nine
“I’ve sorry I’ve been neglecting you, Flechita,” I told her, as I led her out to the paddock. “But we’ll have some fun today. And I’ll try to do better.”
When Charles finally came looking for me, we were having a grand time.
“I was wondering where you were,” he said, leaning on the fence to watch. “You’re not usually late for breakfast.”
“Flecha needed a little exercise,” I explained. “And it’s been a few days since I spent any time with her.”
“So how is she?”
“I think she’s ready to be ridden again. At a walk, and only for short distances, of course.”
Charles nodded and tried to look like he was pleased. “Well, coffee doesn’t taste any better, the longer it sits. And this is about the last of it too, until I can get more. So why don’t you come inside and have some?”
I followed him into the house and poured myself a cup. Yes, the coffee tasted old and bitter from sitting awhile. “We should’ve gotten more while we were in town,” I said.
“There isn’t any. I asked, but there hasn’t been a delivery in awhile.”
“I suppose I could go look for chicory and dandelion roots today.”
“If you like. But I was hoping you’d help me with a different kind of project.”
As it turned out, he wanted to go to his mother-in-law’s property, the one he wanted to give to me. “I want to see if there are any clues as to what happened, and I want to see what, if anything, was taken. And if there’s time, we can clean up the place a bit.”
I had mixed feelings about such an errand. It seemed dangerous, if Peggy’s killer was still around. But it had to be done eventually, and if the property was mine for the asking, it only made sense to check it out thoroughly before making a decision. It was the practical thing to do. So I agreed to go with him, thinking how proud Auntie would be that I was using my brain instead of just my feelings.
Nevertheless, I was a little scared, so I strapped on my knife and pistol, loaded myself with extra ammo and grabbed my shotgun. No one was taking me down without a fight! When I went out to the wagon, Charles looked me up and down, his lips twitching like he could barely suppress the urge to laugh. “You look like you’re off to fight a civil war,” he said.
I laid my shotgun and ammo in the back of the wagon and climbed onto the seat. Charles wasn’t armed, I noticed, other than a standard hunting rifle. “Well, it looks like someone’s got to protect you,” I said.
“And I can’t think of a more talented and lovely young lady to do it.”
“Right. Save the flattery for someone it’ll work on, okay?”
So we went out to the little cabin in the woods.
Charles pointed out the property lines, where I could see the signs of old fencing, and the new saplings sprouting where fields and pasturage had once been. “I don’t think it would take much to clear it,” he said. “Get a group from the community out here, and you’d be all set in a day or two.”
“And why would the community work that hard for me? They don’t know me.”
Great. If I wanted people to gawk at me, I’d have stayed with the carnival.
I scanned the property, paying special attention to the tree line and looking for signs of danger. Seeing nothing, I followed Charles inside. He thought I was being silly, but I drew my pistol and checked the place for intruders. Not finding so much as a raccoon, I put the gun away.
In the living room I found Charles on his knees, examining the patterns of debris on the floor. “I think somebody has been here,” he said.
I’m embarrassed to say that I couldn’t tell, just by looking at the broken glass and dirty old flocking on the floor. “Well, of course someone was here. Whoever killed Peggy was here first, and then us.”
“And someone since.”
Although I had already checked the house, I felt cold and my hand drifted back to my gun. “Curiosity-seekers?”
“I hope so.”
Charles continued his investigation, checking stains, streaks of mud, placement of random objects, and even dust, for clues. While I’m competent to track animals for hunting, I was completely out of my league indoors. “I’ll be outside,” I said.
This gave me pause. What was he seeing that made him think there might be need for caution, after he had teased me earlier about my fears? I went onto the front porch and looked around. Things seemed quiet enough.
But wait a minute. The woods shouldn’t be quiet. Why weren’t the birds singing? I looked up, hoping to see signs of a hawk. Nothing. I took my pistol out of the holster and took a few steps backward, through the open doorway. I knew better than to turn my back on the tree line. Once I was inside, I shut the door. “We’re not alone.”
“I know. Just stay calm. I think it’s only one person, and they’d be a fool to take us both on.”
How had he known?
There was no time to wonder. I peeked out a window from behind a curtain. I saw nothing out of the ordinary, and that frightened me more than if the entire forest had erupted in shouting, weapon-waving warriors. “So you think whoever it is will go away?”
He seemed remarkably calm.
“So what should we do?”
And so we waited. And waited. It felt like hours were passing, but it wasn’t really that long. The sun barely moved in the sky, perhaps out of sympathy for my lungs, which hardly dared draw a breath. Charles kept watch at a window at the front of the house, and I kept a lookout from a room at the back, straining my eyes for any sign of movement, my ears for any sound at all. My whole body was on alert, stretched tight as bowstring.
I was so attuned to the least whisper of a sound that when I heard the creak of a floorboard, I spun around, raising my gun, my heart pounding in my ears.
“It’s okay. It’s just me.”
I lowered my weapon, drawing a shaking breath. “You shouldn’t scare a girl like that.”
Charles smiled indulgently. “You knew the danger wasn’t inside the cabin. You let yourself get too nervous.”
I put my gun away and noticed my hands were trembling. “I’ve gotten out of the habit of being a soldier, I guess. Used to be, I could wait for my target and pick him off like it was nothing.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure our ‘target’ as you call him, is gone. I caught a glimpse of something near the tree line, then it moved away. If it’s who I think it is, he won’t bother us. Not right now, at least. He knows we’re armed and on the alert.”
I followed Charles to the front patio, and sure enough, the birds were singing in the trees again and a few squirrels were digging old nuts out of the ground. “So who do you think it was?”
He wouldn’t say. “I’d rather wait and be sure. But there aren’t many people who knew where Peggy’s main stash was. Even I wasn’t supposed to know. An ordinary thief would’ve never found it, but it’s gone.”
I pondered this as we drove home. “Whoever it is,” I said, “He knows we know, doesn’t he?”
“He probably knows we’re suspicious.”
“I don’t suppose the town policeman could help?”
He snorted as if I had told a particularly unfunny joke.
We spent the rest of the day making plans, checking locks and readying weapons. Charles set out a few traps on the trails leading to the property, and I dug holes outside the windows and covered them with sticks and brush to make them hard to see in the dark. It felt good to have a plan of action and it went a long way toward relieving my anxiety.
After supper, Charles brought out a chess set. I laughed when I saw it. “You’re kidding, right?”
“What’s the matter? Do you not know how to play? I can teach you.”
“I know how to play. It’s just that I’m no good. I can’t seem to strategize.”
“So you just move pieces at random and hope for the best?”
“I’m not as bad as that,” I assured him. “But I’m close.”
He read to me instead.
Tonight I tried to go to sleep, but couldn’t. Charles didn’t want to join me in bed, but urged me to get some rest. As if I could!
I looked into the living room a little while ago, and he’s sitting there with two guns beside him, a book in his lap and a glass of whiskey on the table. But he hasn’t touched the whiskey and I don’t think he’s reading the book.
I don’t want him to know that I’m nervous, too. It would only worry him. So I’m staying here in the bedroom with my weapons nearby, waiting just like he is. Unlike at the cabin earlier today, I’m calm now. We’ve made preparations. We have a plan. Charles even thinks he knows who our enemy is. He wouldn’t be a very smart one to attack tonight, but I sort of hope he does. Dumb enemies are the best kind.
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