The others followed suit carefully. The tea was very good. They made some idle small talk about travel and weather, Katherine becoming agitated when the discussion got more serious or turned to work. “I think it’s about time we took our leave,” Abie said. Katherine leapt to her feet. “Thank you for the tea. Dolan Springs is lucky to have such a kind-hearted deputy.”
Katherine’s smile was quick. “You are always welcome.”
She stuck out her hand again and Abie shook it. Their eyes locked and Abie palmed the small scrap of paper Katherine had pressed into her hand. “Enjoy your stay in Dolan Springs,” she said, escorting them to the door.
The women walked quickly back toward the center of town, going immediately to the Gem of the Cimarron and showing the proprietor the Sheriff’s note. He nodded once and whistled to a porter, who showed them upstairs to a large corner room at the front of the hotel.
“This might be the nicest place we’ve ever stayed,” Rose noted.
“Too bad there’s no action downstairs,” Marion grumbled. “There were five people at the bar, the piano player was going, but the tables were empty. What kind of place is this?”
“Crime free,” Kateri reminded her. “No gambling, no altercation.”
“Leave while you can,” Abie said, staring at her palm.
“As we left Katherine’s house, she passed me this note. That’s what it says,” the woman said in a substantially softer voice.
“She was afraid someone was listening to us!” Marion whispered. “That’s why she kept saying all that strange rehearsed-sounding stuff.” She looked around them. “Do you think this room is set up for someone to listen to us?”
“I would guess that it is,” Abie told her. “Though I do not know by what magic they accomplish it.”
“Well, I’m famished,” Marion said in a louder voice. “Let’s go eat.”
The others agreed and went back downstairs. The Gem had steak, potatoes, and beans on the menu, and the women ate heartily. “I’ve got a hunch about Deputy Black,” Abie said. No one sat near the quartet, and they didn’t even attract many stares. “I think it’s less a ‘he’ than a ‘what.’”
“What do you mean?”
“I am not certain. Ms. Bradley’s agitation grew when we mentioned that name, but I do not know why.”
“Maybe Deputy Black is responsible for those bodies outside the front gates. Maybe he’s more brutal than the others.”
“A good thought, Rose,” Abie agreed. “We should tread very carefully should we meet this Deputy.”
The women made their way outdoors to find the town square fairly well-lit. Couples with children promenaded around the connected porches, enjoying the cool evening air. The General Store appeared to be open late, and some miners, still filthy from the hills, were trading their findings for goods. Horses knickered to each other quietly at the shared water troughs.
“Picturesque,” Kateri observed as they walked toward the well and communal garden. Two large pecan trees offered some cover for the garden. Aloe, sunflowers, chiles, lettuce, and squash met their inquiring eyes first. Abie bent down and plucked a small weed from the sunflower bed, tossing it behind her into the dirt of the road. As she straightened, she could see several pairs of eyes on her. As quickly as they’d landed on her, they moved away furtively. Abie narrowed her eyes.
“Did you see that?” she asked her friends.
“The way everyone’s head’s on a swivel?” Marion agreed quietly. “Hard to miss.”
“Maybe we’ve broken some rule?” Rose suggested. “I dunno, maybe we’re not supposed to touch the garden.”
Abie scooped up the potentially-offensive weed, delivering it to a nearby hay bale where its bright green spindles stood out from the golden hay. “At least it isn’t in the middle of the road.”
“I vote we go back upstairs and wait out the night,” Kateri said. “If we stay out of trouble, we will be able to better see trouble when it comes.”
The others agreed with this wisdom. They stopped by the General Store so Abie could secure some fresh tobacco, then went back to their room at the Gem to pass the night. Several hours later, Abie sat on the miniscule wooden balcony that overlooked the center of town smoking. The fragrant wisps of smoke trailed up into the cool night breeze of the desert. As she studied the stars on the horizon, she became aware of movement immediately below the balcony. It wasn’t so much a sound as an extremely faint vibration, as though something were humming very far away.
She knocked at the window to the room and her three friends came quietly. “What’s up?” Marion whispered.
Abie said nothing, but pointed down and made a motion with her hands to indicate what she’d observed. As they gazed into the darkened street, a somehow even darker shape moved from the Gem to the garden and then down one of the streets on the other side of the town square.