Between Mountain Ranges
C.J. left Pozo de Cobre on the northwest road, the one that went uphill toward Arizona. His plucky little mare kept going long after sunset, finding her way in moonlight sifted through overcast.
When a pine-scented chill swept him, C.J. realized they were in the mountains. He must have put a strain on his horse letting her come this far. “I’m sorry, Skewy. I wanted to get away from all that female nonsense. Should ’a never hooked up with her in the first place.” He stretched as best he could still in the saddle. “Let’s call it a night. We might’ve come on to 60 miles.”
Cooler Up Here
His ear was cold, but every time C.J. pulled the blanket up, his toes were exposed. He curled into a ball keeping covered as his thoughts drifted away.
Dawn brought C.J. a view of ponderosa pines. The mountain air brushed him with goose-pimply strokes and wobbled pine cones on long branches.
C.J. enjoyed the western mountains and wanted to jump up to greet the day. He tossed off his blanket to find his pleasure was joint stiffness and a renewed ache in his side. Brooding over his “poor me” attitude yesterday was a waste. He failed to pay attention to the rising terrain and how much cooler it was than the desert floor.
“I know, Skewy,” he said. “Mis-heed can getcha killed. I’ll do better.”
Something’s In the Air
The aroma of coffee tickled C.J.’s nose, then was gone. Did he imagine it for want of a—no, there it was again.
His salivary glands kicked in. “Let’s go find that, Skewy.”
Breaking camp wasn’t polished for the seasoned trail rider C.J. considered himself. He had to flex his hands to coax his stiff fingers to life. He fumbled to tie his blankets with the saddle straps. Lifting the saddle to the mare’s back was more difficult than he expected, and he gasped with the effort, holding his side until the pain quit.
Even stepping into the saddle seemed to require effort. He ran a hand over his injured side. It came away dry. He would be all right.
Less than a mile farther uphill, C.J. spotted the camp. A rope strung between trees served as a hitching post for three horses. Tack and rigging were in a loose pile nearby.
A cowboy stood upwind of a smoky campfire with his back to C.J. The man wore a western hat stained dark brown, black at the headband. His right elbow was bent as if he held a cup of coffee.
“Hello,” C.J. called. “Mind if I come on in?”
The cowboy turned his body far enough to have a look. “You alone?”
“Yeah. I smelled your coffee. Sure hope you got an extra cup.”
The dirty hat bobbed. “Step on down.”
When C.J. dismounted, the cowboy turned fully and pointed a gun. “You wanna walk over here real slow?”
A growl of a voice behind C.J. said, “He’s alone, Clem.”
C.J. whirled at the sound. Another cowboy with a drawn gun was only ten feet away. C.J. was so focused on the coffee he hadn’t looked for anyone else.
He was in trouble, and he wasn’t wearing his pistol, an omission noticed by Clem. “You a tenderfoot?”
C.J. held his hands up. “I wasn’t looking for trouble.” He dipped one hand to point at Clem’s revolver. “If you’d kindly put that down, I’ll be on my way.”
The froggy voice behind him laughed. “Yeah, he’s a tenderfoot. First one I ever seen. Wanna keep him and see how long he lives?”
C.J. tried to shuffle back to Skewy. Maybe he could leap belly-down across the saddle and dash away at full gallop. He’d be a low target and the gunmen would have to saddle up before they could follow him.
Clem laughed and holstered his gun. “Relax tenderfoot, you’re looking pale. Bud was having sport of ya. Come git that coffee that near got you plugged.”
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