“Hold up,” C.J. said. “Something’s moving out there.”
He bent low over the saddle horn, trying to peer under the juniper trees. “You see anything, Eb?”
Instead of searching forward, the prospector looked to his burro. The little animal’s long ears were up, twitching in tiny jerks, focusing ahead and slightly to the right.
“There,” Eb said, pointing where Damn Donkey faced. “So we should go this way.” He turned to walk in the opposite direction.
“I’m not getting shot in the back.” C.J. pulled his gun. “I’ll circle around. Might be only women out for piñons, but if you hear shooting, better find a spot to hole up.”
“If yer gonna try puttin’ the sneak on somebody, you’d best forget ridin’ that broomtail. Ain’t a horse yet learnt to tiptoe.”
“You don’t know nothing.” C.J. wanted to take Eb down a peg. The dirt-digger wasn’t any older than C.J., but he acted like a wise old man, and C.J. was a dumb kid. He was about to tell Eb to quit acting like he had the world figured out when Skewy huffed a low, rumbling greeting.
Coming toward them was a large, ill-favored mule. The creature was harnessed and trailing reins—one full length and one shortened. A broken singletree trailed from a trace.
“An Army mule,” Eb said. “A freighter, too, from the size of him.”
“What’s he doing out here, all gussied up?”
“From the skint patches, I can think of several reasons. None good. Let’s see if we can’t ease up some of the torment, then we can backtrack this feller.”
Eb fetched liniment from Damn Donkey’s pack while C.J. unharnessed the mule, leaving on the halter.
The mule flinched when Eb dabbed liquid onto the raw spots but tolerated the treatment.
C.J. rolled up the leather he’d taken off and asked, “How do you suppose the critter got away from his wagon? He had to be hooked onto it.”
“Kicked and chewed his way out of it, I reckon. However he did it, nobody stopped him.”
Stench In The Breeze
C.J. didn’t need the animals to alert him. He smelled it too.
Backtracking the mule had been easy enough. They climbed out of the valley and followed a ridge when an odor worse than rotting cabbage hit them.
C.J. glanced at Eb. The prospector who had been quick to tell the cowboy how to handle every situation had his jaw set behind his beard. C.J. drew his gun. They had to be going into an ambush site.
Wasn’t An Attack
A little farther, they found where the wagon had gone over the edge. Down the cliffside were scattered boxes and debris from a once-organized shipment. In a ravine, 400 hundred feet below was the smashed freight wagon.
A bloated teammate of the mule lay twisted and broken nearby.
The mule with C.J. and Eb screamed several eardrum-shattering brays then fell silent, his eulogy given.
“That poor mule skinner,” Eb said. “He could’a gone around the hill on the other side—didn’t have to try and squeak through here.”
C.J. removed his hat and dragged a sleeve across his forehead. “D’ya think the driver’s down there, or jumped clear and walked away?”
A shot boomed from the ravine.
“I think he’s down there,” Eb said.
Could the Army freighter be stolen? Don’t forget to leave your comment.
Jokes about mules abound, but they are amazing animals. Check out this site with a few pictures for an interesting read.
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