The Bottom of the Ravine
Almost two hours elapsed while C.J. and Eb found a safe route to the canyon floor and reached the wreck site.
The Army mule’s companion lay bloated and twisted in his harness. The stench was already ripening.
The wagon’s front axle and both wheels were missing. It must have broken off as a unit and went tumbling. The box lay on its side, and except for the driver’s seat, seemed in good shape. The rear wheel in the air spun at a shove. Neither it nor the one on the ground had broken spokes. Despite rolling down a cliff, the wagon could be rebuilt.
Did We Miss Him
C.J. tied Skewy to a wooden carton downwash but upwind. “Where’s the driver? You don’t suppose he climbed up to meet us, do you?”
“Over here,” Eb replied.
A man looking to be ten years older than C.J.—around thirty—had dragged himself into a notch in the far ravine wall, a place that would offer a little shade part of the day.
Are We Too Late
“Is he dead, Eb?”
“Not yet, but close. He shoulda took that leg off. I reckon he couldn’t bring hisself to do it.”
A belt drawn tight around the man’s right thigh probably kept him alive. At the knee, his leg bent sideways. A bulge in his blood-soaked trouser at the shin hinted at a compound fracture. His features were pale, his breathing shallow and raspy.
Eb eased the pistol from the injured man’s right hand. “Hey, fella,” he said. “Can you hear me?”
After a few attempts to address the driver, with Eb’s voice getting louder, the man’s eyes fluttered open. A word whispered past his chapped lips.
Liquid of Life
“My canteen’s on Damn Donkey. Fetch it, will you, C.J.?”
Eb tipped water into the driver’s mouth. As the liquid trickled in, the man tried to push the canteen higher to pour more water out.
“Easy feller,” Eb said. “Not too much too soon. We have plenty fer ya.”
After he licked his lips and ran a tongue around his mouth, the man’s color improved.
What Went On
“How long you been here?” Eb asked.
A weak shake of his head preceded a gasping effort to talk. “Dunno. I keep passing out. When I come to, the shadders have shifted considerable. I reckon two-three days.” He sluggishly pointed to the canteen. “More.”
Eb helped with another drink. “What’s your name?”
“Bryson Adams.” The answer seemed to tucker Bryson out. His eyes drooped and chin dropped to his chest.
“What were you doing with the gun, Bryson?”
It took Bryson a couple of weak breaths before he could draw out an answer. “Been shootin’ ever so often; hopin’ someone would hear. Was savin’ that last bullet fer me. Jist lucky I was awake to catch a glimmer of you up there.”
He pointed at the canteen and got a drink in return, then panted a moment.
“I don’t deserve it, but the Good Lord answered my prayers. I was hopin’ white men would find and bury me—didn’t want to meet Saint Pete skint of hair.” He tried to chuckle, but only a dry cough came out.
Eb handed the service revolver to C.J. and turned to Bryson. “What’re you doin’ with Army freight out here.”
Bryson gathered his strength. “Ain’t Army, and I was gonna give it to the Apaches.”
Eb drew back. “You a Comanchero?”
Treating A Lousy Officer
“Naw, nothin’ like that. It’s the personal stuff of a no-account lieutenant. We’re setting up a camp at Tonto Creek and the Salt River. Gonna be called Camp O’Connell.”
Bryson required another sip.
“He sent me on ahead with his belongings, and I got to thinking the rotten SOB oughta live like the rest of us. If givin’ his stuff to the Indians made them happy, they’d go easier on us.”
Bryson drew a long, deep breath. “I circled the camp and kept goin’. Figgured I’d meet Indians sooner or later.” He squinted past Eb and C.J. “Is that old Judd?”
A Vision Maybe
C.J. didn’t see anyone. The driver must be nearing the portal—his mind slipping. “Who?”
“That mule: he’s old Judd.” Bryson panted a little. “I’m glad he got loose. I’m sorry Mike didn’t make it. They were a good team, done ever’thing I asked after I cussed ’em proper.”
After another sip of water, Bryson asked, “Either of you a preacher?”
C.J. felt a rush of embarrassment. It’d been a long time since he practiced the Golden Rule as his mother taught him, and here sprawled a dying man who knew what was important at his last breath.
“Can’t claim to be a preacher,” Eb said. “But I reckon ever’body’s read the Book.”
“I’d appreciate a few kind words if you can bring yerself to say some,” Bryson wheezed. “Let ’em know up there in the clouds I ain’t a thief.”
“I reckon we can do that much.” But Eb was talking to a dead man.
How will C.J. and Eb react now? Don’t forget to leave your comments.
Here is a two-page article about dangers on the Oregon Trail. There is a picture of an overturned wagon on the first page.
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