C.J. and Eb took nothing from the wreck site except bacon, flour, and coffee. There was cheese in one of the crates, but it stunk.
They threw it away.
From a box of bedding, C.J. pulled out a blue woolen blanket with a handwritten tag sewn on a corner: Verne Mercier.
“Didn’t the mule skinner say this stuff belonged to a lieutenant?”
Eb paused from stuffing the food items in Damn Donkey’s pack. “Yeah. That’s what he said. Why?”
“Nothing, really. I was just wondering why an officer wouldn’t print his rank along with such a fine-sounding name.”
“If he’s one of those hoity-toity fellers, maybe he ain’t expecting to stay a lieutenant very long. No sense having to change a label every time his daddy pays a congressman.”
“Do you think that goes on?”
“Saw plenty of it in the War. Biggest trouble is, the practice puts lousy officers over men’s lives. Usually, the officer lives, and the men die.”
“Well, in this case, Lieutenant Verne Mercier may have lost a man, but he’s donating a nice blanket to wrap up the casualty.”
“About that mule skinner,” Eb said. “We can’t dig a grave in the bottom of this gravel wash. We’re gonna have to haul him out of here, so I was thinkin’. Why not take him back to that Camp O’Connell he was talkin’ about, and let them bury him?”
“I like the sound of not having to dig a grave. How long will it take us to get there?”
“Think he’ll last that long?”
“If he gets to smellin’ as bad as that cheese, we’ll throw him away too. How’s that sound?”
The late Bryson Adams made his presence known two days later when C.J. and Eb delivered him to Camp O’Connell.
The military outpost was a smattering of scattered tents, but a guard met them nonetheless. “Who you got there?” he said, pointing to the blanket-wrapped figure on old Judd.
“His name’s Bryson Adams,” C.J. said. “That mule carrying him is the only living thing left of his load.”
The guard stroked his chin. “I bet he’s the one the looey’s been waiting on.” He waved over a fellow soldier. “Hey, Ronnie, fetch the looey, will ya?”
The private called Ronnie looked the situation over with a smirk. “Oh, yeah. This oughta be good.”
C.J. glanced at Eb and received a shrug.
Officer In Charge
A few minutes passed before a tall, thin man with slicked-down black hair and a pencil mustache came striding toward them. Ronnie followed, half-trotting.
“It’s the looey—lieutenant,” the guard whispered.
Not looking much older than C.J. or Eb, the lieutenant wore a white flannel shirt with gallus straps holding up his officer’s trousers with a stripe down the leg. He stopped and stared at old Judd.
“That’s my blanket,” he said. “That damn driver better be dead.”
“Come over and take a whiff,” Eb said. “You’ll find out.”
The lieutenant glared at the prospector. “Where’s the rest of my gear?”
Eb made a show of leaning on Damn Donkey, slouching and spitting tobacco juice.
C.J. scratched his chin stubble. Why was Eb going out of his way to look like a vagrant?
Eb wiped his mouth with a sleeve. “Don’t you wanna know what happened to yer man? Could’ve been an Indian attack. Maybe your camp is surrounded right now.”
“I want to know where my belongings are.”
“So, yer belongin’s are more important than yer people. As long as we got that outta the way—this man in the blanket said his name is Bryson Adams. The mule’s name is old Judd. They rolled off the trail and down the side of a cliff. That’s where all yer belongings are: strewn down the cliff.”
The lieutenant set his jaw. “But you found it. That’s my blanket he’s wearing.”
“Well, then,” Eb said as he ejected a brown stream close to the officer’s boot. “You’ve gotta be Vernie Mercy.”
C.J. couldn’t help snorting at the feminizing name.
Get It Right
The lieutenant drew himself up to his full height. “I’m Lieutenant Verne Mercier.” He turned to Private Ronnie, “Get a burial detail and take care of this.” Back to Eb, he said, “You had the mule. You could’ve brought some of my stuff with you.”
“There was some cheese,” Eb wiped his mouth again. “But we flung it fer the stink.”
Mercier’s hands curled into fists. “You fool! That was Trou du Cru.”
Eb made a backward wave. “No need to thank us. We were happy to do it.”
Mercier spun and left.
The guard’s grin split his face. “That was the most fun I’ve had since the looey showed up. Go over to the mess tent and tell Cookie that Eddie sent you. If you tell him what you did, you’ll get a cruller if he has any left.”
What will C.J. and Eb do now that they’ve reached military protection? Don’t forget to leave your comment.
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