Fort McDowell Kids
Sally’s big brother Kelly wore a smug expression of I-know-something-you-don’t. “The cargador says who gets hired or not. He bosses everybody on the mule train except for the Pack Master.”
C.J. tipped up the empty can to get the last drop of peach juice. “Seems you know a lot for an eight-year-old. Are there any ranches around here?”
Sally broke out laughing and shook Kelly’s sleeve. “He thinks you’re eight.”
“I’m eleven,” Kelly said, “and we shouldn’t be talking to saddle tramps. Come on, Sally.” He had his sister by the arm, but Sally planted her feet.
“He’s not a saddle tramp. He’s a cowboy ’cause he stinks like daddy said.” Without seeming to take a breath, she turned to C.J. “I’m six-and-a-half, and I can read. Mama and Mrs. Lang teach us.”
C.J. got a look at himself through Sally’s eyes as she prattled on: dirty clothes, a western hat with a black sweatband stain, chin stubble, and he was in need of a bath and haircut. He wondered how old he was now—seventeen?—eighteen? He’d lost track, but listening to Sally, he felt ancient.
“You coming, Sally?” Kelly said. “I’m leaving.”
“You just wanna go find Jeannette, ’cause you’re in looooove,” Sally sing-songed.
Kelly shoved her and stomped off.
A Little Nosy
Sally swatted at her brother, then turned back to C.J. “What’re you gonna do, Mister Man? Are you gonna be a loader on the mule train?”
“I’ll think about it. Why don’t you run along? I have things to do.”
“What things? I can show you where everything is. I’ve been aaall,” she spread her arms wide, “over the fort.”
C.J. wasn’t used to this much noise, and Sally’s constant chatter affected him like a wire brush up his back. “Why don’t you go and see what Kelly and Jeannette are up to?”
“Oh, they just talk and giggle. Jeannette flips her hair, and Kelly carries on like he’s a captain. Daddy says if he doesn’t take to the books, he won’t even be a sergeant.”
Somewhere Quiet, Please
It was enough prattle for C.J. He walked to the sutler’s store with Sally following in his wake, leaving waves of words cresting and rolling away.
At the door, Sally said, “I can’t go in there. Mama won’t let me unless she’s here.”
C.J. sighed. Marginally cooler than outside, the store was considerably quieter, with only a woman and two soldiers looking over the merchandise.
He picked up a bar of lye soap and considered a bottle of toilet water. The idea of a scented bath left him with heat on his cheeks when he got a picture of Skewy nickering at him. A horse laughing at him would be worse than a woman’s giggles.
He placed the soap on the counter to pay for it. “Is there a back door I can use?”
The sutler gave him a narrow-eyed stare. “You bringing trouble?”
“Oh, no,” C.J. said. “There’s a little girl out front that’s making my ears bleed. I’d just as soon—”
“Ah, yes. That’s Sally. Thank goodness she listens to her mom. I had to ask the woman to put reins on her daughter. Yeah,” he said, “come on around and go through my room.”
The Verde River was no mere stream; it was running about forty feet wide and three feet deep.
C.J. followed the water against the current until he found a cottonwood-shaded pool. It was an ideal spot: deep, slow-moving water surrounded by shade trees and greenery.
He peeled everything off and waded in with his bar of soap.
How could he have forgotten the benefits of a good bath? His skin tingled, and he felt lighter as his grime and troubles washed away.
He stretched out spread-eagle and floated on his back, enjoying the warmth of the sun on his belly.
“Get out of there, soldier!”
C.J. splashed upright to see officers and women, all on horseback, looking at him.
What has C.J. done now? Leave your best guess or comment below.
Watch a modern-day run down a part of the Verde River. Stay tuned to the end where a kayak is pinned.
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