At The Creek
Esther May stopped by the brushy banks of Tonto Creek and smiled at the elderly Apache men: Gray Head, Bent Hands, and Singer.
“It’s time to step down before anyone sees you on Army horses,” she said. “Liluye will take you to my camp. Abuela probably has frijoles and tortillas ready.”
“It’s time to go,” Gray Head said to the other men but loud enough to be heard by all. “Riding Woman has power. She’s imala, and we can follow her, but no other woman.”
Glad To Get Off
“I want to walk,” Bent Hands said. “Only a stupid white man would tie a block of wood to a horse then sit on it.” He rubbed his bottom with both hands.
Esther May laughed at him. “That’s called a saddle.”
“Whatever it is,” Bent Hands said, “I believe the horse doesn’t like it either.”
C.J. tied the cavalry horses behind his mare, Skewy. He kept his eye on the Apaches as they headed for the water.
“There go your Indians, Esther May. I don’t know what they said, but they’re not long on ‘Thank you’ or ‘Good Bye,’ are they?”
“No, it’s not their way.” She bobbed her head at the departing men and spoke to Liluye. “Ride ahead so they can see and follow you to Abuela. Make sure she doesn’t shoot them.”
Liluye gave an almost imperceptible nod and glared at C.J. “They’re not the ones to shoot.” She kicked her horse and trotted out.
Down To Two
“Well, it’s just us,” C.J. said. “How do you plan on explaining the horses and clothes over there in Camp O’Connell?”
“I’m not sure. Any suggestions?”
“Yeah, let’s take ’em to the corral. If Will Dunn and his brother Wheezer are still working there, they’ll clean up these critters to a high shine. The Army cares more about horses than men. If we turn ’em in looking good, it’ll go better.”
The Ocotillo Corral
Will and Wheezer were delighted to get three new animals to fuss over. While they were checking hooves and currying the mounts, C.J. went through the soldiers’ saddlebags.
Esther May felt a tug of conscience. “You shouldn’t paw around in their personal stuff, C.J. I told ’em we weren’t thieves.”
“I got to thinking about it,” he said. “You remember the officer gave those guys a bottle of whiskey to whale on me? I wonder—yep,” C.J. held up a brown bottle. “That was the price he was gonna pay again.”
Here Comes Authority
Will gently cleared his throat and said, “Heads up!”
Lieutenant Mercier strode toward them. As usual, he wore no tunic, and the white of his longjohn top had become jaundiced.
“I heard you were here,” he said to C.J. “Is this an unscheduled supply?” He licked his lips and wiped them with the back of his hand.
“Afraid not.” C.J. pushed his hat up and scratched his hairline. “We brought in some Army horses and uniforms.”
Mercier looked around. “No pack mule? Just horses? That’s mighty suspicious. How did you cowboys come to find them?”
“We were on the way through here anyway,” C.J. said, “so I brought you this.” He extended the bottle.
Mercier’s eyes lit up, and he grasped the offering. “How nice to see some civilization in this dreadful land. Thank you, sir.” He slipped the bottle into his pocket. “Now, about these animals and no riders—”
Diversion – Or Not?
C.J. removed his hat. “Esther May, will you marry me?”
“What?” She could see that C.J. was giving Mercier a song and dance to get him away from questioning them too hard, but this was unexpected.
“What?” Mercier turned to look at Esther May. “This is a woman?”
“A fine woman, sir,” C.J. said. “And if she answers ‘Yes,’ you can celebrate us with a libation.”
Esther May shook her head and laughed. “I can’t believe—”
“I mean it, Esther May. Everything I own is on my horse, except my heart. You own that and always have. I’ll live in Apache country with you, build homes, herd cattle, do what you want, but I have to be with you.”
Good Lord, he was serious. “C.J., we’re standing in piles of horse droppings! Do you think now is the time for a proposal?”
“No!” he slapped his hat against his leg. “No, I should have proposed long ago in New Mexico Territory! I’m sorry I waited so long.”
Wheezer’s tears ran down his cheeks as he quoted:
Along with True Love, there’s a thing
That’s wrapped in gold with a ring.
The man, he giveth with all his heart,
The woman, she swears never to part.
They live their life with nary a hurt
Until they’re laid beneath the dirt.”
Mercier pulled out the bottle and took a swig.
Will blew his nose without the benefit of a handkerchief and dragged a sleeve under his dripping schnoz wiping away any remaining moisture.
The brothers, Lieutenant Verne Mercier, and C.J. had their eyes riveted on Esther May.
What will Esther May answer? Don’t forget to leave your comments below.
How close do you think Esther May’s story parallels Calamity Jane’s? Check out her brief bio.
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