Fort McDowell, Arizona Territory
Esther May and C.J. crossed the Verde and rode into Fort McDowell. Esther May tied her gelding at the sutler’s hitching post, but C.J. stayed mounted.
“I’ll put this mule in Randall’s corral,” he said. “He’s the sutler—Randall Gates. Then I’ll stable our horses. Will you be here?”
Esther May barked a laugh. “Are you asking if I’ll stay at the first store I’ve seen since New Mexico Territory? You bet I’ll be here.”
C.J. grinned and started to lead the mule away.
The Sentry Of Fort McDowell
“Hi, Mister Man. I saw you coming back, and you brought another cowboy too.”
C.J. reined in and lifted his face to Heaven. “Hello, Sally.”
“Let’s get something straight here,” Esther May said in her gruffest tone. “I’m not a cowBOY.”
Sally stepped back with a hand to her mouth. “You’re a girl?”
“A dang pretty one,” C.J. said. “She’s killed Indians and vaquero’s, too.”
While Sally stood slack-jawed, C.J. rode off with a grin.
Esther May extended a hand. “Do you want to help me shop for a few things?”
Without a word, Sally took her hand.
In The Sutler’s Store
Randall broke Sally’s mute trance. “Sally, you know your mama don’t allow you in here.”
“It’s okay, Mister Gates. I’m with this cowgirl. She’s not a cowboy, and she’s gunned down vicious killers.” She tugged Esther May’s hand. “This is Mister Gates. He owns the store, and my daddy says he’s richer than a soldier will ever be. My daddy’s a lieutenant—that’s an officer, and you’ve gotta do what he says.”
Esther May puckered her lips as if in thought. “And what does he tell you to do, Sally?”
Sally Holds Court
“He says keep an eye on the fort for him, but mama says that’s just telling an ant to bite. She says it’s nachrool or something. Hey! How did you know my name?”
“I heard Mister Gates say it when he spoke to you. You must listen to what people say.”
“Oh, I listen all the time. I heard Jeanette tell Kelly she wouldn’t kiss him again ’til he brung over some cherry drops. Did Kelly get cherry drops, Mister Gates? He says he wants to kiss Jeanette real bad. I don’t know if he has some money to buy anything, though.”
Randall supported his head in his hands, elbows on the counter.
Esther May leaned a hip against a shelf of buckets holding nails. “And what did your mama tell you not to do, Sally?”
The girl hardly paused for a breath. “She said I wasn’t to tell anything I saw the Major’s daughter doing. Her name’s Sarah Winslow. Her daddy is the fort commander, and he wouldn’t like it if Miss Winslow’s repultation got smooted.
“See, Lieutenant Wes Kicker—that’s what your friend, Mister Man, called him, and now ever’body calls him that, and it makes him mad. His real name is Lieutenant Wesley Southern. That’s funny because it sounds like west and south in the same name. He wants to kiss Miss Winslow like Kelly wants to kiss Jeanette.”
Randall looked up with interest. “That’s why he buys the toilet water.” The storekeeper clamped his teeth together when Sally snapped her head in his direction. “Shouldn’t have said that.”
“Well,” Sally continued to Esther May, “Miss Winslow’s been asking about your cowboy, Mister Man.”
In And Out
C.J. chose that moment to enter the store and evidently heard the comment. He waved at Esther May and left.
“Really?” Esther May crossed her arms and leaned forward.
“Yes. She and the other ladies saw him naked in the Verde, and—”
Randall slammed his palm on the counter. “That’s enough, Sally! You don’t talk like that in front of ladies.” I’m sorry, Miss …” He looked at Esther May and raised his brows in a question.
Introductions – And Continue
“Miss Cooper,” Esther May said. “What else did your mama tell you not to do, Sally?”
“She said I was to stay away from the stockade because the Apaches are in there.”
“Three. Men of Dog Company brung ’em in. That’s not my daddy’s company; he’s B for Baker. They’re old Apaches, too. I don’t think they’re scary, but they brung ’em in in shackles. They shot one. I saw the blood on his shoulder.”
News To Act Upon
After sundown, Esther May spoke quietly through the barred window on the dark side of the stockade. “I’m Riding Woman. Tell me what happened to you.”
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