A Mile Away
C.J. paused on the ridge and pointed to tents in the valley below. “That’s where we’re going: Camp O’Connell.”
White canvas two-man tents were scattered among the few junipers and oak brush. A rope corral holding three horses and a large mule occupied an opening in the brush next to a sliver of a stream.
“That’s Tonto Creek,” C.J. said. “And it looks like old Judd is still living.”
Will Dunn stretched his neck as if to get a better view. “Who’s old Judd?”
“He’s the big mule in the corral. He fell down a mountain while hitched to a wagon.”
Wheezer patted his mule’s neck. “These here critters are amazing animals, all right.
It don’t take a fool
To trust a mule
He’ll save your hide
And give you a ride
When his legs are done, he still carries meat
If his time is over, he’s good to eat.”
“I ain’t so sure,” Will said. “That old Judd sounds too tough to chew on.”
Preparing To Go Downhill
C.J. grinned at the Missouri brothers’ banter and dismounted to make sure the cinch was tight enough for the descent. After inspecting Skewy’s saddle, he checked the pack mule’s load.
“You think them soldiers down there will welcome us, Will?” Wheezer asked.
“Ain’t rightly sure. They wasn’t none too fond of us at Fort McDowell, if’n you recall.”
“You men like animals,” C.J. said. “Why don’t you offer to look after the Army stock at the Camp for, say, meals and three dollars a month? You can shoe horses, can’t you?”
“Wheezer’s one of the best,” Will said as Wheezer puffed out his chest. “Who do we talk to about the job?”
“I guess that’d be Lieutenant Verne Mercier.”
“How do we identify the man?”
C.J. smirked and picked up the mule’s tail. “He looks like this.”
Mercier brightened up considerably when C.J. uncovered the load. “My whiskey! Thank the Lord! It’s the first that’s reached me since I’ve been at this God-Forsaken place.”
“Before I can turn it, or the laudanum, over to you,” C.J. said, “I’ve gotta get your signature on the delivery form.”
“Yes, yes. Where is it?”
C.J. pulled a sheet of paper and pencil stub from his saddlebag and handed them to the officer.
As Mercier licked his lips and scribbled on the paper, C.J. said, “These two men could help your livestock. You know how this country wears down horseshoes. They could be hired on for meals and three bucks a month.”
The thirsty lieutenant waved the pencil toward an enlisted man. “Talk to Private Ronnie.”
“So, three dollars each is fine with you?”
Mercier grabbed his bottle by the neck and started for his tent. “Fine, yes, take care of it, Ronnie. And check-in the laudanum.”
Private Ronnie signed for the painkiller, slipped a bottle into his back pocket, winked, and grabbed the case. “Follow me, boys. We’ll get you set up.”
C.J. enjoyed the routine of a siesta following a full meal of Dutch oven biscuits and beans. He thought Will and Wheezer would be happy to join him, but they took their employment seriously and spent whole days in the corral.
The Missourians curried and combed the livestock. The animals were fed and watered, their hooves cleaned and shod. They even took care of Skewy and the sutler’s pack mule.
The brothers said not only did they enjoy being busy, they felt especially obligated since C.J. got them three dollars a month apiece. They thought they’d get—whatever half that was—each.
That was fine with C.J. if that’s what they wanted. For himself, he’d just lie there in the shade under a canvas stretched between a couple of fragrant junipers and catch forty winks.
No Nap Today
“What in the world is this?” Private Ronnie’s voice alerted C.J. to sit up.
The afternoon quiet was broken by the soft, intermittent bawling of approaching cattle following an old woman driving a wagon. A dirty cowboy rode along the creek, keeping the cattle from wandering through the Army’s encampment.
As the dust and pervasive odor of cattle grew, Lieutenant Mercier looked out of his tent, ducked back in, and pulled the flap closed.
C.J. stood and uttered an epithet. “Might as well head back to McDowell. That bunch is gonna muddy up the water.”
C.J. saddled his horse and loaded his few personal belongings on the pack mule. He told the brothers he’d see them if he made another trip, waved good-bye, and rode away.
As he crossed Tonto Creek, the dirty cowboy galloped up and, in a feminine voice, said, “Hello, Skewy. I see you have the same old hard-headed rider.”
Have the horse and speaker met? Don’t forget to leave your comments.
People can remember a lot, and it seems horses can return the favor. Check it out.
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