Leaving Fort McDowell
With Esther May in the lead, Singer riding behind her on the gelding, the group crossed the Verde River and started up dry Sycamore Creek. Following her, Bent Hands and Gray Head, acting like royalty, rode a mule C.J. borrowed from the sutler.
C.J. brought up the rear, leading a pack mule loaded with goods for Camp O’Connell.
Esther May grinned while recalling C.J. asking for a mule. Of course, he didn’t tell Randall Gates the animal was for Apaches, and to get it, he had to agree to take another trip to Tonto Basin.
It was plain that C.J. didn’t like borrowing the critter, and the idea of traveling with Indians stuck hard in his craw. Still, Esther May convinced him and, in the process, discovered her power over him.
Then came the twinge of … what? Guilt? Remorse? She wasn’t sure, but the sensation was uncomfortable when it cropped up. C.J. told her back in New Mexico Territory he loved her. She hadn’t responded in kind, and his feelings were hurt.
Did she love him? She cared for him, that was sure, but—
The certainty hit her with a rush. If Lieutenant Charles Bodkins were still alive, she would be with him. That was love.
She shoved her thoughts back into the dark crypt of unpleasant memories and brought them to the present. “How’s your shoulder, Singer? Do you need to stop awhile?”
By not calling the elder Apaches “Grandfather,” she elevated herself to their tribal status, usually a social blunder of extreme rudeness. But if she were to establish herself as Riding Woman and live in Apache country, she couldn’t be viewed as less than equal.
“I want to keep going, daughter. Far away from the soldier’s jail.”
“Whoa! You’re going the wrong way,” C.J. said. “I went south of that butte before.”
Esther May held a quick conversation with the Apaches. “They say stay in the wash and go north. We’ll find puddles of water along the way.”
“Well,” C.J. said, “I reckon they know the country. I just hope you’re not letting them lead us into a trap.”
“These guys? They couldn’t steal a bottle from a drunk soldier, remember?” Esther May laughed until she saw C.J.’s face.
“It’s OK, C.J.,” she said. “At least it’ll be more comfortable along the wash than in the hardpan desert.”
“Yeah, I guess. Let’s go on.”
“What kind of gibberish were you spouting today?” C.J. asked. He unloaded the pack mule while Esther May and two Apaches set about making camp. Singer sprawled out under a willow, hugging his sore arm.
Esther May waved at the wounded Apache. “I was asking this man about his shoulder. He rode all day without a complaint.”
“They are tough. I’ll give ’em that.”
“Not too bright, though.” The speaker had a raspy voice that made the word “though” sound like an exhaled cough.
Esther May whirled around to see Lieutenant Wesley Southern and two beefy privates emerging through the brush.
One of the soldiers held a Sharps carbine waist level, the barrel swinging around Esther May’s group. “Ever’body just stay put, except you, cowboy. You’re welcome to lose some teeth ’n maybe git a broke arm.”
He leered at Esther May. “Then a little reward for the trouble you stirred up at the fort.”
An Officer And Something Of A Gentleman
“There’ll be none of that, Edwards,” Southern said. “The Major didn’t mind hiring ruffians to spare officers dirty work, but we don’t breach ethics where women are concerned.” He sneered at Esther May. “Even if they are Indian Lovers.”
Disappointment settled in the privates’ faces. The one without the rifle eyed C.J. “I’ve had a long day tracking since you broke from the regular trail. Looks like the only entertainment I’ll get is by whomping you even worster than I planned.”
“You want me to hold him fer you, Wally?” Edwards asked.
“Nah, just keep ’em covered with that Sharps. If one of the Apaches moves, kill him.”
Esther May dropped the tin coffee pot. It made a hollow clang against a rock, causing the intruders to look at her.
“I’ve never killed a soldier before,” she said. “I’d hate to start now.”
“Stay out of this, Esther May,” C.J. said. “I can handle this guy, then the officer and I are going to scuffle.”
“They’re already handled. Look behind you, Lieutenant.”
Do you think Esther May’s bluffing? Be sure to leave your comments.
Here’s Adam’s Mesa and Benchmark Sycamore Creek loops around.
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