By Patty Wilber
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CALLIE’S STAR by Patty Wilber
CHAPTER SIXTEEN- TROUBLE ON THE WAY DOWN
They left the barn with Uncle Bob in the lead, followed by Jeff. Each of them led a mule and Callie rode third, marveling at the long ears of the mules. They were as alert and responsive as Flower’s dainty ears, although Callie couldn’t quite see how they managed that. As they rode by the front porch, Jake bounded up to Aunt Martha, and wagging his tail furiously, barked at her. Martha reached down to scratch his head, and said, “Go on, Jake!” She smiled at the riders.
They took the trail that led toward the lookout, and Callie turned one last time to wave at Aunt Martha, and at Cloud, even though he couldn’t see her. Callie had saddled all the horses this morning while Uncle Bob and Jeff had packed the mules. She was thrilled to tack up Pitch, but when she threw the saddle on to his strong back, she found that she would rather have been saddling Cloud.
Just before the lookout, Uncle Bob turned down a faint trail that led into the Outlaw’s valley. The path was steep and rocky. The horse’s stepped carefully but surely and Callie, even though she was not riding Cloud, also felt confident. The slope on her right was covered with yellow whispering grass and dotted with dark basalt boulders that were left over from an ancient lava flow. On her left, there was a rock strewn drop. Below lay a creek that flashed and glittered in the sun.
The incline grew sharper and the trail was very narrow. Callie was afraid that the mules, with their bulky loads, would bump them against the encroaching rock and stumble, but they stepped steadfastly along, swinging their packs so they just cleared any obstacles. When the group had to pass around a huge boulder that stuck into the already thin path, Callie held her breath, expecting to feel her knee grate against the stone, but Flower, like the mules, seemed to know exactly where Callie’s knee was, and protected it.
When they reached the bottom, Uncle Bob half turned in his saddle, looked over his shoulder and said, “Steep and rocky, wasn’t that?”
Callie nodded and patted Flower. Jeff said, “I’m sure glad our stock know what they are doing!”
“Me too,” agreed Uncle Bob.
He started to face forward again but Pitch let out a sudden screaming neigh, and reared high into the air. Uncle Bob was out of balance and he tipped off Pitch to the left. He landed with a grunt on the rocky ground. Pitch pawed at the trail with one black forefoot, and then rose into the air again.
The scene seemed to freeze, and Callie could see the red rimmed flare of Pitch’s nostrils, and the whites of his dark eyes. Uncle Bob’s mule was motionless and Jake stood over Uncle Bob, his one blue eye very bright against his dark face.
As motion returned, she could hear Jack growl, and Uncle Bob’s mule bolted across the stream, dragging the lead line after him into the little meadow. Jeff dropped his mule’s rope and swung off Punkin, letting his reins ground tie his horse. Jeff crouched over the oddly still body of his father. Punkin stood quietly, and Jeff’s mule began to graze.
Then Callie’s mind and body seemed to separate. Her brain was still in a fog of surprise and shock, but her calves tightened around Flower, hurrying them past Punkin. Uncle Bob’s mule was in a high stepping trot with its head up and its tail high. It was heading across the meadow. The mule’s white canvas manty-tarp was flapping as the lash cinch securing the load came loose. The panniers, full of gear, jounced crazily. A sleeping bag popped out. The mule spooked hard, but began to circle back toward the group and the animals he knew. Pots clanged against something and then tarp flew free, along with a one of the pots and a cooking grate.
Callie’s legs spurred Flower across the rocky creek, and she heard the mare’s hooves strike slick stone. Callie’s knees hugged the warm, smooth saddle leather. Flower slipped but Callie’s seat was sure. The mare quickly regained her footing, and trotted on, spraying cool water showered across Callie’s jeans as the mare made a final lunge for the bank.
The mule was still heading their way, but had slowed down since the tarp was no longer flapping. Flower pricked her ears forward, and continued toward the mule, knowing he was their goal. Callie’s hands pulled the mare to a walk, and spoke gently. The mule stopped altogether and watched them coming. He let them get within a few feet of him before he threw his head, ears flopping together, and lunged back into his high-stepping, pan-rattling trot. Flower leapt after him, and they were abreast of him in a breath. Callie leaned out and grabbed the dragging lead. She reined in Flower at the same time. The mule gave them a wild eyed look, but then realizing he was caught, suddenly grew tame.
Callie turned, mule in hand and Flower at a walk, and headed back across the creek. Suddenly, her heart was a hammer in her chest, and her hands were shaking like leaves.
Uncle Bob was sitting on a rock when she reached him, and he was, unexpectedly, smiling. Callie saw a torn spot half hidden by dust on his hip, but he looked pretty normal. “Good work, cowgirl,” he said.
”No kidding!” said Jeff.
Callie tried to suppress the shaky smile from their praise, but was only half successful. She lowered her eyes and gathered up the mule’s lead little bit, with an unsteady hand. “Thanks,” she mumbled. Then looking at Uncle Bob, and forgetting about herself, said, “What happened? Are you all right? How’s Pitch?” The words tumbled out in a heap.
“Hold on there, girl!” said Uncle Bob. “I can only answer one question at a time.” Then he pointed to the ground, and Callie saw a dead snake coated with dust and rusty clots of mud. Uncle Bob nudged it with his booted toe, and Jake growled deep in his throat. The snake made a sound like dry leaves rubbing together, and Callie shuddered. “A rattler!” she said.
“When Pitch saw it, he reared to avoid it, but when he came down, he landed right on it.”
“Then when Dad came off, Pitch made sure the snake was dead, by smashing it again!”
“Whooo…” said Callie. “I’m sure glad everyone is O.K. I mean yourare O,K, right? I…I…” Her voice cracked. She swallowed and was silent. Flower’s coat became a shimmering blur.
Uncle Bob said, “My hip and my pride are bruised, but everything else is fine, thank goodness. Let’s take a little water break here. I think we all could use one. Then we can repack and head to base camp”
Callie nodded, unable to speak, and slid to the ground.
“Jeff, can you take this ol’ mule from Callie? And Callie, you tie Flower,” Uncle Bob said. He sounded awfully normal. “Pitch, Punkin and Jeff’s mule will stay put.”
Soon they were all seated on a cool gray rock that jutted into the stream and was shaded by an old pinon tree. They pulled off their dust-caked boots, and Callie rubbed hers with a dampened finger so she could see the new leather with its pretty stitching. Then she stuck her hot feet into the water with a sigh. The flowing coolness washed away the tension, and Callie lay back on the rock and closed her eyes. The picture of Pitch, rearing and Uncle Bob lying still on the earth flashed through her mind, silently, but before images settled in, cold drops were falling on her face, and her eyes popped open. “Why don’t ya wash your face?” asked Jeff, dripping on her some more. “It’s all streaky.”
“O.K.,” she said, tiredly. Then she noticed Jeff’s face. There was dust caked into his eyebrows, and a black smudge ran across his forehead. Running down from his temples were pale thin streaks, where rivulets of sweat had left their footprints. She wrinkled her nose at him and said, “Why don’t ya wash your own?”
Uncle Bob looked from one to the other and laughed. “You both look pretty grimy to me,” he said. He splashed at them both with his foot, and was immediately flooded by two waves of water.
“Hey! Hey!” He held up his hands. “I surrender!” He grabbed a white sock and waved it frantically above the dampness all around him. Callie splashed him again, and Jeff, sneaking around behind, gave him a little push. It was just enough to send Uncle Bob sliding toward the waist deep water. He grabbed Callie as he went by, and dragged her in with him. They sank, laughing, into the creek. Jeff, still dry on the rock, was laughing so hard he could barely stand. Uncle Bob winked at Callie, and pointed his chin at Jeff. Callie nodded, and they advanced on Jeff. Callie grabbed his arm, and Uncle Bob took a leg. With one mighty heave, Jeff was in the water.