In less than five minutes, Andi started feeling better. She scraped the rest of her breakfast onto her fork and forced it down. Mitch watched her eat every bite. “I’m much better now,” she assured him and stood up.
Mitch plucked her shirt sleeve. “Now that you can walk without keeling over, I want you to find where the creeks come together and form a little lake. It’s a couple hundred yards east in the forest. You can’t miss it. Wash up and get back here. You have twenty minutes.” He turned to Levi. “Go with her and bring back some wood.” He tossed him a rope to tie up a bundle of sticks.
Mitch motioned to Kirby, one of the drag riders. “Give Cook a hand packing up this morning. I don’t want to fall behind any more than we already have.”
“I’m fine,” Andi protested. “I don’t need a dunking. I can carry my own weight on this drive. You don’t have to ask anybody to do my work—”
Mitch took Andi’s shoulders and pulled her close. “Listen to me, Cook’s helper,” he said in a low, soft voice. “When the trail boss gives you an order, you do it quick, and you do it right.” He pointed to the line of brush and trees on the eastern horizon, which marked the lowlands. “You get to it, or I’ll have my point man pick you up and throw you in.”
Andi’s eyes grew wide. Mitch meant business, no doubt about it. She peeked around him and saw Wyatt, one of the point men. With Chad off scouting, Wyatt looked ready to step in and carry out Mitch’s orders. He grinned at her and waved.
Obey the trail boss at all times.
She gulped. “Sure thing, boss.”
“That’s better. You now have fifteen minutes.” Mitch whirled toward the rest of the milling cowhands. “Show’s over. Back to work. Let’s move that beef out.”
The men scattered. Cook and Kirby piled the dishes and cookware into the chuck wagon, barely scraping things clean. While Kirby packed up the rest of the wagon and put out the fires, Cook worked at hitching up the two horses.
Andi didn’t give Mitch another chance to reprimand her. She darted around her brother and past Wyatt. Levi stuck close to her heels, his rope looped around one shoulder and a small hatchet in his hand.
The ginger tea and breakfast had done their work. Andi felt her energy returning. She slowed to a leisurely dogtrot and found the water right where Mitch had said it would be. But it wasn’t anything Andi could call a lake. More like a small pond—a dark, still expanse in the early dawn.
“Listen,” she told Levi. A few birds chirped. She heard honks and quacks from small waterfowl. Other than that, the water lay quiet, awaiting the new day.
Andi pulled off her boots and socks. She took off her vest and shucked her hat, but that’s as far as she went. This was a quick dip, not a real bath. Besides, the thought of soaking her clothes for the coming hot day sounded deliciously cool. Barefoot, she stepped through the thick, dark mud and into the water. “Brrr! It’s cold. Are you coming in?”
Levi shook his head. “The boss told you to wash up. Not me.” He grinned. “I’m gonna find some wood.” He disappeared into the brush.
Andi looked down. Tiny minnows nibbled at her toes. She waded farther out, then ducked and let the cool water cover her completely. Instantly, her itchy mosquito bites were soothed. “This is more like it,” she said when she came up for air.
Before she could talk herself out of it or wonder if the others might laugh, Andi scooped up a handful of dark, slippery mud and smeared a thin layer all over her face—forehead, chin, and cheeks. For good measure, she dabbed a little mud over the half dozen itchy bumps on the back of her neck.
Ah, sweet relief!Andi washed her hands clean in the shallows, shook them free of water drops, and picked up her hat. She felt one hundred percent better and ready for the day. She made her way through the dense thickets and found Levi whacking at a chunk of deadwood. A growing pile of sticks and large limbs lay at his feet. Andi set about tying them up to drag back.
Levi quit chopping. “What happened to you?”
“Never mind.” She twisted the rope and secured the knot. “This is probably enough. We’d better head back to the chuck wagon.”
Levi didn’t answer. Instead, he raised his head and sniffed. “Do you smell that?”
Andi paused. Sure enough, the scent of a campfire drifted in the air. She scanned the woods and saw a thin curl of smoke rising through the trees not far away. What in the world?
Overcome by curiosity, Andi nudged Levi and motioned him to follow her. Together they crept closer to the source of the fire and hunkered down just out of sight. What looked like two trail-weary cowhands were scraping their plates and talking. One man had thick, black hair past his shoulders; the other wore a handlebar mustache. Their horses were picketed nearby.
“Just a couple of drifters,” Levi whispered to Andi. “Let’s go.”
“I wonder what they’re up to,” Andi whispered back.
“I think he cares.” Andi pointed. Across the clearing from the direction of the herd, Toledo McGuire on Sultan was making a beeline for the campsite at the edge of the woods. A chill went through her, and it didn’t come from her recent dip in the pond.
Why isn’t Toledo with the herd? Why is he meeting up with these two strangers?