Old One Eyed Pete had been in the Pecos wilderness all winter, him and the mule, avoiding Apaches and harvesting beaver. The weather had been dry and mild for the most part, the resulting pelts poor to middling. But it had been a peaceful season over all and he was almost sorry when the first cottonwood buds started greening the trees.
He headed downslope then, and out onto the edge of the eastern plains. He worked his way north along the base of the foothills, taking his time, moving from one greening meadow to the next, letting the mule feed, killing an antelope or small deer when he needed meat and skirting the few settlements he sighted.
He was in no hurry for human company just yet. The beaver plews weren’t going to fetch much, no matter when he got them to market. He could take his time. But as he neared the Cimarron River, the usual dust-filled spring winds picked up and the mule objected vociferously to plodding through clouds of grit. Old Pete chuckled in sympathy. Conditions like these almost made a man think four walls and a roof might not be such a bad thing.
Pete squinted his good eye at the Cimarron. The river wasn’t quite as unruly as it usually was this time of year. He studied it for a long moment, then decided to follow the stream to its source and head on west from there to Taos.
By the end of the day, he was well inside the Cimarron’s canyon. He made camp at the base of a long sky-scraping cliff of jagged rock. The setting sun glinted like gold on its crest. Pete grunted. Maybe sights like this were what gave the Spanish the idea that this land held cities of gold. As far as Old Pete was concerned, with the sunlight on them like that, those towering cliffs were prettier than any mere gold.
He shook his head at mankind’s general greed and foolishness, and hobbled the mule. Then he swept leaf litter from the flat top of a knee-high granite boulder and built a small fire. He heated water and added a quarter of his remaining coffee. As it steeped, he arranged small heaps of river rock alongside the fire, then cut and trimmed a handful of green willow branches. He sliced thin strips of meat from the remaining antelope haunch and wove the strips onto the sticks, then wedged them between the rocks to angle the meat over the flames.
Old Pete sat back on his heels and reached for the coffee. The brownish liquid wasn’t very tasty, but it was hot. He sipped at it while he waited for the meat to sizzle.
He squinted his good eye up at the cliffs, contemplating their grandeur again, then gazed toward the west. The sky was a clear, bright blue above the mountains up canyon. The mountains’ bulk blocked the setting sun and the resulting shadows turned the slopes facing Pete into a solid black mass, making the sky above them even brighter. As he ate, blue in the west became more and more luminous, then paled, darkened, and finally gave way to stars.
When he’d finished his meal, Old Pete rolled himself into his blanket and slept. He kept his rifle beside him, not because he felt in any danger but because it was the thing a man did when he was alone in the wilderness, a habit he’d formed long ago.
The next morning, man and mule moseyed on up the canyon. They didn’t dally, but they didn’t hurry none, neither. The sun glinted on the stream, water striders danced across the water, and fish traced the striders. Old Pete contemplated the long narrow shapes of trout slipping through the shadowed pools and considered stopping to hook one, then decided to wait a mite longer.
He came to a small meadow. A clutch of wild turkeys moved ahead of him, scratching along the base of the streamside willows. Pete grinned at the way the birds pretended not to see him as they stayed just out of reach. They were unusually plump and sleek for this time of year. With so little winter snow, they’d had an easy time of it.
He moved on, like the turkeys, seemingly in no hurry and unaware of his surroundings, but absorbing it all just the same. With the warming weather, the coyote willow beside the river had developed a haze of tiny green leaves that brightened the winter red of its bark. Under the tall green pines, waxy white flowers glowed on sprigs of wild grape-holly. Sunlight filtered through the long needles of the thick barked ponderosas and glinted on the twisted branches of the scrub oaks below, still stubbornly bare.
In the late afternoon, Old Pete stopped in a meadow to water and graze the mule while he gathered wild greens for his supper. He rinsed them in a small creek that fed into the Cimarron, then sat on a downed cottonwood log and nibbled contentedly on a handful of the sweet herbs. This was better than any so-called civilized garden. He’d just as soon stay out here forever, if he didn’t need coffee.
from Old One Eye Pete