DARKER THAN A WOLF’S MOUTH

DARKER THAN A WOLF’S MOUTH

“No, don’t go out there now,” María said. “It is late and there is no moon. El es oscuro como boca de lobo.”

“How d’you know how dark it is inside a wolf’s mouth?” Alvin Little grumbled as he put on his boots. “Leave me be.”

He paused again, listening. The sound came again, the rattle of sticks tumbling off the pile of kindling just outside the door. “I spent two hours yesterday cutting that kindling and I’m damned if someone’s gonna go stealing it.”

“El noche es más mala que Judas,” she protested. “It is unsafe.”

He reached for the door latch, then turned to look at her. “More evil than who? Judas, you say? Where d’you get this stuff?”

He stopped on the sill and shook his head as he peered into the darkness. A pale sliver of moon and no starlight. Heavy clouds blanketing the sky. He chuckled. So this was what a wolf’s mouth looked like.

He leaned forward and peered at the wood piled alongside the cabin. He could just see the once neatly stacked kindling. Sticks lay haphazardly at the foot of the pile, as if someone had tried to climb it. Alvin scowled and stepped into the yard to gather them up. A slight scratching sound came from the shake-covered roof, but Alvin didn’t have time to do more than lift his head before the mountain lion was on top of him, or hear more than María’s single scream before the big cat’s teeth found his throat.

from Valley of the Eagles

DANGER SIGNS

DANGER SIGNS

“I sure could do with some raised biscuits,” Peter Kinsinger said over his shoulder as he and his brother Joseph trudged east through the snow toward the top of Palo Flechado Pass.

He hitched the aspen pole that supported the yearling elk carcass between them into a more comfortable spot on his shoulder. “I hear tell Kennedy’s wife knows how to make ’em real good. His place is only a few miles now and his prices are reasonable.”

“You could wait for Elmira’s biscuits,” Joseph said. “She’ll be waitin’ on us.” He hadn’t liked the looks of the Kennedy cabin when they’d passed it on their way into the Pass and Taos Canyon beyond. They now had the meat they’d been hunting and he was tired of November snow and cold.

Peter turned his head and grinned. “I’m a mite chilly, ain’t you? And thirsty. A fire and a little liquid refreshment would be a right comfort just about now.”

Joseph chuckled. Peter’s Elmira was a stickler about alcohol. Peter found it easier to stay away from the Elizabethtown saloons than to experience her tongue when he stumbled home from them.

But a man deserved a nip now and then. And with the weather so inclement, it was unlikely there’d be anyone else drinking the liquor or eating the meals that Kennedy sold to passersby.

“It is mighty cold out here,” he acknowledged. “And we’re still a good ways from home.”

The road leveled out at the top of the Pass, then the brothers began to descend, careful of the icy patches in the shady spots. They were about a quarter of the way down the mountain when they heard the echo of first one rifle shot, then another.

“Sounds like Kennedy’s huntin’ too,” Peter said.

“You may not get that drink after all,” Joseph said. “I hear tell his woman don’t open that cabin door if he ain’t there.”

“Too bad,” Peter said. “I truly am thirsty.”

Joseph chuckled. “It’s still a ways. Maybe he’ll be back before we get there.”

But when they came within sight of the Kennedy place three-quarters of an hour later, they both forgot all about liquid refreshments.

A man lay face down in the middle of the frozen dirt track that skirted the Kennedy hollow. The snow and dirt were splashed red with blood. Charles Kennedy’s bear-like form crouched beside the sprawled body.

The Kinsinger brothers eased their elk to the side of the road and hurried forward.

Kennedy looked up, his black beard bristling around a perpetually angry mouth, his eyes watchful. “Injuns,” he said.

Peter and Joseph looked at each other, then Kennedy.

“Is he dead?” Peter asked.

Kennedy nodded. “I fought the Injuns off.” He stood and gestured toward the cabin. “Bullet holes in th’ door.” He nudged the dead man’s torso with the side of his boot. “Greenhorn ran.”

Joseph leaned down, reached for the man’s shoulder, and rolled him over. “I don’t recognize him.”

“Came from Taos,” Kennedy said. “Merchant there. So he said.”

Joseph straightened and looked away, down the road to Elizabethtown.

“When’d it happen?” Peter asked.

“Couple hours ago,” Kennedy said.

 The Kinsingers nodded, eyes raking the hollow and bloody snow, careful not to look at each other or Charles Kennedy.

“Well, we have meat to get home,” Joseph said. “We’ll tell the Sheriff’s deputy in Etown, and he can come fetch the body.” He looked down. “Whoever he is, I expect his Taos friends’ll be wantin’ to give him a proper burial.”

Kennedy nodded. He stood next to the dead man and raked his fingers through his beard as the Kinsingers returned to their elk, hoisted its carrying pole onto their shoulders, and trudged past him.

The brothers were out of sight over the rise to the northeast before either of them spoke.

“Injuns my hat,” Peter said over his shoulder.

Joseph spat into the snow at the side of the road. “Sure a convenient excuse though, ain’t they?”

“We didn’t see anything different,” Peter pointed out.

“Wouldn’t want to get crosswise of that one,” Joseph agreed. They trudged morosely on up the valley toward Elizabethtown.

from Old One Eye Pete

MORENO VALLEY TRADE FAIR

MORENO VALLEY TRADE FAIR

It’s a mere mule track, the man thought as he eyed the rocky ground on the hillside ahead. A fine silt hovered in the air behind him, marking the path he and the packhorse had followed from Rayado and the Santa Fe Trail at the base of the mountains.

They’d been climbing steadily and the vinegar scented blue-green junipers had given way to taller, straighter, deeper green trees: fir and pine. The man looked at them appreciatively, glad it was June and not mid-winter, when the snow that provided these trees with the moisture to live would have made the trail difficult.

He clucked at the packhorse and headed up the rocky slope. At Rayado yesterday, Jesús Abreu had told him there’d be a series of small mountain valleys before he reached the larger one. Then he was to move north, to where the Cimarron River began in a marsh on the east side of the Valley. The Indians met there to trade. The traveler shook his head. It was a long way to go on the chance that they’d be there. And able to pay for the goods he had with him. He hoped this worked.

~ ~ ~ ~

A short, barrel-chested Indian man stood at the edge of the encampment with his arms folded and a frown on his face, watching the man and packhorse moving slowly up the valley toward him. When the trader was close enough to speak, the man moved into the path and raised a hand.

The traveler looked at him quizzically. “You talk English?” he asked.

“You come to trade?”

“I hope to,” the traveler said. “If you all have something to trade with.”

“If your terms are fair.” The other man’s gaze moved to the horse’s laden packsaddle. “You sell whisky?”

The traveler shook his head. “’Fraid not.”

The other man stepped to the side of the path and gestured toward the camp behind him. “Then you are welcome.”

The trader moved forward but the Indian put up a hand to stop him. “If you are found with whisky, it will not go well for you,” he said flatly. “Yes sir,” the trader said, and the glimmer of a smile crossed the two faces simultaneously.

from Valley of the Eagles

BUZZARD BRAINS

BUZZARD BRAINS

“He ain’t got the brains God gave a buzzard,” the old man grumbled. He picked up his mattock and glared at the black-hatted figure retreating down the bottom of Humbug Gulch toward Elizabethtown. Then he looked uphill, toward Baldy Peak. “Idiot can’t even figure out there’s a storm up there and this gully likely t’wash out in another half hour.” He sniffed disdainfully and went back to work, breaking rock on the gully’s southern lip, searching for the gold that was bound to be there if a man worked the stones long enough.

The young man in the black bowler hat chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip as he trudged down the center of the gulch through the gravel and broken rock. He’d offered every dollar he had for the claim, but the miner clearly wasn’t interested in selling. He shook his head. There must be other options.

Halfway down the gulch, he paused to catch his breath and gaze at the mountain above. That dark cloud spoke rain. Given the southeast position of the cloud and the angle of the gulch, it was unlikely that particular cloudburst would wet this particular gully. However, just to be on the safe side, he moved halfway up the gully’s north slope before he continued his downward trek.

The sun was glaringly bright on the dry rocks. The young man sat down on a large sandstone boulder and took off his hat. He brushed at the dust on the black felt and shook his head. He needed to find something lighter weight and less apt to show dust. He’d keep wearing this in the meantime, though. If nothing else, it protected him from sunstroke. He glanced down at the shadowed side of his rocky seat and grinned. Like this boulder was protecting that bit of grass, growing here among the pitiless rocks where no plant had a right to be.

The young man’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. He shaded the clump of grass with his hat and peered down at it and the rocks around it. Then he straightened abruptly, glanced up the gully where the miner had gone back to work, and slid off the boulder. He crouched beside the big rock and gently pried a piece of broken quartz from the ground. He turned it slowly back and forth, examining every facet and seam.

Five minutes later, the young man sat back on his heels and turned the rock again, just to be certain. Then he picked up a stick and poked around a bit in the ground beside the boulder. He nodded thoughtfully, then stood and looked carefully at the gulch’s rocky slopes for any sign of possession. But this piece of land clearly hadn’t been claimed. Apparently, no one had thought there was gold this far down Humbug Gulch.

The young man chuckled, tucked the piece of quartz into his pocket, clapped his dusty black hat on his head, and headed into Elizabethtown to file the necessary paperwork for his claim.  

from Old One Eye Pete

Decisions

Decisions

The four young people stood inside the ranch cabin’s newly whitewashed walls and looked at each other uncertainly.

“What will you do?” Andrew asked. His sister Alma frowned at him, but Kathy only shook her carefully braided blond head, white handkerchief to her blue eyes.

William went to the window. A line of Taos Pueblo riders moved steadily toward the cabin through the gap from the southern part of the valley. “Here they come,” he said. He turned to his sister. “You gave your word.”

Kathy nodded, then shook her head. “Not precisely,” she whispered.

“I beg your pardon?”

Kathy lifted her head. “I didn’t say that I would marry Peter,” she said. “I didn’t say those precise words. But I’m sure that’s what he understood me to say.”

William’s jaw tightened under his reddish-blond beard. “And you didn’t disabuse him of that notion, either.”

She shook her head and turned away, to the only other woman in the room. “Oh, Alma, what am I going to do?”

The dark-haired, deeply tanned, and sturdy Alma put her arms around her pale thin blond friend. “You should follow your heart,” she said, feeling the inadequacy of her words.

Kathy shook her head against Alma’s shoulder. “I don’t know,” she sobbed. “I’m so afraid.”

Andrew was at the window now. “You’ll need to decide pretty quickly,” he said. “They’re almost here.”

But by the time the Taos Pueblo party rode into the dirt and gravel yard, Kathy had disappeared out the cabin’s back door. William and Andrew moved outside to provide an initial greeting and deal with the animals. Alma took a deep breath and faced the doorway, her square brown face anxious. She tucked an unruly curl behind her right ear.

Peter entered first, his dark face bright as an expectant schoolboy’s. He wore a blue and white checked shirt and pants so new they still had fold creases across the thighs. He took one look at Alma’s face and his expression fell. He moved to the far wall and faced it quietly, dark head bowed. Several children followed him inside and Alma scooped up a three-year-old boy she’d never seen before. “Where’d you get those big gray eyes?” she asked him. He giggled and she held him to her chest as she faced Peter’s father, Oscar, as he came through the doorway, dressed in traditional Taos garb, long hair tucked into a bun at the nape of his neck.

“Who is this little man?” she asked. “I haven’t met him before.”

Oscar’s eyes swept around the whitewashed room and came to rest on his son, face to the wall. “He’s my wife’s nephew’s child,” he answered. “The one who married the half-French girl.” He turned to the two men who had followed him in and shook his head slightly. The men turned back to the yard, shutting the door behind them. Oscar glanced at Peter, then Alma. “And where is my son’s Katarina?”

Alma’s eyes dropped and she set the little boy on the floor. He looked up at the two adults uncertainly, then he and the other children moved to the door.

Oscar let them out, then turned back to Alma. “Is there a problem?” His voice was mild enough, but there was an edge to it, as if he already knew the answer to his question.

“There has been a misunderstanding,” Alma said.

Peter made a muffled sound and turned to face them, slim body tense. “There has been no misunderstanding.” He looked at his father. “I have built us a house. Katarina may have misunderstood, but I did not.”

Oscar’s jaws tightened. “It is because we are Pueblan.”

Alma shook her head and spread her hands, palms up. “It is just a misunderstanding. Perhaps some confusion of languages.”

“There has been no confusion,” Peter said stiffly.

“Come, my son,” Oscar said. “We will not waste our words on this matter.”

“I am so sorry,” Alma said helplessly.

Oscar nodded slightly, acknowledging her words as he turned away. Peter, on the other hand, scowled into her face before he followed his father from the cabin and its mocking white walls.

Alma stood in the center of the room for a long time, eyes closed against the windowed sunlight, grieving for the pain in Peter’s face, the controlled anger in Oscar’s. The man had been her father’s good friend. Would he ever forgive her for her part in this? In the yard, men’s voices muttered and horse hooves stirred the gravelly dirt. A child asked a plaintive question, then the group from the Pueblo was gone.

Alma slipped out the back to look for Kathy and found her hunched on a small boulder on the hillside, staring south at the receding horses, her face wet with tears. “Oh, Alma, what have I done?” she asked plaintively. “I have hurt him so much.”

“It’s better to hurt him now than to live a lifetime of misery together,” Alma said stoutly.

Kathy shook her head. “It would not have been a complete misery.” 

“I told him there had been a misunderstanding.”

Kathy nodded, her eyes still focused on the horses moving steadily toward the lower Moreno Valley, where they would cross Palo Flechado Pass and move west down the Rio Fernando valley, then north through the village of Don Fernando de Taos to the pueblo. “Misunderstanding is certainly the appropriate word,” she said ruefully.

Alma looked away, studying the creek bed below and the cattle in the rich grass beside it. It was fine ranch land, this upper section of the Moreno Valley. Richer in some ways than the land she and her brother ranched in the lower part of the valley. The Taos Valley was well enough. It certainly had beautiful pasture land. But it was dryer there, and hotter in summer. It wasn’t the Moreno, with its green, high-mountain beauty, narrow meandering streams, and cool summer breezes. If she were Kathy, it would be hard indeed to leave such a place.

But then Kathy took a deep, ragged breath. “I have misunderstood my own heart,” she said. “And angered and insulted Peter’s family. Oscar is a proud man and his wife is even prouder. She dislikes me because I am not Pueblan. Now she will have even more reason to object to me.” She turned to her friend, tears welling again. “Oh, Alma, what have I done? They will never forgive me for this!”

* * * *

Three weeks later Kathy paid an unexpected visit to the lower valley. Alma was in the bare yard of the cabin she shared with her brother on the hillside overlooking the head of the Cimarron Canyon, but for once she was paying no attention to the scenic valley before her. Instead, she was carefully following the directions of the old curandera Guadalupita Otero, learning to make soap from yucca roots.

As they did every summer, the Taos folk healer and her son’s family had camped at the eastern end of Six Mile Creek, southwest of Alma and Andrew’s cabin, to graze their sheep and goats and take in the cool mountain air. Alma had happened upon Guadalupita on a nearby hillside, struggling to carry a large basket of yucca roots. As they carried the basket between them down the hillside, the old woman had explained that she would make soap from the roots and Alma had asked to be taught the process. Now they were carefully chopping the peeled and slippery chunks and mixing them into a pot of water simmering over a fire in the yard.

When Kathy arrived, they took a break inside, out of the sun, and Alma used a bit of precious sugar to sweeten the wild mint tea she’d brewed that morning. “I haven’t had time to chill it in the stream,” she apologized.

“It is better for you warm,” Guadalupita said.

Kathy nodded absently. She sipped her tea and looked at the floor.

“How is everything up at the ranch?” Alma asked. She looked more closely at her friend and the pensive tilt of her blond head. “Are you well?”

Kathy looked up and glanced from Alma to the old lady, then to Alma again.

Claramente, this is a private matter, ” Guadalupita said. She set down her cup and pushed herself to her feet. “We can finish the soap another day.” She turned to Alma. “Finish adding the amole to the water and then…”

“Please stay, señora,” Kathy said. She leaned forward and looked into the old woman’s face. “I may need your assistance. Certainly I need your advice.” She dropped her eyes. “If you would be so kind as to give it.”

Guadalupita peered into the younger woman’s face and then sat down again.

Alma frowned anxiously. “Kathy, what is it?”

Kathy took a deep, ragged breath. “I sent word to Peter that I am with child.” She glanced up, then at the floor. “He is a good man. He will have to marry me now.”

Alma’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh Kathy,” she said. “Are you certain?”

Kathy looked up. A grim little smile passed over her pale face. “I’m certain that I sent him the message.” 

Guadalupita chuckled.

Alma shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“After my foolishness last month, it’s the only possible way to obtain his parents’ agreement.” Kathy turned her head, avoiding her friend’s eyes. “And it will be true soon enough after we’re married.”

“Then you’re not actually….”

“It’s the only way I could think of.”

“But surely they’ll know that you aren’t actually….”

Kathy shook her head. “It’s too soon to tell without an physical examination.” She turned to Guadalupita. “I am not Catholic. The priest is almost certain to ask for confirmation from a curandera.

“This Peter is the Taos joven? Oscar Lujan’s younger son?” Guadalupita asked. “I think his mother will ask, if the priest does not. I have heard that she is very angry that you rejected her precious hijo.”

“I was a fool.” Kathy dropped her head. “I know that now.” She looked up, her eyes pleading. “Señora Otero, would you confirm it for me?”

“And if you do not become pregnant immediately after el casamiento?”

“I will say that I lost the child.”

Guadalupita clicked her tongue and shook her head.

“And what about Peter?” Alma asked. “Will he believe you?”

Kathy smiled and her cheeks reddened. “He will know it is not true. We have never— I wouldn’t let him—” She looked down at her hands, then at Alma, calmer now. “If he responds with a message acknowledging the child, I will know he has forgiven my foolishness. If he sends a message rejecting it, or if he doesn’t respond, then I will try—” She bit her lip. “I will try to forget him,” she whispered. She covered her face with her hands. “And I will never forgive myself,” she sobbed.

“Oh, Kathy.” Alma knelt beside Kathy’s chair and put an arm around her friend’s shoulders. “Are you certain this is the only way?”

Kathy took her hands from her face. “I can think of no other.” She lifted her chin. “I don’t know whether or not I have done the right thing, but that is what I have done. I won’t go back now.”

Guadalupita chuckled. “Verdad you are a child no longer, I think.” She looked out the window for a long moment, then turned to the girl and gave a sharp little nod. “I will help you.”

“Oh, señora,” Kathy said. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You would perjure yourself?” Alma blurted, eyes dark with surprise.

The old lady compressed her lips. “I will help you.” The girls stared at her determined eyes and knew that it was not for Kathy that she was doing this thing. But the look in Guadalupita’s face did not invite questioning. “But for now, we will make soap,” the curandera said firmly.

* * * *

As she made her slow way back to her family’s campsite that afternoon, Guadalupita pondered her decision. It had been made on the spur of the moment, but it felt inevitable. Sixty-some years ago her mother had lain with a young Apache man. She herself was the result of that summer romance. But her abuela, her mother’s mother, was one who clung fiercely to the purity of her Spanish blood. She had rejected any possibility of marriage between the young people and badgered her daughter into a rapid casamiento with a pure-bloodedwidower who had three young sons, a temper, and a penchant for Taos Lightning. It was of no importance that he was a drunk and a wife beater: the unborn child would be baptized with a Spanish lineage.

Guadalupita hadn’t known her true origins until she herself was married and her mother was dying. Always she had wondered why her father and abuela disliked her so much. It had been a relief to discover that she was not related to the hombre who had caused her and her mamá so much pain.

She knew Peter’s mother, of her pride in her Pueblo blood lines. Guadalupita shook her head. She would not stand by while another young woman lost her güiso, her sweetheart, as a result of such foolishness. There would be pain enough in the day-to-day living of their love, with a mother-in-law always looking to find fault.

The old curandera stopped to rest, eyes contemplating the green-black mountains that lined the western side of the valley. Below the opposite slopes lay the Taos Pueblo. Guadalupita shook her head and smiled, recalling the look in the blond girl’s face as she’d said “That is what I have done. I won’t go back now.” She was a strong one, that Katarina. Stronger than she knew.

The old woman turned and began walking again. As for perjuring herself: Hah! She was not afraid of the priests. She had ceased listening to them seven years before, on that January morning in the American year 1847 when so many had died in the Taos revolt, including her own esposo. Those who inveigh against a thing and then are horrified when their listeners take action against the thing execrated deserve no respect. They do not speak for el Dios. Guadalupita’s chin jerked defiantly upward, unconsciously mimicking the movement of Kathy’s face three hours before.

from Old One Eye Pete

YOU PROMISED ME GLASS WINDOWS

YOU PROMISED ME GLASS WINDOWS

Suzanna’s eyes narrowed and her lips tightened. “I did not come to this god forsaken valley to live in a cave,” she snapped. The toddler on her hip started fussing but Suzanna only shifted impatiently and continued to glare at her husband on the other side of the room. “You promised me glass windows. You also said you wanted to farm, that you were finished with trapping.”

Gerald gestured at the beaver pelts lying just inside the cabin door. “I was finding the means to buy glass,” he said mildly.

Suzanna turned away. “The money will just go to something else.” Alma fussed again and Suzanna bent to place her on the floor. “The mule will go lame or cougars will take down a couple more calves.”

“Suzanna sweet–”

“Don’t you ‘sweet’ me!” She straightened, hands on her hips. “I will not be sweet-talked out of this! You can’t expect me to live in a cabin with just shutters at the windows, sitting in the dark whenever it rains!”

“We have lamps.”

“It’s not the same and you know it!”

Alma had toddled to her father. She clung to his leg, looking up at him. “Papa stay home?” she asked. “Mama ang’y.” She shook her dark curly head. “Me don’ like Mama ang’y.”

Gerald and Suzanna stared at each other for a long moment. Then Gerald scooped Alma into his arms and Suzanna threw her hands in the air helplessly and crossed the room. She leaned her head against his shoulder. “I had no idea when you would return,” she said into his sleeve.

 Copyright ©2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

NOTE: This is a prequel to my novel No Secret Too Small

U.S. Mail Heads to Santa Fe!

U.S. Mail Heads to Santa Fe!

On Monday, July 1, 1850, the first stage-transported U.S. mail left Independence, Missouri for Santa Fe, New Mexico with eight men guarding the mule-drawn coach.

This was the first Congressionally authorized four-year contract for mail transported by vehicle between Independence and New Mexico. It had initially been set to leave Fort Leavenworth but the contract was modified to send it out of Independence instead, reducing the route distance from 885 to 840 miles.

The mail contractors in 1850 were Dr. David Waldo of New Mexico and Jacob Hall of Independence. The stage not only carried the mail, it also provided passenger service, with fares of $100 in the summer and $150 during the winter. A letter of less than half an ounce cost $0.10 and could be sent collect, postage to be paid by the recipient.

The company that Waldo and Hall formed in 1850 dissolved four years later, when Hall bought Waldo out and teamed up with John M. Hockaday to transport the mail for the next contract period. In 1857, service moved to semimonthly and the following year Hall again placed a successful bid, this time as sole proprietor. In 1862, he bid again, but the contract was awarded to George H. Vickroy and Thomas J. Barnum.

The Eastern terminus for the stage also shifted that year, moving west to Kansas City. Now the shortening of the line that had begun on the first run accelerated, responding to the growth of the railroads. Stage service to Santa Fe would end completely in 1880 with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. But the idea of the stage and its symbolic connection to the American frontier would linger much longer.