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 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 isolated and ramshackle 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 Etown.”

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, they both forgot all about liquid refreshment.

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 this 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 ran 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 it?”

“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

 

THE LOST SOUL

As Jorgé Ruibal wandered up the middle of the road toward Elizabethtown proper, the men outside the taberna watched him sympathetically. “El joven es como alma en pena,” Carlos Otero the jeweler said. “The young man is like a lost soul.”

“Si,” said the boy’s uncle. “He has lost his laborer job with Señor Bergmann. His papá is very angry with him.”

“I heard he was in love and that his love was unrequited,” Eduardo Suaso, the taberna’s musician, said.

María de la Luz, the boy’s cousin, appeared from around the corner of the building. She carried a basket of clean linens for delivery to Henri Lambert’s Etown restaurant and hotel. She gazed at Jorgé, who’d stopped to poke his foot at a stone in the road. “He wants to leave here, but his mamá is unwilling,” she said.

Jorgé, oblivious to these speculations, still stood in the dusty street, poking at the stone with his boot. It was so inert and yet so full of a kind of compressed energy. He looked east, toward the massive bulk of Baldy Mountain. The gullies that swung out from its sides were full of rocks and men scrambling through them looking for gold. Yet the mountain bulked there impassively, impervious to the miners who crawled over it. Jorgé crammed his hands in his pockets and stared upward, drinking in its stony greenness, its lack of engagement with the tiny men poking at its skin.

Outside the taberna, the americano miner called Hobart Mitchell came to the door with a drink in his hand and considered the staring boy. “He looks like’n idiot, standin’ there,” Mitchell said. “Touched in the head.”

The others all nodded noncommittally and continued to gaze sympathetically after Jorgé as he wandered on up the road.

from Valley of the Eagles

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

INDECISION

Billy Dupre pulled his ivory-handled Colt pistol from its holster and laid it beside him on the granite boulder. He looked at the revolver thoughtfully, then twisted away to gaze at the valley below. The morning light was just beginning to turn the tops of the western mountains a pinkish-orange. He sighed and shook his head.

“You backin’ and fillin’ again?” a sleepy voice asked from the other side of the burnt-out fire.

Billy glanced around. “I can’t help it, Johnny,” he said. “I just can’t get to makin’ up my mind to killin’ a man just cuz I’m paid to do it. A man who never did nothin’ to me or mine. Someone I don’t even know.”

“You were in the army, same as me,” Johnny Kemp said. “You did it then, didn’t ya?”

“That was war. This is different.”

“And you’re from Missouri, same as me,” Kemp persisted. “Weren’t there no bushwhackers where you come from?”

“Yep, and I shot my share. But that was defendin’ my family and my home, same as when I joined up.” Billy looked toward the sunlit mountain peaks. “Not that it did me much good. By the time I got back, my ma was dead, my pa was half-crazy, and that Sally Ann–” He stood abruptly and nudged at the ashes in the fire ring with his booted toe. “There’s no embers left. You got a match?”

“That girl done and gone, didn’t she?” Johnny sat up and reached for his knapsack. “That Sally Ann?”

“It’s all done and gone.” Billy turned and began moving around the edge of the campsite, collecting small pieces of downed aspen branches. “All of it’s right done and gone.”

“So you should be wrathful enough to shoot just about any varmint that crosses your path.” Kemp stood, stretched, and began buckling his pants. “Cuz there’s no one left back there and no one here neither.” He grinned. “No one ’sides me.” He crossed to the boulder and hefted the Colt, then flipped it expertly, feeling the balance of the thing. “Nice gun,” he said.

“No, you can’t have it,” Billy said. He dropped an armload of wood beside the fire ring.

Kemp grinned, put the pistol back on the rock, and crossed to the firewood. “So what’re you gonna do if you don’t go to shootin’ for pay?” He crouched down, took out his knife, and began shaving bark into a small pile. “You gonna go back to laborin’ at one of those Etown sawmills? Become a mine flunky?”

“I might.” Billy went back to the big rock. He stared down at the valley as he reholstered the pistol. “We had us a farm in Missouri,” he said thoughtfully.

Johnny Kemp rocked back on his heels. An incredulous grin split his face. “You gonna be a farmer? A bug-ridden land-rich cash-poor dirt grubber?”

Billy Dupre stared at the sunlight touching the grasses below and glinting off the small streams that meandered across the valley toward the canyon of the Cimarron. “I might,” he said. “I just might.”

from Old One Eye Pete

MINERS GOTTA EAT

“Me and Joe didn’ come alla way out here jus’ to cook for no white men,” Frank Edwards grumbled as he slammed dirty dishes into the hotel sink. “You’d think we was still slaves in Kentucky.”

“You be only eighteen,” Louis the cook said. He positioned a pan of potatoes on the wooden table and picked up the pealing knife. “And what’s Joe, twenty three? You all have plenty o’ time.”

Joe Williams came in the door with an armload of firewood. “I here tell there’s a gold claim for sale in Humbug Gulch,” he told Frank as he dumped the wood into the bin next to the stove. “They askin’ seventy-five dollars.”

Frank’s hands stopped moving in the dishwater. “You reckon we got enough?”

Louis looked up from his potatoes. “You two listen to me and you listen good,” he said sharply. “You go to minin’ and you’re gonna lose every penny you have. Miners gotta eat, even when they so broke they sellin’ their claims. Stick to feedin’ ’em and you’ll do better in th’ long run.”

Frank and Joe looked at each other and shrugged. “We don’t got enough anyway,” Joe said. He jerked his head sideways, toward Louis. “An’ the old man has a point.”

“You better watch who you callin’ an old man,” Louis said gruffly. “And that wood box ain’t full enough yet, neither. Not by a long shot.”

from Valley of the Eagles

THICKER ‘N SNOT

“It’s s’posed to be August, dadburn it.” Julius Fairfield looked gloomily out the door of the long, narrow log cabin that served as the Quartz Mill & Lode Mining Company barracks outside of Elizabethtown. “This fog is thicker’n snot.”

In one of the iron beds lining the walls behind him, somebody sneezed. “And there’s the snot for ye,” Edward Kelly, the company’s lone Irishman, chortled as he added more wood to the pot belly stove halfway down the room.

A door opened at the far end and the chief engineer came out. He ignored the men in the beds as he walked down the room to peer over Fairfield’s shoulder. “That fog’ll lift shortly,” he said. He clapped Fairfield on the back. “Be thankful it’s not rain.”

“That was yesterday’s gift to us all,” Fairfield said gloomily. He shook his head. “And here I thought New Mexico Territory’d be drier than New York.” He grinned and glanced at the engineer. “When’d you say payday was?”

Behind them, Kelly began to sing a song praising Ireland and its green hills, and a chorus of voices yowled at him to be still. The engineer chuckled and turned. “That’s enough now!” he said.

from The Valley of the Eagles

DECISION POINT

Three years after the Great Rebellion, Henry still drifted. There was nothing behind him in Georgia and nothing further west than San Francisco. Not that he wanted to go there. The California gold fields were played out.

But he needed to get out of Denver. A man could stand town life only so long and he’d been here three months. The Colorado gold fields were collasping, anyway. Played out before he even got here.

“Been too late since the day I was born,” he muttered, putting his whisky glass on the long wooden bar.

“I hear tell there’s gold in Elizabethtown,” the bartender said. He reached for Henry’s glass and began wiping it out. He knew Henry’s pockets were empty.

“Where’s Elizabethtown?”

“New Mexico Territory. Near Taos somewheres.”

Henry nodded and pushed himself away from the bar. “Elizabethtown,” he repeated as he hitched up his trousers. “Now there’s an idea.”

from Valley of the Eagles