Another Excerpt from No Secret Too Small

This is another excerpt from my new Old New Mexico novel, No Secret Too Small.

CHAPTER 8

When the children appear in the doorway to the kitchen, Consuela looks up in surprise.

“Grandfather said we should have tea here,” Andrew tells her.

The cook waves a hand at the table. It’s covered with flour, baking utensils, and a tray that holds a blue-flowered teapot and a plate piled with biscuits. “There is no room.” In the corner fireplace, a big copper kettle begins to burble. She turns toward it. “And I am baking. It is not a good time.”

“We can go into the courtyard,” Alma offers. “We can have our tea there.”

“Two places,” the cook sniffs. She lifts the teakettle from the fire, moves to the table, and begins filling the flowered pot. She glances at the corner cupboard, where there’s another pot, a simple brown one. “Two teas and not one.”

“I can help.” Alma moves to the cupboard, lifts the pot from its shelf, and carries it to the table.

Consuela picks up the flowered pot, pours the water from it into the brown one, then drops tea leaves into the first pot and adds more hot water. She looks up and jerks her chin toward the cupboard. “The tea is in the wood box.”

Alma returns to the corner, lifts down a flat ornately carved container, and carries it to the table. When the cook lifts the lid, the rich scent of black tea fills the air. Alma leans forward to examine the oblong of compressed leaves inside. Three of the squares have been cut out and used already, so the block is no longer rectangular. The piece that juts out has been reduced to perhaps half its original size.

Consuela drains the water from the brown pot, then reaches for a small knife. She carefully slices a sliver of tea off the block, places it in the pot, and pours more hot water in. As she pours, she nods toward the pot on the tray. “You should take that in now. Before it gets bitter.”

Alma looks at her in surprise, then realizes the cook doesn’t know why she and Andrew were sent out of the room. She takes a deep breath and gingerly lifts the tray. When she nears the doorway, Andrew snatches a biscuit from the plate, then retreats into the hall and out the courtyard door. It thuds behind him as she moves carefully toward the parlor.

The tray is heavy and requires both hands. Alma pauses outside the door, uncertain how to hold it and open the door at the same time. She braces the edge of the tray between the adobe wall and her hip and reaches for the door.

Then she stops. Inside the room, her mother’s voice rises in frustration. “Tarnation! You haven’t heard a word of what I’ve just said!”

“I have heard you very well,” Alma’s grandfather answers. “However, I believe you are not being entirely truthful with yourself or with me.”

“Truthful! How dare—” There’s a short silence, then she speaks again. “Would you care to explain yourself?”

“Before Gerald asked me for your hand you made it very clear that you saw no need to pry into his background.” His voice drops. Alma has to strain to hear him. “You were in love.”

“I didn’t want you to discover something that would make you refuse him.” Her tone sharpens. “You were convinced I was too young. You would have latched onto anything to make us wait.”

“Hmm.” It’s the voice he uses when he doesn’t want to say what’s really on his mind.

“My age at the time is not relevant to this discussion.” Her mother sounds downright sulky. “He lied to me.”

“He wasn’t completely forthcoming. It’s not quite the same thing.”

A chair squeaks. When she speaks again, it’s clear she’s moved across the room. Her voice has changed. She sounds more puzzled than angry. “Doesn’t this news surprise you, at least? Concern you in any way?”

His tone is carefully neutral. “Why would it?”

“You knew.” There’s a pause, then she says again, “You knew! And you didn’t think I should be told?”

“You said you didn’t want to know anything about him but what you had seen with your own eyes and heard with your own ears. Perhaps not in those words. But that was clearly your intent.”

“Tarnation!” she says again.

There’s another moment of silence. Then suddenly the door to the room flies open. Alma straightens and lifts the tea tray. Her mother glares down at her. “You undoubtedly knew, also!” She stalks into the hall and toward the courtyard door. “Everybody seems to have known but me!”

The next morning, she stays in bed. Old One Eye Pete has gone off to visit friends at the pueblo. The children and their grandfather eat breakfast in silence at the kitchen table, although Alma stirs her porridge more than she eats it. There’s a hard lump in her belly that’s been there since her mother stormed out of the parlor.

Alma watches Andrew gulp down his food. When he eyes her dish, she scoots it across to him. When the bowl scrapes the table top, her grandfather looks up but doesn’t comment. Alma sits with her hands in her lap, waiting dully for whatever is going to happen next. She’s very tired. The night was a long one.

Finally, Grandfather Peabody puts his spoon in his bowl, drains the last of his strawberry leaf tea, and nods to the cook. “Thank you, Consuela. That was a fine repast.”

“I am sorry there were no eggs for you this morning, señor,” she says. “Gregorio is still trying to understand where the snake is entering the coop.”

“I’ll manage without eggs every morning,” he says. “Though I do enjoy them when they’re available.” He turns to Andrew. “I wonder if that dog of yours might help to locate the reptilian entrance point.”

Andrew nods eagerly. “Chaser can find anything!”

Consuela sniffs. “He is so big, he will destroy the nest boxes.”

Alma’s grandfather strokes his chin beard. “He might at that. Perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea.” He turns back to Andrew, whose mouth is twisted in disappointment. “But I know he is an excellent companion. Perhaps we should take him to the plaza with us and introduce him to mis vecinos.”

On the way to the center of town, their grandfather explains that the Don Fernando de Taos plaza consists of joined abode buildings constructed around a large hollow square. It has four entrances, each with a big wooden gate that can be barred and locked.

“To keep the Comanches out?” Andrew asks.

He nods. “Comanches or Utes or Navajo. It was constructed many years ago. Nowadays, the only Indians who raid in New Mexico are the Navajo and they’re more interested in the pastures than the towns. They primarily want sheep.”

Alma reaches for his hand. She’s heard the stories. “And boys to herd them and girls to spin and weave the wool.”

He squeezes her fingers in his. “But you have a mastiff to protect you. At any rate, I’m certain you aren’t foolish enough to wander the fields by yourself.”

Alma thinks wistfully of her mountain valley streams and their fat trout, and nods. Chaser Two loops around behind Andrew and her grandfather and nudges at her hand. She smiles at him and pats his big head.

They’re at the northeast corner of the plaza now. It looks like a much larger version of her grandfather’s courtyard, except instead of plants and woodpiles on its edges there are long, covered porches and people sitting or squatting in their shade.

Some of the people have laid out blankets and arranged produce, pots, or other goods on them for sale. Others stand talking or move from vendor to vendor, shopping. The sun beats down from a bright blue sky with a single white cloud in it.

Andrew steps to one side to investigate the contents of a blanket. He picks up a wooden whistle and turns to show it to Alma. “It looks like the one Old Pete made me!”

His grandfather gently takes the whistle from the boy’s hand and returns it to the blanket with an apologetic word to the vendor, a man wrapped in a big red-striped white blanket. “You must not touch something unless you are interested in purchasing it,” he tells the children. “It’s not polite.”

“Oh.” Andrew puts his hands behind his back and turns to the man. “Perdóneme.”

The corner of the man’s eyes crinkle as he smiles at the boy, then his sister. “De nada.”

“Are your grandchildren stealing again?” a deep voice says from behind them.

The children jerk around, but their grandfather only laughs. “Ah, Padre,” he says. “You’ve caught us at last.”

A thick-chested man with a high forehead and wearing a long black robe smiles at Andrew, then Alma, benevolently. There’s a sharpness in his eyes that doesn’t match his expression. Alma offers him a small smile anyway. Andrew studies him wide-eyed.

“Padre, these are my grandchildren, Alma and Andrew Locke,” their grandfather says. “Children, this is Padre Antonio José Martínez.”

Alma gives him a small curtsy, as her mother has taught her, and the priest laughs in delight. Andrew says, “I’ve heard about you!”

The Padre chuckles and gives their grandfather a sideways glance. “Only good things, I hope.”

“You share books with Grandfather Peabody and talk with him about important things,” Alma says before her brother can repeat the gossip Old One Eye Pete and Bill Williams have brought to the cabin. Things about women and money and power that she doesn’t really understand. Padre Martínez smiles at her, then turns back to her grandfather. “She looks remarkably like her father. That square-shaped face and that hair.”

Alma takes her grandfather’s hand and turns her head so the priest can’t see her left cheek. She should have worn her sunbonnet.

But the men aren’t paying attention to her anymore. Another man has joined them, a man taller than Grandfather Peabody. She tilts her head to get a better look. His skin is almost as pale as her New England grandfather’s, and he has dancing brown eyes and wavy black hair. He’s standing still, but it almost feels like he’s moving. Energy seems to radiate from him. He gives her a bright glance, then nods respectfully at something her grandfather is saying. Next to Gregorio, he’s the handsomest man she’s ever seen.

Then Grandfather Peabody turns to her and says her name. “This is Señor Donaciano Vigil.” He gives the man a questioning look. “I believe he’s a relative of Ramón.”

“Juan Ramón Chavez of Don Fernando de Taos?” The man laughs and spreads his hands, palms up. “Isn’t everyone in nuevo mexico related to Ramón?”

“I thought you were in prison for insubordination,” Padre Martínez asks. “Or can they jail presidio soldiers for insubordination when you aren’t being paid?”

Señor Vigil laughs again. “I am in town for only a short time, on an errand for the governor, but I have to report to el calabozo as soon as I return to Santa Fe.”

Padre Martínez looks at Alma’s grandfather. “Surely you’ve heard the story.” He nods toward the newcomer. “This one here didn’t give his superior officer due deference and the credit the officer thought he deserved at Valencia’s mercantile. As a result, the señor here was arrested for insubordination.”

Vigil spreads his hands, palms up. “Because Governor Pérez ran out of money for the troops, I was assisting my cousin in his store, translating and clerking, fetching and carrying.” He grimaces. “Now I’m either sitting in jail or running errands for the governor.” Then he grins. “Actually, working in the store and being in jail are much alike. Both involve a great deal of sitting around, interspersed with activity. Except for the pay and not carrying a weapon, I still have the duties of a soldier.”

“You’re a soldier?” Andrew breaks in. He stares at the tall man in admiration.

Alma’s grandfather frowns. Donaciano Vigil gives him a swift glance, then nods at the boy. “I am. But right now there is no money to pay me, so I do other work. Soldiering is not a good livelihood if one has a family. And it’s often quite boring.”

“Like the Navajo campaign you returned from in March,” Padre Martínez observes.

Señor Vigil grins. “That was both boring and cold.” He turns to Alma’s grandfather. “Although your man Gregorio Garcia comported himself well. I was glad to make his acquaintance.”

“He is not my man,” he answers. “Although he does work for me occasionally. But I will pass your kind words on to his mother, who was not pleased when he joined the militia.”

Padre Martínez frowns. “I will speak to her also. It is a man’s duty to participate in the militia when it is called upon. The Navajo are a constant danger to us and must be repelled at all costs. I and my brothers have lost many sheep and even cattle to them over the years.”

Señor Vigil is looking past Alma’s grandfather to the northeast entrance of the plaza. “Ah, but here is the man himself.”

Alma turns. Gregorio moves toward them, a bundle of linens in each hand. She smiles brightly at him, but he’s focused on her grandfather and the other men. He moves his hands toward his back, making the bundles seem smaller.

“Gregorio Garcia!” the priest says playfully. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you at mass!”

Gregorio nods respectfully to each of the men in turn. “Sargento,” he says to Señor Vigil.

“We were just speaking of you and military service,” Alma’s grandfather says.

Gregorio smiles slightly. “Although the campaign last winter was a cold one and we didn’t see any Navajo, I found I enjoyed it.”

Señor Vigil claps him on the back. “Good man!” He peers at Gregorio’s bundles. “And now, like me, you have returned to town and all the duties pertaining thereto.” He grins conspiratorially. “We do what we must to keep our households fed and warm.”

Gregorio gives him a rueful look. “My mother launders, I deliver.” Then he turns to Alma’s grandfather. “And assist others where I can. I will come this afternoon to search again for that snake.”

“Ah, Consuela will be glad to hear it.” He nods toward Chaser, who’s still standing patiently beside Alma. “Andrew and the mastiff may be of some assistance to you, also.”

“I can help too.” Alma looks into Gregorio’s face. “I’m not the least bit afraid of snakes.”

“Like mother, like daughter,” the priest chuckles.

Alma’s head jerks toward him. She certainly hopes not. She opens her mouth to say so, but his eyes are sharp as a serpent’s, even though his lips are smiling. She looks at Gregorio instead.

He grins back at her. “Of course you can help, nita.” He glances at her grandfather. “If your abuelo agrees.” He nods and gives the children a stern look. “Catching a snake is serious business. You must exercise caution and obey Señor Garcia in whatever he tells you to do.”

from No Secret Too Small

Excerpt – No Secret Too Small

This is an excerpt from my new novel No Secret Too Small. Enjoy!

CHAPTER 4

Although the children don’t agree on the righteousness of their mother’s anger, they do agree that it’s best not to turn her sharp gaze on themselves. So when they’re in the barn feeding the chickens and collecting eggs two days later, they don’t go running to the house to announce that the black hen has once again escaped the pole-latticed chicken pen and is in the hayloft.

Instead, Alma dumps the rest of the feedgrain into the chickens’ narrow cottonwood trough and follows Andrew out of the pen. She latches the door behind them, then pushes the sides of her sunbonnet away from her face to see into the loft above the chicken enclosure. The hen is trotting along the edge of the loft. “Tarnation!” Alma says. “We’re going to have to go get her.”

Andrew is carrying the woven willow basket of eggs. The yellow barn cat rubs against his feet. He looks down at her. “You’d just love to have an egg to eat, wouldn’t you?”

“Cats don’t eat eggs,” Alma says absently. She’s still watching the black hen.

Andrew eyes the cat, who looks much thinner than she did a few days ago. “I wouldn’t put it past her.” He turns and studies the barn interior. “There ain’t no place really safe from a cat, is there?” He lugs the basket to the tack room at the other end of the big dusty space, unlatches the door, sets the basket down next to Old Pete’s gear, and pushes the peg firmly back into the latch. Then he nods at the cat. “Try to get into that, why don’t ya?”

Alma looks over her shoulder at the closed barn door and jiggles impatiently. “We’re wasting time. If Mama comes in, we’ll have to tell her about the hen.”

“Come on, then.” Andrew scrambles up the ladder and she follows close behind. As he swings into the loft, the hen begins to squawk angrily.

“What’d you do, step on her?” Alma laughs. She’s on the top rung now.

But Andrew is still next to the ladder and the hen is in the far corner, hopping along a small ridge of hay and peering at something behind it. She flaps her wings irritably.

Andrew begins unbuttoning his shirt. “We need something to cover her head.”

“She’ll scratch your bare chest with her feet,” Alma says. “Just a minute.” She swings into the loft and reaches for her sunbonnet. “This stupid thing turns out to be useful after all.”

She hands the floppy cotton to Andrew. He grasps a side flap in each hand and moves cautiously toward the chicken. She’s too busy scolding the hay to notice him. He swoops the sunbonnet over her head and bundles it tight against her wings before she can react. Her feet scrabble at empty air as he lifts her, then she goes still. Alma grabs the dangling strings, wraps them around the hen’s enclosed body, and ties them in a neat bow. “That should do it.”

Andrew grins and hefts the chicken in his arms. “Maybe this will teach her to stop trying to get out.” He turns and leans to look into the space she’d been fussing at. “Oh look! It’s kittens!”

The children have their heads together, examining the blind babies in their nest, when a door hinge squeals below. They look at the trussed hen in Andrew’s arms, then each other, and sink onto the hay-strewn loft boards so whoever is below can’t see them.

“We need to talk.” Their father’s voice has a grim weariness to it. The children look at each other apprehensively. There’s only one person he speaks to in that way.

“How could you not tell me?” Their mother’s voice is low and furious. There are no tears in it. Alma looks at Andrew, who has closed his eyes. He looks like he’d put his hands over his ears if he wasn’t still clutching the hen.

“How dare you not tell me such a thing?” their mother continues. “How could you keep such a thing from me? Why, what you’ve done is downright criminal!” A hand slaps the side of the empty cow stall, rattling the boards. “You lied to me! Not with words, but with every action you took!” Her voice rises. “You lied to me! How dare you!”

“Suzanna—” He sounds almost like he wants to plead with her. Alma leans forward, wishing she could see, but Andrew jabs her ribs with his elbow. His eyes are wide open now. He shakes his head at her urgently.

“Don’t you touch me!” their mother snaps.

There’s a shuffling sound, as if their father is moving as far away from her as he can without actually leaving the barn. “I’m sorry.” His voice is stiff now, not pleading.

“That’s all you can say?”

“If you’ll recall, I tried to tell you.” Then his voice changes, becomes sadder. “I was a coward. I see that now. But I didn’t want to lose you. And you said you didn’t care about my past, my background. That it was me you wanted. That my character was all that mattered.” There’s a long silence, then he says quietly, “And I wanted to believe you.”

A piece of harness jingles as he paces past it. The children look at each other and smile slightly in spite of the tension. Papa paces when he’s thinking. “Enoch Jones would have told you all about me,” he says. “Given half a chance.”

“Is that why you tried to kill him in the Gila wilderness?”

He stops moving. “Of course not! Jones was attacking Gregorio Garcia. I had to do something to stop him. Then when he came at me, I had no choice. You know that. I told you what happened.” He begins moving again. Another piece of harness jingles as he brushes past. “I’m surprised he didn’t tell you about me when he attacked you in the cornfield six years ago. But I suppose he had other things on his mind.”

“He did say there was something about you I didn’t know. But I thought he was just trying to distract me. I never expected anything like this.” She snorts. “And I was in no position to give him a chance to explain.”

There’s a short pause. Then her voice hardens. “All right. I suppose I invited you to not tell me the truth. But the fact remains that you’ve been living a lie all these years, letting me believe your Irish mother was married to a man of the same race. That you simply had skin that tanned well and stayed that way. Not bothering to explain just where Alma’s skin color and those so-called freckles on her face came from.”

She pauses as if she’s waiting for him to answer. When he doesn’t, she says, “But now it turns out that you’re negro, of all things. Son of a man who’s a runaway slave.” Her voice rises. “What in tarnation did you expect? That I’d simply say ‘oh my goodness, what a pleasant surprise’?”

“My father isn’t a runaway slave. His mother was. His father was Cherokee.”

“It’s still in the blood.”

“What, the runaway part or the African part?” There’s a harshness in his voice that Alma’s never heard before. She bites her lip.

But then he seems to catch himself. His tone changes. “I wanted to tell you,” he says quietly. “So many times. But when that first opportunity passed and you didn’t seem to care, well, I thought I’d wait a while, until we’d been married a bit.” He begins pacing again. “I thought you’d guessed and that it truly didn’t matter. That it wasn’t something even worth discussing. That with your own Navajo grandmother, you’d understand.”

There’s a long silence. When he speaks again, there’s bitterness in his voice. “But it’s not the Cherokee part of me that’s the problem, of course. It’s the negro, the blackness. Not telling you was sheer foolishness. I should have known you were just like all the others.”

“What others?” she snaps. “What in tarnation is that supposed to mean? And skin color has nothing to do with this! You lied to me!”

“And if I hadn’t? Would you have married me anyway?”

There’s a long silence. “I—” Her voice catches as she speaks. “I don’t know.”

“Probably not.”

“But you’ll never know, will you?” Her voice rises. “Because you didn’t have the courage to find out!”

Alma’s breath catches. Her mother has just called her father a coward.

In the barn below, his hand thuds against a board. “What the blazes, Suzanna? You said then that you didn’t care where I came from and now you say that if you’d known, you wouldn’t have married me! I gave you what you said you wanted and now you throw it in my face! What’s a man supposed to do?”

There’s another long silence. When she speaks again, her voice is icy. “We have clearly come to a parting of the ways in terms of our perspective on this matter. I think—”

But just then, the outer door rattles. Alma cranes her neck. A sliver of light dances upward from the opening.

“Children?” Ramón’s voice calls. The door swings farther open. “Ah, perdóneme,” he says. “I sent los chamacos to gather the eggs and they have not yet returned.”

“Those two are so irresponsible,” their mother says irritably, though her voice sounds oddly relieved.

“They’re probably down in the canyon watching beaver,” their father says.

Their mother’s skirts swish as she crosses to the door. It swings farther open. “Alma!” she shouts. “Andrew!”

Andrew’s mouth opens instinctively. He leans forward, but Alma grabs his arm and pulls him back. She shakes her head and he nods reluctantly and sinks back onto the floorboards.

“Ah well, they will return when they are ready,” Ramón says. “Perhaps the black hen has escaped again and they have gone in search of her.”

“I wouldn’t put it past that hen to keep trying to get out,” their mother agrees. “She ought to go in a soup pot, then we wouldn’t have—” Her voice fades as the three adults leave the barn.

The hen clucks nervously and twitches her feet. Andrew chuckles as he strokes the cloth. “Don’t worry, I won’t let them eat you,” he whispers.

Alma moves cautiously to the edge of the loft and sticks her head out far enough to see the dim interior below. The door is firmly shut.

“Did Ramón know we were up here?” Andrew asks. Alma shrugs. She suddenly doesn’t want to talk anymore. She touches the heart-shaped freckle on her face. Light flickers from the roof and she glances up. There are holes between the wood shingles. Like her heart. “Let’s get out of here,” she says.

from No Secret Too Small

TRAPPER IN LOVE

“I had me a little señorita once,” the old trapper said. “She was a real firecracker, that one. I never did learn Spanish real good and she could pull herself up all royal like and tighter’n a beaver trap all set to snap and not near as useful. She’d start spittin’ Spanish at me like some kinda wildcat and I didn’ know what she was sayin’ but I knew enough to let her be ’til she got over her fuss. She’d push her black hair away from her fire-flashin’ eyes and let out with ‘Es más feo que un dolor de estómago!’ and then she’d yell ‘Es más sabio que Salomón!’ I didn’t know a word o’ what she was sayin’ but I could tell from her tone that it was high time to skedaddle on outa there and go huntin’.” 

The old man shook his head. “Guess I went huntin’ one too many times, ’cuz one day I come back with a nice big cougar pelt and she was done gone. Too bad. That was the prettiest skin I ever saw.”

He leaned forward. “What’s that you say? I was uglier’n a stomach ache and thought I was smarter’n King Solomon? That’s all she was sayin’? Here I was sure she was ready t’ take a knife t’ me or send her brother Sol t’ do it for her. An’ all she was doin’ was grumblin’? Hah! Well, if I’da known that I mighta stuck around more and tried lovin’ her back into some kinda reason. She sure sounded god awful unreasonable at the time.”

The old man sat back, clicked his tongue against his teeth, and shook his head. “Huh, ” he said. “You don’t say.”

from Valley of the Eagles

LOST AND FOUND

The two trappers had met by chance in the Gila wilderness: Old One Eye Pete hunting beaver on his lonesome, the way he liked it, Marion Buckman on a scout to find his son Jedediah. Jed was with a large trapping group, out from Taos a good three months longer than expected. His father was sure in his bones that something was wrong and, against all advice, had taken out after them.

One Eye Pete was on his fourth straight day of spotting Apache sign when he came across the elder Buckman. Given the circumstances, Pete felt right pleased to encounter another white man, despite his preference for trapping alone. 

Buckman had been out six weeks. He was hunting blind at that point and about ready to give up. Pete convinced him that there was always a chance that they’d run across evidence of Jedediah’s bunch up one stream or another. They might as well collect some furry bank notes while they were looking and before the Apaches got wind of them and they were forced back to the settlements for good and all. So he and Buckman located a likely creek in the bottom of a small canyon and followed it, watching for beaver sign.

The west end of the third pond looked promising. Pete leaned his rifle and gear against a downed cottonwood and waded into the water to make the first set. He’d just shoved the trap stake into place when Buckman let out a grunt, as if someone had slugged him in the gut. Pete jerked around, his hand to the pistol at his waist, but Buckman was unhurt and staring wide-eyed at the barren ridge north of the creek.

“Apache?” Pete asked.

Buckman shook his head, his eyes still fixed on the ridge. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his graying hair as he stared upward. Then he blinked and looked at Pete. “I thought—” He shook his head again, his eyes puzzled. “I thought I saw Jed.”  

Pete turned and squinted at the ridge with his good eye. There did appear to be something moving up there, just below the canyon’s rim. Somebody hunched over and doing his best to stay below the ridgeline and unseen. Pete moved cautiously out of the water and reached for his rifle. “Let’s just wait and see,” he said.

Buckman refocused on the ridge. “There’s three of ’em. I can tell that much. And they look to be white men. See the rifles?”

Old Pete studied the side of the slope. Sunlight glinted from a gun barrel. “I see one of ’em,” he said. 

“Injun’s ’ll dull down the barrel,” Buckman said authoritatively. “White men like to keep ’em shiny-like. My Jed’s real partic’lar ’bout that.”

Pete nodded and didn’t say what he was thinking: that any man fool enough to polish his rifle barrel deserved the shooting he was likely to get. Instead, he watched the men above work their way around and between the boulders scattered across the slope. As they got closer, he saw that they were dressed like white men, in woolen trousers and low moccasins, rather than Apache breech clouts and tall leg-protecting footwear.

Beside him, Marion Buckman made a sucking sound between his teeth. “It is him!” he hissed. Then he plunged along the bank to where the stream narrowed just below the beaver dam.

“You sure about that?” One Eye Pete asked. But he followed anyway. There was no sense in letting the man walk alone into a trap. After all, Buckman’s concern for his son was something to be admired, even if it did lead them both into danger.

Pete paused at the base of the dam and squinted again at the men on the slope. The middle one raised his head and registered the trappers below. He lifted an arm and waved it wildly until the man in front of him turned and raised a warning hand. Then the three of them went back to working their way down through the rocks.

Definitely white men. Old Pete shrugged. Unless they had Indians tracking them, he and Buckman were safe enough. And if Apaches were indeed following them, they’d all be in for it, anyways. He followed Buckman across the creek.

The other man was already angling through the brush toward the bottom of the ridge, on a line that would intersect the path of the descending men. Suddenly, he disappeared behind a boulder twice the height of a man. Old Pete heard a voice shout “Pa!” and then silence.

When Pete rounded the big rock a few minutes later, he found Buckman holding a younger man by the shoulders while two other men looked on, their faces streaked with dirt and lank with exhaustion.

Marion Buckman turned, his face wet with tears. “My son,” he said. “My Jedediah. I found him.”

from Old One Eye Pete

INHERITANCE

In the middle of the night, the baby began wailing frantically.

“¡A redo vaya! Good heavens!” Ramona said, sitting up in bed. As she slipped from the blankets, Carlos grunted but didn’t open his eyes. Ramona paused to look down at him, and shook her head. How a man could sleep through that much crying was beyond her comprehension. He must be very tired from the digging he did for the Baldy Mountain miners every day.

As she crossed the room to the baby, she rubbed her ears with her fingers. The Spring wind was howling, which always made them uncomfortable.

She lifted Carlito from his blankets and opened her nightdress. He began suckling eagerly, whimpering a little as he did so, and rubbing his free hand against the side of his head.

So his ears were uncomfortable, too. She looked down at him as she walked the floor, and sighed. He had a lifetime of discomfort before him and there was nothing she could do about it.

from Valley of the Eagles

CULTURE CLASH

Ewing Young and his trappers were well into the Gila wilderness and moving steadily through its rocks and pines the afternoon the string of four men and three mules came into view. The strangers were working their way up a dry arroyo that intersected with Young’s path.

Young held up a hand and his men all stopped in their tracks and watched the other group scramble toward them, though Enoch Jones huffed impatiently at the delay.

“Chalifoux!” Young said when the newcomers got within speaking distance. “I thought you were trapping south with James Baird.”

“Baird, he is dead,” the tallest of the two long-haired Frenchmen said. “La maladie, it got him.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“We came on anyway,” Chalifoux said. He gestured behind him. “Me, my brother, Grijalva, and him.”

The men behind Chalifoux nodded at Young politely. The youngest, the one with the dark skin and tightly-curled black hair, seemed to tense as Young’s gaze landed on him, but Young only nodded absently and turned to Chalifoux. “We’ve got thirty in our troop,” he said. “I figure that’s about all the Gila can handle at any one time. You headin’ that way?”

“It is as God wills,” Chalifoux said. “Perhaps to the north, toward the salt bluffs[1] of the Navajo.” He scratched his bandanna-covered forehead and nodded toward the third man in his small train. “Grijalva here, he shot a buck.” He jerked his head toward the pack animal being led by the dark-skinned young man. “A good size one. You want we share the meat tonight?”

“Sure, why not?” Ewing Young grinned and jerked his head toward the end of his own train. “Fall in behind and we’ll help you to cut that deer down to a more packable size.”

The Frenchman’s party stood and waited as Young’s men filed past. The trappers eyed the dead buck with interest. A good meal of venison would make for a pleasant evening.

But it wasn’t quite as pleasant as it could have been. The visitors produced whisky to accompany the meal and Enoch Jones took more than his share. Jones was apt to be more surly than usual when he drank and the presence of the young black man seemed to aggravate him.

He was leaning sullenly against a large rock that jutted from the ground a few yards beyond the fire, nursing yet another drink, when the younger man approached, a small book in his hand. The stranger crouched down beside the stones that circled the fire, opened the book, and angled its pages so the light would fall on them.

Jones scowled and leaned forward. “What’re ya doin’ there?” he demanded. He set his tin cup on top of the big rock, stepped forward, and nudged at the black man with his foot. “Hey! I asked a question! What’re ya doin’?”

The man looked up. “I’m reading,” he said. He turned the book so Jones could see the spine. “It’s a play by Mr. Shakespeare called Othello.”

Jones scowled at him. “What’s yer name, anyway?”

“I’m called Blackstone.” The man considered Jones for a long moment, then asked. “And what is your name?”

Jones stalked away into the night. Blackstone’s eyes followed him thoughtfully, then returned to his book.

But Jones was back a few minutes later, followed by Chalifoux. Jones jabbed a thumb toward Blackstone. “You see what he’s doin’?” he demanded.

Chalifoux grunted. “It appears to me that he is reading.” He turned away, but Jones blocked his path.

“That’s illegal!” Jones said. “Ya can’t let him do that!”

“He is a free man, Mr. Jones,” Chalifoux said. “He can do as he likes.”

Jones’ face turned red. “He’s a nigger! He ain’t allowed t’ read!”

Chalifoux raised an eyebrow. “This is a new law? One I know nothing of?” He turned to Blackstone. “What is this law?”

The younger man looked up, moved a small ribbon to mark his place, and closed the book. “I believe there is a law in South Carolina which makes it illegal for slaves to learn to read or write.” He shifted the book into his left hand, lifting it as if its very bulk was pleasant to him. “However, as you say, I’m a free man. So the law wouldn’t apply to me even if we were still in the United States.”

“Which it is certain we are not,” Chalifoux said. He bent, picked up a stray pine cone, and tossed it into the fire.

Blackstone glanced at Jones, then away. “And there’s certainly no such law here,” he said.

“Damn uppity nigger!” Jones said. He surged past Chalifoux, leaned down, and grabbed Blackstone’s arm. “You talkin’ back t’ me?”

Blackstone rose in one easy motion, elbowing Jones aside. “I was speaking to Mr. Chalifoux,” he said evenly.

Jones reached for the Shakespeare, but Blackstone lifted it out of his reach. Then Jones’ foot struck sideways, into Blackstone’s shin, and the younger man stumbled and lost his grip on the book, which landed, page end down, on the stones beside the fire.

“You bastard!” Blackstone turned and shoved Jones with both hands. Jones sprawled backward, away from the fire and onto the ground beside the big rock.

Blackstone swung back to the fire and the Shakespeare, but Chalifoux had already leaned down and lifted it away from the licking flames.

As the Frenchman handed the book to Blackstone, Jones heaved himself from the ground. He was halfway to the fire again, his fists doubled and ready for battle, when Ewing Young stepped from the darkness.

“What’s goin’ on?” Young asked.

Jones stopped short. “Nigger bastard sucker punched me!” he growled. He glared at Blackstone. “You ain’t seen the last o’ me.” Then he turned and stalked into the night.

“Is he always so pleasant, that one?” Chalifoux asked Young.

Young spread his hands, palms up. “There’s one in every bunch.”

Chalifoux shrugged expressively, then tilted his head back to study the trees and the stars overhead. “We will move north in the morning,” he said. “My party and me to the salt bluffs, I think. They tell me they are a sight worth the seeing.”

from Old One Eye Pete

WILD KNOWLEDGE

He wasn’t a man to pay much attention to girl children, but this one was different. She didn’t seem interested in cooking or clothes. More likely, she’d be in the canyon, fishing the Cimarron River. Her brother was the dreamy one, the one watching the fish swim ’stead of trying to catch ’em.

So the man was surprised when she came around the curve of the path and stopped to watch him cook the wild carrot root. He’d cut off the flowers and was slicing the root into the pot on the fire.

“Good eatin’,” he told her. “Back home, they say these make your eyes strong.”

She frowned. “Not that,” she said, shaking her head.

He was hungry. He lifted the last piece to his mouth.

“No!” she said sharply.

He raised an eyebrow at her and lowered his hand.

“That isn’t carrot,” she said. “It’s poison hemlock.”

from Valley of the Eagles

TOO SILENT

The boy sits silently near the creek bank and watches his twelve week old puppy among the grasses, sniffing invisible trails. The boy has learned from long practice to sit motionless for long stretches of time. Being still has enabled him to see much that other humans, especially adults, will never discover–coyote puppies learning to hunt, damsel fly nymphs emerging from their chrysalis, the way a brook eddies at times against the wind.

The dog may never see these things either, the boy reflects complacently as he watches his new pet. Not until he is much older and has learned to be still.

In the warm mountain sun, the boy’s shoulders relax and his eyes begin to glaze over. He is not prepared for the sudden movement from above. The golden eagle’s outstretched wings shadow the boy and dog at the same moment, then the pup gives a high-pitched yelp and is gone, the boy too startled to cry out.

When he stumbles home with tear-streaked face, his mother folds him wordlessly into her arms. “I sat too still,” he moans into her chest. “I was too silent!”

from Valley of the Eagles

 

RATTLED

“I don’ keer if you don’ believe me,” the old trapper said as he pushed his matted brown hair away from his eyes. He shifted the Harpers Ferry 1803 rifle impatiently. “If’n yer too smart for yer own good, it ain’t none o’ my doin’.” He stroked the maple half-stock with its short barrel, looked balefully at the younger man, and turned to place the rifle next to his pack. The metal rib brazed to the underside of the barrel glinted in the firelight. “Thinks he’s smarter’n the rest o’ us,” the trapper muttered to the wagon master, who was sitting on his heels on the other side of the fire, smoking a carved cottonwood pipe.

“I didn’t say that I disbelieved you,” the young man in the black broadcloth coat said evenly. He brushed a piece of ash from his sleeve. “I simply stated that I was unaware of any unique characteristic of the 1803 issued to Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, other than the half-stock and its excellent balance.” He shrugged a shoulder. “My father was issued an 1803 during the 1812 conflict. He recollected it quite fondly and frequently. However, he never mentioned an unusually short barrel.”

“Jest cuz yer Daddy didn’ say it, don’ mean it weren’ so,” the old trapper grumbled.

“That may be the case,” the young man said stiffly. “I was unaware that I was contradicting you. I understood that we were merely exchanging some particularly intriguing information.”

“Ten dollar words.” The old man rubbed his matted hair, unfolded himself upward without looking at the others, and stalked off into the night.

The young man in the black coat looked across the firelight at the wagon master. “I didn’t intend to offend him,” he said uneasily.

The wagon master took his pipe from his mouth. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry ’bout it,” he said. “Ol’ Matt gets himself worked up like that sometimes. But he’s like a garden snake, all fizz an’ no real fury.” He glanced into the darkness. “But don’t say I said so. Not where he can hear. He wants ya t’ think he’s a rattler.”

from Valley of the Eagles