SLICK

The rain was behind him and gaining fast.

Timothy looked back, down the valley, and kicked at the mule, but it was hot and the mule had been going for a long time. Its pace quickened for a few yards, then dropped back into an easy trot.

The boy groaned and looked back again. His mother had told him to take his slicker, but he’d been in a hurry. “C’mon Boss,” he begged, but the mule just flicked its ears and jogged onward.

Somehow, they made it to the barn before the clouds reached them. Timothy turned the mule into the stall and made a dash for the house. The first raindrops bit into the dust as he reached the steps.

His mother opened the door. “Get wet?” she asked meaningfully.

He grinned at her. “Dry as a bone!” he said.

from Valley of the Eagles

OBSESSIONS

OBSESSIONS

“Did you know the Maxwell Land Grant Company is evicting people who’ve been farming here for decades?” the Reverend Franklin Tolby demands.

At the other end of the small pine table, Mary Tolby moves a raised biscuit from the chipped ceramic platter to her plate. “That’s terrible,” she says. “These biscuits are quite good this time. I think I’ve finally become used to that stove. Rachel, eat your peas or there’ll be no dessert.”

Her husband picks absently at his food. “It’s a moral outrage,” he says. “The Company has no right.”

Mary looks anxiously at his pale face. Since they arrived in Cimarron, Franklin has been on horseback constantly, west to Elizabethtown, south to Fort Union and beyond, yet his cheeks show no evidence of windburn or sun.

“I’ve made strawberry pie for desert,” she says. “An Indian girl came by selling berries. They’re very sweet. The result should be quite tasty.”

Franklin’s eyes focus on her for a split second, then his head snaps up, as if he’s listening to something outside the house. “And the Indians,” he says. “With this much land, there’s room for them also.” He pauses for a long moment, fork in the air, then says, “Excuse me,” drops his frayed linen napkin onto the table, and hurries from the room.

Mary can hear him scrabbling through the papers on his desk as he prepares to write down whatever has just come to him. She sighs and reaches to cover the food on his half-empty plate with a clean napkin. “Rachel, eat your peas,” she says absently.

~ ~ ~ ~

The tiny Elizabethtown church reeks with the late June stench of unwashed miners, but Dr. Robert Longwill presses through the door anyway. He nods at Old One Eye Pete, who’s standing to one side, his battered hat clasped politely in his hands.

Then the doctor focuses on the front of the room. He can just see the top of Reverend Tolby’s head. On Cimarron’s dusty streets, the little man’s carefully groomed handlebar mustache has often given Longwill the urge to laugh, but here in Etown the miners and old trappers aren’t snickering.

Tolby’s voice fills the room. “The Maxwell Land Grant Company has no right to the land on which your mines and farmlands rest,” he says flatly. “You work the land and bring forth value from it. They sit in their offices and collect the rewards of your God-driven labor. Let us be done with such greed! Let us return to the scriptural truth that a man must work by the sweat of his brow and reap the labor of his hands!”

Dr. Longwill eases out the church door and down the hillside, toward the livery stable where he left his horse. “That preacher’s been here less than six months, and already he’s an expert on the Grant and the miners’ and farmers’ rights,” he mutters bitterly. Which wouldn’t be a problem, if no one were listening to him.

~ ~ ~ ~

Mary Tolby frowns at the potatoes she’s peeling, then out the kitchen window at the dusty Cimarron sky. It seems as if a grit-filled wind has blown every day of the eighteen months since she and Franklin arrived here to begin his Methodist Episcopal mission work. Mary sighs, washes her hands, and lifts the towel that shelters her rising bread dough. It’s taking longer than usual to double its size.

But then, Franklin is taking longer than usual to return from his Sunday services at Elizabethtown. He’s usually back before Tuesday noon, following his meeting with the church board and various other discussions on Monday.

Mary frowns and looks out the window again. There’s so much dust in the air, she can hardly see the sun. Franklin’s undoubtedly talking with someone in Etown or Ute Park about the Maxwell Land Grant Company and its wholesale eviction of the miners and small farmers who were here before the corporation purchased the grant.

She shakes her head and returns to her work. She very much doubts that her husband is speaking with anyone about the state of their soul. Not that many people in Colfax County seem to care about God or religion. Land and water are all that matter. That and gold. How she longs sometimes for Indiana!

~ ~ ~ ~

Two days before, the man had hovered outside Etown’s tiny Protestant church just long enough to confirm that Franklin Tolby was preaching there. He couldn’t stay longer than a few minutes. The air sucked out of his lungs at the thought of Tolby’s teachings, so contrary to Holy Church. But he’d been there long enough to confirm that the heretic minister will be traveling down canyon this Tuesday morning, as he always does after a Sunday in Elizabethtown.

The man waits now, rifle tucked to his chest, in the shadow of the big ponderosa at the mouth of Clear Creek. How pleasant it will be to stop the minister’s preaching.

The men who are paying him to silence Tolby have other reasons for desiring his death, reasons of power and money and land. But the waiting man cares nothing for these things, although the gold they’ve given him will be useful enough. He can leave the grant now, take his family someplace where americanos have not yet stolen the land from those who know how to do something useful with it, those whose fathers tilled it before them.

He turns his head, listening. Someone is coming. A man singing a raucous heretical hymn. Tolby, most certainly. The minister will stop at Clear Creek as usual, to water his horse and drink from the hollowed-out wooden trough placed there for the refreshment of travelers.

His back will be to the big ponderosa that shields the man with the gun. But there is no dishonor in shooting a heretic in the back. A man who will steal one’s very soul if he can, destroy the very fabric of one’s Catholic life. The rider in his clay-brown coat dismounts and the gunman eases into position. He holds his breath as his finger touches the trigger, squeezing so gently and slowly that Tolby drops to the ground before the shooter registers the sound of the bullet’s discharge, sees the neat hole it makes in the shabby brown coat.

from Old One Eye Pete

THE FOURTH TIME

THE FOURTH TIME

She could be incandescently angry and Gerald’s trip to Santa Fe and back had taken a week longer than he’d told her it would, so he braced himself as he opened the cabin door. But Suzanna barely raised her head from the rocking chair by the fire. She wasn’t rocking. Her shawl was clutched to her chest, her face drawn and gray under the smooth, creamy-brown skin. She glanced at Gerald, then turned her face back to the flames, her cheeks tracked with tears.

Gerald’s stomach clenched. “What is it?” he asked. “The children?”

Suzanna shook her head without looking at him. “The children are fine,” she said dully. She moved a hand from the shawl and placed it on her belly. The tears started again and she looked up at him bleakly. “This is the fourth time,” she said. “There will—” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “There will be no third child,” she choked, and he crossed the room, knelt beside her, and wordlessly took her into his arms.

from Valley of the Eagles

THAT’LL TEACH EM

Gregorio, as the youngest of the trapping expedition’s camp keepers, was responsible for preparing the morning tortillas. He placed a small barrel of flour on the ground, scooped what he needed into a large wooden bowl, cut in the proper amount of fat, and mixed in water from his canteen. The mixing was more a matter of feel than attention and he glanced lazily across the campsite as he worked.

Then his head jerked. “Apache!” he exclaimed.  

The trappers all turned at once. A loose line of long-haired warriors stood among the rocks and pines at the far side of the clearing. The man in the center sported a large palmetto hat and a bright red long sleeved shirt. He was clearly the Chief. Three warriors were positioned on his left, two on his right. Another stood slightly back, an arrow fletched in his lightly-held bow. 

There was a long silence. Then Ewing Young, as the trapper leader, made a welcoming motion.

The man in the hat moved forward. He paused by the fire and looked slowly around the clearing, as if calculating the value of every item in sight, including the rifle in Thomas Smith’s hands. Smith scowled and the chief permitted himself a small smile before moving on.

Then his gaze fell on Gregorio. He pointed at the barrel of flour. “Meal!” he commanded.

Ewing Young frowned, then nodded reluctantly. The Chief stepped to one side, lifted a wool blanket from a nearby rock and flicked it open, an edge in each hand.

“That’s mine!” Enoch Jones protested.

Smith jerked his head at him. “I’ll give you mine,” he said. Then he stepped backward, into the trees, and began circling toward Gregorio and the flour.

The Chief positioned himself in front of the barrel and let Jones’ blanket sag slightly between his hands to form a crude container. Ewing Young waved Gregorio aside, leaned over the barrel, and began scooping out double handfuls of flour. As he dropped them into the blanket, a dusty haze rose into the morning air.

The Apache turned his head and gave his men a satisfied smile. He didn’t see Thomas Smith step from the evergreens behind Gregorio, his rifle cocked and ready.

Young poured yet another double handful of flour into the blanket and held up his white-dusted palms to show that he was finished.

The Apache growled something unintelligible in response.

Young scowled and raised two fingers. “Two more,” he said.

The Chief nodded and lifted the blanket slightly, ready for more.

As Young reached into the barrel again, Thomas Smith stepped past Gregorio, shoved the rifle’s muzzle up under the blanket, and pulled the trigger. The bullet exploded through the cloth and blood-spattered flour splashed across the Chief’s torso.

As the Apache crumpled to the ground, his men dashed into the clearing. Gunfire erupted. Arrows flew. A trapper dropped, then an Apache, then another.

Ewing Young, his upper body coated in white flour, shook his deafened head. Then an arrow flashed through the air and bit into the ground at his feet. He lunged for his rifle and aimed into the trees. But the Indians were already gone, vanished into the rocks and the pines.

Their Chief lay where he’d fallen, his red sleeves dusted with white, his chest an incongruous paste of flour and blood.

Thomas Smith stood over him. “That’ll teach ’em!” he chortled. He grinned at Enoch Jones, who was crouched beside a dead Apache, the man’s beaded knife sheath in his hands. “That’s worth a hole in a blanket, ain’t it?”

Jones grinned back at him, his eyes glittering. “Three dead, four t’ go!” he agreed. “They can’t be far yet.”

“Three dead’s enough,” Ewing Young said grimly as he beat flour from his clothes. “That was a stupid stunt, Smith. You think we’ve seen the last of them? If that band doesn’t come after us by nightfall, it’ll only be because they haven’t decided yet who their new leader is.” His eyes glared from his white spattered head. “Next time you decide to shoot an Indian, don’t do it in my face, or I may just mistake you for one.”

from Old One Eye Pete

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 Valley of the Eagles

WELL-FOUNDED PESSIMISM

The dark-skinned young woman and the old Ute man sat with the quietness of old friends on the cabin porch, out of the bright mountain sun.

Stands Alone gazed at the green-black slopes lining the opposite side of the long grassy valley. “My people have no other options,” he said bleakly.

Alma tucked a wayward black curl behind her right ear. “Surely there is somewhere you can go to live your lives in peace.”

The old man shook his head. “Wherever we go, the whites follow and take the little we possess.”

“Not all of us.”

A small smile crossed his seamed face. “You, my friend, are not white. Your people have also known sorrow and theft.”

The young woman raised an eyebrow, but could not contradict. There was slavery in her veins, if not her experience, though, with enough face powder, she could pass for a deeply tanned white woman. Only the pale splotches on her cheeks, where the pigmentation wasn’t consistent, gave her away. Her French/Navajo/American mother had applied various potions in her attempt to even out the child’s skin tone, but nothing had worked and after her mother’s death, the teenage girl had stopped trying.

 “You and your people could hunt here,” Alma said, gesturing toward the valley. “After all, it was your land before my parents arrived.”

“It was,” Stands Alone agreed. “And the hunting rights are still ours. Your father and I made an agreement that allowed him his pastures.” His gaze moved toward the north end of the valley, where another cabin was under construction behind a screen of small tree-covered hills. “But still others will come,” the old man said. “And they will not ask permission.”

Alma nodded, silent before the Ute’s well-founded pessimism. Since the American takeover in 1846, eastern settlers had moved steadily into New Mexico territory. Eventually, they would find even this protected valley, which she now shared with only her brother, the former nuevomexicano mountain man Ramón who acted as their cook and handyman, and the occasional band of Indian hunters or herders from Taos.

“It is not for myself that I dread this move the American government is forcing upon us,” Stands Alone said. “But the land to which they send us is unfamiliar, and the young men are angry and uncontrollable. They talk of war against all who have built houses on our land. I fear even for you.”

Alma frowned. “We have always lived in peace with both the Ute and the Apache,” she said. “We have endeavored not to encroach on the hunting grounds or to frighten off the elk and the deer.”

The old man chuckled. “I recall that your mother was not happy about that.”

Alma grinned. “She was bound to grow corn up here, even if it killed her and all the beasts who wanted to eat it.”

“A determined woman,” he said. “May her spirit rest.”

Alma nodded somberly, then turned back to the subject at hand. “If the young men come, my brother and I will treat them with respect.”

“May they respond with respect,” he said prayerfully.

“We will remain vigilant,” she told him. “The rifles will be ready, if need be.” She shook her head, dark eyes somber. “Although I pray it will not come to that.”

“Your brother will protect you,” the old man said, reassuring himself as much as her. “And Ramón.”

But when the young men came three days later, neither Andrew nor Ramón were at hand.

Ramón had headed north after three stray cows and Andrew was in a side canyon checking his rabbit snares. So the house was quiet when Alma looked up from her book to see a Ute man with a red stripe running down one side of his face peering through the small panes of window glass at the front of the cabin.

A spasm of fear clutched at Alma’s belly and her mother’s exasperated voice echoed in her memory: “It’s dangerous for a woman in this god forsaken valley!” Then the rich voice of her father’s father reminded her: “People are like dogs. They’ll sense your fear if you let yourself feel it.”

Alma took a deep breath, steadying herself. Then she stood, crossed the room, lifted the always-loaded shotgun from the wall, and swung the cabin door firmly open.

Ten young braves stood in the yard, their faces striped with the Utes’ signature red war paint, chests bared for battle.

“Hello,” Alma said, the shotgun under her arm. “How are you all today?” The words seemed inadequate, but she thought the tone was firm enough. She knew most of them: the grandson of Stands Alone, two of the grandson’s cousins, and several others whose faces she recognized. At the back of the group, toward the long low adobe and timber barn, was Running Wolf, who as a boy had taught Alma’s brother how to set the snares he was now checking.

 “We are not well,” the grandson of Stands Alone said. “We are unhappy.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Alma said calmly.

“You whites have come in and now we have no game.” This was a man Alma didn’t know. A broad stripe of red ran down each cheek, flattening the planes of his cheekbones.

A young boy came running from the barn, eyes bright with excitement. “There are no men here,” he told the broadly-painted one breathlessly. “And there are cattle!”

The man nodded, his eyes on Alma’s shotgun.

One of the grandson’s cousins chuckled and shifted a hatchet from his left hand to his right. “The woman has a good shape,” he observed.

“We will have her and then we will burn the house and take the cattle,” the broadly-striped one announced. He took a step forward and raised his voice. “Then we will feast!”

Alma’s stomach tightened and she lifted the shotgun, sighting on the man’s chest. “But you will not have me and you will not feast!” she said sharply. “You will be dead!”

An irritated growl swept across the yard. At the corner of her eye, Alma saw the cousin easing around the corner of the cabin, toward the lean-to kitchen’s door. Alma forced her gaze to remain on the broadly-painted man’s bare chest, her shotgun barrel steady.

“I would not touch her,” a disgusted voice said from the back of the crowd. Running Wolf? She didn’t move her eyes. “Those spots on her face are the sign of disease. Smallpox or something worse.”

The broadly-painted one peered sharply into Alma’s face and she nodded. “That’s right!” Alma said, meeting his eyes defiantly. “I will shoot you and you will die quickly.” She raised her voice. “But if these others are loco enough to have me, they will suffer for a long time before they die.” She chuckled grimly. “I will take all of you with me! And you will die a painful and lingering death of disease, not of battle!”

A confused murmur passed over the yard. Alma held the shotgun muzzle steady on the broadly-painted one’s chest. There was a long silence, then the other cousin jerked his head toward the barn. “We will take cattle instead,” he pronounced. “The cattle are not diseased.”

“Two fat cows to feed us and our children.” Running Wolf moved slightly forward. His eyes swept the cluster of warriors, then turned toward the barn. “We will all feast this night!”

The warriors swung to face the barn and Alma eased backward into the house. She shoved the door closed, then leaned against it, heart pounding her ribs, fingers cramped painfully on the gunstock. Then she crept to the kitchen, assured herself that the door was indeed barred, and slipped back into the front room. She sank into her mother’s old rocking chair and placed the shotgun gently on the floor beside her. Only when she heard Ramón and Andrew on the porch did she lift her hands from her face, now splotchy with tears.

from Old One Eye Pete

LEONIDAS AND GEORGE, PART 1 OF 2

“Where’d you be gettin’ a name like Leonidas?” the young Irishman asked the tall young man next to him at the Etown bar.

The big Canadian looked at him. “My mother had scholarly ambitions beyond her station,” he said. He lifted a fist. “And my father made sure I could defend myself.”

“I’d not be denying you the right to the name.” George Cunningham grinned. “An’ I’m thinking your father trained you good and well.”

“The trouble is, they didn’t have the money for proper scholarship,” Leonidas Van Valser told him. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Get enough gold, you won’t be havin’ to worry ’bout scholarship,” Cunningham observed.

“I intend to pan enough gold to go to school properly,” Van Valser explained. “I’m only twenty-five. There’s still time.”

“You’ve got ambitions,” Cunningham said. “’Tis a good thing in a man.”

The two grinned at each other companionably.

~ ~ ~ ~

George Cunningham was small, even for an Irishman, with a perpetually restless face. His Canadian friend Leonidas Van Valser was the steady one, until Etown’s gold placer mines wore down even his perseverance.  

“There must be an easier way to make a living,” Leonidas said one night in Herberger’s saloon, examining his bandaged hand. He’d had a run-in that morning with some unstable sandstone.

“Somewhere else, is what I’m thinkin’,” Cunningham said. “Anywhere but these water-forsaken rock-bound hillsides.”

Van Valser nodded gloomily. “I think you’ve finally convinced me, George. But I don’t know what to do about it.”

“It’s cattle I’m thinkin’ of.”

“Neither of us have cattle.”

“There’s plenty o’ cattle running through these hills with nary a brand mark t’ be seen.”

“That’s rustling,” Leonidas said.

“Not if you don’t get yourself caught.” Cunningham bent toward him.

Van Valser studied his friend’s face. “I’m listening,” he said.

~ ~ ~ ~

“Do you know anything about cattle?” Leonidas asked as he studied the longhorns in the clearing below.

“Aye, I was in Texas for a while after the war,” Cunningham said. “Though my size was agin me, I do admit.” The little Irishman grinned at his friend. “But you’ve got the leverage to bring those yearlings onto their sides smooth as whisky.” He hefted the rope in his hand. “I rope ’em, you flip ’em, then we brand and sell ’em to the first Etown slaughterhouse we reach.”

“It’s certainly worth a try,” Leonidas agreed. “Beef’s selling at a good price and the slaughterhouses aren’t too careful about ownership, from what I hear.” He looked at the herd. “Who do they actually belong to?”

Cunningham shrugged. “Some Texan turned ’em loose on grass that don’t belong to him. To my mind, we’re just helpin’ the Maxwell Company even the score.”

~ ~ ~ ~

“You git off my property!” The woman was thin as a garter snake, with the eyes of a rattler. She glared at the two dusty young men down the cold steel of a rifle barrel. “And git your hands up!”

Van Valser and Cunningham did as she said, their horses shifting beneath them.

“We do apologize, ma’am,” Cunningham said. “We were hoping for a wee bit of water from your well. Drivin’ cattle is hard work on an uncommonly warm day as it is.”

She studied them. Her mouth twitched as she looked at Van Valser, whose face was streaked with dusty sweat. She lowered her rifle and gestured toward the well. “Help yourself,” she said. “But only to the water. Not my cattle or anythin’ else. Then git on outta here ’for you get caught.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said in unison.

“Godforsaken young idiots,” she muttered, watching them dismount.

. . . . to be continued

Travelin’ Man

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

News

There was a knothole in the cabin door, in the fourth board from the right. Kenneth stood on tiptoe and peered through it at the men on the horses.

“It’s Clay Allison!” he hissed.

His little sister Elizabeth stood on tiptoe and tried to shoulder Kenneth out the way so she could see for herself. “Are you sure?” she whispered.

Kenneth nodded. “He’s tall and he’s got those black whiskers and he’s ridin’ that big blond horse Papa says is so dangerous.”

Elizabeth bit her lip and shrank back. She hugged herself tightly around her waist. “I’m scared,” she whimpered. “I’ve heard tell that he’s mean.”

“Ah, he’s only mean to those who are mean,” Kenneth scoffed. But he didn’t open the door. His mother had instructed him to stay inside if anyone came while she and his father were gone. As far as Kenneth was concerned, ‘anyone’ included the gunslinger Clay Allison. If that’s who it was. He wasn’t at all certain, now that he thought about it. He’d never seen the man close up. But he sure wasn’t gonna tell Elizabeth that.

The knothole suddenly went black and there was a thud on the wooden door that shook Kenneth in his boots. “What are we going to do?” Elizabeth gasped.

Kenneth put his hand over her mouth. “Hush!” he hissed. “He’ll hear you!”

Boots scuffed on the porch, as if whoever it was had walked away and then come back. “I believe you two young uns ought to open this door,” a man’s deep voice said. “Your Mama says you won’t be wantin’ too, but I’ve got important news for ya’ll.”

The children looked at each other. Kenneth shook his head.

“But he’ll break the door down!” Elizabeth hissed. “And if he has to do that, he’ll be really mad! And then he’ll be extra mean!”

Kenneth’s lower lip jutted out and he shook his head again. Elizabeth had seen that look before and she knew it was no use arguing with him. She sank to the floor in a heap and tried not to cry.

There was a long silence. Booted feet paced the porch. Then they stopped outside the door again. The man coughed. The children looked at each other apprehensively.

“All right,” the man said. “I guess I’ll just have to tell you my news through the door. Your Mama’s been laid up at your Aunt Ginny’s house and she says you’re to stay here until your Pa comes for you. That’ll more than likely not be till tomorrow. She says to have your chores done and your things ready, because your Pa’s gonna be taking you back to Ginny’s house so’s you can meet your new baby brother.” There was a short pause. “Or sister. Your Mama doesn’t  know yet just which it’ll be.”

The children stared at each other, then Kenneth moved to the door and looked through the knothole again. “Really and truly?” he asked.

“Really and truly,” Clay Allison said.

from Old One Eye Pete

Christmas in 1837 – An Excerpt From No Secret Too Small

1837 was a stressful year for many New Mexicans. But even then, Christmas was a time of respite and hope. I hope you enjoy this excerpt from my new novel No Secret Too Small.

CHAPTER 32

Three days later, it’s the day before Christmas. Señora Garcia announces that there’ll be no combing or spinning this day. “It is la Noche Buena,” she tells the children’s mother flatly. “A day to prepare for la Navidad and feasting and the giving of gifts.”

“We don’t have money for a feast.” Alma’s mother glances toward the children, her face suddenly tired and worn. “Much less the giving of gifts.”

“We have the gift of each other and a roof over our heads. There’s still enough wheat flour for a small batch of bread. And I have been putting aside an egg each day. If the hens are kind to us this morning, there will be enough for natías.” She looks at the children. “Though I will need help stirring the custard to keep it from burning.”

“We can do that!” Andrew says.

His mother shrugs and moves to her loom. She places her feet into position on the treadles, moves her head from side to side to ease her neck, then sets to work. The steady thump of the loom fills the room.

By the time the outdoor oven has yielded two loaves of yeasty bread and the egg custard is cooked and cooling, it’s late in the day. Andrew hovers over the natías, sniffing appreciatively.

“That’s for tomorrow,” the señora tells him. “Tonight we will eat a little of the new bread with our beans, but tomorrow is the true feast day.”

“It’s going to be a long night,” he moans. “I’m not going to be able to sleep.”

She chuckles. “Perhaps that is why the priests hold la Misa del Gallo on la Noche Buena. So boys have something to do while they wait for the morrow’s feast.”

Andrew’s forehead wrinkles. “La Misa del Gallo? The mass of the rooster?”

“Sí. The service begins at the first hour of the day and doesn’t end until the rooster crows.”

“The first hour? You mean midnight?” His forehead wrinkles. “You stay up all night?”

“That’s a long service,” Alma says.

The señora chuckles. “It is only a saying. I will be home before the rooster truly crows.” She purses her lips and studies the children. “I am going to la capilla de castrense, the military chapel on the Santa Fe plaza, with a friend from Agua Fría. Would you like to go with us?”

Andrew turns toward the loom. “Can we, Mama? Can we stay up all night?”

His mother’s right foot pushes down, moving the warp threads apart. She reaches for the shuttle. The yarn inside it is a deep red. She runs the yarn through the V of the warp and snugs it into place, then looks up. Her eyes are smudged, as if she hasn’t slept in a week. Alma’s heart snags in her chest. Maybe she should stay here and keep her company.

“Who is going with you?” her mother asks.

“The widow who lives on the plaza near the chapel along with three of her grown sons and their wives and children. Two of the men are Presidio soldiers. We will be safe enough.”

Alma’s mother looks at Andrew, who’s watching her anxiously. Her face softens. “Yes, you can go to the service.”

“Will you come with us, Mama?”

She shakes her head. “I have work to do.” She shrugs and looks away. “Besides, I would only spoil your fun.”

“But you’ll be alone. It won’t be safe.”

“I’ll have Chaser to protect me.” She makes a shooing gesture at him. “Go. I’ll be all right.”

He nods doubtfully, but he can’t help but be intrigued with the idea of staying up all night. He grins at Señora Garcia and Alma expectantly.

The evening threatens to be a long one, since they won’t leave for the chapel until well after dark, but the señora insists that Andrew and Alma nap a little beforehand. Then suddenly there are men at the gate and the children are wrapped well in extra shawls and bundled out into the cold.

There is no moon. The men on the edge of the little crowd are armed with knives, iron-tipped pikes, and torches, but the blackness beyond the flickering light still makes Alma shiver. Andrew feels it too. He stays close and slips his hand into hers.

They move through the night, up the dirt road and over the rise north of the house. Then the darkness ahead is broken by the glow of a bonfire. A guitar thrums and the men and women around the fire burst into song. The voices die out as Alma’s group approaches.

“Feliz Nochebuena!” one of the widow’s sons says gruffly.

“Greetings!” a man by the fire answers. He raises a wooden cup to them. “Come and drink with us!” He waves a hand toward a table half-hidden in the shadows. “Come and eat!”

“We thank you, but we are on our way to la capilla de castrense.”

“Ah, it is a dark night for such a journey and the chapel will be crowded! Stay with us instead!”

“I thank you, but we must not delay.”

“Safer with friends than in the dark!” the man persists. “You never know when a rebel might be lying in wait!” They all laugh uproariously as Alma’s group continues on its way.

Her eyes swim, trying to adjust again to the darkness. The governor’s decapitated body seems to rise out of the shadows, just beyond the men’s torches. A shudder runs down her spine. Antonia Garcia pats her shoulder, but Alma hardly feels the woman’s hand. She has a sudden urge to turn and run back down the road. All she wants is the warmth of the casita and the steady thump of her mother’s loom. Or, even better, her father’s arms. Gregorio’s smile.

She bites her tongue against the sudden tears and trudges on, surrounded by Señora Garcia’s friends and utterly alone. Even Andrew’s warm hand between her palm and fingers doesn’t dissolve the knot in her chest, the twitch of tears under her lids.

They pass more bonfires and the widow’s sons turn down more invitations to stop, eat, and drink. “As if they don’t remember what the purpose of the season is,” the old woman sniffs.

Finally, the little group reaches Santa Fe’s narrow streets. They pass Elisha Stanley’s closed-up shop and enter the plaza. Here, the darkness is pushed back by the flare of more torches as other groups of worshippers move from every direction toward the chapel on the square’s south side. Many are singing hymns accompanied by men and women strumming guitars. The voices aren’t loud and some aren’t very melodious, but there’s a reverence in their tone and a solemnity in the singers’ faces that makes the children look at each other in wonder. The plaza itself looks different tonight. Calmer. Less cluttered and dusty.

Alma’s group is close to the chapel entrance, but they can’t enter. Men in blue and red uniforms block the big wooden doors. Their gold-fringed shoulder boards glitter in the torchlight, making the soldiers wearing them seem bigger than they actually are.

Except for one, who is taller than the rest. Andrew sucks in an admiring breath. “That’s Donaciano Vigil,” he whispers in Alma’s ear. “See him?”

But she doesn’t have a chance to respond. Movement ripples on the opposite side of the square. A stout man in a swirling cloak and hat with a tall white feather moves toward the church, a soldier on each side and two behind. The crowds part to let them pass.

“Tarnation!” Andrew says. “Who is that? Is he a prisoner?”

“It is General Armijo,” Señora Garcia tells him. “The men with him are his escort.”

“To protect him from the likes of us,” the widow adds drily.

The governor and his guard sweep past and into the chapel. Donaciano Vigil and the other waiting soldiers enter behind him. Now the way is clear for the populace. The singing stops and men douse their torches. In the sudden darkness, Señora Garcia puts a hand on each child’s shoulder. “Stay close,” she says in Alma’s ear. “I don’t want to lose you.”

Alma nods numbly. The plaza’s beauty has vanished. Now it’s simply a dark and crowded space that contains too many people, all of them edging toward the chapel entrance. Everyone’s very quiet and polite, but she still feels as if she can hardly breathe.

Then she’s through the door and the señora has maneuvered herself and the children into a position halfway up the long narrow room but off to the right, next to the white adobe wall. If Alma lifts her fingers from her skirt, she can touch its smooth surface.

A woman behind them taps the señora on the shoulder. She turns and gasps in delight. “Mi amiga!” she exclaims softly. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!” She twists farther toward the woman, to look at the youngsters beside her. “And are these your grandchildren?”

She’s has released Alma and Andrew as she turned. Alma moves closer to the wall. All over the church, people are smiling and nodding and whispering to each other. Andrew is watching them with bright, curious eyes, but Alma feels only a dull loneliness. She wishes her father was here. Or Ramón. Or Gregorio. All three of them.

Finally, a priest in holiday vestments enters the chapel and stands before the altar. He raises his hands and the crowd flutters into silence.

Alma watches the ceremony and listens to the music and words in a kind of haze. She’s tired from the walk and, although the warmth of the crowd seeps into her, it isn’t a cozy feeling. If anything, it only makes her more anxious, more hemmed in. A tiny bird beats in her chest, searching for relief.

But there is no relief. She’s old enough to know that help isn’t coming, that grownups don’t always resolve their differences. That her mother’s worry and weariness and irritation aren’t likely to lessen any time soon. And that her father may never come for them. Tears prickle her eyelids. She bites the insides of her cheeks and tries to focus on what’s happening at the far end of the room, beyond the gold shoulders of the men in uniform.

The congregation is kneeling now. She drops with them and peers at the candle-lit altar. The priest’s back is to the congregation. He raises a shining cup. Her gaze moves beyond it.

The wall behind the altar isn’t smooth white adobe like the one next to her. It’s rock. A tall expanse of stone as wide and almost as tall as the room that towers over the priest and the table below. Alma sucks in her breath. Every inch of its surface is carved with designs and figures that seem to dance in the candlelight.

The decorations aren’t random. The flat surface is divided into two rows of three shallow rectangular niches set on end. The center bottom space is deeper and there’s a statue in it. Alma can’t see what it looks like because the priest blocks her view.

But she can see most of the spaces. Each contains a carved and painted stone picture. In one, a man holds up a cross. There’s a shell of some kind in his other hand. Worshippers kneel at his feet. In the niche above him, a man holds a cross in one hand and a plant of some kind in the other.

Alma smiles. He must love plants as much as her mother does. Her smile fades. There’s been no planting or gathering since they reached Santa Fe. Will there ever be again? But she can’t think about that now or the tears will start again. She concentrates on the carvings.

Her forehead wrinkles. Each picture by itself seems very simple and she doesn’t understand what they mean. But together they do something calming to her heart. She looks around the room. The kneeling worshippers are focused reverently on the priest and the altar. They all seem so peaceful, so intent, so sure of what they believe. She feels a little envious, but also strangely peaceful herself. The bones in her chest loosen, making more space for her lungs.

The priest turns toward the congregation and raises his hands. They all rise. Alma doesn’t understand the words he speaks, but she can sense the quiet joy in them, the confidence that he and the people he speaks to will have strength to face tomorrow. And that it will be a better day. She’s not sure she really agrees with him, but somehow she does feel better. As if she can cope a little longer with her life and all its fears and confusions.

The crowd says something in unison, answering the priest, and sings a final hymn. Then the service is over. The people begin to stream out into the night. Señora Garcia nods goodby to her friend and touches Alma lightly on the arm. “Stay close now.” Alma smiles up at her and looks at her brother, who solemnly slips his hand into hers. She turns back to the señora. “We won’t get lost.”

from No Secret Too Small