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

MAXWELL BEFORE THE BAR

Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell sits on one of the mismatched chairs in Elizabethtown’s makeshift Colfax County courtroom and studies the man behind the judge’s table. He’s sat at such tables himself, though he doubts he ever looked so uncomfortable. Joseph Palen looks out of place here in this rough mining town and angry that it has the audacity to call itself a county seat. He apparently disapproves of nuevomexico, too, for that matter.

Maxwell feels the impulse to laugh, but instead lifts his right foot to his left knee and watches the crowd gather. Most of the men nod to him politely, touching their foreheads in a kind of salute, and he nods back. They’re good people. Know what they want, have no pretense about them. He grins at Old Pete, who’s still wearing his hat, even inside the courtroom.

Beside him, the old attorney Theodore Wheaton mutters, “Here we go,” and Judge Palen gavels the room to attention.

“Apparently, Mr. Maxwell has deigned to honor us with his presence this morning,” Palen says, glaring at Lucien.

Maxwell resists the impulse to straighten his spine and put both feet on the floor. “I believe you wanted to see me,” he says coolly.

Judge Palen’s lips tighten. “You have an interest in a number of cases before this court.”

Maxwell nods and tilts his head toward the old lawyer beside him. “Mr. Wheaton is my designated attorney,” he says. “I believe that releases me from the need to be present.” He adjusts his right foot higher on his left knee.

“You have also been indicted on a serious charge.” Palen leans forward. “That indictment requires your attendance.”

“The probate court issue?” Maxwell lifts a shoulder. “We have an excellent probate court clerk. As you’ll see from his records, there was no need to hold formal court.”

Palen’s lips thin. “You committed to appearing on the first day of this session in regard to the indictment against you. It is now the fourth day.”

“I was unexpectedly detained.”

Palen stares at him for a long moment, then turns to the court clerk. “Let the record show that Mr. Maxwell has appeared and apologized for his failure to appear, and that we are satisfied no contempt was intended.”

Maxwell’s jaw tightens, then he nods slightly and pulls his right foot more firmly onto his knee. If that’s the way the man wants to play it, he can adjust.

~ ~ ~ ~

“Things are changing, Mr. Maxwell.” Judge Joseph Palen sets his whisky glass on the saloon table and looks around the room. “In another year or so, these ragged placer miners will be replaced by businessmen with laborers to do the rough work.”

Maxwell nods, following his gaze. “And many of these men will be laborers, instead of independent men with claims of their own,” he says ruefully.

“Claims so poorly worked they bring in barely enough to keep body and soul together.” Palen flicks a speck of dust from the sleeve of his dark broadcloth suit.

“That’s all that matters, I suppose.” Maxwell grimaces. “Efficiency.”

“It’s a large territory, and its resources are going to waste.”

“So they tell me,” Maxwell says. He shakes his head, puts his glass on the table, and reaches for his battered black hat. “I’ve been here a long time, Mr. Palen, and I happen to like nuevomexico’s lack of efficiency. So do most of the men in this room, I expect. Though none of us are averse to making a penny or two.” He stands, towering over the table. “Good day to you, Judge.” A mischievous smile flashes across his face. “And good luck.”[1]

from Old One Eye Pete

[1] This story is based on events that occurred during the Spring 1870 First Judicial District Court session in Elizabethtown, the Colfax County seat. Lucien Maxwell, as Colfax County Probate Judge, was indicted for not holding court, but the charges were dismissed. At the time, Maxwell and his wife were in the final stages of selling the Beaubien/Miranda Land Grant (aka the Maxwell Land Grant) to a consortium of English investors. Judge Joseph Palen was newly appointed to his position as Justice for the First District Court of New Mexico. He would go on to become an important member of the notorious Santa Fe Ring, which sought to monetize the agricultural and other assets of New Mexico Territory.

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

BEAVER TALE

The yearling beaver is hungry, but when he tries to filch a piece of tender green shoot from his baby siblings, his mother hisses sharply. He moves toward the lodge’s diving hole, but his father blocks the way and chitters at him. The yearling slinks to one side of the den and begins grooming his fur with his right hind foot. The divided nail on his second toe makes for a kind of comb that simplifies this process considerably.

There are three new kits this spring, which keep his parents busy. His father moves to help with the feeding, and the yearling sees his chance. He slides into the diving hole and out into the pond.

The sky is bright overhead. The beaver dives, but not before the old trapper on the bank nudges the young girl beside him. “See, I tol’ you that ole lodge was still occupied!” he says gleefully.

* * *

“Old Pete ain’t gonna trap it, is he?” Andrew whispers. The two children are crouched on the edge of the beaver pond, peering at the yearling beaver feeding on the opposite bank.

“He says he needs a new hat, and beaver tail is mighty tasty,” Alma answers.

“He don’t need a new hat!” Andrew says loudly. There’s a slapping sound on the water to their left, and the yearling turns and slides into the pond.

“I didn’t even see the other one,” Andrew says sorrowfully.

“Should of kept your voice down.” Alma stands up.

“How can you watch ’em like you do and not worry about Old Pete trapping ’em?”

She shrugs. “Everything dies. Mama says it’s all part of God’s plan.” She moves away, toward the rocky path that leads up the Cimarron River toward home.

“Old Pete don’t need a new hat,” Andrew insists as he follows.

* * *

“Beaver tail is almighty tasty,” Old Pete observes as he sits on the front porch whittling a stick.

Andrew scowls. “Papa says it’s all fat and grease. Not good at all.”

“Fat tastes plenty good when you’ve been eatin’ venison and elk a long spell. Wild game’s almighty lean.”

“You been eatin’ here,” Andrew insists. “We’ve got plenty o’ fat from the hogs.”

Andrew’s mother comes out of the house. “The kindling box is empty,” she tells him.

He rises obediently and heads toward the woodpile.

“Are you still teasing him about trapping that beaver?” she asks Old Pete.

The old man grins. “He’s a right risible youngster, ain’t he?”

“Who admires you, although I can’t think why,” she says tartly. “He’s beginning to believe that men kill for the sheer pleasure of it.”

Old Pete grunts and tosses his stick to the ground. “Think I’ll help with that kindling,” he says.

* * *

“I ain’t gonna place a trap for that beaver, son.” Old Pete and the boy are resetting a garden fence post. Andrew holds it steady as Old Pete shovels dirt into the hole.

“Alma said you need a new hat.”

The old man chuckles. “Hat’s good fer another season or two.”

“But what then?”

“Somethin’ll turn up.”

“You said beaver tail was tasty.”

Old Pete leans on his shovel. “Funny thing ’bout that. Only really tasted good when there was plenty to trap an’ the peltries were sellin’ high.” He begins tamping down the dirt around the post with his foot. “You think this’ll be strong enough t’ keep those elk out?”

“I hope so. Mama got pretty mad at them last spring. She was out here with the shot gun, but Papa says all she did was scare ’em. They’ll be back when they’re hungry enough.”

from Old One Eye Pete

 

 

INEVITABLE AS CLOUDS

“Disaster seems as inevitable as clouds piling over those mountains and more rain with them,” she said drily. She jerked her chin toward the western horizon, where gray-lined white clouds towered above the rocky peaks.

“Rain isn’t necessarily a disaster,” he said mildly. “It’s water for the crops and cattle, recharge for the well.”

“I haven’t been out of this cabin for the last ten days,” she complained. “By the time I’m done with the morning chores, it’s raining again. You’re out and about, tending the cattle, seeing to the crops. I’m in the house getting the children decent and cleaning up after them.”

“The rain means you don’t have to haul water to the garden,” he pointed out. “The clouds are bringing it to you.”

She took a deep breath, as if gearing up for an argument, then let it out, letting the anger go with it. “I’m just feeling so cooped up,” she said. “I feel like a winter-bound chicken in the hen house.”

“Well, we could eat you and take you out of your misery,” he teased.

She laughed and shook her head. “I’ll certainly be glad when the monsoon season is over with.” She looked up at him, over her shoulder. “We will get a respite from this before winter sets in, won’t we?”

He chuckled, drew her to him, and silently watched the clouds moving his way.

from Valley of the Eagles

IMPATIENCE

“This gold. They have found it in large quantities?” The lanky teenage boy named Escubal Martinez poked a stick into the logs on the fire, moving them closer together. At the edge of the mountain valley, a coyote yipped. The Martinez clan’s flock of sheep shifted uneasily in the darkness beyond the firelight.

The Prussian-born traveler from Etown grinned. “Ja,” he said. “But it is hard work, the digging for gold.”

Escubal’s uncle Xavier grunted from the other side of the flames, where he was using a knife to carefully smooth out an uncomfortable bump on the grip of his walking staff. “Borregas y carneros.” He nodded at the boy. “That is wealth.”

Escubal scowled at the fire.

The traveler looked puzzled. “Carner?” he asked. “Meat is wealth?”

“No, Borregas y carneros,” Escubal said.”Ewes and rams.” He gestured impatiently toward the flock.

Xavier moved his staff in the firelight and ran his fingertips gently over the wood. “Carne y ropa,” he said meditatively. “Meat and clothes.”

Ja,” the Prussian answered. “You are correct.”

Escubal scowled at the fire and the traveler smiled sympathetically. It was not easy to be young and impatient.

The boy poked at the fire again. It flared briefly, lighting the night, and the flock moved restlessly, waiting for morning.

from Valley of the Eagles