Decisions

Decisions

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

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

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

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

“I beg your pardon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There has been a misunderstanding,” Alma said.

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

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

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

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

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

“I am so sorry,” Alma said helplessly.

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

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

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

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

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

“I told him there had been a misunderstanding.”

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guadalupita chuckled.

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

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

“Then you’re not actually….”

“It’s the only way I could think of.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I will say that I lost the child.”

Guadalupita clicked her tongue and shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

from Old One Eye Pete

YOU PROMISED ME GLASS WINDOWS

YOU PROMISED ME GLASS WINDOWS

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

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

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

“Suzanna sweet–”

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

“We have lamps.”

“It’s not the same and you know it!”

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

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

 Copyright ©2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

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

SMITH

SMITH

They headed out of the Sangre de Cristos in mid-May, sleeting snow at their backs. They walked, all of them except the boy, and led the mules, packsaddles heavy with beaver plew. They were eight in all, counting the boy. They’d found him beside the smoking remains of a mountain cabin, the only survivor of an Indian raid. How he’d kept his scalp was a mystery to the trappers, but they shrugged at each other and agreed when Dutch George proposed that the kid come along as cook and general camp follower.

The men consisted of three Americans, two Mexicans, a half-Ute guide, and an uncommunicative grizzled-haired Black man who, when they’d run across him on the Rio Colorado, had asked if they minded if he threw in with them.

The trappers had looked at each other. In fur country, a man’s skin color wasn’t much of an issue, and he looked honest enough, but he wasn’t forthcoming about where he’d been or where he was headed, either. They’d all shrugged and he’d fallen in behind, but there was a certain amount of unease and the orphan boy was more skittish than usual, shoulders jerking at the croak of every raven overhead.

On the stranger’s third night, Dutch George crouched on the opposite side of the fire and studied him for a long stretch before asking abruptly, “Ain’t a runaway, are ya?”

The man was sitting on a large flat piece of sandstone, warming his hands. He looked across the flames at the German and shook his head with a small smile.

“Talkative, ain’t ya?”

The man chuckled and nodded slightly.

“You been trappin’ long?” Little Bill asked as he settled beside Dutch George. He was the tallest and broadest among them, though so young he didn’t yet have his full beard.

The black man shrugged and stared quietly into the flames. The orphan boy came alongside him and held out a tin plate of dutch oven cornbread and stewed jerky, his twitching shoulders sloshing the food dangerously.

“Thankee,” the man said, taking it. He looked at the plate thoughtfully, then began eating.

“Ya don’t chow like ya been starved,” George observed.

“It’s good,” the stranger said.

At the edge of the firelight, Webster had been trying to mend a trap. “Shit!” he said. “The dad blasted thing’s completely haywire. What’d that beaver do to this thing, anyhow?”

Archuleta took the trap from Webster’s hands and turned it over. “That beaver, he tried to eat him,” he said. “He chew the trap jaw instead of his own leg.”

“He done more to it than that,” Webster said. “He twisted it a good quarter turn. I ain’t never seen anything like it. And damn it to hell, that’s the second one that’s been shot all to pieces this trip. These contraptions’ll cost me twelve dollars in Taos!”

The Black man put his plate on the ground and stretched his hand toward the Mexican. Archuleta gave him the mangled trap. The stranger leaned into the firelight and examined the metal contraption carefully, then pulled a sturdy ten-inch knife from the scabbard at his waist. He used the blunt side of the blade to wedge one end of the jaw out of its stabilizing base, then began maneuvering it away from the encircling springs at either end, working the damaged bar free of the trap.

“Careful there,” Dutch George said, but the black man only grunted and continued to manipulate the metal pieces.

They all watched silently as he slipped the twisted two-legged curved jaw out of the trap, then nodded to the boy. “Add some o’ that fatty pine to the fire, son.”

When the flames flared hot in response to the pine pitch, the stranger pulled a wad of rags from his possibles bag, wrapped it around one end of the curved metal bar, and held the skewed portion over the hottest part of the fire. For a long while, nothing happened, then the metal began to darken, redden, and finally glow white as the boy added more wood to the flames.

When the bar was hot enough, the man edged off the piece of sandstone he’d been sitting on and gingerly placed the glowing metal on it. He crouched, picked up a nearby fist-size black rock, and began tapping it against the jaw, carefully working the metal straight. “Got water?” he asked over his shoulder. The boy brought a full bucket and the man plunged the hot metal in, leaning back to avoid the hissing steam.

When the trap jaw had turned dark again, the stranger took it from the pail, returned it to the sandstone, and bent for his plate. Little Bill edged toward the rock.

“Not cool yet,” the Black man warned.

Hands behind his back, Bill leaned to examine the repair. “Wagh!” he said. “That should do the trick.” He straightened and looked at the stranger. “Maybe you can look at the other one after you’ve chowed.” He grinned. “Guess we can just call ya Smith.”

A shadow of a smile crossed the Black man’s face and he nodded in agreement. From the edge of the firelight, the Indian-raid orphan boy studied him silently, shoulders still for the first time.[i]

from Old One Eye Pete


[i] References to black or ‘mulatto’ mountain men are scattered throughout the accounts of the Americans in the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps the most famous of these men was James Beckworth, who became, like so many of the mountain men, famous both for his exploits and his capacity to stretch those experiences into memorable stories.

Old One Eye Pete and the Half-Grown Pup

Old One Eye Pete and the Half-Grown Pup

It’s a gangly mutt, large for an Indian dog, with dirt-matted curly black hair. Old One Eye Pete looks at it in disgust as it half-crouches at his feet. It’s been following him and the mule for the past two hours, ever since they left the Ute Indian encampment down canyon. “Damned if the thing ain’t smilin’,” Pete mutters. He pokes the dog’s side with his foot. “You a doe or a buck?” The animal rolls over obligingly, paws in the air. Buck.

Old Pete toes it again. “Well, I expect you won’t last long. You’ll be running off to the first camp with a bitch in heat.” He turns and twitches the mule’s lead rope. “Giddup.”

They trail the Cimarron River up canyon through the afternoon and settle into camp under an overhanging sandstone boulder as the light begins to fade. It’s still early. The sunlight goes sooner as the canyon walls narrow. But Old Pete’s in no particular hurry and the pup’s acting a mite tired.

“Gonna have to keep up,” Pete tells it as he cuts pieces of venison off the haunch he traded from the Utes. The dog slinks toward the fire and Pete tosses it a scrap. “Too small for my roaster anyway,” he mutters as he skewers a larger chunk onto a sharpened willow stick and holds it out over the flames.

~ ~ ~ ~

“Where’d that damn pup get to now?” Old Pete mutters as he and the mule reach the rocky outcropping that overlooks the valley. He can see through the ponderosa into a good stretch of grassland below, but there’s no evidence of the curly-haired black Indian dog. Pete shakes his head in disgust, jams his rabbit fur hat farther down on his head, and snaps the mule’s lead rope impatiently.

At least the mule doesn’t need voice direction. Which is more than can be said for the dog, but Pete refuses to call the damn thing, no matter how aggravated he might feel.

Jicarilla Apaches are likely roaming the valley for elk, and Pete’s taking no chance of being found before he wants to be. The dog can go to hell, for all he cares. He grunts irritably as he works his way down the hillside. Idiot pup.

He pauses at the tree line, getting his bearings, the air crisp on his face. A light snow powders the ground. A herd of perhaps thirty elk is bunched on the hillside to his left. He squints his good eye. They seem a mite restless.

Then he sees the wolves, eight or nine of them waiting downwind while two big ones trot the herd’s perimeter, checking for weakness.

At his feet to his right, a low whine emanates from the prickly ground-hugging branches of a juniper bush. As Pete turns his head, the black pup eases from the grasping needles. The dog slinks to Pete’s feet and crouches beside him, tail between its legs. Then it looks anxiously toward the wolves and whines again.

“Not as dumb as I took you fer,” Old Pete says, adjusting his hat.

~ ~ ~ ~

There’s a reason it’s called Apache Canyon and Old Pete proceeds cautiously, aware that there’s been a recent outbreak of hostilities between the Jicarillas and the locals. Somebody got twitchy-brained and shot off their gun without thinking twice and now the whole Sangre de Cristo range is on edge. And it doesn’t matter at all that he had no part in the original quarrel.

However, Pete hasn’t seen a soul in three days, and he’s beginning to think he’s going to get to Taos in one piece after all, if the damn half-grown dog tagging him will quit wandering off, then coming back, widening the scent trail with his idiot nosing around.

Pete scowls as the puppy reappears, this time from a thicket of scrub oak, dead leaves rattling on the ground. As the dog gets closer, it goes into a half crouch. It’s holding something in its mouth and its curly black tail droops anxiously.

“What’ve you got there?” Pete asks. He squats and holds out his hand, and the dog releases the item into his palm. “Shit!” Pete says, dropping it.

Then he leans closer and sniffs. It really is shit. Human, too. Fresh enough to still stink. He rises, studying the slopes on either side, turning to examine the Pass behind him. So much for being alone.

“Thankee, pup,” he mutters. “I think.”

from Old One Eye Pete

WATER OF LIFE

“Now what’re you gettin’ yourself all fired up for?” the matted-haired trapper demanded. “I’m your pa and I can do I want.” He lifted the pottery jug from the wooden table with both hands. “I been feelin’ a mite poorly since I come in from the mountains and this here’s a right good anti-fogmatic.”

“Aquardiente,” the girl said contemptuously. “Your so-called water of life.” She pushed her long black hair away from her face. “Water of hell!”

“Ah, now girlie.” He grasped the jug’s narrow neck with one hand and reached for her arm with the other.

She slapped at him. “I’m not your girlie any longer. Don’t you touch me!”

His eyes narrowed. “I’m still your pappy,” he said. “Just ’cuz I been gone five months don’t mean you can be disrespectin’ me.”

She sniffed and turned away.

He gulped down a swig of the liquor. “Where’s your ma, anyways?”

“She went to the merchant’s to settle her bill.”

“Don’t want me to know how much she spent while I was gone, huh? What new piece of fooferaw have the two of you took a cotton to now?”

The girl whirled. “You mean the cotton for your shirts? The white wheat flour she saved for your biscuits while we spent the entire winter eating cheap corn tortillas?”

The jug thudded onto the table. “What’s eatin’ you girl, that you think you can chaw on me so right catawamptiously? It ain’t fitten!” He surged from the chair, his hand raised. “I’m thinkin’ you need a rememberance of who’s head o’ this household!”

Her lower lip curled. “That’s right. Beat me. Just give me an excuse to leave. That’s everything I could wish for.”

He dropped his hand. “And why would you leave, girl?” He peered at her. “You find a young man to spark you while I was gone?”

She lifted her chin. “I don’t need a man.”

He threw back his head. “Hah! And what else you gonna go and do?” Then his face changed. “You ain’t gone and done something you’ll regret, have you now?”

Her lips twitched with amusement. “You might regret it,” she said. “I won’t be of much use to you.”

He moved toward her. “What the tarnation have you gone and done?”

“You’ll know when I’m ready to tell you.”

As he grabbed her arm, the door opened.

“Be careful of her, por favor!” the girl’s mother said as she entered. “She has been accepted into the convent in Santa Fe, to serve as a helper! Our child is a matter of grace to us now!”

The mountain man stared at his wife, then his daughter. He turned to the table. “Women!” he muttered as he lifted his jug.

from Old One Eye Pete

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