BUZZARD BRAINS

“He ain’t got the brains God gave a buzzard,” the old man grumbled. He picked up his mattock and glared at the black-hatted figure retreating down the bottom of Humbug Gulch toward Elizabethtown. Then he looked uphill, toward Baldy Peak. “Idiot can’t even figure out there’s a storm up there and this gully likely t’wash out in another half hour.” He sniffed disdainfully and went back to work, breaking rock on the gully’s southern lip, searching for the gold that was bound to be there if a man worked the stones long enough.

The young man in the black bowler hat chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip as he trudged down the center of the gulch through the gravel and broken rock. He’d offered every dollar he had for the claim, but the miner clearly wasn’t interested in selling. He shook his head. There must be other options.

Halfway down the gulch, he paused to catch his breath and gaze at the mountain above. That dark cloud spoke rain. Given the southeast position of the cloud and the angle of the gulch, it was unlikely that particular cloudburst would wet this particular gully. However, just to be on the safe side, he moved halfway up the gully’s north slope before he continued his downward trek.

The sun was glaringly bright on the dry rocks. The young man sat down on a large sandstone boulder and took off his hat. He brushed at the dust on the black felt and shook his head. He needed to find something lighter weight and less apt to show dust. He’d keep wearing this in the meantime, though. If nothing else, it protected him from sunstroke. He glanced down at the shadowed side of his rocky seat and grinned. Like this boulder was protecting that bit of grass, growing here among the pitiless rocks where no plant had a right to be.

The young man’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. He shaded the clump of grass with his hat and peered down at it and the rocks around it. Then he straightened abruptly, glanced up the gully where the miner had gone back to work, and slid off the boulder. He crouched beside the big rock and gently pried a piece of broken quartz from the ground. He turned it slowly back and forth, examining every facet and seam.

Five minutes later, the young man sat back on his heels and turned the rock again, just to be certain. Then he picked up a stick and poked around a bit in the ground beside the boulder. He nodded thoughtfully, then stood and looked carefully at the gulch’s rocky slopes for any sign of possession. But this piece of land clearly hadn’t been claimed. Apparently, no one had thought there was gold this far down Humbug Gulch.

The young man chuckled, tucked the piece of quartz into his pocket, clapped his dusty black hat on his head, and headed into Elizabethtown to file the necessary paperwork for his claim.

from Old One Eye Pete

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INDECISION

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

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

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

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

“That was war. This is different.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from Old One Eye Pete

SOFT WOOD

Samuel stroked the narrow piece of old cottonwood thoughtfully, absorbing its smoothness. It called out to be carved.

He was one of only a handful of boys living in Elizabethtown, New Mexico Territory, in this year of 1871. Almost all the other children were girls. Even worse, he was the only boy in a house full of overly-particular and opinionated sisters. Samuel scowled at the wood and dug his dirty fingernail into it, cutting a rough zigzag. It felt good to mark up something that they couldn’t complain about, even if he did have to hide behind the woodshed to do it, and didn’t have a knife to cut it proper-like.

“What are you doing?” a young female voice inquired.

Samuel looked up warily. A girl with long honey-brown curls and large gray eyes stood at the corner of the shed, staring at the wood in Samuel’s hands. She moved closer, her eyes still on the old stick. “How’d you mark it like that?” she asked. “All the wood around this town is too twisted and tough to cut into.”

“This here’s cottonwood,” he said. “It’s softer than the pine and other stuff hereabouts.”

“Where’d you get it?”

He stiffened, remembering he was talking to a girl, one who was bound to boss him around. “What’s it to you?” he asked.

“Well, never mind,” she said. She shoved her hands into her pinafore pockets and turned to go, her head down. Her curls covered her face.

“I’m sorry,” Samuel said contritely. He flung the stick away.

The girl crossed the yard to the piece of wood and bent to pick it up. She ran her fingers down the side he hadn’t marked. “It’s very soft,” she said.

“I have a lot of sisters and they’re always bossing me,” Samuel said apologetically.

The girl lifted her head and grinned. “I only have one brother, but he’s always bossing me.”

“What’d you want to know about the wood for?”

“I want to learn how to carve,” she said. “My brother knows but he won’t teach me. He says carving’s only for boys. I was going to try to teach myself but I couldn’t find anything soft enough.”

“I found that stick in our woodpile,” Samuel said. “There’s more in there but I’ll have to dig through the stack in order to get at it.”

“When you do find some, could I have a piece?”

“Sure. Why not?” He looked at her thoughtfully. “You have a knife?”

She smiled triumphantly and pulled a penknife from her pinafore pocket. They grinned at each other. Then she stuck out her hand, ready to shake. “I’m Charlotte,” she said.

from Valley of the Eagles

 

VALLEY OF THE EAGLES

It was spring in the valley of the eagles, which meant it had been raining off and on for three weeks and the usually adobe-hard clay soil was soft enough to be dug. Once Old Bill had selected a likely spot for caching the packs of beaver fur, Pepe set to work. Old Bill stood farther up the hillside, chanting in a mixture of Osage and Ute. The prayers would help keep varmints away, Bill had said: both the two-footed and four-footed kind.

It was a good location for a cache, Pepe reflected: tucked under the hillside pines and marked by a massive sandstone boulder that would be easy to identify when they returned. After the Taos alcalde had decided that the few beaver plews they’d set aside to show him were truly Old Bill’s entire winter haul,  Pepe and Old Bill would slip back into the valley with a Taos trader to turn the cached furs into coin. Then Pepe would have a nice amount to take home to his wife while Old Bill gambled his own portion away.

Pepe chuckled and paused his digging to wipe his forehead with his cotton sleeve. He was always surprised at how warm it could get in this valley, as high up in the mountains as it was.

Small stones rattled past him and Old Bill came down the hillside. “War’s th’ other shovel?” he demanded in his nasal twang. “We ain’t got th’ rest o’ eternity!”

from Valley of the Eagles

 

SNOW, 3 of 3 — Homecoming

After an icy night huddled against his mule in the lee of a sandstone boulder, it took Peter another two days of slogging up Cimarron Canyon before he reached the valley above.

He had to lead the mule through the most treacherous part of the half-frozen marsh where the river formed up at the valley’s edge. “Come’n now,” he coaxed. “Can’t you smell the cabin smoke?” But she just rolled her eyes at him.

Finally they were through, his water-soaked boots heavy on his feet, the ten inches of snow on the ground making them colder. He turned left, toward home, and the mule’s pace quickened. “Smellin’ home?” Peter asked sardonically. They were close enough now to make out the cabin at the base of the rise. Smoke steamed from the chimney and the figure of a woman showed at the door, one hand to her forehead, gazing in his direction. Peter’s own pace quickened, in spite of the heavy boots.

from Valley of the Eagles

SNOW, 2 of 3 — Caught

Peter studied the icy river beyond his mule’s twitching ears. “I should’ve started back yesterday,” he muttered. The mule stirred restlessly and he reached to soothe her. The Cimarron was almost frozen over; the canyon sides above it were white with snow. Man and mule turned to look west, where the canyon climbed up into the Moreno Valley, toward home. The wind gusted straight toward them, carrying snowflakes heavy with moisture out of a lead-gray sky.

The snow was more wet than cold, which would make it heavy. And it was coming down fast. They’d have a rough time getting through to the valley. The marsh where the river formed up would be half frozen and nasty. The mule snorted irritably and Peter nodded. “Yeah, I guess we’re gonna wait this one out,” he said.

He dismounted and led the animal out of the wind, into the shelter of an upthrust sandstone boulder. “Hope Patricia’s all settled in,” he muttered.  He looked upward and shook his head. “Shoulda started back yesterday.”

from Valley of the Eagles

SNOW, 1 of 3 – Preparations

Patricia stood in the cabin doorway and looked west, across the valley. The Sangre de Cristo peaks were obscured by thick gray clouds and a white haze drifted down their lower flanks. A cold damp wind snapped against her face. There would be snow before nightfall, more by tomorrow.

“Winter is definitely here,” she muttered, heading toward the barnyard.

The chickens were already in their coop. She lifted the skim of ice from their water pan, filled the grain container, and latched the flap down over their entry door.

The horses and cow were huddled on the east side of the barn. She threw open the door and they crowded in. She ensured they had feed, then took the grain shovel back to the cabin with her, in preparation for tomorrow’s path-clearing.

All she needed now was some assurance that her husband was safe and dry, she thought ruefully as she bolted the cabin door behind her. Wherever he was.

from Valley of the Eagles