ATTITUDES

“Rues? Your last name is Roo-ess?” The young white man sitting at the Elizabethtown restaurant table looked at the old black man quizzically. “You mean Ruiz? Roo-eez? You got some Spanish in you?”

The cook shook his head. “All I know’s what my mama tol’ me,” he said. “My daddy was a Frenchman visiting ’round in Alabama. He stayed at the Big House for three weeks and took a shine to my mama while he was there. When I was born, she give me his last name.”

“Your master let her do that?”

The black man studied the plate of food in his hands for a long minute. “After the war, we could choose what last name we wanted,” he said quietly. “I chose my daddy’s name.”

“That food sure looks good,” the white man said. He moved his knife and fork farther apart on the bare wooden table.

Louis Rues put the plate down and turned away. He shook his head. People are people, no matter where you go, he thought ruefully as he went back to his stove.

from Valley of the Eagles

 

SALOON CHRISTMAS

María Dolores Quintana paused outside the Etown saloon door and adjusted her reboso over her long black hair, gathering her courage. She pushed tentatively, cracking the door open, then stopped to listen to the voices inside.

“Now that red-headed gal, she’s got a way of twistin’ her hips that’s sure to keep you hard and goin’,” a southern voice drawled.

“And the breasts on her are quite magnificent,” a German voice said. “It is sufficient just to look at them.”

Someone else chuckled from the other end of the room. “All you wanta do is look, huh? Can’t think of anything else to do, Faulk?”

“That is not quite what I intended to say,” the German voice said.

“He was just gettin’ started!” the southern voice laughed.

María took a deep breath. She must accustom herself to words such as these. This was the way men spoke of women who did the work she sought. She straightened her shoulders and pushed through the door.

The saloon was almost empty on this Thursday morning before Christmas. Two men sat at a table, one of them toying with a pack of cards. At the other end of the room, another man stood behind a long counter. This was the man María had been told to talk to. She dropped her reboso to her shoulders and crossed the creaking wooden floor quickly, before her nerve failed. The men at the table looked her over approvingly and her stomach clenched, but she kept moving. If she accomplished her goal, she would need to become used to such looks.

The sandy-haired man behind the bar studied her, unmoving.

Señor Stinson?” she asked.

He nodded, hazel eyes hooded.

“I come—” She paused, then started again. “My friend Carmen Martinez tells me I should speak to you about work.” A chair scraped on the floor behind her and she forced herself not to turn.

“What kind of work?” Stinson asked. “What’re you willing to do?”

“Whatever you ask, señor.”

Cards slapped onto the table behind her. “You’d better grab her right quick, Joe,” the southern voice  said.

“She has the looks that will earn you many dollars,” the German voice agreed.

Stinson frowned at the men at the table, then looked at María, his face carefully blank. “Have you done this kind of work before?”

“No señor, I have never done such a thing.” Behind her, a man chuckled. She focused on the saloon keeper and lifted her chin. “Carmen says I would do well. I have much incentive.”

He raised an eyebrow. Another chair scraped the floor.

Mi papá y mi hermano, they are dead,” she said. “I must find a way to feed mi mamá y mi—How do you say? My sister.”

“And how did these deaths occur?” the German voice asked.

María turned, in spite of herself. “The Maxwell Grant men, they came and told us to leave our land,” she said. “My brother, he was angry and he shot at them, and then they killed both him and mi papá.” She shuddered and turned back to Stinson. “I will do anything you ask, señor.”

Joseph Stinson opened his mouth, but the southern voice interjected. “Hell, Stinson, surely you ain’t gonna ask this sweet thing to do you now, are you? It’s almost Christmas, man!”

Stinson put both his hands on the bar and glowered at the men behind her. “If you gentlemen will hold your questions and opinions the way you hold your cards, you’ll learn what I’m going to do.” He looked at María. “Do you have folks to go to?”

She nodded. “My mother’s familia has moved north to the valley of the San Juan. If it please God, when I have earned what we need, we will go there also.”

“Well, I can’t help you much–” Stinson began.

“Like hell you can’t!” the southern voice said.

“But I’m sure that Mr. Hill and Mr. Faulk would be glad to contribute from their ill-gotten gains to also assist you.”

María turned and looked at the men at the table, who smiled back at her sheepishly. “I am Ernest Faulk,” the short stocky man with the German voice said courteously. “I would be most happy to assist you.”

She shook her head. “But I must earn what I receive.”

“It is almost Christmas,” the sleek, dark-haired man called Mr. Hill said. “And this year the day is especially holy, because it falls on a Sunday.” He glanced at Mr. Faulk. “Ernest and I are gamblers by trade and there is much for which we should repent and atone. Let us begin to redeem ourselves by assisting you.”

Ernest Faulk nodded. “For the sake of the Christ child.” He pulled a small leather bag from his vest pocket, began to open it, then tossed the whole thing on the table. María heard the dull chink of coins.

Mr. Hill considered the bag, then reached into his own pocket. “And I’ll raise you one,” he said. He pulled out two small bags of coins and placed them beside the first one.

Joseph Stinson had come out from behind the bar. He crossed to the table and laid a handful of greenbacks beside the bags. Then he scooped them all up and carried them to the girl. “Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Fröhliche Weihnachten,” echoed Ernest Faulk.

“And a most felicitous New Year,” said Mr. Hill.

Mariá stared at the men, then down at the wealth in her hands. “It is more than I could dream,” she murmured. She looked up, her eyes swimming. “I have no words,” she said.

All three men spread their hands at the same time. “Es nada,” they answered.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

 

Land Grant Controversy Begins!!!!

On Friday, December 8, 1843, Taos residents Ceran St. Vrain and Cornelio Vigil asked the Governor of New Mexico to grant them the equivalent of 922 square leagues (over four million acres) of land in what is now southern Colorado. The acreage in question included the valleys of the Greenhorn, Huerfano, Apishapa, Cucharas, and Purgatoire Rivers. St. Vrain and Vigil said they intended to use it to “encourage the agriculture of the country to such a degree as to establish its flourishing condition” and to raise cattle and sheep south of the Arkansas River and opposite Bent’s Fort.

They got what they wanted. By January 4 of the following year, they were in possession.

And they did raise cattle and sheep on the land. Between 1844 and 1847, fifteen to sixteen hundred head of cattle grazed there.

But then the Americans showed up. After things settled down following the Mexican-American War, the new government informed the owners of all the land grants in New Mexico that they needed to prove their right to the property in question.

Vigil had died in the Taos revolt in 1847, and by this time the land had been sold to or inherited by various parties, but they were all interested in pursuing title to the grant. On June 4, 1857, thirteen and a half years after Vigil and St. Vrain took possession, the owners presented the required documentation and waited for an answer.

Things went smoothly enough at first. On September 17, Surveyor General William Pelham approved what was now being called the Las Animas grant and recommended that Congress confirm it.

The first sign of trouble was during the review by the House’s Committee on Private Land Claims. The committee was taken aback when they realized the land grant documents didn’t identify the number of acres involved. Instead, it laid out the grant boundaries, which included a spot “one and one-half leagues below the junction of the San Carlos River . . . thence following in a direct line to the south, until it reaches the foot of the first mountain, two leagues west of the Huerfano River…” The committee stalled for a while on this traditional terminology, but eventually did recommend approval.

And then the Bill reached the Senate. Here the boundaries description wasn’t the problem. The grant simply contained too much land to be handed over to private control. The Senate was willing to approve 22 square leagues (97,514.53 acres), but not over four million. Donaciano Vigil and the others protested, but the Civil War broke out right about then and the case was set aside for more pressing concerns.

Dec 8 illustration.Colorado Land Grants

When Congress finally returned to the issue in 1869, it confirmed its original 22 square league decision, but granted the owners the right to choose which part of the land to retain.

However, in the meantime, grant owners had sold parcels to other people, people whose land was now in danger of being considered public domain. There would be further court battles and examinations of evidence until the United States Supreme Court handed down a final ruling on December 3, 1900, almost exactly 57 years after Ceran St. Vrain and Cornelio Vigil first requested the land.

The answer was still “no.” Sometimes it’s just not worth it to keep pressing your case.

Sources: J.J. Bowden, “Las Animas Grant,” New Mexico State Record Center and Archives, accessed via  dev.newmexicohistory.org/ filedetails.php? fileID=25012, 11/4/19; Marc Simmons, Kit Carson and His Three Wives, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2003; Ralph E. Twitchell The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Vol. 2, Cedar Rapids: Torch Press; Victor Westphall, Mercedes Reales, Hispanic Land Grants of the Upper Rio Grand Region, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1983.

 

MISNOMER

“Who you callin’ squirt?” The tall young man with the long sun bleached hair moved toward him down the bar, broad shoulders tense under his heavy flannel shirt.

“I didn’t mean anything,” the man said apologetically. The premature wrinkles in his face were creased with dirt.  Clearly a local pit miner. He gestured toward the tables. “I heard them callin’ you that. Thought it was your name.”

“Only my oldest friends call me that,” the young man said.

“Sorry ’bout that,” the other man said. He stuck out his hand. “Name’s Pete. They call me Gold Dust Pete, ’cuz that’s all I’ve come up with so far.”

They shook. “I’m Alfred,” the younger man said. “My grandfather called me Squirt. It kinda got passed down as a joke when I started getting my growth on.”

Pete chuckled. “I can see why it was funny,” he agreed. “Have a drink?”

from Valley of the Eagles

WINTER STOP, MORENO VALLEY

There was no grass visible, covered as it was by three feet of snow. Clouds obscured Aqua Fria Peak, meaning there’d be more snow in the night. The lower branches of the aspens had clearly felt the teeth of hungry deer and elk. There’d no doubt be wolves shadowing their flanks.

Old Pete cut branches for the two pack mules and created a feeding pile. They came eagerly to investigate.

What they left would clearly indicate the passing of a stranger, but he didn’t expect anyone was watching for him, anyhow. And by midday tomorrow the pile would be just another white-mounded windfall.

He added wood to the fire and pulled the buffalo robe tighter around his shoulders. He wished he had some coffee or Taos lightning. The snow-melt water was hot enough to warm him, but something with a kick in it would feel mighty handy right about now.

 

Mail Escort Survives October Snow

Captain Louis Felsenthal and the men of New Mexico’s Fort Union’s Company C were out in the field in September and October 1864, escorting mail-and-passenger stagecoaches between Fort Lyon and Fort Union. This should have been pleasant enough duty on the Plains in the fall of the year—the heat reduced, plenty of grass for the mules pulling the supply wagons, golden trees lining the rivers that crossed the open prairie.

But the duty wasn’t pleasant. The weather that fall was unusually cold. By October 20, Felsenthal and his men were experiencing snowstorms every few days. They hadn’t expected these kinds of conditions and didn’t have winter clothing with them. They must have been glad when their two-month rotation ended and they could head back to Fort Union.

They were en route to the Fort, on the north side of Raton Pass, when they were caught in the worst snowstorm they’d seen to date. The company and its animals struggled up and over the Pass, then down to Red River Station, where they sheltered as snow continued to fall all that night and through the next morning.

At that point, the snow on level ground was over a foot and a half deep. And still coming down. It fell steadily snow for two more days until Felsenthal, worried about the lack of forage for the mules, decided to break for Fort Union.

Oct 29 post illustration.Felsenthal

Four days later, after marching through snow that reached to their waists, men, wagons, and mules arrived at Lucien B. Maxwell’s ranch in what is today’s Cimarron). By the time they got there, many of the men had frostbitten feet and most of them were snow blind from the glare of the sun on the snow. But they’d all made it.

One reason Felsenthal and his men survived their trek is that a herd of cattle destined for Fort Union was also marooned by the storm at Red River Station. As a result, the Captain was able to buy 378 pounds of beef to feed his men, giving them the fuel they needed for their coming journey.

They were also fortunate to reach Red River Station when they did. The storm that closed in after Company C arrived there extended north and east across the Colorado plains, creating deep drifts on the stage route between Bent’s Old Fort and Denver and making the divide between the Arkansas and the Platte Rivers particularly treacherous.

You can just never tell what the weather’s going to do on the Western Plains.

Sources: Jacqueline Dorgan McKenna, Louis Felsenthal, Citizen Soldier of Territorial New Mexico, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West, stagecoach lines on the santa fe trail, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.

THIS HORRID WIND

The boy woke in the night to wind howling through the rafters and down the rock-and-mortar chimney. The chimney stack passed through the cabin loft and the boy’s sleeping pallet lay next to one end of the stack. He reached to touch the chimney. The stones were icy cold. The boy grimaced. The morning fire would take an extra-long time to light. The kindling itself would be cold. He scrunched farther into the blankets, seeking his own warmth.

At the other end of the chimney, his sister stirred. “Is that wind?” she asked sleepily.

“Banshees,” he said.

She made a chuckling sound and he grinned, more awake now, and suddenly cheerful. “Elk on the roof, bugling,” he said.

“Wolves at the door,” she suggested.

“Wolves in the fireplace.”

“Werewolves howling.”

“La llorona weeping for her children.”

The wind gusted sharply. The cabin shuddered, then a sustained high-pitched howl set up under the roof overhang outside.

“La llorona screeching for her children!” the girl giggled, trying to stifle her voice, and then the boy was laughing too, not so quietly.

The wind dropped abruptly and there was a rustle of movement at the base of the ladder. “What in tarnation are you two doing up there?” their father called softly from below. “Your mother is trying to sleep.”

“But not succeeding,” their mother’s voice said. Lamplight flared from the dark space at the edge of the loft. “You two might as well come on down,” she said. “This horrid wind is keeping us all awake.”

Loretta Miles Tollefson © 2017