DARKER THAN A WOLF’S MOUTH

DARKER THAN A WOLF’S MOUTH

“No, don’t go out there now,” María said. “It is late and there is no moon. El es oscuro como boca de lobo.”

“How d’you know how dark it is inside a wolf’s mouth?” Alvin Little grumbled as he put on his boots. “Leave me be.”

He paused again, listening. The sound came again, the rattle of sticks tumbling off the pile of kindling just outside the door. “I spent two hours yesterday cutting that kindling and I’m damned if someone’s gonna go stealing it.”

“El noche es más mala que Judas,” she protested. “It is unsafe.”

He reached for the door latch, then turned to look at her. “More evil than who? Judas, you say? Where d’you get this stuff?”

He stopped on the sill and shook his head as he peered into the darkness. A pale sliver of moon and no starlight. Heavy clouds blanketing the sky. He chuckled. So this was what a wolf’s mouth looked like.

He leaned forward and peered at the wood piled alongside the cabin. He could just see the once neatly stacked kindling. Sticks lay haphazardly at the foot of the pile, as if someone had tried to climb it. Alvin scowled and stepped into the yard to gather them up. A slight scratching sound came from the shake-covered roof, but Alvin didn’t have time to do more than lift his head before the mountain lion was on top of him, or hear more than María’s single scream before the big cat’s teeth found his throat.

from Valley of the Eagles

MORENO VALLEY TRADE FAIR

MORENO VALLEY TRADE FAIR

It’s a mere mule track, the man thought as he eyed the rocky ground on the hillside ahead. A fine silt hovered in the air behind him, marking the path he and the packhorse had followed from Rayado and the Santa Fe Trail at the base of the mountains.

They’d been climbing steadily and the vinegar scented blue-green junipers had given way to taller, straighter, deeper green trees: fir and pine. The man looked at them appreciatively, glad it was June and not mid-winter, when the snow that provided these trees with the moisture to live would have made the trail difficult.

He clucked at the packhorse and headed up the rocky slope. At Rayado yesterday, Jesús Abreu had told him there’d be a series of small mountain valleys before he reached the larger one. Then he was to move north, to where the Cimarron River began in a marsh on the east side of the Valley. The Indians met there to trade. The traveler shook his head. It was a long way to go on the chance that they’d be there. And able to pay for the goods he had with him. He hoped this worked.

~ ~ ~ ~

A short, barrel-chested Indian man stood at the edge of the encampment with his arms folded and a frown on his face, watching the man and packhorse moving slowly up the valley toward him. When the trader was close enough to speak, the man moved into the path and raised a hand.

The traveler looked at him quizzically. “You talk English?” he asked.

“You come to trade?”

“I hope to,” the traveler said. “If you all have something to trade with.”

“If your terms are fair.” The other man’s gaze moved to the horse’s laden packsaddle. “You sell whisky?”

The traveler shook his head. “’Fraid not.”

The other man stepped to the side of the path and gestured toward the camp behind him. “Then you are welcome.”

The trader moved forward but the Indian put up a hand to stop him. “If you are found with whisky, it will not go well for you,” he said flatly. “Yes sir,” the trader said, and the glimmer of a smile crossed the two faces simultaneously.

from Valley of the Eagles

BUZZARD BRAINS

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

From Sheep to Cloth, Part I

From Sheep to Cloth, Part I

In No Secret Too Small , Suzanna learns how to weave. In her case, the wool has already been taken from the sheep and transformed into yarn. This video and the one I’ll post a couple days from now, provides a lot more information about the entire process than I could have possibly included in the novel. Enjoy!

U.S. Mail Heads to Santa Fe!

U.S. Mail Heads to Santa Fe!

On Monday, July 1, 1850, the first stage-transported U.S. mail left Independence, Missouri for Santa Fe, New Mexico with eight men guarding the mule-drawn coach.

This was the first Congressionally authorized four-year contract for mail transported by vehicle between Independence and New Mexico. It had initially been set to leave Fort Leavenworth but the contract was modified to send it out of Independence instead, reducing the route distance from 885 to 840 miles.

The mail contractors in 1850 were Dr. David Waldo of New Mexico and Jacob Hall of Independence. The stage not only carried the mail, it also provided passenger service, with fares of $100 in the summer and $150 during the winter. A letter of less than half an ounce cost $0.10 and could be sent collect, postage to be paid by the recipient.

The company that Waldo and Hall formed in 1850 dissolved four years later, when Hall bought Waldo out and teamed up with John M. Hockaday to transport the mail for the next contract period. In 1857, service moved to semimonthly and the following year Hall again placed a successful bid, this time as sole proprietor. In 1862, he bid again, but the contract was awarded to George H. Vickroy and Thomas J. Barnum.

The Eastern terminus for the stage also shifted that year, moving west to Kansas City. Now the shortening of the line that had begun on the first run accelerated, responding to the growth of the railroads. Stage service to Santa Fe would end completely in 1880 with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. But the idea of the stage and its symbolic connection to the American frontier would linger much longer.  

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.

Uncle Dick Wootton Marries Again!

Uncle Dick Wootton Marries Again!

On Saturday, June 17, 1871, Richens Lacey “Uncle Dick” Wootton married for the fourth time. He had recently turned 55. His bride was sixteen-year-old Maria Paulina Lujan of Mora, New Mexico. They would have ten children together, six of whom lived to adulthood.

Wootton had arrived in the Rocky Mountains at age twenty as a member of a Bent Brothers and St. Vrain wagon train and promptly turned his hand to trading with the Sioux. Following that venture, he went on to trap as far west as Fort Vancouver, serve as a hunter for Bent’s Fort, raise buffalo for sale to Eastern zoos, and scout for Colonel Doniphan during the U.S.’s 1846 invasion of Mexico. 

Richens Lacey Wootton. Courtesy: http://www.legendsofamerica.com

In 1848, Wootton married Dolores Lefebvre of Taos, where he was based until 1854. When she died in childbirth in 1855, he went into business freighting goods between Kansas City and New Mexico. Around 1857, he married Mary Ann Manning and they moved to Denver, where he ran a saloon and hotel along with a general trading and loan business. After Mary Ann died in 1861, he sold out and built a house at Pueblo, where he farmed on the east side of Fountain Creek.

In 1863, Wootton married again, to Fanny Brown, who died just over a year later, leaving an infant daughter. The following year, he settled in the mountains between Colorado and New Mexico, and got permission from both legislatures for him and his partner to build a toll road through Raton Pass. By the early 1870s, he was also operating a stage station out of his log-and-stone home there.

All of this was going on when Wootton married the teenage Maria Paulina. Unlike her predecessors, she seems to have had little problem with childbirth. Wootton finally had a life partner and a steady business—the road itself averaged roughly $600 a month.

Then, in ­­­­­1878, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad came calling. The toll road was in the way of the new track they wanted to lay. On the face of it, Wootton doesn’t seem to have made a good deal with them. He settled for $50 a month, with the stipend to continue to Maria Paulina after his death. However, she lived until 1935.

He may have gotten the best of that bargain after all.  

Sources: LeRoy R. Hafen, Fur Trappers and Traders in the Far Southwest, Logan: Utah State University Press, 1997; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West: Stagecoach Lines on the Santa Fe Trail, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.