DECISION POINT

DECISION POINT

Five years after the Great Rebellion had ended, Benjamin still drifted. There was nothing behind him in Georgia and nothing further west than San Francisco. Not that he wanted to go there. The California gold fields were played out.

But he needed to get out of Denver. A man could stand town life only so long, and he’d been here three months. The Colorado gold fields had collapsed, anyway. Played out before he even got here.

“I’ve been too late since the day I was born,” he muttered as he put his whisky glass on the long wooden bar.

“I hear tell there’s gold in Elizabethtown,” the bartender said. He reached for Benjamin’s glass and began wiping it out. He knew Benjamin’s pockets were empty.

“Where’s Elizabethtown?”

“New Mexico Territory. East of Taos somewheres.” Benjamin nodded and pushed himself away from the bar. “Elizabethtown,” he repeated as he hitched up his trousers. “Now there’s an idea.”

from Valley of the Eagles

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

DANGER SIGNS

DANGER SIGNS

“I sure could do with some raised biscuits,” Peter Kinsinger said over his shoulder as he and his brother Joseph trudged east through the snow toward the top of Palo Flechado Pass.

He hitched the aspen pole that supported the yearling elk carcass between them into a more comfortable spot on his shoulder. “I hear tell Kennedy’s wife knows how to make ’em real good. His place is only a few miles now and his prices are reasonable.”

“You could wait for Elmira’s biscuits,” Joseph said. “She’ll be waitin’ on us.” He hadn’t liked the looks of the Kennedy cabin when they’d passed it on their way into the Pass and Taos Canyon beyond. They now had the meat they’d been hunting and he was tired of November snow and cold.

Peter turned his head and grinned. “I’m a mite chilly, ain’t you? And thirsty. A fire and a little liquid refreshment would be a right comfort just about now.”

Joseph chuckled. Peter’s Elmira was a stickler about alcohol. Peter found it easier to stay away from the Elizabethtown saloons than to experience her tongue when he stumbled home from them.

But a man deserved a nip now and then. And with the weather so inclement, it was unlikely there’d be anyone else drinking the liquor or eating the meals that Kennedy sold to passersby.

“It is mighty cold out here,” he acknowledged. “And we’re still a good ways from home.”

The road leveled out at the top of the Pass, then the brothers began to descend, careful of the icy patches in the shady spots. They were about a quarter of the way down the mountain when they heard the echo of first one rifle shot, then another.

“Sounds like Kennedy’s huntin’ too,” Peter said.

“You may not get that drink after all,” Joseph said. “I hear tell his woman don’t open that cabin door if he ain’t there.”

“Too bad,” Peter said. “I truly am thirsty.”

Joseph chuckled. “It’s still a ways. Maybe he’ll be back before we get there.”

But when they came within sight of the Kennedy place three-quarters of an hour later, they both forgot all about liquid refreshments.

A man lay face down in the middle of the frozen dirt track that skirted the Kennedy hollow. The snow and dirt were splashed red with blood. Charles Kennedy’s bear-like form crouched beside the sprawled body.

The Kinsinger brothers eased their elk to the side of the road and hurried forward.

Kennedy looked up, his black beard bristling around a perpetually angry mouth, his eyes watchful. “Injuns,” he said.

Peter and Joseph looked at each other, then Kennedy.

“Is he dead?” Peter asked.

Kennedy nodded. “I fought the Injuns off.” He stood and gestured toward the cabin. “Bullet holes in th’ door.” He nudged the dead man’s torso with the side of his boot. “Greenhorn ran.”

Joseph leaned down, reached for the man’s shoulder, and rolled him over. “I don’t recognize him.”

“Came from Taos,” Kennedy said. “Merchant there. So he said.”

Joseph straightened and looked away, down the road to Elizabethtown.

“When’d it happen?” Peter asked.

“Couple hours ago,” Kennedy said.

 The Kinsingers nodded, eyes raking the hollow and bloody snow, careful not to look at each other or Charles Kennedy.

“Well, we have meat to get home,” Joseph said. “We’ll tell the Sheriff’s deputy in Etown, and he can come fetch the body.” He looked down. “Whoever he is, I expect his Taos friends’ll be wantin’ to give him a proper burial.”

Kennedy nodded. He stood next to the dead man and raked his fingers through his beard as the Kinsingers returned to their elk, hoisted its carrying pole onto their shoulders, and trudged past him.

The brothers were out of sight over the rise to the northeast before either of them spoke.

“Injuns my hat,” Peter said over his shoulder.

Joseph spat into the snow at the side of the road. “Sure a convenient excuse though, ain’t they?”

“We didn’t see anything different,” Peter pointed out.

“Wouldn’t want to get crosswise of that one,” Joseph agreed. They trudged morosely on up the valley toward Elizabethtown.

from Old One Eye Pete

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