MINERS GOTTA EAT

“Me and Joe didn’ come alla way out here jus’ to cook for no white men,” Frank Edwards grumbled as he slammed dirty dishes into the hotel sink. “You’d think we was still slaves in Kentucky.”

“You be only eighteen,” Louis the cook said. He positioned a pan of potatoes on the wooden table and picked up the pealing knife. “And what’s Joe, twenty three? You all have plenty o’ time.”

Joe Williams came in the door with an armload of firewood. “I here tell there’s a gold claim for sale in Humbug Gulch,” he told Frank as he dumped the wood into the bin next to the stove. “They askin’ seventy-five dollars.”

Frank’s hands stopped moving in the dishwater. “You reckon we got enough?”

Louis looked up from his potatoes. “You two listen to me and you listen good,” he said sharply. “You go to minin’ and you’re gonna lose every penny you have. Miners gotta eat, even when they so broke they sellin’ their claims. Stick to feedin’ ’em and you’ll do better in th’ long run.”

Frank and Joe looked at each other and shrugged. “We don’t got enough anyway,” Joe said. He jerked his head sideways, toward Louis. “An’ the old man has a point.”

“You better watch who you callin’ an old man,” Louis said gruffly. “And that wood box ain’t full enough yet, neither. Not by a long shot.”

from Valley of the Eagles

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MORENO VALLEY TRADE FAIR, 2 of 2

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.” His 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.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

PRODUCTIVE REVENGE

Placido Sandoval slammed the pick mattock into the rocks at his feet in a blind fury. “This Prussian, this not truly Americano, how dare he speak to me in such a way? As if I were dirt, less than nothing?” he fumed. “Mi familia has lived in this country for generations. I am of the conquistadors, the flower of España, while he is of the peasants in his country. I heard him bragging of it, how he has raised himself above his ascendientes.” He smashed the wide edge of his mattock against the largest of the rocks. A chip flew off, ricocheting into the face of the man working beside him.

“¡A redo vaya!” the other laborer said. “The devil! Be careful!”

Placido Sandoval swung the pick again, just as sharply, and his companion stopped his own work to turn away. “It does no good to be angry,” he said over his shoulder.

Placido glared at him. “It is good for my soul,” he growled. He slammed the pick against the nearest rock. Three large pieces broke free and tumbled farther down the stone-filled gully. “I will not be beaten by such as he. I will not be cowed.”

“You there!” Edward Bergmann, the mining supervisor, called from the bank above them. “You Mexicans!”

The two men paused and looked up. The Prussian’s finger pointed accusingly at Sandoval, his fierce black eyes indignant. “Did I not tell you to go slowly, to be more methodical in your approach? I’ll fine you again if you don’t stop flailing around!”

“I’ll flail you!” Placido muttered as he and his companion returned to their work. But his mattock chopped more sullenly now, reflecting the pattern Bergmann had set for it. Suddenly, gold glinted from the ground. Placido glanced up at the bank. Bergmann had disappeared. Placido bent swiftly and pocketed the chip of rock and ore.

Placido’s companion chuckled as he continued to swing his own tool. “That’s a more productive approach,” he said approvingly. He glanced toward the bank. “Though more dangerous if you are caught.”

Placido Sandoval grunted an unwilling acknowledgement as he continued on with his work, chopping at stones.

Copyright 2017 Loretta Miles Tollefson

Fishing

Almost as soon as he woke that morning, he decided to go fishing. There were chores to do, sure, but the sky was slightly overcast and the breeze was light and cool on his skin when he stepped onto the cabin’s porch. Good fishing weather.

He let the chickens out of their pen and gathered the eggs, then cut himself some bread. The cow hadn’t calved yet, so there was no butter, but that was all right.

He collected his pole and headed to the river. As he settled onto his heels just below the beaver ponds, he heard the swoosh of wings overhead. He looked up. A bald eagle was settling itself onto a snag at the head of the pool. A heron stood in the water below, apparently ignoring both eagle and man.

“Why in tarnation would any man want to live in a town?” the man wondered.

from Moreno Valley Sketches

Reprieve

“Please don’t shoot him, Papa.”

Gerald lowered the gun and looked down at the boy. “Coyote’ve been nipping at the elk all spring and they left tracks by that half-eaten calf up the hill.”

Andrew shook his head. “He didn’t kill that calf, Papa.”

Gerald frowned. “You know that for a fact?”

Andrew hesitated, then nodded. “I’ve been watching him. He lets me get mighty close. He’s not as skittish as the others.”

“You’ve been following that coyote around?”

The boy scuffed the muddy ground with his boot. “I was curious.” He lifted his head. “The calf was dead when he ate off it.”

Gerald shook his head. “You are something else,” he said. He scanned the valley. The coyote was still visible. It trotted purposefully across the far side of the grassy slope beyond the meandering creek. “We’d best head back,” he said. “They’ll be waiting dinner on us.”

from Moreno Valley Sketches

A Half-Broke Chestnut

Jerry was sitting on the top rail of the corral fence, twirling his lariat thoughtfully and studying the horses, when Betty came out of the house.

She scattered the grain to the chickens and crossed the yard to the corral.

“I don’t suppose you’d want a half-broke gelding for a birthday present,” he said, nodding at a chestnut-colored pony.

Betty chuckled. “Not ’til you break him.”

“He’s right pretty.”

“He is. And half-broke.”

He grinned. “You chicken?”

“Just smart. Married you, didn’t I?”

He smiled down at her as he unbuttoned his right shirt pocket with his left hand.

“How ’bout this instead?” He handed her a small plush-covered box.

“Oh Jerry,” she said. She opened the box. Two small diamond chips on a heart-shaped locket gleamed up at her in the sunlight.

“Oh Jerry,” she said again as he slipped down to give her a kiss.

from Moreno Valley Sketches II

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 Moreno Valley Sketches