THE TRAPPER, 2 of 2

Sure enough, there was a beaver in the trap the next morning. But it had lunged for shore, not deeper water, so it was still alive, one hind leg clenched by the trap. It bared its orange incisors and hissed aggressively as the trapper studied it from the bank.

“You were supposed t’drown, damn you,” the man said. He pulled his tomahawk from his belt. The beaver lunged at him. The trapper pulled back sharply and slipped on the muddy bank. One buckskin-covered leg went into the water. The beaver lunged again, growling. The trapper brought the tomahawk’s blunt end down hard on the back of the beaver’s head and it jerked and fell lifeless into the water.

“I gotta eat, too,” the trapper muttered as he hauled trap and animal out of the water. He held it up. “A big one,” he said admiringly. “A thick winter pelt, too.”

from Moreno Valley Sketches

HARVEST

Alison straightened and put her gloved fists on her hips, pushing her shoulders back. Ten two-hundred foot rows of potato plants stretched before her. She twisted her torso, looking behind her and stretching her muscles at the same time. She had dug up the potatoes from about half a row. Full bushel baskets marked her progress. The yield was good this year, but her back was tired already.

She looked up. There were no clouds at the moment, except for a small gathering over Cimarron Canyon. An east wind was starting up, which meant rain at some point this afternoon or evening. She turned in a slow circle, looking up at the peaks surrounding her high Rocky Mountain valley. Snow dusted the tops of Baldy Mountain to the northeast and Wheeler Peak to the west. She went back to her digging. She didn’t have much time.

from Moreno Valley Sketches II

LONGER THAN USUAL

Mary Tolby frowned at the potatoes she was peeling, then out the kitchen window at the dusty Cimarron sky. It seemed as if a grit-filled wind had blown every day of the eighteen months since she and Franklin had arrived here to begin his Methodist Episcopal mission work. Mary sighed, washed her hands, and lifted the towel sheltering her rising bread dough. It was taking longer than usual to double its size. But then, Franklin was taking longer than usual to return from his Sunday services at Elizabethtown. He was usually back before Tuesday noon, following his meeting with the church board and various other discussions on Monday.

Mary frowned and looked out the window again. There was so much dust in the air, she could hardly see the sun. Franklin was undoubtedly talking with someone in Etown or Ute Park about the Maxwell Land Grant and its wholesale eviction of the small farmers who’d been here before the present corporation had purchased the grant.

She shook her head and turned back to her work. She very much doubted that her husband was speaking with anyone about the state of their soul. Not many people in Colfax County seemed to care about God or religion. Land and water were all that mattered. That and gold. How she longed sometimes for Indiana!

* * *

Two days before, the man had hovered outside Etown’s tiny Protestant church just long enough to confirm that Franklin Tolby was preaching there. He couldn’t stay longer: the air sucked out of his lungs at the thought of Tolby’s teachings, so contrary to Holy Church. But it was long enough to confirm that the heretic minister would be traveling down-canyon this Tuesday morning, as he always did after a Sunday in Elizabethtown.

The man waited now, rifle tucked to his chest, in the shadow of the big ponderosa at the mouth of Clear Creek. How pleasant it would be to stop the minister’s preaching. The men who’d paid him to silence Tolby had other reasons for desiring his death, reasons of power and money and land. The waiting man cared nothing for those things, although the gold they’d given him would be useful enough. He could  leave the grant now, take his family someplace where americanos had not yet stolen the land from those who farmed it, those whose fathers had tilled it before them.

He turned his head, listening. Someone was coming: A man singing a raucous heretical hymn. Tolby, most certainly. The minister would stop at Clear Creek as usual, to water his horse and drink from the hollowed-out wooden trough placed there for the refreshment of travelers. His back would be to the big ponderosa. But there was no dishonor in shooting a heretic in the back: a man who would steal one’s very soul if he could, destroy the very fabric of one’s Catholic life.

The rider in his clay-brown coat dismounted and the gunman eased into position. He held his breath as his finger touched the trigger, squeezing so gently and slowly that Tolby dropped to the ground before the shooter registered the sound of the bullet’s discharge, saw the neat hole it made in the brown coat.

Copyright © 2016, 2017 Loretta Miles Tollefson

 

 

 

MOUNTAIN VALLEY COWPUNCHING

Harry nudged the cow pony with his heels and she trotted out to edge the spotted cow and its calf back into the bunch moving downhill toward the creek. While the pony did her work, Harry turned his attention to the trees topping the rise on his left. He’d been through them once already, but he had a suspicion he’d missed something. Then he saw it. A massive black bull rose slowly from a hollow in the ground, gazed at the herd below, then turned and headed into the trees.

Harry sighed. “Collect ’em all,” Gallagher had said. “Even the bastards.”

The cow and calf were now meandering alongside the rest of the herd, which continued its downward trek.

Harry turned his pony’s head toward the rise. The bull was nowhere to be seen. Harry shook his head. Damndest thing, herding cows up here. Too many trees entirely. When he got his month’s pay, he was headin’ to Cimarron, maybe beyond. Out on the plains, where people knew how to ranch. No more mountain valley cowpunching for him.

from Moreno Valley Sketches II

On the Lake

They motored the boat slowly away from the dock. The sun overhead was bright but the breeze on their faces was cool. Cynthia tied her sunhat ribbons more securely. At the wheel, Harold turned and grinned at her. He’d suggested something with a narrower brim. She scowled and looked away.

Harold headed the boat toward the deep area near the dam. Cynthia hadn’t really wanted to come fishing, but she hadn’t wanted to stay in the Lodge by herself, either. She leaned back and closed her eyes.

The boat slowed, then stopped. She could hear Harold arranging his fishing gear. The sun felt good on her legs. An eagle cried overhead. Pine scented the air. She took a long breath and pulled the brim of her hat down, covering her face.

When she woke up, Harold was counting his fish. Cynthia smiled at him. “This is nice,” she said lazily.

from Moreno Valley Sketches II

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!”

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

The Fourth Time

She could be incandescently angry and Gerald’s trip to Santa Fe and back had taken a week longer than he’d told her it would, so he braced himself as he opened the cabin door. But Suzanna barely raised her head from the rocking chair by the fire. She wasn’t rocking. Her shawl was clutched to her chest, her face drawn and gray under the smooth, creamy-brown skin. She glanced at Gerald, then turned her face back to the flames, her cheeks tracked with tears.

Gerald’s stomach clenched. “What is it?” he asked. “The children?”

Suzanna shook her head without looking at him. “The children are fine,” she said dully. She moved a hand from the shawl and placed it on her belly. The tears started again and she looked up at him bleakly. “This is the fourth time,” she said. “There will—” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “There will be no third child,” she choked, and he crossed the room, knelt beside her, and wordlessly took her into his arms.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

Damn Pup

“Where’d that damn pup get to now?” Old Pete muttered as he and the mule reached the rocky outcropping that overlooked the southern part of the valley. He could see through the ponderosa into a good stretch of grassland below, but there was no evidence of the curly-haired black Indian dog. Pete shook his head in disgust, jammed his rabbit-fur hat farther down on his head, and snapped the mule’s lead rope impatiently.

At least the mule didn’t need voice direction. Which was more than could be said for the dog, but Pete wasn’t callin’ the damn thing, no matter how aggravated he might feel. There’d likely be Jicarilla Apaches roamin’ the valley for elk, and Pete was taking no chance of being found before he wanted to be. The dog could go to hell, for all he cared. He grunted irritably as he worked his way down the hillside. Idiot pup.

He paused at the tree line, getting his bearings, the air crisp on his face. A light snow powdered the ground. A good-sized elk herd was bunched on the hillside to his left. He squinted. They seemed a mite restless. Then he saw the wolves, eight or nine of them waiting downwind while two big ones trotted the herd’s perimeter, checking for weakness.

Then he caught the sound of a low whine emanating from the prickly ground-hugging branches of a nearby juniper. As Pete watched, the black pup eased from the tree’s grip and came to crouch at his feet, tail between its legs. It looked anxiously toward the elk and whined again.

“Not as dumb as I took ya fer,” Old Pete said, readjusting his hat.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

Half-Grown Pup

The half-grown pup had followed Old Pete and the mule from the Ute Indian encampment down-canyon. It was a gangly thing, large for an Indian dog, with dirt-matted curly black hair. Pete looked at it in disgust as it half-crouched at his feet.

“Damned if the thing ain’t smilin’,” Pete muttered. He poked the dog’s side with his foot. “You a doe or a buck?” The animal rolled over obligingly, paws in the air. “Buck.” Pete toed it again. “Well, you won’t last long, I expect. Be runnin’ off to the first camp with a bitch in heat.” He turned and twitched the mule’s lead rope. “Giddup.”

They trailed the Cimarron River up-canyon through the afternoon and settled into camp under an overhanging sandstone boulder as the light began to fade. It was still early: the sunlight went sooner as the canyon walls narrowed. But Old Pete was in no particular hurry and the pup was acting a mite tired.

“Gonna hafta keep up,” Pete told it as he cut pieces of venison off the haunch he’d traded from the Utes. The dog slunk toward the fire and Pete tossed it a scrap. “Too small fer my roaster anyway,” he muttered as he skewered a larger chunk onto a sharpened willow stick and lifted it over the flames.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

Shadows

Dusk was falling on the back country road. The old car rattled on the washboard surface. Susan was driving, giving Carl a break. It had been a long and discouraging day. A shadow moved across the road ahead of her and she slowed. Carl opened his eyes.

“I thought I saw a deer,” she told him. “Up there on the left.”

He leaned forward, scanning the bank. “Stop a minute,” he said. “Look right there, next to the big ponderosa.”

She braked and looked, blinked and looked again. “That’s not a deer,” she whispered.

He shook his head. “It’s a cat. A big one.”

“A cougar,” she said. “Awesome.” And then there was nothing to see but shadows, rocks, and trees.

They grinned at each other. What a great day.

from Moreno Valley Sketches II