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

THICKER’N SNOT

“It’s s’posed to be August, dadburn it.” Julius Fairfield looked gloomily out the door of the long, narrow log cabin that served as the Quartz Mill & Lode Mining Company barracks outside of Elizabethtown. “This fog is thicker’n snot.”

In one of the iron beds lining the walls behind him, somebody sneezed. “And there’s the snot for ye,” Edward Kelly, the company’s lone Irishman, chortled as he added more wood to the pot belly stove halfway down the room.

A door opened at the far end and the chief engineer came out. He ignored the men in the beds as he walked down the room to peer over Fairfield’s shoulder. “That fog’ll lift shortly,” he said. He clapped Fairfield on the back. “Be thankful it’s not rain.”

“That was yesterday’s gift to us all,” Fairfield said gloomily. He shook his head. “And here I thought New Mexico Territory’d be drier than New York.” He grinned and glanced at the engineer. “When’d you say payday was?”

Behind them, Kelly began to sing a song praising Ireland and its green hills, and a chorus of voices yowled at him to be still. The engineer chuckled and turned. “That’s enough now!” he said.

from Valley of the Eagles

LEONIDAS AND GEORGE, PART 2 OF 2

George was getting nervous. “Let’s get ourselves off this main track,” he said. “These cattle are making our trail a wee bit too readable.”

Leonidas nodded. “We can head up Ute Creek,” he suggested. “Maybe offer them for sale at Baldy Camp instead of driving them clear to Etown.”

The longhorns moved gladly into the Ute Creek grasslands, but then stalled. The forage was long and green, and they saw no reason to go on. George whooped and waved his hat at them half-heartedly. He was losing enthusiasm for the whole venture. His pony wasn’t really a cowhorse and didn’t care for close proximity to longhorns. And he liked Leonidas, but the big Canadian hadn’t adapted to herding as easily as he’d hoped. He sighed. Etown placer mining, and now this. He should just head on back to Ireland.

Leonidas rode up beside him. “How much farther?” he asked.

~ ~ ~ ~

Tom Stockton pushed back his hat and wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve. Even the rippling sound of the nearby Cimarron river did nothing to relieve the heat.

Chuck, Finis, and the others reined in on either side of him. They all stared at the hoof marks on the rocky dirt road heading into Cimarron canyon.

“They ain’t even tryin’ to cover their tracks or keep those cattle where it won’t show,” Finis said with disgust. “Looks like only two men who don’t know what in hell they’re doin’.”

“Greenhorns,” Chuck agreed. He spat into the dust. “Feel kinda sorry for ’em.”

“That’s seventy head of my cattle they’re doing such a damn poor job of herding,” Stockton said grimly. “Greenhorns or not, they’re rustlin’.” He resettled his hat. “Let’s get this over with.” He spurred his horse into a steady trot. The others followed briskly behind.

~ ~ ~ ~

The two younger men didn’t stand a chance against Tom Stockton and his five riders. They were covered by guns before they even knew they were surrounded. Leonidas felt his stomach tighten.

“Round ’em up,” Stockton said, his voice icy. He gestured at the cattle with his head as his Colt focused on Van Valser’s chest.

“Aye, that’s just what we’ve been adoin’,” George Cunningham said, his Irish brogue thickening. “We were just rounding them up for you, gatherin’ ’em for a quick swing on down to your Clifton House—”

“Wrong direction, son,” Chuck said. Cunnningham fell silent.

“Get moving,” Stockton ordered.

Leonidas and George obeyed. As the other men spread out around the cattle with them, Leonidas felt a surge of relief at the lack of gunfire. Stockton was a big man in the County. Maybe he’d just turn them over to the Sheriff in Cimarron.

~ ~ ~ ~

As they entered the east end of the canyon, George Cunningham’s hopes revived. Tom Stockton had his longhorns back, and he and his men were paying more attention to the cattle than to Cunningham and Van Valser. There’d been no move to string them up.

The farmlands east of Cimarron Canyon were almost within sight. George began looking carefully at the sandstone and juniper on either side of the road. It might just be possible to make a dash for it. He glanced around. Van Valser was behind him. George slowed his pony a little to angle closer, letting the cattle ease by.

But Stockton had seen him examining the landscape, and suddenly Chuck and Finis were riding toward George and Leonidas. There was a sudden blast of gunfire. Cunningham’s pony reared, Leonidas crumpled in his saddle, and everything went black.

“Trying to escape,” Tom Stockton growled. “The damn fools.”

Copyright ©2015 Loretta Miles Tollefson

LEONIDAS AND GEORGE, PART 1 OF 2

“Where’d you be gettin’ a name like Leonidas?” the young Irishman asked the tall young man next to him at the Etown bar.

The big Canadian looked at him. “My mother had scholarly ambitions beyond her station,” he said. He lifted a fist. “And my father made sure I could defend myself.”

“I’d not be denying you the right to the name.” George Cunningham grinned. “An’ I’m thinking your father trained you good and well.”

“The trouble is, they didn’t have the money for proper scholarship,” Leonidas Van Valser told him. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Get enough gold, you won’t be havin’ to worry ’bout scholarship,” Cunningham observed.

“I intend to pan enough gold to go to school properly,” Van Valser explained. “I’m only twenty-five. There’s still time.”

“You’ve got ambitions,” Cunningham said. “’Tis a good thing in a man.”

The two grinned at each other companionably.

~ ~ ~ ~

George Cunningham was small, even for an Irishman, with a perpetually restless face. His Canadian friend Leonidas Van Valser was the steady one, until Etown’s gold placer mines wore down even his perseverance.  

“There must be an easier way to make a living,” Leonidas said one night in Herberger’s saloon, examining his bandaged hand. He’d had a run-in that morning with some unstable sandstone.

“Somewhere else, is what I’m thinkin’,” Cunningham said. “Anywhere but these water-forsaken rock-bound hillsides.”

Van Valser nodded gloomily. “I think you’ve finally convinced me, George. But I don’t know what to do about it.”

“It’s cattle I’m thinkin’ of.”

“Neither of us have cattle.”

“There’s plenty o’ cattle running through these hills with nary a brand mark t’ be seen.”

“That’s rustling,” Leonidas said.

“Not if you don’t get yourself caught.” Cunningham bent toward him.

Van Valser studied his friend’s face. “I’m listening,” he said.

~ ~ ~ ~

“Do you know anything about cattle?” Leonidas asked as he studied the longhorns in the clearing below.

“Aye, I was in Texas for a while after the war,” Cunningham said. “Though my size was agin me, I do admit.” The little Irishman grinned at his friend. “But you’ve got the leverage to bring those yearlings onto their sides smooth as whisky.” He hefted the rope in his hand. “I rope ’em, you flip ’em, then we brand and sell ’em to the first Etown slaughterhouse we reach.”

“It’s certainly worth a try,” Leonidas agreed. “Beef’s selling at a good price and the slaughterhouses aren’t too careful about ownership, from what I hear.” He looked at the herd. “Who do they actually belong to?”

Cunningham shrugged. “Some Texan turned ’em loose on grass that don’t belong to him. To my mind, we’re just helpin’ the Maxwell Company even the score.”

~ ~ ~ ~

“You git off my property!” The woman was thin as a garter snake, with the eyes of a rattler. She glared at the two dusty young men down the cold steel of a rifle barrel. “And git your hands up!”

Van Valser and Cunningham did as she said, their horses shifting beneath them.

“We do apologize, ma’am,” Cunningham said. “We were hoping for a wee bit of water from your well. Drivin’ cattle is hard work on an uncommonly warm day as it is.”

She studied them. Her mouth twitched as she looked at Van Valser, whose face was streaked with dusty sweat. She lowered her rifle and gestured toward the well. “Help yourself,” she said. “But only to the water. Not my cattle or anythin’ else. Then git on outta here ’for you get caught.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said in unison.

“Godforsaken young idiots,” she muttered, watching them dismount.

. . . . to be continued

INHERITANCE

In the middle of the night, the baby began wailing frantically.

“¡A redo vaya! Good heavens!” Ramona said, sitting up in bed. As she slipped from the blankets, Carlos grunted but didn’t open his eyes. Ramona paused to look down at him, and shook her head. How a man could sleep through that much crying was beyond her comprehension. He must be very tired from the digging he did for the Baldy Mountain miners every day.

As she crossed the room to the baby, she rubbed her ears with her fingers. The Spring wind was howling, which always made them uncomfortable.

She lifted Carlito from his blankets and opened her nightdress. He began suckling eagerly, whimpering a little as he did so, and rubbing his free hand against the side of his head.

So his ears were uncomfortable, too. She looked down at him as she walked the floor, and sighed. He had a lifetime of discomfort before him and there was nothing she could do about it.

from Valley of the Eagles

MAXWELL BEFORE THE BAR

Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell sits on one of the mismatched chairs in Elizabethtown’s makeshift Colfax County courtroom and studies the man behind the judge’s table. He’s sat at such tables himself, though he doubts he ever looked so uncomfortable. Joseph Palen looks out of place here in this rough mining town and angry that it has the audacity to call itself a county seat. He apparently disapproves of nuevomexico, too, for that matter.

Maxwell feels the impulse to laugh, but instead lifts his right foot to his left knee and watches the crowd gather. Most of the men nod to him politely, touching their foreheads in a kind of salute, and he nods back. They’re good people. Know what they want, have no pretense about them. He grins at Old Pete, who’s still wearing his hat, even inside the courtroom.

Beside him, the old attorney Theodore Wheaton mutters, “Here we go,” and Judge Palen gavels the room to attention.

“Apparently, Mr. Maxwell has deigned to honor us with his presence this morning,” Palen says, glaring at Lucien.

Maxwell resists the impulse to straighten his spine and put both feet on the floor. “I believe you wanted to see me,” he says coolly.

Judge Palen’s lips tighten. “You have an interest in a number of cases before this court.”

Maxwell nods and tilts his head toward the old lawyer beside him. “Mr. Wheaton is my designated attorney,” he says. “I believe that releases me from the need to be present.” He adjusts his right foot higher on his left knee.

“You have also been indicted on a serious charge.” Palen leans forward. “That indictment requires your attendance.”

“The probate court issue?” Maxwell lifts a shoulder. “We have an excellent probate court clerk. As you’ll see from his records, there was no need to hold formal court.”

Palen’s lips thin. “You committed to appearing on the first day of this session in regard to the indictment against you. It is now the fourth day.”

“I was unexpectedly detained.”

Palen stares at him for a long moment, then turns to the court clerk. “Let the record show that Mr. Maxwell has appeared and apologized for his failure to appear, and that we are satisfied no contempt was intended.”

Maxwell’s jaw tightens, then he nods slightly and pulls his right foot more firmly onto his knee. If that’s the way the man wants to play it, he can adjust.

~ ~ ~ ~

“Things are changing, Mr. Maxwell.” Judge Joseph Palen sets his whisky glass on the saloon table and looks around the room. “In another year or so, these ragged placer miners will be replaced by businessmen with laborers to do the rough work.”

Maxwell nods, following his gaze. “And many of these men will be laborers, instead of independent men with claims of their own,” he says ruefully.

“Claims so poorly worked they bring in barely enough to keep body and soul together.” Palen flicks a speck of dust from the sleeve of his dark broadcloth suit.

“That’s all that matters, I suppose.” Maxwell grimaces. “Efficiency.”

“It’s a large territory, and its resources are going to waste.”

“So they tell me,” Maxwell says. He shakes his head, puts his glass on the table, and reaches for his battered black hat. “I’ve been here a long time, Mr. Palen, and I happen to like nuevomexico’s lack of efficiency. So do most of the men in this room, I expect. Though none of us are averse to making a penny or two.” He stands, towering over the table. “Good day to you, Judge.” A mischievous smile flashes across his face. “And good luck.”[1]

from Old One Eye Pete

[1] This story is based on events that occurred during the Spring 1870 First Judicial District Court session in Elizabethtown, the Colfax County seat. Lucien Maxwell, as Colfax County Probate Judge, was indicted for not holding court, but the charges were dismissed. At the time, Maxwell and his wife were in the final stages of selling the Beaubien/Miranda Land Grant (aka the Maxwell Land Grant) to a consortium of English investors. Judge Joseph Palen was newly appointed to his position as Justice for the First District Court of New Mexico. He would go on to become an important member of the notorious Santa Fe Ring, which sought to monetize the agricultural and other assets of New Mexico Territory.

IMPATIENCE

“This gold. They have found it in large quantities?” The lanky teenage boy named Escubal Martinez poked a stick into the logs on the fire, moving them closer together. At the edge of the mountain valley, a coyote yipped. The Martinez clan’s flock of sheep shifted uneasily in the darkness beyond the firelight.

The Prussian-born traveler from Etown grinned. “Ja,” he said. “But it is hard work, the digging for gold.”

Escubal’s uncle Xavier grunted from the other side of the flames, where he was using a knife to carefully smooth out an uncomfortable bump on the grip of his walking staff. “Borregas y carneros.” He nodded at the boy. “That is wealth.”

Escubal scowled at the fire.

The traveler looked puzzled. “Carner?” he asked. “Meat is wealth?”

“No, Borregas y carneros,” Escubal said.”Ewes and rams.” He gestured impatiently toward the flock.

Xavier moved his staff in the firelight and ran his fingertips gently over the wood. “Carne y ropa,” he said meditatively. “Meat and clothes.”

Ja,” the Prussian answered. “You are correct.”

Escubal scowled at the fire and the traveler smiled sympathetically. It was not easy to be young and impatient.

The boy poked at the fire again. It flared briefly, lighting the night, and the flock moved restlessly, waiting for morning.

from Valley of the Eagles

FIRST DIVORCE

Augusta Meinert stood firmly in the center of the makeshift courtroom, her eyes on the judge. At thirty-seven, she was still attractive, though the stubborn tilt to her chin said she didn’t often take “no” for an answer.

Judge Watts studied her. “You understand what divorce means?” He spoke slowly, as if unsure her English could withstand the strain of the concept.

Augusta’s chin went up. “I understand no longer the bastard takes the money I earn.” A ripple of suppressed laughter ran through the onlookers behind her. She turned and glared, and the men fell silent.

“You will be a marked woman,” Judge Watts warned. “This isn’t Germany.”

She frowned. “In Germany, he takes my money, and I can do nothing.” She smiled suddenly, her eyes twinkling. “It is why I like America.”

The Judge nodded and gaveled the rough wooden planks of the table before him. “The first divorce in Colfax County, New Mexico Territory, is hereby declared final,” he announced.

from Valley of the Eagles

NOTE: This tale, like most of the other stories in Valley of the Eagles, is based on an actual event. In this case, Augusta Meinert’s petition for divorce was the first heard in newly formed Colfax County in the Spring 1869 court session in Elizabethtown, New Mexico. For more details, see the footnote in the book.

ELEGANCE IN ETOWN

The men in Seligman’s Mercantile watched silently as the young woman in the trailing pale blue silk skirts swept out of the store.

“She’s a lardy dardy little thing, isn’t she now?” Charles Idle, the expatriate Englishman, asked. He shook his head and stretched his feet closer to the wood stove. “That dress and hat.”

Joseph Kinsinger spat a stream of tobacco toward the empty lard can by the stove. “Those silks ain’t gonna last long in this mud. And the wind’l take that hat.”

His brother Peter grinned. “You’re just worried Desi’s gonna see her and want a getup just like it,” he said.

“I wonder where’s she’s staying,” Idle said thoughtfully. “Hey Jim, where’d she say to deliver that sterling brush and comb set?”

The clerk hesitated, then shrugged. It would be all over town soon enough anyway. “The Moreno Hotel,” he said.

There was a short silence, then Idle said, “Well, I guess I’d better go see how my mine’s doing this morning,” and rose from his chair.

“I’ll bet,” Peter said sardonically, but Idle only smiled and went out.

from Valley of the Eagles

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