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

 

SALOON CHRISTMAS

María Dolores Quintana paused outside the Etown saloon door and adjusted her reboso over her long black hair, gathering her courage. She pushed tentatively, cracking the door open, then stopped to listen to the voices inside.

“Now that red-headed gal, she’s got a way of twistin’ her hips that’s sure to keep you hard and goin’,” a southern voice drawled.

“And the breasts on her are quite magnificent,” a German voice said. “It is sufficient just to look at them.”

Someone else chuckled from the other end of the room. “All you wanta do is look, huh? Can’t think of anything else to do, Faulk?”

“That is not quite what I intended to say,” the German voice said.

“He was just gettin’ started!” the southern voice laughed.

María took a deep breath. She must accustom herself to words such as these. This was the way men spoke of women who did the work she sought. She straightened her shoulders and pushed through the door.

The saloon was almost empty on this Thursday morning before Christmas. Two men sat at a table, one of them toying with a pack of cards. At the other end of the room, another man stood behind a long counter. This was the man María had been told to talk to. She dropped her reboso to her shoulders and crossed the creaking wooden floor quickly, before her nerve failed. The men at the table looked her over approvingly and her stomach clenched, but she kept moving. If she accomplished her goal, she would need to become used to such looks.

The sandy-haired man behind the bar studied her, unmoving.

Señor Stinson?” she asked.

He nodded, hazel eyes hooded.

“I come—” She paused, then started again. “My friend Carmen Martinez tells me I should speak to you about work.” A chair scraped on the floor behind her and she forced herself not to turn.

“What kind of work?” Stinson asked. “What’re you willing to do?”

“Whatever you ask, señor.”

Cards slapped onto the table behind her. “You’d better grab her right quick, Joe,” the southern voice  said.

“She has the looks that will earn you many dollars,” the German voice agreed.

Stinson frowned at the men at the table, then looked at María, his face carefully blank. “Have you done this kind of work before?”

“No señor, I have never done such a thing.” Behind her, a man chuckled. She focused on the saloon keeper and lifted her chin. “Carmen says I would do well. I have much incentive.”

He raised an eyebrow. Another chair scraped the floor.

Mi papá y mi hermano, they are dead,” she said. “I must find a way to feed mi mamá y mi—How do you say? My sister.”

“And how did these deaths occur?” the German voice asked.

María turned, in spite of herself. “The Maxwell Grant men, they came and told us to leave our land,” she said. “My brother, he was angry and he shot at them, and then they killed both him and mi papá.” She shuddered and turned back to Stinson. “I will do anything you ask, señor.”

Joseph Stinson opened his mouth, but the southern voice interjected. “Hell, Stinson, surely you ain’t gonna ask this sweet thing to do you now, are you? It’s almost Christmas, man!”

Stinson put both his hands on the bar and glowered at the men behind her. “If you gentlemen will hold your questions and opinions the way you hold your cards, you’ll learn what I’m going to do.” He looked at María. “Do you have folks to go to?”

She nodded. “My mother’s familia has moved north to the valley of the San Juan. If it please God, when I have earned what we need, we will go there also.”

“Well, I can’t help you much–” Stinson began.

“Like hell you can’t!” the southern voice said.

“But I’m sure that Mr. Hill and Mr. Faulk would be glad to contribute from their ill-gotten gains to also assist you.”

María turned and looked at the men at the table, who smiled back at her sheepishly. “I am Ernest Faulk,” the short stocky man with the German voice said courteously. “I would be most happy to assist you.”

She shook her head. “But I must earn what I receive.”

“It is almost Christmas,” the sleek, dark-haired man called Mr. Hill said. “And this year the day is especially holy, because it falls on a Sunday.” He glanced at Mr. Faulk. “Ernest and I are gamblers by trade and there is much for which we should repent and atone. Let us begin to redeem ourselves by assisting you.”

Ernest Faulk nodded. “For the sake of the Christ child.” He pulled a small leather bag from his vest pocket, began to open it, then tossed the whole thing on the table. María heard the dull chink of coins.

Mr. Hill considered the bag, then reached into his own pocket. “And I’ll raise you one,” he said. He pulled out two small bags of coins and placed them beside the first one.

Joseph Stinson had come out from behind the bar. He crossed to the table and laid a handful of greenbacks beside the bags. Then he scooped them all up and carried them to the girl. “Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Fröhliche Weihnachten,” echoed Ernest Faulk.

“And a most felicitous New Year,” said Mr. Hill.

Mariá stared at the men, then down at the wealth in her hands. “It is more than I could dream,” she murmured. She looked up, her eyes swimming. “I have no words,” she said.

All three men spread their hands at the same time. “Es nada,” they answered.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

 

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 Valley of the Eagles

THE LOST SOUL

As Jorgé Ruibal wandered up the middle of the road toward Elizabethtown proper, the men outside the taberna watched him sympathetically. “El joven es como alma en pena,” Carlos Otero the jeweler said. “The young man is like a lost soul.”

“Si,” said the boy’s uncle. “He has lost his laborer job with Señor Bergmann. His papá is very angry with him.”

“I heard he was in love and that his love was unrequited,” Eduardo Suaso, the taberna’s musician, said.

María de la Luz, the boy’s cousin, appeared from around the corner of the building. She carried a basket of clean linens for delivery to Henri Lambert’s Etown restaurant and hotel. She gazed at Jorgé, who’d stopped to poke his foot at a stone in the road. “He wants to leave here, but his mamá is unwilling,” she said.

Jorgé, oblivious to these speculations, still stood in the dusty street, poking at the stone with his boot. It was so inert and yet so full of a kind of compressed energy. He looked east, toward the massive bulk of Baldy Mountain. The gullies that swung out from its sides were full of rocks and men scrambling through them looking for gold. Yet the mountain bulked there impassively, impervious to the miners who crawled over it. Jorgé crammed his hands in his pockets and stared upward, drinking in its stony greenness, its lack of engagement with the tiny men poking at its skin.

Outside the taberna, the americano miner called Hobart Mitchell came to the door with a drink in his hand and considered the staring boy. “He looks like’n idiot, standin’ there,” Mitchell said. “Touched in the head.”

The others all nodded noncommittally and continued to gaze sympathetically after Jorgé as he wandered on up the road.

from Valley of the Eagles

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

SOFT WOOD

Samuel stroked the narrow piece of old cottonwood thoughtfully, absorbing its smoothness. It called out to be carved.

He was one of only a handful of boys living in Elizabethtown, New Mexico Territory, in this year of 1871. Almost all the other children were girls. Even worse, he was the only boy in a house full of overly-particular and opinionated sisters. Samuel scowled at the wood and dug his dirty fingernail into it, cutting a rough zigzag. It felt good to mark up something that they couldn’t complain about, even if he did have to hide behind the woodshed to do it, and didn’t have a knife to cut it proper-like.

“What are you doing?” a young female voice inquired.

Samuel looked up warily. A girl with long honey-brown curls and large gray eyes stood at the corner of the shed, staring at the wood in Samuel’s hands. She moved closer, her eyes still on the old stick. “How’d you mark it like that?” she asked. “All the wood around this town is too twisted and tough to cut into.”

“This here’s cottonwood,” he said. “It’s softer than the pine and other stuff hereabouts.”

“Where’d you get it?”

He stiffened, remembering he was talking to a girl, one who was bound to boss him around. “What’s it to you?” he asked.

“Well, never mind,” she said. She shoved her hands into her pinafore pockets and turned to go, her head down. Her curls covered her face.

“I’m sorry,” Samuel said contritely. He flung the stick away.

The girl crossed the yard to the piece of wood and bent to pick it up. She ran her fingers down the side he hadn’t marked. “It’s very soft,” she said.

“I have a lot of sisters and they’re always bossing me,” Samuel said apologetically.

The girl lifted her head and grinned. “I only have one brother, but he’s always bossing me.”

“What’d you want to know about the wood for?”

“I want to learn how to carve,” she said. “My brother knows but he won’t teach me. He says carving’s only for boys. I was going to try to teach myself but I couldn’t find anything soft enough.”

“I found that stick in our woodpile,” Samuel said. “There’s more in there but I’ll have to dig through the stack in order to get at it.”

“When you do find some, could I have a piece?”

“Sure. Why not?” He looked at her thoughtfully. “You have a knife?”

She smiled triumphantly and pulled a penknife from her pinafore pocket. They grinned at each other. Then she stuck out her hand, ready to shake. “I’m Charlotte,” she said.

from Valley of the Eagles