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

 

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