JUST A MAN

JUST A MAN

“I seen him! I seen him!” The boy stopped, breathless, just inside the kitchen door.

“You mean you saw him.” His mother shook her head at him as she lifted the lid from the Dutch oven in the fireplace to check the biscuits. She smiled. “Who did you see?”

“Kit Carson! He was on the other side of the street, going into the Governor’s house.”

She nodded. “I heard this morning that he was back. What is he like?”

His shoulders sagged. “He didn’t look anything like the pictures in the book Grandpa gave me when we left Kansas City.”

“That was just a story,” she pointed out. She turned to stir the great pot of venison stew.

“I know,” he said. “But he wasn’t what I expected at all. He’s just a man.”

Copyright ©2013 Loretta Miles Tollefson

Image by Mike Goad from Pixabay

DARKER THAN A WOLF’S MOUTH

DARKER THAN A WOLF’S MOUTH

“No, don’t go out there now,” María said. “It is late and there is no moon. El es oscuro como boca de lobo.”

“How d’you know how dark it is inside a wolf’s mouth?” Alvin Little grumbled as he put on his boots. “Leave me be.”

He paused again, listening. The sound came again, the rattle of sticks tumbling off the pile of kindling just outside the door. “I spent two hours yesterday cutting that kindling and I’m damned if someone’s gonna go stealing it.”

“El noche es más mala que Judas,” she protested. “It is unsafe.”

He reached for the door latch, then turned to look at her. “More evil than who? Judas, you say? Where d’you get this stuff?”

He stopped on the sill and shook his head as he peered into the darkness. A pale sliver of moon and no starlight. Heavy clouds blanketing the sky. He chuckled. So this was what a wolf’s mouth looked like.

He leaned forward and peered at the wood piled alongside the cabin. He could just see the once neatly stacked kindling. Sticks lay haphazardly at the foot of the pile, as if someone had tried to climb it. Alvin scowled and stepped into the yard to gather them up. A slight scratching sound came from the shake-covered roof, but Alvin didn’t have time to do more than lift his head before the mountain lion was on top of him, or hear more than María’s single scream before the big cat’s teeth found his throat.

from Valley of the Eagles

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

Old One Eye Pete and the Half-Grown Pup

Old One Eye Pete and the Half-Grown Pup

It’s a gangly mutt, large for an Indian dog, with dirt-matted curly black hair. Old One Eye Pete looks at it in disgust as it half-crouches at his feet. It’s been following him and the mule for the past two hours, ever since they left the Ute Indian encampment down canyon. “Damned if the thing ain’t smilin’,” Pete mutters. He pokes the dog’s side with his foot. “You a doe or a buck?” The animal rolls over obligingly, paws in the air. Buck.

Old Pete toes it again. “Well, I expect you won’t last long. You’ll be running off to the first camp with a bitch in heat.” He turns and twitches the mule’s lead rope. “Giddup.”

They trail the Cimarron River up canyon through the afternoon and settle into camp under an overhanging sandstone boulder as the light begins to fade. It’s still early. The sunlight goes sooner as the canyon walls narrow. But Old Pete’s in no particular hurry and the pup’s acting a mite tired.

“Gonna have to keep up,” Pete tells it as he cuts pieces of venison off the haunch he traded from the Utes. The dog slinks toward the fire and Pete tosses it a scrap. “Too small for my roaster anyway,” he mutters as he skewers a larger chunk onto a sharpened willow stick and holds it out over the flames.

~ ~ ~ ~

“Where’d that damn pup get to now?” Old Pete mutters as he and the mule reach the rocky outcropping that overlooks the valley. He can see through the ponderosa into a good stretch of grassland below, but there’s no evidence of the curly-haired black Indian dog. Pete shakes his head in disgust, jams his rabbit fur hat farther down on his head, and snaps the mule’s lead rope impatiently.

At least the mule doesn’t need voice direction. Which is more than can be said for the dog, but Pete refuses to call the damn thing, no matter how aggravated he might feel.

Jicarilla Apaches are likely roaming the valley for elk, and Pete’s taking no chance of being found before he wants to be. The dog can go to hell, for all he cares. He grunts irritably as he works his way down the hillside. Idiot pup.

He pauses at the tree line, getting his bearings, the air crisp on his face. A light snow powders the ground. A herd of perhaps thirty elk is bunched on the hillside to his left. He squints his good eye. They seem a mite restless.

Then he sees the wolves, eight or nine of them waiting downwind while two big ones trot the herd’s perimeter, checking for weakness.

At his feet to his right, a low whine emanates from the prickly ground-hugging branches of a juniper bush. As Pete turns his head, the black pup eases from the grasping needles. The dog slinks to Pete’s feet and crouches beside him, tail between its legs. Then it looks anxiously toward the wolves and whines again.

“Not as dumb as I took you fer,” Old Pete says, adjusting his hat.

~ ~ ~ ~

There’s a reason it’s called Apache Canyon and Old Pete proceeds cautiously, aware that there’s been a recent outbreak of hostilities between the Jicarillas and the locals. Somebody got twitchy-brained and shot off their gun without thinking twice and now the whole Sangre de Cristo range is on edge. And it doesn’t matter at all that he had no part in the original quarrel.

However, Pete hasn’t seen a soul in three days, and he’s beginning to think he’s going to get to Taos in one piece after all, if the damn half-grown dog tagging him will quit wandering off, then coming back, widening the scent trail with his idiot nosing around.

Pete scowls as the puppy reappears, this time from a thicket of scrub oak, dead leaves rattling on the ground. As the dog gets closer, it goes into a half crouch. It’s holding something in its mouth and its curly black tail droops anxiously.

“What’ve you got there?” Pete asks. He squats and holds out his hand, and the dog releases the item into his palm. “Shit!” Pete says, dropping it.

Then he leans closer and sniffs. It really is shit. Human, too. Fresh enough to still stink. He rises, studying the slopes on either side, turning to examine the Pass behind him. So much for being alone.

“Thankee, pup,” he mutters. “I think.”

from Old One Eye Pete

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

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

COMFORT IN SORROW

“I suppose he had to go,” she said. She was sitting on the front steps, her father beside her.

He nodded. “He was killing the chickens next door. They won’t stop once they taste blood.”

“He was so beautiful,” she said. “And he loved to be brushed and petted. And sit by me while I did my homework.”

He touched her hair. “I’m sorry,” he said.

She nodded, her eyes filling. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” she said. “I don’t want another dog ever again.”

He put his arm around her. He suspected that the neighbor’s dog was pregnant, probably by the male who had just gone to the vet to be put down. By the time those puppies were born, she should be ready for another dog. He pulled her closer. There was no point in saying anything about that right now, though.

Copyright © 2013 Loretta Miles Tollefson

 

HEALING

“Lincoln is dead.” The old black man’s face was drained and tired. He sat down heavily in the chair beside the cabin fire. “Our President is dead.”

“Your president is dead,” Antonio corrected him, lifting a pot lid. “He was not my presidente.

“It has been almost twenty years since Nuevo Mexico became part of America,” Henry  said. “How long will it take you people to adjust?”

“I will never adjust.” Antonio straightened and looked at his friend. “How long will it take before the marks of slavery are truly lifted from the backs of your people?”

The old man grunted in acknowledgement and gazed into the fire.

“Suffering is a difficult thing to forget,” Antonio said, more gently now. “The bruises on the mind are still there long after the skin marks have healed.”

“Yes,” Henry said. “Still, the bruises can heal.”

“With time,” Antonio acknowledged. “With much time.”

from Valley of the Eagles

ROTTEN QUARTZ

The three men and two mules stopped and stared up the mountainside. A fall of broken rock blocked their way.

“Well, shit!” Gus said. “How’re we supposed to get to that old mine shaft with this in the way?”

Herbert pulled off his hat and fanned his week-old beard. “Maybe we can go around.”

Alonzo pulled his suspenders away from his rounded belly and looked down and then up the sharply-angled slope. “Mules ain’t gonna like that,” he said.

“Guess we’re done then.” Gus rubbed his jaw. “Hell, I needed that gold.”

Herbert shrugged and began maneuvering the mules to face back down the mountainside.

Alonzo stared across the slope at the fractured stone. “That’s rotten quartz,” he said thoughtfully. He moved out onto the rocks.

“Careful there,” Gus said, but Alonzo only crouched down and stretched to pluck a piece from near the center of the rock fall. He turned it carefully. “Will you look at that,” he said wonderingly.

Gus and Herbert looked at each other, then Alonzo. He grinned back at them. “Might be this is  as far’s we need to go,” he said. He lifted the quartz in his hand. “Looks like there’s gold enough right here!”

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