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

Another Excerpt from No Secret Too Small

This is another excerpt from my new Old New Mexico novel, No Secret Too Small.

CHAPTER 8

When the children appear in the doorway to the kitchen, Consuela looks up in surprise.

“Grandfather said we should have tea here,” Andrew tells her.

The cook waves a hand at the table. It’s covered with flour, baking utensils, and a tray that holds a blue-flowered teapot and a plate piled with biscuits. “There is no room.” In the corner fireplace, a big copper kettle begins to burble. She turns toward it. “And I am baking. It is not a good time.”

“We can go into the courtyard,” Alma offers. “We can have our tea there.”

“Two places,” the cook sniffs. She lifts the teakettle from the fire, moves to the table, and begins filling the flowered pot. She glances at the corner cupboard, where there’s another pot, a simple brown one. “Two teas and not one.”

“I can help.” Alma moves to the cupboard, lifts the pot from its shelf, and carries it to the table.

Consuela picks up the flowered pot, pours the water from it into the brown one, then drops tea leaves into the first pot and adds more hot water. She looks up and jerks her chin toward the cupboard. “The tea is in the wood box.”

Alma returns to the corner, lifts down a flat ornately carved container, and carries it to the table. When the cook lifts the lid, the rich scent of black tea fills the air. Alma leans forward to examine the oblong of compressed leaves inside. Three of the squares have been cut out and used already, so the block is no longer rectangular. The piece that juts out has been reduced to perhaps half its original size.

Consuela drains the water from the brown pot, then reaches for a small knife. She carefully slices a sliver of tea off the block, places it in the pot, and pours more hot water in. As she pours, she nods toward the pot on the tray. “You should take that in now. Before it gets bitter.”

Alma looks at her in surprise, then realizes the cook doesn’t know why she and Andrew were sent out of the room. She takes a deep breath and gingerly lifts the tray. When she nears the doorway, Andrew snatches a biscuit from the plate, then retreats into the hall and out the courtyard door. It thuds behind him as she moves carefully toward the parlor.

The tray is heavy and requires both hands. Alma pauses outside the door, uncertain how to hold it and open the door at the same time. She braces the edge of the tray between the adobe wall and her hip and reaches for the door.

Then she stops. Inside the room, her mother’s voice rises in frustration. “Tarnation! You haven’t heard a word of what I’ve just said!”

“I have heard you very well,” Alma’s grandfather answers. “However, I believe you are not being entirely truthful with yourself or with me.”

“Truthful! How dare—” There’s a short silence, then she speaks again. “Would you care to explain yourself?”

“Before Gerald asked me for your hand you made it very clear that you saw no need to pry into his background.” His voice drops. Alma has to strain to hear him. “You were in love.”

“I didn’t want you to discover something that would make you refuse him.” Her tone sharpens. “You were convinced I was too young. You would have latched onto anything to make us wait.”

“Hmm.” It’s the voice he uses when he doesn’t want to say what’s really on his mind.

“My age at the time is not relevant to this discussion.” Her mother sounds downright sulky. “He lied to me.”

“He wasn’t completely forthcoming. It’s not quite the same thing.”

A chair squeaks. When she speaks again, it’s clear she’s moved across the room. Her voice has changed. She sounds more puzzled than angry. “Doesn’t this news surprise you, at least? Concern you in any way?”

His tone is carefully neutral. “Why would it?”

“You knew.” There’s a pause, then she says again, “You knew! And you didn’t think I should be told?”

“You said you didn’t want to know anything about him but what you had seen with your own eyes and heard with your own ears. Perhaps not in those words. But that was clearly your intent.”

“Tarnation!” she says again.

There’s another moment of silence. Then suddenly the door to the room flies open. Alma straightens and lifts the tea tray. Her mother glares down at her. “You undoubtedly knew, also!” She stalks into the hall and toward the courtyard door. “Everybody seems to have known but me!”

The next morning, she stays in bed. Old One Eye Pete has gone off to visit friends at the pueblo. The children and their grandfather eat breakfast in silence at the kitchen table, although Alma stirs her porridge more than she eats it. There’s a hard lump in her belly that’s been there since her mother stormed out of the parlor.

Alma watches Andrew gulp down his food. When he eyes her dish, she scoots it across to him. When the bowl scrapes the table top, her grandfather looks up but doesn’t comment. Alma sits with her hands in her lap, waiting dully for whatever is going to happen next. She’s very tired. The night was a long one.

Finally, Grandfather Peabody puts his spoon in his bowl, drains the last of his strawberry leaf tea, and nods to the cook. “Thank you, Consuela. That was a fine repast.”

“I am sorry there were no eggs for you this morning, señor,” she says. “Gregorio is still trying to understand where the snake is entering the coop.”

“I’ll manage without eggs every morning,” he says. “Though I do enjoy them when they’re available.” He turns to Andrew. “I wonder if that dog of yours might help to locate the reptilian entrance point.”

Andrew nods eagerly. “Chaser can find anything!”

Consuela sniffs. “He is so big, he will destroy the nest boxes.”

Alma’s grandfather strokes his chin beard. “He might at that. Perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea.” He turns back to Andrew, whose mouth is twisted in disappointment. “But I know he is an excellent companion. Perhaps we should take him to the plaza with us and introduce him to mis vecinos.”

On the way to the center of town, their grandfather explains that the Don Fernando de Taos plaza consists of joined abode buildings constructed around a large hollow square. It has four entrances, each with a big wooden gate that can be barred and locked.

“To keep the Comanches out?” Andrew asks.

He nods. “Comanches or Utes or Navajo. It was constructed many years ago. Nowadays, the only Indians who raid in New Mexico are the Navajo and they’re more interested in the pastures than the towns. They primarily want sheep.”

Alma reaches for his hand. She’s heard the stories. “And boys to herd them and girls to spin and weave the wool.”

He squeezes her fingers in his. “But you have a mastiff to protect you. At any rate, I’m certain you aren’t foolish enough to wander the fields by yourself.”

Alma thinks wistfully of her mountain valley streams and their fat trout, and nods. Chaser Two loops around behind Andrew and her grandfather and nudges at her hand. She smiles at him and pats his big head.

They’re at the northeast corner of the plaza now. It looks like a much larger version of her grandfather’s courtyard, except instead of plants and woodpiles on its edges there are long, covered porches and people sitting or squatting in their shade.

Some of the people have laid out blankets and arranged produce, pots, or other goods on them for sale. Others stand talking or move from vendor to vendor, shopping. The sun beats down from a bright blue sky with a single white cloud in it.

Andrew steps to one side to investigate the contents of a blanket. He picks up a wooden whistle and turns to show it to Alma. “It looks like the one Old Pete made me!”

His grandfather gently takes the whistle from the boy’s hand and returns it to the blanket with an apologetic word to the vendor, a man wrapped in a big red-striped white blanket. “You must not touch something unless you are interested in purchasing it,” he tells the children. “It’s not polite.”

“Oh.” Andrew puts his hands behind his back and turns to the man. “Perdóneme.”

The corner of the man’s eyes crinkle as he smiles at the boy, then his sister. “De nada.”

“Are your grandchildren stealing again?” a deep voice says from behind them.

The children jerk around, but their grandfather only laughs. “Ah, Padre,” he says. “You’ve caught us at last.”

A thick-chested man with a high forehead and wearing a long black robe smiles at Andrew, then Alma, benevolently. There’s a sharpness in his eyes that doesn’t match his expression. Alma offers him a small smile anyway. Andrew studies him wide-eyed.

“Padre, these are my grandchildren, Alma and Andrew Locke,” their grandfather says. “Children, this is Padre Antonio José Martínez.”

Alma gives him a small curtsy, as her mother has taught her, and the priest laughs in delight. Andrew says, “I’ve heard about you!”

The Padre chuckles and gives their grandfather a sideways glance. “Only good things, I hope.”

“You share books with Grandfather Peabody and talk with him about important things,” Alma says before her brother can repeat the gossip Old One Eye Pete and Bill Williams have brought to the cabin. Things about women and money and power that she doesn’t really understand. Padre Martínez smiles at her, then turns back to her grandfather. “She looks remarkably like her father. That square-shaped face and that hair.”

Alma takes her grandfather’s hand and turns her head so the priest can’t see her left cheek. She should have worn her sunbonnet.

But the men aren’t paying attention to her anymore. Another man has joined them, a man taller than Grandfather Peabody. She tilts her head to get a better look. His skin is almost as pale as her New England grandfather’s, and he has dancing brown eyes and wavy black hair. He’s standing still, but it almost feels like he’s moving. Energy seems to radiate from him. He gives her a bright glance, then nods respectfully at something her grandfather is saying. Next to Gregorio, he’s the handsomest man she’s ever seen.

Then Grandfather Peabody turns to her and says her name. “This is Señor Donaciano Vigil.” He gives the man a questioning look. “I believe he’s a relative of Ramón.”

“Juan Ramón Chavez of Don Fernando de Taos?” The man laughs and spreads his hands, palms up. “Isn’t everyone in nuevo mexico related to Ramón?”

“I thought you were in prison for insubordination,” Padre Martínez asks. “Or can they jail presidio soldiers for insubordination when you aren’t being paid?”

Señor Vigil laughs again. “I am in town for only a short time, on an errand for the governor, but I have to report to el calabozo as soon as I return to Santa Fe.”

Padre Martínez looks at Alma’s grandfather. “Surely you’ve heard the story.” He nods toward the newcomer. “This one here didn’t give his superior officer due deference and the credit the officer thought he deserved at Valencia’s mercantile. As a result, the señor here was arrested for insubordination.”

Vigil spreads his hands, palms up. “Because Governor Pérez ran out of money for the troops, I was assisting my cousin in his store, translating and clerking, fetching and carrying.” He grimaces. “Now I’m either sitting in jail or running errands for the governor.” Then he grins. “Actually, working in the store and being in jail are much alike. Both involve a great deal of sitting around, interspersed with activity. Except for the pay and not carrying a weapon, I still have the duties of a soldier.”

“You’re a soldier?” Andrew breaks in. He stares at the tall man in admiration.

Alma’s grandfather frowns. Donaciano Vigil gives him a swift glance, then nods at the boy. “I am. But right now there is no money to pay me, so I do other work. Soldiering is not a good livelihood if one has a family. And it’s often quite boring.”

“Like the Navajo campaign you returned from in March,” Padre Martínez observes.

Señor Vigil grins. “That was both boring and cold.” He turns to Alma’s grandfather. “Although your man Gregorio Garcia comported himself well. I was glad to make his acquaintance.”

“He is not my man,” he answers. “Although he does work for me occasionally. But I will pass your kind words on to his mother, who was not pleased when he joined the militia.”

Padre Martínez frowns. “I will speak to her also. It is a man’s duty to participate in the militia when it is called upon. The Navajo are a constant danger to us and must be repelled at all costs. I and my brothers have lost many sheep and even cattle to them over the years.”

Señor Vigil is looking past Alma’s grandfather to the northeast entrance of the plaza. “Ah, but here is the man himself.”

Alma turns. Gregorio moves toward them, a bundle of linens in each hand. She smiles brightly at him, but he’s focused on her grandfather and the other men. He moves his hands toward his back, making the bundles seem smaller.

“Gregorio Garcia!” the priest says playfully. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you at mass!”

Gregorio nods respectfully to each of the men in turn. “Sargento,” he says to Señor Vigil.

“We were just speaking of you and military service,” Alma’s grandfather says.

Gregorio smiles slightly. “Although the campaign last winter was a cold one and we didn’t see any Navajo, I found I enjoyed it.”

Señor Vigil claps him on the back. “Good man!” He peers at Gregorio’s bundles. “And now, like me, you have returned to town and all the duties pertaining thereto.” He grins conspiratorially. “We do what we must to keep our households fed and warm.”

Gregorio gives him a rueful look. “My mother launders, I deliver.” Then he turns to Alma’s grandfather. “And assist others where I can. I will come this afternoon to search again for that snake.”

“Ah, Consuela will be glad to hear it.” He nods toward Chaser, who’s still standing patiently beside Alma. “Andrew and the mastiff may be of some assistance to you, also.”

“I can help too.” Alma looks into Gregorio’s face. “I’m not the least bit afraid of snakes.”

“Like mother, like daughter,” the priest chuckles.

Alma’s head jerks toward him. She certainly hopes not. She opens her mouth to say so, but his eyes are sharp as a serpent’s, even though his lips are smiling. She looks at Gregorio instead.

He grins back at her. “Of course you can help, nita.” He glances at her grandfather. “If your abuelo agrees.” He nods and gives the children a stern look. “Catching a snake is serious business. You must exercise caution and obey Señor Garcia in whatever he tells you to do.”

from No Secret Too Small

Excerpt – No Secret Too Small

This is an excerpt from my new novel No Secret Too Small. Enjoy!

CHAPTER 4

Although the children don’t agree on the righteousness of their mother’s anger, they do agree that it’s best not to turn her sharp gaze on themselves. So when they’re in the barn feeding the chickens and collecting eggs two days later, they don’t go running to the house to announce that the black hen has once again escaped the pole-latticed chicken pen and is in the hayloft.

Instead, Alma dumps the rest of the feedgrain into the chickens’ narrow cottonwood trough and follows Andrew out of the pen. She latches the door behind them, then pushes the sides of her sunbonnet away from her face to see into the loft above the chicken enclosure. The hen is trotting along the edge of the loft. “Tarnation!” Alma says. “We’re going to have to go get her.”

Andrew is carrying the woven willow basket of eggs. The yellow barn cat rubs against his feet. He looks down at her. “You’d just love to have an egg to eat, wouldn’t you?”

“Cats don’t eat eggs,” Alma says absently. She’s still watching the black hen.

Andrew eyes the cat, who looks much thinner than she did a few days ago. “I wouldn’t put it past her.” He turns and studies the barn interior. “There ain’t no place really safe from a cat, is there?” He lugs the basket to the tack room at the other end of the big dusty space, unlatches the door, sets the basket down next to Old Pete’s gear, and pushes the peg firmly back into the latch. Then he nods at the cat. “Try to get into that, why don’t ya?”

Alma looks over her shoulder at the closed barn door and jiggles impatiently. “We’re wasting time. If Mama comes in, we’ll have to tell her about the hen.”

“Come on, then.” Andrew scrambles up the ladder and she follows close behind. As he swings into the loft, the hen begins to squawk angrily.

“What’d you do, step on her?” Alma laughs. She’s on the top rung now.

But Andrew is still next to the ladder and the hen is in the far corner, hopping along a small ridge of hay and peering at something behind it. She flaps her wings irritably.

Andrew begins unbuttoning his shirt. “We need something to cover her head.”

“She’ll scratch your bare chest with her feet,” Alma says. “Just a minute.” She swings into the loft and reaches for her sunbonnet. “This stupid thing turns out to be useful after all.”

She hands the floppy cotton to Andrew. He grasps a side flap in each hand and moves cautiously toward the chicken. She’s too busy scolding the hay to notice him. He swoops the sunbonnet over her head and bundles it tight against her wings before she can react. Her feet scrabble at empty air as he lifts her, then she goes still. Alma grabs the dangling strings, wraps them around the hen’s enclosed body, and ties them in a neat bow. “That should do it.”

Andrew grins and hefts the chicken in his arms. “Maybe this will teach her to stop trying to get out.” He turns and leans to look into the space she’d been fussing at. “Oh look! It’s kittens!”

The children have their heads together, examining the blind babies in their nest, when a door hinge squeals below. They look at the trussed hen in Andrew’s arms, then each other, and sink onto the hay-strewn loft boards so whoever is below can’t see them.

“We need to talk.” Their father’s voice has a grim weariness to it. The children look at each other apprehensively. There’s only one person he speaks to in that way.

“How could you not tell me?” Their mother’s voice is low and furious. There are no tears in it. Alma looks at Andrew, who has closed his eyes. He looks like he’d put his hands over his ears if he wasn’t still clutching the hen.

“How dare you not tell me such a thing?” their mother continues. “How could you keep such a thing from me? Why, what you’ve done is downright criminal!” A hand slaps the side of the empty cow stall, rattling the boards. “You lied to me! Not with words, but with every action you took!” Her voice rises. “You lied to me! How dare you!”

“Suzanna—” He sounds almost like he wants to plead with her. Alma leans forward, wishing she could see, but Andrew jabs her ribs with his elbow. His eyes are wide open now. He shakes his head at her urgently.

“Don’t you touch me!” their mother snaps.

There’s a shuffling sound, as if their father is moving as far away from her as he can without actually leaving the barn. “I’m sorry.” His voice is stiff now, not pleading.

“That’s all you can say?”

“If you’ll recall, I tried to tell you.” Then his voice changes, becomes sadder. “I was a coward. I see that now. But I didn’t want to lose you. And you said you didn’t care about my past, my background. That it was me you wanted. That my character was all that mattered.” There’s a long silence, then he says quietly, “And I wanted to believe you.”

A piece of harness jingles as he paces past it. The children look at each other and smile slightly in spite of the tension. Papa paces when he’s thinking. “Enoch Jones would have told you all about me,” he says. “Given half a chance.”

“Is that why you tried to kill him in the Gila wilderness?”

He stops moving. “Of course not! Jones was attacking Gregorio Garcia. I had to do something to stop him. Then when he came at me, I had no choice. You know that. I told you what happened.” He begins moving again. Another piece of harness jingles as he brushes past. “I’m surprised he didn’t tell you about me when he attacked you in the cornfield six years ago. But I suppose he had other things on his mind.”

“He did say there was something about you I didn’t know. But I thought he was just trying to distract me. I never expected anything like this.” She snorts. “And I was in no position to give him a chance to explain.”

There’s a short pause. Then her voice hardens. “All right. I suppose I invited you to not tell me the truth. But the fact remains that you’ve been living a lie all these years, letting me believe your Irish mother was married to a man of the same race. That you simply had skin that tanned well and stayed that way. Not bothering to explain just where Alma’s skin color and those so-called freckles on her face came from.”

She pauses as if she’s waiting for him to answer. When he doesn’t, she says, “But now it turns out that you’re negro, of all things. Son of a man who’s a runaway slave.” Her voice rises. “What in tarnation did you expect? That I’d simply say ‘oh my goodness, what a pleasant surprise’?”

“My father isn’t a runaway slave. His mother was. His father was Cherokee.”

“It’s still in the blood.”

“What, the runaway part or the African part?” There’s a harshness in his voice that Alma’s never heard before. She bites her lip.

But then he seems to catch himself. His tone changes. “I wanted to tell you,” he says quietly. “So many times. But when that first opportunity passed and you didn’t seem to care, well, I thought I’d wait a while, until we’d been married a bit.” He begins pacing again. “I thought you’d guessed and that it truly didn’t matter. That it wasn’t something even worth discussing. That with your own Navajo grandmother, you’d understand.”

There’s a long silence. When he speaks again, there’s bitterness in his voice. “But it’s not the Cherokee part of me that’s the problem, of course. It’s the negro, the blackness. Not telling you was sheer foolishness. I should have known you were just like all the others.”

“What others?” she snaps. “What in tarnation is that supposed to mean? And skin color has nothing to do with this! You lied to me!”

“And if I hadn’t? Would you have married me anyway?”

There’s a long silence. “I—” Her voice catches as she speaks. “I don’t know.”

“Probably not.”

“But you’ll never know, will you?” Her voice rises. “Because you didn’t have the courage to find out!”

Alma’s breath catches. Her mother has just called her father a coward.

In the barn below, his hand thuds against a board. “What the blazes, Suzanna? You said then that you didn’t care where I came from and now you say that if you’d known, you wouldn’t have married me! I gave you what you said you wanted and now you throw it in my face! What’s a man supposed to do?”

There’s another long silence. When she speaks again, her voice is icy. “We have clearly come to a parting of the ways in terms of our perspective on this matter. I think—”

But just then, the outer door rattles. Alma cranes her neck. A sliver of light dances upward from the opening.

“Children?” Ramón’s voice calls. The door swings farther open. “Ah, perdóneme,” he says. “I sent los chamacos to gather the eggs and they have not yet returned.”

“Those two are so irresponsible,” their mother says irritably, though her voice sounds oddly relieved.

“They’re probably down in the canyon watching beaver,” their father says.

Their mother’s skirts swish as she crosses to the door. It swings farther open. “Alma!” she shouts. “Andrew!”

Andrew’s mouth opens instinctively. He leans forward, but Alma grabs his arm and pulls him back. She shakes her head and he nods reluctantly and sinks back onto the floorboards.

“Ah well, they will return when they are ready,” Ramón says. “Perhaps the black hen has escaped again and they have gone in search of her.”

“I wouldn’t put it past that hen to keep trying to get out,” their mother agrees. “She ought to go in a soup pot, then we wouldn’t have—” Her voice fades as the three adults leave the barn.

The hen clucks nervously and twitches her feet. Andrew chuckles as he strokes the cloth. “Don’t worry, I won’t let them eat you,” he whispers.

Alma moves cautiously to the edge of the loft and sticks her head out far enough to see the dim interior below. The door is firmly shut.

“Did Ramón know we were up here?” Andrew asks. Alma shrugs. She suddenly doesn’t want to talk anymore. She touches the heart-shaped freckle on her face. Light flickers from the roof and she glances up. There are holes between the wood shingles. Like her heart. “Let’s get out of here,” she says.

from No Secret Too Small

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

RATTLED

“I don’ keer if you don’ believe me,” the old trapper said as he pushed his matted brown hair away from his eyes. He shifted the Harpers Ferry 1803 rifle impatiently. “If’n yer too smart for yer own good, it ain’t none o’ my doin’.” He stroked the maple half-stock with its short barrel, looked balefully at the younger man, and turned to place the rifle next to his pack. The metal rib brazed to the underside of the barrel glinted in the firelight. “Thinks he’s smarter’n the rest o’ us,” the trapper muttered to the wagon master, who was sitting on his heels on the other side of the fire, smoking a carved cottonwood pipe.

“I didn’t say that I disbelieved you,” the young man in the black broadcloth coat said evenly. He brushed a piece of ash from his sleeve. “I simply stated that I was unaware of any unique characteristic of the 1803 issued to Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, other than the half-stock and its excellent balance.” He shrugged a shoulder. “My father was issued an 1803 during the 1812 conflict. He recollected it quite fondly and frequently. However, he never mentioned an unusually short barrel.”

“Jest cuz yer Daddy didn’ say it, don’ mean it weren’ so,” the old trapper grumbled.

“That may be the case,” the young man said stiffly. “I was unaware that I was contradicting you. I understood that we were merely exchanging some particularly intriguing information.”

“Ten dollar words.” The old man rubbed his matted hair, unfolded himself upward without looking at the others, and stalked off into the night.

The young man in the black coat looked across the firelight at the wagon master. “I didn’t intend to offend him,” he said uneasily.

The wagon master took his pipe from his mouth. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry ’bout it,” he said. “Ol’ Matt gets himself worked up like that sometimes. But he’s like a garden snake, all fizz an’ no real fury.” He glanced into the darkness. “But don’t say I said so. Not where he can hear. He wants ya t’ think he’s a rattler.”

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.

MINERS GOTTA EAT

“Me and Joe didn’ come alla way out here jus’ to cook for no white men,” Frank Edwards grumbled as he slammed dirty dishes into the hotel sink. “You’d think we was still slaves in Kentucky.”

“You be only eighteen,” Louis the cook said. He positioned a pan of potatoes on the wooden table and picked up the pealing knife. “And what’s Joe, twenty three? You all have plenty o’ time.”

Joe Williams came in the door with an armload of firewood. “I here tell there’s a gold claim for sale in Humbug Gulch,” he told Frank as he dumped the wood into the bin next to the stove. “They askin’ seventy-five dollars.”

Frank’s hands stopped moving in the dishwater. “You reckon we got enough?”

Louis looked up from his potatoes. “You two listen to me and you listen good,” he said sharply. “You go to minin’ and you’re gonna lose every penny you have. Miners gotta eat, even when they so broke they sellin’ their claims. Stick to feedin’ ’em and you’ll do better in th’ long run.”

Frank and Joe looked at each other and shrugged. “We don’t got enough anyway,” Joe said. He jerked his head sideways, toward Louis. “An’ the old man has a point.”

“You better watch who you callin’ an old man,” Louis said gruffly. “And that wood box ain’t full enough yet, neither. Not by a long shot.”

from Valley of the Eagles

BEAVER TALE

The yearling beaver is hungry, but when he tries to filch a piece of tender green shoot from his baby siblings, his mother hisses sharply. He moves toward the lodge’s diving hole, but his father blocks the way and chitters at him. The yearling slinks to one side of the den and begins grooming his fur with his right hind foot. The divided nail on his second toe makes for a kind of comb that simplifies this process considerably.

There are three new kits this spring, which keep his parents busy. His father moves to help with the feeding, and the yearling sees his chance. He slides into the diving hole and out into the pond.

The sky is bright overhead. The beaver dives, but not before the old trapper on the bank nudges the young girl beside him. “See, I tol’ you that ole lodge was still occupied!” he says gleefully.

* * *

“Old Pete ain’t gonna trap it, is he?” Andrew whispers. The two children are crouched on the edge of the beaver pond, peering at the yearling beaver feeding on the opposite bank.

“He says he needs a new hat, and beaver tail is mighty tasty,” Alma answers.

“He don’t need a new hat!” Andrew says loudly. There’s a slapping sound on the water to their left, and the yearling turns and slides into the pond.

“I didn’t even see the other one,” Andrew says sorrowfully.

“Should of kept your voice down.” Alma stands up.

“How can you watch ’em like you do and not worry about Old Pete trapping ’em?”

She shrugs. “Everything dies. Mama says it’s all part of God’s plan.” She moves away, toward the rocky path that leads up the Cimarron River toward home.

“Old Pete don’t need a new hat,” Andrew insists as he follows.

* * *

“Beaver tail is almighty tasty,” Old Pete observes as he sits on the front porch whittling a stick.

Andrew scowls. “Papa says it’s all fat and grease. Not good at all.”

“Fat tastes plenty good when you’ve been eatin’ venison and elk a long spell. Wild game’s almighty lean.”

“You been eatin’ here,” Andrew insists. “We’ve got plenty o’ fat from the hogs.”

Andrew’s mother comes out of the house. “The kindling box is empty,” she tells him.

He rises obediently and heads toward the woodpile.

“Are you still teasing him about trapping that beaver?” she asks Old Pete.

The old man grins. “He’s a right risible youngster, ain’t he?”

“Who admires you, although I can’t think why,” she says tartly. “He’s beginning to believe that men kill for the sheer pleasure of it.”

Old Pete grunts and tosses his stick to the ground. “Think I’ll help with that kindling,” he says.

* * *

“I ain’t gonna place a trap for that beaver, son.” Old Pete and the boy are resetting a garden fence post. Andrew holds it steady as Old Pete shovels dirt into the hole.

“Alma said you need a new hat.”

The old man chuckles. “Hat’s good fer another season or two.”

“But what then?”

“Somethin’ll turn up.”

“You said beaver tail was tasty.”

Old Pete leans on his shovel. “Funny thing ’bout that. Only really tasted good when there was plenty to trap an’ the peltries were sellin’ high.” He begins tamping down the dirt around the post with his foot. “You think this’ll be strong enough t’ keep those elk out?”

“I hope so. Mama got pretty mad at them last spring. She was out here with the shot gun, but Papa says all she did was scare ’em. They’ll be back when they’re hungry enough.”

from Old One Eye Pete

 

 

INEVITABLE AS CLOUDS

“Disaster seems as inevitable as clouds piling over those mountains and more rain with them,” she said drily. She jerked her chin toward the western horizon, where gray-lined white clouds towered above the rocky peaks.

“Rain isn’t necessarily a disaster,” he said mildly. “It’s water for the crops and cattle, recharge for the well.”

“I haven’t been out of this cabin for the last ten days,” she complained. “By the time I’m done with the morning chores, it’s raining again. You’re out and about, tending the cattle, seeing to the crops. I’m in the house getting the children decent and cleaning up after them.”

“The rain means you don’t have to haul water to the garden,” he pointed out. “The clouds are bringing it to you.”

She took a deep breath, as if gearing up for an argument, then let it out, letting the anger go with it. “I’m just feeling so cooped up,” she said. “I feel like a winter-bound chicken in the hen house.”

“Well, we could eat you and take you out of your misery,” he teased.

She laughed and shook her head. “I’ll certainly be glad when the monsoon season is over with.” She looked up at him, over her shoulder. “We will get a respite from this before winter sets in, won’t we?”

He chuckled, drew her to him, and silently watched the clouds moving his way.

from Valley of the Eagles