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

 

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VALLEY OF THE EAGLES

It was spring in the valley of the eagles, which meant it had been raining off and on for three weeks and the usually adobe-hard clay soil was soft enough to be dug. Once Old Bill had selected a likely spot for caching the packs of beaver fur, Pepe set to work. Old Bill stood farther up the hillside, chanting in a mixture of Osage and Ute. The prayers would help keep varmints away, Bill had said: both the two-footed and four-footed kind.

It was a good location for a cache, Pepe reflected: tucked under the hillside pines and marked by a massive sandstone boulder that would be easy to identify when they returned. After the Taos alcalde had decided that the few beaver plews they’d set aside to show him were truly Old Bill’s entire winter haul,  Pepe and Old Bill would slip back into the valley with a Taos trader to turn the cached furs into coin. Then Pepe would have a nice amount to take home to his wife while Old Bill gambled his own portion away.

Pepe chuckled and paused his digging to wipe his forehead with his cotton sleeve. He was always surprised at how warm it could get in this valley, as high up in the mountains as it was.

Small stones rattled past him and Old Bill came down the hillside. “War’s th’ other shovel?” he demanded in his nasal twang. “We ain’t got th’ rest o’ eternity!”

from Valley of the Eagles

 

WATER OF LIFE

“Now what’re you gettin’ yourself all fired up for?” the matted-haired trapper demanded. “I’m your pa and I can do I want.” He lifted the pottery jug from the wooden table with both hands. “I been feelin’ a mite poorly since I come in from the mountains and this here’s a right good anti-fogmatic.”

“Aquardiente,” the girl said contemptuously. “Your so-called water of life.” She pushed her long black hair away from her face. “Water of hell!”

“Ah, now girlie.” He grasped the jug’s narrow neck with one hand and reached for her arm with the other.

She slapped at him. “I’m not your girlie any longer. Don’t you touch me!”

His eyes narrowed. “I’m still your pappy,” he said. “Just ’cuz I been gone five months don’t mean you can be disrespectin’ me.”

She sniffed and turned away.

He gulped down a swig of the liquor. “Where’s your ma, anyways?”

“She went to the merchant’s to settle her bill.”

“Don’t want me to know how much she spent while I was gone, huh? What new piece of fooferaw have the two of you took a cotton to now?”

The girl whirled. “You mean the cotton for your shirts? The white wheat flour she saved for your biscuits while we spent the entire winter eating cheap corn tortillas?”

The jug thudded onto the table. “What’s eatin’ you girl, that you think you can chaw on me so right catawamptiously? It ain’t fitten!” He surged from the chair, his hand raised. “I’m thinkin’ you need a rememberance of who’s head o’ this household!”

Her lower lip curled. “That’s right. Beat me. Just give me an excuse to leave. That’s everything I could wish for.”

He dropped his hand. “And why would you leave, girl?” He peered at her. “You find a young man to spark you while I was gone?”

She lifted her chin. “I don’t need a man.”

He threw back his head. “Hah! And what else you gonna go and do?” Then his face changed. “You ain’t gone and done something you’ll regret, have you now?”

Her lips twitched with amusement. “You might regret it,” she said. “I won’t be of much use to you.”

He moved toward her. “What the tarnation have you gone and done?”

“You’ll know when I’m ready to tell you.”

As he grabbed her arm, the door opened.

“Be careful of her, por favor!” the girl’s mother said as she entered. “She has been accepted into the convent in Santa Fe, to serve as a helper! Our child is a matter of grace to us now!”

The mountain man stared at his wife, then his daughter. He turned to the table. “Women!” he muttered as he lifted his jug.

from Old One Eye Pete

 

SNOW, 3 of 3 — Homecoming

After an icy night huddled against his mule in the lee of a sandstone boulder, it took Peter another two days of slogging up Cimarron Canyon before he reached the valley above.

He had to lead the mule through the most treacherous part of the half-frozen marsh where the river formed up at the valley’s edge. “Come’n now,” he coaxed. “Can’t you smell the cabin smoke?” But she just rolled her eyes at him.

Finally they were through, his water-soaked boots heavy on his feet, the ten inches of snow on the ground making them colder. He turned left, toward home, and the mule’s pace quickened. “Smellin’ home?” Peter asked sardonically. They were close enough now to make out the cabin at the base of the rise. Smoke steamed from the chimney and the figure of a woman showed at the door, one hand to her forehead, gazing in his direction. Peter’s own pace quickened, in spite of the heavy boots.

from Valley of the Eagles

MAKE IT STOP

“Make it stop,” the little boy moaned. He rubbed his ears with his fingers and rocked himself back and forth in his mother’s lap. “Mama, please make it stop.”

“I wish I could,” Alma said, stroking his golden hair. She pulled him closer to her chest, then began moving the rocking chair rhythmically back and forth.

“It hurts,” he whimpered.

“I know.” She gazed out the window at the clouds scudding across the Moreno Valley sky. The spring winds had always been a sign to her of coming warmth and green things sprouting. Until now. Until the pain from the changing air pressure had reduced her energy-filled child into a whimpering puppy hiding in her lap.

The rocking chair’s rhythm and the warmth of her arms was relaxing him into sleep. She  stroked his head gently and he snuggled closer. Alma smiled. She had planned to start turning the garden soil today. It could wait until tomorrow, she decided. Until the wind had subsided at least a little.

© 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

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 The Valley of the Eagles

THE FOURTH TIME

She could be incandescently angry and Gerald’s trip to Santa Fe and back had taken a week longer than he’d told her it would, so he braced himself as he opened the cabin door. But Suzanna barely raised her head from the rocking chair by the fire. She wasn’t rocking. Her shawl was clutched to her chest, her face drawn and gray under the smooth, creamy-brown skin. She glanced at Gerald, then turned her face back to the flames, her cheeks tracked with tears.

Gerald’s stomach clenched. “What is it?” he asked. “The children?”

Suzanna shook her head without looking at him. “The children are fine,” she said dully. She moved a hand from the shawl and placed it on her belly. The tears started again and she looked up at him bleakly. “This is the fourth time,” she said. “There will—” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “There will be no third child,” she choked, and he crossed the room, knelt beside her, and wordlessly took her into his arms.

from The Valley of the Eagles