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

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

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

 

ICY MORNING

At first, the girl thought it was snowing, the tiny flakes glinting in the early morning sun. Then she saw they were miniscule ice crystals, floating from the cabin’s cedar-shake roof and the long green needles of the ponderosas looming above it: sparkling flecks of ice drifting through the air like frozen sunlight. She held her breath for a long moment, taking it in.

Then her mother opened the heavy wood-plank cabin door behind her. “It’s freezing out there!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing? You’ll catch your death!” And the girl turned reluctantly toward the house.

from Valley of the Eagles

PRODUCTIVE REVENGE

Placido Sandoval slammed the pick mattock into the rocks at his feet in a blind fury. “This Prussian, this not truly Americano, how dare he speak to me in such a way? As if I were dirt, less than nothing?” he fumed. “Mi familia has lived in this country for generations. I am of the conquistadors, the flower of España, while he is of the peasants in his country. I heard him bragging of it, how he has raised himself above his ascendientes.” He smashed the wide edge of his mattock against the largest of the rocks. A chip flew off, ricocheting into the face of the man working beside him.

“¡A redo vaya!” the other laborer said. “The devil! Be careful!”

Placido Sandoval swung the pick again, just as sharply, and his companion stopped his own work to turn away. “It does no good to be angry,” he said over his shoulder.

Placido glared at him. “It is good for my soul,” he growled. He slammed the pick against the nearest rock. Three large pieces broke free and tumbled farther down the stone-filled gully. “I will not be beaten by such as he. I will not be cowed.”

“You there!” Edward Bergmann, the mining supervisor, called from the bank above them. “You Mexicans!”

The two men paused and looked up. The Prussian’s finger pointed accusingly at Sandoval, his fierce black eyes indignant. “Did I not tell you to go slowly, to be more methodical in your approach? I’ll fine you again if you don’t stop flailing around!”

“I’ll flail you!” Placido muttered as he and his companion returned to their work. But his mattock chopped more sullenly now, reflecting the pattern Bergmann had set for it. Suddenly, gold glinted from the ground. Placido glanced up at the bank. Bergmann had disappeared. Placido bent swiftly and pocketed the chip of rock and ore.

Placido’s companion chuckled as he continued to swing his own tool. “That’s a more productive approach,” he said approvingly. He glanced toward the bank. “Though more dangerous if you are caught.”

Placido Sandoval grunted an unwilling acknowledgement as he continued on with his work, chopping at stones.

from Valley of the Eagles

AN AUGUST MORNING

The old woman woke to a crisp but balmy August day, the kind that can only be experienced in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. She smiled as she threw back the cabin’s shutters. Sunlight and fresh air flooded in. The sky was a clear blue. In the west, a small white cloud lifted off the tip of Wheeler Peak.  She heard the whispery flutter of wings and a juvenile blue bird settled on the porch rail opposite the window. The bird tilted its head back and opened its beak, then looked around with a puzzled air. Where was its mother? A juvenile sparrow flew in and settled a few feet away. It pecked at the rail, looking for bugs, then gave up and flew off. The young blue bird chirped helplessly, but still its mother didn’t come.

The old woman chuckled and the bird startled and flew off. The woman took a deep breath of fresh air. There was work to be done in the cabin, but still she stood there, soaking in the light. “You would think I had never seen an August morning before,” she said to herself. “Yo contento como una niña con zapatos nuevos. I am as happy as a child with a new pair of shoes.”

She chuckled again and turned into the cabin, hurrying to complete her morning chores so she could go outside and play in the sunshine.

from Valley of the Eagles

 

 

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