WELL-FOUNDED PESSIMISM

The dark-skinned young woman and the old Ute man sat with the quietness of old friends on the cabin porch, out of the bright mountain sun.

Stands Alone gazed at the green-black slopes lining the opposite side of the long grassy valley. “My people have no other options,” he said bleakly.

Alma tucked a wayward black curl behind her right ear. “Surely there is somewhere you can go to live your lives in peace.”

The old man shook his head. “Wherever we go, the whites follow and take the little we possess.”

“Not all of us.”

A small smile crossed his seamed face. “You, my friend, are not white. Your people have also known sorrow and theft.”

The young woman raised an eyebrow, but could not contradict. There was slavery in her veins, if not her experience, though, with enough face powder, she could pass for a deeply tanned white woman. Only the pale splotches on her cheeks, where the pigmentation wasn’t consistent, gave her away. Her French/Navajo/American mother had applied various potions in her attempt to even out the child’s skin tone, but nothing had worked and after her mother’s death, the teenage girl had stopped trying.

 “You and your people could hunt here,” Alma said, gesturing toward the valley. “After all, it was your land before my parents arrived.”

“It was,” Stands Alone agreed. “And the hunting rights are still ours. Your father and I made an agreement that allowed him his pastures.” His gaze moved toward the north end of the valley, where another cabin was under construction behind a screen of small tree-covered hills. “But still others will come,” the old man said. “And they will not ask permission.”

Alma nodded, silent before the Ute’s well-founded pessimism. Since the American takeover in 1846, eastern settlers had moved steadily into New Mexico territory. Eventually, they would find even this protected valley, which she now shared with only her brother, the former nuevomexicano mountain man Ramón who acted as their cook and handyman, and the occasional band of Indian hunters or herders from Taos.

“It is not for myself that I dread this move the American government is forcing upon us,” Stands Alone said. “But the land to which they send us is unfamiliar, and the young men are angry and uncontrollable. They talk of war against all who have built houses on our land. I fear even for you.”

Alma frowned. “We have always lived in peace with both the Ute and the Apache,” she said. “We have endeavored not to encroach on the hunting grounds or to frighten off the elk and the deer.”

The old man chuckled. “I recall that your mother was not happy about that.”

Alma grinned. “She was bound to grow corn up here, even if it killed her and all the beasts who wanted to eat it.”

“A determined woman,” he said. “May her spirit rest.”

Alma nodded somberly, then turned back to the subject at hand. “If the young men come, my brother and I will treat them with respect.”

“May they respond with respect,” he said prayerfully.

“We will remain vigilant,” she told him. “The rifles will be ready, if need be.” She shook her head, dark eyes somber. “Although I pray it will not come to that.”

“Your brother will protect you,” the old man said, reassuring himself as much as her. “And Ramón.”

But when the young men came three days later, neither Andrew nor Ramón were at hand.

Ramón had headed north after three stray cows and Andrew was in a side canyon checking his rabbit snares. So the house was quiet when Alma looked up from her book to see a Ute man with a red stripe running down one side of his face peering through the small panes of window glass at the front of the cabin.

A spasm of fear clutched at Alma’s belly and her mother’s exasperated voice echoed in her memory: “It’s dangerous for a woman in this god forsaken valley!” Then the rich voice of her father’s father reminded her: “People are like dogs. They’ll sense your fear if you let yourself feel it.”

Alma took a deep breath, steadying herself. Then she stood, crossed the room, lifted the always-loaded shotgun from the wall, and swung the cabin door firmly open.

Ten young braves stood in the yard, their faces striped with the Utes’ signature red war paint, chests bared for battle.

“Hello,” Alma said, the shotgun under her arm. “How are you all today?” The words seemed inadequate, but she thought the tone was firm enough. She knew most of them: the grandson of Stands Alone, two of the grandson’s cousins, and several others whose faces she recognized. At the back of the group, toward the long low adobe and timber barn, was Running Wolf, who as a boy had taught Alma’s brother how to set the snares he was now checking.

 “We are not well,” the grandson of Stands Alone said. “We are unhappy.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Alma said calmly.

“You whites have come in and now we have no game.” This was a man Alma didn’t know. A broad stripe of red ran down each cheek, flattening the planes of his cheekbones.

A young boy came running from the barn, eyes bright with excitement. “There are no men here,” he told the broadly-painted one breathlessly. “And there are cattle!”

The man nodded, his eyes on Alma’s shotgun.

One of the grandson’s cousins chuckled and shifted a hatchet from his left hand to his right. “The woman has a good shape,” he observed.

“We will have her and then we will burn the house and take the cattle,” the broadly-striped one announced. He took a step forward and raised his voice. “Then we will feast!”

Alma’s stomach tightened and she lifted the shotgun, sighting on the man’s chest. “But you will not have me and you will not feast!” she said sharply. “You will be dead!”

An irritated growl swept across the yard. At the corner of her eye, Alma saw the cousin easing around the corner of the cabin, toward the lean-to kitchen’s door. Alma forced her gaze to remain on the broadly-painted man’s bare chest, her shotgun barrel steady.

“I would not touch her,” a disgusted voice said from the back of the crowd. Running Wolf? She didn’t move her eyes. “Those spots on her face are the sign of disease. Smallpox or something worse.”

The broadly-painted one peered sharply into Alma’s face and she nodded. “That’s right!” Alma said, meeting his eyes defiantly. “I will shoot you and you will die quickly.” She raised her voice. “But if these others are loco enough to have me, they will suffer for a long time before they die.” She chuckled grimly. “I will take all of you with me! And you will die a painful and lingering death of disease, not of battle!”

A confused murmur passed over the yard. Alma held the shotgun muzzle steady on the broadly-painted one’s chest. There was a long silence, then the other cousin jerked his head toward the barn. “We will take cattle instead,” he pronounced. “The cattle are not diseased.”

“Two fat cows to feed us and our children.” Running Wolf moved slightly forward. His eyes swept the cluster of warriors, then turned toward the barn. “We will all feast this night!”

The warriors swung to face the barn and Alma eased backward into the house. She shoved the door closed, then leaned against it, heart pounding her ribs, fingers cramped painfully on the gunstock. Then she crept to the kitchen, assured herself that the door was indeed barred, and slipped back into the front room. She sank into her mother’s old rocking chair and placed the shotgun gently on the floor beside her. Only when she heard Ramón and Andrew on the porch did she lift her hands from her face, now splotchy with tears.

from Old One Eye Pete

Travelin’ Man

Old One Eyed Pete had been in the Pecos wilderness all winter, him and the mule, avoiding Apaches and harvesting beaver. The weather had been dry and mild for the most part, the resulting pelts poor to middling. But it had been a peaceful season over all and he was almost sorry when the first cottonwood buds started greening the trees.

He headed downslope then, and out onto the edge of the eastern plains. He worked his way north along the base of the foothills, taking his time, moving from one greening meadow to the next, letting the mule feed, killing an antelope or small deer when he needed meat and skirting the few settlements he sighted.

He was in no hurry for human company just yet. The beaver plews weren’t going to fetch much, no matter when he got them to market. He could take his time. But as he neared the Cimarron River, the usual dust-filled spring winds picked up and the mule objected vociferously to plodding through clouds of grit. Old Pete chuckled in sympathy. Conditions like these almost made a man think four walls and a roof might not be such a bad thing.

Pete squinted his good eye at the Cimarron. The river wasn’t quite as unruly as it usually was this time of year. He studied it for a long moment, then decided to follow the stream to its source and head on west from there to Taos.

By the end of the day, he was well inside the Cimarron’s canyon. He made camp at the base of a long sky-scraping cliff of jagged rock. The setting sun glinted like gold on its crest. Pete grunted. Maybe sights like this were what gave the Spanish the idea that this land held cities of gold. As far as Old Pete was concerned, with the sunlight on them like that, those towering cliffs were prettier than any mere gold.

He shook his head at mankind’s general greed and foolishness, and hobbled the mule. Then he swept leaf litter from the flat top of a knee-high granite boulder and built a small fire. He heated water and added a quarter of his remaining coffee. As it steeped, he arranged small heaps of river rock alongside the fire, then cut and trimmed a handful of green willow branches. He sliced thin strips of meat from the remaining antelope haunch and wove the strips onto the sticks, then wedged them between the rocks to angle the meat over the flames.

Old Pete sat back on his heels and reached for the coffee. The brownish liquid wasn’t very tasty, but it was hot. He sipped at it while he waited for the meat to sizzle.

He squinted his good eye up at the cliffs, contemplating their grandeur again, then gazed toward the west. The sky was a clear, bright blue above the mountains up canyon. The mountains’ bulk blocked the setting sun and the resulting shadows turned the slopes facing Pete into a solid black mass, making the sky above them even brighter. As he ate, blue in the west became more and more luminous, then paled, darkened, and finally gave way to stars.

When he’d finished his meal, Old Pete rolled himself into his blanket and slept. He kept his rifle beside him, not because he felt in any danger but because it was the thing a man did when he was alone in the wilderness, a habit he’d formed long ago.

The next morning, man and mule moseyed on up the canyon. They didn’t dally, but they didn’t hurry none, neither. The sun glinted on the stream, water striders danced across the water, and fish traced the striders. Old Pete contemplated the long narrow shapes of trout slipping through the shadowed pools and considered stopping to hook one, then decided to wait a mite longer.

He came to a small meadow. A clutch of wild turkeys moved ahead of him, scratching along the base of the streamside willows. Pete grinned at the way the birds pretended not to see him as they stayed just out of reach. They were unusually plump and sleek for this time of year. With so little winter snow, they’d had an easy time of it.

He moved on, like the turkeys, seemingly in no hurry and unaware of his surroundings, but absorbing it all just the same. With the warming weather, the coyote willow beside the river had developed a haze of tiny green leaves that brightened the winter red of its bark. Under the tall green pines, waxy white flowers glowed on sprigs of wild grape-holly. Sunlight filtered through the long needles of the thick barked ponderosas and glinted on the twisted branches of the scrub oaks below, still stubbornly bare.

In the late afternoon, Old Pete stopped in a meadow to water and graze the mule while he gathered wild greens for his supper. He rinsed them in a small creek that fed into the Cimarron, then sat on a downed cottonwood log and nibbled contentedly on a handful of the sweet herbs. This was better than any so-called civilized garden. He’d just as soon stay out here forever, if he didn’t need coffee.

from Old One Eye Pete

News

There was a knothole in the cabin door, in the fourth board from the right. Kenneth stood on tiptoe and peered through it at the men on the horses.

“It’s Clay Allison!” he hissed.

His little sister Elizabeth stood on tiptoe and tried to shoulder Kenneth out the way so she could see for herself. “Are you sure?” she whispered.

Kenneth nodded. “He’s tall and he’s got those black whiskers and he’s ridin’ that big blond horse Papa says is so dangerous.”

Elizabeth bit her lip and shrank back. She hugged herself tightly around her waist. “I’m scared,” she whimpered. “I’ve heard tell that he’s mean.”

“Ah, he’s only mean to those who are mean,” Kenneth scoffed. But he didn’t open the door. His mother had instructed him to stay inside if anyone came while she and his father were gone. As far as Kenneth was concerned, ‘anyone’ included the gunslinger Clay Allison. If that’s who it was. He wasn’t at all certain, now that he thought about it. He’d never seen the man close up. But he sure wasn’t gonna tell Elizabeth that.

The knothole suddenly went black and there was a thud on the wooden door that shook Kenneth in his boots. “What are we going to do?” Elizabeth gasped.

Kenneth put his hand over her mouth. “Hush!” he hissed. “He’ll hear you!”

Boots scuffed on the porch, as if whoever it was had walked away and then come back. “I believe you two young uns ought to open this door,” a man’s deep voice said. “Your Mama says you won’t be wantin’ too, but I’ve got important news for ya’ll.”

The children looked at each other. Kenneth shook his head.

“But he’ll break the door down!” Elizabeth hissed. “And if he has to do that, he’ll be really mad! And then he’ll be extra mean!”

Kenneth’s lower lip jutted out and he shook his head again. Elizabeth had seen that look before and she knew it was no use arguing with him. She sank to the floor in a heap and tried not to cry.

There was a long silence. Booted feet paced the porch. Then they stopped outside the door again. The man coughed. The children looked at each other apprehensively.

“All right,” the man said. “I guess I’ll just have to tell you my news through the door. Your Mama’s been laid up at your Aunt Ginny’s house and she says you’re to stay here until your Pa comes for you. That’ll more than likely not be till tomorrow. She says to have your chores done and your things ready, because your Pa’s gonna be taking you back to Ginny’s house so’s you can meet your new baby brother.” There was a short pause. “Or sister. Your Mama doesn’t  know yet just which it’ll be.”

The children stared at each other, then Kenneth moved to the door and looked through the knothole again. “Really and truly?” he asked.

“Really and truly,” Clay Allison said.

from Old One Eye Pete

LOST AND FOUND

The two trappers had met by chance in the Gila wilderness: Old One Eye Pete hunting beaver on his lonesome, the way he liked it, Marion Buckman on a scout to find his son Jedediah. Jed was with a large trapping group, out from Taos a good three months longer than expected. His father was sure in his bones that something was wrong and, against all advice, had taken out after them.

One Eye Pete was on his fourth straight day of spotting Apache sign when he came across the elder Buckman. Given the circumstances, Pete felt right pleased to encounter another white man, despite his preference for trapping alone. 

Buckman had been out six weeks. He was hunting blind at that point and about ready to give up. Pete convinced him that there was always a chance that they’d run across evidence of Jedediah’s bunch up one stream or another. They might as well collect some furry bank notes while they were looking and before the Apaches got wind of them and they were forced back to the settlements for good and all. So he and Buckman located a likely creek in the bottom of a small canyon and followed it, watching for beaver sign.

The west end of the third pond looked promising. Pete leaned his rifle and gear against a downed cottonwood and waded into the water to make the first set. He’d just shoved the trap stake into place when Buckman let out a grunt, as if someone had slugged him in the gut. Pete jerked around, his hand to the pistol at his waist, but Buckman was unhurt and staring wide-eyed at the barren ridge north of the creek.

“Apache?” Pete asked.

Buckman shook his head, his eyes still fixed on the ridge. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his graying hair as he stared upward. Then he blinked and looked at Pete. “I thought—” He shook his head again, his eyes puzzled. “I thought I saw Jed.”  

Pete turned and squinted at the ridge with his good eye. There did appear to be something moving up there, just below the canyon’s rim. Somebody hunched over and doing his best to stay below the ridgeline and unseen. Pete moved cautiously out of the water and reached for his rifle. “Let’s just wait and see,” he said.

Buckman refocused on the ridge. “There’s three of ’em. I can tell that much. And they look to be white men. See the rifles?”

Old Pete studied the side of the slope. Sunlight glinted from a gun barrel. “I see one of ’em,” he said. 

“Injun’s ’ll dull down the barrel,” Buckman said authoritatively. “White men like to keep ’em shiny-like. My Jed’s real partic’lar ’bout that.”

Pete nodded and didn’t say what he was thinking: that any man fool enough to polish his rifle barrel deserved the shooting he was likely to get. Instead, he watched the men above work their way around and between the boulders scattered across the slope. As they got closer, he saw that they were dressed like white men, in woolen trousers and low moccasins, rather than Apache breech clouts and tall leg-protecting footwear.

Beside him, Marion Buckman made a sucking sound between his teeth. “It is him!” he hissed. Then he plunged along the bank to where the stream narrowed just below the beaver dam.

“You sure about that?” One Eye Pete asked. But he followed anyway. There was no sense in letting the man walk alone into a trap. After all, Buckman’s concern for his son was something to be admired, even if it did lead them both into danger.

Pete paused at the base of the dam and squinted again at the men on the slope. The middle one raised his head and registered the trappers below. He lifted an arm and waved it wildly until the man in front of him turned and raised a warning hand. Then the three of them went back to working their way down through the rocks.

Definitely white men. Old Pete shrugged. Unless they had Indians tracking them, he and Buckman were safe enough. And if Apaches were indeed following them, they’d all be in for it, anyways. He followed Buckman across the creek.

The other man was already angling through the brush toward the bottom of the ridge, on a line that would intersect the path of the descending men. Suddenly, he disappeared behind a boulder twice the height of a man. Old Pete heard a voice shout “Pa!” and then silence.

When Pete rounded the big rock a few minutes later, he found Buckman holding a younger man by the shoulders while two other men looked on, their faces streaked with dirt and lank with exhaustion.

Marion Buckman turned, his face wet with tears. “My son,” he said. “My Jedediah. I found him.”

from Old One Eye Pete

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

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

 

CHICKEN FEED

Andrew had pilfered some of the chicken feed and scattered it on the snow for the finches.

Suzanna shook her head as she looked out the window. “That child,” she said.

“What’d he do now?” his father asked. He was sitting near the fire, mending mule harness.

“How did you know it was Andrew I spoke of?”

“You had that tone.” He smiled at her.

A small boy appeared on the ladder from the loft as Suzanna said, “There is chicken feed scattered outside, and the chickens are still penned up against the cold.”

The boy stopped suddenly, then began retreating upward.

“That’s not gonna work, son,” his father said.

“Perhaps next summer you should gather grass seed and set it aside for the birds,” Suzanna said, without turning.

He came to stand beside her. “They’re pretty, aren’t they?”

“And you are incorrigible.” She reached out to ruffle his hair.

from Valley of the Eagles

MISNOMER

“Who you callin’ squirt?” The tall young man with the long sun bleached hair moved toward him down the bar, broad shoulders tense under his heavy flannel shirt.

“I didn’t mean anything,” the man said apologetically. The premature wrinkles in his face were creased with dirt.  Clearly a local pit miner. He gestured toward the tables. “I heard them callin’ you that. Thought it was your name.”

“Only my oldest friends call me that,” the young man said.

“Sorry ’bout that,” the other man said. He stuck out his hand. “Name’s Pete. They call me Gold Dust Pete, ’cuz that’s all I’ve come up with so far.”

They shook. “I’m Alfred,” the younger man said. “My grandfather called me Squirt. It kinda got passed down as a joke when I started getting my growth on.”

Pete chuckled. “I can see why it was funny,” he agreed. “Have a drink?”

from Valley of the Eagles

WINTER STOP, MORENO VALLEY

There was no grass visible, covered as it was by three feet of snow. Clouds obscured Aqua Fria Peak, meaning there’d be more snow in the night. The lower branches of the aspens had clearly felt the teeth of hungry deer and elk. There’d no doubt be wolves shadowing their flanks.

Old Pete cut branches for the two pack mules and created a feeding pile. They came eagerly to investigate.

What they left would clearly indicate the passing of a stranger, but he didn’t expect anyone was watching for him, anyhow. And by midday tomorrow the pile would be just another white-mounded windfall.

He added wood to the fire and pulled the buffalo robe tighter around his shoulders. He wished he had some coffee or Taos lightning. The snow-melt water was hot enough to warm him, but something with a kick in it would feel mighty handy right about now.

 

THIS HORRID WIND

The boy woke in the night to wind howling through the rafters and down the rock-and-mortar chimney. The chimney stack passed through the cabin loft and the boy’s sleeping pallet lay next to one end of the stack. He reached to touch the chimney. The stones were icy cold. The boy grimaced. The morning fire would take an extra-long time to light. The kindling itself would be cold. He scrunched farther into the blankets, seeking his own warmth.

At the other end of the chimney, his sister stirred. “Is that wind?” she asked sleepily.

“Banshees,” he said.

She made a chuckling sound and he grinned, more awake now, and suddenly cheerful. “Elk on the roof, bugling,” he said.

“Wolves at the door,” she suggested.

“Wolves in the fireplace.”

“Werewolves howling.”

“La llorona weeping for her children.”

The wind gusted sharply. The cabin shuddered, then a sustained high-pitched howl set up under the roof overhang outside.

“La llorona screeching for her children!” the girl giggled, trying to stifle her voice, and then the boy was laughing too, not so quietly.

The wind dropped abruptly and there was a rustle of movement at the base of the ladder. “What in tarnation are you two doing up there?” their father called softly from below. “Your mother is trying to sleep.”

“But not succeeding,” their mother’s voice said. Lamplight flared from the dark space at the edge of the loft. “You two might as well come on down,” she said. “This horrid wind is keeping us all awake.”

Loretta Miles Tollefson © 2017