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

DARKER THAN A WOLF’S MOUTH

“No, don’t go out there now,” Maria 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 cuttin’ that kindling and I’m damned if someone’s gonna go stealin’ 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 wooden 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 Maria’s single scream before the big cat’s teeth found his throat.

from Valley of the Eagles

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

CALLING THE JURY

Judge Palen flattened his palms against the rough wooden table that served as the Court bench and scowled at Sheriff Calhoun. “Are you telling me that you called twenty-one men for jury duty and only seven showed up?”

Calhoun was a big man, but he fingered the broad-brimmed hat in his hands like a schoolboy. “Yes, sir.”

“Well, go get fourteen more.”

The Sheriff nodded, turned, and crossed the creaking wooden floor.

Palen turned his attention to his seven potential jury members. “All right,” he said. “Now how many of you are going to have good excuses for not fulfilling your civic duty?”

Three of them sheepishly raised their hands. Palen nodded to his court clerk to begin taking their excuses and closed his eyes. And he’d thought this appointment as Chief Justice of New Mexico Territory and Judge of its First Judicial District was a logical step up from postmaster of Hudson, New York. He suppressed a sigh. How he missed the broad sweep of the river, the bustle of the town’s port. He grimaced and opened his eyes. Only four jurymen left. Damn this town, anyway. The whole of New Mexico Territory, for that matter.

 from Valley of the Eagles

MORENO VALLEY TRADE FAIR, 2 of 2

A short, barrel-chested Indian man stood at the edge of the encampment with his arms folded and a frown on his face, watching the man and packhorse moving slowly up the valley toward him. When the trader was close enough to speak, the man moved into the path and raised a hand.

The traveler looked at him quizzically. “You talk English?” he asked.

“You come to trade?”

“I hope to,” the traveler said. “If you all have something to trade with.”

“If your terms are fair.” His gaze moved to the horse’s laden packsaddle. “You sell whisky?”

The traveler shook his head. “‘Fraid not.”

The other man stepped to the side of the path and gestured toward the camp behind him. “Then you are welcome.”

The trader moved forward but the Indian put up a hand to stop him. “If you are found with whisky, it will not go well for you,” he said flatly.

“Yes sir,” the trader said, and the glimmer of a smile crossed the two faces simultaneously.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

SOFT IN THE HEAD

Suzanna scowled sleepily at the lopped-off branches that formed the wall of the hillside lean-to and burrowed deeper into the bedding. At least there’s a bear skin to add some warmth, she thought irritably. It was too cold to get up, and if Gerald thought she was going to actually live in this God-forsaken place, he wasn’t thinking clearly.

“Wife?” he asked from the open side of the shelter.

Suzanna burrowed deeper, covering her head.

Gerald chuckled and came to kneel beside her. “I have a fire going,” he said. “I’ve toasted some bread and am heating water for tea.”

Suzanna sighed and reluctantly uncovered her head. “All right,” she said.

“There’s a herd of elk on the other side of the valley,” he said. “I thought I’d try for one after breakfast. We could use the meat. Do you want to come with me?”

“I’m not staying here by myself.” She sat up. “Not until you’ve built me a cabin.”

He leaned in to kiss her forehead. “I love you,” he said.

“And I you.” She shook her head. “Though I still think you’re soft in the head. This valley is so isolated and cold. How does anything grow up here?”

He grinned, stood, and went out. “The water’s hot!” he called from the fireside.

Moreno Valley Sketches II

LIFE LESSON

“So many things just don’t matter, really,” her grandmother said.

Helen laid her head against the old woman’s shoulder. “He said I didn’t make him happy,” she said, fighting back tears. “I tried so hard, Grandma.”

“I’m sure you did. We girls do that.” Her grandmother sighed. “That is the one thing I would do differently, if I could do it all over again.”

Helen pulled back and looked at her grandmother’s pensive face. “What do you mean?”

“I wouldn’t have tried so hard to make other people happy,” she said. “I would have realized that it can’t be done.” She patted Helen’s hand, and then gripped it hard, emphasizing her words. “You are not responsible for his happiness, Helen. He has to find that himself. And only you are responsible for yours.” She loosened her grip. “I learned that lesson much too late,” she said sadly.

Copyright © 2013 Loretta Miles Tollefson

 

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

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.

Moreno Valley Sketches II