Decisions

Decisions

The four young people stood inside the ranch cabin’s newly whitewashed walls and looked at each other uncertainly.

“What will you do?” Andrew asked. His sister Alma frowned at him, but Kathy only shook her carefully braided blond head, white handkerchief to her blue eyes.

William went to the window. A line of Taos Pueblo riders moved steadily toward the cabin through the gap from the southern part of the valley. “Here they come,” he said. He turned to his sister. “You gave your word.”

Kathy nodded, then shook her head. “Not precisely,” she whispered.

“I beg your pardon?”

Kathy lifted her head. “I didn’t say that I would marry Peter,” she said. “I didn’t say those precise words. But I’m sure that’s what he understood me to say.”

William’s jaw tightened under his reddish-blond beard. “And you didn’t disabuse him of that notion, either.”

She shook her head and turned away, to the only other woman in the room. “Oh, Alma, what am I going to do?”

The dark-haired, deeply tanned, and sturdy Alma put her arms around her pale thin blond friend. “You should follow your heart,” she said, feeling the inadequacy of her words.

Kathy shook her head against Alma’s shoulder. “I don’t know,” she sobbed. “I’m so afraid.”

Andrew was at the window now. “You’ll need to decide pretty quickly,” he said. “They’re almost here.”

But by the time the Taos Pueblo party rode into the dirt and gravel yard, Kathy had disappeared out the cabin’s back door. William and Andrew moved outside to provide an initial greeting and deal with the animals. Alma took a deep breath and faced the doorway, her square brown face anxious. She tucked an unruly curl behind her right ear.

Peter entered first, his dark face bright as an expectant schoolboy’s. He wore a blue and white checked shirt and pants so new they still had fold creases across the thighs. He took one look at Alma’s face and his expression fell. He moved to the far wall and faced it quietly, dark head bowed. Several children followed him inside and Alma scooped up a three-year-old boy she’d never seen before. “Where’d you get those big gray eyes?” she asked him. He giggled and she held him to her chest as she faced Peter’s father, Oscar, as he came through the doorway, dressed in traditional Taos garb, long hair tucked into a bun at the nape of his neck.

“Who is this little man?” she asked. “I haven’t met him before.”

Oscar’s eyes swept around the whitewashed room and came to rest on his son, face to the wall. “He’s my wife’s nephew’s child,” he answered. “The one who married the half-French girl.” He turned to the two men who had followed him in and shook his head slightly. The men turned back to the yard, shutting the door behind them. Oscar glanced at Peter, then Alma. “And where is my son’s Katarina?”

Alma’s eyes dropped and she set the little boy on the floor. He looked up at the two adults uncertainly, then he and the other children moved to the door.

Oscar let them out, then turned back to Alma. “Is there a problem?” His voice was mild enough, but there was an edge to it, as if he already knew the answer to his question.

“There has been a misunderstanding,” Alma said.

Peter made a muffled sound and turned to face them, slim body tense. “There has been no misunderstanding.” He looked at his father. “I have built us a house. Katarina may have misunderstood, but I did not.”

Oscar’s jaws tightened. “It is because we are Pueblan.”

Alma shook her head and spread her hands, palms up. “It is just a misunderstanding. Perhaps some confusion of languages.”

“There has been no confusion,” Peter said stiffly.

“Come, my son,” Oscar said. “We will not waste our words on this matter.”

“I am so sorry,” Alma said helplessly.

Oscar nodded slightly, acknowledging her words as he turned away. Peter, on the other hand, scowled into her face before he followed his father from the cabin and its mocking white walls.

Alma stood in the center of the room for a long time, eyes closed against the windowed sunlight, grieving for the pain in Peter’s face, the controlled anger in Oscar’s. The man had been her father’s good friend. Would he ever forgive her for her part in this? In the yard, men’s voices muttered and horse hooves stirred the gravelly dirt. A child asked a plaintive question, then the group from the Pueblo was gone.

Alma slipped out the back to look for Kathy and found her hunched on a small boulder on the hillside, staring south at the receding horses, her face wet with tears. “Oh, Alma, what have I done?” she asked plaintively. “I have hurt him so much.”

“It’s better to hurt him now than to live a lifetime of misery together,” Alma said stoutly.

Kathy shook her head. “It would not have been a complete misery.” 

“I told him there had been a misunderstanding.”

Kathy nodded, her eyes still focused on the horses moving steadily toward the lower Moreno Valley, where they would cross Palo Flechado Pass and move west down the Rio Fernando valley, then north through the village of Don Fernando de Taos to the pueblo. “Misunderstanding is certainly the appropriate word,” she said ruefully.

Alma looked away, studying the creek bed below and the cattle in the rich grass beside it. It was fine ranch land, this upper section of the Moreno Valley. Richer in some ways than the land she and her brother ranched in the lower part of the valley. The Taos Valley was well enough. It certainly had beautiful pasture land. But it was dryer there, and hotter in summer. It wasn’t the Moreno, with its green, high-mountain beauty, narrow meandering streams, and cool summer breezes. If she were Kathy, it would be hard indeed to leave such a place.

But then Kathy took a deep, ragged breath. “I have misunderstood my own heart,” she said. “And angered and insulted Peter’s family. Oscar is a proud man and his wife is even prouder. She dislikes me because I am not Pueblan. Now she will have even more reason to object to me.” She turned to her friend, tears welling again. “Oh, Alma, what have I done? They will never forgive me for this!”

* * * *

Three weeks later Kathy paid an unexpected visit to the lower valley. Alma was in the bare yard of the cabin she shared with her brother on the hillside overlooking the head of the Cimarron Canyon, but for once she was paying no attention to the scenic valley before her. Instead, she was carefully following the directions of the old curandera Guadalupita Otero, learning to make soap from yucca roots.

As they did every summer, the Taos folk healer and her son’s family had camped at the eastern end of Six Mile Creek, southwest of Alma and Andrew’s cabin, to graze their sheep and goats and take in the cool mountain air. Alma had happened upon Guadalupita on a nearby hillside, struggling to carry a large basket of yucca roots. As they carried the basket between them down the hillside, the old woman had explained that she would make soap from the roots and Alma had asked to be taught the process. Now they were carefully chopping the peeled and slippery chunks and mixing them into a pot of water simmering over a fire in the yard.

When Kathy arrived, they took a break inside, out of the sun, and Alma used a bit of precious sugar to sweeten the wild mint tea she’d brewed that morning. “I haven’t had time to chill it in the stream,” she apologized.

“It is better for you warm,” Guadalupita said.

Kathy nodded absently. She sipped her tea and looked at the floor.

“How is everything up at the ranch?” Alma asked. She looked more closely at her friend and the pensive tilt of her blond head. “Are you well?”

Kathy looked up and glanced from Alma to the old lady, then to Alma again.

Claramente, this is a private matter, ” Guadalupita said. She set down her cup and pushed herself to her feet. “We can finish the soap another day.” She turned to Alma. “Finish adding the amole to the water and then…”

“Please stay, señora,” Kathy said. She leaned forward and looked into the old woman’s face. “I may need your assistance. Certainly I need your advice.” She dropped her eyes. “If you would be so kind as to give it.”

Guadalupita peered into the younger woman’s face and then sat down again.

Alma frowned anxiously. “Kathy, what is it?”

Kathy took a deep, ragged breath. “I sent word to Peter that I am with child.” She glanced up, then at the floor. “He is a good man. He will have to marry me now.”

Alma’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh Kathy,” she said. “Are you certain?”

Kathy looked up. A grim little smile passed over her pale face. “I’m certain that I sent him the message.” 

Guadalupita chuckled.

Alma shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“After my foolishness last month, it’s the only possible way to obtain his parents’ agreement.” Kathy turned her head, avoiding her friend’s eyes. “And it will be true soon enough after we’re married.”

“Then you’re not actually….”

“It’s the only way I could think of.”

“But surely they’ll know that you aren’t actually….”

Kathy shook her head. “It’s too soon to tell without an physical examination.” She turned to Guadalupita. “I am not Catholic. The priest is almost certain to ask for confirmation from a curandera.

“This Peter is the Taos joven? Oscar Lujan’s younger son?” Guadalupita asked. “I think his mother will ask, if the priest does not. I have heard that she is very angry that you rejected her precious hijo.”

“I was a fool.” Kathy dropped her head. “I know that now.” She looked up, her eyes pleading. “Señora Otero, would you confirm it for me?”

“And if you do not become pregnant immediately after el casamiento?”

“I will say that I lost the child.”

Guadalupita clicked her tongue and shook her head.

“And what about Peter?” Alma asked. “Will he believe you?”

Kathy smiled and her cheeks reddened. “He will know it is not true. We have never— I wouldn’t let him—” She looked down at her hands, then at Alma, calmer now. “If he responds with a message acknowledging the child, I will know he has forgiven my foolishness. If he sends a message rejecting it, or if he doesn’t respond, then I will try—” She bit her lip. “I will try to forget him,” she whispered. She covered her face with her hands. “And I will never forgive myself,” she sobbed.

“Oh, Kathy.” Alma knelt beside Kathy’s chair and put an arm around her friend’s shoulders. “Are you certain this is the only way?”

Kathy took her hands from her face. “I can think of no other.” She lifted her chin. “I don’t know whether or not I have done the right thing, but that is what I have done. I won’t go back now.”

Guadalupita chuckled. “Verdad you are a child no longer, I think.” She looked out the window for a long moment, then turned to the girl and gave a sharp little nod. “I will help you.”

“Oh, señora,” Kathy said. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You would perjure yourself?” Alma blurted, eyes dark with surprise.

The old lady compressed her lips. “I will help you.” The girls stared at her determined eyes and knew that it was not for Kathy that she was doing this thing. But the look in Guadalupita’s face did not invite questioning. “But for now, we will make soap,” the curandera said firmly.

* * * *

As she made her slow way back to her family’s campsite that afternoon, Guadalupita pondered her decision. It had been made on the spur of the moment, but it felt inevitable. Sixty-some years ago her mother had lain with a young Apache man. She herself was the result of that summer romance. But her abuela, her mother’s mother, was one who clung fiercely to the purity of her Spanish blood. She had rejected any possibility of marriage between the young people and badgered her daughter into a rapid casamiento with a pure-bloodedwidower who had three young sons, a temper, and a penchant for Taos Lightning. It was of no importance that he was a drunk and a wife beater: the unborn child would be baptized with a Spanish lineage.

Guadalupita hadn’t known her true origins until she herself was married and her mother was dying. Always she had wondered why her father and abuela disliked her so much. It had been a relief to discover that she was not related to the hombre who had caused her and her mamá so much pain.

She knew Peter’s mother, of her pride in her Pueblo blood lines. Guadalupita shook her head. She would not stand by while another young woman lost her güiso, her sweetheart, as a result of such foolishness. There would be pain enough in the day-to-day living of their love, with a mother-in-law always looking to find fault.

The old curandera stopped to rest, eyes contemplating the green-black mountains that lined the western side of the valley. Below the opposite slopes lay the Taos Pueblo. Guadalupita shook her head and smiled, recalling the look in the blond girl’s face as she’d said “That is what I have done. I won’t go back now.” She was a strong one, that Katarina. Stronger than she knew.

The old woman turned and began walking again. As for perjuring herself: Hah! She was not afraid of the priests. She had ceased listening to them seven years before, on that January morning in the American year 1847 when so many had died in the Taos revolt, including her own esposo. Those who inveigh against a thing and then are horrified when their listeners take action against the thing execrated deserve no respect. They do not speak for el Dios. Guadalupita’s chin jerked defiantly upward, unconsciously mimicking the movement of Kathy’s face three hours before.

from Old One Eye Pete

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

BUZZARD BRAINS

“He ain’t got the brains God gave a buzzard,” the old man grumbled. He picked up his mattock and glared at the black-hatted figure retreating down the bottom of Humbug Gulch toward Elizabethtown. Then he looked uphill, toward Baldy Peak. “Idiot can’t even figure out there’s a storm up there and this gully likely t’wash out in another half hour.” He sniffed disdainfully and went back to work, breaking rock on the gully’s southern lip, searching for the gold that was bound to be there if a man worked the stones long enough.

The young man in the black bowler hat chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip as he trudged down the center of the gulch through the gravel and broken rock. He’d offered every dollar he had for the claim, but the miner clearly wasn’t interested in selling. He shook his head. There must be other options.

Halfway down the gulch, he paused to catch his breath and gaze at the mountain above. That dark cloud spoke rain. Given the southeast position of the cloud and the angle of the gulch, it was unlikely that particular cloudburst would wet this particular gully. However, just to be on the safe side, he moved halfway up the gully’s north slope before he continued his downward trek.

The sun was glaringly bright on the dry rocks. The young man sat down on a large sandstone boulder and took off his hat. He brushed at the dust on the black felt and shook his head. He needed to find something lighter weight and less apt to show dust. He’d keep wearing this in the meantime, though. If nothing else, it protected him from sunstroke. He glanced down at the shadowed side of his rocky seat and grinned. Like this boulder was protecting that bit of grass, growing here among the pitiless rocks where no plant had a right to be.

The young man’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. He shaded the clump of grass with his hat and peered down at it and the rocks around it. Then he straightened abruptly, glanced up the gully where the miner had gone back to work, and slid off the boulder. He crouched beside the big rock and gently pried a piece of broken quartz from the ground. He turned it slowly back and forth, examining every facet and seam.

Five minutes later, the young man sat back on his heels and turned the rock again, just to be certain. Then he picked up a stick and poked around a bit in the ground beside the boulder. He nodded thoughtfully, then stood and looked carefully at the gulch’s rocky slopes for any sign of possession. But this piece of land clearly hadn’t been claimed. Apparently, no one had thought there was gold this far down Humbug Gulch.

The young man chuckled, tucked the piece of quartz into his pocket, clapped his dusty black hat on his head, and headed into Elizabethtown to file the necessary paperwork for his claim.

from Old One Eye Pete

INDECISION

Billy Dupre pulled his ivory-handled Colt pistol from its holster and laid it beside him on the granite boulder. He looked at the revolver thoughtfully, then twisted away to gaze at the valley below. The morning light was just beginning to turn the tops of the western mountains a pinkish-orange. He sighed and shook his head.

“You backin’ and fillin’ again?” a sleepy voice asked from the other side of the burnt-out fire.

Billy glanced around. “I can’t help it, Johnny,” he said. “I just can’t get to makin’ up my mind to killin’ a man just cuz I’m paid to do it. A man who never did nothin’ to me or mine. Someone I don’t even know.”

“You were in the army, same as me,” Johnny Kemp said. “You did it then, didn’t ya?”

“That was war. This is different.”

“And you’re from Missouri, same as me,” Kemp persisted. “Weren’t there no bushwhackers where you come from?”

“Yep, and I shot my share. But that was defendin’ my family and my home, same as when I joined up.” Billy looked toward the sunlit mountain peaks. “Not that it did me much good. By the time I got back, my ma was dead, my pa was half-crazy, and that Sally Ann–” He stood abruptly and nudged at the ashes in the fire ring with his booted toe. “There’s no embers left. You got a match?”

“That girl done and gone, didn’t she?” Johnny sat up and reached for his knapsack. “That Sally Ann?”

“It’s all done and gone.” Billy turned and began moving around the edge of the campsite, collecting small pieces of downed aspen branches. “All of it’s right done and gone.”

“So you should be wrathful enough to shoot just about any varmint that crosses your path.” Kemp stood, stretched, and began buckling his pants. “Cuz there’s no one left back there and no one here neither.” He grinned. “No one ’sides me.” He crossed to the boulder and hefted the Colt, then flipped it expertly, feeling the balance of the thing. “Nice gun,” he said.

“No, you can’t have it,” Billy said. He dropped an armload of wood beside the fire ring.

Kemp grinned, put the pistol back on the rock, and crossed to the firewood. “So what’re you gonna do if you don’t go to shootin’ for pay?” He crouched down, took out his knife, and began shaving bark into a small pile. “You gonna go back to laborin’ at one of those Etown sawmills? Become a mine flunky?”

“I might.” Billy went back to the big rock. He stared down at the valley as he reholstered the pistol. “We had us a farm in Missouri,” he said thoughtfully.

Johnny Kemp rocked back on his heels. An incredulous grin split his face. “You gonna be a farmer? A bug-ridden land-rich cash-poor dirt grubber?”

Billy Dupre stared at the sunlight touching the grasses below and glinting off the small streams that meandered across the valley toward the canyon of the Cimarron. “I might,” he said. “I just might.”

from Old One Eye Pete

SNOW, 2 of 3 — Caught

Peter studied the icy river beyond his mule’s twitching ears. “I should’ve started back yesterday,” he muttered. The mule stirred restlessly and he reached to soothe her. The Cimarron was almost frozen over; the canyon sides above it were white with snow. Man and mule turned to look west, where the canyon climbed up into the Moreno Valley, toward home. The wind gusted straight toward them, carrying snowflakes heavy with moisture out of a lead-gray sky.

The snow was more wet than cold, which would make it heavy. And it was coming down fast. They’d have a rough time getting through to the valley. The marsh where the river formed up would be half frozen and nasty. The mule snorted irritably and Peter nodded. “Yeah, I guess we’re gonna wait this one out,” he said.

He dismounted and led the animal out of the wind, into the shelter of an upthrust sandstone boulder. “Hope Patricia’s all settled in,” he muttered.  He looked upward and shook his head. “Shoulda started back yesterday.”

from Valley of the Eagles

MORENO VALLEY TRADE FAIR, 1 of 2

It’s a mere mule track, the man thought, eying the rocky ground on the hillside ahead. A fine silt hovered in the air behind him, marking the path he and the packhorse had followed from Rayado and the Santa Fe Trail at the base of the mountains.

They’d been climbing steadily and the vinegar-scented blue-green junipers had given way to taller, straighter, deeper-green trees: fir and pine. The man looked at them appreciatively, glad it was June and not mid-winter, when the snow that provided these trees with the moisture to live would have made the trail difficult.

He clucked at the packhorse and headed up the rocky slope. At Rayado yesterday, Jesús Abreu had told him there’d be a series of small mountain valleys before he reached the larger one. Then he was to move north, to where the Cimarron River began in a marsh on the east side of the Valley. The Indians met there to trade. The traveler shook his head. It was a long way to go on the chance that they’d be there—and able to pay for the goods he had with him. He hoped this worked.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

A MAN’S DREAM, 2 of 2

“It’s June now,” Suzanna said. “These are the Sangre de Christo mountains. It’ll be cold up here, come winter.”

“Come January,” Gerald conceded. “Though snow will make for green summer cattle pastures.”

“Grass will bring game and cougars. Cougars prefer cattle to game.”

“No more than anywhere else.”

“And the Utes will want to know why we’re in their hunting grounds.”

“There’s enough for everyone.” He gestured. “And plenty of trees. You won’t have to live in adobe anymore. Besides, Taos is only a day or so away.”

“Taos is two days through a Pass that’s impassable in winter.”

Gerald studied the valley at their feet. “At the foot of this hill and a little north,” he decided. “A cabin between those two outcroppings would be well sheltered. And your garden won’t get too windblown.”

Clearly, there was no use arguing. Suzanna’s mouth tightened. “I want glass windows,” she said.

from Moreno Valley Sketches

A MAN’S DREAM, 1 of 2

They climbed a small hill near the headwaters of the Cimarron River to get a better view. The long narrow valley spread out below them. It was a couple miles wide and probably twelve long. The land slanting toward them was mostly grass. Small creeks meandered across it, creating dark indentations. Pine and fir hugged the banks, spreading out occasionally to absorb moisture from a sloughy spot. The streams met in a marshy area just below where Gerald and Suzanna stood, then drained into the small river that flowed eastward through the rocky canyon.

Suzanna studied the valley warily as Gerald plucked a piece of grass from the hillside. He examined it, then bit into the fleshy end and chewed carefully.

He spit it out. “Sweet,” he said approvingly. He gestured at the view below. “It has everything we could want,” he told his wife. “Water, feed, game, timber.”

from Moreno Valley Sketches

 

HILLTOP VIEW

Alma turned at the top of the hill, sat down on the golden-brown grass, and pulled her knees to her chest. She hugged her skirts against her legs and gazed across the valley. How she loved this place.  Each mountain peak was an old friend. Each narrow stream snaking through the long grasses toward the marsh below held memories. She smiled and watched a coyote loiter around the clutch of elk browsing on the ridge to her left. A swarm of geese came honking in and settled at the edge of the marsh.

It would be only her and old José in the cabin now. She hadn’t asked Andrew to stay–she knew his heart wasn’t in it, that he needed a broader scope. José would remain as long as she did, out of loyalty to her long-dead father. But was it fair to ask that of him? She frowned and watched the sun edge westward, toward the other side of the valley.

The grass behind her rustled and Alma turned her head. José nodded to her, pushed his hat away from his thin, weathered face, and gazed at the elk beyond. “Might wanta bring in another one,” he said. “So we’ll have plenty for winter.”

“Winter will be cold,” she observed.

“It’s a good cold,” he said. “Best cold in the Territory.”

Alma smiled up at him, then turned back to watch the valley below.

Moreno Valley Sketches II

 

DUCK HUNTING

The girl lifted her skirts away from her feet and eased toward the small brown-mottled duck on the creek bank. It was busily investigating a small marshy area where water had seeped past the bank. Alma wished she’d brought her bow and arrows, but she’d been sent out to collect greens, not meat.

The duck had its back to her. Alma eased forward and crouched, getting into position. Her right foot pressed her skirt into the mud, but she didn’t notice.

The duck turned slightly. Alma lunged forward. As her hands touched the bird’s smooth feathers, her foot ground into her skirt, yanking her off balance. The duck flew off with a panicked series of quacks and Alma pitched foward into the mud.

“Hell and damnation!” she said angrily. “I hate dresses!”

She got to her feet and looked down ruefully. Her mother was not going to be happy.

Copyright © 2015 Loretta Miles Tollefson

from Moreno Valley Sketches