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

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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