TRAPPER IN LOVE

“I had me a little señorita once,” the old trapper said. “She was a real firecracker, that one. I never did learn Spanish real good and she could pull herself up all royal like and tighter’n a beaver trap all set to snap and not near as useful. She’d start spittin’ Spanish at me like some kinda wildcat and I didn’ know what she was sayin’ but I knew enough to let her be ’til she got over her fuss. She’d push her black hair away from her fire-flashin’ eyes and let out with ‘Es más feo que un dolor de estómago!’ and then she’d yell ‘Es más sabio que Salomón!’ I didn’t know a word o’ what she was sayin’ but I could tell from her tone that it was high time to skedaddle on outa there and go huntin’.” 

The old man shook his head. “Guess I went huntin’ one too many times, ’cuz one day I come back with a nice big cougar pelt and she was done gone. Too bad. That was the prettiest skin I ever saw.”

He leaned forward. “What’s that you say? I was uglier’n a stomach ache and thought I was smarter’n King Solomon? That’s all she was sayin’? Here I was sure she was ready t’ take a knife t’ me or send her brother Sol t’ do it for her. An’ all she was doin’ was grumblin’? Hah! Well, if I’da known that I mighta stuck around more and tried lovin’ her back into some kinda reason. She sure sounded god awful unreasonable at the time.”

The old man sat back, clicked his tongue against his teeth, and shook his head. “Huh, ” he said. “You don’t say.”

from Valley of the Eagles

CULTURE CLASH

Ewing Young and his trappers were well into the Gila wilderness and moving steadily through its rocks and pines the afternoon the string of four men and three mules came into view. The strangers were working their way up a dry arroyo that intersected with Young’s path.

Young held up a hand and his men all stopped in their tracks and watched the other group scramble toward them, though Enoch Jones huffed impatiently at the delay.

“Chalifoux!” Young said when the newcomers got within speaking distance. “I thought you were trapping south with James Baird.”

“Baird, he is dead,” the tallest of the two long-haired Frenchmen said. “La maladie, it got him.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“We came on anyway,” Chalifoux said. He gestured behind him. “Me, my brother, Grijalva, and him.”

The men behind Chalifoux nodded at Young politely. The youngest, the one with the dark skin and tightly-curled black hair, seemed to tense as Young’s gaze landed on him, but Young only nodded absently and turned to Chalifoux. “We’ve got thirty in our troop,” he said. “I figure that’s about all the Gila can handle at any one time. You headin’ that way?”

“It is as God wills,” Chalifoux said. “Perhaps to the north, toward the salt bluffs[1] of the Navajo.” He scratched his bandanna-covered forehead and nodded toward the third man in his small train. “Grijalva here, he shot a buck.” He jerked his head toward the pack animal being led by the dark-skinned young man. “A good size one. You want we share the meat tonight?”

“Sure, why not?” Ewing Young grinned and jerked his head toward the end of his own train. “Fall in behind and we’ll help you to cut that deer down to a more packable size.”

The Frenchman’s party stood and waited as Young’s men filed past. The trappers eyed the dead buck with interest. A good meal of venison would make for a pleasant evening.

But it wasn’t quite as pleasant as it could have been. The visitors produced whisky to accompany the meal and Enoch Jones took more than his share. Jones was apt to be more surly than usual when he drank and the presence of the young black man seemed to aggravate him.

He was leaning sullenly against a large rock that jutted from the ground a few yards beyond the fire, nursing yet another drink, when the younger man approached, a small book in his hand. The stranger crouched down beside the stones that circled the fire, opened the book, and angled its pages so the light would fall on them.

Jones scowled and leaned forward. “What’re ya doin’ there?” he demanded. He set his tin cup on top of the big rock, stepped forward, and nudged at the black man with his foot. “Hey! I asked a question! What’re ya doin’?”

The man looked up. “I’m reading,” he said. He turned the book so Jones could see the spine. “It’s a play by Mr. Shakespeare called Othello.”

Jones scowled at him. “What’s yer name, anyway?”

“I’m called Blackstone.” The man considered Jones for a long moment, then asked. “And what is your name?”

Jones stalked away into the night. Blackstone’s eyes followed him thoughtfully, then returned to his book.

But Jones was back a few minutes later, followed by Chalifoux. Jones jabbed a thumb toward Blackstone. “You see what he’s doin’?” he demanded.

Chalifoux grunted. “It appears to me that he is reading.” He turned away, but Jones blocked his path.

“That’s illegal!” Jones said. “Ya can’t let him do that!”

“He is a free man, Mr. Jones,” Chalifoux said. “He can do as he likes.”

Jones’ face turned red. “He’s a nigger! He ain’t allowed t’ read!”

Chalifoux raised an eyebrow. “This is a new law? One I know nothing of?” He turned to Blackstone. “What is this law?”

The younger man looked up, moved a small ribbon to mark his place, and closed the book. “I believe there is a law in South Carolina which makes it illegal for slaves to learn to read or write.” He shifted the book into his left hand, lifting it as if its very bulk was pleasant to him. “However, as you say, I’m a free man. So the law wouldn’t apply to me even if we were still in the United States.”

“Which it is certain we are not,” Chalifoux said. He bent, picked up a stray pine cone, and tossed it into the fire.

Blackstone glanced at Jones, then away. “And there’s certainly no such law here,” he said.

“Damn uppity nigger!” Jones said. He surged past Chalifoux, leaned down, and grabbed Blackstone’s arm. “You talkin’ back t’ me?”

Blackstone rose in one easy motion, elbowing Jones aside. “I was speaking to Mr. Chalifoux,” he said evenly.

Jones reached for the Shakespeare, but Blackstone lifted it out of his reach. Then Jones’ foot struck sideways, into Blackstone’s shin, and the younger man stumbled and lost his grip on the book, which landed, page end down, on the stones beside the fire.

“You bastard!” Blackstone turned and shoved Jones with both hands. Jones sprawled backward, away from the fire and onto the ground beside the big rock.

Blackstone swung back to the fire and the Shakespeare, but Chalifoux had already leaned down and lifted it away from the licking flames.

As the Frenchman handed the book to Blackstone, Jones heaved himself from the ground. He was halfway to the fire again, his fists doubled and ready for battle, when Ewing Young stepped from the darkness.

“What’s goin’ on?” Young asked.

Jones stopped short. “Nigger bastard sucker punched me!” he growled. He glared at Blackstone. “You ain’t seen the last o’ me.” Then he turned and stalked into the night.

“Is he always so pleasant, that one?” Chalifoux asked Young.

Young spread his hands, palms up. “There’s one in every bunch.”

Chalifoux shrugged expressively, then tilted his head back to study the trees and the stars overhead. “We will move north in the morning,” he said. “My party and me to the salt bluffs, I think. They tell me they are a sight worth the seeing.”

from Old One Eye Pete

INEVITABLE AS CLOUDS

“Disaster seems as inevitable as clouds piling over those mountains and more rain with them,” she said drily. She jerked her chin toward the western horizon, where gray-lined white clouds towered above the rocky peaks.

“Rain isn’t necessarily a disaster,” he said mildly. “It’s water for the crops and cattle, recharge for the well.”

“I haven’t been out of this cabin for the last ten days,” she complained. “By the time I’m done with the morning chores, it’s raining again. You’re out and about, tending the cattle, seeing to the crops. I’m in the house getting the children decent and cleaning up after them.”

“The rain means you don’t have to haul water to the garden,” he pointed out. “The clouds are bringing it to you.”

She took a deep breath, as if gearing up for an argument, then let it out, letting the anger go with it. “I’m just feeling so cooped up,” she said. “I feel like a winter-bound chicken in the hen house.”

“Well, we could eat you and take you out of your misery,” he teased.

She laughed and shook her head. “I’ll certainly be glad when the monsoon season is over with.” She looked up at him, over her shoulder. “We will get a respite from this before winter sets in, won’t we?”

He chuckled, drew her to him, and silently watched the clouds moving his way.

from Valley of the Eagles

FIRST DIVORCE

Augusta Meinert stood firmly in the center of the makeshift courtroom, her eyes on the judge. At thirty-seven, she was still attractive, though the stubborn tilt to her chin said she didn’t often take “no” for an answer.

Judge Watts studied her. “You understand what divorce means?” He spoke slowly, as if unsure her English could withstand the strain of the concept.

Augusta’s chin went up. “I understand no longer the bastard takes the money I earn.” A ripple of suppressed laughter ran through the onlookers behind her. She turned and glared, and the men fell silent.

“You will be a marked woman,” Judge Watts warned. “This isn’t Germany.”

She frowned. “In Germany, he takes my money, and I can do nothing.” She smiled suddenly, her eyes twinkling. “It is why I like America.”

The Judge nodded and gaveled the rough wooden planks of the table before him. “The first divorce in Colfax County, New Mexico Territory, is hereby declared final,” he announced.

from Valley of the Eagles

NOTE: This tale, like most of the other stories in Valley of the Eagles, is based on an actual event. In this case, Augusta Meinert’s petition for divorce was the first heard in newly formed Colfax County in the Spring 1869 court session in Elizabethtown, New Mexico. For more details, see the footnote in the book.

SALOON CHRISTMAS

María Dolores Quintana paused outside the Etown saloon door and adjusted her reboso over her long black hair, gathering her courage. She pushed tentatively, cracking the door open, then stopped to listen to the voices inside.

“Now that red-headed gal, she’s got a way of twistin’ her hips that’s sure to keep you hard and goin’,” a southern voice drawled.

“And the breasts on her are quite magnificent,” a German voice said. “It is sufficient just to look at them.”

Someone else chuckled from the other end of the room. “All you wanta do is look, huh? Can’t think of anything else to do, Faulk?”

“That is not quite what I intended to say,” the German voice said.

“He was just gettin’ started!” the southern voice laughed.

María took a deep breath. She must accustom herself to words such as these. This was the way men spoke of women who did the work she sought. She straightened her shoulders and pushed through the door.

The saloon was almost empty on this Thursday morning before Christmas. Two men sat at a table, one of them toying with a pack of cards. At the other end of the room, another man stood behind a long counter. This was the man María had been told to talk to. She dropped her reboso to her shoulders and crossed the creaking wooden floor quickly, before her nerve failed. The men at the table looked her over approvingly and her stomach clenched, but she kept moving. If she accomplished her goal, she would need to become used to such looks.

The sandy-haired man behind the bar studied her, unmoving.

Señor Stinson?” she asked.

He nodded, hazel eyes hooded.

“I come—” She paused, then started again. “My friend Carmen Martinez tells me I should speak to you about work.” A chair scraped on the floor behind her and she forced herself not to turn.

“What kind of work?” Stinson asked. “What’re you willing to do?”

“Whatever you ask, señor.”

Cards slapped onto the table behind her. “You’d better grab her right quick, Joe,” the southern voice  said.

“She has the looks that will earn you many dollars,” the German voice agreed.

Stinson frowned at the men at the table, then looked at María, his face carefully blank. “Have you done this kind of work before?”

“No señor, I have never done such a thing.” Behind her, a man chuckled. She focused on the saloon keeper and lifted her chin. “Carmen says I would do well. I have much incentive.”

He raised an eyebrow. Another chair scraped the floor.

Mi papá y mi hermano, they are dead,” she said. “I must find a way to feed mi mamá y mi—How do you say? My sister.”

“And how did these deaths occur?” the German voice asked.

María turned, in spite of herself. “The Maxwell Grant men, they came and told us to leave our land,” she said. “My brother, he was angry and he shot at them, and then they killed both him and mi papá.” She shuddered and turned back to Stinson. “I will do anything you ask, señor.”

Joseph Stinson opened his mouth, but the southern voice interjected. “Hell, Stinson, surely you ain’t gonna ask this sweet thing to do you now, are you? It’s almost Christmas, man!”

Stinson put both his hands on the bar and glowered at the men behind her. “If you gentlemen will hold your questions and opinions the way you hold your cards, you’ll learn what I’m going to do.” He looked at María. “Do you have folks to go to?”

She nodded. “My mother’s familia has moved north to the valley of the San Juan. If it please God, when I have earned what we need, we will go there also.”

“Well, I can’t help you much–” Stinson began.

“Like hell you can’t!” the southern voice said.

“But I’m sure that Mr. Hill and Mr. Faulk would be glad to contribute from their ill-gotten gains to also assist you.”

María turned and looked at the men at the table, who smiled back at her sheepishly. “I am Ernest Faulk,” the short stocky man with the German voice said courteously. “I would be most happy to assist you.”

She shook her head. “But I must earn what I receive.”

“It is almost Christmas,” the sleek, dark-haired man called Mr. Hill said. “And this year the day is especially holy, because it falls on a Sunday.” He glanced at Mr. Faulk. “Ernest and I are gamblers by trade and there is much for which we should repent and atone. Let us begin to redeem ourselves by assisting you.”

Ernest Faulk nodded. “For the sake of the Christ child.” He pulled a small leather bag from his vest pocket, began to open it, then tossed the whole thing on the table. María heard the dull chink of coins.

Mr. Hill considered the bag, then reached into his own pocket. “And I’ll raise you one,” he said. He pulled out two small bags of coins and placed them beside the first one.

Joseph Stinson had come out from behind the bar. He crossed to the table and laid a handful of greenbacks beside the bags. Then he scooped them all up and carried them to the girl. “Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Fröhliche Weihnachten,” echoed Ernest Faulk.

“And a most felicitous New Year,” said Mr. Hill.

Mariá stared at the men, then down at the wealth in her hands. “It is more than I could dream,” she murmured. She looked up, her eyes swimming. “I have no words,” she said.

All three men spread their hands at the same time. “Es nada,” they answered.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

 

DANGER SIGNS

“I sure could do with some raised biscuits,” Peter Kinsinger said over his shoulder as he and his brother Joseph trudged east through the snow toward the top of Palo Flechado Pass. He hitched the aspen pole that supported the elk carcass between them into a more comfortable spot on his shoulder. “I hear tell Kennedy’s wife knows how to make ’em real good. His place is only a few miles now and his prices are reasonable.”

“You could wait for Elmira’s biscuits,” Joseph said. “She’ll be waitin’ on us.” He hadn’t liked the looks of the isolated and ramshackle Kennedy cabin when they’d passed it on their way into the Pass and Taos Canyon beyond. They now had the meat they’d been hunting and he was tired of November snow and cold.

Peter turned his head and grinned. “I’m a mite chilly, ain’t you? And thirsty. A fire and a little liquid refreshment would be a right comfort just about now.”

Joseph chuckled. Peter’s Elmira was a stickler about alcohol. Peter found it easier to stay away from the Elizabethtown saloons than to experience her tongue when he stumbled home from them. But a man deserved a nip now and then. And with the weather so inclement, it was unlikely there’d be anyone else drinking the liquor or eating the meals that Kennedy sold to passersby. “It is mighty cold out here,” he acknowledged. “And we’re still a good ways from Etown.”

The road leveled out at the top of the Pass, then the brothers began to descend, careful of the icy patches in the shady spots. They were about a quarter of the way down the mountain when they heard the echo of first one rifle shot, then another.

“Sounds like Kennedy’s huntin’ too,” Peter said.

“You may not get that drink after all,” Joseph said. “I hear tell his woman don’t open that cabin door if he ain’t there.”

“Too bad,” Peter said. “I truly am thirsty.”

Joseph chuckled. “It’s still a ways. Maybe he’ll be back before we get there.”

But when they came within sight of the Kennedy place, they both forgot all about liquid refreshment.

A man lay face down in the middle of the frozen dirt track that skirted the Kennedy hollow. The snow and dirt were splashed red with blood. Charles Kennedy’s bear-like form crouched beside the sprawled body.

The Kinsinger brothers eased their elk to the side of the road and hurried forward.

Kennedy looked up, his black beard bristling around a perpetually angry mouth, his eyes watchful. “Injuns,” he said.

Peter and Joseph looked at each other, then Kennedy.

“Is he dead?” Peter asked.

Kennedy nodded. “I fought the Injuns off.” He stood and gestured toward the cabin. “Bullet holes in th’ door.” He nudged the dead man’s torso with the side of his boot. “Greenhorn ran.”

Joseph leaned down, reached for the man’s shoulder, and rolled him over. “I don’t recognize him.”

“Came from Taos,” Kennedy said. “Merchant there. So he said.”

Joseph straightened and looked away, down the road to Elizabethtown.

“When’d it happen?” Peter asked.

“Couple hours ago,” Kennedy said.

The Kinsingers nodded, eyes raking the hollow and bloody snow, careful not to look at each other or Charles Kennedy.

“Well, we have meat to get home,” Joseph said. “We’ll tell the Sheriff’s deputy in Etown, and he can come fetch the body.” He looked down. “Whoever this is, I expect his Taos friends’ll be wantin’ to give him a proper burial.”

Kennedy nodded. He stood next to the dead man and ran his fingers through his beard as the Kinsingers returned to their elk, hoisted its carrying pole onto their shoulders, and trudged past him.

The brothers were out of sight over the rise to the northeast before either of them spoke.

“Injuns my hat,” Peter said over his shoulder.

Joseph spat into the snow at the side of the road. “Sure a convenient excuse though, ain’t it?”

“We didn’t see anything different,” Peter pointed out.

“Wouldn’t want to get crosswise of that one,” Joseph agreed.

They trudged morosely on up the valley toward Elizabethtown.

from Old One Eye Pete

 

THE LOST SOUL

As Jorgé Ruibal wandered up the middle of the road toward Elizabethtown proper, the men outside the taberna watched him sympathetically. “El joven es como alma en pena,” Carlos Otero the jeweler said. “The young man is like a lost soul.”

“Si,” said the boy’s uncle. “He has lost his laborer job with Señor Bergmann. His papá is very angry with him.”

“I heard he was in love and that his love was unrequited,” Eduardo Suaso, the taberna’s musician, said.

María de la Luz, the boy’s cousin, appeared from around the corner of the building. She carried a basket of clean linens for delivery to Henri Lambert’s Etown restaurant and hotel. She gazed at Jorgé, who’d stopped to poke his foot at a stone in the road. “He wants to leave here, but his mamá is unwilling,” she said.

Jorgé, oblivious to these speculations, still stood in the dusty street, poking at the stone with his boot. It was so inert and yet so full of a kind of compressed energy. He looked east, toward the massive bulk of Baldy Mountain. The gullies that swung out from its sides were full of rocks and men scrambling through them looking for gold. Yet the mountain bulked there impassively, impervious to the miners who crawled over it. Jorgé crammed his hands in his pockets and stared upward, drinking in its stony greenness, its lack of engagement with the tiny men poking at its skin.

Outside the taberna, the americano miner called Hobart Mitchell came to the door with a drink in his hand and considered the staring boy. “He looks like’n idiot, standin’ there,” Mitchell said. “Touched in the head.”

The others all nodded noncommittally and continued to gaze sympathetically after Jorgé as he wandered on up the road.

from Valley of the Eagles

YOU PROMISED ME GLASS WINDOWS

Suzanna’s eyes narrowed and her lips tightened. “I did not come to this god forsaken valley to live in a cave,” she snapped. The toddler on her hip started fussing but Suzanna only shifted impatiently and continued to glare at her husband on the other side of the room. “You promised me glass windows. You also said you wanted to farm, that you were finished with trapping.”

Gerald gestured at the beaver pelts lying just inside the cabin door. “I was finding the means to buy glass,” he said mildly.

Suzanna turned away. “The money will just go to something else.” Alma fussed again and Suzanna bent to place her on the floor. “The mule will go lame or cougars will take down a couple more calves.”

“Suzanna sweet–”

“Don’t you ‘sweet’ me!” She straightened, hands on her hips. “I will not be sweet-talked out of this! You can’t expect me to live in a cabin with just shutters at the windows, sitting in the dark whenever it rains!”

“We have lamps.”

“It’s not the same and you know it!”

Alma had toddled to her father. She clung to his leg, looking up at him. “Papa stay home?” she asked. “Mama ang’y.” She shook her dark curly head. “Me don’ like Mama ang’y.”

Gerald and Suzanna stared at each other for a long moment. Then Gerald scooped Alma into his arms and Suzanna threw her hands in the air helplessly and crossed the room. She leaned her head against his shoulder. “I had no idea when you would return,” she said into his sleeve.

 Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

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