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

 

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

PROTECTION 3 of 3

“She threw a stick at a mountain cat that was goin’ after the boy and it run off?” the old man who was visiting asked. “Mid-lunge?” The two men sat on stools in front of the cabin fire, a whisky jug between them.

“That’s what she says.”

They both turned to look at Gina, who sat on the bed in the corner, singing a lullaby to the child, crooning him to sleep.

“Hard to believe,” the old man said, stroking his stringy white beard.

“Old cat,” Charles said.

“Maybe.” The old man took a sip from the jug. “Coulda been a young one, though. A woman’s protective instincts can be almighty strong.”

There was a disbelieving grunt at the fire and then silence.

“Stranger things’ve happened,” the old man observed. “And she does take kindly to that child.”

“She does that,” her husband said grudgingly.

from Old One Eye Pete

PROTECTION 2 of 3

When Charles came in from the mountainside pasture, they were huddled on the cabin’s only bed, Gina curled around the child until he was almost invisible. She raised a tear-stained face.

Charles glanced at her and turned to hang his coat on a peg.

Cuguar,” she said.

“Cougar?” Then he was beside her, pulling Charlie from her arms, looking him over.

“He is unhurt,” she said, a hand on the child’s small leg. “I threw a stick. It ran away.”

Charles dumped him back into her arms. “Mountain lion don’t run off.” He crossed to the fire. “Don’t tell me stories.”

“It is true.” Gina smoothed the boy’s hair. “Mamá saved you,” she said. “She did.”

Charles grunted at the fire. “You sittin’ there with him all day?” he demanded. “Where’s my food?”

She lowered the child gently to the bed and went to prepare the evening meal.

from Old One Eye Pete

PROTECTION, 1 of 3

Charlie was playing near the edge of the forest while Gina knelt in the small garden. She glanced occasionally toward the log cabin at the other end of the clearing. Charles would return soon. The setting sun sent shadows across the grass. Charlie poked at the brown earth with a stick.

A cougar slunk forward between scrub oak branches and watched carefully, ears forward. Her tail twitched.

As the cougar crouched into position to spring, Gina’s head snapped up. Her hand reached for a thick stick lying nearby. As the cat sprang, so did she; the woman was faster.

“No!” she shrieked as the animal lunged toward the child. “No!” The stick flew through the air, hitting the cat’s side. It arched away in mid-spring, missing its quarry. Charlie let out a cry and the cougar snarled. Then it was gone.

“Mamá?” the child whimpered.

She reached for him wordlessly.

from Old One Eye Pete

WATER OF LIFE

“Now what’re you gettin’ yourself all fired up for?” the matted-haired trapper demanded. “I’m your pa and I can do I want.” He lifted the pottery jug from the wooden table with both hands. “I been feelin’ a mite poorly since I come in from the mountains and this here’s a right good anti-fogmatic.”

“Aquardiente,” the girl said contemptuously. “Your so-called water of life.” She pushed her long black hair away from her face. “Water of hell!”

“Ah, now girlie.” He grasped the jug’s narrow neck with one hand and reached for her arm with the other.

She slapped at him. “I’m not your girlie any longer. Don’t you touch me!”

His eyes narrowed. “I’m still your pappy,” he said. “Just ’cuz I been gone five months don’t mean you can be disrespectin’ me.”

She sniffed and turned away.

He gulped down a swig of the liquor. “Where’s your ma, anyways?”

“She went to the merchant’s to settle her bill.”

“Don’t want me to know how much she spent while I was gone, huh? What new piece of fooferaw have the two of you took a cotton to now?”

The girl whirled. “You mean the cotton for your shirts? The white wheat flour she saved for your biscuits while we spent the entire winter eating cheap corn tortillas?”

The jug thudded onto the table. “What’s eatin’ you girl, that you think you can chaw on me so right catawamptiously? It ain’t fitten!” He surged from the chair, his hand raised. “I’m thinkin’ you need a rememberance of who’s head o’ this household!”

Her lower lip curled. “That’s right. Beat me. Just give me an excuse to leave. That’s everything I could wish for.”

He dropped his hand. “And why would you leave, girl?” He peered at her. “You find a young man to spark you while I was gone?”

She lifted her chin. “I don’t need a man.”

He threw back his head. “Hah! And what else you gonna go and do?” Then his face changed. “You ain’t gone and done something you’ll regret, have you now?”

Her lips twitched with amusement. “You might regret it,” she said. “I won’t be of much use to you.”

He moved toward her. “What the tarnation have you gone and done?”

“You’ll know when I’m ready to tell you.”

As he grabbed her arm, the door opened.

“Be careful of her, por favor!” the girl’s mother said as she entered. “She has been accepted into the convent in Santa Fe, to serve as a helper! Our child is a matter of grace to us now!”

The mountain man stared at his wife, then his daughter. He turned to the table. “Women!” he muttered as he lifted his jug.

from Old One Eye Pete