Travelin’ Man

Old One Eyed Pete had been in the Pecos wilderness all winter, him and the mule, avoiding Apaches and harvesting beaver. The weather had been dry and mild for the most part, the resulting pelts poor to middling. But it had been a peaceful season over all and he was almost sorry when the first cottonwood buds started greening the trees.

He headed downslope then, and out onto the edge of the eastern plains. He worked his way north along the base of the foothills, taking his time, moving from one greening meadow to the next, letting the mule feed, killing an antelope or small deer when he needed meat and skirting the few settlements he sighted.

He was in no hurry for human company just yet. The beaver plews weren’t going to fetch much, no matter when he got them to market. He could take his time. But as he neared the Cimarron River, the usual dust-filled spring winds picked up and the mule objected vociferously to plodding through clouds of grit. Old Pete chuckled in sympathy. Conditions like these almost made a man think four walls and a roof might not be such a bad thing.

Pete squinted his good eye at the Cimarron. The river wasn’t quite as unruly as it usually was this time of year. He studied it for a long moment, then decided to follow the stream to its source and head on west from there to Taos.

By the end of the day, he was well inside the Cimarron’s canyon. He made camp at the base of a long sky-scraping cliff of jagged rock. The setting sun glinted like gold on its crest. Pete grunted. Maybe sights like this were what gave the Spanish the idea that this land held cities of gold. As far as Old Pete was concerned, with the sunlight on them like that, those towering cliffs were prettier than any mere gold.

He shook his head at mankind’s general greed and foolishness, and hobbled the mule. Then he swept leaf litter from the flat top of a knee-high granite boulder and built a small fire. He heated water and added a quarter of his remaining coffee. As it steeped, he arranged small heaps of river rock alongside the fire, then cut and trimmed a handful of green willow branches. He sliced thin strips of meat from the remaining antelope haunch and wove the strips onto the sticks, then wedged them between the rocks to angle the meat over the flames.

Old Pete sat back on his heels and reached for the coffee. The brownish liquid wasn’t very tasty, but it was hot. He sipped at it while he waited for the meat to sizzle.

He squinted his good eye up at the cliffs, contemplating their grandeur again, then gazed toward the west. The sky was a clear, bright blue above the mountains up canyon. The mountains’ bulk blocked the setting sun and the resulting shadows turned the slopes facing Pete into a solid black mass, making the sky above them even brighter. As he ate, blue in the west became more and more luminous, then paled, darkened, and finally gave way to stars.

When he’d finished his meal, Old Pete rolled himself into his blanket and slept. He kept his rifle beside him, not because he felt in any danger but because it was the thing a man did when he was alone in the wilderness, a habit he’d formed long ago.

The next morning, man and mule moseyed on up the canyon. They didn’t dally, but they didn’t hurry none, neither. The sun glinted on the stream, water striders danced across the water, and fish traced the striders. Old Pete contemplated the long narrow shapes of trout slipping through the shadowed pools and considered stopping to hook one, then decided to wait a mite longer.

He came to a small meadow. A clutch of wild turkeys moved ahead of him, scratching along the base of the streamside willows. Pete grinned at the way the birds pretended not to see him as they stayed just out of reach. They were unusually plump and sleek for this time of year. With so little winter snow, they’d had an easy time of it.

He moved on, like the turkeys, seemingly in no hurry and unaware of his surroundings, but absorbing it all just the same. With the warming weather, the coyote willow beside the river had developed a haze of tiny green leaves that brightened the winter red of its bark. Under the tall green pines, waxy white flowers glowed on sprigs of wild grape-holly. Sunlight filtered through the long needles of the thick barked ponderosas and glinted on the twisted branches of the scrub oaks below, still stubbornly bare.

In the late afternoon, Old Pete stopped in a meadow to water and graze the mule while he gathered wild greens for his supper. He rinsed them in a small creek that fed into the Cimarron, then sat on a downed cottonwood log and nibbled contentedly on a handful of the sweet herbs. This was better than any so-called civilized garden. He’d just as soon stay out here forever, if he didn’t need coffee.

from Old One Eye Pete

DRY PICKINS

When Gerald and Old Pete reached the top of the rise, they paused to survey the long green valley that stretched north toward Baldy Peak and Touch Me Not Mountain. Below them, a cluster of bison browsed steadily.

“What’re buffalo doin’ clear up here?” Old Pete muttered as he unslung his rifle from his shoulder and checked the primer. “Must be dry pickins east o’ Cimarron to send this bunch so far up-mountain.”

“We can’t eat a whole buffalo or take the time to jerk it,” Gerald objected.

“No, but the robe’ll warm ya,” Old Pete said. He took careful aim at a yearling bull who’d been paying more attention to the rich grass than to his companions and had strayed to one side. The sound of the gun sent the small herd thundering up the valley, but the young male buckled to his knees as his head swung mutely toward the men on the hill.

Old Pete grunted in satisfaction, lowered the flintlock, and grinned at Gerald. “Or that girl you’ve been acourtin’.”

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

NAMING RIGHTS

“How old is Old Pete, anyhow?” Suzanna asked as she perched herself on a large granite rock and looked down at the valley with its long grass and meandering streams. She glanced at Gerald. “He doesn’t look much older than you.”

Gerald chuckled. “He’s been Old Pete as long as I’ve known him. They say Old Bill Williams started calling him that in ’26 when they were trapping with St. Vrain and his bunch north of the Gila. Pete was kinda harrassing Bill, wanting to know just how old he was. Finally, Old Bill got aggravated and started callin’ Pete ‘Old Pete.’” He grinned, plucked a piece of grass, and looked it over carefully. “And that’s what he’s been ever since.” Gerald put the grass stem in his mouth, bit down appreciatively, and chuckled again as he gazed at the green landscape below.

“Those mountain men are quite something,” Suzanna said.

“That they are,” he answered. “That they are.”

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

Damn Pup

“Where’d that damn pup get to now?” Old Pete muttered as he and the mule reached the rocky outcropping that overlooked the southern part of the valley. He could see through the ponderosa into a good stretch of grassland below, but there was no evidence of the curly-haired black Indian dog. Pete shook his head in disgust, jammed his rabbit-fur hat farther down on his head, and snapped the mule’s lead rope impatiently.

At least the mule didn’t need voice direction. Which was more than could be said for the dog, but Pete wasn’t callin’ the damn thing, no matter how aggravated he might feel. There’d likely be Jicarilla Apaches roamin’ the valley for elk, and Pete was taking no chance of being found before he wanted to be. The dog could go to hell, for all he cared. He grunted irritably as he worked his way down the hillside. Idiot pup.

He paused at the tree line, getting his bearings, the air crisp on his face. A light snow powdered the ground. A good-sized elk herd was bunched on the hillside to his left. He squinted. They seemed a mite restless. Then he saw the wolves, eight or nine of them waiting downwind while two big ones trotted the herd’s perimeter, checking for weakness.

Then he caught the sound of a low whine emanating from the prickly ground-hugging branches of a nearby juniper. As Pete watched, the black pup eased from the tree’s grip and came to crouch at his feet, tail between its legs. It looked anxiously toward the elk and whined again.

“Not as dumb as I took ya fer,” Old Pete said, readjusting his hat.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

Apache Canyon

There was a reason it was called Apache Canyon and Old Pete proceeded cautiously, aware that there’d been a recent outbreak of hostilities between the Jicarillas and the locals. Somebody had gotten twitchy-brained and shot off their gun without thinkin’ twice and now the whole Sangre de Cristos was on edge. Didn’t matter that he’d had no part in the original quarrel.

However, Pete hadn’t seen a soul in three days, and he was beginning to think he was gonna get to Taos in one piece after all, if the damn half-grown dog taggin’ him would quit wanderin’ off then comin’ back, widening the scent trail with his idiot nosin’ around. Pete scowled as the puppy reappeared, this time from a thicket of scrub oak, dead leaves rattling on the ground. The dog went into a half-crouch as it came closer. It was holding something in its mouth, its curly black tail drooping anxiously.

“What ya got there?” Pete asked. He squatted and held out his hand and the dog released the item into his palm. “Shit!” Pete said, dropping it. Then he leaned closer and sniffed. It really was shit. Human, too. Fresh enough to still stink. He rose, studying the slopes on either side, turning to examine the pass behind him. So much for bein’ alone.

“Thankee pup,” he muttered. “I think.”

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

 

Half-Grown Pup

The half-grown pup had followed Old Pete and the mule from the Ute Indian encampment down-canyon. It was a gangly thing, large for an Indian dog, with dirt-matted curly black hair. Pete looked at it in disgust as it half-crouched at his feet.

“Damned if the thing ain’t smilin’,” Pete muttered. He poked the dog’s side with his foot. “You a doe or a buck?” The animal rolled over obligingly, paws in the air. “Buck.” Pete toed it again. “Well, you won’t last long, I expect. Be runnin’ off to the first camp with a bitch in heat.” He turned and twitched the mule’s lead rope. “Giddup.”

They trailed the Cimarron River up-canyon through the afternoon and settled into camp under an overhanging sandstone boulder as the light began to fade. It was still early: the sunlight went sooner as the canyon walls narrowed. But Old Pete was in no particular hurry and the pup was acting a mite tired.

“Gonna hafta keep up,” Pete told it as he cut pieces of venison off the haunch he’d traded from the Utes. The dog slunk toward the fire and Pete tossed it a scrap. “Too small fer my roaster anyway,” he muttered as he skewered a larger chunk onto a sharpened willow stick and lifted it over the flames.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson