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

 

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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

REPRIEVE

“Please don’t shoot him, Papa.”

Gerald lowered the gun and looked down at the boy. “Coyote’ve been nipping at the elk all spring and they left tracks by that half-eaten calf up the hill.”

Andrew shook his head. “He didn’t kill that calf, Papa.”

Gerald frowned. “You know that for a fact?”

Andrew hesitated, then nodded. “I’ve been watching him. He lets me get mighty close. He’s not as skittish as the others.”

“You’ve been following that coyote around?”

The boy scuffed the muddy ground with his boot. “I was curious.” He lifted his head. “The calf was dead when he ate off it.”

Gerald shook his head. “You are something else,” he said. He scanned the valley. The coyote was still visible. It trotted purposefully across the far side of the grassy slope beyond the meandering creek. “We’d best head back,” he said. “They’ll be waiting dinner on us.”

Copyright © 2015 Loretta Miles Tollefson

RATTLED

“I don’ keer if you don’ believe me,” the old trapper said as he pushed his matted brown hair away from his eyes. He shifted the Harpers Ferry 1803 rifle impatiently. “If’n yer too smart for yer own good, it ain’t none o’ my doin’.” He stroked the maple half-stock with its short barrel, looked balefully at the younger man, and turned to place the rifle next to his pack. The metal rib brazed to the underside of the barrel glinted in the firelight. “Thinks he’s smarter’n the rest o’ us,” the trapper muttered to the wagon master, who was sitting on his heels on the other side of the fire, smoking a carved cottonwood pipe.

“I didn’t say that I disbelieved you,” the young man in the black broadcloth coat said evenly. He brushed a piece of ash from his sleeve. “I simply stated that I was unaware of any unique characteristic of the 1803 issued to Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, other than the half-stock and its excellent balance.” He shrugged a shoulder. “My father was issued an 1803 during the 1812 conflict. He recollected it quite fondly and frequently. However, he never mentioned an unusually short barrel.”

“Jest cuz yer Daddy didn’ say it, don’ mean it weren’ so,” the old trapper grumbled.

“That may be the case,” the young man said stiffly. “I was unaware that I was contradicting you. I understood that we were merely exchanging some particularly intriguing information.”

“Ten dollar words.” The old man rubbed his matted hair, unfolded himself upward without looking at the others, and stalked off into the night.

The young man in the black coat looked across the firelight at the wagon master. “I didn’t intend to offend him,” he said uneasily.

The wagon master took his pipe from his mouth. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry ’bout it,” he said. “Ol’ Matt gets himself worked up like that sometimes. But he’s like a garden snake, all fizz an’ no real fury.” He glanced into the darkness. “But don’t say I said so. Not where he can hear. He wants ya t’ think he’s a rattler.”

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

ROTTEN QUARTZ

The three men and two mules stopped and stared up the mountainside. A fall of broken rock blocked their way.

“Well, shit!” Gus said. “How’re we supposed to get to that old mine shaft with this in the way?”

Herbert pulled off his hat and fanned his week-old beard. “Maybe we can go around.”

Alonzo pulled his suspenders away from his rounded belly and looked down and then up the sharply-angled slope. “Mules ain’t gonna like that,” he said.

“Guess we’re done then.” Gus rubbed his jaw. “Hell, I needed that gold.”

Herbert shrugged and began maneuvering the mules to face back down the mountainside.

Alonzo stared across the slope at the fractured stone. “That’s rotten quartz,” he said thoughtfully. He moved out onto the rocks.

“Careful there,” Gus said, but Alonzo only crouched down and stretched to pluck a piece from near the center of the rock fall. He turned it carefully. “Will you look at that,” he said wonderingly.

Gus and Herbert looked at each other, then Alonzo. He grinned back at them. “Might be this is  as far’s we need to go,” he said. He lifted the quartz in his hand. “Looks like there’s gold enough right here!”

 

Copyright © 2015 Loretta Miles Tollefson

PRODUCTIVE REVENGE

Placido Sandoval slammed the pick mattock into the rocks at his feet in a blind fury. “This Prussian, this not truly Americano, how dare he speak to me in such a way? As if I were dirt, less than nothing?” he fumed. “Mi familia has lived in this country for generations. I am of the conquistadors, the flower of España, while he is of the peasants in his country. I heard him bragging of it, how he has raised himself above his ascendientes.” He smashed the wide edge of his mattock against the largest of the rocks. A chip flew off, ricocheting into the face of the man working beside him.

“¡A redo vaya!” the other laborer said. “The devil! Be careful!”

Placido Sandoval swung the pick again, just as sharply, and his companion stopped his own work to turn away. “It does no good to be angry,” he said over his shoulder.

Placido glared at him. “It is good for my soul,” he growled. He slammed the pick against the nearest rock. Three large pieces broke free and tumbled farther down the stone-filled gully. “I will not be beaten by such as he. I will not be cowed.”

“You there!” Edward Bergmann, the mining supervisor, called from the bank above them. “You Mexicans!”

The two men paused and looked up. The Prussian’s finger pointed accusingly at Sandoval, his fierce black eyes indignant. “Did I not tell you to go slowly, to be more methodical in your approach? I’ll fine you again if you don’t stop flailing around!”

“I’ll flail you!” Placido muttered as he and his companion returned to their work. But his mattock chopped more sullenly now, reflecting the pattern Bergmann had set for it. Suddenly, gold glinted from the ground. Placido glanced up at the bank. Bergmann had disappeared. Placido bent swiftly and pocketed the chip of rock and ore.

Placido’s companion chuckled as he continued to swing his own tool. “That’s a more productive approach,” he said approvingly. He glanced toward the bank. “Though more dangerous if you are caught.”

Placido Sandoval grunted an unwilling acknowledgement as he continued on with his work, chopping at stones.

Copyright 2017 Loretta Miles Tollefson

THE TIRED DOG

The red-bearded man in the tattered coat and a dirty blue bandana for a hat squatted in the middle of the adobe casita’s single room and scooped the thick stew into his mouth with his fingers, grunting with pleasure. The woman placed a small wooden plate piled high with tortillas beside him. The man sucked his fingers clean, then grabbed a tortilla and used it to shovel more food into his mouth.

The two children perched on the adobe banco in the corner stared silently at the strange americano until their mother motioned at them to go outside. She replenished the man’s stew, then followed them.

“Come como perro amarrado. He eats like a tired dog,” the girl said. She wrinkled her nose. “So rapidly and with no manners.”

Her mother turned from the wood pile, her arms full. “He is our guest,” she said reprovingly. “Come, bring more wood for the fire.”

When they reentered the house, the man had finished his meal.

“More?” the woman asked.

He shook his head. “No, but I thankee. That’s the first meal I’ve et in three days.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “I’m lookin’ for the wife of Juan Leyba, the one that went to Elizabethtown two years ago t’ find work.”

The woman went still, her lips stiff with fear. She licked them nervously. “I am the wife of Juan Leyba, the one who went to that Elizabethtown to labor in the mines there.” She swallowed hard. “He is well?”

“Oh yes, ma’am!” the americano said. “I’m sorry to frighten you ma’am.” He pulled a small leather bag from a pocket and held it out. “This here’s from him. There’s about two ounces o’ gold in it. He says t’ use it t’ buy that land you wanted, or come to him, whichever seems best t’ you.” As she reached for the bag, he looked at the children and grinned. He shoved his hand into another pocket. “An’ he sent these fer the young uns. Gotta little linty in my pocket, but I think they’re all right.” His fingers opened, revealing a collection of hard candies, enough to keep a careful man going for at least a day and a half.

Copyright © Loretta Miles Tollefson 2017