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

 

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