CHICKEN FEED

Andrew had pilfered some of the chicken feed and scattered it on the snow for the finches.

Suzanna shook her head as she looked out the window. “That child,” she said.

“What’d he do now?” his father asked. He was sitting near the fire, mending mule harness.

“How did you know it was Andrew I spoke of?”

“You had that tone.” He smiled at her.

A small boy appeared on the ladder from the loft as Suzanna said, “There is chicken feed scattered outside, and the chickens are still penned up against the cold.”

The boy stopped suddenly, then began retreating upward.

“That’s not gonna work, son,” his father said.

“Perhaps next summer you should gather grass seed and set it aside for the birds,” Suzanna said, without turning.

He came to stand beside her. “They’re pretty, aren’t they?”

“And you are incorrigible.” She reached out to ruffle his hair.

from Valley of the Eagles

ICY MORNING

At first, the girl thought it was snowing, the tiny flakes glinting in the early morning sun. Then she saw they were miniscule ice crystals, floating from the cabin’s cedar-shake roof and the long green needles of the ponderosas looming above it: sparkling flecks of ice drifting through the air like frozen sunlight. She held her breath for a long moment, taking it in.

Then her mother opened the heavy wood-plank cabin door behind her. “It’s freezing out there!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing? You’ll catch your death!” And the girl turned reluctantly toward the house.

from Valley of the Eagles

MISNOMER

“Who you callin’ squirt?” The tall young man with the long sun bleached hair moved toward him down the bar, broad shoulders tense under his heavy flannel shirt.

“I didn’t mean anything,” the man said apologetically. The premature wrinkles in his face were creased with dirt.  Clearly a local pit miner. He gestured toward the tables. “I heard them callin’ you that. Thought it was your name.”

“Only my oldest friends call me that,” the young man said.

“Sorry ’bout that,” the other man said. He stuck out his hand. “Name’s Pete. They call me Gold Dust Pete, ’cuz that’s all I’ve come up with so far.”

They shook. “I’m Alfred,” the younger man said. “My grandfather called me Squirt. It kinda got passed down as a joke when I started getting my growth on.”

Pete chuckled. “I can see why it was funny,” he agreed. “Have a drink?”

from Valley of the Eagles

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.

from Valley of the Eagles

AN AUGUST MORNING

The old woman woke to a crisp but balmy August day, the kind that can only be experienced in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. She smiled as she threw back the cabin’s shutters. Sunlight and fresh air flooded in. The sky was a clear blue. In the west, a small white cloud lifted off the tip of Wheeler Peak.  She heard the whispery flutter of wings and a juvenile blue bird settled on the porch rail opposite the window. The bird tilted its head back and opened its beak, then looked around with a puzzled air. Where was its mother? A juvenile sparrow flew in and settled a few feet away. It pecked at the rail, looking for bugs, then gave up and flew off. The young blue bird chirped helplessly, but still its mother didn’t come.

The old woman chuckled and the bird startled and flew off. The woman took a deep breath of fresh air. There was work to be done in the cabin, but still she stood there, soaking in the light. “You would think I had never seen an August morning before,” she said to herself. “Yo contento como una niña con zapatos nuevos. I am as happy as a child with a new pair of shoes.”

She chuckled again and turned into the cabin, hurrying to complete her morning chores so she could go outside and play in the sunshine.

from Valley of the Eagles

 

 

FISHING

Almost as soon as he woke that morning, he decided to go fishing. There were chores to do, sure, but the sky was slightly overcast and the breeze was light and cool on his skin when he stepped onto the cabin’s porch. Good fishing weather.

He let the chickens out of their pen and gathered the eggs, then cut himself some bread. The cow hadn’t calved yet, so there was no butter, but that was all right.

He collected his pole and headed to the river. As he settled onto his heels just below the beaver ponds, he heard the swoosh of wings overhead. He looked up. A bald eagle was settling itself onto a snag at the head of the pool. A heron stood in the water below, apparently ignoring both eagle and man.

“Why in tarnation would any man want to live in a town?” the man wondered.

from Valley of the Eagles

SOFT WOOD

Samuel stroked the narrow piece of old cottonwood thoughtfully, absorbing its smoothness. It called out to be carved.

He was one of only a handful of boys living in Elizabethtown, New Mexico Territory, in this year of 1871. Almost all the other children were girls. Even worse, he was the only boy in a house full of overly-particular and opinionated sisters. Samuel scowled at the wood and dug his dirty fingernail into it, cutting a rough zigzag. It felt good to mark up something that they couldn’t complain about, even if he did have to hide behind the woodshed to do it, and didn’t have a knife to cut it proper-like.

“What are you doing?” a young female voice inquired.

Samuel looked up warily. A girl with long honey-brown curls and large gray eyes stood at the corner of the shed, staring at the wood in Samuel’s hands. She moved closer, her eyes still on the old stick. “How’d you mark it like that?” she asked. “All the wood around this town is too twisted and tough to cut into.”

“This here’s cottonwood,” he said. “It’s softer than the pine and other stuff hereabouts.”

“Where’d you get it?”

He stiffened, remembering he was talking to a girl, one who was bound to boss him around. “What’s it to you?” he asked.

“Well, never mind,” she said. She shoved her hands into her pinafore pockets and turned to go, her head down. Her curls covered her face.

“I’m sorry,” Samuel said contritely. He flung the stick away.

The girl crossed the yard to the piece of wood and bent to pick it up. She ran her fingers down the side he hadn’t marked. “It’s very soft,” she said.

“I have a lot of sisters and they’re always bossing me,” Samuel said apologetically.

The girl lifted her head and grinned. “I only have one brother, but he’s always bossing me.”

“What’d you want to know about the wood for?”

“I want to learn how to carve,” she said. “My brother knows but he won’t teach me. He says carving’s only for boys. I was going to try to teach myself but I couldn’t find anything soft enough.”

“I found that stick in our woodpile,” Samuel said. “There’s more in there but I’ll have to dig through the stack in order to get at it.”

“When you do find some, could I have a piece?”

“Sure. Why not?” He looked at her thoughtfully. “You have a knife?”

She smiled triumphantly and pulled a penknife from her pinafore pocket. They grinned at each other. Then she stuck out her hand, ready to shake. “I’m Charlotte,” she said.

from Valley of the Eagles