TOO SILENT

The boy sits silently near the creek bank and watches his twelve week old puppy among the grasses, sniffing invisible trails. The boy has learned from long practice to sit motionless for long stretches of time. Being still has enabled him to see much that other humans, especially adults, will never discover–coyote puppies learning to hunt, damsel fly nymphs emerging from their chrysalis, the way a brook eddies at times against the wind.

The dog may never see these things either, the boy reflects complacently as he watches his new pet. Not until he is much older and has learned to be still.

In the warm mountain sun, the boy’s shoulders relax and his eyes begin to glaze over. He is not prepared for the sudden movement from above. The golden eagle’s outstretched wings shadow the boy and dog at the same moment, then the pup gives a high-pitched yelp and is gone, the boy too startled to cry out.

When he stumbles home with tear-streaked face, his mother folds him wordlessly into her arms. “I sat too still,” he moans into her chest. “I was too silent!”

from Valley of the Eagles

 

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.”

from Valley of the Eagles

IMPATIENCE

“This gold. They have found it in large quantities?” The lanky teenage boy named Escubal Martinez poked a stick into the logs on the fire, moving them closer together. At the edge of the mountain valley, a coyote yipped. The Martinez clan’s flock of sheep shifted uneasily in the darkness beyond the firelight.

The Prussian-born traveler from Etown grinned. “Ja,” he said. “But it is hard work, the digging for gold.”

Escubal’s uncle Xavier grunted from the other side of the flames, where he was using a knife to carefully smooth out an uncomfortable bump on the grip of his walking staff. “Borregas y carneros.” He nodded at the boy. “That is wealth.”

Escubal scowled at the fire.

The traveler looked puzzled. “Carner?” he asked. “Meat is wealth?”

“No, Borregas y carneros,” Escubal said.”Ewes and rams.” He gestured impatiently toward the flock.

Xavier moved his staff in the firelight and ran his fingertips gently over the wood. “Carne y ropa,” he said meditatively. “Meat and clothes.”

Ja,” the Prussian answered. “You are correct.”

Escubal scowled at the fire and the traveler smiled sympathetically. It was not easy to be young and impatient.

The boy poked at the fire again. It flared briefly, lighting the night, and the flock moved restlessly, waiting for morning.

from Valley of the Eagles

A GOOD ARRANGEMENT

As the man on the ridge watched, the herd of elk below suddenly broke and pounded across the icy stream toward the cover of the trees. Three wolves, two grays and a black, chased after them, then slowed and sat, watching them go. A young bull elk with a limp had lagged behind the herd, and the wolves appeared to be studying him. A raven cawed overhead.

The man smiled. The wolves had identified his target for him. He reached to lift the bow from his back.  It was a good arrangement, he mused as he slipped down from the ridge and began circling to get downwind of the straggling bull. When he had finished with the elk, the wolves and ravens would attack the remains. “We will all eat well tonight,” he murmured. Which was good, because the elk herd would move more swiftly tomorrow, without the lagging one to slow them.

from Valley of the Eagles

HEALING

“Lincoln is dead.” The old black man’s face was drained and tired. He sat down heavily in the chair beside the cabin fire. “Our President is dead.”

“Your president is dead,” Antonio corrected him, lifting a pot lid. “He was not my presidente.

“It has been almost twenty years since Nuevo Mexico became part of America,” Henry  said. “How long will it take you people to adjust?”

“I will never adjust.” Antonio straightened and looked at his friend. “How long will it take before the marks of slavery are truly lifted from the backs of your people?”

The old man grunted in acknowledgement and gazed into the fire.

“Suffering is a difficult thing to forget,” Antonio said, more gently now. “The bruises on the mind are still there long after the skin marks have healed.”

“Yes,” Henry said. “Still, the bruises can heal.”

“With time,” Antonio acknowledged. “With much time.”

from Valley of the Eagles

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!”

from Valley of the Eagles

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