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

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