Well-Founded Pessimism

Well-Founded Pessimism

By Loretta Miles Tollefson. 

The dark-skinned, young woman and the old, Ute man sat with the quietness of old friends on the cabin porch, out of the bright mountain sun.

Stands Alone gazed at the green-black slopes lining the opposite side of the long grassy valley. “My people have no other options,” he said bleakly.

Alma tucked a wayward black curl behind her right ear. “Surely there is somewhere you can go to live your lives in peace.”

The old man shook his head. “Wherever we go, the whites follow and take the little we possess.”

“Not all of us.”

A small smile crossed his seamed face. “You, my friend, are not white. Your people have also known sorrow and theft.”

The young woman raised an eyebrow, but could not contradict. There was slavery in her veins, if not her experience, though, with enough face powder, she could pass for a deeply tanned white woman. Only the pale splotches on her cheeks, where the pigmentation wasn’t consistent, gave her away. Her French/Navajo/American mother had applied various potions in her attempt to even out the child’s skin tone, but nothing had worked and after her mother’s death, the teenage girl had stopped trying.

“You and your people could hunt here,” Alma said, gesturing toward the valley. “After all, it was your land before my parents arrived.”

“It was,” Stands Alone agreed. “And the hunting rights are still ours. Your father and I made an agreement that allowed him his pastures.” His gaze moved toward the north end of the valley, where another cabin was under construction behind a screen of small, tree-covered hills. “But still others will come,” the old man said. “And they will not ask permission.”

Alma nodded, silent before the Ute’s well-founded pessimism. Since the American takeover in 1846, eastern settlers had moved steadily into New Mexico territory. Eventually, they would find even this protected valley, which she now shared with only her brother, the former nuevomexicano mountain man Ramón who acted as their cook and handyman, and the occasional band of Indian hunters or herders from Taos.

“It is not for myself that I dread this move the American government is forcing upon us,” Stands Alone said. “But the land to which they send us is unfamiliar, and the young men are angry and uncontrollable. They talk of war against all who have built houses on our land. I fear even for you.”

Alma frowned. “We have always lived in peace with both the Ute and the Apache,” she said. “We have endeavored not to encroach on the hunting grounds or to frighten off the elk and the deer.”

The old man chuckled. “I recall that your mother was not happy about that.”

Alma grinned. “She was bound to grow corn up here, even if it killed her and all the beasts who wanted to eat it.”

“A determined woman,” he said. “May her spirit rest.”

Alma nodded somberly, then turned back to the subject at hand. “If the young men come, my brother and I will treat them with respect.”

“May they respond with respect,” he said prayerfully.

“We will remain vigilant,” she told him. “The rifles will be ready, if need be.” She shook her head, dark eyes somber. “Although I pray it will not come to that.”

“Your brother will protect you,” the old man said, reassuring himself as much as her. “And Ramón.”

But when the young men came three days later, neither Andrew nor Ramón were at hand.

Ramón had headed north after three stray cows, and Andrew was in a side canyon checking his rabbit snares. So the house was quiet when Alma looked up from her book to see a Ute man with a red stripe running down one side of his face peering through the small panes of window glass at the front of the cabin.

A spasm of fear clutched at Alma’s belly, and her mother’s exasperated voice echoed in her memory: “It’s dangerous for a woman in this god-forsaken valley!” Then the rich voice of her father’s father reminded her: “People are like dogs. They’ll sense your fear if you let yourself feel it.”

Alma took a deep breath, steadying herself. Then she stood, crossed the room, lifted the always-loaded shotgun from the wall, and swung the cabin door firmly open.

Ten young braves stood in the yard, their faces striped with the Utes’ signature red war paint, chests bared for battle.

“Hello,” Alma said, the shotgun under her arm. “How are you all today?” The words seemed inadequate, but she thought the tone was firm enough. She knew most of them: the grandson of Stands Alone, two of the grandson’s cousins, and several others whose faces she recognized. At the back of the group, toward the long low adobe and timber barn, was Running Wolf, who as a boy had taught Alma’s brother how to set the snares he was now checking.

“We are not well,” the grandson of Stands Alone said. “We are unhappy.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Alma said calmly.

“You whites have come in and now we have no game.” This was a man Alma didn’t know. A broad stripe of red ran down each cheek, flattening the planes of his cheekbones.

A young boy came running from the barn, eyes bright with excitement. “There are no men here,” he told the broadly-painted one breathlessly. “And there are cattle!”

The man nodded, his eyes on Alma’s shotgun.

One of the grandson’s cousins chuckled and shifted a hatchet from his left hand to his right. “The woman has a good shape,” he observed.

“We will have her, and then we will burn the house and take the cattle,” the broadly-striped one announced. He took a step forward and raised his voice. “Then we will feast!”

Alma’s stomach tightened and she lifted the shotgun, sighting on the man’s chest. “But you will not have me, and you will not feast!” she said sharply. “You will be dead!”

An irritated growl swept across the yard. At the corner of her eye, Alma saw the cousin easing around the corner of the cabin, toward the lean-to kitchen’s door. Alma forced her gaze to remain on the broadly-painted man’s bare chest, her shotgun barrel steady.

“I would not touch her,” a disgusted voice said from the back of the crowd. Running Wolf? She didn’t move her eyes. “Those spots on her face are the sign of disease. Smallpox or something worse.”

The broadly-painted one peered sharply into Alma’s face and she nodded. “That’s right!” Alma said, meeting his eyes defiantly. “I will shoot you, and you will die quickly.” She raised her voice. “But if these others are loco enough to have me, they will suffer for a long time before they die.” She chuckled grimly. “I will take all of you with me! And you will die a painful and lingering death of disease, not of battle!”

A confused murmur passed over the yard. Alma held the shotgun muzzle steady on the broadly-painted one’s chest. There was a long silence, then the other cousin jerked his head toward the barn. “We will take cattle instead,” he pronounced. “The cattle are not diseased.”

“Two fat cows to feed us and our children.” Running Wolf moved slightly forward. His eyes swept the cluster of warriors, then turned toward the barn. “We will all feast this night!”

The warriors swung to face the barn, and Alma eased backward into the house. She shoved the door closed, then leaned against it, heart pounding her ribs, fingers cramped painfully on the gun-stock. Then she crept to the kitchen, assured herself that the door was indeed barred, and slipped back into the front room. She sank into her mother’s old rocking chair and placed the shotgun gently on the floor beside her. Only when she heard Ramón and Andrew on the porch did she lift her hands from her face, now splotchy with tears.

AUTHOR BIO

LORETTA MILES TOLLEFSON has published three poetry collections, two novels, and two collections of historical micro-fiction: Moreno Valley Sketches I and II. She lives in New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains, where she transforms historical data about the region into fiction. She posts historical micro-fiction weekly on Facebook and at lorettamilestollefson.wordpress.com.

Photo by Greg Willis.

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