NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 3

CHAPTER 3

A month goes by before Suzanna sees another man who isn’t her husband. This one is tall and thin, clothed in black, and walking up the trail from Taos beside a well-rounded woman whose head is shrouded in a voluminous shawl. They each lead a donkey, a wooden bench perched precariously above bulging packsaddles. Half a dozen cattle splay out on the trail behind them, raising lazy spurts of dust when they aren’t straying into the grass and patches of purple flowers that lie beside the path. A thin young man walks behind the cows, waving a long switch at them when they wander too far off-track.

Suzanna stands in her corn patch below the cabin and gazes at the little caravan, puzzled. Then joy lights her face. It’s her father. And Encarnación. Ramón will be so glad! She makes a face at the raccoon tracks in the dirt at her feet and trots up the hills toward the house.

But Ramón has already spotted the travelers. He’s watching them from the cabin porch, a basket of eggs in each hand. He smiles at Suzanna as she reaches the steps. “It is Gregorio Garcia with the cattle,” he says. “And your father with the mules.” His eyes brighten as his smile broadens. “And la Encarnación.” He glances down at the eggs, his mind clearly on the evening meal. “It is well that el señor went hunting this morning.”

Suzanna nods, then follows him into the cabin and begins straightening the books on the table by the set of four panes of thick mica that form the single window. In the kitchen, Ramón whistles tunelessly. She chuckles at his gladness. Though she has to wonder whether the figure trailing behind the cattle actually is Gregorio Garcia. How can Ramón possibly have recognized him?

But the young man really is Gregorio, as dark eyed and lanky as ever. He drives the reluctant cows into the rough wooden corral at the edge of the hilltop and swings the gate shut behind them just as Gerald and his horse trot in from the hills, a deer carcass slung over the back of the trailing mule. Gregorio follows Gerald into the open-sided shed behind the barn and helps with the butchering while Suzanna and Encarnación supervise the unloading of her father’s pack animals.

The two carved and brightly painted benches come off first, followed by Suzanna’s big wooden spinning wheel on its stand, three bags crammed with wool, containers of dried maíz, chile, and ground wheat flour, and two rhubarb plants that have been carefully swaddled in straw, then wrapped in rough cotton.

“Rheum rhabarbarum for medicinal or other uses,” Jeremiah Peabody says with a small smile as he strokes his black chin beard.

“Thank you for bringing it,” Suzanna says. “It should do nicely up here. I had such a time keeping it alive in Don Fernando. The heat was almost too much for it.”

Encarnación turns to Ramón. “For medicine or other uses,” she says. “It is also called pie plant.” She tilts her head, her eyes crinkling. “But perhaps you prefer las natillas.”

“Ah, Chonita, I prefer anything that you prefer to make,” Ramón says and she rewards him with a brilliant smile. “Come, let me show you the kitchen and how I have arranged it,” he says. “It does not seem quite as it should be.”

As Encarnación sweeps before him into the cabin, Suzanna turns to her father. “He certainly knows how to please her,” she says, smiling.

He looks down at her. “And you?” He glances toward the barn, then peers into her face. “Does your life here please you?”

She looks down at the ground, blushing, knowing that he really wants to ask if her husband pleases her, then looks up. “Yes,” she says shyly.

A shadow crosses his face and she puts her hand on his arm. “It is not my father’s house,” she says. “And I do miss you, papa.” She wrinkles her nose. “And the mountains are closer than I would prefer.” Then she looks into his eyes. “But my life here is as pleasing as it can be without being in Taos and near you.”

He smiles ruefully and gives a little nod as he turns to look out over the valley. “The mountains are very near, but the view is delightful.” He tilts his head toward the corn patch at the bottom of the hill. “And I see you’ve already planted a garden.” He smiles at her slyly. “Your husband is a very smart man.”

“It’s a source of food,” Suzanna says defensively. Then she laughs. “And it keeps me occupied. I have peas and spinach and squash and potatoes and maíz, all of which are doing quite nicely, now that the monsoon rains have begun. And as long as I can keep the pernicious raccoons away from them. Though the corn seems slow to develop. We had no rain in June, and it didn’t get a good start.” She tucks her left hand into her father’s elbow. “But come and let me show it all to you.”

Her right hand brushes her belly as she leads him down the hill. How will she find a way to tell him? She feels an unexpected shyness toward the man to whom she’s always been able to say almost anything.

But there’s no need for her to speak. Immediately after the evening meal, Encarnación rises and begins clearing the table. Suzanna stands to help her but the other woman waves her back into her chair beside her father. “Women in your condition should not carry heavy dishes,” Encarnación says gaily.

Suzanna reddens as her father’s head swivels toward her. Ramón and Gerald, at the other end of the table, both chuckle. Gregorio looks at her with wide eyes.

“Chonita!” Suzanna protests. She slides a glance toward her father and covers her face with her hands. Then she glares at Ramón. “Did you tell her?”

Encarnación laughs and reaches for the serving platter. “There was no need to tell me. I have eyes. A woman sees such things before a man does.”

Suzanna looks helplessly at her father. “I was going to tell you this evening.” She gives Encarnación a mock glare and glances away from Gregorio’s embarrassed face. “In private.”

“It may come from a private matter, but there’s nothing very private about a child, as you will see!” Encarnación chortles as she turns toward the sink.

“There’s no keeping her quiet, when she wishes to speak,” Ramón says as he rises and follows her, his hands full of plates.

Suzanna, Gerald, and Jeremiah exchange bemused glances. Jeremiah chuckles and shakes his head. He turns to Suzanna. “I am delighted, of course. When do you expect to be confined?”

“As nearly as I can tell, at the end of the year,” Suzanna says.

“We may give you a grandchild as a Christmas gift,” Gerald adds.

Jeremiah’s thin face works under his beard. There’s a long silence, then the unemotional New Englander lifts his palms and stares down at them. He reaches blindly for Suzanna’s hand and turns to Gerald, tears welling in his eyes. “You have made me quite happy,” he says simply. Then he releases Suzanna’s hand, gives it a sharp pat, rises, and leaves the kitchen.

As the door to the porch thuds closed behind her father, Suzanna looks at Gerald. “He is quite speechless. I have never known words to fail him.”

Gerald chuckles. “His baby has grown up and is about to become a mother. I’m sure it will be a shock to us when it happens.”

She laughs in sudden delight. “It is something miraculous, isn’t it?”

He pushes back his chair, moves to stand behind her, and bends to kiss her the top of her head. Encarnación turns from the sink and flaps her wet hands at them. “Go, go,” she says, beaming. “The kitchen is not a place for such activity.”

When Suzanna wakes the next morning, Gerald’s side of their attic pallet is already empty. Encarnación moves around the room below, shaking out blankets and pushing furniture back into place. Suzanna smiles drowsily. It will be good when the other woman is here permanently. She’s missed Chonita’s bustling energy.

Then the image of the man on the ridge rises unbidden in her mind. Suzanna frowns. Should she tell Encarnación what she saw? If Enoch Jones is still alive, Encarnación certainly has a right to know. After all, the dirty-haired mountain man harassed her, too.

Suzanna gives herself a little shake. Jones is dead. Gerald killed him. The man she saw on the ridge was simply someone passing through, someone built like Jones. Those hunched and strangely massive shoulders, that angry bull-like tilt of the head. Or perhaps she simply imagined the whole thing. Ramón didn’t see anything and he has exceptional eyesight. He knew Gregorio was Gregorio when the young man was still well down the valley and behind a haze of dust kicked up by half a dozen cattle.

And, if she tells Encarnación that she thinks she saw Jones, her father is certain to hear of it. And then he will worry. Besides, Jones is dead. Gerald killed him. Well, knifed him in the chest, a wound that would kill most men. Though after Jones fled into the wilderness, the searching trappers never did find his body, never actually confirmed he was dead.

Suzanna closes her eyes, fighting the bile in her throat. Her hand wanders to her belly and she takes a deep breath. Worrying about such things is bad for the child. She will think about pleasant things and not let her imagination run away with her.

In the room below, Encarnación throws open the door to the porch. A broom swishes vigorously across the plank floor. Suzanna chuckles and sits up. At this rate, Chonita will be white-washing the rafters before the day is half over. Suzanna stretches, lifts herself from the sleeping pallet, pulls on her clothes, twists her hair into its usual loose bun at the nape of her neck, and heads to the ladder.

Their visitors stay a week, her father walking the land with Gerald and Ramón, Encarnación organizing the kitchen for maximum efficiency, Gregorio hoeing the corn patch and devising ways to stave off raccoon depredations. Then they head back down the valley to Palo Flechado Pass and on to Taos.

Suzanna watches them disappear over the first long rise that bisects the valley, then turns back to the cabin. The men are in the barn, harnessing the mules for a wood cutting trip up the slope behind the cabin. She gazes around the empty cabin. It’s so quiet without Encarnación’s bustling, her father sitting by the fire holding a book, Gregorio in the corner mending mule harness. So empty.

She takes a deep breath, gives herself a little shake, and heads out to her corn patch to see whether the rascally raccoons have succeeded in breaching Gregorio’s barrier of brush.

You’ve just read the third chapter of the forthcoming novel Not My Father’s House by Loretta Miles Tollefson. You can order it now from your favorite bookstore or online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Books2Read.

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