The emptiness has just begun to feel normal again when a band of Ute Indians rides into the cabin yard.
Suzanna is on a bench on the porch, shelling peas, enjoying the mid-August warmth, and congratulating herself that the rabbits seem to be leaving the plants alone. Plants that are still producing. In Taos, their leaves would be turning yellow by now, the stalks withering in the heat.
She just wishes the pestiferous raccoons would stop snooping around her corn. This morning, she found a stalk bent to the ground, as if the furry black-masked lumps of mischief have been inspecting the ears to see if they’re ready to eat.
Her head is bent over the bowl of peas, fingers running appreciatively through the small orbs of damp greenness, when an unshod horse hoof thuds on the hardened-clay soil between the corral and the barn.
Suzanna lifts her head. A tall Indian man, his black hair chopped off at his chin in Ute fashion, watches her from the back of a brown gelding with white spots. Four horseback men and three boys on ponies cluster behind him.
Suzanna rises, clutching her bowl.
Then Ramón is behind her in the doorway, shotgun in the crook of his elbow. “Ah, Stands Alone,” he says. “Buenos días.” He steps onto the porch and waves Suzanna toward the cabin door as he nods at the men behind the Ute leader. “Many Eagles. Little Squirrel.”
“We have met before,” the man called Stands Alone says. He’s looking at Ramón, but his words are clearly for the benefit of the men behind him. “In this valley in the season of many snows.” He waves a hand at the grassland below. “We shared meat and bread in this place.” He nods at Ramón’s gun, his face inscrutable. “And now you have returned. In the place of Señor Locke?”
“El señor and I have returned together.” Ramón motions toward Suzanna, in the doorway now, holding her bowl of peas. “With his woman.”
Stands Alone studies Suzanna for a long moment. “It is well.” He turns to address the group behind him. “I have agreed to this thing.” He turns back to Ramón, whose shotgun still lies in the crook of his arm.
“You are safe here,” Stands Alone says. “My people listen to me.”
From the doorway, Suzanna sees a shadow cross the face of the man Ramón called Many Eagles, the man with a thin, prominent nose and one brow higher than the other. He doesn’t look as if he listens to anyone. Or answers to anyone but himself.
Ramón makes a welcoming gesture with his free hand. “You are welcome.”
“You are here as Señor Locke’s servant?”
“Señor Chávez is my partner.” Gerald says from the end of the cabin. He steps into the yard. “His welcome is my welcome.” He turns toward the porch. “And this is my wife, Suzanna, the daughter of Señor Jeremiah Peabody of Don Fernando de Taos.”
Stands Alone gazes at Suzanna for a long moment, then looks at Gerald. “Your woman is the daughter of the French Navajo girl and the New Englander? The woman called She Who Does Not Cook?”
Ramón chuckles. Gerald throws back his head and laughs. Suzanna shakes her head in embarrassment.
“We prefer to say She Who Plants,” Gerald says.
Stands Alone’s eyes twinkle. “I have heard that it is so.” Behind him, Many Eagles’ stallion moves impatiently. Stands Alone turns and gestures to one of the boys, who moves forward and smiles shyly at Suzanna. Stands Alone says something in Ute and the boy slides from his pony.
“This is my son, Little Squirrel,” Stands Alone says. He turns to Gerald. “I was told of your cabin and that there is maíz growing now in this valley. We have brought you a gift to keep the grazers and the mapache from the crops of your woman.”
A woven pannier with tied-down lids lies across the rump of Little Squirrel’s pony. At a signal from his father, the boy unties the nearest cover and reaches into the space below. He pulls out a bundle of brown and black fur and sets it on the ground. As the bundle resolves itself into a fat puppy, Little Squirrel places another one, this one more yellow than brown, beside it. “Un perro y una perra, a male and a female,” he says shyly.
Suzanna clutches her bowl of peas and eyes the puppies warily. She isn’t sure she wants a dog. Or two of them. They’ll simply be one more thing to see to. She has a baby coming and crops to tend to. That’s enough to worry about.
“They will be grown before the child can walk,” Stands Alone says. Suzanna glances up in surprise. Is her ambivalence that apparent? But the man is looking at Gerald. He nods toward the field below, where the corn plants stand in neat rows, leaves flowing in the sunlight. “They will protect el maíz. If it bears fruit.”
Suzanna’s lips tighten. “The cobs are forming well,” she says. “I see no reason to expect the crop to fail, if I can keep the raccoons out of it.” She glances at the puppies. They seem unlikely to be much use against grown raccoons. Then she looks at the Ute’s impassive face and softens. The young dogs are a goodwill offering, no matter how unhelpful they may turn out to be. “Perhaps the smell of them will be enough to keep the raccoons away.” She gives him a little nod. “I thank you.”
A glimmer of a smile crosses Stands Alone’s face. He nods back at her, then glances at Little Squirrel, who leaps back onto his pony. The boy maneuvers his mount away from the pups and toward the group by the barn.
Suzanna opens her mouth to invite the Utes to a meal, but Stands Alone speaks first. “Los mapaches will leave when the deer come, and they will be here soon. The snow in the hills will push them into the valley.” He looks toward the western slopes, which show no signs of yellow, though the aspens seem brighter than they were in July. “The leaves will drop early this year,” he says. “We go to Taos for winter blankets.” He nods abruptly to Gerald and Ramón and wheels his white-spotted horse toward the barn. He speaks a single word to his men, and then they’re out of the yard and moving due west across the valley.
Suzanna turns to Gerald. “Is there a more direct way to Taos than through Palo Flechado Pass?”
Gerald shrugs but Ramón nods. “There is a way there, past the sacred lake of the Taos Pueblo,” he says. “The trail is rugged, but it is more direct for those wishing to trade at the pueblo. It is also good for travel to the settlements north of Don Fernando, those of Arroyo Hondo and such. But one must go softly there and only in peace. The Taoseños set a watch there that is never broken. They have many sacred places in the mountains.”
The yellow-brown puppy has nosed its way across the yard and is sniffing at Ramón’s boots. He reaches down and lifts it by the scruff of its neck. “This is the female.” He sets the puppy back on its feet and looks at Suzanna. “What will you call them?”
She shrugs. “Perro and Perra? Boy and girl?”
Gerald chuckles. “Surely we can do better than that!”
“I don’t plan on being friends with them,” she says. “I have enough to do.”
Gerald and Ramón trade a look which Suzanna chooses to ignore.
“Spot and Brownie?” Gerald suggests.
“That’s not very original,” she replies.
Ramón grins. “Negro y Amarilla?”
“Black and Gold?” Suzanna chuckles. “That’s just as bad.”
Both dogs are now sniffling busily along the edge of the porch.
“Uno y Dos,” Ramón says.
Suzanna laughs. The two men grin at her. “One and Two,” she says. “Sure. Why not?” Then she grins. “But the yellow-brown female is Uno, not Dos.”
You’ve just read the fourth 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.