Her hand is still wrapped in bandages several mornings later. She’s sitting on the front porch, watching the Ute puppies play and studying the pattern of gold on the western slopes, when a scrawny mountain man, his long red hair clumped in rough braids, rides into the yard. He’s hunched forward over his sorrel mare, his shoulders almost touching his knees, which are level with the horse’s withers. A pack mule trails behind him on a leather lead.
Suzanna smiles. “Well, Mr. Old Bill Williams,” she says. “It’s good to see you again. How long has it been? Since last fall? I see you’ve found a horse to match your hair.”
“Well now, you know what they say,” the mountain man says. “Caballo alazán tostado, primero muerto que cansado. A sorrel-colored horse would rather die than show fatigue.” He pats a long red braid. “I figured I’d get me a horse that could righteously match me for stamina.”
Suzanna laughs and stands up. “I’m sure even a horse with her endurance must need rest and sustenance. Let me show you where to house her.”
He glances over his shoulder toward the barn. “Oh, I can find my way,” he says. “You just set there and rest yourself.”
“I’ve been resting all morning and I’m about ready to go out of my mind.” She lifts her bandaged hand. “I can’t clean, I can’t sew, and I can’t garden.”
Old Bill laughs. “Now that is a trial. Are you tellin’ me that your pa sent you into the mountains without a righteously sufficient supply of reading material?”
“Even turning pages is difficult,” Suzanna says. She steps off the porch. “Come, I’ll show you where to store your tack.”
If Suzanna wants someone to talk to her, then Old Bill Williams is the man. He has plenty to tell her. “You know I went huntin’ beaver with Sylvester Pratte and his bunch up in South Park last season,” he says as he settles onto a porch bench with a tin cup of water in his hand. He glances down at the cup, its sides sweating with moisture. “This is righteously tasty well water, but you don’t happen to have anything stronger, do you now?”
Suzanna shakes her head. “But I can make you some tea,” she says. “I’m not completely incapacitated.”
He grins. “Well, now, tea isn’t quite what I had in mind.”
She chuckles. “I didn’t think for a moment that it was.” She tilts her head. “We heard a rumor that Pratte took fifty men with him to South Park. Is that true?”
Williams snorts. “More like thirty. Which was still too many. Pratte always did have ideas that were too big for actual implementation.”
Suzanna frowns. “Did have? Has something happened to him?”
“Got bit by a dog and died. Your old friend St. Vrain up and took over for him and we brought back a righteously good catch, in spite of all the commotion.” Williams salutes her with his cup and takes a long drink. He shakes his head. “Well, it most certainly isn’t whisky, but it’s dandy well water.” He leans forward and studies the well in the center of the yard, the adobe bricks that form the lower half of the log barn, the rows of corn and the hayfields in the vega below, the men at work with their scythes. “You all have been keepin’ yourselves occupied.”
“Gerald and Ramón have worked diligently to get us situated for winter,” Suzanna says. She lifts her bandaged hand. “I was trying to do my part when this happened.”
“Burnt it, did you? Tryin’ to do kitchen work?”
She nods ruefully and Old Bill snorts self-righteously. “Your pa keepin’ you out of that kitchen was a sure-enough mistake, to my way of thinkin’. But he was settin’ you up for bigger things. Better than what your ma ever had. Or was.”
His eyes rake the snow-topped mountains to the west. “Yes sir, and then you went and married a—” He slides her a look, then shifts on his bench, adjusting himself. “Married a farmer,” he says. He tilts his head back. “Hah! And one that’s hell-bent on settlin’ just about as far away as he can get from any kind of righteous civilization.”
He shakes his head and studies the mountain slopes on the other side of the valley. “You seen any Injuns yet?” He turns and looks at the cabin door. “You do have a firearm close enough for grabbin’, don’t you?”
Just then Gerald and Ramón top the path from the valley. They cross the yard to the porch, tools over their shoulders. “Well, that’s the last of the hay,” Gerald says. “Hello, Bill! Where’d you drop in from?”
“You got a firearm she can use while you’re down in the fields?” Williams demands.
“It’s right inside the door,” Gerald answers mildly. He turns to Suzanna. “How’s the hand?”
She grimaces. “Still aching. I wish I had a prickly pear pad to put on it.”
“I haven’t seen any prickly pear up here.” He glances toward the hill behind the house. A few yucca plants are scattered on the drier parts of the slope. Their pointed pale-green spines contrast sharply with the dark-green ponderosa clustered at the top of the hill. “Will yucca do?”
“No, it’s not the same. I wish I’d asked Encarnación to bring me some prickly pear pads to plant.”
“That would be a good food source, if they will grow up here,” Ramón says. “We should send word.”
Suzanna nods and shifts her hand to her shoulder, an old trick Encarnación has always said will speed healing. “In the meantime, I wait,” she says, trying to keep the frustration out of her voice. She turns to Old Bill with a smile. “But Mr. Williams has been keeping me entertained.”
Gerald and Ramón lean their tools against the cabin wall and move forward to clasp the older man’s hand, then go inside to dip their own cups of water from the bucket in the kitchen. When they come back, they settle on the porch benches, and Suzanna turns to Williams. “So tell us what happened to Sylvester Pratte.”
“Well, you know he rounded up a bunch of us to go huntin’ in South Park and along the Platte River last fall. Right before we headed out, he was visitin’ some woman with one of those little yap-hammering dogs and it bit him.”
Ramón chuckles and Williams laughs. “Yep, nobody seems to know who the dog belonged to or why it decided Pratte needed bitin’, poor devil,” he says. “I figure the woman’s true man put a spell on the dog to keep Pratte away.” He grins. “Or maybe Pratte’s wife back there in St. Louis did a little voodoo.” He turns to Suzanna. “Anyhow, the bite got righteously infected and the poison seeped into his blood.” Williams grimaces. “I’d rather get caught by Comanche than die all swelled up like that.”
Gerald glances at Suzanna, then gives Williams a warning look and changes the subject. “Pratte had half that group under contract, didn’t he? What happened with those agreements?”
“Oh, they all got together and talked St. Vrain into takin’ over.” Williams shakes his red head. “I’m not saying it was smart of St. Vrain to agree to do it. It’s risky enough to run your own outfit, much less somebody else’s, with contracts you didn’t set up. But it does say something about the youngster that they asked him to do it. Says he can do more useful things than what he’s been doin’, with his smugglin’ goods in across the mountains and undersellin’ those who don’t.”
“My father believes Ceran will go far,” Suzanna says. “Despite the smuggling rumors, men seem to just naturally trust him, even if he is only in his mid-twenties.”
“He does seem sensible enough,” Williams agrees. “More’n that fool Smith.”
“Smith was with that expedition to the Gila and Colorado that I joined a couple seasons ago,” Gerald says. “That group William Wolfskill and Ewing Young put together. Smith had an opinion about just about everything. Half-way up the Colorado, he and a few of the others split off and headed out on their own.” He shakes his head. “He was so opinionated, I think Young was glad to be rid of him.”
Williams snorts. “That’s Smith, sure enough. I heard he and that little bunch of his had a hell of a time before they made it back to the settlements. Served ’em right.” He stretches his legs into the patch of sunlight that’s moving across the wooden porch. “He was as opinionated this last season as he’s ever been, and now he’s a big hero for cuttin’ off his own foot.”
They all stare at him. Williams grins, flips his braids behind his back, and leans back against the cabin wall.
“Cómo fué eso?” Ramón asks.
Williams chuckles. “How indeed,” he says with a satisfied air. He looks at Suzanna. “You should of seen it. We got in a righteous bit of a scuffle with some Rocky Mountain natives and Smith took an arrow in his left leg.” He gestures toward his ankle. “Right about there. It shattered the bone. There was blood spoutin’ everywhere—” He looks at Suzanna. His gaze rests lightly on her midsection, then flicks away. “It’s a righteously bad thing to be tellin’ a woman.”
“My imagination will probably make it worse than it actually was,” Suzanna says.
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Williams says. He looks away and studies the mountains as he speaks, choosing his words. “An arrow got him in the left ankle.” He waves toward his leg again. “Well, just above. It was quite a sight. He kept his head though, and tied it off quick, so the bleeding stopped soon enough. But the bones were sticking—” He glances at Suzanna apologetically, then turns his eyes back toward the mountains. “He decided it was too mangled to save, so he took a butcher knife to it.” He glances at the two men. “Did it himself.”
Suzanna’s bandaged hand goes to her mouth and Gerald growls, “I think that’s enough.”
Williams scowls. “She wanted to know.”
“I did,” Suzanna says. “Poor Mr. Smith! Is he all right now?”
“He and Milt Sublette got the foot and ankle off clean enough and tied up the leg. It appears to be healin’ well enough. There’s talk of making him a wood stump.” Williams shakes his head. “The man’s all mouth and fire, but he’s got gumption, I’ll say that for him.”
Suzanna shudders. “What a horrible thing. He’ll never be able to trap again.”
“Knowing Smith, I doubt a missing foot will stop him,” Gerald says. He looks at Old Bill. “Do you have anything less graphic and more pleasant to tell us?”
“Well, let’s see.” Williams scratches his head. “St. Vrain’s back in Taos, selling goods and prosperin’ well.” He grins. “Of course, no one he’s sellin’ to is demanding to know if any customs duty was paid on the goods.” He turns to Suzanna. “I saw your Pa as I passed through. He says to tell you hello and that he and that girl cook of his’ll be here for Christmas.”
Suzanna smiles in delight, then shakes her head at him in mock disgust. “That should have been the first thing you told me.”
Gerald laughs. “If you’d told her that first, she wouldn’t have even heard the rest.”
“But thank you for the message,” Suzanna says. She stands and moves into the cabin’s main room and toward the ladder to the loft. “I’ll just toss down some blankets and we can make up a pallet for you by the fire.”
The men move to follow her inside and Ramón heads to the kitchen. Suzanna, halfway up the ladder, suddenly gasps and stops, her bandaged hand in mid-air.
“Are you all right?” Gerald asks.
“I just put too much pressure on my hand.” She turns her head so he can’t see her face. The hand throbs and her stomach churns. She fights to keep her voice steady. “I just need a moment.”
“What’re you puttin’ on that burn?” Williams asks.
“I made an ointment from some dried prickly pear, but it’s not the same as fresh,” Suzanna says. She begins climbing again, careful to grip the ladder with her left hand and use her right forearm for balance. She maneuvers carefully into the loft, but the right hand has to accept some pressure no matter how she positions herself.
She bites her lip and drops onto the floorboards, waiting for the throbbing to lessen. Then she takes a deep breath and goes to the chest for the blankets Williams will need. As she tosses them down with her left hand, a wave of shaky nausea hits her. She takes a deep breath, pushing the acid away, steadying herself. Pain bites her hand and she gasps against it. She gulps hard, blinks the tears away, then peers around the ladder into the room below. “I’m going to remain up here,” she says, trying to keep her voice steady. “It’s too rough on my hand to go back down and then come up again.”
“I can fold my own blankets,” Williams tells her with a grin.
“I’ll bring a plate up to you,” Gerald says.
She nods gratefully to him and moves backward to sit on the pallet. The pain stabs again. As she bends over her hand, biting back the pain, Williams say, “She needs some fresh prickly pear on that.”
“It’s healing, but very slowly,” Gerald says. “Which is making her impatient, of course.”
Williams chuckles. “Suzanna Peabody impatient? That’s just righteously difficult for me to believe!”
Suzanna grins, in spite of the pain. “I heard that!” she calls and the men chuckle and move into the kitchen. “By the way, I hear your Pa’s gone north to the Yellowstone,” Williams says as the door closes behind them.
The red-headed mountain man’s blankets are empty when the others rise the next morning. Gerald returns from the barn to report that the trapper’s packs and mule are still there, but Williams and the sorrel are missing. “So there’s little doubt he’ll be back,” he says as they gather around the breakfast table.
Sure enough, the red horse and rider clop into the yard late that afternoon, a lumpy cloth bag tied behind Williams’ saddle.
“I’ve been down Cimarron canyon,” Williams says as he dismounts. He unties the bag and turns to Suzanna. “This here is what that hand of yours is needin’.”
She takes the bag with her left hand, shakes it slightly open and peers into it. She looks up with a blazing smile. “That is exactly what I need!” She turns to Gerald and tilts the top of the bag toward him. “Prickly pear pads.”
A few minutes later, she’s sitting at the kitchen table and Gerald is removing her bandages while Ramón gingerly disengages a thick pale-green oval pad covered with two-inch spines from Williams’ bag. As Williams hovers in the doorway, Ramón rinses the pad in water, singes it over the fire, then deftly scrapes the remaining needles off with a sharp knife. He fillets the green slab into two half-inch pieces and crosses the room to the table.
Gerald dabs at the wound with a damp cloth, then Ramón places a prickly pear pad, cut-side down on Suzanna’s palm and holds it in place while Gerald secures it with a fresh bandage.
“My palm feels better already,” Suzanna tells Williams. She nods at the lumpy bag on the work table. “And it appears that you’ve collected enough for me to plant some, as well.”
“That’s what I had in mind, all right,” Williams says. “Since there’s yucca on the gravel spots on these hillsides, I’m bettin’ pear cactus will grow up here too, if it’s given half a chance.”
Gerald straightens. “Once more I’m indebted to you.”
“Ah, it ain’t nothin’,” the mountain man says. “You’d of done it yourself, if you’d known where to look.”
Gerald nods, then frowns. “I don’t remember seeing prickly pear in the canyon.”
“It’s further down,” Williams says. “Where I found it really wasn’t canyon anymore.” He grins at Suzanna. “We’ve got to get those hands of yours righteously back in shape so you can take care of that baby that’s coming. That and plantin’ your plants. I saw you had maíz at the bottom of the hill. Are you gettin’ it to grow proper-like up here?”
“What I’ve been able to keep those rapacious raccoons out of has been growing, but it doesn’t seem to want to ripen,” Suzanna says. She moves her hand and winces. It still hurts, though not as much. “The growing season up here is remarkably shorter than it is at Don Fernando. We had snow showers off and on and the ground was half-frozen all through May, so I wasn’t able to plant until early June. Then keeping it watered was a challenge, since we had no rain until the July monsoons began.” Her eyes darken. “I lost a quarter of my plants. When the corn finally did start to form, the raccoons were more than inquisitive, the pernicious beasts. Nothing seems to slow them down much, not even Indian puppies.” She lifts her hands in disgust. “And the deer will be descending pretty soon. I’ll be surprised if there’s anything left to harvest at all.”
There’s a small silence, the men glancing toward the walls and the floors, carefully avoiding Suzanna’s eyes. Then Ramón turns to Williams. “How far north did you all travel this past season, Señor Bill? Did Señor Pratte’s party clean out the Platte River region completely?”
Two weeks later, Bill Williams has gone on his way, Suzanna’s hand is healing nicely, and the little corn that has matured is safely harvested and dried for planting the following season. It and the peas for next year are stored in the root cellar beside the strips of dried squash and ropes of garlic.
At least the squash and garlic crops were good, Suzanna thinks ruefully as she lifts her lantern over the cellar bins and shelves to see the results of her first season in the valley. The potatoes still need to be harvested, but they’re well covered with meadow hay and she hopes to winter them in the ground.
And now she has nothing to do. She hates the end of the growing season. The baby kicks just then and Suzanna chuckles in spite of her low spirits. She rubs her belly. “Yes, I know,” she says. “You’re going to keep me occupied soon enough.” She turns, looking again at the nicely-crowded cellar, then heads toward the door. “But in the meantime, I have nothing to do but clean and sew. How righteously enjoyable, as Old Bill would say.”
As she fastens the root cellar door and moves across the twilight-filled yard, Suzanna reflects that, if she were in Taos, her father would be creating a reading plan for the coming months and deciding which Latin texts she’s ready to tackle.
She could create her own reading and study plan. But somehow she doesn’t feel up to it. She’s just too restless. And bored at the same time. She needs to find something active to do while she still can. Before winter sets in completely.
You’ve just read the sixth 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.