This is another excerpt from my new Old New Mexico novel, No Secret Too Small.
When the children appear in the doorway to the kitchen, Consuela looks up in surprise.
“Grandfather said we should have tea here,” Andrew tells her.
The cook waves a hand at the table. It’s covered with flour, baking utensils, and a tray that holds a blue-flowered teapot and a plate piled with biscuits. “There is no room.” In the corner fireplace, a big copper kettle begins to burble. She turns toward it. “And I am baking. It is not a good time.”
“We can go into the courtyard,” Alma offers. “We can have our tea there.”
“Two places,” the cook sniffs. She lifts the teakettle from the fire, moves to the table, and begins filling the flowered pot. She glances at the corner cupboard, where there’s another pot, a simple brown one. “Two teas and not one.”
“I can help.” Alma moves to the cupboard, lifts the pot from its shelf, and carries it to the table.
Consuela picks up the flowered pot, pours the water from it into the brown one, then drops tea leaves into the first pot and adds more hot water. She looks up and jerks her chin toward the cupboard. “The tea is in the wood box.”
Alma returns to the corner, lifts down a flat ornately carved container, and carries it to the table. When the cook lifts the lid, the rich scent of black tea fills the air. Alma leans forward to examine the oblong of compressed leaves inside. Three of the squares have been cut out and used already, so the block is no longer rectangular. The piece that juts out has been reduced to perhaps half its original size.
Consuela drains the water from the brown pot, then reaches for a small knife. She carefully slices a sliver of tea off the block, places it in the pot, and pours more hot water in. As she pours, she nods toward the pot on the tray. “You should take that in now. Before it gets bitter.”
Alma looks at her in surprise, then realizes the cook doesn’t know why she and Andrew were sent out of the room. She takes a deep breath and gingerly lifts the tray. When she nears the doorway, Andrew snatches a biscuit from the plate, then retreats into the hall and out the courtyard door. It thuds behind him as she moves carefully toward the parlor.
The tray is heavy and requires both hands. Alma pauses outside the door, uncertain how to hold it and open the door at the same time. She braces the edge of the tray between the adobe wall and her hip and reaches for the door.
Then she stops. Inside the room, her mother’s voice rises in frustration. “Tarnation! You haven’t heard a word of what I’ve just said!”
“I have heard you very well,” Alma’s grandfather answers. “However, I believe you are not being entirely truthful with yourself or with me.”
“Truthful! How dare—” There’s a short silence, then she speaks again. “Would you care to explain yourself?”
“Before Gerald asked me for your hand you made it very clear that you saw no need to pry into his background.” His voice drops. Alma has to strain to hear him. “You were in love.”
“I didn’t want you to discover something that would make you refuse him.” Her tone sharpens. “You were convinced I was too young. You would have latched onto anything to make us wait.”
“Hmm.” It’s the voice he uses when he doesn’t want to say what’s really on his mind.
“My age at the time is not relevant to this discussion.” Her mother sounds downright sulky. “He lied to me.”
“He wasn’t completely forthcoming. It’s not quite the same thing.”
A chair squeaks. When she speaks again, it’s clear she’s moved across the room. Her voice has changed. She sounds more puzzled than angry. “Doesn’t this news surprise you, at least? Concern you in any way?”
His tone is carefully neutral. “Why would it?”
“You knew.” There’s a pause, then she says again, “You knew! And you didn’t think I should be told?”
“You said you didn’t want to know anything about him but what you had seen with your own eyes and heard with your own ears. Perhaps not in those words. But that was clearly your intent.”
“Tarnation!” she says again.
There’s another moment of silence. Then suddenly the door to the room flies open. Alma straightens and lifts the tea tray. Her mother glares down at her. “You undoubtedly knew, also!” She stalks into the hall and toward the courtyard door. “Everybody seems to have known but me!”
The next morning, she stays in bed. Old One Eye Pete has gone off to visit friends at the pueblo. The children and their grandfather eat breakfast in silence at the kitchen table, although Alma stirs her porridge more than she eats it. There’s a hard lump in her belly that’s been there since her mother stormed out of the parlor.
Alma watches Andrew gulp down his food. When he eyes her dish, she scoots it across to him. When the bowl scrapes the table top, her grandfather looks up but doesn’t comment. Alma sits with her hands in her lap, waiting dully for whatever is going to happen next. She’s very tired. The night was a long one.
Finally, Grandfather Peabody puts his spoon in his bowl, drains the last of his strawberry leaf tea, and nods to the cook. “Thank you, Consuela. That was a fine repast.”
“I am sorry there were no eggs for you this morning, señor,” she says. “Gregorio is still trying to understand where the snake is entering the coop.”
“I’ll manage without eggs every morning,” he says. “Though I do enjoy them when they’re available.” He turns to Andrew. “I wonder if that dog of yours might help to locate the reptilian entrance point.”
Andrew nods eagerly. “Chaser can find anything!”
Consuela sniffs. “He is so big, he will destroy the nest boxes.”
Alma’s grandfather strokes his chin beard. “He might at that. Perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea.” He turns back to Andrew, whose mouth is twisted in disappointment. “But I know he is an excellent companion. Perhaps we should take him to the plaza with us and introduce him to mis vecinos.”
On the way to the center of town, their grandfather explains that the Don Fernando de Taos plaza consists of joined abode buildings constructed around a large hollow square. It has four entrances, each with a big wooden gate that can be barred and locked.
“To keep the Comanches out?” Andrew asks.
He nods. “Comanches or Utes or Navajo. It was constructed many years ago. Nowadays, the only Indians who raid in New Mexico are the Navajo and they’re more interested in the pastures than the towns. They primarily want sheep.”
Alma reaches for his hand. She’s heard the stories. “And boys to herd them and girls to spin and weave the wool.”
He squeezes her fingers in his. “But you have a mastiff to protect you. At any rate, I’m certain you aren’t foolish enough to wander the fields by yourself.”
Alma thinks wistfully of her mountain valley streams and their fat trout, and nods. Chaser Two loops around behind Andrew and her grandfather and nudges at her hand. She smiles at him and pats his big head.
They’re at the northeast corner of the plaza now. It looks like a much larger version of her grandfather’s courtyard, except instead of plants and woodpiles on its edges there are long, covered porches and people sitting or squatting in their shade.
Some of the people have laid out blankets and arranged produce, pots, or other goods on them for sale. Others stand talking or move from vendor to vendor, shopping. The sun beats down from a bright blue sky with a single white cloud in it.
Andrew steps to one side to investigate the contents of a blanket. He picks up a wooden whistle and turns to show it to Alma. “It looks like the one Old Pete made me!”
His grandfather gently takes the whistle from the boy’s hand and returns it to the blanket with an apologetic word to the vendor, a man wrapped in a big red-striped white blanket. “You must not touch something unless you are interested in purchasing it,” he tells the children. “It’s not polite.”
“Oh.” Andrew puts his hands behind his back and turns to the man. “Perdóneme.”
The corner of the man’s eyes crinkle as he smiles at the boy, then his sister. “De nada.”
“Are your grandchildren stealing again?” a deep voice says from behind them.
The children jerk around, but their grandfather only laughs. “Ah, Padre,” he says. “You’ve caught us at last.”
A thick-chested man with a high forehead and wearing a long black robe smiles at Andrew, then Alma, benevolently. There’s a sharpness in his eyes that doesn’t match his expression. Alma offers him a small smile anyway. Andrew studies him wide-eyed.
“Padre, these are my grandchildren, Alma and Andrew Locke,” their grandfather says. “Children, this is Padre Antonio José Martínez.”
Alma gives him a small curtsy, as her mother has taught her, and the priest laughs in delight. Andrew says, “I’ve heard about you!”
The Padre chuckles and gives their grandfather a sideways glance. “Only good things, I hope.”
“You share books with Grandfather Peabody and talk with him about important things,” Alma says before her brother can repeat the gossip Old One Eye Pete and Bill Williams have brought to the cabin. Things about women and money and power that she doesn’t really understand. Padre Martínez smiles at her, then turns back to her grandfather. “She looks remarkably like her father. That square-shaped face and that hair.”
Alma takes her grandfather’s hand and turns her head so the priest can’t see her left cheek. She should have worn her sunbonnet.
But the men aren’t paying attention to her anymore. Another man has joined them, a man taller than Grandfather Peabody. She tilts her head to get a better look. His skin is almost as pale as her New England grandfather’s, and he has dancing brown eyes and wavy black hair. He’s standing still, but it almost feels like he’s moving. Energy seems to radiate from him. He gives her a bright glance, then nods respectfully at something her grandfather is saying. Next to Gregorio, he’s the handsomest man she’s ever seen.
Then Grandfather Peabody turns to her and says her name. “This is Señor Donaciano Vigil.” He gives the man a questioning look. “I believe he’s a relative of Ramón.”
“Juan Ramón Chavez of Don Fernando de Taos?” The man laughs and spreads his hands, palms up. “Isn’t everyone in nuevo mexico related to Ramón?”
“I thought you were in prison for insubordination,” Padre Martínez asks. “Or can they jail presidio soldiers for insubordination when you aren’t being paid?”
Señor Vigil laughs again. “I am in town for only a short time, on an errand for the governor, but I have to report to el calabozo as soon as I return to Santa Fe.”
Padre Martínez looks at Alma’s grandfather. “Surely you’ve heard the story.” He nods toward the newcomer. “This one here didn’t give his superior officer due deference and the credit the officer thought he deserved at Valencia’s mercantile. As a result, the señor here was arrested for insubordination.”
Vigil spreads his hands, palms up. “Because Governor Pérez ran out of money for the troops, I was assisting my cousin in his store, translating and clerking, fetching and carrying.” He grimaces. “Now I’m either sitting in jail or running errands for the governor.” Then he grins. “Actually, working in the store and being in jail are much alike. Both involve a great deal of sitting around, interspersed with activity. Except for the pay and not carrying a weapon, I still have the duties of a soldier.”
“You’re a soldier?” Andrew breaks in. He stares at the tall man in admiration.
Alma’s grandfather frowns. Donaciano Vigil gives him a swift glance, then nods at the boy. “I am. But right now there is no money to pay me, so I do other work. Soldiering is not a good livelihood if one has a family. And it’s often quite boring.”
“Like the Navajo campaign you returned from in March,” Padre Martínez observes.
Señor Vigil grins. “That was both boring and cold.” He turns to Alma’s grandfather. “Although your man Gregorio Garcia comported himself well. I was glad to make his acquaintance.”
“He is not my man,” he answers. “Although he does work for me occasionally. But I will pass your kind words on to his mother, who was not pleased when he joined the militia.”
Padre Martínez frowns. “I will speak to her also. It is a man’s duty to participate in the militia when it is called upon. The Navajo are a constant danger to us and must be repelled at all costs. I and my brothers have lost many sheep and even cattle to them over the years.”
Señor Vigil is looking past Alma’s grandfather to the northeast entrance of the plaza. “Ah, but here is the man himself.”
Alma turns. Gregorio moves toward them, a bundle of linens in each hand. She smiles brightly at him, but he’s focused on her grandfather and the other men. He moves his hands toward his back, making the bundles seem smaller.
“Gregorio Garcia!” the priest says playfully. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you at mass!”
Gregorio nods respectfully to each of the men in turn. “Sargento,” he says to Señor Vigil.
“We were just speaking of you and military service,” Alma’s grandfather says.
Gregorio smiles slightly. “Although the campaign last winter was a cold one and we didn’t see any Navajo, I found I enjoyed it.”
Señor Vigil claps him on the back. “Good man!” He peers at Gregorio’s bundles. “And now, like me, you have returned to town and all the duties pertaining thereto.” He grins conspiratorially. “We do what we must to keep our households fed and warm.”
Gregorio gives him a rueful look. “My mother launders, I deliver.” Then he turns to Alma’s grandfather. “And assist others where I can. I will come this afternoon to search again for that snake.”
“Ah, Consuela will be glad to hear it.” He nods toward Chaser, who’s still standing patiently beside Alma. “Andrew and the mastiff may be of some assistance to you, also.”
“I can help too.” Alma looks into Gregorio’s face. “I’m not the least bit afraid of snakes.”
“Like mother, like daughter,” the priest chuckles.
Alma’s head jerks toward him. She certainly hopes not. She opens her mouth to say so, but his eyes are sharp as a serpent’s, even though his lips are smiling. She looks at Gregorio instead.
He grins back at her. “Of course you can help, nita.” He glances at her grandfather. “If your abuelo agrees.” He nods and gives the children a stern look. “Catching a snake is serious business. You must exercise caution and obey Señor Garcia in whatever he tells you to do.”
from No Secret Too Small