DANGER SIGNS

“I sure could do with some raised biscuits,” Peter Kinsinger said over his shoulder as he and his brother Joseph trudged east through the snow toward the top of Palo Flechado Pass. He hitched the aspen pole that supported the elk carcass between them into a more comfortable spot on his shoulder. “I hear tell Kennedy’s wife knows how to make ’em real good. His place is only a few miles now and his prices are reasonable.”

“You could wait for Elmira’s biscuits,” Joseph said. “She’ll be waitin’ on us.” He hadn’t liked the looks of the isolated and ramshackle Kennedy cabin when they’d passed it on their way into the Pass and Taos Canyon beyond. They now had the meat they’d been hunting and he was tired of November snow and cold.

Peter turned his head and grinned. “I’m a mite chilly, ain’t you? And thirsty. A fire and a little liquid refreshment would be a right comfort just about now.”

Joseph chuckled. Peter’s Elmira was a stickler about alcohol. Peter found it easier to stay away from the Elizabethtown saloons than to experience her tongue when he stumbled home from them. But a man deserved a nip now and then. And with the weather so inclement, it was unlikely there’d be anyone else drinking the liquor or eating the meals that Kennedy sold to passersby. “It is mighty cold out here,” he acknowledged. “And we’re still a good ways from Etown.”

The road leveled out at the top of the Pass, then the brothers began to descend, careful of the icy patches in the shady spots. They were about a quarter of the way down the mountain when they heard the echo of first one rifle shot, then another.

“Sounds like Kennedy’s huntin’ too,” Peter said.

“You may not get that drink after all,” Joseph said. “I hear tell his woman don’t open that cabin door if he ain’t there.”

“Too bad,” Peter said. “I truly am thirsty.”

Joseph chuckled. “It’s still a ways. Maybe he’ll be back before we get there.”

But when they came within sight of the Kennedy place, they both forgot all about liquid refreshment.

A man lay face down in the middle of the frozen dirt track that skirted the Kennedy hollow. The snow and dirt were splashed red with blood. Charles Kennedy’s bear-like form crouched beside the sprawled body.

The Kinsinger brothers eased their elk to the side of the road and hurried forward.

Kennedy looked up, his black beard bristling around a perpetually angry mouth, his eyes watchful. “Injuns,” he said.

Peter and Joseph looked at each other, then Kennedy.

“Is he dead?” Peter asked.

Kennedy nodded. “I fought the Injuns off.” He stood and gestured toward the cabin. “Bullet holes in th’ door.” He nudged the dead man’s torso with the side of his boot. “Greenhorn ran.”

Joseph leaned down, reached for the man’s shoulder, and rolled him over. “I don’t recognize him.”

“Came from Taos,” Kennedy said. “Merchant there. So he said.”

Joseph straightened and looked away, down the road to Elizabethtown.

“When’d it happen?” Peter asked.

“Couple hours ago,” Kennedy said.

The Kinsingers nodded, eyes raking the hollow and bloody snow, careful not to look at each other or Charles Kennedy.

“Well, we have meat to get home,” Joseph said. “We’ll tell the Sheriff’s deputy in Etown, and he can come fetch the body.” He looked down. “Whoever this is, I expect his Taos friends’ll be wantin’ to give him a proper burial.”

Kennedy nodded. He stood next to the dead man and ran his fingers through his beard as the Kinsingers returned to their elk, hoisted its carrying pole onto their shoulders, and trudged past him.

The brothers were out of sight over the rise to the northeast before either of them spoke.

“Injuns my hat,” Peter said over his shoulder.

Joseph spat into the snow at the side of the road. “Sure a convenient excuse though, ain’t it?”

“We didn’t see anything different,” Peter pointed out.

“Wouldn’t want to get crosswise of that one,” Joseph agreed.

They trudged morosely on up the valley toward Elizabethtown.

from Old One Eye Pete

 

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NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 14

CHAPTER 14

Hell, he edged too close. It ain’t time yet. The man in the bearskin poncho turns away from the wind-driven snow and scowls at the cabin on the slope below. Sneakin’ around that sorry excuse for a barn was plain stupid. What was he after, anyway? Warm smoke from a chimney? Smell of bread bakin’?

He adjusts his filthy gray wool scarf over his mouth and snorts in disgust. He’s gettin’ soft. Livin’ wild long as he has, that chimney smoke comin’ up through the pines smelled good. Sharp-sweet smell. Campfire, but warmer.

He shakes his head at his own foolishness, hefts his rifle, and positions his feet sideways, making it easier to maneuver up the snow-slicked dead grass and into the trees above, where Locke and Chavez have been cutting firewood. What’d he expect? Open door? Wide-arm welcome? From that nigger and his wench? From their hanger-on greaser?

Not that they’re doin’ all that well. He chuckles and shakes his shaggy head. North end of that barn roof’s caved in. That flimsy stretch of canvas over the cut meadow grass they’re usin’ for hay ain’t gonna protect it much from the snow.

He grins and stops to peer down at the mud-and-log barn. Or cow shit. He got a good double handful into the loose hay before the door rattled and he ducked out the other side. Cows eat that, they’ll be sicker’n dogs before spring.

He snorts. They got plenty of time to get sick in. Spring comes late here. And wet. That canvas’ll be no protection at all. April rains’ll pour across it like a funnel, right into that hay. And that’s before it soaks through and damps the whole lot. He grins. Then that shit poison’ll spread even faster. He chuckles, pleased with his work.

When he reaches the top of the hill, he turns again. Smoke rises from the cabin chimney, a plume of white that merges with the falling snow. Not like his own sorry lean-to, fire spitting with random flakes, wind burning the smoke into his eyes.

Then he snorts derisively. Those two tenderfeet’ll be thinkin’ they can turn those beeves out to pasture come early March. Valley grass don’t come in that early. They’ll be lucky to have any stock left by late May. Even without his little gift in their hay pile. He grins and spits at the icy snow at his feet.

Those cows’ll be dry as the Arizona desert and that girl’ll be thinner than she was before she got hitched. His lips twist and he adjusts the gray scarf to cover them. Feed gets scarce enough, she’ll be ripe for a change.

His hands move toward his crotch, then he catches himself and scowls. Too cold for even a little self-pleasuring. Hell of a place. He eyes the western mountains. Another, denser wave of snow is working its way down slope. A steel-gray mass of clouds hides the peaks. Storm’s not slowin’ down anytime soon. The air’s heavy with damp.

And there’s more snow-bound months ahead, damn it all. That tiny valley to the west where he’s stashed his mule and goods is even more apt for snow than down here. But it is out of sight. And on a well-traveled game trail. He can sit at his campfire and kill what he needs with an easy shot. Ease out from the lean-to and bring it in, no work at all. To bad his hut ain’t as snow-tight as the cabin behind him.

Snow-tight and crowded, what with two men, a girl, and a baby. He grins, pale blue eyes icy above the stinking wool scarf. They’ll be hatin’ each other by spring. He’ll make his move then.

He settles his shoulders under the big coat, twitches his poncho straight over his belly, and plods uphill through the snow, visions of next spring keeping him warm.

THIS IS THE END OF THIS SAMPLE OF NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE BY LORETTA MILES TOLLEFSON.

TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS TO SUZANNA AND GERALD, YOU CAN ORDER A COPY FROM YOUR FAVORITE BOOKSTORE OR ONLINE RETAILER, INCLUDING AMAZON, BARNES AND NOBLEe, or BOOKS2READ

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 11

CHAPTER 11

The hill’s western slope is coated with a thin layer of icy snow. The big man grimaces, then drops awkwardly to his knees. The mangy bearskin poncho has twisted as he knelt. He yanks it flat over his chest and drops belly-first onto the freezing slope. Then he pushes himself up onto his elbows, fumbles for his spyglass, peers over the top of the hill.

Not much chance the men in the cabin yard will notice a flash of light from this direction. They’re hell bent on whatever it is they’re doing, hauling timber and armloads of leather binding from the half-mud barn to the shanty.

The sun’s coming up over the Cimarrons behind the cabin, it’s making his eyes water. He pulls the spyglass away and swipes the lens with a dirty sleeve. Even without it he can see that Locke and the greaser are moving between the barn and the cabin again. They’re lugging some kind of gate-like wooden contraption between ’em. The wood’s got that pale mealy look aspen gets when it been pealed.

What’re they gonna do with a gate inside the house? A few minutes later, they return to the barn and haul the same kind of thing across the yard. The big man grunts. A bed, maybe. Or somethin’ to help with the birthing.

He swings the glass, studying the little farmstead. The little bitch must be about ready to whelp. She’s made no effort to hide her belly. Standing in the middle of the corn patch, rubbin’ at her stomach like a damn cow. She sure ain’t no lady, for all her airs and her father’s pamperin’.

He grunts. Can’t cook, but she does seem to know how to breed. Bound to happen. Two men, and one of them with a dead sweetheart.

He scratches his scraggly beard. “Wonder which of ’em the brat belongs to?” Then he chuckles. “Bet she don’t even know.”

His groin twitches and he rolls over and sits up. He reaches under the poncho and yanks his buckskin trousers into a more comfortable position. Baby’ll keep her closer to home. And her men can’t always be watchin’ for passing strangers. He grins, then pushes himself to his feet and moves down the slope, careful to stay out of sight of the cabin.

Give it a little more time, after the brat comes, and she’ll be easy enough to take.

Just like that piece in Taos. He chuckles, remembering the pleasure of that thrust, the satisfaction of giving that devil-tongued little whore what she deserved.

You’ve just read the eleventh 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.

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 8

CHAPTER 8

The man in the bulky bearskin poncho yanks the gelding’s reins, forcing the big black backward and down the snow-driven hilltop and out of sight. He’s seen what he came for and with no risk of sunlight sparking from the spyglass.

He reaches under the poncho. The glass is still in his coat pocket. Only good thing he got out of that damn desert. When he’d finally stopped bleeding and had moved away from the river caves to the dry lands above, he’d stumbled on the picked-over skeleton of a man less hardy than himself. The dented spyglass beside him was the one thing the buzzards hadn’t wanted. It’s right handy for watching the Peabody bitch and her men.

He squints up at the Sangres. Ice-bound snow stings his face. Storm came in faster’n he expected. Horse’ll need to move quick if he’s gonna get back to camp before it starts driftin’.

But he got a good head-on look at the shanty Locke and the bitch are living in. His tongue runs over his lips. Girl’s tasty, in that Mexican way of hers. Well, French Navajo. Not that there’s much difference. All foreigners. And her New England pa with his high’n mighty ways.

Her men don’t keep her real close. She was down there choppin’ corn a good hour or more, no one else in sight. His pale blue eyes gleam. They’re gettin’ lazy already. Or tired of her and her airs. Be willing to have him take care of her. He grins. He’ll do that, all right. When the time comes.

At the bottom of the ice-slicked hill, he saws on the reins and gives the gelding a sharp kick, jabbing it into a trot against the oncoming snow, toward the ravine where he’s stashed his gear. Not much danger of anyone spotting him in this weather. He can afford a fire tonight.

You’ve just read the eighth 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.

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 5

CHAPTER 5

Stands Alone’s prediction that fall will arrive early holds true, and Suzanna realizes irritably that he also correctly predicted that her corn won’t ripen in time. The September afternoons are chilly, but the ears of maíz are still so thin that the raccoons have stopped monitoring them.

The scarecrow she erected to keep the ravens away isn’t necessary, either. The big croaking corvines are too busy playing tag with the red-winged blackbirds in the clear sunlight. Two eagles circle endlessly above the smaller birds, seemingly indifferent to everything but each other.

As she stands in the middle of her corn patch, the Ute puppies playing at her feet, Suzanna rubs the sore spot under her ribs and turns slowly, studying the mountain slopes north and west. They’re gradually turning yellow, the patches of aspen getting brighter each day.

She turns back to her half-formed ears of corn. Tarnation. She planted as soon as she was able. There’d been so much to do when they arrived in mid-May. Although it’s unlikely that planting any earlier would have done any good. It had been too cold to expect corn to sprout.

Suzanna’s cheeks redden. It hadn’t been too cold for other things. The little lean-to she and Gerald had slept in those first few nights before Ramón arrived and the men started work on the cabin had never really felt chilly.

She smiles and rubs the sore spot just below her rib cage again. She has to admit she was a little preoccupied when they first arrived in the valley and not terribly concerned with getting the planting underway. She chuckles. As a result, she’s going to be preoccupied next spring, too. She’ll have a baby to care for.

But surely that won’t take all her time. And surely this last spring was colder than usual. Suzanna studies the anemic rows of corn. “This child had better like to garden,” she mutters. “Because next year I need to get seed into the ground a good month earlier than I did this season.”

She shakes her head at the maíz and turns away. There isn’t a blessed thing she can do to speed it to harvest. She moves on to her produce garden, which lies closer to the marsh. At least the squash is doing nicely.

When she returns to the house, she’s dragging a half-full bushel basket of fat green-striped squash behind her. The kitchen is empty. Ramón and Gerald are in the hayfield in the valley bottom, turning the windrows they’d scythed that morning.

Suzanna sets aside the squash she thinks Ramón will need for the evening meal, wraps an apron over her dress, and begins washing and slicing the remaining vegetables into strips for drying. “At least I can do this much,” she mutters.

When she’s filled the largest of Ramón’s wooden bowls, she carries it to the ramada that shelters the woodpile behind the house. There’s just enough space beside the stacked wood for the woven-twig drying racks Gerald constructed for her. She arranges the strips of squash on the racks, covers them with a light cotton cloth to discourage the flies, and returns to the kitchen.

It’s almost noon. Suzanna’s feeling both hungry and restless. She pokes in the cupboard to see if she can tell what Ramón has planned for the midday meal. A cloth-wrapped stack of corn tortillas and a bowl of mashed beans. A plate containing the small tomatoes she harvested yesterday. The few that were ripe. She shakes her head in disgust. She’ll be drying green tomatoes before long.

She studies the tortillas, lifts them from the shelf, and turns to the fireplace. The coals are carefully banked, conserving their heat until a fire is needed again. She can at least get it going, ready for Ramón when he and Gerald come in. She sets the tortillas on the table and crouches beside the hearth.

Her father did her no favors when he banned her from her mother’s kitchen, she reflects as she scrapes ash from the live coals and feeds the resulting glow with thin strips of juniper bark. Regardless of what he thought of her mother’s morals and the value of a girl learning Latin, her father’s choices definitely stunted her development in wifely duties.

The baby kicks just then, jabbing a foot into Suzanna’s ribs, and she dimples self-consciously and pats her belly. Well, not all wifely duties. And she certainly knows how to sew, though it isn’t her favorite task.

She sits back on her haunches and studies the kitchen’s hand-hewn work table and food cupboards. She learned to sew by observing a neighbor woman and then asking Encarnación for occasional advice. Surely she could lean the rudiments of cookery the same way. Her lack of ability here makes her so dependent.

It’s also hard on the men. Ramón never seems to sit down. And his kitchen duties reduce his ability to assist Gerald outdoors. Assistance Suzanna can’t give, especially now that she’s pregnant.

In the fireplace, tiny flames lick at the narrow strands of juniper bark. Suzanna adds a few pieces of kindling, then layers thicker pieces over them. At least she can build a fire. She looks around the room. The water bucket is nearly empty. She adjusts a piece of wood to better catch the flames and pushes herself to her feet.

As she crosses the yard to the well, she sees the men in the field below, heading toward the house, the wooden windrow rakes over their shoulders. Gerald’s hat is pushed back on his head, his long stride shortened to keep pace with Ramón, who waves a hand at the remaining grassland and turns his head to say something to the taller man. Gerald laughs, then places his hand companionably on Ramón’s shoulder. They stop and turn to look back at their handiwork.

Suzanna lowers her bucket into the well. As she hauls it up again, her stomach rumbles. The men are certainly taking their time. Once they get their tools put away, they’ll still need to clean up. She turns toward the cabin. In the meantime, she might be able to warm the tortillas without burning them. And heat the mashed beans.

Back in the kitchen, she finds the smallest of the cooking pots, scrapes the beans into it, and sets it to heat at the edge of the fire. Then she positions the cast-iron skillet and its three-footed supporting grate over the flames and goes to the cupboard for a small pot of lard.

She drops a spoonful of the grease into the skillet and watches it slowly begin to soften. Suzanna yawns. The fat looks as if it’ll sit there all day, doing nothing. This is why she dislikes cooking. There’s so much sitting and waiting. She pokes at the fire with a stick and repositions a burning log so it’s more fully under the grate and the pan.

Finally the fat heats and liquefies. It sizzles busily and Suzanna nods in satisfaction and drops a tortilla into the black skillet. But the extra flame has made the pan hotter than she realized. The flat yellow tortilla buckles sharply in response and the fat pops furiously, then turns into a smoky haze.

Suzanna jumps up, grabs a wet towel from the counter, and darts back to the fire. Smoke fills the room. She leans down, tosses the towel over the skillet handle, and yanks it away from the flames. As she pulls, heat sears through the wet towel, stabbing her palm.

“I swear!” she yelps, jerking away. The skillet clatters to the floor and the charcoaled tortilla tumbles out beside it. Suzanna is doubled over, gasping in pain, when the men come through the door from the main room.

Gerald leaps toward her. “Are you all right? Let me see.”

Suzanna collapses onto the floor. “How stupid of me,” she gasps. “I know heat goes right through a wet towel.”

Gerald reaches gently for her hand. Two red welts bisect her palm. Ramón appears at Gerald’s elbow with a dripping cloth. Gerald wraps it around Suzanna’s hand, then lifts her to her feet and guides her to a bench beside the table. “Just sit,” he says soothingly. “I don’t think it’s very bad.”

She nods, ashamed of her outburst, embarrassed by her stupidity. “I know to use a dry towel,” she says again.

“We all make mistakes,” Gerald says soothingly.

“Not in the kitchen.” She raises her head, her mouth trembling. “I’m the only woman I know who makes mistakes in the kitchen.”

Ramón has placed the skillet and tortilla on the work counter and is now crouched over the fire, moving the pot of beans away from the licking flames. He half turns as he wraps a dry towel around the pot. “I almost killed my brothers and myself once,” he says. “I had no sisters at that time. My parents were called away and I was assigned to cook while they were gone. I used a haunch of pork that had gone bad.” He rises, places the pot on the wooden counter, and stirs it gently. “These are nicely warmed.”

He returns to the fire and uses a thick piece of kindling to maneuver the three-legged grate away from the center of the flames. Over his shoulder he says, “I decided the meat simply needed more seasoning to cover the bad taste.” He rises and lifts the skillet from the counter. As he wipes it out with a small towel, he shakes his head. “I didn’t want to take the time to check the rabbit snares or go fishing.”

He leans to place the skillet on the grate. “We were all sick as dogs when my parents returned.” He chuckles. “And soon after they returned, I was also sore on my backside. My father was very angry and he was a firm believer in the dicho that says la letra con sangre entra.”

Gerald raises an eyebrow. “The word enters better with blood?”

Ramón grins. “The parents’ words. There seems to be some truth to that saying. Never since then have I forgotten to throw out bad meat.”

Suzanna chuckles and rearranges the cloth over her palm. Her fingertips tingle with incipient blisters. She winces. “My hand will certainly remember to reach for a dry towel when I need to lift something hot from the fire.”

You’ve just read the fifth 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.

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 4

CHAPTER 4

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.

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.