Decisions

Decisions

The four young people stood inside the ranch cabin’s newly whitewashed walls and looked at each other uncertainly.

“What will you do?” Andrew asked. His sister Alma frowned at him, but Kathy only shook her carefully braided blond head, white handkerchief to her blue eyes.

William went to the window. A line of Taos Pueblo riders moved steadily toward the cabin through the gap from the southern part of the valley. “Here they come,” he said. He turned to his sister. “You gave your word.”

Kathy nodded, then shook her head. “Not precisely,” she whispered.

“I beg your pardon?”

Kathy lifted her head. “I didn’t say that I would marry Peter,” she said. “I didn’t say those precise words. But I’m sure that’s what he understood me to say.”

William’s jaw tightened under his reddish-blond beard. “And you didn’t disabuse him of that notion, either.”

She shook her head and turned away, to the only other woman in the room. “Oh, Alma, what am I going to do?”

The dark-haired, deeply tanned, and sturdy Alma put her arms around her pale thin blond friend. “You should follow your heart,” she said, feeling the inadequacy of her words.

Kathy shook her head against Alma’s shoulder. “I don’t know,” she sobbed. “I’m so afraid.”

Andrew was at the window now. “You’ll need to decide pretty quickly,” he said. “They’re almost here.”

But by the time the Taos Pueblo party rode into the dirt and gravel yard, Kathy had disappeared out the cabin’s back door. William and Andrew moved outside to provide an initial greeting and deal with the animals. Alma took a deep breath and faced the doorway, her square brown face anxious. She tucked an unruly curl behind her right ear.

Peter entered first, his dark face bright as an expectant schoolboy’s. He wore a blue and white checked shirt and pants so new they still had fold creases across the thighs. He took one look at Alma’s face and his expression fell. He moved to the far wall and faced it quietly, dark head bowed. Several children followed him inside and Alma scooped up a three-year-old boy she’d never seen before. “Where’d you get those big gray eyes?” she asked him. He giggled and she held him to her chest as she faced Peter’s father, Oscar, as he came through the doorway, dressed in traditional Taos garb, long hair tucked into a bun at the nape of his neck.

“Who is this little man?” she asked. “I haven’t met him before.”

Oscar’s eyes swept around the whitewashed room and came to rest on his son, face to the wall. “He’s my wife’s nephew’s child,” he answered. “The one who married the half-French girl.” He turned to the two men who had followed him in and shook his head slightly. The men turned back to the yard, shutting the door behind them. Oscar glanced at Peter, then Alma. “And where is my son’s Katarina?”

Alma’s eyes dropped and she set the little boy on the floor. He looked up at the two adults uncertainly, then he and the other children moved to the door.

Oscar let them out, then turned back to Alma. “Is there a problem?” His voice was mild enough, but there was an edge to it, as if he already knew the answer to his question.

“There has been a misunderstanding,” Alma said.

Peter made a muffled sound and turned to face them, slim body tense. “There has been no misunderstanding.” He looked at his father. “I have built us a house. Katarina may have misunderstood, but I did not.”

Oscar’s jaws tightened. “It is because we are Pueblan.”

Alma shook her head and spread her hands, palms up. “It is just a misunderstanding. Perhaps some confusion of languages.”

“There has been no confusion,” Peter said stiffly.

“Come, my son,” Oscar said. “We will not waste our words on this matter.”

“I am so sorry,” Alma said helplessly.

Oscar nodded slightly, acknowledging her words as he turned away. Peter, on the other hand, scowled into her face before he followed his father from the cabin and its mocking white walls.

Alma stood in the center of the room for a long time, eyes closed against the windowed sunlight, grieving for the pain in Peter’s face, the controlled anger in Oscar’s. The man had been her father’s good friend. Would he ever forgive her for her part in this? In the yard, men’s voices muttered and horse hooves stirred the gravelly dirt. A child asked a plaintive question, then the group from the Pueblo was gone.

Alma slipped out the back to look for Kathy and found her hunched on a small boulder on the hillside, staring south at the receding horses, her face wet with tears. “Oh, Alma, what have I done?” she asked plaintively. “I have hurt him so much.”

“It’s better to hurt him now than to live a lifetime of misery together,” Alma said stoutly.

Kathy shook her head. “It would not have been a complete misery.” 

“I told him there had been a misunderstanding.”

Kathy nodded, her eyes still focused on the horses moving steadily toward the lower Moreno Valley, where they would cross Palo Flechado Pass and move west down the Rio Fernando valley, then north through the village of Don Fernando de Taos to the pueblo. “Misunderstanding is certainly the appropriate word,” she said ruefully.

Alma looked away, studying the creek bed below and the cattle in the rich grass beside it. It was fine ranch land, this upper section of the Moreno Valley. Richer in some ways than the land she and her brother ranched in the lower part of the valley. The Taos Valley was well enough. It certainly had beautiful pasture land. But it was dryer there, and hotter in summer. It wasn’t the Moreno, with its green, high-mountain beauty, narrow meandering streams, and cool summer breezes. If she were Kathy, it would be hard indeed to leave such a place.

But then Kathy took a deep, ragged breath. “I have misunderstood my own heart,” she said. “And angered and insulted Peter’s family. Oscar is a proud man and his wife is even prouder. She dislikes me because I am not Pueblan. Now she will have even more reason to object to me.” She turned to her friend, tears welling again. “Oh, Alma, what have I done? They will never forgive me for this!”

* * * *

Three weeks later Kathy paid an unexpected visit to the lower valley. Alma was in the bare yard of the cabin she shared with her brother on the hillside overlooking the head of the Cimarron Canyon, but for once she was paying no attention to the scenic valley before her. Instead, she was carefully following the directions of the old curandera Guadalupita Otero, learning to make soap from yucca roots.

As they did every summer, the Taos folk healer and her son’s family had camped at the eastern end of Six Mile Creek, southwest of Alma and Andrew’s cabin, to graze their sheep and goats and take in the cool mountain air. Alma had happened upon Guadalupita on a nearby hillside, struggling to carry a large basket of yucca roots. As they carried the basket between them down the hillside, the old woman had explained that she would make soap from the roots and Alma had asked to be taught the process. Now they were carefully chopping the peeled and slippery chunks and mixing them into a pot of water simmering over a fire in the yard.

When Kathy arrived, they took a break inside, out of the sun, and Alma used a bit of precious sugar to sweeten the wild mint tea she’d brewed that morning. “I haven’t had time to chill it in the stream,” she apologized.

“It is better for you warm,” Guadalupita said.

Kathy nodded absently. She sipped her tea and looked at the floor.

“How is everything up at the ranch?” Alma asked. She looked more closely at her friend and the pensive tilt of her blond head. “Are you well?”

Kathy looked up and glanced from Alma to the old lady, then to Alma again.

Claramente, this is a private matter, ” Guadalupita said. She set down her cup and pushed herself to her feet. “We can finish the soap another day.” She turned to Alma. “Finish adding the amole to the water and then…”

“Please stay, señora,” Kathy said. She leaned forward and looked into the old woman’s face. “I may need your assistance. Certainly I need your advice.” She dropped her eyes. “If you would be so kind as to give it.”

Guadalupita peered into the younger woman’s face and then sat down again.

Alma frowned anxiously. “Kathy, what is it?”

Kathy took a deep, ragged breath. “I sent word to Peter that I am with child.” She glanced up, then at the floor. “He is a good man. He will have to marry me now.”

Alma’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh Kathy,” she said. “Are you certain?”

Kathy looked up. A grim little smile passed over her pale face. “I’m certain that I sent him the message.” 

Guadalupita chuckled.

Alma shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“After my foolishness last month, it’s the only possible way to obtain his parents’ agreement.” Kathy turned her head, avoiding her friend’s eyes. “And it will be true soon enough after we’re married.”

“Then you’re not actually….”

“It’s the only way I could think of.”

“But surely they’ll know that you aren’t actually….”

Kathy shook her head. “It’s too soon to tell without an physical examination.” She turned to Guadalupita. “I am not Catholic. The priest is almost certain to ask for confirmation from a curandera.

“This Peter is the Taos joven? Oscar Lujan’s younger son?” Guadalupita asked. “I think his mother will ask, if the priest does not. I have heard that she is very angry that you rejected her precious hijo.”

“I was a fool.” Kathy dropped her head. “I know that now.” She looked up, her eyes pleading. “Señora Otero, would you confirm it for me?”

“And if you do not become pregnant immediately after el casamiento?”

“I will say that I lost the child.”

Guadalupita clicked her tongue and shook her head.

“And what about Peter?” Alma asked. “Will he believe you?”

Kathy smiled and her cheeks reddened. “He will know it is not true. We have never— I wouldn’t let him—” She looked down at her hands, then at Alma, calmer now. “If he responds with a message acknowledging the child, I will know he has forgiven my foolishness. If he sends a message rejecting it, or if he doesn’t respond, then I will try—” She bit her lip. “I will try to forget him,” she whispered. She covered her face with her hands. “And I will never forgive myself,” she sobbed.

“Oh, Kathy.” Alma knelt beside Kathy’s chair and put an arm around her friend’s shoulders. “Are you certain this is the only way?”

Kathy took her hands from her face. “I can think of no other.” She lifted her chin. “I don’t know whether or not I have done the right thing, but that is what I have done. I won’t go back now.”

Guadalupita chuckled. “Verdad you are a child no longer, I think.” She looked out the window for a long moment, then turned to the girl and gave a sharp little nod. “I will help you.”

“Oh, señora,” Kathy said. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You would perjure yourself?” Alma blurted, eyes dark with surprise.

The old lady compressed her lips. “I will help you.” The girls stared at her determined eyes and knew that it was not for Kathy that she was doing this thing. But the look in Guadalupita’s face did not invite questioning. “But for now, we will make soap,” the curandera said firmly.

* * * *

As she made her slow way back to her family’s campsite that afternoon, Guadalupita pondered her decision. It had been made on the spur of the moment, but it felt inevitable. Sixty-some years ago her mother had lain with a young Apache man. She herself was the result of that summer romance. But her abuela, her mother’s mother, was one who clung fiercely to the purity of her Spanish blood. She had rejected any possibility of marriage between the young people and badgered her daughter into a rapid casamiento with a pure-bloodedwidower who had three young sons, a temper, and a penchant for Taos Lightning. It was of no importance that he was a drunk and a wife beater: the unborn child would be baptized with a Spanish lineage.

Guadalupita hadn’t known her true origins until she herself was married and her mother was dying. Always she had wondered why her father and abuela disliked her so much. It had been a relief to discover that she was not related to the hombre who had caused her and her mamá so much pain.

She knew Peter’s mother, of her pride in her Pueblo blood lines. Guadalupita shook her head. She would not stand by while another young woman lost her güiso, her sweetheart, as a result of such foolishness. There would be pain enough in the day-to-day living of their love, with a mother-in-law always looking to find fault.

The old curandera stopped to rest, eyes contemplating the green-black mountains that lined the western side of the valley. Below the opposite slopes lay the Taos Pueblo. Guadalupita shook her head and smiled, recalling the look in the blond girl’s face as she’d said “That is what I have done. I won’t go back now.” She was a strong one, that Katarina. Stronger than she knew.

The old woman turned and began walking again. As for perjuring herself: Hah! She was not afraid of the priests. She had ceased listening to them seven years before, on that January morning in the American year 1847 when so many had died in the Taos revolt, including her own esposo. Those who inveigh against a thing and then are horrified when their listeners take action against the thing execrated deserve no respect. They do not speak for el Dios. Guadalupita’s chin jerked defiantly upward, unconsciously mimicking the movement of Kathy’s face three hours before.

from Old One Eye Pete

YOU PROMISED ME GLASS WINDOWS

YOU PROMISED ME GLASS WINDOWS

Suzanna’s eyes narrowed and her lips tightened. “I did not come to this god forsaken valley to live in a cave,” she snapped. The toddler on her hip started fussing but Suzanna only shifted impatiently and continued to glare at her husband on the other side of the room. “You promised me glass windows. You also said you wanted to farm, that you were finished with trapping.”

Gerald gestured at the beaver pelts lying just inside the cabin door. “I was finding the means to buy glass,” he said mildly.

Suzanna turned away. “The money will just go to something else.” Alma fussed again and Suzanna bent to place her on the floor. “The mule will go lame or cougars will take down a couple more calves.”

“Suzanna sweet–”

“Don’t you ‘sweet’ me!” She straightened, hands on her hips. “I will not be sweet-talked out of this! You can’t expect me to live in a cabin with just shutters at the windows, sitting in the dark whenever it rains!”

“We have lamps.”

“It’s not the same and you know it!”

Alma had toddled to her father. She clung to his leg, looking up at him. “Papa stay home?” she asked. “Mama ang’y.” She shook her dark curly head. “Me don’ like Mama ang’y.”

Gerald and Suzanna stared at each other for a long moment. Then Gerald scooped Alma into his arms and Suzanna threw her hands in the air helplessly and crossed the room. She leaned her head against his shoulder. “I had no idea when you would return,” she said into his sleeve.

 Copyright ©2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson

NOTE: This is a prequel to my novel No Secret Too Small

SMITH

SMITH

They headed out of the Sangre de Cristos in mid-May, sleeting snow at their backs. They walked, all of them except the boy, and led the mules, packsaddles heavy with beaver plew. They were eight in all, counting the boy. They’d found him beside the smoking remains of a mountain cabin, the only survivor of an Indian raid. How he’d kept his scalp was a mystery to the trappers, but they shrugged at each other and agreed when Dutch George proposed that the kid come along as cook and general camp follower.

The men consisted of three Americans, two Mexicans, a half-Ute guide, and an uncommunicative grizzled-haired Black man who, when they’d run across him on the Rio Colorado, had asked if they minded if he threw in with them.

The trappers had looked at each other. In fur country, a man’s skin color wasn’t much of an issue, and he looked honest enough, but he wasn’t forthcoming about where he’d been or where he was headed, either. They’d all shrugged and he’d fallen in behind, but there was a certain amount of unease and the orphan boy was more skittish than usual, shoulders jerking at the croak of every raven overhead.

On the stranger’s third night, Dutch George crouched on the opposite side of the fire and studied him for a long stretch before asking abruptly, “Ain’t a runaway, are ya?”

The man was sitting on a large flat piece of sandstone, warming his hands. He looked across the flames at the German and shook his head with a small smile.

“Talkative, ain’t ya?”

The man chuckled and nodded slightly.

“You been trappin’ long?” Little Bill asked as he settled beside Dutch George. He was the tallest and broadest among them, though so young he didn’t yet have his full beard.

The black man shrugged and stared quietly into the flames. The orphan boy came alongside him and held out a tin plate of dutch oven cornbread and stewed jerky, his twitching shoulders sloshing the food dangerously.

“Thankee,” the man said, taking it. He looked at the plate thoughtfully, then began eating.

“Ya don’t chow like ya been starved,” George observed.

“It’s good,” the stranger said.

At the edge of the firelight, Webster had been trying to mend a trap. “Shit!” he said. “The dad blasted thing’s completely haywire. What’d that beaver do to this thing, anyhow?”

Archuleta took the trap from Webster’s hands and turned it over. “That beaver, he tried to eat him,” he said. “He chew the trap jaw instead of his own leg.”

“He done more to it than that,” Webster said. “He twisted it a good quarter turn. I ain’t never seen anything like it. And damn it to hell, that’s the second one that’s been shot all to pieces this trip. These contraptions’ll cost me twelve dollars in Taos!”

The Black man put his plate on the ground and stretched his hand toward the Mexican. Archuleta gave him the mangled trap. The stranger leaned into the firelight and examined the metal contraption carefully, then pulled a sturdy ten-inch knife from the scabbard at his waist. He used the blunt side of the blade to wedge one end of the jaw out of its stabilizing base, then began maneuvering it away from the encircling springs at either end, working the damaged bar free of the trap.

“Careful there,” Dutch George said, but the black man only grunted and continued to manipulate the metal pieces.

They all watched silently as he slipped the twisted two-legged curved jaw out of the trap, then nodded to the boy. “Add some o’ that fatty pine to the fire, son.”

When the flames flared hot in response to the pine pitch, the stranger pulled a wad of rags from his possibles bag, wrapped it around one end of the curved metal bar, and held the skewed portion over the hottest part of the fire. For a long while, nothing happened, then the metal began to darken, redden, and finally glow white as the boy added more wood to the flames.

When the bar was hot enough, the man edged off the piece of sandstone he’d been sitting on and gingerly placed the glowing metal on it. He crouched, picked up a nearby fist-size black rock, and began tapping it against the jaw, carefully working the metal straight. “Got water?” he asked over his shoulder. The boy brought a full bucket and the man plunged the hot metal in, leaning back to avoid the hissing steam.

When the trap jaw had turned dark again, the stranger took it from the pail, returned it to the sandstone, and bent for his plate. Little Bill edged toward the rock.

“Not cool yet,” the Black man warned.

Hands behind his back, Bill leaned to examine the repair. “Wagh!” he said. “That should do the trick.” He straightened and looked at the stranger. “Maybe you can look at the other one after you’ve chowed.” He grinned. “Guess we can just call ya Smith.”

A shadow of a smile crossed the Black man’s face and he nodded in agreement. From the edge of the firelight, the Indian-raid orphan boy studied him silently, shoulders still for the first time.[i]

from Old One Eye Pete


[i] References to black or ‘mulatto’ mountain men are scattered throughout the accounts of the Americans in the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps the most famous of these men was James Beckworth, who became, like so many of the mountain men, famous both for his exploits and his capacity to stretch those experiences into memorable stories.

Old One Eye Pete and the Half-Grown Pup

Old One Eye Pete and the Half-Grown Pup

It’s a gangly mutt, large for an Indian dog, with dirt-matted curly black hair. Old One Eye Pete looks at it in disgust as it half-crouches at his feet. It’s been following him and the mule for the past two hours, ever since they left the Ute Indian encampment down canyon. “Damned if the thing ain’t smilin’,” Pete mutters. He pokes the dog’s side with his foot. “You a doe or a buck?” The animal rolls over obligingly, paws in the air. Buck.

Old Pete toes it again. “Well, I expect you won’t last long. You’ll be running off to the first camp with a bitch in heat.” He turns and twitches the mule’s lead rope. “Giddup.”

They trail the Cimarron River up canyon through the afternoon and settle into camp under an overhanging sandstone boulder as the light begins to fade. It’s still early. The sunlight goes sooner as the canyon walls narrow. But Old Pete’s in no particular hurry and the pup’s acting a mite tired.

“Gonna have to keep up,” Pete tells it as he cuts pieces of venison off the haunch he traded from the Utes. The dog slinks toward the fire and Pete tosses it a scrap. “Too small for my roaster anyway,” he mutters as he skewers a larger chunk onto a sharpened willow stick and holds it out over the flames.

~ ~ ~ ~

“Where’d that damn pup get to now?” Old Pete mutters as he and the mule reach the rocky outcropping that overlooks the valley. He can see through the ponderosa into a good stretch of grassland below, but there’s no evidence of the curly-haired black Indian dog. Pete shakes his head in disgust, jams his rabbit fur hat farther down on his head, and snaps the mule’s lead rope impatiently.

At least the mule doesn’t need voice direction. Which is more than can be said for the dog, but Pete refuses to call the damn thing, no matter how aggravated he might feel.

Jicarilla Apaches are likely roaming the valley for elk, and Pete’s taking no chance of being found before he wants to be. The dog can go to hell, for all he cares. He grunts irritably as he works his way down the hillside. Idiot pup.

He pauses at the tree line, getting his bearings, the air crisp on his face. A light snow powders the ground. A herd of perhaps thirty elk is bunched on the hillside to his left. He squints his good eye. They seem a mite restless.

Then he sees the wolves, eight or nine of them waiting downwind while two big ones trot the herd’s perimeter, checking for weakness.

At his feet to his right, a low whine emanates from the prickly ground-hugging branches of a juniper bush. As Pete turns his head, the black pup eases from the grasping needles. The dog slinks to Pete’s feet and crouches beside him, tail between its legs. Then it looks anxiously toward the wolves and whines again.

“Not as dumb as I took you fer,” Old Pete says, adjusting his hat.

~ ~ ~ ~

There’s a reason it’s called Apache Canyon and Old Pete proceeds cautiously, aware that there’s been a recent outbreak of hostilities between the Jicarillas and the locals. Somebody got twitchy-brained and shot off their gun without thinking twice and now the whole Sangre de Cristo range is on edge. And it doesn’t matter at all that he had no part in the original quarrel.

However, Pete hasn’t seen a soul in three days, and he’s beginning to think he’s going to get to Taos in one piece after all, if the damn half-grown dog tagging him will quit wandering off, then coming back, widening the scent trail with his idiot nosing around.

Pete scowls as the puppy reappears, this time from a thicket of scrub oak, dead leaves rattling on the ground. As the dog gets closer, it goes into a half crouch. It’s holding something in its mouth and its curly black tail droops anxiously.

“What’ve you got there?” Pete asks. He squats and holds out his hand, and the dog releases the item into his palm. “Shit!” Pete says, dropping it.

Then he leans closer and sniffs. It really is shit. Human, too. Fresh enough to still stink. He rises, studying the slopes on either side, turning to examine the Pass behind him. So much for being alone.

“Thankee, pup,” he mutters. “I think.”

from Old One Eye Pete

OBSESSIONS

OBSESSIONS

“Did you know the Maxwell Land Grant Company is evicting people who’ve been farming here for decades?” the Reverend Franklin Tolby demands.

At the other end of the small pine table, Mary Tolby moves a raised biscuit from the chipped ceramic platter to her plate. “That’s terrible,” she says. “These biscuits are quite good this time. I think I’ve finally become used to that stove. Rachel, eat your peas or there’ll be no dessert.”

Her husband picks absently at his food. “It’s a moral outrage,” he says. “The Company has no right.”

Mary looks anxiously at his pale face. Since they arrived in Cimarron, Franklin has been on horseback constantly, west to Elizabethtown, south to Fort Union and beyond, yet his cheeks show no evidence of windburn or sun.

“I’ve made strawberry pie for desert,” she says. “An Indian girl came by selling berries. They’re very sweet. The result should be quite tasty.”

Franklin’s eyes focus on her for a split second, then his head snaps up, as if he’s listening to something outside the house. “And the Indians,” he says. “With this much land, there’s room for them also.” He pauses for a long moment, fork in the air, then says, “Excuse me,” drops his frayed linen napkin onto the table, and hurries from the room.

Mary can hear him scrabbling through the papers on his desk as he prepares to write down whatever has just come to him. She sighs and reaches to cover the food on his half-empty plate with a clean napkin. “Rachel, eat your peas,” she says absently.

~ ~ ~ ~

The tiny Elizabethtown church reeks with the late June stench of unwashed miners, but Dr. Robert Longwill presses through the door anyway. He nods at Old One Eye Pete, who’s standing to one side, his battered hat clasped politely in his hands.

Then the doctor focuses on the front of the room. He can just see the top of Reverend Tolby’s head. On Cimarron’s dusty streets, the little man’s carefully groomed handlebar mustache has often given Longwill the urge to laugh, but here in Etown the miners and old trappers aren’t snickering.

Tolby’s voice fills the room. “The Maxwell Land Grant Company has no right to the land on which your mines and farmlands rest,” he says flatly. “You work the land and bring forth value from it. They sit in their offices and collect the rewards of your God-driven labor. Let us be done with such greed! Let us return to the scriptural truth that a man must work by the sweat of his brow and reap the labor of his hands!”

Dr. Longwill eases out the church door and down the hillside, toward the livery stable where he left his horse. “That preacher’s been here less than six months, and already he’s an expert on the Grant and the miners’ and farmers’ rights,” he mutters bitterly. Which wouldn’t be a problem, if no one were listening to him.

~ ~ ~ ~

Mary Tolby frowns at the potatoes she’s peeling, then out the kitchen window at the dusty Cimarron sky. It seems as if a grit-filled wind has blown every day of the eighteen months since she and Franklin arrived here to begin his Methodist Episcopal mission work. Mary sighs, washes her hands, and lifts the towel that shelters her rising bread dough. It’s taking longer than usual to double its size.

But then, Franklin is taking longer than usual to return from his Sunday services at Elizabethtown. He’s usually back before Tuesday noon, following his meeting with the church board and various other discussions on Monday.

Mary frowns and looks out the window again. There’s so much dust in the air, she can hardly see the sun. Franklin’s undoubtedly talking with someone in Etown or Ute Park about the Maxwell Land Grant Company and its wholesale eviction of the miners and small farmers who were here before the corporation purchased the grant.

She shakes her head and returns to her work. She very much doubts that her husband is speaking with anyone about the state of their soul. Not that many people in Colfax County seem to care about God or religion. Land and water are all that matter. That and gold. How she longs sometimes for Indiana!

~ ~ ~ ~

Two days before, the man had hovered outside Etown’s tiny Protestant church just long enough to confirm that Franklin Tolby was preaching there. He couldn’t stay longer than a few minutes. The air sucked out of his lungs at the thought of Tolby’s teachings, so contrary to Holy Church. But he’d been there long enough to confirm that the heretic minister will be traveling down canyon this Tuesday morning, as he always does after a Sunday in Elizabethtown.

The man waits now, rifle tucked to his chest, in the shadow of the big ponderosa at the mouth of Clear Creek. How pleasant it will be to stop the minister’s preaching.

The men who are paying him to silence Tolby have other reasons for desiring his death, reasons of power and money and land. But the waiting man cares nothing for these things, although the gold they’ve given him will be useful enough. He can leave the grant now, take his family someplace where americanos have not yet stolen the land from those who know how to do something useful with it, those whose fathers tilled it before them.

He turns his head, listening. Someone is coming. A man singing a raucous heretical hymn. Tolby, most certainly. The minister will stop at Clear Creek as usual, to water his horse and drink from the hollowed-out wooden trough placed there for the refreshment of travelers.

His back will be to the big ponderosa that shields the man with the gun. But there is no dishonor in shooting a heretic in the back. A man who will steal one’s very soul if he can, destroy the very fabric of one’s Catholic life. The rider in his clay-brown coat dismounts and the gunman eases into position. He holds his breath as his finger touches the trigger, squeezing so gently and slowly that Tolby drops to the ground before the shooter registers the sound of the bullet’s discharge, sees the neat hole it makes in the shabby brown coat.

from Old One Eye Pete

THAT’LL TEACH EM

Gregorio, as the youngest of the trapping expedition’s camp keepers, was responsible for preparing the morning tortillas. He placed a small barrel of flour on the ground, scooped what he needed into a large wooden bowl, cut in the proper amount of fat, and mixed in water from his canteen. The mixing was more a matter of feel than attention and he glanced lazily across the campsite as he worked.

Then his head jerked. “Apache!” he exclaimed.  

The trappers all turned at once. A loose line of long-haired warriors stood among the rocks and pines at the far side of the clearing. The man in the center sported a large palmetto hat and a bright red long sleeved shirt. He was clearly the Chief. Three warriors were positioned on his left, two on his right. Another stood slightly back, an arrow fletched in his lightly-held bow. 

There was a long silence. Then Ewing Young, as the trapper leader, made a welcoming motion.

The man in the hat moved forward. He paused by the fire and looked slowly around the clearing, as if calculating the value of every item in sight, including the rifle in Thomas Smith’s hands. Smith scowled and the chief permitted himself a small smile before moving on.

Then his gaze fell on Gregorio. He pointed at the barrel of flour. “Meal!” he commanded.

Ewing Young frowned, then nodded reluctantly. The Chief stepped to one side, lifted a wool blanket from a nearby rock and flicked it open, an edge in each hand.

“That’s mine!” Enoch Jones protested.

Smith jerked his head at him. “I’ll give you mine,” he said. Then he stepped backward, into the trees, and began circling toward Gregorio and the flour.

The Chief positioned himself in front of the barrel and let Jones’ blanket sag slightly between his hands to form a crude container. Ewing Young waved Gregorio aside, leaned over the barrel, and began scooping out double handfuls of flour. As he dropped them into the blanket, a dusty haze rose into the morning air.

The Apache turned his head and gave his men a satisfied smile. He didn’t see Thomas Smith step from the evergreens behind Gregorio, his rifle cocked and ready.

Young poured yet another double handful of flour into the blanket and held up his white-dusted palms to show that he was finished.

The Apache growled something unintelligible in response.

Young scowled and raised two fingers. “Two more,” he said.

The Chief nodded and lifted the blanket slightly, ready for more.

As Young reached into the barrel again, Thomas Smith stepped past Gregorio, shoved the rifle’s muzzle up under the blanket, and pulled the trigger. The bullet exploded through the cloth and blood-spattered flour splashed across the Chief’s torso.

As the Apache crumpled to the ground, his men dashed into the clearing. Gunfire erupted. Arrows flew. A trapper dropped, then an Apache, then another.

Ewing Young, his upper body coated in white flour, shook his deafened head. Then an arrow flashed through the air and bit into the ground at his feet. He lunged for his rifle and aimed into the trees. But the Indians were already gone, vanished into the rocks and the pines.

Their Chief lay where he’d fallen, his red sleeves dusted with white, his chest an incongruous paste of flour and blood.

Thomas Smith stood over him. “That’ll teach ’em!” he chortled. He grinned at Enoch Jones, who was crouched beside a dead Apache, the man’s beaded knife sheath in his hands. “That’s worth a hole in a blanket, ain’t it?”

Jones grinned back at him, his eyes glittering. “Three dead, four t’ go!” he agreed. “They can’t be far yet.”

“Three dead’s enough,” Ewing Young said grimly as he beat flour from his clothes. “That was a stupid stunt, Smith. You think we’ve seen the last of them? If that band doesn’t come after us by nightfall, it’ll only be because they haven’t decided yet who their new leader is.” His eyes glared from his white spattered head. “Next time you decide to shoot an Indian, don’t do it in my face, or I may just mistake you for one.”

from Old One Eye Pete

THICKER’N SNOT

“It’s s’posed to be August, dadburn it.” Julius Fairfield looked gloomily out the door of the long, narrow log cabin that served as the Quartz Mill & Lode Mining Company barracks outside of Elizabethtown. “This fog is thicker’n snot.”

In one of the iron beds lining the walls behind him, somebody sneezed. “And there’s the snot for ye,” Edward Kelly, the company’s lone Irishman, chortled as he added more wood to the pot belly stove halfway down the room.

A door opened at the far end and the chief engineer came out. He ignored the men in the beds as he walked down the room to peer over Fairfield’s shoulder. “That fog’ll lift shortly,” he said. He clapped Fairfield on the back. “Be thankful it’s not rain.”

“That was yesterday’s gift to us all,” Fairfield said gloomily. He shook his head. “And here I thought New Mexico Territory’d be drier than New York.” He grinned and glanced at the engineer. “When’d you say payday was?”

Behind them, Kelly began to sing a song praising Ireland and its green hills, and a chorus of voices yowled at him to be still. The engineer chuckled and turned. “That’s enough now!” he said.

from Valley of the Eagles

WELL-FOUNDED PESSIMISM

The dark-skinned young woman and the old Ute man sat with the quietness of old friends on the cabin porch, out of the bright mountain sun.

Stands Alone gazed at the green-black slopes lining the opposite side of the long grassy valley. “My people have no other options,” he said bleakly.

Alma tucked a wayward black curl behind her right ear. “Surely there is somewhere you can go to live your lives in peace.”

The old man shook his head. “Wherever we go, the whites follow and take the little we possess.”

“Not all of us.”

A small smile crossed his seamed face. “You, my friend, are not white. Your people have also known sorrow and theft.”

The young woman raised an eyebrow, but could not contradict. There was slavery in her veins, if not her experience, though, with enough face powder, she could pass for a deeply tanned white woman. Only the pale splotches on her cheeks, where the pigmentation wasn’t consistent, gave her away. Her French/Navajo/American mother had applied various potions in her attempt to even out the child’s skin tone, but nothing had worked and after her mother’s death, the teenage girl had stopped trying.

 “You and your people could hunt here,” Alma said, gesturing toward the valley. “After all, it was your land before my parents arrived.”

“It was,” Stands Alone agreed. “And the hunting rights are still ours. Your father and I made an agreement that allowed him his pastures.” His gaze moved toward the north end of the valley, where another cabin was under construction behind a screen of small tree-covered hills. “But still others will come,” the old man said. “And they will not ask permission.”

Alma nodded, silent before the Ute’s well-founded pessimism. Since the American takeover in 1846, eastern settlers had moved steadily into New Mexico territory. Eventually, they would find even this protected valley, which she now shared with only her brother, the former nuevomexicano mountain man Ramón who acted as their cook and handyman, and the occasional band of Indian hunters or herders from Taos.

“It is not for myself that I dread this move the American government is forcing upon us,” Stands Alone said. “But the land to which they send us is unfamiliar, and the young men are angry and uncontrollable. They talk of war against all who have built houses on our land. I fear even for you.”

Alma frowned. “We have always lived in peace with both the Ute and the Apache,” she said. “We have endeavored not to encroach on the hunting grounds or to frighten off the elk and the deer.”

The old man chuckled. “I recall that your mother was not happy about that.”

Alma grinned. “She was bound to grow corn up here, even if it killed her and all the beasts who wanted to eat it.”

“A determined woman,” he said. “May her spirit rest.”

Alma nodded somberly, then turned back to the subject at hand. “If the young men come, my brother and I will treat them with respect.”

“May they respond with respect,” he said prayerfully.

“We will remain vigilant,” she told him. “The rifles will be ready, if need be.” She shook her head, dark eyes somber. “Although I pray it will not come to that.”

“Your brother will protect you,” the old man said, reassuring himself as much as her. “And Ramón.”

But when the young men came three days later, neither Andrew nor Ramón were at hand.

Ramón had headed north after three stray cows and Andrew was in a side canyon checking his rabbit snares. So the house was quiet when Alma looked up from her book to see a Ute man with a red stripe running down one side of his face peering through the small panes of window glass at the front of the cabin.

A spasm of fear clutched at Alma’s belly and her mother’s exasperated voice echoed in her memory: “It’s dangerous for a woman in this god forsaken valley!” Then the rich voice of her father’s father reminded her: “People are like dogs. They’ll sense your fear if you let yourself feel it.”

Alma took a deep breath, steadying herself. Then she stood, crossed the room, lifted the always-loaded shotgun from the wall, and swung the cabin door firmly open.

Ten young braves stood in the yard, their faces striped with the Utes’ signature red war paint, chests bared for battle.

“Hello,” Alma said, the shotgun under her arm. “How are you all today?” The words seemed inadequate, but she thought the tone was firm enough. She knew most of them: the grandson of Stands Alone, two of the grandson’s cousins, and several others whose faces she recognized. At the back of the group, toward the long low adobe and timber barn, was Running Wolf, who as a boy had taught Alma’s brother how to set the snares he was now checking.

 “We are not well,” the grandson of Stands Alone said. “We are unhappy.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Alma said calmly.

“You whites have come in and now we have no game.” This was a man Alma didn’t know. A broad stripe of red ran down each cheek, flattening the planes of his cheekbones.

A young boy came running from the barn, eyes bright with excitement. “There are no men here,” he told the broadly-painted one breathlessly. “And there are cattle!”

The man nodded, his eyes on Alma’s shotgun.

One of the grandson’s cousins chuckled and shifted a hatchet from his left hand to his right. “The woman has a good shape,” he observed.

“We will have her and then we will burn the house and take the cattle,” the broadly-striped one announced. He took a step forward and raised his voice. “Then we will feast!”

Alma’s stomach tightened and she lifted the shotgun, sighting on the man’s chest. “But you will not have me and you will not feast!” she said sharply. “You will be dead!”

An irritated growl swept across the yard. At the corner of her eye, Alma saw the cousin easing around the corner of the cabin, toward the lean-to kitchen’s door. Alma forced her gaze to remain on the broadly-painted man’s bare chest, her shotgun barrel steady.

“I would not touch her,” a disgusted voice said from the back of the crowd. Running Wolf? She didn’t move her eyes. “Those spots on her face are the sign of disease. Smallpox or something worse.”

The broadly-painted one peered sharply into Alma’s face and she nodded. “That’s right!” Alma said, meeting his eyes defiantly. “I will shoot you and you will die quickly.” She raised her voice. “But if these others are loco enough to have me, they will suffer for a long time before they die.” She chuckled grimly. “I will take all of you with me! And you will die a painful and lingering death of disease, not of battle!”

A confused murmur passed over the yard. Alma held the shotgun muzzle steady on the broadly-painted one’s chest. There was a long silence, then the other cousin jerked his head toward the barn. “We will take cattle instead,” he pronounced. “The cattle are not diseased.”

“Two fat cows to feed us and our children.” Running Wolf moved slightly forward. His eyes swept the cluster of warriors, then turned toward the barn. “We will all feast this night!”

The warriors swung to face the barn and Alma eased backward into the house. She shoved the door closed, then leaned against it, heart pounding her ribs, fingers cramped painfully on the gunstock. Then she crept to the kitchen, assured herself that the door was indeed barred, and slipped back into the front room. She sank into her mother’s old rocking chair and placed the shotgun gently on the floor beside her. Only when she heard Ramón and Andrew on the porch did she lift her hands from her face, now splotchy with tears.

from Old One Eye Pete

Christmas in 1837 – An Excerpt From No Secret Too Small

1837 was a stressful year for many New Mexicans. But even then, Christmas was a time of respite and hope. I hope you enjoy this excerpt from my new novel No Secret Too Small.

CHAPTER 32

Three days later, it’s the day before Christmas. Señora Garcia announces that there’ll be no combing or spinning this day. “It is la Noche Buena,” she tells the children’s mother flatly. “A day to prepare for la Navidad and feasting and the giving of gifts.”

“We don’t have money for a feast.” Alma’s mother glances toward the children, her face suddenly tired and worn. “Much less the giving of gifts.”

“We have the gift of each other and a roof over our heads. There’s still enough wheat flour for a small batch of bread. And I have been putting aside an egg each day. If the hens are kind to us this morning, there will be enough for natías.” She looks at the children. “Though I will need help stirring the custard to keep it from burning.”

“We can do that!” Andrew says.

His mother shrugs and moves to her loom. She places her feet into position on the treadles, moves her head from side to side to ease her neck, then sets to work. The steady thump of the loom fills the room.

By the time the outdoor oven has yielded two loaves of yeasty bread and the egg custard is cooked and cooling, it’s late in the day. Andrew hovers over the natías, sniffing appreciatively.

“That’s for tomorrow,” the señora tells him. “Tonight we will eat a little of the new bread with our beans, but tomorrow is the true feast day.”

“It’s going to be a long night,” he moans. “I’m not going to be able to sleep.”

She chuckles. “Perhaps that is why the priests hold la Misa del Gallo on la Noche Buena. So boys have something to do while they wait for the morrow’s feast.”

Andrew’s forehead wrinkles. “La Misa del Gallo? The mass of the rooster?”

“Sí. The service begins at the first hour of the day and doesn’t end until the rooster crows.”

“The first hour? You mean midnight?” His forehead wrinkles. “You stay up all night?”

“That’s a long service,” Alma says.

The señora chuckles. “It is only a saying. I will be home before the rooster truly crows.” She purses her lips and studies the children. “I am going to la capilla de castrense, the military chapel on the Santa Fe plaza, with a friend from Agua Fría. Would you like to go with us?”

Andrew turns toward the loom. “Can we, Mama? Can we stay up all night?”

His mother’s right foot pushes down, moving the warp threads apart. She reaches for the shuttle. The yarn inside it is a deep red. She runs the yarn through the V of the warp and snugs it into place, then looks up. Her eyes are smudged, as if she hasn’t slept in a week. Alma’s heart snags in her chest. Maybe she should stay here and keep her company.

“Who is going with you?” her mother asks.

“The widow who lives on the plaza near the chapel along with three of her grown sons and their wives and children. Two of the men are Presidio soldiers. We will be safe enough.”

Alma’s mother looks at Andrew, who’s watching her anxiously. Her face softens. “Yes, you can go to the service.”

“Will you come with us, Mama?”

She shakes her head. “I have work to do.” She shrugs and looks away. “Besides, I would only spoil your fun.”

“But you’ll be alone. It won’t be safe.”

“I’ll have Chaser to protect me.” She makes a shooing gesture at him. “Go. I’ll be all right.”

He nods doubtfully, but he can’t help but be intrigued with the idea of staying up all night. He grins at Señora Garcia and Alma expectantly.

The evening threatens to be a long one, since they won’t leave for the chapel until well after dark, but the señora insists that Andrew and Alma nap a little beforehand. Then suddenly there are men at the gate and the children are wrapped well in extra shawls and bundled out into the cold.

There is no moon. The men on the edge of the little crowd are armed with knives, iron-tipped pikes, and torches, but the blackness beyond the flickering light still makes Alma shiver. Andrew feels it too. He stays close and slips his hand into hers.

They move through the night, up the dirt road and over the rise north of the house. Then the darkness ahead is broken by the glow of a bonfire. A guitar thrums and the men and women around the fire burst into song. The voices die out as Alma’s group approaches.

“Feliz Nochebuena!” one of the widow’s sons says gruffly.

“Greetings!” a man by the fire answers. He raises a wooden cup to them. “Come and drink with us!” He waves a hand toward a table half-hidden in the shadows. “Come and eat!”

“We thank you, but we are on our way to la capilla de castrense.”

“Ah, it is a dark night for such a journey and the chapel will be crowded! Stay with us instead!”

“I thank you, but we must not delay.”

“Safer with friends than in the dark!” the man persists. “You never know when a rebel might be lying in wait!” They all laugh uproariously as Alma’s group continues on its way.

Her eyes swim, trying to adjust again to the darkness. The governor’s decapitated body seems to rise out of the shadows, just beyond the men’s torches. A shudder runs down her spine. Antonia Garcia pats her shoulder, but Alma hardly feels the woman’s hand. She has a sudden urge to turn and run back down the road. All she wants is the warmth of the casita and the steady thump of her mother’s loom. Or, even better, her father’s arms. Gregorio’s smile.

She bites her tongue against the sudden tears and trudges on, surrounded by Señora Garcia’s friends and utterly alone. Even Andrew’s warm hand between her palm and fingers doesn’t dissolve the knot in her chest, the twitch of tears under her lids.

They pass more bonfires and the widow’s sons turn down more invitations to stop, eat, and drink. “As if they don’t remember what the purpose of the season is,” the old woman sniffs.

Finally, the little group reaches Santa Fe’s narrow streets. They pass Elisha Stanley’s closed-up shop and enter the plaza. Here, the darkness is pushed back by the flare of more torches as other groups of worshippers move from every direction toward the chapel on the square’s south side. Many are singing hymns accompanied by men and women strumming guitars. The voices aren’t loud and some aren’t very melodious, but there’s a reverence in their tone and a solemnity in the singers’ faces that makes the children look at each other in wonder. The plaza itself looks different tonight. Calmer. Less cluttered and dusty.

Alma’s group is close to the chapel entrance, but they can’t enter. Men in blue and red uniforms block the big wooden doors. Their gold-fringed shoulder boards glitter in the torchlight, making the soldiers wearing them seem bigger than they actually are.

Except for one, who is taller than the rest. Andrew sucks in an admiring breath. “That’s Donaciano Vigil,” he whispers in Alma’s ear. “See him?”

But she doesn’t have a chance to respond. Movement ripples on the opposite side of the square. A stout man in a swirling cloak and hat with a tall white feather moves toward the church, a soldier on each side and two behind. The crowds part to let them pass.

“Tarnation!” Andrew says. “Who is that? Is he a prisoner?”

“It is General Armijo,” Señora Garcia tells him. “The men with him are his escort.”

“To protect him from the likes of us,” the widow adds drily.

The governor and his guard sweep past and into the chapel. Donaciano Vigil and the other waiting soldiers enter behind him. Now the way is clear for the populace. The singing stops and men douse their torches. In the sudden darkness, Señora Garcia puts a hand on each child’s shoulder. “Stay close,” she says in Alma’s ear. “I don’t want to lose you.”

Alma nods numbly. The plaza’s beauty has vanished. Now it’s simply a dark and crowded space that contains too many people, all of them edging toward the chapel entrance. Everyone’s very quiet and polite, but she still feels as if she can hardly breathe.

Then she’s through the door and the señora has maneuvered herself and the children into a position halfway up the long narrow room but off to the right, next to the white adobe wall. If Alma lifts her fingers from her skirt, she can touch its smooth surface.

A woman behind them taps the señora on the shoulder. She turns and gasps in delight. “Mi amiga!” she exclaims softly. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!” She twists farther toward the woman, to look at the youngsters beside her. “And are these your grandchildren?”

She’s has released Alma and Andrew as she turned. Alma moves closer to the wall. All over the church, people are smiling and nodding and whispering to each other. Andrew is watching them with bright, curious eyes, but Alma feels only a dull loneliness. She wishes her father was here. Or Ramón. Or Gregorio. All three of them.

Finally, a priest in holiday vestments enters the chapel and stands before the altar. He raises his hands and the crowd flutters into silence.

Alma watches the ceremony and listens to the music and words in a kind of haze. She’s tired from the walk and, although the warmth of the crowd seeps into her, it isn’t a cozy feeling. If anything, it only makes her more anxious, more hemmed in. A tiny bird beats in her chest, searching for relief.

But there is no relief. She’s old enough to know that help isn’t coming, that grownups don’t always resolve their differences. That her mother’s worry and weariness and irritation aren’t likely to lessen any time soon. And that her father may never come for them. Tears prickle her eyelids. She bites the insides of her cheeks and tries to focus on what’s happening at the far end of the room, beyond the gold shoulders of the men in uniform.

The congregation is kneeling now. She drops with them and peers at the candle-lit altar. The priest’s back is to the congregation. He raises a shining cup. Her gaze moves beyond it.

The wall behind the altar isn’t smooth white adobe like the one next to her. It’s rock. A tall expanse of stone as wide and almost as tall as the room that towers over the priest and the table below. Alma sucks in her breath. Every inch of its surface is carved with designs and figures that seem to dance in the candlelight.

The decorations aren’t random. The flat surface is divided into two rows of three shallow rectangular niches set on end. The center bottom space is deeper and there’s a statue in it. Alma can’t see what it looks like because the priest blocks her view.

But she can see most of the spaces. Each contains a carved and painted stone picture. In one, a man holds up a cross. There’s a shell of some kind in his other hand. Worshippers kneel at his feet. In the niche above him, a man holds a cross in one hand and a plant of some kind in the other.

Alma smiles. He must love plants as much as her mother does. Her smile fades. There’s been no planting or gathering since they reached Santa Fe. Will there ever be again? But she can’t think about that now or the tears will start again. She concentrates on the carvings.

Her forehead wrinkles. Each picture by itself seems very simple and she doesn’t understand what they mean. But together they do something calming to her heart. She looks around the room. The kneeling worshippers are focused reverently on the priest and the altar. They all seem so peaceful, so intent, so sure of what they believe. She feels a little envious, but also strangely peaceful herself. The bones in her chest loosen, making more space for her lungs.

The priest turns toward the congregation and raises his hands. They all rise. Alma doesn’t understand the words he speaks, but she can sense the quiet joy in them, the confidence that he and the people he speaks to will have strength to face tomorrow. And that it will be a better day. She’s not sure she really agrees with him, but somehow she does feel better. As if she can cope a little longer with her life and all its fears and confusions.

The crowd says something in unison, answering the priest, and sings a final hymn. Then the service is over. The people begin to stream out into the night. Señora Garcia nods goodby to her friend and touches Alma lightly on the arm. “Stay close now.” Alma smiles up at her and looks at her brother, who solemnly slips his hand into hers. She turns back to the señora. “We won’t get lost.”

from No Secret Too Small

A Piece of No Secret Too Small

Here’s another piece of my new novel No Secret Too Small. This section is set at the plaza del Chimayo in northern New Mexico during the feast of Santiago, the village’s saint.

CHAPTER 18

Finally, the fields are all blessed and the procession has returned to the plaza. The little carved saint is placed back in its chapel, the horses are released into the corrals outside the plaza, and everyone’s voice is louder and more cheerful.

The children and their mother follow Señora Ortega into her cousin’s house, where they’re given a seat at the table. The stew is thick with meat and fresh corn, and hot with green chile. When the señora passes the platter of bread, she says, “And here is some the americano child helped to bake,” and everyone laughs kindly.

As Alma dips a piece into her bowl, Prefect Abreú enters the house. Donaciano Vigil stoops through the door after him.

“Ah, Don Ramón!” the host says. “You are most welcome! And Señor Vigil as well!”

The prefect gives the sergeant a quizzical look. “Señor Vigil? You’ve come up in the world, Donaciano. Or else he’s angry at you. I thought you were his cousin.”

The host flushes. “I was just being polite. In honor of his companion.”

The big soldier puts a hand on the man’s arm. “It’s only me, primo. There’s no need to stand on ceremony.” He looks at Ramón Abreú. “I believe you know everyone here, Excellency?”

The prefect looks around the room, smiling and nodding to those at the table as well as the women who are serving. Then his eyes reach the children and their mother. “I don’t believe I’ve had the honor of meeting this young woman and her siblings,” he says gallantly.

Donaciano Vigil and Alma’s mother exchange a wry grin. “Suzanna Peabody Locke, may I introduce our prefect, Don Ramón Abreú,” he says formally.

“I’m pleased to meet you.” She touches the children’s shoulders. “These are my children, Alma and Andrew.”

The prefect’s face tightens slightly. “You are of the family which squats in the mountains east of Don Fernando de Taos.”

Her hand is still on Alma’s shoulder. Her fingers tighten into Alma’s cotton dress, but her voice remains calm. “We reside on the border there, guarding the Passes,” she says evenly. “And maintaining friendship with the Utes.”

The prefect breaks into a smile. “Ah, well put! Keeping an eye on things for us, are you?” He spreads his hands. “But you are here, not there watching!”

“My husband and father-in-law are there.”

“They are business partners with Juan Ramón Chavez,” Donaciano Vigil interjects. “Juan Ramón is my cousin on my mother’s uncle’s side.”

Prefect Abreú laughs and slaps his thigh. “You people! I have lived here all my life and still I cannot grasp the way you are all so connected!”

“Live here long enough and you will find it is the same for yourself,” his host says. “But please, be seated and take a bite and talk with us. Perhaps you will find that you’re related to someone here after all.”

“I’m sure the Sergeant will be!” Ramón Abreú says. “But I’m afraid my duties demand that we continue on our way. However, I thank you for the kind invitation.”

As the host walks the two visitors to the door, Señor Vigil turns and grins at Alma’s mother, then gives Alma a wink. She smiles back at him shyly. He’s almost as nice as Gregorio.

“I wonder where Alcalde Esquibel is eating,” someone at the other end of the table says in a low voice.

“Down by the river, I hope,” a man answers. “Where he can escape.”

Alma’s mother sends them a sharp look, then leans toward the woman sitting opposite her. “Can you explain this corrida del gallo to me?”

Andrew stops eating to listen.

The woman glances at him, then says reluctantly, “It is a horse race, but they do not race to see who finishes first. Instead, they chase each other to capture the prize.”

“And the prize is a rooster?”

The other woman nods. She glances at Andrew again before she answers. “The rooster is pegged out on the ground and the initial contest is to see who can get to him first and grab him up while the rider is still on his horse. Then the second part is to try to grab the bird from the rider who has him.”

“How do they decide who wins?” Andrew asks.

The woman moves her spoon through her stew. “I’ve never known for sure.”

Andrew frowns. “There must be rules.”

The woman looks away. “I think it’s when the rooster gives up.”

“Gives up the ghost?” his mother asks quietly.

“Something like that.”

Andrew is looking at his mother, waiting for an explanation.

She grimaces. “When the rooster dies.”

“Oh.” He puts his spoon in his bowl. His hands drop to his lap. Then he pushes back from the table. “May I be excused?”

She nods and he maneuvers around the other diners and out the door.

“Lo siento,” the woman says apologetically.

Alma’s mother shakes her head. “You only spoke the truth, and that as gently as possible. He has an adventurous heart but a tender soul.”

“Pobrecito,” the other woman murmurs.

Andrew has disappeared by the time Alma and her mother return to the plaza. Men on horseback mill in groups up and down the road, Señor Beitia among them. Alma spies Alcalde Esquibel in the middle of a cluster at the eastern end, leaning forward from his saddle to shake someone’s hand.

Then she’s distracted by Gregorio, who appears at her mother’s elbow with Señorita Fajardo on his arm. The girl dimples at Alma, then her mother. Gregorio is opening his mouth to make introductions when silence falls over the plaza.

Prefect Abreú is back on his white horse, once again riding in from the western entrance at the head of his blue-jacketed soldiers. Donaciano Vigil brings up the rear. There’s something about the set of the men’s shoulders that says they’re not here for a rooster race. Gregorio’s breath hisses between his teeth as they pass.

The only sound is the clomp of horses’ hooves on the dirt road, then the prefect pulls up in front of the group that contains Juan José Esquibel. Words are exchanged, too low for Alma to hear. The alcalde’s chin lifts angrily and the prefect turns his head and barks a command at the blue-coated men behind him. The soldiers’ horses move nervously, but not forward.

The prefect scowls. “I said, take him into custody!”

Sergeant Vigil’s horse edges around the soldiers and draws alongside Alcalde Esquibel’s. “Perdóneme, primo,” he says courteously. His voice echoes across the plaza. “We have come to place you in safekeeping until the events of recent months can be investigated and addressed.”

The alcalde’s eyes narrow. He shakes his head. Alma stiffens. Will there be a fight?

But then he smiles. “Ah, amigo,” he says. “You have a rare gift for words. It’s too bad you insist on working for men who know so little of honor.”

The prefect’s head jerks. He scowls at Esquibel, then the sergeant. “I said, arrest him!”

Donaciano Vigil looks at the alcalde and shrugs eloquently. He turns his head, studying the men in the plaza, the women at the house doors, the children. When he turns back to Señor Esquibel, his face is grave. “I believe it would be best if you come with us quietly, amigo.”

The other man glances around the plaza, then nods. He reins his horse past Ramón Abreú without looking at him and heads toward the western exit. As he passes Alma’s little group, he spies Gregorio. He leans from his saddle. “Get word to the Montoyas.”

“Silence from the prisoner!” the prefect shouts. He spurs his horse into a trot and moves past the soldiers and the alcalde. The big white breaks into a canter as it passes the houses and heads down the hill.

In the plaza behind him, voices erupt. “What about the rooster?” someone calls.

“Oh, just let him go,” a man answers. “We have more important races to run now.”

Señor Beitia’s horse trots toward Alma’s mother.The man’s eyes flash with something between anger and excitement, but he speaks calmly enough. “I’m afraid there will be no more festivities today,” he tells her. “The prefect has used the feast for his own ends and spoiled it.” He turns to Gregorio. “But we know what to do in response, do we not?”

Gregorio’s eyes are hooded and his jaw tight. He looks at Alma’s mother, then Gertrudis Fajardo. “It may be best for you to return home. I fear events may take an ugly turn.”

“Or at least the discussion will be ugly.” Señor Beitia’s voice is grim and excited at the same time. “Decisions must be made.”

Gregorio frowns. “I must seek out the Montoyas. I believe they are in the eastern orchards arranging for the race and this evening’s dance.” He looks at the señorita. “Let me return you to your cousins and give them the message.” He turns to Alma’s mother. “Will you go back to Señora Ortega’s house?”

“I will escort las senoras y los chamacos,” Señor Beitia says officiously. He swings off his horse and bows to Alma’s mother.

She gives him a brief smile and nods to Gregorio. “We will be fine. Go safely.” She turns to Gertrudis Fajardo. “I hope we will meet another day.” Then she holds out her hands to Alma and Andrew. “Come along, children.” She glances at the senora. “That is, if you are ready to leave?” Senora Ortega’s face is grim and irritable at the same time. She nods and turns away abruptly to lead them down the hill.

from No Secret Too Small.