I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to catch Francois-Marie Patorni’s recent talk about his book The French in New Mexico at the Santa Fe Public Library. And then I discovered it had been recorded and put up online! I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.
“Where’d you be gettin’ a name like Leonidas?” the young Irishman asked the tall young man next to him at the Etown bar.
The big Canadian looked at him. “My mother had scholarly ambitions beyond her station,” he said. He lifted a fist. “And my father made sure I could defend myself.”
“I’d not be denying you the right to the name.” George Cunningham grinned. “An’ I’m thinking your father trained you good and well.”
“The trouble is, they didn’t have the money for proper scholarship,” Leonidas Van Valser told him. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Get enough gold, you won’t be havin’ to worry ’bout scholarship,” Cunningham observed.
“I intend to pan enough gold to go to school properly,” Van Valser explained. “I’m only twenty-five. There’s still time.”
“You’ve got ambitions,” Cunningham said. “’Tis a good thing in a man.”
The two grinned at each other companionably.
~ ~ ~ ~
George Cunningham was small, even for an Irishman, with a perpetually restless face. His Canadian friend Leonidas Van Valser was the steady one, until Etown’s gold placer mines wore down even his perseverance.
“There must be an easier way to make a living,” Leonidas said one night in Herberger’s saloon, examining his bandaged hand. He’d had a run-in that morning with some unstable sandstone.
“Somewhere else, is what I’m thinkin’,” Cunningham said. “Anywhere but these water-forsaken rock-bound hillsides.”
Van Valser nodded gloomily. “I think you’ve finally convinced me, George. But I don’t know what to do about it.”
“It’s cattle I’m thinkin’ of.”
“Neither of us have cattle.”
“There’s plenty o’ cattle running through these hills with nary a brand mark t’ be seen.”
“That’s rustling,” Leonidas said.
“Not if you don’t get yourself caught.” Cunningham bent toward him.
Van Valser studied his friend’s face. “I’m listening,” he said.
~ ~ ~ ~
“Do you know anything about cattle?” Leonidas asked as he studied the longhorns in the clearing below.
“Aye, I was in Texas for a while after the war,” Cunningham said. “Though my size was agin me, I do admit.” The little Irishman grinned at his friend. “But you’ve got the leverage to bring those yearlings onto their sides smooth as whisky.” He hefted the rope in his hand. “I rope ’em, you flip ’em, then we brand and sell ’em to the first Etown slaughterhouse we reach.”
“It’s certainly worth a try,” Leonidas agreed. “Beef’s selling at a good price and the slaughterhouses aren’t too careful about ownership, from what I hear.” He looked at the herd. “Who do they actually belong to?”
Cunningham shrugged. “Some Texan turned ’em loose on grass that don’t belong to him. To my mind, we’re just helpin’ the Maxwell Company even the score.”
~ ~ ~ ~
“You git off my property!” The woman was thin as a garter snake, with the eyes of a rattler. She glared at the two dusty young men down the cold steel of a rifle barrel. “And git your hands up!”
Van Valser and Cunningham did as she said, their horses shifting beneath them.
“We do apologize, ma’am,” Cunningham said. “We were hoping for a wee bit of water from your well. Drivin’ cattle is hard work on an uncommonly warm day as it is.”
She studied them. Her mouth twitched as she looked at Van Valser, whose face was streaked with dusty sweat. She lowered her rifle and gestured toward the well. “Help yourself,” she said. “But only to the water. Not my cattle or anythin’ else. Then git on outta here ’for you get caught.”
“Yes, ma’am,” they said in unison.
“Godforsaken young idiots,” she muttered, watching them dismount.
. . . . to be continued
On Saturday, January 27, 1838, the rebels of northern New Mexico made their last stand against the Mexican government.
They’d succeeded in their initial insurgency the previous August. In fact, for a brief time, a rebel governor controlled Santa Fe. But internal strife and a concerted effort by New Mexico’s ricos had crippled the insurrection.
But it hadn’t destroyed it. Even though Manuel Armijo had replaced rebel leader José Angel Gonzales as governor, the insurgents held on through November and December, keeping him nervous about their intentions and building their strength in the north.
However, when government troops arrived in mid-January 1838, the time had come for a final confrontation. The rebels gathered once again at Santa Cruz de La Cañada and marched south, as they had in August.
This time, they didn’t make it to the capitol. Government troops marched out to meet them, led by Governor Armijo and Lt. Col. Cayetano Justiniani and accompanied by Taos priest Antonio José Martínez.
The result of the coming conflict was by no means certain. Even with Justiniani’s dragoons and artillery men, Armijo had only 582 troops. The rebels had around 1300, including several hundred Pueblo warriors. And the insurgents held the high ground, positioned among the icy crags and hills just north of Pojoaque.
When the troops sighted the insurgents, there was a small delay as Armijo hesitated, unsure where to begin. The rebels fired the first shot, and still he dithered. But then the professional soldiers took over and the Governor found his voice. As Justiniani’s dragoons moved to the front, Armijo cried “Arriba! To die or conquer!” and the rest of his troops moved in on the rebel flanks.
The insurgents fled from the onslaught, but not for long. They regrouped 15 miles north and again took to the heights, positioning themselves among the trees and firing down at the men below. But even their superior position couldn’t beat the professionals. Armijo’s sharpshooters quickly dislodged the men above, leaving dozens wounded.
And with that, the final battle of the rebellion was over. Armijo and Justiniani marched unopposed into La Cañada. At some point that day, rebel leader José Angel Gonzales arrived there, too. His final confrontation with Armijo has become the stuff of New Mexican legend.
The story goes something like this: After the troops arrived in Santa Cruz, Armijo and Padre Martínez found lodging with the local priest. Gonzales came in and he tried to brazen it out by greeting Armijo as an equal and offering his support in exchange for the tax concessions at the core of the rebels’ discontent.
Armijo, exasperated at his attitude, refused the request. Then he turned to Padre Martínez and ordered him to hear Gonzales’ “confession so that he may be given five bullets.” Martínez complied and Gonzales was led out and executed by firing squad.
And thus ended the Rebellion of Río Arriba. At the time, it appeared to have been a completed failure. Yet, by mid-1838, two of the insurgents’ demands had been met. New Mexico now had a governor—Manuel Armijo—who was born and raised there and tended to side with the locals against outsiders. Also, in late April, the Mexican Congress granted New Mexico a seven-year exemption from the hated sales tax.
Would either event have occurred if the men of the north hadn’t risen? More importantly, would they have revolted if their concerns had been addressed in a timely manner in the first place? Questions worth considering which have applications even today.
Sources: Lansing B. Bloom, “New Mexico Under Mexican Administration,” Old Santa Fe Magazine, Vol. II, Santa Fe: Old Santa Fe Press, 1914-1915; Paul Kraemer, An Alternative View of New Mexico’s 1837 Rebellion, Los Alamos Historical Society, 2009; Janet Lecompte, Rebellion in Rio Arriba, 1837, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1985; Rubén Sálaz Márquez, New Mexico, A Brief Multi-History, Albuquerque: Cosmic House, 1999; Pedro Sanchez, Recollections of the Life of the Priest Don Antonio Jose Martinez, Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2006; Ralph E. Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexico History, Vol. 2, Cedar Rapids: Torch Press, 1912; David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1982.
Old One Eyed Pete had been in the Pecos wilderness all winter, him and the mule, avoiding Apaches and harvesting beaver. The weather had been dry and mild for the most part, the resulting pelts poor to middling. But it had been a peaceful season over all and he was almost sorry when the first cottonwood buds started greening the trees.
He headed downslope then, and out onto the edge of the eastern plains. He worked his way north along the base of the foothills, taking his time, moving from one greening meadow to the next, letting the mule feed, killing an antelope or small deer when he needed meat and skirting the few settlements he sighted.
He was in no hurry for human company just yet. The beaver plews weren’t going to fetch much, no matter when he got them to market. He could take his time. But as he neared the Cimarron River, the usual dust-filled spring winds picked up and the mule objected vociferously to plodding through clouds of grit. Old Pete chuckled in sympathy. Conditions like these almost made a man think four walls and a roof might not be such a bad thing.
Pete squinted his good eye at the Cimarron. The river wasn’t quite as unruly as it usually was this time of year. He studied it for a long moment, then decided to follow the stream to its source and head on west from there to Taos.
By the end of the day, he was well inside the Cimarron’s canyon. He made camp at the base of a long sky-scraping cliff of jagged rock. The setting sun glinted like gold on its crest. Pete grunted. Maybe sights like this were what gave the Spanish the idea that this land held cities of gold. As far as Old Pete was concerned, with the sunlight on them like that, those towering cliffs were prettier than any mere gold.
He shook his head at mankind’s general greed and foolishness, and hobbled the mule. Then he swept leaf litter from the flat top of a knee-high granite boulder and built a small fire. He heated water and added a quarter of his remaining coffee. As it steeped, he arranged small heaps of river rock alongside the fire, then cut and trimmed a handful of green willow branches. He sliced thin strips of meat from the remaining antelope haunch and wove the strips onto the sticks, then wedged them between the rocks to angle the meat over the flames.
Old Pete sat back on his heels and reached for the coffee. The brownish liquid wasn’t very tasty, but it was hot. He sipped at it while he waited for the meat to sizzle.
He squinted his good eye up at the cliffs, contemplating their grandeur again, then gazed toward the west. The sky was a clear, bright blue above the mountains up canyon. The mountains’ bulk blocked the setting sun and the resulting shadows turned the slopes facing Pete into a solid black mass, making the sky above them even brighter. As he ate, blue in the west became more and more luminous, then paled, darkened, and finally gave way to stars.
When he’d finished his meal, Old Pete rolled himself into his blanket and slept. He kept his rifle beside him, not because he felt in any danger but because it was the thing a man did when he was alone in the wilderness, a habit he’d formed long ago.
The next morning, man and mule moseyed on up the canyon. They didn’t dally, but they didn’t hurry none, neither. The sun glinted on the stream, water striders danced across the water, and fish traced the striders. Old Pete contemplated the long narrow shapes of trout slipping through the shadowed pools and considered stopping to hook one, then decided to wait a mite longer.
He came to a small meadow. A clutch of wild turkeys moved ahead of him, scratching along the base of the streamside willows. Pete grinned at the way the birds pretended not to see him as they stayed just out of reach. They were unusually plump and sleek for this time of year. With so little winter snow, they’d had an easy time of it.
He moved on, like the turkeys, seemingly in no hurry and unaware of his surroundings, but absorbing it all just the same. With the warming weather, the coyote willow beside the river had developed a haze of tiny green leaves that brightened the winter red of its bark. Under the tall green pines, waxy white flowers glowed on sprigs of wild grape-holly. Sunlight filtered through the long needles of the thick barked ponderosas and glinted on the twisted branches of the scrub oaks below, still stubbornly bare.
In the late afternoon, Old Pete stopped in a meadow to water and graze the mule while he gathered wild greens for his supper. He rinsed them in a small creek that fed into the Cimarron, then sat on a downed cottonwood log and nibbled contentedly on a handful of the sweet herbs. This was better than any so-called civilized garden. He’d just as soon stay out here forever, if he didn’t need coffee.
from Old One Eye Pete
I already had a book about the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro—the highway from New Mexico to Mexico City that came into being in the late 1500s. I had no business buying Following the Royal Road by Hal Jackson.
But I’m certainly glad I did.
The book I already owned is a good overview of the road’s history, but Following the Royal Road gets into the details that make a historical researcher salivate. It answered questions I ran into while gathering information for No Secret Too Small and also provided details I didn’t know I needed. For example, both battles of New Mexico’s 1837/38 revolt happened on the Camino Real. And El Alamo—where Governor Perez and his officials spent the night of August 8, 1837, is on the route, south of Santa Fe and just north of Los Golondrinos.
One of the things I really like about Following the Royal Road is the detailed maps it provides for each section of the Camino. Also, it traces the road all the way to Taos, a connection most books don’t make. In fact, it lays out the alternate routes people took to get to Taos, depending on the weather, material I used in No Secret Too Small.
But Following the Royal Road isn’t just a map with words. Jackson sprinkles a liberal amount of historical and cultural information throughout the book, so you’ll learn about everything from hornos to the founding of El Paso del Norte and the silver mines of Zacatecas.
And you can actually follow Following the Royal Road. It provides driving instructions from Taos to Mexico City. Whether you want to explore pieces of the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro from your armchair or on the road, I heartily recommend this book as your guide.
On Friday, January 12, 1838, New Mexico’s Governor Manuel Armijo must have breathed a huge sigh of relief. The dragoons from the south had finally arrived in Santa Fe.
Armijo had been waiting for them since the previous September, when he’d sent a call for help to Mexico City. He’d quelled the Santa Cruz de la Cañada rebellion in northern New Mexico as best he could, but he knew he was sitting on the proverbial powder keg. Armijo was a big man, but even he couldn’t hold that lid down forever.
And he’d had reason to be nervous. The insurgents stayed in the north that winter, but they weren’t peaceful. Even Armijo’s threats to execute the rebel leaders incarcerated in the Santa Fe jail hadn’t kept the men in Taos from threatening physical harm to Padre Antonio José Martínez and his brother if the priest didn’t stop preaching against the revolution.
But now it was January 12, and Lt. Colonel Cayetano Justiniani had arrived in Santa Fe with 94 dragoons of the Veracruz squadron, 12 artillery men from Chihuahua, 22 men of the San Buenaventura squadron, 26 from San Eleazario, and 23 from El Paso del Norte. More followed. Three or four hundred troops entered Santa Fe that week.
Justiniani also brought Armijo’s official appointment as New Mexico’s constitutional governor, principal commandant, and colonel of the militia. The governor celebrated by issuing a proclamation that announced both his titles and the presence of the soldiers. He also took the opportunity to remind the rebels that their leaders were still in jail—a not so subtle hint of what would happen if the insurgents didn’t disperse. The four had almost lost their heads in October. They might still do so if the rebels didn’t go home.
While he was waiting to see how the rebels would respond, Armijo took care of some housekeeping items: he issued yet another proclamation, this one to the citizens of Santa Fe. He ordered them not to take advantage of the newly-arrived troops by raising prices or taking their guns, horses, or ammunition in exchange for goods. Also, they were to stay away from wine shops or gambling houses frequented by the soldiers.
It’s not clear if these admonitions were really necessary or simply Armijo demonstrating his willingness to keep his citizens from disturbing or taking advantage of Justiniani’s troops. At any rate, there’s no record of conflict between the populace and the newly-arrived men.
Once he’d issued his proclamations, all Armijo could do was wait and see how the rebels responded to the news. Hopefully, they would simply break camp and head home. But the insurgents had been organizing all winter. And they had over 1300 men to throw against Justiniani’s forces. The revolt wasn’t over.
Sources: Lansing B. Bloom, “New Mexico Under Mexican Administration,” Old Santa Fe Magazine, Vol. II, Santa Fe: Old Santa Fe Press, 1914-1915; Janet Lecompte, Rebellion in Rio Arriba, 1837, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1985; Rubén Sálaz Márquez, New Mexico, A Brief Multi-History, Albuquerque: Cosmic House, 1999.
There was a knothole in the cabin door, in the fourth board from the right. Kenneth stood on tiptoe and peered through it at the men on the horses.
“It’s Clay Allison!” he hissed.
His little sister Elizabeth stood on tiptoe and tried to shoulder Kenneth out the way so she could see for herself. “Are you sure?” she whispered.
Kenneth nodded. “He’s tall and he’s got those black whiskers and he’s ridin’ that big blond horse Papa says is so dangerous.”
Elizabeth bit her lip and shrank back. She hugged herself tightly around her waist. “I’m scared,” she whimpered. “I’ve heard tell that he’s mean.”
“Ah, he’s only mean to those who are mean,” Kenneth scoffed. But he didn’t open the door. His mother had instructed him to stay inside if anyone came while she and his father were gone. As far as Kenneth was concerned, ‘anyone’ included the gunslinger Clay Allison. If that’s who it was. He wasn’t at all certain, now that he thought about it. He’d never seen the man close up. But he sure wasn’t gonna tell Elizabeth that.
The knothole suddenly went black and there was a thud on the wooden door that shook Kenneth in his boots. “What are we going to do?” Elizabeth gasped.
Kenneth put his hand over her mouth. “Hush!” he hissed. “He’ll hear you!”
Boots scuffed on the porch, as if whoever it was had walked away and then come back. “I believe you two young uns ought to open this door,” a man’s deep voice said. “Your Mama says you won’t be wantin’ too, but I’ve got important news for ya’ll.”
The children looked at each other. Kenneth shook his head.
“But he’ll break the door down!” Elizabeth hissed. “And if he has to do that, he’ll be really mad! And then he’ll be extra mean!”
Kenneth’s lower lip jutted out and he shook his head again. Elizabeth had seen that look before and she knew it was no use arguing with him. She sank to the floor in a heap and tried not to cry.
There was a long silence. Booted feet paced the porch. Then they stopped outside the door again. The man coughed. The children looked at each other apprehensively.
“All right,” the man said. “I guess I’ll just have to tell you my news through the door. Your Mama’s been laid up at your Aunt Ginny’s house and she says you’re to stay here until your Pa comes for you. That’ll more than likely not be till tomorrow. She says to have your chores done and your things ready, because your Pa’s gonna be taking you back to Ginny’s house so’s you can meet your new baby brother.” There was a short pause. “Or sister. Your Mama doesn’t know yet just which it’ll be.”
The children stared at each other, then Kenneth moved to the door and looked through the knothole again. “Really and truly?” he asked.
“Really and truly,” Clay Allison said.
from Old One Eye Pete
I know Christmas is over, but this has been a tumultuous year, so a video about the churches of northern New Mexico with some peaceful music in the background seemed appropriate. At minute 27:30, you’ll see the Santa Cruz de la Cañada church which Alma and her mother and brother attend with Señora Ortega in No Secret Too Small.
The church retains the altar pieces and much of the character it had in 1837. There are differences though. Back then, the floor was hard-packed dirt and there were no pews. You’ll have to use your imagination for that part. Happy Holy Days! Wishing you a peaceful New Year!
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.
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
My new novel No Secret Too Small has a certain amount of cooking and baking in it. Alma, daughter of a woman who doesn’t cook, is taken under the wing of the other women in the story, who are determined that she learns this skill. As a result, by the end of the book, she can make passable tortillas, beans, and bread.
The bread is baked in a horno, or free-standing beehive-shaped adobe oven. I understood the mechanics of this process, but appreciated its complexities even more when I discovered this video.
I’m one of those people who think it’s work to combine ingredients, knead, and let rise before shaping into loaves and placing in the oven. But all I have to do is turn the oven on and wait twenty minutes or so until it’s hot. This video made me realize just how easy my life is! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.