U.S. Mail Heads to Santa Fe!

U.S. Mail Heads to Santa Fe!

On Monday, July 1, 1850, the first stage-transported U.S. mail left Independence, Missouri for Santa Fe, New Mexico with eight men guarding the mule-drawn coach.

This was the first Congressionally authorized four-year contract for mail transported by vehicle between Independence and New Mexico. It had initially been set to leave Fort Leavenworth but the contract was modified to send it out of Independence instead, reducing the route distance from 885 to 840 miles.

The mail contractors in 1850 were Dr. David Waldo of New Mexico and Jacob Hall of Independence. The stage not only carried the mail, it also provided passenger service, with fares of $100 in the summer and $150 during the winter. A letter of less than half an ounce cost $0.10 and could be sent collect, postage to be paid by the recipient.

The company that Waldo and Hall formed in 1850 dissolved four years later, when Hall bought Waldo out and teamed up with John M. Hockaday to transport the mail for the next contract period. In 1857, service moved to semimonthly and the following year Hall again placed a successful bid, this time as sole proprietor. In 1862, he bid again, but the contract was awarded to George H. Vickroy and Thomas J. Barnum.

The Eastern terminus for the stage also shifted that year, moving west to Kansas City. Now the shortening of the line that had begun on the first run accelerated, responding to the growth of the railroads. Stage service to Santa Fe would end completely in 1880 with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe. But the idea of the stage and its symbolic connection to the American frontier would linger much longer.  

Book Review: First Mail West

Book Review: First Mail West
by Morris F. Taylor, UNM Press, 2000

For many Americans, the stagecoach symbolizes the 1800s in the West. And yet, stage mail and passenger service to Santa Fe lasted just thirty years, from 1850 to 1880. In that time, the route grew shorter and shorter, as the railroad crept toward New Mexico and finally ended the stagecoach era completely.

Morris F. Taylor’s book First Mail West: Stagecoach Lines on the Santa Fe Trail tells that story and much more.  It begins with equine transport of military dispatches and goes on to describe when and how the first Post Office Department contracts were put in place and the many details connected with the mail stage system.

But this is not a dry fact-and-figures kind of book. It’s filled with the names of people associated with New Mexico history—the Bent brothers, David Waldo, Ceran St. Vrain, William W.H. Davis, Kit Carson, Governors Lane and Meriwether, and many more. It also identifies lesser-known individuals, including the stage conductors and drivers, and provides fascinating glimpses into life along the route to Santa Fe—descriptions of the stage stops, how they were operated, the people who ran them, and the dangers they encountered. In addition, because the stage had connections into Denver, there’s a good overview of the early Colorado mine fields and the towns that sprang up around them.

First Mail West is a pleasure to read and full of information you never realized you wanted to know. I recommend it to anyone researching New Mexico and Colorado history in the 1846-1880 time frame and also to those who’d simply like another approach to Old West history.

A Furry Conflict in New Mexico

On Wednesday, May 16, 1827, a man named Ignacio Sandoval showed up in Santa Fe, New Mexico with important information for Governor Antonio Narbona. Sandoval had just returned from a trapping expedition led by an American named Ewing Young. Young, who didn’t have a permit to trap, had come back with thirteen packs of furs—probably mostly beaver—and hidden them south of Santa Fe at the Peña Blanca home of Luis María Cabeza de Baca.

Narbona, in one of his last official acts as governor, sent men to confiscate the furs. Cabeza de Baca, trying to protect them, died as a result.  Manuel Armijo, who took over as Governor on May 21, promptly issued an order for Ewing Young’s arrest in connection with the illegally-obtained furs.

Young escaped incarceration for the time being, but the pelts remained confiscated. Well, most of them did. Some of them belonged to another American, Milton Sublette.

Beaver pelt

In July, Young and two other Americans obtained permission to clean the furs, which they worried had become damaged in storage. They and the local alcalde were busy shaking them out and taking inventory when Sublette appeared, grabbed a pack, threw it over his shoulder, and took off for the nearby home of Cristobal Torres.

The local authorities converged on the house, but it was too late. Sublette and his pelts had disappeared. Armijo blamed Young and called him into his office for explanations. When he threatened to incarcerate the American, Young walked out. Armijo had him arrested, threw him in jail, then released him when Young claimed a debilitating fever.  But Armijo didn’t release the furs. Legally, they were now government property. They would eventually be sold, though at a fraction of what their original value.

So once again, a conflict between the Mexican administration and the Americans in New Mexico ended in a standoff, with no one the clear winner. I find this a fascinating story because it highlights the conflicts and complexities of American-Mexican interactions twenty years before the 1847 revolt at Taos, which stunned the Americans with its ferocity.

They weren’t looking at the larger picture. The kind of high-handedness and disregard for local customs Young and Sublette displayed were common among the American trappers during the Mexican period.  The 1827 incident, among many others, appears to me to be directly linked to the events of early 1847, when the newly-appointed American governor and former trapper and merchant Charles Bent was killed.

Retribution, no matter how long it takes, is still retribution.

Source: David J. Weber, The Taos Trappers, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

Thomas Catron is Named U.S. Attorney for New Mexico!!!

In early March 1872, Thomas B. Catron was named U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Territory, replacing his good friend Stephen Elkins, who’d just been elected New Mexico’s delegate to Congress. Catron had come to the Territory in 1866 at Elkins’ urging. He used his appointment to become a powerhouse in New Mexico politics and the center of what became known as the Santa Fe Ring, a group of men who sought to keep New Mexico’s political and financial power firmly in their own hands.

Catron and Elkins were business as well as law partners. They focused their efforts on anything that would increase their wealth, including banking, mining, and land speculation. Elkins left the Territory in 1877 and moved to West Virginia, but Catron stayed and continued his business and political activities. He served as Santa Fe’s mayor, president of the New Mexico Bar Association, and—perhaps most importantly—kingpin of New Mexico’s Republican party.

Source: Thomas Benton Catron and His Era by Victor Westphall

These positions and his control of the Santa Fe Ring enabled Catron to amass huge landholdings, many of them fraudulently. By the end of the 1800s, he reportedly owned around two million acres in New Mexico land and had a financial interest in another four million, much of it former Spanish and Mexican land grants.

It seems fitting that Catron County, one of New Mexico’s largest counties in terms of area but smallest in terms of population, is named after Catron. I suspect he was one of those people who didn’t tolerate others well unless they could benefit him in some way, so he needed a certain amount of elbow room. Naming a county for him that contains plenty of acreage but not many people seems appropriate.

Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico: A Biographical Dictionary, 1540-1980, Vol. 1. Los Ranchos de Albuquerque: Rio Grande Book, 2007; Howard R. Lamar, Ed. The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West, New York: Harper and Row, 1977; Hal Stratton and Paul Farley, Office of the Attorney General, State of New Mexico, History, Powers & Responsibilities, 1846-1990. Santa Fe: State of New Mexico, 1990; Victor Westphall, Thomas Benton Catron and his era, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1973.

The French in New Mexico: A Talk

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.

Elisha Stanley Is Allowed To Stay In New Mexico

In early February 1826, New Mexico’s Governor’s included an American named Elisha Stanley on the list of foreigners in the country without a passport. Under Mexican law, Stanley could have been deported immediately, but he wasn’t. Instead, he became what was known as an American merchants—men who shipped goods from Missouri to sell at retail shops in Santa Fe.

Said to have a “gentlemanly deportment and a generous nature,” the merchant Stanley plays a small but important role in my newest novel No Secret Too Small, which is set in New Mexico during the 1837/38 tax revolt. He played a much bigger role in the aftermath of that revolt.  

Almost immediately following the successful August 1837 insurrection against Governor Perez, the rebels began disagreeing about their next steps. Some wanted to seize and redistribute the property of all New Mexico’s ricos. Others wanted to push for church tithe and fee reform. There seemed to be as many different opinions about what ought to be done as there were people expressing them.

On top of this discord was the threat that the wealthy landowners from Albuquerque and farther south would organize, throw the new rebel government out of Santa Fe, and take power into their own hands. Some of these men—including former governor Manuel Armijo—were already sniffing around the capital, looking for ways to widen the cracks in the rebel coalition.

The new rebel governor, Jose Angel Gonzales, was so desperate to find a way out of the mess that he approached an American merchant in Santa Fe about asking the U.S. to step in and take over.

That merchant was Elisha Stanley. He didn’t agree with the idea and it was dropped. As a result, the United States’ acquisition of New Mexico was averted by almost ten years.  

Stanley returned East shortly after the 1837 revolt and spent the rest of his life dividing his time between Connecticut and Missouri. He died in 1874, almost thirty years after New Mexico had, in fact, become a part of the United States. But his decision not to grab the idea and run with it had given New Mexico a little more time before the juggernaut of manifest destiny sucked it into its maw.

Sources: Janet Lecompte, Rebellion in Río Arriba, 1837, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1985; Rubén Sálaz Márquez, New Mexico, A Brief Multi-History, Albuquerque: Cosmic House, 1999; Israel P. Warren, The Stanley Families of America as Descended From John, Timothy, and Thomas Stanley of Hartford, CT, Portland, Maine: B. Thurston & Co., 1887.

The Final Battle of New Mexico’s Tax Rebellion

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.

Rebel Leaders Executed in Santa Fe

On the morning of Wednesday, January 24, 1838, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Governor Manuel Armijo followed through on a threat he’d made the previous October.

He’d said then that if the insurgents in northern New Mexico menaced the capital again, he’d have the four rebel leaders in the Santa Fe jail executed. Now, despite the fact that the central government had sent dragoons and artillery men to support Armijo’s administration, the rebels were gearing up for another attack.

So at 9 o’clock that winter morning, outside the sentry-house on the road north of town, former Santa Cruz Alcalde Juan José Esquibel, rebel leader Juan Vigil, and the brothers Desiderio Montoya and Antonio Abad Montoya were decapitated. Armijo announced the event in a printed circular later that day and Santa Fe alcalde José Francisco Ortiz y Delgado pinned a copy on the door of the Palacio on the north side of the plaza.

Antonio Abad and Desiderio Montoya’s signatures. Source: New Mexico State Archives

The rebel leaders’ deaths were clearly meant as a lesson for their followers. And even for those who weren’t followers. At least one set of siblings—seven-year-old José Francisco Perea and his five-year-old brother Joaquin—were taken to the execution, perhaps as a way to impress them with the importance of obeying the law and subjecting themselves to authority.

Francisco, at least, seems to have learned that lesson thoroughly. He would fight on the side of the Union during the American Civil War and serve as New Mexico’s delegate to the American Congress in the 1860s.

In late January 1837, however, it wasn’t clear whether the rebels would hear what the governor was trying to tell them. Would they finally disperse, or would Armijo have to use the tools Mexico City had sent him? 

Sources: Allison, 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; Benjamin Read, An Illustrated History of New Mexico, Santa Fe: NM Printing Co., 1912; David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1982.

The Dragoons Arrive in Santa Fe!!!

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.

Mexican cavalry trooper, ca. 1832-1836. Source: Santa Anna’s Mexican Army, Rene Chartrand

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.

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