BEAVER TALE

The yearling beaver is hungry, but when he tries to filch a piece of tender green shoot from his baby siblings, his mother hisses sharply. He moves toward the lodge’s diving hole, but his father blocks the way and chitters at him. The yearling slinks to one side of the den and begins grooming his fur with his right hind foot. The divided nail on his second toe makes for a kind of comb that simplifies this process considerably.

There are three new kits this spring, which keep his parents busy. His father moves to help with the feeding, and the yearling sees his chance. He slides into the diving hole and out into the pond.

The sky is bright overhead. The beaver dives, but not before the old trapper on the bank nudges the young girl beside him. “See, I tol’ you that ole lodge was still occupied!” he says gleefully.

* * *

“Old Pete ain’t gonna trap it, is he?” Andrew whispers. The two children are crouched on the edge of the beaver pond, peering at the yearling beaver feeding on the opposite bank.

“He says he needs a new hat, and beaver tail is mighty tasty,” Alma answers.

“He don’t need a new hat!” Andrew says loudly. There’s a slapping sound on the water to their left, and the yearling turns and slides into the pond.

“I didn’t even see the other one,” Andrew says sorrowfully.

“Should of kept your voice down.” Alma stands up.

“How can you watch ’em like you do and not worry about Old Pete trapping ’em?”

She shrugs. “Everything dies. Mama says it’s all part of God’s plan.” She moves away, toward the rocky path that leads up the Cimarron River toward home.

“Old Pete don’t need a new hat,” Andrew insists as he follows.

* * *

“Beaver tail is almighty tasty,” Old Pete observes as he sits on the front porch whittling a stick.

Andrew scowls. “Papa says it’s all fat and grease. Not good at all.”

“Fat tastes plenty good when you’ve been eatin’ venison and elk a long spell. Wild game’s almighty lean.”

“You been eatin’ here,” Andrew insists. “We’ve got plenty o’ fat from the hogs.”

Andrew’s mother comes out of the house. “The kindling box is empty,” she tells him.

He rises obediently and heads toward the woodpile.

“Are you still teasing him about trapping that beaver?” she asks Old Pete.

The old man grins. “He’s a right risible youngster, ain’t he?”

“Who admires you, although I can’t think why,” she says tartly. “He’s beginning to believe that men kill for the sheer pleasure of it.”

Old Pete grunts and tosses his stick to the ground. “Think I’ll help with that kindling,” he says.

* * *

“I ain’t gonna place a trap for that beaver, son.” Old Pete and the boy are resetting a garden fence post. Andrew holds it steady as Old Pete shovels dirt into the hole.

“Alma said you need a new hat.”

The old man chuckles. “Hat’s good fer another season or two.”

“But what then?”

“Somethin’ll turn up.”

“You said beaver tail was tasty.”

Old Pete leans on his shovel. “Funny thing ’bout that. Only really tasted good when there was plenty to trap an’ the peltries were sellin’ high.” He begins tamping down the dirt around the post with his foot. “You think this’ll be strong enough t’ keep those elk out?”

“I hope so. Mama got pretty mad at them last spring. She was out here with the shot gun, but Papa says all she did was scare ’em. They’ll be back when they’re hungry enough.”

from Old One Eye Pete

 

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 14

CHAPTER 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 9

CHAPTER 9

Suzanna hums a little tune as she sweeps the cabin floor. These planks are quite different from the hard-beaten and oxblood-sealed earth floors of the Taos casa she grew up in, with their smooth surfaces, their soft indentations. The cabin’s wood floors are rougher and give more underfoot. They’ve taken some getting used to.

But they don’t show the dust in the same way, and she appreciates that. She dips the tip of her broom into the bucket of water beside the open door, shakes the excess moisture onto the porch, and goes back to her sweeping.

When the broom straw begins to clog with dirt, she carries it to the porch and shakes it out in the cold mid-November light. The chickens have escaped from their pen in the barn and are pecking around the edge of the corral. Dos lies nearby, watching them wistfully. The rooster will happily attack half-grown dogs if they get too close to the hens. The puppy has already experienced his wrath.

Suzanna chuckles. As she gives her broom a final shake, her eye catches movement in the valley below. She squints and shades her eyes with her hand. A man riding what looks to be a mule. A slender man who seems vaguely familiar. Ramón will probably know who he is.

But Ramón is in the kitchen and there’s no sense in disturbing him. Besides, her growing belly is weighing her down. Suzanna leans her broom beside the door and drops heavily onto the nearest bench. The rider could just be a hunter passing through. There’s no guarantee he’s coming from Taos and has word from her father and Encarnación.

Though he may. The thought keeps her on the porch in spite of the cold. When the rider turns the gray mule’s head toward the cabin, a surge of gladness rushes through her. It’s Gregorio Garcia. Perhaps he’ll have a letter from her father. Perhaps Encarnación has sent word to Ramón to set a marriage date.

But when Gregorio reins in beside the corral, he doesn’t look as if he carries good news. In fact, his eyes seem to avoid the porch, where Suzanna has pushed herself up from her seat. And he doesn’t dismount. He just sits there, staring dully at the pole corral and the valley beyond.

Suzanna frowns. Does the slant of the November sun shade the porch so thoroughly that Gregorio can’t see her from where he sits? Does he think no one is home? She suppresses a surge of anxiety and waddles down the steps and across the yard.

“Gregorio!” She smiles up at him. “How good to see you! How is your mother? Is everyone well? You’re riding a mule! Have you come into money?” She reaches to pat his mount’s gray shoulder.

Gregorio shakes his head somberly “It is Señor Beaubien’s mule. He leant it to me.”

There’s a tension in his voice that makes her look sharply into his face. Her smile fades. “You bring news.” Her chest tightens. “My father?”

Gregorio seems to shake himself out of a deep fog. “Forgive me,” he says. “No. El señor, he is well.”

“Then what is it?”

He looks toward the cabin. “Señor Ramón? He is here?”

She nods, then steps back. “But I’m keeping you out here when you must be tired and cold from your journey. Please come inside. Would you like some tea?”

He nods wearily. “But the mule first.”

“You’ll find Gerald in the barn.” She turns toward the house. “I’ll tell Ramón that you’re here.”

“Por favor,” he says. She turns back to him, and he hesitates. “Please do not speak to mí primo of possible danger or sorrow.”

Her eyes widen in alarm.

“I must tell him myself.” His shoulders straighten. “I promised my mother I would speak to him myself.”

Her forehead wrinkles in confusion, but she only says. “I will tell him only that you are here.”

He nods without looking at her, clucks at the mule, and reins it toward the barn. Suzanna watches him silently, afraid to ask what news he brings, afraid that Ramón will know there’s bad news by the very look on her surely-anxious face. She turns toward the cabin.

“Gregorio just rode in,” she says when she enters the kitchen.

Ramón straightens from the fire with a puzzled frown. “He rode in? He didn’t walk? There is news of your father? He is well?”

She shakes her head. “He says the news is for you.”

Ramón’s face brightens. “Perhaps Encarnación is ready for me.”

Suzanna looks away, and he sobers. “Or perhaps she has decided to marry another.”

She laughs and shakes her head. “You know she won’t do that.”

He shrugs. “Anything is possible. Nothing is certain.”

“He took his mule to the barn,” she says. “Well, Charles Beaubien’s mule, which he apparently borrowed for the occasion. He’ll be in soon. Would you prefer to speak to him privately?”

Ramón shakes his head, smiling slightly, and she smiles ruefully back at him. There’s no place truly private here, unless Ramón wishes to hear his message on the icy porch or in the barn. Even then, Suzanna and Gerald would have to carefully remove themselves from hearing range.

“I thank you, but there is no need,” Ramón says. “Undoubtedly, he comes to tell me my mother’s fourth cousin has died and there are debts the family must pay.”

Suzanna chuckles but neither of them are truly amused. They move silently into the cabin’s main room and stand waiting. When Gregorio and Gerald come in, Suzanna gives Gerald a questioning look. He shakes his head. Whatever message Gregorio has brought, he hasn’t spoken it yet.

Gregorio goes straight to Ramón and stops directly in front of him. He moves his feet apart, bracing himself, and takes off his hat. He fingers its worn brim as he looks into Ramón’s face, then at the floor.

“You are well, my cousin?” Ramón asks.

Gregorio nods.

“And your mother? She is well?”

He nods again.

“You have a message for me?” Ramón asks.

Gregorio glances toward Suzanna and Gerald, who stand together on the other side of the room.

“You may speak freely here,” Ramón says.

The teenager gulps and looks into the older man’s face, then away. “My cousin—,” he croaks. He takes a deep breath. “Su novia—”

“My sweetheart? Encarnación?” Ramón’s face stiffens. He blinks, then his lips twist, as if he’s forcing himself to speak. “Yes, what of her?”

“Ella murió.”

“Died!” Suzanna gasps. Her knees buckle and Gerald’s arm grips her waist. On the other side of the room, neither man stirs.

“Murió?” Ramón chokes.

Gregorio nods. His lips move soundlessly and he stares at the floor. “Killed,” he says softly.

Ramón shakes his head and moves backward, toward the wall and some kind of support. “It is not possible,” he mutters. He closes his eyes, then opens them, locking onto Gregorio’s face. “You know this for a fact?”

Gregorio nods miserably. “I saw it.” He shudders. “The wounds from the knife.” He turns his head. “The tears in her clothing.”

“She was molested?”

He looks away, his face twisting, then back at Ramón. “Sí,” he whispers.

There’s a long silence, broken only by Suzanna’s soft sobs.

“It cannot be true!” Ramón says.

“I wish that it were not so.” Gregorio takes a deep breath. “But it is most true.”

“Who did this thing?”

Gregorio shakes his head. “No one knows.”

Ramón gropes blindly to a chair. Gregorio sinks onto the colorful flat-topped chest by the fire and Suzanna drops into her own chair. Gerald stands behind her, holding her shoulder. The room has grown dark while Gregorio delivered his news, the sun slipping remorselessly behind the black-shadowed Sangre de Cristos.

The men’s hands dangle helplessly, their eyes everywhere but on each other’s stunned faces. Suzanna sobs quietly, her face in her hands. “Encarnación dead!” she whispers. “Chonita, of all people! So full of life! It seems impossible!” She lifts her head. “What happened?”

“No one knows for certain.” Gregorio spreads his hands. “Clearly, she had been to the potato field to gather more food. There were las patatas on the path beside her. And the basket.” He turns his face toward the wall. “And blood everywhere.” There’s a long silence, then he gulps and faces the others. His eyes flick from face to face. “She had been knifed in the chest and the face,” he says flatly. “Potatoes were flung everywhere, as she if used the basket as a protection at first, but the killer flung it aside.”

“Where did this happen?” Gerald asks.

“On the path from the garden plot back to the town, the one that follows the acequia.”

Gerald and Suzanna look at each other. The path that had been so dear to them, where they first declared their love. Those memories will be tainted now. The bit of land that brought them together has become the instrument of Encarnación’s death.

Suzanna bends forward, covering her face with her hands.

Ramón clears his throat. “And no one was nearby?”

“No one heard anything or saw anyone.”

Suzanna shudders. “My poor Chonita. To die so horribly.” She looks at Ramón. “And when she had so much to look forward to.” The tears start again, silent this time, and she makes no move to wipe them away.

Ramón braces his elbows on his knees and drops his face into his hands. His shoulders shake with suppressed grief.

“She spoke to my mother of her marriage only the day before,” Gregorio says. “She said the woman she hired to serve el señor was learning quickly. She had purchased new blankets and was sewing linens in preparation.”

Abruptly, Ramón stands up, his face averted. “Forgive me,” he mutters. He crosses to the kitchen door. They can hear him moving restlessly around the room. In the kitchen fire, a log drops into the flames and sparks snap.

Suzanna takes a deep breath. The baby kicks in response. Suzanna places her palm on her belly and rubs in slow circles. The child Encarnación will never hold, will never spoil with her famous natillas.

Gerald turns to Gregorio. “No one has come forward with information?”

Gregorio shakes his head. “No one heard or saw anything. I— I was on my way into the village—.”

They look at him in horror. “You found her?” Gerald asks.

Gregorio nods.

Suzanna closes her eyes, picturing his shock, the potatoes scattered across the path, the blood.

“She was already quite dead,” Gregorio says, almost defensively. “The wounds were from a knife.” He looks at Gerald. “They were very deep and there was blood—.”

“Yes,” Gerald says.

Suzanna opens her eyes to find them both looking at her anxiously. Gerald’s eyes flick to her abdomen.

“You need not worry for me.” Suzanna shifts in her chair. Her fingers touch her belly and the child kicks again. “The little one is strong and healthy.” She takes a deep breath. “Every child must learn of evil and pain. It is not something that can be avoided.”

Gerald studies her. “I’ve never heard you speak so sadly.”

“I’ve never been so sad.” She closes her eyes, willing her lips not to tremble. “Encarnación was a good friend to me and to my father. My potato patch killed her.”

Ramón steps in from the kitchen just then, a tray of tea things between his hands, his face slack with grief. “Please do not speak so,” he says as he crosses the room.

He places the tray on a small table near the window and turns to Suzanna. “Encarnación loved the goodness of the things you grow. All food was of value and a pleasure to her. Your potatoes did not kill my love. Some man did.”

His face twists again and he makes a visible effort to control himself. “For jealousy. For lack of protection.” He voice trembles and he looks away, his fists clenching and unclenching. “I should have insisted that she come with us. I should not have left her alone.” He turns and hurries back into the kitchen. The door to his sleeping room beyond shuts with a thud.

There’s a long silence, then Suzanna rises and goes to the little table. “Tea?” she asks Gregorio.

He nods as if ashamed of needing sustenance, but drinks the hot liquid greedily.

“Thank you for coming so quickly to tell us,” Gerald says.

“De nada,” Gregorio says. “Ellos están mí familia.”

“You will stay a few days before you return?”

“I must go back tomorrow at first light,” Gregorio says. “My mother needs me. Especially now, when all the women of the town feel vulnerable to attack.” He glances at the mica-covered window. “The weather is uncertain and she will be anxious for me.” He looks at Suzanna. “I would not have her anxious.”

You’ve just read the ninth chapter of the forthcoming novel Not My Father’s House by Loretta Miles Tollefson. You can order it now from your favorite bookstore or online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Books2Read.

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 7

CHAPTER 7

Suzanna stands in the middle of the field of harvested cornstalks, her hands on her hips, her belly bulging, a machete on the ground at her feet. Although it didn’t yield much in the way of food, the maíz patch contains plenty of dead stalks that now need to be dealt with.

She could leave them standing until spring. The elk and deer would probably find them useful as winter forage. Certainly, the raccoons would enjoy the remnants of the corn that was too small to pick. Not that she wants the pestilential beasts to get any ideas about coming back next season for ripe corn. They don’t need to be encouraged.

She scowls at Dos and Uno, who are chasing each other through the rattling stalks. Perhaps next year they’ll make themselves useful. They certainly didn’t protect anything this season.

She bends awkwardly to pick up the machete and hefts its smooth cottonwood handle in her right hand, then swings it experimentally in a long sideways circle. The long flat metal blade makes a hissing sound in the crisp fall air. If nothing else, chopping stalks will make her feel better. They won’t be visible anymore from the cabin porch, taunting her inability to make them produce or to protect the little they cared to yield. And she needs the exercise.

In Don Fernando, there’s always someone to hire for this type of work. Gregorio Garcia or one of his cousins. But here there are no young men eager for a few coins. And Gerald and Ramón are busy with their own winter-preparation chores: hand-hewing sections of board to partition the cows from the hay in the barn, hauling and splitting more firewood, placing yet more rocks at the base of the chicken run to guard from predators. Raccoons, those furry vexations, love eggs even more than corn.

Suzanna scowls at the thought of the pesky raccoons. Her grip tightens on the machete. The resulting pressure on her still-tender palm reminds her to pinch her thumb and forefinger around the machete handle, the way Ramón showed her. She repositions her hand and flicks her wrist forward and down. The blade swings smoothly. Her raccoon-chopping fantasy may even be plausible.

Suzanna chuckles and sets to work, cutting steadily down the first row of dead stalks. At the end, she turns and nods in satisfaction. Severed stalks scatter the ground, their long dead leaves stabbing in every direction. The half-grown Ute puppies run among them, chasing each other and their own tails.

As she watches them she feels a sudden pressure under her bottom left rib, shoving outward. She takes a slow deep breath, then massages the spot with her left hand. The pressure shifts toward her abdomen. Suzanna grins. This isn’t the first time this had happened. This baby seems to crave activity. Little feet and elbows poke outward the minute Suzanna stops moving.

“You want more action, little one?” she asks. “Shall we cut some more cornstalks?” The brown and black puppy yips as if in answer and Suzanna laughs, then goes back to work.

The baby may like movement, but Suzanna finds that she can’t chop as many stalks as she would like to in any one work session. It takes her almost a week to get to the last row of maíz. She’s moving up the row, her back to the western mountains, when the weather shifts, the air suddenly colder. A haze of damp stings her cheeks. But vigorous movement and her heavy wool coat have made her so warm that the bite of the air merely feels invigorating. She keeps chopping.

Suddenly a voice behind her says, “You may want to wait to finish that.”

Suzanna turns to see Gerald. Beyond him, a mass of gray cloud blocks any view of the western peaks. “I don’t think you have time to cut the rest of the row,” he tells her. He gestures toward the clouds. “This snowstorm’s coming in pretty quickly. “

Suzanna frowns. “It’s too early for snow. Not a heavy snow, anyway. It’s only the middle of October!”

“You’re not in Don Fernando anymore, wife,” he says gently.

“So I’ve been told,” she says. She looks back at her row of cornstalks. “I just want to finish this.”

He glances up the hill toward the barn. “I can get the other machete. We can finish it together.”

“I know you’re busy—”

“The barn is well enough. And the wood can wait.” He steps forward to kiss her forehead. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

She watches him head toward the barn with his long easy stride, and smiles. He’s interrupted his own work to help her with something that isn’t essential, but is important to her. He’s a good man and she loves him dearly. Even if he does think this desolate mountain valley is the best possible place to live.

Together they quickly finish leveling the row of dead cornstalks. Then Suzanna heads toward the cabin, the dogs at her heels, while Gerald returns the machetes to the barn. The clouds have dropped into the valley now and the wind is pushing them steadily toward the cabin. The air is bitterly cold.

When she reaches the porch, Suzanna turns to gaze at the approaching storm. She can’t see the western peaks, but she knows they’re there. A patch of blue sky has opened directly above the almost-black clouds that cover them. The blue is a glorious contrast to the ominous billows below. Even in its foreboding iciness, the scene is majestic.

She squints at the foothills farther down, where a gray screen of moisture slants toward the grassy brown slopes. The mist half obscures the hills, but she can see movement at the top of the one on the right. A lone elk?

No. A thick-set man on a black horse. Facing the cabin across the valley. And Suzanna.

There’s something menacing about the stillness of both beast and man. And familiar. Those sloping yet bulky shoulders. The shapeless mass below. Suzanna’s stomach twists. It’s the same figure she saw south of the cabin in July. And it still reminds her of Enoch Jones.

Suzanna shudders, blinks, and shakes her head. Surely she’s imagining it. When she looks again, the gray screen of mist has thickened and dropped. The hilltop is gone. There’s nothing to see. And the screen of snow is moving steadily toward the cabin. She shivers again and the half-grown dogs slink up the porch steps and edge toward her feet.

Gerald crosses the yard and follows Uno and Dos onto the porch. “Aren’t you cold?” he asks. He circles the animals to move behind Suzanna and wrap his arms around her waist. His cold cheek touches hers as he looks past her at the oncoming storm. “I can keep you warmer than the dogs can,” he murmurs. “And we’re all set for winter, so I can do plenty of this.”

She smiles, tilts her head toward his, and nestles back into his arms. Whatever she thought she saw, it isn’t there now. And he is.

You’ve just read the seventh chapter of the forthcoming novel Not My Father’s House by Loretta Miles Tollefson. You can order it now from your favorite bookstore or online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Books2Read.

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 2

 

CHAPTER 2

The man on the ridge grunts in satisfaction and tucks the spyglass into his pocket. It’s her, all right. With some greaser. Word in Arroyo Hondo was she married that bastard Locke, but that ain’t him. Must be that Mex named Chavez that used to work for her pa. The big man snorts and shoves his dirty-blond hair away from his face. The greaser and Locke, too, probably. Take two men to keep her the way she thinks she needs.

He steps backward down the slope, no longer sky lit on the grassy ridge. Don’t want her gettin’ too good a look. Just enough to make the little bitch wonder. ’Cuz he’s dead. Killed by that interferin’ bastard Locke. Left to be tore apart by the Gila Apaches and the wolves after them. He’s just a pile of bleached bones, somewhere west of the Zuni villages.

The big man chuckles sardonically. Ain’t he?

You’ve just read the second chapter of the forthcoming novel Not My Father’s House by Loretta Miles Tollefson. You can order it now from your favorite bookstore or online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Books2Read.

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1

There’s a man standing on the grassy ridge south of the cabin, and it isn’t her husband.

At the bottom of the cabin steps, Suzanna sets her bucket of water on the ground, pushes a tendril of black hair from her forehead, and cups her hands around her eyes to block the sun. The figure at the top of the rise seems to be staring straight at her. A flash of light blinks near its head, then again.

Suzanna squints, trying to make out details. A man’s figure, bulky and dark against the sunlit sky. Dread clutches her chest, but she shakes her head against it. Enoch Jones is dead in the Salt River wilderness. Gerald killed him, much to her guilty relief. Yet she still shivers in the bright July sunshine.

She leans down for the water bucket and carries it onto the porch and into the cabin. Ramón is in the lean-to that serves as the kitchen, shelling the new peas she’d brought in an hour before.

Suzanna puts the bucket on the rough wooden counter beside him and forces her voice to sound calm. “Someone’s on the ridge to the south.”

Ramón looks up. “Señor Gerald?”

Suzanna shakes her head. Ramón’s eyes tighten. He drops the pea pods in his hands back into the bowl and moves into the cabin’s main room. Suzanna follows him as he lifts the shotgun from its place beside the heavy wooden door and steps onto the porch.

He turns to scan the ridge on the far side of the marsh below the cabin. The rise is empty of everything except long green grass. A single cow grazes at its base.

“That cow, she has escaped again,” he says absently.

“I saw a man.” Suzanna’s right hand slips to her belly. “He just stood there, watching.”

Ramón nods. His eyes move from the slope to the marsh that lies between the ridge and the hill where the cabin is located. “And there was nothing else? No horse? No pack mule?”

“He was alone. Just standing there. Watching.”

“It wasn’t el señor?”

Suzanna’s lips tighten. “I know what my husband looks like, even from that distance. It wasn’t Gerald.”

“It may have been a passing hunter who was puzzled to see a house here, so far into the Sangres.”

Her jaw clenches. Then she closes her eyes. He’s simply trying to relieve her anxiety. She turns to face him. “I’m sorry, Ramón. I didn’t intend to speak so sharply. It’s just—” She waves a hand. “We’re so isolated here. And now, with the child coming—”

He nods and gives her a sympathetic look. “It is many leagues to Don Fernando de Taos. And you have not seen your father in a long time.”

“And you have not seen your beloved,” Suzanna says contritely. “At least I have mine with me here.”

He gives her a small smile and looks toward the mountains on the valley’s western edge as if he can see through them to the village of Taos and its spreading farmlands. “Encarnación will be here in due time. We will be married when she has found someone to care for your father.” He grins at Suzanna mischievously. “Mí Chonita has very high standards.”

Suzanna laughs. “She certainly does.” In the bottom of the valley below, movement catches her eye. “There’s Gerald now. Is that a deer on the mule?”

Ramón studies the man and laden beast who are moving up the track that threads the center of the valley. “I think it is an elk,” he says. “A small one.” He hands her the shotgun. “If you will return this to its place, I will see to the arrangements for the butchering.”

Suzanna takes the gun. “I’ll finish cleaning the peas,” she says. “Then what should I do with them?”

He’s already at the bottom of the steps. He turns toward her. “They will need to be cooked very quickly.” He pauses, then shakes his head slightly. “Place them in water and leave them. I’ll attend to them later.”

“Because you don’t want me to ruin the first good crop we’ve had,” she says drily.

He chuckles and turns to head across the yard to the adobe-and-timber barn. Suzanna smiles ruefully. Her legendary lack of cooking skills is one of the reasons Ramón is with her and Gerald in this remote valley. While she doesn’t like admitting her weaknesses, she’s glad of his ability in the kitchen. And his company. Between the two men, she’s rarely left at the cabin by herself.

But there are still times when loneliness creeps in on her. When she longs for another woman to talk to, other people. Ramón, still just a boy when he became her godfather, is very dear to her, and she has Gerald and her garden. But it would be nice to have other people nearby.

Though not people who remind her of Enoch Jones. She glances toward the ridge south of the cabin. A red-tail hawk circles above it, alone in the empty sky.

Her shoulders tighten. Whatever possessed her to agree to move here, a bride just turned sixteen, so far from her father and Taos?

The hawk calls, a piercing cry to the clouds. Suzanna’s shoulders tighten again, but she remains on the porch, gun still in her hands, gazing at the green expanse below.

She knows the answer to her question: She loves a man who loves this valley.

And she must admit that it is pretty. Majestic, even. Even now, with rain clouds gathering in the hills behind the cabin and more massing over the stone-topped Sangre de Cristo peaks to the west. They’ll meet in the middle of the valley soon. She grimaces. Probably before Gerald turns off the track below toward the cabin.

She agreed to live here, she reminds herself. Gerald was clear from the beginning that this was where he wanted to settle. And that it was a good three or four day mountain journey east of Taos. But now that she’s here, it seems much farther than that. And the valley seems so foreign, so closed in, so restricted, somehow.

She swallows the sudden acid in her throat. She could have fought him, insisted that they live closer to Taos. But Gerald studies this land with such deep satisfaction in his gray eyes, the same look of wonder and joy he gave her the day she said she’d marry him.

Suzanna smiles, thinking of his creamy brown profile, the wavy black hair, the square forehead, the intelligent eagerness in his look, the strong hands that know just how to touch her, and feels herself soften once again. She can’t resist either him or his desires. She blushes and glances around the yard self-consciously, glad that Ramón is nowhere in sight. Would he know, just by looking at her, what she’s thinking? She takes a deep, steadying breath and tucks a stray black curl behind one ear.

In the valley below, Gerald suddenly lifts his head and looks toward the cabin. Even from here, she can see his face brighten when he realizes she’s on the porch. He lifts an arm, acknowledging her, and her heart lurches again. She waves back at him and watches until he and the mule make the turn toward the cabin. Then she moves into the house, returns the gun to its place by the door, and crosses to the kitchen and the abandoned peas.

As her thumb systematically presses into the end of each pod and scoops the small spring-green spheres from their shells, Suzanna’s mind wanders to the low row of brush the men have placed around her garden. This morning, the leaves on her squash plants had been ragged on the edges, as if something had been nibbling at them. And some of the pea plants had looked like someone had pruned them. Both clear signs of rabbit encroachment. She’s going to have to shore up the fence if she expects to gather more peas this spring.

Or corn, for that matter. She’d also spotted raccoon handprints in the soil between her carefully planted rows of maíz. She grimaces. Those furry gray, stripe-tailed beasts Ramón calls mapaches are as large as a mid-size dog and twice as bulky. And notorious both for their rapacity and their love of corn. The fact that they’re already sniffing around, when the slim green plants haven’t yet even begun to develop ears, is not a good sign.

Suzanna’s hands move quickly over the peas, hurrying to finish up. Gerald will be here soon. And whoever she saw on the ridge this morning isn’t as important as her husband or her plants. If she hurries, she’ll have time to work on the garden fence before the men finish with the elk.

Besides, Ramón is probably right. It was just some passing stranger, surprised to spot a cabin where there’d been only elk the last time he crossed the valley to the Cimarron and the Eastern plains beyond.

Yet, despite her resolution to focus on her garden and not her fears, Suzanna finds herself telling Gerald about the stranger late that afternoon. They’re perched on their favorite boulder on the slope above the cabin, side by side on the sun-warmed rock, gazing out over the valley. “There was something about him that reminded me of Enoch Jones,” she says, trying not to shudder.

Gerald nods, his eyes somber. He puts an arm around her shoulders. “But Jones is dead somewhere in the wilderness northwest of the Gila mountains.” He pauses. “I knifed him, remember?”

“I know,” Suzanna says. “I still feel ashamed at the relief I felt when I learned what had happened.” She leans into the warmth of his arm and shoulder. “And I suppose I should be thankful to the man, lout that he was. After all, if he hadn’t accosted me that day in Taos, you wouldn’t have come to my rescue and we might never have met.” She turns her head to smile at him, then sobers. “I never thought I’d be glad for a man’s death. But he was such a shadow on my life. Such an ongoing threat.” She gazes out over the valley. “Jones was just an ugly man, inside and out. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could be so evil-minded. I suppose he was just bone-bad from the beginning.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Gerald looks south, studying the ridge where the stranger had appeared, then looks beyond it and west, toward Palo Flechado Pass. “Things happen to a man and change him. Get inside his skin. Sometimes the memories and the bad feelings about them just won’t let go.”

“Or things don’t happen to a man. And that also creates bad memories,” Suzanna says wryly, remembering a story Encarnación once told her of Jones, of his inability to perform as a man. But she certainly isn’t going to explain what she means. Not even to her husband.

Gerald gives her a quizzical look, then lifts a shoulder. “It may be that some people are so confused inside that nothing can heal them.” He pulls her closer. “But Jones isn’t a danger to anyone now, so there’s no need to worry.” His hand drifts lower, to her belly. “We should be celebrating, instead.” Suzanna chuckles and snuggles closer to him, watching contentedly as the setting light brightens the western peaks.

You’ve just read the first chapter of the forthcoming novel Not My Father’s House by Loretta Miles Tollefson. You can order it now from your favorite bookstore or online retailer, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Books2Read.