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.

THAT’LL TEACH EM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s mine!” Enoch Jones protested.

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

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

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

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

The Apache growled something unintelligible in response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from Old One Eye Pete

What’s a Buckboard Wagon?

In my new novel No Secret Too Small, Suzanna and the kids spend quite a bit of time riding in a buckboard wagon. Today, I thought I’d explain what a buckboard wagon looks like.

A buckboard is basically a big rectangular wooden box with four sides, no top, and four wheels. It’s called a buckboard because an extra board is added to the wagon box directly in front of the driver’s seat. This protects the driver and passengers from the mule or horse’s hooves in case they buck. The board also acts as a footrest.

Below is a picture of a modern-day buckboard. This seat has a back, unlike the one on the Locke wagon.

Hitching an animal to one of these was not a simple task. Here’s a video of a pony being hitched to a cart. Imagine that animal a good deal bigger and you’ll get the idea.

You can see from this why Suzanna was glad to have help hitching up her mules! I enjoy learning and writing about Old New Mexico, but I have to admit that I’m glad we have more modern transportation available to us!

CULTURE CLASH

Ewing Young and his trappers were well into the Gila wilderness and moving steadily through its rocks and pines the afternoon the string of four men and three mules came into view. The strangers were working their way up a dry arroyo that intersected with Young’s path.

Young held up a hand and his men all stopped in their tracks and watched the other group scramble toward them, though Enoch Jones huffed impatiently at the delay.

“Chalifoux!” Young said when the newcomers got within speaking distance. “I thought you were trapping south with James Baird.”

“Baird, he is dead,” the tallest of the two long-haired Frenchmen said. “La maladie, it got him.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“We came on anyway,” Chalifoux said. He gestured behind him. “Me, my brother, Grijalva, and him.”

The men behind Chalifoux nodded at Young politely. The youngest, the one with the dark skin and tightly-curled black hair, seemed to tense as Young’s gaze landed on him, but Young only nodded absently and turned to Chalifoux. “We’ve got thirty in our troop,” he said. “I figure that’s about all the Gila can handle at any one time. You headin’ that way?”

“It is as God wills,” Chalifoux said. “Perhaps to the north, toward the salt bluffs[1] of the Navajo.” He scratched his bandanna-covered forehead and nodded toward the third man in his small train. “Grijalva here, he shot a buck.” He jerked his head toward the pack animal being led by the dark-skinned young man. “A good size one. You want we share the meat tonight?”

“Sure, why not?” Ewing Young grinned and jerked his head toward the end of his own train. “Fall in behind and we’ll help you to cut that deer down to a more packable size.”

The Frenchman’s party stood and waited as Young’s men filed past. The trappers eyed the dead buck with interest. A good meal of venison would make for a pleasant evening.

But it wasn’t quite as pleasant as it could have been. The visitors produced whisky to accompany the meal and Enoch Jones took more than his share. Jones was apt to be more surly than usual when he drank and the presence of the young black man seemed to aggravate him.

He was leaning sullenly against a large rock that jutted from the ground a few yards beyond the fire, nursing yet another drink, when the younger man approached, a small book in his hand. The stranger crouched down beside the stones that circled the fire, opened the book, and angled its pages so the light would fall on them.

Jones scowled and leaned forward. “What’re ya doin’ there?” he demanded. He set his tin cup on top of the big rock, stepped forward, and nudged at the black man with his foot. “Hey! I asked a question! What’re ya doin’?”

The man looked up. “I’m reading,” he said. He turned the book so Jones could see the spine. “It’s a play by Mr. Shakespeare called Othello.”

Jones scowled at him. “What’s yer name, anyway?”

“I’m called Blackstone.” The man considered Jones for a long moment, then asked. “And what is your name?”

Jones stalked away into the night. Blackstone’s eyes followed him thoughtfully, then returned to his book.

But Jones was back a few minutes later, followed by Chalifoux. Jones jabbed a thumb toward Blackstone. “You see what he’s doin’?” he demanded.

Chalifoux grunted. “It appears to me that he is reading.” He turned away, but Jones blocked his path.

“That’s illegal!” Jones said. “Ya can’t let him do that!”

“He is a free man, Mr. Jones,” Chalifoux said. “He can do as he likes.”

Jones’ face turned red. “He’s a nigger! He ain’t allowed t’ read!”

Chalifoux raised an eyebrow. “This is a new law? One I know nothing of?” He turned to Blackstone. “What is this law?”

The younger man looked up, moved a small ribbon to mark his place, and closed the book. “I believe there is a law in South Carolina which makes it illegal for slaves to learn to read or write.” He shifted the book into his left hand, lifting it as if its very bulk was pleasant to him. “However, as you say, I’m a free man. So the law wouldn’t apply to me even if we were still in the United States.”

“Which it is certain we are not,” Chalifoux said. He bent, picked up a stray pine cone, and tossed it into the fire.

Blackstone glanced at Jones, then away. “And there’s certainly no such law here,” he said.

“Damn uppity nigger!” Jones said. He surged past Chalifoux, leaned down, and grabbed Blackstone’s arm. “You talkin’ back t’ me?”

Blackstone rose in one easy motion, elbowing Jones aside. “I was speaking to Mr. Chalifoux,” he said evenly.

Jones reached for the Shakespeare, but Blackstone lifted it out of his reach. Then Jones’ foot struck sideways, into Blackstone’s shin, and the younger man stumbled and lost his grip on the book, which landed, page end down, on the stones beside the fire.

“You bastard!” Blackstone turned and shoved Jones with both hands. Jones sprawled backward, away from the fire and onto the ground beside the big rock.

Blackstone swung back to the fire and the Shakespeare, but Chalifoux had already leaned down and lifted it away from the licking flames.

As the Frenchman handed the book to Blackstone, Jones heaved himself from the ground. He was halfway to the fire again, his fists doubled and ready for battle, when Ewing Young stepped from the darkness.

“What’s goin’ on?” Young asked.

Jones stopped short. “Nigger bastard sucker punched me!” he growled. He glared at Blackstone. “You ain’t seen the last o’ me.” Then he turned and stalked into the night.

“Is he always so pleasant, that one?” Chalifoux asked Young.

Young spread his hands, palms up. “There’s one in every bunch.”

Chalifoux shrugged expressively, then tilted his head back to study the trees and the stars overhead. “We will move north in the morning,” he said. “My party and me to the salt bluffs, I think. They tell me they are a sight worth the seeing.”

from Old One Eye Pete

WILD KNOWLEDGE

He wasn’t a man to pay much attention to girl children, but this one was different. She didn’t seem interested in cooking or clothes. More likely, she’d be in the canyon, fishing the Cimarron River. Her brother was the dreamy one, the one watching the fish swim ’stead of trying to catch ’em.

So the man was surprised when she came around the curve of the path and stopped to watch him cook the wild carrot root. He’d cut off the flowers and was slicing the root into the pot on the fire.

“Good eatin’,” he told her. “Back home, they say these make your eyes strong.”

She frowned. “Not that,” she said, shaking her head.

He was hungry. He lifted the last piece to his mouth.

“No!” she said sharply.

He raised an eyebrow at her and lowered his hand.

“That isn’t carrot,” she said. “It’s poison hemlock.”

from Valley of the Eagles

Mountain Man Gets A New Name

By early March 1828, mountain man Thomas L. Smith was walking again. And he had a new nickname. He was now Peg-Leg Smith, the trapper who’d amputated  his own foot.

He’d been trapping with a large party of other men in what is now the Colorado Rockies when it happened.

During an attack by Crow warriors, Smith caught a bullet in his left leg just above the ankle. As the battle raged on, Smith grabbed a buckskin thong, used it as a tourniquet, and hoped for the best.

The bleeding was still heavy when the battle was over. Both bones were completely shattered. The damage was too severe to even hope that Smith’s foot could be saved. But none of his fellow trappers felt they had the skills to do what needed to be done.

So Smith did it himself. He called for the cook’s biggest knife, gritted his teeth, and slashed through the shattered bones and torn muscles, cutting his foot free. He couldn’t quite reach the Achilles tendon in the back. He had to talk Milton Sublette into doing that for him.

He and Sublette used an old shirt to bind up the still-bleeding wound. Then the whole camp waited for the inevitable. They all expected Smith to bleed to death, but they wouldn’t break camp until he’d said his last goodbyes.

But twenty-four hours later, the bleeding had stopped. A day after that, Smith was strong enough to travel, by litter, at least. But not back to Taos and medical help. They went on into the Rockies, trapping as they went.

By the time the mountain men reached a Ute camp a month later, Smith was on horseback again, although his wound was far from healed. The trappers decided to camp nearby and the Utes took Smith under their medicinal wing, applying their skills to his wound.

By the beginning of March 1828, the leg had healed enough that he could put pressure on the stump. In the meantime, his fellow trappers had carved him a wooden leg and he spent the next week or so hobbling around camp getting used to it. And to his new name. He’d be Peg Leg Smith the rest of his life.

The story of Smith’s self-amputation is often used as an example of just how tough the mountain men could be. But it’s useful to remember that Smith would probably not have survived the aftermath of his impromptu surgery without the help of his friends.

Source: Leroy R. Hafen, editor, Fur Trappers and Traders of the Far Southwest, Utah State University Pess, Logan, 1997.

WINTER STOP, MORENO VALLEY

There was no grass visible, covered as it was by three feet of snow. Clouds obscured Aqua Fria Peak, meaning there’d be more snow in the night. The lower branches of the aspens had clearly felt the teeth of hungry deer and elk. There’d no doubt be wolves shadowing their flanks.

Old Pete cut branches for the two pack mules and created a feeding pile. They came eagerly to investigate.

What they left would clearly indicate the passing of a stranger, but he didn’t expect anyone was watching for him, anyhow. And by midday tomorrow the pile would be just another white-mounded windfall.

He added wood to the fire and pulled the buffalo robe tighter around his shoulders. He wished he had some coffee or Taos lightning. The snow-melt water was hot enough to warm him, but something with a kick in it would feel mighty handy right about now.

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 12

CHAPTER 12

As Suzanna’s time grows closer, Gerald finds excuses to stay in the cabin with her, springing to her side whenever she grimaces in discomfort, looking for reasons to keep her indoors and away from any icy patches on the ground outside.

At first, Suzanna finds all the attention endearing, but then it begins to be aggravating. When Gerald offers to screen off part of the porch so she can use the chamber pot there instead of going to the outhouse, she puts her foot down.

She’s just opened the front door of the cabin when he makes the suggestion. She closes it against the cold and turns back into the room, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice. “I am perfectly capable of making the short trip out the door and around back to the outhouse.”

“Then tell me when you need to visit it and I’ll go with you.” He moves toward her and lifts his coat from the peg on the wall.

She puts her hands on her hips. “I don’t need an escort. I am not a child.”

“But you’re with child and I don’t want anything to happen.”

“Nothing’s going to happen.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Gerald—” She gives him a long look, then crosses the room and sinks into her chair, her coat billowing around her. “I know you love me, but this anxiety seems out of proportion to the event.”

He puts his hat on his head. “I think it’s exactly proportionate. You’re going to have a child any day now.”

“Women have children every day of the year,” she says. “It’s not an abnormal occurrence.”

“You don’t.”

“I would hope not. It’s a good deal of work. “ She shifts in her chair and grimaces. “Ouch.” She unbuttons the heavy wool coat and massages the top of her belly.

Gerald frowns anxiously, but Suzanna only chuckles. “Baby just wants to let you know that he’s almost as anxious to get this over with as you are.”

Gerald grins. “She is, is she?”

“I’m not getting into a discussion about whether it’s a boy or a girl.” Suzanna shifts slightly in her seat. “I’ll even put off going to the outhouse to find out why you’re so anxious.” She crosses her hands over her belly. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

He turns his head away.

“Gerald?”

“My mother had a rough time.”

“With you?”

“With my brother.”

“I didn’t know you have a—”

“I don’t.” He gives her a bleak look, then turns back to the fire. “They both died.”

She leans forward, her hand reaching for him, but he shakes his head as if the memory is still too fresh for comfort. “She also had no woman to help her,” he says.

“But you were in Missouri.”

“There was no one nearby.” He looks at the bed, then the window. “No one to help an Irish servant girl who’d made decisions of which they didn’t approve.”

She opens her mouth to ask for more details, but there’s something about the set of his shoulders that says he isn’t going to discuss it, no matter how hard she probes.

He turns back to her. “So I worry.” He shakes his head. “Part of me is sure that you and the child will be fine.” Mischief glints in his eyes. “Whatever its gender.” Then he grimaces. “But another part of me is gripped with fear. Especially—” He looks toward the window again. “Especially since the news about Encarnación. Her death reminds me just how fragile life is, how quickly we can lose those we love.” His shoulders tighten. The hat brim shades his eyes. “I couldn’t bear it the way Ramón does. So quietly. I think I’d go mad.”

Suzanna’s hand rubs her belly. “It does make you realize how tenuous life can be.” She takes a deep breath. “I wish Encarnación was here. It would be less daunting to face childbirth with her at my side.” Her voice trembles. “And I miss her so much.” There’s a long silence, then she takes a shaky breath and steadies her voice. “But I have you here. And Ramón is here to help you. And I’m young and strong.”

Gerald nods reluctantly. “My mother was in her late thirties,” he admits. “She was really too old to have a child. And she was worn down with work and—”

Suzanna waits for more, but he’s silent again, staring at the window.

“I am young,” she repeats. “And strong. I don’t anticipate any problems.” She reaches for him again, and this time he leans forward and takes her hand. “You shouldn’t either,” she says gently.

He shifts and nods reluctantly. “I’ll try. But I still think I should accompany you to the outhouse.” His gray eyes brighten. “And I could put ashes on the path to soften the ice.”

She makes a small face. “Well, I suppose you going with me is better than using the chamber pot on the porch,” she says drily. “Though you may be sorry you offered when you realize just how often I need to go outside these days!”

He laughs and squeezes her hand.

“Speaking of whether it’s a boy or a girl—” she says.

“Yes?”

“If it’s a girl, I’d like to name her after my father’s mother, Alma.”

Gerald nods.

Suzanna glances toward the kitchen, where Ramón is rattling dishes, and tugs on Gerald’s hand, to move him closer. He kneels beside her and pushes his hat off his forehead to look into her face. “Yes?”

“And Encarnación,” she says.

“Alma Encarnación Locke.” He smiles as he nods. “It’s a good name.”

“You don’t mind that there will be no name from your family’s side?”

He shakes his head. “We’ll save my family names for the next child,” he says. “Or if it’s a boy. But if it’s a girl, then her name will honor a woman who’s part of our family in spirit, if not in blood.”

Tears well in Suzanna’s eyes. “It’s hard for me to think of her as gone. It seems as if she’s still there in Taos, training someone to run my father’s house. Preparing to join us.” She takes a deep, shuddering breath. “And yet, when I remember that she is gone, the pain seems unbearable.”

He squeezes her hand and stands up. “I know,” he says. “There are times when I think of my own mother, who I saw on her deathbed, and I still can’t believe that she’s not waiting for me somewhere in Missouri, ready to tell me to wash my hands and wipe the mud off my feet before I step through the door.”

“As Encarnación did me, although she was only a few years older than I.” Suzanna chuckles as she brushes the wetness from her cheeks. She pushes herself out of her seat. “And now I really need to use the outhouse.”

He grins, flattens his hat on his head, and crooks an elbow in her direction. “At your service, madam,” he says.

You’ve just read the twelfth 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 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.