Excerpt – No Secret Too Small

This is an excerpt from my new novel No Secret Too Small. Enjoy!

CHAPTER 4

Although the children don’t agree on the righteousness of their mother’s anger, they do agree that it’s best not to turn her sharp gaze on themselves. So when they’re in the barn feeding the chickens and collecting eggs two days later, they don’t go running to the house to announce that the black hen has once again escaped the pole-latticed chicken pen and is in the hayloft.

Instead, Alma dumps the rest of the feedgrain into the chickens’ narrow cottonwood trough and follows Andrew out of the pen. She latches the door behind them, then pushes the sides of her sunbonnet away from her face to see into the loft above the chicken enclosure. The hen is trotting along the edge of the loft. “Tarnation!” Alma says. “We’re going to have to go get her.”

Andrew is carrying the woven willow basket of eggs. The yellow barn cat rubs against his feet. He looks down at her. “You’d just love to have an egg to eat, wouldn’t you?”

“Cats don’t eat eggs,” Alma says absently. She’s still watching the black hen.

Andrew eyes the cat, who looks much thinner than she did a few days ago. “I wouldn’t put it past her.” He turns and studies the barn interior. “There ain’t no place really safe from a cat, is there?” He lugs the basket to the tack room at the other end of the big dusty space, unlatches the door, sets the basket down next to Old Pete’s gear, and pushes the peg firmly back into the latch. Then he nods at the cat. “Try to get into that, why don’t ya?”

Alma looks over her shoulder at the closed barn door and jiggles impatiently. “We’re wasting time. If Mama comes in, we’ll have to tell her about the hen.”

“Come on, then.” Andrew scrambles up the ladder and she follows close behind. As he swings into the loft, the hen begins to squawk angrily.

“What’d you do, step on her?” Alma laughs. She’s on the top rung now.

But Andrew is still next to the ladder and the hen is in the far corner, hopping along a small ridge of hay and peering at something behind it. She flaps her wings irritably.

Andrew begins unbuttoning his shirt. “We need something to cover her head.”

“She’ll scratch your bare chest with her feet,” Alma says. “Just a minute.” She swings into the loft and reaches for her sunbonnet. “This stupid thing turns out to be useful after all.”

She hands the floppy cotton to Andrew. He grasps a side flap in each hand and moves cautiously toward the chicken. She’s too busy scolding the hay to notice him. He swoops the sunbonnet over her head and bundles it tight against her wings before she can react. Her feet scrabble at empty air as he lifts her, then she goes still. Alma grabs the dangling strings, wraps them around the hen’s enclosed body, and ties them in a neat bow. “That should do it.”

Andrew grins and hefts the chicken in his arms. “Maybe this will teach her to stop trying to get out.” He turns and leans to look into the space she’d been fussing at. “Oh look! It’s kittens!”

The children have their heads together, examining the blind babies in their nest, when a door hinge squeals below. They look at the trussed hen in Andrew’s arms, then each other, and sink onto the hay-strewn loft boards so whoever is below can’t see them.

“We need to talk.” Their father’s voice has a grim weariness to it. The children look at each other apprehensively. There’s only one person he speaks to in that way.

“How could you not tell me?” Their mother’s voice is low and furious. There are no tears in it. Alma looks at Andrew, who has closed his eyes. He looks like he’d put his hands over his ears if he wasn’t still clutching the hen.

“How dare you not tell me such a thing?” their mother continues. “How could you keep such a thing from me? Why, what you’ve done is downright criminal!” A hand slaps the side of the empty cow stall, rattling the boards. “You lied to me! Not with words, but with every action you took!” Her voice rises. “You lied to me! How dare you!”

“Suzanna—” He sounds almost like he wants to plead with her. Alma leans forward, wishing she could see, but Andrew jabs her ribs with his elbow. His eyes are wide open now. He shakes his head at her urgently.

“Don’t you touch me!” their mother snaps.

There’s a shuffling sound, as if their father is moving as far away from her as he can without actually leaving the barn. “I’m sorry.” His voice is stiff now, not pleading.

“That’s all you can say?”

“If you’ll recall, I tried to tell you.” Then his voice changes, becomes sadder. “I was a coward. I see that now. But I didn’t want to lose you. And you said you didn’t care about my past, my background. That it was me you wanted. That my character was all that mattered.” There’s a long silence, then he says quietly, “And I wanted to believe you.”

A piece of harness jingles as he paces past it. The children look at each other and smile slightly in spite of the tension. Papa paces when he’s thinking. “Enoch Jones would have told you all about me,” he says. “Given half a chance.”

“Is that why you tried to kill him in the Gila wilderness?”

He stops moving. “Of course not! Jones was attacking Gregorio Garcia. I had to do something to stop him. Then when he came at me, I had no choice. You know that. I told you what happened.” He begins moving again. Another piece of harness jingles as he brushes past. “I’m surprised he didn’t tell you about me when he attacked you in the cornfield six years ago. But I suppose he had other things on his mind.”

“He did say there was something about you I didn’t know. But I thought he was just trying to distract me. I never expected anything like this.” She snorts. “And I was in no position to give him a chance to explain.”

There’s a short pause. Then her voice hardens. “All right. I suppose I invited you to not tell me the truth. But the fact remains that you’ve been living a lie all these years, letting me believe your Irish mother was married to a man of the same race. That you simply had skin that tanned well and stayed that way. Not bothering to explain just where Alma’s skin color and those so-called freckles on her face came from.”

She pauses as if she’s waiting for him to answer. When he doesn’t, she says, “But now it turns out that you’re negro, of all things. Son of a man who’s a runaway slave.” Her voice rises. “What in tarnation did you expect? That I’d simply say ‘oh my goodness, what a pleasant surprise’?”

“My father isn’t a runaway slave. His mother was. His father was Cherokee.”

“It’s still in the blood.”

“What, the runaway part or the African part?” There’s a harshness in his voice that Alma’s never heard before. She bites her lip.

But then he seems to catch himself. His tone changes. “I wanted to tell you,” he says quietly. “So many times. But when that first opportunity passed and you didn’t seem to care, well, I thought I’d wait a while, until we’d been married a bit.” He begins pacing again. “I thought you’d guessed and that it truly didn’t matter. That it wasn’t something even worth discussing. That with your own Navajo grandmother, you’d understand.”

There’s a long silence. When he speaks again, there’s bitterness in his voice. “But it’s not the Cherokee part of me that’s the problem, of course. It’s the negro, the blackness. Not telling you was sheer foolishness. I should have known you were just like all the others.”

“What others?” she snaps. “What in tarnation is that supposed to mean? And skin color has nothing to do with this! You lied to me!”

“And if I hadn’t? Would you have married me anyway?”

There’s a long silence. “I—” Her voice catches as she speaks. “I don’t know.”

“Probably not.”

“But you’ll never know, will you?” Her voice rises. “Because you didn’t have the courage to find out!”

Alma’s breath catches. Her mother has just called her father a coward.

In the barn below, his hand thuds against a board. “What the blazes, Suzanna? You said then that you didn’t care where I came from and now you say that if you’d known, you wouldn’t have married me! I gave you what you said you wanted and now you throw it in my face! What’s a man supposed to do?”

There’s another long silence. When she speaks again, her voice is icy. “We have clearly come to a parting of the ways in terms of our perspective on this matter. I think—”

But just then, the outer door rattles. Alma cranes her neck. A sliver of light dances upward from the opening.

“Children?” Ramón’s voice calls. The door swings farther open. “Ah, perdóneme,” he says. “I sent los chamacos to gather the eggs and they have not yet returned.”

“Those two are so irresponsible,” their mother says irritably, though her voice sounds oddly relieved.

“They’re probably down in the canyon watching beaver,” their father says.

Their mother’s skirts swish as she crosses to the door. It swings farther open. “Alma!” she shouts. “Andrew!”

Andrew’s mouth opens instinctively. He leans forward, but Alma grabs his arm and pulls him back. She shakes her head and he nods reluctantly and sinks back onto the floorboards.

“Ah well, they will return when they are ready,” Ramón says. “Perhaps the black hen has escaped again and they have gone in search of her.”

“I wouldn’t put it past that hen to keep trying to get out,” their mother agrees. “She ought to go in a soup pot, then we wouldn’t have—” Her voice fades as the three adults leave the barn.

The hen clucks nervously and twitches her feet. Andrew chuckles as he strokes the cloth. “Don’t worry, I won’t let them eat you,” he whispers.

Alma moves cautiously to the edge of the loft and sticks her head out far enough to see the dim interior below. The door is firmly shut.

“Did Ramón know we were up here?” Andrew asks. Alma shrugs. She suddenly doesn’t want to talk anymore. She touches the heart-shaped freckle on her face. Light flickers from the roof and she glances up. There are holes between the wood shingles. Like her heart. “Let’s get out of here,” she says.

from No Secret Too Small

INHERITANCE

In the middle of the night, the baby began wailing frantically.

“¡A redo vaya! Good heavens!” Ramona said, sitting up in bed. As she slipped from the blankets, Carlos grunted but didn’t open his eyes. Ramona paused to look down at him, and shook her head. How a man could sleep through that much crying was beyond her comprehension. He must be very tired from the digging he did for the Baldy Mountain miners every day.

As she crossed the room to the baby, she rubbed her ears with her fingers. The Spring wind was howling, which always made them uncomfortable.

She lifted Carlito from his blankets and opened her nightdress. He began suckling eagerly, whimpering a little as he did so, and rubbing his free hand against the side of his head.

So his ears were uncomfortable, too. She looked down at him as she walked the floor, and sighed. He had a lifetime of discomfort before him and there was nothing she could do about it.

from Valley of the Eagles

RATTLED

“I don’ keer if you don’ believe me,” the old trapper said as he pushed his matted brown hair away from his eyes. He shifted the Harpers Ferry 1803 rifle impatiently. “If’n yer too smart for yer own good, it ain’t none o’ my doin’.” He stroked the maple half-stock with its short barrel, looked balefully at the younger man, and turned to place the rifle next to his pack. The metal rib brazed to the underside of the barrel glinted in the firelight. “Thinks he’s smarter’n the rest o’ us,” the trapper muttered to the wagon master, who was sitting on his heels on the other side of the fire, smoking a carved cottonwood pipe.

“I didn’t say that I disbelieved you,” the young man in the black broadcloth coat said evenly. He brushed a piece of ash from his sleeve. “I simply stated that I was unaware of any unique characteristic of the 1803 issued to Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, other than the half-stock and its excellent balance.” He shrugged a shoulder. “My father was issued an 1803 during the 1812 conflict. He recollected it quite fondly and frequently. However, he never mentioned an unusually short barrel.”

“Jest cuz yer Daddy didn’ say it, don’ mean it weren’ so,” the old trapper grumbled.

“That may be the case,” the young man said stiffly. “I was unaware that I was contradicting you. I understood that we were merely exchanging some particularly intriguing information.”

“Ten dollar words.” The old man rubbed his matted hair, unfolded himself upward without looking at the others, and stalked off into the night.

The young man in the black coat looked across the firelight at the wagon master. “I didn’t intend to offend him,” he said uneasily.

The wagon master took his pipe from his mouth. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry ’bout it,” he said. “Ol’ Matt gets himself worked up like that sometimes. But he’s like a garden snake, all fizz an’ no real fury.” He glanced into the darkness. “But don’t say I said so. Not where he can hear. He wants ya t’ think he’s a rattler.”

from Valley of the Eagles

MAXWELL BEFORE THE BAR

Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell sits on one of the mismatched chairs in Elizabethtown’s makeshift Colfax County courtroom and studies the man behind the judge’s table. He’s sat at such tables himself, though he doubts he ever looked so uncomfortable. Joseph Palen looks out of place here in this rough mining town and angry that it has the audacity to call itself a county seat. He apparently disapproves of nuevomexico, too, for that matter.

Maxwell feels the impulse to laugh, but instead lifts his right foot to his left knee and watches the crowd gather. Most of the men nod to him politely, touching their foreheads in a kind of salute, and he nods back. They’re good people. Know what they want, have no pretense about them. He grins at Old Pete, who’s still wearing his hat, even inside the courtroom.

Beside him, the old attorney Theodore Wheaton mutters, “Here we go,” and Judge Palen gavels the room to attention.

“Apparently, Mr. Maxwell has deigned to honor us with his presence this morning,” Palen says, glaring at Lucien.

Maxwell resists the impulse to straighten his spine and put both feet on the floor. “I believe you wanted to see me,” he says coolly.

Judge Palen’s lips tighten. “You have an interest in a number of cases before this court.”

Maxwell nods and tilts his head toward the old lawyer beside him. “Mr. Wheaton is my designated attorney,” he says. “I believe that releases me from the need to be present.” He adjusts his right foot higher on his left knee.

“You have also been indicted on a serious charge.” Palen leans forward. “That indictment requires your attendance.”

“The probate court issue?” Maxwell lifts a shoulder. “We have an excellent probate court clerk. As you’ll see from his records, there was no need to hold formal court.”

Palen’s lips thin. “You committed to appearing on the first day of this session in regard to the indictment against you. It is now the fourth day.”

“I was unexpectedly detained.”

Palen stares at him for a long moment, then turns to the court clerk. “Let the record show that Mr. Maxwell has appeared and apologized for his failure to appear, and that we are satisfied no contempt was intended.”

Maxwell’s jaw tightens, then he nods slightly and pulls his right foot more firmly onto his knee. If that’s the way the man wants to play it, he can adjust.

~ ~ ~ ~

“Things are changing, Mr. Maxwell.” Judge Joseph Palen sets his whisky glass on the saloon table and looks around the room. “In another year or so, these ragged placer miners will be replaced by businessmen with laborers to do the rough work.”

Maxwell nods, following his gaze. “And many of these men will be laborers, instead of independent men with claims of their own,” he says ruefully.

“Claims so poorly worked they bring in barely enough to keep body and soul together.” Palen flicks a speck of dust from the sleeve of his dark broadcloth suit.

“That’s all that matters, I suppose.” Maxwell grimaces. “Efficiency.”

“It’s a large territory, and its resources are going to waste.”

“So they tell me,” Maxwell says. He shakes his head, puts his glass on the table, and reaches for his battered black hat. “I’ve been here a long time, Mr. Palen, and I happen to like nuevomexico’s lack of efficiency. So do most of the men in this room, I expect. Though none of us are averse to making a penny or two.” He stands, towering over the table. “Good day to you, Judge.” A mischievous smile flashes across his face. “And good luck.”[1]

from Old One Eye Pete

[1] This story is based on events that occurred during the Spring 1870 First Judicial District Court session in Elizabethtown, the Colfax County seat. Lucien Maxwell, as Colfax County Probate Judge, was indicted for not holding court, but the charges were dismissed. At the time, Maxwell and his wife were in the final stages of selling the Beaubien/Miranda Land Grant (aka the Maxwell Land Grant) to a consortium of English investors. Judge Joseph Palen was newly appointed to his position as Justice for the First District Court of New Mexico. He would go on to become an important member of the notorious Santa Fe Ring, which sought to monetize the agricultural and other assets of New Mexico Territory.

MINERS GOTTA EAT

“Me and Joe didn’ come alla way out here jus’ to cook for no white men,” Frank Edwards grumbled as he slammed dirty dishes into the hotel sink. “You’d think we was still slaves in Kentucky.”

“You be only eighteen,” Louis the cook said. He positioned a pan of potatoes on the wooden table and picked up the pealing knife. “And what’s Joe, twenty three? You all have plenty o’ time.”

Joe Williams came in the door with an armload of firewood. “I here tell there’s a gold claim for sale in Humbug Gulch,” he told Frank as he dumped the wood into the bin next to the stove. “They askin’ seventy-five dollars.”

Frank’s hands stopped moving in the dishwater. “You reckon we got enough?”

Louis looked up from his potatoes. “You two listen to me and you listen good,” he said sharply. “You go to minin’ and you’re gonna lose every penny you have. Miners gotta eat, even when they so broke they sellin’ their claims. Stick to feedin’ ’em and you’ll do better in th’ long run.”

Frank and Joe looked at each other and shrugged. “We don’t got enough anyway,” Joe said. He jerked his head sideways, toward Louis. “An’ the old man has a point.”

“You better watch who you callin’ an old man,” Louis said gruffly. “And that wood box ain’t full enough yet, neither. Not by a long shot.”

from Valley of the Eagles

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

 

 

INEVITABLE AS CLOUDS

“Disaster seems as inevitable as clouds piling over those mountains and more rain with them,” she said drily. She jerked her chin toward the western horizon, where gray-lined white clouds towered above the rocky peaks.

“Rain isn’t necessarily a disaster,” he said mildly. “It’s water for the crops and cattle, recharge for the well.”

“I haven’t been out of this cabin for the last ten days,” she complained. “By the time I’m done with the morning chores, it’s raining again. You’re out and about, tending the cattle, seeing to the crops. I’m in the house getting the children decent and cleaning up after them.”

“The rain means you don’t have to haul water to the garden,” he pointed out. “The clouds are bringing it to you.”

She took a deep breath, as if gearing up for an argument, then let it out, letting the anger go with it. “I’m just feeling so cooped up,” she said. “I feel like a winter-bound chicken in the hen house.”

“Well, we could eat you and take you out of your misery,” he teased.

She laughed and shook her head. “I’ll certainly be glad when the monsoon season is over with.” She looked up at him, over her shoulder. “We will get a respite from this before winter sets in, won’t we?”

He chuckled, drew her to him, and silently watched the clouds moving his way.

from Valley of the Eagles

IMPATIENCE

“This gold. They have found it in large quantities?” The lanky teenage boy named Escubal Martinez poked a stick into the logs on the fire, moving them closer together. At the edge of the mountain valley, a coyote yipped. The Martinez clan’s flock of sheep shifted uneasily in the darkness beyond the firelight.

The Prussian-born traveler from Etown grinned. “Ja,” he said. “But it is hard work, the digging for gold.”

Escubal’s uncle Xavier grunted from the other side of the flames, where he was using a knife to carefully smooth out an uncomfortable bump on the grip of his walking staff. “Borregas y carneros.” He nodded at the boy. “That is wealth.”

Escubal scowled at the fire.

The traveler looked puzzled. “Carner?” he asked. “Meat is wealth?”

“No, Borregas y carneros,” Escubal said.”Ewes and rams.” He gestured impatiently toward the flock.

Xavier moved his staff in the firelight and ran his fingertips gently over the wood. “Carne y ropa,” he said meditatively. “Meat and clothes.”

Ja,” the Prussian answered. “You are correct.”

Escubal scowled at the fire and the traveler smiled sympathetically. It was not easy to be young and impatient.

The boy poked at the fire again. It flared briefly, lighting the night, and the flock moved restlessly, waiting for morning.

from Valley of the Eagles

A GOOD ARRANGEMENT

As the man on the ridge watched, the herd of elk below suddenly broke and pounded across the icy stream toward the cover of the trees. Three wolves, two grays and a black, chased after them, then slowed and sat, watching them go. A young bull elk with a limp had lagged behind the herd, and the wolves appeared to be studying him. A raven cawed overhead.

The man smiled. The wolves had identified his target for him. He reached to lift the bow from his back.  It was a good arrangement, he mused as he slipped down from the ridge and began circling to get downwind of the straggling bull. When he had finished with the elk, the wolves and ravens would attack the remains. “We will all eat well tonight,” he murmured. Which was good, because the elk herd would move more swiftly tomorrow, without the lagging one to slow them.

from Valley of the Eagles

FOR SAFETY’S SAKE

As Suzanna rounded the cabin from the garden, she saw Gerald in the yard loading his pistol. Both of the children stood beside him, watching intently.

“What are you doing?” Suzanna asked.

“We’re learning to shoot!” Andrew said gleefully.

Suzanna frowned. “We?” she asked. She looked at Gerald. “Andrew’s one thing, but Alma doesn’t need–”

“But I’m the oldest,” Alma said.

“She’s unfeminine enough,” Suzanna said to Gerald. “Always out fishing when she should be inside with her needlework.”

A smile flitted across his face. “Out here, everyone should know how to shoot,” he said mildly. “For safety’s sake.”

“More reason to move someplace civilized.” She turned and stalked toward the house.

“Can I load it, Papa?” Alma asked.

“Me, too!” Andrew said.

Gerald crouched down to show them again how it was done.

Copyright © 2015 Loretta Miles Tollefson