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.

 

THIS HORRID WIND

The boy woke in the night to wind howling through the rafters and down the rock-and-mortar chimney. The chimney stack passed through the cabin loft and the boy’s sleeping pallet lay next to one end of the stack. He reached to touch the chimney. The stones were icy cold. The boy grimaced. The morning fire would take an extra-long time to light. The kindling itself would be cold. He scrunched farther into the blankets, seeking his own warmth.

At the other end of the chimney, his sister stirred. “Is that wind?” she asked sleepily.

“Banshees,” he said.

She made a chuckling sound and he grinned, more awake now, and suddenly cheerful. “Elk on the roof, bugling,” he said.

“Wolves at the door,” she suggested.

“Wolves in the fireplace.”

“Werewolves howling.”

“La llorona weeping for her children.”

The wind gusted sharply. The cabin shuddered, then a sustained high-pitched howl set up under the roof overhang outside.

“La llorona screeching for her children!” the girl giggled, trying to stifle her voice, and then the boy was laughing too, not so quietly.

The wind dropped abruptly and there was a rustle of movement at the base of the ladder. “What in tarnation are you two doing up there?” their father called softly from below. “Your mother is trying to sleep.”

“But not succeeding,” their mother’s voice said. Lamplight flared from the dark space at the edge of the loft. “You two might as well come on down,” she said. “This horrid wind is keeping us all awake.”

Loretta Miles Tollefson © 2017

DANGER SIGNS

“I sure could do with some raised biscuits,” Peter Kinsinger said over his shoulder as he and his brother Joseph trudged east through the snow toward the top of Palo Flechado Pass. He hitched the aspen pole that supported the elk carcass between them into a more comfortable spot on his shoulder. “I hear tell Kennedy’s wife knows how to make ’em real good. His place is only a few miles now and his prices are reasonable.”

“You could wait for Elmira’s biscuits,” Joseph said. “She’ll be waitin’ on us.” He hadn’t liked the looks of the isolated and ramshackle Kennedy cabin when they’d passed it on their way into the Pass and Taos Canyon beyond. They now had the meat they’d been hunting and he was tired of November snow and cold.

Peter turned his head and grinned. “I’m a mite chilly, ain’t you? And thirsty. A fire and a little liquid refreshment would be a right comfort just about now.”

Joseph chuckled. Peter’s Elmira was a stickler about alcohol. Peter found it easier to stay away from the Elizabethtown saloons than to experience her tongue when he stumbled home from them. But a man deserved a nip now and then. And with the weather so inclement, it was unlikely there’d be anyone else drinking the liquor or eating the meals that Kennedy sold to passersby. “It is mighty cold out here,” he acknowledged. “And we’re still a good ways from Etown.”

The road leveled out at the top of the Pass, then the brothers began to descend, careful of the icy patches in the shady spots. They were about a quarter of the way down the mountain when they heard the echo of first one rifle shot, then another.

“Sounds like Kennedy’s huntin’ too,” Peter said.

“You may not get that drink after all,” Joseph said. “I hear tell his woman don’t open that cabin door if he ain’t there.”

“Too bad,” Peter said. “I truly am thirsty.”

Joseph chuckled. “It’s still a ways. Maybe he’ll be back before we get there.”

But when they came within sight of the Kennedy place, they both forgot all about liquid refreshment.

A man lay face down in the middle of the frozen dirt track that skirted the Kennedy hollow. The snow and dirt were splashed red with blood. Charles Kennedy’s bear-like form crouched beside the sprawled body.

The Kinsinger brothers eased their elk to the side of the road and hurried forward.

Kennedy looked up, his black beard bristling around a perpetually angry mouth, his eyes watchful. “Injuns,” he said.

Peter and Joseph looked at each other, then Kennedy.

“Is he dead?” Peter asked.

Kennedy nodded. “I fought the Injuns off.” He stood and gestured toward the cabin. “Bullet holes in th’ door.” He nudged the dead man’s torso with the side of his boot. “Greenhorn ran.”

Joseph leaned down, reached for the man’s shoulder, and rolled him over. “I don’t recognize him.”

“Came from Taos,” Kennedy said. “Merchant there. So he said.”

Joseph straightened and looked away, down the road to Elizabethtown.

“When’d it happen?” Peter asked.

“Couple hours ago,” Kennedy said.

The Kinsingers nodded, eyes raking the hollow and bloody snow, careful not to look at each other or Charles Kennedy.

“Well, we have meat to get home,” Joseph said. “We’ll tell the Sheriff’s deputy in Etown, and he can come fetch the body.” He looked down. “Whoever this is, I expect his Taos friends’ll be wantin’ to give him a proper burial.”

Kennedy nodded. He stood next to the dead man and ran his fingers through his beard as the Kinsingers returned to their elk, hoisted its carrying pole onto their shoulders, and trudged past him.

The brothers were out of sight over the rise to the northeast before either of them spoke.

“Injuns my hat,” Peter said over his shoulder.

Joseph spat into the snow at the side of the road. “Sure a convenient excuse though, ain’t it?”

“We didn’t see anything different,” Peter pointed out.

“Wouldn’t want to get crosswise of that one,” Joseph agreed.

They trudged morosely on up the valley toward Elizabethtown.

from Old One Eye Pete

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 13

CHAPTER 13

Even with Gerald’s attentiveness, the increasingly-shorter winter days begin to seem very long to Suzanna. As her belly expands, housework becomes more uncomfortable. She can barely manage to even sew. And she’s prepared everything she needs to for the child. There’s really nothing to do but sit and wait, feeling as if the child will never arrive. It’s almost a relief when her pains begin.

Then time stretches again, into a black tunnel of contraction and fear, Gerald’s hand gripping hers, his brown face fighting to remain calm, but his gray eyes dark with anxiety. Suzanna focuses instead on the comfort of his hands on hers, then Ramón’s solid grip as Gerald does what is needed between her bent knees.

They’ve brought her a piece of buckskin to bite down on when the pain becomes too intense. The gamy taste of it mixes with the salt on her lips, the saliva in her mouth. The taste seems to get stronger as the pain intensifies, nausea sweeps over her in waves, in time with the contractions. Then Gerald cries “I see it!” as a searing pain cuts across her belly.

“Push now!” Ramón says in her ear. He reaches across her and grips her other hand. “Push!”

“Here it comes!” Gerald says. “There’s the head!”

Suzanna gulps back her terror, grinds her teeth into the now-slimy leather, and pushes into her hips as hard as she can. Ramón’s palms are tight under her fingernails and there’s an enormous pressure between her legs. A buzzing haze fills her head.

“Push!” Ramón says again. “That’s it, push!”

Then the dam between her legs seems to burst and the pressure is gone. Gerald laughs exultantly. Suzanna lowers her shaking thighs and Ramón’s hands flex slightly under her fingers.

Suzanna turns her head to look up at him and Ramón chuckles. “You have a strong grip.”

She makes an apologetic sound and releases his hands. He flexes them gingerly and grins at her. “Next time I will give you a piece of wood to hold,” he jokes.

“Ramón, I need the scissors,” Gerald says anxiously, and Ramón drops Suzanna’s hand.

As the two men cut the umbilical cord and clean the baby, Suzanna lets herself sink into the pillow. She’s so tired.

Then Gerald appears, and she forces hers eyes open. He’s holding a small cloth-covered bundle awkwardly in his hands. “It’s a girl,” he says as he slips the baby into Suzanna’s arms. When he straightens, he gives her a smile that’s both proud and relieved. “Our little girl.”

That afternoon, Ramón goes out to look after the cattle, leaving the new parents alone with their new infant. “Look at this!” Suzanna says as the baby nuzzles her breast. “She has a heart-shaped freckle!”

Gerald moves closer. The baby’s face is splotched with dark freckles that seem large on her tiny brown face.

Suzanna points to her tiny left cheek. “See here?”

Gerald chuckles. “I think it’s more heart-shaped from where you’re looking.”

Suzanna smiles contentedly as the tiny fingers wrap around her own and the baby burrows its face into her breast. “Alma Encarnación Locke,” she says wonderingly. She looks up. “Have you told Ramón?”

The outer door opens and Ramón appears, carrying a pail of fresh milk. “There will be another storm in the next several days,” he says. “I can feel it in the wind.” He turns to close the door behind him, then looks at Suzanna. “How is la nena?”

She smiles at him. “She is well.” She looks at Gerald. “We have decided on her name.”

Gerald hesitates, then looks at Ramón. “She will be called Alma Encarnación Locke,” he says. He glances at Suzanna apologetically, then turns back to Ramón. “That is, if you agree.”

The milk in the pail sloshes slightly as Gerald speaks. Ramón leans to place the bucket on the floor. When he straightens, there are tears in his eyes. “I agree,” he says softly. “You do Encarnación a great honor.”

Suzanna smiles at the baby still latched to her breast. “She will be honored to bear the name of such a woman.” She looks up at Ramón. “If she becomes half the woman Encarnación was—” She swallows hard, then starts again. “If she is like Encarnación in any way, then I will be satisfied.”

“Do you know what ‘alma’ means en español?” Ramón asks.

Suzanna shakes her head.

“It means ‘soul.’”

Her eyes widen and they stare at each other for a long moment. Then Suzanna closes her eyes and tightens her grip on her child. “My soul,” she whispers.

Gerald crosses the room to Ramón, touches his forearm, and reaches for the pail of milk as Suzanna lifts the baby away from her breast and covers herself. She looks up at Ramón. “Come and say hello to her,” she says. “See her freckles?”

Gerald carries the milk into the kitchen as Ramón crosses to the bed. Two tiny black eyes open and gaze at him solemnly. “She is so tiny,” he says. “Smaller than you were, I think.” He reaches to touch the baby’s cheek. “Hola, nita.”

“Little sister?” Suzanna asks in amusement. “Hopefully, she will be a big sister someday.”

Ramón laughs. “You are already prepared for another?”

“Well, perhaps not quite yet!”

He sobers. “Today is Sunday,” he observes.

“Is it? I’ve lost track of the days.”

“It is a good sign, to be born on a Sunday. A good omen.”

She gives him a quizzical look. “I didn’t think you believed in omens.”

He chuckles and shrugs. “I do when it is convenient.” He reaches out again to touch Alma’s cheek. “To be born on a Sunday and to be named Encarnación. La nita is doubly blessed.” A shadow crosses his face, then he gives his head a little shake and turns abruptly toward the kitchen door. “I must strain the milk.”

Two days after Alma’s birth, the storm Ramón predicted arrives with a vengeance. Snow and wind beat across the valley, obscuring the mountain peaks in both directions and making travel to or from Don Fernando impossible.

In spite of the weather, Suzanna continues to hope her father will somehow arrive in time for at least part of the holiday, but the year changes and he still doesn’t come.

With the disappointment comes an overwhelming exhaustion compounded by the demands of motherhood. The baby seems to tug at her constantly. Suzanna’s attitude toward her veers between tenderness, exasperation, and sheer exhaustion. Motherhood seems to consist of sleeping in fits and starts, waking in a gray haze to let the ever-hungry mouth latch onto her breast, and listlessly sitting up just enough to feed herself. The men slip in and out of the house as if afraid to disturb her, as if her only function is to feed and clean the child.

She’s a beautiful baby, Suzanna tells herself. Yet, all she really wants to do is push Alma to the other side of the big wooden bed in the cabin’s main room and curl into an oblivious ball. Exhaustion weighs her down like a pile of heavy blankets. She feels Chonita’s loss even more now. And guilt for feeling that way. For wishing for the other woman’s presence most when it would be beneficial to herself. But Suzanna is too tired to sort out her emotions. All she wants to do is sleep.

Except at night. Gerald, thinking it will help Suzanna recover, has taken to sleeping in the loft so that she and the baby can rest undisturbed. But after he climbs the ladder each night, Suzanna finds herself wide awake, staring at the dying fire. Her mind wanders to Taos and her father, then back to the baby beside her. She should be happy. But she feels only a blankness that borders on despair.

During the daylight hours—what she can see of them, given the limited light from the mica-covered windows—Suzanna finds it impossible to stay awake, except when Alma’s fussing at her. Then she comes unwillingly out of her daze.

If the baby isn’t hungry again, she smells like an outhouse. When this happens, Suzanna rolls away, breathing through her mouth, trying to block the stench. Eventually, footsteps will cross the floor from the kitchen and she’ll hear Ramón murmur “Pobre nita!” and feel him lift the infant from the other side of the bed.

As he crosses back to the kitchen, baby in his arms, Suzanna is crushed with guilt. She’s a bad mother. She can’t even bring herself to care that her child is dirty. A man who isn’t even related to her is caring for her infant. Suzanna turns her head and sobs into her pillow, but she still can’t work up the desire to rise and take care of Alma’s needs herself. If only her Chonita were here. Or her father.

Though why her father’s presence would make her feel better, Suzanna doesn’t know. The thought of him fills her with terror. There’s been no word from Taos. No one passes through the valley when the snow is this deep and the weather so uncertain. Perhaps he also is dead. Whoever killed Encarnación has come for him, too. And this person Chonita hired to be his housekeeper. Does she know how to provide the meals her father likes? To keep his clothes well aired? To make sure he drinks strawberry-leaf tea to ward off his winter cough? Can she talk to him about the books he’s reading or his conversations with Padre Martínez? Suzanna is filled with longing for the warm fireside of her father’s book-filled parlor.

“I should be there, not here.” She struggles to sit up and pushes her disheveled hair from her face. “Taking care of my father and studying with him, not chained to a child who constantly demands to be fed and cleaned. Who I can’t even bring myself to feel pity for, much less affection. Even Ramón cares for her more than I do.”

She leans back against her pillows and the tears come again. She’s so far from everything here. Her father. Other women. How she misses Encarnación’s warm kitchen and the camaraderie there.

She wipes at her tear-stained cheeks with the back of her hand. It would have been better if she’d never married, never come to these mountains, never had a child. She should have stayed in Don Fernando with her father and been nice to Ceran St. Vrain. He wouldn’t have dragged her into these god-forsaken hills. She closes her eyes, her body limp against the pillows.

There’s a rustle of sound in the kitchen doorway. Suzanna opens her eyes. Ramón is in the door, Alma in his arms. He gazes at Suzanna sympathetically. “It is bad, the pain?” he asks.

She shakes her head. “There is no pain.” She looks at the window. “That is, there’s no physical pain.”

“It is a pain of the heart.” He moves toward the bed, then veers off and settles himself onto the brightly-painted storage chest by the fire, Alma still in his arms. He looks down at the infant and croons something in Spanish. “She is a good baby.” He looks up at Suzanna. “She does not cry like some I have heard.”

“She cries enough.” Suzanna bites her lips against the petulant sound of her voice and looks away. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she mutters.

“Qué?”

Suzanna lifts her hand as if to brush her words away. Her throat tightens, making it difficult to speak. “I want to be a good mother,” she croaks.

“But you are a good mother,” Ramón says.

Suzanna closes her eyes. “I don’t feel very good.”

His eyes widen in alarm. “You are unwell?”

She shakes her head. “I suppose I am well enough physically. But not inside myself. I feel—” She frowns, trying to define the turmoil inside her. “I feel sad, I suppose.”

“Because your father isn’t here?”

She nods unwillingly.

“But there is more.”

She nods again.

“Chonita?”

She raises a limp hand. “That is always with me. This is more, if that’s possible.”

“It is natural, I think,” Ramón says. Alma grunts and he moves slightly, shifting her in his arms. “Among my sisters and cousins, there have been women who suffer from a great sadness after a child is born.” His brow wrinkles. “Sometimes it can lead to madness.”

Suzanna’s head twists toward him. “Madness!”

He dips his head. “I have never known it to lead to such a thing. It is only something I have heard spoken of.”

Suzanna stares at him. “What happens to a woman who goes mad after a child is born?”

He looks at her reluctantly, then shifts Alma again, snuggling her into his chest. “La madre weeps uncontrollably. She becomes restless and angry with her child. Sometimes she injures the child.”

Suzanna stiffens, then wets her lips with her tongue. “And is there a way to prevent this madness?”

He stares into the fire. “They say that too much rest can be harmful,” he says reluctantly.

“Gerald thinks I should rest as much as possible.”

Ramón nods unhappily. “It is only what they say. I don’t know that it is true.”

Something that Suzanna recognizes as amusement glimmers inside her. “I thought you believed the old sayings.”

He chuckles and pats the baby’s back. “Only when it is convenient.”

Suzanna frowns. “Perhaps I should try to be more active.”

He shrugs without looking at her.

“I can try,” she says doubtfully. “I certainly don’t enjoy feeling like this.”

The door to the porch opens and Gerald comes in. He gives her a delighted smile. “You’re sitting up!” he says. “How are you feeling?”

She feels a sudden stab of anger. Of course she’s sitting up. She has to sit up to feed the ever-hungry child, doesn’t she? But she pushes the fierceness away and smiles at him instead. “I think that staying in bed isn’t really helping me feel better,” she says. “Could you bring me my shawl?”

A few days later, she’s kneeling beside the pallet Gerald has made for himself in the loft, straightening the bedding. It really needs to be aired. But heavy gray clouds are hanging once again over the peaks to the west. More snow is about to descend on the valley, on top of the eighteen inches already on the ground. It’s clearly not a good time to try to air blankets.

Her back twinges as she sits back on her heels and pulls the pallet blankets straight. She grimaces and twists, trying to stretch the tightness. She’s not sore as much as she is tense. A good walk in a spring meadow would do her a world of good. But that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Not in this weather. She eases grimly into a standing position in the center of the room and moves toward the ladder.

As she reaches to brace herself for the climb down, Gerald and Ramón come through the front door. “I swear I saw someone,” Gerald says. She can hear the frown in his voice. “Just by the corner of the barn.” His voice drops and Suzanna hears a low rumble, then “Jones.”

Ramón makes a noncommittal grunt. A boot thuds on the wood planks.

“But you didn’t see anything?”

“Nada,” Ramón says.

“I must have imagined it.” Gerald’s voice drops into a stubborn growl. “Jones is dead. I’m sure of it.”

In the loft, Suzanna shakes her head. And the knife that was found by Encarnación’s body? What of it? She isn’t sure why, but she doesn’t lean forward to let the men know she’s there or to question Gerald’s assertion.

“It is probably nothing,” Ramón says.

“Or it’s a lone trapper, trying to decide whether or not to ask for shelter.” Gerald’s voice lifts, his relief palpable. “But we should check the barn, just to be on the safe side. If there is someone out there, they’ll need more protection than the barn can offer in this weather. I’ll go. You already have your boots off.”

Above them, Suzanna crouches by the ladder and listens to Ramón cross in his stocking feet to the kitchen. Behind him, Alma begins to fuss in her cradle. Suzanna moves her aching legs into position on the ladder rungs and slips into the room below. She lifts the baby into her arms and goes to sit pensively by the fire. The image of a man on the ridge south of the cabin rises unbidden and she shivers and hugs Alma closer to her chest.

You’ve just read the thirteenth 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 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 10

CHAPTER 10

The next morning, Suzanna wakes in the cabin loft with a headache and a pain in her chest. She rubs her hands over her face. Why does she feel so miserable? So exhausted? Then she remembers. Encarnación. Dead.

Suzanna closes her eyes against the hopeless tears. They won’t do any good. Her friend is gone. Never to join her here in these mountains. Nausea grips her and she fights it down, then gingerly pushes herself from the sleeping pallet. The only thing that might help is to move, to get outside, to breath the fresh outdoor air.

She dresses, climbs clumsily down the ladder, and retrieves the egg basket from the kitchen. Ramón nods to her somberly but she can’t meet his eye. She slips out of the house to the barn.

There’s a small door at the end nearest the corral, there to provide foot access when they’re not leading animals in and out. The door is partly open, though it provides little light to the interior. Suzanna steps inside and stops to let her eyes adjust to the dimness. She can hear Gerald and Gregorio in the far stall, preparing the mule for Gregorio’s return to Taos. As she crosses the straw-covered earth floor toward them, Gregorio says, “A knife was found.”

Suzanna freezes. He has clearly waited until now to tell Gerald about the knife. There must be a reason he didn’t mention it yesterday. She swallows against a sudden surge of anxiety and closes her eyes, listening.

“It was that big horn-handled one Enoch Jones used to carry.”

Suzanna’s throat tightens. Her fingers are cold on the basket’s woven handle.

“Jones is dead,” Gerald says, his voice stiff.

“So we believed.”

“No man could survive that wilderness with those wounds. If nothing else, the wolves would trail his blood and finish him off.”

The mule moves impatiently. Gregorio speaks to it softly.

Gerald clears his throat. “Someone must have found Jones’ body and stolen the knife.”

There’s a pause, then Gregorio’s reluctant voice. “There have been stories.”

Suzanna starts to move forward, then thinks better of it. They’ll stop talking the moment they know she’s here.

“Encarnación laughed and called them ghost stories,” Gregorio says. “Tales of a man shaped like Jones in the mountains.” There’s another pause. “Between here and Don Fernando,” he adds, his voice dropping. Suzanna has to strain to hear him.

“I did not wish to alarm la señora,” he adds. “Especially with the child coming.”

“I appreciate that,” Gerald says. “They may just be stories.”

“Sí, they may just be stories.”

Suzanna opens her mouth and steps forward, then stops. They’re only trying to protect her. And there’s no point in worrying them about worrying her. She moves quietly back to the door and the cold sunshine. She waits a long moment, then shoves the door open all the way and reenters the barn.

“Hola!” she calls. “Gregorio, are you leaving so early?” The two men turn toward her almost eagerly, as if they don’t want to think about what Gregorio has just said.

After Gregorio returns to Taos, a pall falls on the cabin, a haze of pain that refuses to lift. Gerald seems anxious and unwilling to stray far from the hillside. Suzanna watches him impatiently, suddenly refusing to believe her own fears about the man she saw on the ridge. Somewhere deep in her belly, she knows she’s being unreasonable. That the stories being told in Taos and the presence of the knife beside Chonita’s dead body mean that it’s likely Jones did somehow survive that terrible knife fight and has returned from the wilderness.

But surely that’s impossible. It must be someone else who’s haunting the mountains between the valley and Taos. She simply cannot allow herself to live in terror of any other possibility.

Besides, if Gerald believed that Jones had returned, he would have told her so. He’s said nothing about the Taos rumors or Jones’ bone-handled knife. He’s staying close to the cabin solely out of concern for both her and Ramón’s emotional state. There’s also her physical condition. The baby is due soon and Suzanna is increasingly uncomfortable.

The shock of Encarnación’s death has hit Ramón hard. The realization that she lay dead while he happily anticipated their marriage has left him in a kind of stupor. He still cooks and tends the animals, chops wood and hauls water, but he goes about his tasks in a sort of daze, eyes glazed with pain.

Suzanna herself finds that she’s sitting for long stretches, hands empty in her lap, staring blindly at the windows, glowing yellow with afternoon light. It’s hard to imagine a world without Chonita’s vital laugh, those knowing eyes, that gift for las natillas. Even the mica windowpanes remind her of the other woman. Suzanna smiles, remembering the arguments between her father and the cook about the need for sunlight and fresh air through the old-fashioned kitchen windows with their carved wooden grills, the ones her father wanted to replace with mica.

Ramón enters the room carrying an armload of firewood. Suzanna looks up at him. “You know, I think Encarnación was right,” she says. “The clear light from an open window aperture is so much brighter and truer than sunlight filtered through mica.”

Ramón kneels to add the wood to the small stack at the far end of the fireplace. “It is so,” he says. “She—” Then he stops, a piece of juniper still in his hand. He shakes his head, carefully positions the chunk of wood on top of the stack, then stands and moves toward the kitchen without looking back.

She closes her eyes. She shouldn’t have spoken. It only deepens his pain. And yet, how can she not speak, when everything seems to remind her of her dead friend? She sighs and sorrowfully rubs her belly. She had assumed Encarnación would come for the child’s birth, to assist her through it and perhaps stay on with Ramón.

Grief overwhelms her again, and Suzanna creeps across the room and climbs clumsily up the ladder to the loft. Out of the way, where she can’t do anything else to increase Ramón’s pain.

When the tears finally wear out, Suzanna lies limp on the blanket-covered pallet and stares at the bare rafters overhead. The weeping will erupt again. She hasn’t completed grieving for her friend. But the pressure in her head and chest has subsided a little. She wonders if Ramón has wept at all, if he’s found an outlet for his grief. But he’s a man. Men learn early to suppress their emotions. Perhaps speaking of his loss to another man will be all he can manage.

But when she asks Gerald that night if Ramón has spoken to him of Encarnación’s death. Her husband shakes his head.

“It will fester in him if he doesn’t express it.” Suzanna pushes another pillow behind her back, trying to get comfortable on the thin bed. “It isn’t good to hold in that kind of pain.”

“You don’t know that he’s not expressing it,” Gerald says. “We each have our own way of dealing with grief.” He leans down to give her a kiss and pokes at the pillows behind her. “Are you comfortable yet?”

“Not until this child decides to be born,” she says, exaggerating her grumbling tone, glad to have something else to think about. “Ouch!” She presses a hand against her lower chest. “That foot just jabbed my rib and now it’s pushing straight out.”

“Pushy little thing, isn’t it?” Gerald grins and he stretches out beside her. “Must be a girl.”

She gives him a slit-eyed look. “You certainly are in a good mood tonight.” Guilt wells up in her and she turns her head away. How can she be happy when Encarnación is dead and Ramón so bent with grief? Tears brim into her eyes. “When my father arrives for Christmas, Chonita won’t be with him.” She gives Gerald a bleak look. “If I can’t bear the thought of that, how must Ramón feel?”

Gerald lifts himself onto one elbow and gently strokes her dark hair. “I don’t mean to be hard hearted. I know your heart weeps for her and that Ramón is burdened with grief and self-reproach.”

“Self-reproach?”

“He believes that if he’d insisted that they marry when we did, she would have been here and safe, instead of on that acequia path.”

Suzanna’s eyes fill again. “On that path with potatoes from my patch, so far away from the village.” She shakes her head. “And I was so willing for her to stay in Don Fernando, so quick to leave her with all the work while I took what I wanted. When I left, she remained to arrange everything, to take all the responsibility for my father. And to have none of my joy.” She turns her head away from his sympathetic eyes. Her voice shakes. “I’m more to blame than Ramón!”

“Neither of you are to blame,” Gerald says firmly. “Encarnación insisted, remember? She decided what she wanted to do and that was it.” He chuckles. “Did you ever know her to change her mind once she had decided a thing?”

“No, not that I can remember.” She manages a small smile. “In fact, it was never clear whether she or my father was the first to decide that she would be our cook and housekeeper. I’ve always suspected it was Chonita’s idea before it was his, even though she was only fourteen at the time.”

Gerald grins. “She set you a good example.”

She narrows her eyes. “Now what exactly is that supposed to mean?”

He laughs. “Only that you and she both know how to get what you most want.” He leans forward and kisses her forehead. “Now please relax and let that baby finish its last bit of growth so it can arrive soon.” He reaches for her hand. “Ramón and I expect to have a surprise for you tomorrow morning, but if it’s to truly be a surprise, you’ll need to stay up here until we’re ready to show it to you. Can you do that?”

She grimaces. “Since I now need help to get down the ladder, I suppose I don’t have much choice, do I?”

He laughs and squeezes her hand. “I suppose not.” He looks around the loft. “You have the lamp and your books. The chamber pot’s empty and the wash basin has clean water in it. Is there anything else you need?”

“Chonita to be alive and this child to be born,” she says, closing her eyes. She can feel the grief pulling at her again.

Gerald touches her hair. “I wish I could make both those things happen,” he says. “I didn’t know Encarnación well, but I also feel her loss.”

Suzanna reaches for his hand. “I don’t mean to be such a weepy woman about it. I suppose it’s as much the weight of the child as grief for Chonita. If my time doesn’t come soon, I may dissolve in a lake of tears.”

“When the baby does arrive, it will be a comfort to all of us.” He looks up at the rafters. “Though I dread the process of its coming.”

“I’ll be fine.” Suzanna puts more courage into her voice than she actually feels at the moment. “We both know what to expect. After all, cows aren’t much different from humans.”

“Still, I wish you could be in your father’s house.” He turns his head, eyes dark with concern. “I shouldn’t have taken you from Taos.”

“It’s too late for that now,” she says. “I’ll be fine. I’m sure of it.”

He rolls toward her. “I’ll certainly be glad when it’s over,” he says, his face against her shoulder.

Suzanna turns her head to kiss him gently, then turns back to stare at the rafters herself. She can sleep only on her back now. Every other position is uncomfortable. As she stares into the darkness, Gerald’s body relaxes into sleep.

She can’t let go that easily. Despite Gerald’s reassurances, she still regrets her eagerness to hasten her own marriage and delay Encarnación’s. One of them needed to stay in Taos with her father and arrange for and train a new housekeeper. She had selfishly let that person be Chonita. Who is now dead. The tears slip silently down Suzanna’s face.

Finally, she sleeps. She wakes to a muttered curse in the room below and a muffled thud on the plank floor. “Are you two moving furniture?” she calls, but the only response is the scuff of boots across the floor and the thud of the front door shutting.

Suzanna frowns. What are those two up to? Oh, yes. The surprise. Well, if it distracts Ramón a little from his pain, it’s a good thing.

She closes her eyes against her own grief, then sits up. Her bladder is full to bursting. Or at least it feels like it. It could just be that the baby is pushing against it again. That nothing much will happen when she uses the chamber pot.

She gets up anyway, then slips back onto the thin pallet. She shifts impatiently, trying to get comfortable. The loft’s floor boards seem especially hard this morning, the pallet especially thin. It’s no use. She’ll read for a while, until they’re ready to show her the surprise.

She pushes herself into a sitting position. As she reaches to light the lamp, the door below thuds open again. “Shhh!” Gerald hisses. “Careful now! She’ll hear us!”

Suzanna pulls her hand away from the lamp and lies down again, a small smile playing on her lips. Let them think she’s still sleeping.

She’s actually dozed off again when Gerald’s head appears at the top of the ladder. “Wife?” he says.

“Ummm?”

“Your surprise is ready.” He sounds so pleased with himself.

She sits up and stretches her hand to him.

“Well, almost ready,” he says. “You have to see it before it can be completed.”

She chuckles. “Now I’m really curious.”

“Don’t look over the edge of the loft,” he warns. “And you’ll need to close your eyes on the way down.”

“Isn’t that’s rather dangerous?”

He laughs. “You haven’t been able to see your feet on the ladder rungs for the last month,” he reminds her. “I’ll stay right below you just like I’ve been doing, and you’ll be perfectly safe.”

“I put myself in your hands,” she says, smiling. She wraps a shawl around her shoulders and ties it firmly in place. “All right, I’m ready.”

Gerald guides her carefully down the ladder, then places his hands on her shoulders and turns her, eyes still closed, toward the fireplace. “Here it is!” he says.

Suzanna opens her eyes. A bed stands between the fireplace and the window. A real bed, large enough for two people, with a sturdy pale-gold wooden post at each corner and thinner pieces forming the frame. Strips of rawhide have been woven together and attached to the frame to create a mattress support.

“It isn’t quite ready,” Gerald says apologetically. He slips his arm around her waist. “We’ll bring the pallet and blankets down and make it up properly.”

Ramón stands on the far side of the bed, watching her. His face holds the glimmer of a smile, the first she’s seen since Gregorio arrived with his news. “It is for you and the little one,” Ramón says. He glances at the ladder to the loft. “You will be safer here.”

“It’s beautiful.” Suzanna leans against her husband and smiles at Ramón, both hands on her protruding belly. She looks at the bed. “The wood is such a beautiful soft yellow. Is it aspen?”

“Sí,” Ramón says eagerly. “And we have coated it with a thin layer of resin, to preserve it. It should last all your days—” He stops suddenly and looks away.

Suzanna’s throat catches. She turns to Gerald. “I want to try it right away,” she says. She moves to her chair and eases herself into it. She looks at Ramón, her eyes twinkling. “I’m afraid you’ve made more work for yourself, because I’ll also need the lamp and my books.”

The men move up the ladder to do her bidding and the cabin is filled with activity, pushing the loss of Encarnación into the shadows, at least for a little while.

You’ve just read the tenth 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.

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 8

CHAPTER 8

The man in the bulky bearskin poncho yanks the gelding’s reins, forcing the big black backward and down the snow-driven hilltop and out of sight. He’s seen what he came for and with no risk of sunlight sparking from the spyglass.

He reaches under the poncho. The glass is still in his coat pocket. Only good thing he got out of that damn desert. When he’d finally stopped bleeding and had moved away from the river caves to the dry lands above, he’d stumbled on the picked-over skeleton of a man less hardy than himself. The dented spyglass beside him was the one thing the buzzards hadn’t wanted. It’s right handy for watching the Peabody bitch and her men.

He squints up at the Sangres. Ice-bound snow stings his face. Storm came in faster’n he expected. Horse’ll need to move quick if he’s gonna get back to camp before it starts driftin’.

But he got a good head-on look at the shanty Locke and the bitch are living in. His tongue runs over his lips. Girl’s tasty, in that Mexican way of hers. Well, French Navajo. Not that there’s much difference. All foreigners. And her New England pa with his high’n mighty ways.

Her men don’t keep her real close. She was down there choppin’ corn a good hour or more, no one else in sight. His pale blue eyes gleam. They’re gettin’ lazy already. Or tired of her and her airs. Be willing to have him take care of her. He grins. He’ll do that, all right. When the time comes.

At the bottom of the ice-slicked hill, he saws on the reins and gives the gelding a sharp kick, jabbing it into a trot against the oncoming snow, toward the ravine where he’s stashed his gear. Not much danger of anyone spotting him in this weather. He can afford a fire tonight.

You’ve just read the eighth 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 4

CHAPTER 4

The emptiness has just begun to feel normal again when a band of Ute Indians rides into the cabin yard.

Suzanna is on a bench on the porch, shelling peas, enjoying the mid-August warmth, and congratulating herself that the rabbits seem to be leaving the plants alone. Plants that are still producing. In Taos, their leaves would be turning yellow by now, the stalks withering in the heat.

She just wishes the pestiferous raccoons would stop snooping around her corn. This morning, she found a stalk bent to the ground, as if the furry black-masked lumps of mischief have been inspecting the ears to see if they’re ready to eat.

Her head is bent over the bowl of peas, fingers running appreciatively through the small orbs of damp greenness, when an unshod horse hoof thuds on the hardened-clay soil between the corral and the barn.

Suzanna lifts her head. A tall Indian man, his black hair chopped off at his chin in Ute fashion, watches her from the back of a brown gelding with white spots. Four horseback men and three boys on ponies cluster behind him.

Suzanna rises, clutching her bowl.

Then Ramón is behind her in the doorway, shotgun in the crook of his elbow. “Ah, Stands Alone,” he says. “Buenos días.” He steps onto the porch and waves Suzanna toward the cabin door as he nods at the men behind the Ute leader. “Many Eagles. Little Squirrel.”

“We have met before,” the man called Stands Alone says. He’s looking at Ramón, but his words are clearly for the benefit of the men behind him. “In this valley in the season of many snows.” He waves a hand at the grassland below. “We shared meat and bread in this place.” He nods at Ramón’s gun, his face inscrutable. “And now you have returned. In the place of Señor Locke?”

“El señor and I have returned together.” Ramón motions toward Suzanna, in the doorway now, holding her bowl of peas. “With his woman.”

Stands Alone studies Suzanna for a long moment. “It is well.” He turns to address the group behind him. “I have agreed to this thing.” He turns back to Ramón, whose shotgun still lies in the crook of his arm.

“You are safe here,” Stands Alone says. “My people listen to me.”

From the doorway, Suzanna sees a shadow cross the face of the man Ramón called Many Eagles, the man with a thin, prominent nose and one brow higher than the other. He doesn’t look as if he listens to anyone. Or answers to anyone but himself.

Ramón makes a welcoming gesture with his free hand. “You are welcome.”

“You are here as Señor Locke’s servant?”

“Señor Chávez is my partner.” Gerald says from the end of the cabin. He steps into the yard. “His welcome is my welcome.” He turns toward the porch. “And this is my wife, Suzanna, the daughter of Señor Jeremiah Peabody of Don Fernando de Taos.”

Stands Alone gazes at Suzanna for a long moment, then looks at Gerald. “Your woman is the daughter of the French Navajo girl and the New Englander? The woman called She Who Does Not Cook?”

Ramón chuckles. Gerald throws back his head and laughs. Suzanna shakes her head in embarrassment.

“We prefer to say She Who Plants,” Gerald says.

Stands Alone’s eyes twinkle. “I have heard that it is so.” Behind him, Many Eagles’ stallion moves impatiently. Stands Alone turns and gestures to one of the boys, who moves forward and smiles shyly at Suzanna. Stands Alone says something in Ute and the boy slides from his pony.

“This is my son, Little Squirrel,” Stands Alone says. He turns to Gerald. “I was told of your cabin and that there is maíz growing now in this valley. We have brought you a gift to keep the grazers and the mapache from the crops of your woman.”

A woven pannier with tied-down lids lies across the rump of Little Squirrel’s pony. At a signal from his father, the boy unties the nearest cover and reaches into the space below. He pulls out a bundle of brown and black fur and sets it on the ground. As the bundle resolves itself into a fat puppy, Little Squirrel places another one, this one more yellow than brown, beside it. “Un perro y una perra, a male and a female,” he says shyly.

Suzanna clutches her bowl of peas and eyes the puppies warily. She isn’t sure she wants a dog. Or two of them. They’ll simply be one more thing to see to. She has a baby coming and crops to tend to. That’s enough to worry about.

“They will be grown before the child can walk,” Stands Alone says. Suzanna glances up in surprise. Is her ambivalence that apparent? But the man is looking at Gerald. He nods toward the field below, where the corn plants stand in neat rows, leaves flowing in the sunlight. “They will protect el maíz. If it bears fruit.”

Suzanna’s lips tighten. “The cobs are forming well,” she says. “I see no reason to expect the crop to fail, if I can keep the raccoons out of it.” She glances at the puppies. They seem unlikely to be much use against grown raccoons. Then she looks at the Ute’s impassive face and softens. The young dogs are a goodwill offering, no matter how unhelpful they may turn out to be. “Perhaps the smell of them will be enough to keep the raccoons away.” She gives him a little nod. “I thank you.”

A glimmer of a smile crosses Stands Alone’s face. He nods back at her, then glances at Little Squirrel, who leaps back onto his pony. The boy maneuvers his mount away from the pups and toward the group by the barn.

Suzanna opens her mouth to invite the Utes to a meal, but Stands Alone speaks first. “Los mapaches will leave when the deer come, and they will be here soon. The snow in the hills will push them into the valley.” He looks toward the western slopes, which show no signs of yellow, though the aspens seem brighter than they were in July. “The leaves will drop early this year,” he says. “We go to Taos for winter blankets.” He nods abruptly to Gerald and Ramón and wheels his white-spotted horse toward the barn. He speaks a single word to his men, and then they’re out of the yard and moving due west across the valley.

Suzanna turns to Gerald. “Is there a more direct way to Taos than through Palo Flechado Pass?”

Gerald shrugs but Ramón nods. “There is a way there, past the sacred lake of the Taos Pueblo,” he says. “The trail is rugged, but it is more direct for those wishing to trade at the pueblo. It is also good for travel to the settlements north of Don Fernando, those of Arroyo Hondo and such. But one must go softly there and only in peace. The Taoseños set a watch there that is never broken. They have many sacred places in the mountains.”

The yellow-brown puppy has nosed its way across the yard and is sniffing at Ramón’s boots. He reaches down and lifts it by the scruff of its neck. “This is the female.” He sets the puppy back on its feet and looks at Suzanna. “What will you call them?”

She shrugs. “Perro and Perra? Boy and girl?”

Gerald chuckles. “Surely we can do better than that!”

“I don’t plan on being friends with them,” she says. “I have enough to do.”

Gerald and Ramón trade a look which Suzanna chooses to ignore.

“Spot and Brownie?” Gerald suggests.

“That’s not very original,” she replies.

Ramón grins. “Negro y Amarilla?”

“Black and Gold?” Suzanna chuckles. “That’s just as bad.”

Both dogs are now sniffling busily along the edge of the porch.

“Uno y Dos,” Ramón says.

Suzanna laughs. The two men grin at her. “One and Two,” she says. “Sure. Why not?” Then she grins. “But the yellow-brown female is Uno, not Dos.”

You’ve just read the fourth 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.