FIRST DIVORCE

Augusta Meinert stood firmly in the center of the makeshift courtroom, her eyes on the judge. At thirty-seven, she was still attractive, though the stubborn tilt to her chin said she didn’t often take “no” for an answer.

Judge Watts studied her. “You understand what divorce means?” He spoke slowly, as if unsure her English could withstand the strain of the concept.

Augusta’s chin went up. “I understand no longer the bastard takes the money I earn.” A ripple of suppressed laughter ran through the onlookers behind her. She turned and glared, and the men fell silent.

“You will be a marked woman,” Judge Watts warned. “This isn’t Germany.”

She frowned. “In Germany, he takes my money, and I can do nothing.” She smiled suddenly, her eyes twinkling. “It is why I like America.”

The Judge nodded and gaveled the rough wooden planks of the table before him. “The first divorce in Colfax County, New Mexico Territory, is hereby declared final,” he announced.

from Valley of the Eagles

NOTE: This tale, like most of the other stories in Valley of the Eagles, is based on an actual event. In this case, Augusta Meinert’s petition for divorce was the first heard in newly formed Colfax County in the Spring 1869 court session in Elizabethtown, New Mexico. For more details, see the footnote in the book.

Book Review: Knight’s Odyssey

Farmer.Knights Odyssey.cover
Five Star Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781432838003

Knight’s Odyssey is the second in W. Michael Farmer’s Legends of the Desert series and follows the now-fictional Henry Fountain into new terrain.

I say “now-fictional Henry Fountain” because, as those of you familiar with the name  know, the historical Henry Fountain disappeared in the deserts of New Mexico when he was eight years old. The first book in the Legends of the Desert series Mariana’s Knight,  focused on his disappearance and imagined a way in which he might have survived and revenged his father’s assassination.

This second book in the series imagines Henry’s life after that revenge, taking him into Mexico and through a series of adventures that sees him fall in love and experience even more reasons for vengeance. But revenge isn’t the only purpose in Henry’s life. The story ends in an unexpected way that made me eager to read the next book and find out what happened next.

Knight’s Odyssey is more than a action-filled western with strong characters and well-described landscape. It’s a well-balanced story that looks at both the motivations that drive us and what gives our lives meaning. I recommend it!

ROTTEN QUARTZ

The three men and two mules stopped and stared up the mountainside. A fall of broken rock blocked their way.

“Well, shit!” Gus said. “How’re we supposed to get to that old mine shaft with this in the way?”

Herbert pulled off his hat and fanned his week-old beard. “Maybe we can go around.”

Alonzo pulled his suspenders away from his rounded belly and looked down and then up the sharply-angled slope. “Mules ain’t gonna like that,” he said.

“Guess we’re done then.” Gus rubbed his jaw. “Hell, I needed that gold.”

Herbert shrugged and began maneuvering the mules to face back down the mountainside.

Alonzo stared across the slope at the fractured stone. “That’s rotten quartz,” he said thoughtfully. He moved out onto the rocks.

“Careful there,” Gus said, but Alonzo only crouched down and stretched to pluck a piece from near the center of the rock fall. He turned it carefully. “Will you look at that,” he said wonderingly.

Gus and Herbert looked at each other, then Alonzo. He grinned back at them. “Might be this is  as far’s we need to go,” he said. He lifted the quartz in his hand. “Looks like there’s gold enough right here!”

from Valley of the Eagles

ATTITUDES

“Rues? Your last name is Roo-ess?” The young white man sitting at the Elizabethtown restaurant table looked at the old black man quizzically. “You mean Ruiz? Roo-eez? You got some Spanish in you?”

The cook shook his head. “All I know’s what my mama tol’ me,” he said. “My daddy was a Frenchman visiting ’round in Alabama. He stayed at the Big House for three weeks and took a shine to my mama while he was there. When I was born, she give me his last name.”

“Your master let her do that?”

The black man studied the plate of food in his hands for a long minute. “After the war, we could choose what last name we wanted,” he said quietly. “I chose my daddy’s name.”

“That food sure looks good,” the white man said. He moved his knife and fork farther apart on the bare wooden table.

Louis Rues put the plate down and turned away. He shook his head. People are people, no matter where you go, he thought ruefully as he went back to his stove.

from Valley of the Eagles

 

Book Review: Mariana’s Knight

 

Marianas Knight cover
Publisher: Five Star Publishing (May 17, 2017)
ISBN-13: 978-1432833923

It’s one of New Mexico’s perennial mysteries: What happened to Albert Fountain and his son Henry? By the mid-1890s, southern New Mexico attorney and special prosecutor Albert Fountain had made a lot of enemies. It wasn’t surprising that those enemies would take advantage of Fountains’ trip across the Tularosa basin to take him out.

As a matter of fact, he and his wife expected as much. That’s why Fountain’s wife insisted that he take their eight-year-old son, Henry, with him to Lincoln, where Fountain was scheduled to present evidence against suspected cattle rustlers. Surely no one was wicked enough to kill a little boy, or murder his father while he watched.

When Fountain and the boy disappeared, the entire Territory was stunned.

And that’s where Mariana’s Knight diverges from the historical record. To this day, no one knows what happened to Albert and Henry Fountain in early February 1896. All that remained of them was a patch of blood soaking into the southern New Mexico sand.

Michael Farmer provides an interesting and vivid take on what might have happened that day and afterward and, in the process, gives his reader a look at New Mexico in the late 1800s.

If you’re interested in the Fountain mystery or the history of southern New Mexico, or if you’re just looking for a riveting Western tale, you’ll find Mariana’s Knight a fascinating read. I recommend it!

WINTER STOP, MORENO VALLEY

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

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

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

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

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 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 6

CHAPTER 6

Her hand is still wrapped in bandages several mornings later. She’s sitting on the front porch, watching the Ute puppies play and studying the pattern of gold on the western slopes, when a scrawny mountain man, his long red hair clumped in rough braids, rides into the yard. He’s hunched forward over his sorrel mare, his shoulders almost touching his knees, which are level with the horse’s withers. A pack mule trails behind him on a leather lead.

Suzanna smiles. “Well, Mr. Old Bill Williams,” she says. “It’s good to see you again. How long has it been? Since last fall? I see you’ve found a horse to match your hair.”

“Well now, you know what they say,” the mountain man says. “Caballo alazán tostado, primero muerto que cansado. A sorrel-colored horse would rather die than show fatigue.” He pats a long red braid. “I figured I’d get me a horse that could righteously match me for stamina.”

Suzanna laughs and stands up. “I’m sure even a horse with her endurance must need rest and sustenance. Let me show you where to house her.”

He glances over his shoulder toward the barn. “Oh, I can find my way,” he says. “You just set there and rest yourself.”

“I’ve been resting all morning and I’m about ready to go out of my mind.” She lifts her bandaged hand. “I can’t clean, I can’t sew, and I can’t garden.”

Old Bill laughs. “Now that is a trial. Are you tellin’ me that your pa sent you into the mountains without a righteously sufficient supply of reading material?”

“Even turning pages is difficult,” Suzanna says. She steps off the porch. “Come, I’ll show you where to store your tack.”

If Suzanna wants someone to talk to her, then Old Bill Williams is the man. He has plenty to tell her. “You know I went huntin’ beaver with Sylvester Pratte and his bunch up in South Park last season,” he says as he settles onto a porch bench with a tin cup of water in his hand. He glances down at the cup, its sides sweating with moisture. “This is righteously tasty well water, but you don’t happen to have anything stronger, do you now?”

Suzanna shakes her head. “But I can make you some tea,” she says. “I’m not completely incapacitated.”

He grins. “Well, now, tea isn’t quite what I had in mind.”

She chuckles. “I didn’t think for a moment that it was.” She tilts her head. “We heard a rumor that Pratte took fifty men with him to South Park. Is that true?”

Williams snorts. “More like thirty. Which was still too many. Pratte always did have ideas that were too big for actual implementation.”

Suzanna frowns. “Did have? Has something happened to him?”

“Got bit by a dog and died. Your old friend St. Vrain up and took over for him and we brought back a righteously good catch, in spite of all the commotion.” Williams salutes her with his cup and takes a long drink. He shakes his head. “Well, it most certainly isn’t whisky, but it’s dandy well water.” He leans forward and studies the well in the center of the yard, the adobe bricks that form the lower half of the log barn, the rows of corn and the hayfields in the vega below, the men at work with their scythes. “You all have been keepin’ yourselves occupied.”

“Gerald and Ramón have worked diligently to get us situated for winter,” Suzanna says. She lifts her bandaged hand. “I was trying to do my part when this happened.”

“Burnt it, did you? Tryin’ to do kitchen work?”

She nods ruefully and Old Bill snorts self-righteously. “Your pa keepin’ you out of that kitchen was a sure-enough mistake, to my way of thinkin’. But he was settin’ you up for bigger things. Better than what your ma ever had. Or was.”

His eyes rake the snow-topped mountains to the west. “Yes sir, and then you went and married a—” He slides her a look, then shifts on his bench, adjusting himself. “Married a farmer,” he says. He tilts his head back. “Hah! And one that’s hell-bent on settlin’ just about as far away as he can get from any kind of righteous civilization.”

He shakes his head and studies the mountain slopes on the other side of the valley. “You seen any Injuns yet?” He turns and looks at the cabin door. “You do have a firearm close enough for grabbin’, don’t you?”

Just then Gerald and Ramón top the path from the valley. They cross the yard to the porch, tools over their shoulders. “Well, that’s the last of the hay,” Gerald says. “Hello, Bill! Where’d you drop in from?”

“You got a firearm she can use while you’re down in the fields?” Williams demands.

“It’s right inside the door,” Gerald answers mildly. He turns to Suzanna. “How’s the hand?”

She grimaces. “Still aching. I wish I had a prickly pear pad to put on it.”

“I haven’t seen any prickly pear up here.” He glances toward the hill behind the house. A few yucca plants are scattered on the drier parts of the slope. Their pointed pale-green spines contrast sharply with the dark-green ponderosa clustered at the top of the hill. “Will yucca do?”

“No, it’s not the same. I wish I’d asked Encarnación to bring me some prickly pear pads to plant.”

“That would be a good food source, if they will grow up here,” Ramón says. “We should send word.”

Suzanna nods and shifts her hand to her shoulder, an old trick Encarnación has always said will speed healing. “In the meantime, I wait,” she says, trying to keep the frustration out of her voice. She turns to Old Bill with a smile. “But Mr. Williams has been keeping me entertained.”

Gerald and Ramón lean their tools against the cabin wall and move forward to clasp the older man’s hand, then go inside to dip their own cups of water from the bucket in the kitchen. When they come back, they settle on the porch benches, and Suzanna turns to Williams. “So tell us what happened to Sylvester Pratte.”

“Well, you know he rounded up a bunch of us to go huntin’ in South Park and along the Platte River last fall. Right before we headed out, he was visitin’ some woman with one of those little yap-hammering dogs and it bit him.”

Ramón chuckles and Williams laughs. “Yep, nobody seems to know who the dog belonged to or why it decided Pratte needed bitin’, poor devil,” he says. “I figure the woman’s true man put a spell on the dog to keep Pratte away.” He grins. “Or maybe Pratte’s wife back there in St. Louis did a little voodoo.” He turns to Suzanna. “Anyhow, the bite got righteously infected and the poison seeped into his blood.” Williams grimaces. “I’d rather get caught by Comanche than die all swelled up like that.”

Gerald glances at Suzanna, then gives Williams a warning look and changes the subject. “Pratte had half that group under contract, didn’t he? What happened with those agreements?”

“Oh, they all got together and talked St. Vrain into takin’ over.” Williams shakes his red head. “I’m not saying it was smart of St. Vrain to agree to do it. It’s risky enough to run your own outfit, much less somebody else’s, with contracts you didn’t set up. But it does say something about the youngster that they asked him to do it. Says he can do more useful things than what he’s been doin’, with his smugglin’ goods in across the mountains and undersellin’ those who don’t.”

“My father believes Ceran will go far,” Suzanna says. “Despite the smuggling rumors, men seem to just naturally trust him, even if he is only in his mid-twenties.”

“He does seem sensible enough,” Williams agrees. “More’n that fool Smith.”

“Smith was with that expedition to the Gila and Colorado that I joined a couple seasons ago,” Gerald says. “That group William Wolfskill and Ewing Young put together. Smith had an opinion about just about everything. Half-way up the Colorado, he and a few of the others split off and headed out on their own.” He shakes his head. “He was so opinionated, I think Young was glad to be rid of him.”

Williams snorts. “That’s Smith, sure enough. I heard he and that little bunch of his had a hell of a time before they made it back to the settlements. Served ’em right.” He stretches his legs into the patch of sunlight that’s moving across the wooden porch. “He was as opinionated this last season as he’s ever been, and now he’s a big hero for cuttin’ off his own foot.”

They all stare at him. Williams grins, flips his braids behind his back, and leans back against the cabin wall.

“Cómo fué eso?” Ramón asks.

Williams chuckles. “How indeed,” he says with a satisfied air. He looks at Suzanna. “You should of seen it. We got in a righteous bit of a scuffle with some Rocky Mountain natives and Smith took an arrow in his left leg.” He gestures toward his ankle. “Right about there. It shattered the bone. There was blood spoutin’ everywhere—” He looks at Suzanna. His gaze rests lightly on her midsection, then flicks away. “It’s a righteously bad thing to be tellin’ a woman.”

“My imagination will probably make it worse than it actually was,” Suzanna says.

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Williams says. He looks away and studies the mountains as he speaks, choosing his words. “An arrow got him in the left ankle.” He waves toward his leg again. “Well, just above. It was quite a sight. He kept his head though, and tied it off quick, so the bleeding stopped soon enough. But the bones were sticking—” He glances at Suzanna apologetically, then turns his eyes back toward the mountains. “He decided it was too mangled to save, so he took a butcher knife to it.” He glances at the two men. “Did it himself.”

Suzanna’s bandaged hand goes to her mouth and Gerald growls, “I think that’s enough.”

Williams scowls. “She wanted to know.”

“I did,” Suzanna says. “Poor Mr. Smith! Is he all right now?”

“He and Milt Sublette got the foot and ankle off clean enough and tied up the leg. It appears to be healin’ well enough. There’s talk of making him a wood stump.” Williams shakes his head. “The man’s all mouth and fire, but he’s got gumption, I’ll say that for him.”

Suzanna shudders. “What a horrible thing. He’ll never be able to trap again.”

“Knowing Smith, I doubt a missing foot will stop him,” Gerald says. He looks at Old Bill. “Do you have anything less graphic and more pleasant to tell us?”

“Well, let’s see.” Williams scratches his head. “St. Vrain’s back in Taos, selling goods and prosperin’ well.” He grins. “Of course, no one he’s sellin’ to is demanding to know if any customs duty was paid on the goods.” He turns to Suzanna. “I saw your Pa as I passed through. He says to tell you hello and that he and that girl cook of his’ll be here for Christmas.”

Suzanna smiles in delight, then shakes her head at him in mock disgust. “That should have been the first thing you told me.”

Gerald laughs. “If you’d told her that first, she wouldn’t have even heard the rest.”

“But thank you for the message,” Suzanna says. She stands and moves into the cabin’s main room and toward the ladder to the loft. “I’ll just toss down some blankets and we can make up a pallet for you by the fire.”

The men move to follow her inside and Ramón heads to the kitchen. Suzanna, halfway up the ladder, suddenly gasps and stops, her bandaged hand in mid-air.

“Are you all right?” Gerald asks.

“I just put too much pressure on my hand.” She turns her head so he can’t see her face. The hand throbs and her stomach churns. She fights to keep her voice steady. “I just need a moment.”

“What’re you puttin’ on that burn?” Williams asks.

“I made an ointment from some dried prickly pear, but it’s not the same as fresh,” Suzanna says. She begins climbing again, careful to grip the ladder with her left hand and use her right forearm for balance. She maneuvers carefully into the loft, but the right hand has to accept some pressure no matter how she positions herself.

She bites her lip and drops onto the floorboards, waiting for the throbbing to lessen. Then she takes a deep breath and goes to the chest for the blankets Williams will need. As she tosses them down with her left hand, a wave of shaky nausea hits her. She takes a deep breath, pushing the acid away, steadying herself. Pain bites her hand and she gasps against it. She gulps hard, blinks the tears away, then peers around the ladder into the room below. “I’m going to remain up here,” she says, trying to keep her voice steady. “It’s too rough on my hand to go back down and then come up again.”

“I can fold my own blankets,” Williams tells her with a grin.

“I’ll bring a plate up to you,” Gerald says.

She nods gratefully to him and moves backward to sit on the pallet. The pain stabs again. As she bends over her hand, biting back the pain, Williams say, “She needs some fresh prickly pear on that.”

“It’s healing, but very slowly,” Gerald says. “Which is making her impatient, of course.”

Williams chuckles. “Suzanna Peabody impatient? That’s just righteously difficult for me to believe!”

Suzanna grins, in spite of the pain. “I heard that!” she calls and the men chuckle and move into the kitchen. “By the way, I hear your Pa’s gone north to the Yellowstone,” Williams says as the door closes behind them.

The red-headed mountain man’s blankets are empty when the others rise the next morning. Gerald returns from the barn to report that the trapper’s packs and mule are still there, but Williams and the sorrel are missing. “So there’s little doubt he’ll be back,” he says as they gather around the breakfast table.

Sure enough, the red horse and rider clop into the yard late that afternoon, a lumpy cloth bag tied behind Williams’ saddle.

“I’ve been down Cimarron canyon,” Williams says as he dismounts. He unties the bag and turns to Suzanna. “This here is what that hand of yours is needin’.”

She takes the bag with her left hand, shakes it slightly open and peers into it. She looks up with a blazing smile. “That is exactly what I need!” She turns to Gerald and tilts the top of the bag toward him. “Prickly pear pads.”

A few minutes later, she’s sitting at the kitchen table and Gerald is removing her bandages while Ramón gingerly disengages a thick pale-green oval pad covered with two-inch spines from Williams’ bag. As Williams hovers in the doorway, Ramón rinses the pad in water, singes it over the fire, then deftly scrapes the remaining needles off with a sharp knife. He fillets the green slab into two half-inch pieces and crosses the room to the table.

Gerald dabs at the wound with a damp cloth, then Ramón places a prickly pear pad, cut-side down on Suzanna’s palm and holds it in place while Gerald secures it with a fresh bandage.

“My palm feels better already,” Suzanna tells Williams. She nods at the lumpy bag on the work table. “And it appears that you’ve collected enough for me to plant some, as well.”

“That’s what I had in mind, all right,” Williams says. “Since there’s yucca on the gravel spots on these hillsides, I’m bettin’ pear cactus will grow up here too, if it’s given half a chance.”

Gerald straightens. “Once more I’m indebted to you.”

“Ah, it ain’t nothin’,” the mountain man says. “You’d of done it yourself, if you’d known where to look.”

Gerald nods, then frowns. “I don’t remember seeing prickly pear in the canyon.”

“It’s further down,” Williams says. “Where I found it really wasn’t canyon anymore.” He grins at Suzanna. “We’ve got to get those hands of yours righteously back in shape so you can take care of that baby that’s coming. That and plantin’ your plants. I saw you had maíz at the bottom of the hill. Are you gettin’ it to grow proper-like up here?”

“What I’ve been able to keep those rapacious raccoons out of has been growing, but it doesn’t seem to want to ripen,” Suzanna says. She moves her hand and winces. It still hurts, though not as much. “The growing season up here is remarkably shorter than it is at Don Fernando. We had snow showers off and on and the ground was half-frozen all through May, so I wasn’t able to plant until early June. Then keeping it watered was a challenge, since we had no rain until the July monsoons began.” Her eyes darken. “I lost a quarter of my plants. When the corn finally did start to form, the raccoons were more than inquisitive, the pernicious beasts. Nothing seems to slow them down much, not even Indian puppies.” She lifts her hands in disgust. “And the deer will be descending pretty soon. I’ll be surprised if there’s anything left to harvest at all.”

There’s a small silence, the men glancing toward the walls and the floors, carefully avoiding Suzanna’s eyes. Then Ramón turns to Williams. “How far north did you all travel this past season, Señor Bill? Did Señor Pratte’s party clean out the Platte River region completely?”

Two weeks later, Bill Williams has gone on his way, Suzanna’s hand is healing nicely, and the little corn that has matured is safely harvested and dried for planting the following season. It and the peas for next year are stored in the root cellar beside the strips of dried squash and ropes of garlic.

At least the squash and garlic crops were good, Suzanna thinks ruefully as she lifts her lantern over the cellar bins and shelves to see the results of her first season in the valley. The potatoes still need to be harvested, but they’re well covered with meadow hay and she hopes to winter them in the ground.

And now she has nothing to do. She hates the end of the growing season. The baby kicks just then and Suzanna chuckles in spite of her low spirits. She rubs her belly. “Yes, I know,” she says. “You’re going to keep me occupied soon enough.” She turns, looking again at the nicely-crowded cellar, then heads toward the door. “But in the meantime, I have nothing to do but clean and sew. How righteously enjoyable, as Old Bill would say.”

As she fastens the root cellar door and moves across the twilight-filled yard, Suzanna reflects that, if she were in Taos, her father would be creating a reading plan for the coming months and deciding which Latin texts she’s ready to tackle.

She could create her own reading and study plan. But somehow she doesn’t feel up to it. She’s just too restless. And bored at the same time. She needs to find something active to do while she still can. Before winter sets in completely.

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

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1

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

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

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

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

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

Ramón looks up. “Señor Gerald?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It wasn’t el señor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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