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 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 5

CHAPTER 5

Stands Alone’s prediction that fall will arrive early holds true, and Suzanna realizes irritably that he also correctly predicted that her corn won’t ripen in time. The September afternoons are chilly, but the ears of maíz are still so thin that the raccoons have stopped monitoring them.

The scarecrow she erected to keep the ravens away isn’t necessary, either. The big croaking corvines are too busy playing tag with the red-winged blackbirds in the clear sunlight. Two eagles circle endlessly above the smaller birds, seemingly indifferent to everything but each other.

As she stands in the middle of her corn patch, the Ute puppies playing at her feet, Suzanna rubs the sore spot under her ribs and turns slowly, studying the mountain slopes north and west. They’re gradually turning yellow, the patches of aspen getting brighter each day.

She turns back to her half-formed ears of corn. Tarnation. She planted as soon as she was able. There’d been so much to do when they arrived in mid-May. Although it’s unlikely that planting any earlier would have done any good. It had been too cold to expect corn to sprout.

Suzanna’s cheeks redden. It hadn’t been too cold for other things. The little lean-to she and Gerald had slept in those first few nights before Ramón arrived and the men started work on the cabin had never really felt chilly.

She smiles and rubs the sore spot just below her rib cage again. She has to admit she was a little preoccupied when they first arrived in the valley and not terribly concerned with getting the planting underway. She chuckles. As a result, she’s going to be preoccupied next spring, too. She’ll have a baby to care for.

But surely that won’t take all her time. And surely this last spring was colder than usual. Suzanna studies the anemic rows of corn. “This child had better like to garden,” she mutters. “Because next year I need to get seed into the ground a good month earlier than I did this season.”

She shakes her head at the maíz and turns away. There isn’t a blessed thing she can do to speed it to harvest. She moves on to her produce garden, which lies closer to the marsh. At least the squash is doing nicely.

When she returns to the house, she’s dragging a half-full bushel basket of fat green-striped squash behind her. The kitchen is empty. Ramón and Gerald are in the hayfield in the valley bottom, turning the windrows they’d scythed that morning.

Suzanna sets aside the squash she thinks Ramón will need for the evening meal, wraps an apron over her dress, and begins washing and slicing the remaining vegetables into strips for drying. “At least I can do this much,” she mutters.

When she’s filled the largest of Ramón’s wooden bowls, she carries it to the ramada that shelters the woodpile behind the house. There’s just enough space beside the stacked wood for the woven-twig drying racks Gerald constructed for her. She arranges the strips of squash on the racks, covers them with a light cotton cloth to discourage the flies, and returns to the kitchen.

It’s almost noon. Suzanna’s feeling both hungry and restless. She pokes in the cupboard to see if she can tell what Ramón has planned for the midday meal. A cloth-wrapped stack of corn tortillas and a bowl of mashed beans. A plate containing the small tomatoes she harvested yesterday. The few that were ripe. She shakes her head in disgust. She’ll be drying green tomatoes before long.

She studies the tortillas, lifts them from the shelf, and turns to the fireplace. The coals are carefully banked, conserving their heat until a fire is needed again. She can at least get it going, ready for Ramón when he and Gerald come in. She sets the tortillas on the table and crouches beside the hearth.

Her father did her no favors when he banned her from her mother’s kitchen, she reflects as she scrapes ash from the live coals and feeds the resulting glow with thin strips of juniper bark. Regardless of what he thought of her mother’s morals and the value of a girl learning Latin, her father’s choices definitely stunted her development in wifely duties.

The baby kicks just then, jabbing a foot into Suzanna’s ribs, and she dimples self-consciously and pats her belly. Well, not all wifely duties. And she certainly knows how to sew, though it isn’t her favorite task.

She sits back on her haunches and studies the kitchen’s hand-hewn work table and food cupboards. She learned to sew by observing a neighbor woman and then asking Encarnación for occasional advice. Surely she could lean the rudiments of cookery the same way. Her lack of ability here makes her so dependent.

It’s also hard on the men. Ramón never seems to sit down. And his kitchen duties reduce his ability to assist Gerald outdoors. Assistance Suzanna can’t give, especially now that she’s pregnant.

In the fireplace, tiny flames lick at the narrow strands of juniper bark. Suzanna adds a few pieces of kindling, then layers thicker pieces over them. At least she can build a fire. She looks around the room. The water bucket is nearly empty. She adjusts a piece of wood to better catch the flames and pushes herself to her feet.

As she crosses the yard to the well, she sees the men in the field below, heading toward the house, the wooden windrow rakes over their shoulders. Gerald’s hat is pushed back on his head, his long stride shortened to keep pace with Ramón, who waves a hand at the remaining grassland and turns his head to say something to the taller man. Gerald laughs, then places his hand companionably on Ramón’s shoulder. They stop and turn to look back at their handiwork.

Suzanna lowers her bucket into the well. As she hauls it up again, her stomach rumbles. The men are certainly taking their time. Once they get their tools put away, they’ll still need to clean up. She turns toward the cabin. In the meantime, she might be able to warm the tortillas without burning them. And heat the mashed beans.

Back in the kitchen, she finds the smallest of the cooking pots, scrapes the beans into it, and sets it to heat at the edge of the fire. Then she positions the cast-iron skillet and its three-footed supporting grate over the flames and goes to the cupboard for a small pot of lard.

She drops a spoonful of the grease into the skillet and watches it slowly begin to soften. Suzanna yawns. The fat looks as if it’ll sit there all day, doing nothing. This is why she dislikes cooking. There’s so much sitting and waiting. She pokes at the fire with a stick and repositions a burning log so it’s more fully under the grate and the pan.

Finally the fat heats and liquefies. It sizzles busily and Suzanna nods in satisfaction and drops a tortilla into the black skillet. But the extra flame has made the pan hotter than she realized. The flat yellow tortilla buckles sharply in response and the fat pops furiously, then turns into a smoky haze.

Suzanna jumps up, grabs a wet towel from the counter, and darts back to the fire. Smoke fills the room. She leans down, tosses the towel over the skillet handle, and yanks it away from the flames. As she pulls, heat sears through the wet towel, stabbing her palm.

“I swear!” she yelps, jerking away. The skillet clatters to the floor and the charcoaled tortilla tumbles out beside it. Suzanna is doubled over, gasping in pain, when the men come through the door from the main room.

Gerald leaps toward her. “Are you all right? Let me see.”

Suzanna collapses onto the floor. “How stupid of me,” she gasps. “I know heat goes right through a wet towel.”

Gerald reaches gently for her hand. Two red welts bisect her palm. Ramón appears at Gerald’s elbow with a dripping cloth. Gerald wraps it around Suzanna’s hand, then lifts her to her feet and guides her to a bench beside the table. “Just sit,” he says soothingly. “I don’t think it’s very bad.”

She nods, ashamed of her outburst, embarrassed by her stupidity. “I know to use a dry towel,” she says again.

“We all make mistakes,” Gerald says soothingly.

“Not in the kitchen.” She raises her head, her mouth trembling. “I’m the only woman I know who makes mistakes in the kitchen.”

Ramón has placed the skillet and tortilla on the work counter and is now crouched over the fire, moving the pot of beans away from the licking flames. He half turns as he wraps a dry towel around the pot. “I almost killed my brothers and myself once,” he says. “I had no sisters at that time. My parents were called away and I was assigned to cook while they were gone. I used a haunch of pork that had gone bad.” He rises, places the pot on the wooden counter, and stirs it gently. “These are nicely warmed.”

He returns to the fire and uses a thick piece of kindling to maneuver the three-legged grate away from the center of the flames. Over his shoulder he says, “I decided the meat simply needed more seasoning to cover the bad taste.” He rises and lifts the skillet from the counter. As he wipes it out with a small towel, he shakes his head. “I didn’t want to take the time to check the rabbit snares or go fishing.”

He leans to place the skillet on the grate. “We were all sick as dogs when my parents returned.” He chuckles. “And soon after they returned, I was also sore on my backside. My father was very angry and he was a firm believer in the dicho that says la letra con sangre entra.”

Gerald raises an eyebrow. “The word enters better with blood?”

Ramón grins. “The parents’ words. There seems to be some truth to that saying. Never since then have I forgotten to throw out bad meat.”

Suzanna chuckles and rearranges the cloth over her palm. Her fingertips tingle with incipient blisters. She winces. “My hand will certainly remember to reach for a dry towel when I need to lift something hot from the fire.”

You’ve just read the fifth 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.