Christmas in 1837 – An Excerpt From No Secret Too Small

1837 was a stressful year for many New Mexicans. But even then, Christmas was a time of respite and hope. I hope you enjoy this excerpt from my new novel No Secret Too Small.

CHAPTER 32

Three days later, it’s the day before Christmas. Señora Garcia announces that there’ll be no combing or spinning this day. “It is la Noche Buena,” she tells the children’s mother flatly. “A day to prepare for la Navidad and feasting and the giving of gifts.”

“We don’t have money for a feast.” Alma’s mother glances toward the children, her face suddenly tired and worn. “Much less the giving of gifts.”

“We have the gift of each other and a roof over our heads. There’s still enough wheat flour for a small batch of bread. And I have been putting aside an egg each day. If the hens are kind to us this morning, there will be enough for natías.” She looks at the children. “Though I will need help stirring the custard to keep it from burning.”

“We can do that!” Andrew says.

His mother shrugs and moves to her loom. She places her feet into position on the treadles, moves her head from side to side to ease her neck, then sets to work. The steady thump of the loom fills the room.

By the time the outdoor oven has yielded two loaves of yeasty bread and the egg custard is cooked and cooling, it’s late in the day. Andrew hovers over the natías, sniffing appreciatively.

“That’s for tomorrow,” the señora tells him. “Tonight we will eat a little of the new bread with our beans, but tomorrow is the true feast day.”

“It’s going to be a long night,” he moans. “I’m not going to be able to sleep.”

She chuckles. “Perhaps that is why the priests hold la Misa del Gallo on la Noche Buena. So boys have something to do while they wait for the morrow’s feast.”

Andrew’s forehead wrinkles. “La Misa del Gallo? The mass of the rooster?”

“Sí. The service begins at the first hour of the day and doesn’t end until the rooster crows.”

“The first hour? You mean midnight?” His forehead wrinkles. “You stay up all night?”

“That’s a long service,” Alma says.

The señora chuckles. “It is only a saying. I will be home before the rooster truly crows.” She purses her lips and studies the children. “I am going to la capilla de castrense, the military chapel on the Santa Fe plaza, with a friend from Agua Fría. Would you like to go with us?”

Andrew turns toward the loom. “Can we, Mama? Can we stay up all night?”

His mother’s right foot pushes down, moving the warp threads apart. She reaches for the shuttle. The yarn inside it is a deep red. She runs the yarn through the V of the warp and snugs it into place, then looks up. Her eyes are smudged, as if she hasn’t slept in a week. Alma’s heart snags in her chest. Maybe she should stay here and keep her company.

“Who is going with you?” her mother asks.

“The widow who lives on the plaza near the chapel along with three of her grown sons and their wives and children. Two of the men are Presidio soldiers. We will be safe enough.”

Alma’s mother looks at Andrew, who’s watching her anxiously. Her face softens. “Yes, you can go to the service.”

“Will you come with us, Mama?”

She shakes her head. “I have work to do.” She shrugs and looks away. “Besides, I would only spoil your fun.”

“But you’ll be alone. It won’t be safe.”

“I’ll have Chaser to protect me.” She makes a shooing gesture at him. “Go. I’ll be all right.”

He nods doubtfully, but he can’t help but be intrigued with the idea of staying up all night. He grins at Señora Garcia and Alma expectantly.

The evening threatens to be a long one, since they won’t leave for the chapel until well after dark, but the señora insists that Andrew and Alma nap a little beforehand. Then suddenly there are men at the gate and the children are wrapped well in extra shawls and bundled out into the cold.

There is no moon. The men on the edge of the little crowd are armed with knives, iron-tipped pikes, and torches, but the blackness beyond the flickering light still makes Alma shiver. Andrew feels it too. He stays close and slips his hand into hers.

They move through the night, up the dirt road and over the rise north of the house. Then the darkness ahead is broken by the glow of a bonfire. A guitar thrums and the men and women around the fire burst into song. The voices die out as Alma’s group approaches.

“Feliz Nochebuena!” one of the widow’s sons says gruffly.

“Greetings!” a man by the fire answers. He raises a wooden cup to them. “Come and drink with us!” He waves a hand toward a table half-hidden in the shadows. “Come and eat!”

“We thank you, but we are on our way to la capilla de castrense.”

“Ah, it is a dark night for such a journey and the chapel will be crowded! Stay with us instead!”

“I thank you, but we must not delay.”

“Safer with friends than in the dark!” the man persists. “You never know when a rebel might be lying in wait!” They all laugh uproariously as Alma’s group continues on its way.

Her eyes swim, trying to adjust again to the darkness. The governor’s decapitated body seems to rise out of the shadows, just beyond the men’s torches. A shudder runs down her spine. Antonia Garcia pats her shoulder, but Alma hardly feels the woman’s hand. She has a sudden urge to turn and run back down the road. All she wants is the warmth of the casita and the steady thump of her mother’s loom. Or, even better, her father’s arms. Gregorio’s smile.

She bites her tongue against the sudden tears and trudges on, surrounded by Señora Garcia’s friends and utterly alone. Even Andrew’s warm hand between her palm and fingers doesn’t dissolve the knot in her chest, the twitch of tears under her lids.

They pass more bonfires and the widow’s sons turn down more invitations to stop, eat, and drink. “As if they don’t remember what the purpose of the season is,” the old woman sniffs.

Finally, the little group reaches Santa Fe’s narrow streets. They pass Elisha Stanley’s closed-up shop and enter the plaza. Here, the darkness is pushed back by the flare of more torches as other groups of worshippers move from every direction toward the chapel on the square’s south side. Many are singing hymns accompanied by men and women strumming guitars. The voices aren’t loud and some aren’t very melodious, but there’s a reverence in their tone and a solemnity in the singers’ faces that makes the children look at each other in wonder. The plaza itself looks different tonight. Calmer. Less cluttered and dusty.

Alma’s group is close to the chapel entrance, but they can’t enter. Men in blue and red uniforms block the big wooden doors. Their gold-fringed shoulder boards glitter in the torchlight, making the soldiers wearing them seem bigger than they actually are.

Except for one, who is taller than the rest. Andrew sucks in an admiring breath. “That’s Donaciano Vigil,” he whispers in Alma’s ear. “See him?”

But she doesn’t have a chance to respond. Movement ripples on the opposite side of the square. A stout man in a swirling cloak and hat with a tall white feather moves toward the church, a soldier on each side and two behind. The crowds part to let them pass.

“Tarnation!” Andrew says. “Who is that? Is he a prisoner?”

“It is General Armijo,” Señora Garcia tells him. “The men with him are his escort.”

“To protect him from the likes of us,” the widow adds drily.

The governor and his guard sweep past and into the chapel. Donaciano Vigil and the other waiting soldiers enter behind him. Now the way is clear for the populace. The singing stops and men douse their torches. In the sudden darkness, Señora Garcia puts a hand on each child’s shoulder. “Stay close,” she says in Alma’s ear. “I don’t want to lose you.”

Alma nods numbly. The plaza’s beauty has vanished. Now it’s simply a dark and crowded space that contains too many people, all of them edging toward the chapel entrance. Everyone’s very quiet and polite, but she still feels as if she can hardly breathe.

Then she’s through the door and the señora has maneuvered herself and the children into a position halfway up the long narrow room but off to the right, next to the white adobe wall. If Alma lifts her fingers from her skirt, she can touch its smooth surface.

A woman behind them taps the señora on the shoulder. She turns and gasps in delight. “Mi amiga!” she exclaims softly. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!” She twists farther toward the woman, to look at the youngsters beside her. “And are these your grandchildren?”

She’s has released Alma and Andrew as she turned. Alma moves closer to the wall. All over the church, people are smiling and nodding and whispering to each other. Andrew is watching them with bright, curious eyes, but Alma feels only a dull loneliness. She wishes her father was here. Or Ramón. Or Gregorio. All three of them.

Finally, a priest in holiday vestments enters the chapel and stands before the altar. He raises his hands and the crowd flutters into silence.

Alma watches the ceremony and listens to the music and words in a kind of haze. She’s tired from the walk and, although the warmth of the crowd seeps into her, it isn’t a cozy feeling. If anything, it only makes her more anxious, more hemmed in. A tiny bird beats in her chest, searching for relief.

But there is no relief. She’s old enough to know that help isn’t coming, that grownups don’t always resolve their differences. That her mother’s worry and weariness and irritation aren’t likely to lessen any time soon. And that her father may never come for them. Tears prickle her eyelids. She bites the insides of her cheeks and tries to focus on what’s happening at the far end of the room, beyond the gold shoulders of the men in uniform.

The congregation is kneeling now. She drops with them and peers at the candle-lit altar. The priest’s back is to the congregation. He raises a shining cup. Her gaze moves beyond it.

The wall behind the altar isn’t smooth white adobe like the one next to her. It’s rock. A tall expanse of stone as wide and almost as tall as the room that towers over the priest and the table below. Alma sucks in her breath. Every inch of its surface is carved with designs and figures that seem to dance in the candlelight.

The decorations aren’t random. The flat surface is divided into two rows of three shallow rectangular niches set on end. The center bottom space is deeper and there’s a statue in it. Alma can’t see what it looks like because the priest blocks her view.

But she can see most of the spaces. Each contains a carved and painted stone picture. In one, a man holds up a cross. There’s a shell of some kind in his other hand. Worshippers kneel at his feet. In the niche above him, a man holds a cross in one hand and a plant of some kind in the other.

Alma smiles. He must love plants as much as her mother does. Her smile fades. There’s been no planting or gathering since they reached Santa Fe. Will there ever be again? But she can’t think about that now or the tears will start again. She concentrates on the carvings.

Her forehead wrinkles. Each picture by itself seems very simple and she doesn’t understand what they mean. But together they do something calming to her heart. She looks around the room. The kneeling worshippers are focused reverently on the priest and the altar. They all seem so peaceful, so intent, so sure of what they believe. She feels a little envious, but also strangely peaceful herself. The bones in her chest loosen, making more space for her lungs.

The priest turns toward the congregation and raises his hands. They all rise. Alma doesn’t understand the words he speaks, but she can sense the quiet joy in them, the confidence that he and the people he speaks to will have strength to face tomorrow. And that it will be a better day. She’s not sure she really agrees with him, but somehow she does feel better. As if she can cope a little longer with her life and all its fears and confusions.

The crowd says something in unison, answering the priest, and sings a final hymn. Then the service is over. The people begin to stream out into the night. Señora Garcia nods goodby to her friend and touches Alma lightly on the arm. “Stay close now.” Alma smiles up at her and looks at her brother, who solemnly slips his hand into hers. She turns back to the señora. “We won’t get lost.”

from No Secret Too Small

SALOON CHRISTMAS

María Dolores Quintana paused outside the Etown saloon door and adjusted her reboso over her long black hair, gathering her courage. She pushed tentatively, cracking the door open, then stopped to listen to the voices inside.

“Now that red-headed gal, she’s got a way of twistin’ her hips that’s sure to keep you hard and goin’,” a southern voice drawled.

“And the breasts on her are quite magnificent,” a German voice said. “It is sufficient just to look at them.”

Someone else chuckled from the other end of the room. “All you wanta do is look, huh? Can’t think of anything else to do, Faulk?”

“That is not quite what I intended to say,” the German voice said.

“He was just gettin’ started!” the southern voice laughed.

María took a deep breath. She must accustom herself to words such as these. This was the way men spoke of women who did the work she sought. She straightened her shoulders and pushed through the door.

The saloon was almost empty on this Thursday morning before Christmas. Two men sat at a table, one of them toying with a pack of cards. At the other end of the room, another man stood behind a long counter. This was the man María had been told to talk to. She dropped her reboso to her shoulders and crossed the creaking wooden floor quickly, before her nerve failed. The men at the table looked her over approvingly and her stomach clenched, but she kept moving. If she accomplished her goal, she would need to become used to such looks.

The sandy-haired man behind the bar studied her, unmoving.

Señor Stinson?” she asked.

He nodded, hazel eyes hooded.

“I come—” She paused, then started again. “My friend Carmen Martinez tells me I should speak to you about work.” A chair scraped on the floor behind her and she forced herself not to turn.

“What kind of work?” Stinson asked. “What’re you willing to do?”

“Whatever you ask, señor.”

Cards slapped onto the table behind her. “You’d better grab her right quick, Joe,” the southern voice  said.

“She has the looks that will earn you many dollars,” the German voice agreed.

Stinson frowned at the men at the table, then looked at María, his face carefully blank. “Have you done this kind of work before?”

“No señor, I have never done such a thing.” Behind her, a man chuckled. She focused on the saloon keeper and lifted her chin. “Carmen says I would do well. I have much incentive.”

He raised an eyebrow. Another chair scraped the floor.

Mi papá y mi hermano, they are dead,” she said. “I must find a way to feed mi mamá y mi—How do you say? My sister.”

“And how did these deaths occur?” the German voice asked.

María turned, in spite of herself. “The Maxwell Grant men, they came and told us to leave our land,” she said. “My brother, he was angry and he shot at them, and then they killed both him and mi papá.” She shuddered and turned back to Stinson. “I will do anything you ask, señor.”

Joseph Stinson opened his mouth, but the southern voice interjected. “Hell, Stinson, surely you ain’t gonna ask this sweet thing to do you now, are you? It’s almost Christmas, man!”

Stinson put both his hands on the bar and glowered at the men behind her. “If you gentlemen will hold your questions and opinions the way you hold your cards, you’ll learn what I’m going to do.” He looked at María. “Do you have folks to go to?”

She nodded. “My mother’s familia has moved north to the valley of the San Juan. If it please God, when I have earned what we need, we will go there also.”

“Well, I can’t help you much–” Stinson began.

“Like hell you can’t!” the southern voice said.

“But I’m sure that Mr. Hill and Mr. Faulk would be glad to contribute from their ill-gotten gains to also assist you.”

María turned and looked at the men at the table, who smiled back at her sheepishly. “I am Ernest Faulk,” the short stocky man with the German voice said courteously. “I would be most happy to assist you.”

She shook her head. “But I must earn what I receive.”

“It is almost Christmas,” the sleek, dark-haired man called Mr. Hill said. “And this year the day is especially holy, because it falls on a Sunday.” He glanced at Mr. Faulk. “Ernest and I are gamblers by trade and there is much for which we should repent and atone. Let us begin to redeem ourselves by assisting you.”

Ernest Faulk nodded. “For the sake of the Christ child.” He pulled a small leather bag from his vest pocket, began to open it, then tossed the whole thing on the table. María heard the dull chink of coins.

Mr. Hill considered the bag, then reached into his own pocket. “And I’ll raise you one,” he said. He pulled out two small bags of coins and placed them beside the first one.

Joseph Stinson had come out from behind the bar. He crossed to the table and laid a handful of greenbacks beside the bags. Then he scooped them all up and carried them to the girl. “Merry Christmas,” he said.

“Fröhliche Weihnachten,” echoed Ernest Faulk.

“And a most felicitous New Year,” said Mr. Hill.

Mariá stared at the men, then down at the wealth in her hands. “It is more than I could dream,” she murmured. She looked up, her eyes swimming. “I have no words,” she said.

All three men spread their hands at the same time. “Es nada,” they answered.

Copyright © 2016 Loretta Miles Tollefson