WELL-FOUNDED PESSIMISM

The dark-skinned young woman and the old Ute man sat with the quietness of old friends on the cabin porch, out of the bright mountain sun.

Stands Alone gazed at the green-black slopes lining the opposite side of the long grassy valley. “My people have no other options,” he said bleakly.

Alma tucked a wayward black curl behind her right ear. “Surely there is somewhere you can go to live your lives in peace.”

The old man shook his head. “Wherever we go, the whites follow and take the little we possess.”

“Not all of us.”

A small smile crossed his seamed face. “You, my friend, are not white. Your people have also known sorrow and theft.”

The young woman raised an eyebrow, but could not contradict. There was slavery in her veins, if not her experience, though, with enough face powder, she could pass for a deeply tanned white woman. Only the pale splotches on her cheeks, where the pigmentation wasn’t consistent, gave her away. Her French/Navajo/American mother had applied various potions in her attempt to even out the child’s skin tone, but nothing had worked and after her mother’s death, the teenage girl had stopped trying.

 “You and your people could hunt here,” Alma said, gesturing toward the valley. “After all, it was your land before my parents arrived.”

“It was,” Stands Alone agreed. “And the hunting rights are still ours. Your father and I made an agreement that allowed him his pastures.” His gaze moved toward the north end of the valley, where another cabin was under construction behind a screen of small tree-covered hills. “But still others will come,” the old man said. “And they will not ask permission.”

Alma nodded, silent before the Ute’s well-founded pessimism. Since the American takeover in 1846, eastern settlers had moved steadily into New Mexico territory. Eventually, they would find even this protected valley, which she now shared with only her brother, the former nuevomexicano mountain man Ramón who acted as their cook and handyman, and the occasional band of Indian hunters or herders from Taos.

“It is not for myself that I dread this move the American government is forcing upon us,” Stands Alone said. “But the land to which they send us is unfamiliar, and the young men are angry and uncontrollable. They talk of war against all who have built houses on our land. I fear even for you.”

Alma frowned. “We have always lived in peace with both the Ute and the Apache,” she said. “We have endeavored not to encroach on the hunting grounds or to frighten off the elk and the deer.”

The old man chuckled. “I recall that your mother was not happy about that.”

Alma grinned. “She was bound to grow corn up here, even if it killed her and all the beasts who wanted to eat it.”

“A determined woman,” he said. “May her spirit rest.”

Alma nodded somberly, then turned back to the subject at hand. “If the young men come, my brother and I will treat them with respect.”

“May they respond with respect,” he said prayerfully.

“We will remain vigilant,” she told him. “The rifles will be ready, if need be.” She shook her head, dark eyes somber. “Although I pray it will not come to that.”

“Your brother will protect you,” the old man said, reassuring himself as much as her. “And Ramón.”

But when the young men came three days later, neither Andrew nor Ramón were at hand.

Ramón had headed north after three stray cows and Andrew was in a side canyon checking his rabbit snares. So the house was quiet when Alma looked up from her book to see a Ute man with a red stripe running down one side of his face peering through the small panes of window glass at the front of the cabin.

A spasm of fear clutched at Alma’s belly and her mother’s exasperated voice echoed in her memory: “It’s dangerous for a woman in this god forsaken valley!” Then the rich voice of her father’s father reminded her: “People are like dogs. They’ll sense your fear if you let yourself feel it.”

Alma took a deep breath, steadying herself. Then she stood, crossed the room, lifted the always-loaded shotgun from the wall, and swung the cabin door firmly open.

Ten young braves stood in the yard, their faces striped with the Utes’ signature red war paint, chests bared for battle.

“Hello,” Alma said, the shotgun under her arm. “How are you all today?” The words seemed inadequate, but she thought the tone was firm enough. She knew most of them: the grandson of Stands Alone, two of the grandson’s cousins, and several others whose faces she recognized. At the back of the group, toward the long low adobe and timber barn, was Running Wolf, who as a boy had taught Alma’s brother how to set the snares he was now checking.

 “We are not well,” the grandson of Stands Alone said. “We are unhappy.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” Alma said calmly.

“You whites have come in and now we have no game.” This was a man Alma didn’t know. A broad stripe of red ran down each cheek, flattening the planes of his cheekbones.

A young boy came running from the barn, eyes bright with excitement. “There are no men here,” he told the broadly-painted one breathlessly. “And there are cattle!”

The man nodded, his eyes on Alma’s shotgun.

One of the grandson’s cousins chuckled and shifted a hatchet from his left hand to his right. “The woman has a good shape,” he observed.

“We will have her and then we will burn the house and take the cattle,” the broadly-striped one announced. He took a step forward and raised his voice. “Then we will feast!”

Alma’s stomach tightened and she lifted the shotgun, sighting on the man’s chest. “But you will not have me and you will not feast!” she said sharply. “You will be dead!”

An irritated growl swept across the yard. At the corner of her eye, Alma saw the cousin easing around the corner of the cabin, toward the lean-to kitchen’s door. Alma forced her gaze to remain on the broadly-painted man’s bare chest, her shotgun barrel steady.

“I would not touch her,” a disgusted voice said from the back of the crowd. Running Wolf? She didn’t move her eyes. “Those spots on her face are the sign of disease. Smallpox or something worse.”

The broadly-painted one peered sharply into Alma’s face and she nodded. “That’s right!” Alma said, meeting his eyes defiantly. “I will shoot you and you will die quickly.” She raised her voice. “But if these others are loco enough to have me, they will suffer for a long time before they die.” She chuckled grimly. “I will take all of you with me! And you will die a painful and lingering death of disease, not of battle!”

A confused murmur passed over the yard. Alma held the shotgun muzzle steady on the broadly-painted one’s chest. There was a long silence, then the other cousin jerked his head toward the barn. “We will take cattle instead,” he pronounced. “The cattle are not diseased.”

“Two fat cows to feed us and our children.” Running Wolf moved slightly forward. His eyes swept the cluster of warriors, then turned toward the barn. “We will all feast this night!”

The warriors swung to face the barn and Alma eased backward into the house. She shoved the door closed, then leaned against it, heart pounding her ribs, fingers cramped painfully on the gunstock. Then she crept to the kitchen, assured herself that the door was indeed barred, and slipped back into the front room. She sank into her mother’s old rocking chair and placed the shotgun gently on the floor beside her. Only when she heard Ramón and Andrew on the porch did she lift her hands from her face, now splotchy with tears.

from Old One Eye Pete

LEONIDAS AND GEORGE, PART 2 OF 2

George was getting nervous. “Let’s get ourselves off this main track,” he said. “These cattle are making our trail a wee bit too readable.”

Leonidas nodded. “We can head up Ute Creek,” he suggested. “Maybe offer them for sale at Baldy Camp instead of driving them clear to Etown.”

The longhorns moved gladly into the Ute Creek grasslands, but then stalled. The forage was long and green, and they saw no reason to go on. George whooped and waved his hat at them half-heartedly. He was losing enthusiasm for the whole venture. His pony wasn’t really a cowhorse and didn’t care for close proximity to longhorns. And he liked Leonidas, but the big Canadian hadn’t adapted to herding as easily as he’d hoped. He sighed. Etown placer mining, and now this. He should just head on back to Ireland.

Leonidas rode up beside him. “How much farther?” he asked.

~ ~ ~ ~

Tom Stockton pushed back his hat and wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve. Even the rippling sound of the nearby Cimarron river did nothing to relieve the heat.

Chuck, Finis, and the others reined in on either side of him. They all stared at the hoof marks on the rocky dirt road heading into Cimarron canyon.

“They ain’t even tryin’ to cover their tracks or keep those cattle where it won’t show,” Finis said with disgust. “Looks like only two men who don’t know what in hell they’re doin’.”

“Greenhorns,” Chuck agreed. He spat into the dust. “Feel kinda sorry for ’em.”

“That’s seventy head of my cattle they’re doing such a damn poor job of herding,” Stockton said grimly. “Greenhorns or not, they’re rustlin’.” He resettled his hat. “Let’s get this over with.” He spurred his horse into a steady trot. The others followed briskly behind.

~ ~ ~ ~

The two younger men didn’t stand a chance against Tom Stockton and his five riders. They were covered by guns before they even knew they were surrounded. Leonidas felt his stomach tighten.

“Round ’em up,” Stockton said, his voice icy. He gestured at the cattle with his head as his Colt focused on Van Valser’s chest.

“Aye, that’s just what we’ve been adoin’,” George Cunningham said, his Irish brogue thickening. “We were just rounding them up for you, gatherin’ ’em for a quick swing on down to your Clifton House—”

“Wrong direction, son,” Chuck said. Cunnningham fell silent.

“Get moving,” Stockton ordered.

Leonidas and George obeyed. As the other men spread out around the cattle with them, Leonidas felt a surge of relief at the lack of gunfire. Stockton was a big man in the County. Maybe he’d just turn them over to the Sheriff in Cimarron.

~ ~ ~ ~

As they entered the east end of the canyon, George Cunningham’s hopes revived. Tom Stockton had his longhorns back, and he and his men were paying more attention to the cattle than to Cunningham and Van Valser. There’d been no move to string them up.

The farmlands east of Cimarron Canyon were almost within sight. George began looking carefully at the sandstone and juniper on either side of the road. It might just be possible to make a dash for it. He glanced around. Van Valser was behind him. George slowed his pony a little to angle closer, letting the cattle ease by.

But Stockton had seen him examining the landscape, and suddenly Chuck and Finis were riding toward George and Leonidas. There was a sudden blast of gunfire. Cunningham’s pony reared, Leonidas crumpled in his saddle, and everything went black.

“Trying to escape,” Tom Stockton growled. “The damn fools.”

Copyright ©2015 Loretta Miles Tollefson

LEONIDAS AND GEORGE, PART 1 OF 2

“Where’d you be gettin’ a name like Leonidas?” the young Irishman asked the tall young man next to him at the Etown bar.

The big Canadian looked at him. “My mother had scholarly ambitions beyond her station,” he said. He lifted a fist. “And my father made sure I could defend myself.”

“I’d not be denying you the right to the name.” George Cunningham grinned. “An’ I’m thinking your father trained you good and well.”

“The trouble is, they didn’t have the money for proper scholarship,” Leonidas Van Valser told him. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Get enough gold, you won’t be havin’ to worry ’bout scholarship,” Cunningham observed.

“I intend to pan enough gold to go to school properly,” Van Valser explained. “I’m only twenty-five. There’s still time.”

“You’ve got ambitions,” Cunningham said. “’Tis a good thing in a man.”

The two grinned at each other companionably.

~ ~ ~ ~

George Cunningham was small, even for an Irishman, with a perpetually restless face. His Canadian friend Leonidas Van Valser was the steady one, until Etown’s gold placer mines wore down even his perseverance.  

“There must be an easier way to make a living,” Leonidas said one night in Herberger’s saloon, examining his bandaged hand. He’d had a run-in that morning with some unstable sandstone.

“Somewhere else, is what I’m thinkin’,” Cunningham said. “Anywhere but these water-forsaken rock-bound hillsides.”

Van Valser nodded gloomily. “I think you’ve finally convinced me, George. But I don’t know what to do about it.”

“It’s cattle I’m thinkin’ of.”

“Neither of us have cattle.”

“There’s plenty o’ cattle running through these hills with nary a brand mark t’ be seen.”

“That’s rustling,” Leonidas said.

“Not if you don’t get yourself caught.” Cunningham bent toward him.

Van Valser studied his friend’s face. “I’m listening,” he said.

~ ~ ~ ~

“Do you know anything about cattle?” Leonidas asked as he studied the longhorns in the clearing below.

“Aye, I was in Texas for a while after the war,” Cunningham said. “Though my size was agin me, I do admit.” The little Irishman grinned at his friend. “But you’ve got the leverage to bring those yearlings onto their sides smooth as whisky.” He hefted the rope in his hand. “I rope ’em, you flip ’em, then we brand and sell ’em to the first Etown slaughterhouse we reach.”

“It’s certainly worth a try,” Leonidas agreed. “Beef’s selling at a good price and the slaughterhouses aren’t too careful about ownership, from what I hear.” He looked at the herd. “Who do they actually belong to?”

Cunningham shrugged. “Some Texan turned ’em loose on grass that don’t belong to him. To my mind, we’re just helpin’ the Maxwell Company even the score.”

~ ~ ~ ~

“You git off my property!” The woman was thin as a garter snake, with the eyes of a rattler. She glared at the two dusty young men down the cold steel of a rifle barrel. “And git your hands up!”

Van Valser and Cunningham did as she said, their horses shifting beneath them.

“We do apologize, ma’am,” Cunningham said. “We were hoping for a wee bit of water from your well. Drivin’ cattle is hard work on an uncommonly warm day as it is.”

She studied them. Her mouth twitched as she looked at Van Valser, whose face was streaked with dusty sweat. She lowered her rifle and gestured toward the well. “Help yourself,” she said. “But only to the water. Not my cattle or anythin’ else. Then git on outta here ’for you get caught.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said in unison.

“Godforsaken young idiots,” she muttered, watching them dismount.

. . . . to be continued

Travelin’ Man

Old One Eyed Pete had been in the Pecos wilderness all winter, him and the mule, avoiding Apaches and harvesting beaver. The weather had been dry and mild for the most part, the resulting pelts poor to middling. But it had been a peaceful season over all and he was almost sorry when the first cottonwood buds started greening the trees.

He headed downslope then, and out onto the edge of the eastern plains. He worked his way north along the base of the foothills, taking his time, moving from one greening meadow to the next, letting the mule feed, killing an antelope or small deer when he needed meat and skirting the few settlements he sighted.

He was in no hurry for human company just yet. The beaver plews weren’t going to fetch much, no matter when he got them to market. He could take his time. But as he neared the Cimarron River, the usual dust-filled spring winds picked up and the mule objected vociferously to plodding through clouds of grit. Old Pete chuckled in sympathy. Conditions like these almost made a man think four walls and a roof might not be such a bad thing.

Pete squinted his good eye at the Cimarron. The river wasn’t quite as unruly as it usually was this time of year. He studied it for a long moment, then decided to follow the stream to its source and head on west from there to Taos.

By the end of the day, he was well inside the Cimarron’s canyon. He made camp at the base of a long sky-scraping cliff of jagged rock. The setting sun glinted like gold on its crest. Pete grunted. Maybe sights like this were what gave the Spanish the idea that this land held cities of gold. As far as Old Pete was concerned, with the sunlight on them like that, those towering cliffs were prettier than any mere gold.

He shook his head at mankind’s general greed and foolishness, and hobbled the mule. Then he swept leaf litter from the flat top of a knee-high granite boulder and built a small fire. He heated water and added a quarter of his remaining coffee. As it steeped, he arranged small heaps of river rock alongside the fire, then cut and trimmed a handful of green willow branches. He sliced thin strips of meat from the remaining antelope haunch and wove the strips onto the sticks, then wedged them between the rocks to angle the meat over the flames.

Old Pete sat back on his heels and reached for the coffee. The brownish liquid wasn’t very tasty, but it was hot. He sipped at it while he waited for the meat to sizzle.

He squinted his good eye up at the cliffs, contemplating their grandeur again, then gazed toward the west. The sky was a clear, bright blue above the mountains up canyon. The mountains’ bulk blocked the setting sun and the resulting shadows turned the slopes facing Pete into a solid black mass, making the sky above them even brighter. As he ate, blue in the west became more and more luminous, then paled, darkened, and finally gave way to stars.

When he’d finished his meal, Old Pete rolled himself into his blanket and slept. He kept his rifle beside him, not because he felt in any danger but because it was the thing a man did when he was alone in the wilderness, a habit he’d formed long ago.

The next morning, man and mule moseyed on up the canyon. They didn’t dally, but they didn’t hurry none, neither. The sun glinted on the stream, water striders danced across the water, and fish traced the striders. Old Pete contemplated the long narrow shapes of trout slipping through the shadowed pools and considered stopping to hook one, then decided to wait a mite longer.

He came to a small meadow. A clutch of wild turkeys moved ahead of him, scratching along the base of the streamside willows. Pete grinned at the way the birds pretended not to see him as they stayed just out of reach. They were unusually plump and sleek for this time of year. With so little winter snow, they’d had an easy time of it.

He moved on, like the turkeys, seemingly in no hurry and unaware of his surroundings, but absorbing it all just the same. With the warming weather, the coyote willow beside the river had developed a haze of tiny green leaves that brightened the winter red of its bark. Under the tall green pines, waxy white flowers glowed on sprigs of wild grape-holly. Sunlight filtered through the long needles of the thick barked ponderosas and glinted on the twisted branches of the scrub oaks below, still stubbornly bare.

In the late afternoon, Old Pete stopped in a meadow to water and graze the mule while he gathered wild greens for his supper. He rinsed them in a small creek that fed into the Cimarron, then sat on a downed cottonwood log and nibbled contentedly on a handful of the sweet herbs. This was better than any so-called civilized garden. He’d just as soon stay out here forever, if he didn’t need coffee.

from Old One Eye Pete

Churches of Northern New Mexico

I know Christmas is over, but this has been a tumultuous year, so a video about the churches of northern New Mexico with some peaceful music in the background seemed appropriate. At minute 27:30, you’ll see the Santa Cruz de la Cañada church which Alma and her mother and brother attend with Señora Ortega in No Secret Too Small.

The church retains the altar pieces and much of the character it had in 1837. There are differences though. Back then, the floor was hard-packed dirt and there were no pews. You’ll have to use your imagination for that part. Happy Holy Days! Wishing you a peaceful New Year!

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

Making Bread in 1837

My new novel No Secret Too Small has a certain amount of cooking and baking in it. Alma, daughter of a woman who doesn’t cook, is taken under the wing of the other women in the story, who are determined that she learns this skill. As a result, by the end of the book, she can make passable tortillas, beans, and bread.

The bread is baked in a horno, or free-standing beehive-shaped adobe oven. I understood the mechanics of this process, but appreciated its complexities even more when I discovered this video.

I’m one of those people who think it’s work to combine ingredients, knead, and let rise before shaping into loaves and placing in the oven. But all I have to do is turn the oven on and wait twenty minutes or so until it’s hot. This video made me realize just how easy my life is! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

A Piece of No Secret Too Small

Here’s another piece of my new novel No Secret Too Small. This section is set at the plaza del Chimayo in northern New Mexico during the feast of Santiago, the village’s saint.

CHAPTER 18

Finally, the fields are all blessed and the procession has returned to the plaza. The little carved saint is placed back in its chapel, the horses are released into the corrals outside the plaza, and everyone’s voice is louder and more cheerful.

The children and their mother follow Señora Ortega into her cousin’s house, where they’re given a seat at the table. The stew is thick with meat and fresh corn, and hot with green chile. When the señora passes the platter of bread, she says, “And here is some the americano child helped to bake,” and everyone laughs kindly.

As Alma dips a piece into her bowl, Prefect Abreú enters the house. Donaciano Vigil stoops through the door after him.

“Ah, Don Ramón!” the host says. “You are most welcome! And Señor Vigil as well!”

The prefect gives the sergeant a quizzical look. “Señor Vigil? You’ve come up in the world, Donaciano. Or else he’s angry at you. I thought you were his cousin.”

The host flushes. “I was just being polite. In honor of his companion.”

The big soldier puts a hand on the man’s arm. “It’s only me, primo. There’s no need to stand on ceremony.” He looks at Ramón Abreú. “I believe you know everyone here, Excellency?”

The prefect looks around the room, smiling and nodding to those at the table as well as the women who are serving. Then his eyes reach the children and their mother. “I don’t believe I’ve had the honor of meeting this young woman and her siblings,” he says gallantly.

Donaciano Vigil and Alma’s mother exchange a wry grin. “Suzanna Peabody Locke, may I introduce our prefect, Don Ramón Abreú,” he says formally.

“I’m pleased to meet you.” She touches the children’s shoulders. “These are my children, Alma and Andrew.”

The prefect’s face tightens slightly. “You are of the family which squats in the mountains east of Don Fernando de Taos.”

Her hand is still on Alma’s shoulder. Her fingers tighten into Alma’s cotton dress, but her voice remains calm. “We reside on the border there, guarding the Passes,” she says evenly. “And maintaining friendship with the Utes.”

The prefect breaks into a smile. “Ah, well put! Keeping an eye on things for us, are you?” He spreads his hands. “But you are here, not there watching!”

“My husband and father-in-law are there.”

“They are business partners with Juan Ramón Chavez,” Donaciano Vigil interjects. “Juan Ramón is my cousin on my mother’s uncle’s side.”

Prefect Abreú laughs and slaps his thigh. “You people! I have lived here all my life and still I cannot grasp the way you are all so connected!”

“Live here long enough and you will find it is the same for yourself,” his host says. “But please, be seated and take a bite and talk with us. Perhaps you will find that you’re related to someone here after all.”

“I’m sure the Sergeant will be!” Ramón Abreú says. “But I’m afraid my duties demand that we continue on our way. However, I thank you for the kind invitation.”

As the host walks the two visitors to the door, Señor Vigil turns and grins at Alma’s mother, then gives Alma a wink. She smiles back at him shyly. He’s almost as nice as Gregorio.

“I wonder where Alcalde Esquibel is eating,” someone at the other end of the table says in a low voice.

“Down by the river, I hope,” a man answers. “Where he can escape.”

Alma’s mother sends them a sharp look, then leans toward the woman sitting opposite her. “Can you explain this corrida del gallo to me?”

Andrew stops eating to listen.

The woman glances at him, then says reluctantly, “It is a horse race, but they do not race to see who finishes first. Instead, they chase each other to capture the prize.”

“And the prize is a rooster?”

The other woman nods. She glances at Andrew again before she answers. “The rooster is pegged out on the ground and the initial contest is to see who can get to him first and grab him up while the rider is still on his horse. Then the second part is to try to grab the bird from the rider who has him.”

“How do they decide who wins?” Andrew asks.

The woman moves her spoon through her stew. “I’ve never known for sure.”

Andrew frowns. “There must be rules.”

The woman looks away. “I think it’s when the rooster gives up.”

“Gives up the ghost?” his mother asks quietly.

“Something like that.”

Andrew is looking at his mother, waiting for an explanation.

She grimaces. “When the rooster dies.”

“Oh.” He puts his spoon in his bowl. His hands drop to his lap. Then he pushes back from the table. “May I be excused?”

She nods and he maneuvers around the other diners and out the door.

“Lo siento,” the woman says apologetically.

Alma’s mother shakes her head. “You only spoke the truth, and that as gently as possible. He has an adventurous heart but a tender soul.”

“Pobrecito,” the other woman murmurs.

Andrew has disappeared by the time Alma and her mother return to the plaza. Men on horseback mill in groups up and down the road, Señor Beitia among them. Alma spies Alcalde Esquibel in the middle of a cluster at the eastern end, leaning forward from his saddle to shake someone’s hand.

Then she’s distracted by Gregorio, who appears at her mother’s elbow with Señorita Fajardo on his arm. The girl dimples at Alma, then her mother. Gregorio is opening his mouth to make introductions when silence falls over the plaza.

Prefect Abreú is back on his white horse, once again riding in from the western entrance at the head of his blue-jacketed soldiers. Donaciano Vigil brings up the rear. There’s something about the set of the men’s shoulders that says they’re not here for a rooster race. Gregorio’s breath hisses between his teeth as they pass.

The only sound is the clomp of horses’ hooves on the dirt road, then the prefect pulls up in front of the group that contains Juan José Esquibel. Words are exchanged, too low for Alma to hear. The alcalde’s chin lifts angrily and the prefect turns his head and barks a command at the blue-coated men behind him. The soldiers’ horses move nervously, but not forward.

The prefect scowls. “I said, take him into custody!”

Sergeant Vigil’s horse edges around the soldiers and draws alongside Alcalde Esquibel’s. “Perdóneme, primo,” he says courteously. His voice echoes across the plaza. “We have come to place you in safekeeping until the events of recent months can be investigated and addressed.”

The alcalde’s eyes narrow. He shakes his head. Alma stiffens. Will there be a fight?

But then he smiles. “Ah, amigo,” he says. “You have a rare gift for words. It’s too bad you insist on working for men who know so little of honor.”

The prefect’s head jerks. He scowls at Esquibel, then the sergeant. “I said, arrest him!”

Donaciano Vigil looks at the alcalde and shrugs eloquently. He turns his head, studying the men in the plaza, the women at the house doors, the children. When he turns back to Señor Esquibel, his face is grave. “I believe it would be best if you come with us quietly, amigo.”

The other man glances around the plaza, then nods. He reins his horse past Ramón Abreú without looking at him and heads toward the western exit. As he passes Alma’s little group, he spies Gregorio. He leans from his saddle. “Get word to the Montoyas.”

“Silence from the prisoner!” the prefect shouts. He spurs his horse into a trot and moves past the soldiers and the alcalde. The big white breaks into a canter as it passes the houses and heads down the hill.

In the plaza behind him, voices erupt. “What about the rooster?” someone calls.

“Oh, just let him go,” a man answers. “We have more important races to run now.”

Señor Beitia’s horse trots toward Alma’s mother.The man’s eyes flash with something between anger and excitement, but he speaks calmly enough. “I’m afraid there will be no more festivities today,” he tells her. “The prefect has used the feast for his own ends and spoiled it.” He turns to Gregorio. “But we know what to do in response, do we not?”

Gregorio’s eyes are hooded and his jaw tight. He looks at Alma’s mother, then Gertrudis Fajardo. “It may be best for you to return home. I fear events may take an ugly turn.”

“Or at least the discussion will be ugly.” Señor Beitia’s voice is grim and excited at the same time. “Decisions must be made.”

Gregorio frowns. “I must seek out the Montoyas. I believe they are in the eastern orchards arranging for the race and this evening’s dance.” He looks at the señorita. “Let me return you to your cousins and give them the message.” He turns to Alma’s mother. “Will you go back to Señora Ortega’s house?”

“I will escort las senoras y los chamacos,” Señor Beitia says officiously. He swings off his horse and bows to Alma’s mother.

She gives him a brief smile and nods to Gregorio. “We will be fine. Go safely.” She turns to Gertrudis Fajardo. “I hope we will meet another day.” Then she holds out her hands to Alma and Andrew. “Come along, children.” She glances at the senora. “That is, if you are ready to leave?” Senora Ortega’s face is grim and irritable at the same time. She nods and turns away abruptly to lead them down the hill.

from No Secret Too Small.

New Mexico’s Rebellions

My new Old New Mexico novel No Secret Too Small is set during what is commonly called the Chimayó rebellion of 1837. However, this wasn’t the only time the people of New Mexico let the ruling elite know they weren’t happy. This video provides a great overview of New Mexico’s tradition of forceful protest. Enjoy!

Excerpt – No Secret Too Small

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

CHAPTER 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s all you can say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s still in the blood.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from No Secret Too Small