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.
“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?”
“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.
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.