Santa Fe Trail Mail Contractor Changes!

Throughout the month of September, 1855, the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette informed its readers that the U.S. mail contract had recently been transferred to Hockaday and Hall and was providing mail and passenger transport to and from Independence, Missouri for a mere $125 per passenger.

Packages and extra baggage could also be sent via the Hockaday and Hall coaches, at a cost of 25 cents per pound, although there was a minimum charge of $1.00 and the contractors could not be held responsible for anything worth more than $50.

These rates remained the same two years later, even when service increased to twice monthly. This may have been because, no matter how often the mail left Santa Fe, it took about the same length of time to travel  to or from its destination. Round trip to St. Louis was still about three months and delivery from the Atlantic seaboard to Santa Fe remained around six weeks. Letters and packages continuing from Santa Fe on to El Paso were transferred to George H. Gidding’s service south and could take an additional week to ten days.

Sept 22 illustration

Interestingly, the front page items about the new contractors and their service are not set off in a box or with any other markings to indicate that they’re advertisements. They’re treated like news items. Repeating news items—the same language shows up in every September 1855 issue of the Gazette.

While news of the mail was critical to the functioning of business and politics in New Mexico Territory, the decision to promote its service and fees in this way may have been the result of other factors. The Hockaday and Hall agent in Santa Fe just happened to be W. W. H. Davis, the newspaper’s editor.

Sources:  Santa Fe Weekly Gazette, September 1, 8, 15, 22, 29, 1855; Morris F. Taylor, First Mail West, stagecoach lines on the santa fe trail, Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1971.

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NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 6

CHAPTER 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cómo fué eso?” Ramón asks.

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

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

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

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

Williams scowls. “She wanted to know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you all right?” Gerald asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 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.

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 3

CHAPTER 3

A month goes by before Suzanna sees another man who isn’t her husband. This one is tall and thin, clothed in black, and walking up the trail from Taos beside a well-rounded woman whose head is shrouded in a voluminous shawl. They each lead a donkey, a wooden bench perched precariously above bulging packsaddles. Half a dozen cattle splay out on the trail behind them, raising lazy spurts of dust when they aren’t straying into the grass and patches of purple flowers that lie beside the path. A thin young man walks behind the cows, waving a long switch at them when they wander too far off-track.

Suzanna stands in her corn patch below the cabin and gazes at the little caravan, puzzled. Then joy lights her face. It’s her father. And Encarnación. Ramón will be so glad! She makes a face at the raccoon tracks in the dirt at her feet and trots up the hills toward the house.

But Ramón has already spotted the travelers. He’s watching them from the cabin porch, a basket of eggs in each hand. He smiles at Suzanna as she reaches the steps. “It is Gregorio Garcia with the cattle,” he says. “And your father with the mules.” His eyes brighten as his smile broadens. “And la Encarnación.” He glances down at the eggs, his mind clearly on the evening meal. “It is well that el señor went hunting this morning.”

Suzanna nods, then follows him into the cabin and begins straightening the books on the table by the set of four panes of thick mica that form the single window. In the kitchen, Ramón whistles tunelessly. She chuckles at his gladness. Though she has to wonder whether the figure trailing behind the cattle actually is Gregorio Garcia. How can Ramón possibly have recognized him?

But the young man really is Gregorio, as dark eyed and lanky as ever. He drives the reluctant cows into the rough wooden corral at the edge of the hilltop and swings the gate shut behind them just as Gerald and his horse trot in from the hills, a deer carcass slung over the back of the trailing mule. Gregorio follows Gerald into the open-sided shed behind the barn and helps with the butchering while Suzanna and Encarnación supervise the unloading of her father’s pack animals.

The two carved and brightly painted benches come off first, followed by Suzanna’s big wooden spinning wheel on its stand, three bags crammed with wool, containers of dried maíz, chile, and ground wheat flour, and two rhubarb plants that have been carefully swaddled in straw, then wrapped in rough cotton.

“Rheum rhabarbarum for medicinal or other uses,” Jeremiah Peabody says with a small smile as he strokes his black chin beard.

“Thank you for bringing it,” Suzanna says. “It should do nicely up here. I had such a time keeping it alive in Don Fernando. The heat was almost too much for it.”

Encarnación turns to Ramón. “For medicine or other uses,” she says. “It is also called pie plant.” She tilts her head, her eyes crinkling. “But perhaps you prefer las natillas.”

“Ah, Chonita, I prefer anything that you prefer to make,” Ramón says and she rewards him with a brilliant smile. “Come, let me show you the kitchen and how I have arranged it,” he says. “It does not seem quite as it should be.”

As Encarnación sweeps before him into the cabin, Suzanna turns to her father. “He certainly knows how to please her,” she says, smiling.

He looks down at her. “And you?” He glances toward the barn, then peers into her face. “Does your life here please you?”

She looks down at the ground, blushing, knowing that he really wants to ask if her husband pleases her, then looks up. “Yes,” she says shyly.

A shadow crosses his face and she puts her hand on his arm. “It is not my father’s house,” she says. “And I do miss you, papa.” She wrinkles her nose. “And the mountains are closer than I would prefer.” Then she looks into his eyes. “But my life here is as pleasing as it can be without being in Taos and near you.”

He smiles ruefully and gives a little nod as he turns to look out over the valley. “The mountains are very near, but the view is delightful.” He tilts his head toward the corn patch at the bottom of the hill. “And I see you’ve already planted a garden.” He smiles at her slyly. “Your husband is a very smart man.”

“It’s a source of food,” Suzanna says defensively. Then she laughs. “And it keeps me occupied. I have peas and spinach and squash and potatoes and maíz, all of which are doing quite nicely, now that the monsoon rains have begun. And as long as I can keep the pernicious raccoons away from them. Though the corn seems slow to develop. We had no rain in June, and it didn’t get a good start.” She tucks her left hand into her father’s elbow. “But come and let me show it all to you.”

Her right hand brushes her belly as she leads him down the hill. How will she find a way to tell him? She feels an unexpected shyness toward the man to whom she’s always been able to say almost anything.

But there’s no need for her to speak. Immediately after the evening meal, Encarnación rises and begins clearing the table. Suzanna stands to help her but the other woman waves her back into her chair beside her father. “Women in your condition should not carry heavy dishes,” Encarnación says gaily.

Suzanna reddens as her father’s head swivels toward her. Ramón and Gerald, at the other end of the table, both chuckle. Gregorio looks at her with wide eyes.

“Chonita!” Suzanna protests. She slides a glance toward her father and covers her face with her hands. Then she glares at Ramón. “Did you tell her?”

Encarnación laughs and reaches for the serving platter. “There was no need to tell me. I have eyes. A woman sees such things before a man does.”

Suzanna looks helplessly at her father. “I was going to tell you this evening.” She gives Encarnación a mock glare and glances away from Gregorio’s embarrassed face. “In private.”

“It may come from a private matter, but there’s nothing very private about a child, as you will see!” Encarnación chortles as she turns toward the sink.

“There’s no keeping her quiet, when she wishes to speak,” Ramón says as he rises and follows her, his hands full of plates.

Suzanna, Gerald, and Jeremiah exchange bemused glances. Jeremiah chuckles and shakes his head. He turns to Suzanna. “I am delighted, of course. When do you expect to be confined?”

“As nearly as I can tell, at the end of the year,” Suzanna says.

“We may give you a grandchild as a Christmas gift,” Gerald adds.

Jeremiah’s thin face works under his beard. There’s a long silence, then the unemotional New Englander lifts his palms and stares down at them. He reaches blindly for Suzanna’s hand and turns to Gerald, tears welling in his eyes. “You have made me quite happy,” he says simply. Then he releases Suzanna’s hand, gives it a sharp pat, rises, and leaves the kitchen.

As the door to the porch thuds closed behind her father, Suzanna looks at Gerald. “He is quite speechless. I have never known words to fail him.”

Gerald chuckles. “His baby has grown up and is about to become a mother. I’m sure it will be a shock to us when it happens.”

She laughs in sudden delight. “It is something miraculous, isn’t it?”

He pushes back his chair, moves to stand behind her, and bends to kiss her the top of her head. Encarnación turns from the sink and flaps her wet hands at them. “Go, go,” she says, beaming. “The kitchen is not a place for such activity.”

When Suzanna wakes the next morning, Gerald’s side of their attic pallet is already empty. Encarnación moves around the room below, shaking out blankets and pushing furniture back into place. Suzanna smiles drowsily. It will be good when the other woman is here permanently. She’s missed Chonita’s bustling energy.

Then the image of the man on the ridge rises unbidden in her mind. Suzanna frowns. Should she tell Encarnación what she saw? If Enoch Jones is still alive, Encarnación certainly has a right to know. After all, the dirty-haired mountain man harassed her, too.

Suzanna gives herself a little shake. Jones is dead. Gerald killed him. The man she saw on the ridge was simply someone passing through, someone built like Jones. Those hunched and strangely massive shoulders, that angry bull-like tilt of the head. Or perhaps she simply imagined the whole thing. Ramón didn’t see anything and he has exceptional eyesight. He knew Gregorio was Gregorio when the young man was still well down the valley and behind a haze of dust kicked up by half a dozen cattle.

And, if she tells Encarnación that she thinks she saw Jones, her father is certain to hear of it. And then he will worry. Besides, Jones is dead. Gerald killed him. Well, knifed him in the chest, a wound that would kill most men. Though after Jones fled into the wilderness, the searching trappers never did find his body, never actually confirmed he was dead.

Suzanna closes her eyes, fighting the bile in her throat. Her hand wanders to her belly and she takes a deep breath. Worrying about such things is bad for the child. She will think about pleasant things and not let her imagination run away with her.

In the room below, Encarnación throws open the door to the porch. A broom swishes vigorously across the plank floor. Suzanna chuckles and sits up. At this rate, Chonita will be white-washing the rafters before the day is half over. Suzanna stretches, lifts herself from the sleeping pallet, pulls on her clothes, twists her hair into its usual loose bun at the nape of her neck, and heads to the ladder.

Their visitors stay a week, her father walking the land with Gerald and Ramón, Encarnación organizing the kitchen for maximum efficiency, Gregorio hoeing the corn patch and devising ways to stave off raccoon depredations. Then they head back down the valley to Palo Flechado Pass and on to Taos.

Suzanna watches them disappear over the first long rise that bisects the valley, then turns back to the cabin. The men are in the barn, harnessing the mules for a wood cutting trip up the slope behind the cabin. She gazes around the empty cabin. It’s so quiet without Encarnación’s bustling, her father sitting by the fire holding a book, Gregorio in the corner mending mule harness. So empty.

She takes a deep breath, gives herself a little shake, and heads out to her corn patch to see whether the rascally raccoons have succeeded in breaching Gregorio’s barrier of brush.

You’ve just read the third 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 2

 

CHAPTER 2

The man on the ridge grunts in satisfaction and tucks the spyglass into his pocket. It’s her, all right. With some greaser. Word in Arroyo Hondo was she married that bastard Locke, but that ain’t him. Must be that Mex named Chavez that used to work for her pa. The big man snorts and shoves his dirty-blond hair away from his face. The greaser and Locke, too, probably. Take two men to keep her the way she thinks she needs.

He steps backward down the slope, no longer sky lit on the grassy ridge. Don’t want her gettin’ too good a look. Just enough to make the little bitch wonder. ’Cuz he’s dead. Killed by that interferin’ bastard Locke. Left to be tore apart by the Gila Apaches and the wolves after them. He’s just a pile of bleached bones, somewhere west of the Zuni villages.

The big man chuckles sardonically. Ain’t he?

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

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1

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

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

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

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

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

Ramón looks up. “Señor Gerald?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It wasn’t el señor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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