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 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 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.

Book Review: In The Shadow of Vargas

 

In the Shadow of Vargas cover
by E. Paul Bergeron
Clark River Publisher, 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0996701303

Technically, In The Shadow of Vargas, is more frontier fiction than western. That is, it’s not set in the American west after the U.S. took over the area that is now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. In fact, the story takes place just before the point at which U.S. citizens were even welcome into what was then Mexico.

Even so, I would classify this book as a western because it fits the criteria in every other way: a protagonist on his own, fighting the bad guys and the elements; a woman at risk who manages to survive until her man rescues her; a story set on the North American continent west of the Mississippi before 1900.

Those are my criteria for a western and sometimes a reader just needs to put up her feet up and read a good one. As far as I’m concerned, westerns are always better if they’re set in New Mexico. So when I learned about E. Paul Bergeron’s In The Shadow of Vargas,  I was eager to read it.

It didn’t disappoint. The larger-than-life fur trapper protagonist William MacLeod has a strong sense of justice and knows a good woman when he sees her. His impulse to aid the helpless gets him in trouble and then saves him in the end. And the woman he falls in love with is a strong character in her own right.

There’s a nice twist at the end of this novel which left me surprised.  The hero doesn’t—well, I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say that Bergeron does a good job of ending this novel while making you wonder what’s going to happen in the sequel, The Search for Diego.

If you’re looking for a traditional western set in New Mexico before the American invasion, I recommend In The Shadow of Vargas.

 

PRODUCTIVE REVENGE

Placido Sandoval slammed the pick mattock into the rocks at his feet in a blind fury. “This Prussian, this not truly Americano, how dare he speak to me in such a way? As if I were dirt, less than nothing?” he fumed. “Mi familia has lived in this country for generations. I am of the conquistadors, the flower of España, while he is of the peasants in his country. I heard him bragging of it, how he has raised himself above his ascendientes.” He smashed the wide edge of his mattock against the largest of the rocks. A chip flew off, ricocheting into the face of the man working beside him.

“¡A redo vaya!” the other laborer said. “The devil! Be careful!”

Placido Sandoval swung the pick again, just as sharply, and his companion stopped his own work to turn away. “It does no good to be angry,” he said over his shoulder.

Placido glared at him. “It is good for my soul,” he growled. He slammed the pick against the nearest rock. Three large pieces broke free and tumbled farther down the stone-filled gully. “I will not be beaten by such as he. I will not be cowed.”

“You there!” Edward Bergmann, the mining supervisor, called from the bank above them. “You Mexicans!”

The two men paused and looked up. The Prussian’s finger pointed accusingly at Sandoval, his fierce black eyes indignant. “Did I not tell you to go slowly, to be more methodical in your approach? I’ll fine you again if you don’t stop flailing around!”

“I’ll flail you!” Placido muttered as he and his companion returned to their work. But his mattock chopped more sullenly now, reflecting the pattern Bergmann had set for it. Suddenly, gold glinted from the ground. Placido glanced up at the bank. Bergmann had disappeared. Placido bent swiftly and pocketed the chip of rock and ore.

Placido’s companion chuckled as he continued to swing his own tool. “That’s a more productive approach,” he said approvingly. He glanced toward the bank. “Though more dangerous if you are caught.”

Placido Sandoval grunted an unwilling acknowledgement as he continued on with his work, chopping at stones.

from Valley of the Eagles

Now Available: Not Just Any Man

I’m pleased to announce that Not Just Any Man, my mountain man novel set in New Mexico, is now available in paperback and ebook. Here are the details:

Just a man. Known for his character, not the color of his skin. That’s all Gerald, son of a free  black man and and Irish servant girl, wants to be. It’s an impossible goal in slave-holding Missouri, but in the West, mountain men and villagers alike seem to accept him without question.

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New Mexico is all that Gerald hoped for, but shortly after he arrives in Taos, he realizes he wants more than he’d thought: A girl with her own complex ancestry and a high mountain valley with intriguing potential.

To make either dream possible, Gerald needs to earn something more than a scratch living. The only way to do that is to trap beaver. It’s a tough way to earn cash and the wilderness is an unforgiving place.

Can Gerald survive the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the Mohave Indians, and the arid south rim of the Grand Canyon as well as the fellow trapper who hates him for the color of his skin? Can he prove to himself and the girl he loves that he is, after all, not just any man?

Not Just Any Man is set in the late 1820s in Old New Mexico and is filled with historical characters and events.

You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online outlets, or from your favorite brick-and-mortar bookstore.