NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 14

CHAPTER 14

Hell, he edged too close. It ain’t time yet. The man in the bearskin poncho turns away from the wind-driven snow and scowls at the cabin on the slope below. Sneakin’ around that sorry excuse for a barn was plain stupid. What was he after, anyway? Warm smoke from a chimney? Smell of bread bakin’?

He adjusts his filthy gray wool scarf over his mouth and snorts in disgust. He’s gettin’ soft. Livin’ wild long as he has, that chimney smoke comin’ up through the pines smelled good. Sharp-sweet smell. Campfire, but warmer.

He shakes his head at his own foolishness, hefts his rifle, and positions his feet sideways, making it easier to maneuver up the snow-slicked dead grass and into the trees above, where Locke and Chavez have been cutting firewood. What’d he expect? Open door? Wide-arm welcome? From that nigger and his wench? From their hanger-on greaser?

Not that they’re doin’ all that well. He chuckles and shakes his shaggy head. North end of that barn roof’s caved in. That flimsy stretch of canvas over the cut meadow grass they’re usin’ for hay ain’t gonna protect it much from the snow.

He grins and stops to peer down at the mud-and-log barn. Or cow shit. He got a good double handful into the loose hay before the door rattled and he ducked out the other side. Cows eat that, they’ll be sicker’n dogs before spring.

He snorts. They got plenty of time to get sick in. Spring comes late here. And wet. That canvas’ll be no protection at all. April rains’ll pour across it like a funnel, right into that hay. And that’s before it soaks through and damps the whole lot. He grins. Then that shit poison’ll spread even faster. He chuckles, pleased with his work.

When he reaches the top of the hill, he turns again. Smoke rises from the cabin chimney, a plume of white that merges with the falling snow. Not like his own sorry lean-to, fire spitting with random flakes, wind burning the smoke into his eyes.

Then he snorts derisively. Those two tenderfeet’ll be thinkin’ they can turn those beeves out to pasture come early March. Valley grass don’t come in that early. They’ll be lucky to have any stock left by late May. Even without his little gift in their hay pile. He grins and spits at the icy snow at his feet.

Those cows’ll be dry as the Arizona desert and that girl’ll be thinner than she was before she got hitched. His lips twist and he adjusts the gray scarf to cover them. Feed gets scarce enough, she’ll be ripe for a change.

His hands move toward his crotch, then he catches himself and scowls. Too cold for even a little self-pleasuring. Hell of a place. He eyes the western mountains. Another, denser wave of snow is working its way down slope. A steel-gray mass of clouds hides the peaks. Storm’s not slowin’ down anytime soon. The air’s heavy with damp.

And there’s more snow-bound months ahead, damn it all. That tiny valley to the west where he’s stashed his mule and goods is even more apt for snow than down here. But it is out of sight. And on a well-traveled game trail. He can sit at his campfire and kill what he needs with an easy shot. Ease out from the lean-to and bring it in, no work at all. To bad his hut ain’t as snow-tight as the cabin behind him.

Snow-tight and crowded, what with two men, a girl, and a baby. He grins, pale blue eyes icy above the stinking wool scarf. They’ll be hatin’ each other by spring. He’ll make his move then.

He settles his shoulders under the big coat, twitches his poncho straight over his belly, and plods uphill through the snow, visions of next spring keeping him warm.

THIS IS THE END OF THIS SAMPLE OF NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE BY LORETTA MILES TOLLEFSON.

TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS TO SUZANNA AND GERALD, YOU CAN ORDER A COPY FROM YOUR FAVORITE BOOKSTORE OR ONLINE RETAILER, INCLUDING AMAZON, BARNES AND NOBLEe, or BOOKS2READ

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 12

CHAPTER 12

As Suzanna’s time grows closer, Gerald finds excuses to stay in the cabin with her, springing to her side whenever she grimaces in discomfort, looking for reasons to keep her indoors and away from any icy patches on the ground outside.

At first, Suzanna finds all the attention endearing, but then it begins to be aggravating. When Gerald offers to screen off part of the porch so she can use the chamber pot there instead of going to the outhouse, she puts her foot down.

She’s just opened the front door of the cabin when he makes the suggestion. She closes it against the cold and turns back into the room, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice. “I am perfectly capable of making the short trip out the door and around back to the outhouse.”

“Then tell me when you need to visit it and I’ll go with you.” He moves toward her and lifts his coat from the peg on the wall.

She puts her hands on her hips. “I don’t need an escort. I am not a child.”

“But you’re with child and I don’t want anything to happen.”

“Nothing’s going to happen.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Gerald—” She gives him a long look, then crosses the room and sinks into her chair, her coat billowing around her. “I know you love me, but this anxiety seems out of proportion to the event.”

He puts his hat on his head. “I think it’s exactly proportionate. You’re going to have a child any day now.”

“Women have children every day of the year,” she says. “It’s not an abnormal occurrence.”

“You don’t.”

“I would hope not. It’s a good deal of work. “ She shifts in her chair and grimaces. “Ouch.” She unbuttons the heavy wool coat and massages the top of her belly.

Gerald frowns anxiously, but Suzanna only chuckles. “Baby just wants to let you know that he’s almost as anxious to get this over with as you are.”

Gerald grins. “She is, is she?”

“I’m not getting into a discussion about whether it’s a boy or a girl.” Suzanna shifts slightly in her seat. “I’ll even put off going to the outhouse to find out why you’re so anxious.” She crosses her hands over her belly. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

He turns his head away.

“Gerald?”

“My mother had a rough time.”

“With you?”

“With my brother.”

“I didn’t know you have a—”

“I don’t.” He gives her a bleak look, then turns back to the fire. “They both died.”

She leans forward, her hand reaching for him, but he shakes his head as if the memory is still too fresh for comfort. “She also had no woman to help her,” he says.

“But you were in Missouri.”

“There was no one nearby.” He looks at the bed, then the window. “No one to help an Irish servant girl who’d made decisions of which they didn’t approve.”

She opens her mouth to ask for more details, but there’s something about the set of his shoulders that says he isn’t going to discuss it, no matter how hard she probes.

He turns back to her. “So I worry.” He shakes his head. “Part of me is sure that you and the child will be fine.” Mischief glints in his eyes. “Whatever its gender.” Then he grimaces. “But another part of me is gripped with fear. Especially—” He looks toward the window again. “Especially since the news about Encarnación. Her death reminds me just how fragile life is, how quickly we can lose those we love.” His shoulders tighten. The hat brim shades his eyes. “I couldn’t bear it the way Ramón does. So quietly. I think I’d go mad.”

Suzanna’s hand rubs her belly. “It does make you realize how tenuous life can be.” She takes a deep breath. “I wish Encarnación was here. It would be less daunting to face childbirth with her at my side.” Her voice trembles. “And I miss her so much.” There’s a long silence, then she takes a shaky breath and steadies her voice. “But I have you here. And Ramón is here to help you. And I’m young and strong.”

Gerald nods reluctantly. “My mother was in her late thirties,” he admits. “She was really too old to have a child. And she was worn down with work and—”

Suzanna waits for more, but he’s silent again, staring at the window.

“I am young,” she repeats. “And strong. I don’t anticipate any problems.” She reaches for him again, and this time he leans forward and takes her hand. “You shouldn’t either,” she says gently.

He shifts and nods reluctantly. “I’ll try. But I still think I should accompany you to the outhouse.” His gray eyes brighten. “And I could put ashes on the path to soften the ice.”

She makes a small face. “Well, I suppose you going with me is better than using the chamber pot on the porch,” she says drily. “Though you may be sorry you offered when you realize just how often I need to go outside these days!”

He laughs and squeezes her hand.

“Speaking of whether it’s a boy or a girl—” she says.

“Yes?”

“If it’s a girl, I’d like to name her after my father’s mother, Alma.”

Gerald nods.

Suzanna glances toward the kitchen, where Ramón is rattling dishes, and tugs on Gerald’s hand, to move him closer. He kneels beside her and pushes his hat off his forehead to look into her face. “Yes?”

“And Encarnación,” she says.

“Alma Encarnación Locke.” He smiles as he nods. “It’s a good name.”

“You don’t mind that there will be no name from your family’s side?”

He shakes his head. “We’ll save my family names for the next child,” he says. “Or if it’s a boy. But if it’s a girl, then her name will honor a woman who’s part of our family in spirit, if not in blood.”

Tears well in Suzanna’s eyes. “It’s hard for me to think of her as gone. It seems as if she’s still there in Taos, training someone to run my father’s house. Preparing to join us.” She takes a deep, shuddering breath. “And yet, when I remember that she is gone, the pain seems unbearable.”

He squeezes her hand and stands up. “I know,” he says. “There are times when I think of my own mother, who I saw on her deathbed, and I still can’t believe that she’s not waiting for me somewhere in Missouri, ready to tell me to wash my hands and wipe the mud off my feet before I step through the door.”

“As Encarnación did me, although she was only a few years older than I.” Suzanna chuckles as she brushes the wetness from her cheeks. She pushes herself out of her seat. “And now I really need to use the outhouse.”

He grins, flattens his hat on his head, and crooks an elbow in her direction. “At your service, madam,” he says.

You’ve just read the twelfth 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 7

CHAPTER 7

Suzanna stands in the middle of the field of harvested cornstalks, her hands on her hips, her belly bulging, a machete on the ground at her feet. Although it didn’t yield much in the way of food, the maíz patch contains plenty of dead stalks that now need to be dealt with.

She could leave them standing until spring. The elk and deer would probably find them useful as winter forage. Certainly, the raccoons would enjoy the remnants of the corn that was too small to pick. Not that she wants the pestilential beasts to get any ideas about coming back next season for ripe corn. They don’t need to be encouraged.

She scowls at Dos and Uno, who are chasing each other through the rattling stalks. Perhaps next year they’ll make themselves useful. They certainly didn’t protect anything this season.

She bends awkwardly to pick up the machete and hefts its smooth cottonwood handle in her right hand, then swings it experimentally in a long sideways circle. The long flat metal blade makes a hissing sound in the crisp fall air. If nothing else, chopping stalks will make her feel better. They won’t be visible anymore from the cabin porch, taunting her inability to make them produce or to protect the little they cared to yield. And she needs the exercise.

In Don Fernando, there’s always someone to hire for this type of work. Gregorio Garcia or one of his cousins. But here there are no young men eager for a few coins. And Gerald and Ramón are busy with their own winter-preparation chores: hand-hewing sections of board to partition the cows from the hay in the barn, hauling and splitting more firewood, placing yet more rocks at the base of the chicken run to guard from predators. Raccoons, those furry vexations, love eggs even more than corn.

Suzanna scowls at the thought of the pesky raccoons. Her grip tightens on the machete. The resulting pressure on her still-tender palm reminds her to pinch her thumb and forefinger around the machete handle, the way Ramón showed her. She repositions her hand and flicks her wrist forward and down. The blade swings smoothly. Her raccoon-chopping fantasy may even be plausible.

Suzanna chuckles and sets to work, cutting steadily down the first row of dead stalks. At the end, she turns and nods in satisfaction. Severed stalks scatter the ground, their long dead leaves stabbing in every direction. The half-grown Ute puppies run among them, chasing each other and their own tails.

As she watches them she feels a sudden pressure under her bottom left rib, shoving outward. She takes a slow deep breath, then massages the spot with her left hand. The pressure shifts toward her abdomen. Suzanna grins. This isn’t the first time this had happened. This baby seems to crave activity. Little feet and elbows poke outward the minute Suzanna stops moving.

“You want more action, little one?” she asks. “Shall we cut some more cornstalks?” The brown and black puppy yips as if in answer and Suzanna laughs, then goes back to work.

The baby may like movement, but Suzanna finds that she can’t chop as many stalks as she would like to in any one work session. It takes her almost a week to get to the last row of maíz. She’s moving up the row, her back to the western mountains, when the weather shifts, the air suddenly colder. A haze of damp stings her cheeks. But vigorous movement and her heavy wool coat have made her so warm that the bite of the air merely feels invigorating. She keeps chopping.

Suddenly a voice behind her says, “You may want to wait to finish that.”

Suzanna turns to see Gerald. Beyond him, a mass of gray cloud blocks any view of the western peaks. “I don’t think you have time to cut the rest of the row,” he tells her. He gestures toward the clouds. “This snowstorm’s coming in pretty quickly. “

Suzanna frowns. “It’s too early for snow. Not a heavy snow, anyway. It’s only the middle of October!”

“You’re not in Don Fernando anymore, wife,” he says gently.

“So I’ve been told,” she says. She looks back at her row of cornstalks. “I just want to finish this.”

He glances up the hill toward the barn. “I can get the other machete. We can finish it together.”

“I know you’re busy—”

“The barn is well enough. And the wood can wait.” He steps forward to kiss her forehead. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

She watches him head toward the barn with his long easy stride, and smiles. He’s interrupted his own work to help her with something that isn’t essential, but is important to her. He’s a good man and she loves him dearly. Even if he does think this desolate mountain valley is the best possible place to live.

Together they quickly finish leveling the row of dead cornstalks. Then Suzanna heads toward the cabin, the dogs at her heels, while Gerald returns the machetes to the barn. The clouds have dropped into the valley now and the wind is pushing them steadily toward the cabin. The air is bitterly cold.

When she reaches the porch, Suzanna turns to gaze at the approaching storm. She can’t see the western peaks, but she knows they’re there. A patch of blue sky has opened directly above the almost-black clouds that cover them. The blue is a glorious contrast to the ominous billows below. Even in its foreboding iciness, the scene is majestic.

She squints at the foothills farther down, where a gray screen of moisture slants toward the grassy brown slopes. The mist half obscures the hills, but she can see movement at the top of the one on the right. A lone elk?

No. A thick-set man on a black horse. Facing the cabin across the valley. And Suzanna.

There’s something menacing about the stillness of both beast and man. And familiar. Those sloping yet bulky shoulders. The shapeless mass below. Suzanna’s stomach twists. It’s the same figure she saw south of the cabin in July. And it still reminds her of Enoch Jones.

Suzanna shudders, blinks, and shakes her head. Surely she’s imagining it. When she looks again, the gray screen of mist has thickened and dropped. The hilltop is gone. There’s nothing to see. And the screen of snow is moving steadily toward the cabin. She shivers again and the half-grown dogs slink up the porch steps and edge toward her feet.

Gerald crosses the yard and follows Uno and Dos onto the porch. “Aren’t you cold?” he asks. He circles the animals to move behind Suzanna and wrap his arms around her waist. His cold cheek touches hers as he looks past her at the oncoming storm. “I can keep you warmer than the dogs can,” he murmurs. “And we’re all set for winter, so I can do plenty of this.”

She smiles, tilts her head toward his, and nestles back into his arms. Whatever she thought she saw, it isn’t there now. And he is.

You’ve just read the seventh 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 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.