A Piece of No Secret Too Small

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

CHAPTER 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew stops eating to listen.

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

“And the prize is a rooster?”

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

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

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

Andrew frowns. “There must be rules.”

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

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

“Something like that.”

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

She grimaces. “When the rooster dies.”

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

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

“Lo siento,” the woman says apologetically.

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

“Pobrecito,” the other woman murmurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from No Secret Too Small.

Another Excerpt from No Secret Too Small

This is another excerpt from my new Old New Mexico novel, No Secret Too Small.

CHAPTER 8

When the children appear in the doorway to the kitchen, Consuela looks up in surprise.

“Grandfather said we should have tea here,” Andrew tells her.

The cook waves a hand at the table. It’s covered with flour, baking utensils, and a tray that holds a blue-flowered teapot and a plate piled with biscuits. “There is no room.” In the corner fireplace, a big copper kettle begins to burble. She turns toward it. “And I am baking. It is not a good time.”

“We can go into the courtyard,” Alma offers. “We can have our tea there.”

“Two places,” the cook sniffs. She lifts the teakettle from the fire, moves to the table, and begins filling the flowered pot. She glances at the corner cupboard, where there’s another pot, a simple brown one. “Two teas and not one.”

“I can help.” Alma moves to the cupboard, lifts the pot from its shelf, and carries it to the table.

Consuela picks up the flowered pot, pours the water from it into the brown one, then drops tea leaves into the first pot and adds more hot water. She looks up and jerks her chin toward the cupboard. “The tea is in the wood box.”

Alma returns to the corner, lifts down a flat ornately carved container, and carries it to the table. When the cook lifts the lid, the rich scent of black tea fills the air. Alma leans forward to examine the oblong of compressed leaves inside. Three of the squares have been cut out and used already, so the block is no longer rectangular. The piece that juts out has been reduced to perhaps half its original size.

Consuela drains the water from the brown pot, then reaches for a small knife. She carefully slices a sliver of tea off the block, places it in the pot, and pours more hot water in. As she pours, she nods toward the pot on the tray. “You should take that in now. Before it gets bitter.”

Alma looks at her in surprise, then realizes the cook doesn’t know why she and Andrew were sent out of the room. She takes a deep breath and gingerly lifts the tray. When she nears the doorway, Andrew snatches a biscuit from the plate, then retreats into the hall and out the courtyard door. It thuds behind him as she moves carefully toward the parlor.

The tray is heavy and requires both hands. Alma pauses outside the door, uncertain how to hold it and open the door at the same time. She braces the edge of the tray between the adobe wall and her hip and reaches for the door.

Then she stops. Inside the room, her mother’s voice rises in frustration. “Tarnation! You haven’t heard a word of what I’ve just said!”

“I have heard you very well,” Alma’s grandfather answers. “However, I believe you are not being entirely truthful with yourself or with me.”

“Truthful! How dare—” There’s a short silence, then she speaks again. “Would you care to explain yourself?”

“Before Gerald asked me for your hand you made it very clear that you saw no need to pry into his background.” His voice drops. Alma has to strain to hear him. “You were in love.”

“I didn’t want you to discover something that would make you refuse him.” Her tone sharpens. “You were convinced I was too young. You would have latched onto anything to make us wait.”

“Hmm.” It’s the voice he uses when he doesn’t want to say what’s really on his mind.

“My age at the time is not relevant to this discussion.” Her mother sounds downright sulky. “He lied to me.”

“He wasn’t completely forthcoming. It’s not quite the same thing.”

A chair squeaks. When she speaks again, it’s clear she’s moved across the room. Her voice has changed. She sounds more puzzled than angry. “Doesn’t this news surprise you, at least? Concern you in any way?”

His tone is carefully neutral. “Why would it?”

“You knew.” There’s a pause, then she says again, “You knew! And you didn’t think I should be told?”

“You said you didn’t want to know anything about him but what you had seen with your own eyes and heard with your own ears. Perhaps not in those words. But that was clearly your intent.”

“Tarnation!” she says again.

There’s another moment of silence. Then suddenly the door to the room flies open. Alma straightens and lifts the tea tray. Her mother glares down at her. “You undoubtedly knew, also!” She stalks into the hall and toward the courtyard door. “Everybody seems to have known but me!”

The next morning, she stays in bed. Old One Eye Pete has gone off to visit friends at the pueblo. The children and their grandfather eat breakfast in silence at the kitchen table, although Alma stirs her porridge more than she eats it. There’s a hard lump in her belly that’s been there since her mother stormed out of the parlor.

Alma watches Andrew gulp down his food. When he eyes her dish, she scoots it across to him. When the bowl scrapes the table top, her grandfather looks up but doesn’t comment. Alma sits with her hands in her lap, waiting dully for whatever is going to happen next. She’s very tired. The night was a long one.

Finally, Grandfather Peabody puts his spoon in his bowl, drains the last of his strawberry leaf tea, and nods to the cook. “Thank you, Consuela. That was a fine repast.”

“I am sorry there were no eggs for you this morning, señor,” she says. “Gregorio is still trying to understand where the snake is entering the coop.”

“I’ll manage without eggs every morning,” he says. “Though I do enjoy them when they’re available.” He turns to Andrew. “I wonder if that dog of yours might help to locate the reptilian entrance point.”

Andrew nods eagerly. “Chaser can find anything!”

Consuela sniffs. “He is so big, he will destroy the nest boxes.”

Alma’s grandfather strokes his chin beard. “He might at that. Perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea.” He turns back to Andrew, whose mouth is twisted in disappointment. “But I know he is an excellent companion. Perhaps we should take him to the plaza with us and introduce him to mis vecinos.”

On the way to the center of town, their grandfather explains that the Don Fernando de Taos plaza consists of joined abode buildings constructed around a large hollow square. It has four entrances, each with a big wooden gate that can be barred and locked.

“To keep the Comanches out?” Andrew asks.

He nods. “Comanches or Utes or Navajo. It was constructed many years ago. Nowadays, the only Indians who raid in New Mexico are the Navajo and they’re more interested in the pastures than the towns. They primarily want sheep.”

Alma reaches for his hand. She’s heard the stories. “And boys to herd them and girls to spin and weave the wool.”

He squeezes her fingers in his. “But you have a mastiff to protect you. At any rate, I’m certain you aren’t foolish enough to wander the fields by yourself.”

Alma thinks wistfully of her mountain valley streams and their fat trout, and nods. Chaser Two loops around behind Andrew and her grandfather and nudges at her hand. She smiles at him and pats his big head.

They’re at the northeast corner of the plaza now. It looks like a much larger version of her grandfather’s courtyard, except instead of plants and woodpiles on its edges there are long, covered porches and people sitting or squatting in their shade.

Some of the people have laid out blankets and arranged produce, pots, or other goods on them for sale. Others stand talking or move from vendor to vendor, shopping. The sun beats down from a bright blue sky with a single white cloud in it.

Andrew steps to one side to investigate the contents of a blanket. He picks up a wooden whistle and turns to show it to Alma. “It looks like the one Old Pete made me!”

His grandfather gently takes the whistle from the boy’s hand and returns it to the blanket with an apologetic word to the vendor, a man wrapped in a big red-striped white blanket. “You must not touch something unless you are interested in purchasing it,” he tells the children. “It’s not polite.”

“Oh.” Andrew puts his hands behind his back and turns to the man. “Perdóneme.”

The corner of the man’s eyes crinkle as he smiles at the boy, then his sister. “De nada.”

“Are your grandchildren stealing again?” a deep voice says from behind them.

The children jerk around, but their grandfather only laughs. “Ah, Padre,” he says. “You’ve caught us at last.”

A thick-chested man with a high forehead and wearing a long black robe smiles at Andrew, then Alma, benevolently. There’s a sharpness in his eyes that doesn’t match his expression. Alma offers him a small smile anyway. Andrew studies him wide-eyed.

“Padre, these are my grandchildren, Alma and Andrew Locke,” their grandfather says. “Children, this is Padre Antonio José Martínez.”

Alma gives him a small curtsy, as her mother has taught her, and the priest laughs in delight. Andrew says, “I’ve heard about you!”

The Padre chuckles and gives their grandfather a sideways glance. “Only good things, I hope.”

“You share books with Grandfather Peabody and talk with him about important things,” Alma says before her brother can repeat the gossip Old One Eye Pete and Bill Williams have brought to the cabin. Things about women and money and power that she doesn’t really understand. Padre Martínez smiles at her, then turns back to her grandfather. “She looks remarkably like her father. That square-shaped face and that hair.”

Alma takes her grandfather’s hand and turns her head so the priest can’t see her left cheek. She should have worn her sunbonnet.

But the men aren’t paying attention to her anymore. Another man has joined them, a man taller than Grandfather Peabody. She tilts her head to get a better look. His skin is almost as pale as her New England grandfather’s, and he has dancing brown eyes and wavy black hair. He’s standing still, but it almost feels like he’s moving. Energy seems to radiate from him. He gives her a bright glance, then nods respectfully at something her grandfather is saying. Next to Gregorio, he’s the handsomest man she’s ever seen.

Then Grandfather Peabody turns to her and says her name. “This is Señor Donaciano Vigil.” He gives the man a questioning look. “I believe he’s a relative of Ramón.”

“Juan Ramón Chavez of Don Fernando de Taos?” The man laughs and spreads his hands, palms up. “Isn’t everyone in nuevo mexico related to Ramón?”

“I thought you were in prison for insubordination,” Padre Martínez asks. “Or can they jail presidio soldiers for insubordination when you aren’t being paid?”

Señor Vigil laughs again. “I am in town for only a short time, on an errand for the governor, but I have to report to el calabozo as soon as I return to Santa Fe.”

Padre Martínez looks at Alma’s grandfather. “Surely you’ve heard the story.” He nods toward the newcomer. “This one here didn’t give his superior officer due deference and the credit the officer thought he deserved at Valencia’s mercantile. As a result, the señor here was arrested for insubordination.”

Vigil spreads his hands, palms up. “Because Governor Pérez ran out of money for the troops, I was assisting my cousin in his store, translating and clerking, fetching and carrying.” He grimaces. “Now I’m either sitting in jail or running errands for the governor.” Then he grins. “Actually, working in the store and being in jail are much alike. Both involve a great deal of sitting around, interspersed with activity. Except for the pay and not carrying a weapon, I still have the duties of a soldier.”

“You’re a soldier?” Andrew breaks in. He stares at the tall man in admiration.

Alma’s grandfather frowns. Donaciano Vigil gives him a swift glance, then nods at the boy. “I am. But right now there is no money to pay me, so I do other work. Soldiering is not a good livelihood if one has a family. And it’s often quite boring.”

“Like the Navajo campaign you returned from in March,” Padre Martínez observes.

Señor Vigil grins. “That was both boring and cold.” He turns to Alma’s grandfather. “Although your man Gregorio Garcia comported himself well. I was glad to make his acquaintance.”

“He is not my man,” he answers. “Although he does work for me occasionally. But I will pass your kind words on to his mother, who was not pleased when he joined the militia.”

Padre Martínez frowns. “I will speak to her also. It is a man’s duty to participate in the militia when it is called upon. The Navajo are a constant danger to us and must be repelled at all costs. I and my brothers have lost many sheep and even cattle to them over the years.”

Señor Vigil is looking past Alma’s grandfather to the northeast entrance of the plaza. “Ah, but here is the man himself.”

Alma turns. Gregorio moves toward them, a bundle of linens in each hand. She smiles brightly at him, but he’s focused on her grandfather and the other men. He moves his hands toward his back, making the bundles seem smaller.

“Gregorio Garcia!” the priest says playfully. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you at mass!”

Gregorio nods respectfully to each of the men in turn. “Sargento,” he says to Señor Vigil.

“We were just speaking of you and military service,” Alma’s grandfather says.

Gregorio smiles slightly. “Although the campaign last winter was a cold one and we didn’t see any Navajo, I found I enjoyed it.”

Señor Vigil claps him on the back. “Good man!” He peers at Gregorio’s bundles. “And now, like me, you have returned to town and all the duties pertaining thereto.” He grins conspiratorially. “We do what we must to keep our households fed and warm.”

Gregorio gives him a rueful look. “My mother launders, I deliver.” Then he turns to Alma’s grandfather. “And assist others where I can. I will come this afternoon to search again for that snake.”

“Ah, Consuela will be glad to hear it.” He nods toward Chaser, who’s still standing patiently beside Alma. “Andrew and the mastiff may be of some assistance to you, also.”

“I can help too.” Alma looks into Gregorio’s face. “I’m not the least bit afraid of snakes.”

“Like mother, like daughter,” the priest chuckles.

Alma’s head jerks toward him. She certainly hopes not. She opens her mouth to say so, but his eyes are sharp as a serpent’s, even though his lips are smiling. She looks at Gregorio instead.

He grins back at her. “Of course you can help, nita.” He glances at her grandfather. “If your abuelo agrees.” He nods and gives the children a stern look. “Catching a snake is serious business. You must exercise caution and obey Señor Garcia in whatever he tells you to do.”

from No Secret Too Small

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 13

CHAPTER 13

Even with Gerald’s attentiveness, the increasingly-shorter winter days begin to seem very long to Suzanna. As her belly expands, housework becomes more uncomfortable. She can barely manage to even sew. And she’s prepared everything she needs to for the child. There’s really nothing to do but sit and wait, feeling as if the child will never arrive. It’s almost a relief when her pains begin.

Then time stretches again, into a black tunnel of contraction and fear, Gerald’s hand gripping hers, his brown face fighting to remain calm, but his gray eyes dark with anxiety. Suzanna focuses instead on the comfort of his hands on hers, then Ramón’s solid grip as Gerald does what is needed between her bent knees.

They’ve brought her a piece of buckskin to bite down on when the pain becomes too intense. The gamy taste of it mixes with the salt on her lips, the saliva in her mouth. The taste seems to get stronger as the pain intensifies, nausea sweeps over her in waves, in time with the contractions. Then Gerald cries “I see it!” as a searing pain cuts across her belly.

“Push now!” Ramón says in her ear. He reaches across her and grips her other hand. “Push!”

“Here it comes!” Gerald says. “There’s the head!”

Suzanna gulps back her terror, grinds her teeth into the now-slimy leather, and pushes into her hips as hard as she can. Ramón’s palms are tight under her fingernails and there’s an enormous pressure between her legs. A buzzing haze fills her head.

“Push!” Ramón says again. “That’s it, push!”

Then the dam between her legs seems to burst and the pressure is gone. Gerald laughs exultantly. Suzanna lowers her shaking thighs and Ramón’s hands flex slightly under her fingers.

Suzanna turns her head to look up at him and Ramón chuckles. “You have a strong grip.”

She makes an apologetic sound and releases his hands. He flexes them gingerly and grins at her. “Next time I will give you a piece of wood to hold,” he jokes.

“Ramón, I need the scissors,” Gerald says anxiously, and Ramón drops Suzanna’s hand.

As the two men cut the umbilical cord and clean the baby, Suzanna lets herself sink into the pillow. She’s so tired.

Then Gerald appears, and she forces hers eyes open. He’s holding a small cloth-covered bundle awkwardly in his hands. “It’s a girl,” he says as he slips the baby into Suzanna’s arms. When he straightens, he gives her a smile that’s both proud and relieved. “Our little girl.”

That afternoon, Ramón goes out to look after the cattle, leaving the new parents alone with their new infant. “Look at this!” Suzanna says as the baby nuzzles her breast. “She has a heart-shaped freckle!”

Gerald moves closer. The baby’s face is splotched with dark freckles that seem large on her tiny brown face.

Suzanna points to her tiny left cheek. “See here?”

Gerald chuckles. “I think it’s more heart-shaped from where you’re looking.”

Suzanna smiles contentedly as the tiny fingers wrap around her own and the baby burrows its face into her breast. “Alma Encarnación Locke,” she says wonderingly. She looks up. “Have you told Ramón?”

The outer door opens and Ramón appears, carrying a pail of fresh milk. “There will be another storm in the next several days,” he says. “I can feel it in the wind.” He turns to close the door behind him, then looks at Suzanna. “How is la nena?”

She smiles at him. “She is well.” She looks at Gerald. “We have decided on her name.”

Gerald hesitates, then looks at Ramón. “She will be called Alma Encarnación Locke,” he says. He glances at Suzanna apologetically, then turns back to Ramón. “That is, if you agree.”

The milk in the pail sloshes slightly as Gerald speaks. Ramón leans to place the bucket on the floor. When he straightens, there are tears in his eyes. “I agree,” he says softly. “You do Encarnación a great honor.”

Suzanna smiles at the baby still latched to her breast. “She will be honored to bear the name of such a woman.” She looks up at Ramón. “If she becomes half the woman Encarnación was—” She swallows hard, then starts again. “If she is like Encarnación in any way, then I will be satisfied.”

“Do you know what ‘alma’ means en español?” Ramón asks.

Suzanna shakes her head.

“It means ‘soul.’”

Her eyes widen and they stare at each other for a long moment. Then Suzanna closes her eyes and tightens her grip on her child. “My soul,” she whispers.

Gerald crosses the room to Ramón, touches his forearm, and reaches for the pail of milk as Suzanna lifts the baby away from her breast and covers herself. She looks up at Ramón. “Come and say hello to her,” she says. “See her freckles?”

Gerald carries the milk into the kitchen as Ramón crosses to the bed. Two tiny black eyes open and gaze at him solemnly. “She is so tiny,” he says. “Smaller than you were, I think.” He reaches to touch the baby’s cheek. “Hola, nita.”

“Little sister?” Suzanna asks in amusement. “Hopefully, she will be a big sister someday.”

Ramón laughs. “You are already prepared for another?”

“Well, perhaps not quite yet!”

He sobers. “Today is Sunday,” he observes.

“Is it? I’ve lost track of the days.”

“It is a good sign, to be born on a Sunday. A good omen.”

She gives him a quizzical look. “I didn’t think you believed in omens.”

He chuckles and shrugs. “I do when it is convenient.” He reaches out again to touch Alma’s cheek. “To be born on a Sunday and to be named Encarnación. La nita is doubly blessed.” A shadow crosses his face, then he gives his head a little shake and turns abruptly toward the kitchen door. “I must strain the milk.”

Two days after Alma’s birth, the storm Ramón predicted arrives with a vengeance. Snow and wind beat across the valley, obscuring the mountain peaks in both directions and making travel to or from Don Fernando impossible.

In spite of the weather, Suzanna continues to hope her father will somehow arrive in time for at least part of the holiday, but the year changes and he still doesn’t come.

With the disappointment comes an overwhelming exhaustion compounded by the demands of motherhood. The baby seems to tug at her constantly. Suzanna’s attitude toward her veers between tenderness, exasperation, and sheer exhaustion. Motherhood seems to consist of sleeping in fits and starts, waking in a gray haze to let the ever-hungry mouth latch onto her breast, and listlessly sitting up just enough to feed herself. The men slip in and out of the house as if afraid to disturb her, as if her only function is to feed and clean the child.

She’s a beautiful baby, Suzanna tells herself. Yet, all she really wants to do is push Alma to the other side of the big wooden bed in the cabin’s main room and curl into an oblivious ball. Exhaustion weighs her down like a pile of heavy blankets. She feels Chonita’s loss even more now. And guilt for feeling that way. For wishing for the other woman’s presence most when it would be beneficial to herself. But Suzanna is too tired to sort out her emotions. All she wants to do is sleep.

Except at night. Gerald, thinking it will help Suzanna recover, has taken to sleeping in the loft so that she and the baby can rest undisturbed. But after he climbs the ladder each night, Suzanna finds herself wide awake, staring at the dying fire. Her mind wanders to Taos and her father, then back to the baby beside her. She should be happy. But she feels only a blankness that borders on despair.

During the daylight hours—what she can see of them, given the limited light from the mica-covered windows—Suzanna finds it impossible to stay awake, except when Alma’s fussing at her. Then she comes unwillingly out of her daze.

If the baby isn’t hungry again, she smells like an outhouse. When this happens, Suzanna rolls away, breathing through her mouth, trying to block the stench. Eventually, footsteps will cross the floor from the kitchen and she’ll hear Ramón murmur “Pobre nita!” and feel him lift the infant from the other side of the bed.

As he crosses back to the kitchen, baby in his arms, Suzanna is crushed with guilt. She’s a bad mother. She can’t even bring herself to care that her child is dirty. A man who isn’t even related to her is caring for her infant. Suzanna turns her head and sobs into her pillow, but she still can’t work up the desire to rise and take care of Alma’s needs herself. If only her Chonita were here. Or her father.

Though why her father’s presence would make her feel better, Suzanna doesn’t know. The thought of him fills her with terror. There’s been no word from Taos. No one passes through the valley when the snow is this deep and the weather so uncertain. Perhaps he also is dead. Whoever killed Encarnación has come for him, too. And this person Chonita hired to be his housekeeper. Does she know how to provide the meals her father likes? To keep his clothes well aired? To make sure he drinks strawberry-leaf tea to ward off his winter cough? Can she talk to him about the books he’s reading or his conversations with Padre Martínez? Suzanna is filled with longing for the warm fireside of her father’s book-filled parlor.

“I should be there, not here.” She struggles to sit up and pushes her disheveled hair from her face. “Taking care of my father and studying with him, not chained to a child who constantly demands to be fed and cleaned. Who I can’t even bring myself to feel pity for, much less affection. Even Ramón cares for her more than I do.”

She leans back against her pillows and the tears come again. She’s so far from everything here. Her father. Other women. How she misses Encarnación’s warm kitchen and the camaraderie there.

She wipes at her tear-stained cheeks with the back of her hand. It would have been better if she’d never married, never come to these mountains, never had a child. She should have stayed in Don Fernando with her father and been nice to Ceran St. Vrain. He wouldn’t have dragged her into these god-forsaken hills. She closes her eyes, her body limp against the pillows.

There’s a rustle of sound in the kitchen doorway. Suzanna opens her eyes. Ramón is in the door, Alma in his arms. He gazes at Suzanna sympathetically. “It is bad, the pain?” he asks.

She shakes her head. “There is no pain.” She looks at the window. “That is, there’s no physical pain.”

“It is a pain of the heart.” He moves toward the bed, then veers off and settles himself onto the brightly-painted storage chest by the fire, Alma still in his arms. He looks down at the infant and croons something in Spanish. “She is a good baby.” He looks up at Suzanna. “She does not cry like some I have heard.”

“She cries enough.” Suzanna bites her lips against the petulant sound of her voice and looks away. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she mutters.

“Qué?”

Suzanna lifts her hand as if to brush her words away. Her throat tightens, making it difficult to speak. “I want to be a good mother,” she croaks.

“But you are a good mother,” Ramón says.

Suzanna closes her eyes. “I don’t feel very good.”

His eyes widen in alarm. “You are unwell?”

She shakes her head. “I suppose I am well enough physically. But not inside myself. I feel—” She frowns, trying to define the turmoil inside her. “I feel sad, I suppose.”

“Because your father isn’t here?”

She nods unwillingly.

“But there is more.”

She nods again.

“Chonita?”

She raises a limp hand. “That is always with me. This is more, if that’s possible.”

“It is natural, I think,” Ramón says. Alma grunts and he moves slightly, shifting her in his arms. “Among my sisters and cousins, there have been women who suffer from a great sadness after a child is born.” His brow wrinkles. “Sometimes it can lead to madness.”

Suzanna’s head twists toward him. “Madness!”

He dips his head. “I have never known it to lead to such a thing. It is only something I have heard spoken of.”

Suzanna stares at him. “What happens to a woman who goes mad after a child is born?”

He looks at her reluctantly, then shifts Alma again, snuggling her into his chest. “La madre weeps uncontrollably. She becomes restless and angry with her child. Sometimes she injures the child.”

Suzanna stiffens, then wets her lips with her tongue. “And is there a way to prevent this madness?”

He stares into the fire. “They say that too much rest can be harmful,” he says reluctantly.

“Gerald thinks I should rest as much as possible.”

Ramón nods unhappily. “It is only what they say. I don’t know that it is true.”

Something that Suzanna recognizes as amusement glimmers inside her. “I thought you believed the old sayings.”

He chuckles and pats the baby’s back. “Only when it is convenient.”

Suzanna frowns. “Perhaps I should try to be more active.”

He shrugs without looking at her.

“I can try,” she says doubtfully. “I certainly don’t enjoy feeling like this.”

The door to the porch opens and Gerald comes in. He gives her a delighted smile. “You’re sitting up!” he says. “How are you feeling?”

She feels a sudden stab of anger. Of course she’s sitting up. She has to sit up to feed the ever-hungry child, doesn’t she? But she pushes the fierceness away and smiles at him instead. “I think that staying in bed isn’t really helping me feel better,” she says. “Could you bring me my shawl?”

A few days later, she’s kneeling beside the pallet Gerald has made for himself in the loft, straightening the bedding. It really needs to be aired. But heavy gray clouds are hanging once again over the peaks to the west. More snow is about to descend on the valley, on top of the eighteen inches already on the ground. It’s clearly not a good time to try to air blankets.

Her back twinges as she sits back on her heels and pulls the pallet blankets straight. She grimaces and twists, trying to stretch the tightness. She’s not sore as much as she is tense. A good walk in a spring meadow would do her a world of good. But that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Not in this weather. She eases grimly into a standing position in the center of the room and moves toward the ladder.

As she reaches to brace herself for the climb down, Gerald and Ramón come through the front door. “I swear I saw someone,” Gerald says. She can hear the frown in his voice. “Just by the corner of the barn.” His voice drops and Suzanna hears a low rumble, then “Jones.”

Ramón makes a noncommittal grunt. A boot thuds on the wood planks.

“But you didn’t see anything?”

“Nada,” Ramón says.

“I must have imagined it.” Gerald’s voice drops into a stubborn growl. “Jones is dead. I’m sure of it.”

In the loft, Suzanna shakes her head. And the knife that was found by Encarnación’s body? What of it? She isn’t sure why, but she doesn’t lean forward to let the men know she’s there or to question Gerald’s assertion.

“It is probably nothing,” Ramón says.

“Or it’s a lone trapper, trying to decide whether or not to ask for shelter.” Gerald’s voice lifts, his relief palpable. “But we should check the barn, just to be on the safe side. If there is someone out there, they’ll need more protection than the barn can offer in this weather. I’ll go. You already have your boots off.”

Above them, Suzanna crouches by the ladder and listens to Ramón cross in his stocking feet to the kitchen. Behind him, Alma begins to fuss in her cradle. Suzanna moves her aching legs into position on the ladder rungs and slips into the room below. She lifts the baby into her arms and goes to sit pensively by the fire. The image of a man on the ridge south of the cabin rises unbidden and she shivers and hugs Alma closer to her chest.

You’ve just read the thirteenth 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 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 11

CHAPTER 11

The hill’s western slope is coated with a thin layer of icy snow. The big man grimaces, then drops awkwardly to his knees. The mangy bearskin poncho has twisted as he knelt. He yanks it flat over his chest and drops belly-first onto the freezing slope. Then he pushes himself up onto his elbows, fumbles for his spyglass, peers over the top of the hill.

Not much chance the men in the cabin yard will notice a flash of light from this direction. They’re hell bent on whatever it is they’re doing, hauling timber and armloads of leather binding from the half-mud barn to the shanty.

The sun’s coming up over the Cimarrons behind the cabin, it’s making his eyes water. He pulls the spyglass away and swipes the lens with a dirty sleeve. Even without it he can see that Locke and the greaser are moving between the barn and the cabin again. They’re lugging some kind of gate-like wooden contraption between ’em. The wood’s got that pale mealy look aspen gets when it been pealed.

What’re they gonna do with a gate inside the house? A few minutes later, they return to the barn and haul the same kind of thing across the yard. The big man grunts. A bed, maybe. Or somethin’ to help with the birthing.

He swings the glass, studying the little farmstead. The little bitch must be about ready to whelp. She’s made no effort to hide her belly. Standing in the middle of the corn patch, rubbin’ at her stomach like a damn cow. She sure ain’t no lady, for all her airs and her father’s pamperin’.

He grunts. Can’t cook, but she does seem to know how to breed. Bound to happen. Two men, and one of them with a dead sweetheart.

He scratches his scraggly beard. “Wonder which of ’em the brat belongs to?” Then he chuckles. “Bet she don’t even know.”

His groin twitches and he rolls over and sits up. He reaches under the poncho and yanks his buckskin trousers into a more comfortable position. Baby’ll keep her closer to home. And her men can’t always be watchin’ for passing strangers. He grins, then pushes himself to his feet and moves down the slope, careful to stay out of sight of the cabin.

Give it a little more time, after the brat comes, and she’ll be easy enough to take.

Just like that piece in Taos. He chuckles, remembering the pleasure of that thrust, the satisfaction of giving that devil-tongued little whore what she deserved.

You’ve just read the eleventh 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 10

CHAPTER 10

The next morning, Suzanna wakes in the cabin loft with a headache and a pain in her chest. She rubs her hands over her face. Why does she feel so miserable? So exhausted? Then she remembers. Encarnación. Dead.

Suzanna closes her eyes against the hopeless tears. They won’t do any good. Her friend is gone. Never to join her here in these mountains. Nausea grips her and she fights it down, then gingerly pushes herself from the sleeping pallet. The only thing that might help is to move, to get outside, to breath the fresh outdoor air.

She dresses, climbs clumsily down the ladder, and retrieves the egg basket from the kitchen. Ramón nods to her somberly but she can’t meet his eye. She slips out of the house to the barn.

There’s a small door at the end nearest the corral, there to provide foot access when they’re not leading animals in and out. The door is partly open, though it provides little light to the interior. Suzanna steps inside and stops to let her eyes adjust to the dimness. She can hear Gerald and Gregorio in the far stall, preparing the mule for Gregorio’s return to Taos. As she crosses the straw-covered earth floor toward them, Gregorio says, “A knife was found.”

Suzanna freezes. He has clearly waited until now to tell Gerald about the knife. There must be a reason he didn’t mention it yesterday. She swallows against a sudden surge of anxiety and closes her eyes, listening.

“It was that big horn-handled one Enoch Jones used to carry.”

Suzanna’s throat tightens. Her fingers are cold on the basket’s woven handle.

“Jones is dead,” Gerald says, his voice stiff.

“So we believed.”

“No man could survive that wilderness with those wounds. If nothing else, the wolves would trail his blood and finish him off.”

The mule moves impatiently. Gregorio speaks to it softly.

Gerald clears his throat. “Someone must have found Jones’ body and stolen the knife.”

There’s a pause, then Gregorio’s reluctant voice. “There have been stories.”

Suzanna starts to move forward, then thinks better of it. They’ll stop talking the moment they know she’s here.

“Encarnación laughed and called them ghost stories,” Gregorio says. “Tales of a man shaped like Jones in the mountains.” There’s another pause. “Between here and Don Fernando,” he adds, his voice dropping. Suzanna has to strain to hear him.

“I did not wish to alarm la señora,” he adds. “Especially with the child coming.”

“I appreciate that,” Gerald says. “They may just be stories.”

“Sí, they may just be stories.”

Suzanna opens her mouth and steps forward, then stops. They’re only trying to protect her. And there’s no point in worrying them about worrying her. She moves quietly back to the door and the cold sunshine. She waits a long moment, then shoves the door open all the way and reenters the barn.

“Hola!” she calls. “Gregorio, are you leaving so early?” The two men turn toward her almost eagerly, as if they don’t want to think about what Gregorio has just said.

After Gregorio returns to Taos, a pall falls on the cabin, a haze of pain that refuses to lift. Gerald seems anxious and unwilling to stray far from the hillside. Suzanna watches him impatiently, suddenly refusing to believe her own fears about the man she saw on the ridge. Somewhere deep in her belly, she knows she’s being unreasonable. That the stories being told in Taos and the presence of the knife beside Chonita’s dead body mean that it’s likely Jones did somehow survive that terrible knife fight and has returned from the wilderness.

But surely that’s impossible. It must be someone else who’s haunting the mountains between the valley and Taos. She simply cannot allow herself to live in terror of any other possibility.

Besides, if Gerald believed that Jones had returned, he would have told her so. He’s said nothing about the Taos rumors or Jones’ bone-handled knife. He’s staying close to the cabin solely out of concern for both her and Ramón’s emotional state. There’s also her physical condition. The baby is due soon and Suzanna is increasingly uncomfortable.

The shock of Encarnación’s death has hit Ramón hard. The realization that she lay dead while he happily anticipated their marriage has left him in a kind of stupor. He still cooks and tends the animals, chops wood and hauls water, but he goes about his tasks in a sort of daze, eyes glazed with pain.

Suzanna herself finds that she’s sitting for long stretches, hands empty in her lap, staring blindly at the windows, glowing yellow with afternoon light. It’s hard to imagine a world without Chonita’s vital laugh, those knowing eyes, that gift for las natillas. Even the mica windowpanes remind her of the other woman. Suzanna smiles, remembering the arguments between her father and the cook about the need for sunlight and fresh air through the old-fashioned kitchen windows with their carved wooden grills, the ones her father wanted to replace with mica.

Ramón enters the room carrying an armload of firewood. Suzanna looks up at him. “You know, I think Encarnación was right,” she says. “The clear light from an open window aperture is so much brighter and truer than sunlight filtered through mica.”

Ramón kneels to add the wood to the small stack at the far end of the fireplace. “It is so,” he says. “She—” Then he stops, a piece of juniper still in his hand. He shakes his head, carefully positions the chunk of wood on top of the stack, then stands and moves toward the kitchen without looking back.

She closes her eyes. She shouldn’t have spoken. It only deepens his pain. And yet, how can she not speak, when everything seems to remind her of her dead friend? She sighs and sorrowfully rubs her belly. She had assumed Encarnación would come for the child’s birth, to assist her through it and perhaps stay on with Ramón.

Grief overwhelms her again, and Suzanna creeps across the room and climbs clumsily up the ladder to the loft. Out of the way, where she can’t do anything else to increase Ramón’s pain.

When the tears finally wear out, Suzanna lies limp on the blanket-covered pallet and stares at the bare rafters overhead. The weeping will erupt again. She hasn’t completed grieving for her friend. But the pressure in her head and chest has subsided a little. She wonders if Ramón has wept at all, if he’s found an outlet for his grief. But he’s a man. Men learn early to suppress their emotions. Perhaps speaking of his loss to another man will be all he can manage.

But when she asks Gerald that night if Ramón has spoken to him of Encarnación’s death. Her husband shakes his head.

“It will fester in him if he doesn’t express it.” Suzanna pushes another pillow behind her back, trying to get comfortable on the thin bed. “It isn’t good to hold in that kind of pain.”

“You don’t know that he’s not expressing it,” Gerald says. “We each have our own way of dealing with grief.” He leans down to give her a kiss and pokes at the pillows behind her. “Are you comfortable yet?”

“Not until this child decides to be born,” she says, exaggerating her grumbling tone, glad to have something else to think about. “Ouch!” She presses a hand against her lower chest. “That foot just jabbed my rib and now it’s pushing straight out.”

“Pushy little thing, isn’t it?” Gerald grins and he stretches out beside her. “Must be a girl.”

She gives him a slit-eyed look. “You certainly are in a good mood tonight.” Guilt wells up in her and she turns her head away. How can she be happy when Encarnación is dead and Ramón so bent with grief? Tears brim into her eyes. “When my father arrives for Christmas, Chonita won’t be with him.” She gives Gerald a bleak look. “If I can’t bear the thought of that, how must Ramón feel?”

Gerald lifts himself onto one elbow and gently strokes her dark hair. “I don’t mean to be hard hearted. I know your heart weeps for her and that Ramón is burdened with grief and self-reproach.”

“Self-reproach?”

“He believes that if he’d insisted that they marry when we did, she would have been here and safe, instead of on that acequia path.”

Suzanna’s eyes fill again. “On that path with potatoes from my patch, so far away from the village.” She shakes her head. “And I was so willing for her to stay in Don Fernando, so quick to leave her with all the work while I took what I wanted. When I left, she remained to arrange everything, to take all the responsibility for my father. And to have none of my joy.” She turns her head away from his sympathetic eyes. Her voice shakes. “I’m more to blame than Ramón!”

“Neither of you are to blame,” Gerald says firmly. “Encarnación insisted, remember? She decided what she wanted to do and that was it.” He chuckles. “Did you ever know her to change her mind once she had decided a thing?”

“No, not that I can remember.” She manages a small smile. “In fact, it was never clear whether she or my father was the first to decide that she would be our cook and housekeeper. I’ve always suspected it was Chonita’s idea before it was his, even though she was only fourteen at the time.”

Gerald grins. “She set you a good example.”

She narrows her eyes. “Now what exactly is that supposed to mean?”

He laughs. “Only that you and she both know how to get what you most want.” He leans forward and kisses her forehead. “Now please relax and let that baby finish its last bit of growth so it can arrive soon.” He reaches for her hand. “Ramón and I expect to have a surprise for you tomorrow morning, but if it’s to truly be a surprise, you’ll need to stay up here until we’re ready to show it to you. Can you do that?”

She grimaces. “Since I now need help to get down the ladder, I suppose I don’t have much choice, do I?”

He laughs and squeezes her hand. “I suppose not.” He looks around the loft. “You have the lamp and your books. The chamber pot’s empty and the wash basin has clean water in it. Is there anything else you need?”

“Chonita to be alive and this child to be born,” she says, closing her eyes. She can feel the grief pulling at her again.

Gerald touches her hair. “I wish I could make both those things happen,” he says. “I didn’t know Encarnación well, but I also feel her loss.”

Suzanna reaches for his hand. “I don’t mean to be such a weepy woman about it. I suppose it’s as much the weight of the child as grief for Chonita. If my time doesn’t come soon, I may dissolve in a lake of tears.”

“When the baby does arrive, it will be a comfort to all of us.” He looks up at the rafters. “Though I dread the process of its coming.”

“I’ll be fine.” Suzanna puts more courage into her voice than she actually feels at the moment. “We both know what to expect. After all, cows aren’t much different from humans.”

“Still, I wish you could be in your father’s house.” He turns his head, eyes dark with concern. “I shouldn’t have taken you from Taos.”

“It’s too late for that now,” she says. “I’ll be fine. I’m sure of it.”

He rolls toward her. “I’ll certainly be glad when it’s over,” he says, his face against her shoulder.

Suzanna turns her head to kiss him gently, then turns back to stare at the rafters herself. She can sleep only on her back now. Every other position is uncomfortable. As she stares into the darkness, Gerald’s body relaxes into sleep.

She can’t let go that easily. Despite Gerald’s reassurances, she still regrets her eagerness to hasten her own marriage and delay Encarnación’s. One of them needed to stay in Taos with her father and arrange for and train a new housekeeper. She had selfishly let that person be Chonita. Who is now dead. The tears slip silently down Suzanna’s face.

Finally, she sleeps. She wakes to a muttered curse in the room below and a muffled thud on the plank floor. “Are you two moving furniture?” she calls, but the only response is the scuff of boots across the floor and the thud of the front door shutting.

Suzanna frowns. What are those two up to? Oh, yes. The surprise. Well, if it distracts Ramón a little from his pain, it’s a good thing.

She closes her eyes against her own grief, then sits up. Her bladder is full to bursting. Or at least it feels like it. It could just be that the baby is pushing against it again. That nothing much will happen when she uses the chamber pot.

She gets up anyway, then slips back onto the thin pallet. She shifts impatiently, trying to get comfortable. The loft’s floor boards seem especially hard this morning, the pallet especially thin. It’s no use. She’ll read for a while, until they’re ready to show her the surprise.

She pushes herself into a sitting position. As she reaches to light the lamp, the door below thuds open again. “Shhh!” Gerald hisses. “Careful now! She’ll hear us!”

Suzanna pulls her hand away from the lamp and lies down again, a small smile playing on her lips. Let them think she’s still sleeping.

She’s actually dozed off again when Gerald’s head appears at the top of the ladder. “Wife?” he says.

“Ummm?”

“Your surprise is ready.” He sounds so pleased with himself.

She sits up and stretches her hand to him.

“Well, almost ready,” he says. “You have to see it before it can be completed.”

She chuckles. “Now I’m really curious.”

“Don’t look over the edge of the loft,” he warns. “And you’ll need to close your eyes on the way down.”

“Isn’t that’s rather dangerous?”

He laughs. “You haven’t been able to see your feet on the ladder rungs for the last month,” he reminds her. “I’ll stay right below you just like I’ve been doing, and you’ll be perfectly safe.”

“I put myself in your hands,” she says, smiling. She wraps a shawl around her shoulders and ties it firmly in place. “All right, I’m ready.”

Gerald guides her carefully down the ladder, then places his hands on her shoulders and turns her, eyes still closed, toward the fireplace. “Here it is!” he says.

Suzanna opens her eyes. A bed stands between the fireplace and the window. A real bed, large enough for two people, with a sturdy pale-gold wooden post at each corner and thinner pieces forming the frame. Strips of rawhide have been woven together and attached to the frame to create a mattress support.

“It isn’t quite ready,” Gerald says apologetically. He slips his arm around her waist. “We’ll bring the pallet and blankets down and make it up properly.”

Ramón stands on the far side of the bed, watching her. His face holds the glimmer of a smile, the first she’s seen since Gregorio arrived with his news. “It is for you and the little one,” Ramón says. He glances at the ladder to the loft. “You will be safer here.”

“It’s beautiful.” Suzanna leans against her husband and smiles at Ramón, both hands on her protruding belly. She looks at the bed. “The wood is such a beautiful soft yellow. Is it aspen?”

“Sí,” Ramón says eagerly. “And we have coated it with a thin layer of resin, to preserve it. It should last all your days—” He stops suddenly and looks away.

Suzanna’s throat catches. She turns to Gerald. “I want to try it right away,” she says. She moves to her chair and eases herself into it. She looks at Ramón, her eyes twinkling. “I’m afraid you’ve made more work for yourself, because I’ll also need the lamp and my books.”

The men move up the ladder to do her bidding and the cabin is filled with activity, pushing the loss of Encarnación into the shadows, at least for a little while.

You’ve just read the tenth 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 9

CHAPTER 9

Suzanna hums a little tune as she sweeps the cabin floor. These planks are quite different from the hard-beaten and oxblood-sealed earth floors of the Taos casa she grew up in, with their smooth surfaces, their soft indentations. The cabin’s wood floors are rougher and give more underfoot. They’ve taken some getting used to.

But they don’t show the dust in the same way, and she appreciates that. She dips the tip of her broom into the bucket of water beside the open door, shakes the excess moisture onto the porch, and goes back to her sweeping.

When the broom straw begins to clog with dirt, she carries it to the porch and shakes it out in the cold mid-November light. The chickens have escaped from their pen in the barn and are pecking around the edge of the corral. Dos lies nearby, watching them wistfully. The rooster will happily attack half-grown dogs if they get too close to the hens. The puppy has already experienced his wrath.

Suzanna chuckles. As she gives her broom a final shake, her eye catches movement in the valley below. She squints and shades her eyes with her hand. A man riding what looks to be a mule. A slender man who seems vaguely familiar. Ramón will probably know who he is.

But Ramón is in the kitchen and there’s no sense in disturbing him. Besides, her growing belly is weighing her down. Suzanna leans her broom beside the door and drops heavily onto the nearest bench. The rider could just be a hunter passing through. There’s no guarantee he’s coming from Taos and has word from her father and Encarnación.

Though he may. The thought keeps her on the porch in spite of the cold. When the rider turns the gray mule’s head toward the cabin, a surge of gladness rushes through her. It’s Gregorio Garcia. Perhaps he’ll have a letter from her father. Perhaps Encarnación has sent word to Ramón to set a marriage date.

But when Gregorio reins in beside the corral, he doesn’t look as if he carries good news. In fact, his eyes seem to avoid the porch, where Suzanna has pushed herself up from her seat. And he doesn’t dismount. He just sits there, staring dully at the pole corral and the valley beyond.

Suzanna frowns. Does the slant of the November sun shade the porch so thoroughly that Gregorio can’t see her from where he sits? Does he think no one is home? She suppresses a surge of anxiety and waddles down the steps and across the yard.

“Gregorio!” She smiles up at him. “How good to see you! How is your mother? Is everyone well? You’re riding a mule! Have you come into money?” She reaches to pat his mount’s gray shoulder.

Gregorio shakes his head somberly “It is Señor Beaubien’s mule. He leant it to me.”

There’s a tension in his voice that makes her look sharply into his face. Her smile fades. “You bring news.” Her chest tightens. “My father?”

Gregorio seems to shake himself out of a deep fog. “Forgive me,” he says. “No. El señor, he is well.”

“Then what is it?”

He looks toward the cabin. “Señor Ramón? He is here?”

She nods, then steps back. “But I’m keeping you out here when you must be tired and cold from your journey. Please come inside. Would you like some tea?”

He nods wearily. “But the mule first.”

“You’ll find Gerald in the barn.” She turns toward the house. “I’ll tell Ramón that you’re here.”

“Por favor,” he says. She turns back to him, and he hesitates. “Please do not speak to mí primo of possible danger or sorrow.”

Her eyes widen in alarm.

“I must tell him myself.” His shoulders straighten. “I promised my mother I would speak to him myself.”

Her forehead wrinkles in confusion, but she only says. “I will tell him only that you are here.”

He nods without looking at her, clucks at the mule, and reins it toward the barn. Suzanna watches him silently, afraid to ask what news he brings, afraid that Ramón will know there’s bad news by the very look on her surely-anxious face. She turns toward the cabin.

“Gregorio just rode in,” she says when she enters the kitchen.

Ramón straightens from the fire with a puzzled frown. “He rode in? He didn’t walk? There is news of your father? He is well?”

She shakes her head. “He says the news is for you.”

Ramón’s face brightens. “Perhaps Encarnación is ready for me.”

Suzanna looks away, and he sobers. “Or perhaps she has decided to marry another.”

She laughs and shakes her head. “You know she won’t do that.”

He shrugs. “Anything is possible. Nothing is certain.”

“He took his mule to the barn,” she says. “Well, Charles Beaubien’s mule, which he apparently borrowed for the occasion. He’ll be in soon. Would you prefer to speak to him privately?”

Ramón shakes his head, smiling slightly, and she smiles ruefully back at him. There’s no place truly private here, unless Ramón wishes to hear his message on the icy porch or in the barn. Even then, Suzanna and Gerald would have to carefully remove themselves from hearing range.

“I thank you, but there is no need,” Ramón says. “Undoubtedly, he comes to tell me my mother’s fourth cousin has died and there are debts the family must pay.”

Suzanna chuckles but neither of them are truly amused. They move silently into the cabin’s main room and stand waiting. When Gregorio and Gerald come in, Suzanna gives Gerald a questioning look. He shakes his head. Whatever message Gregorio has brought, he hasn’t spoken it yet.

Gregorio goes straight to Ramón and stops directly in front of him. He moves his feet apart, bracing himself, and takes off his hat. He fingers its worn brim as he looks into Ramón’s face, then at the floor.

“You are well, my cousin?” Ramón asks.

Gregorio nods.

“And your mother? She is well?”

He nods again.

“You have a message for me?” Ramón asks.

Gregorio glances toward Suzanna and Gerald, who stand together on the other side of the room.

“You may speak freely here,” Ramón says.

The teenager gulps and looks into the older man’s face, then away. “My cousin—,” he croaks. He takes a deep breath. “Su novia—”

“My sweetheart? Encarnación?” Ramón’s face stiffens. He blinks, then his lips twist, as if he’s forcing himself to speak. “Yes, what of her?”

“Ella murió.”

“Died!” Suzanna gasps. Her knees buckle and Gerald’s arm grips her waist. On the other side of the room, neither man stirs.

“Murió?” Ramón chokes.

Gregorio nods. His lips move soundlessly and he stares at the floor. “Killed,” he says softly.

Ramón shakes his head and moves backward, toward the wall and some kind of support. “It is not possible,” he mutters. He closes his eyes, then opens them, locking onto Gregorio’s face. “You know this for a fact?”

Gregorio nods miserably. “I saw it.” He shudders. “The wounds from the knife.” He turns his head. “The tears in her clothing.”

“She was molested?”

He looks away, his face twisting, then back at Ramón. “Sí,” he whispers.

There’s a long silence, broken only by Suzanna’s soft sobs.

“It cannot be true!” Ramón says.

“I wish that it were not so.” Gregorio takes a deep breath. “But it is most true.”

“Who did this thing?”

Gregorio shakes his head. “No one knows.”

Ramón gropes blindly to a chair. Gregorio sinks onto the colorful flat-topped chest by the fire and Suzanna drops into her own chair. Gerald stands behind her, holding her shoulder. The room has grown dark while Gregorio delivered his news, the sun slipping remorselessly behind the black-shadowed Sangre de Cristos.

The men’s hands dangle helplessly, their eyes everywhere but on each other’s stunned faces. Suzanna sobs quietly, her face in her hands. “Encarnación dead!” she whispers. “Chonita, of all people! So full of life! It seems impossible!” She lifts her head. “What happened?”

“No one knows for certain.” Gregorio spreads his hands. “Clearly, she had been to the potato field to gather more food. There were las patatas on the path beside her. And the basket.” He turns his face toward the wall. “And blood everywhere.” There’s a long silence, then he gulps and faces the others. His eyes flick from face to face. “She had been knifed in the chest and the face,” he says flatly. “Potatoes were flung everywhere, as she if used the basket as a protection at first, but the killer flung it aside.”

“Where did this happen?” Gerald asks.

“On the path from the garden plot back to the town, the one that follows the acequia.”

Gerald and Suzanna look at each other. The path that had been so dear to them, where they first declared their love. Those memories will be tainted now. The bit of land that brought them together has become the instrument of Encarnación’s death.

Suzanna bends forward, covering her face with her hands.

Ramón clears his throat. “And no one was nearby?”

“No one heard anything or saw anyone.”

Suzanna shudders. “My poor Chonita. To die so horribly.” She looks at Ramón. “And when she had so much to look forward to.” The tears start again, silent this time, and she makes no move to wipe them away.

Ramón braces his elbows on his knees and drops his face into his hands. His shoulders shake with suppressed grief.

“She spoke to my mother of her marriage only the day before,” Gregorio says. “She said the woman she hired to serve el señor was learning quickly. She had purchased new blankets and was sewing linens in preparation.”

Abruptly, Ramón stands up, his face averted. “Forgive me,” he mutters. He crosses to the kitchen door. They can hear him moving restlessly around the room. In the kitchen fire, a log drops into the flames and sparks snap.

Suzanna takes a deep breath. The baby kicks in response. Suzanna places her palm on her belly and rubs in slow circles. The child Encarnación will never hold, will never spoil with her famous natillas.

Gerald turns to Gregorio. “No one has come forward with information?”

Gregorio shakes his head. “No one heard or saw anything. I— I was on my way into the village—.”

They look at him in horror. “You found her?” Gerald asks.

Gregorio nods.

Suzanna closes her eyes, picturing his shock, the potatoes scattered across the path, the blood.

“She was already quite dead,” Gregorio says, almost defensively. “The wounds were from a knife.” He looks at Gerald. “They were very deep and there was blood—.”

“Yes,” Gerald says.

Suzanna opens her eyes to find them both looking at her anxiously. Gerald’s eyes flick to her abdomen.

“You need not worry for me.” Suzanna shifts in her chair. Her fingers touch her belly and the child kicks again. “The little one is strong and healthy.” She takes a deep breath. “Every child must learn of evil and pain. It is not something that can be avoided.”

Gerald studies her. “I’ve never heard you speak so sadly.”

“I’ve never been so sad.” She closes her eyes, willing her lips not to tremble. “Encarnación was a good friend to me and to my father. My potato patch killed her.”

Ramón steps in from the kitchen just then, a tray of tea things between his hands, his face slack with grief. “Please do not speak so,” he says as he crosses the room.

He places the tray on a small table near the window and turns to Suzanna. “Encarnación loved the goodness of the things you grow. All food was of value and a pleasure to her. Your potatoes did not kill my love. Some man did.”

His face twists again and he makes a visible effort to control himself. “For jealousy. For lack of protection.” He voice trembles and he looks away, his fists clenching and unclenching. “I should have insisted that she come with us. I should not have left her alone.” He turns and hurries back into the kitchen. The door to his sleeping room beyond shuts with a thud.

There’s a long silence, then Suzanna rises and goes to the little table. “Tea?” she asks Gregorio.

He nods as if ashamed of needing sustenance, but drinks the hot liquid greedily.

“Thank you for coming so quickly to tell us,” Gerald says.

“De nada,” Gregorio says. “Ellos están mí familia.”

“You will stay a few days before you return?”

“I must go back tomorrow at first light,” Gregorio says. “My mother needs me. Especially now, when all the women of the town feel vulnerable to attack.” He glances at the mica-covered window. “The weather is uncertain and she will be anxious for me.” He looks at Suzanna. “I would not have her anxious.”

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

 

NOT MY FATHER’S HOUSE – Chapter 8

CHAPTER 8

The man in the bulky bearskin poncho yanks the gelding’s reins, forcing the big black backward and down the snow-driven hilltop and out of sight. He’s seen what he came for and with no risk of sunlight sparking from the spyglass.

He reaches under the poncho. The glass is still in his coat pocket. Only good thing he got out of that damn desert. When he’d finally stopped bleeding and had moved away from the river caves to the dry lands above, he’d stumbled on the picked-over skeleton of a man less hardy than himself. The dented spyglass beside him was the one thing the buzzards hadn’t wanted. It’s right handy for watching the Peabody bitch and her men.

He squints up at the Sangres. Ice-bound snow stings his face. Storm came in faster’n he expected. Horse’ll need to move quick if he’s gonna get back to camp before it starts driftin’.

But he got a good head-on look at the shanty Locke and the bitch are living in. His tongue runs over his lips. Girl’s tasty, in that Mexican way of hers. Well, French Navajo. Not that there’s much difference. All foreigners. And her New England pa with his high’n mighty ways.

Her men don’t keep her real close. She was down there choppin’ corn a good hour or more, no one else in sight. His pale blue eyes gleam. They’re gettin’ lazy already. Or tired of her and her airs. Be willing to have him take care of her. He grins. He’ll do that, all right. When the time comes.

At the bottom of the ice-slicked hill, he saws on the reins and gives the gelding a sharp kick, jabbing it into a trot against the oncoming snow, toward the ravine where he’s stashed his gear. Not much danger of anyone spotting him in this weather. He can afford a fire tonight.

You’ve just read the eighth 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.