New Mexico, 1837. As New Mexico teeters on the verge of revolution, eight-year-old Alma’s family experiences an upheaval of its own. Ten years ago, her father, Gerald, chose not to tell her mother, Suzanna, that some of his ancestors were born in Africa. Now Alma’s mother has learned the truth.
Stunned and furious, Suzanna leaves the family’s mountain valley and takes Alma and her younger brother, Andrew, with her. Gerald allows the children to go because he believes they’ll be safer with their mother than with him in the mountains. However, as Suzanna, Alma, and Andrew reach Santa Fe, revolt breaks out and the children are exposed to sights no child should ever have to experience.
This trauma and the prejudice the children experience because of their heritage makes Alma long for home. But even if her mother can forgive past secrets, the way is now blocked by wintery weather and entrenched rebels. Will Alma’s family ever be reunited?
A heart-breaking yet ultimately triumphant story about secrets, prejudice, love, and the impact of adult conflict on our children.
This book is a sequel to Not My Father’s House.
Excerpt from No Secret Too Small
“And what have we here?” a man’s voice says from the cluster of greening narrow leaf cottonwoods beside the small creek.
Alma’s head jerks from her fishing line. She’s supposed to stay alert when she’s away from the cabin. Her mother will be furious. But then her heart settles. She feels no sense of danger from the dark-skinned, curly-haired man smiling at her from the edge of the trees. In fact, he seems oddly familiar.
Then a squinting face under a battered brown hat appears beside the man’s shoulder and she laughs aloud. “Old Pete!” She drops her willow fishing pole, jumps up, and flings her arms around the mountain man’s thick waist.
“All right, little missy.” Old One Eye Pete sounds a little embarrassed and she giggles as she squeezes him again. He pushes his hat back from his tangled faded-brown hair, grasps her shoulders, and holds her at arm’s length, his good eye twinkling. “You look like you’ve been growin’ agin. Still fishin’?”
“I’ll be fishing until the day I die!”
“Your ma all right with that?”
She laughs. “I have six trout. That’s enough for the midday meal.”
“You suspicion there’s enough t’ share with me and my pal here?”
Alma beams at him. “There’s always enough to share with you, Old Pete. And anyone you bring with you.” She moves toward the stream. “Let me collect my catch and my sunbonnet, and I’ll come with you.”
When she joins the men on the dusty road, Old Pete’s friend has remounted his mule, but Pete stays on foot. He and Alma chat happily as they move up the narrow dirt track that runs north-south through the center of the valley.
Alma turns occasionally to peer out from her flapping sunbonnet and give the stranger a friendly look so he won’t feel left out, but he doesn’t catch her eye. He seems to be examining every inch of the landscape, its greening late-April grasses, and the cattle and fields below the hillside cabin on the valley’s northeast edge.
“Your ma still tryin’ to grow her corn?” Old Pete asks as he scratches his beard.
Alma grins. “She was in the field yesterday, trying to decide if it’s warm enough yet to plant.”
“Those pesky raccoons leave her enough for seed?”
Alma’s laughter peals into the open air. “They tried not to. They kept Chaser Two working hard all last summer. Those pests sure kept that mastiff busy!”
“I bet she’s glad to get out in the sunshine, though.”
“It’s been kind of a rough winter,” Alma says somberly. Then she perks up. “But Papa says we’re getting close to having enough money for glass windowpanes, and that will make it easier for her.”
When they get to the cabin, the men lead their mules into the steep-roofed adobe and timber barn and Alma runs to the house.
As she rushes in the door, her mother looks up from her dusting. “What have I told you about running?” she asks. She pushes a stray black tendril into the bun at the back of her neck. “Your hair is down again. You look like a veritable hoyden. And that fish is dripping all over the floor.”
Alma hoists the string of fish a little higher, as if this will keep the floor from getting wet, and uses her free hand to shove her unruly black curls back under her sunbonnet. “Old Pete’s here!”
Her mother brightens and begins folding her dust cloth. “How nice! I wonder if he’ll have any news.” She tucks the cloth into her apron pocket. “Did he come east from Don Fernando de Taos or north from Mora?”
“I don’t know. We were talking about fishing.”
Her mother’s lips twitch. “I should have known. Go warn Ramón that we’ll have another person at the midday meal.”
“He has a friend with him. Well, he calls him his pal.”
“Two travelers will mean two sets of news. That will be doubly nice.” She reaches to untie her apron from her slim waist. “Now please get that fish out of here and bring back a wet cloth to wipe up the mess it’s made.”
Alma looks at the floor. There’s a pool of slime on the planks. She wrinkles her nose, lifts the string higher, and moves down the room to the kitchen.
Ramón, her godfather, her father’s business partner, and the family cook, looks up from the rough-hewn plank counter. His face brightens. “What have you brought me, nita?” It’s his special word for her, the one that means ‘little sister.’
She hoists her catch. “Six fish and two guests!”
Ramón chuckles. “Excelentisimo. And who are our guests?”
“Old Pete and his pal.”
“It will be good to see Old One Eye Pete again and hear of his travels. Have those fish been cleaned?”
“Of course.” She crosses the room and settles the trout into the dry sink. “They’re good-sized ones, too!”
“You did well.”
She beams at him, then grabs a cloth from the counter and heads for the water pail in the corner. “I dripped fish slime on the floor. Mama was not pleased.”
Ramón’s eyes twinkle. “When you’ve finished cleaning, go find your brother and tell him we’ll be eating soon. Your mother sent him to the garden to weed the potatoes.”
Alma straightens from the bucket. She and her godfather exchange a conspiratorial look. Andrew is probably crouching in the grass beside the potato patch listening to prairie dogs whistle or sitting next to the shallow irrigation ditch to observe the dragonflies.
“I’ll find him,” Alma promises. She slips into the other room, wet rag in hand.
Old Pete and his friend are settled on the brightly-painted wooden chests by the fire. Her mother is in her mahogany rocking chair, knitting.
“And now, Suzanna, where is your good man?” Old Pete asks.
“He took a load of hay to Mora. We ended up with plenty left over from the winter. He and Ramón thought a trade venture south might be worthwhile.”
“He’s that sure it’s not goin’ to snow again and keep the cattle from the pasture?”
Her mouth twists. “Nothing’s ever certain about the weather in these mountains. But Ramón believes we’re going to have an early spring.”
The other man raises an eyebrow. “Early? Hasn’t spring already arrived? It was warm when we left Don Fernando de Taos.” His voice is rich and warm. Soothing, somehow. Alma glances up at him. That slightly amused look in his eyes seems so familiar though she doesn’t understand why. She watches him out of the corner of her eyes as she cleans.
“We’re only two days east of Don Fernando, but up here in the mountains, spring comes much later than it does there,” her mother says.
Old Pete chuckles. “Much to your aggravation.”
She gives him a thin smile. “You could say that.” She turns to the other man. “I fear I didn’t catch your name.”
“They call me Smith.” He hesitates. “Gerald Smith.”
“My husband’s first name is Gerald.” She smiles. “It’s a nice name.”
An odd look flicks across the man’s face. He turns his head away. Alma’s mother glances at Old Pete, but he’s studying the fire. “Gerald should be home tomorrow,” she says. She looks at Alma. “Did you wipe up all those drips?”
“I think so.”
“Go find your brother and tell him it’s almost time to eat. I set him to weeding the potato patch, although I doubt he got much of it done before he was distracted by a prairie dog, coyote, or dragonfly. Or found a reason to go visit that steer of his.”
Old Pete swings his gaze back to her mother. “He’s still the little naturalist, is he? Still’d rather watch a beaver than trap it?”
She grins. “He is. And now he has a brown-and-black beef yearling named Brindle. Slaughter time may be a challenge. But we won’t starve. Alma is still our trapper and hunter child.”
Alma swipes at the floor one last time, then gets to her feet and heads for the door as the adults continue their conversation. She really doesn’t want to hear her mother reflect on the differences between her and her younger brother.
She hangs the wet rag over the porch rail to dry and heads down the hill to the potato patch. Personally, Alma doesn’t think she and Andrew are all that different. They both like being outdoors. It’s just that Andrew is more able to sit quietly and observe, and Alma can only keep still if she’s stalking something or fishing.
During the midday meal, they sit side by side on the bench across the table from Old One Eye Pete, Alma’s sturdy body contrasting with her brother’s slighter one, both of them watching the mountain man eat. He shovels pieces of pan-fried fish into a tortía, adds red chile sauce, takes a bite, and humphs contentedly. “That’s good trout.” He winks at Alma with his good eye. “You’re quite the fisher girl, ain’t you, little missy?”
“Don’t encourage her,” her mother says. “She spends far more time outdoors than is good for her complexion.”
Old Pete purses his lips and studies the siblings. Alma tenses, waiting for comments about the dark blotches that mottle her brown skin, but all he says is, “Andrew’s hair seems to like the sun. It’s bleached those curls the color of straw.”
Alma grins. “Brown-skinned towhead. That’s what Papa calls him. The only six-year-old boy with brown skin and curly blond hair in all of nuevo mexico.”
Andrew laughs and sticks his tongue out at her. “And you’re the only curly-haired eight-year-old with a heart on her cheek.”
“Eight and a half,” Alma says firmly. But she touches her left cheek self-consciously.
Old Pete reaches across the table, gently lifts her chin, and turns her face to the side. “Yep, it’s still there.” He looks at Mr. Smith. “She’s had it since she was born.”
Alma feels her face flush, but Ramón comes to her rescue. “And what news do you bring of events?” he asks the two men. “Have Governor Pérez and the militia returned from the campaign against the Navajo?”
“They came back all right,” Old Pete says. “But they didn’t bring anything back with ’em. There’s folks callin’ it the worst campaign that ever was.”
“It doesn’t sound like it went well,” Mr. Smith agrees. His voice is smooth and comforting even when he’s giving bad news. Alma sees her mother give him a puzzled look, as if she also senses something familiar about him.
“Apparently they didn’t run into any Navajo, but they did run into bad weather,” he continues. “Gregorio Garcia told me some of the men came close to losing their fingers from frostbite.”
“Gregorio Garcia!” Alma exclaims. Her mother gives her a sharp look for interrupting, but she plunges on. “Jesús Gregorio Garcia from Don Fernando de Taos?” She looks at Old Pete. “Our Gregorio?”
Old Pete and Mr. Smith both chuckle. “He did mention that he knows you,” the black man says.
Alma smiles happily. His skin isn’t really black, she realizes suddenly. More a rich reddish brown. Like the mahogany of her mother’s rocking chair. Like a darker version of her father. She squints at him. Are they related? That would be nice.
But the adults have returned to their political gossip. “Governor Pérez was gonna put his mark on the wild tribes,” Old Pete says. “He had the presidio soldiers and the village militias and the Pueblo warriors all in tow, but they didn’t find a single Navajo anywhere they looked. Armijo and them told him winter wasn’t a good time to campaign, but he knew better, bein’ a colonel from Mexico City an’ all.” He shakes his head. “He’s been here two years. You’d think he’d cogitated a few things by now.”
“He’s in a difficult situation as a result of the campaign,” Mr. Smith observes. “There’s no money left in the treasury to pay the presidio troops. So he had to furlough them after they returned. They’re going to have to find other ways to feed their families for the time being.”
Old Pete nods. “I was in Tomás Valencia’s mercantile before I left Santa Fe and Sergeant Vigil was working there as a clerk. That’s a bit of a comedown fer a soldier.”
Alma’s mother frowns. “Aren’t the troops paid out of the customs receipts from the Santa Fe Trail merchants?”
“Yep, but I reckon there just weren’t as much left over from last year as usual.” He reaches for another tortía. “Or some of the money’s gone to more important things. They say Pérez has some mighty nice carpets and mirrors in the palacio now. And he’s bought a fancy carriage from St. Louis along with the horses to pull it.” He shakes his head. “Good looking set of horseflesh, too.”
“That appaloosa of his is a real beauty, as well.” Smith turns to her mother. “They say it has a real affinity for the governor. A man with a way with horses can’t be all bad.”
Old Pete chuckles. “You just ain’t gonna say anything negatory ’bout the man, are you?”
Smith’s eyes twinkle. “It won’t do any good, as far as I can tell.”
“And what of last year’s charges against Treasurer Francisco Sarracino?” Ramón asks. “Have those been resolved?”
Smith strokes his chin. “Well now, that’s an interesting thing.”
Old Pete grins at him. “Even you have to wonder about that.”
Alma’s mother reaches for another bit of trout. “Wasn’t he charged with defrauding the treasury or peculation or something?”
Smith grins. “Back in Missouri I suspect they’d call it creative bookkeeping.”
“I had hoped it might all come to nothing,” Ramón says.
“It still may,” Smith tells him. “Especially now. They say the Mexican law has changed again and Governor Pérez will soon have the authority to check the accounts himself and not rely on investigators who may have their own axes to grind.”
“Their own axes!” Old Pete hoots. “That almost sounds like a criticism!”
Smith’s eyes twinkle. “It’s just an expression.”
She leans forward. “The governor has the authority? Where did that come from?”
“Oh, it’s part of a whole collection of laws the Congress in Mexico City’s been spewing out,” Old Pete says. “Gives the governor more authority than he already had. And I’m sure he’ll use it. He’s already thrown the oldest of the Santa Cruz Montoya brothers into the calabozo for agitatin’ against the ricos havin’ to donate money for this last Navajo campaign.”
Ramón raises a gray-and-black eyebrow. “Antonio Abad? That Montoya?”
“That’s the one.” Old Pete rubs his forefinger against his thumb meaningfully. “Montoya got himself out, though. From what I hear, the alcalde down there just happens t’ be a cousin of his.” He tilts his head at Ramón. “Ain’t that alcalde also related to you? Name’s Esquibel. Juan, I think.”
Ramón frowns slightly. “I don’t know that Antonio Abad and Desiderio Montoya are related to him, but yes, Juan José Esquibel and I are distant cousins on my father’s mother’s side.”
Alma’s mother chuckles and turns to Smith. “But then, Ramón is related to at least ninety percent of New Mexico’s population.”
Ramón laughs. “But not to Governor Pérez, I think.”
After supper the men settle onto the carved wooden chests by the front room fire. While Ramón twists thin strands of elk rawhide into rope, Old One Eye Pete carves a cottonwood whistle for Andrew. Mr. Smith stares into the fire a long while before he pulls out his pipe and tobacco pouch. “May I?” he asks Alma’s mother, who has settled into her rocking chair beside the small table and its oil lamp.
She looks up from her mending. “Of course. My husband smokes a pipe also, and I miss the smell of it when he’s gone.”
“Are you expecting him soon?”
“Oh yes. He’ll probably be back tomorrow, if he hasn’t swung through Don Fernando de Taos to see about beaver prices.”
“He got twenty peltries this winter,” Andrew says from the floor by the fire, where he’s petting the mastiff’s brown-and-black head. “And that’s just from around here. He’s a really good trapper, when he has time.”
“Do you go with him?”
Andrew shakes his head. “Mama says I’m too young.”
“And what does Papa say?”
Andrew brightens. “Maybe next year.”
Old Pete looks up. “You can come along with me, if your pa don’t go out.”
Andrew gives him a doubtful look. Chaser Two lifts his head and looks at the boy, then licks his hand.
“You don’t hafta kill ’em,” the mountain man says. “There’s plenty t’ learn besides clubbin’ and skinnin’.”
“Perhaps,” Andrew’s mother says. “We shall see. Winter is a time for schooling, not wandering around in the snow getting frostbite.”
“You school them?” Mr. Smith asks.
“I do my best. As my father did for me.” She glances at the small bookcase below the mica-paned window. “We have primers, Shakespeare, and Latin and botany texts. I find them sufficient for the purpose.”
“And the Bible?”
“And newspapers when Grandfather Peabody visits from Don Fernando de Taos,” Alma says. She moves closer to the lamp on the small table at her mother’s elbow and frowns at her knitting. “I’ve dropped a stitch again.”
Her mother shakes her head and takes the needles. “Perhaps you’d rather read us something.”
“A Psalm?” Mr. Smith asks.
Alma crosses to the bookcase. Mr. Smith watches her and puffs his pipe. She runs her fingers over the Washington Irving, the Shakespeare, and the botany book, then obediently pulls down the big leather-bound Bible.
She loves to read, even if it isn’t Irving, and soon Alma is lost in the magical black marks on the page. As she speaks the words, her mother knits, her brother helps Ramón with his rope, Old Pete whittles, and Mr. Smith smokes his pipe and stares into the fire. Once or twice, she looks up to see his eyes on her face.
When he smiles at her, she again feels that sense of familiarity. He doesn’t seem like a stranger at all. The room is as comfortable as it is when her father is home.
Alma reads three Psalms, then her mother announces that it’s time for bed. Old Pete and Mr. Smith retire to the barn, where male visitors sleep when her father is away. Ramón goes with them, to make sure they’re settled, then lets himself into the kitchen from the back door and goes into his own room.
“Mr. Smith seems very nice,” Alma remarks to her mother as they prepare for bed in the loft.
“Yes,” she says absently. “Come and let me comb your hair.”
“He thought I was old enough to go trapping,” Andrew says.
“Go to bed, Andrew,” she answers.
He settles onto his pallet at the other end of the loft and watches sleepily as his mother combs Alma’s hair and braids her curls into submission. He’s asleep by the time Alma crawls into her own blankets. As she drifts into sleep she wonders again why Mr. Smith seems so familiar to her, so comfortable.
Late the next day, her question is answered. Old Pete has gone off to investigate the beaver ponds in the small river that flows out of the marshy area down slope and northeast of the cabin. Mr. Smith has stayed behind. He and Andrew are replacing the strips of worn rawhide that secure the corral poles to their posts.
Andrew is inside the corral, bracing the poles for Mr. Smith, who’s outside the fence. He cuts away the old rawhide, then pulls new strips from the basket Andrew has lugged from the barn and wraps them carefully around the post, then the pole, then the post again. Finally, he ties the ends off and uses a stick to twist the lacing even tighter. When they’ve done one post, he and the boy move on to the next.
Alma is tending the narrow bed of worked soil below the cabin’s drip line, weeding the spring grass away from the strip of tiny new pea plants and the little mounds of dirt where the wrinkled pink rhubarb plants are starting to poke through. The mastiff lies on the porch, sleepily watching them all.
Suddenly, Andrew’s head jerks toward the valley below. His hands move at the same time and the pole he’s holding wobbles out of position. Mr. Smith looks up.
“That’s Papa!” Andrew’s on tiptoe now, peering down at a man driving an empty wagon up the dirt road in the center of the valley. As Andrew twists to see more clearly, the pole pulls completely away from the post.
Mr. Smith reaches for it through the fence. “Go on. I’ve got it.”
Andrew barrels toward the cabin. “Mama, Papa’s coming!”
His mother appears in the doorway. She shades her eyes and peers down the hill. “He seems to have found a market for the hay. He’ll be glad of a chance to talk with Old One Eye Pete.” She smiles at Mr. Smith and raises her voice slightly, so he can hear her. “And you, of course.”
Mr. Smith smiles and nods. Then he looks at Andrew and tilts his head toward the pole. “I think we have time to finish this set before your father arrives. I can’t do it without you.”
Andrew beams at him and trots back to the corral. His mother chuckles and looks at Alma. She lowers her voice. “The man seems to have a gift for getting that boy to actually work. I’m going to have to pay attention to just how he does it.”
Alma giggles and her mother goes back in the house. But she never can stay away when her husband is approaching. Five minutes later she’s back on the porch with her mending basket. “This sunlight sure is a blessing,” she says as she settles onto a bench near the dog.
They all work quietly for a while, with one eye on the man and wagon below. When he turns east and begins moving up the road to the cabin, Mr. Smith says, “That’ll do it.” He pats Andrew’s shoulder. “I’ll take the basket to the barn.”
Andrew nods and heads to the well in the middle of the yard. He draws a bucket of water, takes a drink, and leaves the bucket beside the well. Then he crosses to the porch and drops onto the top step. “I expect Mr. Smith’ll want some water, too,” he tells his mother. “That fence repairing is hot work.”
She gives him an amused glance. “I expect he will.”
But when Mr. Smith comes out of the barn, he doesn’t turn toward the house or the well. Instead, he walks to the end of the barn and gazes at the approaching wagon. He moves toward the road, stops where it meets the track to the cabin, and stands waiting.
“He seems to want to speak to your father in private,” Alma’s mother observes.
Alma reaches for more weeds. “I wonder why?”
“Men do that sometimes.” She looks down at her work. Alma and Andrew share a grin. They know she’s just as curious as they are.
But all of them have their curiosity more than satisfied when the wagon slows to take the turn to the house.
Alma’s father pulls hard on the reins and the mules toss their heads impatiently, but he doesn’t speak to them as he usually would. Instead, he stares at the man beside the road. “Papa?” he asks. Then he yanks the hand brake into position and is off the wagon, his arms around Mr. Smith’s shoulders, hugging him tightly.
On the porch, Alma’s mother drops her mending onto the bench and stands in one swift motion, almost tripping on the mastiff, who’s stood with her. She takes a step toward the edge of the porch. “What in tarnation?” she mutters.
The two men climb onto the wagon seat and Alma’s father releases the brake. As the buckboard moves toward the cabin, her mother’s chin lifts. She turns, crosses stiffly to the cabin door, and disappears inside.
Alma stands, moves to the steps, and peers into the house through the still-open door. Her mother is climbing the ladder to the loft.
As Alma watches, Ramón emerges from the kitchen and says something to her mother but she doesn’t reply. He crosses to the door and looks out, then gives Alma a puzzled look. “What is it, nita?”
She shrugs. Ramón glances toward the end of the barn, where Alma’s father and Mr. Smith are getting down from the wagon. Alma’s father sees him, smiles, and waves. “Ah,” Ramón says.
Andrew drifts down the porch steps to stand beside Alma. “I guess he’s only just called Smith. It’s not his real name.”
She frowns. “Or Papa’s last name really isn’t Locke.”
Ramón steps onto the porch. “Just wait and see.”
“What is it Mama says? Patience is not a virtue I possess in any great measure.”
Ramón chuckles. Then his smile fades as the children’s father and Mr. Smith cross the yard. They stop in front of the children and look down at them.
Alma blinks. Yes, the almost-square face, the slightly amused something in the corners of the eyes. And they’re almost the same height. That’s why the older man seemed so familiar. Except her father’s eyes are gray. And his skin is a lighter color. More honey-brown like Ramón’s. But the two men watching her are incredibly alike.
“Hola, Papa,” Andrew says. His eyes flick to Mr. Smith’s face, then to his father’s. “Did you have a good trip?”
His father smiles, first at the children, then Ramón, then at Alma and Andrew again. “The best part came at the end.” He puts a hand on Mr. Smith’s elbow. “Chamacos, this is my father, your grandpa.”
Andrew puts his hands on his hips. “You told us your name was Smith.”
“I said that people call me Smith,” the man says gently. He spreads his hands, palms up. “I’m sorry. I wanted to speak to your father before I made myself known to you and your mother.”
Alma turns toward the doorway behind Ramón. It’s still empty. There’s no sound from inside the cabin. She bites her lower lip, then turns back to the men and smiles up at the older man. “I thought you reminded me of someone I loved.” She moves toward him, her arms out. “Just like my father.” As he wraps his arms around her, she buries her face in his chest. Then she tilts her head to see his face. “Buenos días, abuelo.”
Her father’s hand touches her head as he speaks to Ramón. “I thought I saw Suzanna on the porch.”
“Sí,” Ramón says. “She was here. She saw you.”
“She’s in the loft.” Andrew scowls. “You made her cranky.”
Alma breaks away from her grandpa as the three men exchange somber looks.
“I wasn’t sure—” her abuelo says.
“She never asked,” her father says.
“She is part Navajo herself,” Ramón points out.
“She said my background didn’t matter to her.”
Alma’s grandpa looks questioningly at Ramón, who shakes his head. “I do not provide information that isn’t requested of me.”
Andrew moves directly in front of his grandpa and puts his hands on his hips. “I have a question.”
“What’s your real name? Is my last name still Locke or is it really Smith?”
The man’s lips twitch. “I see you are a man who likes facts.”
The boy scowls. “What is it?”
“It’s Locke. I am Gerald Locke, Sr. and your father is Gerald Locke, Jr., so you are still Andrew Locke.”
“Andrew Ramón Locke,” the boy says, emphasizing his middle name.
“Andrew, because that was my mother’s father’s name,” her father says.
Andrew gives him a long look. “I hope so.” He turns on his heel and brushes past Ramón into the house. He runs to the ladder and scrambles into the loft. They hear his voice, then his mother’s, then silence.
The dog goes to the door and looks in. His head tilts to one side as if he’s trying to find the boy. Alma bites her lip. Her grandpa’s voice is somber. “Will you go to her?”
“Not just yet,” her father answers. “I’ll wait a bit. She’ll need some time to adjust.”