Suzanna hates everything about her New Mexico mountain home. The isolation. The short growing season. The critters after her corn. The long snow-bound winters in a dimly-lit cabin.
But she loves Gerald, who loves this valley.
So Suzanna does her unhappy best to adjust, even when the babies come, both of them in the middle of winter. Her postpartum depression, the cold, and the lack of sunlight push her to the edge.
But the Sangre de Cristo mountains contain a menace far more dangerous than Suzanna’s internal struggles. The man Gerald killed in the mountains of the Gila two years ago isn’t as dead as everyone thought.
And his lust for Suzanna may be even stronger than his desire for Gerald’s blood.
Author Information: Loretta Miles Tollefson grew up in the American West in a log cabin built by her grandfather. She lives in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains, where she researches the region’s history and imagines what it would have been like to actually experience it. She blogs about her research and other aspects of Old New Mexico at lorettamilestollefson.com.
There’s a man standing on the grassy ridge south of the cabin, and it isn’t her husband.
At the bottom of the cabin steps, Suzanna sets her bucket of water on the ground, pushes a tendril of black hair from her forehead, and cups her hands around her eyes to block the sun. The figure at the top of the rise seems to be staring straight at her. A flash of light blinks near its head, then again.
Suzanna squints, trying to make out details. A man’s figure, bulky and dark against the sunlit sky. Dread clutches her chest, but she shakes her head against it. Enoch Jones is dead in the Salt River wilderness. Gerald killed him, much to her guilty relief. Yet she still shivers in the bright July sunshine.
She leans down for the water bucket and carries it onto the porch and into the cabin. Ramón is in the lean-to that serves as the kitchen, shelling the new peas she’d brought in an hour before.
Suzanna puts the bucket on the rough wooden counter beside him and forces her voice to sound calm. “Someone’s on the ridge to the south.”
Ramón looks up. “Señor Gerald?”
Suzanna shakes her head. Ramón’s eyes tighten. He drops the pea pods in his hands back into the bowl and moves into the cabin’s main room. Suzanna follows him as he lifts the shotgun from its place beside the heavy wooden door and steps onto the porch.
He turns to scan the ridge on the far side of the marsh below the cabin. The rise is empty of everything except long green grass. A single cow grazes at its base.
“That cow, she has escaped again,” he says absently.
“I saw a man.” Suzanna’s right hand slips to her belly. “He just stood there, watching.”
Ramón nods. His eyes move from the slope to the marsh that lies between the ridge and the hill where the cabin is located. “And there was nothing else? No horse? No pack mule?”
“He was alone. Just standing there. Watching.”
“It wasn’t el señor?”
Suzanna’s lips tighten. “I know what my husband looks like, even from that distance. It wasn’t Gerald.”
“It may have been a passing hunter who was puzzled to see a house here, so far into the Sangres.”
Her jaw clenches. Then she closes her eyes. He’s simply trying to relieve her anxiety. She turns to face him. “I’m sorry, Ramón. I didn’t intend to speak so sharply. It’s just—” She waves a hand. “We’re so isolated here. And now, with the child coming—”
He nods and gives her a sympathetic look. “It is many leagues to Don Fernando de Taos. And you have not seen your father in a long time.”
“And you have not seen your beloved,” Suzanna says contritely. “At least I have mine with me here.”
He gives her a small smile and looks toward the mountains on the valley’s western edge as if he can see through them to the village of Taos and its spreading farmlands. “Encarnación will be here in due time. We will be married when she has found someone to care for your father.” He grins at Suzanna mischievously. “Mí Chonita has very high standards.”
Suzanna laughs. “She certainly does.” In the bottom of the valley below, movement catches her eye. “There’s Gerald now. Is that a deer on the mule?”
Ramón studies the man and laden beast who are moving up the track that threads the center of the valley. “I think it is an elk,” he says. “A small one.” He hands her the shotgun. “If you will return this to its place, I will see to the arrangements for the butchering.”
Suzanna takes the gun. “I’ll finish cleaning the peas,” she says. “Then what should I do with them?”
He’s already at the bottom of the steps. He turns toward her. “They will need to be cooked very quickly.” He pauses, then shakes his head slightly. “Place them in water and leave them. I’ll attend to them later.”
“Because you don’t want me to ruin the first good crop we’ve had,” she says drily.
He chuckles and turns to head across the yard to the adobe-and-timber barn. Suzanna smiles ruefully. Her legendary lack of cooking skills is one of the reasons Ramón is with her and Gerald in this remote valley. While she doesn’t like admitting her weaknesses, she’s glad of his ability in the kitchen. And his company. Between the two men, she’s rarely left at the cabin by herself.
But there are still times when loneliness creeps in on her. When she longs for another woman to talk to, other people. Ramón, still just a boy when he became her godfather, is very dear to her, and she has Gerald and her garden. But it would be nice to have other people nearby.
Though not people who remind her of Enoch Jones. She glances toward the ridge south of the cabin. A red-tail hawk circles above it, alone in the empty sky.
Her shoulders tighten. Whatever possessed her to agree to move here, a bride just turned sixteen, so far from her father and Taos?
The hawk calls, a piercing cry to the clouds. Suzanna’s shoulders tighten again, but she remains on the porch, gun still in her hands, gazing at the green expanse below.
She knows the answer to her question: She loves a man who loves this valley.
And she must admit that it is pretty. Majestic, even. Even now, with rain clouds gathering in the hills behind the cabin and more massing over the stone-topped Sangre de Cristo peaks to the west. They’ll meet in the middle of the valley soon. She grimaces. Probably before Gerald turns off the track below toward the cabin.
She agreed to live here, she reminds herself. Gerald was clear from the beginning that this was where he wanted to settle. And that it was a good three or four day mountain journey east of Taos. But now that she’s here, it seems much farther than that. And the valley seems so foreign, so closed in, so restricted, somehow.
She swallows the sudden acid in her throat. She could have fought him, insisted that they live closer to Taos. But Gerald studies this land with such deep satisfaction in his gray eyes, the same look of wonder and joy he gave her the day she said she’d marry him.
Suzanna smiles, thinking of his creamy brown profile, the wavy black hair, the square forehead, the intelligent eagerness in his look, the strong hands that know just how to touch her, and feels herself soften once again. She can’t resist either him or his desires. She blushes and glances around the yard self-consciously, glad that Ramón is nowhere in sight. Would he know, just by looking at her, what she’s thinking? She takes a deep, steadying breath and tucks a stray black curl behind one ear.
In the valley below, Gerald suddenly lifts his head and looks toward the cabin. Even from here, she can see his face brighten when he realizes she’s on the porch. He lifts an arm, acknowledging her, and her heart lurches again. She waves back at him and watches until he and the mule make the turn toward the cabin. Then she moves into the house, returns the gun to its place by the door, and crosses to the kitchen and the abandoned peas.
As her thumb systematically presses into the end of each pod and scoops the small spring-green spheres from their shells, Suzanna’s mind wanders to the low row of brush the men have placed around her garden. This morning, the leaves on her squash plants had been ragged on the edges, as if something had been nibbling at them. And some of the pea plants had looked like someone had pruned them. Both clear signs of rabbit encroachment. She’s going to have to shore up the fence if she expects to gather more peas this spring.
Or corn, for that matter. She’d also spotted raccoon handprints in the soil between her carefully planted rows of maíz. She grimaces. Those furry gray, stripe-tailed beasts Ramón calls mapaches are as large as a mid-size dog and twice as bulky. And notorious both for their rapacity and their love of corn. The fact that they’re already sniffing around, when the slim green plants haven’t yet even begun to develop ears, is not a good sign.
Suzanna’s hands move quickly over the peas, hurrying to finish up. Gerald will be here soon. And whoever she saw on the ridge this morning isn’t as important as her husband or her plants. If she hurries, she’ll have time to work on the garden fence before the men finish with the elk.
Besides, Ramón is probably right. It was just some passing stranger, surprised to spot a cabin where there’d been only elk the last time he crossed the valley to the Cimarron and the Eastern plains beyond.
Yet, despite her resolution to focus on her garden and not her fears, Suzanna finds herself telling Gerald about the stranger late that afternoon. They’re perched on their favorite boulder on the slope above the cabin, side by side on the sun-warmed rock, gazing out over the valley. “There was something about him that reminded me of Enoch Jones,” she says, trying not to shudder.
Gerald nods, his eyes somber. He puts an arm around her shoulders. “But Jones is dead somewhere in the wilderness northwest of the Gila mountains.” He pauses. “I knifed him, remember?”
“I know,” Suzanna says. “I still feel ashamed at the relief I felt when I learned what had happened.” She leans into the warmth of his arm and shoulder. “And I suppose I should be thankful to the man, lout that he was. After all, if he hadn’t accosted me that day in Taos, you wouldn’t have come to my rescue and we might never have met.” She turns her head to smile at him, then sobers. “I never thought I’d be glad for a man’s death. But he was such a shadow on my life. Such an ongoing threat.” She gazes out over the valley. “Jones was just an ugly man, inside and out. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could be so evil-minded. I suppose he was just bone-bad from the beginning.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Gerald looks south, studying the ridge where the stranger had appeared, then looks beyond it and west, toward Palo Flechado Pass. “Things happen to a man and change him. Get inside his skin. Sometimes the memories and the bad feelings about them just won’t let go.”
“Or things don’t happen to a man. And that also creates bad memories,” Suzanna says wryly, remembering a story Encarnación once told her of Jones, of his inability to perform as a man. But she certainly isn’t going to explain what she means. Not even to her husband.
Gerald gives her a quizzical look, then lifts a shoulder. “It may be that some people are so confused inside that nothing can heal them.” He pulls her closer. “But Jones isn’t a danger to anyone now, so there’s no need to worry.” His hand drifts lower, to her belly. “We should be celebrating, instead.” Suzanna chuckles and snuggles closer to him, watching contentedly as the setting light brightens the western peaks.
The man on the ridge grunts in satisfaction and tucks the spyglass into his pocket. It’s her, all right. With some greaser. Word in Arroyo Hondo was she married that bastard Locke, but that ain’t him. Must be that Mex named Chavez that used to work for her pa. The big man snorts and shoves his dirty-blond hair away from his face. The greaser and Locke, too, probably. Take two men to keep her the way she thinks she needs.
He steps backward down the slope, no longer sky lit on the grassy ridge. Don’t want her gettin’ too good a look. Just enough to make the little bitch wonder. ’Cuz he’s dead. Killed by that interferin’ bastard Locke. Left to be tore apart by the Gila Apaches and the wolves after them. He’s just a pile of bleached bones, somewhere west of the Zuni villages.
The big man chuckles sardonically. Ain’t he?