Thursday, June 28, 2012

Eli Chapter 4, pt 2

Later, the brothers took one heavy wagon apart and reassembled it into a lighter form making a serviceable wagon and keeping the remaining sawn lumber for other things. The one team of oxen stayed with the cattle to be called into service as needed. They were settled in the southwest ‘desert’ permanently for better or worse.  The other wagon and oxen later returned to Santa Fe with the cousins to be sold or traded for strong horses to make a quick journey back to their homes in Indiana territory.

With great excitement Madeline had exclaimed over each convenience of her cabin, from the porch on the front to the floor paved with area sandstone, to the big fire place with its wonderful water tank.  She loved the two windows facing north and south.  She loved the tiny window facing east beside the door. She loved the spring room in the back corner. Madeline used the word “love” so many times even she became self conscious of it but that didn’t stop her exclamations over her new home.

Jacob and Eli had unloaded the wagons. There were piles of bedding and a mattress (!) piled on top of two large pieces of furniture packed flat on the bottom of the wagon.  The tall narrow armoire that Ellen had so admired was packed full of Madeline’s “linen” and hope chest supplies, as well as bolts of cloth and a few clothes. At one end sitting upright was the kitchen cup board, dissembled into two parts, one packed full of food supplies, the other holding her common-sense dishes and cookware. There was, of course, the trunk and two boxes with books.  Eli marveled at all of the things Madeline had felt were vital to live in the wild desert. And he marveled that Jacob had allowed her to bring it all. It was fortunate that the established settlement of Albuquerque was only a few days travel away where they could go to purchase the long term necessities of food and staples. 

Madeline was the only daughter of a well-to-do self-made man who had not quibbled at allowing the impoverished Jacob Slade to court and marry his daughter.  But he was not about to let her go off into the desert without sending the where-withal to help keep her safe.  In spite of Jacob’s protests there was a goodly sum of money packed in the heavily laden wagons.

The food ‘safe’ and the armoire were placed in the cabin with the armoire against the back wall beside the bed and the cupboard beside the window on the south wall.    Madeline moved Eli’s table, which she ‘loved’ to a place under the window and placed the chairs appropriately.   The mattress was brought in and placed in the empty bed frame.  Madeline’s “hope chest” was put at the foot of the bed and the house was arranged for the time.

As they were finishing up that first day, Eli walked out onto the porch after once more moving Madeline’s armoire to a better location, to find Jacob assembling the final sections of a rocking chair that had been transported in pieces.

There had been much to finish, but for that night they had left the wagons still partially loaded and the three of them together had assembled a quick meal. The cousins were dually impressed with the various conveniences of the cabin, but were frank about being anxious to start the trip back.    The rest of the arrangements would be accomplished in the days to come.   Madeline’s cousins were puzzled by Joshua and Eli’s plan to simply set the things from the second wagon on the ground.  Indiana weather required that they always provide accommodation for heavy dew or possible rain.   Even fall in the ‘desert’ promised no possibility of rain or dew.   After a short week of rest, the young men started home.

The ranch had prospered and Madeline had become a capable and hard working ranch wife.  In spite of her sheltered upbringing, she was logical and set to the tasks at hand with a will.  Her common sense had prompted her to spend the two years before her husband’s return learning all of the housewifely skills she could imagine she would need on the frontier. So she handled the cooking chores in the big fireplace without batting an eye. She had high standards of housekeeping and contrived a way to maintain them in the face of heat, sandstorms, and a multitude of inconveniences she had never known in her old home.   Their years had turned over in peace and they prospered. 

Six years later, while Jacob had been out with Eli collecting scattered cattle from the northwest ranges, a wagon had struggled across the landscape.  It was obviously lost because the Slade ranch was well off the beaten path.  As it came in sight of the house, a boy of perhaps eleven years had set out running up the long slope.  When he reached the house and Madeline ran out the door, it was evident he had cried until tears were gone.  Only the ravages remained.

“Help us, help us, please!  My ma and pa are so sick and now my littlest sister is crying too.  Sadie and I have tried, but we don’t know what to do or where to go!”  Dry sobs interspersed his words.  “We’ve been lost since Pa took sick.” 

Madeline caught up a hat and followed him down through the sage brush to the wagon.  It had intersected their rough ranch road and without the boy whipping them, the gaunt oxen had simply stopped.  After her years in the desert Madeline was knowledgeable about driving all sorts of teams and livestock.   She stepped to the side of the team and took the long prod.  In only moments she had the weary animals headed up the road to the ranch yard. 

She had left the wagon sitting where the oxen had stopped.  She directed the boy in unhitching them—they had obviously not been relieved of their yokes for days.  When they were loosed the four oxen headed directly for the water trough.  Madeline collected a forkful of rough hay from the supply in the barn and threw it in front of them.  They set to eating with a will and she left them standing beside the water.

The man and woman in the wagon were seriously ill and burning with fever.  The wagon was foul smelling and stuffy with heat.  With the two healthy children helping her she had laid out pallets in the shade of the porch having no place else to put them quickly.  When the parents and the little girl were resting in the shade and constant, cooling breeze, they looked more comfortable immediately.  Bringing soap and warm water from the house she set the boy to bathing his father and she made quick work of washing the mother and daughter.  There were clean clothes in the wagon that the children had simply not thought of in their distress.

When all the patients were clean and had been given gradual sips of water until they were resting peacefully Madeline sent the two older ones to either end of the house to bathe themselves.  The little girl was sleeping.  

Madeline began preparing a thin porridge of corn meal she felt the sick ones could eat with some sugar and milk from her favorite cow.  She warmed the stew left from her own lunch for the two older children.  When Jacob and Eli returned close to sundown they found their porch full of sleeping people.

They cleaned out Eli’s stone house for a sick room and placed the family there.  The older children refused to leave their parents so they had beds by the door where they could come and go without disturbing the sick ones. Within two days, the parents died and were buried on the flat top of a nearby hill near a stand of junipers.   A day later the little sister was gone also and the two older ones were sickening.  Madeline worked constantly to nurse them until Jacob refused to let her do anymore with the youngsters and he took over their care.  Eli struggled to keep up the day to day work of the ranch.  

When the parents died the valuables from the wagon had been removed by the older children along with the family bible and a packet of letters.  When the older siblings died, the siege seemed to be over.  Madeline wrote letters to contact any family regarding the deaths. 

Within two weeks, she had sickened herself.   And before the week was out she had taken her place on the hill with the others.   Jacob wandered the desert not speaking. 

Eli settled himself to carve markers for the graves with what information he had for the family.   He hooked the oxen to their wagon and pulled it out into the middle of their road to set it ablaze.  The family’s bedding that had been used in the sick room was piled on the blazing wagon; even Madeline’s best set of sheets and blankets was piled on the fire.  The rocking chair that she had so prized was piled on the very top.  She had rocked the little girl for long hours as she cried for her mama.  She had rocked herself there until she no longer had the strength to sit up.  As Eli stood watching the fire to insure it was contained Jacob returned, walking with determination.

I have to go back and tell Madeline’s father.  I cannot send such news to him in a letter.”  He spoke with misery and determination, then broke into sobs for a few minutes. “He lost her mother last year.  I cannot tell him this on a cold piece of paper.  I’ll begin packing.”   He lifted his head and shook himself.

When the fire had burned itself to cold ashes and scattered pieces of charred wood and metal, Eli returned to the big cabin.  Jacob had his things piled on the table, clothing, papers, food, a canteen.   He was involved in wrapping cold meat in one cloth and biscuits in another.  There was a packet of coffee sitting beside the camp skillet and the old coffee pot they had used many times before Madeline had arrived with Jacob.

“I’m leaving tomorrow morning,” he said.   “I’ll cut east to Santa Fe and hope to catch a train going to Denver and connecting to St Louis.  If not I’ll start out alone.  Some place I’ll find company to travel with.  I’ll take the extra horse with me.  That’ll leave you the team and your riding horse.  Maybe you can trade those oxen for another good riding horse.  Or use the team to spell your gelding.
“I have to tell James Mason I let his daughter die.” 

The desolation in his face tore at Eli’s heart.  He dropped onto the chair beside Jacob’s pack.

“Jacob, you didn’t just let her die.  You did, we did, everything possible to save her.  Whatever those travelers had it was lethal to them and Madeline.  It wasn’t your fault.” 

“I could have kept her from nursing them.  I should have taken care of them!  I could have made her stay away from them.  I could have refused them if I had been here when they came.  I could have done something!”  Jacob was beyond comforting.  He continued wrapping and packing. 

“Why did she have to be the one to catch it?  Why did she die when we weren’t even touched by the disease?  Why didn’t you or I get sick?   How am I going to explain to James?”

“Listen to yourself, Jake.  You know you would have done exactly the same as Madeline.  I would have done the same.  We couldn’t turn away desperate people.  They needed help and we provided it. And in the process Madeline was infected.”  Eli dropped his head to his hands. 

Jacob’s two packs were filled. He stood up and looked around the cabin at the touches of beauty Madeline had added to the empty bare room she had entered when they came home those years ago.  Everything was the same in its place, but the spirit that maintained it was gone for Jacob.

Do you suppose there is anything of hers that James would want? I don’t know…” 

His voice trailed away.  The grief that had driven him from the time of her death, through her burial and mourning had taken its toll.   As Eli watched, he walked to their bed and sat down only to stand and walk away after only a moment.  “I can’t sleep here.  Not without her.  This was her bed.”  He picked up the blanket off the trunk and went to one of the big armchairs Eli had built.  He sat down and propped his feet against the stool and slept.

Eli went quietly about straightening the disarray left by his brother’s gathering of supplies.  He collected a couple biscuits from the cupboard and a piece of cold meat from the pantry.  He poured a cup of coffee from the cold pot and took his plate and cup out to the step where he ate and looked across the suddenly empty yard and corral. 

The next morning, Jacob baked extra corn bread with their breakfast.  He added it to his supply. Then he loaded his packs on the second horse.

Turning to his brother he sighed and said, “I signed the papers for the land in case I don’t return.  If I do, I know you’ll be here.  If I don’t, the claim papers are all in your name…”   With a brief embrace, Jacob stepped into his saddle and rode away. 

Eli had been taking care of the ranch alone since, waiting for his brother.

Eli Chapter4 pt.1

Slade stood briefly at the bottom of the ladder leaning his head against the rail.  He was shaken by the necessity of dealing with the needs of a strange woman.  Even in her last days, he had not had to be so intimately associated with his sister-in-law.  His brother had carried the load of her care, only calling Eli in the greatest need.  

Eli Slade and his brother Jacob had carved their ranch from the foothills of the looming mountains north west of Albuquerque and a little south and west of Santa Fe when they were eighteen and twenty respectively.  Shortly before they had followed their dream of moving to the southwest, Jacob had fallen in love with and married Madeline.  She was infected with their dream of a ranch.  After only few months of marriage, Jacob had left her in the security of her father’s house and gone with his brother to build a home for her in a land they had as yet only heard of in books and from men who had ‘been there.’   

Their property lay in a gap northwest the provincial centers of Albuquerque (1706) and Santa Fe (1608), both established while the fledgling United States was birthing.  The Slades were fortunate to find a strip of land in the predominantly Spanish occupied areas.  They were largely surrounded by men of Spanish descent raising cattle and horses in the semi-arid land.  By the grace of God, Eli and Jacob had found one irregular section of land that contained not only good grazing grounds bounded on one side by a small river and extending up a couple mountainsides with a spring that provided year round water-a tremendous benefit in this land of sage and desert grasses. 

They had built the cabin with an eye to Madeline’s comfort.  Not that she expected luxury, but Jacob wanted life to be as convenient as he could make it in the barren land.  The logs for its walls had been laboriously hauled from the mountains and placed with care to create a large single-roomed home while the brothers lived in a three-sided rock shelter that eventually became the barn.  It was the work of several months to prepare the cabin and fence the small corral and outbuilding. 

Jacob’s mind had been focused on having a safe home to which he could bring his wife. To him went the credit for the idea of building the cabin on the rocky hillside over the spring and contriving the little spillway that allowed them to have water inside.  To his credit was the idea of the iron tank built into the fireplace wall to provide warm water in winter.  Eli, lacking any other ties, had willingly shared the labor with his brother and the ranch had been a joint holding. 

In the second spring of their work, Jacob had departed to fetch his wife and her things from Indiana.  Eli had worked in peace through the months until their return, keeping their small herd of livestock safe and building a second small house of stone and adobe behind the main cabin for himself, proving that one man with much time on his hands could accomplish a great deal.

With his own small house completed, he had moved his things from the three-sided shelter and finished the walls for a good sized barn.  A trip to Santa Fe—an undertaking of several days—had provided the necessary lumber to frame the windows and the doors for the house and the barn. The precious panes of glass had been packed in straw with wooden framework to hold safe them on the rough trip back. All else he had shaped with their woodworking tools and his own hard labor.  When he had stood in the ranch yard and surveyed the work he and Jacob had accomplished he thought that it was a good place for the new wife. 

The buildings formed a rough semi circle with the cabin and the barn facing each other across the yard backed against the low cliff of the hill.  On either side of the barn the corral fence stretched in a lopsided rectangle.  Down slope from the house and behind it stood Eli’s small house.  Over beyond the house against the corral fence stood the ‘necessary,’ the outhouse. 

A cozy and inviting property, it was not large but certainly better that the scrabbling homesteads of many American settlers coming into the area from the east.  It was a far cry from the ranchos of the Spanish grandees who had been granted property by the king of Spain and arrived with wealth and men to carve out and establish their vast holdings.  Eli was pleased and he knew Jacob would be too.  The Lord had prospered them.

As summer had rolled into fall and on into winter, Eli had left the ranch holding for a few days at a time to return with loads of saplings from the mountains and loads of fire wood gathered from the multitudes of dead wood scattered across the hill sides.  Their cattle grew fat on the grass of the highlands and the easy access to water there.  The water caught from the spring spillway into a small pond below the house and barn drew wildlife to its bounty and Eli judiciously took game as the cold weather set in with earnestness.  He travelled again to town to lay in stores of food staples for the coming winter. 

For those cold months he had watched over their herd, kept them contained in areas of forage and natural shelters, checking their location regularly.  The days were short but he spent the time in his little cabin turning the saplings into basic rustic furniture for both his house and what he came to think of as Madeline’s house.  As a special wedding present he built two large chairs with higher backs and wide arms to sit on either side of the fire place of the newlyweds’ cabin. He built accompanying chairs to match the tables, a stool and two beds.  As yet there was no mattress, but the bed was done and waiting for the finishing touches when Jacob returned with Madeline.  

And return they had.  As soon as the snows melted and the tracks became passable, Joshua and Madeline had set out from her father’s Indiana home along with several other families traveling in their general direction.  One by one the travelers had dropped off at junctions or stops along the way and early one fall day the two wagons carrying Madeline’s treasures and other supplies had toiled up the long slopes to the southeast of their home.  Behind them a couple days came a small herd, driven by Jacob’s and Eli’s cousins, to add fresh bloodlines to their cattle. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Safe Haven Chapter 3

Filled with compassion, Slade rose quietly and climbed the ladder to the loft.  Once there he began rearranging the piled bundles of hides and furs, the boxes of Madeline’s belongings and winter stores of food in boxes and bags.  Toward the end of the loft there was a light stone chimney that received the smoke from the little cast iron stove across the short stretch to the roof.  There was a warm space from the reflected heat directly behind it. 

Working bent over in the low space between the loft floor and the roof, Slade cleared the area behind the chimney pipe.  He stuffed the furs and a few bundles in the narrow space at the eaves to block any cold that might seep in. He spread a huge buffalo hide, fur side up, on the floor close to the chimney.  At either end of the hide, he piled boxes to stop any drafts.  Going back to the main floor, he found a light weight blanket and a clean empty flour sack. Draping them over his shoulder he went back to the loft.  Two heavy blankets from the boxes stored in the loft completed his pile of bedding.   

 He spread the light blanket over the wooly buffalo pelt tucking the edges in to cover the itchy fur. He folded a several rabbit furs into the flour sack for a pillow.  Last of all, he spread the blankets for a covering and stepped back across the room.   If a stranger had occasion to look into the loft from the top of the ladder, it would seem a partially empty loft with the stores piled halfway across.

 He returned to waken the sleeping woman. 

 Ellen looked up at the source of all her new security as Slade gently touched her shoulder.  She woke with a sense of relief.  Her story was told and she was safe for the first time many long months.  She had a warm meal still filling her stomach and no part of her was cold.   

“Come and see your bed then.  I have it all fixed.  No one would ever guess you were up there.  

“Wait.   Maybe you need this.”  He picked up an ivory comb from the table.  “I found it for you.”

Tears welled in her eyes and this time fell freely down her cheeks

“I’ve not had a real comb or brush since one of the men took my ivory set. It had gold edging and he thought he could make some money selling it.  Or maybe it bought some woman’s favors… I don’t know.”  A few more tears flowed.  “You cannot comprehend what this means to me.  On top of everything else, . .”     Words failed her.

He held out his hand and helped her to her feet.  She walked slowly but steadily across to the ladder.  Pulling the overly long skirt into a handful in front of her she slowly climbed the ladder.  When she stepped off at the top, Slade quickly climbed up behind her. 

Ducking his head, he motioned toward the small stone chimney, “Can you see your bed?  Right there behind the chimney.”  He urged her forward until from the end, she could see her bed on the buffalo hide. 

Ellen giggled out loud.  “I’ll feel like a little girl playing house!  Thank you, thank you.”  She grabbed his hand and swung it happily.  Then embarrassed by her forwardness she let go.

Self-conscious, Slade stepped back from her.  “Will you be needing anything else that you can think of… I forgot your little pack in the barn.  I’ll bring it in this morning.  Will you need water during the night?  I’ll bring you a cup. 

“I’m afraid I don’t have another lamp, but the fireplace light will reflect for a while. The fire there doesn’t go out but it does die down.  I usually keep the stove hot all night so you will stay warm here.”  

Not waiting for a response he hurried down the ladder and in just seconds returned with a cup of water for her. 

“Good night now.  Just sleep until you are rested tomorrow.  No need to jump out of bed.  I’ll see if I can find you a clean dress to wear until you can get yours washed.  Good night.   A-a- again..”

And he ducked down below the floor as her “good night” echoed in the loft.

Ellen walked to the cozy bed he had prepared on such short notice.  It truly was almost invisible from the ladder.  She untied the shawl at her back and sitting cross legged on her bed close to the warmth of the chimney she began the task of untangling her long, drying hair.  As she combed each lock she was pleased at how smooth it felt once more.  It had once seemed her hair would never be clean again.  When the tangled curls were combed through they fell longer and longer across her shoulders.  It had grown during her months of servitude and hardship.

As she combed she could hear Slade rattling around below and splashing water.  Before long the lamp was extinguished and only the flicker of the flames in the fireplace lit the cabin.  Ellen plaited her hair into a thick braid.  Folding her shawl to the side of the bed,  she removed the night dress and laid it aside also.  It was all she had to wear and she would rather not have it crumpled from being slept in.  In only her shift she snuggled down on the soft fur bed and pulled the heavy blankets over her.

Warmth surrounded her and for the first time in many months she slept with no fear or thought of tomorrow.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ellen's Story Chapter 2, pt. 2

Before I could get to him with his food, he came staggering back to the kitchen looking for me.  He saw me coming out of the pantry with my hands full and rushed at me shouting accusations.  His threats were more violent than usual and there was no doubt in my mind that this was the time he intended to kill me. 

“I had no defense against his club-like hands except to throw the tray of crockery at his head.  It hit him on the bridge of his nose and the blood began to pour out.

“He swung around and grabbed my skirt, yanking me back so violently that I hit my head on the swinging door.  

“I had no defense! 

“Flinging my hands wide to catch myself, I found the heavy bar that we used to fasten the pantry door.  As my weight over balanced him, he tripped over his own feet and fell back into the pantry.  I spun around swinging the bar with the full weight of my body behind it.  Had I not been so desperate I might not have swung so hard.  I was weak from weeks of eating only the bits he left of his meals and the beatings I had received at his hands!  I had little strength and only good fortune aided me.

“The bar struck him on the side of his head and dropped him to the floor of the pantry.  The bar was jarred from my hands and flew to the back corner.

 “For a few seconds I could only hold onto the door and gasp.  I had no breath or strength for those few moments.” 

Breathing heavily, Ellen shuddered, reliving the brutality.  

“I could not make myself go past him to retrieve the bar or I might have barred him into the pantry from the outside. That would have guaranteed his death by starvation because when I left I did not mean to go back any time soon.  

He lay unmoving on the floor.  As it was I pushed the door shut and blocked it with the heavy table. 

“I scrambled together the scattered bread and meat and stuffed it back into the bag.  Then I ran down the hall to my room and grabbed my precious bundle.  I was already wearing all of my clothes except the sweater. I pulled it on. 

“I rushed to the laundry that held my Roja.  She came obediently to my call and I hurried her to the courtyard.  I pulled Viejo’s saddle and bridle from his gelding and put them on Roja.  It was my good fortune that the pack horse was ready to go.  I collected the lead rope and loosed the gelding in the courtyard to stay or go as it chose.

“I was about to leave when a cold blast of wind swept down from the hills.  I shivered through my sweater and knew I could not survive a night in the open with only its protection. 

“Casting my mind about the house for anything to help me, I remembered the blankets Viejo had used on his bed and determined to get them.  Dirty though they were, they might mean the difference between living and dying in the cold before Santa Fe. 

“As quickly as possible, I led the horses along the front of the house to the main door. Tying them loosely and listening every instant for Viejo’s awakening, I tiptoed across the vestibule and into the room he used for sleeping.  There were the blankets!  I folded them quickly.  As I was leaving I spotted his long heavy coat thrown across a chair, still lying there from the last time he had worn it in spring.   It was lined leather and an answer to prayer!  I didn’t give a thought to what he would do when I was taking his coat and his blankets. His hat was on the chair under the coat. I simply grabbed everything and ran. 

“I struggled into the coat.  I tied the blankets and my bundle of possessions on either side of the saddle.  I managed to get myself in my bulky clothing onto Roja.  Leading the pack horse I started off in the face of the storm toward the north, I thought.

“Before I had gone far the light faded with the coming storm and I lost the road.  I had been trying to follow it from the side where I wouldn’t be seen so easily if someone followed.
When the dead of night set in I rode into a thick stand of trees and wrapped the blankets tightly around me to sleep for a while.  The next morning I started off again into the face of the wind.  I had no wilderness skills but Santa Fe was to the north and I reasoned the cold wind came from the north. 
It was so cold during the gray dark day that I fell asleep on Roja.  When I woke up the horses were standing in the dark shelter of a rock wall.  There was so much snow I gave up looking for an indication of the road. I urged Roja back out into the wind and soon fell asleep again. 

The next time I awoke the gray dawn had come and we were standing again with our backs to the wind. I nudged the horses into moving against the blowing snow again. I had no idea where I was.

Pretty soon, the horses seemed to feel they were going someplace so I simply let them go as long as they were facing the storm. I was getting colder by the second and losing my concern for where I was headed.  I twisted around to get a blanket.  I managed to get one loose and the other secured again without losing anything to the raging wind.  Once I was draped in the blanket, I tied my hands to the saddle horn with the ends of the reins.  That’s all I knew until I awoke to you brushing the snow off me in your barn.

“I have no idea how many days I spent on the horse.”

Ellen sighed from the depths of her being. 

“So now you know… You may be harboring a murderess and at the very least you are helping a woman who surely has a vicious wicked man chasing her. 

“That's why I can’t sleep in the bed.  I would rather sleep in the loft or in the barn under the hay where any visitor can see no evidence of me.  I only want to hide until the weather will let me get to Santa Fe or even Albuquerque and report this man to some authorities.  I want to reclaim the land that my father and husband worked so hard to keep secure. I want safety again.”   Her head fell back against the sheepskin.  She sat without speaking for long minutes until Slade realized she slept. 

Ellen's Story Chapter 2, pt. 1

“I WAS MARRIED to Alejandro Aguilar, a good and strong man who loved me. 

“My parents were traveling west through Santa Fe when my mother was taken ill and died.  My father was disconsolate but he had me, still a young girl then, to care for. 

 Instead of going on to California where his dreams had focused, he began looking for work throughout the town and finally heard of the Aguilar Rancho.  They needed a man to keep accounts for the rancho because their old bookkeeper had died. Don Francisco Aguilar was failing and the son was still learning all that was involved in taking the reins from him completely.  My father applied and was hired.    

“He was given a decent salary and a place to live.  I kept his little house for him while he oversaw the accounts for the rancho.  As the old man grew more feeble the son spent more and more time in my father’s company. And in the course of things we were thrown together also.

“I suppose it was inevitable that we would fall in love.  Alejandro grew into a good trustworthy man and I was starry eyed over him.  We were married four years after my father came to work for el Rancho Los Llanos.  I was eighteen. Alejandro was twenty two. Don Francisco was able to officiate at the wedding.  It was his last happy function before he took to his bed permanently.  He died only a few months later.”

Once begun, disregarding her fatigue and emotional distress, the young woman could not hold back the words.  They tumbled out of her, slowing or hastening as her distress dictated.

“The rancho wasn’t as large as some but it was well to do and provided for the family and their retainers.  Between my father’s financial shrewdness and Alejandro’s ranching know how, we prospered. Soon Alex was as capable a financial manager as he was a stock man so we could face the future with confidence even with the loss of his father.

“Two years later my husband was accidently shot down in a dispute between two other men in Santa Fe.   The two men disappeared into the darkness and were gone.  No one was ever held responsible.  We buried him on the hillside behind the house where his father rested and went on. We were married only five years.  

“My father was older and knew nothing about managing a ranch; he continued to take care of the accounts. I had good help and advice in Alejandro’s ranch foreman.  I rode with him and learned a bit from him about managing cattle and about the little farming we did.  But mostly,  I depended on him to take care of everything.  Life continued that way for several months into the following spring.

“I had only gone to Santa Fe to visit friends of the family and for my own shopping so I knew little about the ranch finances. I had met the various business men involved in the ranch management, but only socially.   I knew the men but I knew their wives better.

Finally it was necessary for my father to make a trip to carry out some financial tasks and purchase supplies for the ranch. The business men in Santa Fe knew him. He had accompanied Alejandro on many occasions. He and two riders left early one morning to make the two day trip.  He planned to arrive in Santa Fe by evening and do his business and purchasing the following day.  As soon as that was finished he planned to leave and return late in the evening. 

“We did not worry excessively when he didn’t get home the following night.  I supposed our business had taken him later in the day to complete and he had simply stopped to camp for the evening.  Margarita and I prepared for his return by noon the following day.   When he didn’t come home several of the men went to see what the difficulty was. 

“They found his body and those of our two men along the road. Their things were tossed all over the roadside.  Even the leather case containing the receipts and other records was found lying behind the bushes. All of the supplies my father had purchased we e gone. The horses and wagon were gone.   The blow to me was unimaginable.”

She stopped speaking and simply sat staring into the fire.  When Slade was about to break the silence she took up the tale again.

“I was left alone to manage the ranch and protect our thousands of acres with only the foreman to help me.  Only a few weeks later our foreman was killed. It seemed like a freak accident.  His horse had evidently spooked and when he was thrown he struck his head on the stones below the edge of the arroyo.   Now I wonder that such an accomplished horseman would fall so easily.  I had seen Eduardo ride wild horses to a standstill.

“Then one by one our retainers began suffering accidents. Two were killed. Others seriously hurt.  Rumors grew and wives were frightened. Stories of hostile riders shouting threats to the men when they were riding the herds sprang up.  The wives began to go back to their families, taking children and eventually husbands with them. 

“Finally I was entirely alone with only a handful of young single men who were loyal to the Aguilar name.  When the outlaw, Reardon Miramontes, “el Viejo,” and his men swept up the road and into our courtyard we were taken by complete surprise and within minutes our few men were dead or dying.  My husband’s aunt and I were the only ones left.

“By force, we became the servants of el Viejo and his men.  Our beautiful house was dirtied and its contents stolen and destroyed. We never had great wealth in our house but we were more than comfortable.  Within weeks our cattle and horses were driven away. What we had of value in the house was taken away by the men.  Tia Margarita and I were helpless in the face of such evil.

“Viejo was a vicious man, vicious with his accomplices as well as his victims.  His men took whatever things of our belongings that could bring cash. It seemed like after he had sold our cattle and horses, he cared nothing of what the men did.  They crept off in the night with their pickings.  We were well off the travelled road and seldom visited in town.  Besides my husband and father had recently died, I was in mourning. My father had just conducted several months of business and purchased supplies, so it occurred to no one to wonder at our absence.  Margarita and I had no one to help us. We struggled to meet el Viejo’s demands. 

“Fortunately el Viejo was not very choosy in his circumstances and our poor efforts satisfied him as long as we kept food and wine available. We were locked in a room together when we weren’t working and denied all but a meager share of food from the rancho’s well stocked stores. 

“I won’t tell you the humiliation I endured.  I was used to meet his dissipated lusts when ever he felt so inclined.  My body was no longer my own.”  She stopped with crimson flooding her face. After an inner struggle she continued.

“Beside that he needed someone weak to vent his malice.  Tia Margarita, being weaker and unable to escape, bore the brunt of his blows.   We had no weapons, even the kitchen knives were of little use to us. 

“He was much larger than me and even with a carving knife I wouldn’t have dared attack him.  Our only hope was escape and that seemed impossible for two women, one of them old and feeble, on foot.

“He demanded our immediate response to every whim. We had to stand by the door within his sight at all times when we were not locked in our room.  Our stores from winter were being quickly depleted. Summer supplies had been stolen when my father was murdered.  There was no explaining to him or making him understand when something wasn’t available.  So his blows were quick to fall. 

“I tried to anticipate his needs and stay between him and Tia Margarita, but the day came when I had to go to the kitchen for something. Margarita wasn’t able to move quickly enough to bring his wine and spilled it because she was frightened.  I never knew exactly why, but he struck her savagely across the face with a heavy gunstock, knocking her backward into a table and hurting her hip on the corner.  She was very old and even with a doctor’s attention she might not have survived such a blow and the damaged hip that followed it. 

“She died only a few days later, leaving me alone. 

“As the weather grew colder, el Viejo spent more and more time consuming the contents of my father-in-law’s wine cellar.  Don Francisco had spent years collecting fine wines from the south and as far west as California so there was a lot for one man to drink.  But Viejo continued to try. 

“His men had long since gone so he had nothing to do but abuse me and drink.   Probably for the first time in his life he had as much alcohol as he could drink.  Many of the wines were mellow dinner wines, but some were old strong vintages. He had a partiality for those and recognized the labels even though he couldn’t read.

“As he became more and more erratic and violent toward me, he also became more lax about locking me in my room.  I had more freedom than before. Even his demands on me physically decreased.”   Ellen stopped again, complete embarrassment overwhelming her. She lowered her face while the color rushed across her cheeks.  How difficult to talk of this to a stranger, but it was part of her story.  Speaking of the horror seemed, in part, to rob it of its lasting impact.

After long seconds she was able to continue.

“Sometimes after an evening of drinking he would pass out for several hours with his head on the table.  But I could never count on his sleeping for any certain length of time.  He always woke up to demand something of me, or staggered along behind, following me to the kitchen or on rarer occasions now locking my door.  I don’t know whether he simply forgot to confine me or if he thought I was so cowed that I wouldn’t dare try to escape. I was still afraid to try to leave him.

“Then he began to talk of leaving. The weather was getting cold at night and a skim of ice formed sometimes on the water outside.  Our supply of food was nearly gone.  The property had been stripped of its valuables. The men had stolen food and wine as well as the pretty things in our home. The livestock had been driven off. Viejo had acquired a stash of valuables and coin. Now there was nothing left that was saleable.  

“The land had value, but no one would believe that it belonged to him since the Aguilar name was known throughout the area and no one would believe he had ‘bought’ it.  The Aguilar father and son would have died before they would give up rights to the heritage from Spain’s sovereign.  Everyone knew that.  He didn’t dare to take me to Santa Fe and claim to have married me. I suppose the ranch and I had lost our value to him.  He began wandering the house searching for anything he might have over-looked.   

“There were only two horses remaining.  One was Viejo’s gelding and the other was the mare that Alejandro had trained for me just after we were married.  How she had escaped the notice of so many greedy hands I’ll never know, but one morning when I went out to the well there she stood, thin and dirty, at the corral gate.  She had been a fine strong mare in the spring before the outlaws came.  Now she looked worthless.  Her shining coat was dry and rough.  Her long strong legs were bony and weak.  Her hipbones showed and so did her ribs. 

“It was a lucky day.  That morning el Viejo was still sleeping at the table where he had been drinking late the night before so he never knew of Roja’s coming.  I quickly gave her some water and led her around to the back of the house to the rooms where we had used to have the laundry done.  They were large and had sloping floors so the laundry water could run away into a ditch. I could even open a sluice at one end to supply Roja with water.  Viejo never came back here.  He had explored every foot of our buildings and found nothing there to interest him.  

“I led Roja into the farthest end and pulled a broken board across the width.  Over the next days at odd moments, I gathered scattered bits of hay from our wide barns and swept up the remains of grain in the corners of our granaries to re-build her health.

“Then as the winds swept down from the mountains Viejo’s bones began to ache. He wasn’t really old but his life had been hard. He began talking of the warm breezes in El Paso.  I knew that if he left, he would leave me dead or dying behind him.  There was no chance I would stay alive. 

“As he planned so did I.  I had few clothes left.  My fine silk and lace dresses had been the first things seized for their value.  The two skirts I wore were heavy sturdy fabrics but faded and worthless to the men, who only thought in terms of their worth to greedy women.  I found one more that must have belonged to one of the women who helped in the kitchens and another blouse. I hid them all in a safe place.  I saved ends of bread and cheese and the bits of meat he left from his meals until I had a small store of food.  I thought I had enough to last me on a couple days’ ride into Santa Fe. 

“From somewhere, maybe roaming the hills hunting for game while I was locked in my room, el Viejo found a pack horse and a few mornings before he strapped a pack saddle on it and began loading what valuable things he hidden away and what he thought was necessary for where ever he planned to go. 

Our food was nearly gone but he demanded that I use the last of the flour and corn meal to make tortillas.  We had a little meat that he ordered me to roast and dry for his traveling.  By this I thought he would be heading south avoiding Albuquerque and any other little settlement until he was well away from our area.  He was leaving me with nothing, for he stood over me in the kitchen as I wrapped the bread and sliced all the meat to pack for him.

“The day he determined to leave I had only one advantage; he was drinking heavily from the night before.  He delayed leaving early for ‘just one more bottle.’  By mid-morning, he was so drunk he could hardly stand to saddle his horse. When he returned to the table for ‘one more bottle” and fell asleep, I crept to my room and put on my skirts and the two blouses I had found.  I had a vest of Alejandro’s hidden away for memory sake and I pulled it out of hiding, wearing it between the two blouses for warmth.  I had also found a knitted shirt that someone had made for the old Don in his last year.  I had no coat of my own so I put the shirt and my two thin blankets together with my little supply of discarded food.

From a concealed place under the floor in the old Don’s office I pulled the carefully hidden deeds and land grants, with Alejandro’s birth record, Don Francisco’s prized genealogy tree and our marriage lines to prove who I was.  Then I thought of the big ledger my father had kept.  It had been tossed aside as worthless when the men ransacked the house. I couldn’t carry the whole book so I removed several of the last pages so I could maybe prove the worth of the property in court if I ever had a chance. 

I wrapped everything in a piece of oiled canvas and tied it carefully into a bundle for the time when it became possible to return.  If I escaped…  I had determined to slip away from Viejo and ride Roja toward Santa Fe.” 

Ellen drew a deep breath, as though again gathering courage for the trip.  

“I was ready.  I could hear el Viejo waking, shouting and swearing.  I knew I had better go to him quickly.   He was demanding wine.  Again.  It was a good thing he was leaving because the contents of the wine cellar were nearly exhausted. Only a few bottles remained of the more than two hundred the old Don had stored.

“When I took el Viejo the wine he demanded some bread and meat to go with it.  The only food had already been packed for his departure and was even then tied on the horse.  I had to go and retrieve it and that, of course, took longer than he liked.  As he shouted and cursed he poured more of the strong old wine down his throat.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Shelter from the Storm Chapter 1, pt 2

She was so different from his first impression that he was left speechless.  Fortunately before his silence stretched on too long, Ellen was again apologizing, “I’m sorry, I fell asleep.  Were you out there long?  I meant to stay awake.  I’m afraid I’m not myself.  I’ll..I’ll…I guess I don’t know what I should be doing.  If you’ll tell me I’ll certainly try to do it though.” She sounded frightened but sincerely grateful.

He found it strange and heart wrenchingly pathetic that in spite of her obvious ordeal, she felt forced to be so deferential. 

“No, no!  Just stay there.  I only just came to the porch.  If I’d been thinking I’d not have been so noisy. I’m sorry I woke you.  I only have the milk to strain and I have to get cleaned up some.  You just sit and rest there.” 

Slade set a galvanized pail on the table and turned back to remove his wet boots.  He hung his jacket on the pegs near the fire and carefully spread his muffler along a rod on the wall.  The boots went under the coat within reach of the warmth of the flames in the fireplace.  He grinned at the small wet shoes sitting by the wall then he moved them closer to the fire. That way everything would be dried and warm by morning.  He removed his vest and heavy shirt to fold them on the battered chest by the armoire.

“Sarah is going to be dry one of these days,” he went on, referring to the milk cow.  “I’m trying to coax her along until closer to spring.  I like having milk to put in my coffee and eat on my cornmeal.  Doesn’t seem so bad when spring comes, not having any that is, but milk certainly tastes good on days like this.”  He found himself gibbering on to fill the blankness that this woman was causing in his head.

“Your horses are doing fine.  They both ate a bite of grain.  I thought they could use it after their cold trip.  I gave them water, too.  When I left they were picking at the hay I laid down in the corner for them.  I put a pole across the back between the two sides of the barn so they can’t wander and get in trouble.  They were too beat to hardly move when they first came in…”  His hands were busy stretching a cloth over a crock and gently pouring the milk through it.  He gathered the cloth carefully and laid it in the empty milk bucket.    

Ellen watched silently from where she still stood by the fire.  Slade wondered that the process of straining milk would be worthy such scrutiny here on the frontier.  Surely a woman with enough frontier experience set out in such a storm would be knowledgeable of such necessary tasks.

After setting a plate over the top, he carried the crock through the door at the back and returned immediately.  He took another small wash pan from under the rough cupboard.  Pouring cold water from the bucket on the corner into the pan he rinsed the cloth repeatedly.  The last time he poured warm water and scrubbed it thoroughly with soap before he rinsed it again with cold water.  There was a cord strung from the corner of the cupboard to a peg in the wall, about three feet.  Slade hung the cloth neatly over the cord.  He washed the milk bucket with cold water then hot water and soap and turned it upside down on the cupboard workspace to dry.   

He picked up the stacked dishes and cups from their brief meal and submerged them in hot water in the wash pan, scrubbing them and the stew kettle carefully.  The remaining stew had disappeared into the room that Ellen was thinking of as a pantry.  The coffee pot was emptied carefully into a cup that he set on the back of the stove while the grounds were dumped among the ashes of the fireplace.  The pot was rinsed and refilled with water.   Finally the room was tidy. The man was satisfied.

The last thing he did as he finished up was to take the milk bucket to the back room and return with water.  He poured that carefully into the reservoir and went back for two more.  When he was satisfied with the water level he closed the lid and then the door on the front.  By morning there would be warm water for washing or whatever the need was—a convenience that Ellen had never seen.

She watched his precision in these minor chores and tried to equate them to the neglect in other areas of the house.  Still puzzling at the disparity between the background furnishings and the day to day chores she wondered at the man she watched. 

Eli Slade was tall and slim.  His wide shoulders bespoke years of swinging an ax, driving horses or oxen and hard labor.   His slim hips attested to hours and hours spent in the saddle behind cattle in rough country. His lower arms exposed during his milking chores were strong and corded and his hands, although the fingers were long and academic appearing, were callused.  

His hair was dark and the length belied rough hair cuts with the blade of a sharp knife.  Although he appeared to be periodically clean shaven, his densely shadowed jaw confirmed that the razor hadn’t been used too recently.  In the dimness of the cabin Ellen had difficulty determining the color of his eyes— a dark shade at any rate.    His face was a study in sharp angles and sloping planes.  The deep set eyes gave the appearance of looking across far distances and his mouth was a wide slash between sharply modeled lips.  Harsh and yet attractive, hard yet betraying a gentleness, Slade was an enigma in many ways.  His strength and self assurance were so definite that Ellen felt safe for the first time since the death of her husband so many months before.                                

Picking up his still warm coffee he straddled the chair that he pulled out from the table.     

“Now, you sit back down,” he said, “and we’ll decide what to do with you tonight and probably for a few nights to come.  I have one bed.  I can give it to you and I’ll sleep in the loft.  That is the most I can offer you I’m afraid.”

Her eyes widened in a flash of what?  Fear?  “Couldn’t I sleep in the loft?  Isn’t it okay to sleep in?  I’d rather sleep there, if you don’t mind.”  Panic hid just under her words. “I’d rather be up there where I can not be noticed if, if anyone comes.”

“Suppose you tell me,” Slade said with a degree of compassion she hadn’t heard in many months, “suppose you tell me why you were travelling alone in the storm.  And why you are afraid. Women in this country just don’t travel without protection, especially not in the face of a storm.”

He saw her considering a lie.  He watched the various possibilities come to the forefront of her mind only to be discarded.  He watched the ensuing chaos descend.  He wondered at the events which had reduced an evidently capable woman to one who still fought to control her own future in the face of a seemingly overwhelming fear.

“Have you broken the law?  Have you killed someone? Stolen something?  There aren’t very many reasons for running when times are so dangerous and the weather is life- threatening.” Slade listed the possibilities as calmly as he could.

“Is someone hurting you or trying to hurt you?  Has someone stolen from you or tried to kill you?  Do you have some sort of information that makes a man want to destroy any evidence of a crime?  There must be something.  I can’t help you if I don’t know what it is.”

Ellen’s eyes welled up with tears. She clearly struggled to bring the words to her lips. 

“I’m running away.  They killed my father, and quite possibly my husband too, although I never thought of that before.  They ran off our men or killed them.  They only kept me because I could serve as insurance in case someone came by. And maybe I killed him.”   Her voice seemed blocked in her throat.  And they began spilling out as though too long bottled up.  Slade made no effort to stop her.