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.