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.

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