Sunday, June 24, 2012

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.  

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