Friday, June 22, 2012

REFUGE FROM THE STORM Chapter 1, pt. 1

A GLEAM of light splashed across the white haze of blowing snow.  The man standing in the door of his cabin peered into the whiteness.  It seemed there was a dark mass behind the brightness of the snow.  His first thought was that some of the livestock had escaped and were wandering before the storm.  The dog barked frantically bounding through the snow, weaving in and out around the barely discernable shape.     

“All right, all right.  I’m coming.”  The door closed sharply and stayed closed until the man returned bundled in layers of jacket, muffler and hat, carrying a lantern.  In his other hand he carried a coil of rope to catch the animal and return it to corral or barn. 

Within a few steps the mass resolved itself into two horses with a bent form hunched on the front one.   Both horses stood huddled with their tails to the wind, heads hanging.  The man on the lead horse was motionless.  Evidently the horses had drifted until a faint erratic scent of barn and animals brought them to the yard where they stood.  Their exhaustion was evident. They drooped wearily in the small shelter between the barn and cliffs.

Eli Slade looped the coil of rope over his shoulder and approached the lead horse with soft whispers of reassurance.  The animal barely moved except to swing it head hopefully toward his out-stretched hand; no energy to bolt was left in it.   Slade’s first thought was to get them all inside out of the weather where the animals could be free of the cutting wind and icy snow. Then he could deal with the rider.  With very little encouragement the horses followed him and his dog to his barn directly across from the cabin.

The barn was large by frontier standards with a narrow walkway down the center and two railed pens along either side.  The horses stopped as soon as they were inside.   Slade hung the lantern from a convenient hook on one of the posts supporting a small loft.  He tossed the coil of rope over the railing.  Using a twist of hay he began swiping the caked snow from the hips and sides of the horses.  The cowboy on the first horse moaned slightly and seemed to be regaining an awareness of his circumstances, but stayed unmoving on the horse.  When the pack horse was relatively snow free, Slade slipped the girth and breast strap to slide the pack to the ground in a convenient corner.  Lacking anything better he threw a piece of tarpaulin over the shuddering horse.  He began brushing the snow from the motionless cowboy who was wrapped in a blanket from head to heel.  

Slade lifted the snow caked blanket from the man’s shoulders and pulled it off, tossing it over the rail of the cow pen.  The hat flew off and a mass of wet matted hair fell down the man’s back.  At the same time, Slade realized that the blanket was covering, not a man’s trousers, but wet skirts clinging to a woman’s legs.

“Dear God, Woman! What are you doing out here!  Get down from there!”  He reached up to take the reins of the horse then saw that her hands had been wrapped in the long loops of leather to prevent her from dropping them, or releasing the horn and falling. She had no gloves, but only a wrap of torn blanket. He pulled the wet leather free and the woman slowly toppled sidewise, clutching weakly at the saddle horn as he released her binding.

He caught her as she fell and steadied her on her feet, but she wavered, almost sliding to the ground.  Slade swung her into his arms to carry her to the house.

“We’ll get you inside and warm real quick,” he told her.  “Don’t try to talk till we’re inside”

“No, no.  The horses, take care of them.”

“Ma’am, you need to get warmed up or you’re going to catch your death. I’ll come back for the horses.”

“No, no.  The horses, they came too far, too cold.  The horses. . . I’ll wait. ” The thought of leaving the horses uncared for was distressing her more than the cold.

“All right.”  Slade said, giving into her weak demand.  “Sit here.”  He propped her on a rough feed box in the corner where she could lean against the wall.  It was the work of only a couple minutes to remove the saddle from the horse and search out another piece of tarp to cover it.   He led both horses to the back of the barn where the walk way ended against a wall.  On one side was a milk cow separated by a small railing from last spring’s calf and on the other was his team of horses, sharing a single big stall.   The back of the barn was draft free and, even in the cold, smelled of warm cattle and horses.  The wanderers would be fine there until he could get back to them. 

He hurried back to the woman.

“Look, your horses are loose and covered.  They are sheltered from the storm and getting warm.  I’ll come back to give them feed when I have you settled.  Come along, now.” He took the woman’s arm to help her stand, grabbing the bail of the lantern in his other hand. 

She did stand but within a few steps she sank slowly down on collapsing knees.   He caught her up with his arm around her body.    She struggled to walk with his help but the going was slow.  Before they reached the barn door Slade realized having her walk was not going to get them to the house very quickly. 

Stopping just inside the door he hung the lantern briefly over the door hook. 

“If I carry you,’ he asked her, “can you hold the lantern?  It’s too hot for me to hold against our coats and carry you at the same time.”

She peered at him as though processing what he had said was a great effort and then nodded her head.  He handed her the lantern.

“Now don’t drop it.”  He cautioned.  Her response seemed to be an affirmative murmur.  Quickly opening the door and propelling her through, he latched the door firmly.   Slade swung her into his arms for the trip across the yard.  The dog anxiously rushed back and forth through the snow ahead of him, leading the way back to the cabin door.  Within only a few steps the barn was lost in the swirl of blinding snow and the cabin was non- existent.  Only the dog’s constant coming and going led him to the small shelter of the porch and the door.

He propped the woman on her feet and was pleased that she remained there leaning against the wall as he knocked the snow off his boots and brushed at his pant legs.  Supporting her again he opened the door and lifted her inside.  The dog rushed in beside them and shook vigorously just inside the door.  It hurried to a gap between a wood box and the wall where it curled out of the way on a piece of tattered blanket.

As with the barn, the cabin was large for the time and place.  The frontier southwest was not a land of prosperous houses and barns.  Only the wealthy Spanish land grant holders had been there long enough to have built comfortable houses and outbuildings.  Most American settlers were still struggling to put together secure shelters of rock or adobe and places to store their few livestock and supplies. This cabin was of sturdy logs drug down from the mountain and large enough to have three small but distinct areas in the single room, obviously for eating, sleeping and sitting or working. Slade carried the woman into the warmth of the still blazing fire and set her at the table while he pulled a large roughly made arm chair closer to the fire. 

“Let’s get some of those wet things off you and some hot food inside you; then I’ll set you here by the fire while I go and finish taking care of those horses.” Slade felt uncomfortable unbuttoning her coat and unwrapping her scarf but since she didn’t move to do it herself he hurried to get her soaked outer garments off her.  He was sure her feet and stockings were wet, but he couldn’t bring himself to take the liberty of removing them until it seemed absolutely necessary. She seemed dazed and although she responded to his directions she still hadn’t spoken since her concern over the horses. 

Under the big snow-caked coat she had a large man’s sweater and under that another woman’s dress jacket.  Once the long outer coat and the sweater were off, she seemed fairly dry.  Her skirt hems were soaked, but again other than asking her if she could remove the outer skirt, Slade felt at a disadvantage in dealing with a strange woman’s clothing.  She seemed to be responding well to the warmth of the cabin.   The little house was well made and cozy for all of its simplicity. 

From a small cast iron cook stove he took a battered coffee pot, opening the lid to peer at its contents.  Still hot coffee gurgled inside.   Taking a cup from the cupboard behind him, Slade half filled it with the hot liquid and set it on the table in front of her.  He stepped through a door in the back corner of the cabin and returned a minute later with a little crockery pitcher in his hand. From the cupboard that had held the cup he brought a tightly closed can.

He placed the two items on the table with a spoon.  “You might put some milk here in that coffee and some sugar.  That will give it some strength besides just the black.”  He waited a minute and when she simply looked at the milk he picked it up and added it to the cup.  Two heaping spoonfuls of sugar followed it into the cup. 

“Enough?” he asked stirring.  She nodded and wrapped both hands around the cup to bring it to her lips.  The first sip sent shivers through her entire body.  It was quickly followed by another and another.  Finally she raised her eyes and looked around the cabin.

“Thank you,” she said simply. 

From the same stove that had held the coffee Slade took a heavy kettle and set it on the table.

“I was just fixing to have some supper here.  It isn’t fancy but it does warm a body.”  He took deep plates from the cupboard and set one in front of her.  “This here is venison meat with just a few onions in it.  I have some potatoes, but I’m trying to make them last so I don’t have them every meal.  They’re dear to me and I only got a few to grow last summer.  Onions now, they take to this land seems like, especially here by the springs.  There’s a little cornbread left from this morning.”  He realized he was babbling and stopped himself.

But then he talked on while he dipped a bit of stew in her plate and served himself.  He set the wedges of cornbread in front of her, too.  “I’ll eat a bit here quick and then get to the barn with some water for the stock, especially your horses.  They’ll need it.” 

The woman sat a moment looking at the stew.  “Ellen,” she said without preamble.  “My name is Ellen Aguilar. And I thank you.”  Then she broke a few bits of cornbread into the stew before she lifted the spoon and began to eat, evidently craving the nutrition and the warmth.  After only a few bites of cornbread and broth she laid her spoon aside to take tiny sips of coffee.  Then she stopped.

“I appreciate it, Mr.—, Mr.--” she began.  

“Slade,” he supplied quickly.

“I appreciate the hot food and coffee, Mr. Slade, but I shall have to stop.  It has been too long since I have had adequate food and if I eat too much I do fear I shall become ill.   I’m sorry for the waste, but perhaps I can finish it tomorrow--.”  She seemed apologetic and fearful at the same time.

Slade jumped up quickly to take her plate. 

“Don’t you worry about that, ma’am.  There’ll be plenty more tomorrow.  Old Fetcher there has to eat, too, and he’s partial to venison-especially when it’s cooked with onions.”  He took her plate and scraped it into a pan on the floor.  Fetcher came politely from his bed by the wood box and began eating the stew she had left. 

He hurried through the last bites of his own stew.  A couple quick gulps of coffee and he stood up.

“I need to go and tend to the animals now, Ma’am.  If you need to wash or if you want dry clothes…” His voice trailed off as he took three long steps across to the big trunk at the back wall.  Opening it he sorted carefully through it for a few minutes, piling things to the side on the bed.  When he returned he had several items of women’s clothing in a pile.  He laid them carefully on the table. 

“I don’t mean to be out of place at all but it looks as if those clothes are pretty well worn and wet.  I think some clean things would feel good to a lady-especially dry ones. You’re welcome to these.” 

From a hook on the wall by the dish cupboard he took a sizable enameled pan and set it on the table.   “We use this for almost everything washing-wise so if you want to wash up good, just feel free.  Oh, here’s this too.”  He went to the chest again and brought back several folds of heavy cloth to serve as towels. He laid them and a bar of heavy creamy soap beside the pan. 

“I’m going to be busy in the barn quite a while.  I’ll knock when I get back but don’t rush.  I have plenty to do in the barn.  You get yourself fixed up clean and warm there.  I’ll look through the things in the barn if you have anything personal you need.”  Slade stopped; he seemed to have run out of words.

“I appreciate your--,” she paused, “I seem to be using that word a lot, but I do appreciate your kindness, Mr. Slade.  I’m feeling much better with the warm food.  I’m sure once I get bathed,’ She dropped her eyes and a blush stained her face.  “I’m sure I’ll be fine.  I will hurry so you needn’t stand outside.

“And the only things that are truly mine on the horses are in the blanket pack on the saddle.  I’d like that if you don’t mind.” 

“I’ll bring it along when I come back.  Now here, use this little stool and you can sit here in this big chair by the fire to wash.” He arranged the things he indicated.  “There is water in the reservoir,” he pointed to a steel door in the wall of the fire place, “and the dipper is here hanging.  When you finish, just pour your water in this big bucket.   I’ll go now.”

He went to the back room and came out with two big buckets of water that he set by the door.  He slung his heavy coat on and tied a scarf over his hat.  The door opened to a blast of snow and wind and then closed it out behind him.

She sat for a few seconds, gathering her energy she stood feebly. She laid the cloths on the chair where she had been sitting and investigated the ‘reservoir’ he had indicated.  It did indeed contain a generous supply of hot water. She dipped a couple scoops into the wash pan.

Hurriedly undressing, Ellen dropped the layers of wet, dirty clothing on the floor.  She had been wearing three skirts in addition to her petticoat and shift as well as two blouses with a man’s fancy vest sandwiched between them. The heavy knitted shirt had covered them all under her coat.  Soon she was down to her shift and pantaloons.  Loosening them she washed quickly and thoroughly with a smaller cloth and the home made soap, even sitting to put her cold dirty feet in the warm water. The warm water stung her frost bitten feet, but the bath heavenly after so long without being able to bathe at all. She was thankful for the woman who knew how to make the sweet-smelling soap without the heavy lye that would have made it harsh. 

When she began going through the fresh clothes, she found soft under things and another shift with pretty embroidery on the neckline. There was a long heavy night dress and a wooly green shawl to wrap around her self.  To replace her dirty, wet and worn stockings there was a pair of heavy closely knit men’s stockings.  When she was clean and wearing the pretty shift she began to consider the ropes of wet hair and decided to wash them.

Dumping her bath water in the bucket Slade had indicated, she refilled the pan with clear water.  Sliding the shift around her waist to keep it dry and using the cup from her coffee, she dipped the warm water over her head, bending over and coiling her long hair in the pan.  Once it was thoroughly wet, she rubbed soap through the mass until she had a few suds.  Her hair was so dirty that the soap seemed not to make much progress against the built up soil.  She rinsed her hair and, replacing the dirty water with clear, repeated the process again and yet again.  Finally after the third rinsing, her hair felt smooth and silky.     

Content that she was clean from head to foot she wrapped her hair in the damp towel and     after cleaning the tub she replaced it on the wall.  She folded her dirty clothes and stacked them on the floor at the far corner of the fire place.  She carefully folded the black leather vest with its bright embroidery and put on the corner of a small table to the side of the fire place.  The wet cloths from her bath she folded over the back of the chair pushed tidily under the table. The water splashes on the stone floor below the stool were drying   quickly from the heat of the fireplace.   

With the last of her small energy exhausted, Ellen sat in the big chair with the sheepskin over its back and padding the seat.  It was warm and cozy.  She had wrapped the big shawl around herself over the nightgown and tied it in the back so she appeared to have a vest with a long back hanging from her shoulders. The thick stockings felt good on her tingling feet propped on the stool.  Ellen leaned back in the big chair. Through sleepy eyes, she looked around the cabin.

The big room was a strange mixture of furnishings and housekeeping.  The two windows had curtains that suffered from a lack of attention.   Like the table and chairs where they had eaten, the cupboard that the cowboy had used for his dishes was  heavily built and utilitarian, but pushed against the back wall was a fine kitchen cupboard with a stone work surface and carving on the latching doors. 

His coat and clothes hung from pegs driven into the wall between the door and the fire place, but at the back of the room there was a costly armoire needing a good polishing.  There was a battered wooden chest that had seen much wear beside the armoire, but at the foot of the bed was  well bound leather travelling trunk from which the man had taken the women’s clothing. 

Crowded in the corner of the room opposite the big chair where Ellen sat, there were shelves with a number of books and a small writing desk. Beside the window was a chair matching the one she sat in.  Over the sheepskin padding was a bright quilt, the mute indication of a caring woman.  Ellen wondered how long the hands of the woman who had cherished the little cabin had been missing.

She leaned back looking at the beams across the ceiling and the half loft over the back.  In the midst of her wondering why the corner of the room was walled off with substantial logs and a heavy door opposite the bed, her eyes closed and she dozed.

Slade returned with a noisy thumping on the boards of the porch and a polite rap on the door.  Ellen awoke with a start, leaping to her feet and grabbing the tumbling towel, called out that he could come in.

Slade walked in to face a woman who made his breath stop in his throat and his heart thump heavily in his chest.  The unwieldy dirty figure who had arrived out of the snow was gone.  In her place was a slight woman crowned by a mass of heavy auburn hair still wet but curling around her head and shoulders.   The heavy night gown covered by the even larger and heavier shawl dwarfed the figure within them and the feet encased in the heavy knit stockings would be better served by smaller footwear.  Ellen’s face was thin with high cheekbones and a dainty nose with a definite, but decidedly feminine, bump on its bridge.  Her cheeks were rosy from the fire and raw from the exposure they had suffered.  Her chapped lips were broad and full with tucks at the corners like misplaced dimples.  She had obviously been dozing because her face bore the slightly bemused, wide-eyed expression of one suddenly awakened. 

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