Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Proposal, Chapter 25

Without planning it, he stood in front of Ellen looking down into her face clasping her shoulders in his hands.  She let go of the shawl and moved her small hands up over his wrists.  The confusion and surprise were evident in her eyes.
“What, Eli?  What’s wrong?”  She was beginning to be alarmed. 

“Give me a minute, Ellie.  Just a minute.”  He stopped and bent over wrapping both arms around her, holding her close, catching his breath.  He picked her up and stood her back on the step.  It brought her up almost to his level.

“Eli, you are worrying me!  Tell me what happened!”

Slade could only shake his head.  “I just came to a conclusion.  And you have to promise to listen to me.  Please?”

“Of course!  I’ll always listen to you.  What is wrong?!”  Ellen shivered and held the front of his jacket in both hands.  He hugged her to him again and this time her arms slid around his chest under his jacket.  When he released her she stayed just a little closer to him that before.

“Ellie, we’ve lived here for long months.”  That sounded foolish, he thought.  But he pushed ahead.  “And at first I only wanted to help you, but then you brightened up the house and made things so much pleasanter.  And then I began to look forward to seeing you with breakfast ready when I came in from the barn on cold mornings and I enjoyed watching you go around and clean and cook.  Then you sent me a good lunch when I went to chase those stupid cows in the winter and my coffee was still hot when I sat down to eat! 

“When I came home you had a hot stew ready that first time.  I smelled it as I came across the slope.  It was wonderful to come in the house.  And you had the work done in the barn!  All I had to do was milk the cow! 

“I began to look forward to having you here.  And then that steer stomped me and you came after me.  I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.  You bandaged me and nursed me and let me lean on you all the way to the outhouse. 

“Do you think I didn’t notice how hard it was for you to hold me up?  But I couldn’t help it. I had to lean heavy on you.  But you never complained. You did the barn work and kept everything going.  While I sat and watched you do it all.

“Somewhere during that time I began to fall in love with you.  And once I admitted it I looked wa-a-a-y back to that day you made up your mind to learn how to shoot.  I think it started there, but it snowballed and now I can’t think of anything else.

“You are going to Santa Fe tomorrow, Ellie.  You are leaving me and I can’t stand the thought.  I love you so much my heart breaks when I think about tomorrow.”

Slade ran out of steam and stopped.  It was then he realized that tears were brimming in her eyes.  They spilled over and down her cheeks.  She pulled her arms out of his warm jacket and cupped either side of his face. 

“And so?”  She whispered hardly daring to hope for his next words. “Now what?”

Slade comprehended that there was more that she hadn’t said and it just might be possible she could and did love him.

“Ellie, will you marry me when we get to Santa Fe?”

His Ellie laughed out loud and threw her arms around his neck.  Everything happened as though they had practiced it a hundred times.  Slade’s arms wrapped around her and their lips met with an unimagined sweetness. He lifted his face and kissed her eyes and cheeks before moving back to her lips. 

“Well,” he said, “What do you say?”

“I say,” Ellen stopped for effect, “I say that I’ve never kissed a man I did not intend to marry.  Yes, yes, yes!”

“Let me put the horse away and I’ll be right in.” Slade set her back on the ground.

“Let me go with you and we can both go right in!’  Ellen clasped his arm and swung him around toward the barn.  She pulled him with her to pick up the horse’s reins for him. 

Slade laughed and a dark cloud lifted from his head.  They hurried to the barn. He pulled his arm loose from her clasp and put it around her. She held his waist.  It was a moment Slade had dreamed of.  When his leg was healing and he needed her support he had wished that he could hold her with out the excuse of a broken leg.  Now he did it with no more excuse than that he wanted to. 

There was little barn work.  Joseph had stabled his horse while Slade was baring his heart to Ellie on the porch.  While Ellie wiped down the tired horse, now slightly sweaty from his sudden run across the slope, Slade filled the hay rack and scooped a bit of their corn into the box. 

“I’ll bring him some water later.” He said turning the horse loose in the big stall.

They went to the house in a daze.  Before Slade could hang his coat he had to kiss her quickly once more.  Ellen was not stingy with her kisses but she had his dinner ready and didn’t want him to go hungry long.  She filled a pan with warm water and handed it to him.

“I’m sorry but you will have go wash on the table in the pantry.  I have things to get ready.”  She shoved him affectionately toward the pantry. 

While he was washing, Ellen sliced bread into the bottom of the tin baking pan and poured the tomatoes over it.  She sprinkled a bit of sugar across the top and took it to the fireplace.  She raked out a level bed of coals and set the pan on it.  With the same cloth she used to carry the tomatoes she lifted the roast out of the coals.  She whisked the ashes from the top and sides then took it across to the stove.  There she lifted the roast from the kettle to the deep platter on the table and covered it with a bowl.  She stirred the broth in the bottom and tasted it for flavor. In a few seconds it returned to a boil and she began dropping the dumplings into it. When she finished them, a dash of salt topped off the pan.  By the time Slade finished washing supper would be ready. 

She hurried to the shelves where the seldom used candlesticks stood.  They still had candles from the surprise dinner she had made a few days ago.  Slade had asked about a celebration then.  Now it was time for a real celebration.   She put them on either side of the table and lit them with a splinter of wood.  Madeline’s fancy dishes were in the cupboard by Slade’s bed; she tiptoed to take them out.  The door to the pantry was open and Ellen stopped at the glimpse of her future husband’s wide bare shoulders as he scrubbed his torso.  With a secret smile she returned to the table and set it, making it look as nice as possible. 

She checked the dumplings and turned them over in the hot broth to make sure they were cooked through.  She took her hot cloth to the fireplace and lifted the tomatoes from the coals.  She carried them to the counter and used the scrub cloth hanging from a nail over Fetcher’s bed to wipe the loose ash from the bottom; then she set it on the table beside the platter.

“Supper’s getting cold.” She called to Slade.  Even common words sound like a song, she thought to herself and Slade thought the same thing.  He came out of the pantry buttoning his shirt.

“What’s this again!  I guess we are celebrating tonight, aren’t we?”  Instead of sitting down in his chair, he walked around the table and pulled her into his arms again.  “I am so happy that I don’t know what to do with myself.  Pinch me and see if I’m sleeping.  Maybe it’s a dream.” 

Ellen had to stand on her tiptoes to kiss him lightly and pinch his cheek. “If you’re dreaming I’m having the same dream!  Now sit down and eat.  Future brides don’t like their hard work to go un-appreciated.

“No, wait.  Hold this for me. And stand here.”  She gave him the platter with the roast on it. As he held it close to the stove she dipped the dumplings out of the Dutch oven base and put them around the roast.  Then she poured the thick broth, filled with bits of broken dumplings over the top of the meat.  Slade returned the platter to the center of the table and Ellen moved the Dutch oven to the floor to cool.  She put the bowl that had covered the meat on the counter behind her.

She sat down across from him and extended her hand across the table between the meat and the tomatoes.  Slade took it in his and bowed his head.

“Dear Father God, we are overwhelmed with joy right now.  We have been thankful for many things these past months, for sending Ellie here to this house and this lonely man.” Ellen tilted her head to peek at Slade across from her. “We are thankful for your care over her as she ran from Viejo.  We are thankful you brought her safely through the storm.

“We have thanked you for taking care of me as I lay pretty well helpless on the hillside in the wind and the darkness.  And thanked you for guiding Ellie and Fetcher back to me and for giving her the knowledge to take care of me and the strength to get me home. 

“We have thanked you for caring for her as she hunted that stupid cow in the snow storm and for her getting it and herself home safely. 

“We rejoiced and praised you for Ellie coming to a knowledge of Your Saving Grace and a relationship with the family of God.

“It has all been a pretty amazing string of miracles, Lord, and now we come to the most amazing one.  Thank you Lord for letting us love one another and most of all that we can be married in just a couple more days.  Thank you, Father, Thank you.”

There was a long moment of silence before Slade closed with, “In Jesus’ name, Amen”

They looked across the table with tears of gladness in their eyes.  Ellen broke the silence first.

“Let’s eat this good food that you forgot to thank the Lord for.”  She grinned at him and picked up the big knife to slice the roast.

The meal was hot and good.  Slade liked the roast and dumplings but the tomatoes were a special treat for him.  He’d never had tomatoes like them.  And when the finished eating they shared the clean up with many quick hugs and tiny kisses. 

Slade sat down at the clean table and opened his Bible in the light of the shortened candles.  He turned to Ephesians  “ Husbands love your wives,, even as Christ also loved the Church and gave himself for it…. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.”

He grinned at the import of the words and with nothing more to be said he stood up and led her round the table.  “Now let’s get to bed so tomorrow and Santa Fe will come that much quicker.”  And he escorted her to her ladder. Where, with a final hard embrace, she left him to climb to her bed.

Days toward an End, Chapter 24

ON JOSEPH’S next trip to the west, Slade went with him. Ellen hid her teary eyes behind a forced smile.  His leg was strong; there was no pain regardless what he did.  He had worked to strengthen it-- behind the house, in the barn, whenever Ellen was elsewhere.  He could ride; he could walk; he could run.

Ellen had packed their lunches and their coffee as she always did with an aching heart. Only a few more days and they would go to Santa Fe. She would be gone.

She stood on the porch and watched them step up on their horses.  As they rode past the house she hurried to the corner where she could see them ride around the corner of the ridge.  Next week, this time, they would be packed and ready to leave.

She sighed.  She had little to pack.  There were only a few things, the packet of papers identifying her on the Aguilar family tree, the land grant papers, the few pages of the ledger her father had kept, the precious vest that had belonged to Alejandro, a few small valuable items el Viejo had hidden away in his pack, the raggedy skirts and two shirts that weren’t even hers.   It would all fit in a small bundle.

Even the clothes she stood in had belonged to another woman. What a miserable scrap to take back to Santa Fe. 

Ellen turned back to clean the other woman’s house.

The western cattle herd was moved down river into the lush grasses of the bottom, leaving the upper protected pastures to grow for winter.  Joseph understood he was to check them regularly.  They stopped by a creek feeding into the river for their noon rest and ate their lunch.  The meat inside the tortillas was chopped fine and had been cooked in the tomato and onion sauce he liked so well.  It was moist and made the tortilla soft.  There was a square of cornbread, but when he bit into it he found chopped peaches and sugar.  And he thought there would be no more surprises in his diet, no more improvised recipes that turned out to be delicious.  No more after next week.

It was late when he and Joseph got home.  There was light shining from the windows of both little houses.  Joseph’s grandmother was healthy and able to cook for him and his grandfather.  She cooked from the beef and stores Slade had on hand, but Joseph brought her native foods he found on his trips and game he killed.   Ellen would have a meal waiting for Slade in their house—their house, the house that had become warm and welcoming because of her presence.

Slade unsaddled his horse and released it into the corral on the left of the barn.  He made his way to the house, surprised by the aromas floating on the breeze from the house. Inside Ellen was sparkling with excitement.  She had the table set with Madeline’s good dishes and there was a pair of candles on either side of the table.  The room glowed with the light of the candles and the lamp on top of the cupboard.

“What’s this?”  Slade exclaimed.  “A celebration?  I like it.”  He hung his hat and jacket on the pegs and stomped his boots free of any dust.

“I just felt like a special dinner.  And Joseph brought me a bird yesterday. I think it’s a grouse or something.  It isn’t too big, but enough for two of us.  I used some of Madeline’s sage and stuffed it with cornbread and onions.  I boiled the giblets and made noodles for the broth.  I made real bread again and there’s fresh butter!

“Come on! Get washed up!  I’m starving but I waited on you.”

The warm house after a chilly day, the good food and the golden light wiped away the concerns of each. The gloomy anticipations were submerged in the company of the other’s eyes.

The days until their trip to Santa Fe flew past. Slade had pulled the wagon to the front of the house on the side of the porch.  He’d loaded supplies in the back.  It was one day’s long journey into Santa Fe, but it could easily turn into two if there were difficulties.  It was best to be prepared.  So he gathered bedding, food supplies and horse feed and a small barrel of water for any emergency.  He tied the boxes down immediately behind the seat and stretched a tarp over the back of the wagon.  Ellen had only to pack her few things to be ready for the next day.

Joseph and Slade set out on one last quick swing around the herds the day before they would leave. 

Ellen turned away before the two men disappeared from sight.  Most days she had watched them out of sight but today she couldn’t bear to see Slade leave. It was too prophetic of what would happen tomorrow.

 Inside the house she swept through her morning chores, giving the room a deeper cleaning than usual in anticipation of the fact that it might be a long time before it was cleaned again.  When that was finished she searched out every bit of Slade’s dirty clothing.  It all went through a thorough scrubbing and hung to dry across the end of the porch.  All of his bedding was pulled off the bed.  The sheet he slept on was scrubbed in the big kettle Ellen used for laundry. The blankets were shaken and hung over the rails on the fence by the water trough for an airing.  She pulled the sheet and blankets from her bed and hung them on the fence as well.

By the time the bedding was finished, Slade’s clothes were dry.  Ellen folded them all carefully and packed them in the chest at the end of his bed.  The sun was sliding past noon when she sat down to rest at a quick lunch.  Knowing that she would be tired at the end of the day she took a piece of beef and cut a roast from it.  She had kept a good fire in the fireplace all day because of her laundering.  There were plenty of hot coals to bury the Dutch oven.  There was a clay oven outside but she hadn’t thought of building a fire in it the night before. 

When Ellen had eaten her noon lunch and put her beef to roast, she went out and collected the bedding from the railings.  She replaced the sheet on Slade’s bed and spread the fresh smelling blankets smoothly over the top.  She carried her own folded bedding up and laid it on the buffalo robe to be spread later.  By then the water she had been heating on the stove was boiling.

Ellen closed the door and pulled the curtains.  Then she laughed at her modesty.  There was no one within fifty miles to see her bathing except One Who Laughs.  Nevertheless she left the curtains closed. Using their large wash pan, Ellen took a complete bath.  The fragrant white soap made a lovely lather and left her skin and hair sweet smelling.  She felt very feminine as she put on Madeline’s nice shift and pretty petticoat.  Over that she put a clean shirtwaist and skirt.  Then she sat down to comb out her wet hair. When all the tangles were pulled out she laid the comb aside to lean back against the chair.

Her mind went back across the months that had passed, to that first cold night when she had finished her first bath here in this very place and set down in this same chair.  She thought of her awe when Slade had returned from the barn and she had her first conscious glimpse of him-the dark hair, the planes of his face and the breadth of his shoulders.  She wondered that she hadn’t loved him then.

She remembered the wonder when One Who Laugh’s words about ‘her man’ had made her realize that Slade was, indeed, her man.  And she thought of the joy she had experienced in the last few weeks at his casual touch and frequent smiles. Ellen had never been able to bring herself to let him know of her feelings.

The hard labor of the morning left her wearier than she had thought and she fell asleep in the warmth of the closed room. 

When she woke the room was dim in the shades of coming dusk.  She jumped up and hurried to open the curtains and the door. She checked the roast and found it tender and ready to fall apart.  She added some water and onions before returning it to a cooler place in the fire. She looked around the room.  The only evidence remaining of her day’s activity was the large kettle still sitting upright on the porch and the cloud of curls foaming around her face.  She twisted the hair into a braid behind one ear in order to make dough for dumplings when Slade returned.

Leaving her clean kitchen Ellen climbed the ladder to her loft-the security provided by Slade during the past cold months.  Sitting on her bed, she collected her few belongings.  First she pulled out the packet of papers and began looking thorough them one by one-the wedding lines given them by the padre on their wedding day, the packet of land grant papers signed by the Spanish king himself, the last several pages taken from the estate financial records and the receipts from her father’s final transactions with the bank which had been found in a leather packet in the brush at the side of the road, last of all, and Don Francisco’s treasured genealogy ‘tree’.  It listed his family members and connections from Alejandro back five generations. 

Ellen refolded everything and re-wrapped them securely in their waterproof packet.  She unfolded Alejandro’s embroidered vest, worthless now that the man who wore it was gone, but treasured for the memories. She stroked it smooth and laid the packet of papers on top of it. Those were the only things she had intentionally brought away from her old home.  When she and Slade had unwrapped the pack el Viejo had tied on the pack horse for his personal journey south, she had found several small things—Tia Margarita’s gold rosary with its ruby encrusted gold cross and the onyx beads on the links of chain, her own small jewelry box, carved of mahogany and inlaid with colored flower mosaics, Alejandro’s gold signet ring with carved mother of pearl insets on either side.   

Ellen wrapped the rosary and the ring in soft clothes and placed them in the jewelry box. She wrapped the box carefully in a length of wool taken from the piece that matched the scarf she had made for Slade.    She put the box on top of her small stack of belongings. There was nothing to put them in.  She would ask Slade tomorrow morning. 

With a sigh, Ellen took the ivory comb and brush from their shelf on the chimney and laid them aside on one of the boxes crowding the loft.  She smiled.  She had used the box as her vanity all these months and had no idea what was inside it.  Her nightdress—no, Madeline’s nightdress—was folded there already along with the heavy knitted stockings and the light black stockings she had been wearing when she escaped.

She had a sudden flashback to how cold her feet had been that night. Slade had told her he had been afraid her toes were frozen, but they had warmed up without any trouble. She pushed her bare toes out in front of her and wiggled them.  Instead of a laugh in her throat, tears escaped from her eyes to trickle down her face.  

Ellen swiped them away and stood.  She pulled the heavy stockings on and went downstairs to slide her feet in the big moccasins she had shared with Slade in the house since that first night.  Her hair had come free from its twist and was again floating around her head.  She simply swiped it back in frustration.   Once down the ladder she was at a loss for an occupation and began to pace back and forth across the room. 

Suddenly thinking of supper, she went into the storeroom where she had moved some of the tomatoes and peaches.  She took a can of each from the shelf and brought them to the table.  She opened the tomatoes immediately and poured them into a pan to heat on the stove.  Just before supper she would pour them over slices of her own white bread and slide them into the heat of the ashes to bake briefly.  If Slade wanted she could open the peaches for dessert.

When she could think of no more to do, she sank into the chair and pulled the quilt around her shoulders for comfort.  Madeline’s big green shawl that had warmed her so many days fell into her lap when she pulled the quilt off the chair.  With the quilt around her shoulder, the shawl in her lap and tears running down her cheeks, Ellen sat in the dimness of the cabin. 

After a few minutes of grieving she remembered the kettle sitting in the middle of the porch.  She couldn’t carry it to the barn, Slade would have to do that, but she could at least move it to the side.  Folding the quilt back across the chair and wrapping herself in the shawl, Ellen went out and dragged the kettle over the corner of the porch out of the way.  She tipped it upside down to prevent water and dirt from collecting in it.

When she rose up from her struggle with the kettle she looked across to the east.  There were two figures highlighted against the coming darkness.

All day Slade had ridden silently through the brush and rocks and dried grasses.  Joseph was not a talkative person so his own silence wasn’t marked. The horses threaded their own paths through the belly high brush so there wasn’t much opportunity for talk anyway. The men had started west until they hit the green corridor winding its way south and east.  Soon they came on stragglers that had wandered from the main herd-- mostly steers and a few old cows.  When they began pushing them along the river they had no problem with heading toward the bulk of the herd.  Slade and Joseph circled the group and tightened the herd; everything seemed secure.   A little ways to the east, they found the cows and calves grouped in their own pasture along the reservoir.  The steers and dry cows were roaming a little further afield, but staying in the general area. Even the bulls were staying close.   It all involved a lot of solitary riding and time for Slade to think.

The same thought was repeating itself through and through his mind:  Tomorrow he would be taking Ellie to Santa Fe.  By the next day he would be coming home alone. What would he do without her?  He remembered the sweetness of her shoulder under his arm.  He thought of the delight on her face when she served him some new dish she had contrived out of their limited stores.  He remembered the gentleness of her hands as she washed the blood and dirt from his head, even when she poured the raw whisky into the gash.  He remembered the color of her hair when the fine nimbus of curls was highlighted by the sunlight. He remembered that he had never held her in his arms and told her he loved her.

Joseph hailed him and suggested stopping to eat when they moved from the west herd to the east.  Without a second thought, Slade agreed.  They made small talk about the grass coming back in spite of the still cold temperatures at night, about the crop of calves and when they should herd them together and brand them.  They talked about the steers they could gather to sell in a few more weeks.  Then they gathered the cloths and stoppered their canteens.  Slade stepped back into the saddle and rode into the brush again. 

He remembered how cold and defeated Ellen was when he took her off that horse in the barn and how she still insisted that the horses be cared for.  He remembered carrying her into the house and putting her in the chair by the fire.  And the indelible picture of her jumping up in fright when he came back from the barn—she was wrapped in that huge green shawl over Madeline’s nightdress and her hair floated around her head…  She had seemed so tiny when the layers of clothing were gone.  His heart had stopped. He remembered her hesitation in trying to find her place in his house—not quite a servant, but not a member of a family either.  Then someplace along the line that had changed; she had become the center of his house. 

And he had never told her.  Now she would be gone.

But he wanted her to stay.  He wanted her to be his wife and keep his house and rest warm in his arms every night and have a hot meal and coffee ready for him when he came in at dark.  He wanted.. He wanted Her.   But did she want him?  Could she love him?

The thoughts sifted through his mind all day.

As they rode toward home he struggled to find a solution.  When they came over the rise he saw Ellen, Ellie, standing on the porch with her crossed arms wrapped in her green shawl to shut out the chill and her hair flying in the rising wind.  The answer sprang full blown into his mind. When she saw them coming she stepped down off the porch to come toward him.  He kicked his surprised horse into a dead run and made it into the yard in record time.  The horse stopped itself just short of ramming the porch.  He dropped the reins to the ground and stepped off the horse before it was fully stopped.

Helping Hands Chapter 23

ELLEN WOKE WITH A SENSE OF URGENCY.  She sat up and looked around.  It didn’t seem too late.  The gray of early morning filled the loft.  She rubbed both hands over her face and pushed the sleep from her eyes.

Aaah!  They had guests!  And probably guests who were used to rising with the sun!  She piled out of bed, flipping the covers back in place and pulling her night dress over her head.  Very shortly she was dressed and dragging the comb through her hair without her usual carefulness.  She twisted the hair into a long coil and secured it on the back of her head with the stick. 

She hurried down the ladder to find Joseph sitting at the table with Slade chatting over coffee. 

“Why didn’t you wake me!”  She cried to them.  “I had no idea you were up!”     

“We didn’t wake you because we were being very careful not to.”  Slade told her.  “Joseph filled the coffee pot and I ground the beans.  When the water boiled we added the ground coffee and it cooked all by itself.”  Slade’s eyes twinkled and Joseph had a grin on his thin face. 

“Then Joseph got the milk and sugar so we could fix our cups.

“And before you ask, the last time he checked a few minutes ago, the grandparents are still sleeping.  They were exhausted from the last few days.

“So, any more questions?  Coffee, maybe?”  He poured a cup and offered it to her.

Ellen accepted the coffee and poured milk and sugar into it.  “What are your grandparents used to eating?” She asked Joseph.  “I want to fix them things they will like.”

“We have been eating whatever we could find,” he told her.  “They have not been feeling too good because their stomach is old for some things.  They like corn, boiled corn, ground corn, baked corn, almost any way you can fix it.  I will find them rabbits and maybe prairie dogs.  Those are easy to eat for them.  If you can cook them.  Or I will cook them.”  Joseph stopped, worried that he had been too bold.

“I want to fix them whatever they can get strong again on.  If you bring me rabbits, I will cook rabbits for them, but we have plenty of beef and still some bacon.  They shouldn’t have to worry about food.”  Ellen said. 

“This morning I have ground corn.  I can make them some cooked mush and they can put milk on it.  We like it that way.”  She set her coffee cup on the table and went to put water on to boil for the mush. In a few minutes she was ready to stir the moistened cornmeal into the bubbling water. 

As the cornmeal thickened she thought to add some milk and sugar to the mixture.  She wasn’t sure they would like the milk on the mush, but the milk in the cooked meal would give them extra energy and strength. The sugar would give extra flavor, too.

“I will scoop some out for Mr. Slade and myself,” she told Joseph, “and you can carry the pot to the house.  That way it will stay warm by the fire if they aren’t awake yet.  Shall I make more coffee for them or can you do that over there?”

“I can make coffee.” Joseph answered.  “They will be happy with the food, I know.  I will come back to help with the barn.”  Joseph hurried out carrying the heavy kettle of mush.

Ellen sat down across from Slade.  Company was good, but having only the two of them was better. They joined hands for prayer.  Breakfast went down quickly and Ellen jumped up to tend to the barn work, leaving the breakfast clutter to be cleaned up later.  Sarah was waiting.  She had been a most patient cow for the last few weeks.

Joseph met her on the steps of the porch. She noticed he was wearing only his shirt and pants without any kind of jacket or coat. He had evidently given all the warm clothes for his grandparents.

 Ellen made a mental note to ask Slade if there was another coat or shirt someplace they could give him.  

They released the home horses to the field where they could fend for themselves.  Ellen hesitated to give the thin mare any more of their corn supply but with the other stock going out each day they could afford to be generous with the hay.   Before Ellen milked she showed Joseph how they cleaned the pens and stacked the refuse to freeze into hard pats for distributing to the garden.  Perhaps, she thought, that could be a task for Joseph later in the day-after she found something warmer for him to wear.  Quite a pile of barn waste had accumulated and only the shade of the barn kept it frozen during the day.

While Joseph cleaned the barn, Ellen milked Sarah and then lowered the rails and herded her and the calf out the doors.  The last task for the morning was giving the Thin Horse a supply of water.  Ellen suspected that part of the thinness was due to dehydration rather than a lack of food.  There was grass available everywhere, but water was sometimes hard to find,

ELLEN looked up as she heard the sound of feet on the porch.  It wasn’t yet daylight but Joseph and his grandfather, called Slim Man, were ready to head out for their bi-weekly trip to check on the cattle.  The first week Ellen had accompanied Joseph and Fetcher on the trek around the cattle sites.  After that Joseph had gone alone with only Fetcher for company. Then one morning, Slim Man had shown up to go along. 

True to her determination the first day of his stay with them, Ellen had searched through the house and with Slade’s direction had found two heavy shirts that Jacob had left when he started his summer trip back to Indiana.  Joseph wore his as it was, outsized and belted around the waist.  For Slim Man, Ellen had taken the shirt apart and cut it down, not only was he slim but he was also shorter than Jacob.  

For outer wear, Slim Man used his blanket with the slit cut in the center for his head.  She and Slade had sacrificed one of the house blankets to make a heavy vest for Joseph.  He asked for her to make that instead of a coat; he liked his arms free and preferred only the heavy shirt for protection against the wind.  Ellen had cut the garment with a high wide collar to pull up around his ears and cut out the wind. The hem reached below his hips for additional warmth.  She made it with a double thickness for better insulation.   

Now with their warm clothes, they were accomplished hands and faced weather, wildlife and cows without reservation. 

Ellen poured them coffee from her pot and shoved the plate of cornbread toward them.  “I know The One who Laughs made you breakfast, but surely you can eat some cornbread with some coffee.” She teased them, knowing that they were almost as partial to the combination as Slade was.  “I almost have your lunches ready.”  Ellen always packed them a mid-day lunch as she had for Slade on his trips. 

Slim Man took his coffee and crumbled the cornbread into it.  Then he picked up a spoon and took it to squat by the fireplace.  Joseph sat down in the chair beside Ellen to eat his coffee soup.

Slade stood propped against his staff, pouring hot coffee into the canteens.  He added milk and sugar and pushed the plugs in tightly.   While Ellen wrapped the tortillas and meat in a cloth he moved around to sit in the big chair opposite Slim Man.  His leg was nearly healed.  He used the staff more from habit than from necessity—and also to make Ellen, who still worried about him, happy.  

When their coffee was finished, Joseph shoved the packet of tortillas under his vest, above his belt. They hung the canteens over their heads.

Ellen and Slade stepped out on the porch to watch them as they rode off toward the rising sun.  Ellen peeked around the corner of the house to the doorway of the ‘dobe where the One Who Laughs stood watching the men. 

Ellen’s mind went back to the day after they had arrived.  One Who Laughs, Ellen hadn’t known her name then, had asked Joseph to bring Ellen to her bedside. According to the tradition of her people she wanted to make arrangements for their stay.  Joseph  translated what the lady had to say:  She thanked Ellen for her kindness and expressed her gratitude for the food and warm house.  The ‘dobe, she said, was so good that she felt much at home, but she would not be able to return to her house until she had re-gained much strength.

“I realize,” she said, “that your man is crippled…”  Ellen lost track of everything that was said after that.  Two things hit her at the same time: first Slade wasn’t really crippled, he was injured and second, he wasn’t ‘her’ man. 

Then in an overwhelming flash of insight, she realized that he was her man.  He had taken her in out of the storm and cold when she was nearly dead.  He had given her safety and security after her months of fear and pain.  She had braved the unknown dangers of the dark going find him when he hadn’t returned from his cattle round.  She had struggled home with his broken body through the black of deep night following Fetcher’s flash of white leading her.  She had coped with getting him to bed where she bandaged his broken bones and cared for him until he was recovered. 

They had become a team without planning it.  She would fight to stay beside him regardless of circumstances.  Without vows or a wedding ring, he was her man in a deeper way than Alejandro had ever been! 

Ellen returned to reality in time to hear Joseph relaying his grandmother’s proposal that they remain in the little house until they were strong again.  They had no white man money but she wanted to know if Joseph could work on the ranch in pay for their house some food.    Too preoccupied with her new realization to even spend more time talking, Ellen agreed without a second thought. That was what she and Slade had proposed. It Joseph had been doing already.

She had hurried back to the house to share her new awareness with Slade, but when she came in to the room and saw him sitting at the table carving, she was overcome with shyness and lost her enthusiasm.  Instead she had related the arrangements she had just agreed with and kept her amazing secret hidden away.

The weeks had followed one after the other. Joseph kept to their agreement faithfully; he had more than fulfilled his end of the bargain.  Between his cattle herding trips, he repaired the buildings; he had fixed the fences and even extended them in some places to enlarge the pasture lands.  He had taken the poles stacked by the barn and begun the fence on the northwest of the garden. From time to time he brought meat he had hunted along the way—not only rabbits and prairie dogs for his grandparents, but venison and wild sheep or goats from the mountain.  Ellen had remonstrated with him a couple times because of his hard work, but he continued to find things to do around the ranch.   When he regained his strength Slim Man had begun finding things to do that helped around the barn and garden.

When Joseph and his grandfather had disappeared around the rise, Ellen and Slade went back inside.   She had a skillet of chopped meat and tomatoes that she had simmering for their breakfast.  She moved the candles to the side of the table to put the skillet in the center with the plate of tortillas and the coffee pot.

Slade smiled as he sat down. 

“Cornbread and coffee for Joseph and Slim Man.  My favorite tortilla topping! This is a good day!”  Slade pulled his plate across the table and picked up the coffee pot to fill their cups.  Ellen sat down across from him and they said their morning prayers.

“I do have an ulterior motive for your favorite dish.”  She told him when they had finished.  “I want to remind you that I need to get into Santa Fe.  It is my responsibility to take care of the Aguilar property.  I have to let Alejandro’s family in Spain know of his death.  I don’t know what has happened since I escaped from Viejo.  That grant is in the Aguilar name and I don’t think I have any right to it, but Don Francisco had two brothers who would be next in line for the property I would believe. 

‘You said that you would try to take me there in the spring.  So… This is a small bribe.”  She motioned toward the tortilla wrapped meat she had just prepared for him. “Will you begin to think about it?  I mean I know you aren’t walking yet, but maybe before too long?

“Ahhh I see.” Slade said.  He took a big bite of his tortilla and scooped a couple pieces of meat from his plate, giving himself time to pull his heart back up from his toes.  He chewed carefully and sipped his coffee.  “The weather has been holding clear now for a while, the cattle are doing well and Joseph has been bringing the fresh cows and new calves in to the natural reservoir to the southeast. They should do well there.  They won’t wander from the good grazing and water.

“We will have to get those to the west trailed down the little river to the lowlands.   I think Joseph may have already started that.  Once they are in the bottoms they will stay for most of the summer close to water and good grass.  

“Let’s give it two weeks and we should make our trip to Santa Fe.” 

Slade hated to say the words.  They meant Ellen was leaving. He knew she had a responsibility to her dead husband and the holdings in the Aguilar name.  There was no one else to carry them out. Even though the holding had been ravaged by the bandits the land, the house and the out buildings still had tremendous value. It would be possible to rebuild the Rancho without too much effort on the part of the new proprietors.

Ellen needed to be there to notify the appropriate people.

And yet. . . Yet it meant she would leave this little cluster of buildings against the hills. And probably not return.  There was the sticking point—His Ellie would leave.

His pleasure went out of the special dish. The rising sun did nothing to lighten his day.  Slade sat silent while Ellen spoke of what they would need for the trip and how soon it could happen.

When Ellen had hurried through straightening the kitchen she pulled her old skirt from the hook.  She swung the big coat around her shoulders but neglected to close it.  The weather had cleared, but it was far from warm.  Slade stood and went to put his own coat on.

“What are you doing!?”  Ellen exclaimed.

“I’m going to the barn to help with the work.”  Slade calmly continued getting his jacket.

“You can’t do that!  You’ll strain your leg!”  The memory of their ‘Christmas’ night ordeal and the extra days it required to regain the progress he’d already made in the healing of his leg was her recurring nightmare. What if the damage had been too severe?  What if he had to use the stick indefinitely?  What if he walked with a permanent limp? What if he couldn’t sit a horse?  What if, What if?  “Stay here! I’ll do the barn work!  You will hurt your leg again.”

Ellen clung to his arm, but Slade took both of her hands in his, leaning the staff against the wall.

“No, Ellie.  I’ve taken a lot of extra days with that staff just to keep from worrying you, but my leg is fine.  There is no pain. I’ve been walking to the outhouse on my own now for a couple weeks.  I can get around the house without the staff at all.  I’m sure you’ve seen me, if you will only think back."

He took her face in his hands.  “Look at me.  You do remember, don’t you?  You have noticed me walking without that stick.  Haven’t you?  And I don’t limp.  You will know that if you just think.”

Tears welled in Ellen’s eyes. Now that she thought of it she had seen him walking. And she had seen that he had no limp. She was afraid to see him walking.  It meant he was healthy.  It meant she didn’t have any more reason to stay here.  In spite of her words earlier, she hated to leave the little house. She hated to leave Eli!

“All right.” She conceded.  “But use you staff, please?” 

Slade moved his hands from her face to her shoulders and then hugged her briefly.

“I promise,” he said.

They took the milk bucket and went to the barn. Slade carried his staff; he didn’t lean on it, but used it with a jaunty swagger emphasizing his walk.

Slade set his staff aside to clean Sarah’s pen while Ellen milked.  She watched him move out of the corner of her eye.  The leg was strong and there was no limp. 

When she straightened from milking she turned to Slade.

“Look at this,” she held the bucket out to him. “This is hardly worth working for.”  There were about two pints in the bottom of the bucket.

Slade shook his head.  “I should have been keeping track of this.  Poor Sarah, she is due to have her calf in a few weeks.  We should have let her go dry long ago.  We’ll have to make this her last milking.”   He grinned ruefully.  “I’ll hate to lose the fresh milk.”

“Turn her out. She’ll enjoy the freedom.”  He pulled the bar from the stall and Ellen slapped Sarah’s rump. They watched her sway out the door and into the freedom of the pasture with the bull calf following. 

“I’ll have Joseph drive one of those young bulls in so we can get her bred a while after she calves.”  He grinned.  “Maybe next year we’ll have two cows to milk.”   And he stopped.  It didn’t matter how many cows; Ellen wouldn’t be here.

He turned and picked up the bar to replace it.

Ellen had taken the milk to the house.

New Arrivals Chapter 22

As the weather turned in a cold snap, Ellen was wakened from her nap one afternoon by Fetcher’s frantic barking.  Slade also was so startled that he tried to stand up without thinking of his leg.  By the time Ellen got to the door there was a horse standing in the yard.  There were two Indian men standing beside it and an ancient woman riding.  One of the men was as old as the woman; the other was young, about sixteen or eighteen.  They stood quietly waiting.

Ellen was in a panic.  She didn’t know whether to grab a gun or just slam the door.  Granted the little group didn’t look dangerous, but she had no idea what to do. 

She turned around to find Slade standing beside the bed with his gun in one hand and his staff in the other.  Ellen ran to support him across the room.  When he got to the door he stopped just before he was visible from the outside; he released Ellen’s shoulder and casually put his hand on the door post to take the last couple steps.  As soon as he saw the little tableau his face relaxed.  He set the gun aside beneath the long coat beside the door.

He took one more step on his good leg and called across the porch.  “Greetings, my brother!  It is good to see you!” 

The entire family visibly relaxed.  The young man hurried to the step and the old man led the tired horse a few more feet.

“My elder brother,” the young man said.  “I am happy to be here again.”

“Come in, come in!”  Slade motioned for them to come closer.  “We will make food for you and your grandparents.”     

They young man returned to the horse and reached up to help his grandmother.  When she touched the ground the old lady would have collapsed but for the strength of her grandson’s arms around her.  Ellen rushed to help, abandoning Slade to his own devices.  Holding to the door, Slade stepped aside inviting them all inside. 

Ellen led the old lady to the chair by the fire.  The elderly man folded his legs and sat on the floor beside her.  The young man, realizing Slade’s lameness, came to support him into the other chair. Ellen stirred the big iron pot full of beef pieces and broth and brought out the big pile of tortillas she had made earlier in the day.  Within minutes she had fresh coffee cooking and served their guests bowls of stew and tortillas.   

The boy set his own bowl aside and moved to squat beside his grandmother’s chair and spoon broth into her mouth.  She ate it hungrily but refused the tortilla.  She was able to hold her own cup of sweet coffee when she had swallowed the broth.  Within a few minutes she shrugged the blanket from her shoulders and simply laid her head back to fall asleep.  The old man watched her with concern.

As the boy (Slade had introduced him as Joseph) picked up his bowl and tortilla and began eating, he addressed Slade. “I come asking for your help, elder brother,” he said.  “My grandmother has been very sick with her chest.  I was gone and when I returned I found my grandmother was sick. Her family had been trying to treat her but the greatest danger was the lack of blankets. They were always cold, even with their little fire.  My grandmother developed the cough and then her chest began hurting. I was able to find some meat, but my grandmother needs more help than I can give her.”

In between bites he explained his problem.

“Our medicine has failed to help her and I thought the white man’s medicine could help. I heard there was a doctor at a trading post out to the south, but when I took her there, they said the doctor was only for the white men living there. I know nothing else to do for her. 

 “When I thought of help, I remembered you when I came last year.

“Can you help my grandmother?  I can work.  I have no money from the white man, but I can ride and help on your rancho.”

Slade cast an eye at Ellen, but before he could even respond, she spoke up, “Of course we will help. We don’t have any medicine, but just warmth and good food should go a long way toward helping her recover!

“Where can we put them, Eli?  Will the ‘dobe house serve? We don’t have much room here except for the floor and it can be cold at night. She doesn’t need to be on the floor.  That is probably the reason she caught this fever.”

Slade shook his head.  “Don’t ask me.  You seem to have it all figured out.  I am not able to help much anyway…go ahead.”

Ellen motioned for the boy to come with her as she grabbed the broom from the corner.  As she led the way to the ‘dobe house to begin a quick clean up, she explained her plan to the young man.  The house hadn’t been used since they had frozen the beef.  Thank God for all that beef! They had plenty to feed three extra mouths. 

She gave Joseph the empty ticking from the bed and sent him out to fill it with the cut tips of juniper trees and sagebrush.  When he left she began sweeping with a vengeance, brushing down the cobwebs accumulated in the corners, the dust built up on the rough walls and the two windowsills.  She swept the floor and flipped the collection of dirt out the door.  The inside floor was raised a couple inches above the outside and the door closed below the level of the floor.  It made for easy sweeping and also kept out the draft from under the door.

When Joseph returned with the tick filled to a plump height with soft tips of sage and juniper, she took one of the larger pieces of sage and swept the cupboard and table clean; then she swept the hearth.  She sent the boy after an armload of wood from the wood pile and set him to building a fire in the raised corner fireplace.  While he was working on the fire, Ellen folded the double hem on one side of the ticking over on itself and closed it using the eyelets and the cord tied through the end.  The she flipped it out on the straps of the bedstead, fluffing the stuffing out evenly under the surface. It would make a warm soft sleeping surface.

They went out closing the door. The fire on the exposed fire place would warm the small room quickly 

“In a little while it should be warm in there,” she told Joseph.  “We have a big pile of wood but not much chopped.  I’m not very good at chopping.  Can you do it?  If you could go chop some for all of us, by the time you are finished, it should be warm enough to move your grandparents in here to rest.

“I’ll get them a bucket for water and some coffee. There’s a coffee pot and a wash pan in the ‘dobe house already. There are also dishes. You can make as much coffee as you want, but it will be easier if I cook in the big house and you carry it to your grandparents while they are getting their strength back.  Your grandfather doesn’t look very strong either.  Let’s go.” 

The two of them hurried to the bigger house.  Joseph took the axe and began chopping the branches from the big pile of wood into manageable pieces.  Ellen filled a water bucket and found a little can to store enough ground coffee for several pots full.  She also collected a couple pieces of their sacking material for towels.  As she started out the door she thought of carrying a bundle of tortillas with her.  They would be handy for a late night bite to eat if the grandparents should feel hungry. She carried her first load to the little house.

By the time she had made that trip she was had thought of several other things that might make them more comfortable.  Ellen returned for blankets, a small jug of milk and a cup of sugar.  When she got to the little house she poured some water in the wash pan and quickly washed the dishes and silverware so they would be ready for use.  The sugar and milk went onto the cupboard shelves beside the cups and bowls. She picked up the wisp of juniper she had used to clean the cupboards and tossed it on the edge of the fire.  In a few seconds the fragrance of its burning filled the room.  The house was a cozy as she could make it.

When Joseph had finished chopping the wood and filling both wood boxes, his grandmother was awake and looking around the room from her chair.  The grandfather was speaking quietly with her. 

Ellen asked Joseph to inquire whether she would like something more to eat.  The old lady smiled broadly and said she would like some more of the good broth—and the sweet coffee.

To give the lady a bit more sustenance, Ellen spent a couple minutes finely chopping several pieces of beef from the stew.  She had noticed that Grandmother had very few teeth in the broad smile.  She would have to make a special effort to prepare food that she could eat.

The first cup of broth had contributed to the lady’s strength and she was happy when Ellen showed her the chopped beef in the bottom of the cup.  Again she offered some tortillas and this time the grandmother accepted the broken tortilla.  She soaked it in the broth and sucked the warm flavor from it before eating the soft bite.   Her husband accepted a bowl and spoon, too.  They ate their stew and drank the sweet coffee hungrily.

Joseph asked them if they would be ready to rest when they finished their food.  He told them the white lady had prepared a house and a bed for them. The grandmother especially seemed overwhelmed at the kindness.  She wanted to rest but was doubtful that she could walk far enough to get to her ‘new’ house.

Joseph solved that problem by scooping her up in his arms.  His grandmother giggled like a girl at the strength of her grandson’s arms.  He carried her to the little ‘dobe house and settled her on the fragrant bed where she patted the ticking filled with juniper and sagebrush in wonder.  It was soft and warm to her “old bones,” as she told her grandson.  He covered her with a blanket and she leaned back in unfamiliar comfort.   She patted the bed beside her and spoke to her husband. He joined her on the other side of the bed and they were both asleep within minutes.

Joseph left them sleeping.

He went to care for the weary and patient horse. It had been standing all this time tied to the porch post.  It was thin and dejected looking, as though it had no energy to do any more than wait.  Ellen came to the door as he was untying the horse.  The day was winding down to evening and dusk was falling.

“The poor thing looks as though she could use some good food and shelter for a few days,” she told Joseph.  “Let me get my coat and milking things and I’ll come with you to the barn.”

They took the horse to the barn and while Ellen was milking Joseph rubbed the horse off with a bit of hay.  When she was warm and smooth, Ellen moved Sarah into the pen with her calf and put the new horse in the one adjacent to Roja and her pack animal.  They gave the thin horse two cups of corn in a pan and filled the rack with hay. 

Joseph carried two buckets full of water while Ellen went out and called their horses in.  His mare drank thirstily and seemed to want the water more than she did the hay.  Roja came in and showed an immediate interest in the new mare.  Ellen hoped that within a few days they would accept her as part of the herd and she could be turned out with them.

When the horses were situated, Joseph carried the milk back to the house for her and said that he thought he would rest too.

“It has been long days. I worried about my grandparents.   I gave my blanket to Grandmother.  My grandfather and I sleep with only a small fire. It was warm enough that we don’t freeze, but the journey was still cold. Now the warm house is very welcomed.  I think I will sleep.”  He left to go to be with his Grandparents.

“We will have another meal at full dark.  Come on over and get something for your grandparents.  You are welcomed to eat here or with them.”  Ellen told his as he left her.

Ellen continued on into the house and found Slade asleep in his big chair.  Worried about his leg swelling if it rested too long on the floor, she took the stool and carefully lifted his leg to slide the stool under it.  Slade opened his eyes to watch her as she situated the stool to suit and stood up.  She swiped a lock of hair from her face and turned around to find him watching her.

“I wasn’t really sleeping,” he told her. “Well,” he qualified, “I was almost, but then I woke up to watch you.”

Ellen turned her head away to hide her pleasure at his words.  It was becoming more and more pleasing to hear words of admiration from him.

When the evening chores were finished, Ellen went to the big chair to sit down for a few minutes.

“Wait, wait!”  Slade told her.  “Maybe you should shake those things before you sit there.”

Ellen looked at him in confusion.

“Sometimes there are various insects that are carried by native people. I don’t know if the grandmother had any, but shaking the quilt and sheepskins would be a good precaution.” 

Ellen jumped back from the chair as though she had been burned.  Slade chuckled at her.  She carefully folded the quilt and sheepskins into a bundle and carrying it at arms length she too them all onto the porch.  He heard her snapping the quilt vigorously in the breeze and slapping the sheepskins against the side of the house.  When she came back inside, the wayward lock of hair had been joined by several others and they stood around her head like a halo, but the sheepskins and quilts were free of any possible hangers-on.

She put everything back and looking warily at the chair, lowered herself into its comfort.

“Oh, I don’t know what to get for dinner.  I’m too tired to even think. Would you mind the rest of that stew?  I’ll make fresh biscuits if you will take the stew.” She offered the biscuits by way of a bribe, knowing that Slade loved them.  “Or I can just make some griddle cakes.”  Either would require a minimum of effort and either could be made in quantity. 

Slade chose the griddle cakes.  “If I could get up that ladder, I’m sure there must be molasses somewhere up there.  That would be good with the ‘cakes.  Madeline used to have some but after she died I never looked for it.  Couldn’t make anything I thought it would be good on.”  He looked hopefully at Ellen.

“Eli, you are such a beggar!  You know I’ll look for it!

“You’ll have to be patient though, because I intend to wash up a bit and change to a fresh skirt and waist.  These are pretty dusty from my house cleaning.”  She climbed the ladder.

Slade heard her thumping around in the loft.  Ellen had lived up there long enough that she had some idea of how Madeline had organized it, in spite of the men’s contributions of skins and other paraphernalia.  Most of the cooking supplies were at the wall opposite the ladder with Slade’s bits and pieces piled in front of them.  Along that wall there were personal items of Madeline’s--things for the house,  bedding and curtains as well as the boxes of cloth and sewing supplies Slade had shown her earlier.  The end of the little loft where Ellen had her bed had been jumbled when Slade prepared a place for her to sleep.  He had pretty well destroyed Madeline’s organization there. 

Ellen found the molasses by pulling various boxes out and checking their contents.  In addition to the molasses, she was excited to find a supply of spices--ginger, cinnamon, more black pepper and a packet of vanilla beans folded tightly in paper and cloth.  There was another box of canned peaches and tomatoes and, wonder of wonders, a tightly sealed jar containing yeast cakes!   Ellen could hardly contain her excitement.  If only it still was live after two years, she could make real bread at last! And maybe foster some sourdough batter for when the yeast was gone.  She pushed everything back and closed the boxes again.  Taking the molasses, she gathered a clean skirt and shirt and hurried down the ladder. 

This time Slade was well and truly asleep in his chair.  Ellen filled the wash pan and took it to the spring room where she washed and donned the fresh clothes.  When she realized she had left her comb in the loft she folded the soiled clothes and carried them back up with her to get the comb. 

As she untwisted her hair and worked the comb through the curls she wondered if Madeline had possessed a mirror.  Ellen didn’t mind foregoing the final check on her hair style, there was little she could do with the wild curls anyway, but she did sometimes wish to be able to see that they were at least mostly controlled.  When the snarls were out, she pulled it to the side and made one long thick braid.  She wished she could do a braid on the back of her head, but her arms just wouldn’t reach that far and it was always lopsided; she had to settle for one over her shoulder.

Ellen had no idea how much Slade liked it that way.  He liked the tiny curls that worked loose in front of her ear on the side opposite the braid and how they clung to her hot face when she stood over the stove.  He liked the way she pushed them back behind her ear when they grew too long and the way she flipped the braid back over her shoulder in moments of frustration.  He liked it when she twisted the coils of hair into a sort of bun and secured it with a smooth stick. (He had started carving a long smooth pick with a decorative end for that!)  And when her curls escaped from their confines to twist wildly around her head, he wished for the liberty to brush them down and curl them around his fingers.  Eli Slade, without completely realizing it, was in love with Ellen Macpherson Aguilar.

Ellen, all unconscious of her impact on Slade, made her way down the ladder and began making the griddle cakes.  While she was at it she stirred up a batter for corn bread and poured it into the Dutch oven to bake in the fireplace while they had supper. 

When she began baking the griddle cakes, she stepped out to the end of the porch to look toward the little house.  The door was closed tightly and the light from the one window in front was dim as from a slowly dying or banked fire.  She decided that they were probably so tired they would sleep through the night.

Ellen returned and began cooking the griddle cakes.  She poured a small amount of molasses from the big crockery jug into a tincup and set it on the front of the stove to warm. When the cakes were almost all finished, she thought of coffee. How could she forget coffee!  Slade lived on it!  She grinned to herself.  They had to have coffee.

There were about two cupfuls left in the pot.  She could warm that for Slade, she would drink milk.  Dinner was ready. 

“Eli?”  She touched his shoulder and then put her hand against his cheek.  “Eli?  Can you wake up? I’ve got your griddle cakes and molasses ready.”

“Mmmm,”  Slade groaned, waking up.  “Molasses?  I’m coming.”  He slid his leg off the stool and began to lever himself out of the chair.

“Not on that leg!”  Ellen cried and rushed to get her shoulder under his arm and a hand around his waist. When he was standing on his good leg she reached for his staff and gave it to him.  Only then did she allow him to try walking.  He could move fairly well with only the staff, but still held her shoulders firmly.

She took him to the table and supervised his careful seating.  When he was comfortable she went around to the other side of the table and poured his coffee.  He held out his hand across the table.

When her fingers rested in his, Slade said to her, “This is your first dinner since you talked to the Lord last night, would you like to say grace?”

As Ellen hesitated he encouraged her, “You have heard me pray often enough, go ahead.  Just say what ever seems right.”   He nodded at her. 

“Dear God,” Ellen began. “I thank you that I can pray and know you are listening.  I thank you for this warm house and this good food.  I thank you for Eli, who has taken me in and taught me about you.”  She paused a long time before adding, as Slade always did, “In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

The lump in Slade’s throat rose so that tears gathered in his eyes.  What a wonderful blessing to hear a child’s first words to her Father.  He looked up to find her watching him hesitantly. 

“Was that all right?”  She wanted to know.

“It was exactly all right.”  Slade told her.  “Now, how many of these are mine?”

They ate with the same exciting conversation as in past nights-small things of no consequence to anyone but themselves, but filled with a closeness they both cherished.

Ellen put a pan of hot water before Slade as she cleaned the kitchen area.  He wiped the table and washed the dishes. Ellen took the cornbread from the coals and dumped it onto a clean towel. She wrapped it carefully and placed it on the shelf.  She swept up the litter and tracked in dirt of the day and scooped it into the fireplace to be taken out with the ashes.  She took the sheepskins from Slade’s chair and shook them outside.  When the dishes were finished, she put them in the cupboard and disposed of the dirty water.  The dish pan was hung in its place.

When everything was neat, Slade challenged her to a game of checkers.  They set up the board and began playing.  Within the first few moves, both of them were having difficulty keeping their focus.  Ellen’s eyelids were drooping and Slade had his head propped on his hand with an elbow on the table.

“Maybe we should go to bed.” He admitted.

“I will agree wholeheartedly with that.” Ellen answered.  “Let’s put these away.”  She scooped the checkers into the bag and took the board to the bookshelves by the fireplace. 

“If you will help me to my bed, we can have prayer there and get to sleep.”  With the help of his staff he stood up, but as he started to take a step, Ellen materialized at his other side and draped his arm across her shoulders.  She smiled up at him and again he realized how very small she was.  The top of her head didn’t quite reach the top of his shoulder. 

But with her tiny strength she could accomplish wonders.

They made their way to his bedside. When Slade was seated he pulled Maggie down beside him and prayed for their evening’s rest and tomorrow’s tasks. He thanked the Lord for their blessings of the day and asked His care over their new visitors.

When he said Amen, he came very close to kissing Ellen’s upturned face, but all unknowing,  she slipped away from him to shake out her skirt.

“Good night.” she wished him.  “Happy dreams.”  Then she made her way across the room and up her ladder.

Slade sat quietly, considering the ‘happy dreams’ that he might have.