Monday, July 23, 2012

Cold Cattle Runs chapter 14

Their routine continued.  At the first break in the cold, Ellen accompanied Slade as he made his “cattle run,” as he referred to it. 

“Bundle up,” he instructed her. “If you really want to do this, you’ll have to remember that we’ll be outdoors all day. We have to keep the cold from penetrating.”

He left the table where they had been sitting and went over to the ladder.  “I think there are some of Madeline’s things packed away up here. She put things away for the winter and never went back for them.”  A flash of regret passed over his face.    

Ellen followed him as he climbed up to her loft and stood surveying the various boxes and bundles that made the wall to her ‘bedroom.’ 

“Here,” he said finally and pulled a wooden box and a canvas bundle out of the stack.  “I hope in this box…”  And he untied the cords that held the box closed.  “There should be some under things in here.  Madeline liked to be outside even in bad weather.  I didn’t pack these, but I’m sure her warm things just like she packed them. Jacob wouldn’t have moved them.”  He stepped back and squatted on his heels, motioning Ellen to look at the contents.

Inside were piles of women’s things folded carefully and packed away.  Ellen sat down on the floor beside the box.  She lifted out a couple petticoats and a flannel wrapper.  There were other warm skirts and shirts and two more pretty dresses packed with the ordinary things. 

Ellen smiled and wondered at the starry-eyed bride who had brought the fancy dresses to the frontier.  There was another shawl, some lengths of pretty material and finally, on one side with a heavy flannel petticoat, were two sets of heavy woolen underwear with matching shirts.  The bottoms had bands around the ankles to keep out wind or snow and the shirts were long enough to tuck into the waist band securely.  They buttoned high around the neck and wrists. 

“Yes!”  Ellen shook a set of underwear out and spread them across her lap.  “This is what I need!”  Then she stopped. Embarrassment flooded her face.   A proper female did not display undergarments before any man other than her husband. She quickly folded them and laid them aside.

“What is in the other bundle?”  She asked, hoping to get past the faux pas of flipping underwear in his face.  “Are those Madeline’s things too?”

“I really am not sure,” Slade answered, passing over her embarrassment.  They had after all been searching for warm clothing to wear if she wanted to go with him.  “Jacob packed everything away, but this doesn’t look as though it has been opened for years—maybe even since Madeline arrived.

“She brought a lot of things with her to use in the future. She bought other things on trips to Santa Fe. Some of those were still packed when she died.  Jacob just left them stacked up here.”  Slade pulled the canvas bundle toward him and twisted around so the light from the tiny window fell on it better. 

When the cords were untied, he opened a double layer of canvas to reveal several lengths of new material.  Some looked appropriate for women’s dresses, light colors with sprigs of flowers or patterns; others were more masculine, solid colors in heavy material and a couple heavy plaid flannels. 

“How nice,” Ellen exclaimed.  “This lady believed in planning ahead.  And look!”  She pulled out packages of ribbon and lace.  “Even trim for the dresses!” 

“Well, ‘lady’,” Slade told her.  “You had better get your things so I can close these up.  Other wise you will be oohing and ahhing all day.”  He laughed at her as she scrambled back, taking with her a bundle of red ribbon and one of gold.  At the last the last minute she gathered her new underwear under her arm.

Slade proceeded to re-wrap the material in its double layer of canvas and tie the cords just as carefully as they had been originally.  He replaced the lid on the box and tied it down also. 

“Any time you want to use any of these things in here, you can.  I don’t care at all and I’m sure Jacob won’t mind either.  Madeline was a generous and kind person and if she were living today, she would take anything here and give them to you.  So if you need something else, consider it a gift from her.”

He smiled. “Neither Jacob nor I will wear them, that’s for sure.” 

He held out his hand to help her stand and followed her to the ladder.  Then she turned quickly and ran to her bed to leave the underwear there.  She took the ribbons with her down the ladder.  They would serve to brighten the curtains and maybe something else in the house.  Down stairs she laid them on the desk under the book shelves.

The next morning while Slade dealt with the barn work, Ellen put a quick breakfast together, filled the canteens with hot coffee and fried slices of beef to roll in tortillas.  At the last minute she scrambled to find a can of peaches to wrap in tortillas also.  It would be a good surprise in the middle of a cold day. 

By the time Slade returned, their breakfast was on the table, the canteens hung close to the fire to keep their contents warm and each one of them had a packet of lunch to carry under their jackets.  They ate quickly and while Slade put on another shirt and socks, Ellen hurried up her ladder and added her warm under things.  She buttoned the bands around her ankles and pulled a second pair of stockings on over them—the big heavy stockings Slade had given her on the first night she spent in his house.  She put the warm shirt on over her shift and buttoned her petticoat over it.  She added another shirt and her two oldest skirts.  The one was light weight and the other was heavy twill.  Now that should be warm! 

She went down stairs ready to go.

Slade looked at her in surprise.  “You seem to have gained twenty pounds since breakfast!”  He exclaimed.  “And look at all that hair!”  Ellen usually wore her hair in a heavy braid or twist down her back.  Today she had left it loose.

“I’m planning to use it to keep the wind off my neck.”  She grinned.

She put her lunch packet inside her shirt and slung the canteen strap over her head.  Then she put on her heavy coat, leaving her hair inside against her back and tied the belt tightly around her middle. She tied the scarf around her head and wrapped the long ends around her neck, tucking them inside her coat.  With her battered hat pulled down tightly and the cord snugged under her chin and the outsized boots on her feet she stood ready to go. 

“At least twenty pounds!”  Slade laughed and they went out to the horses.

The trip through the light layer of snow was invigorating.  They rode quickly but didn’t push the horses.  There was a lot of ground to cover. 

“We have to come out here toward the west and then swing south a bit.  See that big tree?” He pointed to a tall, twisted pine jutting out from a rocky point. “That is my landmark to swing south.  I’m so used to the way that I seldom think about it any more, but from here I angle south to the big arroyo.  From there I swing back north and west.  “With Fetcher, I can find any wandering cows and push them back into the meadows where the grass is. 

“Don’t ask me why they leave in the first place.  The grass up in there is a lot better than this out here.  Cattle aren’t the smartest beasts in creation.”

With Fetcher’s help, they found three cows and pushed them back in the direction they needed to go.  The morning continued in the same fashion until they had a herd of cows grouped roughly between two arms of a range of foothills.  Slade had used his axe to break the ice below a spring that filled the basin he and Jacob had dug years before.

The wind blew constantly and whipped the ground snow around.  By the time they were ready to head toward the eastern pasture, Ellen and Slade were ready to find a seat among some rocks where they could eat their lunch.  The coffee was still warm and the tortillas had been kept from freezing by their body heat.  The food and rest refreshed them in spite of the cold.

The cattle in the eastern pastures had drifted together around the frozen water hole so there was no problem with collecting them.  Slade again broke the ice and cleared an area in the deeper end where the cattle could drink.

He slung the axe through the leather strap back on the horse and stretched his back.

“We’ve finished up in good time.  We will be home before dusk.”  He stepped up into the saddle and they started for home.  As he had done throughout their ride, he pointed out landmarks that could be used to orient a rider traveling through the country.  Some were peculiarly shaped trees or rocks, others were distinctive land formations, but all served to keep a sense of direction in an empty land.

“There!”  Ellen cried suddenly.  “There’s the pointy rock on the little hill behind our house!” 

Slade laughed at her, “It is more like the foothill of the mountain than a little hill but you’re right.  It is the pointy rock behind our house.  We’re almost home.”

The barn was a welcomed relief from the wind as they unsaddled and cared for the horses.  Slade forked a bit of hay out for the other animals as well so their barn chores would be minimal when he returned later.  Ellen hurried ahead into the house.

For a couple minutes all she could do was lean against the closed door and savor the warmth. The constant cold wind had exhausted her.  She was cold to the core of her being. 

Then she hung her outdoor clothes on the hooks and removed her extra skirt and shirt, folding them on the table beside the fireplace.

After she had fixed the fires, the hot water in the tank provided the beginning of a pot of coffee. She went to her pantry and brought out the leftover beans from a couple days ago. She sliced some meat into the heavy skillet and set it on the stove. By the time she had changed out of her heavy under things it would be cooked and the beans would be hot.

Ellen hurried up her ladder.  In the mild heat of the house she was already beginning to feel too warm in the woolen underwear.  It was the work of two minutes to change out of them and replace her heavy shirt with a lighter weight one.  She grabbed her shawl and went back down to have food ready when Slade came in from the barn. 

Their meal, even though it was left-over beans, yesterday’s tortillas and quickly fried beef, looked like a feast after their long day in the cold and wind.   As had become their habit Slade extended his hand across the table before they began eating.

“Father God,” he prayed.  “We thank you for this good food. We thank you for all that was accomplished today and for keeping our cows safe in this winter’s weather.  Thank you for keeping us safe as we rode.  Now we ask that you would bless this food and us. Help us to do you will in everything.  Amen.” 

He squeezed her hand quickly and released it to take up his fork. 

The beef was cooked just as he liked it- seared on the outside and pink inside. The beans were hot and flavored with a bit of fresh onion and pepper. The tortillas had been wrapped in a clean cloth and heated on the lid of the cooking beans. 

When the meat was gone and his plate clean, Slade sighed and leaned back in his chair, patting his sides. “Whew! I should have stopped two slices of beef and a tortilla before I did. But,” he leaned forward and grasped the handle of the coffee pot off the stove.  “Another cup of coffee could still find some space in the cracks.”

Ellen laughed, “Yes,” she agreed.  “Then poor Fetcher would have had a little more than beans and greased tortillas! 

“Just remember poor Sarah, standing in the barn, before you fill those cracks.” She teased.  “And we still need to take water to all of the livestock!  It’s probably frozen again.  Don’t fill the cracks so full that you don’t want to go back out in the cold!”  Ellen collected their empty plates and put them in the dish pan.  She scraped the remaining beans into Fetcher’s pan and wiped the grease from the skillet with bits of tortilla.

“Aahh.” Slade groaned as he replaced the coffee pot. “Just leave my cup right here with the milk and sugar.”  He told her.  “Coffee will probably taste better when I come back in from the cold.

“And I saw Fetcher chomping on that poor cottontail while I was busting ice.  Don’t try to make me feel guilty for him!”  Ellen laughed at him.

While he shrugged into his coat and muffler, she filled milk bucket with cold water tempered by several dippers of hot water from the from the tank.  It had been heating all day with very little dipped from it so the water was very hot.  She filled the other bucket from the spring.  The two could be combined to keep the water for the animals from freezing longer.

By the time Slade returned from the barn, the dishes were finished and Ellen was ready to take care of the milk. 

“You never did teach me how to make butter.” She told him as she rinsed the straining cloth.  “We have so much milk stored that there’s hardly room for another crock. And in case you haven’t noticed, there isn’t any butter.”

“Oh yes!  The butter pig speaks!  Is it really the lack of room or the absence of butter that makes you anxious?” Slade teased her.

“Well, we are not making butter tonight.  Tomorrow is plenty of time.  Can you fit this in?”

“You are the one who said we saved the milk to make butter,” she told him.  And I’ve been following instructions.  Now we have gallons and gallons of milk and no butter.  It isn’t my fault.” Ellen made a playful face at him and took the milk to the pantry.

When she returned she stood a second in the middle of the room surveying the state of everything. She picked up her discarded dish towel and hung it on the line.  From there she straightened the boots and jackets along the wall and then folded the quilt more neatly on the back of her chair.

Slade sat at the table sipping his coffee and crumbling leftover cornbread into it.  Ellen just shook her head.

“I’m going to bed.”  She announced.  “I always imagined checking the cows in cold weather was hard work, but I never suspected how tired just riding in the wind makes you.  I’m exhausted.”

“Good night,” she wished Slade and as she climbed her ladder she admonished him.  “Don’t fall asleep there in the chair.  Beds are better for that sort of thing.”  And she disappeared through the hole in the loft floor.

Slade sat for a few more minutes.  He thought how quickly the day had gone. He thought how easily his laughter had come just talking with her and how much he had enjoyed telling her about the land and how much he loved its barrenness compared to Indiana’s green rolling hills.  He thought how willingly she had helped with the balky cattle and followed his instructions without complaint in the bitter wind.

And he thought how many times he had longed to put his arms around her and hold her close when she stepped up beside him to pull on a obstinate branch or guide his horse back as he hooked it to an obstacle that blocked a tiny frozen trickle from the spring.  And he thought how very dear she had become to him in a matter of weeks.

“Dear Lord,” he prayed. “Did you really send this woman to be a companion and wife to me?  Or am I simply being enticed by a pretty face and forced proximity?  Please, Father.  I need to know.  We are stuck here until the weather allows me to get her into Santa Fe and her folks or friends.  I can’t do anything about these feelings until I know Your Will….”  He sighed and it was a long while before he said, “Amen”

Slade pushed himself up and went to bed.

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