Tuesday, July 31, 2012

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.

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