“ELLIE! ELLIE ” The shouts brought Ellen upright instantly. Slade was thrashing on the bed, flinging the blankets aside. “Ellie, I need you!”
Ellen flew across the room and pushed Slade down on the bed.
“Ellie’s coming, Mr. Slade! Ellie’s coming. Rest quiet.” She smoothed his hair and straightened the cloth holding the pad over the slash.
Slade quieted under the touch of her hands and lay still. He seemed feverish and sweaty. Ellen straightened his blankets and took the extra quilt away.
Although he was lying more quietly he continued to call for “Ellie” and reach for unseen people or objects.
“You said she was coming. Ellie? Ellie! Where is she?” Slade began again to thrash around.
In desperation, Ellen caught one of his hands and said, “I’m here, Eli. I’m here. Lie quietly, please. Shh, shh, shh.”
Slade grasped her hand tightly and continued to talk to ‘Ellie.’ “I knew you would come. I kept waiting for you. It was so cold and I couldn’t get up by myself. My leg was broken. Oh, Ellie.”
When he had quieted he seemed to be sleeping, Ellen tried to extricate her hand, but he roused violently calling for Ellie again.
“Sh, sh, sh! Wait,” she said. “I’m only going to get your medicine. There is no one else here. I’ll be right back!” Ellen pulled her hand away and Slade was quiet, only murmuring about ‘Ellie’ under his breath.
She had no medicine except the whisky. Quickly Ellen pulled the bottle from the shelf. The coffee pot still sat on the stove so she poured a meager half cupful and added two spoons full of sugar. The resultant beverage was strong and syrupy sweet but she hoped the combination would help to cover the bite of the whisky. Finally she poured a shot of whisky into the cup. Ellen had lived with men who drank regularly. The Aguilar household served wine with every meal and often after dinner or in mid-afternoon the men would relax with stronger liquor. She knew the power of the whisky. She hoped the whisky would help Slade to relax and sleep until the worst of the fever and pain had passed.
When she returned she slipped her arm behind Slade’s head. He raised his hand to touch the rope of her braided hair. “Ellie.” He said contentedly.
When she put the cup to his lips he spluttered at the first taste, but with “Ellie’s” encouragement, he finally drank the whole thing. He refused to allow her to remove her arm from his shoulders and held her free hand securely between his own as he drifted off to sleep.
She waited until she was sure the he was sleeping deeply from the effects of his injury and the whisky. With his first gentle snore Ellen pulled her arm from behind him and lowered him to his pillow. She removed the melted packet of ice and covered his hurt leg. Since he had seemed sweaty and too warm when he called out, she left his arms free of the blankets and pulled the heated skillets out of his bed.
Her chair beckoned her. She put some more wood on the fire and stoked the stove before she returned to her chair with her own quilt. Exhaustion pulled her down in sleep.
THE BRIGHT MORNING SUN shining across the floor wakened Ellen. She had been worn out from her frenzied trip in the cold and the hard work of getting the big man cared for and settled in bed. He slept soundly as she dressed. The barn chores had to be done and as long as Slade slept she could finish them without worrying about him.
Ellen was happy to feel the warm sunshine on her shoulders when she stepped off the porch. The threatening storm of the night before had left only a light powder of snow that was melting quickly. It meant that the animals could spend the day outside finding their own grass and drinking from the pond.
When Ellen opened the doors for the horses they trotted out to run in the bright sun. She gave Sarah a bit of hay to keep her occupied while she was milked. Then she opened the gate across her stall to let her and the big calf out, too. They were free for the day. And she could take care of the house and Slade.
Inside, Slade still slept soundly. Ellen walked to the bed and checked his temperature, but it seemed almost normal. She put her hand on his swollen thigh. It was very hot. She was irritated with herself that she had not thought to bring ice from the barn. Quickly she wrapped herself in the big shawl and hurried to the water trough beside the barn. It was the work of just a few seconds to break the heavy layer of ice again and bring the pieces back to the house. The wrappings from the night before had dried where they hung on the chair by the stove. When Ellen placed the cold pack against the swollen bruised thigh, Eli started in his sleep and then sighed deeply. He never opened his eyes.
Ellen left him to fix them both some breakfast. The sludge that had been steaming all night on the stove was emptied and the coffee pot scrubbed before she made fresh coffee. In a short time she had mush cooking and a batch of cornbread set to bake in the coals of the fireplace. The quilts had been folded neatly over the back of the big chairs and the sheepskins fluffed. The floor was swept thoroughly and Fetcher’s corner, always a place cluttered with his finds, was cleaned out. Even his blanket had been shaken outside before Slade begin to stir.
Ellen was anxious to keep him from trying to stand or even sit up on his own. By the time his eyes were open she was standing beside the bed.
He looked up in a short minute of confusion. ‘Oh! I remember! Man, I slept hard.” He stretched his left arm above the broken ribs. “Mmm. That still hurts!”
“Of course it hurts,” Ellen told him. “A good night’s sleep doesn’t cure several broken ribs! Let me check that the bands are still snug enough to hold them still.” She slid the blankets back and tightened two of the ties holding the blanket band.
Slade swung his legs to the side of the bed before she could stop him. She grabbed his good arm to help him sit up. “I don’t know if that is a good idea just yet,” she told him.
“I can’t lay here in bed all day.”
“You can lie for a few days anyway,” Ellen told him. “I’m able to take care of things for that long. The sun is shining. The animals are playing in the field. Fetcher is hunting his breakfast and I have yours ready. Now sit still.” She gave him a shirt to put on.
Slade had his legs covered with the blanket. “I need some pants,” he demanded. “Now go over there and do what you need to do. I’ll take care of this,” he insisted. He groaned. “I don’t know why I’m so dizzy and tired.”
Ellen battled her guilt as she gave him his pants. She knew that her hefty dose of whisky was partly responsible for his lethargy.
Within just a couple minutes Slade had both feet in his pant legs, but he couldn’t stand alone to pull them the rest of the way on. Ellen laughed out right as she helped him stand and looked the other way as he struggled to get his pants on and buttoned. She drew the line at helping him get up and come to the table to eat. Instead she set his bowl of mush and his coffee on kitchen chair beside his bed and insisted the he sit there with his leg up and his back cushioned by pillows and folded blankets.
“I have a confession,” she told him as she served his mush and coffee. “The tiredness and dizziness is not entirely from the injuries.”
“What are you talking about?” Slade asked.
“Last night…. you were, well, delirious.” She said. “You were calling for someone named Ellie, and I couldn’t calm you down and you were thrashing around so much I was afraid you were going to injure yourself more…
“So, so. . . I told you I was Ellie.” It came out all in a rush. “I’m sorry if she is someone you loved. I didn’t mean to lie, but it helped calm you down….” Ellen stopped. “You don’t remember any of this?”
Slade looked at her in confusion. “I called for Ellie? Last night? I don’t remember a thing.” He kept frowning and a light flush of embarrassment crept up his face.
“I’m sorry I lied, but it did help. When I see Ellie, I’ll apologize to her, but I had to make you stop thrashing. When I said I was Ellie you held my hand tight and were quiet.
“But that isn’t all.” Ellen stammered, needing to get it all out, “when you were being so wild, I gave you a little bit of strong sweet coffee with some whisky in it. My husband and father-in-law drank every day and I know the effects. I-I-I thought, since you don’t use alcohol that it might have a faster effect on you.
“And it did. You fell asleep in just a few minutes while I sat and held your hand.
“I’m sorry.’ She repeated, “Who ever Ellie is I will apologize for impersonating her, but it did calm you down.” Ellen dropped her eyes to her twisting hands.
She raised them quickly to Slade’s face when she heard his chuckle.
“Now, you’ve embarrassed me,” he told her.
“Ellie is the name I’ve been using for you in my head. I’m not sure when I started thinking of you that way, but calling you Mrs. Aguilar didn’t seem at all right. Miss Ellen was a little better, but when I thought of you, it was always ‘Ellie.’ I apologize. It was presumptuous of me.”
Slade had difficulty explaining all of the nuances that went with the name “Ellie.” In his deepest being, Ellen was dearer to him than even he recognized. He found himself loving the sight of her when he came back from his long days with the cattle. He enjoyed her voice as she spoke quietly to her horse and the others when she accompanied him to the barn or when she stooped to ruffle Fetcher’s ears and scratch his neck.
If she was experiencing one of her infrequent days of sorrowful memories he discovered that he wanted to wrap her in his arms and comfort her. When he had hugged her before leaving for his fateful cattle run it was the culmination of weeks of longing.
“I’m sorry I shouldn’t have even thought of you as Ellie without your permission.”
Ellen found herself pleased beyond reason that he thought of her with the nick name. No on had ever referred to her with an affectionate nick name. Alejandro had called her several Spanish terms of endearment, but had never used her name in a diminutive—mostly he had simply called her ‘Elena.’
She couldn’t help blushing as she said, “No, oh, no! It’s all right! I rather like it. You may call me that if you want. I was only concerned that someplace there was a girl I was impersonating.
“And I’m sorry for the whisky too.”
Slade shrugged as he dug his spoon into the thick cornmeal mush laced with honey, “That’s what I have it for. Accidents happen and alcohol is the best thing there is to keep wounds from putrefying. It is also a good pain killer. You did the right thing.
Now can we eat breakfast?” His stomach was rumbling audibly.
The breakfast was good and the little house was warm. Within a few minutes of finishing his meal, Slade was more than ready to lie down again in his bed. Ellen helped him and when he was settled she returned to her big chair with a second cup of coffee. She was worn-out still from her long day and night. When the coffee was half gone, she set it aside on the kitchen chair and leaned back against the soft sheepskin. Before the ash crumbled in the fire, she was asleep.
Sunny Days Passing
THE DAYS PASSED in slow hours of wintery sunshine. Slade accepted his need to be quiet and heal. Ellen was thankful for the brighter weather when she took care of the barn work. It was lightened by the nice days without snow or wind when the animals could be outside and eliminate her need to carry feed and water. Her schedule seemed lighter because she was waking up later than Slade had and taking her time with milking and meal preparation. She kept Slade’s ribs strapped tightly full time but was happy to see the decreased swelling on his thigh. She worried constantly about the possible break, but Slade refused to allow her to look at what was beneath his underwear.
Their biggest problem was dealing with the necessity of trips to the outhouse. Slade absolutely refused to use any bucket or pot for his bathroom needs and although he could sometimes stand on the end of the porch, other times he had to make the long trip to the outhouse. Even though she insisted on putting the blanket splint back on his leg, by the time they returned, he was always pale and trembling.
It was a little better when Ellen thought of using one of the kitchen chairs as a kind of crutch. Slade could turn it backward and hold to the back with the seat. He could lean on it rather than Ellen. It was sturdier and felt more solid. But she refused to let him go alone.
On one of those sunny days, Ellen remembered their planned Christmas celebration. It had been lost in the immediacy of Slade’s injury.
She sat for most of the afternoon, while Slade was sleeping and finished the shirt she had started for him. When she went to return the needles and thread to the box in the loft she found a piece of soft red striped wool. The scarf Slade wore everyday was thread bare and tattered. Ellen quickly pulled the bolt out and cut two narrow pieces the width of the bolt. When joined end to end and hemmed they would make a long scarf.
Down in her big chair again she quickly joined the pieces of material. The resulting strip was nearly eight feet long. It would wrap snuggly around his neck and head but still leave ends to tuck into his coat. She set to rolling a narrow hem on the sides, leaving the selvage fringe along the ends.
When the scarf was finished Ellen folded it and carried it to the top of her ladder and put it with the shirt. Before she went to sleep that night she would use some of the brown paper lining the box to wrap her handiwork. She grinned to herself. The floor at the top of the ladder had become her private shelf. Slade could not climb the ladder and if she kept things set back about 12 inches, they were invisible from the ground floor.
Their Christmas decorations were looking dried and tired from their days in the heat of the stove and fireplace. She glanced at Slade’s still slumbering form. He was tired out from a trip to the table and the out house earlier in the morning. She would have time to gather a few fresh pieces to add amid the old to freshen the look and fragrance of the little house. She laced on Madeline’s large boots and dressed warmly enough for a quick hike up the hill.
Outside she picked up the axe and gathered a small tarp from the barn. In not quite an hour she had collected a pile of fresh juniper. She wished she could get some pine, but those were higher up the slope and would require a longer hike. Juniper would do.
Slade slept through lunch time. Ellen had a cup of hot coffee from the breakfast pot, a biscuit with some butter and a small piece of cold beef from the previous night’s supper. Then she set to work inserting the fresh juniper among the dry pieces. She pulled the ribbons off and shook them free of dust before re-draping them through the greenery. While her hands were busy she was thinking furiously of what to prepare for a special dinner tonight then a good Christmas dinner tomorrow.
A last step before finishing made Ellen tossed several sprigs of juniper into Fetcher’s feed pan with some water and set it to simmer in the coals of the fireplace. Fetcher looked at her strangely.
“I don’t know whether it will leave a flavor in the pan or not. You eat too fast to even taste it. I’ll scrub the pan when I’m finished with it.” Fetcher sighed and went to ask for the door to be opened. He’d find his own supper, thank you!
Slowly the room filled with the fragrance of juniper.
As soon as she finished, Ellen opened one of their precious cans of tomatoes and poured it into a small skillet to begin cooking some of the juice away. She chopped beef into tiny pieces and dumped it into the skillet with the boiling tomatoes. That was followed by some chopped onion. The entire skillet was sprinkled with salt and a generous amount of black pepper. She wished for some of the chili that Tia Margarita had used in her cooking, but the flavor should be good anyway—something different. When everything was simmering, she pulled some tortillas from their wrappings in the cold room and put them in the Dutch oven close to the fire to warm.
In preparation for their Christmas dinner she climbed up to their ‘freezer’ high on the side of the house and pulled out one of their fish shaped pieces of beef. She laid it in the cold room to thaw slowly. Tomorrow morning she could cut a large roast from the center and begin cooking it slowly in Dutch oven over the ashes of the fire place. She had never made a roast for Slade, opting for quicker ways of cooking beef. This would be special for Christmas.
Their dinner was ready. It was a bit early but Ellen went to the bed and shook Slade’s shoulder.
“Slade! Wake up, sleepy head! It’s supper time! Mr. Slade!”
He opened his eyes and peered up at her. “I think,” he said drowsily, “if I am allowed to call you Ellie, you should use my given name. Call me Eli.”
A little self-conscious, Ellen smiled. “Mr. Eli, will you please wake up so we can have dinner?” She laughed softly at her own teasing and repeated herself.
“Eli, it’s time for our dinner. You slept all day. I know it is a little earlier than we usually eat, but you need to get some energy back.” As he sat up, she helped him swing his legs to the floor.
With her help Slade stood. Holding her shoulder he straightened his shirt then he released her shoulder and standing on his good leg he tucked the shirt tail into his pants. Wrapping his arm around her shoulders he was again thankful for the close feel of her holding and supporting him.
“If I could find you a cane or a staff you might be able to stand a little better. But I don’t know where to find anything to use.”
Slade concentrated on moving and favoring his weak leg and pretended to not hear her. There was a perfectly good stack of long slender poles he had collected to make a pole fence around top side of the garden. But he hated to forego the warmth of her arm around his waist and the support of her shoulder under his hand. He dreaded the day when his leg would be healed and he would have no more excuse for pulling close to her.
They made the trip to the table without any trouble. Ellen moved the skillet to the table and then retrieved the tortillas. She poured coffee for them both.
“Well now, what is this?” Slade wanted to know.
“I don’t know what to call it. I made it up. Tia Margarita used to make something like it but I didn’t have all the ingredients. So I made do.” Ellen put one of the tortillas on his plate and spooned a generous serving of the juicy tomato and beef mixture onto it. Then she rolled it and spooned some juice over the top. “You will have to eat it with a knife and fork and tell me how you like it.”
She made a plate for herself and was happy to find how good it tasted. Watching Slade, Ellen hoped he would like it as much as she did.
Evidently he did because he was so busy eating that he said nothing until he held his plate out for a second serving.
“Mmm. That is good! You’re coming up with all kinds of new dishes! I like them!”
After cleaning up his third tortilla and the last of the skillet contents, Slade leaned back to sip his coffee. In a few seconds he lifted his face to the ceiling and sniffed the air.
“What is that smell? It’s…. it’s juniper! Why is that?”
“Think a minute,” Ellen told him. “What had we decided to do just a few days before your herding trip? I forgot it until just this morning. I’ll wager you did too.”
She waited until Slade’s face lit with recollection. “Christmas! We were going to have Christmas! We are a little late, aren’t we?”
Ellen spoke with a bit of humor in her voice. “We are late according to our plans, but since we don’t have any real idea of when it should be anyway, I decided to celebrate tomorrow. I added some fresh juniper to the decorations and put some to simmer in Fetcher’s pan to make the air smell good.
“We are eating our Christmas eve dinner right now. I have a special meal planned for tomorrow!”
“Hmm. Then I believe you will have to go to bed early tonight while I finish your gift.” Slade told her. “It’s a good thing I had it hidden in the closet by my bed. You will have to get me over there and then leave while I’m standing in front of the closet.
“I’ll get to bed by myself.” He assured her.
Ellen laughed. “Just call me when you fall on your face,” she told him and began collecting the dishes from the meal.
She piled the dishes in the dish pan to leave it on the table to wash after supper. Slade spoke up before she was ready to go to the barn.
“If you will give me the water, I can wash and dry these dishes while I’m sitting right here at the table. Save you a little time on Christmas eve!”
Happily Ellen poured the hot water. She gave him the soap and cloths before going on out. When she returned with the animals safely locked inside and the bucket of milk in her hand, the dishes were dried and stacked neatly on the end of the table.
“I would have put things away but I really can’t move that well yet when I have to stand.’
“Hey, they’re clean. I’m not complaining.” Even the skillet that she had left on the table was scrubbed clean.
Ellen strained their milk and put everything away. She found her busy day had worn her out and going to bed early wasn’t a problem.
She helped Slade to the bed, but he refused to let her help him lie down.
“I’ll take care of myself. I have some work to finish before I go to sleep. Go on up your ladder.” He made a shoo-ing motion with his hands.
Ellen left him standing before the closet and went to bed. She was asleep almost before her head hit her pillow.