Once again the flush of color he was coming to look for washed across her cheeks.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” She dropped her hands to her lap and bowed her head.
He almost regretted that because it hid her eyes and cheeks from his view. He bowed his head and spoke the few words of his grace.
“Dear Father, we thank you again for this day and for the companionship we can have. We thank you for bringing Mrs. Aguilar safely here out of the snow. We thank you for this food and we ask that you might bless it to our strength. In the name of our Lord and Savior. Amen.”
He paused for a long moment, feeling that there was some thing more that he should mention. But failing to find it he raised his head.
When he looked up he found her wide dark eyes on him. They were blue he realized, not sky blue nor the cornflower blue that were so often admired, but a deep dark blue like the depths of midnight when the moon shone across the sky. Deep and blue and wide, her eyes froze the thoughts in his head and made him long to keep her there in that chair for ever.
Her quizzical half smile snapped him out of his reverie. “Well, are you going to dip that mush or shall I?” she asked.
The smile widened as she took up the ladle and dipped instead. His heart had been doing amazing things ever since this small person had slid off that horse into his arms! He pushed the feelings aside and focused on more pertinent things.
She handed him his bowl and he had to jump up and go after the milk. By the time he returned she had sliced a piece of cornbread in half and put butter inside for him. He gave her the milk and poured coffee for each of them.
“You don’t sound like any one I’ve ever heard pray before,” she said in a puzzled tone.
“How do I sound?” He wanted to know.
“Oh, just different. My parents weren’t very religious people; the only prayers I ever heard were sonorous and pious or loud and arrogant seeming.” She shrugged slightly. “And the Aguilar family was all Catholic so we went to mass every week. I was married by the priest.
“The padres I knew were very kind and seemed dedicated, but their prayers were a little boring and always in Latin. Even I realized, after a while that they were just repeating the same words over and over. They didn’t really seem to be talking to anyone, just repeating a verse like a child says a rhyme.” Ellen stopped speaking for a few seconds to eat a spoonful of the hot mush and sip her coffee.
“And Tia Margarita had her rosary that she said every day, but it just seemed to be repeating the same thing, too. Of course I couldn’t understand the words, but neither did I understand why she bothered,” Ellen shrugged slightly, “but she seemed to feel she had to do it. And I guess it was reassuring.”
“And I didn’t sound like that?” Slade looked at her quizzically from across the table, not sure if this was a good thing or a bad.
“Not really, it sounded more like you were picking up a conversation you had started earlier. I liked it.”
Slade frowned slightly. “You’ve never prayed?” He asked a little surprised.
“Oh, I suppose everyone has prayed some time or other. I mean I prayed a lot while Viejo was holding us. I prayed a lot for Margarita. But I guess the prayers didn’t really have a focus. I was just tossing the words out into a void in the vague hope someone would hear.”
“I would say that “Someone” certainly did hear when your horses wandered into my barn yard! I’m not sure where you came from, but it sounds like you started out to go north and ended up in completely different directions. And there isn’t much between here and no where if you miss
Santa Fe or .” The smile in his voice belied the real gravity
in his statement. Albuquerque
“I would never have known. I was that cold.” She shuddered at the memory and changed the subject abruptly. “So why are you here all alone? Especially with another woman’s things?”
Slade accepted the change of subject with no hesitation. It was enough that the topic had been broached. Later was more than enough time to tell her of his faith.
* * *
“My brother and I built this ranch.” He told her. “We built this house especially for Madeline. Actually I should say, Jacob built it for her. I only helped. My house is out back.” He grinned. “And not nearly so convenient.
“Then in the spring after six years here, Madeline offered help to a family who had a fever of some sort. Before we knew what was happening, they were all dead and Madeline was sick. A short while later, Madeline died too.
“I wondered for a while if Jacob was going to stay sane. But he did, although he was a changed man. He left shortly afterward to go back east to tell Madeline’s father of her death. I haven’t heard from him since. It’s been nearly two years now…” His voice faded.
“I’ve been debating what to do. The ranch is mine, but there is almost too much work for one person alone. I keep hoping he will be back.” He didn’t mention how he had prayed for company and help and for his brother’s return.
Slade pushed back his chair.
“And now,” he changed track abruptly. “I need to find a chance to check our cattle on the range to the northwest of here and then east, too. I had them in safe places that offered plenty of forage and some protection from the wind. But cattle are not the smartest animals. I’m afraid they may have wandered ahead of this wind! As soon as this storm breaks I’ll be heading out to check on them.” He picked up Fetcher’s pan from the floor and scraped the remaining bit of mush into it. He crumbled a big piece of cornbread on top of it. And then he poured on some milk.
“You feed your dog cornbread and milk?” Ellen exclaimed. “That isn’t dog food!
“I certainly don’t have meat for him! I have very little meat for ME. Never mind a dog who can catch his own. I have plenty of corn meal to share. And more milk than I can use. Never fear. As soon as this weather breaks, he’ll be feeding himself. He may even bring some back for us!” Slade set the pan on the floor by the bed in the corner.
Fetcher set to with gusto. The milk and cornbread disappeared in a flash. Slade stepped to the door to let him out.
“Look!” He exclaimed. “The wind has stopped.” Sure enough when Ellen looked out the snow was falling now in big fat flakes, piling higher on the ground where formerly the wind had swept it away. “By morning, maybe I’ll be able to get out and go check the cattle.
“We have another day of waiting, then life starts again.” Fetcher ran out into the snow biting at the piles and rolling like a puppy.
Ellen took over the homely task of washing up. Slade stepped to his bed and began a little shamefacedly smoothing the blankets. It seemed a little too intimate to be straightening his sleeping quarters in front of her.
For her part, Ellen kept her back slightly turned while she laid the clean bowls and silverware on the table. As soon as Slade stepped into the pantry she turned to take up the towel, wiping the dishes and then stacking them back in the open cupboard. She replaced the salt jar and the sugar on the same shelf and poured the last bit of coffee into her cup. Then she knocked the wet coffee grounds out over the ashes at the side of the fire. A bit of water rinsed it out and she tossed that out the door across the corner of the porch onto the ground—or where the ground would be when the snow stopped,
When Slade returned she was refilling the coffee pot and placing it on the hottest part of the stove. Without being asked he reached up on the very top of the cupboard and took down a bag and a small coffee grinder. He dumped a handful of beans into the grinder and setting the lid under the spout he began to turn the handle that would grind the beans into coffee grounds. After two handfuls he tied the bag shut again and left the freshly ground coffee sitting on the table until the water boiled.
Ellen took note of where the coffee had been
“If I am ever to make coffee when you aren’t here, we are going to have to find another place for that coffee.” Demonstrating, she stretched up and could barely reach the middle of the top shelf. The top of the cupboard was well above her.
Since the two shelves of the open cupboard were only sparsely filled, Slade simply rearranged a few things aside and put the coffee on the lower shelf.
“While we have the time,” he said, “let me show you our cold room.” He led her to the room she had been calling ‘the pantry.’ “This is where we keep our meats and milk and anything that won’t be harmed by a little damp.”
He ushered her into the tiny room. Pointing out the shelves loaded with some cans and other food stuffs as well as crockery and extra plates or serving utensils. Opposite those there were boxes of potatoes and carrots. On the left in the corner there was a small cistern that caught the water welling gently out from the natural rock of the foundation. On the far end of the little holding tank there were carefully shaped and fitted rocks leading through the outer wall.
Slade pointed to the flat rocks making the channel for the water to flow out through. “Those go out underground—Jacob’s idea. I’d never have thought of it. When we found this place there was just a spring there. The water ran out of a little rock basin down the hill. Most of it dried up before it got half way down. Jacob came up with the idea of building a channel and covering it over. Now it runs all the way down to a pool down below the barn. The whole channel is green on either side in summer.
“We get all kinds of wild life coming there for the water.” He spoke with some degree of pride over his brother’s ingenuity. “Standing water is hard to come by in this country. Josh wanted to provide for Madeline to have easy access and to keep things cool. So we have our indoor spring! And the desert animals—as well as the farm stock-- have an open pool! Before we came there was only a wet place which evaporated in the heat of summer.
“Here. Look. We can set butter and milk jars right here in the water and the meat goes on a shelf right here above the tank.” He motioned to several pieces of meat wrapped in sacking lying on a shelf. Other pieces were hanging from hooks in the rafter. “I need to make butter,” he said, pointing to a smaller crock. “That has cream that I’ve saved…”
Ellen looked around in fascination making appropriately admiring noises. She was particularly fascinated by the opportunity to learn about making butter. It was something she had never done or even seen done.
“Maybe by this evening the morning’s milk will have separated enough to skim the cream and I’ll have a crock full to churn.” Eli told her.
The words were foreign to Ellen so she merely nodded and commented on the meat. There were two slabs of bacon wrapped in cloth. Her mouth watered. It had been months since she had been able to have any bacon! Maybe if she hinted. She stopped herself. Mr. Slade was being more than hospitable to someone who had taken advantage of him by wandering in out of a storm.
They went back to the warmer part of the house. As they went through the door she noticed that the wall was made of two layers of slender logs with what seemed to be grasses stuffed in between.
“What’s this?” She asked Slade pointing to the double wall.
“That was another of Jacob’s ideas. He thought that the warmth of the outer room would eventually heat this room in winter and in summer the heat outside would also heat it. So he decided to put in double walls. There’s a layer of rabbit bush stuffed in the ceiling here too. Between here and where you slept last night.” He grinned at her, obviously proud of his brother’s ingenuity. “The room stays cool all summer long.”
They went on out into the big room. Slade walked over and parted the window curtains beside the cupboard. The snow was still falling but the wind had stopped completely, not even any little puffs.
“I think I’ll go out and turn the animals in to the fence. A little fresh air will do them good. And the horses at least will paw through to find something to nibble on.” He went to get his jacket on and this time omitted the muffler, simply plopping his hat on his head.
“Back in a minute,” he said.
Ellen watched him leave and then went to get the broom. She understood that, for the moment, he had dwelt as long as he could on thoughts of his brother. She wondered if she had seemed hard hearted when she blurted out the story of Alejandro’s death and her father’s. She hadn’t meant to, but the horrors of the following months had blotted the heartache from her mind. Only the dreadfulness remained. She turned her thoughts from the memories and focused on the things that could be done in the cabin.
The floor of the cabin looked as though some attention from a broom would be of a benefit. Ellen swept the floor and had quite a pile of sand and even a few pieces of caked mud when she finished. After some searching for a dust pan, she used the fireplace shovel to scoop the pile. She placed the litter in the side of the ashes to be taken out later. She supposed that Slade had a bucket or some container for removing the ashes.
The water in the coffee pot was boiling. Slade would be returning soon and a cup of hot coffee would taste good. So she dumped the ground coffee into the pot and moved it to the back of the stove. To be on the safe side she added a couple pieces of wood to the little stove. She thought the fireplace might need another heavier piece of wood, but saw none that seemed big enough.
Looking around a bit more she decided the sheepskins on the big chairs would benefit from a good shaking. She collected them and carried them to the door. Stopping long enough to put on the boots she left three of them on the wood box and carried one at a time out onto the porch where she shook them each thoroughly. They looked cleaner and brighter when she returned them to their respective chairs.
While she was on the porch she noticed a rope stretched tightly from the front post to the side of the cabin. There was one on each end. How she longed to wash her dirty clothes and hang them there. Maybe when Mr. Slade returned he could give her something large enough to scrub a couple of her own skirts in. Mean time, she picked up the heavy coat and took it to the porch. She spent a couple minutes beating it against one of the posts and then folded the middle over the rope on the north end of the porch. A little airing would certainly not hurt it.
Shivering from her brief time in the fresh cold air, Ellen hurried back inside. She stood in the center of the cabin and looked around. After making sure the food area was clean, she went to the big chair and sat down cozily against freshly fluffed sheep skins. She propped her feet on the stool still sitting by the chair from last evening to enjoy the warmth from the fire. In no time at all she was asleep.
* * *
Slade opened the side door and released the horses into the paddock adjoining the barn. They trotted out shaking their manes in the brisk air. The bay mare tossed her head and challenged the others to a race around the fence. They frolicked until their breath puffed out in clouds and their shaggy coats were fluffed by the cold and exercise. He stood watching them play. The mare and the pack horse seemed no worse for their few days of cold and privation. None of them were particularly hungry but they began pawing in the snow looking for random blades of winter dried grass.
Going back inside Slade took a fork from against the wall and began gathering the droppings left over night by livestock penned in a confined space. He cleaned the horses’ stall and scattered the bits of dropped hay over the wet spots. Then he did the same for the cow. He put more hay in her manger and carried one of the full buckets to her pen. The half grown calf rattled his side of the manger and got his share of water too.
The pack gear still lay on the floor where he had dumped them in his haste the night before. He propped the pack against the feed bin. The tarps he had used to cover the wet cold horses had been kicked aside when they had slid off during the night. Those were folded and put back in their place.
Fetcher wandered through the open door and nosed at the pack in an interested way. It occurred to Slade that his guest had said her captor had ordered her to pack food for his journey. That needed to be retrieved and taken to the house. Also, he remembered, she had asked for her small bundle tied behind the saddle.
Lifting the pack saddle to the top of the bin, he untied the ropes and laid back the tarps. Inside there were bags of wrapped meat and tortillas, as well as dried corn and beans. He found several pieces of jewelry and trinkets from the house that Viejo had evidently planned to sell. He left those in place and rewrapped the pack, tying the ropes around it securely.
With one more glance out at the horses digging through the snow, he closed the door and collected the bags and Ellen’s bundle to take to the house.