Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fresh Meat chapter 12

Ellen grabbed her coat, stuffed her feet into the boots to run out the door still buttoning the coat and tying the belt.  Fetcher was jumping in circles around the man leading his horse with something tied on the back.  She ran to meet Slade.

He was stumbling with weariness but she couldn’t make out what was on the horse instead of him.  Ellen ran to Slade and flung her arms around his neck, nearly in tears with relief. 

“Where have you been?” she cried.  Feeling him falter under her weight, she slid her shoulder under his arm and steered them toward the barn. 

When they were inside she could see the weariness in his face.  On the horse he had bound two quarters of beef! 

“What in the world!”  She exclaimed.

Slade shook his head.  “Found a cow, just taken down by a lion as I was coming home.  I couldn’t just let all that meat lay there for the varmints when we have hardly any.  I used my knife and the axe to get the hind quarters carved off for us.”  He grinned wearily.

“Now all I need to do is get it piled somewhere for the night and finish up here before I fall over.”

“I already have everything done except the milking!”  Ellen told him in delight. “I was so worried that I had to do something.  But I simply cannot get any milk from that cow!”

“Aaaah!” Slade sighed.  “That has to be the best news I’ve had today!

“All right then, let’s put this meat somewhere.  I suppose piling it on the feed box will serve.  There is nothing much here to eat it and if a mouse gnaws on it he can’t make much of a dent in it.  We’ll let him have it.”  He pulled the top-most knot free and with a heave, transferred the hide covered haunch to one end of the box.  The other was propped against the first on the opposite end.

“Now we’ll get the horse settled.” He began stripping the saddle from the horse, swinging it on the rail where it was always placed.

“I’ll take care of him.” Ellen said, stepping up to the horse’s head. “If you will get the milk out of that cow, we can be ready to go in at the same time.”  She handed Slade the milk bucket she had rescued from the feed box just before the first quarter of beef landed where it had been.

Ellen watched Slade make his way to the cow pen.  She wished she could do the milking for him; he was so evidently tired and cold.  He seemed to be moving by sheer determination.  She quickly wiped the horse down.  Since the snow had just begun it wasn’t very wet so some firm wipes with a wisp soon had it in good shape.  She led it to the pen and turned it in with its team mate.  After a couple sips of water the horse began nibbling on the hay.

Slade finished the milking at the same time and Ellen took the bucket from him. They turned toward the house.  Fetcher was waiting for them.  Slade was rapidly running out of energy and took advantage of Ellen’s offered shoulder gripping it as hard as he dared with each step.

When the door opened a wave of warmth and good smells billowed out: onions, beef, and coffee. It made Slade’s head reel.  It had been a long time since his coffee and roast venison for lunch.  Ellen took the milk to the cupboard shelf and Slade hung his outdoor clothes.

“Oh, I left the canteen tied to the saddle.  It’s empty.”  He grinned at her.  “The tortillas are long gone.”

“That’s why I made them.” Ellen answered.  “And we can get the canteen tomorrow.  I’ll have the beef warmed up in just a couple minutes and the coffee is already hot.  I just took it off when I heard Fetcher barking.”

“Let me wash up first,” Slade returned. “Then I can fall right into bed when I finish eating.”  He picked up the wash pan and filled it with warm water from the reservoir. After Ellen’s arrival he had made it a habit to wash in the pantry so that is where he took the pan.  Then he came back for a clean shirt, soap and his towels.

Ellen had the beef on the stove but she set the coffee back on the side too, just to be sure it was steaming when they ate.  She strained the milk into a clean crock then washed the bucket and the straining cloth.  After she had washed the cloth she took it to the door to whip in the fresh air.  Tiny icy bits of snow swirled around the porch and found their way in the door. Slade had made it home in time to beat the weather.

Slade shook his hands free of water and slid them back through his hair.  He dried them on the towel and stepped out of the pantry as Ellen poured the coffee then lifted the stew from the stove to the table.  He pulled his chair out and dropped into it wearily.

Ellen went around the table and took her place across from him.  With a tired, grateful sigh, Slade held out his hand across the space between them. “Could we thank the Lord that I’m home safely.  And with a nice supply of fresh beef!” 

He grinned at her as she put her hand in his. “Dear Father God, I am so thankful for a warm house and food to come home to.  I thank you for coming home to the barn work all finished and thank you for a friend here to greet me.  Thank you for the food and all your blessings. Amen.”

And Ellen found herself answering, “Amen.” 

She took the dipper and scooped a generous portion of stew into his plate making sure he had plenty of broth and meat. She slid the plate of tortillas toward him. 

The two of them had gotten in the habit of carrying on a conversation about the day’s events, but this evening Slade was exhausted.  He didn’t have the energy to talk.  Ellen stayed quiet, too.

They finished their meal.  Slade scooped some of the beef into the pan for Fetcher, who appreciated the warm food even though he had helped himself to plenty of scraps around the beef carcass.   After he gobbled the stew he slurped a few mouthfuls of water and curled himself on his blanket. Slade dipped some hot water into the dishpan as Ellen scraped the remaining stew into a small bowl and wrapped the tortillas up for later use.  They cleaned up together and Slade heaped ashes over the flickering flames in the fireplace.  Ellen checked the stove and closed the damper on the front.

“You can do what ever you want,” she told Slade, “but I’m going to bed. It’s been a long day.”  She grinned at him then picked up her shawl from the back of the chair and climbed her ladder. 

Slade took the candle to his bedside and read briefly from his Bible before snuggling into bed.

Morning brought a few inches of snow blowing around the yard.  It was nothing like the threatened storm of last evening.   Slade slid out of bed quickly and dressed for the cold. He dipped two buckets of water and headed for the barn, hoping to let Ellen sleep a while longer.  The snow, although it had piled up, was being whipped across the pasture below the barn baring the grasses growing there.  He gave the cow water but turned the horses out to fend for themselves.  They flung their heads and bucked around the fence finally running down toward the pond.

Slade stood watching them with a grin on his face, then turned back to give the cow and calf some hay.  While Sarah munched contentedly, he hurried through the milking.

Ellen was still sleeping when he returned.  As quietly as possible he strained the milk and cleaned up. By the time Ellen came down her ladder he had made coffee and had cornmeal cooking.  

“I thought I’d let you sleep because we have another big day today.  We need to get that meat cut into manageable sizes so when it freezes we won’t have to chop pieces off with the axe.”

“Why didn’t you wake me?  Is it frozen already?  I could have gotten up but I didn’t even hear you!”

“Don’t worry.  It is only a little firm.  That’ll make it easier to cut evenly.  We can eat and then get at it.” 

They hurried through breakfast and hauled the meat to the porch.  Slade decide to skin the haunches and avoid the dirt from the winter hides in the house.  Then he carried the first piece inside.

“I cut off the legs.  I figured we’d have plenty of meat even if I cut it down to pieces I could carry.”  He laid the first big haunch on the table.  “I think if we cut big wedges down from the hip to the hock we can lay it out to freeze and then bring one in the house every few days as we need it.”

“First, let’s trim off this section where the animals have chewed on it.”  He began slicing the ragged pieces from the flank side of the hind leg.

Ellen grabbed the kettle and began tossing the pieces in it.  When he had finished, she hung the kettle over the flames to begin sizzling.

“What are you doing?”  Slade asked.  “We really shouldn’t eat that.” 

“I’m cooking it for Fetcher.  He likes lightly fried meat and stewed meat.  If I cook this here, he can have both!  I can save it a couple days for him.”

Slade shook his head. “You spoil that dog.” 

He went back to his cutting.  As he cut the long heavy strips from the bone, Ellen stacked them on the counter of the cupboard.

“When we finish with this where are we going to put them?”  She wondered out loud.

Well, we have two places.  One we can lay them out on the table in the ‘dobe house until the freeze, then we will move the frozen pieces to the meat house to keep till we need them.”

“Now where is that?”  Ellen wanted to know.  She hadn’t seen any house that could hold meat. 

“Jacob built a meat house on the north side of this one.  It is mounted on two posts and is high against the end under the eaves above where the spring flows out.  That side of the house stays cold all the time.  Even in early spring you can find snow there.  We put meat there till about time to use it and then bring it in and hang it in the pantry.   Didn’t you notice that there was always a slab of bacon or a leg of venison in there, no matter how much we used?  I was replacing it from the meat house.

“This beef is a good addition.  Things were getting low.” 

 “The things you two did!   I would never have thought of that.  I wonder if we had something similar at the ranch.  I didn’t do much with the cooking.  There was always sewing to do and I preferred that.  And after the house staff was gone I had no one to show me a lot. Tia Margarita was too old to do much. Meat hardly lasted long enough to spoil”

By the time Slade finished trimming the meat from the bone, they had a large pile of wedges about eighteen inches long and five or six around. He wrapped several of them at a time in pieces of bags.

“We’ll take these to the ‘dobe house and lay them out on the table or where ever we can find a flat surface. When they freeze they will be nice and straight--stackable.”  He had several piles of meat wrapped in bags.

As he put his jacket and hat on, Ellen hurried to do the same.  She could only carry two of the piles, but she started out the door as Slade picked up the rest.  The adobe house was only a short distance behind the main house so the trip was quick.

Once inside, Slade laid his armful of meat on the cupboard and began spreading the cloth across the table. Then he took the pieces of beef and placed them side by side but not quite touching on the table.  When that was filled he finished by putting the rest on the shelves and work surface of the cupboard . 

‘Those should freeze in short order and then we will have a place for the rest.”

“What will we do with the other big piece until these freeze?”  Ellen wondered.

“We’ll have to put what we still have in the house on the bed.  There’s a net of rope under the mattress.  If we smooth it out the pieces should freeze relatively flat laid on there.”  He prodded the mattress.

“Maybe we could just put it in the pantry for a couple days,”  Ellen suggested.  “Won’t it freeze if we leave it outside?”

“That’s a big chunk of cow to put in the pantry.  And it is already starting to freeze.” Slade answered. “Let’s skin it off and trim it down.  Then we can try stacking it on the bed.  If that doesn’t work we can put it on the table in there until tomorrow.  This should all be frozen solid by then and we can put in away.” He picked up the left over pieces of flour sacking and looked around at their work.  “It looks like fish lying out here, doesn’t it?”  He referred to the long wedge shapes of the pieces.

Ellen grinned, “So let’s go get the rest of the catch and get this finished.” And they headed back to the house for the remainder of their ‘catch.’

Slade turned their attention to the big piece of bone left on their table.  It still had quite a bit of meat on it.  Ellen took her smaller knife and began trimming the pieces from the bone and putting them in a bowl.

“We can trim a lot of this off for stew and then maybe Fetcher will appreciate the bone.”  Fetcher had been staying on his bed all day, watching the progress of the butchering.  When Ellen had it pretty well trimmed, Slade came in with a plain carpentry saw.

“If we can cut it in two pieces and he will have a two or three day supply.”  With Ellen holding the bone as steady as she could, Slade sawed the big leg in the middle.  “I’ll put one up on the porch roof to freeze and he can have one now.”  Then he suited actions to words and gave the dog one end of the bone.  The other he took outside.

Then they began processing the second haunch as they had the first.  While Slade worked on it, Ellen dumped the scraps she had cooked for Fetcher in his pan and set it on top of the cupboard for his supper.  After she scrubbed the pot out she put several handfuls of the scraps trimmed from the bone into the pot and replaced it over the low fire to broil as they finished up.  She hoped it would be ready for their own meal when they finished. 

The bed held their strips of beef without any problem.  The weight spread evenly over the whole surface and didn’t bend the strapping at all.  The frozen strips would be almost as straight and flat as those on the table and cupboard.   Slade and Ellen sighed with accomplishment as they came out of the ‘dobe house and latched the door securely.

“Tomorrow we can stack them all in the meat house.  Good eating for the rest of the winter probably.”  Slade clapped his hands at their success and threw a snowball for Fetcher to chase. 

While Slade went to do some neglected work in the barn and deal with the prodigious pile of manure patties, Ellen went back inside to check on the progress of her pot of meat simmering over the fire. She finished trimming the big leg of its tags of meat and stored the bowl in the pantry for use tomorrow.

She stirred the meat and added water to make a rich broth.  At one time her mother would have added potatoes and onions with perhaps a carrot for good measure.  Ellen had only onions but the stew would be hot and filling with the cornbread she had made yesterday. 

After looking around a minute she decided to make a stack of tortillas. She had no corn, but the flour ones were perhaps easier and certainly as tasty.  They were easily stored and always provided a quick snack or addition to their meal when time was short.  She made the dough and set it aside to rest while she swept the floor and wiped quickly around the flat surfaces and window sills to collect the day’s accumulation of sand and dust. It busied her hands while she waited and helped maintain her hard work of the day before.

With the griddle heating on the freshly stoked stove plate, Ellen began patting the tortillas and baking them.  A tall stack had soon accumulated on the table beside her.  On a moment of inspiration she patted out a round of dough and spread it on the table.  She then took her long knife and cut it into wide strips divided across the middle.  When she had several tortillas’ worth of strips she scooped them up and dropped them one by one into the kettle of simmering meat while she stirred them around. When they were all rolling slowly in the broth she replaced the lid and went to make coffee for their meal.

 Her timing was perfect and Slade came in with a red face and cold hands.  He pulled his boots off and held his hands over the warm stove before he even removed his coat. 

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