Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gathering Cattle Chapter 10

When Slade returned to the house, the fragrance of fresh coffee filled the air.  Ellen was straightening the cupboard and setting cups on the table.  Her hesitant smile lightened the descending dusk for him.

“I’ve made us a little more coffee.  I thought it would be good after standing out there in the cold.”  She took the boiling pot from the stove and set it on the table. 

“Mmm. Sounds good.”  Slade hung his coat and stood his damp boots by the fire. 

“I have the barn pretty well organized for tomorrow,” he said, picking up an earlier train of thought.  “It shouldn’t take long to finish the chores and saddle the horse.  I want to be out of here early so I can get out to the cattle and back before dark.”

He pulled the chair away from the table and sat down behind his cup of coffee, wrapping cold hands around it.  “I’ll probably be up earlier than you are so don’t worry about any breakfast for me.  I’ll eat some cold cornbread and milk.”

“Oh goodness, no!  I’ll be sure you have something hot in your stomach before you go.  You’ll not take a piece of cornbread and leave! I’ll make some hot mush and heat a slice of meat at least.” She smiled at him as she sat down across from him. “Now exactly what direction are you going?”

“Hmmm?  And I suppose you’re going to come after me if I’m not back by dark, eh” He chuckled at the thought.

“I’m heading on out here from behind the house off to the north west. There’s a south facing canyon mouth opening up that way.  There should be a good sized bunch of cows there where the grass was grown up last summer; I kept them away from it all year so it would be there in the winter.  Some of those old range cows will know enough to paw down through the snow to the long grass.  There was a pool of water up there too.  I don’t know if it lasted through the cold snap.  I may have to bust up a place of open water.

“Then I’ll swing around to the east and make sure the cattle over that way didn’t wander away from the back meadows.

“If everything is clear and the cows are not too scattered I’ll push them into the grassy areas again and come on home. 

“Probably by dark sometime.”  He sketched an invisible map on the table with his finger.

“There’s water here? In the meadow area?”  she asked

“Yes, it was a pretty deep run off pond.” He told her.  “Some of it may have frozen but the deeper end should be clear.  I’ll take the axe along to bust through any ice.”

Slade stood up and retrieved the gun from its place near the door.  “You decide where to put this that you will be able to lay hands on it quickly.  I don’t think you’ll need it but you’ll be more comfortable knowing where it is. And keep the shells handy too.  I’d say keep it loaded, but you aren’t familiar enough with handling it yet.  You’ll need to load it just before using it.”

Ellen picked up the shotgun from the table where he had laid it in front of her.  She turned slowly surveying the room. 

“I think here by the cupboard.” She stood the butt of the gun in the corner space between the cupboard and window.  “And I can keep the shells here above the dishes.  That way I can reach them both at the same time if I need them suddenly.”  She placed the gun and shells in the positions she’d indicated.

Then smiling at him she turned away from the window.  “Look how dark it has gotten since I learned to shoot.  I think I need to snuggle under my blanket and relax from all the excitement.”  She checked that their boots were close to the heat of the fire and shook the coats to be sure any dampness was exposed to the air.

Then she went to her chair and wiggled against the sheep skin.  “You can go back to your carving now if you’d like.” 

Slade chuckled and checked the beans now bubbling on the back of the stove.  He added a bit more coffee and water to the pot and left it on the stove too.  Supper would be ready after while.   He leaned back in his chair and crossing one ankle over his knee he began carving in a new block.  It looked rather like a figure in a chair.

True to her word, Ellen did fall asleep for a bit.  She slept well until Slade began dressing for the evening barn work.  It was full dark and the wind was picking up a bit more. 

“I am getting very lazy,” she told him.  “I promise I’ll have supper ready when you come back in… “

Slade picked up the buckets and went out.  Ellen stirred the beans and then went to the pantry and unwrapped her bundles from her old home on the table there.  The papers and other things she took out to the little desk table under the book shelves.  Then she placed the cooked meat on the shelves beside what Eli already had.  What she had been looking for was the pile of tortillas.  These she unwrapped, removing five of them and rewrapping the others.   When they were on the shelf beside the meat, she went back to the main room with the five.

There she took a cloth from Slade’s supply and wrapped the tortillas.  She scooped the last two pieces of cornbread from the spider and scrubbed it clean.  Then she put the wrapped tortillas in it and put the lid on, leaving the droplets of water on the sides and bottom.  She carried the spider to the fireplace and set it in close among the ashes. The tortillas would warm soon

Sorting through the things on the lower shelves of the open cupboard she found several onions.  She took the smallest and chopped it finely to put in the beans.  They had cooked well and were soft.  In  moments they would be ready to eat. 

She cleared the cupboard work area off and got a clean crock for the evening’s milk.  She wondered vaguely what to do with the two crocks of milk already in the cooling water, but had no idea what that could be, but when Slade returned with the  milk she would be ready to strain it as she had seen him do in the morning. 

Slade opened the door coming back from the barn to find his coffee hot and waiting in his cup for him.  He had sipped it while Ellen strained the milk and put it in the cold water. He was pleasantly surprised by the warm tortillas and the onions in the beans.  Her voice was soft as spoke of the barn work and offered him his plate with the accompanying tortillas.  Fetcher lay in his place waiting for what he knew would be his share of the meal later on.

They had supper in companionable fatigue. In spite of her naps Ellen seemed to still be exhausted from her ordeal.  Slade’s mind was full of tomorrow’s work.  As though they were companions of long standing, they cleared the table together and put things in their place.  Ellen began washing the dishes and Slade brought in several arms full of wood piling it not only in the wood box, but placing a sizable pile to the side of the fireplace.  Without asking, Ellen understood that the extra supply was being laid in for her to have tomorrow.

Using one of the bath towels from the night before, Ellen washed her face and hands.  Then turning to Slade as he came in from his last trip for wood, she told him, “I know I’ve slept most of the day, but I think I’ll go to bed.  I’m still so tired I can hardly think.  So, good night, Mr. Slade.”

She turned and climbed the ladder to her bed.

Slade banked the fires and refilled the coffee pot to have it ready for morning; then he moved a lamp to the corner of the cupboard beside the bed to read his Bible for a few minutes before sliding into bed.

It wasn’t yet daylight or even gray pre-dawn when Ellen heard soft rustlings below her bed.   She knew that Slade must be up preparing for his long day.  She hurried to comb out her tangled hair and twist it into some kind of order without taking time to make her usual tight braid.  Then she put on her dress and wrapped the big shawl around her in defense of the early morning chill.

Slade had gone out to the barn when she reached the bottom of the ladder.

The water in the coffee pot was coming to a boil. Ellen dipped warm water from the reservoir beside the fireplace and put a pot on the hot stove to boil for mush.  She quickly ground a couple scoops of coffee beans and dumped them into the boiling coffee pot, leaving it for a few moments as she took several pieces of roasted meat from the supply in her bundle and brought it to the table with the skillet.  She moved the boiling coffee from the direct heat to place the skillet over the coals in the stove.  

While the meat warmed in the skillet Ellen retrieved the plate of tortillas from the shelf and laid one over the cooking meat.  As soon as it was warmed through she rolled it in a cloth doing the same with another and another.  She turned the meat then sprinkled cornmeal slowly into the boiling water as she stirred it smooth.  With a little salt and added molasses the hot mush would be ready to eat when Slade returned from the barn.

 After rolling slices of meat in the heated tortillas Ellen wrapped them together in the cloth.  She brought one of the canteens from the pantry and rinsed it in hot water before she filled it with hot milky coffee sweetened the way she had already noticed Slade liked it.  The food and coffee might cool during his ride, but Slade would at least have something to keep him going through the long day. 

The grounds from the empty coffee pot were quickly dumped in the ashes so it could be refilled with warm water.  By the time Slade returned from the barn, coffee was again steeping and his dish of hot mush was waiting for him. 

“I’ll take care of the milk,” Ellen told him.  “You sit down here a minute and eat.”  Matching action to words she took the milk bucket from him and went through the process of straining the milk and cleaning the cloth and bucket.  The fresh milk went into the cold tank in the pantry and Slade poured his from the pitcher on the table.  She placed a couple slices of warmed venison on a plate beside him.

Smiling, she said, “My mother used to say that porridge wasn’t enough for a man who was going to work all day.  They needed meat she said.  So eat this too.  It will keep you warm for a long while.” 

In between bites of hot mush and milk, Slade ate pieces of sliced venison.  He was savoring the last few sips of coffee when he realized she still had not set down to eat her breakfast.

“I’m sorry.” He told her, “I had too much on my mind.  I should have waited for you.”

“No, now don’t you mind,” she said.  “I was busy.  I made this to go with you.  You will need something to eat today.  It isn’t snowing, but I know it’s cold out there and the wind will probably start blowing again.

“Here, this should go under your coat.”  She gave him the blanket padded canteen full of hot coffee.  “It’s hot now and it will help keep you warm while you keep it warm.  And these are tortillas wrapped around some venison.  They will taste good in a few hours.  I don’t know where you can carry them.” 

She stretched to put the strap of the canteen over his head and situate it on his side.  Slade just grinned at her and went to get his coat and scarf. He slid the package of tortillas under his shirt before he buttoned the coat.

She followed him to hold the open door as he went out.  Turning back to face her, Slade felt at a loss.  There seemed to be something missing in that parting moment. His arms felt suddenly empty, but after an awkward silence, he simply said, “I’ll see you at dark.”  He mounted his horse and rode out.  Fetcher bounced after him in the darkness.

Ellen stood in the open doorway watching him out of sight.  She had stood this same way watching her father and husband out of sight.  Something within her shuddered in portent.  Surely he would return.

The cabin was terribly empty.  Ellen went around cleaning up this and that.  The mush was poured into a bowl and set in the store room.  The remaining slice of venison was wrapped in a tortilla and with a cup of sweet milky coffee she took it to the chair that she had begun to think of as hers.   She sat down and leaned back, putting her feet up on the stool.  The venison-filled tortilla was good as she slowly ate it with sips of coffee.  The day stretched before her and she wondered how she would get through it.  Her common sense told her Slade would return as he had evidently done many times before.  Her experiences of the last year taunted her with a different forecast.

When her coffee was gone, she reached behind her and pulled the quilt around to cover herself.  The quilt was warm, the sheepskin soft and the fire flickered.  The candle that had lighted the table fluttered out in a random draft and Ellen fell asleep.

Slade rode through the coming dawn wondering at the feelings he kept uncovering so unexpectedly.  He had known Ellen only four days and that was including this early morning, not yet a full day.  He could picture in his mind her way of moving and doing the common things of the day. The way she rinsed the milk cloths and took them to shake in the fresh air before hanging them to dry.  The way she twisted escaping locks of hair to tuck it under them rest.  The sure way she went about some chores and the hesitant way she looked up at him from under lowered lashes when she was unsure of what to do.  The glance stopped just short of being fearful.

He remembered her thoughtfulness in small ways-the coffee that was hot and steaming before his chair when he came in from cold work outside, the scoop of butter melting into his corn mush when she put it in front of him.  He had noticed the room that was suddenly brightened with her cleaning although he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what she had done.  They were small things, but they had lifted him out of the dogged resolve he had built to get through each day until Jacob returned.

And then Slade recalled her slight weight as he had caught her off the horse that first night.  He recalled her dependence on him that night and during her emotional storm when she was learning to shoot his gun.  She was an absolute contradiction in terms shifting from determination and hidden strength to dejection and frailty.  Surely it was not physical strength that had brought her through the storm fleeing from Viejo.  She made no effort to impose herself on him and yet he was becoming more and more attached to her small person. 

He shook his head and rearranged his thoughts to deal with the cattle and the work for the day, but before he ever saw a cow Ellen had reappeared in his mind’s eye.

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