Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Helping Hands Chapter 23

ELLEN WOKE WITH A SENSE OF URGENCY.  She sat up and looked around.  It didn’t seem too late.  The gray of early morning filled the loft.  She rubbed both hands over her face and pushed the sleep from her eyes.

Aaah!  They had guests!  And probably guests who were used to rising with the sun!  She piled out of bed, flipping the covers back in place and pulling her night dress over her head.  Very shortly she was dressed and dragging the comb through her hair without her usual carefulness.  She twisted the hair into a long coil and secured it on the back of her head with the stick. 

She hurried down the ladder to find Joseph sitting at the table with Slade chatting over coffee. 

“Why didn’t you wake me!”  She cried to them.  “I had no idea you were up!”     

“We didn’t wake you because we were being very careful not to.”  Slade told her.  “Joseph filled the coffee pot and I ground the beans.  When the water boiled we added the ground coffee and it cooked all by itself.”  Slade’s eyes twinkled and Joseph had a grin on his thin face. 

“Then Joseph got the milk and sugar so we could fix our cups.

“And before you ask, the last time he checked a few minutes ago, the grandparents are still sleeping.  They were exhausted from the last few days.

“So, any more questions?  Coffee, maybe?”  He poured a cup and offered it to her.

Ellen accepted the coffee and poured milk and sugar into it.  “What are your grandparents used to eating?” She asked Joseph.  “I want to fix them things they will like.”

“We have been eating whatever we could find,” he told her.  “They have not been feeling too good because their stomach is old for some things.  They like corn, boiled corn, ground corn, baked corn, almost any way you can fix it.  I will find them rabbits and maybe prairie dogs.  Those are easy to eat for them.  If you can cook them.  Or I will cook them.”  Joseph stopped, worried that he had been too bold.

“I want to fix them whatever they can get strong again on.  If you bring me rabbits, I will cook rabbits for them, but we have plenty of beef and still some bacon.  They shouldn’t have to worry about food.”  Ellen said. 

“This morning I have ground corn.  I can make them some cooked mush and they can put milk on it.  We like it that way.”  She set her coffee cup on the table and went to put water on to boil for the mush. In a few minutes she was ready to stir the moistened cornmeal into the bubbling water. 

As the cornmeal thickened she thought to add some milk and sugar to the mixture.  She wasn’t sure they would like the milk on the mush, but the milk in the cooked meal would give them extra energy and strength. The sugar would give extra flavor, too.

“I will scoop some out for Mr. Slade and myself,” she told Joseph, “and you can carry the pot to the house.  That way it will stay warm by the fire if they aren’t awake yet.  Shall I make more coffee for them or can you do that over there?”

“I can make coffee.” Joseph answered.  “They will be happy with the food, I know.  I will come back to help with the barn.”  Joseph hurried out carrying the heavy kettle of mush.

Ellen sat down across from Slade.  Company was good, but having only the two of them was better. They joined hands for prayer.  Breakfast went down quickly and Ellen jumped up to tend to the barn work, leaving the breakfast clutter to be cleaned up later.  Sarah was waiting.  She had been a most patient cow for the last few weeks.

Joseph met her on the steps of the porch. She noticed he was wearing only his shirt and pants without any kind of jacket or coat. He had evidently given all the warm clothes for his grandparents.

 Ellen made a mental note to ask Slade if there was another coat or shirt someplace they could give him.  

They released the home horses to the field where they could fend for themselves.  Ellen hesitated to give the thin mare any more of their corn supply but with the other stock going out each day they could afford to be generous with the hay.   Before Ellen milked she showed Joseph how they cleaned the pens and stacked the refuse to freeze into hard pats for distributing to the garden.  Perhaps, she thought, that could be a task for Joseph later in the day-after she found something warmer for him to wear.  Quite a pile of barn waste had accumulated and only the shade of the barn kept it frozen during the day.

While Joseph cleaned the barn, Ellen milked Sarah and then lowered the rails and herded her and the calf out the doors.  The last task for the morning was giving the Thin Horse a supply of water.  Ellen suspected that part of the thinness was due to dehydration rather than a lack of food.  There was grass available everywhere, but water was sometimes hard to find,

ELLEN looked up as she heard the sound of feet on the porch.  It wasn’t yet daylight but Joseph and his grandfather, called Slim Man, were ready to head out for their bi-weekly trip to check on the cattle.  The first week Ellen had accompanied Joseph and Fetcher on the trek around the cattle sites.  After that Joseph had gone alone with only Fetcher for company. Then one morning, Slim Man had shown up to go along. 

True to her determination the first day of his stay with them, Ellen had searched through the house and with Slade’s direction had found two heavy shirts that Jacob had left when he started his summer trip back to Indiana.  Joseph wore his as it was, outsized and belted around the waist.  For Slim Man, Ellen had taken the shirt apart and cut it down, not only was he slim but he was also shorter than Jacob.  

For outer wear, Slim Man used his blanket with the slit cut in the center for his head.  She and Slade had sacrificed one of the house blankets to make a heavy vest for Joseph.  He asked for her to make that instead of a coat; he liked his arms free and preferred only the heavy shirt for protection against the wind.  Ellen had cut the garment with a high wide collar to pull up around his ears and cut out the wind. The hem reached below his hips for additional warmth.  She made it with a double thickness for better insulation.   

Now with their warm clothes, they were accomplished hands and faced weather, wildlife and cows without reservation. 

Ellen poured them coffee from her pot and shoved the plate of cornbread toward them.  “I know The One who Laughs made you breakfast, but surely you can eat some cornbread with some coffee.” She teased them, knowing that they were almost as partial to the combination as Slade was.  “I almost have your lunches ready.”  Ellen always packed them a mid-day lunch as she had for Slade on his trips. 

Slim Man took his coffee and crumbled the cornbread into it.  Then he picked up a spoon and took it to squat by the fireplace.  Joseph sat down in the chair beside Ellen to eat his coffee soup.

Slade stood propped against his staff, pouring hot coffee into the canteens.  He added milk and sugar and pushed the plugs in tightly.   While Ellen wrapped the tortillas and meat in a cloth he moved around to sit in the big chair opposite Slim Man.  His leg was nearly healed.  He used the staff more from habit than from necessity—and also to make Ellen, who still worried about him, happy.  

When their coffee was finished, Joseph shoved the packet of tortillas under his vest, above his belt. They hung the canteens over their heads.

Ellen and Slade stepped out on the porch to watch them as they rode off toward the rising sun.  Ellen peeked around the corner of the house to the doorway of the ‘dobe where the One Who Laughs stood watching the men. 

Ellen’s mind went back to the day after they had arrived.  One Who Laughs, Ellen hadn’t known her name then, had asked Joseph to bring Ellen to her bedside. According to the tradition of her people she wanted to make arrangements for their stay.  Joseph  translated what the lady had to say:  She thanked Ellen for her kindness and expressed her gratitude for the food and warm house.  The ‘dobe, she said, was so good that she felt much at home, but she would not be able to return to her house until she had re-gained much strength.

“I realize,” she said, “that your man is crippled…”  Ellen lost track of everything that was said after that.  Two things hit her at the same time: first Slade wasn’t really crippled, he was injured and second, he wasn’t ‘her’ man. 

Then in an overwhelming flash of insight, she realized that he was her man.  He had taken her in out of the storm and cold when she was nearly dead.  He had given her safety and security after her months of fear and pain.  She had braved the unknown dangers of the dark going find him when he hadn’t returned from his cattle round.  She had struggled home with his broken body through the black of deep night following Fetcher’s flash of white leading her.  She had coped with getting him to bed where she bandaged his broken bones and cared for him until he was recovered. 

They had become a team without planning it.  She would fight to stay beside him regardless of circumstances.  Without vows or a wedding ring, he was her man in a deeper way than Alejandro had ever been! 

Ellen returned to reality in time to hear Joseph relaying his grandmother’s proposal that they remain in the little house until they were strong again.  They had no white man money but she wanted to know if Joseph could work on the ranch in pay for their house some food.    Too preoccupied with her new realization to even spend more time talking, Ellen agreed without a second thought. That was what she and Slade had proposed. It Joseph had been doing already.

She had hurried back to the house to share her new awareness with Slade, but when she came in to the room and saw him sitting at the table carving, she was overcome with shyness and lost her enthusiasm.  Instead she had related the arrangements she had just agreed with and kept her amazing secret hidden away.

The weeks had followed one after the other. Joseph kept to their agreement faithfully; he had more than fulfilled his end of the bargain.  Between his cattle herding trips, he repaired the buildings; he had fixed the fences and even extended them in some places to enlarge the pasture lands.  He had taken the poles stacked by the barn and begun the fence on the northwest of the garden. From time to time he brought meat he had hunted along the way—not only rabbits and prairie dogs for his grandparents, but venison and wild sheep or goats from the mountain.  Ellen had remonstrated with him a couple times because of his hard work, but he continued to find things to do around the ranch.   When he regained his strength Slim Man had begun finding things to do that helped around the barn and garden.

When Joseph and his grandfather had disappeared around the rise, Ellen and Slade went back inside.   She had a skillet of chopped meat and tomatoes that she had simmering for their breakfast.  She moved the candles to the side of the table to put the skillet in the center with the plate of tortillas and the coffee pot.

Slade smiled as he sat down. 

“Cornbread and coffee for Joseph and Slim Man.  My favorite tortilla topping! This is a good day!”  Slade pulled his plate across the table and picked up the coffee pot to fill their cups.  Ellen sat down across from him and they said their morning prayers.

“I do have an ulterior motive for your favorite dish.”  She told him when they had finished.  “I want to remind you that I need to get into Santa Fe.  It is my responsibility to take care of the Aguilar property.  I have to let Alejandro’s family in Spain know of his death.  I don’t know what has happened since I escaped from Viejo.  That grant is in the Aguilar name and I don’t think I have any right to it, but Don Francisco had two brothers who would be next in line for the property I would believe. 

‘You said that you would try to take me there in the spring.  So… This is a small bribe.”  She motioned toward the tortilla wrapped meat she had just prepared for him. “Will you begin to think about it?  I mean I know you aren’t walking yet, but maybe before too long?

“Ahhh I see.” Slade said.  He took a big bite of his tortilla and scooped a couple pieces of meat from his plate, giving himself time to pull his heart back up from his toes.  He chewed carefully and sipped his coffee.  “The weather has been holding clear now for a while, the cattle are doing well and Joseph has been bringing the fresh cows and new calves in to the natural reservoir to the southeast. They should do well there.  They won’t wander from the good grazing and water.

“We will have to get those to the west trailed down the little river to the lowlands.   I think Joseph may have already started that.  Once they are in the bottoms they will stay for most of the summer close to water and good grass.  

“Let’s give it two weeks and we should make our trip to Santa Fe.” 

Slade hated to say the words.  They meant Ellen was leaving. He knew she had a responsibility to her dead husband and the holdings in the Aguilar name.  There was no one else to carry them out. Even though the holding had been ravaged by the bandits the land, the house and the out buildings still had tremendous value. It would be possible to rebuild the Rancho without too much effort on the part of the new proprietors.

Ellen needed to be there to notify the appropriate people.

And yet. . . Yet it meant she would leave this little cluster of buildings against the hills. And probably not return.  There was the sticking point—His Ellie would leave.

His pleasure went out of the special dish. The rising sun did nothing to lighten his day.  Slade sat silent while Ellen spoke of what they would need for the trip and how soon it could happen.

When Ellen had hurried through straightening the kitchen she pulled her old skirt from the hook.  She swung the big coat around her shoulders but neglected to close it.  The weather had cleared, but it was far from warm.  Slade stood and went to put his own coat on.

“What are you doing!?”  Ellen exclaimed.

“I’m going to the barn to help with the work.”  Slade calmly continued getting his jacket.

“You can’t do that!  You’ll strain your leg!”  The memory of their ‘Christmas’ night ordeal and the extra days it required to regain the progress he’d already made in the healing of his leg was her recurring nightmare. What if the damage had been too severe?  What if he had to use the stick indefinitely?  What if he walked with a permanent limp? What if he couldn’t sit a horse?  What if, What if?  “Stay here! I’ll do the barn work!  You will hurt your leg again.”

Ellen clung to his arm, but Slade took both of her hands in his, leaning the staff against the wall.

“No, Ellie.  I’ve taken a lot of extra days with that staff just to keep from worrying you, but my leg is fine.  There is no pain. I’ve been walking to the outhouse on my own now for a couple weeks.  I can get around the house without the staff at all.  I’m sure you’ve seen me, if you will only think back."

He took her face in his hands.  “Look at me.  You do remember, don’t you?  You have noticed me walking without that stick.  Haven’t you?  And I don’t limp.  You will know that if you just think.”

Tears welled in Ellen’s eyes. Now that she thought of it she had seen him walking. And she had seen that he had no limp. She was afraid to see him walking.  It meant he was healthy.  It meant she didn’t have any more reason to stay here.  In spite of her words earlier, she hated to leave the little house. She hated to leave Eli!

“All right.” She conceded.  “But use you staff, please?” 

Slade moved his hands from her face to her shoulders and then hugged her briefly.

“I promise,” he said.

They took the milk bucket and went to the barn. Slade carried his staff; he didn’t lean on it, but used it with a jaunty swagger emphasizing his walk.

Slade set his staff aside to clean Sarah’s pen while Ellen milked.  She watched him move out of the corner of her eye.  The leg was strong and there was no limp. 

When she straightened from milking she turned to Slade.

“Look at this,” she held the bucket out to him. “This is hardly worth working for.”  There were about two pints in the bottom of the bucket.

Slade shook his head.  “I should have been keeping track of this.  Poor Sarah, she is due to have her calf in a few weeks.  We should have let her go dry long ago.  We’ll have to make this her last milking.”   He grinned ruefully.  “I’ll hate to lose the fresh milk.”

“Turn her out. She’ll enjoy the freedom.”  He pulled the bar from the stall and Ellen slapped Sarah’s rump. They watched her sway out the door and into the freedom of the pasture with the bull calf following. 

“I’ll have Joseph drive one of those young bulls in so we can get her bred a while after she calves.”  He grinned.  “Maybe next year we’ll have two cows to milk.”   And he stopped.  It didn’t matter how many cows; Ellen wouldn’t be here.

He turned and picked up the bar to replace it.

Ellen had taken the milk to the house.

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