The cold streak ended and there were several days of milder weather. The ground snow melted off seemingly over night leaving a thin layer of mud that soon dried under a mild wind. Slade made another quick round of his cattle and returned to report that the cows were moving further up into the grassy slopes and that the water holes had remained open. There were big cat tracks on the western side, but he didn’t seem to be bothering the cattle. Everything was well before the next winter storm swept down from the northwest and froze the water in the buckets and swirled the smoke around their little recess between the rocks..
One morning as they came in laughing at the cold wind blowing bits of ice into their faces, Ellen said, “That certainly feels like Christmas weather out there. We’ll have to hang our stockings tonight!”
The thought gave them both a pause. Neither had any idea what the date was. It had to be well into December they decided. Ellen had run from el Viejo during the first hard storm of the year. As close as she could remember that had been toward the end November. She had now been at the Slade house for more than three weeks. It must be coming on toward Christmas. Or even past it.
“We will just have to pick a day in the next couple weeks to call Christmas.” Slade confirmed. “If this weather doesn’t break pretty soon, I’m going to have to go check the cattle, cold or no cold, wind or no wind. How about we say Christmas is ten days from now. We can get a few branches from the trees up on the hill to make the house look more festive and when I get back from the cattle check, it will be ‘Christmas’.”
Ellen laughed and began planning where they needed to put evergreen boughs and what they could use for a bit of color amid the branches.
“Well, then,” Slade chuckled. “We’d better get going. A trip up the hill for some greenery won’t take but a couple hours. How about we plan to do that tomorrow? Then we can do our decorating the next day and hopefully by then this wind will have died and I can go check on the cattle.”
Ellen clapped her hands. “Yes. That would be wonderful. This house could use some decorations over the fireplace and above the doors and windows! And—oh, someplace else! Let’s do it.” She hurried to the fireplace and grabbed a piece of charred branch from the side.
She pulled a flat piece of wood from the wood box and declared, “This will be our calendar!” Using the charred branch she drew fourteen boxes in two lines on the wood. Pointing to the first one she declared, “This will be tomorrow and this one,” she circled the last box, “will be Christmas!”
“Deal?” she asked, putting out her hand.
“Deal.” Slade answered, taking the proffered hand and shaking it firmly.
Laughing they went on about their morning’s work.
The following day, they hurried through the morning chores. Ellen put the kettle of ever-present beans on to cook and set the coffee pot ready to begin boiling as soon as they returned. Slade did the barn work and strained the milk. He carefully skimmed the cream off one of the previous days’ crocks and added it to their cream container. He poured the extra milk into Fetcher’s bowl so he could have a quick treat when they came back.
Ellen donned her winter weather outfit and Slade brought the horses to the door. He had the pack horse, too, with two pieces of canvas piled on the pack saddle.
“I thought we could roll the greenery on the canvas and tie it on the pack saddle. That would be better than trying to carry it. We don’t need a lot, but even a little will be a bother to carry on our horses.”
The pack horse blew through its nostrils and shook its head, enjoying the cold fresh air and being out going some where. The other horse, the cow and her big bull calf stomped around in the small corral above the barn as they started out slanting up across the hill.
Ellen had never been up this hillside into the higher mountain. The lower slope had juniper and bare trees, but as they climbed pines began to appear. They only climbed high enough to get to large trees that would not miss a couple branches taken here and there among them. They filled one canvas with pine branches and as they headed back toward the house, he clipped juniper branches from random trees. These he wrapped in the second piece of canvas. Turning in the saddle Slade looked back up the way they had come.
“There we did a good job. You can’t even notice where the branches came from. Jacob and Madeline and I always kept Christmas, but we never could see the sense of chopping down a tree out here. There are so few of them. And really the house wasn’t big enough to put a whole tree inside! We made do with branches.”
“I’m glad you thought of this.” Ellen responded. “We can enjoy our own Christmas, even if we don’t know for sure what the date is.”
“Of course,” Slade returned. “And really we don’t know when Christ was born. We can remember it any time we choose.”
Ellen looked at his with a puzzled frown. “We don’t?” She asked. “We really don’t know when he was born? Tia Margarita always acted as though God had written the date down on an Altar somewhere and said, ‘Remember this.’ I suppose, though, what matters is that He was born, not especially when.” She surprised herself and Slade with that bit of insight.
With another bit of joy bubbling up within him, Slade agreed.
They were home by a little after noon. The beans weren’t quite done, but they put the coffee on and had their favorite meal—cornbread and sweet coffee soup. Fetcher slurped up his milk in short order and flopped down on the bed under his drafty window.
Slade brought in a hammer and nails with some bits of twine he had saved from other things. They proceeded to hang branches over the fireplace and over each window and the door. They tacked wisps of pine along the beam of the loft. In a fit of silliness Ellen even insisted on putting some over Slade’s bed and above the pantry door.
“We have to have some pine around the whole house.” She maintained.
They had several pieces remaining when they finished. Slade had the inspiration of hanging them over the door on the outside. And their decorations were finished.
They sat down in the chairs before the fireplace looking around at their handiwork. “When I was a little girl back east,” Ellen remembered. “My mother would be sure to have colored papers and we would cut stars and balls and crosses, even a few moons from yellow and red and purple papers to hang on a tree and dangle from the doors and ceiling.. Once I tried making birds to fly from the strings, but I wasn’t too successful.” She stopped, wrapped in memories of a different time and place.
“Yes,” Slade remembered. “We used tiny pieces of paper that my brother and sisters and I cut for hours. Then we sprinkled it on the pine boughs to look like snow! We even sewed popped corn on long threads and draped it over the tree branches and around the room. We always had lots of corn.
“I had forgotten that.”
After a minute, he went on. “We should read Christmas accounts from the Bible every day for the next two weeks. And when we finish the Bible stories, we can tell each other stories we remember being when we were children.’
“After supper every evening, that would be good.” Ellen agreed.
They sat in silence and in a bit Ellen realized the Slade had drifted off to sleep. She leaned her head back on the soft sheepskin and quilt and soon slept too. The morning in the cold had taken its toll.
While Slade was doing chores that evening, Ellen began thinking of a gift for him. They had not discussed gifts, only decorations and bible stories, but Christmas had always included gifts, no matter how small, for Ellen. She thought and thought but she had nothing to use as a gift, nothing with which she could make a gift. She seemed to be at a deadlock.
Then when Slade returned he solved two problems—one that had been bothering him, one that had perplexed her.
“Remember,” he said as he came in from the cold with a bucket of milk and an empty water bucket. “Remember that ribbon we found in Madeline’s bundle of cloth? There were several different colors. Why can’t we use some red and gold or white…whatever colors we have… and tie some bows on the branches here and there?!”
Ellen spun around from where she was tending the stew for supper. “I remember! I even brought some down to trim the curtains a bit! Then we got involved with other things and I forgot it!” She hurried to the shelves over the desk and took down two paper packets. “Look!” Red and gold! Red for the blood Jesus was born to shed and gold for the crown of life!”
Slade had to stop and catch his breath, not because she had remembered the ribbons, but because she had embraced the whole reason for Christ’s coming in one breath.
“Wonderful!” He exclaimed. “We can put them up after we eat.”
Slade was as good as his word and after supper brought out scissors, nails and the hammer again.
“Eli Slade!” Ellen exclaimed. “You do not put up pretty ribbons with nails. Nor are you going to cut these ribbons up into little pieces! After we use them here we can still use them to trim a dress or table cloth!”
Slade looked at her in blank astonishment. He didn’t think she even remembered his full name. He had introduced himself to her as “Slade” and later added his given name, “Eli.” She had always called him “Slade” or “Mr. Slade.” After a few days of calling her “Mrs. Aguilar” he had switched to ‘Miss Ellen” and that was the way things had remained. Hearing his full name from her lips gave him a strange warm feeling in his chest. His mother had spoken with the same affectionate scolding tone to his father when he had done something thoughtless.
She had turned to wipe the table clean of any food spots and wiped it dry with her dish towel. (Early on after she had come, some of the flour sacks had been designated ‘dish towels’ or ‘dish cloths.’ Those and their bath things were the ones she had hemmed. He wasn’t allowed to use them for any other purpose. “There’s a whole stack of those to use to clean your ‘whatevers’ with. Don’t use the dish ones.”) She unfolded her packets and spread the ribbons across the table. There were several pieces of about a yard or two in length in each color. She held a red one up and turned slowly deciding where to put it.
“I think a red one over each window and two gold ones over the fireplace with a red one in the middle.” She dampened each one with her fingers and carefully pressed the folds out of them so they lay flat across the table to dry. Within a few minutes she was draping each piece in graceful loops along the top of the windows amid the pine and juniper, with little bows at every point. Disturbing the evergreen again filled the house with a fresh burst of fragrance.
The second problem that was solved for Ellen was the source of a gift for Slade. She could use one of the pieces of cloth from the bundle for a shirt!
She could hardly wait to begin! Finding a time to do it was the problem! He was always there. She managed to find a nice piece of heavy flannel and pull out the necessary thread and buttons. There was even a piece of tailor’s chalk, but two days later she was still hiding them in the loft with no chance to work on the shirt.