She smiled to herself as she stretched and shoved the warm blankets back. How long had it been since she had been able to awaken without a sense of dread or fear? The knitted stockings were wadded in her bed where they had come off during the night. She pulled them back on, folding and twisting them snuggly just below her knee. She tucked the knot into the fold. Her hair seemed even wilder this morning than it had been the night before. Its slight dampness then had given her some control. Now it was fully dry and the curls coiled wildly in every direction. She pulled her braid apart and took up the comb the man had given her. She began combing each section until finally there was a semblance of order. Lacking any pins she braided it again into a heavy plait over one shoulder. The tight curls held the strands in place.
Standing up she straightened her shift and shook her gown out from where it had been folded during the night. After the bother of bringing her hair to order, the chill was beginning to seep into her. Shivering, she pulled the heavy gown over her head and again wrapped the shawl around her shoulders and crossed it in front. Once the ends were secure behind her back she was warmer and ready to go down the ladder.
The Man, as she still unconsciously considered him, was sitting at the table. In front of him were a cup of coffee and a plate of cornbread. To one side there was an empty bowl and spoon. He also had the heavy pitcher of milk sitting on the table. There was an open book lying to his left.
“Good morning,” came his surprised voice. “I was expecting you to sleep longer! The snow is still falling and we’ll have no company today to worry about. You should rest longer.” As she came across the room he was collecting a cup of coffee for her. Warmth radiated from both the stove and the fire place. Usually he allowed one to die down after the first chill was off the cabin, but this morning he had kept both burning in anticipation of driving out her deep chill from the night before.
“Sit here. I’ve made corn bread. It isn’t the best, but only what I can do. It fills the cold spot in my stomach when I come in from taking care of the animals.” Slade slid the iron spider across the table and placed a plate beside it.
Ellen stood undecidedly to the end of the table. It had been months since she had sat a table and been given food. She was accustomed to serving Viejo and his men then eating the scraps and the leavings. She had spent her days in fear of their sudden appearances coming and going. Although her days with her father and Alejandro had been gracious and pleasant, the memory of them was buried beneath the abuse and horror of the past months. She found her self uncomfortable and anxious now that the desperation and cold of her trip was past. When she felt that further hesitation on her part would be impolite she forced herself to sit down.
“You can help yourself. I don’t know how much you will want. Go ahead. I’ll get some butter for your cornbread.” He left for the pantry again and returned with a small covered crock.
Ellen stared in amazement at the butter. She hadn’t seen butter for many, many months maybe a few years! Alejandro’s family wasn’t given to making or eating butter and milk cows had been few and far between. The half wild rangy beef cattle they raised were not partial to sharing their milk with humans and it had little cream to it anyway.
She wrapped her hands around the hot cup and sipped at the black coffee. Within seconds she realized that before she could do anything else she would have to find the outhouse. Her face flushed a deep red. How on earth could she ask this stranger where she could go to use the toilet?
“A-a-a-h. I’m going to need,” she stopped gulped and finished in a rush. “I’m going to need the facility to relieve myself before anything else,” she finished as carefully as possible, praying he would understand her meaning.
As embarrassed as Ellen was, Slade was even more ill at ease. Men and women of brief acquaintance simply did not discuss private bodily needs.
“Oh, of course! I should have thought--” He looked out the window for a quick moment. “We will have to go out—Let me find you--.” Slade realized that he was speaking in fragments and simply closed his mouth. He hurried to the armoire and rummaged in the bottom. From its depths he pulled a pair of sturdy women’s boots. They looked to be too large for his guest’s small feet, but perhaps the heavy socks-- He gave up in despair. He wasn’t even able to think complete thoughts. In all of his twenty-nine years, Slade had never been so ill at ease and confused by a woman.
“See if these will work. You can’t wear the shoes you had when you arrived. The snow is simply too deep. These aren’t very high but they will tie tight enough to protect your feet maybe.”
Ellen accepted the boots with relief. She had dreaded wading through the deep snow in her light footwear but her need for the toilet simply couldn’t be put off. After tying the boots, she stood and went to the pile of clothes she had left by the fireplace. The one skirt was filthy; one of the other two was perhaps clean enough for her to put them over her night dress and protect it from the wet. She buttoned the skirt around her waist, keeping her back to the room. Although she was adding clothing, rather than removing it, the process still seemed immodest.
Slade took her heavy coat from the hook where he had replaced it. It had dried well in the heat of the fire. He shook it thoroughly again and held it for Ellen to slip into. There was room for two of her in its folds, but it wrapped warmly around her and she secured the sash. While she was tying her scarf around her head and neck, Slade shrugged into his own long jacket. He tied a loop of the muffler up over the crown of his hat to prevent the wind from taking it and wrapped the ends around his neck. Finally he tucked them inside his coat collar.
“Wait,” he said. “Two birds with one stone…” Again a fragment of thought, taking a deep breath he tried again and said, “I’ll take along some more water for the stock as we go.” He suited action to words and appeared a few minutes later with two buckets of water.
He set them outside the door. A blast of wind-blown snow cooled the room. Ellen hurried through the door without being asked.
“You’ll have to hold to my jacket.” He told her. “We have to walk straight across the yard here to the barn. I can’t risk you getting separated in the snow. Visibility is not good at all.”
This last was patently obvious to Ellen. Even though she knew the barn was not far off, she could not make it out in the morning glare of whirling of snow. She grasped a fold of his jacket.
The boots were every bit as effective as they appeared. The heavy knitted stockings protected her legs from the bite of the piles of snow. They stepped off the porch down into the deep snow.
Slade walked ahead, kicking the drifts to the left and right making a narrow path for her to walk in behind him. When he suddenly stopped, Ellen realized they had come to the barn.
“Now, we turn left here and follow the fence until we come to the outhouse.” He leapt into the awkwardness with both feet. There was no helping some things. There were any number of euphemisms for the out house and the processes that took place inside, but straightforwardness was perhaps the best course. Setting the buckets before the barn door, he led the way down the fence. He stopped when the little building was just visible through the snow.
“I need to give the animals water and throw down a bit more hay. Can you find your way back to the barn? Just keep your hand on the wall and then the fence. You’ll soon come to the barn and then the door. Can you do that?”
Ellen was beyond words. Not only had she asked a virtual stranger to take her to a toilet, but now he was politely leaving her to take care of her needs there. She could only nod her understanding. She watched Slade turn and hurry back along the fence before she slipped around the corner and into the shelter of the tiny building. She had evidently embarrassed him, too.
It was the work of only a few minutes to finish up in the outhouse. She came out with a tremendous feeling of relief. At least she would not have to speak to Mr. Slade again regarding her personal needs in this area. True to her instructions, she slid her hand along the wall of the building until she felt the fence. Touching the fence as she stepped in the already almost hidden path, she soon came to the barn and easily found the door.
Slade was adding another small forkful of hay to the pile already in the corner of the new horse pen. Someday soon he would have to make another manger for them if this sort of winter continued. They wasted too much hay feeding from the floor. The extra horses and any more snow would use his stock of hay too fast. He was startled from his thoughts by the rattle of the latch. His self absorption had been disturbed by the arrival of another human being. He leaned on the fork and grinned as Ellen came in.
A sense of orneriness took over his courtesy and common sense. “Feel better?” He teased her and then regretted his words as they left his mouth
To his amusement, she blushed, but returned his joking in kind. “You will never know,” she answered.
“How are my girls?” She asked, changing the subject. “Are they doing all right?” Ellen walked to the makeshift stall where her horses had their heads over the bar nibbling at the hay. Their covers had been shed during the night but their backs were dry and warm. They appeared to have suffered no permanent damage from their hard trek through the cold. As Ellen ducked under the bar and continued patting them and rubbing the roughness from their coats she stopped suddenly.
“Look at this!” She exclaimed pointing to the packhorse’s shoulder. “This is the Aguilar brand! The big A! Viejo brought home one of our own horses! I don’t even have to worry he will accuse me of horse stealing! Maybe he even had it put away in some little canyon hiding it from his men! But here she is!
“And my own horse found her way home one night. I don’t know how those greedy men missed finding her. My little bahia. My little Bay! That’s what I call her, Bay, my Roja.” She patted the horse a bit more vigorously and scratched her ears.
She continued patting the horses and then moved to the red and white cow who accepted her attention with the aplomb of a dowered queen. Slade picked up the soil in the various pens and piled it near the door to be hauled out when the weather broke. He laid each pile separately to allow it to freeze in small pats. The few that were already frozen he stacked together.
The two talked companionably. Although Ellen had lived on the big rancho, she had never done anything in caring for any of the animals except her horse. Even then the day to day routines of the stable had not been her responsibility. The Aguilar ranch had kept no cattle inside although they had a few pigs in an attached pen and Tia Margarita had demanded that her chickens be cared for scrupulously. They were the source of the eggs she used in special dishes for their table.
As a result, Ellen was full of questions about the work and why various things were as they were. She tried her hand at scooping the manure from the pens and carrying each pile to the door of the barn. Eli guarded his precious supply of corn and would not give in to her good humored pestering for treats to give the animals. She joked over the thin film of ice forming on the buckets still sitting by the door and broke it with the handle of a shovel. She picked up one bucket and carried it to her horses refusing to admit that the large full bucket was almost more than she could carry. Her reward was seeing the horses sip politely from the bucket. There was still a bit left which she offered to the horses in the other pen.
“I thought they would drink more, eating all this hay!” she told Slade.
“They already had a bucket full apiece before you woke up.” He grinned at her. “Some people were up working before dawn, you know.”
She took his joking in good turn, laughing up at him. “Just wait! Tomorrow, I’ll be up with you! I’m not used to sleeping in. I’ll have coffee ready before you even get up tomorrow.”