“All right,” he said. “We’ll see. Now it’s time to get bundled up again. We still need to brave the blizzard!” He picked up the scarf he had laid aside while he was working. He re-wrapped his head and neck, tying his hat on as before.
Ellen also tied her sash more securely and put the scarf back around her head stuffing the ends inside her coat. Taking up one of the empty buckets she was ready to follow Slade back to the house.
As they stepped out the door, Fetcher came bounding through the snow from whatever adventures he had been pursuing out side. His heavy coat was caked with snow and his nose had obviously been used as a snow plow.
“Well somebody likes this snow anyway,” Ellen exclaimed patting his broad head. Fetcher’s tongue lolled even in the cold air and his frosted breath whipped away in the wind.
“Oh yes. He loves the snow!” Slade returned. “I got him in
one year. There was a Spaniard there with a huge white and gray dog. She had 12 pups that he was trying to get off his hands. He called her a Mountain Dog. The pups, he said, should have more white. So he was giving away the pups. I took Fetcher. The man didn’t like the grizzled look on his face and ears, said he had too much color. I think he looks just like his mother except darker. She had solid gray spots around her ears then white all over. He is more like speckled black. Santa Fe
“Whatever he is, he has the courage of a lion and the heart of a teddy bear!” Fetcher knew they were talking about him and leapt around like a puppy. One hundred and fifty pounds of dog knocking against her legs nearly sent Ellen flying. She grabbed at Slade’s arm in desperation. He laughed and caught her easily, shoving the dog aside with a sharp command.
Fetcher subsided and nosed Ellen’s waist in apology. She patted his head and all was forgiven. The big tail waved gently.
As they got sorted around, Slade spoke seriously. “If you ever need to come out,” he stopped for a second of reserve and then continued. “If you ever have to come out alone,” he paused again, leaving a definite indication of where she would be going. “You will be fairly safe crossing straight toward the barn. You can’t get lost going that direction. The barn has fence on both sides. One direction or the other you will run into something and need to only turn left to find something familiar.
“Coming back to the house is a different story though. If you miss the house there is nothing but open land for I don’t know how many miles. I don’t know if I could ever find you. So always take the dog along if there is a storm. He will take you right back to the house. If you are afraid you will lose sight of him, just hold his ruff. But he’s a born shepherd and I doubt he’ll let you get lost. Remember now. Follow the dog!” He grinned and then took her hand to put it on a fold in the back of his jacket again. “Even if it isn’t storming, taking Fetcher is a good idea. He’ll take care of you!
“As soon as it stops snowing, I’ll shovel a path, but for now try to walk in the tracks I make…” And they headed to the house.
As they stepped into the warmth of the house, the sense of awkwardness settled over them again. In the wild wind and among the animals the restraints of social rules had seemed unimportant, but once again in what could be considered formal circumstances the fetters of conformity settled back. When Slade stepped up to help her with her coat, he was struck by the fact that she was still wearing Madeline’s nightdress under the shawl and outer skirt. And Ellen wondered at her own boldness in permitting a strange man to be so close to her in such an intimate situation. She left him standing with her coat as she nearly leapt away. She quickly unwound the scarf from around her head and returned it to the rod on the wall.
Slade hung her coat, shrouded in his own sense of awkwardness.
Only Fetcher knew no restraint. His wagging tail flung bits of icy water across the room and even into the faces of the two who stood so stiffly. Even after his enthusiastic shake on the porch, he chose that moment to rotate his head so vigorously that his ears flapped against his face and even more water flew. His antics gave both people in the cabin reason to laugh and some of their embarrassment abated.
“I dug some things out of the chest this morning,” Slade spoke in a rush. “I know your clothes are probably too wet or dirty to wear so I thought perhaps one of Madeline’s dresses would help. I believe she was a bit taller and heavier than you, but perhaps you can make it work.”
He quickly hung his own jacket and slipped off his boots. In his stocking feet he went to the chest at the far wall where there were dresses lying. He brought them back to Ellen.
As he handed her the heavy pile of cloth, Slade came to the realization that this woman affected him as no other ever had. He found himself wanting to see the hesitant lifting of her eyes to his face and the soft flush that persisted in staining her cheeks.
“Ohh,” She breathed in delight and took the dresses. “Oh, they are wonderful! But I can not take your wife’s dresses. I’m sure they hold memories for you.” Even as her hands stroked the heavy cotton she tried to hand it back to him.
“No, no, no. They weren’t my wife’s.” For some reason it was important that she know he hadn’t been married. “Those things belonged to my sister-in-law. She died a couple years ago. My brother left to tell her father.” Slade realized he hadn’t given his absent brother a thought all morning—indeed, hardly since this woman had come into his life. “This was her cabin. I lived in the little adobe one behind this.” He grinned at her. “You haven’t seen it because of the storm.
“Why don’t you go see if one of those will fit you and then while you eat I’ll tell you all about it.”
With a smile that threatened to stop his heart, Ellen agreed.
“I’ll be back in just a minute. Heat up the coffee! And don’t hide that butter. I’m going to eat half of the crock! I’ll be right back!” She ran a few steps toward the ladder and stopped. “These boots will have to come off first! I’ll probably fall if I try climbing with them on.”
She sat down in the chair and pulled them off. The big stockings slid partway off with the boots, but she pulled them back up and rushed back to the ladder. Madeline’s boots lay randomly on the hearth.
Slade grinned to himself as he picked them up and set them back by the wall.
In the warm and cozy loft, the light from the fireplace still reflected off the beams above her and the gray light of day made its way in the windows below. She hurried to her bed and sat cross-legged on her blankets. The heavy shawl was untied and tossed to the end of the bed. She piled the dirty wet skirt on the floor. The night dress followed the shawl.
Shivering in only her shift with only one of Madeline’s petticoats Ellen wished for her fine stays and flounced petticoats, long lost in the ruin of her house. Unfolding the dresses she looked at them in the dim light. One seemed to be soft green with buttons in the front. Lacking anyone to button up the back of a dress, the front buttons were a welcomed find! Otherwise it was a plain dress with a round collar and long sleeves. The sleeves had a nice cuff with a button! How nice! It would allow her to roll the sleeves up when she was working! The second dress must have been Madeline’s best one. This one also had buttons in front but it was fancier with tucking down to the waist and lace on the collar. The sleeves on this one were fitted to the wrists and had a matching lace around the hem. Ellen stroked the deep magenta color of it and folded it carefully. She laid it aside. The third was heavy cotton, dark blue with sprigs of flowers scattered across it. There were buttons in the front, but no collar, only a pretty scooped yoke with a white piping along the curving seam. It had elbow sleeves and Ellen thought it perfect for every day work.
She determined to get her own things washed as soon as possible so she could return these to the chest. Madeline’s husband would be returning and might take offense at a strange woman in his wife’s clothing.
Ellen slipped into the blue dress. Like that of the night dress, the hem rested on the ground all around. The sleeves were almost too long, coming down over the top of her hands and the waist was loose around her body. For the time it would certainly do. Since she would continue wearing the shawl tied around her waist because of the cold, the extra length could be pulled up slightly to avoid tripping her.
Once the dress was on, she draped the shawl over her shoulders again. The night dress was spread neatly on the stack of boxes that formed a partial wall of her ‘room.’ Its damp hem would be dry by nightfall. As she straightened her bed again, she smiled at the consideration Mr. Slade had shown in filling the flour bag with the two fluffy rabbit furs. It had been so comfortable last night she hadn’t noticed what it was made of. What a kind thought!
Leaving the shawl loose and grabbing the dirty skirt, she hurried to the ladder and started down. The climbing down process was made more difficult by the extra length and width of the skirt. She had to be careful of entangling her feet in the material. When she reached the bottom she was surprised to find Slade standing close by.
At her little cry of surprise he laughed. “I thought I might have to catch you the first time you caught your toe in that hem!” He told her.
“And I would have been thankful if you had! I was worrying about the same thing myself. I’m afraid Madeline really was a little taller and heavier that I am.” She so forgot herself as to joke with him. “Of course, after I’ve eaten a few real meals I may fill out the width a little better.”
“I believe I have an Indian belt here somewhere. Let me look.” As he suited actions to words, Ellen folded her skirt and laid it back in its place by the fireplace.
She went to the stove and using a piece of cloth from the table lifted the lid of the small iron pot that had appeared on the stove since she had gone up the ladder. The intricacies of taking care of the milk may have been outside of her experience, but she did know how to manage a pot of cornmeal mush. Ellen stirred the gently bubbling mixture and lifted a spoonful to dip her finger into it. It was almost finished cooking, but tasting it demonstrated how badly it needed salt and maybe a little sugar. Or butter! Butter would be wonderful. After the years of having no butter, Ellen was in serious danger of using up Slade’s entire supply in one meal!
“Do you have salt?” She asked of Slade’s back. Once more his face was buried in the armoire. He had both doors of the closet open and was making frustrated sounds. Emerging from its depths, he pointed to the open shelves where the dishes were stored.
“There’s a blue jar there with a lid. It has the salt in it.” He secured the doors of the wardrobe and moved to the battered chest at the foot of the bed. In it he finally located the strip of woven material.
“Ahh! Here it is! I knew it was somewhere. I got this from an Indian who came by one day.” The belt was perhaps an inch wide or slightly more. Both ends had long tassels. It was long enough to go around her twice and still tie with several inches hanging free.
“It was a young guy.” Slade went on. “I don’t know what he was doing. Spoke a bit of Spanish and a little English. I guess he was just exploring. He wanted some of my water but I offered him some dinner, too, and he accepted. We sat and talked a while. He camped out there by the rocks and we had coffee in the morning. When he left he gave me this. Nice guy.
“Anyway, I’ve just kept it around. Now maybe we have a use for it.” He watched fondly as she took the belt and stretched it between her hands. It was red with a fine white and yellow design in the center. Along either side was a narrow white stripe.
She grinned at him. “Not exactly matching colors, but a pretty contrast on this blue. I like it and no one else matters.” They were suddenly like old friends sharing a confidence. It gave Ellen a warm secure feeling. Slade wasn’t quite sure how it made him feel, but it was certainly a part of him that he wanted to explore more fully.
Letting the sides of the shawl hang free Ellen slid the belt around her waist and making sure it was lying flat, knotted it in front. The long ends hung to her knees. Watching the hem in front of her she pulled the dress through the belt slightly until it cleared her toes. Turning slowly, she looked to Slade for his confirmation on the length in the back.
At his nod of approval, she crossed the shawl ends in front of her and turned back to the stove.
“Now, let’s get to that cornmeal mush! I found the salt.” She opened the jar and pinched a bit of salt into the mush. “Now, sugar? Honey? Molasses? Any of those? Anywhere?” She searched through the shelf where the salt had been until she found the crock that held the sugar and spooned two generous measures into the pot of cornmeal. After stirring it briefly, she picked it up and moved it to the table.
Before Slade turned around from the chest he was closing, she had two bowls and cups on the table. The coffee pot followed and she was turning slowly looking for spoons. There was only one on the shelf beside the bowls. Beside it rested a single knife and a fork.
“It’s only been me for months now,” Slade told her. “I’ve limited my housekeeping equipment. Over here is where Madeline kept her things.” He opened the cupboard and took out another set of eating utensils. “Here take them and I’ll get that butter you are drooling for”
When he brought the butter from the pantry as she would persist in calling the cold room, she had taken the cornbread from cupboard.
They sat down and Ellen reached for the mush to scoop some into his bowl.