As the weather turned in a cold snap, Ellen was wakened from her nap one afternoon by Fetcher’s frantic barking. Slade also was so startled that he tried to stand up without thinking of his leg. By the time Ellen got to the door there was a horse standing in the yard. There were two Indian men standing beside it and an ancient woman riding. One of the men was as old as the woman; the other was young, about sixteen or eighteen. They stood quietly waiting.
Ellen was in a panic. She didn’t know whether to grab a gun or just slam the door. Granted the little group didn’t look dangerous, but she had no idea what to do.
She turned around to find Slade standing beside the bed with his gun in one hand and his staff in the other. Ellen ran to support him across the room. When he got to the door he stopped just before he was visible from the outside; he released Ellen’s shoulder and casually put his hand on the door post to take the last couple steps. As soon as he saw the little tableau his face relaxed. He set the gun aside beneath the long coat beside the door.
He took one more step on his good leg and called across the porch. “Greetings, my brother! It is good to see you!”
The entire family visibly relaxed. The young man hurried to the step and the old man led the tired horse a few more feet.
“My elder brother,” the young man said. “I am happy to be here again.”
“Come in, come in!” Slade motioned for them to come closer. “We will make food for you and your grandparents.”
They young man returned to the horse and reached up to help his grandmother. When she touched the ground the old lady would have collapsed but for the strength of her grandson’s arms around her. Ellen rushed to help, abandoning Slade to his own devices. Holding to the door, Slade stepped aside inviting them all inside.
Ellen led the old lady to the chair by the fire. The elderly man folded his legs and sat on the floor beside her. The young man, realizing Slade’s lameness, came to support him into the other chair. Ellen stirred the big iron pot full of beef pieces and broth and brought out the big pile of tortillas she had made earlier in the day. Within minutes she had fresh coffee cooking and served their guests bowls of stew and tortillas.
The boy set his own bowl aside and moved to squat beside his grandmother’s chair and spoon broth into her mouth. She ate it hungrily but refused the tortilla. She was able to hold her own cup of sweet coffee when she had swallowed the broth. Within a few minutes she shrugged the blanket from her shoulders and simply laid her head back to fall asleep. The old man watched her with concern.
As the boy (Slade had introduced him as Joseph) picked up his bowl and tortilla and began eating, he addressed Slade. “I come asking for your help, elder brother,” he said. “My grandmother has been very sick with her chest. I was gone and when I returned I found my grandmother was sick. Her family had been trying to treat her but the greatest danger was the lack of blankets. They were always cold, even with their little fire. My grandmother developed the cough and then her chest began hurting. I was able to find some meat, but my grandmother needs more help than I can give her.”
In between bites he explained his problem.
“Our medicine has failed to help her and I thought the white man’s medicine could help. I heard there was a doctor at a trading post out to the south, but when I took her there, they said the doctor was only for the white men living there. I know nothing else to do for her.
“When I thought of help, I remembered you when I came last year.
“Can you help my grandmother? I can work. I have no money from the white man, but I can ride and help on your rancho.”
Slade cast an eye at Ellen, but before he could even respond, she spoke up, “Of course we will help. We don’t have any medicine, but just warmth and good food should go a long way toward helping her recover!
“Where can we put them, Eli? Will the ‘dobe house serve? We don’t have much room here except for the floor and it can be cold at night. She doesn’t need to be on the floor. That is probably the reason she caught this fever.”
Slade shook his head. “Don’t ask me. You seem to have it all figured out. I am not able to help much anyway…go ahead.”
Ellen motioned for the boy to come with her as she grabbed the broom from the corner. As she led the way to the ‘dobe house to begin a quick clean up, she explained her plan to the young man. The house hadn’t been used since they had frozen the beef. Thank God for all that beef! They had plenty to feed three extra mouths.
She gave Joseph the empty ticking from the bed and sent him out to fill it with the cut tips of juniper trees and sagebrush. When he left she began sweeping with a vengeance, brushing down the cobwebs accumulated in the corners, the dust built up on the rough walls and the two windowsills. She swept the floor and flipped the collection of dirt out the door. The inside floor was raised a couple inches above the outside and the door closed below the level of the floor. It made for easy sweeping and also kept out the draft from under the door.
When Joseph returned with the tick filled to a plump height with soft tips of sage and juniper, she took one of the larger pieces of sage and swept the cupboard and table clean; then she swept the hearth. She sent the boy after an armload of wood from the wood pile and set him to building a fire in the raised corner fireplace. While he was working on the fire, Ellen folded the double hem on one side of the ticking over on itself and closed it using the eyelets and the cord tied through the end. The she flipped it out on the straps of the bedstead, fluffing the stuffing out evenly under the surface. It would make a warm soft sleeping surface.
They went out closing the door. The fire on the exposed fire place would warm the small room quickly
“In a little while it should be warm in there,” she told Joseph. “We have a big pile of wood but not much chopped. I’m not very good at chopping. Can you do it? If you could go chop some for all of us, by the time you are finished, it should be warm enough to move your grandparents in here to rest.
“I’ll get them a bucket for water and some coffee. There’s a coffee pot and a wash pan in the ‘dobe house already. There are also dishes. You can make as much coffee as you want, but it will be easier if I cook in the big house and you carry it to your grandparents while they are getting their strength back. Your grandfather doesn’t look very strong either. Let’s go.”
The two of them hurried to the bigger house. Joseph took the axe and began chopping the branches from the big pile of wood into manageable pieces. Ellen filled a water bucket and found a little can to store enough ground coffee for several pots full. She also collected a couple pieces of their sacking material for towels. As she started out the door she thought of carrying a bundle of tortillas with her. They would be handy for a late night bite to eat if the grandparents should feel hungry. She carried her first load to the little house.
By the time she had made that trip she was had thought of several other things that might make them more comfortable. Ellen returned for blankets, a small jug of milk and a cup of sugar. When she got to the little house she poured some water in the wash pan and quickly washed the dishes and silverware so they would be ready for use. The sugar and milk went onto the cupboard shelves beside the cups and bowls. She picked up the wisp of juniper she had used to clean the cupboards and tossed it on the edge of the fire. In a few seconds the fragrance of its burning filled the room. The house was a cozy as she could make it.
When Joseph had finished chopping the wood and filling both wood boxes, his grandmother was awake and looking around the room from her chair. The grandfather was speaking quietly with her.
Ellen asked Joseph to inquire whether she would like something more to eat. The old lady smiled broadly and said she would like some more of the good broth—and the sweet coffee.
To give the lady a bit more sustenance, Ellen spent a couple minutes finely chopping several pieces of beef from the stew. She had noticed that Grandmother had very few teeth in the broad smile. She would have to make a special effort to prepare food that she could eat.
The first cup of broth had contributed to the lady’s strength and she was happy when Ellen showed her the chopped beef in the bottom of the cup. Again she offered some tortillas and this time the grandmother accepted the broken tortilla. She soaked it in the broth and sucked the warm flavor from it before eating the soft bite. Her husband accepted a bowl and spoon, too. They ate their stew and drank the sweet coffee hungrily.
Joseph asked them if they would be ready to rest when they finished their food. He told them the white lady had prepared a house and a bed for them. The grandmother especially seemed overwhelmed at the kindness. She wanted to rest but was doubtful that she could walk far enough to get to her ‘new’ house.
Joseph solved that problem by scooping her up in his arms. His grandmother giggled like a girl at the strength of her grandson’s arms. He carried her to the little ‘dobe house and settled her on the fragrant bed where she patted the ticking filled with juniper and sagebrush in wonder. It was soft and warm to her “old bones,” as she told her grandson. He covered her with a blanket and she leaned back in unfamiliar comfort. She patted the bed beside her and spoke to her husband. He joined her on the other side of the bed and they were both asleep within minutes.
Joseph left them sleeping.
He went to care for the weary and patient horse. It had been standing all this time tied to the porch post. It was thin and dejected looking, as though it had no energy to do any more than wait. Ellen came to the door as he was untying the horse. The day was winding down to evening and dusk was falling.
“The poor thing looks as though she could use some good food and shelter for a few days,” she told Joseph. “Let me get my coat and milking things and I’ll come with you to the barn.”
They took the horse to the barn and while Ellen was milking Joseph rubbed the horse off with a bit of hay. When she was warm and smooth, Ellen moved Sarah into the pen with her calf and put the new horse in the one adjacent to Roja and her pack animal. They gave the thin horse two cups of corn in a pan and filled the rack with hay.
Joseph carried two buckets full of water while Ellen went out and called their horses in. His mare drank thirstily and seemed to want the water more than she did the hay. Roja came in and showed an immediate interest in the new mare. Ellen hoped that within a few days they would accept her as part of the herd and she could be turned out with them.
When the horses were situated, Joseph carried the milk back to the house for her and said that he thought he would rest too.
“It has been long days. I worried about my grandparents. I gave my blanket to Grandmother. My grandfather and I sleep with only a small fire. It was warm enough that we don’t freeze, but the journey was still cold. Now the warm house is very welcomed. I think I will sleep.” He left to go to be with his Grandparents.
“We will have another meal at full dark. Come on over and get something for your grandparents. You are welcomed to eat here or with them.” Ellen told his as he left her.
Ellen continued on into the house and found Slade asleep in his big chair. Worried about his leg swelling if it rested too long on the floor, she took the stool and carefully lifted his leg to slide the stool under it. Slade opened his eyes to watch her as she situated the stool to suit and stood up. She swiped a lock of hair from her face and turned around to find him watching her.
“I wasn’t really sleeping,” he told her. “Well,” he qualified, “I was almost, but then I woke up to watch you.”
Ellen turned her head away to hide her pleasure at his words. It was becoming more and more pleasing to hear words of admiration from him.
When the evening chores were finished, Ellen went to the big chair to sit down for a few minutes.
“Wait, wait!” Slade told her. “Maybe you should shake those things before you sit there.”
Ellen looked at him in confusion.
“Sometimes there are various insects that are carried by native people. I don’t know if the grandmother had any, but shaking the quilt and sheepskins would be a good precaution.”
Ellen jumped back from the chair as though she had been burned. Slade chuckled at her. She carefully folded the quilt and sheepskins into a bundle and carrying it at arms length she too them all onto the porch. He heard her snapping the quilt vigorously in the breeze and slapping the sheepskins against the side of the house. When she came back inside, the wayward lock of hair had been joined by several others and they stood around her head like a halo, but the sheepskins and quilts were free of any possible hangers-on.
She put everything back and looking warily at the chair, lowered herself into its comfort.
“Oh, I don’t know what to get for dinner. I’m too tired to even think. Would you mind the rest of that stew? I’ll make fresh biscuits if you will take the stew.” She offered the biscuits by way of a bribe, knowing that Slade loved them. “Or I can just make some griddle cakes.” Either would require a minimum of effort and either could be made in quantity.
Slade chose the griddle cakes. “If I could get up that ladder, I’m sure there must be molasses somewhere up there. That would be good with the ‘cakes. Madeline used to have some but after she died I never looked for it. Couldn’t make anything I thought it would be good on.” He looked hopefully at Ellen.
“Eli, you are such a beggar! You know I’ll look for it!
“You’ll have to be patient though, because I intend to wash up a bit and change to a fresh skirt and waist. These are pretty dusty from my house cleaning.” She climbed the ladder.
Slade heard her thumping around in the loft. Ellen had lived up there long enough that she had some idea of how Madeline had organized it, in spite of the men’s contributions of skins and other paraphernalia. Most of the cooking supplies were at the wall opposite the ladder with Slade’s bits and pieces piled in front of them. Along that wall there were personal items of Madeline’s--things for the house, bedding and curtains as well as the boxes of cloth and sewing supplies Slade had shown her earlier. The end of the little loft where Ellen had her bed had been jumbled when Slade prepared a place for her to sleep. He had pretty well destroyed Madeline’s organization there.
Ellen found the molasses by pulling various boxes out and checking their contents. In addition to the molasses, she was excited to find a supply of spices--ginger, cinnamon, more black pepper and a packet of vanilla beans folded tightly in paper and cloth. There was another box of canned peaches and tomatoes and, wonder of wonders, a tightly sealed jar containing yeast cakes! Ellen could hardly contain her excitement. If only it still was live after two years, she could make real bread at last! And maybe foster some sourdough batter for when the yeast was gone. She pushed everything back and closed the boxes again. Taking the molasses, she gathered a clean skirt and shirt and hurried down the ladder.
This time Slade was well and truly asleep in his chair. Ellen filled the wash pan and took it to the spring room where she washed and donned the fresh clothes. When she realized she had left her comb in the loft she folded the soiled clothes and carried them back up with her to get the comb.
As she untwisted her hair and worked the comb through the curls she wondered if Madeline had possessed a mirror. Ellen didn’t mind foregoing the final check on her hair style, there was little she could do with the wild curls anyway, but she did sometimes wish to be able to see that they were at least mostly controlled. When the snarls were out, she pulled it to the side and made one long thick braid. She wished she could do a braid on the back of her head, but her arms just wouldn’t reach that far and it was always lopsided; she had to settle for one over her shoulder.
Ellen had no idea how much Slade liked it that way. He liked the tiny curls that worked loose in front of her ear on the side opposite the braid and how they clung to her hot face when she stood over the stove. He liked the way she pushed them back behind her ear when they grew too long and the way she flipped the braid back over her shoulder in moments of frustration. He liked it when she twisted the coils of hair into a sort of bun and secured it with a smooth stick. (He had started carving a long smooth pick with a decorative end for that!) And when her curls escaped from their confines to twist wildly around her head, he wished for the liberty to brush them down and curl them around his fingers. Eli Slade, without completely realizing it, was in love with Ellen Macpherson Aguilar.
Ellen, all unconscious of her impact on Slade, made her way down the ladder and began making the griddle cakes. While she was at it she stirred up a batter for corn bread and poured it into the Dutch oven to bake in the fireplace while they had supper.
When she began baking the griddle cakes, she stepped out to the end of the porch to look toward the little house. The door was closed tightly and the light from the one window in front was dim as from a slowly dying or banked fire. She decided that they were probably so tired they would sleep through the night.
Ellen returned and began cooking the griddle cakes. She poured a small amount of molasses from the big crockery jug into a tincup and set it on the front of the stove to warm. When the cakes were almost all finished, she thought of coffee. How could she forget coffee! Slade lived on it! She grinned to herself. They had to have coffee.
There were about two cupfuls left in the pot. She could warm that for Slade, she would drink milk. Dinner was ready.
“Eli?” She touched his shoulder and then put her hand against his cheek. “Eli? Can you wake up? I’ve got your griddle cakes and molasses ready.”
“Mmmm,” Slade groaned, waking up. “Molasses? I’m coming.” He slid his leg off the stool and began to lever himself out of the chair.
“Not on that leg!” Ellen cried and rushed to get her shoulder under his arm and a hand around his waist. When he was standing on his good leg she reached for his staff and gave it to him. Only then did she allow him to try walking. He could move fairly well with only the staff, but still held her shoulders firmly.
She took him to the table and supervised his careful seating. When he was comfortable she went around to the other side of the table and poured his coffee. He held out his hand across the table.
When her fingers rested in his, Slade said to her, “This is your first dinner since you talked to the Lord last night, would you like to say grace?”
As Ellen hesitated he encouraged her, “You have heard me pray often enough, go ahead. Just say what ever seems right.” He nodded at her.
“Dear God,” Ellen began. “I thank you that I can pray and know you are listening. I thank you for this warm house and this good food. I thank you for Eli, who has taken me in and taught me about you.” She paused a long time before adding, as Slade always did, “In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
The lump in Slade’s throat rose so that tears gathered in his eyes. What a wonderful blessing to hear a child’s first words to her Father. He looked up to find her watching him hesitantly.
“Was that all right?” She wanted to know.
“It was exactly all right.” Slade told her. “Now, how many of these are mine?”
They ate with the same exciting conversation as in past nights-small things of no consequence to anyone but themselves, but filled with a closeness they both cherished.
Ellen put a pan of hot water before Slade as she cleaned the kitchen area. He wiped the table and washed the dishes. Ellen took the cornbread from the coals and dumped it onto a clean towel. She wrapped it carefully and placed it on the shelf. She swept up the litter and tracked in dirt of the day and scooped it into the fireplace to be taken out with the ashes. She took the sheepskins from Slade’s chair and shook them outside. When the dishes were finished, she put them in the cupboard and disposed of the dirty water. The dish pan was hung in its place.
When everything was neat, Slade challenged her to a game of checkers. They set up the board and began playing. Within the first few moves, both of them were having difficulty keeping their focus. Ellen’s eyelids were drooping and Slade had his head propped on his hand with an elbow on the table.
“Maybe we should go to bed.” He admitted.
“I will agree wholeheartedly with that.” Ellen answered. “Let’s put these away.” She scooped the checkers into the bag and took the board to the bookshelves by the fireplace.
“If you will help me to my bed, we can have prayer there and get to sleep.” With the help of his staff he stood up, but as he started to take a step, Ellen materialized at his other side and draped his arm across her shoulders. She smiled up at him and again he realized how very small she was. The top of her head didn’t quite reach the top of his shoulder.
But with her tiny strength she could accomplish wonders.
They made their way to his bedside. When Slade was seated he pulled Maggie down beside him and prayed for their evening’s rest and tomorrow’s tasks. He thanked the Lord for their blessings of the day and asked His care over their new visitors.
When he said Amen, he came very close to kissing Ellen’s upturned face, but all unknowing, she slipped away from him to shake out her skirt.
“Good night.” she wished him. “Happy dreams.” Then she made her way across the room and up her ladder.
Slade sat quietly, considering the ‘happy dreams’ that he might have.