Slade went to test the temperature of the water in the tank of the fire place. Memories of Madeline passed his mind. How pleased she had been over Jacob’s idea. It had saved her hours over the years with its constant supply of hot water. Slade shook his head.
The water was barely warm, but the chill from the spring was gone. He lifted the tub from the wall and dipped a plentiful supply of water into it. Then carrying it across the room, he set it briefly on the stone top of Madeline’s marriage cupboard. He gathered clean clothes from his trunk and found another piece of sacking to use for washing. Carrying the soap, the sacking and the tub into Ellen’s ‘pantry’ he placed them on a low table in the center of the little room.
It wasn’t really a pantry; it had been planned more as a spring house. The back corner of the cabin had been built over the spring. That source of water had been carefully walled into a small tank and then channeled under the back corner of the cabin out to the slope behind the buildings and on down the incline where it was permitted to flow free into its original collection basin.
The little room was fitted with shelves and a work table. The shelves were convenient for storing meats and other items not susceptible to the damp coolness. The table provided a work surface. In the corner the tank of the spring held milk and butter. Anything else that needed to be kept cold could be put in a crock or jar and lowered into the bubbling flowing water. The depth remained constant as the excess flowed away down the hill to the basin below.
It was a chilly place to choose for a bath, but Slade was not comfortable bathing in the main room with a strange woman just above him, likely to descend the ladder at any time. Slade pulled off his shirts and began his bath by washing his hair and then proceeding downward. He wasn’t a slovenly man by any means, but living alone had allowed him to go for long periods with only cursory washes. When Madeline was with them, he and Joshua had bathed regularly in a rudimentary bathhouse at the corner of Eli’s house, but with both Madeline and Josh gone, Eli had let the habit slip. Now with the addition of a lady, he must pick it up again. By the time he finished he felt like a new man.
He donned clean underwear and a clean pair of pants. He was embarrassed to see how much the bath had been needed. His clean shirt was waiting on the door handle. Pulling it on he gathered his dirty things and tossed them on the floor beside the bed. He poured the pan of water into the overflow that led down the hill and hung the wet sacking on the cord beside the milk cloth. He took the bucket of Ellen’s bath water back to pour down the overflow also.
Gazing around the room, Slade pulled on his boots and donned his coat, warm now and only slightly damp across the shoulders. He pulled open the door. The storm still blew with riotous force. Stepping carefully to avoid slipping, he walked off the porch and straight ahead to the barn. Fetcher followed him faithfully. At the barn, he turned left and walked along the fence of the corral until he came to the little necessary. There he stepped around to the door in the back of the tiny building to relieve himself.
The careful route from the cabin did not have to be repeated because Fetch had finished his own nightly routine and was more than happy to lead the way through the still blinding storm to his warm bed.
Back in the house Slade added a couple pieces of wood to the stove and adjusted the damper on the front of the door. He put a sizable log on the fireplace and carefully heaped ashes around and over it banking the fire for the night. It would smolder throughout the night and be easily renewed in the morning. He walked to the bed and with the ease of long habit dropped to his knees beside it.
“Father God,” he spoke quietly.
No formal prayer this, but one that flowed unhindered from a soul long used to conversations with his Lord. For the months since Madeline’s death and Jacob’s departure, Slade had felt the absence of human companionship more sharply than he remembered during the time when Jacob had been gone to bring Madeline home. That time he was assured of his brother’s return. This time, given Jacob’s broken heart and his sense of futility, Eli worried that his brother would wander for a long time before returning to their ranch. The quit claim for the ranch was still safe in the wooden trunk bound together with the homesteading papers and, most sadly, Jacob and Madeline’s wedding certificate. Eli worried the quickly signed deed and letter demonstrated Jacob’s sub-conscious intent to not return. Given his broother’s relationship to the Lord, Eli didn’t worry that his brother would do himself harm, but he did fear that he would devote himself to wandering rather than revisit to the site of his greatest sorrow.
“Father God,” he repeated. Slade spoke simply and directly to his Lord. He had never used the formal words so popular in religious services. His relationship with his Father was too deep and intimate for formality. “I know I’ve asked you many times for Jacob’s safety or some company here, someone to help work the land and the cattle. Especially this winter, Lord, it has been hard. I go out in the morning and after a day in the biting cold and wind, I come back to still finish the work here before I can eat or rest.
“You know Lord, I’ve asked what your purpose was in taking Madeline from Jacob; he loved her so much. You know I’ve tried to understand why it happened and why I’m here now. It seems like a most unmanly thing to do, Lord, but you know I have hated the emptiness and solitude sometimes. I asked for a hand, Lord, but you’ve sent this slight woman. Father, she seems to bring more trouble than help.
“Lord, what am I going to do with a woman? It really isn’t right that we live here without being married, but I can’t marry her; I have no desire for a wife. And I can’t turn her out. So Lord, I guess I have to thank you for the company, but I sure don’t understand it.
“Finally, God, I’m asking that you will keep your hand on Jacob. Where ever he is, whatever he’s doing, lift his grief and give him a purpose in living again. Bring him home here safely, I do ask you.
“No matter what comes, Lord, you know I’ll believe it happened according to Your planning. And I’m here now, bowing down in Jesus name, Amen.” Eli pushed himself up from his flat position across the bed and stood to pull off his shirt and pants. Wearing only his long underwear and shirt, he crawled into the bed.
The fire place fire slowly drew back into shining embers. The fire in the little stove burned slowly, just keeping the cabin warm enough to push the cold from those buried under warm blankets and one curled with tail across his nose.