Now Ellen Aguilar had dropped into his life. She was quiet and unassuming but the fragile appearance hid a core of steel. There was no other way she could have survived the loss of her father and husband, the months of captivity and abuse and still found the will to withstand the elements as she had. In a few short hours she had turned his world over. He shook off the strange feelings welling within him-- and was taken aback by the sight of her sleeping soundly dwarfed by the chair and the fluffy sheepskin.
He bent to remove his boots. Leaving them by the door, Slade slid his feet into the moccasins left there for that purpose. The coffee was putting out inviting fragrances as he hung his coat and hat. Still walking quietly he poured himself a cup of coffee and retrieving the Bible from its place on cupboard beside his bed he sat in the opposite chair with his coffee on the hearth beside him.
The vast emptiness of the desert had forced a framework of order on his life. His days had been divided between caring for the livestock and his own needs. The work outside consumed long hard hours for days, then for a time between demands there were hours to be filled. Eli had learned that even after the chores of the house and cooking, there still remained time that he could devote to other things in winter. He did some carpentry that produced other chairs and another table. The small library had its collection of history, literature and the latest volumes of animal husbandry and agriculture. He had read them all more than once, but the one book in which he always found fresh inspiration and enlightenment was the Bible. In the two years of solitude since his brother had left Eli had lost count of the number of times he had read through that Book and each time he found new bits of understanding and help that he had never before recognized. Each day when he opened its pages he found a new freshness of Spirit.
Today he returned to Philippians where he had stopped when Fetcher had begun barking and the frozen woman’s horses had stood in his yard. The fourth chapter met his seeking eyes with the words, And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
He shook his head ruefully. The peace of God in his heart had certainly suffered a bit of chaos with the arrival of Mrs. Aguilar. He couldn’t put the remembered lightness of her as he had caught her when she tried to dismount from the horse out of his mind. He could feel again the fragility of her foot and ankle as he pulled the wet frozen slippers from her feet. He raised his eyes to look across at her sleeping form. Her hair had escaped its confines and was clinging to the wool on the chair and coiling around the whiteness of her face. She looked incredibly vulnerable there. He discovered a longing to hold her safe against his heart swelling within him. Shock rolled through his well disciplined soul! In all the years of his adult life he had never found such feelings within himself.
His eyes returned to the page before him. … whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report…think on these things. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and turn them in the paths of things true, honest, pure and just. Eli picked up his coffee and sipped it thoughtfully, wondering what he was to do with this woman in the coming weeks until he could get her to
Ellen slumbered through the morning hours. She was undisturbed by Eli’s trip to the lean to on the side of the house to bring in dry wood for the fires. She stretched and wiggled comfortably when Fetcher stuck his cold nose against her chin before called away by his master. She slept through the rattling of Eli’s sorting and washing a scoop of beans for their supper. He placed them in the multipurpose kettle half full of water and put them on the newly stoked stove to begin cooking. He brought the slab of bacon from the back room and sliced a half inch strip from the end of it. After returning the slab to its place, he chopped the long strip into small cubes and dropped them into the beans. Ellen continued to sleep.
From the place where it was stored in Madeline’s cupboard Eli took a small box of soft wooden blocks and settled himself back in his chair. He took up his knife and began shaving careful curls off the figure of a romping dog. He worked intently and was startled when Ellen’s voice broke the stillness.
“What are you making?” she asked. She stood up and came to the table, pushing her hair back from her face.
Slade held his work up for inspection. “It’s a dog.” He told her; then felt silly because even though he didn’t believe he was a great carver, it was obvious that the figure was indeed a dog.
“Oh, not just any dog,” she said. “That is Fetcher!” She reached across the space between them mutely asking to hold the little creature. Slade held it out for her and her fingers brushed his as she took it up. A shiver ran up his arm. His eyes flew to her face but she was oblivious of his reaction.
“Look,” she exclaimed. “He’s playing in the snow! Just like he was doing this morning! You are such a good carver, Mr. Slade!”
It seemed strange hearing his formal name on her lips. His emotions were pushing to be on a more personal basis with her. It was also slightly embarrassing to hear someone praising his hobby and he made unintelligible sounds of denial.
“No seriously! Do you do this all the time? Do you have more of them?” Her eyes were searching his face. He finally had to admit that he had quite a few that he had done in the long weeks since his brother left. With further encouragement he brought another box from the armoire.
“You did all of these with that big knife?” She wondered.
Slade poked in the box and brought out a small penknife. “I do most of the shaping with the big knife. Then I use this little one to do the detail. He got up and went to the cupboard again. He returned with his hands full of carvings.
Within I few minutes Ellen had lined up a series of small Fetchers, Sarahs and her calves, rangy long horned beef cows and horses across the table. There was even a bobcat sitting on a rock looking inscrutable and a coyote peering toward the cattle with its head dropped below its shoulders and tail bushing out behind it. Each one was carved in intricate detail. Slade sat across the table enjoying her enthusiasm and watching her pick up each animal in turn time after time as she admired each tiny detail.
“You should put them out somewhere so people can see them!” Ellen told him.
“Now, Ma’am, just who do you think would see them? There hasn’t ever been any one here but me and I already know what they look like.” He grinned at her! But Ellen suited her words to action and swept several up. She took them across to the book shelves and placed them along the narrow margin in front of the books. The larger ones she directed that he put across the top of the cupboard which was now empty since she couldn’t reach it.
“Be sure to put them out far enough that I can see them.” She instructed. And Slade complied.
When the animals were cleared off the table, Ellen rinsed the cup Eli had used earlier and got one for herself. She filled each one about three quarters full of hot coffee. Then she asked him to bring the milk while she got the sugar and added a generous scoop to each cup. When the cups were nearly filled with milk she took a piece of cornbread and began crumbling it in each cup.
When Slade returned from the back room he looked doubtfully at the cups of milky lumpy liquid.
“What is that?” he wanted to know.
“That is dinner or some sort of little mid-day meal. Whatever you want to call it. My mother used to make this for me. It brings me memories of a happy time. The coffee smelled so good I thought we could have some. I’m not very hungry and we haven’t done much this morning—well, I haven’t, I don’t know what you’ve done--so we don’t need a big meal, but a little something leaves a warm spot inside you. That way I’ll have more energy for my afternoon nap.” She grinned at her own laziness.
Slade picked up his cup and accepted the spoon she handed him. One taste and he was sold. He couldn’t believe he had never thought of such a simple combination. He sat down and they ate in companionable silence.
“We need to talk about tomorrow,” Slade said when his cup was nearly empty. “I’ll have to be riding out to check on the cattle. I won’t try to do the whole herd in one day, but I have to check the most hazardous places… I may have already lost animals.” He frowned into his cup. “No avoiding it though, I guess. Riding in that storm could have been fatal for me. It has nearly cleared entirely today. Tomorrow I’ll have to go.”
Ellen sighed uncertainly. “What am I to do then? Shall I go along or stay here? Do you think there is any chance of el Viejo coming?” Her quota of boldness had been expended in managing her escape.
She knew it was only so long until Viejo forced the table away from the door. He wasn’t a weak man in spite of his propensity for drink and the table, while heavy for her to move, had not been that big. The storm would have delayed his start for the few days of its duration, but he would surely have caught the horse by now! He would find someway to come to find her. She had little value for him, but she had dared to defy him by running away. She had lifted her hand against him. For that she would be punished. The thought of being alone when he came was frightening.
“I don’t know what to tell you, ma’am. But I have to go.” He stirred the bit of cornbread crumbs left in his cup and then stepped to the stove for a refill. “I suppose you could simply bar the door and not open it. If someone comes just go up to the loft and stay there…I can’t think what else. There is no place else that would be warm enough for you to stay all day. I would go out and padlock the door, but then if you had to get out you couldn’t.
“Usually people are pretty respectful of property rights out here, but with his record I doubt he would worry about simply breaking in.. You could use our escape door over the spring maybe, but where would you go if you did get out? He will be riding a horse and you can’t hope to escape from him.”
Slade paced across the room and back.