THE DAYS PASSED in slow hours of wintery sunshine. Slade accepted his need to be quiet and heal. Ellen was thankful for the brighter weather when she took care of the barn work. It was lightened by the nice days without snow or wind when the animals could be outside and eliminate her need to carry feed and water. Her schedule seemed lighter because she was waking up later than Slade had and taking her time with milking and meal preparation. She kept Slade’s ribs strapped tightly full time but was happy to see the decreased swelling on his thigh. She worried constantly about the possible break, but Slade refused to allow her to look at what was beneath his underwear.
Their biggest problem was dealing with the necessity of trips to the outhouse. Slade absolutely refused to use any bucket or pot for his bathroom needs and although he could sometimes stand on the end of the porch, other times he had to make the long trip to the outhouse. Even though she insisted on putting the blanket splint back on his leg, by the time they returned, he was always pale and trembling.
It was a little better when Ellen thought of using one of the kitchen chairs as a kind of crutch. Slade could turn it backward and hold to the back with the seat. He could lean on it rather than Ellen. It was sturdier and felt more solid. But she refused to let him go alone.
On one of those sunny days, Ellen remembered their planned Christmas celebration. It had been lost in the immediacy of Slade’s injury.
She sat for most of the afternoon, while Slade was sleeping and finished the shirt she had started for him. When she went to return the needles and thread to the box in the loft she found a piece of soft red striped wool. The scarf Slade wore everyday was thread bare and tattered. Ellen quickly pulled the bolt out and cut two narrow pieces the width of the bolt. When joined end to end and hemmed they would make a long scarf.
Down in her big chair again she quickly joined the pieces of material. The resulting strip was nearly eight feet long. It would wrap snuggly around his neck and head but still leave ends to tuck into his coat. She set to rolling a narrow hem on the sides, leaving the selvage fringe along the ends.
When the scarf was finished Ellen folded it and carried it to the top of her ladder and put it with the shirt. Before she went to sleep that night she would use some of the brown paper lining the box to wrap her handiwork. She grinned to herself. The floor at the top of the ladder had become her private shelf. Slade could not climb the ladder and if she kept things set back about 12 inches, they were invisible from the ground floor.
Their Christmas decorations were looking dried and tired from their days in the heat of the stove and fireplace. She glanced at Slade’s still slumbering form. He was tired out from a trip to the table and the out house earlier in the morning. She would have time to gather a few fresh pieces to add amid the old to freshen the look and fragrance of the little house. She laced on Madeline’s large boots and dressed warmly enough for a quick hike up the hill.
Outside she picked up the axe and gathered a small tarp from the barn. In not quite an hour she had collected a pile of fresh juniper. She wished she could get some pine, but those were higher up the slope and would require a longer hike. Juniper would do.
Slade slept through lunch time. Ellen had a cup of hot coffee from the breakfast pot, a biscuit with some butter and a small piece of cold beef from the previous night’s supper. Then she set to work inserting the fresh juniper among the dry pieces. She pulled the ribbons off and shook them free of dust before re-draping them through the greenery. While her hands were busy she was thinking furiously of what to prepare for a special dinner tonight then a good Christmas dinner tomorrow.
A last step before finishing made Ellen tossed several sprigs of juniper into Fetcher’s feed pan with some water and set it to simmer in the coals of the fireplace. Fetcher looked at her strangely.
“I don’t know whether it will leave a flavor in the pan or not. You eat too fast to even taste it. I’ll scrub the pan when I’m finished with it.” Fetcher sighed and went to ask for the door to be opened. He’d find his own supper, thank you!
Slowly the room filled with the fragrance of juniper.
As soon as she finished, Ellen opened one of their precious cans of tomatoes and poured it into a small skillet to begin cooking some of the juice away. She chopped beef into tiny pieces and dumped it into the skillet with the boiling tomatoes. That was followed by some chopped onion. The entire skillet was sprinkled with salt and a generous amount of black pepper. She wished for some of the chili that Tia Margarita had used in her cooking, but the flavor should be good anyway—something different. When everything was simmering, she pulled some tortillas from their wrappings in the cold room and put them in the Dutch oven close to the fire to warm.
In preparation for their Christmas dinner she climbed up to their ‘freezer’ high on the side of the house and pulled out one of their fish shaped pieces of beef. She laid it in the cold room to thaw slowly. Tomorrow morning she could cut a large roast from the center and begin cooking it slowly in Dutch oven over the ashes of the fire place. She had never made a roast for Slade, opting for quicker ways of cooking beef. This would be special for Christmas.
Their dinner was ready. It was a bit early but Ellen went to the bed and shook Slade’s shoulder.
“Slade! Wake up, sleepy head! It’s supper time! Mr. Slade!”
He opened his eyes and peered up at her. “I think,” he said drowsily, “if I am allowed to call you Ellie, you should use my given name. Call me Eli.”
A little self-conscious, Ellen smiled. “Mr. Eli, will you please wake up so we can have dinner?” She laughed softly at her own teasing and repeated herself.
“Eli, it’s time for our dinner. You slept all day. I know it is a little earlier than we usually eat, but you need to get some energy back.” As he sat up, she helped him swing his legs to the floor.
With her help Slade stood. Holding her shoulder he straightened his shirt then he released her shoulder and standing on his good leg he tucked the shirt tail into his pants. Wrapping his arm around her shoulders he was again thankful for the close feel of her holding and supporting him.
“If I could find you a cane or a staff you might be able to stand a little better. But I don’t know where to find anything to use.”
Slade concentrated on moving and favoring his weak leg and pretended to not hear her. There was a perfectly good stack of long slender poles he had collected to make a pole fence around top side of the garden. But he hated to forego the warmth of her arm around his waist and the support of her shoulder under his hand. He dreaded the day when his leg would be healed and he would have no more excuse for pulling close to her.
They made the trip to the table without any trouble. Ellen moved the skillet to the table and then retrieved the tortillas. She poured coffee for them both.
“Well now, what is this?” Slade wanted to know.
“I don’t know what to call it. I made it up. Tia Margarita used to make something like it but I didn’t have all the ingredients. So I made do.” Ellen put one of the tortillas on his plate and spooned a generous serving of the juicy tomato and beef mixture onto it. Then she rolled it and spooned some juice over the top. “You will have to eat it with a knife and fork and tell me how you like it.”
She made a plate for herself and was happy to find how good it tasted. Watching Slade, Ellen hoped he would like it as much as she did.
Evidently he did because he was so busy eating that he said nothing until he held his plate out for a second serving.
“Mmm. That is good! You’re coming up with all kinds of new dishes! I like them!”
After cleaning up his third tortilla and the last of the skillet contents, Slade leaned back to sip his coffee. In a few seconds he lifted his face to the ceiling and sniffed the air.
“What is that smell? It’s…. it’s juniper! Why is that?”
“Think a minute,” Ellen told him. “What had we decided to do just a few days before your herding trip? I forgot it until just this morning. I’ll wager you did too.”
She waited until Slade’s face lit with recollection. “Christmas! We were going to have Christmas! We are a little late, aren’t we?”
Ellen spoke with a bit of humor in her voice. “We are late according to our plans, but since we don’t have any real idea of when it should be anyway, I decided to celebrate tomorrow. I added some fresh juniper to the decorations and put some to simmer in Fetcher’s pan to make the air smell good.
“We are eating our Christmas eve dinner right now. I have a special meal planned for tomorrow!”
“Hmm. Then I believe you will have to go to bed early tonight while I finish your gift.” Slade told her. “It’s a good thing I had it hidden in the closet by my bed. You will have to get me over there and then leave while I’m standing in front of the closet.
“I’ll get to bed by myself.” He assured her.
Ellen laughed. “Just call me when you fall on your face,” she told him and began collecting the dishes from the meal.
She piled the dishes in the dish pan to leave it on the table to wash after supper. Slade spoke up before she was ready to go to the barn.
“If you will give me the water, I can wash and dry these dishes while I’m sitting right here at the table. Save you a little time on Christmas eve!”
Happily Ellen poured the hot water. She gave him the soap and cloths before going on out. When she returned with the animals safely locked inside and the bucket of milk in her hand, the dishes were dried and stacked neatly on the end of the table.
“I would have put things away but I really can’t move that well yet when I have to stand.’
“Hey, they’re clean. I’m not complaining.” Even the skillet that she had left on the table was scrubbed clean.
Ellen strained their milk and put everything away. She found her busy day had worn her out and going to bed early wasn’t a problem.
She helped Slade to the bed, but he refused to let her help him lie down.
“I’ll take care of myself. I have some work to finish before I go to sleep. Go on up your ladder.” He made a shoo-ing motion with his hands.
Ellen left him standing before the closet and went to bed. She was asleep almost before her head hit her pillow.