Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Fateful Cattle Trip

Three days after that the cold weather broke and Slade planned his circuit to make sure of the cattle’s safety after the freezing weather. 

The following morning they followed their usual routine.  Slade rose early before daylight and did the barn work while Ellen prepared breakfast and a lunch.  In a moment of inspiration she wrapped the tortillas and meat in a blanket to be tied behind the saddle.

After he had eaten and was bundling up for his day, he put the canteen of coffee under his coat and looked for the tortilla packet.

“I remembered how awkward it was having those tortillas under my shirt so I wrapped them in this blanket.  There is a hot stone wrapped with them so they should stay unfrozen if not warm until they are ready to eat.” Ellen told him.

“Great idea.” He answered.  “It will be easier” He took the compact bundle as he went out the door.

Ellen followed him and stood on the step as he tied the bundle behind the saddle.  He gathered the reins and began to step up into the saddle.

“Be careful.” Ellen called.  “Come home safe.”  The concern in her voice stopped him and he turned around.

With a sudden decision, he dropped the reins and turned back to where she stood on the step.  There he reached out and took her shoulders in his hands then pulled her into a friendly embrace.  It was what had been missing from every departure.  To his surprise, her arms stretched around his waist and she hugged him tightly.  He looked straight into her eyes and grinned at her.

“You are as tall as I am standing there.” He said.  “Stay inside and stay warm.”  And he dropped his arms from around her to get on the horse.

Warmed by the joy of his unexpected embrace, Ellen stood in the golden glow of light from the open door and waved him out of sight.

As soon as Slade was out of sight in the darkness, Ellen hurried back inside.  She made short work of the morning clean up so she could hurry up the ladder.  She pulled the bundle of green flannel cloth from its place and unwrapped it.  It had pairs of fine white and wider dark green lines making an over all plaid design.

“Perfect!” she exclaimed.  She looked over the items she had laid out with it.  She took her finds down to the table.

There she pulled an old shirt from the trunk at the end of Slade’s bed and began tracing out the shape of the pieces with chalk lines on the green material.  By noon she had her pieces cut and ready to begin assembling.  She sewed smoothly and double stitched the seams to be sure they would hold.   The rows of tiny stitches would hold securely for the life of the material.  The hours of bright sunlight passed quickly.  When the shirt was assembled she decided to lay it aside for buttons and hemming the bottom later.    

Her own late lunch was quick and easy.  She warmed the leftover coffee from breakfast and found some cold beans from the pantry to heat.  While she ate she planned a surprise dinner for Slade.  She had been thinking of biscuits for several days.

The spider was a bother with its long handle, but she should be able to bake biscuits as easily as cornbread in the Dutch oven with its deep sides and heavy lid.  She determined to make biscuits, but she wasn’t sure of the timing and heat.  If she made some in the afternoon and spoiled them she would still have time to make another batch for supper.  They would taste good with a chopped beef and gravy over them.

Using sour milk left from the skimming she mixed it with flour, baking powder and some of their precious lard supply.  She patted the dough on the floured table and cut biscuit rounds with a broken handled cup.  She achieved eleven biscuits in the bottom of the Dutch oven.  The fire had been burning brightly all morning so there was a nice bed of coals.  She carefully put the iron oven in the midst and piled more hot ashes on top.  Lacking a clock she could only estimate baking time but after what she thought was a quarter hour she lifted the oven from the coals; then she brushed the ashes from the lid with her broom.  Holding her breath Ellen lifted the lid.

Inside were golden brown biscuits! Now if only they weren’t burnt on the bottom.  Still working carefully with the hot iron she turned the bottom portion of the oven over.  The biscuits plopped out on the table only slightly darker on the bottom than the top! They had risen to fluffy heights and looked soft and delicious.  Success!

With a rueful grin, Ellen decided it was definitely necessary to taste one for flavor.  She split one and filled it with butter.  To her joy the biscuit tasted as good as it looked.  She stacked them on a plate and wrapped them in a cloth.  The biscuits sat in the center of the table ready for supper.

She retrieved the beef slab from the pantry and began slicing off thin pieces then cutting them into strips.  When she had what looked like enough for supper she continued cutting to make enough to have as leftovers for breakfast.  It would only be the work of minutes to turn them into gravy when Slade returned.  The bowl of meat was also covered and left on the table for later.

As the shadows fell, Ellen swept the house and the porch.  She carried two armloads of wood in from the leanto. She put fresh wood on the fire and banked the stove for later.  She cleaned out the Dutch oven from baking the biscuits and was scrubbing her table top when she heard barking from up the slope.  Slade!  Returning early!  How glad she was that she had put the shirt away and started something to eat!  She hurried to open the door.

She stood shivering and then rushed into the house.  The meat and biscuits were forgotten.  She fairly flew up the ladder to her loft.  There she grabbed her woolen underwear and put them on over her pantaloons and shift, adding the warm woolen shirt she had worn to go with Slade before.  She pulled on another pair of stockings and then her heavy work skirt. In less than five minutes she was downstairs lacing her heavy boots.

She pulled her coat on, overlapped the sides and tied the belt around her waist not bothering with buttons.  She wrapped her scarf carelessly around her neck, stuffed the ends in her coat and clapped the hat on her head.

Suddenly she whirled and ran for the coffee pot.  It was empty!  She dumped the grounds and filled it with hot water from the reservoir.  While it was coming to a boil she quickly ground a couple handfuls of coffee beans.  She hurried to the pantry to wrap the leftover cornbread so she could take it along.  She half filled the other canteen with milk and went back to the kitchen for sugar.  Leaning the canteen against the bowl of meat she dumped the ground coffee into the boiling water and set the coffee off to the side of the heat to simmer while she ran to the barn.

Roja was rested and tired of standing in the barn.  She was more than happy to be saddled and readied for a ride.  In very few minutes she was tied to the porch post and Ellen was inside filling the canteen and collecting several pieces of sacking and two blankets from Slade’s bed.  The blankets and cornbread were bundled on the back of the saddle.  The filled canteen was slung under her coat and Ellen mounted up to follow the leaping, barking Fetcher.  Her prayer became a chant marking time with her beating heart. “God take care of him.  Don’t let him be dead. God take care of him.  Don’t let him be dead.  Please. Please. Please.”

The sun was sinking too quickly toward the western horizon.  Fetcher rushed toward it as fast as he could go and Roja leapt to follow him.

The thick sagebrush forced them to slow down and weave through the clumps, but they followed as quickly as they could.  For much of the way Ellen could see the tracks of Slade’s horse in the remaining snow and dirt.  The juniper trees cast long eerie shadows toward her like grasping hands.  The sun slid relentlessly closer to the horizon.

As the sun dropped a stiff breeze sprang up bringing cold temperatures down the mountain.  Fetcher barked more frantically and began running further and further ahead then circling back as though telling her to hurry.  Roja voluntarily picked up her speed and they were soon nearly running through the brush and shadows. 

Ellen closed her eyes and refused to consider prairie dog holes or a sudden washed out ditch.  Her hands were freezing through Madeline’s single pair of gloves and she wished she had tied the scarf up over her head instead of just leaving it around her neck. She laughed a little bit thinking that was still better than her trip through the snow when she ran from Viejo. Then she had her head and hands wrapped but was wearing only thin shoes which were soaked through with snow melt. She had survived that so she determined she would survive this.

Finally the sun dropped below the shoulder of the mountain.  Deep shadows swept across the land until only the reds and golds of the sunset remained.  With the darkness came a deeper cold.  Finally only Fetcher’s white coat led her through the darkness. 

Then ahead she saw a tiny spark of light smoldering against the blackness of the hillside.  Slade!  It had to be!  She clapped her heels to Roja’s sides. The horse needed no more encouragement to follow Fetcher.

They pulled up against a cut in the slope.  Slade lay in the shelter of the cut with a tiny fire burning in front of him.  The fear Ellen had fought across the long shadowy brush covered slopes choked her and sobs escaped from her throat.  She flung herself off Roja and rushed to kneel beside him. 

Tears and sobs prevented her from speaking. She could only grasp the hand he extended toward her and bow her head to his chest.

“Hey,” he said.  “It isn’t that bad, is it?  You found me and we’ll get through this. It’s better already.”  He stroked her head and shook the hand she was holding so tightly.  He made her raise her head and look at him. “We will figure out what to do.  You’re here.”

Ellen sucked in a deep breath and planted a kiss on the back of his scratched and bleeding hand.  Her frightened eyes settled on the mass of blood running down the side of his face and over his ear.  She shivered beside him and reached one hand to touch his bloody cheek lightly. 

“What happened?  I was so scared when Fetcher came.  I couldn’t imagine anything hurting you so badly you couldn’t come home!” Ellen held tightly to the hand as though it would keep him from slipping away from her.

Slade was going no where.  “I got off my horse to pull a piece of dead wood loose from the other stuff.  All of a sudden an old rogue steer came tearing out of the brush and hit me straight on.  He knocked me down and stomped me once then turned around to hook me.  I took a couple hard knocks and fell over this bank. 

“Crazy steer. He didn’t know what happened to me so he took off for higher ground.”  Slade moaned and turned slightly as though to ease a pain.  “I’m not sure, but I think I’ve got a bunch of busted ribs and maybe a broken leg.  I know the leg won’t work and the ribs make a gravelly sound if I try to move too much. 

“And oh yes!” he remember her touching his bloody cheek although the cut had stopped hurting pretty much. “There’s this cut across my forehead and head.  That’s the only blood there is though.”  He made light of his injuries even though his face was twisted with pain.  “He stomped me good.”

Ellen stuffed her gloves in her pocket and stood up.

“First off we need heat and light so I can see what’s wrong with you.  I guess I can use the tree you were after.” She shook her head in mild disgust. She stepped out of the circle of light and Slade heard her chopping at the tree. The next thing he knew the fire was blazing brightly around a pile of small sticks and a couple sizeable chunks of branch. 

“Hmm.  I was gone there for a few minutes.” He muttered. 

“Yes,” Ellen agreed.  “A few.”  She had the canteen sitting by the fire with a white wrapped bundle.  There were two blankets and a series of wide strips of blanket material piled on top of them. 

She looked at him frowning as she tried to decide what to do next.

“The cut has stopped bleeding so we’ll just let that go for the moment.  I think the leg may be broken.  I’m going to hold it still with the blanket and then I’ll wrap your ribs. “

She suited action to words and folded the smaller piece of blanket into a long slender tube. She placed it under his leg from ankle to thigh and then wrapped shorter strips of cut blanket tightly around it securing the blanket to his leg and keeping it from bending.

She patted it proprietarily.  “Not as good as a splint maybe, but the best we can do.  Now!  Those ribs!  This is going to hurt. No way I can help it.” 

She shook out the other blanket and folded it in three sections then made accordion folds across its width.  When it was folded to her satisfaction, Ellen laid the accordion folded blanket and three strips along his left side where the ribs were broken. It reached from his lower ribs to just under his arm. 

“I’m going to have to roll you this way a bit.”  She said before she grasped his shoulder and his hip and rolled him onto his good side.  Then with one hand she shoved the folds of blanket and strips under him.  When she released him, he lay flat again with most of the blanket under his ribs on his other side. 

She pulled the folds up and around his right side and stretched the blanket tightly over and around the ribs.  Then the remaining folds on the left were pulled tightly up over his chest.  She tucked the two sides tightly around his cracked ribs and tied them with the three wide strips, effectively supporting them and keeping the ribs from moving against each other. 

Slade sighed. “It hurt like the dickens while you were doing it, but it’s a relief now.”

Ellen peered at him in the firelight.  His face was pale and beads of sweat ran down his forehead and cheeks.  Her own tears began seeping from under her eyelids again.  But he took her hand and with his other wiped the tears from her cheeks.

“We’re doing good, now.” He said.  “Look at what you’ve done already.  I’m a long way from dying…”  It was as though he read her mind.  “Now I’m going to rest a couple minutes while you find my horse.  He should be right around here somewheres.  Then we’re gonna get me on him and go home.”

Ellen looked at him as though he spoke a foreign language. 

“Get you on a horse!  Going home!  You are all busted up! How are you going to ride?!”

“I’m going to ride because I have to ride.  And you are going to help me.  Can’t you feel the wind.  And look,” he held out a hand to catch a random snowflake.

“We have no food and no shelter.  There’s no other choice but to get me on that horse.  Now go find him.”  He whistled loudly and Fetcher appeared out of the darkness.  “Find my horse, boy.  Go get him.

“Follow Fetcher. That horse won’t be far.  I think just on top of the bank.”

Sure enough when Ellen clambered to the top of the cut, there stood Fetcher, glowing in the darkness and with him was the horse, still standing ground tied where he had been when the steer tore out of the bushes.  Ellen had only to pick up the reins and click her tongue to lead him around to the open end of the cut and over to the fire.  He whickered happily at Roja.

“All right. We’re here.”  She announced, only to see that Slade had passed out.  She sat down beside him to unwrap the cornbread, knowing he would soon rouse again. He had been in and out of consciousness all during her doctoring.

She was shivering from the cold wind and drank a bit of the still hot coffee.  It carried a river of warmth down her throat.  She followed with a couple bites of the cornbread and more coffee.

“Is that all yours or will you share?”  She looked up to see Slade’s grin in his white face.

“Oh yes, yes.  I brought it for you really.  But then you were asleep and I was cold…”  she scooted closer to him and put a hand under his head to help him drink some coffee.

“No, wait.  I have to sit up a bit. Come closer and I’ll lean on your leg maybe.”  He was embarrassed to make the suggestion, but it couldn’t be helped. 

Not only did Ellen slide closer but she helped lift his head and shoulders so he was leaning against her.  Then she held the canteen of coffee to his lips. He drank thirstily and held out his hand for a piece of cornbread.  Between sips of coffee and bites of cornbread he soon had a better color and insisted that his ribs weren’t hurting. 

With a deep groan he said, “Let’s get me on that horse.”

After a bit of maneuvering Ellen managed to help Slade pull himself up to the top of the cut bank.  She supported and lifted and pulled until he was standing on his good leg. While he stood on that leg she led his horse as close as she could get it to the bank below him.  Slade managed to get his injured leg across the saddle and finally get a secure seat.  He held grimly to the saddle horn for a few seconds of silence. 

“We are good now.  I’m afraid you will have to clean up our camp though.  I won’t be much help.” He fumbled his good foot into the stirrup and slumped forward.  Ellen leapt to catch him, but he didn’t fall.  Slade had spent too many hours on horseback; even when he was unconscious, his seat was solid and he simply slumped forward over his hands.   

Ellen hurried to push the axe through a loop in her own saddle.  She stuffed the towel from the cornbread under her belt and slung the canteen over the saddle horn.  Finally she scattered the fire and stomped the glowing coals.  As a last resort, she kicked dirt over the ashes. 

Darkness settled over the land. As her eyes adjusted, she wondered how she could see to get them home.  Then she saw Fetcher gleaming in the darkness and knew she had her guide.

When she went over to Slade he roused a bit.  “Tie my hands. Tie them to the saddle horn . . .won’t fall so easy. Hold better.” 

Ellen pulled the towel out of her belt and ripped it in two. Then she used the strips to secure his hands to the horn.  She added the rest of the towel to serve as layer of insulation against the cold. She had no idea where his gloves had landed in the darkness. She took the reins of his horse and mounted Roja. 

The trip home was nightmarish.  Fetcher stayed just ahead of her; she held Slade’s horse close to her own.  Ellen had no idea where Fetcher was taking them, but it seemed to be flatter and have fewer sage clumps than their route out.  The horses could only go slowly and Ellen feared with every step that Slade would topple off.  His body slumped but his balance was immovable.  Occasionally when she looked back at him, he was slumped and unconscious; other times he would be looking up and seem to be aware of his surroundings.  He said nothing simply trusting Fetcher that they were moving toward home.

A piece of the moon came up ahead of them and Ellen fastened her eyes on it as promise they were still heading in the right direction.   Fetcher, however, had no doubts. He was headed home by the easiest path.  Ellen had only to keep her eyes on his shimmering coat in the darkness.

By the time the moon had climbed almost halfway up the arch of stars above them Ellen saw the darker outlines of the house and barn ahead of them. The snow that had been threatening at their sorry campfire was now chasing them across the land and the icy flakes had over taken them.  

Arriving in the house yard was a blessed relief.  Ellen was off Roja instantly and looped her rein around the post.  She had long ago tied the reins of Slade’s horse to her saddle ring.  She reached up and struggled with the damp knots in the towel.  When they came loose she simply dropped it on the ground so she could help support the sliding Slade.  He slid down bumping his injured leg against the cantle of the saddle.

The pain jarred a loud groan from him but between Ellen’s small strength and his grip on the saddle horn he managed to stand, still holding tightly to the saddle for several minutes.  He had to lean against the horse before he could put his arm around her shoulders.  Then they struggled up the two steps and across the porch to the warmth of the house.

Slade had to pause and lean on the table on his way to the bed, but they finally made it.  Ellen helped him stretch out comfortably.  He sighed and was immediately asleep—or unconscious.  Ellen wasn’t sure but she had no alternative but to accept it.

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