“Ellie!” He stopped the horses, turning to face her. “What is it? What?”
Raven leapt against the side of the wagon, nosing at Ellen’s leg, concerned for her tears.
Ellen threw herself against his chest clutching at him. “I can’t go, Eli! Stop here. I can’t go any farther.
“I’ve tried and tried not to think about it, but I just can’t go. Those days with Viejo were too horrible. I keep seeing Tia on the floor unconscious. I wasn’t even allowed to take care of her until I’d served him his wine and bread.’ The horror came spilling, flooding out of her. “I remember burying Tia by myself while he sat on a rock and made sure I didn’t try to escape. I didn’t have the strength to dig a very deep hole so I settled for just covering her with dirt and piling rocks on top. He made me leave then. But days later I was able to sneak out with a piece of wood that I’d written her name on. And when ever I had a minute I would carry another rock to put over her.
“I close my eyes and I see his troop of men stomping through our house. In every room beloved things were torn down and destroyed or stolen. I tried to save a few but I was only knocked aside. And when they weren’t hitting me they were fondling me. I remember the nights of abuse and being afraid to breathe if something wasn’t just as he wanted it.
“I can’t go back, Eli. I..I..I. . .
“I was trying to be positive about it and telling myself they are gone. But it is no use…” The tears on the day she had learned to shoot the gun were nothing compared to the storm that swept over them then. Ellen sobbed until she couldn’t catch her breath. She gulped air and began again.
Senora della Cruz was standing beside the wagon. “Hand her down, senor. Hand her down.” She held up her arms as one would take a child. Slade lifted Ellen and put her feet on the ground while the older lady took her in her arms. Raven pushed close and Ellen buried one hand in his furry neck.
Slade jumped down beside them. “Now, take her over there under that tree,” the lady directed. “Sit with her on the rocks and just hold her for a little bit. I’ll get some coffee hot and a bite to eat. She will cry herself out and the fear will be relieved. Take her.” She nudged Slade’s shoulder toward the rocks.
With Raven close beside them, Slade simply picked Ellen up in his arms and carried her to the rocks where he sat with her across his lap. Slade held her and rocked her gently as the sobs subsided. He continued to just hold her until she sighed deeply.
“I think I’m all right now…” she told him. “ I was just overwhelmed by all the memories. Even the happy times were buried under the horror.” She sighed and leaned her head against him again.
“I’m so sorry, Ellie. I should have known, but I never guessed you were so frightened over this trip. You have always been so easy about it. You never seemed to be anxious over the things that happened to you here. I’m so sorry.” And Slade rocked her in his arms.
“I haven’t been, Eli. I haven’t been frightened like this since that day I was learning to shoot the shotgun. Even being attacked by el Viejo and having to shoot him didn’t affect me this way.
“It only started the last night at the hotel. I woke up several times with a dream of Viejo looming over me in my old home. I never screamed when he was abusing me or threatening me… I knew it would do no good and it seemed to gratify him. But I was still frightened. And last night it was happening all over again.”
Slade groaned. “Oh, my sweet. Why didn’t you wake me? I’m so sorry I was sleeping and not even knowing you were so upset. I should have felt it somehow.”
“No, Eli. Your sleeping there close to me was comforting. Somehow I knew you were not going to let anything get close to me. If you were there it was all right.” She managed a little grin. “I just snuggled close. You were very accommodating, even in your sleep. When I wiggled closer to you, you always turned and wrapped your arms around me.
“I thought I was better in the morning but then last night it was the same. Again in daylight, when we got on the wagon to leave I was feeling fine, no shaking or breathlessness. But every step the horses took that feeling began to swell again.
“I’m sorry to be such a coward.”
“No! No, no, no, sweetheart! I’ve never thought you were a coward.” Slade protested, “You are one of the bravest people I’ve ever known. You survived five months under el Viejo’s hand. You took your horse and supplies out from under his nose. You set out alone, with only a vague idea of how to get where you were going without following the road. You kept going in spite of that storm and you made it to my yard. Many men wouldn’t have had that kind of courage.
“Never say you are a coward!”
Ellen sighed again and sniffed the last of the tears away. It was warm on the rock with the sun on one side and her husband’s warmth on the other. “I know we need to go on. I’m better now, but do you think we could pray for the next few miles and when we get there? I’m afraid this will all happen again…”
“We will pray,” Slade told her, “and when we do get to your house I will stay beside you every step in every room in every building where ever you need to go. I’ll be there between any ghost of Viejo and you.”
“This isn’t just my house you know, honey.” Ellen pushed away slightly so she could look up into Slade’s face. “This is our house. I don’t know enough about running a ranch to do very much. I will depend on you to do everything with the stock and management. I can run the house; you have to make the decisions otherwise.” She lay back against his chest again.
“Now, let’s pray.” And she was silent waiting for him to form the words.
“Father God, you see us here in your presence. You know better than I do all that my Ellie has been through in this place we are going to. You know the horror and the pain and the heartache. I’m just asking you, Lord, to put Your Hand of protection over her. Rebuke the fear and make her know that none of those things can harm her now. Help her not to fear anything.
“You’ve promised to go with us through the valley and shadow of death and make us rest in green quiet pastures. Help us both to trust You through this. Help us to depend on You and make the decisions that need to be made.
“Keep us in Your Will and help us to be a witness to those we are in contact with, that they can come to know You in all of Your Fullness.
“In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Slade held her quietly for a minute resting in the presence of the Lord.
Ellen slid off his lap and knelt to hug the big dog who was doing his best to comfort her. His presence helped to reassure her as much as Slade’s. She knew the dog would stand between her and any stranger who threatened her.
As they made their way back to the wagon, they saw that senora della Cruz had a pot of coffee sitting on her little fire. There was a box with cups and plates on it and the lady had just finished sprinkling sugar over fresh sliced peaches from their stores. She had tortillas warmed and wrapped in a towel.
“Here you are, cariña,” she addressed Ellen. “Something warm for your tummy and something sweet to give you heart.” She came forward and put an arm around Ellen’s shoulders. “You two sit here and share this plate of peaches. And here,” she poured rich strong coffee into the cups, “you fix your coffee.” There was a can of milk and the sugar bag sitting on the box with the plate.
They sat on the ground and enjoyed the sweet peaches between bites of soft tortillas and hot coffee.
As though she knew Ellen needed to face their plans for the house and the men who had been working on the ranch for her, senora della Cruz asked questions about the house and what would need doing there and about the possibilities of stock being found and how many people they could look for.
Talking about the every day plans and describing the house and courtyards calmed Ellen and helped all three of them to conceive a plan of action for when they arrived. The Senora assured them that she would be able to take over the organization of the kitchen and help Ellen with whatever needed to be done to make the house comfortable for them for the few days they would need to be in residence. That would free Ellen and Slade’s time to find out what was happening with the outside workings.
The chaos that had been circulating in Ellen’s head calmed and flowed smoothly again under the lady’s unobtrusive advice. It seemed suddenly all that needed doing was a simple thing to accomplish.
While Ellen, under the Senora’s strict command, sat still beside the dying fire, the dishes were rinsed and replaced in their box. Slade stomped the fire into ashes and dust and helped senora della Cruz to her padded box in the back of their wagon. Then he lifted Ellen onto the front seat. As an additional comfort Slade lifted Raven to sit beside her pressed against her leg.
The horses had rested during their stop and moved forward willingly with Slade’s clicking tongue and slapping reins.