Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Getting Settled for a Few Days Chapter 45, Part 1

The Senora was pleased to find a nice room originally intended for the housekeeper at the end of hall right beside the kitchen.  She claimed it immediately for her use and flipped the bedding expertly across the aired and beaten mattress. 

Ellen stood indecisively in the empty space leading off the main sitting room. She was trying to decide which room to claim for herself and Eli, but for the moment she could only remember when this big court had been circled by graceful chairs and little tables.  One end of it had held musicians and ladies in silks and bright colors circulated on the arms of handsome men in uniforms and suits.  When it hadn’t been filled with dancers and guests, it had been a quiet place for reflection beside a sprinkling fountain with plants around its basin.  A graceful iron table had flanked it on one side where they would have lunch sometimes.  Now the room was empty.  No graceful chairs or little tables.  No pretty pool or plants—only the empty fountain and the big fireplace.

Going back to her original intention, Ellen couldn’t face using the old room opposite the pretty fountain that she and Alejandro had shared.  The old Don’s room was too far from the work areas of the house.  She finally chose to follow the wall to its corner where Tia Margarita’s sitting room and bedroom had faced the open space. If she walked to her right she was only a few steps from the kitchen and on down the hall were two more bedrooms and the big sunny room. Walking inside Tia’s room brought a pang to her heart, but thanks to Manuela’s capable hands the heartbreaking memories were much banished.  Only the homely comfort remained. 

Margarita’s big bed had been moved to the wall opposite the windows where the sun could shine across it in the morning.  Her big dresser had been put between the windows and the armoire was on the end wall beside the dressing table with its crockery wash basin and large pitcher.  The only thing that brought tears to Ellen’s eyes was the little altar and empty niche behind it where the old lady had kept her beautiful statue of the Virgin. 

The silver candlesticks on either side of the altar were missing. The holy pictures framed in carved olive wood that hung on the wall on either side of the Virgin’s niche were gone.  The silken embroidered cloth that covered the altar and the prayer book with its rosary were all gone—taken by Viejo or one of his men to sell for a few coins.

Slade came in carrying their trunk.  He stopped at the door to watch her bent shoulders before the altar.  Knowing the memories that were probably welling up, he put the trunk on the bench at the foot of the bed and opened it.  From inside he took the towel wrapped bundle where Ellen had wrapped his worn Bible.  Carrying it in one hand he crossed to stand beside her and hug her briefly.  Then he opened the towel and spread it across the center of Tia Margarita’s altar.  He placed the opened Bible in the middle of the towel.

“I will carve you a cross to put in the niche and this can be our altar.  Do you think your tia would like that?”

Ellen could smile at his thoughtfulness.  “She would like it, Eli.  She was not one to fault any way of worship, even if it was different from hers.

“I am not afraid any more, sweetheart.  I was only remembering how beautiful Tia kept this area and how broken hearted she was when the vandals destroyed it. 

“I don’t think she was sad to die.  She was full up with sadness and ready to be with God.”   Ellen turned to wrap her arms around Slade’s waist. 

“Thank you for your thoughtfulness.  I wish I knew how we were going to take care of two ranches so far apart.  But I’m only taking one day at a time.

“Help me with the bed now so that when we finish our day we won’t need to put it together.” 

They made quick work of spreading the bed and plumping two of the pillows they had bought from Senor Montalvo.

WHEN SLADE AND ELLEN returned to the kitchen Santos was waiting for them.  Now it was his turn to conduct a tour.  The cattle were spread across the southern range but he was anxious to show them the barn that was on the other side of the fenced area outside the courtyard.

As they walked across the field Santos told them they had found ‘about one hundred’ cattle scattered individually and in two’s or three’s hidden in the hills and or canyon areas.  He thought the bandits hadn’t worked very hard in gathering strays, but only collected the ones easily found in the flat lands and gentle slopes.  There was a vast herd of those.

What pleased Santos most was found in the adobe walled barn they were approaching. 

“Wait,” the man said, “Stand right here.” He positioned Ellen directly in front of the big door.  He took hold of the heavy handles and pushed the door back in its track.    As the door opened Ellen and Slade were looking down a row of stalls on either side of a center aisle.  As they watched gleaming heads pushed over the doors.

The first one on the left had a beautiful black face with a flowing mane and foretop. The end of his nose had a white snip on it.  Ellen gasped!

“Nino!  I thought they would steal you first!”  Ellen turned to Slade.  “This was Don Francisco’s best horse!  He loved him! 

“Where did you find him?  And these…” She looked down the row of heads peering over their doors.

Ellen stepped over to lift the lid on a box attached to the side of the stall.  In side were small balls of grain.  She took two and fed them one at a time to the big stallion.

“We found them!  Safe back in the western canyons.”  Santos told her. 

“When word of your return began getting around the area, some of the men who were left began coming back to ask to work again.  Ramon Santiago came asking to come back.  He said he thought he knew where the horses are.  His father had told him.”

Diego Santiago had been Don Francisco’s horseman.  He cared for the big Andalusian stallion that was called El Nino Negro and his mares.  Don Francisco’s father had brought a stallion and three mares with him from Spain.  He had bred his horses carefully and kept careful records so that by the time Ellen and her father had met him the Aguilar horses were famous for their endurance and beauty.  Not all of them were pure bred, of course, but the Don had selected the best to carry on the line.  El Nino Negro was the crown of a fine line of stallions. 

When the old man died, his son had sent the stallion and five mares back into the hills giving them their freedom after years of service to his father.  These were the horses that Ramon’s father remembered and sent his son after. 

“When we found the horses, the mares each had foals running beside them and yearlings running behind.  The Nino was strutting around being all proud.”  Santos laughed.  “But he remembered his grain and his candy balls!  He wasn’t hard to catch and his mares, too, remembered being brushed and petted and ridden.  The old Don spoiled his horses.

“We repaired the fences and brought them home!  Now look!”  Santos was proud of his surprise.

Slade walked to the big stallion and scratched the horse’s chin.   El Nino Negro promptly shoved his nose into Slade’s shoulder hard enough to stagger him backwards.

“He wants some candy,” Ellen told him.  “Here.”  She gave him one of the balls from the box.  Slade looked at it.  A little ball of grain had been formed someway and dried hard.  Black Boy crunched it between his big teeth.

“The old Don used to make it himself” Ellen said.  “He crushed the corn and oats himself and then mixed it with boiled sugar syrup.  He sat under the arbor by the kitchen and rolled the balls himself.  Then he laid them in the sun until they were dried and hard. 

“Where did these come from, Santos?” 

“My little daughter made them.  She loves the horses.  When she saw me making them she was excited to try.  I have to watch or she makes really big ones!”  Santos laughed.  “The big horse, though, he doesn’t mind.”

“Come along now and meet his ladies.”  Santos led the way down the row of stalls. The five mares were friendly and anxious to greet them.  Each on had a foal with her in the stall. 

“I thought you said there were yearlings when you found them.  These are babies!”  Ellen asked.  “Where are the older ones?”

“They are on the other side of the barn, where they can’t see their mamas and where their daddy can’t see the colts.  He is very short tempered with them.  

“I’ll call Ramon to show them to you.  They are his pride.

“Cecil!”  He called to a boy who had been trailing them at a distance.  “Take the mare and go find Ramon.”

The boy’s eyes lit up and he ran to get a bridle from the open tack room beside El Nino’s stall.  In seconds he had a mare from the field outside bridled and climbed on her back from the fence.  He started the horse off toward the far houses at a fast walk.

‘Hurry, Cecil.”  Santos called after him.  The boy looked back incredulously and kicked the horse into a run.  Santos laughed.  “He isn’t usually permitted to run the horses.” 

“I believe, senora, that the horses may be what brings the wealth back to your rancho.  The cows, we found them, but they are not many.  But there were more horses.  These are the best.  The others are still on the range.

They aren’t all Nino Negro, but they have his blood. You will see them with the cattle.”

Ellen turned to Slade.  “When Don Francisco’s father came to claim the grant lands he brought an Andalusian stallion with him and three mares.  From those four animals he built a beautiful herd.  The mares produced purebred foals of course, but he also bought other good blood horses from the army and other grantees.  He looked for animals who had gone lame or been injured in some way that left them healthy but unable to be used as stock or campaign animals.  He kept them carefully and they produced fine foals with good blood lines. 

“Over the years he bred the mares back to the stallion and kept a couple of the pure bred colts.  His herd grew and he trained the off-spring to be riding animals, working stock and pleasure horses.  He was as famous for his well trained horses as he was for his beautiful purebred stock. 

“Don Francisco continued the tradition. Alejandro did too, but he put the Don’s favorite stallion out to retirement with his five mares. It was a sentimental reward for them.  They were the only ones that the bandits missed.  All the rest were stolen.

“But WE were left with the best!”

As she finished explaining the horses, Ramon came galloping back across the field with Cecil hanging on behind.

“Hola, Senora,” he called.  “It is good to see you are safe!  My father will be happy.”

“Ramon,” Ellen smiled.  “How is your father?  I was sorry that he was beaten, but I was not in a position to help him.  You understand?”

The Santiago family had worked for the Aguilar family since their great-great grandfather had come with them from Spain. Diego had learned his craft from his father and became Don Francisco’s horseman as his father had been before him.  The old Don used to say that what Diego didn’t know about raising horses and training them wasn’t worth knowing.

When the bandits had taken over the Aguilar property, old Diego had been rushing through the barns and the pastures opening gates and chasing the horses out.  The men who discovered him had beaten him severely and left him for dead.  Ramon had returned and found him that night.  He carried him away to safety.  It had taken months for him to recover but he was left crippled- his one knee broken, his other leg broken and his back damaged.  He could stand now only with the assistance of two canes.  Diego spent his days sitting in a comfortable chair before his house or watching the training from his cart. 

Ramon had built him a tiny cart that was pulled by a small horse.  The mare had been trained for weeks by Ramon to pull the cart on voice command.  It was calm in the face of noise, dogs and blowing weeds. Diego was able to sit directly on the seat without the need to step up. When he turned to face forward the little mare would step out at a careful walk when he told her to move.  She avoided ruts, bumps and clumps of sage brush.  The old man had used her to follow his son to the training yard as he worked the yearlings.  His advice was invaluable and he was respected by both Ramon and Santos for his know-how.

Ellen expected the yearlings to be in excellent shape and progressing nicely in their training. 

“Come,” Ramon told her.  “I will show you my babies.”  He grinned with pride.  They followed him to the other end of the barn through the doors.  The five yearlings stood by the fence there.

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