Saturday, August 11, 2012

Home Chapter 38

The morning passed calmly.  Ellen walked along talking to her oxen as though they were pets and Slade dozed on the wagon seat while the horses trailed along behind the milk cow tied to the covered wagon.  The mules calmly followed along, tied to their wagon. Slade was truly tired.  Walking beside the oxen had tired him as much as digging the grave and clearing the spring. 

In addition to that, for the last two days in Santa Fe he had worried constantly about the danger facing Ellen. The chain of events preceding her escape from Viejo was too coincidental for his liking.  He wondered what it was that had caused Alejandro to be so anxious to make his will and have it substantiated beyond any question.  Then the ‘accidental’ shooting of the man only hours after the will signing was no accident.  Ellen’s father’s death and the arrival of Viejo at the ranch further extended an unlikely chain of events even further.  

It all indicated an intentional plan to ravage the ranch and obtain the property. Ellington seemed to have been collaborating with Viejo in some way since he accepted the man’s claim as an heir of Aguilar so easily.  The arrival of two respected men to verify Ellen’s identity had shaken Ellington and Ellen’s shooting of the outlaw during the night had diminished his confidence even more. Slade hoped the death of Viejo had ended whatever scheme had been made.

There was a sudden jolt and Slade tilted off the seat, catching himself at the last minute.  He sat up and rubbed his face.  Seeing the height of the sun, he called out to Ellen to stop a minute.

Jacob and Esau were always ready to stop and Ellen left them to come back to the side of the wagon. 

“I say it is time for a rest,” Eli told her.

“I saw you ‘resting!’ ” She teased,  “but I think it’s time to stop a while, too.   How much farther is it?”

Slade jumped down.  He pointed off to the northwest aways, “See that rock sticking up over there?”

“Yes, yes! It’s the rock on the hill behind our house!  Why can’t we see the buildings?  We’re almost home!” 

“Well, not quite.  That rock is farther away than it looks!  And there’s a low rise between us and our little bunch of buildings.  It will take several more hours so let’s allow the animals to rest and we can rest a while.  Then we’ll have only one more push to be home!”  He swung Ellen around and put her down beside the wagon.

“Let’s make some coffee and maybe open a can of tomatoes or something.”  He pulled the coffee pot out and filled it with water.  When Ellen took it Slade rummaged in their box and came out with a can, the bag of ground coffee and a wrapped half of cornbread. 

They collected wood to build a little fire, just large enough to heat the coffee water.  The wind had picked up just a bit so sitting in the shelter of the wagons felt good.  The horses dozed and the oxen took advantage of the free time to chew their cud.  Raven stretched out under the wagon for a snooze.

When Ellen picked up the can to open it, she found it contained peaches.  They would be good poured over the cornbread.  She dug a couple spoons and a plate from the box.   She made the coffee and set the pot to the side. In a few minutes she had their peaches and cornbread ready.  Slade sat up from where he had been stretched out on the ground.  They sat cross legged with the plate between them and shared it.  The milky coffee went well with the sweet of the peaches and cornbread. 

After about an hour, Slade forced himself to get up.  They simply rinsed their dish and spoons and tossed them back in the wagon box.  Ellen admitted that she was tired of walking and agreed to drive the wagon so Slade started off with the oxen.  Raven trotted back and forth between the two of them.

Knowing home was so close made the time creep even slower, but finally they topped the rise and saw their buildings below them.  Slade came back and hooked long lead lines from the horses to the back of the first wagon.  He moved the long suffering cow up beside the front wheel of the covered wagon.  That way he and Ellen could walk together down the long, long slope and across the flat to their house.

Fetcher heard or saw them coming as they started down the slope.  He came bounding toward them, yelping in excitement.  Ellen called Raven to walk close to her, worried that there might be some disagreement.  Fetcher ignored him in his joy to see Slade again and when he did come to greet Ellen he politely touched noses and introduced himself to Raven.  The anxious moment was over. 

Slade put his arm around Ellen and walked ahead of the oxen.  They could see Joseph come out of the barn and run toward the little ‘dobe house.   First Slim Man and then One Who Laughs hurried across the space between the houses.   Joseph couldn’t wait for them to get to the house. He ran toward them along the double rutted track.  Slim Man and One Who Laughs walked behind him more sedately. 

“You are back,” he cried.  “I had thought you were staying in Santa Fe. I wondered what I would say if your brother returned.”   He reached out and shook Slade’s hand firmly and then, more gently, Ellen’s.

“Oh, how glad we are to be home!”  Ellen told him, “We had many difficulties in Santa Fe.  I don’t care if I never see it again.” 

“We bought so many supplies that we had to go more slowly so the horses could pull it.  Then yesterday we found this wagon whose owners had died.  The oxen and cow were wandering protected only by the dog.”  Slade told them, pointing to Raven standing at attention beside Ellen.  “I took us a while to get things organized to bring the wagon along. 

“The good thing about it was that we were able to transfer some of the supplies to the second wagon and lighten the load for the horses.” 

They continued walking beside the first wagon as they exchanged news with Joseph.  Slade explained the purchase of the mules and how they had switched teams every day at noon to keep either from getting over tired.  “If the poor horses had to do all the work we would still be on our way home,” he said.

After a few minutes of standing apart, Fetcher and Raven decided to go chase nothing the way playing dogs do.  When Raven slid to a sudden stop to check a trail through he sage, Fetcher did a quick turn around and came back to investigate.  Ellen watched them nosing around in circles until they hit the scent and tore off barking a warning to the hapless rabbit.

Slim Man and One Who Laughs met them happily.  Ellen surprised herself by wrapping One Who Laughs in a giant hug.  She had truly missed the old woman. 

She whirled to Slade and urged, “Tell them, Eli.  Tell them the best news!” 

Slade looked at her in mock incomprehension.  “Tell them?  Tell them what?”   Then he couldn’t help laughing.   “Joseph, we have the joy of telling you and your grandparents that we were married four days ago in Santa Fe!”

He and Ellen stood grinning in delight as Joseph translated for the old lady and man.  One Who Laughs clapped her hands in glee and Slim Man reached out to shake Slade’s hand again.  Joseph settled for pounding Slade’s back. 

They led the oxen into the yard and backed the wagon up at the end of the porch.  The horses stopped voluntarily in front of the door.  Slade un-yoked the oxen and led them to the water trough. The cow followed behind them.  When the three finished drinking he dropped the poles of the fence and drove them into the small corral on the north side of the barn.  There the three went to picking at the grass.

Joseph unhitched the horses and led them toward the gate into the big pasture.  Ellen led the mules along behind.  The four were used to being together and when Joseph slapped the rumps of the horses turning them loose to go get water, the mules trotted willingly behind them. 

“I don’t know about you all,” Slade announced, “but for just a little while I’m going to sit down in my comfortable chair and rest.”  He went inside and dropped into his chair.  When Ellen came by on her way to the table with the dirty dishes,  he reached out a long arm and swung her into his lap. “Sit with me, Ellie.  We’re home.”  He pulled her close enough to kiss her neck.

“Eli!  Joseph is liable to come in any minute.  You mustn’t!”  Ellen’s face was red.

Eli released her to scramble up but looked at her smugly.  “I’m allowed to, you know.  You’re my wife.”   She ran her free hand around the nape of his neck and went a couple more steps to set the things on the table. Then she came back and pulled the stool close to his chair, leaning against his leg.

“I’ll sit here quiet for a bit, too.  I am so weary.”    

They only had a few minutes though until Joseph began carrying things in from the wagon before the door.  Slade hauled himself from the chair and they began distributing the supplies to their various locations—flour, cornmeal and dry goods up at the top of the ladder, some of the canned things there, too, and others to the ‘dobe house along with a bag of cornmeal.  The material for clothes and towels, still in their brown paper wrappings, was stacked against the wall in the loft.  Some of the bacon and ham went in the pantry; some went in the cold house at the north side of the big house.  Compared to how long it had taken to load the wagon and bring it home, the unloading went quickly.

Slade pulled out the supplies he had moved to the bigger wagon to lighten the horses’ load, but didn’t bother doing anything more.  He tightened the end covers and left the big wagon sitting in silence at the end of the porch.  “Plenty of time tomorrow.  It has been sitting all winter, another day won’t hurt.”

It was about then that One Who Laughs came carrying her iron kettle full of a rich stew. She spoke to Joseph who ran off to the ‘dobe house and returned with three loaves of sourdough bread.  One Who Laughs proudly pointed to the bread.

“She said that she had learned to make good bread as Ellen showed her!  And here is stew for us all to eat tonight.   I’m told to make coffee.”  Joseph picked up the big coffee pot and filled it with water.   He set it on the stove where Slim Man had built a roaring fire. 

They sat in silence while the water began to boil for the coffee and the stew kept warm on the coals at the side of the fireplace.  Slade got up and kindled a fire, as much for light as for warmth.  He lit their candles and set them on the table.  After the brightness of the buildings in Santa Fe with their multiple lamps in each room their little house seemed very dim and cozy. 

Ellen didn’t even have to get up to serve the food.  One Who Laughs directed Joseph who brought out dishes and silverware.  He poured coffee and added milk and sugar for Slade, Ellen and Slim Man.  Finally he brought them their dishes of stew and thick slices of bread.  

Slim Man squatted on the hearth as he had always done.  Ellen and Slade used the stool between them as a table for their coffee and bread.  One Who Laughs and Joseph sat at the table.  They were all used to Slade praying before his evening meal. So the family waited while he spoke to the Lord.

“Father God, thank you for bringing us home safely.  Thank you for our family here and for the good food prepared for us.  Thank you for love and security and safety.  In Jesus’ Name Amen.” 

There was another quiet pause filled with the murmur of Joseph’s voice as the translated for his grandparents.  Ellen noticed the old woman’s face when Joseph explained that Slade had called them all family.  She looked deeply into Slade’s face and then Ellen’s.  An unspoken bond forged around the five in the room.

Then Ellen sighed and dipped her bread in the stew.  It was heavenly.  She was weary of the bacon and beans and tortillas that most times composed their quick meals on the road.  She looked across at one Who Laughs.

“Joseph, please tell your grandmother I thank her very much for cooking this good food for us.  I’m so thankful I didn’t have to cook tonight.”

When Joseph had relayed the words, the old lady chuckled in delight.  Joseph translated her words.  “She says, grandmothers always cook for working daughters!”  And the old lady laughed again. 

She stood up and collected the bowls and silverware, putting them in the kettle and giving it to Joseph.  She herded her menfolk, still carrying their coffee, ahead of her chattering at them as they went.  Joseph turned at the last minute and told them “Good night, see you in the morning.” 

Then the house was empty of all but Ellen and Slade.

This time she got up voluntarily and came to sit in Slade’s lap.  Ellen snuggled down against his chest and laid her head in the curve of his neck and shoulder.  “I’m so tired I don’t know what to do next.”   She told him and they sat in the quiet as full darkness fell outside. 

“Just think,” Slade said.  “We don’t have to go outside until bright morning.  Joseph even has wood here for the night.  And I’ll bet the water tank is full too.  It may not be hot, but it will at least be warm.”   He shifted his shoulders against the sheepskin.  “Maybe we should wait a bit and let it get warmer.” 

Neither fell deeply asleep, but both napped a little in the warmth of the little house.  A scratching on the door woke Slade and then Ellen.

“Now, THAT is Fetcher, come to show Raven our sleeping arrangements.”  Slade said as they both stood up.  Sure enough Fetcher swept in the opened door with Raven at his heels.  Both of them nosed around the floor beside the chairs and poked Ellen and Slade with their inquisitive noses before they found places to stretch out. 

“I think I want a good bath,” Ellen said.  “Four days of road dirt make me more weary than the actual travel.” 

“I’ll get you the wash pan,” Slade volunteered.  “You can wash right here by the fire.”  He moved one of the chairs and set the wash pan on it.  Then he filled the pan with steaming water from the tank in the fireplace. 

Ellen abruptly realized that having a bath meant taking off all of her clothes. The house was very small and she wasn’t entirely sure she was bold enough to do that in front of her still brand new husband.  At the same time, Slade grasped her discomfort.

He came up behind her and wrapped her in his arms.  “I’m going to have a bath too.  I’ll use the pantry table as I always have so we will both have a bit of privacy.  I’ll give you that concession since you’ve been my wife for such a short time.  But that won’t always be the case,’ he warned.  And pulling a curl that had wandered across his face he took the big dipper of hot water back to the tub in the pantry.

Ellen hurried up her ladder and back to her own “bedroom.”  She pulled clean clothes from her trunk and the box that had always held her clothes.  She chose the pretty night dress Mrs. Coulter had made for her and a pair of the ruffley pantalettes that were shorter than the pantaloons and were so silky soft against her skin.   She felt very daring as she hoped Slade would like her in them. 

Leaving her hair until a later day, she used the remaining bit of Madeline’s white soap to scrub herself all over.  She quickly dried off and slipped the night dress over her head.  She stroked the soft fuzzy material and thought of Viejo’s blood on her –Madeline’s- old night dress.  The thought of the shooting didn’t disturb her in the least.  It was nothing compared to the joy of being Slade’s wife and being home at last.

She wiggled her toes against the cold floor, thinking she should have brought a pair of stockings.  Then Slade stepped out of the pantry and wiped every other thought from her mind.  He wore his pants but his under shirt hung open over them, fastened only with a couple buttons at the waist.  His shoulders were very broad and the muscles in his chest rippled with his simple movement tossing the dirty things in his hand to the floor beside the closet.  He had even washed his hair. The rough toweling he had given it to dry the extra water left it tousled and curled.  His beard still shadowed his chin.  Ellen thought she had never seen such a beautiful man.  All memory of Alejandro fled her mind.

Slade held his breath as he took the few steps across the room to his wife.  The ruffly fluffy nightdress enveloped her from chin to toe, but the firelight behind her highlighted her form through the soft material.  Her hair was piled on her head and held in place by the long pin he had carved for her, but curls escaped in every direction diminishing her face and leaving her huge dark eyes to draw him in. 

“You will always be the most beautiful woman in the world for me.”  He told her.  “I will never stop being amazed at how God brought you to me and more amazed that you would ever love me!  Me!  A dirt farmer and cowboy.  And there you were a Spanish lady!”  He wrapped his arms around her and lifted her off her feet.

“Could we go to bed now?”  He asked plaintively.  Ellen giggled, feeling a strange kind of power over this big man who held her so close.

“I would love to go to bed,” she told him.  And all of the quick kisses and embraces of the past days on the road came rolling over her.  “But would you mind if we slept in the loft.  It is so cozy and warm and comfortable.  I would like to spend my wedding night there.  I mean, I know we had the hotel, but this is our homecoming, our real wedding  night.

“Come on.”  She picked up the candle in one hand and took his hand with the other.  He would have followed her to a cave on the mountain at that moment.  They left the fires to burn themselves out or hold till morning.  They left the dogs stretched out by the door.  They left the bath things where they stood and the towels where they had fallen.

Slade took the candle from her as she gathered her skirt in one hand and climbed the ladder. He followed close behind her, remembering the night he had stood at the bottom and averted his eyes while she went up.  She took the candle from him and led the way across the loft.

He stood up in the point of the roof and his head barely missed the center pole.  He remembered the piles of bags and boxes he and Joseph had shoved up here.  The chaos was gone.   Sometime Ellen had found time to set the place to rights and it didn’t appear that they had added a hundred dollars worth of supplies to their store.

“Here.”  Ellen called from the buffalo robe.  She was kneeling in the center of her ‘bed’ and had set the candle off to the side on one of the boxes he had stacked so many months ago to make a wall of privacy around the bed. She had pulled the pick from her hair and it floated around her shoulders.  “Come on to bed. Blow the candle out when you are close enough not to trip.” 

And she held out her hand.  Slade wondered how long it had been since he had taken a breath.  From somewhere he summoned enough air to puff across the flame.  And amazingly, in the darkness Ellen seemed to glow in front of him.

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