Ellen went back inside and sat in one of the big chairs beside the empty fire place. She remembered, not Viejo and his brutality, but Alejandro and his father joking in front of the fire and calling to her father to bring the chessboard with its noble playing pieces or the more humble checkers. She remembered Don Francisco demanding benignly that she read to them from one of his many books while Tia sat close to one of the lamps with her embroidery. The church had fine altar cloths and other table coverings that she had worked over many years. Ellen had been the recipient of several beautifully embroidered shawls worked in heavy silk and soft wool. All gone now.
She sighed and thought of the tour she and Slade had taken together, not to assess any damage or repair, but to lay to rest the ghosts of her past. As she had recounted events to him within the shelter of his arm, the fears had receded until they had no more power over her. Now only happy memories remained.
After a few minutes, Ellen stood and went back into the wide inner court and through the wide doorways to the dining room. In spite of la Senora’s efforts the night before, by morning light the room looked desolate. Ellen could recall fine dinners with happy visitors and good food. She wondered where those visitors had been during her ordeal. Three of the chairs had been set aside along one wall. They needed mending. The other six were in place around the table. One was completely missing.
Standing with her hands on the back of one chair, Ellen consciously shook her shoulders to dispel thoughts that were verging into melancholy. She wished fleetingly that she had kept Raven with her for comfort instead of sending him off with Slade. Finally she went through the door at the end of the room and around the corner into the kitchen.
Senora della Cruz was kneading bread on the floured table. She looked up in delight.
“Welcome, senora! I have been wondering what you were doing—not that I would presume to tell you, but only wondering.
“Have you finished with the horses? I saw young Ramon putting his father back into the small cart.”
“Yes,” Ellen answered. “We have the blood lines figured out and recorded. And all of the babies have been named. Now all that is left is to get the brands on them. We will have to brand an identification number on them for this year, until we are working with them on a regular basis. After that we will recognize them on sight. I hate to scar those beautiful coats, but for this year it cannot be helped.” Ellen walked around to sit on the opposite side of the table.
“Why are you putting the number on them? And how?” the lady asked Ellen.
“We need to be sure we can tell them apart. Especially the fillies have no distinctive markings. I don’t know how the old don told them apart, but I can’t. I suppose when one is with them daily and working with them you become familiar with them the way you recognize people.
I thought if I assigned each one a number it would be easier to keep them sorted, but then I didn’t know any way to put the number on the horse except to brand it on their hip under the Aguilar brand. It will make an ugly scar, I’m afraid.” Ellen shook her head in regret.
The Senora continued thumping and stretching her bread. “When I was following my husband up from
I saw Indios there who had blue
markings on their face and body. When I
asked about them someone told me that they cut their skin and rubbed dye or
ashes into the cuts. When it healed it
left the dark marks and designs. Mexico
“Why couldn’t you do that with the horses—maybe in their ear? We have powdered dye for the cloth or charcoal from the fires. You could make small cuts for the numbers and then rub the color into them. When it healed the marks for the number would still be there and there would be no scar.”
“That sounds like it might work!” Ellen exclaimed. “I’ll have to talk with Eli and see how we can arrange it.
“I wonder how his cattle trip is going. It is getting on toward dark….” She trailed off and peered across and out the window. There was nothing to be seen from the kitchen windows except the high wall of the courtyard.
Senora della Cruz continued kneading in silence. Ellen stood and went to pour some coffee and take a piece of tortilla from the cloth covered bowl. It was long past lunch time and nearing dinner; she just remembered she hadn’t eaten anything at noon.
After she ate her tortilla she inquired if there was anything she could do toward preparing dinner, but the Senora replied that she had started cooking a large pot of beans early in the day to have food ready when ever the men returned. She had put a lot of bacon and onion in the pot and had chilies roasted on a plate beside the fireplace. Dinner was ready except for fresh coffee.
The sun sank lower out to the west far off behind the trees along the river. Ellen paced along the front walkway until it became too chilly. She finally went in to sit with Senora della Cruz, but was too restless to stay quiet.
At last, she collected the extra lamp from their bedroom and took herself along to the old don’s office. In there she took the first stack of pages from a ripped book and sat down at the desk where she concentrated on stacking the pages in order. It took her mind off thoughts of Slade still riding somewhere to the south. She worked through a second book and a third.
With no idea of how late it was she laid the completed books on the shelf and abandoned her page sorting to begin standing the books on the shelves in a semblance of order—history books together, scientific volumes on another shelf, religious writings together. Ellen indulged herself for a few minutes glancing through some volumes of poetry and one of Shakespeare’s plays. For the time and the place the old don had an extensive collection of books both in Spanish and English, but it didn’t take long until she had them all organized. The books stood straight on their shelves looking almost as tidy as they had before ignorant men had swept through them looking for cash. Only the torn ones were shabby in their covers.
Ellen had just returned to sorting the pages of another book when she heard horses in the courtyard. Slade and
had returned. She rushed out of the office down to the
kitchen door. The men had just stepped
off their horses and Santos
had taken the reins. He led the horses
through the walk way in the western wall between the houses backing onto it. Santos
Ellen leapt through the door and threw herself into Slade’s arms as he stepped beneath the arbor over the walkway. “I have been frantic!” She told him. “I couldn’t imagine…well, I did imagine, all sorts of things that might have happened. It kept getting later and later !”
“Sweetheart! I was with three other men! It was much safer than checking cattle alone in the mountains. You never worried about me at home. Not after Joseph began going with me at least.” He teased the worried look from her face. “Come on, do you have supper ready for me?”
They went inside the house where the Senora had hot water in the wash basin beside the door and a clean towel on the hook.
“Bien venido, senor! You were worrying your little wife, you know; but here you are back safely!”
She hurried around ladling beans from the pot into a serving bowl putting the deep plates across from each other at the table. She placed a plate of tortillas between them with a smaller stack of roasted chilies beside that. As she finished she set the pot of coffee at Ellen’s right hand with two cups beside it. The rest of the beans were stored in a large crock and taken to the pantry. Then the Senora bid them good night before going into her own room.