Sunday, August 12, 2012

Spring, Summer, & the Fruits of Labor, Chapter 40

The small house became very much Ellen’s house and traces of Madeline faded into the background.  When the  ill-fated couple’s wagon was unpacked they found a long dresser or sideboard lying flat on the bottom carefully protected by a heavy layer of blankets  It was filled with household supplies—a few special dishes, silverware, cooking utensils, seasonings, toweling, bolts of cloth things that the family would have needed when they reached their destination. In one drawer, they found two precious kerosene lamps padded carefully with rags and pieces of clothing.  In another drawer packed entirely under and on top of towels and sheeting they found mirror with a beautiful carved frame.  The dresser was the only major piece of furniture, but there was a mattress and pillows that had evidently been used on their journey. The back of the wagon where food supplies had been stored was filled only with empty boxes and barrels. There were tools: axes, saws, hoes and carpentry tools. The things required for day to day live on the trail were jumbled among the empty  boxes and tools. There was even a candle holder that could be used outside-a metal box lantern with four glass sides and a lid that allowed a candle to be placed inside.  It had obviously been used on their journey because it held the remains of a melted candle.  Many of the items  had been tossed in randomly when Ellen and Slade cleaned up the camp site.  The cooking utensils and the candle holder were sent to One Who Laughs to make her daily chores easier.  The gardening tools and other tools went to the barn.

The long narrow dresser Ellen took into their own house.  That started a rearrangement of the house until it looked nothing as it had when Madeline had lived there.  The rough cupboard that stood beside the window was replaced with the slightly larger closed cupboard that had been beside the bed. Ellen liked the soap stone work surface because that allowed her to move the table to the other side of the stove opposite the dresser where she had stored their clothes and other things removed from Madeline’s trunk and armoire.  Slade’s old trunk was emptied and his things placed in one of the dresser drawers. The trunk disappeared into the barn loft.  Ellen’s things were eventually placed in another drawer.  Madeline’s attractive leather trunk, emptied of her clothes,  replaced Slade’s at the foot of the bed and Ellen filled it with extra bedding from the loft and the wagon.  From worrying about having enough to share with Joseph’s family in the late winter, they now had so much that some had to be stored in the loft even after sharing some with One Who Laughs.

Ellen had Slade move the big clothes closet/armoire closer to the pantry door.  Then Slade and Joseph labored to slide the bed to the center of the back wall. That gave them space to get in bed on either side. Although they had slept in the loft during the cold days of early spring, as the weather heated up, they had left the hot loft and moved down below to the cooler bed.   For the summer the two arm chairs were moved to the end of the room below the shelves flanking the small writing table.  The dresser was placed beside the ladder to the loft, centering it against the long pantry wall.  Ellen hung the prized mirror over it. The tallest lamp was stood on one end of it; the shorter on the other.  Ellen’s brush and comb reposed in state on a small scarf in the center.

The house had taken on a fresh new appearance.  The only reminder of Madeline was seen in her armoire and kitchen cupboard, polished to a new sheen by Ellen’s application of a wax made of kerosene and melted beeswax candles, and her trunk at the foot of the bed.  


Springtime, then summer  blew across the land. The bitter winds of winter turned warmer and the days lengthened. Ellen and One Who Laughs spent long morning hours planting their garden in the big fertilized plot behind the house. Lacking a plow, Slade and Joseph had spent the days after the ground thawed turning the earth with a spade. Ellen followed behind them breaking the clods into crumbly even-ness.  

Then One Who Laughs showed her how to plant the beans and corn in shallow depressions in the same rows.  The corn provided shade and support for the beans.  The depressions allowed water to flow slowly down the rows and settle around the growing plants.  On the slight ridges between the rows, One Who Laughs planted squash seeds. They would have access to the water but the vines could be trained to grow along the top of the humps so the squash were kept out of the wetness. 

Ellen longed for the potatoes that Slade had tried with little success to grow in the past.  Seeing how One Who Laughs planted her squash Ellen adopted the same method for arranging her hills of potatoes hoping that they would draw moisture from the irrigation of the beans and corn, while the raised hill would keep the potatoes from too much wetness.  Putting them between the rows to grow sheltered the potatoes from the hot sun and drying breezes.  In hopes of growing some onions she planted a row of sets close along beside the house where she could water them every few days.  Across the front of the porch she put a row of chilies.  Everything sprouted. 

Once the garden was planted One Who Laughs and Slim Man saved every bit of water used in the houses.  In the evenings they carried the water to the higher end of the garden rows and poured it out.  The water ran a short way down the row as it sank into the ground.  Another bucket was dumped at the end of the wet space and so on across the garden.  A portion of it was watered each day and once the corn had a bit of growth the shade kept the moisture from evaporating.  From time to time they all used hoes and digging sticks to loosen the soil around the growing plants.  Prospects looked good for a decent return.

Slade and Joseph spent their days, keeping track of the cattle, maintaining the fences, building new ones and maintaining the few watering holes.  One Who Laughs insisted on a regular basis that they build a pole fence along the western and northern sides of the garden to limit incursions by rabbits and other vegetation eating animals. Eventually she accomplished her goal and the pole fence not only protected the north western side of the garden from rabbits but served as a windbreak for the drying breezes.

They moved the big covered wagon over beside the barn on the side where their smaller one was stored under a lean-to shelter.  Slade and Joseph worked for days to remove the oiled canvas top.  Because there were only two of them and the canvas was too heavy for them to manage, they resorted to picking out the stitching that held the four sections together and folding each one separately.  They hung the folded sections over the rafters across the lean-to.   Slade left the empty wagon sitting until he had time to think what to do with it.  It might be handy for hauling something heavy or it could be broken down and the wood used for other purposes. 

The oxen, meantime, continued to come to the fence each morning for treats of salted cornbread from Ellen. 

“What are we going to do with those animals, Ellie?”  Slade teased.  “They just stand around eating.  We might save them till winter; they would make a lot of good meals. “

“Good meals!”  Ellen swung from scratching the base of the oxen’s horns and smacked Slade’s shoulder. “You!  You’re teasing me!

“But I know they are eating grass that the cows should have.”  Sarah and the Lonely Cow had both calved at the end of spring.  They both gave a good amount of milk and they had milk, butter and even cheese.  The cheese wasn’t the best but Ellen kept working at the job.  She’d read some of Slade’s farming books and found some basic directions for making cheese.  They had more milk than they could use, even when they allowed the calves to nurse through the night and only milked once a day

“Do you think,” Slade asked her, referring to the oxen,  “if we let them out, do you suppose they would come home to you if you called.  There’s plenty of forage out on the flat and nothing runs on it at all.”

Ellen laughed at the two wide-eyed faces hanging over the fence.  They put a lot of pressure on the fence.  “They are spoiled!  They will come without my calling them! I’ve   been worried about what to do with them.  They really are pretty worthless when we don’t need them to pull anything.

“But I love them and, in their own way, I think they love me…  Tomorrow morning we can turn them out early and I’ll watch out for them all day.  We’ll see what they do.”

The oxen, used to being babied by Ellen, walked from the corral the next morning and stood in the yard looking around.  Ellen had to put her hand against their necks and led them out to the grassy flat before the house.  From then on they walked themselves out and came back each evening for a treat.  Slade didn’t even have to pen them over night. They lay down beside the water trough for the night and took themselves out in the mornings.

As the summer drew on the heat increased.  The inside of the cabin became stuffy and confined feeling.  Cooking in the house was nearly unbearable.  Slade moved the little stove outside to the northeastern corner f the house.  The breeze came down the mountain and the smoke for the short chimney was swept away to the southeast.  He moved the table to the porch and Ellen was able to cook in relative comfort.

A few days later One Who Laughs came early in the morning with her husband and son.  The men carried a shovel and a long iron bar.  One Who Laughs walked to a spot just past the stove and dropped a large rock. She walked directly west and dropped another.  She stood for a minute and turned slightly from side to side until she had determined due south and walked to about three feet from the side of the house.  Then she repeated the same action from the eastern rock.  She and Slim Man conferred at length and Slim Man paced off the same distances.  They agreed on the placement of the rocks.  They outlined a good sized square.

Ellen stepped closer to Joseph.  “What are they doing?” she asked.

“They are getting ready to build a shade house.  You and the old one will be able to sit in it during the day when the sun is hot.  When we return from working in the evenings we can all eat here and rest in the cool breeze.

“Watch.”  He went forward and began driving his iron bar into the hard ground.   As soon as he had loosened some dirt, Slim Man scooped it out with his shovel.  They continued the operation until they had deep, fairly narrow hole. Slim Man pointed to the hole and Joseph stretched out on the ground.  He put his arm down into the hole as far as he could reach.  Ellen couldn’t see if the hole were deeper than that or not, but evidently it satisfied Slim Man.

They continued the process until they had four holes in a fairly accurate square.  The two of them walked over to the barn and, one by one, carried four long tree trunks about four inches in diameter.  Joseph tipped the trunk into one of the holes and Slim Man refilled the hole.  When it was tamped down, One Who Laughs poured a bucket of water slowly down against the post.  The water soaked down slowly. When it dried the post would be set as solidly as though she had used concrete. 

They continued to do the same for the other four poles and left them to settle for the day.  The following day, Joseph took four of the slender poles they used for fencing and shinned up the post to tie them in place as Slim Man stood on a chair holding the opposite end against the opposite post. 

While they were working on securing the posts Slade took the oxen and the heavy wagon up around the slope and gathered branches of low scrub growth three to four feet long.  When he returned, Joseph had a grid secured across the top of the posts.  Within an hour, the two younger men had covered the top with greenery, forming a large square of shade underneath. 

One Who Laughs stood up and pointing definitely sent Joseph back to the barn and their supply of poles.  Fortunately she already had her garden fence because her building plans promised to exhaust their supply of posts. 

Joseph and Slade returned dragging several poles which they leaned against the western wall.  The rest of the green stems were woven and stacked between the poles.  The breeze came through and a pleasant pattern flickered on the floor but area under the ‘shade house’ was definitely cooler than the sun. 

They moved the table and chairs from the porch.  The stove was carried another 20 feet to the other side of the shade house where the wind would still carry the smoke away from their sitting area.  From then on most of their time was spent in out of doors.  Slade and Ellen even carried the extra mattress out at bed time and slept there on the ground. 

When the beans grew half way up the corn stalks and began to turn brown One Who Laughs took Ellen into their garden and began picking the drying bean pods from the stalks.  Lacking baskets they used flour and cornmeal sacks for picking and then climbed to the top of the ‘dobe house and spread beans on the roof to dry.  Later they could be gathered and shelled in the coolness of the shade house.  Ellen’s chilies had grown well due to the frequent dousing they had received from discarded coffee and cups of water and bits of rinse water from the dishes or hand washing. 

She wasn’t quite sure when to harvest them.  The chilies on the bushes were about three inches long which was a pretty good size, but they were still green.  She had pulled one off and chopped it in some potatoes she was frying.  It tasted good and was a little spicy but when they bought the chilies from the store they were red and dried looking.  She had saved the seeds to plant so she supposed that they should wait for them to eventually turn red.  Mean time she was using them frugally just because their fresh greenness tasted so good.

Their corn grew tall enough to set ears. Everyone waited in anticipation of the first full juicy cobs of corn.  They would have enough to enjoy it fresh and probably enough to dry for winter.  Ellen really preferred to eat her ground corn out of a bag and enjoy it soft and juicy from the garden.  She wondered if there was a way to dry the kernels before they hardened on the stalks.    

The squash was growing well; the little gourd shapes were the size of coffee cups.  The onion sets were pushing their green tubes higher and higher up the side of the house.  Ellen promised severe retribution on any male foot that stepped on one or bent one over.  The dogs had been warned off enough times that they avoided the whole side of the house.

After the morning chores were finished, without mentioning the source of the material, Ellen took the dresses that they had found in the covered wagon and carefully picked the seams apart.  She planned to make herself some better work skirts from them.  The bodices of the dresses could be cut into even sizes for scrub rags.  There were bolts of new material that she planned to use for a new skirt and shirt for One Who Laughs.  There were also a couple pieces of cloth that would make good shirts for Slim Man.

The man’s two new shirts and pants, packed away for a time when they would be needed, were of a good size to fit Joseph.  Ellen hoped he was progressive enough in his thinking that he would accept them without questions.   She planned to simply give them to him when she gave One Who Laughs her new skirts.  Ellen had brought a length of materials to make a new skirt and a shirt for One Who Laughs but with the other material available, she thought she would save that for a Christmas present. 

The sewing went quickly.  The blouse for One Who Laughs and the shirts for Slim Man were soon finished. The skirts took a bit longer, not because they were more difficult, but because of the length of the seams.   She had finished the skirt for One Who Laughs and as she was starting on the first one for herself she had the idea of cutting a slit up the front and back to allow her to ride Roja more easily. 

The riding she had done since she left the hacienda had been through rougher country and much more vigorous than what she had ever done before. In the past her rides had been a gentle and lady-like trot or slow lope as she chatted with Alejandro or enjoyed herself alone. Now her rides were working times as she helped Joseph and Slade with the cattle or rode fence with Slade.  The wide skirts and full petticoats billowed randomly over Roja’s rump and were difficult to control, too often flying up to expose her lower legs and knees if she was racing after a cow.    

A split would allow her to ride and hold her skirts down at the same time.  She gave the process some thought and even pulled the seams on a tattered pair of pants from the big wagon.  When she had a good idea of how the center seam was cut she took the pieces of skirt that she had already prepared and trimmed a center slash.  When they were joined she had two broad full halves to her skirt.  She gathered those onto the waistband leaving extra fullness in the front and back to conceal the split.   

Before hemming it she had to run inside and try on her creation. It was fantastic.  Maybe not something Mrs. Coulter would endorse but still, it would serve her purpose.  She realized wearing the new ‘skirt’ would only mean one layer of cloth around her legs since the fullness of her petticoat would bunch up where the skirt split.  The single layer of cloth, even though it was heavy, seemed a bit too immodest.  To compensate for that she took her oldest petticoat and simply slashed it open front and back, from hem to waist.  Then she hemmed each side of the cut.  When she put both garments on the sides of the petticoat fell within the ‘trouser’ legs on either side. 

Ellen quickly hemmed her new skirt and split petticoat.  Then she wore it around the rest of the day.

When she saw Slade and Joseph riding in from the south she had a bit of a qualm about what her husband might say about the ‘skirt.’   Her father and the old Don, she knew, would definitely disprove of it.  Alejandro would frown on her wearing it too.  His wife was to be a lady at all times. Ellen was more than a bit worried.  Slade was a very traditional, conservative man in many ways.

As soon as Slade had put his horse up, she called him to come in the house with her for a minute.   

A little nervous she turned in front of him as he followed her in the door. 

“How do you like my new skirt?” she asked. 

Slade raised a questioning eyebrow.  “Ahhh.  It’s nice,” he said in confusion, not quite understanding why she was asking him.

“Well, I need you to look at this.”  Ellen grasped the sides of her skirt and pulled them out displaying the split in the middle.  “Now I can ride Roja without my skirts billowing everywhere.  

“Is it all right with you?” 

For a minute Slade just looked from her face to the skirt.  “I couldn’t even tell,” he said.  “It wasn’t even apparent until you pulled the folds apart.  And now you won’t spend half your time trying to hold on to your floating skirt!”  He laughed and swung her up in his arms. “Why should I not be all right with it?”

Ellen chuckled self-consciously. “I was afraid you would think it was unlady-like or immodest.  My father and the Aguilars would have been scandalized.” 

Slade held her closer.  “You could never be anything but a lady as far as I’m concerned and as much as you do around here, anything that makes your work easier and more comfortable is fine with me!

“Now stop worrying.  Wear your new skirt when ever you want.  I probably won’t even think of it.

“Now come out and sit with me a little while before you start supper.”  He kept is arm around her waist and led her out to the big chair in the shade house where he could sit and take her on his lap for a few minutes until One Who Laughs came up from her afternoon nap and Joseph showed up for supper.

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