Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Journey Chapter 27

ELLEN AND SLADE bumped along the double ruts that passed for a road. The rain had stopped and the surface of slippery mud was drying quickly.  Ellen didn’t care; she leaned close to Slade and wrapped both hands around his arm.  Slade looked down at her.

“Who is this fast woman I’ve proposed to?”  His eyes twinkled and invited her closeness.  “You have always been so reserved.  I was more than half afraid to tell you how I felt last night when I raced across the slope. 

“I’d been dreading your departure all day. It was all I could think
of.  That wild proposal was an act of desperation.”

Ellen laid her head against his arm.  “I had been dreading my departure all day.  All of the reasons I loved you kept running through my mind.  And you know what I thought of most?

“Remember the day One Who Laughs talked with me about Joseph working on the ranch in return for their food and housing?”  Slade nodded.  “Remember how I came rushing back into the house and then forgot what I was going to say?  I ended up telling you about the arrangement we had worked out.” 

 Slade looked puzzled but kept quiet.  

Ellen went on.  “I wasn’t going to tell you about the work agreement.  You and I had it planned anyway.  What I had been so excited about was something entirely different One Who Laughs had said to me.  She had called you my man!

“I even opened my mouth to deny it, but in the midst of my protest I realized she was entirely correct!  I thought of everything we had gone through, of how you had lifted me off that horse when I was falling, and how you propped me against the feed box while you took care of my horses for me.  I remember how you peeled those wet things off me; how you took my wet shoes off but couldn’t bring yourself to take my stockings off.  I remembered that you had given me hot sweet coffee and fed me venison stew.” 
She stopped and laughed.  “Do you know I never drank sweet coffee with milk in my life?  I was always a dedicated black coffee drinker!  Now I can’t imagine drinking it any other way.”

She returned to her train of thought, “I remembered how embarrassed you were when you gave me that night dress and the underthings. But you did it because you knew I needed them.  I remembered how you gave me everything I needed for a bath and how warm the fire was when I had finished.

“But most of all I remembered seeing you for the first time when you came in from the barn that night.  You were so tall.  And I noticed how wide your shoulders were when you hung your coat.  But most of all I noticed your face-all hard lines and planes, but filled with kindness.  I’d never seen a face like that.  Even my husband, who loved me sincerely, never had that much kindness in his eyes when he looked at me.

“I think I began to love you that night.”
She shook her head. “One Who Laughs is a very canny woman!  I was suddenly so aware that you were my man and I would do anything to stay beside you I didn’t follow what she was saying for a minute.  Don’t misunderstand; I wasn’t considering anything immoral, but I was determined to find a way to stay.  I had no idea how to accomplish that yesterday, but I kept thinking on it. 
“And then you solved my problem for me.”  She pulled him sideways to kiss him firmly on the mouth.  For a few minutes the horses drove themselves along the familiar track.
When Slade finally straightened up to give his attention to the horses again, he cleared his throat.  “What exactly do you have to accomplish when you get to Santa Fe?   I refuse to leave my new wife there to finish her business when I go home.  How long will we have to stay there?”
“I’m not entirely sure how things will go,” Ellen answered. “I need to establish my identity to protect the holdings of the Aguilar family.  I will have to arrange a way to contact Don Francisco’s brother in Spain.  That may take a while since I’m not quite sure where to find some one to carry the letter to him. 
“I believe there should be some funds that I could obtain for my own living expenses. I know my father had just deposited some from the sale of some horses.  I won’t need a great deal, but as Alejandro’s wife and the only heir in this country I would think I deserve enough to carry out my responsibilities to the family
“There are a few important men in Santa Fe who will recognize me and be able to advise me—Mr. Woodrow, the banker, the family’s attorney, Senor Gutierrez,  maybe the shopkeeper, oh yes, and the dressmaker, Mrs. Coulter!  I’ve spent a great deal of money in her shop over the years, and most of all, the Commandante Ortega-Garcia and his wife.  They were close friends of the old Don and regarded Alejandro as a son almost.
“I’ll stop first at the bank and speak with Mr. Woodrow.  That should be enough to establish my right to some funds for myself and for putting the property back into good order. I’m sure there is enough money for that.  I will have to give some thought to a man who can be trusted to repair the buildings and fences. 
“Senior Gutierrez will probably be able to advise me on how to reach Don Francisco’s brother.  He may know someone going to Spain in the next few months.  If I use his address for a return letter he can either send me a message or take care of the arrangements for the grant himself.
I hope in a couple days I can be finished.” 
They rode in silence for a few minutes while Slade sorted out the particulars of the task.  Finally he sighed.
“If we are lucky and things go well we can be in Santa Fe tonight.”  Slade told Ellen.  “As much as I would like to marry you as soon as we drive into town, I think you will have less trouble taking care of your business if you do it as the widow Aguilar. 
“If you go in as Mrs. Slade, there will be days of argument and discussion.”  He shifted the reins to one hand and hugged her to him.  “I can be your escort and body guard.   You can introduce me as the one who found you in your flight from Viejo and took you in until I could leave my ranch in good hands and the weather was good enough to travel.
‘We can be married as soon as you’ve established your identity and sent that letter to Spain.”  He winked at Ellen as he hugged her again and then took the reins back into both hands.  She simply wiggled a little closer to him.
The horses pulled the wagon over the rough ground at a steady pace.  Travel was not fast, but it was constant.  Ellen and Slade rode along making plans for their stay in Santa Fe and what supplies they needed to buy for their return.  It could be several weeks or even months before the summer work would allow Slade leave again.
Around noon a wind began whipping across the flats coming down the mountains from the northwest.  For the first while it was simply an irritant, but as the day wore on it became a serious problem.  The temperature dropped and although the skies were clear and blue, the wind went from being uncomfortable to threateningly cold.  Ellen huddled closer to Slade and didn’t complain, but she couldn’t control the shivers that shook her from time to time.
When the shivering became persistent, Slade pulled the horses to a stop.   “You let me sit on that side,” he said, “I can shield you from some of the wind.  I never expected this; I thought it blew itself out last night.
“Here,” he stood up and stepped across her legs.  Before he sat down he pulled the quilt off her lap and flipped it open so he could wrap it round her shoulders, too.  Then he sat between her and the wind.  He had left his muffler at home, but he did turn his coat collar up and pull his hat down on one side of his head.  They went on as the wind persisted and grew colder still.
“Eli,” Ellen said, “Do you suppose we could both wrap in this quilt and try to keep me a bit warmer?  I think riding in that storm wasn’t as cold as this wind.  How much farther is it to Santa Fe?”
Slade peered at the sky as they rearranged the blanket.  “It’s quite a ways yet.  We wouldn’t get into town until well into the night at best.  I think it will maybe be best if we find a sheltered spot and build ourselves a fire till the wind dies.”
“Do you still think there’s no snow or rain coming with the wind?” Ellen asked.  “I can’t remember a wind like this.”
“No, it’s almost too cold for snow and the sky is still clear.  It will blow itself out, but we need to find someplace where there is a windbreak to give us some shelter.  I don’t think we would feel near so cold if the wind wasn’t so constant.” 
Since they had angled more to the north now, Slade needed both hands to keep the reluctant horses angled with  the wind but he held the blanket tight under his arm on one side and Ellen pressed close to his heat on the other.  They drove for some ways while Slade watched for a stand of trees or a rocky bluff to provide a break against the wind.
They finally came to what appeared to be a narrow canyon opening out on the left side of the road. Slade turned the horses into it and there was an immediate lessening of the wind.  As they moved a bit farther up the canyon, Slade realized it was only a narrow slit in the ridge. It ended in a point a couple hundred feet ahead. He pulled the horses to the right and backed them, positioning the wagon against one wall partially blocking access back to the road. 
Slade helped Ellen down from the seat and she huddled onto the ground against the rock wall. He released the horses from the wagon. He left the harness on them but removed the bridles to allow them to graze.  He smacked them on the rump to drive them deeper into the cut.  He took the ax from the wagon and stepped back out into the wind.
Within a few minutes he returned dragging a sizable deadfall with numerous limbs.  When he got it inside the blocked space, his ax quickly knocked the smaller branches off.  They were collected and he quickly made a fire close to the rock wall where Ellen crouched.  Even the small blaze from the kindling warmed her face, but as he chopped the bigger limbs off and added them to the blaze she was more and more comfortable.  Slade made a pile of chopped wood to one side.  Then he picked up the axe again.
“I’m going back around the corner to see if I can find more wood. Maybe across the road.  You just stay here and warm up.”  He started to leave, then came back.
“I’m sorry we can’t get there today,” he told her.  ‘But I don’t want to freeze you.  Who would I kiss if that happened?” Slade took one more second to bend down and put action to his words.  “Be right back.
He left her again, but Ellen stayed warm by the fire.
Slade returned dragging a huge pile of brush collected from the juniper and pine trees on the other side of the road from their little cut.  He brought them up beside the fire and tossed a small spray of juniper on the fire.  A wonderful fragrance spread across the little shelter.
“That was a lot of work just to make your fire smell good.”  Ellen teased.
“Oh no, it isn’t just for smell.  Watch.”  Slade took a long sapling and worked one end through the wagon spokes on one end and sprung it behind the other wheel.  That pile of cedar and pine branches was woven into a windbreak along the supporting pole.  The ones remaining were stacked in the gap between the wagon and the wall.  Not a breath of air came into their little corner.
“Now!”  Slade said.  “I’ll tend to the horses quick and we’ll have a bite to eat.  That should warm us up.’  He stepped away from the fire and returned in a few minutes with the harness over his shoulder.
“They’re back there eating away.  The walls are pretty steep they won’t go anywhere.  Tomorrow I’ll give them a good drink before we leave.”
He took the Dutch oven from the wagon and the canteens of coffee. One had been emptied as they used the coffee for warmth on their trip. He put them beside the fire.  Then he raked the nearly spent coals into a smooth bed on one side where he could set the heavy iron kettle that contained the tortilla meat rolls left from their brief lunch.
 “As soon as the iron heats up, the tortillas inside will get a little warm   And maybe we can have some of that peach sauce for dessert.” He grinned at her and settled himself close to her side. Ellen had no objections.
“We will have a little to eat and soon it will be dark. While it is still light enough I’ll make you a bed here close on to the wall.  You’ll be warm all night.”
She grinned at him. “I’m glad I thought to put this old skirt on over Madeline’s pretty green dress.  Camping in it would have ruined it.  This way I’m able to keep it protected till I get to Santa Fe.”  She tucked the billowing dark materials carefully around her legs.
Slade leaned back to look at her.  She was sitting cross-legged in a puff of cloth.  “That is an unladylike way to sit, Mrs. Aguilar.  I don’t know if I should marry such a woman.”  He stopped to wrap a wild lock of hair around his finger.  “So I guess I’ll have to marry my Ellie.    How much longer did we say that would be?”  Ellen snuggled a little closer and the conversation was suspended until they returned to plans for their future. 
When the tortillas were heated they had their supper sharing the coffee from the canteen. It wasn’t hot but it tasted good.  It had been a long time since they had eaten their cold tortillas for lunch.
Before they got out the bedrolls, Slade filled the coffee pot and set it beside the fire.  He put the box with their food supplies beside it and laid the bag of ground coffee on it and made sure the cornbread was in the Dutch oven beside it. That and the peach sauce would make them a good breakfast before an early start in the morning. 
He spread the bedrolls beside the fire and made sure Ellen had a place between the wall and the fire.  He saw her settled and then crawled into his own blankets.  He slept lightly and roused several times during the night to add fuel to the fire.

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