The slow miles rattled by under the horses plodding hooves. After a few hours Slade stopped to rest them and transferred harness to the mules. The task required some adjusting of lengths on the harness so Ellen took advantage of the time to boil a quick pot of coffee and pull out some of the hardened cornbread to soak in it for a brief meal.
They followed the worn ruts that led them west and slightly north from the
evening drew on Slade began watching for a good place to stop for the night.
Ellen however spent the time holding tightly to her new husband’s arm and
enjoying the opportunity to be alone with him.
Slade chose a grove of twisted pines as their evening camp. He pulled the wagon behind the clump and staked the horses in the nearby grassy area. The mules were hobbled and turned into the same area. Since they were all animals that preferred living in herds, he doubted that the mules would wander far and the hobbles would prevent anything more than grazing. The horses were used to being pegged out and he knew they would be quiet.
While he was caring for the stock, Ellen gathered a pile of broken branches as well as a couple larger pieces. She swept the litter of pine needles and rubble aside in a wide circle and built a small fire in the center. Slade took a small spade from the wagon and dug a trench around it. They brought rocks and prepared a meal of fresh tortillas and fried bacon. Ellen took time to stir up a batter of cornbread to bake in the Dutch oven throughout the evening. In the morning they would have the remaining tortillas or some fresh cornbread for breakfast. As the ashes accumulated from their camp fire Ellen scooped them under the oven and heaped them around the sides. She had acquired enough experience to judge the heat and the time necessary to bake the cornbread even on an open campfire.
While Ellen finished their supper, Slade took his axe and divided the dried logs into manageable pieces to hold the fire over night. Lacking the branches he’d used for their first camp, he tied a piece of canvas along the side of the wagon and staked it to the ground as a windbreak. Their pallets were spread between that and the fire to provide a warm bed in the early spring cold.
As they ate their supper the familiar cold breeze swept down from the northwest. Ellen shivered in her new dress with the shabby work skirt over top.
“I’ll have to change into warmer clothes,” she told Slade. “This was not designed for travel or cold weather.”
“I’ll pull your box down,” Slade agreed. “You can get what you need and then change as quickly as possible. Those clothes are good for town wear, but traveling in the desert is not very comfortable for them.” He stepped to the wagon seat and pulled the small chest down.
Ellen took Madeline’s heavier dress from the box and also the winter under shirt she had worn on their earlier trip. She also found her heavy plain petticoat to put on under it. That way she could put the pretty flounced and laced one away with the nice dress and shirtwaist and the woolen cape.
“Stand close to the fire here and I’ll hold a blanket between you and the wind while you change quick. It won’t be like a warm bedroom but maybe you won’t freeze while you are doing it.” Slade picked up the blanket and provided the windbreak he promised.
Ellen unbuttoned her pretty white shirt and the waist of the skirt. As fast as she could she took the shirtwaist off then pulled the undershirt and dress on over her head When they were both on, she took off the burgundy colored skirt and straighten everything out. She shivered involuntarily in the wind and Slade wrapped both arms around her enfolding her with the blanket.
“Let’s take a minute here and enjoy the process,” he said and turned her around to kiss her until the shivers of cold turned to happy little tremors. After long happy moments he loosed her and unwrapped the blanket. She quickly raised her skirts and pulled on the long woolen underwear and the old petticoat.
“Here I brought this down too.” He gave her the heavy knitted shirt that had once belonged to Senor Aguilar. She took it gratefully and slid her arms into it. Then she shook the good clothes free of any dust or dirt. They were folded into the chest with the cape.
She shivered one more time and pulled on the heavy leather coat. “Brrr. Now I feel more like myself. And I’m certainly warmer!”
Slade poured a bit of water n the greasy skillet and set it over the coals. He made them each one more cup of coffee, with generous scoops of sugar and dollops of milk. While the water heated to clean the skillet, he sat on the ground and pulled Ellen into the curve of his body. They stared into the fire and sipped their coffee, exchanging endearments.
“Ellie, I want to give you something.” Slade said in a little while. “If you don’t like it you can tell me, but I hope you will.” He took the little box from his pocket. Ellen gasped when she saw it.
Slade opened the box and took the tiny silver band of flowers from it. “I think I was supposed to have this when I asked you to marry me back on the porch in the cold, but I have it now.
“Ellen McPherson Aguilar, would you marry me again?”
“You know I would, Eli Slade!” and she held up her hand for him to push the ring on her finger. It fit perfectly.
Slade sighed in relief. “I was worried, it looked so small. But senor Montalvo said it would fit. And he was right.” He cradled her back against his shoulder in the curve of his arm. She lifted her face to be kissed. Slade complied with overwhelming joy.
When Ellen’s head drooped against his shoulder, it took three calls to waken her. Slade stood up and pulled her against his chest.
“Come on sweetheart, let’s put you to bed.” He led her to the pallet he had prepared for them and, after removing the coat, tucked her in warmly. He pulled off her shoes and folded the long skirts around her feet.
It was the work of only a few minutes to check on the horses, clean the skillet and remove the baked cornbread from the fire. After thinking a bit he wrapped the fresh cornbread in the crumbly cloth from the hardened older cake. He scrubbed the fragments from the oven and put it back on the wagon.
Finally he was ready to bank the fire and crawl into the blankets between his bride and the canvas billowing in the cold wind. This time they could camp burrowed close in the same bed sharing the warmth. Slade had no need to worry she would be cold. He gathered her into his arms. Ellen turned and smiled in her sleep, sliding one arm up and around his neck. He buried his face in the mass of loose hair.
Cold gray dawn shone behind the distant mountains before either was ready for it. Ellen stretched and her arm slid into the cold space vacated minutes earlier by Slade. She sat up clutching the blanket to her chest.