“Husband? Where are you? Am I a widow so soon?” She laughed as she saw Slade bringing the mules over to the wagon. He tied them to the back wheel and came to kiss her good morning.
“Hmmm.” He sighed. “What a wonderful way to get up in the morning.”
“I would have wakened up earlier if someone has stopped to kiss me before he left.” Ellen told him. He pulled her up and put the heavy knitted shirt and warm coat on her. She shivered at the cold against her chin but Slade quickly buttoned her up and wrapped the long scarf around her head.
While he harnessed the mules Ellen fried a few more strips of bacon and then used some flour to thicken the grease and with milk and water make a bit of gravy. When the harnessed mules were chomping on a bit of corn in feed bags and the horses were lipping their corn from the pan at the back of the wagon, Ellen and Slade shared the skillet of gravy and cornbread bits. The hot coffee warmed them from the inside out..
After a quick rinse of the coffee pot and scrubbing of the skillet they were ready to go. Slade helped Ellen to the wagon seat and handed her the remaining coffee in one cup. He stepped up after stomping their fire into cold ashes.
“One more night on the road and we should be seeing home lands. Poor horses! Getting the mules was a good idea. We can make better time by switching them off.
“But we’ll make it just fine. More time to spend alone with you.” He transferred the reins to one hand and hugged her close.
“I cannot believe we are married!” Ellen said into the warmth of his neck. “For so long I was afraid of leaving you but not knowing why. Then One Who Laughs forced me to realize why and I was afraid my feeling were all one sided! How foolish we were!
Ánd now look!” She squeezed him tightly.
TRAVEL WAS SLOW and cold that day. The end of March at the foot of the mountains was not nearly springtime. The scenery was beautiful and the road as smooth as could be expected. The conversation was enthralling but nothing of interest to anyone except to the two engaging in it.
The sun sank below the rounded the hump of the ridge and descended into a valley. The ruts of the road almost disappeared in the growth and the land appeared completely deserted. There were no dwellings visible. There was hardly a road or track across the emptiness. Even the tracks of their journey a few days before were nearly too faint to be seen in the falling dark. There was a row of ridges and harsh rock a ways to the north.
Slade pulled the horses to a stop. They had traded places with the mules earlier in the day.
“We are going to have to stop while it’s light enough to set up camp. We might as well stop right here. I don’t see any reason for driving any farther or even going of the road to the rocks. It won’t be any warmer there than here. And the way they run, the wind will simply be funneled into our camp. We’ll just stop here.” He clicked the horses to the closest clear spot among the sagebrush and grasses.
They set up camp with smooth teamwork. Fire wood was scarce and Ellen had to search far and wide for pieces of sagebrush and dead branches. Happily, Slade had stowed a few of the larger pieces remaining of last night’s supply in the back of the wagon. He used his technique of tying the piece of canvas to the wagon wheels and staking the corners to the ground to provide a windbreak behind their bed. The boxes with food and cooking supplies were put beside the fire and Ellen quickly set to work making them a hot supper of heated beans dumped over a few pieces of sizzling bacon. The coffee smelled wonderful when it began to boil and she lifted it to the side of the fire to steep.
When the horses were staked and the mules hobbled, Slade and Ellen sat beside the fire to eat their supper. A quick clean up and water for the animals let them snuggle into their blankets. Before Slade had finished pulling the covers tightly around them, Ellen was asleep.
The wind picked up during the night and Ellen awakened with a cold hand protruding from the covers. When she moved it her eyes flew open wide. It had touched something furry! She peered intently through the gloom of the fires embers. There was a huge animal stretched close to her. She had touched its head.
“Eli,” she whispered. “Don’t move too fast but wake up. Wake up and look beside me.”
Slade jerked reflexively, pulling the gun from beside him, he sat up suddenly.
“No, no, no.” Ellen exclaimed. “I think it’s only a big dog. Wait.” Very carefully she extended her hand far enough to rub her fingers over pointed ears and down the slope of its head. When she reached the nose a dry tongue came out in an attempt to lick her fingers.
“I think it is dying of thirst or hunger or something. It found us just in time.
“Make up the fire.” She rubbed the head and scratched behind the ears. The big dog whined weakly.
Slade piled a couple pieces of sage on the faint embers and a blaze sprang up. By its light they could see that it was indeed a dog, a very large and shaggy, savage looking one but with trusting eyes.
“I wonder if it needs water or food more,” Ellen said. She pulled one of the blankets around her shoulders and used her coffee cup to scoop a little water from the bucket. She trickled a thin stream into the side of the dog’s mouth and it licked thirstily at the moisture.
“Give me the can of milk we used for coffee, will you?” she asked Slade. He poured the milk into a bit of water and Ellen scooted close enough to take the dog’s head into her lap. She lifted the head a little and again poured liquid into the dog’s mouth. When most of the cup was gone the animal raised itself onto its chest and licked at the milk still in the cup.
Slade got another can of milk from the wagon and poured half of it into another half cup of water, reconstituting the condensed milk. The dog lapped the milk as fast as it could.
“Do you suppose if we put some cornbread in the milk, he would eat it?” He asked Ellen.
“It certainly won’t hurt to try,” she answered.
The dog accepted their offering happily, but when he finished he seemed to run out of energy. He stood weakly and curled himself into a ball facing the fire. With a deep whuff trailed by a sigh, he went to sleep.
“Well would you look at that.” Slade said. “It certainly is a tame animal, not at all wild. And it knew to come to a wagon and camp fire for help. Wonder where it came from.”
“I don’t know,” Ellen told him “but I’ve had enough of being a Good Samaritan tonight. Right now I’m a cold Samaritan! We can talk about it while we warm up.” She looked at Slade who was in his shirt sleeves.
They huddled into their bed again. “I wonder if it will still be here in the morning,” Slade muttered as they fell asleep.
When they woke up, the dog was some distance out from the wagon taking care of his morning toilet. He made his way back to the fire when he heard them stirring.
Before Ellen could stand up, she was treated to a welcoming nuzzle and a quick slurp along her jaw.
“Humph!” Slade said. “I guess we know who rates in this family.” But before he could say any more the dog came and braced its front legs against his waist to give him a friendly nuzzle under his chin. Then it seemed to run out of energy and dropped back to the ground to curl on its side again.
Slade and Ellen pulled on shoes and coats against the chill. Slade fixed the fire and went to care for the animals while Ellen set about preparing a quick meal. She pulled the ashes from last night to the side and put some more small kindling on them. Then she put the skillet on to heat. While that heated, she sliced the bacon and filled the coffee pot. While the coffee water began to boil she put the bacon on to fry and extracted some tortillas from the box.
By the time Slade returned with the horses and mules, she had wrapped slices of bacon in the tortillas and put two broken ones into the grease to soak in heating water. She took her coffee cup and poured a bit of hot water into it and shaved a bit of soap in to wash the dog slobbers from it before she used it for coffee.
“We will have to think of something to feed the dog in,” she told Slade as though it were a foregone conclusion that they would be keeping him.
“The best I can think of is that we will use the horse feed pan and let them eat from the tail gate of the wagon.” Slade brought her the pan before he continued harnessing the mules to start their day as the wagon haulers. He put the feed bags on the mules in harness and dumped a scoop of corn and oats on the flat tail gate for the horses. Then he and Ellen huddled together as they ate their breakfast. The dog ate his meal greedily and then nosed at the water bucket. Ellen refused to let him drink from their only bucket so she poured a bit of water in his pan. He drank that as greedily as he had eaten his food.
They folded their bed and packed it away in the wagon; the piece of tarp was folded under their feet in the front of the wagon. The dog was already lying down again, looking worriedly at their preparations to leave.
“I don’t think it can follow us, Eli. I think it is too weak.” Ellen looked down at the dog from her seat on the wagon.
“Mmhmm.” Slade said, “I suppose you would like for me to lift it into the wagon, wouldn’t you?”
Ellen looked at him hopefully. Slade scooped the dog into his arms and boosted it onto the floor of the wagon seat in front of them. When he got in the dog was between him and Ellen.“Now there is one thing I want to point out,” he said. “This is my new wife, dog. And I refuse to let you sit between us. So you’d better find a place to put yourself.” Ellen giggled and patted the other side of her leg. The dog cooperatively squeezed around her and curled under the seat. Ellen hugged her husband’s arm and they set off once more