by DiVoran Lites
Something woke Ellie at four the next morning, but she felt refreshed and eager to see what the day might bring. Pulling her print dress from the closet where she had hung it the night before she picked up her work shoes and tiptoed down the stairs. Each time a wooden stair creaked, she stopped to listen to the sleeping house. She was sitting in a kitchen chair bending over and tying the laces on her shoes when Aldon walked in carrying a bouquet that looked small in his long-fingered hands.
“Whoa,” he said pausing dramatically as if her presence in the kitchen had startled him. “You’re up early.” He stepped into the small room off the kitchen and came back with a blue teapot into which he ran water for the flowers.
“I don’t know what woke me. Those are pretty,” she said watching him settle the flowers into the water and put the pot on the table in front of her.
“A few wildflowers that grew out by the barn. Weeds, I guess, but yeah, they’re kinda pretty.” His hand hovered over the flowers in the teapot vase.
“Do you pick them often?” she asked.
“Nah, haven’t done it since I was a kid. It felt like a good day for it, that’s all.” He glanced away.
“They are fine wildflowers,” she said wanting him to know that she, at least, appreciated them. If you’ll show me where everything is, I’ll make coffee.” She looked up at him and from that angle; he appeared to be seven feet tall.
“Well, let’s get it going.” He opened the stove lid and poked at the banked coals then added kindling from the box on the floor. The embers flickered into flame, and the scent of wood-smoke perfumed the air reminding Ellie of trips to the Poconos with the Campfire Girls.
“Where do you keep the coffee?” Ellie asked, grabbing the tin pot off the stove-shelf and filling it from the faucet.
Aldon pulled a package from the cupboard and showed her the label. “How about Arbuckle’s Arioso? Everybody around here likes it, except Signora Solano. She sticks with Italian coffee.”
“Yes, we drink it in Chicago, too. Would you like for me to make an omelet?” Ellie looked into the lower cupboards and brought out a frying pan.
“Sounds good. I haven’t had a real omelet since France.”
“I learned how to make them from the chef in our restaurant at the department store. They were all the rage for brunch. The secret is to cook the eggs as slowly as possible,” Ellie said. “Do you have any cheese?”
“Good German cheese – made by my uncle. It’s in the pantry under a cloth.” Aldon went to get the cheese and Ellie followed him sightseeing. She noted that the room held staple foodstuffs, extra dishes, and large pots and pans.
“How is it you know so much about the kitchen?” she asked.
“Nancy, taught us boys to cook. She could run cattle, so she figured we needed to know about women’s work in case no girls wanted to marry us when we grew up.” Aldon grinned.
“Nancy is your mother, right? Why do you call her Nancy?” Ellie saw a bowl of eggs in the pantry and took them into the kitchen to break into a bowl.
“We started calling her that to tease her and it stuck.” He opened a drawer and pulled out a wooden spoon. “Will this work?” he asked.
He poured the coffee and set out cream and sugar while Ellie cooked the omelet and divided it onto two plates. “I’m finding out I have several bosses, and it’s confusing,” she said sitting down and admiring the view of the valley through the many-paned windows. He sat beside her, and she assumed it was so he could see the valley below, too.
“Your number one boss would be Signor Solano,”Aldon instructed, but he said I could take you on the cattle drive if you have no objection. Next, it would be Molly unless Signora wants you with her. Sounds like you’ll be busy, but it will be all right. I’m here most of the time, so if you need help, let me know.” He put a forkful of eggs in his mouth, chewed, and closed his eyes in ecstasy. “Mmm. You’ll give Molly a run for her money.”
“Don’t say that. I don’t want to offend her in any way.” Ellie put her hand on his wrist, but removed it immediately when she felt a spark flare in her innermost parts.
“What do you think about the cattle drive?” he said, seemingly unaware of the effect touching him had on her.
“May I think about it?” Ellie took a deep breath to calm herself. She hadn’t felt so alive in a long time.
“It’s a small herd,” he said, “The ranch families are all related to each other. We take a bunch of cattle into the range so they can graze through the summer. That allows the grass to grow, and then in the wintertime we use it for hay.”
“Would I be riding a horse, though?” Her enthusiasm stalled like a bicycle going up a steep hill.
“Yep. Ribbons can make one more push. She knows the way. By the end of the first day, you’ll feel as if you’ve been in a rocking chair.”
“Ah, yes?” She was skeptical. “What will I do to earn my pay?”
“We need a new cook,” Aldon said. “I’ve been to town looking for one, but there’s no one around who can or will do it.”
“Who did it last year?”
“Believe it or not, it was Kate’s husband, Albert Fisher.” Aldon’s eyebrows came together in a frown. “We called him Cookie – that’s what we call camp cooks.”
“Doesn’t he want to go?” she asked. From the agonized expression on Aldon’s face, she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer.
“He was the first person to try out the new electric chair down at the state penitentiary.” Aldon’s voice wavered, and she could tell he felt sad, but he went on. “He was a good cook, and a decent man. I’m sorry he got into trouble.”
“What did he do?” she asked.
“Well…he killed a man. I’ll tell you about it sometime.” Aldon got up for the coffee pot and sat back down again. “For now, do you want the job?”
“I don’t have a lot of experience with cooking,” she admitted. “My mother stayed at home and looked after the house and all that, and I spent most of my spare time with my grandparents at the store.”
“You strike me as someone who could learn to do anything,” he said. “If you did make a mistake or two, I doubt if the cousins would shoot you, they’re partial to good-looking girls.” He winked and bobbed his head. She wondered whether he was aware that he was flirting.
“Shoot me! What do you mean?” Ellie sipped at the coffee left in the bottom of her mug, but she immediately started coughing and he began to pat her back. Once she caught her breath, she went on, “Why would anyone shoot a cook?”
“The men expect things to be just right, even though they’re only getting coffee, beans, bacon, and biscuits. My grandpa liked to tell a story about a cook that made coffee as weak as Chinese tea and biscuits as hard as bullets. One of the fellows was in a bad mood, because he got kicked by a horse. He whipped out his sidearm and shot the cook dead. It has been a warning to cooks ever since. Don’t worry, though, they wouldn’t do that to you, even if you burned the beans.”
Ellie assumed burning the beans was the worst thing a camp cook could do.
“So, do you want to ride along?” He seemed eager for her answer.
“You promise they won’t shoot me?” She looked up at him with a half-smile to let him know she now understood that he was joking.
“I promise.” He nodded. “Kenny’s going too. You know that tall drink-a-water that belongs to the Fitzgeralds. He’s a good boy and a hard worker, and he’ll look after you.”
“I’ll need someone to look after me for sure,” she said.
“We’ll castrate and brand tomorrow, and then you and Molly can start getting the food ready. She’s lived around here all her life, and she and Nancy went on many a drive. But she figures now it’s her job to keep the home fires burning.”
At the same moment, they looked into each other’s eyes realizing he had said the name of a song from the war. He started humming in a pure baritone. He asked her to join him moving his head back slightly. Their voices blended as if they’d been singing together all their lives.
“Keep the homes fires burning,
Though your hearts are yearning,
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.”
As they finished the song, she glanced up to see that someone was on the other side of the swinging door listening.