by DiVoran Lites
Molly pushed open the door, let it swing shut behind her, and stood staring at Ellie and Aldon.
“What’s all that caterwauling I hear?” Molly put her hands on her hips and looked at Aldon, who stood and smiled at her.
“Well now, that’s not caterwauling, Ma’am, that’s singing, and mighty good singing, too, I’d say.” Aldon placed his hand over his heart.
“Go on with you, boyo. I’m ready to fix breakfast for the Solanos, so get out of my way.” Molly nodded toward the back door.
“Can I help?” Ellie asked.
“Cut an orange in half, slice it, and cut it again so you’ll have triangles the Signor can pick up with his fingers. Take it up to him while I get the rest of the breakfast. Be certain-sure he has a damp napkin to wipe his fingers on.”
“Before I ride into town, I need to talk to you for a minute, Molly,” said Aldon. He pulled a chair out and she sat down at the table with a humf of annoyance.
“What do you want? I’ve got to get me work started or I’ll be behind all the day.” Molly’s strident voice carried easily to Ellie who stood at the counter cutting a large navel orange. “Young woman, I’ve had the oatmeal simmering all night. After you take the orange up, come back and get the rest of the breakfast for the Solanos, and take it up.”
“Mr. Solano has given me permission to take Ellie on the cattle drive.” Aldon’s voice was low and controlled.
“Over my dead body! I’ve got all the cooking, and then I’ll be training Kate, and somebody has to look after the bairn, plus who knows what that Enrico might dream up. I still have Signor and Signorina, though I don’t know why she’s not old enough to take care of the both of them.”
“Ellie will help with the shopping and cooking and once we’ve gone you’ll have time to do everything you need to. The cousins and I, and Ellie, and Kenny, will only be at the camp one night.” Aldon’s voice held respectful confidence.
“What do you have to say for yourself, young lady, now you wheedled your way into Aldon’s favor?” Molly spoke over her shoulder to Ellie, who had finished cutting the big orange and started to leave the room.
The accusation short-circuited Ellie’s thinking and she froze in the middle of the room with the plate in her hand.
“Molly,” Aldon spoke only his aunt’s name in a tone of gentle reproof and Ellie was released by it to move on. She pushed open the door feeling like a coward but grateful to leave unpleasantness behind.
She knocked on the door of the suite and Signor Solano called out a melodious, “Entrare.”
Shifting the plate of orange slices to her left hand, she opened the door with her right. The Signor sat at his desk with the sun slanting in behind him, turning his white hair into a halo of silver, and reminding her of her grandfather. He made room for the plate amongst a pile of papers.
“Ah, the color of an orange! What a beautiful sight. Thank you, my dear.” Tilting his head to look at her he smiled and started to rise, but she motioned for him to remain seated. “I regret that the Signora is still a-sleeping,” he said. “She will be sorry she missed you.”
Back in the kitchen, Ellie discovered that her singing partner had made his escape and that Kate and Seraphina stood against the counter as they had the day before, waiting for instructions. Molly, was obliging them by giving a lecture, so Ellie saw no choice but to pause and listen too.
“Aldon is meeting his cousins at the feedlot in town to help bring the cattle home. We keep them there over the worst of the winter, but we brand them here before they go up into the range for the summer to graze. This is the smallest herd we’ve ever had, only about five hundred, or so.” She shook her head. “So many things have happened to the original bunch over the years, drought, blizzards, starvation, and disease. In time, even these healthy ones will be sold for beef and then they’ll all be gone. I don’t know what’s to become of us after that. Signor Solano surely can’t afford to keep pouring money into the place forever.” She took Seraphina’s hand and pulled her away from her grandmother who reluctantly let her go.
“Take this little one upstairs, Ellie. Signora told me yesterday that she wants to look after her this mornin’ while we cook the meal for the crew.” Molly said. “Then come back and get the breakfast.”
Ellie wondered whether Molly knew that the Signora was still in bed but decided not to stir the housekeeper’s wrath. As she and Seraphina climbed the stairway, the child asked one question after another in such rapid succession that there were no quiet spaces to insert an answer.
“Where are we going? When will we eat? So I have to eat oatmeal?” Ellie was delighted with the child’s curiosity and the way she expressed herself, and she looked forward to befriending and perhaps teaching Seraphina a few useful things.
“Ah, the little one.” Signor had finished his orange slices and handed Ellie the empty plate and napkin. “Come here,” he said in a soft voice. When the child did as he said, he bent over in his chair and looked into her face while she looked back with equal interest. “I will give her a pencil and paper and she will draw for me here on the floor,” he said. “ Signora will rise soon.
When Ellie got back to the kitchen, Kate was still listening to Molly.“There you are. It took you long enough. It’s six o’clock already and the cow hasn’t been milked, nor have the chickens been fed. After you take up the oatmeal, the cream and the sugar, I’ll show the two of you where things are. It’s no good me showing one and then having to show the other.” She opened a drawer in the cabinet under the counter. “Tea towels in the top drawer, clean dust rags in the bottom one. We wash them and hang them to dry every time we use them.
“We can start the noon meal while we’re still here, then we’ll go to the barn and see what’s what out there. I’ve soaked the beans. When you come back, Ellie, you put them on the stove to boil for chili. Kate, you fry up some of that ground beef wrapped in the butcher paper, over there. They ground it at the general store in town, where we keep our own freezer-locker. When the men go hunting, we take the venison and elk to town, too. We used to do all that meat-cutting ourselves. Modern times are much better.”
As soon as the chili was bubbling on the back of the stove, they went out to the barn and got more instruction, this time in the arts of milking a cow, feeding chickens, and, gathering eggs. Molly allowed them to help with the last chore. At about ten they were leaving the barn to go back to the house when they heard cows mooing and the, “yips” and “hies” of the men driving them. They stepped from the barn to see Aldon and several other men on horses driving the cattle into the field next to the corral.