by DiVoran Lites
Three days later, before sunrise, Aldon arranged himself on the seat of the chuck wagon with Ellie beside him. He was glad to have the use of Dieter’s mules, as he slapped the reins lightly along their backs. Mules were good value. They weren’t as pretty as horses, but they were stronger. They had better horse sense and enough self-respect not to allow folks to ride them to death.
“Git-up,” he shouted as the animals pulled the wagon forward through the pasture and upward into the range. Next to him, Ellie smiled, and at the same moment, a rim of sunshine came up over the top of the treeless peaks.
Aldon knew everyone was in formation. He and Ellie headed the group. Dieter, temporary trail boss, rode to their right with a point man on either side of the herd behind him. They had one swingman and one flank man, on opposite sides of the herd. Joe led three horses toward the left of the chuck wagon.
If we do this again next year, Aldon thought, I’ll let Kenny wrangle the horses. Once someone as bright and willing as Kenny has ridden drag all the way, with the dirt in his nostrils, stinging his eyes, and gritting between his teeth, he deserves a promotion.
As the group moved farther up the mountain, Aldon looked back at half a thousand bobbing heads. Cattle ranching had been good for his family, but if he had a choice, he’d rather be training horses in Hollywoodland, like his brother, Bill, than herding cows.
“Well, Miss Morgan, here you are in the Wild West. What do you think of it?”
“I’m going to have to get a hat. Where did you get yours, Mr. Leitzinger?”
“Colleen will order you one, or I can let you use Granny’s sun bonnet.” Aldon felt sorry that he hadn’t thought to give it to her before they started out.
“Is that the one I saw hanging on the porch?” Ellie asked with a sidewise grin. “I took the liberty of trying it on, and I probably should have worn it, but I guess you might say I was too vain. It’s not my style. I like your John B. Stetson better; you think I could get one of those?”
“You know the brand of my hat?” This gal was full of surprises.
“Morgan’s department store carries them. I believe Mr. Stetson was inspired by the ten-gallon cowboy hats when he visited Colorado.”
“You don’t say?” Aldon thought she must be the smartest woman he’d ever met, except maybe for his mother, Nancy. “We’ll get you a Stetson, one way or the other.”
“By the way, thanks for letting me wear your mother’s clothes. Are you sure she won’t mind?” Ellie asked.
Aldon and Molly had both known that Nancy would want Ellie to wear her long johns, jeans, and flannel shirt, anything she owned, but hadn’t taken with her to Artesia. The young woman from Chicago, of course, had not brought that kind of working duds, and she’d need them for a rough job at high altitude. He had given her the soft, leather sheepskin jacket he’d grown out of at sixteen. Looking at her in it, he remembered how warm the wool felt on the other side of his shirt when the temperature dropped.
At first, the trail was plenty wide enough, but it soon got so narrow that the herd no longer walked spread out, as it had through the pastures. Instead, the cattle fell naturally into single file as they followed the wagon onto the shelf road that Aldon’s ancestors had dynamited out of the side of the mountain. It was a quicker and easier way than trying to drive the wagon over boulders that hid beneath grass and wildflowers in the high meadows. Aldon knew the trail ran more than seventy feet above the creek in some places and was almost too narrow for the wagon, but the chance of the wagon sliding off had never worried him before now.
Knowing that most Easterners got antsy about such heights he glanced at Ellie to see how she was doing. She stopped staring at the creek far below long enough to lift questioning eyes to his.
“You see up there where the trees don’t grow?” In order to distract her, he directed her attention to timberline.
“Yes, I do. Did somebody cut them all down for firewood or what?” she asked searching the high horizon.
“No, they just won’t grow at that altitude.”
“That’s strange.” She continued to look up.
“ ‘I will lift up my eyes to the hills. My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth,’ ” he murmured thoughtfully.
“What?” She seemed startled. “I wouldn’t think you’d need much help. You can do anything.”
“Oh, I’ve got my problems,” he said. “But when I think about the Master, they fade away because I know He’s taking care of me. I’ve needed to know that since I got home from the war.”
She gave him such an eager look that he wondered if he should tell her more. He’d try it and if she lost interest, he’d quit.
“For one thing, I sometimes need help holding my temper. It might have something to do with the way my brothers and I always fought when we were coming up. We only had to look at each other cross-eyed and we were in a tangle.”
“Everybody has faults of one kind or another.” Ellie slipped her arm through his. “I think you’re a good man.”
“Thank you ma’am, but I wouldn’t mind being a bit more saintly.”
“Nobody is a saint,” she said.
“I beg to differ, kid,” he said, “followers of Christ are always called saints.”
“The Bible says we are.” Suddenly he decided that he’d said enough. He had her respect, why risk losing it by being too preachy.
By noontime, they had arrived at a high, wide meadow ringed with shimmering aspens. Bunch grass, Indian paintbrush, and daisies covered the ground. In the sky, fleecy gray-lined clouds gave only a bit of shade from the sun, but a cooling breeze rolled past on its way down the mountainside. Some cows lay down while others slowly foraged as their calves nursed.