Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Chapter 2: Gunslinger's Grave by McKenna


Ella
It’s so goddamn hot. That unladylike thought ran through my head at least five more times before I finally stomped up to my room on the second floor of the boarding house. I set the pitcher of water that I had been carrying down on the intricately carved oak bureau.
It had been a long summer so far. One of the hottest yet, and the slight ocean breeze did nothing to cool anyone down in Carmel. I found it strange that it was so hot here; the weather usually stays steady throughout the entire year. To make matters worse, the boarding house had been incredibly crowded this summer, and we were almost at maximum capacity today. 
People usually stay for only a few days in the boarding house. It is more of a home for travelers, where they have a clean bed and warm meal before they continue on their journey. I had met every type of man you can think of here: the smooth-talking salesman, the occasional cowboy, and the flirty business owner. None of them really stayed with me in my heart, though, that was all for Ambrose.
Ambrose. I miss him so much. I often wonder how he is doing in the mine camps. Not that Ambrose is actually doing any of the manual labor, he has men for that, but I still worry nonetheless. The Gold Rush has taken a lot of time to adjust to. I have only received one letter from him, and it was a short one. I tend to spend all my free-time writing to him, telling him of the colorful characters that stay here and the fights that break out in the saloon next door. 

I paced around my sweltering room, not really sure what to do to become more comfortable in the heat. A thought came to mind, and I blanched. No real lady wears pants, I thought to myself. No matter how goddamn hot it is. The idea was ridiculous, I would never be caught dead in a pair of pants. However, in this heat, it was an attractive thought. It would be much easier to finish my chores of preparing rooms for boarders, and helping Hannah begin supper preparations. 
I looked down at the many layers of ruffled dress I was wearing. The dress was beautiful, a gift from Ambrose’s mother and sister after our engagement. It was a delicate pink color, and had come with a matching bonnet. That, I had discarded, for fear of looking like a young girl. The dress was just too heavy for the current weather. Examining myself in the mirror, I decided to change into a dress with not so many layers. It wouldn’t be as proper, but I doubted that I would see anyone from the Cassidy family.

After changing and finishing the room preparations, I trotted down the stairs to go find Hannah. Judging by the delicious smells throughout the house, she was in the kitchen. Still moving quickly, I had almost reached the kitchen when my father stepped into the dining room. 

“Ell, what in the world are you in such a rush for?” My father asked, placing two hands on my shoulders to steady me. “And what are you wearing?”

I looked down at my new attire, cringing inside. I should have known it was completely inappropriate of me to wear a dress from my young teenage years. It barely fit me anymore, much too tight around my breasts and it only skimmed the tops of my feet, which had no shoes covering them. 

I opened my mouth to begin an apology, but I was cut off by my father who laughed.

“Never mind, Ell. I need to go check on the stables, we have six new boarders tonight, all with horses. They should be here anytime. Run along and help Hannah.”

Following his orders, I stepped into the kitchen to assist with dinner. Hannah was standing over the stove, stirring a large pot of what smelled like beef stew. Hannah Boone is my stand-in mother. Obviously she could never replace my mom, who died when I was very young, but she comes close. I’ve always hoped that my father would fall in love with Hannah, but I have more or less given up on that dream. It is clear to anyone who looks that Hannah is desperately in love with my father, but I don’t think she will ever have the guts to tell him. I don’t think my father will ever move on from my mother’s death, either. 

“Hello, Ell. Are you going to help me?” Hannah asked me, brushing a few tendrils of wavy brown hair away from her sweaty face. “I have just about finished the stew, but the biscuits need to be baked.” 

I set about performing this task. Over the years, Hannah has taught me all she knows about housework, cooking, and sewing. I appreciate the fact that she taught me these things, because they will surely be valued in the Cassidy home, but I don’t like doing them. There is nothing more mind-numbing to be than sewing. I am good at it, due to the endless hours of my Hannah-training, but I hate it. I know that if Hannah had not been around all these years, I would not have been considered a lady enough to become engaged to Ambrose. I owe everything to Hannah.
Hannah and I chatted while we cooked about silly things, such as my hair and her hair and Rebecca Cassidy, Ambrose’s bratty sixteen year old sister. While I adore Hannah and can think of nobody I love as much as her except for maybe my father, she does not talk much about things of importance. I cannot blame her, as she never went to school or learned to read. She knows the role of women, she follows that role, and she does her best to get me to follow that role. Our conversation was vapid to the point that we actually began to discuss the weather. The weather. Hannah was just as affected by the heat as I was, but she had the good graces to sweat through it. 
We finally reached the point in our (Hannah’s) chatter where I began to feel lightheaded and nauseous. Maybe it was the heat, but I like to think that it was the conversation. One girl can only take so many minutes of hair ribbons and flour brands. I strode barefoot (which Hannah had commented on, bless her heart) across the wood floor to the sink and pumped water into my hands to rinse the biscuit flour off. The water went down a little drain and into a small bucket under the sink in a cupboard, so emptying that bucket after supper was yet another chore to add to my list. I could not help but groan a little at this, but not loud enough for Hannah to hear. She would not approve. 
“Hannah, I am going to go change back into my day clothing. This dress is making it difficult to breathe.” This, of course, was an exaggeration, but I needed out of that silly kitchen. 

Luckily, none of our boarders had returned to the house from their varied activities of the day, so I did not have to worry about looking improper to them. Our boarding house housed mainly men, so I always had to watch myself in my own home. While this was a bit of an inconvenience, I can think of no better way to grow up. I have met more interesting people in my seventeen years than most people will meet in their entire lives, and for that, I am grateful. 

I made my way back up to my bedroom to change back into that God-awful dress, already sweating at the thought of it. The good thing about Carmel is that while it can be warm during the day, nights are considerable colder, and often require bed warmers. I love using many blankets and the bed warmer, so I don’t mind this at all. A thick fog always rolls by our boarding house in the morning, so we usually get to bundle up until late morning. 
After changing back into the pink dress, I examined myself in the pretty silver mirror that had belonged to my mother before she passed. I picked up her old brush and, still looking in the mirror, brushed my waist-length black hair. I tend to wash it and the rest of my body every day in a hot bath, since Hannah told me that that is what the Cassidy women do. My father grumbled about this practice, and charged anyone in the boarding house who wanted to bathe a dollar more, but he was a good sport about it to Hannah and I. 

“Ella!” I heard my father shout from downstairs. “Get down here!”

I figured it was the new boarders arriving. I was usually in charge of welcoming our guests and showing them their rooms. The group we were receiving tonight consisted of six men, apparently making their way from Southern California to one of the gold mining camps. They all had horses, and I hoped they would allow me to pet one. I love horses. 

A little thump sounded outside my room. Within two seconds, a furry little body leapt through my room, yowling as it came. It shot around my room, leaping off the various furniture items. After the cat slammed against my bed post, it noticed me and calmed down. It was an ugly cat, with marbled brown fur missing in chunks and a deformed paw. I rescued it as a kitten from a large bird when I was twelve, naming it Cat, and it has been sporadically living in the boarding house ever since. My father hated it, said it was bad for business. While this could be true, it was unfriendly and difficult to look at, I knew my father would  never dream of taking him away from me. 

I picked up the cat and carried him out of the room, kicking the door shut with my still bare feet. Shoes just did not sound appealing to me at the moment. I intended to get Cat a little something from the kitchen to eat, completely forgetting about the men I was supposed to welcome, who were waiting for me in the front parlor. They all stared at me as I basically ran down the stairs in my usual fashion, whether their eyes were widening at me or the cat I do not know. Probably the cat. The cat, seeing the multitude of men gathered in the parlor, began to thrash in my arms, definitely leaving scratches on the delicate, lightly tanned skin. Yowling erupted, and the cat shot out of my arms towards the young men. They all jumped back, bumping into each other with a chorus of swear words, words that I was quite used to despite me being a lady, and through all of the damns and fucks, I heard something I had never heard before. 

“Dios mío.”

2 comments:

Elias McClellan said...

This is fun. I love the detail. We have romantic ideas without considering the day-to-day aggravation of living in the 19th-century west. Is there a tense shift there? I'm kinda thick.

One other quibble, "Hannah Boone is my stand-in mother," is too powerful a statement not to be it's own para. The last line has me chomping at the bit to read what comes next.

ricochet_ said...

Thank you, Elias! I agree with you on the statement opinion. It really is a powerful statement, isn't it? I'm glad you're feeling the suspense!