Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Chapter 3: Gunslinger's Grave


“Dios mío.”
The smooth, unfamiliar words had come from an incredibly handsome stranger standing at the front of the group. If I was being honest with myself, I would say that he was more than handsome. Calling him just handsome was an insult to him, but I made the effort to never think about men in such a way besides Ambrose. 
Before I even thought to filter my words, I blurted out some entirely unladylike words.

“What in the hell does that mean?” I said to the beautiful stranger. Yes, beautiful seemed more appropriate. I clapped a hand over my lips, already reddening at my harsh words. 

The room was completely silent until the stranger broke out into soft laughter. He had a nice laugh. He bent down, and to my astonishment, successfully picked up Cat and began stroking him.

“Señorita, your words amuse me. I said “my god”. The cat surprised me, you see.”

He spoke with the same accent that I have heard in the boarding house before, but perhaps more faint, belonging to men my father often referred to as vaqueros or Hispanics. This man standing before me was nowhere near as dark as those men, though. 

I would ask what ‘señorita’ means, but I refrained in order to save myself from even more embarrassment. The people in the room were already hiding their laughter at me, and I did not feel like being at the end of everyone’s amusement for the entire evening. 

“I see. Did the cat harm any of you?” I asked, still recovering from my immense embarrassment, I was lucky my dress was long enough to cover my bare feet. If our guests saw those, they would be sure to think that I am a complete floozy. 

Taking a quick scan of the group of men, I determined that the man in front was definitely the largest and most handsome. His demeanor conveyed that of an alpha male, but he was not overly aggressive. His appearance would be hard to describe to someone that had never seen him before. Overall, he was manly, but his features had wisps of fairness. This is probably why I would consider him more beautiful than handsome. 
“No, señorita. We all seem to be in one piece, thank you for your concern. Does this little one have a name?” He inquired to me, stroking the purring Cat behind the ears.

“Cat.” I responded, puzzled at how the man was able to pet the cat. Cat was notorious for viciously scratching anyone that tried to touch him, with the exception of me. I was met with a bemused smile.

“Yes, does the cat have a name?”

“Cat. His name is Cat.” I answered, daring him with my eyes to laugh. He apparently got the message, only responding to me with a nod. He set the cat down, and turned to my father. 

“Shall we introduce ourselves?” His silky voice asked, his accent catching on the longer words. 

“Yes, yes. I’m Seth Daley, the owner of this house. Just call me Seth. This is my daughter, Ella. She helps me out around here. You will meet Hannah Boone in a few minutes, she also lives here. She mostly tends to the cooking and cleaning of this establishment. You folks have any questions, just go to Hannah or Ella and they will help you out,” said my father. I had to squelch my irritation at my father introducing me. Just because I am a woman does not mean that I am incapable of stating my name, thank you very much. 
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Seth. My name’s Jesse Salinas, I go by Jesse…” He then proceeded to state the names of the five men standing behind him. Jesse. In all my years of boarding house experience, I have never met a Jesse. And what a strange sounding last name; it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. In my focus on Jesse, I failed to pay attention to the names of the other men. Oh well, I would learn them over the course of the evening.

The sound of my fathers voice broke me out of my trance. I must have been spacing out more than I thought. 

"Ella?" My father probed, looking at me questioningly. I was incredibly confused as to why everyone was staring at me until I realized that I had probably been asked a question. 

"I'm sorry, could you please repeat that?" I responded, running a hand through my long hair. 

"Your father told me that you have a soft spot for animals. Billy here," Jesse said to me, pointing at the grizzled man next to him, "his horse has fallen ill on our journey. Would you like to help me tend to his horse?" 

This is like a dream come true. I love all animals, especially horses. I have never had one, so naturally they held the highest appeal to me. I had to struggle to contain my excitement. 

"Yes, I would love to help. Shall we get to it now, or would you like to eat first?" 

Jesse looked at Billy who was shuffling his feet and mumbling to the other men behind Jesse. Billy did not look all too concerned with his horse. 

"We can let these men go eat, and you and I can go tend to the horse. If that is okay with you, of course. I completely understand if you would rather eat first.”

What an idiot. Who would pass up this opportunity for food? 

That apparently was not the right question to ask, because every single on of the men, besides Jesse, followed my father into the dining room. Even the horse’s owner! How heartless can one man get?

“Shall we go, señorita? Shadow needs urgent attention,” Jesse told me, not waiting for my reply before spinning on his heel to go back through the front door. I made the educated guess that Shadow was the horse. 

I ran after Jesse through the door, wincing as my bare feet met the splintery wooden floor of the front porch. Jesse was already halfway across the yard, his long legs moving effortlessly fast and graceful. I followed clumsily, sprinting across the warm grass, trying as hard as I could not to step on anything either sharp or disgusting. 

I arrived at the stable a few moments after Jesse had entered. I stepped inside, and looked around for Jesse. I did not see him, so I made my way down the row of stalls until I found him kneeling in one, seemingly examining a horse’s front leg. 

The horse was absolutely beautiful. It was jet black, with long, muscled limbs and a beautifully dewy coat. Its mane was long and well-cared for, as was its tail. I laughed as Shadow’s muzzle reached down and nuzzled Jesse’s neck lovingly. It was obvious the horse trusted him, and I felt wrong intruding, but in my defense, I had been invited.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked, stepping into the hay-strewn stall. The horses balked at the sight of me, so I moved slowly and spoke quietly. I had attempted to hoist my dress up just a tiny bit to avoid getting dirt and other smelly things on the pretty hem, but I deemed this a waste of time and let the skirt back down.

“Rattlesnake bite. Right here on his thigh. See the watery stuff dripping out? That is the horse’s body trying to fight the venom,” Jesse told me, pointing to the liquid dripping out of two barely visible holes in Shadow’s leg. “I’ve dealt with these a few times before. If we move quickly we can probably save him.”

“What should we do first? The most I’ve ever done is clean a cut,” I admitted, feeling bad for being so inexperienced. If only I had paid attention to my father when he told me about rattlesnake bites. Or any medical procedures, period. I never thought I would be in a situation where I would need it.

“Then that’s what you’ll do. Do you have a well somewhere around here? And soap. We need to clean out the wound,” Jesse answered, looking up at me from underneath eyelashes almost as long as mine. Why does a man have such thick eyelashes?

I nodded at him and sprinted back towards the house. I practically leapt across the porch to avoid more splinters, then ran to my room to get the new bar of soap I just bought and a towel. I stowed these in a little sack, then hurried back through the front door to the well. I drew as large of a bucket as I could carry, then began the journey back to the barn.

I struggled to carry the bucket of water across the grass. Every step I took set a bit of water sloshing over the side of the bucket and onto my dress. The bucket would slam into my shins, sure to leave bruises. I had almost dropped the bucket when the weight was suddenly lifted by a big, tan hand. 

Jesse carried the bucket with ease towards the barn, smirking over his shoulder at me. My first instinct wanted me to be angry and demand that he let me carry it by myself, but then I realized that that would be unladylike. Knowing this, I turned up my nose at his cute smile and kept walking towards the barn. 

We made our way to the stall in silence. Shadow tossed his head happily at the sight of Jesse, which I found enamoring. I wish I had a horse to have such a bond with. 

“Just take that soap and clean the bite, rinsing it with water a bunch. I’ll keep him calm while you touch him,” Jesse told me, striding across the hay to Shadow. His fingers combed through the horse’s black mane, gently working through the minuscule knots forming from the horse’s repeated head-tossing. 

I tentatively followed his orders, kneeling next to the horse’s leg. I silently thought a quick prayer that Shadow did not decide to kick me. The hay under my bare feet caused them to itch. I desperately wanted to itch them, but the horse was more important. I gently wet the wound, hoping the water was not too cold. Or, perhaps, it was not cold enough? I shrugged this off, picking up the new soap bar, and not even feeling sad that I never got to use it, I began to scrub the soap into the wound, imagining the soap flushing out the disgusting venom from Shadow’s leg. 

It was as if my fingers took control and knew what to do. They moved rapidly and skillfully, tenderly cleansing the inflamed flesh of the venom. I looked around for a cloth of some sort that would be big enough to dress the wound. Without even thinking about it, I reached towards the bottom of my thick dress and tore a huge chunk of the hem, exposing my bare feet to Jesse. His inky black eyebrows went up at this, but he thankfully said nothing, just nodded and returned to whispering to Shadow in those strange words that I did not understand.

I began to wrap the fabric around the horse’s leg, glad that the dress had just been cleaned. It would make a great bandage, what with it being so thick. I tied it off, then began to examine my handiwork. 

“It’s too bad that you do not have any snapdragons, señorita.” Jesse’s deep voice broke my concentration. “I have always used those for rattlesnake bites.”

“What are snapdragons?” I asked him from my seat on the floor. I had never heard of something with such a curious name.

“It is a type of plant. It has beautiful flowers, in shades not unlike that dress of yours,” he told me. “You can crush it then heat it. It works well on cuts and bites.” Jesse gestured to the horse. “You seem to have done a decent job, though, señorita.”

I wanted to ask a few more questions about this snapdragon he spoke of, but Jesse deemed Shadow well enough to make it through the night then started walking out of the stables. I chased after him, suddenly making note of my grumbling stomach. Taking care of animals truly works up an appetite.

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