I walked alone into town the next afternoon. I considered myself lucky, for I lived just up the main dirt road from the town of Carmel, where the various stores, homes, and the Devil’s Blood Saloon were located. The jail was located right smack next to the saloon, which was an incredibly smart real-estate choice. I primarily needed to go to the general store for my basic needs.
I had overslept this morning; barely making it to breakfast. Hannah did not seem to mind, which was unusual. Our boarders had gone into town or wherever it was that boarders went before breakfast, so she did not have to cook a huge meal. Maybe that was what explained her cheery mood. After breakfast, I went to check on Shadow, hoping to see Jesse there. He wasn’t.
I thought about many things on my short walk to town. I thought of Ambrose, and about the dangers he must be facing in the gold camps. I had heard stories of the savage, heartless people there, and how they would stop at nothing to get a little money in their denim pockets. I shuddered just thinking about it.
The dry dirt crunched under the bottom of the flat black shoes I was wearing. After a full day of shunning shoes, it felt strange to be in them again, but I worried about what I might step in if I went barefoot through town. And how unladylike! My short-sleeved rust-colored dress was not very thick, so the midday heat did not affect me as much as the day before.
After a few more minutes of walking down the road, I arrived to the little town of Carmel. There were a few saloons; the most popular being The Devil’s Blood saloon. A few assorted shops and a post office graced the busiest area of the street. The midday rush is my favorite time to be in town; watching the various people fighting and chattering excited me in ways I could not imagine.
Walking past the already rowdy Devil’s Blood, I turned left into the post office. The door had been propped open by Mr. Smith, the kindly man who runs the Carmel Post Office, most likely to let a breeze in.
“Miss Daley! Fancy seein’ you here, girl. How’s your daddy?” Mr. Smith asked me as I stepped into the empty post office. Mr. Smith and my father have been good friends ever since my father bought the boarding house.
“He’s good, Mr. Smith. He’s been keeping busy with the boarding house, as usual,” I responded, taking the mail from his outstretched hand.
“And Miss Hannah?”
“She’s as chatty as ever,” I told him, laughing at the thought of Hannah and her constant talking.
“That’s great to hear, Miss Daley. Tell them both I said hey, and to come visit every so often.”
“I will, Mr. Smith,” I responded, waving to him as I sidestepped the citizens continuously trickling into the post office. I felt lucky to have beat the midday rush.
I was not so lucky at the general store. It was packed with people; women buying items for dinner, men buying tobacco and toiletries, and children purchasing candy. It would take at least an hour for my order to be filled. I took the little pad of paper off of the front counter and wrote out my order list, careful to write my name at the top of the paper. Mr. Jameson, the owner of the general store, would complete my order once he cleared out the crowd. I figured I could return in an hour to get the items.
After five minutes of trying to escape the general store, only to be stopped every few seconds by someone looking to make small talk, I emerged onto the street. I stood in the shade of the store for a few seconds, trying to determine what to do with my time. I still held the mail I had just picked up in my hands, so making sure that nobody was looking, I slipped it down the bodice of my dress. Now free to roam about the town freely, I leisurely stepped into the dressmaker’s shop.
The dress store was only for those who could afford to purchase ready-made dresses, instead of making their own. Hannah and I alternated between purchasing from the dress store and making our own. It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford the seamstress, Hannah just really enjoyed sewing. The shop was run by a little old woman that everyone called Nanny, and various girls my age that had no family or other places to work. I have no idea what her real name is and I doubted anyone else did, either. Nanny is famous around town for being as tough as a horseshoe, but incredibly fair and generous towards her employees. I loved having conversations with Nanny, as she payed no attention to manners and swore like a cowboy.
As soon as I looked around the store, I knew my day was about to darken. Ambrose’s little sister, Rebecca, and his mother, Loretta, were the only people inside of Nanny’s shop. They simultaneously looked over at me, Loretta’s face breaking into the cool smile that I was sure Ambrose inherited, and Rebecca’s face taking on an air of disdain and boredom.
“Ella, my dear, it’s wonderful to see you. You look so thin in that dress, has Hannah been feeding you?” she asked me. Loretta Cassidy is a complicated woman. She always managed to slip in something critical about Hannah, even though Hannah did nothing but worship Loretta. She and her daughter are far thinner than I am, but she always feels the need to point out my weight.
“Of course she has, Mrs. Cassidy. It feels like it’s been forever since I’ve seen you two. Have either of you heard from Ambrose?” I asked them, accepting a brisk kiss on the cheek from Loretta.
“Of course we have, dear. He writes frequently,” she told me. She leaned in and quietly spoke. “I am not supposed to say anything to you and spoil the surprise, but he is coming home soon, presumably to see you.”
I barely registered that admission. I was still stuck on the “he writes frequently”. Ambrose has written me a grand total of two letters in the four months he had been gone, but he has been writing his mother frequently? This angered me.
“That’s fantastic! I have missed him so much these past months,” I answered, trying to shake off the uneasy feeling growing in my chest.
A little noise erupted from Rebecca, who had remained silent up until then. It sounded as if she had tried to stifle a cough, but her face looked as if she was trying to hide a smile. Although she was a year younger than me, I was incredibly intimidated by her.
“What is it, Rebecca?” Loretta asked exasperatedly. In my opinion, Rebecca seemed like the problematic child, and Ambrose, the golden boy.
“Nothing, mother. I just cannot fathom as to why anyone would ever miss Ambrose,” Rebecca responded snakily, grimacing as if the thought caused her physical pain.
Before I even knew what was happening, a delicate hand shot out and slapped Rebecca across the face. The cracking noise that Loretta just inflicted upon her own daughter made me cringe. Never, in all my years of misbehavior and backtalk, had I ever been slapped, let alone with such force. Rebecca’s only reaction was her hand shooting up to protect the bright red welt emerging on her milky skin. I could see shiny tears glistening in her blue eyes that matched my own, but they did not spill over.
“Don’t you dare ever speak another word like that. Ambrose is working hard for our family, little girl. Harder than you’ll ever work in your life,” Loretta spoke harshly.
I could see where Loretta was coming from, but I disagreed with her harsh treatment of Rebecca. I can’t imagine myself slapping anyone, for any reason.
“My apologies, dear. We all miss Ambrose, just as you do. Now, if you could excuse us, we have to be going,” Loretta spoke, grabbing Rebecca’s arm roughly and pulling her towards the door.
I waited a few minutes before I also stepped out onto the street. The store was just making me feel uncomfortable after seeing what I saw. I coughed as I walked down the street, trying not to choke on the heavy dust brought up by the traffic. Not much time had passed, but I decided to just head back to the general store and try to get my groceries.
The store was miraculously calm when I reentered. I walked right up to the counter, smiling kindly at the flustered-looking Mr. Jameson.
“Miss Daley, here’s your things,” He spoke, handing me two bags full of my requested items. I handed him my payment then left the store, emerging once again into the warm sunlight.
I began my short walk back to the boarding house, enjoying the bustle of the roads. I was halfway to the house when I heard a rumble behind me.
Six horses ran by me, kicking up a storm of dust. The group of boarders were back from their little trip to God knows where. I noticed that Billy was also on a horse, but it did not appear to be Shadow. A little flicker of rage flowed through my body.
The force of the riders running by me caused me to drop both bags of my groceries onto the dusty road. The anger intensified, and I clenched my jaw before bending down to pick them up.
All but one of the riders continued up the road to the boarding house. I watched as the tall rider of the regal black horse dropped away from the group and came back towards me. Before I knew what was happening, Jesse had swung off of his horse and scooped up both grocery bags, holding one out to me.
I grudgingly took it, expecting him to get back on his horse and ride to the house, but surprisingly, he took the reins in his hand and began walking.
"Are you coming, Señorita?" He asked, turning to look back at me, reins in one hand and a grocery bag in another.
Slightly dazed at the fact a man was helping out with such a mundane task, I followed him slowly.
I couldn't help but admire the entire backside of Jesse Salinas. His buttocks were round and the shape perfectly visible in the comfortable black trousers he wore tucked into brown boots. I could see the tan muscles of his back through the flimsy white material of his shirt.
A cough yanked me from my thoughts. Jesse was still walking, but he had his head turned back towards me and he was looking at me questioningly. I tried not to blush, knowing I had just been caught staring.
“Do you need any help?” He asked me, handling the horse and bag with ease.
His inky eyebrows shot up at my terse response, but he said nothing further. His pace slowed to match my own.
“So…” I finally spoke, unsure of what to say.
“So.” He answered, obviously trying not to laugh.
“Where have you been all day?” I asked. I figured this was a safe enough question.
Apparently he disagreed, because he immediately looked uncomfortable, visibly struggling to find the right answer. His mouth opened to reply, then shut again. He was clearly trying to come up with an acceptable answer.
“Never mind. How is Shadow?” I asked him. The horse had been a recurring thought in my mind all day.
“I was just thinking about him. Shall we go have a look?” Jesse responded, shifting the bag of groceries under his arm.
Reaching the house, I set the groceries inside then went to the stables with Jesse. Shadow’s tail twitched at the sight of us. He seemed much better than the day before, the treatment had obviously worked.
“Ambrose is coming home soon,” I blurted out. I immediately felt embarrassed for sharing this information with Jesse. He knows nothing about me or my life, how could he care about this?
As expected, he looked a bit bewildered at my statement.
“I see. This is a good thing, no?” Jesse asked. He glanced across Shadow to me.
“Yes, of course! I miss him so much. It will be strange seeing him again, though. It’s been such a long time…”
“Tell me about Ambrose.”
My mind blanched a little more than expected at this. How do I honestly explain Ambrose? To be honest with myself, I would have to admit that I don’t know him that well. I know as much as Ambrose wants me to know.
“Well… He’s sharp. Mentally, physically. Nothing gets by him. He holds a lot of anger.” I answered, deciding to just be honest.
Jesse nodded, rubbing Shadow behind the ears. He seemed to be quietly speculating my words.
“Is that all you have to say about him? No memories, silly stories?” He finally asked me, his voice a bit harder than it was moments earlier.
“Ambrose is complicated. And busy. When he is home, he aids his father in business and when we are together, his mind is always somewhere else…He has little time for anything but business.”
As the words came out of my mouth, a heavy dread began to set in. What sort of life am I getting myself into? Do I honestly want to be with someone so preoccupied with himself and business? Feeling my hands beginning to shake, I set them on Shadows neck and behind moving them across his smooth hair.
“What about you, Jesse? There’s really no girl out there?” I asked, trying to deflect the conversation.
“No, señorita. There has never been a girl for me. Only Caballo,” he told me, pointing at the horse he was riding earlier. His voice gave a strange lilt when he said “Caballo”, not unlike when he says “señorita”.
“Caballo?” I inquired.
Jesse gave a little chuckle. It was a nice chuckle, one that resonated warmth.
“Caballo means “horse” in Spanish. That’s the language you hear me speaking sometimes. Some words just slip in by habit,” He said, rubbing the back of his neck.
“You named your horse “horse”?” I asked him incredulously.
“No. I named him Caballo.”
I burst out laughing at this. I suppose I could not point fingers, as my cat was named Cat.
“Alright, Señorita. You should go to the house before your father starts to worry about you,” he said, smiling his cheeky grin at me.
I shook my head at him and followed his advice, returning to the house to help Hannah make supper.