Weak. I feel weak, I thought to myself.
Hannah always said to never let a man see you cry. They do not care, they do not want to know, they do not want to see it.
There I go, not listening to Hannah once again.
Jesse’s muscular arms were wrapped around my shoulders, his chin resting on my head. His hand rubbed my back soothingly.
After a few moments, my crying wore down and I started to reluctantly pull away. We were in a compromising position. I cannot be going around with other men touching me.
“What happened, Señorita? Did he hurt you?” Jesse asked me, his voice hard and velvety.
“Wha-no. He did not hurt me… I just… I do not know what to do. He’s coming here after months and he wants to get married as soon as possible and he wants babies but I am not ready for babies and Jesse I cannot do this. I do not know him and I do not care about him enough!” I exclaimed, barely taking time to breathe.
Jesse seemed at a loss for words.
“I do not…Ella. I am sorry…” He said, obviously uncomfortable.
“No, no. I am sorry. I should not be telling you about this…I need to get over it.” I told him, stepping further away. My hands swiped furiously at the tears on my cheeks. I felt so embarrassed about what just transpired, crying all over a man who is just my friend and boarder.
“Ella if you feel that bad about this then you should not do it. Forget the rules, forget your manners. You cannot live like that!” Jesse seemed to be getting visibly mad about this.
“Jesse…I need to go. Thank you for being here but I’m sure Hannah needs my help. I’ll see you at dinner.” I told Jesse, already turning around to hurry out of the stable. As I slipped through the door, I looked back at Jesse one more time. He was watching me exit, his strong arms hanging loosely at his sides.
After collecting myself in the foyer of the house, I joined Hannah in the kitchen. She was stirring a huge pot of pork and beans, occasionally stopping to wipe her brow. She greeted my with a smile.
“Need any help?” I asked her, leaning against the table.
“No, thanks. It’s almost ready. The whole group is gonna be at dinner tonight,” she answered, looking a bit weary. I felt bad for not helping her out more.
I sat down at the little table, listening to her talk about the pants I had seen her washing earlier.
“That stain just would not come out, I don't even know what it was,” Hannah said, tasting the spoon. “I don’t know if I should return them to Ross or toss them out.”
“Who’s Ross?” I asked her. The name sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it.
“That’s one of the men staying with Jesse’s group. I couldn’t describe him to you, they all look the same…” She told me, trailing off as she tasted the spoon again.
“Oh,” I said. I couldn’t really think of much else to say about the pants. They're pants, for God’s sake. “You don't know what the stain was?”
“No…Looked like dirt or some kind of food to me. Oh well. I’ll ask him later,” Hannah answered. She went back to stirring the beans, looking so serene and happy with her life that I felt tears well up in my eyes. I made my way over to her and wrapped my arms around her shoulders, needing to be held by someone I considered a mother.
Hannah laughed then hugged me back.
“What’s gotten into you, my dear? Too much sun?” She asked, feeling my forehead.
“Nope, just wanted to give you a hug. I’ll go take a look at that stain,” I answered, not wanting to start crying again in front of her.
“Okay, dear. I’ll ring the bell for dinner in a few moments.”
I stepped into the adjacent laundry room. It smelled nice in here, like fresh flowers and bitter soap. I could see the light brown pants sitting in the washing sink.
I reached the sink, then fingered the dry part of the pants softly. They were made of nice material, but very worn, there was fraying at the hems. I located the stain, viewing it from various angles.
The stain looked familiar, like I had seen one like it before. I stroked the pants again, when a little memory hit me.
I was ten years old, pestering my father as he cut through some wood for our fireplace. His axe swung through the air, splintering each log with efficiency. I asked him if I could ride a horse that belonged to one of our current boarders.
“No, Ella. It’s not my horse and you don’t know how to ride,” he answered, getting fed up with my begging.
“Yes, Daddy, I know that. But if you actually would let me ride it, I would learn,” I argued.
“No. Riding a horse is too dangerous. Don’t ask me again, Ella,” my father said firmly. Horse riding was the one subject he wouldn’t talk to me about.
He bent down to pick up one of the splintery logs, then swiftly dropped it.
“Dammit. Splinter,” he told me, smiling and wiping his bloodied hand on his pants.
Blood. That’s what the stain is. It’s a big stain, a lot of blood. I pulled the pants out of the sink, then snuck them up to my room, taking care not to let Hannah see me holding them. I draped them over the rocking chair by the window. I wasn’t sure what I was planning on doing with them, I just didn’t want Hannah to realize that it was blood.
I went back down the stairs to the kitchen, arriving just as Hannah rang the bell. Jesse and all his men sat around the dining table, acting rowdy. They all seemed to tame a bit when Hannah and I entered, though. I took the open spot between Jesse and a man whose name I did not remember.
I dug into my beans, trying to ignore the loud talking around me.
“How are you?” Jesse’s quiet voice broke my thoughts. He sipped a cup of water, brown eyes watching me from over the rim.
“Fine. I feel much better now,” I told him, trying to avoid meeting his eyes. I got the feeling that they would be able to see my lie.
“Oh, is that so?” Jesse asked, a hint of amusement in his velvety voice.
“Yes, Jesse, it is so. Stop making this harder for me,” I shot back. “I appreciate the concern but I am completely fine.”
“No need to get angry, Señorita.”
I sighed with resignation.
“Sorry. Just frustrated with the situation,” I responded.
Our little conversation was interrupted by the man sitting next to me.
“Jesse, you know when the laundry is gonna be done? I’m down to my last pair of pants,” he said. He had a grizzled beard but kind eyes.
“Nah, Ross. Ella here might know, though. Ella?” Jesse answered, nudging my shoulder a bit.
“Um. You’re Ross. I have your pants in my room…I’ll bring them to your room tonight,” I told Ross, trying to ignore Jesse, who was looking at me with questioning eyes.
“Well thanks little lady. I appreciate that,” he responded with a mouthful of beans.
The conversation between Ross, Jesse, and I carried on. We talked about random things, and they both had me laughing by the time dinner was over. Ross had a raunchy, completely male sense of humor that I was entirely not used to, and Jesse had the wit that balanced it out. It was obvious how close they were by the friendly jabs they constantly exchanged.
“And that’s how my boy Jesse here, got himself covered in beer, bruises, ’n horse shit,” Ross concluded his story, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. His laughter was contagious.
“Alright, alright. I think you need to quiet down now, Ross. I’ve got much worse on you, amigo.” Jesse quipped, punching Ross on the shoulder good-naturedly. His face looked great when he smiled like that.
Ross must have noticed my confused face, because he leaned in to me.
“Amigo means friend in that little language of his. You pick up a bit of Spanish after bein’ around this here badman so often,” Ross said, pushing up from the table. “I’m gonna head upstairs to use the crapper,” he said loudly, tossing his napkin down onto his empty plate. “Thanks for dinner, Miss. Hannah.”
I looked down at my plate, mortified. I had never heard anyone so blatantly announce their intended bathroom activities, at the dinner table, no less. Despite the obvious rudeness, I couldn’t help but smile a bit. I bet Hannah was beside herself.
“Sorry about that, Señorita. He can be a bit…open,” Jesse muttered, obviously amused.
His light brown eyes danced with humor unknown to me, stories that would never be told.
“It’s fine, actually. I appreciate the honesty,” I said, smiling at Jesse, hoping I looked as good as him doing so. I began picking up the rest of the dishes on the table. Only Hannah and my father and Jesse were still at the table.
Hannah and my father looked to be in deep conversation. I couldn’t help but smile at how moony she looked, sitting there, talking to my father. I wished my father would just wake up one day and see that Hannah is hopelessly in love with him. I could tell how much she loved him by the way she looked at him, like he was this beautiful view she would never get tired of looking at. I never looked at Ambrose that way.
I looked away to see Jesse entering the kitchen, the rest of the plates stacked in his arms. While I would have wavered and possibly tripped holding such a large stack, he carried them with ease, setting them in the sink making no noise.
“What are you doing?” I asked him, gently pushing him away from the sink.
“Let’s see, what’s the word? Helping,” he responded.
“Why? Don’t you have some sort of man activity to partake in?”
“Ah. That reminds me. I need to go roll in some mud. Chop some wood, too. Then I’m going to make the decision to never bathe again,” he responded sarcastically.
I raised my eyebrows in mock surprise.
“Is that so?” I asked, scrubbing at a plate.
“Yep. But first, I’m helping you with these,” he told me, nudging me away from the sink as I had done to him moments earlier. “I will wash. You will dry,” he said, handing me a clean plate.
I decided not to argue. It was fascinating to see a man actually doing ladies’ work. He seemed to know what he was doing, too. Put my father in that same situation and he would look like a cowboy stuck down there on the beach. Absolutely clueless.
“Speed it up Señorita, these hands can’t stop for anything!” He exclaimed jokingly, teasing me for my below average drying skills.
As I dried, I admired his tanned forearms dipping into the sudsy water. The water droplets clung to the golden skin whenever he handed a clean item to me.
“Where did you even learn to wash dishes?” I asked him, giving in to the curiosity.
“My mamá. She stuck to her beliefs that men could be useful both in and outside of the house,” he answered, smiling affectionately. “She was a tough one.”
I tilted my head, watching his eyes twinkle at the mention of his mother. This woman was someone I needed to meet, teaching men to clean and all. Must be why Jesse’s room was so neat.
“Where did you grow up?” I blurted out, hoping I didn’t sound too nosy.
“Los Angeles. My family moved there after the Mexican-American war. Have you heard of that war?” Jesse responded. He was almost done with the dishes.
“In passing, yes. I used to hear boarders talk about it when I was younger…My father would never really talk about it though. I suppose it isn’t good conversation for a lady to partake in.”
“My father fought and died in that war. My mamá was left to raise me and my sisters alone. Strongest woman I’ve ever known.”
Jesse did not seem all that saddened about his father. I suppose he had to have been fairly young when his father died.
“How many sisters do you have?” I asked him eagerly.
“I have three sisters. They are all older than me, much to my displeasure,” he said. “Always a house filled with women, it was. My sisters and their friends, Mamá and her friends. It is a wonder that I turned out so manly, isn’t it, Señorita?” His eyes danced with humor at this.
“Are you sure you’re so manly, Jesse? After all, you are washing dishes,” I shot back at him, proud of my witty reply.
Before I knew what was happening, Jesse’s hand shot out from the sink, flicking me with soap and water.
My jaw dropped. I wiped my face with my sleeve, then stuck my hand right back in the sink to reciprocate his action.
This went on for a few minutes before we were interrupted by a throat being cleared.
Our laughter immediately died out.
“What are you two doing?” Hannah asked, her eyes a bit wide.
“Oh. Um. Jesse was helping me do the dishes,” I answered rather unhelpfully.
“Was he helping you do the kitchen, too? It’s a mess in here,” she said, looking around at the water splattered kitchen.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I will clean it up right now,” Jesse spoke up, reaching for the towel I had been drying the dishes with.
“No, no, dear. I will take care of it. Both of you, get out of here, before either of you break something,” Hannah answered nicely, shooting me a dirty look.
I was going to be in so much trouble tomorrow. I could already hear the lecture I was going to receive.
Jesse and I slipped out of the kitchen without another word. As we reached the staircase, we both looked at each other and smiled.
I entered my bedroom without another word to him, shutting it and leaning against it softly. It had been such a long day. I was about to sit in the rocking chair when I noticed the pair of pants draped over it.
I had completely forgotten about the pants. The bloodstain. The very large bloodstain.
I picked them up, then approached the room that Hannah had pointed out as Ross’.
I knocked lightly, silently hoping he wouldn’t be in there.
“Well hey there, little Miss. Those my pants you got there?” Ross asked with a friendly smile.
“Wha—oh. Yes, here. I wasn't able to get the bloo—the stain out. Sorry about that.”
“Aw, now that’s okay. They’re still wearable, right?” Ross said, taking the pants with another smile.
“Um. Yes, of course. You have a good night, Ross,” I said, torn between running away in fear and staying to joke around. There were two sides to this man, I could tell.
“You too little lady,” Ross stated. “And Ella?” He said, causing me to stop halfway down the hall and turn around.
He wordlessly dropped an eyelid into a wink, raising a tough finger to his lips