I summoned up every ounce of courage I had, turning around and walking slowly to my room, maintaining my composure.
After entering my room and making sure it was sufficiently locked, I all but ran into my little washroom. I poured water from my small pitcher into the matching bowl, then proceeded to splash my face with it, attempting to cool down the fiery feeling against smooth skin.
What even was that? I felt both alive and terrified at the same time. Ross knows that I know that the stain is blood. He did not have any visible wounds.
Whose blood could it be? Why wasn't he more worried about me knowing?
All of these thoughts ran through my mind rapidly as I readied myself for bed.
My mind was still buzzing by the time I slipped into my large bed. The silky feel of my dressing gown against my legs did nothing to soothe my wild thoughts. I tried, unsuccessfully, to ignore them and fall asleep, but there were too many questions in my head that were unanswered.
I sat up in bed, trying to think of an activity I could partake in to put myself asleep. My fingers began braiding my hair, weaving it into a long, thick side-braid over my left shoulder. I tied it with a frayed red ribbon sitting on the stand by my bed.
The distraction was short-lived. The hooting of an owl outside my window brought my senses back, and the smirking face of Ross popped right back into my mind.
Bloodstain or not, he can’t be all that bad, right? I thought to myself. Jesse seems to have a lot of affection towards the grizzled man. This actually made me feel much better. Jesse could be trusted.
Could Jesse really be trusted, though? The feel of the pretty gun in my hand flashed through my mind with this thought. I immediately got mad at myself for thinking so negatively about Jesse, basically the only person I could consider a friend.
I was going crazy. I needed to spend some time with women, and as soon as possible. All of the men I was surrounded by day in and day out were causing me to lose my mind. My first thought was of the Cassidy women. They’re technically my family, right? I could spend time with them.
I almost laughed aloud at this ridiculous idea. I knew that I would never feel welcome among them. They are too different from me. All we have in common is Ambrose. Those women grew up pristine, never lifting a finger for anyone or anything. I doubt they have any interest in horses, reading, or small handguns. I often times felt as if the only Cassidy that truly liked and approved of me was the elder Mr. Cassidy, my father’s friend.
I stood up from my soft bed, fully aware that I was not going to sleep anytime soon. I lit the oil lantern I kept beside my bed, enjoying the warm flicker that immediately took over the room. The silky nightdress I wore brushed gently up against my legs as I stood. As if by instinct, my legs buckled and I sunk to the wood floor, sitting Indian-style next to my bed. My hands reached under the bed until they came into contact with smooth wood. I extracted my hands from under the bed, a small box in them.
I set the box on the floor in front of me, running my fingers across the carved wooden surface of the box. There wasn’t any particular picture carved, it was just a pretty, loopy design. The corner of the box displayed a cursive “Jane” carved into it. It was my mother’s box. It was given to her by my father on their wedding night, and left to me when she died.
The box’s interior was lined with pretty cloth that I wish I had more of. It held various things of value to both me and my mother. A long silver chain my mother owned since her youth, a few love letters from my father that I could not bring myself to read, and some random tokens from my childhood. My favorite item was the chain, but I had yet to ever wear it. There was no token, no charm on it, and it felt too plain to me. It felt as if something were missing from it.
I fingered the yellowed letters thoughtfully, only allowing myself to read the “Jane” written on the front in messy scrawl that belonged to my father. I could not help but notice that we have the same handwriting.
I had never known my mother. She died before I turned four. All I knew was that she died in some terrible accident, and that I was never to ask for details or speak of it. Hannah had given me little tidbits of information about my mother over the years, but nothing substantial.
I could never really bring myself to miss her. I never knew her, how could I miss her? I miss the concept of a mother, but I cannot even complain too much there, as I have Hannah, and that is far more than many girls have. The young girls that work at The Devil’s Blood saloon, for example. Obviously they had no mother figure at all in their lives, what mother could let their daughter become a woman of the night?
I returned the letters to the box and slid it back to safety under my bed. I stood back up, bored once again. The house was still alive with noise, laughter and thumping coming from the various rooms down the hall. I wished that I could go join, but that would be beyond improper. I wondered if Jesse was there, having fun with them. Something told me he wasn’t. He seemed far more refined than those other men, his manners much better. He did not seem like one for making noise, at least not to the extent of the other men.
A knock sounded at my door. My head snapped in that direction so quickly that it almost hurt. I strode over to it quickly, fumbling with the lock before cracking it open.
“Ella? Can we talk?” It was Hannah. Relief and disappointment flooded through me at the same time. I know who I wanted to see, and it was not Hannah.
“Um, sure…Come in,” I told her, opening the door up wider. I did not even waste time feeling modest around Hannah. She had seen me in far less than my thing nightgown. She was still fully dressed, even clothed in a crisp white apron. Her light brown hair was pulled into a bun. She looked so motherly it made my heart swell with love.
Hannah looked a bit unsure about what to do in my room. She rarely ever comes in, as I take care of all of the cleaning and such when it comes to my room.
“Sit down here, Hannah,” I said, scooping Cat up from my rocking chair by the window. “Sorry. Cat just thinks he owns this place sometimes.”
Hannah took the seat, looking at Cat, who was resting comfortably in my arms, with a look that I could only describe as faint disgust. I suppose the mangled paw just wasn’t for everybody.
I sat down on the floor next to Hannah’s feet.
“So…What was it that you wanted to discuss, Hannah?” I asked, curiosity getting the best of me.
“Well, Dear…It’s about Ambrose. Are you happy he is back? You hardly mentioned him at all today…” Hannah trailed off, her vision stuck on her hands. They rested in her lap, clenched tightly together.
At first, I had no idea what to say. She caught me by surprise. I buried my face in Cat’s musty fur, trying to think of an acceptable answer.
“He just returned, Hannah. I’ve only seen him once…”
“Yes, yes, I know that. But…You used to go on about him for hours. Has something with you changed? I don’t…Ella. I don’t know how else to say this,” Hannah answered.
“Say what?” I asked her. I did not like where this conversation was going.
“You and that man, Jesse. You two are just…It’s inappropriate. You are engaged and he is a boarder…You should not be friends with him. People talk and if the Cassidy family caught wind…It would not be good for the arrangement,” Hannah stated, her voice a strange combination of nervousness and determination. She wrung her hands in her lap.
“How could you even suggest this, Hannah? I would never…” I found that I could not finish this sentence. Because I couldn’t tell if it was true anymore. Would I really never? “That is ridiculous, Hannah. There is nothing wrong with me being friends with him.”
“Yes, Ella, there is. Your father is worrying. That Jesse boy is nothing. He cannot give you what Ambrose can give you. Your activities in the kitchen tonight were entirely inappropriate. Do you think a respectable woman behaves as so? Being friends with him will bring you nothing but problems.”
Hannah’s voice was growing steadier with every word she spoke.
“No, Hannah. He has been a good friend to me and I have not run into any troubles with him. I don’t even know how you could suggest something like this but I would like to go to bed now. It would be best if you leave,” I said, standing up and striding to the door. I flung it wide open and held it ajar for Hannah.
Her face crumpled a bit. She nervously stood up, fidgeting with her dress and hair. She looked as if she wanted to say something else to me. Her brown eyes were wide and sparkly with tears.
“Ella, I don’t mean to upset you. I am just trying to show you what is best for you. What’s best for us,” she said,
I looked away from her, hardening my resolve while trying to swallow the lump in my throat. I hardened my face into a stony mask.
Her tears began to fall at my show of stoicism. She began to swipe at them with her apron, hurrying out of my bedroom. I slammed it shut and locked it, angrier than I had ever been in my life. How dare Hannah suggest that the one friend I have is bringing me down?
I paced my room for a few minutes, thinking about Jesse and how defensive I was about him. In a matter of weeks he had become more important to me than Ambrose, the supposed love of my life. He was warm, he was kind, he was so polite, especially in comparison to Ambrose. I sat down in the rocking chair, fingering my braid thoughtfully. I sat there for a few moments, thinking about the consequences of being friends with him.
A loud thump sounded from the hallway. Laughter and loud voices ensued, followed by doors closing.
My brow furrowed. What on Earth…? I quickly made my way to the door, unlocking it and peeking out.
My eyes were met with the retreating forms of the rowdy men, Jesse trailing the crowd quietly.
Despite my silence, Jesse froze. I could see the muscles in his broad shoulders tighten, and he turned slowly.
He visibly relaxed when he saw my head poking out. He smiled and waved at me, then turned to follow his friends down the stairs.
Without even thinking about what I was doing, I ran down the hallway after him. He did not notice I was following him until he was at the bottom of the stairs.
“Where are you going?” I asked from my spot a few steps up. The house was dark, the only light being through the window from the moon. It made Jesse’s face look sharper, even more sculpted.
“Oh. Ella, you scared me,” Jesse answered, spinning around again to look at me. His eyes widened when he saw that I only wore a thin nightgown. He looked away. “We are going to that saloon. The one with the terrible name.”
I could not help but laugh at this. It really was a terrible name.
“The Devil’s Blood.,,” I said, my insides wilting a bit.
The Devil’s Blood Saloon had a bad reputation, hooligans and whores functioning side by side. I did not think Jesse was the type to visit such a place.
“Yes, that’s it. It was not my idea, obviously. I just need to relax a bit…” He said, trailing off.
An awkward silence followed.
“I should go, Señorita. I don’t want to keep them waiting,” Jesse stated. His large hand covered the doorknob. He was making steady eye contact with me, doing everything in his power to keep his gaze away from my scantily clad body.
“Yeah, I suppose you should,” I responded, far harsher than I intended. I whirled around and ran back to my room.
I was mad. I had no way to explain why, as Jesse was just my friend and I could not be mad at him for going somewhere. But for some reason, there was a gnawing sensation deep inside my stomach.
I got back in bed, and lay there awake for hours, unable to sleep. I could only fall asleep when I heard the mens’ footsteps making their way back down the hall towards their rooms once again.
I avoided Jesse for the next few days, throwing myself into boarding house upkeep, visiting Shadow when I knew Jesse wasn’t, and lunching with the Cassidy women. These days were dreadful, it was hard to think that the rest of my life would consist of housework and mindless gossip.
I grew more and more desperate every time I saw Ambrose. Despite our agreement that we would marry when I turned eighteen, he and his mother were pressuring me into tying the knot earlier than that. Within the month? They had to be joking. I was becoming suffocated within myself, and I knew the only thing that provided relief was Jesse.
Everything about him was like fresh air to me. His unfamiliar language. His smile, his gentleness. The way he made me feel like an equal, not some woman who was just here to serve him. Not talking to him the past few days was terrible. I knew that these thoughts were unacceptable, that they could ruin what Ambrose and I had going.
But for all it was worth, I could not bring myself to care.