Wednesday, May 18, 2005

McKenna Monday...Chapter 9: Gunslinger's Grave by McKenna

“Oh, Ella, you must show me your ring!” Mrs. James, suddenly exclaimed. Without any response or movement from me, her slender hand shot out to mine and pulled it onto the table. A large ring adorned my slender finger, eliciting gasps from the various women at the table.

We sat in the Sundance Dining House in town. I was lunching with the Cassidy women and multiple other women of high society, Mrs. James included. 

“How beautiful! My God Loretta, how much did this thing cost?” Mrs. James asked Mrs. Cassidy with no more acknowledgement of me. 

It was lucky that before I left the house to come to this lunch, I put the ring on. It was more of an afterthought, really. I figured it would be rude of me not to wear it, especially since I would be with the family of the man who gave it to me.

The ring itself was beautiful, even I had to admit that. It was gold, with a large African diamond in the middle. Despite its beauty, I did not like it on my finger. It quite literally felt like it was restraining me, both physically and emotionally. Ambrose gave it to me the day after he returned home.

“…so that’s how my dear Ambrose obtained the gold to make this ring,” Loretta finished whatever she was saying with a crushing sense of pride and superiority. 

I called horse shit on that one. I doubt Ambrose lifted a finger while he was away. His hands were as smooth as ever, not a callous to be felt.

I retreated from the conversation once again, buttering a biscuit absentmindedly. It had been a few days since I gave in to my pride and started speaking to Jesse again. I smiled, remembering how it happened.

I was walking towards the stable to see Shadow, my hair blowing in the slight afternoon breeze. 

I froze when I reached Shadow’s stall. I could tell just by the smooth voice drifting through the stable that Jesse was visiting Shadow.

I felt both relief and dread as I stepped into the hay strewn stall. I felt a bit better when Jesse’s face lifted to mine, for it softened into a smile. 

“Señorita,” he said, standing up from his seat on the floor. “Whatever I did, I am sorry.”

That made me feel worse than I already felt, because he was right, he could not know what he did wrong because he did not do anything wrong. I let whatever petty feeling that was get the best of me, even though I had no right.

“No, I’m sorry. I have just been feeling strange about this whole Ambrose situation. I took it out on you and that wasn’t fair of me,” I responded, resting my hand on Shadow’s black mane. 

Jesse moved around the horse towards me. He rested them against the sides of my face. I knew it was wrong, but I loved the way his rough skin felt against my delicate cheeks. 

“Dios mío, Ella, what am I supposed to do with you?” He asked me, a crooked smile taking over his face.

“Nothing,” I responded, returning the smile. 

A nasally voice ripped me from my comforting memory. 

“Ella? What do you think? Should we?” Mrs. Davies asked me, her voice grating on me and actually causing me to itch a bit, if that was even possible.

Or maybe it was the damn petticoat Hannah made me wore today.

“Um…I’m sorry. Could you repeat the question? I got distracted by the…trout.”

Really, Ella? You chose food as your source of distraction? I thought to myself angrily. 

“Um…Anyways. I asked if we could go to Nanny’s and see your dress! I am just so excited for this wedding,” Mrs. Davies said, her flabby neck jiggling as she spoke. 

I eyed her overdone red lip rogue, wondering if she was ever mistaken for a Devil’s Blood whore. 

“I…There’s a dress?” I answered uneasily, shifting my eyes between Loretta and Mrs. Davies. How could there be a dress? I was never even fitted for one. 

“Of course there is, don’t be silly. Nanny is making it, it’s absolutely beautiful,” Loretta answered, giving me a slightly dirty look. She turned to Mrs. Davies. “Yes, once we finish our tea, we will go see that dress of hers.” 

I cringed inside. The wedding was coming up, even though my birthday wasn’t for months. It seemed as if the Cassidy’s would have their way; Ambrose and I would be marrying long before I reached my eighteenth year. I could not believe that Loretta had a dress made without my knowledge. Nanny must have many girls working on it for it to be completed so quickly.

I tried to swallow the ever-present panic crawling up my throat. I managed to focus on a particularly ugly hat across the room as I waited for the harpies to finish their tea. The dining room became hotter by the minute as I silently watched the women sip from delicate cups. 

The corset I wore under my uncomfortable dress was cinched much too tight. I patted my soft hair absentmindedly, trying to distract myself from my constricted waist. Hannah had been frustrated with me this morning for breaking a plate, and I had a sneaking suspicion the overly tight corset was not an accident. I sucked in my cheeks, trying to stifle my irritation.

A few minutes passed. The conversation moved from wedding planning to Ambrose once again. I glanced across the table at Rebecca, who looked just as bored as I felt. I could see the irritation and maybe even pain in her eyes every name Ambrose’s name was mentioned. I wondered what it was like having to live in the shadow of her older brother. 

I could not help but admire Rebecca’s expertise at hiding herself. Her smooth, pearly face remained perfectly still. Her narrow, bony shoulders remained utterly still as she stared at her plate. Rebecca’s bright blue eyes were the only expressive thing about her.

Those same blue eyes flitted to mine as I stared at her. They held my gaze, and something inside me snapped. I looked down at my lap, nervously twisting my ring around my finger. I could feel my cheeks heat up over being caught staring.  
“Ella? Rebecca? Shall we leave?” Loretta suddenly asked, staring at something on the bodice of my dress.

“Yes, of course,” I responded, standing up out of my chair. I quickly inspected my bodice once she looked away, but I found nothing to warrant her intense focus. 

The rest of the women stood up and made their way to the dining hall exit. I wordlessly fell into step beside Rebecca. 

It had begun to drizzle slightly outside. I could hear the women around me murmuring angrily and complaining, but my face broke into a huge smile. I adore rain. It rarely happened in Monterey, but I did my best to be outside and enjoy it when it did. 

Nanny’s dress shop was on the same side of the street as the dining hall, so the women would not ruin their precious hairdos with rain. 

We were almost to the shop when I heard the crack. It was like the sound of thunder, but more focused. My ears stung.

The women around me all stopped moving. A few of them shrieked. 

The crack sounded again, but louder.

All of the sudden, I could hear manly shouts from down the street. I strode to the edge of Nanny’s porch and peered towards where I heard the voices. I could see various people on the street doing the same thing. Women stared at the saloon with horror on their faces.

I was met with chaos. A large group of men was riding away from the Devil’s Blood Saloon on horses I recognized. They were headed towards the boarding house. That was not the focus of the commotion, though.

There was a man laying in the hardly packed dirt in front of the saloon, his hat a few feet  away from his head. His hands were raised in surrender towards the man standing above him. I could see a bloom of red on the back of his shirt. 

The standing man held a gun. 

The next few seconds passed impossibly slow. The man on the ground looked all around him, a terrified look on his face. My jaw dropped. It was Billy, the owner of Shadow. The owner who had so cruelly disregarded his horse. 

The man holding the gun was stony faced as he pointed the weapon straight at Billy’s forehead. Various women up and down the street let out little screams. 

I shut my eyes and looked away as the next crack sounded. 

A few moments passed and I opened my eyes. The first thing I saw was Rebecca, staring bright-eyed at the lifeless body in the street. The rain came down in sheets, darkening the dirt road.

Without even thinking about what I was about to do, I stepped down off of the porch into the street and began running towards the boarding house. 

“Ella! What in the world do you think you are doing?” I heard Loretta shout after me.

i ignored it, and kept running through the rain towards home. It took longer than it typically would to get home. The rain was weighing down my heavy dress.

It was raining even harder by the time I got home. Hannah and my father were nowhere in sight. The only noise I could hear was coming from the men in the stables.

I made my way into my bedroom, where I stripped my heavy dress and put on a dry, comfortable one. After changing, I sat on my bed, finally allowing what I had just seen to register. 

I would never forget the sound of the gunshots, the way the red spread across the back of his shirt. The hard, unforgiving look on the assailants face. Why was Billy shot? What could he possibly have done to deserve such a fate?

Where was Jesse? Does he know one of his men was just murdered in cold blood? I flung my door open and ran to Jesse’s room, only to find that it was unlocked and empty, none of his belongings in sight. The rest of the rooms previously inhabited by Jesse’s friends were just the same. 

Panic set in. Where was he? Did he leave? He could not have left. I had more faith in our friendship than believing that he could have.

I lifted my skirt, running back down the stairs to the porch. Jesse and his men were all riding out of the stables as I stepped off the porch.

They did not notice me. Jesse and his men galloped towards the road, with the lone horse Shadow being led by Jesse at the front. 

Something inside me broke and I ran as fast as I could into the rain after them. Desperation pounded through me harder than the chilly rain on my skin.

“Jesse!” I screamed as loud as I could. “Jesse!”

I cupped my hands around my mouth, screaming even louder.

He heard me. I could see his shoulders tense up, his beautiful face turned to mine.

He stopped his horse, and the rest of the men followed suit. I watched as he and Ross exchanged a look and a few words that I could not hear. Jesse gracefully dismounted his horse and strode to me, pulling me back under the shelter of the porch.

“Señorita, I need to leave. Right now,” he told me, resting a wet hand on my equally wet shoulder.

“Jesse, what the hell happened? You cannot just leave like this!” I responded desperately. “Where are you even going?”

“Ella…Shit, Ella,” Jesse said, harshly rubbing his face with his hand. “Billy went after the wrong man. He’s after us now and we have to leave, before any of the rest of us killed.”

I grabbed his forearm, enjoying the silky bare skin against mine. He always wore his sleeves pushed up just so.

“Please. Please don’t leave me, Jesse,” I begged. I knew how desperate I must sound, but I was feeling physically ill at the thought of him leaving and never laughing and talking with me again. “I cannot stay here alone.”

“I’m so sorry, Ella. I cannot stay here. Would you rather I be killed?”

“Dammit, Jesse!” I could myself shaking, but it wasn’t from the cold. I had never felt so desperate in my life. My eyes widened, and I gripped his arm harder. “Take me with you. I can go with you, Jesse.”

The thought of Jesse leaving was eating away at my stomach. I could not stay here without him as my relief. I could not be an object any longer; I could not marry a man I did not love and live a life of quiet desperation. I could feel my eyes tearing up at the thought of doing nothing but having tea and bearing children for the rest of my life. 

Jesse was like the breath of fresh air to my terrible reality.

“Hell no. If you think that you are coming with us then you are mad. Where we are going is no place for a-”

“For a what? For a lady? Goddamn you, Jesse-”

“You two need to quit your bickerin’ right now. We gotta get a move on, Jess. Either this lady comes with us or you never forgive yourself for leavin’ her behind. Take your pick now, amigo.” A voice broke through our argument, and I looked to see Ross on top of his horse right behind Jesse. His bright green eyes gazed at Jesse with intense understanding. Raindrops dripped off of the brim of his black hat.

Jesse shot the dirtiest look I had ever seen at him. His face softened as he looked back at me. He held my gaze with those light brown eyes of his, and all of the sudden, I knew I had won. He felt just as I did. I could see the raw emotion in his eyes; he could not leave me.

“Maldita sea al infierno, Ella,” he said, gently grabbing my forearm and dragging me to the house. “Does your father have a war-bag?”

I nodded, letting Jesse pull me up the stairs to my fathers room. He always kept war-bags under his bed; I knew this from many years of snooping. I swept aside balls of dust  and ripped socks and pulled a big canvas bag that went over both of my shoulders.

After grabbing the bag, I took it to my room and filled it with things I would need wherever I was going. Jesse watched awkwardly as I tore my room apart. I could tell he must feel uncomfortable being in my room, it probably felt entirely improper to him.

 I added the letters from my father, a hairbrush, and some undergarments. Without letting Jesse see, I shoved a pair of tan pants I had stolen from my father long ago. I had never had the courage to actually wear them. I clasped my mother’s chain around my neck as an afterthought, running my fingers along the box it resides in’s surface one last time. 

I looked around my room, the memories of the many years spent in the house flashing through my mind. Hannah singing me to sleep. The time I rescued Cat, washing his bloody fur with warm water. My father’s good-natured grumbling about anything and everything. They were happy memories. I had to leave before they were scarred with the impending doom of my soon-to-be married life.

Jesse and I were about to leave my room when I remembered something. I slipped into my washroom and grabbed the bars of soap I still had, stuffing them into my full sack. Jesse smirked, yet said nothing at this.

Within seconds, we were back in the rain. I struggled to keep up with his stride as he all but ran back to the horses. My tall leather boots kept my feet dry against the wet dirt under my dress.

I froze in my tracks.

“What is the matter?” Jesse asked exasperatedly. I could tell he did not approve of me coming along, even though it was what he desired and maybe even needed. It would cause so many problems for him, people would probably come after us. I knew I would be a burden, and a dangerous one at that. But I did not care one bit.

“Um…” Not being able to find the right words, I gestured to the horses. How was I supposed to get on? I assumed I would be riding Shadow, he was the only horse without a rider. He had two bedrolls tied to his saddle, and small saddle bags on either side of his wide body.

He and Ross exchanged another glance, and without one word Jesse grabbed my hips, lifting me over the side of Shadow. The water resting on Shadow’s saddle quickly soaked through my thin grey dress.

I swung my leg over his flank as if by instinct. I had never ridden a horse before; being so high up off the ground was a curious feeling.

“You are going to have to get used to moving fast quickly, Señorita,” Jesse told me, reaching over to Shadow’s reigns. He took my hands, demonstrating how to hold the reigns correctly. I loved the way his calloused hands felt against mine.

After a few moments of basic training from Ross and Jesse, I declared myself ready. My only complaint was how my skirt felt stretched between my legs. Side saddle was just not an option for the speed we would be riding at.

With one final glance from Jesse, he began his gallop again away from the house. Excitement swelled in my stomach, and I let out a little laugh. I was finally riding a horse! It felt wonderful! Nothing my father or Hannah or the Cassidy’s had ever told me mattered anymore; I was leaving. I was free.

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