I woke up in a strange room, surrounded by strange men. It took me a few moments to rub the sleep from my eyes and remember just where I was.
Big Sir, Jesse called it. I wondered if it was named after some sort of man. Big Sir? It obviously had something to do with a man.
I sat up in my bedroll, taking in my surroundings. Jesse lay next to me, breathing deeply, evenly. His big chest rose and fell with each breath he took. I felt a swell of affection towards him. He looked so peaceful.
I suddenly had the incredible urge to relieve myself. I scrambled up from the bedroll to run outside, but my legs became stuck in my dress and bedroll and I promptly fell right over onto the hard, wooden ground.
I let out a little squeak, hoping that none of the men woke up. A quick glance revealed that they were still all sound asleep.
The damn skirt was already doing nothing but causing problems for me.
I paused. My bag was in plain sight from where I sat, as was Jesse’s.
Should I? Do I dare?
Before I could talk myself out of it, I grabbed the old pants of my father’s I brought from the bag, then reached into Jesse’s bag.
I rifled my hand through the bag, finding one of Jesse’s long-sleeved white shirts and even an extra belt. I took a small sheathed knife from the bag, too. I had a strange vision of myself being attacked by a large creature, and I felt as if I would have to protect myself.
I returned his bag to where I found it, then slipped out of the shack.
I was met with a dark clearing shrouded in heavy fog so thick I could barely make out the horses tied to the trees. Birds were chirping in the early morning light. It was so incredibly peaceful that I could have sat down and stayed there forever.
I found a little bush behind the cabin where I relieved myself. I knew without even looking at myself that I must look like some sort of wild animal. This idea was validated when I attempted to run my fingers through my hair. It was so matted and tangled that my fingers were not able to move past my ears.
I internally cringed. Here I was, surrounded by quite a few very attractive men, and I looked like an escaped madwoman. My dress was stiff from a mixture of dust and dried rainwater.
The chittering of the birds gave me a warm feeling. I had never been in such an earthy, isolated place. It felt like another world, a world that did not have society, a world that did not have rules or boundaries or expectations.
A world where I felt free.
It was the freedom I felt that led me to strip my dress and petticoat off, leaving me standing in only my drawers and corset. I immediately felt the gooseflesh rise on my exposed skin.
I picked up the pants I had discarded moments before and held them up to my body. They would be far too big for me, both in length and around my hips.
I spent a moment staring at the pants, trying to come up with a solution. I refused to put that dress back on.
An idea came to mind, and I grabbed the knife from its leather sheath. I lay the pants on the ground, folding one pant leg over another, and began to cut a big ring off the bottom of the pant legs.
I finished cutting, and held the pants back up. They reached the tops of my feet.
Probably as good as it'll ever be, I thought to myself. Hannah would be proud.
I slipped the pants on, immediately marveling at the way the pants hugged my legs. I could move! I felt so free, felt as if I could do anything.
As if I was a man.
I jammed my legs back into my leather boots, tucking the pants into them. It felt so strange not having to worry about my boots getting caught in my dress. I fastened Jesse’s belt as tight as possible around my hips, enjoying the snug feel of the pants.
At last came the shirt. I fingered it thoughtfully, enjoying the worn, soft material in my hand. It was a simple white shirt with laces at the neck, nothing special, but I held it as if it were the most precious article of clothing I’d ever touched.
I carefully slipped it over my head, laughing at how large it was on me. It gaped open at the neck, exposing the area above my bosom. I rolled the sleeves up and tucked it in, which helped a small bit.
I sheathed the knife and attached it to my pants, marveling at how masculine I looked. It was a welcome change from the frills and fringe of my usual outfits.
I made my way back to the little building, quietly shutting the splintery wooden door behind me. Everyone was still asleep, so I sat in a rickety rocking chair, praying to God that it did not break under my weight. I set about the task of braiding my hair over my shoulder.
My stomach rumbled loudly just as I finished braiding my thick hair. I had not eaten since that last biscuit at the Sundance, and I was definitely feeling it.
A strange snort sounded from the sleeping area, and I craned my head to get a glimpse of where the noise was coming from.
Jesse was sitting up in his bedroll, rubbing his eyes as I had minutes before. His wavy black hair was sticking up in various directions and there was a crease on his cheek from his blanket.
I could not help but admire his face, it looked so ridiculous yet so handsome with his morning confusion. His white shirt gaped at the chest, revealing tan muscle.
He stood up, jamming his feet into his boots, which he must have removed sometime during the night. Jesse stretched his arms above his head, finally looking about the room.
His eyes landed on me, his face breaking into a small smile. He beckoned me towards the door.
I followed Jesse back into the chilly fog. He was standing next to his horse, stroking its mane.
“I like the outfit, señorita. I think I recognize that shirt,” Jesse said, smirking at me.
“I’m sorry…I could not live in that God awful dress. I may look like a man, but at least I am a comfortable man.” I responded sheepishly.
“Oh, trust me, Ella, you do not look like a man,” he answered, glancing back at me.
I felt a flush rise up my neck to my cheeks. I nervously fingered my braid, wishing I had something better to do with my hands. What does he mean by that? Was he just being nice, trying to make me feel better?
“So who is this place named after? Who is the Big Sir?” I asked, trying to ignore how uncomfortable I felt.
Jesse’s mouth dropped open a little bit, and I could tell that I had caught him off guard.
“Wha-Big Sir? As in man?” he asked me, looking more astonished by the second.
“Yes,” I answered defensively. Had I said something wrong?
Jesse laughed at this. His even white teeth glinted in what little sunlight reached the clearing.
Why is this man always laughing at me? I thought to myself with frustration.
“What? What did I say?” I demanded to know, placing my hands on my hips.
He visibly struggled to stop laughing and put on a serious face.
“It’s Big Sur. Not with an ‘i’, with a ‘u’. El sur grande is how I say it in my own language,” he told me. “It translates to “the big south”. Because it is south of your city, Monterey.”
Oh. That made sense, I suppose. But still. He had no reason to make fun of me. It was a completely honest mistake.
“Are you hungry?” Jesse suddenly asked, striding back to the shack. I rolled my eyes at his retreating back and followed, stomach still making strange noises. I hoped he did not hear the sounds. They were rather ghastly, in my opinion.
Jesse was already waiting in the rocking chair when I entered the building.
How the hell does he move so fast? I asked myself. Maybe I was just slow.
He reached into a bag I had not noticed before, pulling a hunk of cloth out. He unwrapped it, revealing what looked to be beef jerky. I had seen jerky before in Mr. Jameson’s general store, but I never purchased it.
I took a rather large piece from his outstretched hand, raising it to my nose to sniff it.
Jesse burst out laughing, his full lips breaking into a smile.
“You are supposed to bite it, señorita, not smell it,” he told me teasingly. “Like this,” Jesse raised the beef to his mouth, taking a large bite. How the man still looked attractive while gnawing on dried meat, I will never know.
I followed suit, almost spitting out the meat. It had an incredibly strange taste, very salty and dry. I was not expecting it to be so hard. The next bite was definitely easier.
“This is not bad,” I said to Jesse. This was the truth; I was just not used to preserved meat.
He did not seem convinced. I could tell by his smirk.
“I am serious, Jesse Salinas,” I responded to his facial expression indignantly. As if to prove my point, I put the rest of the jerky in my mouth.
“If you say so,” he said, passing more jerky to me. We took turns sipping from a canteen of what I hoped was water.
The other men were starting to stir as we finished our bland meal. They all looked far worse than Jesse waking up, and I could not help but laugh at the drool caked in Daniel’s dark beard.
“God damn, Jesse, my back was just starting to heal from the last time we slept here,” Ross groaned, stretching as he stood up from his own bedroll. “Hey. Jerky,” he said, snatching a half-eaten piece from Jesse.
Jesse stood up and pushed Ross good-naturedly, all while I watched with a smile on my face. The other three men were busy eating their own forms of dried foods.
“Damn, Ella,” Ross exclaimed, shoving the meat in his mouth. “What the hell are you wearin’?”
That was the kind of reaction I expected. Not the “you do not look like a man” nonsense. Of course I looked like a man!
“Ross.” Jesse stated warningly, his eyebrows knitting together.
“We clearin’ outta here soon, Jess?” Ross asked, his mouth full of chewed-up jerky.
I cringed inwardly. Were these men raised amongst animals?
“Once you all are done doing what you need to do here, we need to leave. I want this journey over as soon as possible,” he answered, running a tan hand through his wavy hair.
“Where are we going?” I asked, slinging my bag over my shoulder.
Ross and Jesse met eyes but said nothing. Jesse busied himself returning various items to his bag, and Ross took a healthy swig from a dented silver flask.
“Excuse me?” I said louder. If Jesse was purposely ignoring me I was going to let him have it.
“I cannot tell you that at the moment, señorita.” Jesse told me, beckoning me to follow him outside, where he began preparing our horses.
“What do you mean? I am going to be riding with you, I want to know where-”
“Ella, if I recall correctly, you begged to come with us. You were never supposed to be here. You being here is going to make things much harder for us. So no, I will not disclose such information. Not until I have a plan,” Jesse said, not facing me.
How dare he! Implying that it is my fault that he and his friends are basically outlaws.
The realization hit me like a bullet. Oh my God, I thought to myself. It is my fault!
Everyone in Monterey was going to see these men as criminals, cheaters, and even worse, kidnappers. My family probably thinks I am being held captive against my will by these men!
My cheeks were heating up. I sank to a fallen log near Shadow and lay my head in my hands, willing myself not to let any tears fall.
Ambrose would come after us. My father would come after us. I do not know how I hadn’t thought of this before I so foolishly left with Jesse. Not only was it causing my father pain, I was also creating problems for Jesse and his men, whom I had grown to like in the short time we had spent together.
A warm hand covered my shoulder, and I looked up to see Jesse’s handsome face staring at me with a look of pity.
“You can go back, señorita. I will take you back,” he said, bending down so that we were at eye level.
“No, I am not making this any harder on you. That would just slow you down more…I promise I can do this. You won’t even notice I am here!” I responded, giving him a hopeful smile.
“I will notice, Ella. But alright,” Jesse told me, giving the end of my braid a little tug as he stood up.
The rest of the men exploded from the shack at that moment. Laughter filled the clearing, and they began readying their own horses as Jesse had done moments earlier.
Jesse stepped up to me and put his big, warm hands on my waist.
I jerked away with surprise, pressing a hand to my chest.
“What on Earth are you doing?” I said, feeling heat rush up to my face. My heart was beating wildly.
“I was just going to help you onto your horse. I am sorry, I should have asked you before putting a hand on you,” he answered, looking upset with himself.
“Oh. No, no, it is fine. You surprised me, is all,” I told him. “You may proceed. I’m ready.”
Jesse placed his hands on my waist once again and effortlessly lifted me over the side of the horse, where I straightened myself and gripped the soft leather reigns.
The rest of my companions mounted their horses after a few moments, then rode in the opposite direction we entered the heavily wooded area.
I found myself surrounded by the three other men in Jesse’s group. They were fun to ride with, constantly joking and teasing one another. I almost fell off of my horse with laughter when the man named Wyatt let out the loudest burp I had ever heard. I could not believe he was able to keep his food down with that awful sound.
We were miles out of Big Sur and hours away from Monterey when Jesse and Ross, who were riding ahead of the rest of us, suddenly stopped.
We no longer had an ocean view. I was not sure how far away from the coast we were, but I was enjoying the forest we were riding through. The birds made vivid chirping noises, and the air felt warm and fresh.
“What’s goin’ on, amigo?” Jed asked once we reached the two men.
Jesse shot a warning glance at him and said nothing.
“Do you smell it, Ross?” Jesse questioned, sniffing the air. His eyebrows were knit together in concentration. It was a good look for him, in my opinion.
Ross gave him a look that made me question Jesse’s sanity for a few moments, until the smell suddenly assaulted my own nose.
I gagged loudly, covering my mouth and nose with the long sleeve of my shirt. My eyes immediately started watering.
“What the hell is that?” I shrieked from behind my arm.
The smell brought back an unpleasant memory of Cat hiding dead birds and rodents under a large cabinet. We were unable to find the source of the smell for days, and by that time it was almost unbearable to be in the house.
This smell, however, was far worse than that of dead rodents and birds. Similar, but far stronger.
The men around me began to have reactions just as I did. Everyone except Jesse, that is. His strong nose was wrinkled and twitching, but he appeared to be somewhat comfortable with the smell. He hopped off of Caballo and strode deeper into the forest.
Ross and I struggled off of our own horses and followed him, cringing at the retreating sound of Daniel vomiting.
The smell was intensifying as we moved deeper into the forest. Even Jesse had one arm over his nose, and, to my surprise, a small gun protruding from the other arm. I had not even noticed him pull it out.
The smell suddenly became overwhelming. I shut my eyes and almost slammed into Jesse’s rigid back. I nearly screamed when I saw what he was standing over.
A body lay on the pin-strewed floor of the forest, hardly recognizable by the swarm of black flies covering it. It was a white man.
I could not bring myself to look away. It was grotesque and fascinating. The man’s head appeared to be split open, with a strange pillowy substance leaking from the gaping wound. He had a grizzly head of hair, not unlike Ross’s. He appeared to be nude.
Ross stepped in front of me, blocking the awful sight from my vision.
“Let’s go back to the horses, Little Miss. You don’t need to see this mess,” he said, attempting to steer me away.
I shrugged him off, tightening my arm across my nose. I was still in a sort of daze after seeing such a horrid scene. Who could have the stomach to do such a thing to another person? I cannot imagine ever harming another, let alone ripping their head open. The man did not even have clothes on, for God’s sake. Would a bandit really go so far as to crack a skull open for a few coins?
Jesse stood in silence, examining the man’s body as if it held the answers to every question ever asked. A muscle jumped in his defined jaw, and his sculpted lips twisted into disgust.
“Hijo de puta. Asesino…Mierda.” Jesse muttered. I did not understand these words or what they meant, but they seemed like the type of words to warrant a slap from his mother. Jesse remained composed, but his eyes told a different story. They flashed with such ferocity that I was glad he was my friend and not my enemy.
“We need to leave, Jesse. Now,” Ross said firmly, glancing back through the trees at the three other men.
Jesse nodded, still staring down at the poor soul who had been met with a vicious death. He seemed to be personally affected by the sight, almost too affected.
Does he know that man? I wondered to myself. Why is he so terribly upset about this?
Without another word, he slipped by us and moved back towards the horses.
“What happened?” Wyatt asked, his eyes questioning from his perch atop his horse. Daniel was still in his saddle, his pale face resting against his horse’s mane.
“Nada. Nothing,” Jesse responded as he lifted me onto Shadow.
Wyatt shot me a confused look, and I returned it with a shrug. It did not seem wise to speak to Jesse at the moment. Everyone in the group seemed to agree with this thought.
The rest of the day was spent riding in silence.