The desperation in her blue eyes felt like a knife through my stomach. I had never seen Ella so full of pain, so frantic. It was worse than when that pendejo Cassidy returned. Her brown hair dripped onto her dress, but she did not seem to care.
“I’m so sorry, Ella. I cannot stay here. Would you rather I be killed?” I asked her, meaning every word I said. That man had acted as any self-respecting gunman would; the bullets for Billy were well-deserved. My mind flashed back to the moments before Ella came home.
I was sitting in my room studying a map when Ross barged in, dripping wet and smelling of whiskey.
“Billy just shit on all of us. We gotta’ leave. Now, Jess,” he said before I could even ask. His long brown hair was resting in clumps against the tops of his shoulders. “He got himself killed.”
I wordlessly began gathering my meager belongings into the war-bag I kept in my room. Not this shit again. Billy was an idiot, it was only a matter of time before he pulled something like this. And now he’s dead.
I holstered my Colt Army revolver and slipped the other one into my right boot. I tried to keep my rage hidden. How many times had I told Billy to keep his head down? To stay out of fights? To keep away from the cards?
Ross looked on quietly. I glanced at him after slipping my maps and papers into the bag.
“Got something to say, Ross?” I asked him, raising an eyebrow at his obvious shiftiness.
“I…I’m sorry, Jesse. We tried to stop him but the damn idiot is a cheater. We was just playin’ some faro and he tried to move his bet…The other guy acted righteously.”
“And now you think he’s after the rest of you?” I asked, carefully straightening the sheets on my bed. I hated the idea of leaving the room a mess for Ella and Miss Hannah to clean up.
Ella. Her dark hair and her light eyes forced their way into my mind as they always do. I wished I could say goodbye. She knows nothing about me yet it felt as if she understood me far more than anyone else has. The pain I’d been carrying for years felt dull, sometimes even nonexistent, with her.
“He will be, Jess. That guy was out of his mind. If we hadn’t left when we did…” Ross trailed off.
I knew what had to be done to keep me and the rest of my men safe.
Ella was never going to forgive me for leaving without saying goodbye.
I tore myself from my memory, instead focusing on the shivering Ella standing before me. I wanted nothing more than to pull her inside and get her warm, but I knew she would not budge.
We argued for a few moments pointlessly until Ross stepped in.
I knew I had lost. I was not going to be able to leave her here no matter how hard I tried. Ross knew it, she knew it, I knew it.
The relief and triumph was evident on her face as she packed her little bag with things that she so evidently would not need. Soap. I visibly squirmed trying not to laugh at her bringing soap.
I mounted Caballo once we were back out in the rain, expecting Ella to do the same. I assumed she was an experienced rider what with her fascination with Shadow, but when I glanced back at her, her eyes stared hugely at the horse.
Dios mío. She doesn’t even know how to ride? I jumped down and grabbed her, lifting her by her slender hips and putting her on the saddle. I liked the way she felt in my hands.
Ross and I instructed her on how to hold the reigns, and she seemed to understand, but I could not help but feel scared for her.
I was doing a terrible thing. She was right, I was thinking about how this would be no place for a lady. But I could not leave her. I’d rather she stay with me than be with that Cassidy family or even Hannah and her father, who so obviously don’t understand her one bit. All I knew was that I would regret this. I would look back on this day and hate myself for it.
We rode away, avoiding the main street. I refrained from going as fast as I’d like. I had Ella to think about now. I stole frequent glances over my shoulder at her. I would have laughed at her face, a mix of terror and happiness, if our situation had been the least bit funny.
I looked over my shoulder again, checking on Wyatt, Jed, and Daniel. They and Ross were the remaining men in my group of badmen. We’d been riding together for almost a year, since the day I turned nineteen. None of them, not even Ross, knew what we were really looking for. They were just along for the money, the occasional robberies we performed.
I wasn’t proud of what we did. It made feel as if I was him. Just the mere thought of him made my hands clench around the reigns so hard that my knuckles started to turn white. Ever since I could remember I had told myself I would never become him. The lies I told would rescue me, would change my fate.
I knew where we were going next. And it had nothing to do with gold mining camps. We would make a big spectacle, a bunch of white people riding in with one lone Mexican, but it had to be done.
The rain was not stopping. We were a few miles away from town, and I knew we had to put some distance between it and us before we could stop for the day. We had hours before nightfall. There were other towns scattered all over that we could stop to rest at, but I did not want to be recognized. We could not be remembered.
Especially not with Ella. Her father, her fiancé, would not let her go so easily. They would come after us. I knew that better than I even knew her. I had seen just how possessive Cassidy was. He could act like a big man all he wanted and come after us, but he has not earned shit in his life. Including Ella. It was not my place to say who deserved Ella, but as her friend, I know that Cassidy does not deserve her.
Just thinking about that burro made me angry. Keeping my anger under control had always been hard for me, but when it came to Ella I knew I could not control myself. The misery on her face every time that man came around made me want to kill him.
She seemed to be having a grand time on Shadow. She had a natural ability with that horse; it trusted her immediately, let her ride it immediately. One does not see that very often. Ella had a huge smile on her face despite the cold rain and fast pace of the horses. Her grey dress was completely soaked through, almost black with water.
What have I gotten myself into?
Ross quickened his pace on his horse, Ginger, to match mine. Her coat’s reddish tinge was more prominent than usual in the rain.
“So where we headed, Jess? Hopefully somewhere dry?” Ross said, shouting to be heard over the rain and pounding hooves.
I leaned over to him and told him where our next stop was, causing him to jerk away with narrowed eyes.
“Are you kiddin’ me, boy? You’re crazy if you think that’s a good idea. Especially with her,” he said, nodding his head back towards Ella. “She’ll get eaten alive-“
“No. She will not. She is much stronger than you think, Ross. Just look at her now,” I responded, trying to control my frustration. “She’s never even been on a goddamn horse but there she is, riding as if she has her whole life.”
“But Jess, that won’t be ridin’ a horse. That’ll be so much harder on her. And you’re lyin’ to yourself if you don’t think so.”
“Shut up, Ross. We are not talking about this anymore.”
I silenced him with a glare, grateful for the noise and laughter from the other men. I did not want them or Ella to hear this conversation.
Ross and I rode on in silence, both of us constantly looking back to check on Ella, who seemed to be making friends with the rest of the guys. They had formed a sort of protective ring around her, frequently telling jokes to make her laugh.
The rain was finally letting up. We were miles away from Monterey, riding south. I knew the exact way to go. I did not even need the maps I kept in my saddle bags. The sun was starting to set, and we were almost to our first stop.
El sur grande was the perfect place to hide out. We’d been there multiple times, usually after robbing idiot gold miners. El sur grande, also known as Big Sur by the white men I’d heard talking about it, had incredibly difficult terrain to conquer and the occasional pack of bandits. I knew my men and I were experienced enough to ride the trail after nightfall, but I was not sure about Ella. I was impressed with her riding, but not enough to be confident.
It was the only thing we could do, though. I wonder how she feels about camping. I met Ross’s eyes and jerked my head towards Ella, then guided Caballo back towards her. The boys around her immediately broke away from her, riding up to join Ross. The group had eased into a steady trot in preparation for the last stretch of difficult riding.
It may have been my imagination, but I swear Ella’s smile grew wider as I rode back next to her. She was shivering in her wet dress, but seemed as if she had not a care in the world.
“How are you doing, señorita? Do you need to stop?” I asked her.
“Are you out of your mind? This is…I don’t even know a word to describe this,” she answered, her blue eyes shining under heavy lashes. “My only complaint is that I’m cold, but not enough to ruin this.”
“Alright. This last stretch is going to be hard. It is a steep trail. Rocky. On a cliff. I am going to ride right behind you the entire way. It should take no more than an hour to reach the top, but it will be dark.”
She remained silent, lost in her own thoughts.
“Will Shadow be okay doing this? He is the one who has to do the work…” She responded finally, trailing off.
I let out a little chuckle. Leave it to Ella to worry about the damn horse.
“Yes, Ella. The horse will be fine. He has done this before. We have all done this before. You are in good hands,” I said, trying to read her expression.
She smiled, saying nothing. She looked so beautiful when smiling. Long strands of her nearly dry hair fell in front of her eyes and she impatiently pushed them back.
“When does it start?” She finally asked, her eyebrows raised questioningly.
“Right about now. See how steep it is about to get? It will only get worse. The trail becomes thinner, too. We will have to ride in a line. One behind another.”
“Okay…” Ella said, at last looking appropriately nervous.
She was not well suited for this ride. She was wearing a dress, for God’s sake. It was a tough ride in pants. If only she could wear pants.
“Okay, señorita. On the hill, lean forward in the saddle. Hold still, just lean forward. Loosen up on the reigns a little bit. Not too much.”
She followed my directions, and we rode the next few minutes in silence. The trail was steadily narrowing. I paused to let her move forward. It was no longer wide enough for us to safely ride side-by-side. ‘
It was finally dark out. A cool breeze blew through the heavy trees lining the trail, and I felt gooseflesh rise under the thin cotton of my shirt. Ella’s shoulders literally shook with the cold. I hoped the blankets we had would be dry enough to use by the time we reached our hideout.
I could hear the roar of the waves crashing into the cliff far below us. I had always found the sound soothing. Growing up fairly close to the ocean, I learned to love it. I usually enjoyed noise in general. Having three sisters and a particularly loud mamá contributed to that.
The ride went smoothly. Ella followed my directions perfectly. Everyone kept a good conversation going, making it easy to stay alert. One wrong move on the trail and a horse and its rider would be sent over the cliff.
Ella’s laughter was contagious. It was a deep belly laugh, not one expected from such a little thing. It made us all guffaw loudly. The three idiots were falling all over themselves trying to talk and joke with her while Ross and I watched and listened knowingly. The only women these men came in contact with were whores, and Ella was in no way at all a whore.
The trail was beginning to level out and widen into a clearing. I dug my boots into Caballo’s flank, speeding up to ride next to Ella.
Her shoulders were starting to sag as she held the reigns. I tried not to laugh at the evident exhaustion on her face. If we did not stop soon, I feared she would collapse in her saddle.
I made small talk with her for the last few moments of the ride in an effort to keep her awake.
“Please, Jesse…Just stop talking for one minute. You sound like Hannah…” Ella finally said, leaning forward to rest her cheek on Shadow’s mane.
I burst out laughing.
“Ella, your words wound me,” I told her, reaching over and nudging her slender shoulder in another attempt to wake her up.
She jolted straight up in her saddle, sending me a death glare. Angry expressions on that girl’s face just did not look right. Her tousled hair rested in one thick, matted piece on her shoulder. She would probably cry if she could see it.
We finally trotted into a dark clearing surrounded by huge redwood, pine, and oak trees that allowed little sunshine during the day. A little shack rested right in the middle of the area.
It was a welcome sight. It was not a pretty sight, just a welcome one. The shack was small, made of stone and wood. It was thrown together quickly by God knows who, but nobody was ever using it when we passed through, so we took over. It even had a little stove.
We moved past the shack, riding deeper into the forest until we reached a deep, cold stream. The horses drank while we yawned and struggled to keep our eyes open.
“Everyone ready?” Ross finally asked, turning back towards the shack. It was barely visible through the dense foliage around us.
We followed wordlessly, dismounting the horses outside the building and tying them to various low branches around the clearing. Saddlebags were detached, belongings carried into the building.
Ella and I followed the group into the shack. She was leaning on my arm, eyes dropping shut every few seconds. I snaked my arm around her thin waist, providing her with more support. I pulled her bag from her shoulders then untangled myself from her. I rifled through the bag, pulling a bedroll out. I quickly set it up for her, figuring she did not know how to do so.
She collapsed onto the bedroll, slipping her small body into it. Her dark hair splayed around her head as she curled up on the ground.
I had to smile at the sight. She looked like a pretty doll, too fragile to touch in the big bedroll obviously made for a man.
The rest of the men were doing the same. The room was quiet, the only noise being the rustling of bags and bedrolls being set up. I set mine up next to Ella, putting an appropriate distance between us.
I rested there for a few minutes, the back of my head on my arm as I stared at the ceiling.
Snores were projecting all around the room. I was used to Wyatt, Jed, and Daniel snoring. The three idiotas always sounded as if a horse was galloping about the room. What I did not expect, though, was for Ella to snore. Far louder than the men, might I add.
Once again, I wondered how such a great sound could come from something so dainty. I hoped I would be able to fall asleep with that so close to my ears.
“Jesse?” A voice sounded, barely audible through the snoring. Ross.
“Yeah, gringo?” I asked, turning my head towards his voice.
“You sure this is a good idea? Goin’ there?” Ross said.
No, I wasn’t sure. But I couldn’t let him know that.
“Sí, Ross. I have thought it over. I have to go. We have to go.”
“It’s gonna be a long way. Dangerous. But I’m with you.” He responded.
“You are right. It is a long way to Los Angeles,” I spoke loudly. I shut my eyes, welcoming the darkness.