Wednesday, May 25, 2005

McKenna Monday...Chapter 10: Gunslinger's Grave by McKenna


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.

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.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

McKenna Monday...Chapter 8: Gunslinger's Grave by McKenna

I tilted my chin upwards in response, heat rushing to my face. I wanted to run away as fast as I could. His piercing gaze met mine, and I felt both safe and threatened. 

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.