Wednesday, June 29, 2005

McKenna Monday...Chapter 14: Gunslinger's Grave by McKenna


My jaw dropped. 

Before us stood an incredibly beautiful woman. She seemed almost ethereal, bathed in the warm light omitted from the house. Her black hair was in a complicated updo, a few soft curls escaping to frame her face. 

Her wide brown eyes bulged, her mouth dropping open silently.

She stammered for a few moments, making unintelligible noises. Her hands bunched up in the skirt of her ruffly dress. 

“Mamá? ¿Quién es?” A soft voice floated towards us, and a girl who seemed to be about Jesse’s age appeared next to the older woman. Her dress was similar to the one she called “Mamá”. Her eyes widened just as her mothers did when she saw Jesse.

“Jesse? Dios mío!” She shrieked, flinging herself at Jesse.

Jesse buried his face into the girl’s hair, his usually stoic face nearly crumpling. Her arms wrapped tight around his neck.

Multiple other girls suddenly appeared, showing the same affection for Jesse. I started to tear up a bit myself, for I had never felt the love of a sibling, but it seemed so raw, so true. 

Jesse broke away from the various women, turning his and their attention towards me. Their faces all bore the same look of confusion. I probably looked like an animalistic beggar. 

“This is Ella. She will be staying with us,” he told them. “She will need a bath. And something to wear.”

The first girl to hug Jesse stepped forward and took my arm, pulling me farther into the warm house. 

I started to panic a bit, being in such an unfamiliar place. The air smelled of some strange spices, and I was being gawked at by girls quite a few years older than me. Jesse and his mother shared hushed words, hers in rapid Spanish. 

“No, no, mamá, she is not a prostituta,” Jesse stated, trying to stop his mother from staring at me. 

So his mother is the beautiful woman. It was quickly becoming apparent to me where Jesse’s good looks came from. She had the same thick lashes that he did.

“Then why is she dressed like that? Are those your pants?” his mother asked, staring at my pants accusingly. The rest of the men in our little outlaw group watched silently, wide-eyed. 

“No. She just had a long journey and needed to be comfortable,” Jesse answered exasperatedly. “I will answer your questions later, Mamá. Let us get Ella settled in first, por favor,”.

She sniffed and looked away, sending a single nod toward her daughter, who still held my arm. Jesse smiled reassuringly at me as I was led towards a large brown door. 

Where am I going? I wondered to myself as I followed the girl through the door. I wish I knew what this girl’s name is. 

The room turned out to be a sweet little bedroom with a small fireplace and washtub in one corner. 

“Ella. That is a nice name,” the girl spoke as she began heating a bucket of water over the fireplace. 

“Thank you. What is yours?” I asked, admiring the girl’s curly dark hair and bronzed skin.

“Lorena,” she responded, giving me a small smile. “So, why are you with Jesse? And why are you wearing that?” She said with a gesture to my men’s attire.

“It is a very long story,” I answered.

“And this is a very large bathtub. It will take a long time till it is filled,” Lorena said as she sat down on the bed.

The bed was beautiful, with intricately carved wood and fine bedding. From what I gathered, Jesse’s family was wealthy. But how were they wealthy if his father was dead? Was it old family money?

I sighed, and explained the story of my betrothal to Ambrose, and how Jesse’s arrival changed my mind and made me reevaluate the way I was living.

Lorena stifled a laugh at that. Before I could ask what she was laughing at, she left the room, reappearing some minutes later with another bucket of water, which she began heating. 

“Jesse likes you very much. I can tell,” Lorena told me after returning to her spot on the bed.

“He is a good friend,” I responded, smiling fondly at thoughts of Jesse. His quiet strength, watchful eye, and gentle demeanor were only a few of the things that I liked so much in Jesse. 

Lorena laughed again. Her face was so similar to Jesse’s, it was almost scary to me. 

“What is it? Why do you keep laughing?” I asked her, exasperated.

“Ella, querida, you are far more to Jesse than a friend. That much is obvious.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, confused. Jesse was no more than a friend, his actions had made that quite clear.

“I can see the way he looks at you. He cares about you,” Lorena said. “I know mi hermano. He is smitten with you.”

I laughed a bit too loud, blushing heavily. 

“Oh, no, Lorena, you are wrong. Jesse is merely a friend,” I told her. 

“Okay,” she answered, laughing. She exited the room again for more water. 

“Do you come from nobility?” I asked her once she returned. 

“No, why do you ask?”

“Well, your home is absolutely beautiful. And Jesse told me how your father died in the war…I am sorry, I am being rude, as usual. Forget I asked,” I said, embarrassed. I immediately regretted asking the question.

“He told you what?” Lorena asked, abandoning the soaps she was laying out for me. She rested her hands on an extremely tiny waist.

This took me aback. Did I say something wrong? I wondered. Being in an unfamiliar home with an unfamiliar culture was truly getting to me. 

“He told me your father died in the war…” I trailed off. Her penetrating gaze made me feel unnerved.

“Ah. Yes, he did,” she answered with an uneasy smile. “We have a lot of money in the family, if that is what you are asking.”

It was obvious I had upset her. Her words were become shakier, as if she had to think hard before she said them. Why did she act the way she did when her father was brought up? 

“Your bath is ready,” she suddenly exclaimed. I looked over and sure enough, the tub was filled with steaming water. “There should be an extra nightdress in the drawers by the bed.”

Her words were suddenly cut off by a loud knock. She called out to them to enter.

Jesse’s handsome face poked in. His face broke out into a smile when he saw me. 

“Everything okay?” He asked Lorena. She gave him a forced smile.

“Yes. Ella is about to bathe. We should let her be,” Lorena said, striding to the door. 

She gave me a small smile as she followed Jesse out the door.

I immediately heard hushed voices speaking rapidly.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

McKenna Monday...Chapter 13: Gunslinger's Grave by McKenna


I was becoming more frustrated by the day. Our journey was reaching its end, I could tell. Despite this, Jesse still would not disclose where we were going.

“So, Jesse, where are we headed? Have I been there before?” I asked, riding alongside him. Our horses trotted along happily, occasionally making sweet little noises. 

He gave me a sidelong glance, laughing and shaking his head. His wavy hair was growing longer, and now curled against the back of his golden neck. His face still remained clean-shaven, though, despite my never seeing him with a razor. 

“No, señorita, you have not. At least to my knowledge,” he told me, staring straight ahead.

Jesse nodded as we passed a man driving a covered wagon pulled by a team of oxen. I lowered my chin to my chest, attempting to hide my face under the brim of the hat I was borrowing from Daniel. I was trying to avoid being seen until it was absolutely necessary.

Jesse always made a friendly gesture to passing people in order to come across as peaceful. Sightings of other people were becoming far more frequent. I was not sure how much time had passed, but Jesse’s behavior is what told me that we were almost to our destination. 

“Please? I want to know where we are going! Will I have to put my dress back on?” I asked, hoping he would at least disclose this much information. Putting a dress on sounded horrifying to me. I never wanted to go back to those awful skirts, especially after experiencing pants.

I watched as he became increasingly fidgety in his saddle, his brow furrowed in obvious concentration. He had been this way ever since we found the body of that poor man. That was the only time Jesse had ever seen visibly shaken to me.

“That is actually a very good question. I will get back to you on it,” Jesse answered, rolling a fallen sleeve back up his forearm. His eyes flashed gold as he looked into the setting sun.

The other men rode behind us, laughing noisily. There never was a quiet moment with them, especially Ross. He was the loudest of them all, and by far the most raucous. 

The landscape moved by, a blur of trees and distant ocean. The weather was perfect, not a cloud in the sky. It was cooler wherever we were than it was in Monterey, the air a bit windy from the ocean. It was steadily becoming chillier under the darkening sky.

“Jesse! Tell me!” I exclaimed. My braid thumped against my shoulder with every step the horse took. This is how every single one of  our conversations had gone in the past days.

All at once, I knew I was going to get my way. Jesse slowed his horse down a bit, and turned to me with frustration evident on his face. 

Jesucristo, Ella! We are going to Los Angeles. I need to speak with my mother,” Jesse exclaimed, shaking his head wearily at me. 

My mouth dropped open but no words came out. Los Angeles? What?

I had heard stories of Los Angeles. It was a huge city, populated by many Mexicans. It was near the ocean, as was Monterey, but Los Angeles was so much bigger. 

I was not sure whether to be terrified or excited. Would I have to meet Jesse’s mother? His family? Were they nice? Have they ever seen a white girl?

“Will I be meeting your family…?” I asked, trailing off after realizing what an uncomfortable question it was.  “I am sorry. You don’t have to answer tha-” I started to say.

Jesse laughed. 

“Yes, lo siento, you will have to meet her. And yes, you may want to put that dress back on as we reach the city. Mamá is…traditional,” Jesse replied. 

Traditional? Great. I was currently wearing pants. And a men’s shirt. And belt. The woman probably hates me already, and she does not even know of me. 

“Do not worry, señorita. My family speaks good English. They will welcome you with open arms, as I have done,” he said, making direct eye contact with me. 

I flushed, looking away from his light brown gaze. I could never tell what he truly meant by these cryptic phrases. Jesse was far too gentlemanly to ever make a pass at me, but his statements were warm and affectionate and often made me blush, which was incredibly embarrassing. Jesse loved to tease me about my blushing. 

“Ella, are you hot? Your cheeks are flushed,” Jesse spoke, reaching over to feel my face. He was struggling to keep a straight face. 

I swatted his hand away, glaring. 

“When will we be there?” I asked, deciding to just ignore the previous statement. I lowered my head again as we passed multiple people on horseback.

“We are a few miles away from the outskirts,” Jesse answered, not looking at me.

“What?” I shrieked, completely stopping Shadow.

Jesse stopped too, bringing Caballo back next to my horse.

“What is the matter?” He questioned, looking confused. The rest of the group gathered around us. 

“What’s goin’ on here, Jess?” Ross asked, his eyebrows knit in confusion.

“I have not had any time to prepare, Jesse! I am not even dressed, my hair is a ratty mess, I do not even know how to act around them-” I all but screamed. I did not give myself time to breathe, so that statement must have sounded like gibberish to the men.

“Ah. You told her,” Ross said, knowingly smiling. 

“Was I the only one that did not know we were going here?” I seethed, my rage boiling over. 

“Going where?” Wyatt asked, finally contributing to the conversation.

We all rolled our eyes. 

“Ella, it is fine! You can bathe when we get there and then look presentable. For the time being, Mamá will understand. Just be Ella and you will be fine,” Jesse told me, obviously trying very hard to calm me down. 

I set my jaw and urged Shadow to move. I began moving away from the group, following the trail toward Los Angeles. 

A few moments of this and I started to hope someone would catch up with me, because the trail was branching off into two before me. 

Luckily, Jesse came to the rescue and rode left, riding slowly so that I could catch up.

“I am sorry, señorita. I did not realize this would be so important to you,” he said quietly, so that the other men behind us would not hear. 

I struggled to keep my resolve, but Jesse was looking at me with his beautiful eyes and I was having a rough time. 

“It is fine,” I finally answered. 

His shoulders relaxed, and he opened his lush mouth to say something.

“Next time you keep me in the dark about something, though, I will find the nearest Sheriff and tell him you kidnapped me,” I said, cutting him off. He had voiced his worry to me a few days earlier about that, claiming that he was essentially a kidnapper now.

He laughed and shook his head. 

“Okay, señorita. That is fair,” Jesse said. 

The rest of our ride was spent in comfortable silence. We arrived in Los Angeles just as the moon rose. I was thankful for this, for the bustling city was relatively quiet. All to be heard was the sound of horses snorting and the occasional door opening and closing.

We rode through the streets of Los Angeles, following Jesse towards his home. He seemed nervous, almost on edge. His shoulders were sharp, as if he was ready to strike at any moment. 

“This is Calle del Vino. Wine Street,” he told me, his face remaining passive. “My home is at the end.”

Jesse stopped riding, and we followed suit. He dismounted his horse, waiting as everyone did the same.

“Please, be respectful of my family,” Jesse said, staring straight at the other men. “You four, do not go anywhere near my sisters or else I will personally kill you.”

They did not seem to think he was kidding, for they solemnly nodded. 

“You,” Jesse said, turning to me. “Be yourself. Relax.”

I also nodded, and we followed Jesse down the narrow stone street to the end, reaching a large villa. It was unlike anything I had seen before; absolutely beautiful. I stood there, open-mouthed, admiring the house until Jesse cleared his throat, signaling to me with his hand.

We slipped past the house and put our horses in the stable behind the house, preparing them to rest.

Once everyone had their horse ready, we went back to the front, where Jesse pounded on the huge door loudly.

We waited, listening as the door was unlocked.

The door was flung open, and the porch flooded with light.

My jaw dropped.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

McKenna Monday...Chapter 12: Gunslinger's Grave by McKenna


The stupid Mexican trash. 

Fury shot through me once again, creating black spots in front of my eyes.

I clenched my fist, trying to contain my rage so as not to scare my mother. She hated seeing me upset, and I knew showing any emotion would startle her. 

Ella’s father stood in front of us, looking heartbroken. His green eyes were red and puffy. I almost felt bad for him, what with him looking so pitiful. 

“How could she have been kidnapped? Why was she even alone with those men?” I asked, my voice hard. It just did not make sense. 

I shoved a hand through my hair, feeling my hand shake as I did so. The fact that another man believe he could take my fiancé made me angrier than words can explain. 

“I don’t know, Ambrose. Hannah and I were in town running errands when we heard that gunshot and we were distracted by the crowd…They must have left with her then.” Ella’s father said, his voice cracking at the end. 

My mother stared at him, saying nothing. She had been quiet ever since Seth arrived at our home. This was strange for her. Loretta Cassidy is known for her outspoken, sharp tongue. 

Seth swiped a hand under his eyes, tears finally falling. 

I felt disgust climbing it’s way up my throat. This man needs to get a hold of himself. Standing around crying would do nothing to bring Ella back from that Mexican savage.

The parlor suddenly felt stiflingly hot. I could feel sweat dripping down my back underneath the waistcoat I wore. 

My mother stood up, noticing my obvious discomfort. I watched as she put a cool smile on her face. 

“Seth. You should really get home to Hannah. We will figure this all out. She will come home,” My mother told Ella’s father, grasping his hand. “You need to take care of yourself now.”

“You…Yes, you’re right. She is probably out of her mind with worry…” Seth responded, trailing off. 

He sniffed, again wiping his eyes with his palm. I wrinkled my nose at the gargling noise omitted as he sniffed. 

Leave it to Ella to be kidnapped. The girl could not be trusted on her own, as was obvious. Now the wedding would be delayed, my business activities halted, and most of my time now would surely be taken up organizing search parties and leading them.

I was yanked from my thoughts as I heard the front door shut. My mother strode back into the room, her face expressionless. 

“Ella ran home as soon as that trash was shot in the street,” she told me, smoothing her green dress. Her light brown hair was pulled in an up-do so severe I was sure she must have a headache.

“She was probably frightened,” I responded, collapsing into a chair. I buried my head in my hands, leaning on my knees. 

“Leave, please. Now,” my mother said. My head snapped up, slightly shocked as to why she would be ordering me to leave.

But she was not talking to me. An Indian servant girl was silently sweeping the room, staring wide-eyed at my mother.

“Do I have to tell you again?” My mother asked, pointing towards the door. 

The girl wordlessly scurried from the room, obviously terrified. 

Confusion set in. Why was my mother opposed to having a random redskin in the room? 

Once she was sure the girl was gone, my mother sat in the chair next to me, leaning in. 

“I don’t want anyone around here knowing this, but I don’t think that fiancé of yours was taken,” my mother confided in me. “She ran right home. She looked scared. But I do not think it was for herself.”

I leaned back, processing this. 

As if Ella would have the brain to leave at her own will. The girl practically worshipped the ground I walked on. She would never voluntarily leave me, especially not with some brown badman. 

“No, I don't think so, Mother. She does not have the smarts to do this on her own…She has to have been taken. I remember the man who did this. I met him once, when I was visiting Ella…That son of a bitch,” I exclaimed, feeling the fury flare once more. I felt my fingers shake as I thought of the way he looked at Ella. The woman who belonged to me. 

My mother remained silent, watching me trying to contain my rage. I struggled to keep myself in control; Mother has no patience for emotional outbursts.

A little noise sounded from the doorway of the parlor. My mother’s face screwed up as she turned to see who was entering, obviously expecting it to be the Injun she just sent away.

It was Rebecca.

“What do you want, Rebecca?” I asked irritably. I had absolutely no patience to deal with her at the moment. 

Her face hardened, as it usually did when she was around family. Rebecca cleared her throat, raising herself to her full height.

“Can I do anything to help you, Ambrose? I would hate for you to be focused on anything but Ella. Given how much you love her, of course,” she said. The contempt in her voice was unmistakable. Her eyes glinted with something unrecognizable to me. 

I drank in her light blonde hair, her bright blue eyes, and her delicate facial features, trying to feel some tiny shred of love or sympathy towards my younger sister, but I came up empty. All I felt towards the tall girl in the expensive blue dress was disgust. 

My mother spoke for me. 

“Rebecca. Shut your mouth. Wake up and realize that your snotty little attitude will get you nowhere. Our family is hurting right now.”

“I offered help, Mother,” Rebecca said. Her face remained stoic, but I knew her. I could see the glint of hurt in her light eyes. She brushed a strand of hair from her face with a finger.

“Rebecca, your hair looks like garbage. Have you washed it today?” My mother changed the subject, resorting to her usual criticism of Rebecca. 

“Yes, Mother, as a matter of fact, I have. It looks like this because of the rain,” Rebecca retorted, patting her hair with a small hand. It did look rather stringy.

“I am sure, dear. Go wash it again.”

We watched as Rebecca spun from the room with such force that her hair and skirt swished.

“That girl gives me nothing but pain,” my mother said, the irritation evident on her face. “I simply cannot wait until the only person who has to deal with her is her husband.”

I knew that our reactions to Rebecca were extreme, she actually was attempting to offer me some support. This still meant nothing to me. I knew how she felt about me, her always being the forgotten child. The girl. Not once in her life has Rebecca Cassidy appreciated her family or what they have done for her, and I would never forgive her for this. 

“We need to get search parties. They only have half a day on us, we can easily catch up,” I spoke, standing up and striding to the door to go look for my father. 

I bumped into him just as I stepped through the doorway. He looked older than ever before. 

“Let’s go, Ambrose. I have a bunch of men ready. We think they are heading south. One in charge is Mexican,” he said, kissing my mother on the cheek.

Anger flared up again at the thought of him. Jesse Salinas. How could some stupid Mexican trash make off with her? Ella is mine. She belongs to me and nobody else, it made me sick to think that someone stole her from me. 

“Ambrose,” my mother’s voice sounded from behind me. 

“What?” I responded, turning around. 

“Do not forget what I told you. About her,” she said, her eyebrows raising knowingly. 

I ignored her and left the house, only to be met with a large group of men on horseback, my father already perched atop his horse. He held the reigns of my horse, Rebel, in his hands along with those of his. 

I strode to the horse and swung myself up, sharing a look with my father before we began riding. My saddlebags were bulging, so I assumed that someone had packed food for our journey.

I noticed that Ella’s father was nowhere to be seen in the group. He was most likely too grief-stricken to help us. Coward. I suppose it was a good thing, though, that he did not come. There was no room for blithering idiots on a manhunt. 

The rain lightened as we rode on to rescue my fiancé. 


Wednesday, June 1, 2005

McKenna Monday...Chapter 11: Gunslinger's Grave by McKenna


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.