This story is by Lucas Ellinas and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jesse James sat quietly in his living room in St. Joseph, Missouri. It was a desolate place, unloved and disused, cobwebs collecting in every corner. No paintings adorned the white plaster walls, no rug covered the scratches in the wood floor. The room only had three features of any real note: a worn stone fireplace which, to Jesse’s knowledge, had never been used, the faded brown couch on which he sat, and a pair of wicker chairs. Those chairs were currently occupied by Charley and Robert Ford, two men he once considered friends.
Looking at them now, Jesse wondered how he had come to keep such sorry company. The Ford brothers were decent men, but they couldn’t compare to his old gang. There had been five of them: Jesse, his brother Frank, and Bob, Cole, and Jim Younger. They’d met when Jesse was just sixteen, during their years in the Civil War fighting in the Confederate militias. Those were dark times. Jesse still dreamed of them—the roar of the canons, the screams of man and beast as they died amidst clouds of dust and smoke.
Once the war ended, most of the militiamen went home to their families, trying to return some normalcy to their lives. But Jesse had nothing to go back to. His youth had been consumed by war and bloodshed; he didn’t know any other way to live. So, he decided to repurpose the skills he’d learned towards less honest pursuits. He joined with Frank and the Younger brothers to become an outlaw, orchestrating a decade-long reign of terror that ranged from Texas to West Virginia. Those were the best years of Jesse’s life. Most of the country viewed his gang as simple marauders, but to Jesse they were family, united by seemingly unbreakable bonds of blood and brotherhood.
And yet, it only took one mistake to bring it all crashing down. That day in Northfield was permanently seared into Jesse’s mind. It was supposed to be a simple bank heist, something the gang had pulled off a hundred times before. But success had made Jesse careless. He let one of the tellers slip away, and before long the locals had descended upon them. When the Younger brothers tried to fight back, all three were killed. In the chaos, Jesse and his brother managed to escape, but his role in the Youngers’ deaths still haunted him.
His troubles didn’t end there. A few weeks after the disaster in Northfield, Frank packed up his bags and headed east to Virginia, hoping to start a new life away from crime. For the last three years, Jesse had tried to rebuild the gang on his own, but without the strong ties that had held the old group together, these new iterations rarely lasted long before they were torn apart by suspicion and infighting.
Charley and Robert were the latest in a long line of newcomers. They had been travelling with Jesse for more than a year now, and he had hoped things would turn out differently this time. Instead, the Ford brothers, men he had personally recruited and taken into his confidence, were planning to kill him. Their younger sister, Martha, let slip that Robert had met with Governor Crittenden the week before. Crittenden had placed a $5,000 bounty on Jesse’s head, and offered smaller rewards for the capture of anyone associated with him. For Robert to visit Crittenden and come back unscathed could only mean Jesse had been betrayed. He wondered why. Was it money? Fame? Or maybe they were just tired. Jesse could understand that. He was tired too. Tired of killing, tired of running away. Tired of the endless cycle of failure.
Rising slowly from the couch, Jesse reached for his belt, carefully watching his companions’ reactions. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Charley and Robert stiffen, their hands creeping towards the weapons strapped to their hips. He could kill them easily, if he wanted to. Both Ford brothers were good shots, but he was better. He had always been better. He could put a bullet in each of their hearts before they had even drawn their weapons. But he knew there would be little point.
He had lost a great deal in the last few years, but a fight here would cost him everything he had left. He thought of his wife, Zee. They’d met at the tail end of the war, when Jesse was recovering from a musket wound that nearly ended his life. Zee was his nurse, and had stayed by his side until he recovered. They married not long after, and she had stuck with him through his time as an outlaw.
But nothing was the same after Northfield. When Frank left, Zee had wanted to go with him. Jesse refused. The outlaw’s life was all he knew. It had become a part of him, a part he couldn’t leave behind. They fought in earnest for the first time in years, and the minor grievances that had built up throughout their marriage all exploded at once. Eventually, their tempers cooled, but the argument drove a wedge between them, creating fissures that proved impossible to bridge.
Already reeling from the loss of his friends and his brother, and now struggling to stay connected with his wife, Jesse found solace in whiskey. He drank heavily almost every night, often with the Ford brothers at his side. On one of those many booze-filled evenings, Charley introduced Jesse to Martha. She had heard stories about Jesse James, the famous outlaw, from her brothers, and showered him with more praise and attention than Jesse had received in months. Drunk and desperate, he welcomed her advances, and before long found himself tangled in her embrace. That one night turned into two, then three, and what began as a moment of weakness rapidly spiraled into an ongoing affair.
Zee found out, of course. She was far from a stupid woman, and Jesse could only keep his secret meetings with Martha hidden from her for so long before she caught him in the act. It was too much for their already damaged relationship to handle. Zee announced that she was leaving him the following morning, and was gone before the sun had reached its zenith. Although he was devastated, Jesse knew there was little he could do to stop her.
His wife’s departure severed the last link he had with his storied past. Martha became his lifeline; his sole spot of comfort in what had become a waking nightmare. Yet Charley and Robert’s betrayal put him in an impossible situation. If he wanted to survive, he would need to kill them both. But Martha would surely reject him after that. After all, what woman could love a man who murdered her brothers? No, she was lost to him now, just like all the others.
Jesse again reached for his belt, and again the Ford brothers reached for their own, quicker this time. But instead of drawing his weapons, Jesse removed his holsters and carefully placed his pistols on the couch. Turning, he noticed an old picture frame on the mantelpiece, the photo within obscured by a thick layer of dust. No one who knew Jesse would call him a sentimentalist, but he was struck by a sudden desire to see what it contained. Maybe it was an old friend, or some distant relative he hadn’t seen since he was a boy. Walking across the room, he reached up and lifted the frame from its resting place. He carefully wiped the glass clean with his sleeve to reveal… nothing. The frame was empty. In a less serious situation, Jesse might have laughed. Instead, the pain and loss that he had been keeping buried for years crystalized in his chest, sinking like a stone in the pit of his stomach.
A noise from behind him interrupted Jesse’s melancholy. He immediately recognized it as the subtle rasp of metal against leather; the telltale sound of a killer drawing their revolver from its holster. The Ford brothers had decided to make their move. Jesse knew what came next. He’d seen it unfold a hundred times before, though he had usually been on the other side of the barrel: a crack of thunder, a cloud of smoke, the black nothingness of death. He looked again at the empty frame in his hand. This time, he caught a brief glimpse of his reflection in the glass. Just a year before, he would have seen a dashing young outlaw in the prime of his life. Now, his cheeks were sunken and sallow, and the glint that once shined in his eyes had dimmed. He wondered if things could have been different if life had taken him down another path, one free of crime and bloodshed. Perhaps. But there was little to be done about that now. Instead, he simply closed his eyes, and waited.