Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

A Child of Missouri

"With malice toward none and charity for all..."

Abraham Lincoln

Sixteen-year-old Jesse Woodson James, scythe overhead, poised to swing at the harvesting wheat, froze in that gesture. His blue eyes caught more than the gleam of the Missouri sun that afternoon of 1863; they detected something moving along the horizon, a dark huge snake beyond the tops of wheat stalks just beyond the nearest hill. With his hand he brushed back his copper-colored bangs and shaded the sun for a better look. Squinting, he thought they looked like a column of men riding horseback, shoulder to shoulder, toward the farm. A flag, he thought, shook above them in the breeze, but like the horsemen, its symbols were shadow against the sunlight.

His lips formed the beginning of a smile; surely they must be his older brother Frank and his regiment, stopping by for a visit between their soldiering. They rode, noted he, with determination, straight in their saddles and galloping ever closer. But, when they neared the far edges of the open field, past where the James' rail fence bordered the pond, Jesse's smile faded. The sun had momentarily drifted behind a patch of clouds, allowing him to focus on the coming visitors. Bother Frank's friends wore grey uniforms, but these men were all in blue. Deep Union blue.

Damn! They're not our boys, Jesse sputtered to the scarecrow watching the same scene sardonically. They're Yankees!

Future outlaw Jesse James
Future outlaw Jesse James

"Mama!" he found himself yelling back over his shoulder towards the family cabin. "Unionites're a-coming!" His eyes searched for and found the ancient squirrel-hunting flintlock musket his stepfather had given to him; Jesse had used it earlier that morning to hunt wild turkey in the backwoods; had forgotten where he left it. There it was, leaning against the woodpile at the shed. As he clambered for it, Zee, his mom, appeared in the half-door, her arms flailing. "Git in the house, Jesse!" she called. "I won't have ya' bein' kill't by no Northern pantywaists! Git in 'til your Pap gits home let him handle this."

While she spoke, she rang a huge schoolhouse-type bell, the one she used every evening at dinnertime to call their four Negro field hands in from the fields. As the four black men approached,, she repeated to them what she had just told her son: Into the house now!

"But, Mama, let Luke and Charley and Sam and Roscoe help me defend our property!" Jesse nodded to each of the slaves as he uttered their name. His fingers busily gummed the charge of powder and screwed in the flint in his weapon's mechanism.

"There's too many of'em. Now I ain't tellin' you no more you listen to your mama 'n git yourself inside! You too, boys," she directed the others. Her voice scolded this time. "If we don't give them soldier blues no trouble, jes' mebby they'll ride on 'n leave us be."

Against an inner urge to stand his ground, Jesse James retreated into his house. But, he kept the rifle, loaded now, cradled in his arms. And he stood just out of sight inside the door. And waited. He heard the many hoof beats thunder onto their yard. The neighs of many stallions. And the jingle of many sabers. And the call of their leader to halt.

In the darkened kitchen, amongst his step-sisters women!   Jesse gnawed at himself hiding like a so-and-so cur from these Yankee piglets. He wanted to take them all on. Every last accursed one of them. Even by himself.

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