Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jesse James: Riding Hell-Bent for Leather into Legend

The Hit

A hunted outlaw now with an enormous price on his head, Jesse decided to flee Kearney, where he knew lawmen would be snooping behind every tree. Zelda, he and their two children had moved to a small, white-washed frame house sitting atop a hill overlooking St. Joseph, Missouri. There was solitude there, and the city folk minded their own business. Jesse was just another citizen, Tom Howard by name, who didn't ask questions of his neighbors, nor answered any.

Over the last couple of months, his new gang had dissipated. Frank James returned to Tennessee with his wife, and the rest had either been arrested for crimes apart from the James Gang or, in one case, killed over foolish quarrels that didn't involve Jesse. The two remaining principles were Charley and Bob Ford.

Home of Home of "Tom and Mary Howard," St Joseph, Missouri Tom and Mary Howard,
Home of Home of "Tom and Mary Howard," St Joseph, Missouri Tom and Mary Howard," St Joseph, Missouri

April 3, 1882, began sunny. Jesse's children frolicked in the fenced-in front yard; Zee cooked breakfast in the kitchen; Jesse, in the parlor, entertained the Ford brothers with coffee and secret plans about his next bank job. Whispering in a volume inaudible to his wife, he described the layout of the Platte County Bank and how he figured it would be a lead-pipe cinch for only three men to take. Bob, he said, was finally getting a chance to prove himself. "With the others gone, we need you," Jesse expressed. "I think you've been with us long enough to charge the bank."

Bob faked a smile and lifted his cup, toasting his luck in charade. His eyes glanced at Jesse's rolled-up gun belt lying out of his children's' reach on top of a highboy across the room; large Colt grips protruded from each holster pouch. Dormant guns. Unreachable guns. Afraid Jesse would follow his gaze, he blinked and covered his nervousness with a question, any question he could think of. As he began to speak, Jesse held up a finger to silence him; something over near the front door had captured his attention.

"Sorry, Bob, just a second." He rose and tilted his head slightly as if to measure the angle of something. "That picture's crooked again. Now ain't that the most dingus-dangest thing!" Jesse grumbled, and grabbed a low stool from the corner of the room. The Ford brothers watched him as he placed it beneath a small framed embroidery slightly cockeyed.

This was the moment Bob Ford had dreamed about: Jesse James wearing no side arms; Jesse James preoccupied; Jesse James with his back turned. Bob looked at brother Charlie who had grown suddenly pale, then again at Jesse's broad back to the room. Springing from his chair, Bob whipped his pistol from beneath his coat and fired. Jesse, no more than four feet away, jerked and grabbed for his neck where the bullet had penetrated. Jesse had to die for there'd be hell to pay if he lived now. So Bob fired again and a third and fourth time. Their victim half-glanced over his shoulder, his expression blank, before the stool under him tumbled over.

Zee ran into the room on the echo of the first shot. Her parlor stank of gunpowder. She watched the Fords rush through her front door without pausing to say goodbye and then spotted her husband inanimate on the carpet. One hand had frozen in a pain grip across his back. The other still clenched the small embroidery that read, "Bless This House." 

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