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Assassination of Jesse James
September 7th, 1881
His manner was pleasant, though noticeably quiet and reserved. He listened attentively to every word that Scott Moore or I uttered but he himself said little. Occasionally he would ask some question about the country and the opportunities for stock-raising. But all the time I was conscious that he was alertly aware of everything that was said and done in the room. He never made the slightest reference to himself, nor did he show the least trace of self-importance or braggadocio. Had I not known who he was I should have taken him for an ordinary businessman receiving a social visit from two of his friends. But his demeanor was so pleasant and gentlemanly withal that I found myself on the whole liking him immensely.
Miguel Antonio Otero
My Life on the Frontier
He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. Green weeds split the porch steps, a wasp nest clung to an attic gable, a rope swing looped down from a dying elm tree and the ground below it was scuffed soft as flour. Jesse installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evening as his wife wiped her pink hands on a cotton apron and reported happily on their two children. Whenever he walked about the house, he carried several newspapers—the Sedalia Daily Democrat, the St. Joseph Gazette, and the Kansas City Times—with a foot-long .44 caliber pistol tucked into a fold. He stuffed flat pencils into his pockets. He played by flipping peanuts to squirrels. He braidedyellow dandelions into his wife's yellow hair. He practiced out-of-the-body travel, precognition, sorcery. He sucked raw egg yolks out of their shells and ate grass when sick, like a dog. He would flop open the limp Holy Bible that had belonged to his father, the late Reverend Robert S. James, and would contemplate whichever verses he chanced upon, getting privileged messages from each. The pages were scribbled over with penciled comments and interpretations; the cover was cool to his cheek as a shovel. He scoured for nightcrawlers after earth-battering rains and flipped them into manure pails until he could chop them into writhing sections and sprinkle them over his garden patch. He recorded sales and trends at the stock exchange but squandered much of his capital on madcap speculation. He conjectured about foreign relations, justified himself with indignant letters, derided Eastern financiers, seeded tobacco shops and saloons with preposterous gossip about the kitchens of Persia, the Queen of England, the marriage rites of the Latter Day Saints. He was a faulty judge of character, a prevaricator, a child at heart. He went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch.
He was born Jesse Woodson James on September 5th, 1847, and was named after his mother's brother, a man who committed suicide. He stood five feet eight inches tall, weighed one hundred fifty-five pounds, and was vain about his physique. Each afternoon he exercised with weighted yellow pins in his barn, his back bare, his suspenders down, two holsters crossed and slung low. He bent horseshoes, he lifted a surrey twenty times from a squat, he chopped wood until it pulverized, he drank vegetable juices and potions. He scraped his sweat off with a butter knife, he dunked his head, at morning, in a horse water bucket, he waded barefoot through the lank backyard grass with his six-year-old son hunched on his shoulders and with his trousers rolled up to his knees, snagging garter snakes with his toes and gently letting them go.
He smoked, but did not inhale, cigars; he rarely drank anything stronger than beer. He never philandered nor strayed from his wife nor had second thoughts about his marriage. He never swore in the presence of ladies nor raised his voice with children. His hair was fine and chestnut brown and recurrently barbered but it had receded so badly since his twenties that he feared eventual baldness and therefore rubbed his temples with onions and myrtleberry oil in order to stimulate growth. He scissored his two-inch sun-lightened beard according to a fashion then associated with physicians. His eyes were blue except for iris pyramids of green, as on the back of a dollar bill, and his eyebrows shaded them so deeply he scarcely ever squinted or shied his eyes from a glare. His nose was unlike his mother's or brother's, not long and preponderant, no proboscis, but upturned a little and puttied, a puckish, low-born nose, the ruin, he thought, of his otherwise gallantly handsome countenance.
Four of his molars were crowned with gold and they gleamed, sometimes, when he smiled. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious lest that mutilation be seen. He'd had a boil excised from his groin and it left a white star of skin. A getaway horse had jerked from him and fractured his ankle in the saddle stirrup so that his foot mended a little crooked and registered barometric changes. He also had a condition that was referred to as granulated eyelids and it caused him to blink more than usual, as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.
He was a Democrat. He was left-handed. He had a high, thin, sinew of a voice, a contralto that could twang annoyingly like a catgut guitar whenever he was excited. He owned five suits, which was rare then, and colorful, brocaded vests and cravats. He wore a thirty-two-inch belt and a fourteen-and-a-half-inch collar. He favored red wool socks. He rubbed his teeth with his finger after meals. He was persistently vexed by insomnia and therefore experimented with a vast number of soporifics which did little besides increasing his fascination with pharmacological remedies. Assassination of Jesse James. Copyright © by Ron Hansen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.