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Gone to Texas
By Don Wright
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1998 Don Wright
All rights reserved.
February 14, 1866
Snow eddied and swirled about the twelve men cloaked in Federal army greatcoats who rode their horses at a walk up the main street of Liberty, Missouri, toward the brick building that housed the Clay County Savings Association. They paid little attention to either the snow or the penetrating cold.
Upon reaching the hitching rack in front of the bank, three of the riders stepped down from their saddles and handed their bridle reins to the horse-holder, a seventeen-year-old youth named Fletcher Rucker.
The leader of the three, his coattail billowing in a sudden gust of wind, nodded to his companions, and together they opened the bank door and took long, purposeful strides to the cast-iron stove in the center of the dimly lit room. They thrust their hands close to the flue pipe that glowed a dull red and rubbed them briskly.
William Bird, the bank teller, glanced up from the pile of gold coins he was separating by denomination and appraised the trio. They were young men, lean, with the look of hard usage about them. Their faces, what little he could see of them beneath their low-pulled hats, were deeply tanned. Not the surface brown of a warm and gentle sun, but the burned-in kind that comes from spending most of one's time in constant exposure to the unrelenting savagery of nature's harshest elements. The brims of their slouch hats were frayed, and sweat stains darkened the dingy gray felt around the band. Had Bird looked more closely, he would have noticed puncture marks on the hat brims where Confederate cavalry insignias had once been pinned. He did not look. Instead, he noted that their greatcoats were threadbare and their gray woolen trousers, slick at the knee, were stuffed into tall riding boots that were scuffed and run-down at the heel. Travelers. The word carried a stigma; hundreds of wanderers had passed through Liberty these past ten months since the war had ended, drifting, moving, going someplace, but in truth going no place. Bird dismissed the men at the stove and returned his attention to the gold coins he was separating. The clock on the wall struck twice, a hollow, metallic sound that accentuated the bleakness of the sparsely furnished room.
Eighteen-year-old Peyton Lewis chafed his frost-nipped hands as heat from the stove sent prickling sensations the length of his fingers. He surveyed the room.
Gracing one of the plastered, whitewashed walls, which did little to brighten the gloomy interior, was an oval-shaped, framed lithograph of George Washington. Facing George from the opposite side of the room was Abraham Lincoln. Beside Lincoln was the Seth Thomas clock that had just chimed. Several cane-backed chairs were pushed against the chair rail of an oaken wainscoting, and a walnut counter, behind which Bird stood, ran the width of the room. It was the walk-in vault beyond the teller, however, that caught—and held—Peyton's attention. Greenup Bird, the teller's father, had just moments before unlocked the vault and stepped inside.
Peyton's eyes met those of his two companions at the stove, and he smiled; their timing was perfect. Unbuttoning his greatcoat, he walked unhurriedly to the teller and shoved a five-dollar bill across the counter.
Unable to hide his astonishment that a young and shabby traveler was in possession of such a large sum of money, William Bird snatched up the bill and studied it front and back in the feeble light that penetrated the small-paned front windows. Satisfied that the currency was not counterfeit, he looked at Peyton.
"We give paper for paper, no gold." He laid the bill on the counter. "You want it changed to five ones?"
Peyton raised a Spiller and Burr, a .36-caliber Confederate revolver, and leaned across the counter to push its icy muzzle against the soft skin of Bird's forehead.
"And all the rest of the money in your bank."
Bird took a cautious step backward.
"What is this, mister?" His eyes swiveled from Peyton to the two men standing at the stove. They were watching him. "Are you boys funning somebody?"
Peyton cocked his pistol.
Incredulity caused William Bird's mouth to drop open.
"Nobody robs banks!" It was both a question and a statement.
Peyton's unwavering gray eyes penetrated into and through William Bird, leaving the man shaken with the reality that it was indeed a holdup and chances were good that he had only one heartbeat left to live.
Nineteen-year-old Jesse Woodson James opened his greatcoat and drew two Colt Dragoon revolvers from the waistband of his trousers. With an eye on the safe where William Bird's father had disappeared, he thumbed back the pistols' hammers and motioned for his brother, Frank, to watch the front door. Jesse laughed aloud when he glanced again at the counter where Peyton stood with his gun barrel pressed against Bird's face. Bird, shaking like a man with the ague, appeared to be trying his best to touch the ten-foot ceiling with his raised hands.
Seeing William Bird on the verge of hysteria sent a thrill of power through Jesse. It was a self-sustaining intoxicant that would carry him into and through a glorified life as an outlaw for the next sixteen years.
Jesse pointed his pistols at Bird, then laughed even harder when the young man squinched his eyes closed, certain that he would be shot. "Get a move-on, Peyton! Somebody's apt to come in here any minute. If that fellow gives you any sass, pull the trigger on him."
Peyton jerked a grain sack from beneath his coat and flung it at William Bird. He tipped his pistol barrel toward the cash drawer and the stacks of money on the counter top. "Put every last nickel in the sack ... now!"
Out of the corner of his eye, Peyton saw Jesse dart into the vault, and he was relieved. Shooting the teller was not part of the plan. In fact, the unnecessary scaring of the young man into cowardice gave Peyton reason to question the validity of Jesse's actions, for he, Peyton Lewis, achieved no personal thrill from intimidating a man who was at a disadvantage.
William Bird, having also seen Jesse enter the vault, faltered, and in spite of the chill of the room, sweat beaded his forehead. "What's he going to do? My father's in that safe. He's an old man ... his heart's not very strong."
"That depends on you, sir. You fill that sack real quick and easy, and we'll walk out of here an' nobody gets hurt. I suggest that you do as the man said: move!"
William Bird, taking nervous glances at the vault, shook open the grain sack and began raking the stacks of gold coins into the container. They made a dull, clinking sound as they struck one another in the bottom of the bag. Then he removed the cash drawer and dumped its contents into the sack.
As Bird laid the empty drawer on the counter, Jesse James emerged from the safe, straining under the weight of a similar sack that appeared even heavier than Peyton's. Jesse swung the bag onto the counter, then grinned at Peyton. 'You ready?" Peyton nodded.
Pointing with his chin, Jesse motioned William Bird inside the vault. The young man scrambled quickly across the floor to the safe and rushed inside.
Jesse slammed the vault door, then leaned close to its thick metal facing and tapped it with his gun barrel.
"You boys should feel right at home in there! You know birds are supposed to be caged." With a howl of laughter, he swaggered toward the counter.
Peyton's stomach tightened into a knot. The robbery had gone off like clockwork, smoothly and efficiently—then Jesse had ruined it. Peyton looked at Frank to see if he, too, had heard the foolish mistake, and was relieved to find that Frank was also scowling at Jesse.
Frank turned his back on his brother and hastened toward the door. "Let's get out of here, Jesse. We've been lucky so far. Let's don't press it."
Irritation marred Jesse's face as he shouldered the heavy, gold-laden gunnysack and stepped into the seat of a cane-backed chair, then onto the polished countertop, where he stood wide-legged and menacing.
"Hell, Frank, we probably just pulled off the first broad-open-daylight bank robbery in the history of America, an' it was easy as pie. What do you mean, we were lucky? Luck didn't have a damned thing to do with it."
Frank jerked open the front door and glanced up and down the street. It was clear. He turned to Jesse.
"I mean, let's walk out of this bank, mount our horses, and ride out of this town like we rode in—slow an' easy."
Jesse bounded to the floor and sauntered across the room to the front door. Without a sideways glance at either Frank or Peyton, he pushed through the opening and onto the steps of the bank, where new snow had already covered their entry tracks, made only minutes before.
He grinned at the nine mounted men. "We did it, boys. We got us more money in these sacks than you ever have seen."
Ignoring the film of snow that covered his saddle seat, Jesse snatched his bridle reins from young Fletcher Rucker and swung up on his horse. Wheeling the animal into a hard canter, Jesse spurred his mount savagely down Liberty's main thoroughfare. His henchmen, with Peyton bringing up the rear, galloped after Jesse, the hoofbeats of their horses muffled by the newly fallen snow.
George Wymore, a student at Liberty's William Jewell College, chose that precise moment to cross the street. He was thinking of sledding after class, of asking Norma Clendining to join him. As a result of his preoccupation, the dozen horsemen who thundered out of the swirling blizzard were on him before he knew it.
For a split instant, Wymore froze. He could see the steaming breath of the horses, the whites of their eyes, the cutting edges of their flashing hooves. Then he was running, his books tumbling from his arms, leaving a paper trail that followed him toward the wooden walkway at the far side of the street.
Jesse James, screaming a Rebel yell that shattered the tran-quility of the deserted street, spurred his horse directly at the boy and leveled both of his heavy Dragoon revolvers at Wymore's fleeing back. Four quick shots, sounding like muted thunder in the snowstorm, slammed Wymore to the frozen earth and sent him skidding face first for several feet before coming to rest with his cheek pressed against the edge of the walkway.
Peyton Lewis reined his horse to a sliding halt and gaped down at the body. A moment ago, Wymore had been a living, breathing young man with an entire lifetime before him. Now the only thing that showed any signs of life was the boy's hair, ruffled by the wind of the outlaws' horses as they galloped past.
Fletcher Rucker, who had held the horses during the robbery, saw Peyton Lewis rein up abruptly, so he, too, pulled his horse to a skidding stop. Dancing his skittish mount up beside Peyton's, he peered nervously at him.
"Why'd you stop, Peyton? Your horse throw a shoe?"
When Peyton didn't answer, Rucker became even more apprehensive.
"We've got to get out of here, Peyton. This place is goin' to be covered up with folks any minute now." Rucker glanced anxiously down the street in the direction his comrades had fled, then back the way they had come. People were emerging from buildings, calling questions, demanding answers, and Rucker knew, with a sinking feeling that added to his anxiety, that it was only a matter of moments before their escape route would be sealed off.
"For Christ's sake, Peyton!"
"He's crazy, Fletcher." Peyton stared at the young body lying broken in the snow. "Jesse is just plain crazy."
Rucker's horse reared, then shied sideways away from the smell of blood, blowing through its wide, distended nostrils in an attempt to expel the odor.
Rucker jerked his horse back into line. 'Jesse might be crazy, Peyton, but he ain't loony enough to hang around here an' get hisself shot by a bunch of townspeople. An' I ain't either."
Sinking his spurs into the animal's flank, Rucker jumped his mount into a canter that sent clods of snow flying in all directions.
When Peyton looked up from George Wymore's body, several people were standing on the walkway staring at him. There was no sound, only an eerie mixture of faces that bespoke horror, anger, disbelief, curiosity—and accusation. It was the latter that struck Peyton like the kick of a mule, leaving him sick to his stomach, disgusted not only with himself but with mankind in general, for they were all guilty of the murder of George Wymore—he, Jesse James, the onlookers, the government, the nation—because each had created the times they were living in, and those times were giving birth to men like Frank and Jesse James, like Fletcher Rucker, like Peyton Lewis.
Turning his horse, Peyton walked the animal slowly down the street, following the tracks of the men with whom he had ridden into town, men with whom he had fought the Union army, men with whom he had eaten and drunk. He knew, with that hollow feeling of one who turned his back on everything and everyone he called friend, that after today, he would never embrace them again because something, perhaps his last semblance of youth, had died along with George Wymore.CHAPTER 2
February 14, 1866 EARLY EVENING
Five miles west of Liberty, Missouri, the bank robbers sought refuge from the storm in an isolated, large, one-room clapboard church that was sheltered from the howling gale by a thick grove of oak trees. The men dismounted and led their horses through the double front doors of the building and down the long, narrow aisle to the open area before the pulpit.
Jesse wasted no time upending both grain sacks and dumping their contents on the rough pine floor. He stood back, grinning triumphantly at his companions as they abandoned their horses in a rush to get a better view of the fortune that spilled across the planks.
For the most part, they were country boys from hardscrabble farms that had barely eked out a living before the war. Since the war, there was no living at all. The gold that lay haphazardly scattered in all directions was spellbinding, the first coined money many of them had seen in more than four years and most definitely more wealth than any of them had ever beheld in their entire lives.
A horse blew and another stamped its hooves, but not a man moved as Jesse counted the plunder into twelve equal piles.
When he looked up at them, there was an insolent grin on his youthful face.
"Well, boys, our first holdup got us more than sixty thousand dollars. Sixty thousand dollars!" He raised his eyes to the picture of Jesus that adorned the wall behind the pulpit. "Look at it, Lord! They ain't never been this much money in one of your churches before, never!"
Jesse scraped together the few hundred paper dollars intermingled with the gold and stepped up to the pulpit Making a production of stacking the currency neatly on the lectern, Jesse leaned on his elbows on the rostrum and gazed at the men below him. A slow smile curved his thin lips.
"How many of you men believe, come Sunday mornin', when the preacher of this church house figures out where this ill-gotten money came from, that righteous man of the cloth will march into that bank an' give it back?" Everyone laughed.
Jesse jumped down from the pulpit and raked his portion of the gold into a pair of saddlebags.
"We'll split up here and head for home, boys." He swung the leather bags over his shoulder. "In six or eight months, when things die down, I'll send word and we'll rob the bank over at Lexington."
Peyton Lewis, who, along with the rest of the men, was busy filling his own saddlebags, looked up at Jesse. "Don't send for me, Jess. I won't be coming along on the next one."
Jesse's smile vanished, and his long eyelashes fluttered spasmodically, as they had a habit of doing when he became excited or angry. Every man watching was aware that in Jesse James, either of those sensations could prove dangerous.
"You have five thousand dollars gold in your poke, Peyton. Do you have a problem with how we got it?" The eyelashes again.
Peyton shouldered his saddlebags. "I have nothing against robbing Yankee banks, Jess. It's probably the only revenge we'll ever get"
"Then what is it?"
Excerpted from Gone to Texas by Don Wright. Copyright © 1998 Don Wright. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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