Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Frank Surrenders

I can’t believe he’s dead.

My little brother. Shot in the back by a man he trusted. And me not there to set things right—you know I’d have made the dirty coward pay.

Oh, we’ve come a long way, brother Jess and me. We was just kids when we left the farm, dirt poor kids. We saw the war as nothing more than a chance to get away, Lord help us, get off the farm and see the wide world.

Well, we saw enough, didn’t we? Quantrill signed me up—that evil, evil man, Quantrill. “You won’t be common foot soldiers,” he told us. “You’ll never march in the muck. With my Raiders, you’ll ride like the wind and strike like lightning. Every day, the Union men will be where you were yesterday, and you’ll have moved on laughing.”

I believed him. It was true enough, what he said. We rode the Kansas-Missouri border and did things the history books won’t tell about. We did bad, bad things. Maybe you heard of Lawrence, Kansas? We took that town and burned it down; burned it to the ground. But that’s not the worst. We killed every man in Lawrence old enough to hold a gun. Old men, boys with no hair on their faces, sick men, crippled men; we left the streets of Lawrence running with blood. It wasn’t fighting, you understand. It was murder, plain and simple.

Jesse joined up too, he was just fifteen. Quantrill didn’t want a lad that young riding with us, but it was near the end by then and he was desperate for men. He made me promise to look after Jess. As if Jess needed looking after! He always was the wild one, the adventurer. He showed what he was made of quick enough. Impressed Quantrill’s right-hand man, that bloody-handed madman Anderson, at Centralia; God forgive me that I ever brought my baby brother to such a place. Centralia was worse than Lawrence.

Such things leave their mark on men. We never spoke about it, Jesse and I, but Zerelda told me once about the nightmares he has. I have them too. I dream of flames, and gunshots, and men and women screaming. I see Anderson, Bloody Bill Anderson, walking down a line of Union soldiers, shooting them through the head one by one. Twenty-six there were, most of them new recruits. Boys Jesse’s age.

After Lawrence and Centralia, it seemed there was no going back for us. How could we ever live normal lives again? What town would have us, what decent people would want us for neighbors, with all the blood on our hands? Smoke and blood, I swear I’ll smell of smoke and blood forever. There’s some stains that won’t wash off.

It was different for the regulars. Not that they didn’t do and see terrible things on both sides, I know. There’s not a man my age who wasn’t touched by the war somehow. But it was war, and at the end there was an amnesty, and at least the chance of forgiveness. For most folk, the scars have begun to heal.

Not for Quantrill’s Raiders. It was clear there’d be no amnesty for us. So we turned to outlawry, Jess and me and the Younger boys, and some of the rest. And if we killed men, bank guards and railroad men and the like, what of it? After what we’d done before, another few deaths seemed to count for nothing. So we kept on, riding by night and hiding by day.

One thing you ought to know: We believed we were in the right. I’m not so sure, now, after all these many years, but you have to remember we were still young. Young men are apter to think they’ve been wronged than to remember the wrongs they’ve done. It’s not all on one side: Pinkerton’s men came after us and bombed the house where we was born. Mama was hurt, and our little brother Archie, him that wasn’t right in the head, he died. Archie never hurt a soul.

And those other things they say, about us giving to the poor? There’s some truth to that. We helped out our families when we could. Most of Quantrill’s men were long dead, but we looked after their widows and their orphans and kept them from starving. No Army pensions for the likes of us. We were on our own in a world full of enemies.

Those days are over now. The Younger boys are in jail up in Minnesota. Charley Pitts died in the saddle outside Northfield. And Jess is dead… and I am tired. I have been hunted for twenty-one years, have literally lived in the saddle, have never known a day of perfect peace.

I reckon I’ll turn myself in. If they hang me, it’ll be an end to my burdens. If I’m spared, I’ll try to live peaceful. Maybe, in time, I’ll put these ghosts behind me… Quantrill. Bloody Bill Anderson. And my brother, my carefree, hellion brother, the best and bravest man I ever knew… Jesse James.

A few months after his brother's death, Frank James turned himself in to the law. He stood trial and was acquitted on all charges. Frank lived a long and peaceful life and died of natural causes.

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