The Truest Story of Jesse James

by Ron Scheer

The town library at Prairie Creek fit into three old crates kept in a storage room where the school teacher lived. Virgil Case, the current teacher, used the books–or what was left of them–to teach reading. His young scholars cut their teeth on the likes of John Grisham, Louis L’Amour, and Reader’s Digest condensed books.

They also served for history texts, since Virgil had to explain words the kids didn’t understand. Like “martini,” “bushwhack,” and “World Series.”

Some parents disagreed with him about teaching all that old stuff. His library was about a world dead and gone, and good riddance. About as many argued that if you don’t study the past, you’re destined to repeat it, and nobody wants that. One holdout from either camp said history repeats itself anyway, so what’s the difference?

That was Crooks, a trapper who seldom came into town and didn’t have kids anyway, so nobody listened to him much. Except Virgil, who liked the man and listened to his opinions. And so he held his ground. The children of Prairie Creek would learn something about the past.

A more burning question for him was what to do with the little shiny disks in plastic cases that had been packed with the books. They were like books, but you needed some device to read them. Which was unfortunate, since the paper ones were disintegrating, and the disks looked like they’d last forever.

“I’d have throwed those out,” one of the mothers said who showed him around when he first came to Prairie Creek two years before. “But the last teacher liked to hang onto old junk. Said we’d want ’em when we got electricity again.” He’d been a believer in the Grid and that it would come back some day. She, for one, had her doubts.

Virgil’s friend Crooks had no opinion and just shrugged. Bending over the crate, he flipped through the disks with one finger, then pulled one out to study the cover. It showed a picture of a clean-shaven young man, in a hat and long coat, drawing a long-barreled revolver.

“What’s this one?” he wanted to know. Crooks had never learned much how to read.

The True Story of Jesse James,” Virgil said, looking at the cover.

“My grandpa used to tell me about this guy.”

“Did he know him?”

“I don’t think so.”

Virgil tried to remember his history. But there was just too much of it. “Robbed trains. That’s all I know.”

“Robbed the rich and gave to the poor,” Crooks said with a little smile under his moustache. “Did some good, I would say.”

“What ever happened to him?”

Crooks didn’t know.

Virgil looked through the books for an answer. What he needed was an encyclopedia, but they were rare and expensive, if you could even find one for sale.

At the town hall, he asked the old-timers who gathered there mornings to play dominos.

“Proud Mary might know,” one of the men suggested, which caused a ripple of laughter among them.

“But I wouldn’t go asking her,” another said.

Proud Mary was a widow who’d seen two men to the grave already in her short life. For a joke, people liked to wonder aloud who would be the third.

“You want me to ask her?” Crooks said on his next trip to town, and Virgil learned that his friend already knew her well. The wink and little smile under his mustache said just how much.

Mary was a corker. She had her own cabin at the edge of town, built from what was left of an old church. She kept some laying hens and goats. Expert with a shotgun, she was rarely bothered by coyotes–or by anything else.

She not only talked loud but sang, with a resonance that made dogs howl and birds fall silent. The songs she sang were unknown to anybody. “Learned them at my mother’s knee,” she would say simply.

The schoolteacher knocking on her cabin door was apparently cause for amusement. She grandly invited him in, shooing a cat from a chair and handing him herb tea in a cup and saucer almost before he could sit down.

“Crooks said you might come by,” she said, thus accounting for the warmth of the reception. Any friend of Crooks was clearly a friend of hers.

Explaining his mission, he watched as she closed her eyes in thought. Then without a word, she hummed a little, finding a couple notes, and began to sing:

Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor,
He couldn’t see a brother suffer pain,
And with his brother Frank he robbed the Springfield bank,
And he stopped the Glendale train.

Poor Jesse had a wife, a lady all her life,
And three children, they were so brave,
But that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard
Has laid ol’ Jesse James in his grave

She stopped, and her eyes fell on his again. “It goes on, but I can’t remember the rest.”

“So he had a brother Frank,” he said. “Was Jesse killed?”

“Sounds like foul play to me.”

“Who was Mr. Howard?”

She didn’t know.

He put down the teacup and reached into his coat pocket to show her the shiny disk in its cover.

“The True Story of Jesse James,” she read. “It must be in here. How can we get it out?”

He didn’t know.

On one of those January thaw days, the school kids–all twelve of them–were restive, and Virgil decided to forego the afternoon’s lessons and entertain them with his story.

It was only half a story really, he told them. He didn’t know it all. They didn’t care. They loved stories. So he took the disk in its case from a desk drawer and gave it to pass around as he explained what he knew of Jesse and his brother Frank.

That they robbed banks and trains excited some of the boys. The older ones had seen the locomotives pulling the cars on the railway line over in Broken Bow. That he’d left a widow and three children moved the girls.

They were taken by the mystery and kept asking to know more. He finally sent off a letter to a friend in Omaha, asking a favor. He’d heard there was a library there with old books that might have the answer.

When he didn’t get a reply, he figured the letter had gone astray. Never dependable, the mail remained more of an idea than an actual service. Passed from hand to hand, delivery of letters depended on people actually knowing where they were supposed to go. You couldn’t always count on that.

Before long, three of the children came to him with an idea for a school play. It would be about Jesse and Frank James and how they devoted their lives to helping the poor. The villain of the play would be Mr. Howard, a greedy banker. The way they’d worked it out, one day the two brothers would have a disagreement.

“We’re taking all the chances,” Frank would say in a big scene. “We should be the ones to keep the money.”

“Only a coward would do that,” Jesse tells him. “And you are a coward.”

So Frank tells Jesse he can do his own robbing from then on, and they split up.

Then in a daring raid, Jesse gets shot by Mr. Howard, the greedy banker, and as he dies in his brother’s arms, Frank has a change of heart. He ends the evil banker’s days before gently laying Jesse to his eternal rest.

It would be called “The True Story of Jesse James.”

Parts were already cast, one for each of the students, the three youngest to play Jesse’s children. There’d been a dispute over who was to take the role of Jesse himself, which was settled by a wrestling match in a muddy field behind the schoolhouse.

All went smoothly until the parents got wind of it. Then Prairie Creek split down the usual middle. History was not only bunk, some argued, but dangerous and best kept from children. Ignorant of history we are doomed to repeat it, others said, and no one wants that.

And there was Virgil in the middle.

Crooks, when he showed up in town, was no help. He just laughed and said, “Either way, this whole dust-up is just history repeating itself.”

Then a letter came from Virgil’s friend in Omaha.

She’d got her hands on a moldy book or two and found something about the James brothers. They robbed both trains and banks, but not to help the poor. Jesse had died of a gunshot, killed by a Robert Ford, a man he’d trusted. And she’d discovered the identity of Mr. Howard. It was Jesse himself. He’d taken an assumed name.

Those were the facts from history. The rest was just legend.

A little surprised, Virgil was also relieved. Given the real story, the children would decide to call off the play, and that would end all the debate.

“You sure about this?” Crooks said, when Virgil told him. “I wouldn’t recommend disappointing a kid, let alone a whole bunch of ’em.” Then he was on his way out of town back to his trapper’s cabin, leaving Virgil in his quandary.

Deciding he was surely a better judge of children than Crooks–and forgetting that Crooks had once been a child himself–Virgil gathered the kids together and told them the truth.

There were puzzled looks around the room like what he had to say was a flat-out lie. Their story of Jesse and Frank and Mr. Howard had become the truth for them. They weren’t about to budge from it.

To make their point, they changed the name of their play to “The Truest Story of Jesse James.” Their intent seemed to be to teach their teacher a lesson.

“I coulda’ told you that,” Proud Mary told him when she got the news. “Like my grandma always said, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Thirty-four mismatched chairs and various benches, plus something that was once a couch comprised the seating for “The Truest Story of Jesse James” when it opened in the big room at the back of town hall. The parents and older siblings of the cast arrived early to grab the best seats.

Still divided over the relative merits of history, the audience fell utterly quiet as the curtains opened on a scene of the Old West. Only a baby in the second row fussed for a while. And then even it fell silent. Virgil stood watching from the back and became aware of a presence beside him. It was Proud Mary.

Jesse–played by the boy who’d won the wrestling match–was only a fifth-grader but lived his part with the heart and soul of someone twice his size. He’d found a hat and a long coat, like the picture on the cover of the silvery disk. Mrs. James adored him with a sincerity that looked more real than pretended. With their first- and second-grade children clustered about them, they were a handsome family.

Thus, there were gasps as Jesse was shot while robbing a bank. Mr. Howard, the evil banker emptied a cardboard six-gun into the body of the fallen hero. Handkerchiefs came out as Frank rushed to his brother’s side.

Barely stifled cheers greeted the shooting of the evil banker. And at the funeral, as Frank knelt at the feet of the young widow to speak of the greatness of his brother, there was not a dry eye in the house. The debate over the merits of history had been forgotten.

“Like my grandma always said,” Proud Mary whispered in Virgil’s ear. “Never let facts get in the way of a good story.”