Bob Ford is nineteen-years-old and he fancies himself an authority on the James brothers. He stashes James gang memorabilia in a box that he hides under his bed. Every so often, he takes it out and gingerly arranges the books. He feels the swashbuckling tales of heroism surge through his fingertips.
In the books, Jesse and Frank always win. Those who cross them die because they deserve to, and Jesse and Frank always come home safely. In those pages, there is black, and there is white, and there is nothing else.
All the guys make fun of Bob for collecting the stories. But, any teenage boy could fall for those simplified picture-book versions of grand American adventures. It’s easier to believe and better to hope that life could be that ideal and illusory. If you give a nineteen-year-old a gun and say it will be easy and exciting, he might romp around on steeds and try to fight a noble fight.
Bob pouts when the world doesn’t fall into place around him. He watches as his boyhood idol, who he always imagined was a demigod, becomes unhinged and despondent, racked with pain from battle wounds and congested lungs. Jesse James becomes human and Bob’s universe crumbles.
He doesn’t understand how anything works. He only knows that he wants to be something bigger. He wants to turn heads and collect easy-earned money and have something profound to write on his epitaph. It’s so simple to hop on board—all it takes is a flick of the wrist and the cock of a gun.
When he turned seventeen, Sammy joined the Air Force. Most of the extreme optimism had faded from him. Only very young children seem to possess it. But, the desire for greatness still lingered. He needed a way to reach it, and the military was the perfect vessel. It was just one long obstacle course and once you came out at the other end, you were officially a man.
We graduated high school, stretched out our arms and begged for a piece of the pie. We sat in the woods, still thinking we were wild like old Western outlaws. Instead of soda we sipped beer and talked a lot about getting laid and Sammy would quietly tell me that he had never had the pleasure and that he was still afraid of the dark.
Bob Ford would flip eagerly through nickel books full of adventure and American idealism, and Sammy would come home after school and sit at his computer, clicking his mouse and tapping his keyboard, bombing entire cities, acquiring high scores.”
“How is America?” Sammy asks.
I tell him it’s dark and cold because a snowstorm destroyed the power lines. He replies and writes fondly about the wondrous mountains he has seen and the interesting people and the afternoon storms.
He sits in a wide-open field, alone, only four bullets for his gun. He is scared, but nothing happens.
I read his letters and imagine Jesse standing stoically on those mountaintops, gazing over the land, calculating and admiring. I imagine him lifting his gun and aiming it at Sammy, who is tiny and exposed in that strange landscape.
It must be something to be a teenager and stuck in a foreign place, your gun perpetually cocked. It must be something to eagerly follow great men into battles. And then once you’re there to discover that your heroes and idols aren’t actually made of steel or gold. They’re just blood and guts and bone.
Sammy must have been stricken and perplexed when he arrived at this realization. He wrote to me about his reverence for his Colonel. This man had a face full of hair and would recount dangerous and exciting tales from his past, which had left him scarred and feeling old. Then, he would sigh and talk about retiring, going back to his homeland and seeing his family. Sammy’s green eyes would be as wide as saucers as this man rolled up his sleeves and revealed scars from knife fights and gun-shot wounds.
Sammy taps on his keyboard and maneuvers his mouse. He recalls picture books and computer generated versions of hardened military leaders. He thinks about how strange it is to finally be in those places with those people that had once just been pixels on a screen.
His mustache is starting to grow back. His upper lip itches. He wipes the sweat from his face and stares at his computer, watching the geography of Afghanistan fly across the screen. He knows he has power over that land, more than anyone could ever imagine, and it’s resting right beneath his fingertips.
The aircraft is slick as it slithers through the clouds. It is blind. He tells it where to go and what to consume. He watches the countryside, admires the way the sun falls behind the mountains, the way it ignites the horizon.
Villages disappear in flame and smoke. Burning and looting and smoldering skin.
Jesse James always comes home safely.
Jesse James takes off the belt that cradles his guns and lays it gently down. He is calm at the end, prepared to face death with the utmost dignity. He turns his eyes, as though in a trance, to a picture of a dark horse that hangs above his mantle. He remarks on how dusty it is. He climbs onto a chair, faces the wall, and lowers his eyes as though in prayer. He’s been waiting, always waiting, for this moment.
Bob cocks his gun and points it at the back of Jesse’s head. Jesse gazes at Bob’s reflection in the picture frame.
Jesse James falls heavily to the floor like a sack full of bricks. His wound gapes and he bleeds and bleeds and bleeds.
A teenage boy sits on his the edge of his bed and stairs deep into the wrong end of a rifle. He sees that it’s still smoking from the previous days of firing across the mountains and deserts. He wonders if he’ll ever see the end.