Country: United States
January 05, 2023
03/18/2023 05:49 PM
Charley's Song: Part III (drabble)
(New drabble, with a touch of inspiration from Hamilton)
May, 1884. CHARLEY’S SONG: PART III Farm of J.T. Ford, near Richmond, MO “What in Creation have you been up to, Charley?”
Bob whispered to the empty room as if his deceased sibling’s spirit hovered in the doorway nearby. But there was no actual response to the question; even the echo of Charley’s voice had quieted in his kid brother’s imagination. Only the dead man’s written secrets, finally exposed from their breached hiding place, offered any clue or explanation.
Mindful of the spilled lamp oil and shattered glass littering the floor, Bob gently lifted a small bundle of paper items from the narrow cranny. There was just enough light from the downstairs fireplace and candles in the hall outside his door to make him certain he’d retrieved a stash of letters tucked beneath the broken floorboard in Charley’s room. Puzzled, Bob stood up and hurriedly stuffed the letters into his pocket before carefully navigating his way around the mess on the floor. He needed to clear a safe path before it got too late, relieved he hadn’t awakened his mama or alerted their nearly deaf old hounddog to all the activity. Returning a moment later with a broom, rag and dustbin, he made quick work of tidying up, eager to get back to Charley’s hidden treasure.
Closing the door and lighting another lamp to read by, Bob fished the letters from his pocket and slumped onto the edge of the bed. Hearing his father and brother return to the farmhouse, he paused in an anxious silence, listening to the men readying themselves for lights-out, their footsteps eventually ascending the staircase. Thankfully no one called out for him or knocked on the door to continue the earlier confrontation - he guessed the breakfast table would be another uncomfortable ordeal after the earlier scene in the barn. Waiting until all was quiet again, he breathed easier once it became clear he wouldn’t be interrupted.
Untying the frayed red ribbon holding the letters together, Bob flipped through them in complete bewilderment. He counted a total of nineteen separate envelopes, all sealed as if Charley had originally meant to mail them but ultimately decided against it. Each letter was addressed to the same person, a woman known only too well to both brothers:
Mrs. Zerelda Mimms James
Kansas City, Missouri
“Zee’s been in KC too?” Bob blinked to himself, staring at her name spelled out in Charley’s handwriting. There was no mistaking the intended recipient was the widow and first cousin of Jesse James. Charley had taken great care to address Zee by both her maiden and married names in order to avoid any delivery mixups mistaking her for Jesse’s mother, Zerelda James Simms Samuel. It appeared Charley kept tabs on where Zee was living after she and her two young children were forced to leave the rented cottage in St. Joseph. Bob was surprised he had not seen her in the city, but he also didn’t know how seldom the still-grieving widow ventured out of her brother’s Kansas City home.
The last time Bob had laid eyes on Zee was at their murder trial two years earlier, when she and her aunt had given their emotional testimony against the Ford brothers in court. He had been unable to look her in the eye at the time, and was too preoccupied with his own defense and desire for fame to concern himself with following Zee’s affairs in the aftermath. Once upon a time, Bob had been sweet on Zee, just as all the men in Jesse’s orbit were. She had always been courteous to the youngest Ford, even if he could tell his awkward stares and jumpy demeanor made her uneasy in his presence. Surely she had every reason to outright despise him and his brother after the events of April 3, 1882.
The fact that Charley had been writing to her, at least nineteen times that Bob could see, unnerved him more than a little. Had they been corresponding regularly all along? Were other letters actually sent? Should he leave well enough alone and respect their privacy by not reading Charley’s private mail?
“Well, you’re not here to stop me, so I reckon you forfeit your chance to complain about it,” Bob challenged his brother one last time, stretching out on one side to make himself comfortable on the bed where Charley had taken his last breath. The first letter was pried open carefully, with all the delicate attention of one who intended to hide all evidence of wrongdoing. But that was silly, wasn’t it? Bob reminded himself with some amusement that Charley couldn’t hurt him anymore. Or so he thought, before he actually started reading.
The first letter was composed on Christmas Eve, 1882, just a few months after they were pardoned for the murder of Jesse James and had returned to the East coast where their traveling stage reenactment of the assassination had been popular:
My Dear Zee,
It is not without sympathy that I realize how cruel you must think that I call you Dear. I mean no disrespect to you or to Jesse by doing so. It is with a heart full of regret that I acknowledge the pain I have caused you…after you brought me into your home and accepted me like the cousin we told everyone in St. Joe I was…Not a night goes by that I don’t see Jesse’s face in the dark, seeking the revenge I rightfully deserve. I don’t sleep at night because of the consumption and hearing your screams in my nightmares, but I don’t deserve to sleep…I wish with every inch of my being that I could take back how we done Jesse wrong…I know deep down I do not deserve your forgiveness, but I find myself writing to shamefully beg for it anyway…
Charley’s consumption was worsening at the time the letter was written, as were relations between the brothers. Bob was increasingly obsessed with his own reputation and newfound theater talent, while Charley became engrossed in the pursuit of alternative methods of treatment for his many health problems. Charley embraced wild superstitions and sought the advice of tarot readers and charlatan faith healers, undertook electric shock and relied heavily on morphine just to get through each day. He even took to constantly speaking of Zee James as the ideal female against which all women, particularly the sexually liberal dance hall girls who offered their affections to the young budding actors for free, were to be compared.
So that’s where your mind was while you were seein’ too much of the Gypsies and slum witches, huh, Charley? Stranded in the past with Zee. Whole lotta good it did you, too…
The other letters were much the same, outlining Charley’s countless regrets over the last two years of his life and begging for Zee’s forgiveness for his involvement in her husband’s murder. He had even written as recently as a week before his suicide, tormented by sickness and debilitating remorse, with Jesse’s wife serving as the focus of Charley’s desired redemption.
Working his way through the bundle of correspondence, Bob couldn’t help but notice a distinct escalation in Charley’s contempt of his younger sibling. The progressively venomous depictions of Bob’s character in each unsent letter to Zee seemed to coincide with the actual timeline of the siblings’ gradual estrangement:
When Bob told me about his plan with Crittendon for the reward money, I was against it because Jesse was our friend and he depended on us for that last job…it was only because Bobby killed Wood Hite in cold blood instead of minding his business that this all had to happen. Jesse wouldn’t have any reason to come after us Fords if Bob didn’t interfere with the feud between Wood and D*ck Liddil…he might still be alive today otherwise, and you would still have your Jesse…
I can’t even stomach playing Jesse in this stage show no more…it makes me feel dirty, killing our friend again and again…Bob takes great pleasure in fancying himself a showman like he done for PT Barnum for a spell, all on Jesse’s back…I detest the sight of him most days, yet I see both of us whenever I look at my wretched face in the mirror…
I saw your boy and Jesse’s mama today on the street in KC when we did a show here…I tried hiding from her like the coward Bob is, but she called to me and I begged her forgiveness. She told me that if God could forgive me, so could she, but not before then…I couldn’t even look little Jesse, Jr. in the eyes, I’m so ashamed…he knows I helped get his daddy killed, but I didn’t pull the trigger, Zee, or even plan any of it until it was clear Jesse meant to kill us in the end for all Bob had done. I should have shot Bob myself instead and let Jesse have his turn with me, like the vermin we are…
Ever since he was a child, Bob had a dream to be like the Great Jesse James or be the one to capture the big outlaw and become a hero for it. He was forever trying to convince us he was something more special than he was…
Bob’s always had a meanness about him, like a bad seed. I never realized just how bad until I really thought about it more…there was the time when we were kids and he got mad because one of the jersey cows always kicked at him when she was being milked. He swore he’d kill her if she kicked him again. One hot night, we were milking, and that cow kicked at the flies but kicked Bob and his bucket hard, sending them both flying. He left in a huff and then I heard a bang - Bob had shot that jersey dead because he said he’d kill her if she kicked again, and she kicked. Our daddy gave him the hiding of his life that night, but it sure didn’t knock any sense into him…
I’m dying, Zee, and I got nothing to prove, no lies to spit or sell. Bob’s the one using Jesse to make himself into something he never was. I’m just a man full of regret and shame for stabbing a friend in the back. If I had to do it all over again, I’d have been a better man, one worthy of a kindhearted angel like Mrs. Zee James, instead of this loathsome carcass with a wretched soul unworthy of Hell itself…
I’m going to make it right, Zee, and do right by Jesse, as best as I can after all this time. I’m no coward like my brother, Bob. I will face Hell’s wrath with acceptance of my many sins in this life, and wait for my brother there when it’s his time to burn with me. I would apologize for us both, but Bob has more to answer for on his own and my days are done, it’s all come down to this…it is time for me to go…I’m so sorry, Zee. I never deserved your forgiveness, I see that now, but I’ve made my peace with that.
Writing out such terrible confessions and accusations with the intent of sharing them with Mrs. Jesse James was a palpable betrayal Bob felt like a knife blade to his heart. Charley, five years Bob’s senior, had been the one family member Bob was closest to. The pair had been thick as literal thieves for most of Bob’s life, no matter that Charley frequently joined in the bullying against the youngest of the eleven Ford children. Bob had only been accepted as a member of the James-Younger gang thanks to Charley’s exaggerated recommendations; Jesse and Frank James never fully trusted the kid, and for good reason.
Learning what Charley actually thought of him for all those years was a revelation Bob didn’t much care for.
Bob fought the onslaught of heartbreak for the second time that night, summoning the familiar empowerment of his own rage as the antidote for despair. He wasn’t like Charley, who wallowed in his depressions and mourned endlessly for the what-could-have-beens at the end of his life. Bob Ford was hellbent on making his own luck and controlling the narrative about how the public perceived him. Charley’s devastating condemnation of his own flesh and blood would be discarded like everything else that contradicted Robert Ford’s desired legacy.
No one would ever need to know.
Well, I’ve got no real family now, anyway. They’re just people with the same name as me, nothin’ substantial to make of that. All they ever did was make fun of me and they never let up, always makin’ promises they never kept and blamin’ me for everything that went wrong. Nobody ever believed in me. So I gotta rely on myself. I’ll show ‘em all.
Holding the letters in his lap, Bob gazed blankly at Charley’s cursive a final time. It didn’t take much effort at all to start emotionally detaching himself from his blood kin, he discovered. They were fast losing any meaning for the young man whose psychological damage continued unchecked. Bob would have to be his own top priority going forward.
His belly rumbled, demanding nourishment before he turned in for the night. Easing the letters back into his pocket, he got up and tiptoed to the door, slowly easing it open to avoid loud creaks from the hinges. Satisfied that the sleeping household was oblivious to his descent, Bob made his way downstairs and raided the cornbread left over from supper. Staring absently at the fireplace as he chewed, he recalled something Charley had last said to him as they parted ways in St. Louis just before the new year:
“You best watch your step from now on, Bobby. Remember that little gypsy down by the railroad tracks I told you about? She was tellin’ me about how neither of us is headin’ for no glory. You just keep that in mind while you got yourself all starry-eyed for some bright future that ain’t in the cards. There ain’t no glory for us Fords, not a jot.”
Lowering himself to sit cross-legged in front of the fire, Bob pulled the letters from his pocket. He watched the flames lick the blackened stone, their crack-pop-hiss the only sounds filling the room besides the mechanical hands ticking inside the tall case clock. He didn’t even think twice about pushing family loyalties from his heart. He knew it was time to abandon all the sentimentality of keepsakes and cherished momentos like the Jesse James memorabilia he collected from childhood into his late teens. Attaching too much affection to anything or anyone was a waste of time, he decided. They only let a man down in the end.
There ain’t no glory for us Fords, not a jot.
“No glory for you, maybe, Charley,” Bob whispered aloud, before popping the last bite of cornbread into his mouth. One by one, he fed letters into the fire, watching mesmerized as the pages and envelopes containing Charley’s last words on the character of his brother Robert Ford caught the flames and curled up in charred waves before disintegrating into ash.
(To be continued in Charley’s Song: Epilogue)
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