Hard to believe it was Sunday evening already. I stared west, toward the setting sun.
I was no longer a virgin.
Today, I’d killed my first man.
Your Henry here, cranking out my first letter as promised. And there is much to write about, as much as I can get committed to paper before the light fails.
The first priority: Telling you the full truth of why I left Flywheel Ranch last week on May 15, 1888.
No, no, beloved. It is not that I lied to you, at least not outright. But I did omit certain things which I can now, with the small safety of physical distance between us for a time, admit: I left because I feared I could not control myself around you. We are betrothed to one another, yes, but while I will turn eighteen next month, you are not yet even fourteen years of age.
Which means nothing to us but everything to others in our families–most especially my overly religious redheaded mother.
Oh, I’m fumbling around here on paper as badly as I might have done in person: Sadie, I was afraid we’d be making babies before the summer was out, had I stayed. You are everything to me, but my inner self control was slipping. I might have been the smartest kid in my class at Walsenburg–on paper, anyway–but for the past month and more, all I could think of was you.
I’ll be back, as promised, for your high school graduation in 1892 and for our marriage immediately thereafter. And I’ll write as often as possible till then.
Which reminds me. You can send my mail to Salida, Colorado, for a bit. Don’t know how long I’ll be here, but long enough to hear from you at least once, I’m sure.
Now, about the personal growth I’ve been experiencing so far, these first ten days away from the ranch. I have learned much already. I have learned that growing up with such a strong group of elders about us, we have been spoiled. Soft. Pampered. Not lazy; we’ve learned how to work. But with Tam the tall tale teller as my Grandpa and renowned shootist Cougar Tamson as my Dad–not to mention your own Dad and Mom and all the rest–we’ve been protected at levels impossible to understand.
Until now. I’m starting to understand now. For example, there’s my run-in with Jesse James. Let me tell you about that….
I learned about real fear the first night away from home and about terror blackouts the first time I met Jesse James.
There was gold in my pockets as I set out on my grand post-high school adventure, but not so much that I dared seek hotels for lodging, nor were there any hotels along the route I took to Salida, anyway. So I knew I’d be camping out alone, just the way Grandpa Tam had done from the time he ran away from home at the age of twelve. I was nearly six years older than that; what could go wrong?
When the sun went down, I found out. I’d camped in the hills with Dad or Grandpa or Uncle Dawson tons of times, but I’d never camped alone.
The horses were fine with it; they had each other. Plus, Rowdy was a rawhide tough thousand pounds of jet black, steel shod gelding; nothing scared him. I couldn’t have asked for a better riding animal, and the sturdy bay pack mare my little sister Susie named Bonfire (I call her Bonnie) was equally reliable.
Unfortunately, I didn’t feel nearly as tough as the critters. The tent felt like a big fat target. Every evil thing in the world–animal, human, or supernatural–could sneak up on me in that tent and rip me to shreds.
When the sun came up the next morning, I was both relieved and exhausted, having slept not a wink.
There were more than a thousand nights left ahead of me before I’d be heading back to the ranch to claim the love of my life. Going at it this way, I wouldn’t last a dozen of ’em. Something had to give.
By late afternoon–when I camped early because (a) a suitable campsite showed itself and (b) to give myself time to work my plan–I was ready.
My campsite looked to the casual eye about the same as it had the previous night: Horses picketed on good spring graze, tiny tent pitched in a logical spot, fire out before dark to avoid drawing unwanted attention from the many evil people who roamed the still plenty wild enough West.
Only thing was, I wasn’t in the little Army tent. The thing felt like a trap. Nuh-uh, nope, not likely.
Thirty feet to one side of the canvas, tucked into a brush thicket where I’d found a sort-of-open spot, I’d grabbed the short-handled shovel and dug me a foxhole. It weren’t much, just a shallow trench maybe a foot deep, a place where I could lie down and be slightly under the surface level of the Earth.
On a ground cloth, of course.
Rolled into my blankets, rifle cradled like a lover and my gunbelt next to my head, I felt I was–knew I was–both far more secure and far more deadly than I’d been the night before. If anybody come at me, they’d miss, tackle the tent, and I could shoot their shadowed shapes to ribbons without exposing much more than the top of my head behind the rifle sights.
Snakes, you wonder? Yes, I did worry about them some, but human snakes seemed like more trouble than western diamondbacks would ever be. So yes, I laid out my horsehair lariat in a big loop around my foxhole and put all my thought-force into it: Jake the Snake beware! Do not cross this rope line! Or I will kill you!
Seems to be working. So far, anyway. Slept like a baby, only woke up twice all night. Once, a big shadow came shuffle-snuffling between me and the tent. Bear, I think. But it didn’t stop for long, had business elsewhere. The other time, I heard something but never did figure out what it was.
So I guess you could say at night I’m sort of foxholier than thou, or something.
Now, about Jesse James.
Salida proved to be every bit as interesting as I’d thought. The surrounding mountains, many of ’em over 14,000 feet high, make even the town’s 7,000 feet (or so) seem like somewhere around sea level. It’s a banana belt area, too, cooler in the summers and warmer in the winters, no one knows why. And the silver mines are going strong, so there’s plenty to the economy besides cows and such.
But there are some bad people there, too, and one of ’em is Jesse James. He’s a Missouri native, or so they say.
Trouble is, the real Jesse James was killed six years ago, shot in the back in his own home. We learned about that in school, it was in all the papers at the time–I remember–and there have even been dime novels written about it.
I guess Jesse #1 used to hang out in Salida at times. Some say he was friends with the Marshal at Telluride, rode with him during the War Between the States. Guerilla warfare and all that.
This Jesse, though, Jesse #2? He’d supposedly killed a few women and raped a few men along the way, or something like that. Anyway….
“Kid, that there’s my hitch rail. Git yer hosses gone from it.”
Hadn’t heard that one before. To put it mildly. But the man facing me, claiming to be Jesse James, was terrifying enough no matter how ridiculous his words might sound. Between those nasty teeth and that thick-lipped hyena grin, the ugly alone would have been enough to put me off my feed.
So naturally I said the first dumb thing that come to mind. “Don’t see your name on it.”
Classic, right? Not exactly the snappiest comeback ever. But enough to irritate J.J.; there was that. “Smartmouth li’l sumbitch, ain’t he?”
When he sneered like that, his lip curled up on the left side like it was going to bulldoze his nose over to the other side of his clearly unwashed face. Ew!
But there didn’t seem much reason to comment, so I waited, trying to remember how Dad and Grandpa and Dawson (your Dad, I know) handled all their dozens–maybe hundreds–of confrontations over the years. About the only thing I knew at that moment was to check to make sure I’d taken the hammer thong off when I stepped down from Rowdy.
Yep. I had. But dumb-assed me, I was so full of terror, my mind wasn’t working right. It never dawned on me till too late that me moving my hand near my .44 Remington might be seen as “going for my gun”–especially since I crossdraw.
Come to find out later, Jesse James #2 was a known bully in the area, talking big and mean enough if you couldn’t fight back. You know, the sort I should have been able to talk out of it just by showing no fear and him seeing I was armed. But I’d dropped the fat in the fire with that hammer thong check. J.J. kind of squeaked, or maybe squawked, and grabbed fer the hogleg he wore tied down on his own right thigh.
Hold on, honey; I’m getting to it. J.J. grabbed, and sure enough, in the finest family tradition of the renowned Tam himself…I blacked out.
Never heard of Dad doing that. Guess the family curse jumped a generation.
When I come to, sure enough, I was punching out empty casings and reloading, standing right there by the hitch rail. I’d just killed my first man; he was bleeding out next to the boardwalk. There were several witnesses who said James drew first, so the Marshal didn’t have any problem with clearing me. Didn’t even tell me to get out of town or anything.
But he did explain something to me. “Kid,” he said, “you got a problem. This might be the first time you ever killed a man–so you’ve said, and I’ve no reason to doubt your word. But from here on, you’re gonna have a rep, like your Daddy and your Grandpa before you. Folks ain’t gonna know if you’re a yellowbelly backshooter or a fast gun, but there’ll be idjits trying you one way or the other.”
Yellowbelly backshooter? “What–”
“See, it’s like this, and the heck with Bob Ford of Missori. Forevermore in Colorado, Henry Tamson, you’re gonna be known as the man that killed Jesse James.”
My darling Henry,
Our Medicine Bull Clan is never boring, eh?
Honey, your letter telling of your gunfight with the not-so-renowned Jesse James (#2) had my adrenaline going, but guess what? News of the shooting had already reached our local paper before your letter arrived. I’m enclosing the clipping.
Henry Tamson Guns Down Jesse James
Jesse Bonham James of Salida, Colorado, was a known bad apple in that town. No known relation to the notorious Jesse James of Missouri fame, the Colorado man had been throwing his weight around in the Salida area for months.
The badman won’t be doing that any more. He made the mistake of bracing our own Henry Tamson, Valedictorian of the Class of ’88, who was visiting in Salida. Observers report that J.B. James said something (unknown) to young Mr. Tamson, who responded by asking, “Ain’t you dead already?”
Whereupon the enraged James went for his gun and promptly discovered that age truly does go before beauty, especially if the destination is Boot Hill and it’s the beauty of skilled firearms handling we’re talking about….
It was interesting to read your account in which you bemoan your “less than snappy” reply to the late and apparently unlamented Mr. James. Did you possibly come up with “Ain’t you dead already?” in a quick little blackout you don’t even remember?
That’s a joke.
Except I bet Mrs. Winfield won’t be amused. She’s a great English teacher, but she’ll probably get the vapors and faint at your being quoted using the word ain’t. You know how she feels about that, ha-ha!
Now, about your saying we’ve been spoiled and protected. Yes, yes, I guess we have at that. But soft? Henry Julius Tamson, you’re about as soft (in the sense of being un-strong) as a wall of forty year old concrete–and we know concrete gets stronger as it ages. Your uncle Wolf taught us that, remember?
Well…your kisses can be soft when you want them to be; I’ll give you that, hee-hee!
I’ll give you anything else you want, too, so yeah, I suppose you’re right to go gallivanting around for a few years. If you were here right now, I’d get you out behind the barn and climb your leg!
See, I can write stuff like that ’cause my letters go out from here, all sealed and everything. Yours coming in…but we’ve got our code for that.
Just don’t go putting any buns in another girl’s oven while you’re out there living the high life and shooting idiots, okay?
Oh, hey! Almost forgot! Shot my first snake today. I was up at your uncle Wolf’s cabin behind the spring, helping with Summer’s kids while she did her weekly baking. We heard Medicine Coyote give a little -yip!- and went outside to see what was up. Turned out little Jenny–she’s five now–was backed up against the rocks with a big ol’ diamondback buzzing at her like nobody’s business.
Not quite within striking distance, thank the good Lord and all his Angels.
Nope, didn’t do the fast draw thing. Blew its head off with the shotgun, though. Not bad for a girl, hey?
Almost five feet and fourteen rattles.
Love and lust,