The old man sat in the rocker on the front porch of what had once been the town's grandest hotel. It was still the grandest, and now the only hotel, although the rooms had not been rented for decades. The town, once a bustling shipping point for grain and cattle, now boasted but a single tiny grocery store, a school with one to six kids in each grade, and a post office where boxes opened by combination locks held the daily distribution of mail. The bank had closed about the time the last hotel guest drove off in his flivver. If three cars passed through the intersection of Main and First Street between First Bell summoning school kids to their classrooms and the wild clamor of the same kids racing each other out the school's double front entrance at three o'clock, it was a busy day.
"I was just kid when I met Jesse James," the 92-year-old said. Like the boy gazing up at his white beard with a blurred look of wonder on his face, the oldster was once a towhead wearing patched overalls, a hand-me-down shirt, and no shoes.
"Gee, Mr. Brady, I don't know anyone famous. How'd you meet him?"
Mr. Brady, the old man mused. He'd been a long time earning that respectful title. His father was 'Pop' Brady. Town ne'er do well. One of three hostlers at the livery stable attached to the hotel. Kept on only because, when sober, there was no better hand with horses in all of Woodbury County. He, Benjamin Franklin Brady, was called Benny and worked as hard as any grown man. He and his father occupied living quarters in the loft over the carriage house. Benny's mother occupied a small, fenced plot in the church cemetery.
"I was just about your age," the 92-year-old said. "You wouldn't've recognized this town then. Narry a car to be seen, but oh, my, the horses and wagons, and the trains a-comin' through. Ladies shopping. Gents tending to business at the bank or the grain elevator. Havin' a snort over at the Golden Eagle. Shame they never rebuilt it after it burned.
"Anyways, there come a day when folks was all upset over news there'd been a shooting affray up Minnesota-way. A bunch of hard-cases tried to rob the town's bank, and the rumor was, it was the James gang what did it."
"Wow," the boy exclaimed. "I didn't know anyone robbed banks in Minnesota. You never see anything like that on TV. It's always Dodge City or Wichita or somewhere." The boy squinted at the old man. "Are you sure it was Jesse James' gang?"
"Nobody was sure, but that was the word. And nobody could believe a bunch of Minnesota townies had cut down one of the meanest bunch of outlaws ever to stick up a bank or a train."
"Jesse James wasn't mean," the boy said. "He was a hero. He robbed the rich and gave to the poor, just like Robin Hood."
"He robbed the rich 'cause the poor didn't have anything worth taking. And if he gave any of his loot to the poor, nobody I knew ever got any. A real hero's men like Alvin York. Or Audey Murphy. But you probably never heard of either of them. I met Alvin York once, too."
"Yes, sir. But you said you met Jesse James. I want to hear about him."
"Well, he was no hero, I can tell you that for true. He got lost, a-comin' back down from Minnesota. Had posses out searching and they got lost, too. This whole county was wilderness then. Thickets along the river a rabbit couldn't squeeze through 'thout leavin' half his hair on the brambles, and if you didn't know the area, you had to follow the river to get anywhere. No one ever did figure how what was left of the gang fetched up here. And when they did come into town, folks scattered like spooked grouse."
The law-abiding town had no marshal. The sheriff's office was 30 miles away in Sioux City.
"They came to rob the bank here?" the boy asked, eyes shining. "Guns blazing and racing their horses up and down Main Street?"
"Ha! Should've seen 'em. They looked like the worst bindle bums you ever saw - clothes all tore up, horses lamed and gaunt from no food, one man so shot up the posse found him dead the next day. Asked for water and food from the first house they come to. Like to scared little old Mrs. Blankenship into a coronary. She gave them a pan of corn bread she'd just took from the oven, and run out the back door fast as she could to the hotel for protection."
The old man paused, remembering how the sun was warm and bright for the first time in days, the trees beginning to turn gold. School was in session, but Pop had been at the home-brew so he, Benny, had to take Pop's place at the livery. He watched the men walk down the street, looking left and right, the hurt man swaying in the saddle. Watched them turn into the livery yard and head for the pen where the horses groomed and ready for renting were kept. Took off running to warn Mr. Peabody outlaws were stealing his horses.
But as he passed the carriage barn, he saw Pop coming through the big doors.
"Pop come out of the carriage barn and walked up to the men just like they were everyday customers come to rent a buggy or a saddlehorse. Like they didn't look like saddle-tramps or busted-up bank robbers.
" 'Need to swap horses,' the man in the lead said. He wasn't much to look at, not too tall, gaunt, beard all grown out and shaggy. Greasy black hair. Smelled bad. Pop on his worst day never looked so bad.
" 'Need to look yours over,' Pop said. 'They been rode pretty hard. Your man need a place to sleep it off?' And he goes to looking over the horses just like he was considering a trade and believed the man was drunk, not bleedin' to death from a belly wound.
" 'Reckon not,' says the leader. 'He'll be fine once we get him home. Now about that swap-'
" 'Can't do it,' my Pop says. 'Yours're too done in. Take 'em down the road south a piece - there's a soddy been abandoned but the fence is sound. Pasture 'em a few days, get some grain in 'em and we'll talk.' An' with that, Pop turns his back and walks back into the carriage barn. I figured he was going for the sawed-off he kept there."
"So then what happened?" the boy asked.
"Well, the leader got up on his worn-out horse, and led his men out of town. Later that day, a U.S. Marshal's posse rode in. They started asking around and old Mrs. Blankenship told how she gave some saddle-tramps her cornbread, other people said they watched them ride on out of town after stopping at the livery. And they came to talk to Pop, who said he'd sent them on down the road south to rest the horses they'd wanted to trade.
" 'You wouldn't trade with them?' the marshal asked. Pop said hell no, their horses were plum worn out. He wasn't about to trade his good stock for their crowbait.
" 'Do you know who that was you said no to?' the marshal asked.
" 'We didn't exchange names,' Pop told him.
" 'Well, that was Jesse James and his gang,' the marshal told us. 'You're lucky to be alive.' "
Blurry as his vision was, the old man could see the disappointment in the boy's face. "I reckon you could say this much for ol' Jesse. He done me a good turn. After that day, Pop never took another drink the rest of his life."