Mr. Howard's Day of Reckoning
by, 07-02-2009 at 10:29 AM (1785 Views)
I had this story in the contest and removed it at my own request. You see, it is historical fiction, and we deal with the world on this site. I couldn’t expect people to know facts that I myself have researched over a number of years.
I have dug through newspapers of the time, read biography after biography, and even read some of the gangs memoirs, such as Cole Younger’s, available on Project Gutenberg.
I also needed to rewrite part of the story.
So here are the facts and then the story. Enjoy.
I posted this before, only to have it deleted. I may not agree with the monitors, but I respect their wishes.
Facts on Jesse James murder
Jesse James gang had been decimated after the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota raid. After one last train robbery, even his brother Frank had quit and moved away. Jesse was left to pick up gang members wherever he could.
Charley Ford was a member of the gang and talked Jesse into taking in his younger brother Bob.
Robert Woodson "Wood" Hite, Jesse’s cousin, was shot to death thus: In January 1882, two James Gang members -- Wood Hite and Dick Liddel, on the run from the law, took refuge in the home of Martha Bolton, Bob Ford's widowed sister.
One day at breakfast, Hite and Liddel began to argue while the Fords sat by watching. The dispute soon accelerated with the feuding pair drawing their guns. The sound of four rapid shots from Hite's gun soon echoed through the room, one of which struck Liddel in the leg.
Falling to the floor, Dick returned the fire, hitting Hite in the arm. In the meantime, Bob Ford drew his own gun and, being Liddel's close friend, fired one shot, hitting Hite in the head. Collapsing to the floor, Wood Hite died just a few minutes later.
Ford then wrapped the corpse in a blanket, carried it outside and placing it on a mule, took it into the woods, where he buried Hite in a shallow, unmarked grave.
Great trouble was gone to in order to hide this from Jesse James, who undoubtedly would have taken revenge. Ford also seemingly betrayed gang member Dick Liddel, who often hid with other gang members at the same house of Martha Bolton.
In actuality, Ford was arrested along with Liddel, who gave himself up. Liddel made a deal with the governor for his freedom, and gave a written confession. Eventually Ford did stand trial for Hite's murder and was found guilty, though he was later pardoned. Bob Ford had his own agenda.
Finally, Jesse was down to two members, the Ford brothers. The Ford Brothers had been asked to move in with Jesse and his family at their house at 1318 Lafayette, in St. Joseph, Missouri. James was passing under the name of Thomas Howard. Jesse was always gentle with his children, and never let them know he was an outlaw.
But Bob Ford was in secret negotiations with the Governor to bring in the famous outlaw. On April 3, 1882, after eating breakfast, the Fords and James prepared for departure for another robbery, going in and out of the house to ready the horses. It was an unusually hot day, so James removed his coat, and then incredibly declared that he should remove his firearms as well, lest he look suspicious.
James seemed to notice a dusty picture on the wall and stood on a chair to clean it. Bob Ford took advantage of the opportunity and shot James in the back of the head.
Some say that James, who seemed to have a sixth sense and know things he couldn’t have pre-known, was worn out by his on-going bout with dementia. Thus he removed his guns and in essence, committed suicide via Bob Ford, expecting to be killed.
The Fords were originally charged with first degree murder, and sentenced to hang. Then Governor Thomas T. Crittenden quickly pardoned the brothers, setting off rumors that he conspired with the Ford Brothers to kill James, never intending to bring him in. Despite the deal that was made with Governor Crittenden, the Ford brothers did not receive the money they were originally promised, only a partial reward. This can be construed that Crittenden wished to distance himself from rumors that a public servant conspired to kill a private citizen. Wishing to be hailed as a hero, Bob found himself known as “the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard.”
Bob sold pictures of himself posing with the gun. Charley Ford committed suicide on May 6, 1884 in Richmond, Missouri. He had tuberculosis, and was by now a morphine addict. His nerves had never gotten over the two murders he witnessed his brother commit.
The play Bob Ford wrote starred himself as himself. He was very careful to omit the fact that he shot Jesse James in the back. Whoever else it starred is lost in the mists of time. It was performed to booing audiences, and never a success, so Bob Ford returned to the west to Creede, Colorado, set up as a dancehall owner. The hall burned down with a good part of the town before it opened. Bob open a tent salon as he waited to rebuild.
It was there that he was shot down on June 8, 1892 by Edward O’Kelly.
Oddly enough, Kelly did spend prison time for the murder of Bob Ford, but was later pardoned due to health reasons.
Note: The propellant in blank cartridges does indeed throw powder and paper, to give the resemblance of a shot being fired.
Mr. Howard’s Reckoning
The three men occupying the suite in a nice Manhattan hotel were having a ferocious argument.
“By God, Charley, you and old Useless there need to pick up your acting! We have a full house tonight, and I’ve even arranged for a photographer to record the play. Are you deaf or something, Useless? I’m talking to you!”
Eustis Latimer turned around. “Well if I am, Bob Ford, it’s small thanks to you, popping that damned gun in my ear every night for the past three months! Come over here, you and Charley and have a look.”
Bob and his brother crossed the room to where Eustis stood and looked where he pointed behind his right ear. There were little pits and holes, some fresh and some healed or partially healed. Charley Ford nervously ran his fingers behind his own right ear. The pits there were all healed, but they were the reason he had talked his brother Bob into changing the play a bit and hiring Eustis. He had been deathly afraid that one night Bob might decide on total realism and use a real bullet.
“God, Useless, you got ear mites or what?” Bob asked
“No, it’s those dammed blank cartridges you use. They spit gunpowder and little pieces of paper or something. Depends on how close you stand as to how deep they go. Can’t you aim a little to the right or something?”
“Look guys, the name of the play is How I Killed Jesse James, by Bob Ford. We get enough catcalls and jeers as it is. The play has to be more realistic to keep the houses full. It pays your wages you know.
“OK, Useless, I’ll give you a two dollar a play raise for danger pay and ear damage. You got something to say, Charley?”
Charley Ford shook a bit from his nerves. “You shouldn’t have done it, Bob. And this play just does the deed over and over again. People are calling you ‘a dirty little coward’”
“Look, Charley, everybody has a day of reckoning. He’d have killed us with no more conscious that if he were shooting rats in the yard. That day was Mr. Howard’s Day of Reckoning. No reason why we shouldn’t make money off of it.” Bob snorted.
“Dirty little coward.” The voice seemed to be in the room.
“Blast it, Useless! Now don’t you start!” Bob growled.
Eustis Latimer shook his head. “Ain’t said a word. Didn’t hear nothing either. What’s the matter with you, Bob?”
“Never mind. It’s five hours until curtain. I think I’ll find me a little female company. You two do what you want but you better be able and ready to act your best at 7:00.”
Bob left and Charley stared at Eustis. “I’m going to the bar. You coming?”
Charley had been spending most of his money on quack medicine and alcohol. His nerves seemed to get worse every day. He was suffering terribly from tuberculosis. He had placed a loaded, cocked pistol to his chest three times now, but failed to have the courage to pull the trigger.
“Naw.” Eustis replied. “I’m bushed. I’m gonna catch up on some sleep.”
The play was nearing its dramatic climax. Eustis Latimer, dressed as Jesse James, stood with a newspaper in the door that lead ostentatiously into another room.
“Hello, what’s this? The arrest and confession of Dick Liddil! Says he was taken at your sister’s place. What about that, Charley?”
Charley Ford’s voice came from off-stage: “I ain’t been at my sister’s for the last year, remember. How would I know about it?”
“It was about the time you were out there, Shrimp. What you got to say, hey?”
Bob Ford’s voice was a bit indignant: “I must not have been home. You know how it is Jesse. I’m the youngest, like you. They don’t tell us everything. In fact, most of the time they don’t tell us anything!”
Bob Ford came brushing by Eustis, and came and sat at a table near the front of the stage. He bit his fingernails. In a few minutes, Charley joined him, running nervous fingers through his hair.
He said in a loud stage whisper: “He knows, Bob. Now he’s gonna kill us both!”
Bob stage whispered back: “All I need is just one chance, but he never takes those guns off.”
Eustis appeared in the door. “Aw, it's all right, I guess, Bob. You fellows about ready to go pull that little job?”
Charley Ford jumped up and headed for a door stage left. “I can be ready in about 10 minutes.” Bob merely nodded, not moving.
Eustis walked over to a window stage right and appeared to be studying something outside.
Off-stage a little girl’s voice could be heard singing little rhymes. Eustis turned and gave Bob a hard look.
“Guess I better take off these guns. Some neighbor might look in the window and get suspicious.” He laid his gun belt on a couch. He looked at a picture on the wall, stage back.
“Now don’t that picture look awful dusty.”
He picked up a duster and walked past Bob, looking at him the whole time. Charley reappeared in the door, his hand on his gun. Eustis moved a chair to stand on, and turned his back. Bob moved instantly, getting into position for the shot.
“Dirty little coward!”
Bob thought the voice came from on stage, but what shook him worse was he thought he recognized the voice: a man dead almost two years.
He raised his gun and the figure on the chair whirled, a pistol aimed right in Bob’s forehead.
“Dirty little coward! Never shoot a man unless you can do it in the back, just like me and Wood Hite!”
Bob shook. What was Eustis playing at? And how did he learn about Wood Hite?
Just then the photographer set off his flash powder. Charley Ford pulled his gun. Unlike Bob’s, Charley’s gun held real bullets. He aimed for the figure on the chair. The figure’s pistol moved to cover him and fired twice. Charley dropped with a thump to the stage.
“I knew I’d have to kill you sooner or later, you sniveling little bastard.
You know, Bob, you were right. Everyone has a day of reckoning. It’s when his sins finally catch up to him, and someone takes revenge. Tonight is Mr. Howard’s day of reckoning.
You killed Wood Hite and me, Jesse James, shooting us in the back. Well, now it’s your turn only you get it up front.”
The female who was playing the part of Zee, Jesse’s wife had rushed out of a doorway screaming at the first shot. She shot both hands to her face and screamed again seeing the body of Charley Ford.
Bob snaked a hand out for Charley’s pistol. A bullet blew it out of his reach. He glanced up into the figure’s face just as two bullets tore through his brain.
Suddenly the figure seemed to whirl again and Eustis Latimer’s unmistakable voice growled. “You gonna fire that dammed gun, Bob? I can’t stand here all night.”
Then as he viewed the carnage he exploded. “What in God’s name has happed here? Bob? Charley?”
A mob swarmed the stage, seizing a confused Eustis Latimer and attending to the actress who was still sobbing. A couple guys checked on Bob and Charley Ford.
“Dead as a doornail. Somebody check that bearded guy for a gun, he’s bound to have one.”
But Eustis Latimer did not have a gun or a weapon of any sort concealed upon himself. The stage was searched diligently by command of the Police Chief, but the only guns were Bob and Charley Ford’s. Bob Ford’s gun held only blanks, while Charley’s hadn’t been fired at all. The Chief looked at Eustis.
“I don’t know how you did it, son, but we got a whole audience here that will swear you did do it. Best come quietly now.”
Eustis sat in his cell trying to wrap his muddled mind around what had happened. All he knew was he was dusting the picture. He never heard a single shot fired. And they were saying he somehow did it, that the whole audience witnessed the murders.
The next day the Chief was on the phone to the Mayor. “No, I don’t think we need to worry about vigilante justice. Most folks think the brothers got what they deserved. And Latimer is a model prisoner. I don’t think he’s figured it out himself yet. And darned if I know either.”
Just then an excited bunch burst into the office. Foremost was the photographer from the newspaper. “You got to see this, Chief! Latimer is innocent. But you won’t believe who’s guilty.”
The Chief stared at the photograph. There were all the actors in place, with Eustis Latimer on the chair dusting away as Bob Ford held a pistol pointed at him. But a shadowy figure stood there also with a gun pointed toward the Ford brothers. The face stood out eerily in the flash from the camera. There was no mistaking the face of Jesse James…