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When we were strangers to the sea

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He comes back from the Blue Cut robbery with cash in his saddlebags and men bounding on his heels like lost dogs. She can see their tails wagging like flags in the night, their noses lifted to sniff his hands. But he's tall as a tree and pretty as the papers say he is, and her heart is so glad to see him alive she'll forgive anything.

She smoothes her hair in the kitchen, kisses him in the hall, and doesn't wonder if he murdered another girl's husband for what he stole. She doesn't wonder. She just sends blankets out to the stable for the thieves and degenerates Jesse James has brought home with him again.

Lord knows that if Jesse could charm women like he bewitches men then Zee would be living three times as hard and three times as sorry as a tobacco farmer's wife back in Clay County right now. Sixteen years of loving him but she doesn't know which she'd rather be, Mrs. Howard here in this house on the edge of Kansas City with snakes in the garden and gunmen in the barn, or some other Zerelda. One whose husband lost his slaves after the war and then his land, and then found himself maybe arrested, maybe executed, maybe banished from this divided state of Missouri entirely. That woman would be a woman making do with whatever the jayhawkers handed her down, whatever bits of a life they left her.

And Zee is a woman who likes to keep her iron in her spine, not her cupboard, and so it's that last thought that has her turning to her husband in bed tonight. She likes to confirm, now and again, which man she chose. This hero and legend with the aching ragged holes over his heart and the shot-off finger that he puts up in her as she hisses and bites the muscle of his shoulder. She keeps her mouth quiet when he drives into her. She is wary of the creaking bedsprings, the creaking floorboards, their own creaking bones. It is best to keep one ear elsewhere, always.

Jesse is good as the sun, she knows. For all his moods and tempers and peculiarities it is not him but his acquaintanceship that worries her. It's them she listens for as she slides under her husband, slow and silent on the thin old mattress.

It's the boy Bob Ford that she hates the most.

She discovers this in the morning after Frank leaves. Bob is a pretty young man, shy and smiling, but as soon as he opens his mouth she knows him, and she knows she should put his white throat to the butcher block in the barn. Bleed him out and bone him. He is just another snake, she sees. And as he compliments her swept floorboards and roast beef dinner she turns to look at Jesse like he should see it, too.

Jesse just eats his meal, flatware shining, coffee at his elbow. He's sent the other dogs away – Charley and that godforsaken idiot cousin Wood Hite – but he sees fit to keep this serpent here, with his slithering eyes and sly white teeth.

Zee presses her palms to her apron and calls the children in from the stable.

They are moving, tonight. A house in the center of town, one with neighbors who look out their curtains and a garden not overrun with bindweed and musk thistle. Bob has been volunteered to help move what's handy of their possessions, which is not much.

He stands in her kitchen and looks doubtful at her cast iron stove. The one she brought with her from Jesse's mother's house, a wedding gift with enameled paintings of boats and lighthouses on its four square doors. A poor joke in this country, for a woman who's never been east enough to see the ocean.

"It's not two hundred pounds," she tells Bob Ford. "You go and find us a wagon I'll help you lift it."

But Bob is still catching questions with his mouth and he says, "I'll solicit Jesse for his advice. Should it be required at all in your new situation, or not."

"It'll be required, alright," Zee tells him. Only her wedding gift from her namesake aunt, the only item they have ever acquired via catalog and train. Its blue sides, the creamy pictures on the doors. She treasures that stove like she treasures the bronze shoes of her dead twins, which is more than she'd ever allow to a boy like this.

But Bob has not much interest in her womanish opinions, and when Jesse passes through the kitchen with dust on his knees and a rope over his shoulder for passing the bedframe out the window upstairs, the boy appeals like a prisoner to a judge for a pardon from Zee's own malicious sentence of hard and fruitless labor.

Bob's voice, in its habitual whine, and Bob's rolling childish eyes, don't do much for Jesse James. And Zee would've told him that, had he bothered to ask or heed her first off.

Listening with lips pursed and eyebrows raised, Zee stands behind Bob and looks at Jesse as they listen to his excuses and his exaggerations and his reckonings about her old stove and its demon weight. She keeps her fists on her hips and when Jesse glances back to her with that hint of a fold in the corner of his mouth, she smiles back, for she is vindicated.

"Bob," Jesse says, "You mind my wife like I do, as she's my better. I'll let you suppose what that makes her to you." And then he puts his heavy tread on up the stairs and they hear him set to work in the bedroom.

Before she can see Bob's face, Zee turns away and slaps her dustrag over the table and starts rubbing like she might yet put a victorious shine on the rough oak.

It's Bob's cold hand on her cheek that stops her. His knuckles rough and chill against the soft skin beside her ear, a finger in the curl of hair that drifts there.

And Bob says in his soft way: "Ma'am, if Jesse James loves you surely, then so I do too."

And Zee straightens and steps away and looks at his viper's fangs and his eyes dripping poison and knows that this boy Bob Ford - this boy here in their house - will be the end of them.