To say that Jesse was doing him a kindness was either overstating or severely misinterpreting the situation, but Robert Ford always thought he'd had a particularly good grip on the general level of emotion flooding the room around him. Sensitive as a boy, he'd brought that with him as he matured. And what better way was there to grow into manhood than by the side of his long-time idol, Jesse James?
Some said he'd worked himself into Jesse's favor and some say it was simply bound to happen, given how small the world seemed to be. Missouri was a violent place—no surprise to anyone—and traveling with a gang of train and bank robbers was a guarantee that nothing would stay peaceful for very long. What Bob knew was simple: Jesse was his hero, and he needed to be part of the James Gang story. Working on the assumption that there was no such thing as negative publicity, a few ideas sprang to mind when Crittenden approached him for his help. You have a unique opportunity, Mr. Ford. You can be a hero. Would you do that, for the great state of Missouri? For the women and children?
Who wouldn't want to be a hero? Who wouldn't want to save all those poor innocent women and children from the ravages of a murderous crew of—
—he looked up, startled, to see Jesse dismissing everyone else. Jesse, his hero. Jesse, the one he'd always wanted to be. Jesse, whose stories he'd kept hidden away in a box under his bed from the time he was just a child. "You stay, Bob." When Jesse ordered something in that quiet distressed way of his, everyone listened. Then it was just the two of them.
Bob Ford felt a frightened thrill, all the way from the hat on his head to the tips of his boot-clad toes. His hero was not a stable man, as like to shoot someone as he was to embrace them, and one never knew where they stood with Jesse James. That was part of it, though. Part of the reason he couldn't leave, part of the reason he stayed past all the peril and violence and danger. There was trust between them. An uneasy trust, but there all the same: there were times when he truly felt like part of the James family.
You can't do it, Jesse, he tried to say but failed because it wasn't his place to put words in Jesse James' mouth. But it was a truth and he knew it: Jesse was tired of it all. Tired of hiding, tired of the ruse, tired of robbery, tired of living that way. All Governor Crittenden had done was put opportunity in his hands, and precious few people had ever given Bob Ford that kind of opportunity. He was only young, after all, and he wasn't his eager and outgoing brother Charley. Maybe that's why Jesse chose him, because he was unable to find a way to culminate things himself.
Maybe that's why Jesse took off his jacket and maybe that's why he unbuckled his holster and laid his guns aside. Maybe that's why he gave that sad backward glance, the one that said here's your golden opportunity, Bob, I know you've been waiting for one. Maybe that's why he got up on the chair to straighten the picture. Maybe it's why he did all the things he did that day, so that someone he trusted and maybe even loved could end it all for him.
Maybe. Maybe, definitely: that's what Bob told himself as he aimed his revolver and that's what he told himself as he cocked the gun. Forever and ever, he would be inextricably tied to the outlaw Jesse James and when the stories were written, when the new books came out, he would be part of the story. When people thought of Jesse James, they would no longer be able to do so without thinking of Robert Ford. History would tie them together.
All it took was the space of a heartbeat.
That's all it took, but it was the longest, slowest heartbeat Robert Ford had known. The longest, slowest heartbeat he would likely ever know.