September 26, 2007
Up to my eyebrows in Dick Liddil's world. Our forthcoming Jesse James issue will have Brad Pitt and the real Jesse on the cover. Their faces are matched perfectly. Fortunately for us, in the movie still, Brad is looking the same way that Jesse is in the original photo of the outlaw King. We got Henry Cabot Beck's piece on the movie yesterday and Meghan edited it and put it into production. Of course, my Classic Gunfights piece features the Wood Hite vs. Dick Liddil shootout, which really accelerated Jesse's downfall.
The basic facts are these: After the Northfield, Minnesota debacle in 1876, Jesse and Frank James barely escaped (the Younger brothers did not and received life in prison sentences), the James boys fled to Tennessee and tried to go straight. Frank seems to have succeeded more than Jesse, who gambled and raced horses and went broke. He evidently didn't really want to work and besides, he missed the limelight and probably the rush of highway robbery. Dick Liddil (real name: James Andrew Liddil, and he says in his confession that "Dick" is a nickname. I wonder, if those bawdy, backwoods boys gave his full name a double entendre twist: Little Dick Liddil? Probably) was approached by Jesse to go rob some stuff and off they went.
It's comic and pathetic to read about how hand to mouth they lived (one robbery netted $3.47. In another robbery Liddil says, "We got about $13 from the merchant [on the stage] and $17 from the driver.") and how much trouble they had to go to get arms and horses. Frank travels all over several counties trying to find a horse to steal and can't find one to suit him. They also walked a whole bunch more than legend says they did. Dick, in his confession says things like, "I went to Sibley and crossed over in a skiff that I cut loose from the bank and used. After crossing I went to Mrs. Bolton's." I'm assuming he walked there after crossing. And they got rained out more than once, getting drenched while waiting for a train and going home empty-handed. Also, Jesse called off one raid when he got a roaring toothache, then paid a local $1.50 to drive him home in a buggy. Just amazing, and so un-movie like!
Speaking of the lovely Mrs. Bolton, she is Bob Ford's sister, and she is a widow and all of the outlaws come and stay at her place quite often. There is no photo of her but she must have been good looking because both Dick Liddle and Wood Hite are rumored to have been "taken with her," to use the parlance of the times.
The actual shootout goes like this in Dick's confession: "[Bob Ford and I] went to Mrs. Bolton's, crossing below Sibley in a skiff. Arrived there Saturday night, December 3, 1881. Next morning I came down to breakfast, and Wood Hite who had come from Kentuckey three or four days before was there, and Bob Ford came down a few minutes afterward. When he first came in he spoke to me, and I told him I did not want him to speak to me as he had accused me of stealing $100 at the divide in the Blue Cut robbery. Told him he lied; said he could prove it by Mrs. Bolton, and I wanted him to prove it. He then denied ever saying anything of the kind. I told him he did, and we both commenced drawing our pistols. We fired about the same time. He shot me through the right leg between the knee and hip and I shot him through the right arm. He fired four times at me and I five times, and then snapped another barrel at him. I drew my other pistol when he commenced falling. Bob Ford fired one shot at him. Did not know this until afterward when he exhibited the empty chamaber. The wound that killed Hite was through the head. It struck him about two inches above the right eye and came out in front and a little above the left ear. Bob claimed that his shot was the fatal one. Hite lived fifteen or twenty minutes but did not speak. We carried him upstairs, and that night of Deember 4th 'Cap' [Ford] and Bob dug a grave in the woods aabout a half mile from the house and buried him. My leg was too sore to help. Did not use a coffin."
Now that is basically all we have to go on. We can make some minor assumptions: the house must have had an upstairs because Liddil says, "Bob Ford came down to breakfast," and Martha testifies at Frank James' trial that the kitchen and dining room are one in the same, so we know it was probably pretty small, but other than that it's pretty thin as to layout and descriptions.
Now, let's take a peek at Ron Hansen's writing in his book, The Assasination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford:
". . .records lose Wood Hite in his torpid pursuit of Dick Liddil until finally in December the cousin who was given Jesse's middle name [Jesse Woodson James] was seen in Missouri.
"Wood rode from Saturday night to Sunday morning, rocking sleepily inside a once-white goat-hair coat and long blue muffler, with his eys shut and his left wrist tied to the saddle horn so he'd know if he slid. His face was bricked with windburn, his mustache was beaded and jewled with ice. Snot made boards of his trousers and sleeves, his nose was inujured with cold, and sometimes sleet sailed piercingly into whichever eye was open. Wood reached Richmond before six, warmed his cheeks and ears and backside at a railroad swithcman's stove, and turned toward Mrs. Bolton's farmhouse. He saw Elias Ford near the corn crib shooing cattle toward the silage he'd scattered on the snow. Elias lectured the animals but his words were lost in the wind; quills of gray smoke left his mouth and disappeared. When he saw Wood he was startled, for he assumed it was Frank James who glowered at him from the road—the resemblance was strong even without the deception of darkness. Elias threw up his arm in greeting and then invited him in from the cold, pointing first to the stables and then to the farmhouse.
"Wood walked his horse inside a stall, three a moth-eaten brown blanket over it, and shoved a tin pail of oats at its nose to entice it to alfalfa. Then he walked to the kitchen with Silbur, who was teetering with a milk can. Wood inserted his mittened hand in the can's twin grip to make the carry less clumsy. He shouted into the artic wind, 'How come it's always you does the chores?'
"'Charley [Ford] and Bob pay extree to Martha so's they don't have to!'
"'Still don't seem fair!'
"'Well,' Willbur said, then lost whatever the justification was and pitied himself for a moment or two. Then he shouted, 'You know how I could tell it was you? You was carrying but the one six-shooter and the others carry two!'
"'Wood pulled the storm door for the man and he banged the milk can inside. Wilbur said, 'I'd take a rag to my nose if I was you; it's unsightly.'
"Martha dumped bread dough onto a floured board and kneaded it with both hands. Oatmeal boiled in kettle water on the stove and her daughter yawned as she stired it with a wood spoon. Wilbur straddled a chair and blew into his hands; Wood removed mittens that dangled from sleeve clips like a child's. A coal-oil lamp was on the fireplace mantel and Martha sw her shadow leap and totter against the wall as the lamp was moved to the oak table. She turned and saw Wood thawing his right ear over the lamp's glass chimney as he stuff a handkerchief up his coat sleeve.
"'Look what the cat dragged in,' she said."
Wow! No wonder they wanted to make a movie of Hansen's novel. Talk about fleshing something out! And the actual gunfight, which follows this set-up is even better, but you'll need to go buy your own copy to see how masterful Hansen handles it. Here's one line, to further whet your appetite:
"Elias [squatted next to the corpse of Wood Hite] and canted his head to examine the injuries, inquiring here and there with his thumb and then wiping it off on his shirt. He said, 'You were a good fellow, Wood. You talked kindly and you took care of your horse and you always pulled your own weight."
It is a brilliant novel.
"The single hardest thing is getting the bloody thing on paper."
—Ridley Scott, on the task of getting an idea made into a movie
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