Jesse Miller’s Tragic Backstory Part I

Sunday, March 22, 1896

Laredo, Texas

Alice asked Jesse to watch Erin for the day so that she could run some errands. “I’m just headed into town, I’ve gotta pick up some things from the store, and I wanted to stop at the milk bar. Then I promised Patty I’d help with her garden.”

“Well why don’t we come with you? It’s a fine day for walking.”

“Jess, you been working so hard this week, you deserve a little rest. And I just put Erin down, so she’ll be out for a few hours at least.”

“Alright, sugar.” he reached for her and she bent to kiss his cheek. “It’s good to see you up and about again, the sun will do you good.”

“Yes, I’m really feeling much better. Have fun with the baby. I left a bottle for her in the ice box.”

Jesse had a guitar in his hands and started plucking away as she walked out. He didn’t see what she picked up on the porch, but waved to her out the front window as she passed. She gave him a fleeting smile before stepping out of sight.

Jesse didn’t start to worry until the afternoon started to grow long, the trees in the field across the way setting down fingers of shadow that stretched into the yard. He made dinner, covering a plate for Alice, and fed Erin one of the bottles from the ice box. He’d expected only one bottle in the icebox, but there was a neat dozen lined up nicely on the shelf. He put the baby in a sling and a handkerchief on his shoulder so he could burp her as he walked. She burbled and blew raspberries at him, and laughed when he made faces at her.

In the few blocks to Patty’s house, he sang to her and rocked her gently against his chest, and she pulled on the collar of his shirt to put it in her mouth. They found Patty sitting on her front porch with her husband, watching their gaggle of children run around the front yard. He leaned against their picket fence and waved.

“Howdy.”

“Howdy, Jesse, what brings you?” called Patty. “Come in, come in! Can I get you some tea?”

Jesse let himself in the gate and was struck instantly with a three year old hugging his leg. “Hey buckaroo.” he tousled the boy’s hair. “Aw shucks, Patty, your tea’s the sweetest in town, but I’m just stopping by to see if Alice were here. She said she’d be helping with the garden.”

“No, she hasn’t been around today– Jeremiah, you let go of Mr. Miller’s leg, now, he ain’t no tree– but Susan said she saw her in town this morning leaving the store, headed towards the depot.”

“The depot?”

“Alls that I heard.”

“Thanks Patty. John, good seeing you.”

John tipped his hat as Jesse let himself out of the gate and headed towards town.

By the time they reached Main Street, the sun was beginning to flirt with the clouds, introducing a warm yellow glow to the sky.  He asked at the general store and learned that Alice had bought bread, cheese, and some dried meat.

“Had me wrap them up, then tucked it all into that carpet bag she was hauling.”

Dread dropped like a stone into his stomach. “Carpet bag?” Erin whined against his shoulder as he tensed.

“Said she were headed to Oakie to visit her sister. You ain’t heard about it?”

Jesse bounced his daughter gently as he tried to compose his face into a lie. “Oh no, no, I– I heard about it, just forgot it was today, is all.”

“I’m sure she’ll be alright. Roads is pretty clear this time of year.”

“Yeah, yeah. Roads. Thanks Mr.Hopkins.”

Jesse walked to the carriage depot as quickly as he could without jostling the baby on his chest, but she whined and started crying weakly as he pounded through the door and rushed to the counter.
“Was Alice here today?”

“Sir, I’m afraid I can’t divulge client information–”

Jesse slammed his hand on the counter. “Damn it Jeremy, dont play with me! Did Alice come in today?” Erin began to cry in earnest.

Jeremy shrunk slightly. “I just started my shift, Jes, I ain’t seen your wife–” he looked up at Jesse and got an eyeful of scowl. “Yeah, yeah. Sure thing, lemme just…” He pulled the ledger from under the counter and drew his finger down the list of names, hand shaking. “Alice, Alice… Here. Alice Brown, left around noon today.”

“Brown?”

“Yeah, that’s her name, isn’t– Oh. Oh Jesse, I’m so–”

“Where did she go?”

“Looks like… the train station in San Antonio.”

Jesse ran a hand through his hair, the other pressed against his daughter’s back. “It’s fine, it’s fine. She’s just… visiting her sister. She’ll be back.” he shook his head as he walked out of the depot. “She’s gotta.”

Erin let out a piercing wail and Jesse finally seemed to acknowledge her distress. He cooed and rocked her, pressing small kisses to her head as he paced. “Shh, shh. It’s alright, baby girl. It’s okay. She’ll be back, we just gotta… we just gotta… get ahold of her. We’ll send your auntie a gram, yeah, see if we can’t find what Mama’s up to.” the girl’s cries died down with his reassurances, but she was squirming like a hungry pup.

Jesse patted his pockets and cursed under his breath. He wrapped his arms around his fussing child and kissed her gently on the top of her head. “Let’s go home, pumpkin. We’ll square this up in the morning. Clear our heads.”

They walked home as the sky faded from that indeterminable beige into deep blue. The last smudges of clouds glowed like dying embers, and Jesse’s feet dragged on the hard dirt of the road, stirring a cloud up in his wake that settled slowly back into the dust.

Erin fell asleep to the gentle sway of her father’s stride, so that when they arrived back home, the last dregs of day slipping from the sky, he was able to change her and tuck her into her crib with little fuss. Jesse stripped down to his johns and fell onto the bed nearby, leaving his clothes in a pile on the floor.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to relax. His muscles twitched. His eyes stared into the shallow black of his eyelids. The bed seemed too big and too cold. The room was too quiet, only the insects outside, the soft sounds of Erin sleeping, and his own breathing, which was growing steadily more haggard as he lay there. Jesse rolled onto his side and looked at Erin in her crib. So small, perfectly at ease. The thin dusk crept through the window and lit the contours of her pudgy face, one tiny fist curled beneath her chin.

Something glimmered on the bedside table, and he reached for it. His hand came back with something small, and he sat up to better examine it.

A ring.

He brushed a thumb over the pattern etched into the silver, the glint that had caught his eye. He didn’t have to look to know that the pattern matched that on his own. Jesse stared at the ring for a long moment before curling his fist around the tiny thing and bowed his head to his knuckles. His shoulders shook once, twice. His breath escaped him in a shaking rush. His nose stung and his eyes too dry. He swallowed only to find a lump clogging his throat.

 

He looked again at his daughter, so blissfully unaware. He wondered how long it would take the girl to forget. He wished he could forget as easily.

 

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