A Story Written in a FLASH!

Inspired by Flash Fiction Friday prompt words.

Just Another Lie

Dark clouds divided the sky, like tumbleweeds trapped in barbwire divide the prairie. Saddling Pepper and galloping away from the barn seemed like a good idea an hour ago. But now, Jesse reined in the wet Appaloosa.

“Take it easy Pepper.” His soothing voice calmed the horse as he guided him under a big oak known as The Hangman’s Tree. He swung his leg over the back of the saddle and gripped the horn until he was ready to slide to the ground. Jesse was tall for eight, but 15 hands was a long drop and he landed hard.

He sucked in a shaky breath, tucked his chin to his chest, and muttered, “I’m in so much trouble.” The thump of his forehead on Pepper’s neck echoed his guilt.

“I’m sorry I didn’t spread fresh straw in your stall.” His hand slid through Pepper’s silky mane. “You aren’t mad at me, are you, Pep? Not like Pa when he finds out I lied.”

The Appaloosa’s mane ruffled as he shook his head and nudged Jesse with the soft whiskers of his muzzle.

“Thanks Pep.” Jesse patted the horse’s jaws and glanced down the road toward home. He shivered and plopped down beside the ancient tree. The rough bark chafed his back like Grandma’s scrub brush on Saturday night. He wrapped both arms around his knees and gripped Pepper’s reins snug in his hands. “I can’t ever go home after running away. Pa’s gonna be madder than tarnation.”

Jesse looked up into the branches of The Hangman’s Tree. According to his big brother, fourteen outlaws had been hanged here. Frank said, “See those gouges? Those are from the ropes digging into the bark as the outlaws kicked and jerked until they were dead.”

A shudder rattled Jesse’s shoulders. Why did I lie to Pa? He rested his head on his knees and closed his eyes.

***

Jesse jerked in fits while rough hands slipped a noose over his head. A masked cowboy ranted about horse thieves, and raved about ranch hands who didn’t earn their pay.

“You can’t hang me!” Jesse spat the anguished words. “I didn’t kill nobody.” He tugged against the rope that secured his hands. “Please, mister, I’ll do my work.”

A strong hand gripped his shoulder. “Sit still. You’re gonna hurt yourself.” The firm voice, like a kick to the chest, stopped Jesse’s breathing. He gasped for air, and reached for the nonexistent noose, glaring at the head silhouetted by the moon.

“What the hell are you doing out here?” Frank released his little brother’s shoulder and stood up, the moon now lighting his face.

Jesse blinked and sucked in gulps of cool night air. “Franky! I thought you were—”

Frank snickered. “You thought I was gonna hang ya? Well, maybe I should. Everyone has been out looking for you.” He stretched a hand out to his little brother.

Jesse’s voice quivered as he gripped Frank’s hand. “Is Pa mad at me?”

“Of course, he’s mad. Ma’s all worked up and blaming him for whatever made you run off.” Frank boosted Jesse into the saddle. “Why did you run away?”

“Um. Um.” Jesse tucked his chin and sucked in a big breath. He looked into his brother’s eyes. “I was afraid Pa would find out I lied.”

“Well, that must’ve been some whopper.” Frank mounted his own horse. “What did you lie about?”

“I told Pa I finished my chores.” Jesse hung his head, avoiding his brother’s burning gaze. “But I didn’t straw Pepper’s stall.”

Frank reined his horse in a circle and sidled up close to Pepper. He placed a hand on Jesse’s saddle horn. “You didn’t steal nothing or break one of Ma’s fancy goblets or sneak off to kiss a girl?” His head fell back and boisterous laughter cut through the night.

Tears filled Jesse’s eyes. “I didn’t do none of those things, but I lied.”

“Wow. You’re something else, little brother. Pa doesn’t even know you lied.” Frank backed his horse away from Pepper. “Just don’t tell Pa, and he won’t have any reason to be mad.” With a kick to the gelding’s flank, he rode off toward home.

Pepper stepped from foot to foot. Jesse slouched in the saddle. If I don’t tell Pa, he won’t know that I lied. The moon reflected off his sixteen-year-old brother’s back until he rounded the bend, out of sight. I can tell Ma and Pa that I went for a ride and got caught in the rain. Then nobody will be mad. He turned the horse toward home. But that’s just another lie.

Jesse loped Pepper back to the barn where he scattered the half bale of straw he’d ignored that morning. After wrestling the saddle onto the rack, he took his time currying Pepper’s spotted hide. With a final stroke he said, “Good night, Pep, I guess I best go to the house.”

As soon as he opened the kitchen door, his mother rushed to hug him. She smelled of fresh bread, and Jesse’s stomach rumbled. Over her shoulder, he locked eyes with his brother, who raised his eyebrows and clamped a hand over his mouth.

His father waited at the table, a foot tapping on the floorboards.

“Are you okay? Are you hungry?” Ma held him at arm’s length, her hands warm on his shoulders. The tapping of Pa’s foot seemed louder.

“Come over here, son.” Pa’s foot went silent. “Where have you been?”

Ma gave Jesse a nudge, then crossed the room to stand behind Pa.

Jesse stared at his boots, and then glanced at Frank, whose head shook slightly from side to side.

“Well?” Pa leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his eyes level with Jesse’s.

“I, I…” Jesse swallowed, clenched his fists and lied. “I got caught in the rain…”

***

Epilogue: That lie led to many. Jesse and Frank James were notorious for their lies, bank holdups and train robberies.