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The James Gang

[My nephew Jim died in 1992. He was twenty-four years old. Jim killed the mother of his infant child with a shotgun blast to the head, then committed suicide. Their daughter became an instant orphan. I was traveling to Iraq the day Jim died. Six months later, when I learned the sad news, the bad news, I wondered if his body count was more than two.–JTP]

Autumn 1988

“Hi, Uncle James.”

I was saddling my horse, a big, black, and beautiful Tennessee Walker named, appropriately, BlackHorse. I turned around and noticed my nephew Jim standing by the stable door. It was a chilly October day in Maine. Jim was wearing a pair of shorts. No shoes, no shirt, no pants – only skimpy, tattered shorts. Jim was twenty, a tall and lanky boy with unkempt blond hair. He looked like a coltish Kurt Cobain.

“Where the hell are your clothes?”

Jim had hitchhiked north from Baltimore, and it was apparent – considering his lack of clothing – that he left his hometown in a hurry. It would take a few more conversations with Jim before I understood why he decided to leave so abruptly. First, though, I had to buy him some new clothes, and a horse.

Getting ready to ride south, I had already checked all my equipment, and taken a few test rides to see how the extra weight affected BlackHorse. I owned a good tent and sleeping bag, and had purchased an old McClellan army saddle for its utility and comfort. Until Jim showed up, I thought I would be riding alone. Minutes after arriving in Maine, my nephew pleaded with me to go along for the ride. Equipping Jim with a horse, tack, and clothes cost a few extra days and dollars. The weather was getting colder, and I was anxious to get on down the road.

Nine years earlier, I plodded north from Maryland to Maine on a slow horse named Horse. BlackHorse could go all day at steady clip.

Jim and I rode west, heading for the New Hampshire border. We had only traveled about a half-mile when BlackHorse stopped in his tracks. He wouldn’t move. I dismounted, and called out to Jim to wait for me. I took the reins and led BlackHorse ten feet along the trail. No problem. I got back in the saddle, but my horse still balked. He did not move. I got off again, and repeated the walking down the trail routine. No problem. When I had to get off my horse’s back a third time, I was pissed. I wanted to ride, not argue with BlackHorse. I was wearing a tight pair of leather gloves. I held the reins in my left hand, then hauled off and hit BlackHorse squarely in the mouth with my right hand.

A sharp crack echoed through the woods.

“Are you crazy?”

I couldn’t answer my nephew right away. My hand was throbbing with some serious pain. BlackHorse stood calmly, head held high. He hardly moved at all when I hit him. I had connected with the metal bit in his mouth, and shattered most of the bones in my right hand.

“That was really stupid, Uncle James.”

Jim was angry with me. My hand hurt; so did my nephew’s words. But he was correct. I was stupid. My hand turned blue, then black. I shoved a stick into the pinkie finger slot of my glove, grabbed the reins and stepped up into the saddle. BlackHorse trotted away from the scene of his victory. It was an inauspicious beginning to a ride that would take some interesting twists and turns as Jim and I rode south from Maine.

A few days later, Jim told me about the murder.
* * *
“Did you kill her?”

“The police think I did.”

Jim and I were camped out in the woods of northern Massachusetts. It was our fourth day on the road. We were inside my tent, inside our sleeping bags, talking about why he had left Baltimore. The evening air was cool.

Jim’s girlfriend was found dead in a bleak warehouse in the northeastern section of Baltimore. Her hands were tied, and she had been shot in the back of the head. It was an execution-style murder. The police wanted to talk to Jim about the crime. Jim didn’t want to speak to the police. Instead, he hitchhiked to Maine.

“Did you kill her?”

“You don’t think I could kill anyone, do you?”

My nephew Jim still hadn’t answered my question, nor did I answer his deflective retort. I didn’t ask him a third time. Later, during our ride together, the subject of his running away from the police would be talked about, but we only discussed the details of the killing in Baltimore while camped out in Massachusetts. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about the girl who was killed so brutally. I couldn’t stop wondering why Jim refused to answer my question with an emphatic “no” when I asked if he killed his girlfriend. I knew I had a problem with Jim when we were invited to stay overnight at an old farm in the western part of the Bay State.

“You guys can stay in the barn. Don’t forget to feed your horses before you come in to eat.”

Jeanne was a woman in her mid-thirties. She and her husband owned a small farm. They had three children and a barn full of horses. When Jeanne saw Jim and I riding down a winding country road near her farm, she invited us to stay for the night. The invitation included dinner. Jeanne’s husband was away from home on a business trip. During the meal, Jeanne talked about the difficulties she encountered managing the farm when her husband was gone. Jim talked about horses. I ate the food and listened to the conversation. It was late when Jim and I finally wandered out to the barn and unrolled our sleeping bags. I was asleep within minutes.

I awoke early the next morning. It was still dark. The sun hadn’t yet risen above the horizon. I looked over to where Jim had unrolled his sleeping bag the night before. He was gone. His bag was on the floor, but Jim was nowhere in sight. I called out his name. No response. I got up and searched the barn. No Jim. I walked toward the farmhouse where Jeanne and her three children lived. I quickened my pace as I got closer to the house. I began to get worried.

Where the fuck was Jim?

As I walked up the back stairs, Jim opened the door and came outside. He had a sly grin on his face.

“Morning, Uncle James.”

“Jim, what were you doing in the house?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“You don’t belong in there.”

Jim ambled by me and headed for the barn. I opened the door to the farmhouse, and entered quietly. I was concerned about the safety of Jeanne and her children. I was in the dining room when I heard Jeanne coming down the stairs.

“Is that you, Jim?”

“No, it’s James.”

“Oh.”

Jeanne sounded disappointed. I was relieved. The woman was alive.

I said hello, then asked if I could use the bathroom. A lame excuse for being in the house, but Jeanne didn’t seem to care. She went outside and walked to the barn. I followed a few minutes later. Jim had saddled our horses. He was ready to ride. We said goodbye to Jeanne and her children, then left the farm as the sun was coming up. We didn’t talk much that morning and, after Jim explained that he had spent the night in Jeanne’s bed, he didn’t mention the incident ever again. Although I felt bad thinking something terrible had happened that night, I didn’t feel any remorse about my response when I noticed that Jim was missing in the morning.

Later that day, Jim telephoned his mother in Baltimore. My nephew learned that the police had charged him with the murder of his girlfriend. He wasn’t a reluctant witness any longer.

Jim was a fugitive.

***

We rode into New York State on horseback, but rode to Maryland in vehicles, shipping the horses south in a trailer. My mother – Jim’s grandmother – died in a nursing home in Baltimore, and my nephew and I decided to go there as quickly as possible. Jim traveled with the horses. I took a train. I don’t like funerals, but Jim wanted to attend the services. I was worried that the cops would also be in attendance, looking for the fugitive. He was lucky the police do not read obituaries.

I waited alone in a nearby motel until the mourning and the morning were over. Late that afternoon, I heard a knock on the door. Jim was standing in the motel hallway, saddlebags slung over his shoulder, ready to ride.

We left Baltimore the next day, riding west into the rolling hills of central Maryland. Late in the afternoon, we set up camp near a small river, then walked through the woods to a neighborhood bar. The locals stared and sniffed the air, but kept their distance and left us alone. Jim and I spent the evening drinking, smoking, and shooting pool. We talked about my mother, his grandmother. We told each other funny and sad stories. We laughed and we joked. There were no tears. Hours later, we stumbled back to our camp. Jim crawled inside the tent and immediately fell asleep. I checked the horses, then sat by the river and stared into the dark water.

***

The next day, the James Gang rode into a town only a few miles north of the Potomac River. Before we crossed over a bridge into Virginia, Jim and I decided to stop at a restaurant on the edge of town. We were hungry. I could stay in the woods for many days, eating out of a campfire skillet, but Jim was a growing boy who needed to fill his belly with huge quantities of greasy food. We sat at a table near the windows. I wanted to keep an eye on the horses. A waitress asked for our order. Jim asked for lots of food. I wanted a cup of coffee, black, no sugar.

When we entered the restaurant, I noticed a young woman standing near the horses. She was writing in a little notebook, and carrying a camera. While waiting for our meal to be served, I watched as the woman came into the restaurant, scanned the room, spotted me and Jim, then strode confidently toward our table.

“Hi, can I ask you some questions?”

I looked up at the woman. She was smiling. I was wary. I glanced across the table at Jim. He was smiling, too.

“Why?”

“I’m a journalist with the local paper, and”

“No, we don’t want to talk to you.”

Two smiles vanished as Jim and the journalist protested my curt reply.

“But”

“Why not, Uncle James?”

“Shut up, kid.”

Jim began talking to the journalist. I stood up, brushed by her, walked to the check-out counter, and paid the bill for the uneaten meal. I turned away, and didn’t look back as I left the restaurant. I walked to where the horses were hitched, untied BlackHorse, and stepped into the stirrup. Jim was running out the door of the restaurant as I swung my leg over the saddle.

“Wait up, Uncle James. What’s wrong?”

I started riding, south to the Potomac River and the state of Virginia. Jim got on his horse and chased after me. The woman journalist was standing in the doorway of the restaurant, fumbling with her camera, probably thinking that a picture is worth a thousand unspoken words.

“Shit, Jim. Don’t look back.”

Jim and I rode down the road, galloping away from the frantic, but determined journalist. When she was out of sight, hidden by a curve, I turned BlackHorse off the road. Jim followed. We rode deep into the woods. I wanted to make it difficult to be followed. I stopped at a small clearing about a mile from the road, dismounted, and tied BlackHorse to a tree. Jim did the same with his horse. It was very quiet until I exploded.

“What the fuck were you thinking. Jim?”

I ranted on about the stupidity of talking to anyone (including “journalists, especially journalists, dumbfuck”) about his adventures on horseback. I explained to Jim that the police might not read obituaries, but they do glance at the front page, and look at the pictures. A photograph of Jim appearing in a newspaper, distributed in a town only forty miles west of Baltimore, was not a good idea. After I finished chastising Jim, we got back on our horses and rode – in silence – to the bridge at White’s Ferry. We crossed the Potomac River, and rode up a wooded riverbank as a drizzling rain began to fall. Ground fog swirled around us, making it difficult to see anything in the distance. We decided to stop, and set up camp in the soggy woods.

That night, as Jim slept and snored, I sat outside the tent in a misty fog and thought about our predicament. I couldn’t see more than a few feet beyond the trees, but my insight was very clear. I understood, finally, the reality of our situation. When riding on horseback, free and easy-going, it wasn’t hard to forget that there is a functioning, modern society on the other side of the trees, a society that frowns upon the murder of young women. On horseback, Jim and I were the James Gang. However, if we were riding the roads in an old automobile, we would have been ordinary criminals: A young man wanted for killing his girlfriend, and a middle-aged man who was aiding and abetting a fugitive. Bad guys running from the law.

A few nights later, at a campsite south of Leesburg, Virginia, I told Jim to surrender to the police.

“Yeah, Uncle James. I’ve been thinking the same thing.”

Our long ride was over. The James Gang was as dead as Jim’s murdered girlfriend. I went back to Maine. Jim returned to Baltimore and turned himself over to the authorities. He was arrested. However, Jim’s parents had a lot of influence, and the police had very little evidence. Jim was released on bail less than a week after being jailed, and the case against him was eventually dropped. No one else has been charged with the crime.

[Portions of this story have been excerpted (and edited) from an unpublished book manuscript written during the harsh Balkan winter of 2002. I was living and working in Macedonia. Ice caked the sidewalk outside the stairwell leading to my first-floor apartment in Skopje, and drifting snow covered most of the roads. Moving around the city was difficult, so I sat down, shivering, in front of my computer and began writing some stories.]

JAMES T. PHILLIPS reported from Iraq, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Macedonia during an eleven year career as a freelance war correspondent (1991-2002). His final report, from Kosovo, was included in Imperial Crusades: Iraq, Afghanistan & Yugoslavia, by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair; published by Verso, 2004.

 

 

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