Friday, January 24, 2014

The Bandit Queen

Belle Starr—Google Images
The year was 1885. I fell in love, and married, Rosie Lee Reed.

When I first met her, Rosie was mucking out a stall in the livery stable. I had just ridden in to stable my horse. Her clothing was rough homespun, her hat tattered and her boots dusty and worn. But the trappings faded into nothingness when she turned and looked at me with those knowing eyes. She held her head proudly and tossed a dusky chestnut mane as if to remind me that gentlemen don't stare at ladies, and even if she wasn't a lady, Rosie Lee Reed didn't appreciate the stare.

I fell like a rock. I saw nothing, heard nothing, and considered nothing, but my beautiful Rosie. She was seventeen, I was twenty-two. I should have known better than to take the filly before checking out her bloodlines. In the end, it didn't matter.

Rosie's mother, Belle, was as shrewd a horse trader as anyone I'd ever met. When she sauntered in from the back paddock (one of the few times I ever saw her), and caught the smitten look on my face, and the interest in her oldest child's eyes, she was quick to encourage the match.

It turned out that in spite of her dress and her occupation, Rosie Lee was not poor. She was simply a tomboy, working and playing around her mother's livery. Belle was rough, but well-spoken for all that, the only daughter in a family of six, so Rosie told me. That touch of inherited wildness, that certain spark, made Rosie that much more attractive.

I was new to Dallas, and with the rosy glow of love for Rosie Lee serving to blinker my eyes, my ears, and my mind; it was only after the wedding that I discovered some of the truth about the family I had married into.

Rosie was vague about her father. He was dead and Belle had married a man named Sam Starr. Sam wasn't around and Belle disappeared a lot too, citing business, leaving the livery in the care of Rosie and a couple of old broken-down cowhands. Belle's place did a brisk business. She always seemed to have several extra horses available for sale plus what she earned from lodging others.

"They comes and they goes," was the cryptic comment of the locals. I was busy with my own little ranch, leaving Rosie to do the town chores. I shoved my concerns to the back of my mind until:

"Ma's in jail," announced Rosie one afternoon after returning from town.

"What! How?"

"Stealing horses."

That was all I could get out of her, though I could tell there was more. I rode into town. The place was buzzing. Belle had been gone for a long time, but the sheriff up north had telegraphed the news.

I wondered what other "secrets" about Rosie's family were public knowledge to everyone by me. I decided it might be time to ask a few questions. Since I couldn't get anything out of my wife, I went to the one person who should know: the sheriff.

"Well now, rumor has it that them horses that comes and goes ain't Belle's, but I cain't prove nothin', least ways 'til now. She got business in other parts that maybe ain't legal, neither."

He paused, eyeing me as if to gauge how I might respond.

"Could be Rosie Lee ain't Reed's daughter neither. Some say she belongs to one of them Younger boys they all was runnin' with way back. I ain't sayin' it's the truth, mind ya."

I was stunned. Horse thieves, murderers, robbers: this was my family. Belle had more men attached to her harness than I had dollars in the bank: Reed, two Starr brothers, the James boys, and the Youngers, plus who knew how many others.

Belle managed to keep herself out of jail—this time. It turned out she was a pretty good lawyer, better than whoever had defended her in '80 back in Detroit. That had cost her a year doing time up north.

But four years after I married Rosie, Belle Starr* was dead. Her killer was never identified.

For years afterward, Rosie Lee would ask me many times if I still loved her in spite of her family. Once the secrets came out she had a hard time believing that I didn't care who she had come from, but who she was.

Now, forty years later, as I kneel beside her grave, I tell her again: "As the good Lord's my witness, Rosie Lee, I'll never love another like I loved you."

*This story is loosely based on the known "facts" surrounding the life of Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen.

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