(Cards, Dutchman, Fox)
Jesse James was my second wingman in the early months of The War. And yes, that is the name he was born with. We called him Cards at first because he’s always shuffling them, but after he somehow managed to get ejected into space during training he got the name Dutchman. He’s one of those real good friends that you can meet after five years and pick up the last conversation where it ended. The Peloran named him Fox. He is Cowboy Seven.
Jesse James, no relation to the historical figure that I know of, was one of the most normal Cowboys we ever had. I have no idea how he got roped in with the rest of us crazies. He was an honest-to-God dirt-grubbing farmer from Kansas when Yosemite fell. Grew up not far from Old Fort Hays. That would be the city not the orbital defense platform. The prairie fires burned his farm to the dirt and he needed money to rebuild. That was his reason for volunteering to serve. I kid you not. He had no grand mission to kill every Shang he could. No tragic story of lost loved ones and swearing missions of revenge against those who wronged him. He just needed money to rebuild the farm. And somehow he got roped in with all the juvenile delinquents and rich Family kids that got routed to the Cowboys. God works in mysterious ways.
Jesse James is built like a comic book superhero. I’m not joking. Growing up on a farm is not easy. The weight of responsibility breeds hard men with strong muscles, broad shoulders, and chiseled jaws. In Jesse’s case at least. A narrow waist, brown hair the color of Kansas dirt, and bright blue eyes complete the look that most guys have to be sculpted to get. But the smile he wears most of the time causes most people to underestimate him. They think the only thing he’s in danger of annihilating is a good steak, like a regular Clark Kent or something. He actually grew a goatee to look a little bit more dangerous. He shaved that off after War’s End of course. But I’ll always remember him like that.
Jesse James had a superpower from Day One. No, it wasn’t being stronger than ten normal men. It also wasn’t being able to regrow lost limbs, though that had been rather useful to him. Farms can be dangerous places, especially during harvest time. The superpower I was thinking about, the one that made him unique in the Cowboys, was cards. Playing cards. I don’t think any of us ever saw him grab them. One instant they were in his pocket, the next they were in his hands being shuffled. And he always knew where every card was. If he dealt them, he knew. No trick like reading them first or any of that garbage. We could give him new cards, never let him examine them, just shuffle and deal, and he knew which person had which cards. Never saw anything like it before. It’s how he got his first callsign from us. Cards.
I first met Jesse James in Texas during our basic flight training course. It was a consolidated program, geared towards giving us basic ground combat and flight training, no matter what our final Military Occupational Specialty was going to be. We were all Ageless. That meant they could push us way harder than any normal training group. Which meant that we partied harder than the rest during our rare times to rest and relax. Not that we got much rest, you understand. Now Jesse’s favorite past time was cheating all the rest of us in card games. That is where I met him. The cards practically teleported into his hand and he knew where every card was when he dealt them out. I paid up after three hands, chalked it up to a learning experience, and told him I was never playing him with real money ever again. He accepted my declaration with good humor, and then saved the money to his “rebuild the farm" account. That was well played.
Jesse James was lucky in cards, but very unlucky in flight training. He was actually the first of us to breathe vacuum by accident. His training craft suffered a catastrophic malfunction that resulted in every flight surface locking open, every maneuvering thruster lighting off, and the main engines going to full burn. Then the cockpit opened wide a split second before the ejection seat kicked in and sent him flying off into the void without an emergency beacon. His flight suit’s air and energy reserves ran out before we tracked him down, and he spent the better part of an hour breathing vacuum. He was not pleasant looking when we dragged him inside, let me tell you, and any normal human would not have survived. But we Ageless are hard to kill all the way, so he healed up as good as new in a few days. That is when we started calling him the Flying Dutchman. Dutchman for short. Because we care like that.
Jesse James tested out well enough to become one of our original flight leaders back when we all thought we were going to remain a ground-based reserve squadron in Texas. They actually put Drew Keawe, a true First Princess of Hawaii under his wing. He never forgave himself for letting her die. But he shouldn’t blame himself. I was there. And I reviewed the footage. He did nothing wrong. She... was just surrounded by wrong places to be at the wrong time. He always says he should have done something to change that. To give her a chance. Don’t believe him. I know where he was, and I know what he could have done with the perfect vision of twenty-twenty hindsight. I doubt he saw it at the time. I know I wouldn’t have back then. And I know it would have killed him. I don’t blame him, and neither should anyone else.
Jesse James blames himself for the death of his first wingman early in The War. He could have saved her, you see. It just would have killed him. He has always wondered if he saw how to do it at the time and just didn’t because he didn’t want to die. I did not recognize his doubts at the time, but I pulled him onto my wing, along with our good buddy Ken Banno. The two of them covered my butt rather well and I was quick to give him good marks on all the paperwork we had to do. Then we managed to recruit some replacements for our losses at Alpha Centauri, and he got a new wingman. Louis Mattioli. He passed all of my tests, and everything suggested he and Jesse would be good wingmates. They were. Jesse commanded him well all the way up to Epsilon Reticuli. Yeah. Epsilon Reticuli.
Jesse James was a good flight leader from the very beginning. The Peloran named him Fox, and it really fit him. He wasn’t as flashy as people like me were. He was perfectly happy to sneak around and hit people where they didn’t expect to be hit. Now Louis Mattioli was Jesse’s second wingman. Louis was a Martian lawyer. Jesse was a Kansas farmer. Wouldn't normally expect them to work well together, but they did. All the way up to Epsilon Reticuli. We lost an entire fleet there. And Louis. I did not notice at the time just how hard that was on Jesse. He’d lost two wingmen by then, and he was truly starting to doubt himself. It was a good thing I left him to hold Serenity. It gave him a chance to slow down and recover his balance. He needed that time a lot more than I realized.
Jesse James commanded the heaviest defensive fighter formation on Serenity for months. He, Dawn DeMarco, and their twenty-four Avenger-class starfighters represented Serenity’s most powerful strike force until the Alliance could rebuild her fixed defenses. Yes, the Alliance did send battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and fighters to hold the orbitals, but Jesse and Dawn were the Cowboys that helped saved Serenity in the first place. So they were forced to accept the well-deserved praise and thankfulness of an entire planet. I understand the boys and girls were throwing themselves at their feet. Figuratively speaking of course. Or maybe not. It was several months of time away from the front that gave Jesse’s soul time to recover. And once Serenity’s defenses were rebuilt, the Fox came out to play again with all the capability we knew he had.
When Jesse James left Serenity to prosecute The War against the Chinese and their Shang allies, Dawn DeMarco remained on his wing. He was a farmer from Kansas. She was a highborn noble of Camelot, in the Avalon system. And once again, those two totally different people worked well together. Jesse’s pragmatism and the natural sneakiness of a farmer when it comes to getting rid of pests made him most capable of coming up with interesting and effective plans to kill Chinese warships. And he was an excellent teacher as well. He and Dawn became trendsetters in the art of sucking unwary victims into their traps, and twenty-four Avengers make a powerful trap when they pounce. Jesse regained his confidence in his ability to lead a flight during that campaign, and for that Dawn has my everlasting thanks and respect.
Jesse James led some of the most interesting Cowboy operations before the Hyades Cluster captured all of our attentions. Part of that was because Dawn DeMarco pulled him into all kinds of associations that a Kansas farmer would normally never see. He learned how to dress up in the highest fashions and mingle with the richest of Familyborn humanity from her, and it made them a perfect team for dealing with that crowd. I can’t tell you how many planetary governors or other rich and powerful members of society they brushed hips with at planetary balls, or how many they arrested for embezzling War funding. Seriously. Can’t tell you. Still classified. But they were instrumental in the effort to fund the rallying of the fleets at Sunnydale so we could launch against the Hyades Cluster.
Jesse James was rather unique in the time leading up to the Hyades Cluster campaign. His cybernetic intelligence had taken on a physical avatar in direct contravention of all United States military regulations. He encouraged her because of the nature of many of their missions, and Dawn DeMarco’s cyber followed her example. The number of weapons they could carry into a questionable situation was impressive. We Cowboys “did not notice” what they were doing at the time, and that quartet was so successful at completing their missions that the military brass “forgot to inform themselves” of the matter when the information absolutely did not come to their attention. The Fox and his minions truly did stand a great many policies and regulations on their heads. And many of the things we later did in the Hyades Cluster were a direct result of their actions before it.
Jesse James and his minions became our primary team for dealing with shady operations during the Hyades Campaign. If we thought someone was dirty, we called him to let out some rope and see who grabbed it. His team became the best little firecrackers we had when it came to searching out conspiracies and connecting with the various gangs and mafias and whatnots that often ran the streets. It was those extracurricular activities that they became known for. And if I’m being honest, Jesse and his minions really were the trendsetters when it came to the whole bad boy reputation my Cowboys got credited with. Not that I ever tried to pull him back, you understand. I joined in the festivities myself whenever I could. We all did. It was great fun, and it was effective. Jesse was amazing at mixing the two as often as possible.
Jesse James retired after War’s End. He took two decades of wages and winnings and anything else he could scavenge and went back to Kansas to rebuild his farm. Many of his people retired with him. They’d all seen a lot of things they wanted to forget, and he built an extra-large farmhouse for them. Basically a Cowboy Country of his own, where his people are always welcome. The rest of us can come too, but I always feel like a visitor there. Dawn on the other hand, that girl spends more time on the farm than she does back home on Camelot. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that her home is Kansas now. Jesse’s never complained about it, let me tell you. A more unlikely pairing I have rarely seen, but they still work well together.
Jesse James has remained retired in the decades since War’s End, but he continues to consult on cases when needed. Sometimes he even assembles full teams to go and search out mysteries or conspiracies that have reached his ears. Sometimes I’ve been the fool who asked for his help on a particularly interesting case. He always grumps about it, but I can tell he’s happy to get off the farm for a while. And he’s always happier to return home when he’s done. That man will never forget where he came from, and where he wants to be as long as he lives. I envy him that certainty. He’s a good man, an awesome friend, and a downright amazing Cowboy. And I owe him my life more times than I can count, even with my boots off.
Jesse James has no known relation to the famous historical figure, but he did prove to be an amazingly good Cowboy when the time came. He had literally bought the farm in his native Kansas during the decades of peace that followed Contact. He lived near the ancient Fort Hays where he grew winter wheat, grazed buffalo, and scratched a living out of the near desert that dominated Western Kansas. The burning wreckage of Yosemite Yards started a prairie fire that raged for weeks and devastated that part of the state. His farm did not survive. He had lost the investment of lifetimes of his family into the land, and he himself was penniless. He volunteered to serve because he needed money to rebuild the family farm. It was one of the more refreshingly honest reasons for serving that I ever heard. He impressed me.
Jesse James had no wish to live in space before The War began. His plan from the beginning was to invest his earnings back home, fight until War’s End and then retire back to his farm and rebuild it after cashing out his investments. It was a worthy plan, and one that I respected greatly. Much as I respected him. He may have joined Jack’s merry little band of hooligans, but he was always one of the more responsible of them. You could always count on him to have a plan when the stakes became high. And he had the courage and fortitude to see a plan through when it was hard, or to change it when it became necessary. He was a good Cowboy. One of the best. A part of me hopes to fly at his side again one day. But that would interrupt his retirement, and only a fool would wish to do that.