"I can't do it!" Jesse hollered, "I'm just too stupid!"
"Jesse James," Rachel snapped at him, "You are many things and if you keep trying my patience I swear I'll list them, but you are not stupid."
"I am!" he asserted, "Just give up already, I can't get it."
Rachel looked down to the slate with the failed attempts at multiplication and sighed but then she thought of something.
"Jesse," she said gently, "Maybe I'm not the best person to talk to right now."
She had a hunch that his confusion about the arithmetic lesson was only part of his blow up and that a woman might not be who he needed right then.
"Maybe one of the men," she paused and thought before adding, "Maybe Jimmy."
Jesse grunted and sulked his way out of the bunkhouse not even being able to delight in being reprieved from his homework. He was just plain stupid and what was worse; Lila Warren was the smartest girl in school. He also thought she was the prettiest but there was no way she'd ever notice a boy who couldn't even do his times tables. He'd surely never go tell this tale to Jimmy. What on earth could Wild Bill possibly know about girl trouble or school trouble?
It was no secret that Jesse idolized Jimmy. He claimed to want to ride for the Express but in reality he wanted to be deputized when Teaspoon needed someone he could count on like Jimmy was. He wanted to be that guy that no one felt fear around if they were his friend. And also the guy who everyone felt fear around if they were an enemy. He thought Jimmy might even be a greater man than his brother Frank and that was saying something. His greatest days were the ones where Jimmy found a little patience with him and let him hang around even if it was just talking while they did chores.
No, Jimmy was not the man to see about this problem but Rachel was right, he needed to talk to someone. He doubted anyone could get him past the fact that he was incurably stupid where math was concerned but maybe one of them would be able to figure a way he could get Lila's attention even though he could not match her smarts.
He thought of Buck. Sure, Buck didn't have a girl and few women would dare look openly at him but he saw the furtive glances they offered and most were anything but reproachful when they thought no one was looking. And Buck was smart and thought things through a great deal.
"Buck, do you have a minute?" Jesse asked while Buck was working in the barn.
"Actually," Buck said, "I was just finishing up here so I think I could even spare you five."
Jesse explained his problem in full to Buck. It was easy to talk to Buck. Jesse knew that Buck understood feeling not good enough. Jesse knew that was wrong and that Buck was a better man than most of the men women found acceptable but it didn't change how people made Buck feel about himself.
Buck leaned against the doorway to the barn while Jesse poured his heart out. He felt for the boy. Buck remembered Nellie Carson from the mission. She had been the first girl he had looked at and not been repulsed. She had also been the fist to teach him that he could be educated in the white world but never truly live in it. Nellie hadn't meant to be cruel and in some ways she had even been a friend to him but when it came to wanting to hold her hand the line was drawn and he'd had to be aware of that line every since.
"First of all," Buck said when Jesse had finally talked himself out. "You are not stupid and second of all, I think your problems with Lila taking notice might have something to do with your own confidence. You've convinced yourself that you're not good enough for her."
"I thought you'd understand, Buck," Jesse said sadly, "But I guess you just don't."
Buck knew somehow he wasn't explaining things right but he knew that there was someone who could maybe get Jesse to see this from the right perspective.
"I think you should talk to Jimmy," Buck said and watched as Jesse walked away.
Jesse thought about it. Two people had now suggested that he talk to Jimmy but he just could not bring himself to talk to his hero about something that would make him seem like such a dumb kid. He sighed and looked around seeing Noah sitting on the porch of the bunkhouse reading a book.
"Hey Noah," Jesse said and the forlornness of his voice made Noah refrain from shooing the boy away. He didn't agree with a good deal of the beliefs the kid had been raised with but Jesse hadn't treated him badly and that was a start to changing the hearts and minds of those who needed to change for the world to change.
"Hey there Jesse," Noah replied closing his book and looking up at the young man in front of him. "You look like a man in need of a friend."
"I was wondering if I could talk to you about something," Jesse said tentatively.
Noah nodded and once again Jesse poured his heart out along with all of his frustrations. Noah listened patiently and tried not to laugh. Sometimes the worries of a kid like Jesse were almost laughable compared to the problems faced by the rest of the world but Noah tried to remember being Jesse's age and a problem like Lila could seem like the absolute end of the world.
"I'm sure Lila doesn't think you're stupid," Noah said, "It's just math. You read really well. I know because you've read to me before and if you talk in class about what you read like you do to me here at the station, she's got to know you're smart."
"But she's good at everything," Jesse argued.
Noah did laugh at that, "No one is good at everything."
Jesse sighed as he figured out that Noah didn't get it either and the sigh told Noah that he'd not been able to reach the boy.
"You know who you should talk to?" Noah asked and then quickly answered himself, "Jimmy."
Jesse went into the bunkhouse where he'd started this whole trek and found Kid and Lou sitting at the table talking. They looked up when they saw him enter. Jesse didn't like the idea of talking to a woman about his problem but Lou was different. She was like a man but with a working knowledge of how women thought and Kid had Lou so he must know something about how to attract the attentions of a woman.
"Hey Jesse," Lou said as he sat down with his long face and looked at the table still deciding if he wanted to have this conversation with the two of them. He determined it was better than Jimmy. He just knew Jimmy would look down on him for his insecurities. Jimmy had none of those. He was never scared or unsure. Jesse didn't understand why everyone thought he should talk to Jimmy. He wouldn't have thought that they would want him teased that badly. Maybe he had misjudged them all. Maybe none of them had his best interests at heart. Maybe this was not the family he had believed it was. But he would give Lou and Kid a try. Lou had always been tender to him and Kid was one of the nicest people he knew. Surely they would try to help him themselves rather than send him to be humiliated by Jimmy.
"Hey Lou," Jesse said and then nodded over in the man's direction, "Kid."
"What's wrong?" Lou asked, "I heard yelling when you were supposed to be doing your schoolwork and here you sit looking like you lost your best friend."
Jesse was uncertain but looked across the table at the two friendly faces looking at him just waiting to help him. He sighed and began to tell them about the argument he and Rachel had gotten into and the real reason he was so upset and frustrated by his math problems. He left out that Rachel told him to talk to Jimmy. He went on to tell of his conversations with Buck and Noah and how they were of no help whatsoever. Again he left out their advice as to who he should speak with. Jesse finished speaking and looked up expectantly to Lou and Kid.
"Well," he said, "What should I do?"
"Jesse," Kid began, "I think you need to try something else to impress Lila. It's alright to not be good at all the same things."
"Kid's right," said Lou, "I never even considered whether Kid knew his times tables when I took a fancy to him."
"There's plenty of things that I'm not so good at," Kid added, "Lou's better but that's alright because there's probably a few things I'm better at than she is. That's why it works. We sort of complement each other."
"You're a charming guy, Jesse," Lou said, "You ought to try talking to Lila. If she can't see what a great guy you are, she's the one losing out, not you. You deserve someone who appreciates you."
Jesse couldn't believe these two out of everyone still didn't get it. He wanted Lila and if she didn't want him it wasn't just her loss it was his too. How could they not see that? He was so frustrated he almost thought to cry. Nothing was getting any better and he didn't know how to make it better and no one seemed to be able to help.
Kid and Lou looked at each other realizing their words had fallen on deaf ears. They nodded at each other to confirm they were thinking the same thing but before they could tell Jesse who could help him, Jimmy walked in.
"Jesse," he said, "Come with me please."
Jimmy let the door fall shut behind him and trusted that Jesse would follow. It was rare that he asked Jesse to do anything at all but never would the boy refuse anything Jimmy asked of him. Jimmy knew Jesse idolized him. It made him uncomfortable and furthermore he didn't want to take advantage of the boy's devotion to him. He actually had an affection for Jesse that most wouldn't have known. He rarely spent time with him and never really sought him out. But Jimmy had been walking across the yard when he had passed Buck and Noah talking and was quickly filled in on Jesse's need for advice and apparent reluctance to seek out Jimmy for help even though they were sure that Jimmy could help him if for no other reason than the fact that Jesse would put more stock in Jimmy's words than anyone else's.
Jimmy felt a little bad about Jesse not feeling he could come to him. He knew he sometimes snapped at the kid but still he didn't dislike him at all. Jimmy just didn't want to see Jesse make the same mistakes he had made. He had thought that if he distanced himself from Jesse that Jesse wouldn't have the temptation to be like him but he realized now that he had probably made Jesse think he didn't like him. So many things seemed to backfire on him.
He had paused outside the door until he heard Jesse come out and he started walking again with the young man on his heels. The pair walked in the opposite direction of town and they were silent for a while before Jesse spoke.
"Are you mad at me, Jimmy?" he asked earnestly, "Did I do something wrong?"
They had come to a small cluster of trees and Jimmy stopped walking and leaned against one feeling bad once again that Jesse would think the only reason Jimmy'd want to talk to him was if he was cross.
"No, I'm not mad at you, Jesse," he said as gently as he could but he knew he wasn't in near enough practice at talking gentle. "You ain't done nothing wrong either."
The poor kid just looked up at Jimmy completely confused. It was good that Jimmy wasn't angry but then why were they out there. He normally wouldn't question Jimmy giving him any sort of attention but it still left him confused because it just wasn't a normal happening.
"Jesse," Jimmy began, "How many people today have told you to come talk to me?"
"Three," Jesse answered reluctantly.
"And I'm guessing if I hadn't walked in when I did then it would have been five," Jimmy countered.
"Probably," Jesse said, "But I don't know why everyone kept saying to."
"Because they know me better than you do and they've known me longer," Jimmy said simply. "The knowing me longer part I can't do anything about but how well you know me is sort of my fault. You follow me like some lost puppy and I pretend I'm annoyed with you but really I'm scared for you. You are me when I still had choices, or when I still had good ones anyway."
"I don't understand," Jesse said.
"I know you don't," Jimmy replied, "Because I wouldn't have understood either if someone had tried to have this talk with me at your age. Why wouldn't you talk to me when everyone said to?"
"Because you're, well, you," Jesse tried to explain, "It'll sound like stupid kid stuff and you'd think I was just some dumb kid."
"Well, you are just a kid," Jimmy started, "I don't think you understand how lucky you are to be able to be a kid still either but you aren't dumb. I don't know why you would think that."
"No one told you?" Jesse asked.
"Of course no one told me," Jimmy said, "Buck and Noah just said that you had some problem and they thought I could help you best but for some reason you didn't want to come to me."
Jesse thought he surely must have misjudged Buck and Noah but still this left him having to relate the whole problem to Jimmy. He still didn't want to but then Jimmy was rarely like this to him so he thought he might as well chance it.
When Jesse was finished Jimmy smiled a little at him and Jesse immediately thought the worst so he braced himself for the teasing, the snide remarks or even the outright dismissal that he was not worth Jimmy's time.
"How much schooling did you get before you were living with that doctor?" Jimmy asked and the question surprised Jesse. He just looked up at Jimmy baffled.
"When you were home with your folks did you get to go to school regular?" Jimmy asked again.
"Not really," Jesse admitted, "There was lots of work to be done on the farm and even when I was too little to do the work, my brother was doing it and so he couldn't take me to school."
"Same here," Jimmy said, "At least you can read. I couldn't until just a bit ago. I guess I knew a little but not near enough. Try impressing a young lady when you can't even read."
Jimmy allowed his first laugh then but it wasn't at Jesse's expense as the boy had feared, it was at his own.
"You couldn't read?"
"No I couldn't," Jimmy said, "I would never admit this to anyone at the time but I thought I was too stupid to learn so I kept pushing it off saying I could get along just fine without it and it was a silly thing to know. I wanted to learn and once there was a young lady who wanted to teach me but I wasn't allowed to learn. Maybe that's why I thought I wasn't smart enough, I don't know. I still don't know my times tables but I'll bet I could learn them if I really wanted to and had the time."
"You are smart enough," Jesse said to him, "That don't mean I am."
"You're smarter than I am, Jesse," Jimmy told him, "But times tables don't solve the problem of Lila, now do they?"
"Well, if I could learn those then maybe she'd pay attention to me," Jesse asserted.
"I'm thinking to when I was your age," Jimmy said to him, "As I recall the boys spent more time trying to look tough in front of other boys than they did truly trying to get in good with the girls. Everyone wanted a girl and knew their friends would think they were really something if they had one but no one wanted to put himself out there and look like he was trying to win some girl's affections."
"I don't think I'm following you," Jesse said.
"Do you eat worms?" Jimmy said and Jesse thought the man might have just lost his sanity entirely.
"No," he answered tentatively.
"But you bait a hook with them when you fish, don't you?"
"Yeah," Jesse said still not understanding.
"That's because fish do eat worms," Jimmy concluded for the confused young man.
"But girls don't eat worms," Jesse said, "They eat the same things we do."
"The point is that girls like different things than we like," Jimmy said finally understanding how Teaspoon must feel most days. "Girls actually like it best when you just talk to them and listen to what they say. They like to be told they're pretty and they like pretty things. Forget trying to stun her with your knowledge of math and pick some flowers and talk to her. Tell her she looks nice and that her dress makes her eyes look pretty or something."
"You think that will work?" Jesse asked.
"It always does," Jimmy replied and then got an idea.
"You know, Jesse," he began, "I've got some extra time today. Maybe you and I can work at understanding those times tables together. I'll bet between the two of us we can get them figured in no time."
Jesse smiled at Jimmy. The man was still his hero and always would be but now he had even more reasons to nearly worship him. And even more reasons would come as the next day he would not only get high marks on his math test but Lila would agree to let him walk her home and carry her books and even hold her hand part of the way.