With one leg thrown across the shoulders of his saddle, Thaddeus stared at the sun hanging in the sky and then to the men surrounding him. Digging out a Durham bag of tobacco, he thought. ‘This is bullshit. When we break camp in the mornin’, I am headin’ home. Guardians of Missouri, my ass, all we do is shoot the shit, ride the legs off our horses, and beg food from families who treat us like fuckin’ heroes. Leastwise, I am damn well needed back home. This is a fuckin’ simpleton’s game. Dora is also right about Gabe out fuckin’ gallivanting and having a grand old time. He can sure as hell bet, I am pinning ‘em down about it next time we meet up. What utter bullshit him leavin’ me to work my ass off at Sienna, while he is doing this.’
Flicking ash from his quirley, he squinted at the smoke billowing, thick, and black against the clear blue sky like a peg-tied tornado. Hitching his boot back in the stirrup, he grumbled, “That cannot be good.”
“Huh? What?” Clyde grunted, raising his lolling head. Spying the smoke, he whistled sharply.
The others came to attention so fast, it was hard to believe, they were the same feed sacks on horseback, who had been drowsing along a second before.
Standing in his stirrups, Rance McGreen said, “I do not see anyone. Still, y’all sit cautious in your saddles.”
Before riding out from Harrisonville, the Cass Cavaliers’ Lieutenants had hashed out regions and divvied up men. Rance McGreen, along with the Massey cousins: Clyde and JT, Jimmy Gamble, Orville Riggs, Micah Stephens, Tad Crowe and Fox Northup were to patrol over and around Peculiar. Looking at them, Rance thought, ’JT and Tad are both green. I should have only taken one of ‘em.’ Frowning until his mustache pulled tight, he barked, “Keep your eyes and ears open.”
The Cavaliers spurred their horses; Cain’s sod-eating stride had him breezing by the others as if they were backing up.
Rance bellowed, “Tad Crowe, rein that animal in before you get your head shot off.”
With the wind whipping in his ears, Thaddeus caught the bark of Rance’s tone, but not his words, and looking back, he saw his pals falling behind. Hauling Cain in, the gray stallion set to bucking and by the time, Thaddeus brought him under control, the Cavaliers had flown by. Spinning Cain after them, he made sure to keep himself within the group.
On the far side of the field, the eight of them sailed over a split-rail fence landing in a wagon lane. The horses danced, snorting at the smoke emerging from the thick press of hickory trees.
Shifting in his saddle, Thaddeus peeked over at Fox, and seeing the long barrel of his pistol resting on his thigh, he wondered if he should do the same. But knowing how fast he could draw, decided against it. His green eyes darted all around taking in their threatening quiet surroundings a blind man’s curve looming up ahead. Thaddeus’ breathing tightened, ‘this might be it.’ Except when they came around the curve all that was there were late afternoon shadows streaking sharply through hanging smoke. Riding into the acidic cloud, a rash of goosebumps broke out across his skin. And the thought, ’maybe I should have stayed home like m’ frères told me.’ Leaning forward, he patted Cain’s neck, more for his own reassurance than for the horses.
Holding up a hand, Rance had the lot of them pull up behind a stand of red cedars.
Clyde slipped from his saddle, and creeping forward, disappeared in a stretch of tall dry prairie grass.
The smoke burned Thaddeus’ eyes and beneath him Cain’s muscles twitched. With each twitch, Thaddeus’ own muscles bunched tighter. Sitting there he became absorbed in watching swirling scraps of debris soar into the sky from the burning barn. So, when Clyde’s short whistle cut through the air it spooked Thaddeus, his jolting jump, startling Cain.
Seeing how skittish the pair was, Rance tugged his hat lower, his deep blue eyes glaring straight at Thaddeus, “Y’all pay attention!”
The Cavaliers nodded, entering the barnyard, they strung along behind Rance, letting him pick the path through the confluxes of heat; when a whooshing crash sent over half the horses leaping sideways.
Cain spun, snorting, and eye-balling the collapsing barn, Thaddeus hollering, “Jesus Christ!”
From his left, Clyde Massey said, “I can tell you this... he ain’t nowhere around here.”
Surveying the rampaged farm, Rance asked, “Ain’t this the Stark place?”
“I think so,” answered Jimmy Gamble.
Orville Riggs chimed in, “It is George Stark’s place.”
Edging past the fallen barn, where flames were shooting at least twenty feet into the air, Thaddeus could feel Cain’s fear; and for the first time wished he were on a more seasoned mount. Working the stallion in a series of tight circles to distract its mind, he hoped his own fear was not showing as clearly. When with a gasp he saw a body dangling from a tree, unthinkingly he kicked Cain straight for it.
Rance hollered, “NO!” while thinking, ’Damnation, it could rightly be a trap. That damn boy’s gonna get his self killed and by God, I will have to answer to Gabe. What the hell made me think I wanted ‘em in my unit!’
For the past five years, Rance McGreen’s border marauding had given him experience that made him a natural choice for a Lieutenant when the Cass Cavaliers formed. He enjoyed leading the Cavaliers. It allowed him to continue killing Yankees, except now he was treated as a hero for doing so. Although he soon discovered each rich man’s son who rode with the Cavaliers brought greater respect to the unit, there was also dark side to each of them joining. These high-rolling boys were often cocky, reckless or both. Forcing Rance into a position of being more their chaperon than their leader. The first lessons he had to get into their rash minds was how to ride wary guarding their lives from men who wished nothing more than to cut them down.
Rolling his eyes heavenward, he spun his horse after Thaddeus, hollering, “Scout the perimeter, make sure whoever perpetrated this ain’t still lyin’ about.”
Hungry, leaping flames roared from the Stark’s house, the heat and loud snapping causing Cain to rear. Leaping from the stallion’s back, Thaddeus ran toward the hanging man. As he drew closer he felt a cold shiver of fear when the fire’s heat encircled him, tightening his skin.
His green eyes were wide, almost feral, as they darted from the fibrous strands of hemp rope prickling from the hanged man’s bloody hands to his feet swishing above the withered grass. Then it came to Thaddeus, ‘he was not hung, he was left to strangle.’
Taking a step closer, he stared into the man’s pulverized, bulging face. He could smell the flesh roasting and swallowing hard, took another step, thinking, ’Par Dieu, let ‘em be fuckin’ dead.’
Then Big Mack, Rance’s muscled sorrel was between Thaddeus and the hanging man. “Fall back!” Rance hollered, slicing the rope. “Fall back, Tad. Ain’t no need to let it all soak into you.”
The body hit the ground with a squishy thud, its limbs sticking out in unnatural angles. Thaddeus’ eyes bulged. It was all too much. Gagging he turned, tripping on his own feet, he fell to his knees; retching and continuing to do so until he felt his insides were going to wind up on the outside. After a time, he sat back on his heels. His Mother’s crucifix slid across his chest, and digging it out, he rubbed the graven image beneath his thumb.
Hearing Rance approaching on foot, Thaddeus released a shuddering breath and lunged to his feet to face the older man.
Thaddeus nodded, the burn of embarrassment racing through him and yet it did nothing to relieve the chill in his bones.
“Spilling out your bread basket ain’t shameful.” Rance flung an arm off behind him at the others. “We all done it the first time we came face-to-face with such butchery. The trick, Tad is to let it settle in you. Let it become part of your gut, a part of your mind. Then you twist it. You twist it, Tad Crowe. You twist it into hatred and use that hatred when you need it. You do that and I guarantee, you will not be breakin’ down ever again,” Rance said, handing Thaddeus his canteen. “Go on and pull Mr. Stark away from the fire. I will send someone up here to assist you in burying ’em.”
Climbing back in the saddle, Rance looked to the crumbling house and shook his head. “It is a shame; he built his family a damn nice place here. Wonder where they are?” Taking his canteen back, he rode off.
Taking hold of Mr. Stark’s shoulders, Thaddeus hauled him a good distance, and squatting, he set to arranging the dead man’s outstretched limbs, when a blood-curdling scream filled his ears. And, he was under attack.
Balling up against a barrage of blows, he squawked, “Ma’am! S’il vous plaît, Ma’am!”
Small fists pummeled him, one connecting with his nose.
An eruption of pain exploded across his face, bringing instantaneous tears to his eyes and before she could strike him again, Thaddeus folded his attacker up in his arms.
The woman set to wriggling and screeching like a trapped coon. Freeing one of her arms, she twisted, reaching for his eyes.
“Ma’am!” he howled, craning away from her claw. Desperate, he flipped, the pair of them sounding like a bale of hay hitting the ground and the impact of his weight taking the fight out of her, reducing her screams to gasping sobs.
Rolling well free, his hand flew to his face, “Fuck, I think you broke my nose.”
“Tad move!” Orville ordered, and snatching off his hat, his thick curly hair mushrooming out in all directions, “Mrs. Emma Stark, ain’t it?”
Shoving her hair from her face, she revealed large, round, blue eyes that avidly searched Orville’s face from his thick mustache that grew down his chin, to his long upturned nose to his dull blue eyes, “Orville Riggs?”
“Yes ’um, Ma’am.”
“Why your elder sister, Marceline is married to my cousin, Victoria.” Her voice sounded distant and hollow as pushed herself into a sitting position.
“Yes ’um, Ma’am,” standing, Orville helped her to her feet.
She turned, staring open mouthed at the men surrounding her, her eyes halting on Thaddeus.
He stood a bit to the side, his right hand clasped below his injured nose with blood oozing between his fingers.
As she stared at him, a drop of blood spattered to the grass. She throatily called, “George!” Spinning and running for her husband.
Orville was too fast for her; wrapping his arms around her, he held her tight. “No, Mrs. Emma, those men they…” He pulled her to him, stroking her hair. “Shh, you gotta remember ’em as he was. You do not want to be seein ’em this way.”
She struggled against him then collapsed, crying to empty her soul.
“We will bury ’em for you.” Orville said. Feeling her nod against his chest, he nodded to the others, “Tad, you are with me?”
Walking away from the fire, Thaddeus hung back even as Orville eased Mrs. Stark to the ground beneath a row of young apple trees. Moving the kerchief from his nose, he thought. ‘What does Orville need with me?’ Dabbing at his nose and his lower lip jutted out. ’It has ‘bout stopped bleeding, but, fuck but it sure hurts something fierce.’
Mrs. Stark studied Thaddeus, standing a few strides away and taking a breath she called, “come here,” motherly patting the ground next to her.
During their scuffle, Thaddeus had lost his hat and his long bangs were hanging in his face.
When he hesitantly took a seat, Mrs. Stark pushed his bangs aside, giving him a small, sad smile, “Why you are nothing but a boy.” Laying her cold hands on either side of his face, her eyes welled with tears again, “a boy.” Then quick as a darting bumblebee, she brought her hands together, pinching and aligning the bridge of his nose.
“Ouch!!!” He roared, falling over, tears flooding across his cheeks and his empty stomach flopping like a bucket rolling down a hill.
“Had to be done,” she said, pulling him upright. “Let me see you,” she reached to stroke his face.
He flinched back.
“Shhh, I won’t hurt you again. But it had to be straightened so you could breath right.” She tucked his bangs behind his ears, pulling him into a warm embrace, “Your Mother must be frettin’ herself ill over you.” Her eyes drifted to Orville, “I ain’t seen my boys. They were out workin’ the field with George.”
“They be all right, Mrs. Stark.” Orville said, pointing to the drive gate where JT was entertaining two small boys.
“Not Harry and Marc, I knew they were safe, but my older boys.” Tears dripped from her face to pool along her collarbones as she clung tight to Thaddeus. “Y’all gotta go home, I tell you, I know you are breaking your Mothers’ hearts.”
Worming his way free, Thaddeus climbed to his feet.
She looked up, shielding her eyes against the evening sun, her lips ruby red against her pale skin, “What is your name, boy?”
“Well, Tad Crowe, I apologize for attackin’ you.”
He nodded, “I will be all right, Ma’am.”
“Yes, you will.” Her lower lip trembled, “I would say you ain’t any older than my Samuel; he turned sixteen in April.” Tears overflowed from her blue eyes as she said this. “My boys were out in the south field branding calves. They were with George.” She began rocking, her words erupting in choked gasps and Orville dropped down wrapping her in his arms. “Y’all find me my boys, you tell Samuel, Will and Jeb their Mother needs them.”
Thaddeus turned to do as she said.
When in a half-frenzied cry, she hollered, “Then you go home Tad Crowe, go home to your Ma.” Her eyes swung round to Orville. “You ought go home to, you ain’t that much older then ’em Orville, do make your Mother’s feel this way.” She collapsed on the ground keening.
Thaddeus locked eyes with Orville, who swallowed so hard his Adam’s apple bobbed up-and-down. “Mrs. Stark…” he touched her back.
She inhaled deeply, “go find my boys.”
The pair of them went to do as she said and as Thaddeus walked away, he could not help but think, ‘Mrs. Stark was right, Mams would not handle me being killed out here.’ Having retraced his steps, he whistled for Cain and retrieved his hat.
Thaddeus, Orville, and Fox rode to the south field, unfortunately, finding Emma Stark’s sons had been too easy. Hooves had ripped and flattened the grass around her boys, churning the dark dirt so the area they were able to spot the location from a good ways off. As they drew near, a handful of calves still milled woefully, bawling for their stolen mothers.
Cain snorted, rolling his eyes at the coppery scent of blood. Soothing him, Thaddeus dismounted and crossing the trampled grass, his gut tightened. Feeling sick again, he closed his eyes. Breathing deep, he focused on the burn Rance had spoken of until he felt his anger building. Opening his eyes, he saw there was a branding iron at his feet, stepping over it, he stooped to roll the eldest boy over.
When he did, he knew it was Samuel and his Mother was correct, they were the same age.’ For a long drawn out moment, Thaddeus stared at the black powder burn on Samuel’s forehead around the purplish hole. Picking up the rocking S branding iron, he hefted it, ‘You must have rushed them with the only thing you had.’ With a howl, he flung the iron across the field, dragging a hand across his face, he bent again, this time closing Samuel’s staring eyes.
The other two Starks lay no more than eight feet away. The youngest, Jeb was beneath his brother. They too had dark hair and Will’s face wore a frozen expression of horror. ‘The bastards shot’em at least twenty times... shot’em to pieces like it was a fuckin’ game.′ Thaddeus’ gut twisted, there was no lurch, only a searing burn that made him feel cold. The coldness became a strength in itself; reaching out he closed Will’s mouth, silencing the eternal scream etched there.
Clyde was approaching him and Thaddeus shook his head at him, striding off for his horse. Taking one final look at the three dark-haired brothers, he mounted Cain, riding back to what remained of the Stark farm to tell their Mother.
They had done what they could for Mrs. Stark, which included burying her husband and three boys. But, it all felt like so little too late. It had left Thaddeus feeling empty. Now, hours later, he shivered in the cold, damp darkness.
In his dream, the three brothers they laid in the graves had not been the Starks, but he and his own brothers. Climbing from his bedroll, he rubbed his face and when he came touched his broken nose, he nearly fell to his knees. Breathing deeply, he snagged up his holster, buckling it on, ‘I am damn-well done sleeping.’
Walking into the darkness, he released a long, low warbling whistle to float on the wind like the cry of a lost soul. The hoot of an owl rose up. Switching direction, he let go, a quick one-note whistle to alert the night sentry of his approach.
Orville emerged partway from a clutch of young oaks, whispering, “is it three already?”
Ducking in next to him, Thaddeus answered, “Non, I cannot sleep. Ain’t much fuckin’ sense in me just lyin’ there staring at the damn stars. I will take over. Go get some shut eye.”
“Thanks.” Orville said, patting Thaddeus on the shoulder. He stretched with a groan, walked a few steps, and turned back, “You all right, Taddy?”
Thaddeus bristled. No one outside his family called him by his child’s name any longer, “Why the fuck would I not be?”
Orville came back, squatting next to Thaddeus under the low hanging limbs, “You got a full dose today. I have been ridin’ patrols most of a year and the Stark farm… that was a rough one.”
Thaddeus rubbed at his temples.
Orville sat silent for a good while, “Geez Taddy, when I rode up on them Stark boys, like they was… them being dark-haired like they was and all. I found myself wishin’ Gabe were on this run with you.”
Thaddeus nodded, chewing at the nail of his index finger, recalling again how the three brothers looked together, “Why the hell do you think they murdered his boys?”
“Not sure.” Orville spit tobacco juice through a gap in the limbs. “It sure was wrong, is all I know. That youngest, Jeb, when I laid ‘em in the ground... I thought he could not have been more than twelve.” In the silvery light of the full moon, Orville could see Thaddeus’ green eyes shining like wet grass.
With a sigh, Orville sank against the trunk of the largest tree. “It was damn wrong,” he mumbled, removing his wad of chew and throwing it off in the tall grass. “Not only did those bastards take all the stock. Mrs. Stark said they looted her home before burnin’ it. That and they kept on at George about when he last rode with Baker, Clayton, and Greenwood; and where they could be found.”
“Clayton… William Clayton.” Thaddeus asked.
“That is who I figured. He is from your neck of the woods, ain’t he?”
Thaddeus’ throat had gone dry.
“Well, do not worry too much.” Orville knocked Thaddeus across the shoulders. “Them raiders care little for venturin’ too deep into Missouri and they steer clear of large towns like Harrisonville.”
“You think so?”
“It was they have always done. Nope…your hometown is safe. I know it is.” Orville declared, stretching out his long legs and throwing his hat on the ground. “Know what else?”
“I am plenty comfortable right here. Do not think I will bother with a bed roll tonight.”
“Orville, I am fine. Go on fuckin’ back to camp.” Thaddeus said, loosening his Remington in its holster.
“Oh, I never figured you weren’t. Like, I said I am comfortable. Besides, I thought perhaps you might tell me how Lafayette is.”
“What for, so you can run ’em down the pole like all the other fuckers have?”
“Why no, I miss jawin’ with ‘em over a poker game. Bet he is cleanin’ the tables down in Louisiana. Taddy, I ain’t never spoke one word against that brother of yours. Hell, it were y’alls Pa had him escort your Sisters to New Orleans. What else was Lafayette supposed to do, fight y’alls Pa? Them that is jackin’ their damn jaws about ’em, well they ain’t worth a Mormon prayer. Big old fools is what they are, ‘cause any man who knows Lafayette knows he is as far from what they is sayin’ about him as a polecat is from a kitty cat.”
Thaddeus pulled a small branch from the tree and began breaking it to pieces.
“Tell you something else. Ain’t a one of them jackasses who will not be singin’ a different tune when his boots hit Missouri soil. That brother of yours, he might talk fancy, he might be god-awful scrawny, but he is one hell of scrapper. He ain’t do not hold back or play by rules for that matter. When he bows that head to fight, he plans on keepin’ score.” Orville grinned at Thaddeus. “I sure would not want to tangle with ’em, nope, not ever.”
Thaddeus grinned over at Orville, the anger leaving him altogether.
“Fact is I ain’t heard much about any of your clan lately. We got us time, so you go on and give me an ear full.”
Thaddeus stared out into the darkness and began talking, rambling on, telling Orville anything that came to mind. The more he talked, the more the images of the day slipped away. After a bit, he heard Orville snoring, but he kept right on talking while waiting for the sun to rise so he could put it all behind him.