Down the valley echoed gunfire, a sound so precise it plucked a chord deep inside a man, letting him know if he were courageous or a coward.
Fox straightened in the saddle, “Whooooeee! Y’all hear that.”
“Heard it and ready.” Rance McGreen hollered, laying heels to his big sorrel horse, “Cavaliers let’s ride,”
Dodging trees, and ducking limbs, a steady thrumming beat of eagerness spread through Thaddeus. Pulling his Remington, a grin took over his face when all of a sudden they broke cover. Hot sunlight blinded the Cavaliers, and swerving, they veered around the staggering, exhausted, riderless horses before them.
Leaning forward, Thaddeus let loose a rebel yell as Cain soared over a drunken fence.
Behind this fence, men wearing Southern dress coats, leathers, and linsey wool shirts hunched low, taking pot shots at the blue coats; who believing they had run their prey to ground were cheering easy kills. Except now with reinforcements swarming the field, the Federals were scattering like a covey of spooked quail.
Cain surged forward, ramming into the nearest horse, placing Thaddeus alongside a man clad head-to-toe in blue wool.
The man turned; a cloud of smoke spewing from his pistol barrel.
The hours of target practice took over and Thaddeus’ left arm swung, this time a spray of blood letting him know he had hit his mark. Astonished, he watched the man tumble away, thinking, ’You killed ‘em.’ The words sounded odd.
He was circling Cain around the crumpled body, when a lead ball hit his saddle. Jerking, Thaddeus fired at a man bearing down on him. The rider rolled from his running horse, grotesquely flopping along the ground until he skidded to a halt.
Before Thaddeus could consider what to do next, a bay horse crashed into Cain. The impact spinning the stallion and Thaddeus a glimpsed a saber aimed at separating his head from his shoulders. Crouching, he flailed out with his Remington and by sheer luck, buffaloed the saber wielder, causing the man to list to the side like a child’s toy. Yanking his foot from a stirrup; Thaddeus kicked the man, sending him flying to the hard-packed dirt.
Shaking from the ferocious speed of the encounters, he spun Cain, trying to decide his next move when he spotted a large bearded man taking aim at the pair of them.
The man’s long rifle barrel bounced in time with his rapidly approaching horse. Thaddeus raised his arm, squeezing off a shot, followed by a second.
He saw the man flinch, even as his rifled boomed across the distance separating them and Cain reared, his black stockings striking the sky.
“Did he just fuckin’ shoot Cain?’ Thaddeus thought, and bending forward, he saw blood streaming across the big gray’s heaving shoulder.
Then all at once, everything was pain and the ground was racing up to embrace him. The impact jarred him making the world feeling wobbly and far away. With a grunt, Thaddeus forced himself to move and rising unsteadily to his feet, he saw the same man was coming back for him. Raising his Remington, he lurched, running backwards. Yet oddly, the moment he squeezed the trigger, his feet left the ground, he was floating... and time paused.
He could smell horses, crushed grass, and cordite. Above him, fluffy, white clouds filled the bluest sky, he had ever seen. Then he slammed to the ground; pain ran through him like it was trying to escape out the tips of his fingers and toes. Balling up and rocking to his side, he found himself nose-to-nose with a man. It took a second for his mind to wrap around the fact that the man’s face was little more than pulp and blood. Crying out, he lunged up, only to have the blood-slick grass send him crashing back to the unforgiving hard prairie earth. Lying there, wheezing for air even as he willed himself to move. With each gasping half breath his enemy came closer.
“You Missouri puke, you shot my ear off and my horse dead.” The man stated as calmly as speaking of the weather, and with a twisted sneer, he leapt atop of Thaddeus pinning him to the ground.
Fear rose him to the point he felt like he was choking on it. The part of him, he seemed able to move were his eyes. They darted from the gory remains of the dangling ear to the thick, white scar dividing his attacker’s face. Gulping for air, Thaddeus knew he was done. Then he recalled his Remington and smiled, lifting his left hand... to find it empty. Terror ripped through him, frantic he began bucking wildly beneath the larger man.
The scar-faced man jammed a blade to Thaddeus’ throat. “Hold still, damn you!” His small, close-set eyes scanned the battlefield before returning to Thaddeus, “Seems they has all drifted east.” Then he smiled, the scar pulling the expression into a gruesome sneer. “How lucky for me, we has been left all alone.” Pushing his girth tighter against Thaddeus, he licked at his lower lip, “I really liked that little mare. Stole her from a Pawnee and you killed her. For that matter, I was also partial to my ear.”
Moving the blade snugger underneath Thaddeus’ square jaw, the faced man studied Thaddeus’ boyish face, licking his lips again. “My, my, but under them bruises you sure is pretty one,” he said. His words came out in a half moan as he ground his hips against Thaddeus, “yeah, thinking it might be worth dragging you off to them cedars, fully take my pleasure out of you as payment.” His friend hand turned Thaddeus face to the side and he ran his tongue along his cheekbone. “Cannot hardly think, how I might want to start.”
“Well, I can.” Thaddeus growled, ramming his knee into the man’s groin, slithering backwards, “with you gettin’ the fuck off me!”
“Not a bad try.” The big man laughed, snagging hold of Thaddeus’ right leg, “Not bad at all, but I ain’t out of the game, Boy, although you is damn close. Course, that ain’t ’till after I get my fill of you.”
Kicking desperately with his free leg, Thaddeus twisted, clawing at the grass, his heart pounding against his ribs, choked cries escaping from him as he slid towards the man.
The man cackled, “Looks like I am gonna need to take a bit of the fight out of you, afore I can enjoy myself.”
Panting for air and feeling there was none; Thaddeus raked his teeth over his lower lip striving to keep his fear from taking over. It was in then his palm settled on something he recognized. Grasping hold, he brought up the specially made, nickel-plated Remington.
His attacker’s eyes bulged and he lunged for the pistol.
With a scream tearing from his throat, Thaddeus fired.
A perfect hole appeared in the man’s forehead and with a rasping groan; his dead weight collapsed, crushing Thaddeus.
Turning his face to the side, he lay panting, feeling warm blood drip on him. He thought he might be ill, and closing his eyes, he willed the feeling away. Then, with much squirming and shoving, he at length freed himself.
Crawling a distance, he lumbered to his feet, spinning in a circle, taking in everything and nothing all at once. He saw no one. ‘Is it over?’ He heaved out, ”Merci Dieu.” Limping further from his attacker, he dropped to the ground, muttering, “par Dieu,” and set to replacing the spent cylinder on his revolver.
Laying the loaded Remington down, he got out his smoke fixings. Taking a deep breath, he realized his throat hurt. He thought maybe it was from breathing the hanging cloud of smoke, but knew it was more likely from yelling. ‘I do not fuckin’ recall hollering that much.′ He thought, frowning at the blood he was getting all over his rolling paper. Shaking his head, he placed the quirley in his mouth anyways.
He released another heaved out breath, sticking a finger in his ear trying to lessen the annoying whine in his ears, thinking, ‘Need to whistle Cain up, see how bad he is wounded.’ Except, he did not move, he sat right where he was releasing thin streams of blue gray smoke and recalling he was injured, he felt of the ragged cut along his neck and the squashy lump rising behind his right ear.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph look at you!”
Thaddeus jumped, reaching for the Remington, and squinting up at the man whose dark shadow was covering him. Then he cracked his crooked grin.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“How did you know I was here?”
Gabriel pointed to Cain, a little ways off and offered a hand.
“Oh.” Thaddeus replied, letting his eldest brother pull him up.
“Damn it, Tad, how much of that blood is yours?”
“Far as I can tell…” Thaddeus said, flashing his reckless grin and holstering his Remington, “Not much.”
Looking his little brother over, Gabriel smiled, grabbing him in a hug, “Damnation, when I saw Cain’s empty saddle, I could hardly think straight.” Releasing him, he punched Thaddeus in the shoulder, sending him stumbling, “What the hell are you doin’ here, I know you been told to stay at home.”
Pursing his lips with his brows furrowing, Thaddeus limped off toward the big gray.
“You hear me?”
“Yeah, but you ain’t goin’ like my answer.”
“Since, you ain’t supposed to be here, I surmise you are damn-well correct. Still, I want to hear what you got to say.” Gabriel said and striding past Thaddeus, he snagged Cain’s reins, placing himself between the horse and his brother, and crossing his arms. “Spill it!”
Thaddeus’ rubbed at the side of his eye, “I ain’t got a good reason,” he said and recalling the Stark brothers, he pulled his crucifix from beneath his shirt, rubbing its graven image.
Reading him, Gabriel uncrossed his arms, “Looks to me like you might have seen one or two reasons though. It ain’t all high adventure and shooting the shit, is it?” he asked, handing over the reins. “Damn it, Tad, why for once could you not do as you are told?”
Not wishing to be lectured he focused on inspecting the bullet crease above Cain’s breast collar.
“How many ways, I need to tell you, this here countryside ain’t what it used to be. Damn it to hell, if’n you would give any of us half a mind… well fuck, I just…” Gabriel huffed, looking across the field of dead. “You are still young and I did not want you to be part of this.”
Thaddeus threw a scowl Gabriel’s direction.
“You best break off lookin’ at me that damn way, Squirt,” Gabriel snarled. “Damnation, it ain’t like I am speakin’ poorly of you. I just did not want your crossin’ to manhood to be a baptism of blood. Hellfire, Tad, like always, you had to have your own fuckin’ way of it.” Gabriel snatched off his hat scrubbing at his short, cropped hair, “What you have seen has changed you forever. Ain’t nothing ever goin’ to make you what you were before.”
Leaning into Cain’s warm neck, Thaddeus inhaled the horse’s salty scent staring at the gray clouds moving in. Barely hearing his brother as he saw the dead at Stark’s farm along with those he had just killed, all over again.
Tapping him on the shoulder, Gabriel handed him a kerchief, “Wipe your face.”
Thaddeus took it, looking quickly away.
“Hellfire, you are about painted red.” Gabriel said, clapping a hand on his brother’s shoulder. The blood Gabriel was speaking of was streaking like grease paint down Thaddeus’ face, as tears dripped from his jaw.
Exhaling, Gabriel left his brother to collect himself.
The storm front was moving in quickly, the clothing of the dead fluttering like errant pages of a dropped book as Gabriel stripped them of weaponry, loading materials, and anything else of value. At length, hearing horses approaching, he stood as Thaddeus rode up with his own mount, Artorius in tow.
Shoving a handful of coins into his pocket, Gabriel picked up a dozen knapsacks, five holsters, and a rifle; all of which he loaded into his oversized saddlebags; sensing Thaddeus’ eyes boring into him, he squinted at his brother over Artorius’s rump and asked. “You feelin’ the need to get something off your chest?”
“You are fuckin’ stealing from the dead.” Thaddeus said, but as he did his voice trembled, upset at his weakness, he looked away, sucking hard at the insides of his cheeks. “Fuck and damnation Gabe, it makes you as lousy as them fuckin’ Jayhawkers.”
Pulling a twist of tobacco from his pocket, Gabriel cut off a chunk and began chewing methodically. Without a word, he took Artorius’s reins and mounted. Spinning the big blood red gelding, he took out in a fast trot toward the other Partisan Rangers gathering near the fence. Not hearing Thaddeus following, he pulled up, spit and called, “You coming?!”
Not waiting for an answer, he kicked Artorius into a run but when he heard Cain’s hoof beats behind him, a smile creased his face, ‘Well, if’n he is willin’ to follow, might mean he will be willin’ to listen.’ Reining in amongst the Rangers, Gabriel shouted, “anyone in need of a rifle or supplies?”
Clyde Massey held up a hand and riding over, Gabriel tossed the rifle to him.
“Thank you, Capt’.”
Gabriel nodded, passing out the knapsacks and holsters as he circled through the Cass Cavaliers. He noted a few of them looked banged up. Still, there were no empty saddles. Pulling in next to Brody Johnson, he asked, “How is that hand?”
“Hurts a might bad, who knows, maybe I will have to learn to shoot fuckin’ left-handed.” Brody grinned, taking a long draw on his flask. “Maybe Tad can give me some pointers.”
Having Thaddeus pointed out, even by a pal as close as Brody made Gabriel frown, still he clapped Brody on the shoulder, saying, “I would like to know how you are, swing on by Sienna later this week.”
“Will do, Captain.”
Gabriel drifted through the group again. “I am positive y’all noted how they sent two riders off when they had us pinned.”
Many of the Rangers sneered, knowing full well soon this set of Jayhawkers would be backed up by soldiers who were better prepared to exterminate them. The only way to survive, to defend their homes another day, was for them to disappear.
“That being said, we will meet at Creek Fork below Independence in eight days, unless you hear otherwise. Cover your tracks and as usual make sure your alibis are in place,” Gabriel ordered. Riding over to Rance, he shook the man’s hand. “Your unit saved our hides, merci.” Spitting on a purple clover, he looked to his brother sitting limp in the saddle, before turning a dark, hard look back on Rance.
Rance McGreen shifted, his brown eyes flicking to Thaddeus, “We still good?”
“Cannot say I am fuckin’ pleased with you,” Gabriel replied, taking up his reins. “Still, like I said, merci for arriving when you did.”
“Hey Capt’, ya can buy us a round next time we are in town.” Fox hollered, and raising a hand, he waved to Thaddeus, spinning his horse and disappearing into the thick underbrush.
As if his leaving was a catalyst, the others spanned out in various directions, their yelps of victory lingering in the air even as the crashing tree limbs receded away.
“Suppose we should get, too.” Gabriel said. Chirking to Artorius, he slid into the dense woods, and hearing the patter of rain on the canopy, he looked up. “Perfect. Bet it rains to flood the damn ditches.”