Tuesday, June 24, 1860
From his spot on the hotel’s porch, Antonio could see the barest hints of dust rising in the afternoon sky to the south.
A red-haired boy whose face was gleaming almost as red as his hair, stood next to him and in a gasping rush, he said. “They were about a mile out when I spied ’em, Mister Crowe. Then a couple riders came along, and I asked ‘em, and they said they had ridden by a herd and the men ramroddin’ it, told ’em they was from Sienna.”
“Good work, Joshua.” Antonio said, flipping a heavy silver coin to the boy.
It had been roughly a month since Antonio informed his sons that the stock was to be transferred to Bueford Estate in Abita Parish, Louisiana. For most of those days, he had been right here in Independence, making travel arrangements and exchanging telegraphs with Lafayette; ensuring all was in readiness on his end.
Strolling along the river towards the stockyards, apprehension rose in Antonio. Pausing to watch the bouncing, muddy whitecaps, he thought, ‘the Missouri is a known killer, but she is a babe compared to the Mississippi. There are so many chances for mishaps. Still, I can feel a cold wind rising and all which can be done to protect Sienna must be done.’
As he stood with his thumbs hitched in his vest pockets, a short man with calculating blue eyes walked up interrupting Antonio’s thoughts with a cough.
Turning sharply, unsure how long he had been staring at the river, Antonio said. “Why good day, Captain Kinney,” and gathering himself more together, he took Kinney’s hand in a firm handshake.
“I was just coming to find you.” Captain Kinney said, rubbing his calloused hand along his closely shorn white beard. “Do you wish to inspect the alterations I have made to the boats before loading commences?”
“I have unwavering faith in your preparations.” Antonio replied, meaning every word.
Captain Randolph Kinney was highly regarded as a man quick to action, prideful of his job, and known to complete a task no matter what obstacles might appear. In short, he was considered one of the best Captains on the river throughways.
In spite of this, Antonio wished he felt as confident as he sounded. Nevertheless, he could hear hooves reverberating along the canyon corridors of the city, and it was time to put his plan into action.
Captain Kinney turned his face toward the thunderous sound, “Appears our wait is over.” He patted Antonio on the back, “See you soon Mister Crowe. Send a messenger to the docks when I should get my boys on their feet.”
“Will do, Captain Kinney, and thank you.” Antonio replied, moving off, his long legs carrying him through the eager crowd gathering to see what was happening. As Sienna’s stable line rounded the corner, a sigh of appreciation sifted through the throng. Hearing it, a smile emerged on Antonio’s careworn face. Nodding to a stockyard employee, he climbed the ladder to the catwalk over the corrals.
From his perch, Antonio hollered hellos to the men who had chaperoned his horses across miles of land, which was raided so often its inhabitants were surprised when a day remained peaceful. As he called to them, he felt awed, thinking how their names sounded like a roll call of Western Missouri’s who’s who: Ericksen, Younger, Chaplin, McGreen, James, Barnett, Johnson, Long, Todd, Riggs, Hildebrand, Sawyer, Ball, Jarrette, Hammel, Seabourne, Gamble, Hays, Locke, Poole, Minters, LaSalle, Northrup, Massey, and Taylor.′ I informed Gabriel we would need ten men.′ He thought, marveling at the steady flow of riders. ‘Seems each family brought siblings and cousins and it appears no one wished to be left out of this feat.’ Shaking his head, Antonio hooked his thumbs in the armpits of his vest, smiling, ‘Gabriel Mathew, excelled at the task I assigned him.’
At that moment, Gabriel spun Artorius to a halt directly under Antonio, “Hey, Father,” he hollered, pulling his hat off and waving it jubilantly. “Not a single injury to stock or man. What would you have wagered on them damn odds?” He asked stepping from the saddle.
“It is not a bet I would have taken, excellent work, Gabe, excellent.” Antonio replied, pausing on the ladder to scan the men. Spotting Cain, his eyes scrolled to his youngest son sitting atop him, layered thick with dust. “Did your brother ride drag the whole way?”
“Oui.” Gabriel answered, loosening Artorius girth strap. “Tried to talk ’em out of it, but he turned mule-headed. Said, he wanted to ascertain none were left behind.”
“Sounds rather insulting to the men who gathered to aid us.”
"Oui, it does. Except, Tad, he covered it by gushin’ on about how they was all too important for him to have any of’em endure the terrible, hellish position of the drag.” As he spoke, Gabriel’s droopy, brown eyes drifted to where Thaddeus was currently the center hub to a tight circle of men; and even this far off their good-natured laughing could be heard.
“He sure has a way with ’em.”
“That he does.” Gabriel sighed. “I have to work damn hard to gain a man’s confidence and I will tell you; despite what everyone says about folks swarmin’ to Lafe like honey bees; it ain’t true. He has to win ’em over just as I do. Difference is he makes it look easy is all. Not Tad,” Gabriel laughed. “somehow that garçon smiles and people adore ’em for it, and then clamor to be his pal.”
“That being said, we should be proud and mighty glad he is on our side,” Antonio said, stepping off the ladder. “Let us leave him in charge. I would like for you to meet Captain Kinney so we can discuss loading and departure.”
“Fine, let me tie Artorius off and I will join you over by the docks.”
A slim, dark-haired man wearing an immaculate blue uniform and black hat brandishing an exotic blue feather halted Antonio’s progress. “I take it, Sir, you are the owner of this fine herd.”
“I am and thank you.” Antonio answered, slipping around the man. “However, if you will pardon me, I have business.”
The dark-haired man stuck an arm in front of Antonio, offering his hand, “Hold up there, let me introduce myself, I am Major Samuel Birmingham of the Missouri Home Guard.”
Taking Birmingham’s hand felt very much like he was grasping hold of a fiend from hell and politely but stiffly, Antonio said, “Good day Mr. Birmingham, thank you again for the compliments regarding my stock. My names Crowe and I do apologize, but I ain’t got time to jaw. I have business to see too.” And with that done, he released Birmingham’s hand, wishing he could wipe his palm clean. It was well known, Birmingham’s branch of the Home Guard was using their own personal, overtly, violent methods of peacekeeping.
Samuel Birmingham nodded. His small, beady eyes flicked to Gabriel, who, having caught up, now stood just behind his Father’s shoulder. “And you, Sir, I trust, we have met before.”
Gabriel hitched his thumbs on his holster belt, his entire attitude relaying his disgust and distrust.
Birmingham raised his chin, taking in the group of armed riders bunched together chatting. “I would say many of us have met before.” His eyes filled with malice as he looked from Gabriel to the men at the corrals and back. “Would you not say?”
Curling his lip and running the tip of his tongue across his eyetooth, Gabriel took Birmingham’s offered hand in his large paw, crushing it, saying, “You must be mistaken. I have clear cut faith. I would recall meetin’ you.”
Placing a hand on his son’s arm, Antonio said, “Go inform your brother, he is in charge while we are away, please.”
“Will do,” Gabriel answered, releasing the officer’s hand.
Birmingham hastily swung his hand behind his back where he could covertly flex feeling back into it.
Before walking away, Gabriel winked at the man. “Like I said, I am positive. I would recollect shakin’ hands with you.”
Birmingham’s gaze followed Gabriel.
“Sir? I have a rather lot of business to attend to if you will excuse me.”
Samuel Birmingham spun about, having wholly forgotten the father as he plotted against the son. Stroking a hand along his sideburn and back over his ear, to smooth any hair that might have escaped his jauntily tilted hat, he said, “Before you hurry off, I would like to speak with you regarding purchasing a number of horses for my unit, as they appear to be of superb quality.”
With the sharpness of jagged ice, Birmingham snapped, “It is Major, sir, Major Birmingham.”
“Major Birmingham, you have a good eye. My horses are some of the finest equines in America. I do have a few for sale, although the majority are headin’ for my family stables down South.”
“Then I greatly wish to procure these few before the South lays claim to the others,” Birmingham replied, with a feral grin that made Antonio’s skin crawl.
“I would be honored to have the military ridin’ upon my mounts; however, I fear their price is prohibitive for any paymaster approval. It is a shame, as bookkeepers never understand the needs of the cavalryman.”
“Still, I want to see them.” Birmingham’s eyes scanned the horses. “What about that large gray by the gate?”
Antonio knew he meant Cain and smiled, “As I said, you have a good eye. That is my youngest son’s mount.”
“He has the mien of a leader’s horse. What is his price?”
“Major, it seems I do not make myself clear. That is my son’s personal horse.”
“Call him up here. I am willing to pay top dollar for the animal.”
Antonio glared at the man’s back, thinking, ‘Fine, I will leave it to Tad. Ain’t no way the man is going to get a good deal from him when it comes to Cain.’ Releasing a sharp whistle, he called out, “Tad, bring up Cain.”
As Thaddeus and Cain passed through the men, a soft laughter rolled from them as one, and all stepped clear of the stallion.
Antonio glanced down at Birmingham, ’seems he believes the amusement is aimed at him.” Antonio shook his head, ’Men of small dignity make the worst enemies.”
Thaddeus eyed his Father and grinned at the dark-haired man who was openly admiring his stallion.
“Tad, this here is Major Samuel Birmingham of the Missouri Home Guard. He would like to purchase horses and he is interested in Cain,” Antonio stated, fervently wishing he had better communication with Thaddeus. The best he could do was scarcely shake his head at his son.
Thaddeus brows bunched into a thick clump.
“I leave choices and prices up to you, as Gabriel and I are off to see to other business.”
Thaddeus took off his hat and ran a hand through his dusty hair before resetting his hat, on the back, of his head. “Come along Major, I can point out at least six mounts which would suit you.”
“This gray is a fine looking animal and I will give you two hundred on the spot for him.”
Thaddeus kept walking, looking back with a bright crooked grin. “Cain here is a beast. Yet despite his bad manners, I am rather attached to ’em, so he ain’t for sale.”
Birmingham kept following figuring how much he was willing to part with for the gray. When they came to a stop by the pens, the Major stepped forward stroking Cain’s glossy, muscled neck, “Then, I will pay three.”
A wicked glint came to Thaddeus’ eyes and he loosened his grip on the reins. “Mes excuses, Major. But I ain’t ever sellin’ this here horse.”
Before Samuel Birmingham could respond, Cain’s head lanced around snatching hold of his jacket and with a vicious shake, the stallion threw the man to the ground.
“Doux Jésus! Major, let me get ya up?” Thaddeus yelped, jerking Birmingham to his feet while grinning like a curbside fool. Taking his gloves, Thaddeus used them enthusiastically beat the dust from the Major’s uniform. “Hellfire, ya need to keep yaself back. Like I was sayin’ Cain is a beast. He sure do not approve of anyone layin’ hands on ’em. And, Major, I done told ’em and told ’em being a horse he must abide with such disregard of privacy. But ya see how much he listens.” Spinning Birmingham around, Thaddeus jovially propelled him toward the corrals where his pals were gathered. “Here now, let’s head downs here, Major sir, I will find ya a right-smart mannered hoss.”
Birmingham’s eyes darted to the boy, confused by the way he was unwittingly, manhandling him.
Pounding him soundly across the back, Thaddeus declared, “ya waits, right here Major sir, I will tie Cain up and have a few roped in for ya to look at.”
“Uh, Mr. Crowe,” Birmingham called.
“Ya just waits right there,” Thaddeus drawled lazily, sounding like he had lost a good portion of his intelligence on the way down to the corrals. “Web, do me a right handy turn and rope in Ebby, Gus, and Vash.”
Having left Major Birmingham with the various son’s of Missouri’s south the very air was vibrating with sullen rage when Thaddeus returned. Taking note how the little Major was trying to remain distanced from his pals, Thaddeus flopped an arm about Birmingham’s shoulders. “Why Major Sir, lookie how everyone draws near. Boy howdy, ya must be a memorable sort of fella, yes siree.”
Samuel Birmingham squinted at the hard faces surrounding him becoming more uncomfortable with each down-home homely Thaddeus uttered, he thought. ‘Why did I not bring a few of my own men with me? But surely, they would not be so brash as to do me injury right here on the street.’ Considering this, his eyes slid to the young man supposedly aiding him, to find Thaddeus’ bright green eyes just as intently studying him. Frowning, Birmingham still could not decide if the boy were simple or merely playing the part.
Cocking his head to the side, Thaddeus stated, “Hellfire all, I surmise Cain must haves damaged the Major here. He ain’t hardly uttered a word since he was thrown to the dirt.” Slapping the man across the back repeatedly, Thaddeus queried, “Ya ain’t damaged is ya, Major Sir?”
“I am not damaged! Lay off handling me so!”
Thaddeus leapt back, winking at Cole Younger and George Todd, who were staring at him as if he had straight out lost his mind. “Why Major Sir, I never, no I never, meant to handle ya. I thought to assist ya ’cause we is friends, ain’t we.” Thaddeus asked, grabbing the man’s hand. “I know, let’s shake on our friendship.”
Feeling it would be best to play along with the boy; he had decided was indeed simple, Birmingham shook his hand, saying, “you are correct. I hold no grievances against you.”
“Aw shucks, Major Sir, if ’n we is friends and all, you can call me, Tad.” Thaddeus said, still pumping the man’s arm up-and-down like he was trying to lube an unused well. “Ya sure is dressed awfully nice, is it ’cause yuse famous?”
“I am somewhat known.” Samuel Birmingham said, pulling at his clothing to realign them after all of Thaddeus’ friendly abuse.
“Well, then ya must, I say, ya just must meet my pals as in certain circles they is also somewhats known,” Thaddeus chirped happily, aiming Birmingham so each son of Missouri would be given a chance to shake his hand.
By the time Birmingham passed through them, his right arm hung limp and his overall appearance was beyond bedraggled. Their over-congenial greetings irritated him beyond words and he felt positive, he was face-to-face with many men whom he carried warrants for. Yet, since not one surname was divulged he still did not know them from Adam.
“Merci.” Thaddeus said, to Webster, who had arrived leading three horses.
Seeing the large black man, Thaddeus was addressing, Birmingham, smiled, ‘Oh ho, these Crowe’s are slaveowners now their future assuredly belongs to me. As I have no doubt, I will be able to roust up a group to visit their plantation soon.’
“Do any of these tempt ya fancy, Major Sir?”
“I believe they might, have your slave move them about.”
Thaddeus frowned deeply, “Major Sir, I do not own a single slave. This here is Webster Bueford.” Thaddeus said, leaning against Webster. “He has been my lifelong friend. Web you ain’t a slave, is you?” Thaddeus shook his head, “Nope, ain’t never been one. Web here was born free like all of us. I gotta say, Major Sir, it be just plain hurtful the way ya threw ‘em into shackles. Ya did not even consider his feelings or nothin’ when you made ’em a slave. I figure, ya ought to go on and apologize to ’em, Major Sir.”
Birmingham’s mouth fell open, ‘Does this weak, minded fool really expect me to bow and scrape to a nigger?’
Thaddeus crossed his arms, his face firming up; he raised one eyebrow making Birmingham realize that was exactly what he expected. Swallowing hard, Birmingham mumbled, “Mr. Bueford, no harm intended.”
“Never thought there was Monsieur," Webster replied courteously, and poking a thumb in Thaddeus’ back, he leaned close to his ear, “Break off actin’ the fool and amusing yourself with this Yankee before he bites you.”
Through his huge grin, Thaddeus whispered back, “you worry too much.”
“With you about, someone has got to.”
Taking the whiskey colored gelding’s lead line, Thaddeus winked at Webster and stepped away. He worked the gelding in a small lunge circle, showing off his five gaits, trading out horses, he repeated the process with the other two.
Once the horses were in motion, Birmingham forgot all else until the moment the red mare spun to a standstill.
Interlacing his fingers, Birmingham eagerly said, “I will take all three.”
Leaning against the horse he held, Thaddeus’ prankish, hayseed language dropped away. “If’n that me so, then allow me to educate you, regarding these trois. The mare over there is Vashti Red. She is nine-years-old and works smoothly in four gaits, can clear the dirt on a quarter mile track, but is not much of a distance runner. Still, like I said, on a quarter mile, she brings home the winner’s cup. She has borne one foal and does not take well to breeding; which is too damn bad considering her size and coloring.
Erebos Wind, over there, recently turned six. He is a grandson of Boreas Red, our grand champion. Sadly, we did have to geld ’em as there was far too much damn curly wolf in ’em. However, Ebby has heart. He can run the long distance and has already brought home the banknotes from twenty track races, thus far. You can easily check his record.
This gelding we call Gus, he is overly friendly, and Gus seems to fit ’em more than his papered name, Blood of Midas. Never seen a horse so sound footed on rocky ground, as Gus, even when pacing at a fast trot, still, he ain’t proved himself on the track… as of yet.”
Birmingham’s pulse beat rapidly when he first realized the boy had played him for a fool but as he listened to Thaddeus, he became enchanted with the beautiful horses. And, decided they were worth more than the game the boy had played against him. Removing his thick wallet from inside his uniform jacket, he stated, “I will take all three.”
Leaning against Gus, Thaddeus scratched the horse’s ears. “Major Birmingham, what we got here is a track proven gelding, a solid mare that can still be bred, and a young gelding waiting to prove himself. I figure I could let you have all three for forty-five hundred.”
Birmingham coughed and then shouted, “If you are saying four-thousand-five-hundred, then you have lost your mind?!”
Thaddeus nostrils flared, and pushing himself off Gus, he stepped directly into Birmingham’s face. “If you are shocked by the price, I would say it is you who has lost his mind. What the fuck!? You ask to see our horses and then you insult me. These ain’t broomtail cow ponies. They are prime race stock with Top Champions and Arabian blood flowing in their veins.” Thaddeus waved a hand at the men present. “Ask any one of ’em. Hellfire, ask any in town and they will all tell you our horses are the most sought after in America. Men of class all along the seaboard purchase our stock and our horses earn their owners notoriety and money. If’n you want a winner then you have to pay the price.”
Birmingham took slow steps backwards from Thaddeus’ until he bumped up against Jimmy Gamble’s solid form. With a snort, Birmingham jumped back at Thaddeus, snarling, “Perhaps, I shall just stop by your place and pick up a few later.”
Raising his voice, Thaddeus replied, “we got us a notion some bastards, not sayin’ names, might like to stop by and take a few home. Why the fuck do you think we are goin’ through all the damn hassle of shipping ’em down South?”
Birmingham withdrew, fingering his short van dyke beard.
Drawing near the corrals, Gabriel could hear Thaddeus’ cussing and picked up his pace. Seeing how close his little brother was to diving into Major Birmingham, he hollered, “Tad! Go rope up, Stoirm Mister Knowles is here to take her home.”
Thaddeus’ eyes gaze flicked to his brother and back at Birmingham, “Sounds like I have work, so if’n you will excuse me, Major, I will leave you to deliberate your decision.”
Clapping Webster on the shoulder, Thaddeus sidled through the fence rails on the other side; he caught a lariat Jackson threw his way. Spotting Gaoithe Stoirm’s sloped back, he sorted through the multi-colored herd, slipping the rope about her neck. When they reached the gate, Frank James inched it open for him.
“Why, Tad she is a beauty.” Mr. Knowles said, bouncing on the balls of his feet as the mare and Thaddeus approached.
One side of Thaddeus’ mouth crooked up. “She sure is and just sweet as summer rain.
Hell, we all would have ridden in last night if’n it was not for Stoirm. I was positive; she was goin’ to give birth on the trail.” He said, stroking the mare dotingly along her arched black neck. “Made the others match her pace rather than the other way around.”
“Thank you, she looks in perfect health.” said Mr. Knowles, slipping a leather halter about the mare’s head. “I understood Stoirm won some races before y’all decided to breed her. What of the Sire?”
“Your bébés sire is Demetrius,” Thaddeus said, pointing out a compact, muscled whiskey colored bay in the far corner of the corral.
“Right good lookin; animal,” Mr. Knowles nodded approvingly.
“He is. ’Cept, I did not choose him for his looks. Sometimes, I suspect Demetrius is part mountain goat. I aim on creating a new line that I plan to call Missouri Climbers. Rest of m’ famille regards my strategy as ridiculous. Still, despite their heckling, I bred our most sure-footed mares to Demetrious and Apollo as that pair of stallions can climb any damn thing I aimed ’em at. If’n I am correct, my Missouri Climbers will be fast pacers who can handle our hillsides like non other horse. So, Mister Knowles, sil vous plaît, let me know how your foal does once it is old enough to carry a rider.”
“Will do and Tad, I hope my foal is a Missouri Climber. I deem, what you are strivin’ for sounds like excellent qualities.” Turning, he shook hands with Antonio. “I have desired a horse from Sienna for some time, Antonio, and I sincerely thank you for sellin’ me this mare.”
“Tom, we have done plenty of business over the years and you have always done right by me. The least I could do was make sure you got two for the price of one; and speaking of price.”
Thomas Knowles pulled out a paper wrapped bundle, “You sure, you do not want me to place it in your account?”
“I would happily leave it in the care of your bank, however, I require travel funds,” Antonio said, slipping the money in his jacket without bothering to count it. “Here are Gaoithe Stoirm’s papers. Would you like me to have one of the men to deliver her to your stable?”
“No, thank you, I believe I shall enjoy walkin’ her home, myself.” Mr. Knowles answered and nodding his head toward Thaddeus, “And, good luck with all your plans.”
Ambling back down to the corrals, Thaddeus asked the group standing about, “Should we find a hot bath, some dinner, and a damn lively saloon?”
George Todd replied, “Yes, but not sure about your order.”
Fox Northrup put in, “Ya forgot to mention women in that list, Tad.”
Walking up, Gabriel dropped an arm about his pal, Brody’s shoulder, “I hate to burst y’alls damn plans, but we got more to do.” He nodded back toward where his Father still stood chatting with Banker Knowles. “We are loadin’ straightaway.”
Shoulders drooped wearily, boots scuffed the dirt, and a few hats were removed to scrub at wet, salty hair.
Gabriel rolled his chaw, scanning the stockyard with the slow steadiness of a predator before saying, “Apologize garçons, but with Yankees snoopin’ about and...” He reached out kicking Thaddeus, “... with someone gougin’ em with a stick. It seems the best course of action. Not to worry, m’ Father has said he will buy every round tonight. So, let us get this work done. , Rance, Fox, Cole, and George y’all grab a few more and take point guard. Rest of y’all, get these horses on the boats right about now!”
Every man jack scurried to follow Gabriel’s orders.