The boy awoke with a violent start, thrashing his way half out of the Lover's Knot quilt that wrapped him against the cool of the late-spring night, breath exploding out of his lungs in a sobbing gasp. For several minutes he sat trembling, disoriented, as his eyes probed the whispering grassy darkness about him and the roof of sparkling stars that arced overhead. Where was he, and why wasn't he in his room at Miz Abigail's? How had he gotten here?
"Ma...?" he whispered. He knew better than to call out. Ma took pride in working in only the very best houses she could find, and these usually had a black mammy or two, slave or free, to look after the little kids, but by the time you were seven or eight you were expected to learn to deal with your own nightmares, to understand that your ma worked while you slept and couldn't spare the time for you, even if she could have heard you over the sounds of gaiety from the parlor. The boy whose mother had called him Buck had learned that lesson, hard and early, as he'd learned many others.
He was six weeks past seventeen, a handsome boy with thick glossy dark hair that still tumbled down over his smooth broad brow when he took his hat off, warm dark eyes and an infectious smile; tall, a little gangly still, but gaining rapidly in grace and control. He sat without moving, arms locked around his upthrust knees, letting his heart rate slow, his gaze darting around in sleepy bewilderment. A few feet to his left a banked campfire still glowed faintly red. Beyond, a golden-dappled dun horse watched him curiously, ears up, from where he had picketed it out to graze. There was no distant, muffled racket of laughter and song and piano, only the chanting of nighttime insects and the query of an owl. Slowly memory returned. "'S'okay, Roulette," he told the horse quietly. "Just...another damn...nightmare. Shit!" he added querulously to himself as the horse blinked, seemed to accept the assurance, and lowered its head to nibble a little more grass before going back to sleep. "Shit! What am I still havin' these for? I ain't a baby--it ain't fair!"
"Fair is somethin' the sky is on a pretty day, Bucklin," he heard his mother's whisper. "It's got nothin' to do with human folks and how they live."
"Don't mean it shouldn't, Ma," he growled back softly. "And it don't mean I shouldn't be...used to...you bein'...gone by now." But he knew he was lying to himself, and lying to oneself had always been, in his mother's creed, the most unforgiveable sin. "Aw, hell!" he added, and kicked the quilt away, scrambling to his feet. Barefoot, wearing only his long gray underwear and blue drilling pants, he half-stumbled past Roulette and down the slope to the stream to plunge his head into the chill water, then sit down hard in the grass and draw his knees up again, chin resting on folded arms, his eyes gazing unfocusedly north and east, toward the closest thing he'd ever had to a home.
Kansas City, Missouri, at the mouth of the Kaw River, was a city unique in the Republic; the crown jewel of a string of "jumping-off points" that faced toward the unknown West, the "Indian country," the trappers' "Shining Mountains," the Spanish (later Mexican) possessions which now were a part of the United States, the green valleys of Oregon, and the goldfields and rolling surf of California. St. Charles and Franklin, later Independence and Westport, Atchison, St. Joseph, Leavenworth, Omaha, Council Bluffs--all the river towns were in Buck's boyhood, as they always had been, points of distribution for goods and men. From them led the trails over which travellers streamed by horseback, covered wagon, stagecoach, and foot, with railroads, visionaries insisted, one day to come; to them came all the varied types of humanity who made a mosaic unchangingly fascinating to a young boy. But Kansas City had always been the cream of them, always had a certain air about it, a certain frontier love of the best which went with the character of the daring young men who made it their headquarters. It was a city remarkable for its vigor, briskness, and enthusiasm for the good life. Here at the bend of the Missouri, North, South, and West met, and almost from the day Buck and his mother had arrived, when he was barely eleven, the boy had understood that this was a place unlike any other he had known before.
In the dusty unmetalled streets he roamed, he saw every frontier type there was: dark, broad-hatted Mexicans in slashed trousers and bright shirts; French hunters from the mountains and American riflemen from Kentucky and its environs; bearded mountain men in buckskin; bullwhackers carrying their long whips; merchants in broadcloth and tall hats; Indians--Sauks and Foxes with shaved heads and painted faces, Shawnees and Delawares in calico shirts and turbans, Wyandots dressed like white men, wretched Kansa wrapped in blankets, and splendid tribesmen from the Plains. Freighters, land speculators, explorers, traders, buffalo hunters, Texas cattlemen, English sportsmen, steamboat pilots, gamblers, industrialists, tavernkeepers, French-Canadian voyageurs, rivermen, stage drivers, financiers, Army officers and common soldiers, and now even railroad magnates and transient tracklayers, all with a certain flair for manly elegance if it went no further than a love of fine feathers and a readiness to fight, mingled in the streets with the permanent residents, conversing in a mixture of three European languages and a score of dialects. Dressed in Eastern styles, the wives and daughters of the leading citizens picked their way daintily through slush, mud, or dust, mingling freely enough with "decent" calico-clad women in sunbonnets, all alike discreetly averting their eyes when the orange-haired "other kind" went by.
Buck's memory of the city whose name he bore--Wilmington, Delaware, where Ma said he'd been born--was fragmentary at best; the two of them, he and Ma, had left the place when he was just turned four. Over the next few years they had worked their way westward: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio; Lexington, Louisville, and Paducah, Kentucky; Cairo, Illinois; Cape Girardeau, Jefferson City, and at last the rim of civilization, the Missouri's east bank, Kansas City. The boy had been old enough by then to know something of geography and to wonder what their next stop would be. Could Ma be thinking of California? They said the gold lay on the ground in chunks just for the picking up out there. And they said, too, that even now, almost three years after gold was first found and fully two since the beginning of the great rush of Americans to the diggings, men outnumbered women by twelve to one, and of the women who did exist, most were Chilean and Peruvian; white miners would be overjoyed to see a female of their own kind. There would be lots of customers with plenty of money, and perhaps even some chance for a sturdy boy like Buck to make a fortune of his own, so Ma wouldn't have to work any more.
But in the end, after leaving Buck at their lodgings most of one day while she went "to see to some lady business," Ma had taken them to Miz Abigail's, and there they had stayed. A few times, in the beginning, Buck had asked idly when they were going to move on; he found it hard to believe that his nomadic years were ended. And always Ma had said, "Maybe someday, but not now." And after three years or so Buck had quit asking.
The life wasn't so very different from what he had known elsewhere. He couldn't go to any of the local schools; the children of the "respectable" parents would have mobbed him if they were boys, turned their backs on him if girls. But Ma and her ladyfriends saw to it that he learned to read and write (though he retained a few private ideas about spelling) and cipher some. Mike the bouncer taught him to throw a knife and to outfight men with forty pounds and more advantage on him. Charles, the piano player, and Miss Olivia, Miz Abigail's daughter, gave him lessons on the piano; he never got the hang of written music notation, but he could play by ear and recall perfectly any tune he had once heard. All the ladies took a turn at teaching him to dance and to play cards and dice. Miz Abigail's housemen explained all the ways games could be rigged, how to tell if they were, how to play the odds for best chance. And the winter before he turned fifteen, Miz Abigail's kid brother, Virgil Day, came up from Texas, where he was a pistoleer for hire, to recuperate from a bullet wound, and taught him to use a handgun. Buck was astonished to discover that he had what Virg called "a natural quick hand." "All you've been needin' is somebody to show you how to use it," Virg said, and he did.
When he wasn't learning these various lessons, Buck ran errands for Miz Abigail and the ladies and John the bartender, lent a hand in the stable, put bulk groceries away for Bella the black cook, helped look after the little kids till they were old enough to be sent away to school, and roamed the bustling streets. He made friends with a retired mountain man who taught him the Indian sign-talk, with a former Santa Fe trader who now owned a saddle-and-harness shop and who imparted the Spanish language and many leathercrafting skills, and with rivermen who told him tales of steamboat races and horrific wrecks, of the river pirates of days gone by, and of the wonders of New Orleans where the Mississippi met the Gulf. Sometimes, in the rare moments of introspection permitted him by his busy schedule, he felt a little sad that he had no friends his own age, but in a brothel you grew up fast, and he knew his situation was no different from that of most prostitutes' children. And sometimes, too, he wondered if and when Ma was going to send him off, the way the other ladies did their children. Not that he wanted to go, but he knew it was the accepted custom. He asked her once, and she just smiled sadly and gazed into his eyes for what seemed a very long time, and then ran her hand through his dark mop of hair and said, "We'll shuck that corn when it's ripe, Bucky." And he knew then that she was thinking about his pa, because she never called him Bucky except when she was thinking how very much he looked like the man.
It wasn't till they'd been at Miz Abigail's the best of a year that he found out, quite by accident, that Ma wasn't taking customers to bed any more. Instead she was looking after Miz Abigail's books and running things downstairs, seeing that each man got together with the lady he most wanted to see, rustling the food from the kitchen, passing on the drink orders to John, and so forth. He asked her why, and she laughed and said, "Oh, Buck, I'm getting too old and ugly for the gentlemen to take an interest in any more."
"You ain't old, Ma," he said. "And you sure's hell ain't ugly."
"It's right you should think that," she said. "After all, you're my son. But I'm past thirty, love, and the gentlemen like the more tender cuts of meat."
He frowned. "Are we gonna make out all right?"
"Oh, Miz Abigail's paying me good money for what I can still do," Ma said. "We'll be good here, till you're big enough to do a man's work. Nobody's going to put us out on the street, I promise. Not together, and not separately either."
She seemed so sure of it, and Buck wasn't a worrier by nature, so he accepted, and in time the conversation faded off into the dark rear vaults of his mind and no longer troubled him. He noticed over time that Doc Lovelace, when he came, always spent some time with Ma, privately, in the little downstairs room off Miz Abigail's office, and he wondered a bit at that; but if Ma said she was getting old--well, Buck knew there were many things that could start happening to a body in age. Maybe her joints were hurting her, or her eyesight wasn't what it used to be, or her hearing. He shrugged it off.
Then Doc Lovelace took influenza while treating an outbreak of it on the other side of town, and died. All the ladies grieved, for he'd been a true gentleman, always kindly and patient and tolerant of their foibles and livelihood. Buck too was sad; when he'd been a kid still, Doc had always brought some present for him, delicious goods from one of the German bakeries, story papers to read, once a fine pocketknife with five blades, a corkscrew, and a screwdriver; as he got older, Doc was always willing to listen to his boyish preoccupations and confusions, and offer good advice and the reassurance that he wasn't by any means the first person to feel this way.
A week after Doc's funeral, Ma began to act strange. She suddenly seemed easily distracted and confused, and she spoke and acted in a disorganized way. She started to see things that weren't there, something Buck had always before known only to occur in people who'd had too much liquor to drink. She became excited and irritable. And then she started forgetting things. Sometimes she didn't know who Buck was, or Miz Abigail, or Bella, or John. Sometimes she'd ask the same question three or four times in a row, like she hadn't heard the answer, or couldn't remember it. She stopped taking care of herself, making herself decent before she came downstairs. Buck began to be frightened; he'd never seen the like of this before. Miz Abigail brought in one of Bella's nieces to look after her, took her off working downstairs but let her be with the ladies in the afternoons, before the customers came. She told the worried boy that his ma had a sickness, but she wasn't hurting, and as long as she had somebody to keep an eye, like young Sukey, it shouldn't be too much of a trouble. "I've seen this sickness before," Miz Abigail said, and Buck wondered at the odd shaky note he heard in her voice. "It won't be too long, Buck. She won't be troubled long, I'm sure of it."
And she wasn't. It wasn't till after that Buck really understood what Miz Abigail hadn't quite been saying. One day Ma had a bad spell at breakfast, screaming and bashing her forehead against the wall, babbling, shaking violently, then collapsed into a coma. Buck was absolutely terrified. Young Dr. Raines was sent for, and when he came out of Ma's room he looked sadly at Buck and Miz Abigail, who were waiting in the hall, and shook his head. "A day at most," he said. "Hours more likely. She's sinking fast. I'm sorry, boy." And then Buck knew Ma was going to die.
The next three days were a blur. Buck remembered nothing of them with clarity, only coming home from the cemetery in Miz Abigail's buggy, feeling her hand gentle on his shoulders, knowing she was talking to him but hearing none of the words. All he could think was, Ma's dead. She's dead. She's dead. It was like a big bell tolling in his head, getting louder and louder till he couldn't even hear himself think, and he screamed out and hurled himself from the buggy and ran, ran and kept running until, breathless and exhausted, he collapsed on the riverbank in a storm of tears. Gradually these gave way to choking coughs, then to whimpers, and then his mind began to shut down, shielding itself from what it could no longer bear, and he fell asleep.
When he made his way back to the house it was past sundown. The place was quiet; Miz Abigail had locked the doors for a night in Ma's honor. But there was a light on in the back window that was Miz Abigail's office, and Buck could hear voices, Miz Abigail and a man. Not knowing why, he drifted over that way and crouched under the sill, listening. The man was Dr. Raines, and from the sounds he and Miz Abigail were sharing a bottle of brandy. He remembered the doctor coming to Ma's funeral. Apparently he'd stayed on afterward.
Miz Abigail was talking about Ma. "Rosalie may have been a tart, but everybody loved her--she was kind, she was funny, she was smart. I feel honored, Doctor, that she chose my house to live out her last years in--honored that I had the chance to know her, as an employee and a friend, and to see how she faced up to what she knew was coming. She put up with the revages of her disease with pride and courage, and never complained, or let Buck know she'd be leaving him. She was the most generous woman who ever lived."
"From what you've said," Dr. Raines observed, "she should have died six years ago. Dr. Lovelace was a great man, to be able to keep it at bay until he died himself. I hope I can serve my patients as well."
Six years? Buck thought in stunned amazement. She was sick for six years? She knew almost since we came here that she was gonna die? Oh, Ma...
Miz Abigail was talking again. "--No, my ladies are clean, and they're not the only ones. We may not be doctors, but we're not ignorant chippies, either. If a man comes to my establishment with a sore or a rash, he gets nothing but a smile. We got into the business to have a little fun and make a little money, not to kill ourselves."
"Contracted the sickness before we knew her. She would never give me very many details, but the impression I got was that it was an affair of the heart, at least on her side."
"The boy's father?"
"It could have been, I guess. If it was, it's a mercy he wasn't born with it, but it's pretty obvious he wasn't: seventeen now and as healthy and strong as a young horse. I suppose, too, that if she was young and innocent at the time, she might not have seen anything to make her suspect. She didn't know, and the proof is, she made herself non grata in the house the minute the diagnosis came out, expecting I'd be the one to give her the boot. Well, how could I do that? Rosalie was the one who did the books, and she was the best hostess I ever had downstairs, right up to two weeks ago. And she had the boy to support; it wasn't any doing of his, and how could I put her out and not him?"
"What becomes of him now?" Raines asked.
"He knows a little of saddlemaking and such; maybe he can get a place as an apprentice. If not, Rosalie had some money put away with me, not much, but enough to start him out. There's California, or Texas. He's smart, if not schooled, and a fine-looking young fellow, and he's got the gift for making people like him. He'll make out."
Buck had heard enough whispered talk in his young life to finally understand. Ma had died of one of those sicknesses women got from loving the wrong men. She had had it working away inside her for maybe all his life, and she had known for all their time in Kansas City, or most anyway, that she had it and would die of it in the end. At the thought that his unknown father might have been the one to give it her, the old resentment and anger that he'd thought buried began to rear its head up within the grieving boy, red-tinged with fury. He thought of Virg and his lessons and the gun that lay in his bottom drawer in his room up in the attic, and of the hours of practise out by the river and how Virg had told him never to stop honing his skills. "You can make good money off this gun, Buck," he'd said. "Towns will hire you to keep the law. Landowners will hire you to fight off their enemies. Stage lines and express companies will hire you to protect the valuables they carry, or to track down the men who take them. And what with this trouble they're starting to have about Kansas, well, there may be a need of you there too."
"You mean," Buck guessed gravely, "to kill folks, Virg?"
"I hope it don't come to that, Buck, but it could."
To kill folks, Buck thought. Like my pa maybe killed Ma with the sickness he gave her. All right, Virg. I'll do like you said. I'll keep on practising, and I'll get good, good as you or better. And someday when I'm ready I'll go back to Wilmington and find my pa and kill him.
Over the next week or two he stayed on, and Miz Abigail let him, understanding that he was still disorganized, confused, and mourning. Then one day after breakfast he went to her and asked to have Ma's money. She understood at once that he was planning to leave. "Where will you go, Buck?" she asked, as she knelt to open the safe.
"Kansas," he said. "I got a notion to fight me some pro-slavers."
For almost as long as Buck had lived in Kansas City, so long had Kansas been a word in his ears. As early as 1852, before the Territory was even formally organized, a party of Missourians had founded the town of Tecumseh, and another such group gathered at Uniontown to frame a set of resolutions petitioning Congress to organize the Platte country as "the Nebraska Territory." The following year the Wyandot Indians did so on their own, though as a provisional territory only, and sent a delegate to Congress; he wasn't admitted, but the action precipitated the debates which led, the following May, to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, signed by the President ten days later. This Bill in effect repealed the Missouri Compromise of thirty-some years before and provided that the two territories it created, Kansas and Nebraska, should be granted the right to decide for themselves, through the votes of their settlers, whether they should be slave or free. Immediately Missourians became concerned. Theirs was a slave state, so they tended to sympathy when Southerners claimed a right to take their bondsmen into new Federal territories. In addition, one of the few places in the state where the institution actually seemed to work, on more than a domestic or small-farm-scale level, was along the Missouri River; indeed, the census of 1860 was to discover that two-thirds of the slaves in the state dwelt there. From Boonville to Independence the river banks were paved with big hemp and tobacco plantations, whose owners hadn't a hope of keeping them going without slaves. They feared that a free state just over the border might tempt these slaves to escape. They knew, too, that the Old Northwest was filling up, creating population pressure that would force the small farmers of the region westward onto the prairie, just as it had forced their fathers and grandfathers out of New England and the Middle States. Moreover, there were already sixteen free states to the fifteen slave; Kansas seemed a necessary acquisition to hold the balance and protect Southern interests in Congress.
Not all Missourians were pro-slave: the German element, for one, was passionately and often vocally opposed to it. And there were many persons of Northern birth (Miz Abigail, who claimed to come from Ohio, was one of them) who had settled there and who, whether out of practicality or (less often) abolitionist settlement, doubted Kansas could or should be slave soil. Still, the majority sentiment was with the pro-slave party, and even before the Bill was signed, Senator David Atchison had been inveighing against "nigger-stealing Northern vermin" who threatened to invade the new land, urging his constituents to "go there, if necessary, with the bayonet and blood!" It was he who both named and openly encouraged the "border ruffians," the Missourians who rushed into Kansas with the view in mind of voting it slave. These men were, for the most part, the flotsam of the river towns, eye-gouging swaggerers who'd never owned a slave and never would, but were prepared to defend their Southern principles against the Northern vermin. When the Massachusetts Legislature, less than a month before the passage of the Bill, enacted the charter of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company--avowedly a free-soil organization meant to send settlers of that persuasion into Kansas--the cows were in the buckwheat. Great alarm, and great anger, were aroused in Missouri, and fourteen-year-old Buck, on his rovings about town, saw many a shouting speaker haranguing audiences of scores, threatening death to all who entered Kansas under the aegis of any such group. He had heard, too, of the associations with names like the Social Bands, the Blue Lodges, the Cavalry Club, and the Sons of the South which were formed to do battle for the Territory.
The New Englanders who did eventually make it to Kansas, with or without the help of the Aid Company, were outnumbered from the first by the settlers out of the Old Northwest, eastern Missouri, the Middle Atlantic states, and the upper Mississippi Valley. Though most of these (except perhaps for the Missourians) were free-soilers too, most were not abolitionists, and in fact as many as three out of four of them wanted no Negroes around at all. That made no difference to Missouri as a whole: they were Northerners and they wanted Kansas to be free. When in November of '54 the territory held its first election, intended to choose a delegate to Congress, at least five thousand Border Ruffians crossed the river in armed companies, some with flags flying, fifes shrilling, and drums beating. Buck watched some of them board the ferries and thought it looked exactly like the pictures he'd seen of men going to war. As it turned out, there was no bloodshed (though threats of violence certainly occurred), and the pro-slavers carried the day, dispatching to Washington a delegate in sympathy to their cause, after which, having exercised the privilege of making their opinions known, they withdrew to their Missouri homes. Spurred on by this success, they resolved to employ the same tactic when the time came to select a legislature, which it did in March. It was then that real violence broke out, with some two hundred lives being lost; although some of these were undoubtedly Missourians, in a territory where the non-Indian population by that time numbered about 8500 it was a painful bite.
The Missourians again won their cause--indeed, many of the legislators were in fact residents of Missouri--and over the veto of Territorial Governor Reeder drafted and enacted what the free-soilers promptly named the "Bogus Laws," providing harsh penalties for anyone who raised a rebellion or insurrection of blacks slave or free, aided in the escape of slaves, or even spoke or wrote against the right of anyone to hold a slave. Buck remembered Miz Abigail and Ma being furious when they heard this. It wasn't right, they said. The Constitution guaranteed everyone the freedom to believe what he wished and say what he liked, they said, as long as he didn't slander others. The legislature also barred people of free-soil convictions from serving on any jury intended to hear cases of violation of the Bogus Laws, and restricted public office in the Territory to pro-slavers.
The free-soilers determined to fight back politically. They chose a legislature of their own, which drafted a separate constitution, sent it to Washington, and nominated its own state officers. A month later the simmering situation broke out in civil war. Men were killed, and the town of Lawrence, a free-soil stronghold, was once besieged and once invaded by the pro-slavers, who on the latter occasion attacked the town's two free-soil newspapers, looted several shops and houses, and burned the home of Dr. Charles Robinson, an agent for the Emigrant Aid Company. Then, one dark night in May of '56, a fanatic abolitionist named John Brown, accompanied by seven or eight other men (most of them, admittedly, relatives of his), attacked a tiny settlement of three cabins known as Dutch Henry's Crossing, and savagely slew five men, including two teenage boys. Though none owned slaves, they were all connected with the pro-slave party, and the ruling passion of Brown's life was a hatred of slavery and slaveholders; he believed he had been sent by God to destroy both. The Crossing killings were the first deliberate atrocity that occurred in the dispute, but, as it turned out, hardly the last. And while a new governor, one John Geary (the third the Territory had had in less than as many years), did manage, after some thirteen months of fighting, to disband the larger armed militias, both free-soil and pro-slave, and persuade Brown and other rabble-rousers to leave for a few months, he could do nothing to block the actions of the pro-slave legislature--or of private, temporary guerrilla associations seeking revenge for friends, neighbors, and kin despoiled in the previous excitement.
Buck was nominally, by birth and much of his raising, a Southerner, if only a Border-stater; but while his personal experience of slavery had been domestic, it troubled him all the same. Ma had worked only the best houses, but the boy had heard enough stories to know that there were many lesser ones where the ladies were little better than slaves even though they were as white as he. That bothered him--it made him think uneasily of Ma in a similar situation--and made it easy for him to form a sentiment against the Peculiar Institution. He wasn't exactly an abolitionist, but he certainly didn't support the extension of slavery. And in his broodings since Ma's death, it had come to him that his unknown father, whom he had long since guessed to be a person of consequence back in Delaware, almost certainly held slaves even if they were only household ones. The hatred he felt toward the man was easily translated into an animosity toward the pro-slave Border Ruffians. In any case, he needed enemies to practise on so he could become good with a gun. The Ruffians were handy.
So he used Ma's money to buy himself a horse and saddle, some camping gear and food, a cap-lock doublebarrel shotgun, a Colt .34 eight-shot revolving carbine, a Sharps .52 single-shot buffalo rifle, a Root's Patent Model Colt .28 five-shot revolver (newly introduced only two years ago), an eight-ounce, seven-shot Smith & Wesson .22 revolver with a three-inch barrel (even newer, out just this year), and a Colt Navy Model 1851 .36 six-shooter, plus spare cylinders for the three new handguns and the big four-pound Colt Army Model 1848 .44 that Virg had given him when he saw how big Buck's hands were going to be--for the cap-and-ball firearms of the day were time-consuming to load, and many men preferred not to get caught short in the middle of a fight. With the S&W tucked into the top of his right boot and a Bowie knife in his left, the Root's in a hideout rig inside his vest, the Navy Colt holstered for a cross-draw high on his left hip, the Walker hung openly on his right thigh, an Arkansas toothpick hung in a case between his shoulderblades, and the shotgun and two rifles on his saddle, he said his goodbyes to Miz Abigail and her ladies (all of whom cried and smothered him in kisses and clean socks and goodies to take along) and set off to begin his war.
Peace had settled around the region centering on Lawrence, but the scene of unrest had only shifted; its locus was now Fort Scott, in the southeast part of the Territory, where pro-slavery strength, owing in part to flights from the more northerly towns, was probably greater now than it had been along the Kaw before. That suited the embittered Buck just fine: the more pro-slavers, the more enemies for him to practise on. Travelling slowly and keeping parallel to the main road rather than following it openly, he made his way south. But even yet, more than two weeks after Ma's death, the nightmares still troubled him; he kept seeing that horrific scene in Miz Abigail's kitchen when Ma turned into someone--something--he didn't know any more. I reckon I won't ever be free of 'em, he told himself, skipping pebbles absently across the water of the creek and watching the eastern sky turn pale, till I see my pa dyin' at my feet. Then Ma's suffering'll be paid for. Then I can rest.
As the light strengthened he made his way back up to his camp and began preparing his breakfast. It wasn't until a gun cocked somewhere behind his back that he realized he wasn't alone. Several more echoed it as he tensed, then slowly turned to find himself covered by a crescent-arc of men. He recognized the breed immediately: the narrow-shouldered, buck-toothed peckerwoods and swamp-runners and deep-woods wool-hats left behind in the undrained or inaccessible Missouri backwashes when the frontier moved on, exactly the sort who'd been likest to join in the invasion of Kansas, but for the most part even younger, too young indeed to vote--boys who'd barely got their full growth, in the reckless interlude before malaria, hookworm, creaky joints, corn squeezings, and a diet of grease overtook them and pulled their corks, and, knowing from their fathers' examples what they faced, given to convulsive spasms of violence in which they could be truly dangerous. But every man of them was armed, with two, four, even six handguns of assorted type and caliber, some on them and others on the saddles of the horses being held just behind their line, apart from knives and long guns. And those horses were quality, and what was more several of them had others, unsaddled, on lead behind them. Bulging flour sacks hung at the saddleforks.
At the center of the arc stood a big liver-chestnut mare, and sitting her a young man, a brown-eyed blond, maybe a year or two older than Buck, wearing tight pale-tan trousers and a fine long-tailed blue cloth coat with brass buttons, a ruffled dress shirt of fine lawn with the throat left casually open, a fancy red-and-white-checkered vest, a broad-brimmed Panama hat and high-cut Wellington boots. Two Colt Dragoons hung on the pommel of his saddle, twin Colt Paterson .36 revolvers in crossed rigs on his hips, and braced against his thigh, with the muzzle pointed skyward, was a handsome English shotgun with a carved walnut stock and barrels of fine tempered steel. Buck cursed mentally. This was a type he had seen, often and often, around Kansas City and indeed Miz Abigail's house. It seemed at least half the planting aristocracy on the Missouri had wild rattlebrained sons, with a tendency to run short of cash or a resentment that they'd missed the big raids into Kansas, or sometimes both, and this kind, being smarter and having the total certainty of being obeyed that came naturally of their plantation roots, often made perfect leaders for just the sort of mudsill Buck saw all around him.
"Well, lookee here what we got, Cap'n!" grinned one of the woods runners. "All alone by his own self and cookin' up breakfast just as bold as brass!" He was the one standing nearest Buck's bed, scanning the weaponry arrayed around it. "Boy, you got more fire power than a whole squad of soldiers! What you doin' here, anyways?"
"Quiet, Seth," the young planter commanded. "I'll ask the questions, you keep him covered." He nudged his mare a couple of steps forward. "What are you doin' here, sir? Who are you and where are you from?"
Buck might be bitter, but he wasn't stupid. He thought fast. This was clearly a bunch of Missourian night-riders on their way home from a raid into Kansas, and if he gave them any hint of what his true sympathies were, he'd be dead in five minutes. If, on the other hand, he could trick them into letting him go, maybe he could follow and pick a few of them off. Or, better yet, if he could get them to accept him into their group-- "Name's Wilmington. Bucklin Wilmington, out of Kansas City."
The woods-runners looked at one another, surprised and disconcerted. "A fellow Missourian, then?" guessed the young man addressed as "Cap'n." He considered his prisoner for a moment, glancing over at Buck's impressive stash of weaponry. "You're quite well equipped, for a casual traveller, Mr. Wilmington."
"I hear the roads in these parts ain't always safe," Buck retorted, "and I ain't said I was casual, neither. I heard there was trouble down this way, and I'm a man lookin' for trouble." Which was, of course, true; he just wasn't saying on which side he hoped to cause some.
"Are you so, indeed," drawled the young man. He eyed Buck slowly up and down. "In that case, Mr. Wilmington, you have found it." A nod to his dismounted followers: "Take him."
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