The Missouri-Kansas border had been a hotbed of hatred and revenge for two years now. After the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May of 1854, living within fifty miles of the Missouri River in the northern third of either state was a gamble, yet the land was so fertile that many stayed to feed their families and pocket what little they could of profits from the harvest. Not only did the glacial deposits of old provide hearty crops, but so were they fertilized in blood.
John Winston eased up onto his porch, his left leg giving him trouble. Beneath his course work pants was a mottle of purple, pink, and yellow bruises all on one thigh. This from a fall in the tobacco barn while hanging wagon loads of the punky weed three days before. Bruise or no, he finished with the three acres worth of tobacco sticks alongside sons, family members, and friends for the cash crop needed drying in his barn before being sent to town in bales in a month or two. With a leg now peppered in a full regalia of colors and pain, he had sent his oldest out back to strip down a few ears of corn from the garden for the chickens, collect their eggs, and lock them down before the night shift could get to them.
Struggling, even with the rail, he headed for his rocker. The hand quilted pillow and solid frame were a comfort. He sat with a solid squat, which sent the whole contraption into a see-saw of motion. As it settled, as he settled, his hand moved to collect his pipe from the side table. Before he could pull a pinch of his own tobacco from a clay container, his youngest nestled herself up onto his lap.
"What'cha doin' daddy?" she asked. The smile on her face could turn the devil without even trying. She was a small thing, even for her age, and wriggled until his lap cradled her in a loving hug.
"Oh darling," he said, "just resting my bones before your ma calls for supper." He clasped her to one side to save his tender leg, and in doing so, she nestled along his ribs in a cub-like bear hug.
As he released the tight embrace on his youngest daughter, the sound of horse's hooves commanded the air. They were suddenly coming right this way and fast. John started to stand but the weight of his daughter and his tender leg sent him back into the unstable rocker before he could rise even an inch.
Four men pulled up fast in a billowing cloud of late summer dust. John knew them not. He stared at them and they at him. Their faces were hard and dirty. Each of them had slack reins in one hand and a gun already drawn in the other.
John tightened before he could do anything else. His eyes continued on theirs with a defiance. "You let me set this girl down first," he said as a command. He knew the stories, both from men that rode across the border and from widows back here around home.
The man on the far left, slightly forward of the others, nodded at the door.
John ushered his scared daughter off his lap so he could stand. Taking her shaking hand, he forgot his limp and pressed her towards, then inside the door. She started to cry and ran inside for her mother, which she saw back in the kitchen. His hand reached to the inner sanctum where a double barrel bird gun rested at the edge of his fingertips. As he turned, shots rang out, one sending splinters from the outer jam that laced the front door. The shotgun fell to the inner hardwood and his body pressed through the doorway like a wave breaking on a torrent of rocks.
Trist Winston plucked the last of seven eggs into the belly of his outstretched shirt. That was when he heard the clap of horses pull up to the front of the house. His head cocked backwards for a moment, then the shots startled him to hit the ground. Eggs fell from and faintly colored his shirt in globs as he rose in haste. The screams from the kitchen sped his feet in a fury to round the house as four horses screened their escape behind a raised cloud of dust.
At seventeen, he was a man by social standards, and yet still susceptible to the extreme rush of adrenalin and rage of youth. Pulsing with anger, he could not recall grabbing the bird gun as he threw his reins over the head and ears of his little buckskin at the back corner corral, but it did not hinder the speed of the chore in the least. Without a saddle, he hoisted onto the three year old with a jump he could not have made so smooth any other day. The sight of his father was a confused remembrance as his fist took a handful of hair alongside the reins.
The two took to the road in a rhythm well practiced. It was a trip known to memory. Hips and legs matched the pulse of shoulder and back muscle as they raced down the road. Trist's legs pinched just enough to stay in place. He leaned forward, into the whistling wind, holding the shotgun snug along his left leg. Considering the speed of his buckskin, he knew the men would not make it far. A tear started to flow, both from the rush of air and the emotional build in his young chest. Before him, the rising dirt road roiled to reveal his closeness to the four men as the overall veil of dust gave birth to a line of churned earth just thrown from the hoof.
Figures ghosted before him in the brown haze. He took aim at proximity and pulled one trigger. The buckskin held to pace without a wince. The grit now closed his eyes in a throb of sting and bite. As he blinked it away, a body wheeled head over spurs close to his right, and soon, a horse slowed out towards the grass and fell from the others with none to give it order.
Taking aim without a saddle had been a challenge, and he wished not to do it again. Still, he thumbed back the second hammer while holding it steady to grip. The dust had become an ocean and the riders were but soundings deep within its depths. Though nearly sightless, he could tell that the men were but a stone's throw away and his virile mount closed the distance fast. Had they both not known the road so well from many a travel, a curve or two would have been the end of the chase, but even a glimpse at a tree rising from the storm of dust gave indications needed to keep a sprint of pursuit.
The buckskin pulled deep and kept to a dashing gallop that caught up the next man. His hat, then his shoulders were revealed through the haze. With only one shot left, Trist raised the shotgun across his chest in recoil to strike like a hammer. His closeness was finally given away as the man turned to look down at the silted eyes, flat nostrils, and wild black hair of horse flesh that caught up into his view. Trist swung the scatter gun in a wide arc as if it were an awkward cudgel, but awkward or not, the long barrels found enough of the man to knock him from the saddle. It was not the blow that did him any real damage, but the being dragged by an ankle that slipped a twisted toe in the stirrup and hung on better than the man had. A second horse pulled away riderless, but not without passenger. Bone jarring thuds mingled with the sound of pounding hooves as the horse veered right in a hard arc of travel.
At the clatter of disorderly sounds behind, the other two riders started to pull up, heads jerking this way and that, lessening their speeds and the blinding din of raised road overtook them. Trist could not have known them for having done so for riding the heart of the dusty storm, and both he and his horse wedged into the pair like a plow peeling over a rut of dirt that lays open the fresh earth beneath. All three riders went sprawling and plunged to the hard ground.
Trist was not hurt but his breath had left him alone with a pair of lungs too sore and confused to do their job under a momentary daze. After a brief pause for calibration, they heaved painfully in an inhalation of dust, which sent him coughing in double agony. His mind focused only on breathing. His body expelled the natural debris that ever tried to settle about him. Mucus sprayed from his nose and spittle flew from his lips, all with a consistency like that of mud. The thought of the other two men was not even a working memory, much less an immediate concern.
Within a minute, the dust had settled and travelled on enough that all three men could see each other. Trist was still swimming within his own mind as to whether he could breath, and by the looks of it, so was another of the men. Both had blank faces that could do little but exist in their current state. Not so with the other, older man.
The man held his left arm bent close to his body, but his right leapt down to his holster for his gun. It was gone. But as the dust settled even more, the shotgun lay at his right knee in a rut of impact in the road. It had toppled, only to land before him. With his one good hand, he scooped it up and pointed it at Trist's head, not twenty feet away. Trist was still dazed to immovability, but as the muddle continued to lift, he saw that both barrels had eaten up a belly full of the road. Dirt trickled out as if being slowly poured. The man smiled and pulled the trigger.
Trist flinched, which snapped him completely back to earth. Yet he was not harmed. The man appeared stiff as if he were in a painting. For as he dropped the shotgun, his hand, shoulder, and neck were riddled with fragments of what once was the proximal end of the barrel. A cracked and shaved hole gaped along the back of the barrel, which webbed its way over the top of one hammer, and riveted down the smooth upper curve of the stock. A curtain of grey smoke hung about the man's powdered face, encircling his head. He was not dead, but bled from numerous punctures and abrasions. He might even live, though his life hung in a precarious balance, and Trist had no intention of taking the man to a doctor.
The fourth man, as Trist's eyes were now able to fully see, was only as much of a man as he. For the other was no older than Trist himself, maybe even a little younger, and just as done with the horror of the situation. So when he rose, coughed, and stumbled down the road towards a particularly flighty horse, Trist just watched. Somewhere in that lot, this boy likely had lost his father as well. Trist could not find contempt, only pity.
After collecting himself the best he could, he found his buckskin and walked him the miles back home in a shuffling stupor. Arriving back at the homestead, he walked up onto the porch, sat in his father's rocking chair, and wept.