The charred Kansas town was a skeleton of its former self. Billy Young couldn't help but sniffle at the blackened fragments of shops and saloons. Even the local school and church had been put to the torch by Rebel renegades. Reportedly the very barbarians they had come to ambush! Billy's eyes began to water, squeezing them shut did little to dame the river of sorrow. He had been there before, visiting friends and relatives. Places of fond memory reduced to ashes! Had all the love and joy been burned too?
The youngest of a dozen Red-Legs hung his head in shame. A futile effort atop his horse. Even the brim of his hat couldn't hide his weakness. He sensed the scornful looks from his comrades as they dismounted. A deafening rumble roared in his ears as his nose ran, he barely heard the approaching footsteps. A hoarse cry burst from Billy's throat as a pair of rough hands ripped him down from his mount.
"QUIT BALLIN, BOY!" whiskey-soaked breath bellowed in his face. Billy opened his eyes to the scowling, scraggly, unwashed face of Blake Burns. "The Rebs'll be here soon and your cryin'll give us away, you sniveling COWARD!" he roared. Another pair of rough hands ripped Billy free of the drunkard's grasp.
"Shout a little louder, I don't think the Rebs heard you the first time!" a softer voice growled. Billy blinked tears from his eyes to see Frank Marion scowling into Burns' glare. Marion was taller and broader than the sneering, wiry drunk. He also looked much younger, though both were in their mid-thirties. Burns was shaggy and unkempt, Marion was clean-shaven but with a long dark mane. The only thing the two had in common was the crimson cloth wrapped around their legs. Billy had come to regard Marion as a second father; his own having been hobbled in a farming accident and unable to take up arms for the Union.
"You and Big Mike are too soft on that pup!" Burns spat.
"Maybe we ain't HARD ENOUGH on YOU!" Big Mike Daniels sneered as he stomped between them. Burns shrank like a cat before a hound and retreated a step. Big Mike was their duly elected Captain and had proven himself a capable soldier. He had been a lawman in the past and even battled Indians. Standing taller than anyone else, with broad shoulders and a booming baritone, Big Mike looked the part of a leader.
"I miss Pete Rhodes," Burns half-grumbled, half-whined, remembering their fallen comrade. "He'd back me up here!" he turned to snarl at the others standing off to the side.
"We all miss Mad-Pete! But don't be too sure about that last part!" Big Mike grunted. "Now everyone get your horses down behind the rubble and get to cover! The Rebs will be here soon! And remember to space out! Don't be right across from each other!" he finished with a snarl. Everyone nodded mutely, remembering a tragic crossfire that happened in an ambush the previous year.
Billy dried his eyes and followed Marion and Reverend Isaac Carpenter to the opposite side of the main street. As he led his horse away he could feel the burning glare of the drunkard on his back. He was careful not to return the gaze. Burns had always been a hot-head but had only started lashing out a few months back, after finding his old friend Mad-Pete Rhodes shot to pieces after rescuing two star-crossed lovers. The one time Billy ever saw Burns cry.
"Never mind Burns, lad," Reverend Isaac said as they eased their mounts down together. "His demons are catching up to him and that bottle just helps them gain ground," the preacher bitterly rolled his eyes.
"They catch up to all of us, Preacher," Marion softly huffed.
"Indeed," Isaac conceded. Everyone in the band knew Blake Burns' story. How a rebel mob swarmed his farm, beat him bloody, torched his crops and burned his house down with his wife and daughters inside. His was only one of many tragedies to befall abolitionists in Kansas and Missouri. And most Red-Legs knew rebel raiders had similar sob-stories motivating their own deadly rampages; some were even committed by Red-Legs. Billy forced another wave of tears back as he considered these thoughts. He was committed to the cause and there was no turning back. Without another word they crept into the ashen remains of a saloon, store or, for all they knew, post office.
Big Mike and some others crossed the road to their side and took refuge in a nearby building. "Remember to watch your fire, one of the wagons has precious cargo aboard." he called out just loud enough to be heard. "And nobody fires until I shoot first!" Muffled grunts of acknowledgment went up seconds before the faint rumble of southward bound hooves became audible.
Looking northward up the street, Billy saw dust going up in the wake of the trampling Rebel horde. It was Ma Delilah and her sons. Most were actually her nephews but unseemly rumors implied there was little difference in her case. An Alabama family that had moved first to Missouri, then to Kansas to expand their plantation empire. The family Patriarch, Sam Delilah had been killed by a unionist just as hostilities broke out between the states. Ruth "Ma" Delilah had taken up her husband's mantle with an equally violent hatred of the union, free blacks, and all abolitionists.
An old friend of Big Mike's had galloped into their camp before dawn and tipped them off that Ma Delilah was leading the last of her clan in a desperate trek for Texas. Word was she planned to head for Mexico with all the loot and money she could scavenge. Either to feather a new nest or to buy support from Emperor Maximilian for the Confederacy. Perhaps both.
The Red-Legs were intent on neither occurring. Especially since among the loot they carried was something far more precious than gold or silver. Word was, they were hauling a wagon stuffed with slave girls. Ma Delilah had made a pretty penny renting them out since the war began. The Red-Legs had heard-tell about an Emancipation Proclamation back east. They intended to make a proclamation of their own.
Billy chanced looking up to see the Delilah Clan growing larger and more visible as they approached. He recognized a few hand-me-down Confederate uniform jackets among the twenty-some-odd riders. But most simply wore gray or light-blue clothes to identify themselves with their side. Thumbing back both hammers of his shotgun, Billy laid flat on his back, took a deep breath, and slowly exhaled; just like Marion taught him. He had only been riding with the Red-Legs a year and had seen a few scrapes with them, but never against so many! The teenage boy still only carried his shotgun, not revolvers; his hand still shook too much to shoot straight. He turned to Marion, also on his back, his Colt Revolving Rifle was primed and ready. The older man offered a reaffirming nod to the youngster, who returned it with a weak smile. To Billy's right Reverend Isaac muttered a prayer or Bible verse before priming his own shotgun. The rumble of hooves grew louder, almost deafening. The earth shook like a Biblical disaster approached. Then all hell broke loose.
The rapid blasts of a Henry Repeater spat lead like lightning bolts bursting from an angry heaven. Big Mike had opened fire. Billy and the others followed suit. The Delilah Clan came to a crippling halt as hot lead tore into man and horse alike. Peppered with gunfire on both sides, they fired back frantically. Mostly only hitting air and the charred walls they had burned months earlier. A stolen stagecoach came to a halt as stray bullets and buckshot downed multiple members of the six-horse team. Billy blinked as he reloaded and tried hard not to wonder if his buckshot had felled man or beast. Mechanically reloading with trembling hands, Billy rose to empty both barrels again at the first thing that moved. A grey figure splattered and toppled in the choking gun smoke, which soon grew to a thick fog. It was as if the town was on fire all over again. A new inferno blazing from the ashes.
"WATCH YOUR SHOTS!" Big Mike bellowed. "DON'T HIT THE STAGECOACH!" As he reloaded again, Billy saw Marion take carefully aimed shots with his Colt. Bullets blazed by him, a few grazed him, but he stood stoically on and downed figures in the fog with precision. With his sixth shot, Marion knelt down for another hail of bullets to pass harmlessly overhead. Billy and Reverend Isaac both rose to blast away with buckshot. They slumped back down to reload as Marion rose to empty his cylinder again. Billy froze in wonder at Marion's stoic calm as bullets blazed over and around him. None of them struck.
Soon the firing ceased, the gun smoke too thick to see through. No one shot, no one spoke. A gentle breeze kicked up and carried smoke and dust southward. The fog of war brushed aside like a curtain and the theater of carnage stood before the Red-Legs in grizzly detail. The Delilah Clan was slaughtered. Lying perforated in bloody heaps, the grey and light-blue of their make-shift uniforms splashed crimson by their wounds. The hidden Red-Legs looked on in awed horror at their butcher's bill. Billy forced his breakfast back down his gullet.
Big Mike was the first to emerge from his cover and loped eagerly towards the stopped stagecoach. "GIRLS!" he bellowed. "YOU ALRIGHT IN THERE?" I cried. Billy blinked, it hadn't occurred to him that the girls ought to have been screaming their heads off by then. Before he could stand Marion sprang like a panther toward the coach.
"Mike don't!" he called out. Too late, Big Mike's hand grasped the door latch and swung it open. Billy saw Big Mike stumble back in shock at the wicked leer of an old hat and the shiny barrel of her Colt. Marion's rifle thundered and her revolver dropped to the dirt in a mist of blood and shattered bones! Big Mike toppled over just as Ma Delilah fell forward rolled to the ground with a feral cry. She wailed with equal parts fury and agony at the bloody stumps that were once her hands. Again Billy's breakfast desperately tried to escape.
"YANKEE COWARDS! BLUE-BELLY DEVILS! FILTHY RED-LEGS!" Ma Delilah screeched and roared like a mad-woman. "YOU KILLED MY BOYS!" she bellowed before berating them with a stream of such filth and obscenity Billy expected more civility from the slimiest of saloon girls, none of whom he had the guts to approach even so many miles from his mother! Billy was mesmerized at the grotesque figure in the dirt. A silver-haired granny, missing several teeth, wrinkled as dirty laundry, pale as snow, a clad in a black mourning gown. Billy felt he had read a ghost story about her once. All of while, Marion climbed into the stagecoach and emerged with a worried look on his face that made it obvious.
"Not there," he huffed. Big Mike, back on his feet, looked down on the baying wench with disgust.
"Where are they? Where are the girls?" he demanded. After a few more agonized gasps, the hag's menacing leer returned.
"Why?" she spat. "Want them for yourselves?" she scanned the increased crowd of Red-Legs. Billy blinked, not having noticed the others had emerged from cover. He turned back to Ma and very quickly wished he hadn't as her pale green eyes locked with his. Her smile became even more lecherous. "Want to give that little pecker-wood his first time?" she asked before balling with laughter. Billy trembled with fury and stomped towards her with both hammers cocked and both barrels trained on her hideous face!
A pair of arms grappled him from behind and the reverend's voice begged him to stop. Even as Billy blinked, forced a deep breath into his lungs and stepped back along with the preacher he could hardly believe what he had almost done. Scanning the others he saw the shocked looks on their faces, even Burns was stunned. Billy thought for sure he would faint, but Isaac's arms held him up.
"Faith, Billy!" he insisted. "Be strong!"
"STRONG MEN YOU ALL ARE!" Delilah hissed. "Crawling in the dirty like worms and ambushing us like COWARDS!"
"Says the tramp who burns whole towns to the ground that ain't got nothing but lonely wives with brooms to fight you with!" Burns snarled.
"THEY HAD IT COMING! AND SO DID THOSE WORTHLESS LITTLE WENCHES! I sold them CHEAP! But I'm sure them Quantrill boys is having some good times with them cow-eyed gals! Guess you boys get the blues tonight!" She paused to loose another volley of screeching laughs.
"Just tell us where they are," Marion grunted. Ma paused to look at him thoughtfully amid painful breaths. Then her eyes brightened in recognition.
"I remember you!" she stabbed one of her bloody stumps up at him. "You're that abolitionist butcher from Kansas City! Mary, wasn't it?"
"Marion," he softly corrected. She chuckled in sadistic glee.
"My husband told me about you! Told me about you and that scrawny little PARTNER of yours! Lindsey, wasn't it. A fitting name for a pathetic excuse for a man! If even you can call him a man! My husband told me, he was more like a WOMAN to YOU!" She paused to laugh hysterically. All eyes scanned from her to Marion and back again, trying to figure what to make of her ramblings. Marion's face was as stoic as his voice was silent. "You deny my husband's word?" she blinked at his silence.
"Lindsey was my friend," he growled in reply. "A man I trusted more than any other. That's all there is to it. But it doesn't matter now. You WILL tell us where those girls are!"
"Or what, you Red-Leg SODOMITE? You'll shoot off my feet too?" she asked with flared nostrils and bared teeth.
"No," he said with a long pause. "We'll leave you like this," again he paused for the words to sink in. The wrinkles on her worn face seemed to soften, her squinting eyes widened, and her screeching voice silenced as she realized her position. The same silence gripped Billy and the others as their minds put together the horrific puzzle of what her final hours would be like should one of them not put a bullet in her head.
"Tell me, Ma, what do you think will get you first?" Marion asked with a bitter smirk. "Wolves, Coyotes, or maybe the buzzards will swoop down and figure you won't be able to fight them off with those flimsy little broken hands. Sometimes you even spot a wild boar in these parts. Whatever the case, they won't wait until you breathe your last before they sink their teeth in." Billy swallowed hard. He wasn't sure which was worse, the fates Marion just described or the fact that part of him actually figured Ma deserved it!
Minutes of stark silence crept by, only interrupted by whistling winds. "A few hours ride north of here!" Ma gasped, seeming on the verge of tears. "There's a red barn, off the road to the west in a patch of trees. There's a Confederate flag flying on a pole outside it. You'll find them there!"
"And the Quantrill boys?" Big Mike snapped.
"About a dozen of them!" Ma snarled. "Now FINISH ME!" Marion and Big Mike exchanged glances. With a sigh, Marion turned and strode casually over to a fallen rebel, looted a revolver from his gun-belt and checked it. Returning to Ma's side he dropped it in the dirt beside her.
"You ain't got no more slaves, woman. Do your own dirty work!" he snapped. She gazed in shock from the pistol to her bloody, finger-less hands and back again several times in horrified silence. Marion turned and walked towards where Billy, Isaac, and he had laid the horses.
"Good one, Marion!" Burns giggled darkly.
"MOUNT UP, EVERYONE!" Big Mike barked before striding to his own mount. Billy and the others awkwardly obeyed, dragging their eyes from the pathetic figure patting the pistol frantically with useless arms.
"Don't leave me!" she sniffled. "Please, don't leave me like this!" she pleaded. Billy turned to see her eyes welling with tears. He still wanted to shoot her, but for reasons that made him hate himself less.
"Come, Billy," Reverend Isaac dragged him towards their mounts. "We all reap what we sow," he said firmly.
"PLEASE!!!" Ma resumed screeching like a wild animal. Billy bit his lip and ignored her feral cries. Billy hardened his heart and mounted up with the rest. Soon they were galloping northward up the road and the hag's cries vanished forever in the rumble of trampling hooves.
* * *
Hours dragged by as they galloped. Big Mike and Marion were neck-in-neck at the lead. Billy scanned the group and managed a smile as he realized they hadn't lost a single man in the ambush! A miracle, he thought, and knew Reverend Isaac would agree with him. Hopefully there'd be another miracle that day.
Billy was old enough to understand what went on between men and women in bedrooms. He also knew a man could hurt a woman something fierce that way. In the silence of his mind he prayed them Quantrill varmints wouldn't touch the poor girls until nightfall.
The sun was leaning hard westward when they all noticed the big red barn sitting in a clump of trees. Several tents strewn in front of it. The stars and bars flapped defiantly in the air of a Free State. Billy felt himself smirking with menace as he and the rest of the dozen-man column curved off the road and galloped towards the enemy camp with renewed vigor! The thick patch of trees were the perfect corral and the Red-Legs had a herd to slaughter.
The Johnny Rebs must have heard them coming and figured they were their own men. Two of them approached, waving and smiling. Instants later their eyes widened, presumably at the red leggings and dark coats. They went for their guns but never cleared holster. Big Mike and Marion downed them with one shot each. Even as the Red-Legs trampled into camp, the Quantrill raiders stumbled out of tents in shocked horror and fired wildly, mostly missing. A few Red Legs toppled from their mounts. The rest fired with fury at the hated foes.
Billy found himself leaping from his mare, landing on his feet and peppering three men with both barrels. They fell in a mist of their own blood and Billy quickly reloaded. He barely noticed his hands no longer shook. Turning to a snarling rebel thumbing back the hammers of two Colts only a few feet away, he knelt and discharged both barrels into his waist. The Reb toppled over in two pieces. Billy reloaded and turned to the big barn door as it swung open. Several Rebs burst out in various degrees of undress. They fired revolvers and repeaters wildly, downing another Red-Leg from his horse and grazing Billy's cheek. The lad toppled over but swung up his shotgun and fired, downing two Rebs. Marion's revolving rifle, Big Mike's Henry and Burns' Colt made swift work of the other five.
Everyone stood still and silent as the gun smoke settled. Moments later Billy heard muffled whimpers and wails. Forgetting the sharp pain in his cheek, he leapt to his feet and rushed into the barn ahead of everyone else. What he saw made him drop his weapon.
About ten figures were sprawled about the hay. Some in ripped and tattered dresses, others desperately clasping at the straw with nothing else to cover themselves, a few didn't even try to cover. Billy tried desperately not to notice the latter. His fists tightened as he wished there were more Quantrills to kill. The varmints didn't wait for nightfall.
Big Mike cursed from behind Billy. Marion blasphemed under his breath. Others only looked on in horror. A few of the Red-Legs who had daughters approached the whimpering girls gingerly. Gently telling them there was nothing to worry about, that no one was going to hurt them anymore. Marion and Big Mike started doing the same. Billy turned to see Burns eyeing the scene with disgust and defeat, he drew his whiskey bottle from his coat and took a long swig as he turned and strolled away.
Turning back, Billy's eyes looked with those of a slave girl kneeling wide-eyed in the hay. He figured she was a few years younger than him. Her dress was tattered but holding together. Her eyes were hazel, very pretty but filled with fear. Every muscle in her body trembled. Billy strained himself to hold back tears as he stepped towards her.
"It's alright," he said softly. "The Rebs are all dead. We won't hurt you. You're safe now," he could tell she wasn't convinced but persisted. "I'm Billy, we're going to take you somewhere safe," he was only a few feet from her, reaching out to touch her shoulder when his eyes locked on the bloody, limp figure beside her in the straw. A Quantrill raider, lying still and silent, a gash cut across his neck!
Billy barely had time to lunge backwards as the blood-soaked blade slashed at his throat. The knife sliced the palm of his hand and sent him toppling over with a painful cry. The slave girl sprang and roared like a wildcat, pinning him down and raising the weapon high. Billy shut his eyes and waited for a deathblow. A burst of momentum, more hissing cries, and the rumble of a larger figure, and Billy opened his eyes to see Marion had grappled the girl and was dragging her back towards the hay. The lad gasped a deep breath and willed his heart to stop pounding before it burst his ribs.
The girl wiggled free and lunged back against the straw. Marion stepped back a few paces and begged her to put down the knife. "We won't hurt you!" he pleaded.
"LIAR!" she snarled and slashed at the air with the dead Reb's knife. "You just like them! ALL-A-YA!"
"You're wrong," Marion said softly but firmly. "I know how you feel."
"NO YA DON'T!" she spat.
"I do," he said, almost whispering. Billy noticed Big Mike and most of the others had crowded around the scene. "When I was a boy, smaller even than you, my Pa would," he paused to eye his comrades then stepped closer to keep talking in a lower voice. None of the others could hear what he was saying, but the girl did. Whatever it was, it softened her face. Soon her arms went down to her side and the knife slipped from her grasp. Moments later tears were streaming from her eyes and she leaned forward to weep into Marion's chest. He gingerly embraced her and patted her head.
"I'll be okay, darling," Marion soothed her. Billy stumbled to his feet and looked in awe with the others. Even some of the girls had recovered enough to watch the scene. Eventually Big Mike snapped at the others to check on the rest of the girls and get ready to move out. Reverend Isaac was at Billy's side in no time, and began fussing over his grazed cheek and cut palm.
The reverend ushered Billy out of the barn, where the lad noticed four of the others had been injured. None of them killed. A few horses had been downed by bullets in the fighting. Burns got busy putting them down then went to fetch fresh horses the Rebs had lashed to the nearby trees. Within an hour, the twelve Red-Legs were mounted with the girls riding double and on their way to the nearest Union-friendly village. Some of the girls were wrapped in the coats of their dead captors. Marion had wrapped the girl who had the knife in his own dark blue coat.
The sun had set by the time they galloped into town and came to a stop outside the church. The pastor and his wife emerged and eyed the poor girls with painful pity. Big Mike and the pastor exchanged glances and nods. Without a word the pastor and his wife began helping the girls down and leading them into the church.
Marion dismounted and helped his girl down then paused to whisper something to her. A moment later she turned and sullenly stomped over to Billy's mount with her eyes to the ground. For a moment he feared she was going to attack him again, he flinched slightly as her gaze shot up to his.
"Sorry, Billy!" she snapped. Billy could only blink in silence. "About the knife, I mean," she softened her tone awkwardly. Her gaze softened as well and Billy knew she really meant it.
"Hell, it's nothing," he shrugged. "Barely even a scratch! You just surprised me and took the wind out of me is all," he awkwardly laughed. Thankfully she managed a slight smirk, which made him feel better.
"I'm Rosaline," she said before looking back to the ground sullenly. "So long," she finished before stomping back to Marion, then followed the other girls into the church.
A few hours later the Red-Legs were miles out of town, not wanting to stay the night with them and risk exposing them to Quantrill's vengeance. The fire was burning and the men were huddled around it in awkward silence. All eyes awkwardly avoided Marion. If the man noticed the awkwardness he gave no sign of it. Some biscuits were passed around and they all ate quietly. Billy hadn't even realized how hungry he was, hadn't eaten since breakfast!
Eventually Marion rose to go and double check the horses, as had always been his habit. Once he vanished into the dark surrounding the camp fire Burns snickered, his mouth wet with whiskey.
"So which of us do you suppose he's thinking about, all alone out there in the dark?" he asked with a wheezing laugh. That was the last straw! Billy leapt to his feet, lunged and buried his fist in the drunkard's nose! The dull-eyed lecher blinked in astonishment then sneered with rage as he sprang to his feet, balled his fists to a swing at the lad. Billy dodged the swing with ease and gave him a sharp jab in the gut. Big Mike caught Burns' arm before he could swing a hook into Billy's jaw and dragged him backwards. Reverend Isaac wedged himself between Billy and Burns.
"That little pecker-wood, cuss hit me!" Burns growled.
"Yeah? Maybe you had it coming!" Big Mike barked.
"Was only fooling around!"
"That was not funny, Mr. Burns!" the reverend huffed.
"Since when does a preacher defend queers?"
"And what manner of a man are you, Mr. Burns?" Isaac snapped. "You who suckle the teat of the bottle! Even if a word that HARLOT said today can be trusted, you're more offensive than he is!"
Burns locked eyes with Isaac in seething silence for several seconds before wrestling free of Big Mike and stomping a few paces away from the fire and curling up in the dirt with his bottle, like he did every night.
Eventually Marion returned. If he heard any of what had happened he never mentioned it. None of them ever spoke of that day again. Not even Burns. Billy sometimes wondered if any of what Delilah had said about him was true and if it had anything to do with what he told Rosaline about in the barn. But he knew better than to ask, and he never would.
A few months after the ambush, Quantrill's boys ambushed them! Hit them with rifle fire from the trees overlooking a narrow stream as they paused to water their horses. A bullet nicked Billy's arm and three others were killed in the first volley. The rest galloped like every leprechaun in Ireland was after them! Billy looked back to see Burns was pinned beneath his fallen mount by the creek bed. Marion was already galloping back to help him. Burns had just wiggled free of his horse and was reaching up to accept Marion's hand when a rebel volley downed them both.