The dog kicked up the rabbits and worked them through the brush. Matt raised his shotgun to his shoulder.
“Get ’em!” Jesse said.
Right on top of Matt’s shot, Jesse’s gun went off. Black-powder smoke burned Matt’s eyes. He ducked under it, running to where the rabbit had gone down. When he hoisted it by its hind legs, he was amazed to see Jesse showing him one, too.
“When’ve you seen that before?” Jesse called.
“I would have to say never.” It was a quick kill, but not as clean as Matt would have liked. Some of the meat was spoiled, part of the pelt damaged. Before he got to Jesse, he tossed the rabbit into his wheat sack.
Jesse knelt to scratch Patch’s head. “Good girl! How’d you do that?” He looked up at Matt. “You give me a foot and I’ll give you one—but don’t say it.”
“All right,” Matt said, trying not to smile. For a religious boy, Jesse could be mighty superstitious; he didn’t like talking about luck. Jesse’s rabbit was a cleaner kill, as always. Still, he’d shot only two today. Matt had three—he supposed because he was the one who really needed to bring home food.
Jesse sacked his rabbit. “You getting hungry?”
“I’m always hungry.”
They shouldered their guns and started through the cool, damp woods. Vines, trees, and undergrowth grew a bright green haze.
“April’s the best time of year, don’t you think?” Matt bounced on a rotting branch until it gave way with a soggy snap. “Redbuds in bloom, birds coming back, the air smells like earth . . . And tomorrow, I reckon I’ll start my plowing.”
Jesse shook his head. “Matt, you are the only boy I know who likes to plow.”
At the rocks where they always ate, they shared corn bread and apples from Matt’s place, cheese and bread and dried beef from Jesse’s.
“So this plowing—you can manage on your own?”
Matt shrugged. “Pa couldn’t do much last year.”
“Well, I’ll help you some.”
“Thanks, Jess. But I can do it. And Ben’ll help a little.”
Jesse grinned. “Oh, yeah. A very little.”
“I’ll make a farmer out of him yet.” Matt savored a bite of the tangy beef. “I’m thinking I might put in a bit more corn this year.”
“Your pa told you just what to do for this season,” Jesse said firmly.
“I don’t believe he’d have minded me using my own head a little.”
“You have enough fields to worry on, Matt.”
“Maybe hogs, then . . . I might go up and talk to Mr. Stone about it.”
“Stone.” Jesse nearly spat the name. Mr. Stone was Matt’s nearest neighbor, and he was Union. He and Jesse’s folks hated one another now.
“Don’t start about it, Jess,” Matt mumbled.
“Well, you ought to watch who you keep counsel with,” Jesse said darkly.
Matt looked away.
Missouri was cut to kindling over this war, with hatreds sparking and burning between neighbors, old friends, even within families. The state had tried to stay neutral, but the Union wouldn’t allow that. It declared war on Missouri in June of ’61, invading with troops from Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin—and Kansas.
Here near the western border, much of the trouble went back to the grudge Kansas had against Missouri. For two years now, Kansas jayhawkers had been using the war as an excuse to raid Missouri, killing men and boys, burning farms, and stealing whatever they could carry off.
And Missouri’s own Union militia weren’t much better. They killed only Secessionists, but they robbed both sides blind.
“Look at all that green, Matt,” Jesse said, tilting his chin up. “Know what it says to me? Quantrill.”
It was Quantrill who roused Missouri men to fight back. He rode out of nowhere about a year ago, collecting a small group of farm boys at first, but gathering force like a summer storm. Soon enough they were raiding just the way the jayhawkers did—striking fast, retreating faster. They killed Union men, fired Union homes, and proved they’d learned another lesson well: stealing from everybody in their path.
They preferred to be called partisan rangers, and they answered to bushwhacker or guerrilla. But the Federals considered them outlaws. If caught, they were given no quarter: they were hanged, or shot. After a skirmish, all wounded were killed. So now the guerrillas did the same to the Feds. The guerrillas had to live in the brush and fight by ambush—and go south in the winter when the bare woods left them nowhere to hide.
“You folks heard from Buck?” Matt asked.
“No.” Jesse crunched into an apple. “But I suppose he’ll turn up soon enough.”
Jesse’s brother was riding with Quantrill now. When the war started, Buck was eighteen. He joined the regular Confederate Army, and fought with General Sterling Price to beat the Feds at Wilson’s Creek. But Price couldn’t hold Missouri, and when he began his retreat Buck was left behind, sick to death with the measles. Federals captured him, made him swear loyalty to the Union, and brought him home.
As the Union was driving Price’s army from the state, Quantrill’s band started to form. Meanwhile, Buck harvested, planted, and plowed. But last July, the Union’s General Order No. 19 commanded every Missouri man to enlist with the Federal militia—to hunt and kill the guerrillas. That was when Buck took to the brush.
Matt’s older brother, Clayton, normally didn’t speak against either the Union or the Confederacy, but Order 19 made him plenty mad. He said it drove to Quantrill hundreds of men who wanted to keep out of the fight, and boys whose folks had talked them into staying on their farms.
Jesse drew back his arm. “The cottonwood.”
Both threw apple cores; only one met the target.
“Got it!” they said at the same time, and then, laughing, “You did not!”
“What time is it?” Matt asked.
Jesse drew his pa’s silver watch from his pocket. “Quarter past three.”
“Dang!” Matt jumped off the rock. “How’d it get so late?”
“Ah, what’s your worry?”
“I got work, that’s what.” He slung his haversack over his head and under his arm, picked up his rabbits and gun. “You coming or staying?”
Jesse slid slowly to his feet. “I know you’ve a lot on your mind, but you ought to have fun once in a while, too.”
“I’m having fun. This was fun.”
Jesse whistled for Patch as they started. “Matt . . . you ever think about girls?”
“From time to time,” he replied, frowning.
Jesse elbowed him. “Which girls?”
“I don’t know.” Matt’s face felt hot. The only girl he thought about was Susie, but there was no sane reason to tell that to Jesse.
“Well, I’ve been courting,” Jesse announced.
“You have?” Matt looked at him. “Who?”
“No fooling? You gone walking with her?”
“Mmm . . . no. She molds bullets for me.”
“Right. There’s this hollow tree by her lane. I ride over and put some lead in the hole. A couple days later, I go back and get the bullets out.”
A few steps farther, Matt said, “That’s it?”
“Uhhh . . . yeah.” Jesse seemed puzzled by his own story.
“That don’t sound much like courting, Jess. Sounds more like a business arrangement.”
Jesse gave him a push.
“Maybe you ought to sit on her porch when you bring her the lead. Then you could call it courting.” They were laughing, Jesse with his head ducked down. “So when you get near her house, do the two of you even see each other?”
“Ah, keep quiet.” Jesse shoved him again; this time, Matt pushed back.
“And how’d this courtship get started? How’d she find your lead, and how’d she know to mold bullets? She read minds?”
All at once Jesse stopped, swinging an arm out in front of Matt.
“Whoa,” Matt said, coming up short.
About fifty yards away, four men watered horses in the stream. One spotted them and called out, “Halt!”
“Halt. Listen to him,” Matt said under his breath.
“Shhh,” Jesse warned, and then to Patch, low and even: “Staaay.”
Three men with carbines started toward them; the fourth held the horses.
“Lord.” Matt’s stomach tightened and he gripped his gun hard. “What in hell are they up to?”
“Don’t curse.” Jesse gave him an elbow, then stepped ahead of him. “Let me talk.”
Jesse was a few months older and a few inches taller, but Matt didn’t care to be treated like a child. When the men faced them, Matt saw they were about the same age as Clayton or Buck. He looked them up and down for a clue: militia or guerrillas? Their hair was long and they wore no uniforms, so they could be guerrillas—or else militia trying to look like guerrillas.
“How old are you boys?” one man asked.
“Fifteen,” Jesse said steadily.
“Oh, yeah? And what are you?”
The answer would be either “Union” or “Secesh,” but Jesse made no reply.
“What’re you doing here?”
The man gave a sour grin. “What’d you bag?”
“Rabbits! Well, now, looks like we’ll have supper tonight after all, boys!”
The others laughed, and Jesse said, “You mean you don’t know how to hunt your own supper?”
The leader grabbed a fistful of Jesse’s coat, pushing him backward. “You don’t want to start mouthing off, boy,” he growled.
Let him talk, Matt thought. That was surely helpful.
“We’re with Captain Quantrill’s command, and we take no sass from little boys.”
“Well, I see no little boys.” Jesse fixed the man with the icy blue glare Matt never wanted on himself. “And how do we know you are who you say?”
“And who are you two? Maybe you want to tell me that.”
“Maybe I don’t.”
“All right then. We’ll just take your guns and your goddamn rabbits, and you can be on your way.” He grabbed Jesse’s gun, and another man reached for Matt’s.
“Hold on.” Jesse’s voice took on a pleading tone. “Don’t take from Matt. He’s got a ma and five brothers and sisters to feed. He needs his gun.”
Matt said nothing and looked at no one. When the leader took his hand off Jesse’s gun, the other man released Matt’s.
“Ah, go on ahead,” the leader said, and Jesse turned away without a word.
Matt followed, quietly blowing out his breath—but then Jesse did an about-face.
“If you’re with Quantrill,” he said slowly, “you might just know my brother.”
“Oh, yeah?” The leader sounded none too impressed. “Who’s your brother?”
Jesse told them. The name seemed to echo in the silent woods. Matt squeezed his eyes shut. Should he fall to praying?
“You’re Buck’s little brother?” the man said at last. “I know Buck, the four of us know Buck!”
Then it was all so jolly, with talk about where Buck might be and where Jesse lived and whether militia were around. Jesse would go on about the war for hours given half a chance, and now he had a whole one. Matt wanted to get home and give Ma the rabbits, do his chores, and see Salt. Then he would take these cursed boots off and sit before the fire to warm the chill out of his bones.
“You can have my rabbits,” Jesse was saying. “I don’t much care . . . No, wait, let me take them. Ma’ll be glad to give you supper. Come by after dark and you can sleep in the haymow, get your breakfast, too.”
It was dangerous business, agreeing to feed and harbor guerrillas. The Union had put Missouri under martial law—if you were for the South, you’d better watch your way. Secesh weren’t supposed to keep guns, and needed a pass to leave the county. Each town had a provost marshal, whose job was to find out who the Secesh were. In Centerville, it was a man named Ford. He could arrest anybody without giving the reason. If you were lucky, you’d just have to pledge the oath and pay a fat fine. But you might be taken off to work, under guard, for the Federals. You might have to stay in jail. Or you might even hang.
None of it seemed to worry Jesse’s ma, though. She did just as she pleased, and she pleased to help the guerrillas. And Jesse was following right along after her.
“What about your friend here?” the man said, surveying Matt from the ground up.
“He’s with us,” Jesse answered.
“Is that so?” the man asked Matt.
“It is,” Matt said.
When he and Jesse were on their own again, Jesse’s steps were quick, his manner cheerful. “Well, I guess they’ll be out to the house later.”
“Your new friends.”
“Better than them being Federals. And I see you still got your rabbits—and your gun.”
“Yeah, thanks, Jess,” Matt said, his tone flat.
Jesse bumped him with a shoulder. “You mad now?”
“No, I ain’t mad. It’s just . . . you’re always apologizing for me.”
“I ain’t apologizing for you. I’m standing up for you.”
“I know, I know,” Matt said wearily. He stopped and reached into his sack. “Here.” He held out a rabbit. “You’ll need it more than us tonight.”
Jesse hesitated, then took the rabbit. “I’ll save the pelt for Molly.”
“I appreciate it.”
They walked on. A drizzle started to hit through the cover of trees.
“Matthew, what is the matter? You been hobbling like a hurt horse all day.”
“Oh, I twisted my ankle this morning.”
“No, no, that ain’t it. Those boots are too small. Aren’t they?”
“Boots are fine.” Matt pulled his slouch hat down on his forehead. Why didn’t everybody keep quiet about his boots? The other day Clayton took it upon himself to tell Ma that Matt needed new ones—said it right in front of everybody—and Matt denied it. They couldn’t afford to get him new boots. He would have to make do with these.
“You can’t work how you do in bad-fitting boots,” Jesse said sternly.
“Boots are fine.”
As they reached the edge of the woods the rain came down chill and hard, chasing them up the ravine and onto the road.
Jesse whistled for Patch and tugged his hat, breaking into a run. “See you!”
“So long!” Matt shouted back, and set out in the other direction.