Nell Collier stepped to the kitchen door of her comfortable two story frame house and gazed across the farmyard toward a newly completed barn and corrals. She thought to herself that it was a place anyone would be proud to own. The winter of 1873-74 had been mild. The mid-February day dawned crisp and clear yet without the numbing coldness she had normally experienced at that time of year. She sighed as she compared the feeling of her warm kitchen to the still cold of the Missouri countryside. Dawn had barely broke but already she could see the steam rising from the backs of the cattle lounging in the corral. Their breaths formed clouds of gray-blue moisture that rose and dissipated in the morning glow. She pulled her shawl close to her shoulders and squinted as she noticed a figure walking down the lane toward the house. She smiled as she realized it was the boy.
"Land sakes. He's early enough," she said softly to herself. She waited until he was within thirty yards of the house then opened the door and stepped out on the back landing."Come in the house, Anson. Mr. Collier will be ready after his breakfast. Have you had yours?"
Fifteen-year-old Anson Jones awkwardly gawked in the direction of the house. His too-small coat clung tightly about his arms and waist causing him to appear cold and uncomfortable. "Yes um, I've had my breakfast. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Tell Jim to hitch up the team. He'll be driving you and Mr. Collier to the train."
"Yes um, I'll do that." The boy started in the direction of the barn then stopped. "Is he in the barn, Mrs. Collier?"
"Yes, he's in the barn. Are you sure you wouldn't like a hot cup of coffee? There's time."
"No ma'am.....I mean....thank you kindly....I'll help with the team." He jogged awkwardly toward the barn.
She shook her head as he stumbled and almost fell in the unfamiliar farmyard. She stepped back into the kitchen and stared across the dim light of the room. The tools of her husband's trade were piled on the large oak kitchen table in the center. Two freshly cleaned and oiled Remington rifles glistened in the soft light. Ammunition belts, cleaning rods and bullet boxes were also strewn about as well as two freshly packed carpet bags. She sighed as she thought how quickly the time had passed since Christmas. Having her man home had been pleasant and comforting. After today she would have only the children and the farm chores to keep her company until summer. She would miss him but there would be no tears. Everything they had built together had been earned with the guns and his long absences. She comforted herself with the fact that he had told her this would probably be his last year. The seven or eight thousand dollars he would bring home was a small fortune and with the earnings of the previous years' hunts, it would set them both up for life. It was a sacrifice to run the farm by herself but the rewards would last for years. She heard him cough as he made his way down the stairs. She turned to the stove and gathered his favorite breakfast of biscuits, bacon and eggs.
He entered the room dressed in the black suit she had given him for Christmas. Only the butt of his revolver gleaming from behind his open coat betrayed his appearance of a prosperous gentleman. His neatly trimmed beard and carefully combed hair added to his handsome features. At over six feet and two hundred pounds, he filled the doorway as he entered the room. "Was that the boy you were talking to?" he asked.
"Yes. He's like a puppy out there waiting to go on his big adventure."
"Dumb kid. I told him he didn't need to walk over here. I'd have picked him up on the way into town." He sat at the table and started on the breakfast heaped on his plate.
She watched him a while then spoke. "You don't think he's too young for this? Its awful hard work."
"He can earn sixty or seventy dollars a month. I doubt if his old man has ever seen that much money at one time in his whole life working that scrub farm. No, he's a good boy and its a great opportunity for him. Skinning and stretching hides is tough but at the end of one season, if he's careful, he could earn enough money for quite a start in life."
"His clothes. They're a fright. He doesn't even have a cap or gloves."
"I'll buy him new while we wait for the train. I wouldn't take him anywhere looking like that."
It was silent for a while as she poured him a second cup of coffee. "I'll miss you, Lane." She sat and placed her hand on the table.
He put down his fork and reached to hold her hand. He looked into her glistening eyes. "I'll miss you. The time will go quickly. I'll be back before you know it, this time for good."
"Are you sure?"
"Wright Mooar's letter said there must be fifteen thousand hunters out there. This will be the last year of the great herd. There won't be enough left to make it profitable after this year. After the big herd breaks up, the best a man can expect to do is make day wages. At that rate we're better off with me home."
"Will you miss it?"
"A little. Not the death. I'll miss the plains. But, life goes on and we've built quite a place here with Collier's gold. I'm ready to enjoy it."
She smiled at his joke. Collier's gold is what the townspeople called the buffalo hides he sold every year to buy the house, the new barn and the blooded stock they were raising. Several acted jealous of their success but few attempted to risk their lives trying to earn it as he did.
She patted his hand and rose from the table. "The children will want to say goodbye before you leave. I'll get them."
Dark haired Annie was the first down as she was already awake for school. Rescued from a massacre by Collier and Nell when she was a toddler, she had been raised as their own. Now a beautiful eight-year-old, she was as much theirs as the younger children. The two boys, Stephen and Lawrence, were still in their nightshirts rubbing sleepy eyes as they toddled into the room to say goodbye. A stern warning to be good and mind their mom was acknowledged.
Collier couldn't resist stroking Annie's long straight black hair as he hugged her goodbye. A long kiss and hug for Nell was tender and strong as he held her one last time before leaving.
"God, I hate to see you go." The tears that weren't supposed to come, ran down her cheeks as she held him.
"It won't be long, Nell. I'll be back before you know it."
"Take care. We don't need the money badly enough for me to lose you, darling."
"I will. You'll write?"
"Probably a lot more than you will," she answered with a smile.
"I'll write. Every chance I get."
The buggy could be heard pulling up to the back step. Collier gathered his rifles and made his way out the door. Nell carried the carpet bags to the buggy and handed them to Anson who was sitting excitedly in the back seat.
Nell impulsively took hold of the boy's face, drew him down to her, and gave him a kiss. "You take care of yourself and Mr. Collier, Anson Jones. We want both of you back in one piece."
The youngster's face turned red and his eyes grew wide. "Yes um, I will," he stammered.
A last embrace was exchanged before Collier climbed into the buggy. The children and the woman waved several goodbyes as the buggy made its way up the lane.
Minutes later she was alone again in her kitchen. She heard the clock in the parlor ticking as she gazed out the kitchen door. The cattle were rising from their beds and stretching. Nell looked across the frozen plowed ground of the coming season's corn patch. She sighed as she thought of the cold loneliness of the field. She drew her shawl closely about her. The kitchen didn't seem quite as warm as before. She surmised it wouldn't be quite as warm for several months.
As their train crossed the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, both Collier and the boy were lulled to sleep by the gentle rhythm of the motion of the cars. Collier awoke first and in a half-groggy stupor gazed at the rolling green hills passing by his window. He smiled as his eyes fell upon the sleeping Anson Jones. The boy was decked out in working clothes of good quality. They were the first properly fitting clothes he had ever owned. The low crowned, broad brimmed hat that the boy was so proud of, rested carefully in his lap. Collier purchased it as an afterthought when he saw him gazing at it hanging behind the counter of the mercantile store in St. Joseph. Hobnail boots, sturdy blue dungarees and heavy woolen shirts rounded out the purchase along with a heavy black coat. The boy looked good in the outfit and Collier felt good for buying it. Anson's parents were dirt poor farmers with twelve other children to care for and it was partly for that reason Collier decided to take the inexperienced youth along on the hunt. The other reason was that the boy had been one of the few with the guts to ask him. Collier was aware of the jealousy many in the area held toward him. He and Nell had taken a small, eighty-acre farm that she owned when they were married in '68' and had turned it into a 640 acre showplace in five years. Nell had a business head on her shoulders and an excellent eye for horses and cattle. She knew her business as well as he did his and wisely guided the farm through a post-war panic that had ruined others. Collier considered himself an outsider. Nell's family had not been happy when the newly created widow, who had left the area for Santa Fe with her husband a few months earlier, returned with a two-year old foundling and a new husband who had not known any life except soldiering. Collier's Indian blood didn't excite the relatives either. Because of Annie's dark features, the rumor of her being his illegitimate daughter had caused tension between Collier and several around the St. Joe community. Nell handled the rumors stoically. She knew the truth of her brutal first husband, Nathan, of Collier and the child. Nothing else mattered. Collier felt out of place and uneasy. A man conditioned to physical force when pushed he did not function well in a society of the whispered rumor and the suspicious look. He was much happier and far more successful on the plains of Kansas hunting buffalo, especially when he was able to reap the profits. He and his partner, Abe McKnight, had managed to gross an average of twenty-five thousand a year for the last five and were considered among the best in their trade. Many looked down upon professional hunters and "Collier's gold" had been a source of resentment. For Collier, it was a source of pride. He was among the best and he knew it. The show place farm was a symbol of his skill and he would stay with the place as long as Nell was happy. That was enough for him.
Anson woke suddenly as the train jostled through a tight curve. He clumsily retrieved his hat before it touched the floor and gave Collier a sheepish smile. Collier returned the smile. He liked the red headed, freckle faced youth and it was difficult not to show it.
"How long till we get to Dodge, Mr. Collier?"
"Early morning, day after tomorrow, son. We've still got quite a train ride ahead of us."
Anson gazed out the window. "Seen any buffalo yet?"
Collier smiled. "No, we won't see any until we get to Dodge."
"But, I thought they shot buffalo from the train."
"They used to, but not any more. The herd's moved to the southwest for good."
Anson sighed. "It must be something. All those animals. It must be a great adventure."
"It's a hell of a lot of hard work. You'll find out soon enough. You'll get so tired of buffalo hides that they'll sicken you at the sight before this season's over."
Anson looked out the window again. "It's got to be better than hoeing and shucking corn."
Collier chuckled. "You've got me there, Anson. I'm sure it is."
"What's it like really? Shooting those beautiful guns all day. Being free and out on the prairie. Riding and hunting and fighting Indians. What's it like, Mr. Collier?"
Collier leaned back in the seat and shook his head. "Boy, you're green as grass. Those beautiful guns pound you stiff-jointed and near deaf. The bison prairie's full of flies and wind and violent storms. Most of the hunting is back-breaking labor and those Indians you're so anxious to fight are as deadly a men as you'll ever cross. Fighting an Injun is the last thing you'll want to do."
Anson seemed hurt by Collier's answer.
"But there is another side of it. There's nothing on this earth prettier than a Kansas sunset. There's life where ever you turn along the Arkansas, and the buffalo're like a great flowing flood of life and power. When the great herd comes, you can see them as far as the horizon. They're wild and strong and like unto the very power of Mother Nature. Why, I've seen grown men on their first hunt, throw down their rifles and run just at the sight of them. It's a life where you step aside for no man and meet the very forces of the creator head on. There's that side of it too."
"Gosh! Man alive! That's the life for me, Mr. Collier! No more shucking and hoeing, and scooping manure for me. I'm a goin' to see life and chase the ring-tailed monster, yes-sir-ree Bob!" The boy turned again toward the window. "Surely we ought to see one of them buffalo if we look hard."
Collier leaned back in his seat again and tipped his hat over his eyes. He chuckled and mumbled softly, "green as grass, boy, you're green as grass."
A few minutes passed before Collier sat up in his seat. "Say boy, I'm getting hungry. How about you?"
"Yes sir, but what'll we eat?"
"They serve sandwiches and coffee on this train. What do you say about getting ourselves a couple?"
"Yes, sir, that sounds great."
Collier thought that he should have known a fifteen-year-old would never turn down food, especially on his first train ride. He led the way through the cars until he found a steward and purchased four sandwiches and two large cups of coffee. Returning to their seats, he watched the boy set into the sandwiches and gulp down the coffee.
"These are good, Mr. Collier. The best I've ever had."
"You sure two are going to be enough?"
"Oh sure, Mr. Collier, plenty."
Collier watched the boy carefully. "How do ya do that, boy?"
"What's that, Mr. Collier?"
"Eat all that food without breathing."
Collier chuckled and shook his head. "Never mind, son. Enjoy."
The Kansas prairie rolled past the window as he sipped his coffee. The sun grew low on the horizon.
A steward was making his rounds lighting the lanterns. "We'll be in Abilene shortly, sir. You and the boy can get something to eat during the stop."
"Can you get a good buffalo steak in Abilene these days?" Collier asked as he studied the boys reaction.
Anson turned in his seat and waited eagerly for the stewards reply.
"Yes, sir, hot off the grill with fried potatoes and onions."
"Golly," Anson gasped. Buffalo steak! Imagine that!"
Collier smiled and nodded. "Imagine that."
The stop in Abilene was only long enough for the engine to take on water and fuel so they hurried to the track side cafe to get their meal. The tiny settlement had been a center for the cattle trade after the Civil War but Dodge City had taken the lead as the rails moved west and the tick fever quarantine line was pushed west. Now Abilene was little more than a track-side farming community. The cafe was a simple frame building with a squared off false front. The cafe owed its existence to railroad travelers so the management was ready and waiting for the hungry customers as they made their way through the door. Buffalo steaks were already fried up for the customers and were a bargain at two cents a pound. Two large steaks with fried potatoes and onions and a copious amount of coffee were instantly served. Anson looked for a place to hang his new hat but finally decided to keep it on his head as were the men. There was little conversation as the customers set about eating the late evening meal. The steak was tender and easy to chew. It was as good a buffalo as he had ever eaten.
They were half-way through their meal when a sallow-eyed man of medium height took a place at the diner bar across the corner from Collier and the boy. Dressed in a black town coat, he had a pale look of one who spent most of his time indoors. His jewelry, fancy embroidered vest and the small Smith and Wesson revolver in a shoulder holster told Collier immediately he was some sort of gambler or saloon keeper. The pale man ordered coffee and stared at Collier and the boy.
Anson dropped his fork, then later his napkin and almost lost his hat as he retrieved it from the floor. He constantly asked about buffalo steak and Abilene cowboy stories.
"I see you've got quite a partner there, mister," the stranger said.
"Yes, he's having himself quite a time."
The stranger set down his coffee and folded his hands across the counter. "What's your name, boy?"
"Anson Jones, sir," Anson said between gulps.
"One of the Jones boys, huh. Sounds like an alias to me."
Anson looked at the stranger. "A what, sir?"
"A made-up name to hide a criminal past," the stranger answered.
"No, sir. I didn't make it up."
"Did your momma?"
"No, sir. My mom didn't make it up."
"Have it already planned out did she?"
"I guess so, sir." Anson looked at Collier in confusion.
Collier sat sipping his coffee, staring straight ahead.
"You look familiar to me, boy. Sure I ain't never met you before?" the stranger continued.
"No, sir. Not unless you've been around St. Joe."
"St. Joe, huh. Your momma got red hair, too?"
"Yes, sir. She does."
"Maybe I do, boy. Know your momma, that is. What's her name, boy?"
"Mary, sir. Mary Jones."
Mary, huh? Mary Jones. Now let me see. Does she work downtown? Say, at the Palace?"
Anson shook his head. "No, sir. She don't work at no palace."
The stranger tipped back his hat. "You sure she never worked at the Palace? Tell me, boy, does your momma have a birthmark."
Collier sat his cup on the bar, folded his arms and stared coldly toward the stranger. "What's your point?"
The gambler gave him an icy stare. "Just discussing birth marks with the boy, gent."
Several of the customers at the bar chuckled. Others were solemn, uneasy, afraid of the sudden violence that could erupt.
Collier turned on his stool to face him. "That's enough."
The stranger smiled. It was a cold, challenging, odd sort of expression. "Well, I wouldn't say that's any of your concern, mister. Anyone with a fine new cowboy hat such as this young fellow's wearing, should be able to speak for himself."
Collier's eyes narrowed. "Let's go, Anson."
"Yes, sir," Anson said.
Collier rose and placed a silver dollar on the bar. "Keep the change," he said as he turned for the door.
"Oh, a big spender. A silver dollar for two twenty-five cent dinners. You must be a real important man," the stranger said.
Collier put his hand on Ansons shoulder and gently guided him toward the door.
"Maybe you know about his momma's birthmarks?" the stranger said.
Collier opened the door and led Anson through it without acknowledging the comment. Once outside, he spoke. "Wait for me on the train, son. I'll be along in a minute."
"Yes, sir. How would I know about my mother's birthmarks, Mr. Collier?"
Collier's jaw tightened. "Go on, son. I'll be along," he said quietly.
Anson went on to the train. Collier waited until he started up the car steps and stepped back into the cafe.
The stranger was being served a fresh cup of coffee. He looked up as Collier approached. Conversation in the cafe stopped as all eyes were on Collier.
As Collier closed the distance the stranger started to step away from his stool. Before he could get both legs clear, Collier delivered a crashing blow between the stranger's eyes. He went down to the floor, his back slamming into the wood and sawdust. He started for his shoulder holster. Collier kicked his hand to the floor then pinned it with his boot, drew his Colt Army revolver and shoved the muzzle against the end of the stranger's nose. His voice hardened as he increased the pressure of the revolver muzzle. "You might be interested in a piece of news I have, kind of a story. Seems there was this fellow once. Didn't know when to shut up. Tried to bulldog a boy to make himself look big. That fellow ended up looking small. Real small." He drew the gambler's Smith & Wesson from its holster and slammed the revolver down the bar into the plates of the other men who had laughed. Collier's eyes narrowed as he turned his attention back toward stranger. "Wouldn't want you to do something stupid. A fellow that would talk to a boy like that strikes me as a likely back-shooter."
The stranger trembled with anger and fear.
Collier drew back the pistol, lowered it to his side and walked out the door without looking back.
The waiter gave a sigh that could be heard across the room. The stranger came slowly to his feet; his nose a cherry red. Without a word he retrieved his pistol and went out the back door of the cafe through the kitchen. Conversation in the cafe began again with several men joking quietly to ease the tension.
Collier didnt uncock his Colt until he was ready to enter the train car.
"What took you so long, Mr. Collier?"
"I forgot to get rid of all my trash," Collier answered quietly.
It seemed an odd answer but Anson let the matter drop. Several minutes later, the train jolted forward toward Dodge. The rhythm of the rails and the gentle shuffling from side to side of the car made them sleepy again, especially after the meal. Collier was almost asleep when Anson spoke. "Thank you, Mr. Collier."
The boy spoke quietly. "For everything. I...I"
Collier smiled and leaned back in his seat. "Go to sleep, Anson."
The train lumbered on into the night. Collier slept while the boy thought of adventures to come. The most glorious adventures waited just a few hours away. Sleep would have to wait its turn.
Dodge City and Abraham McKnight belonged together. Both man and town were rough, crude and vibrant with energy. Barely three years old, Dodge was headquarters for the buffalo hide trade, a growing rail shipping center to the East for the Texas cattle trade and the main outlet for goods and services for most of western Kansas. Even in late February, the frontier community was alive with commerce. The tiny hamlet's single row of frame buildings formed a business district just north of the Arkansas River flood plain and nestled against rolling sandstone hills. Saloons and sporting houses thrived along Front Street. New churches and sturdy family homes rising on the hills to the north stood as symbols of painful changes slowly growing respectability.
Winter was the time of the buffalo trade. Goods and supplies for the hunting parties waiting for the northern migration of the buffalo were being loaded out of the trade goods stores. Most of the hiders, skinners and many of the hunters were loading their wagons. Bugs Burton, a short stocky skinner for the Collier and McKnight crew was checking the supplies. Two, hundred pound sacks of flour, ten pounds of coffee, twenty pounds of sugar, four pounds of salt, two sides of bacon and twenty pounds of beans supplied the store bought rations. The bulk of their food would be the buffalo themselves. Sixteen hundred pounds of lead, four hundred pounds of black powder and a quantity of paper patched caps and casings made up the shooting supplies. Arsenic, a gross of skinning knives, and camping gear rounded out the load. The whole lot would be divided into three wagons so the skinning crews could split behind the two shooters for more efficient slaughter of the buffalo, leaving a supply wagon at a central base camp.
McKnight stood behind Burton talking loudly, making jokes and generally enjoying the whole affair. McKnight was a big man with shoulder length black hair and full beard. A heavy buffalo robe coat covered his buckskin shirt decorated with elaborate blue and white beadwork. His great bear-like hands waved wildly as he related story after story to passers-by and his crew members. Slightly deaf after years of shooting, McKnight was eccentric, kind-hearted and friendly. He was also head strong, an occasional drunkard and compulsive gambler. Collier admired his courage, skill and honesty. McKnight had enjoyed a five-year party during their partnership. He owned only the clothes on his back, his buffalo gun, and his share of the working capital. He could neither read nor write but he could count and work sums. His uncanny talents as a hunter made him a valuable asset to the team.
The train whistle signaled his partner's arrival and McKnight was eager to see his friend. The tracks lay between the town and the river. It was only a short distance to the station. McKnight ambled swiftly through the muck of the street, oblivious to the splashing mud. As McKnight made his way up the loading dock he saw Collier and Anson Jones retrieving their baggage.
"Hello, ya ring-tailed son of a Texas duster! How the hell are ya!" McKnight roared across the station as he extended a great meaty paw.
Collier was engulfed in an arm shaking, back slapping, smelly buffalo coat hug. Anson Jones stood staring with an open-mouthed gaze. The boy had never seen a bear, a buffalo, or an Abe McKnight and wasnt exactly sure which of the three had Collier in his grasp.
Collier managed to free himself from McKnight's grip and stepped back. "Abe, this is Anson Jones. He's going to help with the hides this season. Anson, this fellow is Abraham Reynolds Marmaduke McKnight, my partner."
Anson stared at the great form of buffalo hide, hair and mud.
McKnight grabbed his hat and boomed out a greeting. "A red-head, huh? Well, ain't he pretty. How do ya do carrot top? Come to chase spikes, did ya? Well you're a gonna need more meat on your bones than that if you're gonna keep up with my shootin'. Probably ya better go with Collier this season till ya grow about six inches and gain about a hundred pounds. Then maybe you'll be able to keep up with the likes a me. I'm a raw hided, hard living, hell bent for sure buffler killer that eats little boys like you fer breakfast. But if'n youre Collier's friend, youre mine and I'll back ya to the death if need be. Put her there, runt."
A strong odor of rotten meat filled Anson's nose as he extended his hand toward McKnight's. The closer McKnight came to the boy, the stronger the smell. Anson fought hard not to gag as his arm was almost shaken from its socket.
"Collier, ya old bag of prairie dog shit. You look like a Wells Fargo faggot in that outfit. I hope ya brought some working clothes. We got us a powerful lot of pilgrims to outshoot this season if'n we're a gonna make a profit off'n them spike hides."
"You don't need to look and smell like a buffalo to shoot one. I expect we'll get our share," Collier said.
"I sure as hell hope so! I got me a whole stable a whores here in Dodge that depends on me to get um through the winter. Why it would be a public disaster if'n we don't make a big profit. Ya coming boy or are ya nailed to that station dock? Where the hell did ya find that youngster, Collier? Why he moves slow enough to be a Kickapoo squaw."
Anson held his shoulder and stared. He reckoned McKnight to be forty feet away and his voice seemed just as loud as earlier. Only the smell had decreased as distance lengthened.
"Hell's fire, runt! Come on! Spring's a coming!" McKnight boomed.
Anson tripped on an uneven board and fell face down in the filth of the street.
"Ha..Ha..Ha! Nice goin there, runt. Now you look like a spike skinner. But ya know ya didn't need to dirty yourself up on my account. Hell, boy, I was just joking. Besides if'n I was to go swimming, I'd a picked the river over Front Street. It's a hell of a bunch shallower than this here horse shit!"
Anson rose to his knees and watched with broken-hearted agony as his new felt hat slowly sank in the muck.
McKnight roughly scooped the hat and plopped it on the boy's head. "Don't worry about your hat, carrot top. It'll freeze tonight and you can knock most of that shit off'n it." He lifted Anson to his feet and gave hardy slap on the back. The great mound of a man walked with his arm around the boy as they crossed the street. "Hell, maybe I will take this boy on my crew. He looks like he'd fit right in now."
Collier chuckled. "Abe, you haven't changed a bit. It's sure good to see you."
Anson walked uneasily between the two men. McKnight didn't seem to smell nearly as bad as before. Besides, the most famous city of the West awaited his personal inspection.