Buck rode behind the killer Stacker Lee. Buck’s hands were bound, his wrists tied with coarse rope to his belt. He sniffed, drawing in the smell of horsehair and sweat mixed with his own stench from days and days of riding. Stacker had little scent of his own except for the faint tang of steel emanating from his clockwork heart.
Although he was blind, Buck was keenly aware of his surroundings. Through his nose and the feel of wind on his skin, and with his ears, he had learned to be aware of the world in a way more powerful than those who simply viewed color, light, and form.
The two had crossed hundreds of miles since the badlands, where Stacker Lee had taken the Nine Pound Hammer from Conker. Eastward across the blazing prairie they had ridden, camping for a scant few hours each night and riding on again with the dampness of dawn still collected in Buck’s knotted hair. Over and over, at night as he dreamed and by day as he jostled behind Stacker’s saddle, Buck heard again the blast of gunfire and Si’s screams. The cowboy could not rid his mind of the horrific memory.
Stacker and his men had captured Buck and Si and used them as hostages to get the Nine Pound Hammer from Conker. To ensure he would not be followed, Stacker had shot Si’s tattooed hand and had kept Buck at gunpoint.
Buck gritted his teeth in fury at the memory. How could he not have helped Si? The gun had been right there, given to him by Stacker’s man as a jest. And yet Buck had not taken it up, had not used the gun to murder the clockwork killer. Buck had thrown away his own guns back at the mountains around Shuckstack. A promise to himself that he would walk a new path, a path that would redeem him. A path that would make her proud, if ever he found her again.
Shame devoured Buck’s heart. Whatever Stacker was going to do to him, whether torture or murder, Buck decided it was less than he deserved.
“Stay here,” Stacker said.
Buck lifted his head slightly. The horse had stopped. Stacker slid down from the saddle.
Buck listened to Stacker’s boot heels crunch on paving stones and then meet wooden planks of a sidewalk. Voices surrounded Buck, as well as the noise of carriages and wagons. They were in a town. No, not a town, he decided, for what prairie town had paving-stone streets? They had reached a city, or at least the outskirts of one. Tossing his head to one side to part the nest of hair covering his face, Buck let the breeze stroke his cheeks. He moved his head slowly back and forth, feeling, listening, smelling.
The street was lined with buildings. Shops, Buck guessed, from the large plates of glass he sensed at their fronts. After a few moments, Stacker’s footsteps returned. He tied something to the side of the horse, below the Nine Pound Hammer, with the strips of rawhide that dangled from the saddle. Buck let his hair fall back over his face and leaned back as Stacker remounted.
Stacker turned in the saddle and put the mouth of a waterskin to Buck’s lips. As Buck drank a few sips, with most of the water rushing into his thick beard, Stacker said, “We’ve reached Chicago.”
Buck said nothing. He only swallowed the stale water.
Stacker gulped from the waterskin and hung it back on the saddle horn. “That man said we need only ride east and the crowds will lead us to the Expo grounds. We’re nearly to the White City, as they call it.”
Stacker led the horse back out into the busy street. “You make poor company, gunslinger. Fortunate for both of us I care nothing for conversation.” He laughed dryly. “I suppose it makes little difference in me saying that when we meet with Mister Grevol, you’ll let me tell him about . . . our accomplishments.”
As they rode eastward, the noise and stench grew with each city block. There was the rumble of trains and the roar of factories, the whoosh and gasp of steel mills, and the lowing of thousands upon thousands of cows from stockyards. Among it all, taverns and broker’s offices, hotels and saloons seemed oblivious to the haze of coal smoke and the reek of death.
Buck choked on the fumes, and Stacker laughed. “They say they butcher millions of animals a year in these pens. Rivers of blood run into the lake. Does it bother you? Have you become so sensitive to slaughter, Buckthorn, now that you’ve given up your guns?”
Buck spit to rid his mouth of the sickening taste the foul air left on his tongue. A string of spittle caught in his beard. Cinders fell like snowflakes onto his shoulders. He struggled to breathe as they rode for more blocks than Buck imagined any city could contain.
Finally they came into a neighborhood of small houses and streets lined with shady trees. A wind blew up from the east, moist and clean. They were nearing a lake. Buck adjusted his seat behind the saddle, his muscles knotted from so many miles of travel.
As the man had assured Stacker, the crowds herding into the World’s Columbian Exposition couldn’t be missed. Buck caught the lilt of excitement in the voices around him: children and couples and groups of men and women from rough and dirty tenements and wealthy Eastern manors, foreign tourists speaking any number of languages.
Stacker called out to a man, “Stables. Where can I bunk my horse?”
Buck sensed the stranger’s hesitancy, the lingering of his gaze on the handsome man wearing the expensive Stetson and the grim man riding behind him, tousled and slumped like something half dead.
“Just around the block,” he replied. “Past the pharmacy. The inn there keeps horses for an honest fee.”
“Good day,” Stacker called and shook the reins.
They reached the inn, and Stacker shuffled down from the horse. “Get off if you can,” he said. Buck slid his leg over the saddle. His knees gave out as he landed, and he fell, his face scraping the sidewalk.