DARK TRAIL HOME

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CHAPTER TWENTY

He craved whiskey. He found the thin trail that led below Kearney and circled around till he was in the dirt streets of Mudtown. Mudtown was just that, mud streets, sod houses, tents, lean-to buildings. The local riffraff lived there, Indians, Chinese, outlaws, drunks and general scalawags, people who were shunned in the clean streets of Kearney Junction. The back door of the filthy saloon stood open, flies hanging in the fetid air.

He saw the tobiano horse standing hipshot at the hitching rack and cursed his luck. Donny Larson’s horse.

How ironic that Donny would be here when he was feeling like shit for stupidly trying to fit in where he didn’t belong. There was a bad taste in his mouth as he looked at the horse. He considered turning away and going elsewhere, but he was hungry and thirsty. He was already here, and he was bound to run across a Kettering somewhere, eventually.

They were sitting at a table, just the two of them, Donny Larson and Dax Kettering. Donny saw him first, his eyes glittering darkly for a moment, then a smile crawled across his face. Tyree sucked up his distaste. At least he knew what to expect from Donny. Dax Kettering he had met, but didn’t really know. Dax was a cousin to Jace and Donny. He’d met him long ago up in the Dakotas. He wasn’t quite as old as Tyree.

“Alley son!” The instant hatred he felt for Donny took him by surprise. Donny had never let him forget for a minute who and what he was. He should be grateful for that. Donny’s sly attempt at humor burned his ass as he slid into the chair beside the blond. Pretty Donny, he had called him at some point, because he always was so facetious in keeping his clothes clean and his hair combed.

“Hi there, Pretty. Long time no see.”

Donny curled a lip at Tyree and muttered something nasty under his breath.

“Have some whiskey, kid. You’ve met Dax, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, I remember him. Where’s Clem?” Tyree asked, looking around the dim room. Last he heard, they were all headed north.

“I don’t know and don’t care.” Donny said with conviction. “I went to Canada for a year. Too damn cold to stay there long. I heard Clem traveled to Texas.”

“I heard that too,” Tyree said. He studied Donny, perceiving he was the same old Donny, his squared off chin clean shaven, blond hair smoothed back from his wide blue eyes.

Dax was a skinny kid, shifty-eyed, and quiet. What had Donny told him about Jace? What was Donny doing in Kearney area? Who else was he running with?

“Where you headed?” He asked them, though the only answer he hoped for was that they were headed far away from him.

“We’re waiting for the boys to show up. Rip, Jonas, some others. Working some angles here till we decide where to go. We was thinking about going up to Broken Bow.”

“So you ain’t planning to stay around here?”

“Not particularly, too close to the fort. Too many hangings. We are going back up north. Just doing a couple of small jobs for supplies. Want to go with us?”

“Naw, I’m drifting west. Just passing through. Was doing some light work for supplies, same as yourself.” It was good to know they weren’t staying.

“We got a job lined up. There’s a ranch with some prime horses not too far from here. Malachi says he’ll buy a dozen from us. We could use you.”

Use him. Using people was a Kettering specialty. He held Donny’s brilliant blue gaze for long enough that the man looked away.

“Thirds?” Tyree asked.

He needed to make that forty or fifty dollars. Better than empty pockets, which is what he had just now. It was too good to turn down. He wanted to know who else Donny was working with. Where were they?

“Sure, thirds is fair,” Donny agreed. “The other fellows won’t catch up to us for a few days. We would be ahead of the game if we pick up some money before they get here.”

“Might as well. Ain’t nothing else going on. Where are these horses?” Tyree sucked at his whiskey.

“Little operation just east of here. They’re mustangs, but they will bring ten a head. We’ll split it with you.”

East of Kearney. That sounded good. He didn’t want to work too close to Malone’s place where someone might recognize him. He didn’t want to take the chance his name would come up to Ms. Aileen or Malone. He eyeballed Donny with some trepidation. Donny was kind of a wild card, prone to changing directions on a whim. Tyree didn’t look forward to working with him, but that was a month’s pay.

He listened to their plan. It would be a full moon for a few days, enabling them to ghost the horses off their range and be at Malachi’s place by late morning. He nodded.

“I’m in.”

He followed them to their camp. They had found a limestone cave in which to camp. He walked around, looking the place over. It was a great hideout. The place sat back in a rocky area well hidden from view. It was high enough to see for miles.

“How’d you find this?” he asked Donny.

“Some miner told us it was here. We been here a month. It stays cool, nice and dry too.”

Donny showed him how they had built a small corral in the back of it for their horses. The cave was open on both ends. He heard the pride and excitement in Donny’s voice, and it irritated him. This, this hole in the dirt, a hidey hole, was all Donny had to show for his life? Sadness came over him.

“You just traded one pile of shit for another pile of shit,” he said as he looked around himself.

“Your lip ain’t changed none. You need me to knock it off for you?”

“You and Dax together would have a time of that,” he sneered. Dax dropped his head and looked away and Tyree sneered, “you ain’t got enough sand to kick my ass Pretty Donny.”

Donny waited till Dax left to fetch water, then turned on Tyree.

“I told Dax the law came down on us. I buried Jace and I run like hell, kid. I haven’t seen Clem since then. I run all the way to Canada. I been hoping you’d turn up safe. I run across Dax in Broken Bow. He was looking for Clem and Jace. I convinced him to come with me. Told him Clem had gone south and left me and the boys to find another hide out. Clem quit us Tyree. He never intended to join us. He’s not rustling any more. He’s a hired out his gun to some big rancher in south Texas.”

Tyree believed Donny had run to Canada. He didn’t believe much else he said. He had misgivings about working with him again. Donny was slick and smart, but he only cared about himself. That was a proven.

“You remember Pye Carson?” Donny asked him.

“Yeah. He went to prison for a stage holdup.”

“He’s out now. Him and his brother were heading to Texas when I run across Dax. I need to make some quick money and get out of here. Dax says Pym was asking about us. He had no idea why. They were asking about Jace too. I’m kinda worried what they are planning. Clem never liked me much.”

“Clem don’t even like himself,” Tyree said. “It’s best we get this job done and move on. I am going to Montana, or Wyoming. You’re going back up to the Dakotas?”

“Yeah. I think so. I don’t want to be here if Clem comes looking. Dax thought they might want us to work with them, but I got a bad feeling myself. Clem scares the hell out of me and I don’t mind saying so.”

Tyree didn’t need to say so. He’d just spent two years trying to avoid Clem. He trailed Donny and Dax the next hour or so, his mind rambling between Jace and the job ahead. What was he getting himself into? He was kicking himself in the ass for letting the promise of money suck him back into an alliance with Donny Larson.

The ranch lay in a hollow between two hills, trees butted up against the place. Smoke lay out along the roof, wisping up into a clear sky with a full moon. He was disappointed that the corral wrapped half around the barn and connected to the house.

“I thought they’d be at least away from the house. You didn’t get no smarter in two years, Pretty Donny. No prettier either, by the way,” Tyree said in a low voice.”

“Stop whining. This is going to be easy. I’ll sit right here and if anybody sticks their nose out, I’ll blow it right off. Dax will be just beyond the trees there and you scoot down to the open that gate, ease the horses out to Dax and take them through the coulee on the other side.”

“No. You open the damn gate. I’ll sit up here with a rifle. I’m a better shot than you.”

“Who the hell told you that? And you ain’t giving the orders here.”

“I ain’t going to the corral. This is your game. I’ll stay back and let you play your hand,” Tyree said.

“This is why Jace got tired of your shit. You can’t do anything you’re told, stubborn as a damn mule,” Donny hissed.

“I can just leave. You two can handle this,” Tyree said.

“You ain’t going no damn where. We’re here now. Let’s do this. Dax, you slide on down there and open that gate.”

“Why me?” Dax whined.

“I am leaving. You sidewinders can eat shit,” Tyree told them. This whole plan was a bad idea.

Donny seemed surprised that Tyree was seriously talking about leaving them right there.

“When you get so full of yourself?” Donny asked.

Tyree shrugged. He had once followed Donny without question, but he wasn’t that same kid.

“Take it or leave it. I ain’t going down there.”

“Simmer down, kid. Dax can go open the gate. I’ll go get in position over yonder. You sit here and watch the house. Dax get down there, ’fore I clobber you,” Donny said.

Tyree sat on a low hill, dismounted, laying prone in the dirt, his rifle laid out in front of him. He pushed hair out of his face and squirmed in the grass, trying to find a comfortable position. Listening, he assured himself his horse was nearby ripping grass.

Dax rode his horse down close, then walked to the corral, staying close to the barn. He seemed to freeze up for a time, and Tyree whispered through gritted teeth, “get on with it you yellow bastard, ’fore you spook the damn horses.”

He remembered why he hadn’t worked with anyone in so long. These damn fools were nerve wracking. He preferred relying on his own instincts, watching his own back, trusting his own abilities.

Finally, Dax moved to the corral and slid the pole gate out of the way. He walked in and pushed the horses out to where Donny would head them away from the house. Tyree watched the windows and doors just in case anything moved that shouldn’t. Dax climbed the slope back to his horse and mounted. It went without a hitch, and they drove the horses west until they were just south of Kearney.

Malachi’s place came into view as the first fingers of light crawled across the grass.

“Come inside, I have fresh coffee,” Malachi greeted them. In Arapaho, he spoke to Tyree. “See you are swimming in the same mud hole.”

Tyree grunted at the older man, whose thick black hair hung to either side wrapped in strips of fur. He had a rifle in his hand, and a wide sheath knife at his side, laying parallel to the sash around his thick waist. Donny snarled at their talk.

“Naw, I don’t want none of that shit you call coffee. Just pay us our money. I want to go get some sleep. And speak English, I don’t need no heathen talk around me.”

Donny walked off to piss in the yard, and Malachi gave him a dirty look. Donny had never made it a secret that he hated Indians, even if he worked with them.

“I might cut his throat,” Malachi told Tyree.

“Suits me, but I want his share of the money if you do,” Tyree returned. He was joking with Malachi. Though there were times he considered cutting Donny’s throat.

The man winked. “We think the same, you and I.” He counted out the money to Donny.

“You can leave mine right here, I’m camping with Malachi a few days,” Tyree told him.

Donny raised an eyebrow. “Okay, fine. But I have a couple more jobs you want to help us out.”

“I’ll stay here. You can go find Jonas or Rip.” Jonas and Rip were worthless for most everything but following orders. Both of them had ridden with Jace before they left Valentine. He didn’t like either of them, trusted them less than he did Donny.

Tyree waited for the slick outlaw to count out his money, and Donny tried to give him twenty dollars.

“No, I want my share. One third.”

“That is your share. You don’t get a third. This was Dax and my deal. You wouldn’t even take orders.”

“Bullshit, you backstabbing shitpouch.”

Donny was too close, and he should have known better than to let him get that way. Donny grabbed him by the hair and slammed him against the wall. Tyree was about to take a swing when he felt the blade bite against his neck. Cold sweat popped out on his face. He froze as Donny pressed a knife to his throat.

“You’ll take what I give you, asshole.”

“Okay, Donny,” Tyree whispered. There was no doubt that Donny would kill him. Tyree didn’t move an eyelash. He slowed down his breathing. His mouth was dry as dust.

“You’re right, Donny. I’ll take the twenty.”

“My friend. Let him go. Take your money and leave my house,” Malachi said.

Donny was as close to family as Tyree ever had, and he had just proven that meant nothing. He was capable of killing without blinking an eye. He might have too if Malachi weren’t there looking on. Donny pushed away from Tyree and dropped the twenty dollars on the floor. He and Dax backed out of the house to their mounts, their guns drawn.

When they rode out of the yard, Malachi picked up his rifle. “I could still pick them off from the roof,” he suggested.

It was humiliating to bested by the son of a bitch. It wasn’t just anger, but betrayal that fueled his words in response to the suggestion.

“Don’t bother. I want to be close when I kill that piece of shit. I want to see the fear in his eyes.”

Not even his own family was trustworthy, he had no friends. He slid down the wall, his elbows on top of his knees as he rolled a smoke and shook from anger.

Malachi packed his pipe with his own mix of tobacco and herbs. He offered to share it with Tyree.

“I’ll pass. That stuff makes me see things ain’t there.”

“How do you know they ain’t there? You sure it don’t just help you to see things that are there you don’t know how to see,” Malachi said seriously.

“I don’t wanna know.”

“When was the last time you saw Yellow Horse?” Malachi asked. Thinking about Yellow Horse wasn’t any better than thinking about Donny. Last time he’d been with Yellow Horse, the man he’d known as an uncle had told him he wasn’t welcome there.

Malachi was related to Yellow Horse in some way, though he wasn’t sure how. Malachi had gone on raids with Yellow Horse when Tyree was still very young. He hadn’t thought about Yellow Horse in years. He had become a part of Yellow Horse’s clan when he was too young to remember. He didn’t even know if he had been stolen from some white family or if he was related somehow to the Arapaho family he had lived with. Now it was difficult to remember anything before the Ketterings. There wasn’t much he wanted to remember.

Malachi didn’t say much after that; he looked toward Tyree, but wasn’t seeing him. Tyree wondered what he did see in that smoke. Tyree left him there in the haze of it. Malachi never elaborated on what he saw, and Tyree never asked. It wasn’t polite to ask, and he didn’t actually want to know. He had wanted to get away from Donny, now that he sat in Malachi’s house listening to Malachi talk of Yellow Horse he didn’t want to hear any more of the old days. That was the past. Long past and he wanted to leave it all behind.

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