DARK TRAIL HOME

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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

He needed a job, any job that would provide him a dry bed, a steady supply of food for himself and his horse was acceptable. Even better if there weren’t a lot of questions about his past.

He rode into a ranch yard a day later and a man came out on his porch with a rifle in his hands.

“I am looking for work, I was told you was hirin’.”

“I am hiring cowpunchers. You don’t look like no cowpuncher.”

Tyree sat there a minute. How hard was chasing a steer? He’d done it before, used a running iron to change their brands, driven them to stock yards, mining camps and trading posts. He’d ridden in a cattle drive twice, but at drive’s end he’d gone right back to stealing horses. He’d never worked on a cattle ranch, but it didn’t seem like much more than just chasing cows around, pushing them from one pasture to another.

“I am willing to learn.”

“I ain’t willing to teach, and neither are my riders. That ain’t no ropin’ saddle you’re sitting on. No chaps, no proper rope. What the hell kinda work you been doing?”

Tyree looked down at his rig. It was sufficient for his purposes. He didn’t need no damn roping saddle. The man was looking for excuses not to hire him.

“You’re right. I ain’t no cowhand. I can do other things.”

“I ain’t hiring for other things,” Lambert said, “you want a plate of food, I can spare you one. That’s all I got. I ain’t hiring no snot-nosed kid.”

That was his real answer then. He was seeing a baby face and thinking he’d be a greenhorn kid just getting in his own way.

Thompson, ten miles south, was the same thing. Thompson didn’t like his looks, said he looked more Indian than white. He wasn’t hiring Indians. Tyree swung his horse away angrily. He’d worked a job here and there, but the fact was, it had only ever been part-time, mundane chores. He didn’t have any real experience of which to speak. He was unable to give them the name of a rancher he’d worked for as well. It was a big country, but word got around pretty fast just the same. Goddamn sumbitch.

Tyree didn’t know why he blamed Malone; he cursed the man as he rode away from Thompson’s place. He was purely frustrated. He decided that barring working with Dax and Donny, he might gather up somebody’s loose stock and head up to Broken Bow, make enough for another month’s worth of supplies. Tyree realized it wasn’t a good plan. It was just the only one he had. He was falling back on what he’d been taught and realizing it wasn’t getting him anywhere.

Riding south and east, he worked the country, looking for an easy target. He found twenty-some horses in a pasture and moved down to have a look. Sitting up on some high ground, he saw nothing moving but the horses. He had learned on leaving Valentine that one man was a bad idea when stealing horses. There just weren’t enough eyes. It was best to do it at night after taking a measure of the area, much like Donny had done. Sometimes one didn’t have the luxury of scouting out the lay of the land. He needed money. Twenty dollars wasn’t going to go far. Not especially when he lost twelve of it playing poker.

He rounded up six of the horses, picking out the handsomest of the lot, and dropped a braided leather noose on each. Stringing them together, he followed Elm creek and found a shallow crossing, staying to the gravel as he came out. He was twelve miles from where he’d picked them up, cutting down through a coulee when a shot rang out, and he felt the burn of the bullet zing across his ribs.

He didn’t stop to look; he just kicked his horse into a run and let go of the ponies he was leading. He pulled his rifle out as he headed for an outcropping of rock at the butt of a hill. There wasn’t nearly enough cover, but it was all he had. Rifle shots rang out again as he hit the ground running. He threw himself behind a low boulder, and a bullet hit the rock, sending shards along the side of his head. Shit, shit, shit.

“Come on out of there, mister. Throw out your guns and step out!”

Not a chance. He hurried back into the brush and looked around for better cover. All he saw was brush and gravel. Below were gnarled trees, rocks, and the lip of a hill from which they were shooting. He crawled on his belly in the dirt, trying to stay out of sight. He brought the rifle around and propped up on his elbows, waiting for something to move. There were low hills all around him. He cursed himself, aware that they had him outflanked. He had nowhere to run. They were able to move around a bit. If one of them got behind him, he was done.

“Throw out your weapons! We won’t shoot. Just give up. You know we got you.”

He focused on the voice, waiting for some movement. Sweat trickled down his side – Blood, it’s blood, not sweat. Reaching a hand to his ribs, it came away smeared with blood.

Damn it to hell.

If he gave up, they still might shoot him or hang him from the nearest tree. He wasn’t about to just let that happen. He’d die fighting, he reckoned. Something moved, and he turned his rifle in that direction. There was a brief flash of color. He squeezed off a shot and heard a yelp.

Then, in a fool move, a man popped up and swung a rifle toward him. He was shooting before the fellow got it level, and the man staggered, then fell. He heard cursing.

“James, he got me. He got me good.”

The voice sounded scared. Tyree scooted back and found a narrow gash that cut through the rocky ground. It was shallow, much too shallow, but he crawled on his belly, moving away from them. The ground dipped slightly, a sharp rock cut into his elbow. His mouth was so dry he couldn’t whistle for his horse. He could see it though and when close enough he sprinted toward it, and he threw himself into the saddle. He hugged the saddle and leaned to the far side. He prayed they didn’t shoot his horse.

A rifle bullet smacked into his saddle. He had cold chills running through him as he crashed through a stand of trees. Branches ripped at him as he clung to the horse. A vine caught his neck, burning as it tore across his skin. It snapped just before it dragged him off. He hit the ground and grabbed his reins, weaving through the trees and over a hump of shale. He was breathing hard, his heart pounding in his chest when he broke through the trees and headed across the plains. He let the horse run until it slowed on its own. It was breathing hard too, its chest soaked with lather. He let it rest for a few minutes before pouring water in his hand, and wiping at the horse’s muzzle. His hand was shaking, and he leaned over and retched until his stomach ached.

“I’m sorry, Gosheven,” he leaned his face against the horse’s neck. In his mind he heard the man he’d shot crying out for his friend, and he retched again, dry heaves until his knees were weak. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do it.”

He ran his hands over the horse’s coat and found a thin shallow furrow on its left flank and the bite a bullet had taken from his saddle. Too close. Too damned close.

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