DARK TRAIL HOME

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CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Dismounting behind the Mudtown saloon, he wiped the sweat from his face. He pulled his spare shirt from his bedroll and changed, grimacing at the blood-soaked one he took off. The wound in his side wasn’t more than a deep scratch, it still hurt like a sumbitch. He wrapped a bandana against the injury. He took some deep breaths as he stepped in the back door of the saloon. The bartender, a man who called himself Mississippi, gave him a quizzical look as he served him a whiskey.

“You got blood runnin’ down your neck,” Mississippi said. Tyree reached up and found a bit of rock shard stuck in his head above his ear. He didn’t know why he hadn’t noticed it before. It felt like an ax head coming out, though it was not bigger than his thumbnail. Drinking the whiskey in one shot, he ordered a second, walked to the back corner where it was dark, and slid into a chair.

Old man Kenny sat alone across the room, a man he had known since he was twelve or so. Kenny looked to be about a hundred. He knew all the lizards by their first names, as Jace might have said. He was here nearly every time he’d been in the Mudtown saloon. Kenny had known the Ketterings and a good many other outlaws. He told stories and most of them Jace had said were true stories.

Rolling himself a smoke, he was aware, even in the dim light, that his hands still had blood on them. They trembled ever so slightly as he rolled the cigarette. Kenny looked toward him and nodded.

He pulled his fingers through his tangled hair, removing bits of bark and twigs. He felt the sting on his neck where the vine had ripped at him. Dipping his finger in his drink, he rubbed the scratches in his skin and sucked air at the burn it caused. For an hour, he sat there quietly, waiting for his shattered nerves to calm down.

“Buy you a drink, boy?” Kenny asked. He hesitated for a minute, but Kenny might would launch into one of his long-winded stories and distract him enough to calm his nerves.

Kenny had wispy white hair, wrinkled leather for skin, missing half his teeth. A lot of people, bought the old man drinks just to hear his stories. Jace had said more than once that Kenny had been hell-on-wheels in his day, though now he was just an old drunk. He drank slowly, and he talked slow. He never raised his voice, and he never ran off at the mouth about things that needed to stay quiet. But he wove a good yarn.

Tyree slid into the chair across from him, and Kenny poured whiskey into the glass Tyree pushed toward him.

“You run into a tree or the wrong end of a horse?” Kenny asked in his low whiskey voice.

“Yeah. Both.” Tyree acknowledged sheepishly.

“I remember you from four, five years ago.” Kenny said.

“I remember you, too.”

“You used to ride with them boys from up north. Rough fellows.”

“I don’t no more.”

“Well, that’s good. I heard there was hanging a couple of days ago.”

“Who?”

“Dax Kettering.”

Tyree’s stomach lurched. Dax wasn’t but fourteen. He wondered where Donny was. On second thought, he didn’t care where Donny was. He was just glad he hadn’t been with them when they’d gotten caught.

“I was about your age when I was working with an outfit down in Waco.” Kenny started his story, but Tyree wasn’t listening to him. The mention of Waco sent his nerves to the very edge.

That and Dax, a kid not even as old as himself, dying at the end of a rope that might just as easily have been him. He had killed at least one man today. His stomach tightened up so much he thought he might have to take a walk out back to puke. Again.

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