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He felt like he was eating shit to be going to Malone’s place. He was flat broke, out of supplies, out of tobacco and out of luck.

Mark met him as he rode into the ranch yard.

“Hey Tyree, I was just thinking about you.”

Tyree searched Mark’s eyes. Always ready with that easy smile, the blond boy clapped him on the shoulder and waved him through the stable to the back. He tried to return Mark’s light manner, but he just didn’t have it in him. It was hard enough to keep from crying. Behind the building there was a broad park like area with a Live oak, its limbs spread out across clover and dandelions. It made a perfect place to sit for a smoke or a conversation.

“What happened to you?” Mark asked.

Tyree ran a finger over the scrape along his head and shrugged.

“Horse got spooked, ran off into some brush,” he said. A lie. All he had was lies. That too made him sick.

“Let me take a look.” Mark leaned in for a look and Tyree pushed him away.

“I come to talk to Pete Johnson.”

“Pete? That’s Joel’s ramrod.”

“I know. I reckon he’ll either hire me or I’ll be headed on down the trail.”

Mark looked puzzled. “I thought you decided to stay on, then I go over there to Ms. Aileen’s and you was gone.”

“Your brother threw me off her place.”

“Oh. He must have been plenty mad to fire you.”

“Pulled a gun on him.” Tyree stubbed his toe at some dirt.

“You did what?” Mark’s mouth dropped open. “He didn’t tell me all that.”

Mark reached out and took Tyree’s cigarette from him and took a drag. Tyree tipped his head at him, shrugged, and made himself another one.

“You lose your mind?” Mark asked.

“It was an accident. I wasn’t expecting him to be there. He snuck up on me. Startled me.”

“That’s why you still got your head attached, I guess. Lord have mercy. And now you want to work for him?” He chuckled at the thought. “That should work out just fine. You lip off around here, you won’t have a lip.”

“I come close to going back to Texas, but I just don’t see … he clamped his mouth shut.” The lie was bitter in his mouth. There was nowhere to go. He thought about Dax and Donny. How close he’d come to hanging made him shiver.

“I need a job. I can keep pocket money doing side work, but I need a real job. My boots fill up with dirt by lunch the holes in them are so big. I got more patches than shirt,” he stopped himself as misery spilled out his mouth. Mark looked sympathetic.

“You don’t look too good. You feeling puny? You think Joel is going to hire you after what you done?”

“He told me to talk to Pete,” Tyree shrugged. “Where’s this Pete fellow?”

“Over at the bunkhouse figuring payroll I reckon… oh, wait, that’s him coming in, that feller that looks like he’s been riding drag for months on end with a mouthful of green persimmons in his cheek.”

Tyree looked around and saw an older man, rough, dusty, face like a piece of iron wood knot and eyes sharp and keen as a hawk’s. When the man scraped his eyes over Tyree, he looked like he had something distasteful in his mouth. Tyree shared the feeling.

“Goddamn Malone. Picking up strays. All these maverick jackasses looking for trouble, out to prove themselves and barely out of short pants. Dragging that damn gun off his leg bigger than he is. I thought I was the one spose to be hirin’ and firin’ around here.”

The low diatribe was hardly loud enough for Tyree to catch every word. He got the impression that this man didn’t like the boss overstepping his bounds and forcing him to hire some saddle-bum. Pete turned to Mark.

“Ain’t you supposed to be clearing that moldy hay out of the loft?” He asked sternly.

“Yessir.” Mark mumbled and left them there staring at each other.

Pete stuffed a chunk of chaw into his mouth.

“So you think you want to work for Joel Malone? He told me some about you. I hope there’s more to you than your smart mouth.”

Tyree’s head came up, his eyes narrowed. “That all he said?”

“Naw. It ain’t all he said. I guess that’s the part that stuck. I don’t like back talk. I expect you won’t last long doing that around here.”

“I been told already.”

“For the most part this here is a cattle ranch, but that is Missus Malone’s part. I work for her. I do the hiring, at least I thought I did. I mostly ride herd on the whole place. Malone raises horses. You’ll be working for him. What you know about horses?”

“Some. I worked them before. I know which end to drop food in front of and I can bust em, I done plenty of flash riding. Taking the edge off rough broncs.”

“Well, the feeding part will come in handy. We don’t bust broncs. We train riding stock.”


“Schofield model three? You flatten that hammer?” Pete’s eyes came to rest on the gun strapped to his leg.

“No. It came to me that way.”

Jace had flattened that hammer and taught him where to wear the gun, how to use it. It had cost Jace everything for having done so.

“I don’t see no notches.”

Was he joking? Mocking him? Trying to get a rise out of him?

“I don’t need notches. I remember them,” Tyree said, his voice toneless, bitter. He wished he didn’t remember so easily. He still tasted the vomit in his mouth.

Pete squinted at him and then said, “you keep that gun in your holster. We don’t need no gunslick out to prove how tough he is.”

Tyree followed him into the livery barn, finding himself in a wide corridor. There were three rows of stalls on either side. He figured the barn would easily hold thirty horses just at first glance. There were twelve horses outside in the corral, which suggested an equal number under saddle somewhere on the ranch. The barns for the high dollar horses were further back down the road.

“We keep cow ponies in here. It’s the only part of the cattle ranch you’ll be dealing with. Every morning you will get up at the ass crack of dawn and feed them, check their hooves, saddle up for the ranch hands. Every night you’ll unsaddle em, brush them down, check over every inch of them and stall them. You got that?”


Pete gave him a hard look. “Yes sir,” he corrected.

Tyree raised an eyebrow and stared at Pete. Pete waited, narrowing his sharp eyes.

“Mister. I asked if you got that?”


“Dollar and two bits a day. Three squares a day. A dry bunk. I expect you to work that narrow ass to the bone and no shenanigans. Keep your smart mouth to yourself or I wring your scrawny neck. Got that?”


Pete walked out back to spit a mouth full of tobacco juice into the dirt and Tyree heard him muttering to himself.

“No count, wet nose kid. Prolly a runaway farmer’s kid. Didn’t cotton to sweating, digging in the dirt. Prolly picked up that gun from some drummer on the side of the road.”

“Allison, get out here and meet Blaine,” Pete yelled behind him.

“Blaine here is over the remuda. He tells you what he needs done to these ponies. He is farrier, blacksmith, horse doctor and horse boss. You recognize something is off about a horse you talk to Blaine. Got that?”


Blaine took his hand, giving Tyree the up and down and turned away from him, muttering about greeners, snot noses and jackasses.

Finding a shovel and bucket, he started scraping a stall. Mark hollered from the loft.

“All that goes out back. I’ll be down to help you in a minute, “ he said, referring to the bucket of muck.

Mark checked to be sure Pete was gone before he climbed down the ladder and forked hay out back into a burn pile.

“Pete is okay. He just likes to air his lungs. He’s been working here long as I can remember. Everyone gets along with him.”

“He don’t cotton to me.”

“You watch your mouth, you’ll be fine.”

“Who’s Pete calling jackasses?” Tyree asked.

“Pretty much everybody. Anybody younger than him, I reckon. He says we’re all stubborn, stupid and contrary like jackasses,” Mark responded.

“Isn’t your brother younger than him?” Tyree asked.

“Yup. Calls him a jackass too,” Mark said, “but mostly he means the line riders. They are all older than us, but younger than Tulsa, and Joel.”

The grub shack lay in two sections, the bunkhouse on one end, the dining and kitchen on the other. Two long tables sat up front, the jackass table. A third long table in the back where the cook set up meals, a round table sat in the left-hand corner. Malone and Pete’s table.

The younger riders, the jackasses as Pete called them, occupied the front table; they were all in their early twenty’s. The first day he had nodded to them, exchanged names, shaken hands and then walked past them and sat down at the furthest table near the stove.

In that one move, he had alienated them all. Tyree not only didn’t care, but he had also done so intentionally. He wasn’t looking for friends. He wanted them to leave him alone. Mark gave him a curious look, but followed him to the table by the kitchen. He was a little surprised the kid had followed him, rather than hang with the jackasses. He decided it was because Mark was younger than all of them, closer to his own age, and they had designated him as the butt of their crude jokes.

Mark had a swagger as he walked past the jackass table, and Tyree found it mildly amusing. He heard low words, just above a whisper, from one of jackasses.

“Smell that? Like a wet dog rolled on a dead possum. Injun smell. I told he was a filthy half-breed Injun. Figures that the stable boy would cozy up to him.” Tyree blew this off, knowing it was just the way new riders got harassed. It wasn’t personal.

Mark turned and growled, “You muck sucker, you got something to say, just say it out loud. Come over here and say it. John, does that saddle tramp you ride with do anything but talk shit when he’s on of fence duty?”

“Not really. He’s pretty much all mouth.” John’s shrug was accompanied by a wink.

“That’s Lonny. Don’t pay him no mind,” Mark told him in a near whisper.

“Why you whispering?” He asked Mark.

Mark shrugged. “Just trying not to get him started.”

“Joel says to just leave him alone. He’s always looking for a fight.”

Tyree stirred the food on his plate. In Arapaho, he said, “I always wanted a blond scalp to hang from my pony’s mane.”

He heard Manny snort and looked up. The black man was chuckling, his back to them as he stirred his pot.

“That sound like you going on the warpath.” The dark skinned man said with a heavy calypso accent.

“You speak Arapaho.” Tyree said, mildly surprised.

“An speak many tongues youngen. Many tongues from many lifes,” Manny said. “My wife was Arapaho. Bes wife a man could ax fo. She could make the sunshine in the dead of winter an’ melt the snow.”

“How you end up with an Arapaho squaw? And where are you from anyways? I ain’t never heard no talk like that.”

“I come Dong de islands, far and away from dis place. Far, far south in Trini da.”

“What you saying, Tyree? I can’t understand none of that,” Mark complained.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” he answered gruffly.

“You forget how to speak English?” Mark looked past him at Manny, the dark-skinned cook.

“Manny, you heard him speak any English, seems like he forgot how.”

“What?” Tyree cocked his head at the kid, seeing the smirk on his freckled face.

“I just wondered. You hardly say nothing, then you start spewing all that in some Injun tongue. Thought I should ought to speak Injun sign language to you.”

Mark’s eyes sparkled, but his face looked almost serious.

“I think I might get some blond hair yet,” he said in Arapaho.

“What was that?” Mark looked to Manny as the cook busted out laughing.

“Not-ting Mark. It was not-ting,” Manny chortled. When Tyree didn’t laugh in return, the cook gave him a hard look.

“Damn Nihanca,” Tyree muttered.

“What did you just call me?” The older boy asked.

From the stove, Manny said as he turned with a ladle in his hand, “joker.”

“You called me a joker?” Mark looked puzzled.

“Something like that.”

It didn’t actually mean joker in the sense that Mark thought of it, more like an annoying trickster, but Tyree didn’t feel the need to explain.

“You are a smart ass,” Mark retorted.

“And you are a greener with the brains of a stump,” Tyree retorted with a grin. Mark sat down beside him, and bumped him hard enough to knock the food off his fork.

“Keep that up and your hair will be hanging on the corner of my bunk by morning.”

Mark snickered. “You keep it up. I’ll have Pete put you to turning the muck pile with a hand spade.”

The first week or so was smoother than he’d expected. He didn’t see much of Malone. Pete came to check on him, but had little to say, other than to himself.

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