First thing they had done before breakfast was pack up two horses with supplies to be taken to the line shack in the north pasture. One line rider lived in the small shack in the north end of the ranch for a month at a time. Each month supplies were replenished and the line rider would bring in his horses and a new line rider would take out the supplies and some fresh horses.
The returning line rider was coming in as Mark and Tyree packed up the fresh horses. The man dismounted and clapped Mark on the shoulder.
“Where you off to, Bud?”
“Picking up supplies. We been roofing Ms. Aileen’s house all week, we got some catching up to do over here. “
“Oh, Tulsa, this is a new hand, Tyree Allison, Tyree, this is Tulsa Fuller.”
Tulsa turned and faced Tyree, and his jaw dropped. His warm eyes froze over and Tyree took in a quick breath. Tulsa Fuller was the last person he wanted to find there, other than Clem Kettering.
“Allison.” Tulsa said mildly. “Good to meet you.”
Tyree took Tulsa’s hand and shook it.
He still had chills running over him as Tulsa walked away. Tulsa had been sheriff of Valentine four years ago. He remembered Tyree for all the wrong reasons. All he had to do was call him Kettering and his job would be gone. He might even find himself dangling from a rope.
Ketterings had worked this area some time before they’d headed for the Dakota territory. He didn’t need Tulsa pointing out the wolf cub among the sheep. He was quiet as he helped Mark hitch up the wagon.
Tyree set his rifle in the wagon boot and climbed onto the seat. Mark reached over and picked up the sharps and Tyree jerked in out of his hand.
“Keep your paws off my gun, Joker.”
“Dang Tyree, I was just lookin’. What kind of bee flew up your shirt?”
Tyree looked over Mark’s shoulder at Tulsa walking to the bunkhouse. He had been in a good mood till just about three minutes ago. Now he wanted to tear someone’s head off.
It wasn’t Mark he was upset with and to spare the blond youngster he kept his mouth shut on the ride to Kearney Junction, despite Mark’s attempts to engage in conversation. Mark, fortunately or unfortunately, managed to carry on a conversation all by himself most of the way there.
Turnbow, the proprietor of the general store, greeted Mark like an old friend and read over the list with him. He gave Tyree a glance like he saw a cow patty in the middle of his floor. Tyree met his gaze and held it till Turnbow dropped his eyes and started piling goods on the counter for Mark.
“He thinks you look like a renegade.” Mark snickered as they came out of the store.
Tyree grunted and shrugged. “Don’t really care what he thinks.”
He stepped down off the porch and rolled himself a smoke.
“You don’t care what nobody thinks. That’s why everyone thinks you’re an ass.” Mark told him.
“I am an ass.” Tyree agreed with a grin. “I’m gonna go have myself a drink. Come on, I’ll buy you one,” he told Mark as he stepped off the porch.
“Joel, don’t hold with drinking,” Mark responded.
“I wasn’t asking Joel,” he sneered. “I’m going over the tracks, bring your jabber-jaws and let me buy you a beer.”
With that, he headed at an angle across the brick streets. Mark quickly caught up with him, and snatched at his sleeve.
“What?” He growled, cutting Mark a side look.
“You’re goin’ to Mudtown? That’s where all the riffraff hang out.”
“You don’t say?” Tyree said sarcastically. He spat in the dirt within an inch of the blond kid’s boot. He left Mark standing there, trying to decide whether to stop him or go with him. Tyree snickered.
“You don’t have to go. If you’d rather go chase after that blond filly standing there at the post office. Her name is Katherine. She’s a lot of fun.” Tyree waved at the girl as she caught sight of them and waved back.
“We’ve met.” Mark grumbled as he caught up with Tyree.
Tyree half turned to look at Mark. “You’ve met?”
Mark blushed and Tyree grinned. “I am shocked, Malone.”
“You know the law don’t even go to Mudtown. That’s what Pete says.” Mark said.
“How would Pete know?”
“I dunno,” Mark allowed.
Mark fell in behind him as they crossed the tracks and walked down to the low building with the door standing open. Tyree led the way to a table in the corner, then stopped when Kenny waved him over to where he sat with two other fellows. Tyree slid into a chair across from him. All the light seemed to disappear, even with the door open. Dust hung in the sunlight light. The smell of stale beer, smoke and filthy spittoons clung to the interior of the darkened den. Kenny studied Tyree’s face for a minute.
“I see you healed some from your run in with the tree.”
“Yeah. Kenny, this is Mark, he ain’t real bright, so talk slow for him.” He smirked as he elbowed Mark, who nodded to the three of them and then gave Tyree a frown.
“Keep it up, saddle bum. I’ll make you walk home.”
“This here is Slim Jim, Too Tall Ted. Boys, this is Tyree,” Kenny said.
Long ago he had learned that a name could change day to day. A reputation clung to a man. In a place like this he might go by any name but even still a reputation followed after him. He was only Tyree, and yet he was part of the Ketterings, regardless of the names they used. He had called himself several names but the Kettering reputation dogged him every time he run across someone who knew he’d ridden with them. He knew Slim Jim from another place, another time. Neither of them acknowledged that.
“Beer? Or you want a whiskey?” Tyree grinned.
“Beer.” Mark nodded.
“Deal you boys in?” Kenny asked.
“Sure. I’ll take three queens and a couple of aces.” Tyree handed some money to Mark and thumbed toward the bar. Mark fist bumped his shoulder as he took the money and headed for the skinny bartender.
When Mark sat down his beer, Tyree’s elbow slid over and knocked a card onto the floor. Mark bent over to pick it up and Tyree dumped his whiskey into Mark’s beer mug. He winked across at Tall. The corner of the lanky fellow’s mouth curled in a slow grin.
Mark relaxed soon enough, losing track of time and enjoying the easy banter over a game of cards. Mark, who they now referred to as Joker, now had become their primary entertainment.
“I don’t play too much poker, are three kings a good thing?”
Tyree snorted, “that’s a prime hand Porch dog.” Too Tall and Slim Jim chuckled at his naivete. He was an easy target and what might have been a serious game of poker was now only a pass time. Tyree laughed with them as he slipped cards from the deck and put them carefully into Mark’s hand. They didn’t seem to notice, as they laughed at Mark’s ineptness at handling his cards.
“This is some strong beer. It’s only my third,” Mark’s words slurred.
Tall grew serious after Mark won the third hand. He stared across at Mark, watching his hands carefully. “You are awful lucky there, boy.”
Tyree snorted, “talk about beginner’s luck. I’ve lost half my wages to this piker.”
“He might be stacking the deck. He’s awful slick. Where’d he get two queens and an ace?” Slim Jim joked. He found it difficult be serious when Mark was so obviously not even aware he was winning. Tall wasn’t so sure. They both watched Mark, but there was nothing to see. Mark wasn’t dealing. Neither was Tyree. Tyree was careful, sometimes slipping a card from his own hand into Mark’s, sometimes bumping him so it looked like he dropped a card, needing to pick it up off the floor. If they had bothered looking, they would have found a couple of cards on the floor.
Tyree slipped another ace into the cards Mark laid face down on the table.
Mark stood up and swayed slightly. “Gotta piss,” he said as he meandered toward the back door.
Mississippi snickered as Mark staggered against the bar. He grumbled something about wet behind the ear kids.
“Watch him. He might get lost out there. I don’t think he even knows where he is,” Too Tall chuckled. Tyree shrugged off Tall’s warning. “I’ll get him home. That’s all I’ll promise.”
Too Tall lost some of his sense of humor when Mark returned and spread out his cards. Mark looked a bit surprised at the three aces in his hand.
Too tall frowned at him. “You that drunk, that you didn’t even know what you was holding?”
“Kid. You are awful lucky. That’s ten dollars you taken off me,” Slim Jim whined.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.” Tyree shrugged as he showed his own miserable hand.
“When was the last time you lost?” Slim Jim grumbled, “You won seven dollars off me. I think.”
“If you can’t lose it, don’t play with it. That’s what Donny always told me,” Tyree said mildly. Kenny cleared his throat, “what else did that sidewinder teach you, son?”
Tyree frowned, maybe he’d had too much to drink himself. He had not intended to bring up Donny.
“Well. He taught me that just because someone is smiling at you, it don’t mean they like you,” he said seriously.
Kenny nodded. “That’s a good lesson.”
Mark picked up the next hand dealt to him. “We should go. Pete will be expecting us.”
“We’ll go in a minute, Joker.”
Kenny struck a match and put it to the carved pipe in his hand. “Down to the Mexican border they’s hiring gun hands. I learned some saddle tramps is headed down there. Lincoln county. I think Clem might be down there.”
Tyree shook his head slightly at Kenny. Kenny peered over at Mark and gave a shrug.
“Bill Bonney,” Mark said with interest. He was hanging on every word the old man spoke. Tyree fetched himself a shot from the bar, and a beer for the blond kid. He poured a second shot in the beer.
“Antrum, yeah, that’s one of them. The Coe boys, too. They been hunting down rustlers. Not a place to be doing business as a rustler right now.”
“Billy the Kid is fast. That’s what they say,” Mark said. He pulled a dime novel from his hip pocket, and Kenny nodded, “that’s mostly bullshit boy.”
Mark looked disappointed, a little embarrassed, and tried without luck to put the book back into his pocket. After three tries, he tossed it in the corner. “Was done reading it, anyway.”
“You been to Mexico Tyree?” Mark asked.
“Nope. Never made it that far. I been to the panhandle, to here. That’s far as I ever been. Was in the panhandle six, seven years,” he lied.
“We better get back, Tyree. Pete will be having a fit.”
“Probably so. You sit tight a minute. I’ll be right back.”
He wanted a bottle to take back with him. He leaned on the bar, the wood smoothed by elbows, and scraped by gun butts. Mississippi, the bartender with paled skin around the edges of his ruddy nose, waggled thick brows at him as he busied himself talking with his other customer. The man he spoke to had thick dark hair, a wiry black beard.
As his whiskey haze cleared, Tyree realized the man was the army scout from Solomon. He wore a long duster that hid his hardware, though it wasn’t that difficult to see the bulges of gun butts on either side of his lean hips.
He put his money on the bar, and the bartender pushed a whiskey bottle to him. The scout came a step closer.
“Hey kid. Tyree, right?” The man’s voice sounded like a shovel being dragged across gravel. Dark blue eyes bored into Tyree from under the shadow of a filthy curled brimmed hat.
“Yeah, we met in Solomon,” Tyree agreed, revisited by familiarity that made his nerves tingle.
“Before that, even. You were going by Kettering,” The man said.
Tyree flinched slightly. The man had his attention now.
“You were only about ten, or eleven when I was looking down the barrel of my rifle at you.” The hair on Tyree’s neck stood up. Kyle Brown. Ex-Law man, now scouting for the army.
The man’s lips spread in what might have been amusement, “you do remember me.”
Tyree took a step back, tense, his stomach twisting.
“I don’t want you, kid. I am hunting bounties, Just not yours. I work for the army part-time. You ain’t worth a dime to me. Clem, now he’s worth my time. When did you see him last?” Tyree grabbed his bottle off the bar, the neck held just so, in case he needed to swing it.
“I don’t ride with Clem. Never have,” he snapped as he took a step back. He caught sight of himself in the grayed mirror behind the bar. He was a full head shorter than the man standing beside him. He looked, he thought, like a skinny hound standing in the presence of a timber wolf, and it reminded him that in the larger scheme of things he was alone. He and the bounty hunter were the only people in that saloon if it came to trouble. The voices of his friends faded into the dingy air, and he swallowed down the knuckle sized chunk of panic that rose in his throat.
“You ride with his brothers, I know. I see who you’re rubbing elbows with here, still keeping company with vermin. Damn shame, but I ain’t surprised. Where would I find Clem, you think?” The man took a step toward him, and Tyree’s hand dropped alongside his hip.
“You are a stupid little mongrel. You pull that thing, I’ll feed it to you,” Kyle Brown told him quietly.
“I ain’t seen Clem in years. I don’t even know these fellows. I just stopped to play some cards. I don’t ride with none of them.”
“Right, kid. Just having a nice hand of poker. I know. Fair warning, I catch you with Clem or his bunch, I’ll make sure you hang just as high as any of them,” Brown said. With that, he turned his back on Tyree.
Tyree hastened to the table, and grabbed Mark’s arm.
“Come on, Joker. We gotta get you home.”
Once in the wagon, Mark crawled in the back. A few minutes later, he leaned out the side of the wagon, retching into the road.
“Oh god,” the blond groaned.
Tyree grunted, “what a tenderfoot.”
“Kid, who did you go to New Mexico with? Was you around any of that range war going on? You know that trouble Billy the Kid is stirring up?” Mark asked from the back of the wagon. “Who was that one eyed feller your friend was talking about?”
“I never been to New Mexico,” Tyree said. He ignored the rest of the questions. Mark rambled on for a long time before he fell asleep. Tyree rolled himself a smoke, and let the horses find their own way home. Kyle Brown. Looking for Clem. Why’s he looking up here? I shoulda sent him to Texas.