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They rolled into the yard late in the afternoon, and Pete came out of the barn to meet them.

“Took your own sweet time,” he grumbled. He took one look at Mark crawling down from the wagon and started cussing. “What in Sam hell is wrong with you, boy? Have you lost your damn mind?” He turned to Tyree and growled.

“You responsible for this?”

Tyree backed up, and threw up his hands.

“Me? I didn’t have nothing to do with it,” Tyree said.

Tyree started unloading the wagon while Pete half-dragged Mark inside the barn. He listened as Pete scolded Mark, and hid a smirk when he saw Malone coming across the yard.

“Your brother is going to skin you alive. Go over there and sleep it off. I swear one day I’m gonna go back to driftin, just so I don’t have to watch after no damn jackasses. Can’t get my work done for herding you dang kids around from slop bucket to chores. Malone needs to hire some nurse maids. I should just double yoke you yahoos with some old farts to train ’ya better. No, cuz the old farts would just shoot you full of holes. There wouldn’t be nobody left to dig graves. Gotdamn Malone. One day I’m gonna climb in that ring you got out back, and kick your big redheaded ass all over it,” Pete fussed.

Malone hefted a bag of oats from the wagon, carrying it into the barn. Looking around, he asked, “where’d Mark get off to already?”

Pete rolled his eyes. “He’s a little green. I just told him to go lay down. Little shit ate something disagreed with him I reckon, you know how these damn saddle bumps are, eat anything ain’t tied down. Prolly went to Miss Molly’s with all them cakes and pies, and stuffed himself. It’s okay though. I’ll help this other little mutton head unload.”

Malone gave the foreman a questioning look. Pete shrugged a shoulder, and nodded toward the interior of the livery. Malone walked down the barn corridor, and found his brother.

“Son of a biscuit eater. What in the Sam hill is wrong with you boy?” A second later, Malone announced, “you’re drunk!”

Malone was yelling at Mark and Tyree snickered to himself.

The boss man came out to the wagon where Tyree was struggling to pull a hundred pound keg of nails to the ground. Malone snatched the keg from him as though it was a pillow, his muscles rippling against his shirt sleeves.

“You drunk, too?” Malone demanded.

“No. I ain’t drunk.”

“You stink like liquor.”

“So. You never had a drink without getting drunk? I ain’t no damn greener, I can hold my liquor.”

“You are going to get your feathers trimmed talking back to me,” Malone growled at him, thumping him on the chest with two stiff fingers. Tyree stepped away from him, rubbing his chest where Malone had stung him.

“You should be thanking me. I didn’t leave him drooling in the dirt,” he mumbled under his breath. “Maybe next time I will.”

“You little shits,” Malone grumbled. He finished helping unload the wagon, and left.

“I figured you’d be trouble. I just figured you give it a little more time,” the ramrod glared. Tyree wiped the sweat off his face, and pushed his hair back from his face.

“I don’t get paid to babysit,” Tyree said with a grunt.

“You got him drunk. You encouraged him, or he wouldn’t have gone in a damn saloon. You’re bad company, boy.”

“I ain’t his keeper, mister,” he said grimly. He stopped to roll himself a smoke.

From behind Pete, Mark said, “I told him not to go to Mudtown. But he wouldn’t listen.”

“Mudtown? You followed him to Mudtown? You’ll be getting yourself shot or stabbed over there. I told you that place is full of outlaws and vermin. It ain’t for the likes of you.”

“Your porch dog needs to stay out of the alley, I reckon. He ain’t up to running with outlaws and vermin,” Tyree chuckled.

The man moved fast. He’d give him that. In the time it took him to light a match, and get it to his cigarette, Pete had him shoved up against the barn door, his forearm across his chest, and his hand on top of the Schofield, holding it tight in the holster.

“You shut your trap or I’ll take your damn head right off, mister.”

“You best g – ,” Tyree started, but the ramrod didn’t let him finish. He tried to wiggle away, but the ramrod held him there. He was stronger than he looked.

“I best what you little shit? Tell me what I best –You think I won’t take you apart? You try me.” His voice was a low growl as he leaned on Tyree’s chest, holding him tight against the wall.

“You be real careful what you tell me I best do boy. Real damn careful.” The ramrod let him squirm away, and he stepped out of his reach.

“You either learn to keep your mouth shut or move faster cause I’ll trim that rooster tail.” The ramrod walked back out through the barn.

“Damn, he’s quick,” Tyree said. He glared after him, wondering why he’d backed off instead of finishing the job, not that he wanted to get his feathers trimmed. He hadn’t given much thought to Pete, other than he was a cranky fellow who appeared older than he was. He thought about it now. Pete had taken him off guard. He had imagined the man was harmless, but he’d been quick, and he’d known to cover his gun butt. He would walk with considerably more care around Pete from now on.

Mark walked out to the live oak behind the livery. The low hanging limbs made a nice place to sit, having a smoke. The blond stopped to retch, still wobbling a bit. It was going to take him some time to get the whiskey out of his system. Mark dug in his pocket, pulling out a bandanna and a roll of bills out of his pocket, and studied it in confusion.

“What is this?”

“Should be around sixty dollars,” Tyree said, taking it from him, and counting half of it back to Mark. “We make a good team. I deal you the cards and you take the kitty.”

“You cheated?”

“Not me, Joker. It was you was playing the winning cards,” Tyree snickered as he shoved his winnings in his pocket.

“How’d you do that?”

“I didn’t do anything. You play cards damn fine for a greenhorn.”

“You got another one of those?” He asked as Tyree rolled himself a smoke to replace the one Pete had knocked out of his hand.

Tyree hesitated, then rolled him one and handed it to him.

Mark had returned to lay in the pile of straw when Tyree went in for dinner. He rolled over and moaned when Tyree kicked his boot.

“You’ll feel better if you eat, Porch dog.”

“Why you call me that?” Mark grunted.

“What, Porch dog? Cause that’s what you are. You tried to run with alley curs and now you’re hurting,” Tyree chuckled.

He peered into the livery as Tulsa came leading his horse. Tulsa had a face that was bony, thin skin stretched across it, the edges sharp. The hollows of his cheeks sunk against his teeth. Thin lines etched outward from the corners of his hard eyes. Wisps of fine yellow hair drifted across his lean nose, and lips whittled clean of humor. Flinty eyes dug into him.

“Once vermin, always vermin. Mark is a good kid,” Tulsa said. “I’d hate to see anyone get in the way of that.” His gaze was challenging, begging him to open his mouth, give him cause to make good on the threat lying dormant in his icy look.

Ketterings had caused the ex lawman a good bit of grief. Tyree had been young, but he’d stirred up some shit even as a kid. He wondered if Tulsa planned to return the favor. If there was anyone who would be happy to cause him problems, it was Tulsa.

“I ain’t looking for trouble, lawdog. Just having some fun.”

“You be careful, Kettering. You be real careful. We still hang horse thieves once in a while. No trial, just string em up.”

“I don’t go by that name. It’s Allison.” Tyree felt his face drain of blood, leaving chills as it went.

“You’re a Kettering to the bone. You can change your name, but you can’t change what you are, and you are vermin through and through.”

“Tulsa. I know we had our troubles, but I ain’t looking for none here. I don’t…”

“I’ll be watching you. You even turn a hair the wrong way I’ll pull your latigo so tight you can’t breathe.”

It was already difficult to breathe. He clamped his mouth shut, not wanting to draw more fire.

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