DARK TRAIL HOME

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CHAPTER TWO

Solomon was barely a trading post, much less a town. Grown from tents, drifting peddlers, and broken down wagons, it threatened to blow away in the Kansas wind. Its residents were drifters and settlers who had run out of money or ambition. Dusty and tired, beaten by time and neglect, the look of the place amplified his mood.

A low roof shadowed the board walk in front of a building seemingly held together by the wanted posters tacked to it. He glanced over the posters, wondering if he would recognize himself. Most of them were sun-faded past reading. He didn’t see himself there.

The door stood open, allowing flies in, or possibly out. A man in a dirty shirt leaned back in a swivel chair, boots propped on the desk, head leaned back, snoring. Wet dog, dust, mold, and coffee smells all assaulted his senses. Tyree curled his nose against the stench. A low growl emanated from behind the desk, and a yellow mutt with its broad head lowered came around the corner, teeth bared. His hand went to his gun grip.

The man peeled one eye open, and grunted as he dropped his feet to the floor. He wiped drool from the corner of his grizzled lip, swiping at a fly buzzing in his face, and grumbled something low. Opening his eyes wide, he snorted and sat bolt upright, his hand clawing for a gun that was not there. Sheepishly he blinked, and his face reddened.

“I saw leather breeches and thought I might be fixin to get scalped,” the sheriff remarked with a smirk. “That dog never growls at no one but Injuns. What you want, half-breed?”

Tyree’s teeth clamped together, the muscles working his jaw. He was no half-breed though he understood that was what the man saw.

The sheriff poured himself a cup of coffee, sipped it, and curled his nose in disgust.

“It’s three days old but it’ll wake you up.” The man gestured toward the pot. Tyree shook his head, and wiped at the hair sliding into his face. It was whiskey he wanted.

“Two people dead, two little ones missing. Down along the Gran’ Saline.”

Somber eyes focused on him as the sheriff set his coffee down, heedless as it spilled across the stack of papers on his desk. More wanted posters.

Does he collect the damn things?

“Oh god, where was this?” He asked, his face paling.

“Straight south. Looks like they was aiming for Fort Riley. Didn’t make it. Comanche and Arapaho.”

“We been having considerable problems with them redskins, some army feller throwed a rock into the hornet’s nest up north.”

“I heard that all the way to Texas.”

“You lucky you didn’t lose your scalp,” The man twisted up his eyebrows, and Tyree realize he was staring at the blood on his shirt front. “ You need patched up?”

“Not my blood.”

“Oh,” the man shrugged as he fumbled with a pipe, using his thumb to tamp down the tobacco. “They been playing hell for months. Between the Lakota, Arapaho and Comanches, it ain’t safe for greeners to be coming across the country. Just one wagon? Damn fools,” the sheriff said, “you was with em?”

With them? For just a moment he thought the man meant the Indians. Sometimes it was hard to tell where people’s thoughts might take them.

“No. I came after the attack. I run up on ’em whilst they was finishing up.”

“Lucky.”

“Yeah, If you can get up a posse I’ll take you to them.”

“Read sign, do you? You ain’t got nothing but peach fuzz but think you can read sign? You think them Injuns gonna leave a trail? You sure you ain’t Injun?”

The sheriff looked him over, lip curled above his yellow teeth as his eyes dropped down to the dark stains on Tyree’s shirt.

“I’m sure,” he said. His back teeth were aching as his jaw tightened.

The sheriff’s eyes narrowed. “You say they were dead? You buried them?”

“Yeah, buried them,” he grumbled. He scratched a spot between his fingers on his belt. Blood was crusted on his knuckle.

“There’s one still breathing when I got there. Said his name was Black. They was coming out of Ft. Kearney, headed for a homestead, they got kin up there.”

“Welp, Army’s been here for a few weeks out of Fort Hays. They been busy. I reckon they’ll want to hear about this one,” the sheriff grumbled as it pained him to move.

He followed the lanky lawman out the door, and across the loose boards that served as a walkway. The ugly yellow dog stopped to lift its leg on the hitching post, and Tyree’s horse snaked out its neck to snap at it. The dog yipped, and dodged away.

Going to the saloon, Tyree went straight to the bar, ignoring the sheriff who pointed him out to the soldiers sitting at a table.

Let them come to me. Pony soldiers. His lip curled in disgust.

He put his money on the bar, took the whiskey shot, and downed it in one swallow. The burn in his throat satisfied. He asked for a sandwich which he ate as he stood there. A man sitting with the soldiers scraped back his chair, and came to the bar.

“Name’s Brown. I’m scouting for the Army the last few months. Where did this happen? How far and how many?” The man fired off questions as Tyree ate a dry ham sandwich, the yeast smell strong, the ham salty.

Brown was tall, nearly six foot, broad in the shoulders, his brilliant blue eyes sharp and scathing. Something about him was familiar, but Tyree couldn’t place the name, didn’t know the face. He’d covered a lot of territory in the past few years. He’d met hard men in most of those places. A name didn’t mean too much. He’d had several himself. Allison, Kettering, Ghost Eyes, Coyote.

“I already told it all to the lawdog. They was down on the Gran’ Saline, straight drop south of here.”

Tyree offered some landmarks, the ridge, and the creek, giving the man some idea of how far from each.

“The man, Black, said they came down from Fort Kearny, with two little kids,” he said. He told the man how he knew all that.

Brown scratched at his thick mustache and pursed his lips.

“I been across there. Wide-open country. Foolish to go it alone. I reckon they don’t know the Injuns are unhappy with the great white fathers.”

Eyes shaded under heavy dark brows glittered like wet ice. Hard as coffin nails.

He sounds aggravated with the great white fathers himself.

“You look familiar to me. Where might I have met you?” The man asked.

Tyree shrugged. “I just got one of them faces, I reckon, like you. Name’s Allison. Just mosied up from the panhandle. Driftin.”

“Allison.” The man studied him intently. “I don’t know any Allison, but – well – Like you say, you just got one of those faces.

“There was talk of an Allison down around Ulysses,” Brown said absently.

He considered Brown’s words. Along his back trail there had been a saloon brawl, some lead thrown around, a night in jail. He didn’t want to talk about it, so he ignored the suggestion.

“Need help huntin’ em down? I know something bout Indians, speak their lingo. I can shoot.”

“That’s what these pony soldiers are for. We’ll find them. We don’t need any help from a snot nosed kid,” the scout said.

His eyes lingered on Tyree a moment longer. “But thanks.”

The remark about snot-nosed kids didn’t set well, but Tyree swallowed the bad taste with another bite of stale bread. He would gargle a rattlesnake before he begged to go with them.

Tyree ordered a beer, and left the bar to find himself a table over next to the wall. Slumping into his chair, he slid long thin fingers down the front of his shirt, examining the frayed fabric. He rubbed grit from the corner of his eyes and sighed.

Pulling a tattered pack of cards from his coat pocket, he focused on them, pulling his mind away from the image of a man staring up at him as a knife sank into his chest. The lingering stench of blood. Empty button eyes pleading with him. He wondered if the children were still alive. If he’d been a gambler, he would have bet against it. Tomorrow he would go look himself, after a good night’s sleep… if he could sleep.

The piano was out of tune, and the player out of talent. The sound of it grated on his nerves. He tensed with irritation, frustration, and impatience as the soldiers and their scout seemed in no hurry to get out searching for the children. They were arguing. The pony soldier who seemed in charge, wearing the two gold bars leaned toward the scout, his face red as his head bobbed, shaking a finger in the air.

Officer Gold Bars scowled at the scout, and let him talk. With a raised voice, the captain slammed a fist on the table. The scout was cold-eyed and when he spoke his voice was too low to hear, but it impacted the soldier. Gold bars shut his mouth, and crossed his arms over his chest. The scout finished speaking; the soldier nodded, and he raised his hands in a gesture of defeat. Whatever his argument, he had lost.

Tyree considered whether to wait for them to make a move or go camp somewhere. He would love to have had a hot bath and some proper food, but it seemed unlikely he would find either here.

The sun would be down in two hours. He pushed up out of his chair, feeling stiff aching muscles rebel. How’d he get so old in only sixteen years?

He returned to the bar, and pushed money across it to the fat bartender.

“Bottle of rye.”

Someone elbowed him, and his head snapped around, his hand already wrapped around his gun butt.

CHAPTER THREE

Pym Carson. Brother of Pye Carson. Second or third cousin to Jace and Clem Kettering. Trackers, man-hunters, killers. Outlaws. All of them, warm as a pit vipers. All but Jace. He was stone-cold dead.

“How goes it, Kettering? Headed south? Might share the trail if you are going down to meet Clem.”

Meet Clem, for what? To attend my own funeral?

“Didn’t know he was in Texas. Where you meetin’ him at?” He lied straight to Pym’s face. He’d left Texas because he’d heard Clem was there.

“I reckon he’s in Waco. I got a telegram from him a few weeks ago. He said he might have some work for me and Pye.”

“I ain’t seen hide nor hair of none of them boys in a couple years.” Tyree told him. His mouth was dry as powder.

Waco? He had just come from Waco, just spent two weeks there, in jail. Is Clem in Waco looking for me? Icy fingers slid down his back.

“So what you doing all on your lonesome?” Pym asked.

“Jus’ driftin. Seeing some country. Was running some mustangs along the Canadian, headed up to Cheyenne for the Fourth of July shindig.”

“Well, Kettering, you have yourself a safe trip to Cheyenne. I’m going to see if can’t catch up to that brother of mine before he gets out of the high plains. You run across Jace, you tell him hey for me.”

Pym hadn’t heard Jace was dead?

Just past Pym’s elbow, sitting at the nearby table, the Army scout’s head jerked up as Pym spoke the name, Kettering. “I use Allison nowadays. Haven’t used Kettering in a while.” Tyree told Pym.

“You have a falling out with Jace?” Pym asked with a tilt of his narrow head.

Why he got the feeling Pym knew the answer to the question he asked, he didn’t know. Maybe it was guilt, or just plain fear, but Pym had that deep way of looking at a body that made one squirm. He had made Tyree’s skin crawl from the first time he’d met him.

“Naw. Nothing like that. Law got hot on our heels. I decided to light a shuck. I need to get moving while it’s still daylight,” Tyree told him.

He dared to glance over at the Army scout, and shivered as the man stared at him blatantly, a thin smile on his lips. Who the hell is he?

“Who’s he?” Pym spoke Tyree’s thought.

“Army scout,” Tyree answered.

“Looks like a lawdog.” Pym said in a low growl.

“You know him?”

“Naw. Just has that look about him.”

That look? Oh. Like his gun is bigger than everyone else’s. Yes. He did.

CHAPTER FOUR

After he left town he camped in the shadow of a twisted live oak, its arms stretched out along the ground, providing shelter from the wind, and a certain companionship as he leaned his back against it. He nibbled at some wild greens, and sipped stale water from his canteen, reminding himself to rinse it out and refill it.

His thoughts returned to the children, stolen now in a renegade camp, if they yet lived. The scout had said they would, find them. Tyree had little confidence of that. He didn’t intend to leave it to them.

Morning light pried at his eyelids. He lay still for several minutes. His horse ripped the dry summer grass nearby. In the brush, sparrows were holding a conversation. The smell of his campfire lingered in the air, though it had gone out hours ago. His blankets were dew damp. His armpits itched.

There was a stream, shallow, narrow but clear and sweet a mile from his camp. The buckskin dipped its nose in it, and he pulled its saddle off, letting it roll and graze while he stripped off, and lay in the stream. It was enough to float in, or stand in hip deep. Drying in the sun he trimmed two or so inches off his hair. It still reached past his collar of his now washed shirt.

It didn’t take long to pick up track of the pony soldiers. A tiny puff of dust drew his attention. He chewed on jerky as he headed south toward the Gran’ Saline. He headed off west hoping to cut the sign of the band of Indians without going all the way to the wagon as the soldiers seemed to be, despite what he had told them.

A coyote sitting very still hid in plain sight. The buckskin’s head came up, turning slightly as his ears dropped forward. Tyree brought him to a stop, taking time to roll a smoke. The coyote moved before he saw it. Camouflage. Nearly everything in nature had its own camouflage, blending in if it didn’t move too quickly. Even himself, sitting atop the dust colored horse, its darker shoulders and rump breaking up its solid color. On the ground, no hat, boots replaced by moccasins he could hide as well as a coyote.

He did wide sweeps, avoiding the soldiers completely as he used field glasses to search from the ridges.

Late in the afternoon he noticed that the signs he was following split off, and he circled back to have a closer look.

He dismounted and fingered a blade of crushed grass, a stone turned from where it had lain. The trail the soldiers were following were clearly visible. Any child could have followed it. It irritated him that the soldiers were not paying attention, was it because they were that stupid, inexperienced or did they just not care? The broken ground didn’t give up it’s secrets that easily. The ghostly trail to the south suggested the children were with this band. The more visible trail was leading the soldiers away from them.

In the middle of a bushy plant a scrap of yellow caught his eye. So small he almost missed it. A ribbon, no more than six inches long wiggled in the breeze. The same kind of ribbon that wrapped around the waist of the cornshuck doll in his saddle bags.

He kicked the horse into a trot, and the buckskin went eagerly. The tough little mustang didn’t complain as he kicked it into a ground-eating lope. He stayed low so as not to skyline himself, sticking to the coulees and trees when he could, riding around the base of the hills as much as he could.

Sometimes he dismounted going to the high ground, creeping low, crawling to the lip of a hill to survey ahead of him.

Lying on a low ridge of shale and limestone, Tyree dug elbows into the pebbled dirt and scooted just under the edge of the crest. Dust, little puffs, drifted, quickly dissipating on the wind. That was the pony soldiers, and they were moving fast, probably thinking they were right on top of the Indians they pursued, not realizing they were the prey.

The army scout pulled up and point southward. The scout and the captain were pointing different directions, shaking their heads and then their fists. The soldiers moved off to the west. The army scout parted from them going south. Tyree shook his head in disgust at the soldiers.

They were fools, every last one of them. When they were out of sight, the scout edged to the south alone, leaning over his horse’s neck, or getting down to touch something on the ground. Tyree followed him. The soldiers – if they survived, would ride home empty-handed.

The afternoon sun burned into the back of his neck. Tyree stopped to sip at his canteen. He picked dust from the corner of his eyes. He couldn’t see the scout any longer, but he had a good idea where he was.

For more than two hours there was little movement. A mangy looking fox trotted toward the trees, ducking into a clump of grass. He was coming out of the shade of a stand of buckeye when there was just a flicker of motion, and he stopped the buckskin. Riding back into the trees he left the horse there, and cat footed it back to the dip in the ground and found himself a clear spot among the bluestem to lay down on the steaming ground.

He was grateful he had spent the money on the Sharps in Amarillo. The scope pulled the far off movement into sharp focus.

A single rider, in buckskins, his hair wrapped into two braids either side of his broad tanned face rode a paint horse. Scalps hung from the ponies’ mane. West he rode, and stopped to wave a stick with feathers hanging off it. Beyond him was a second rider who returned the signal. They were going after the pony soldiers. Brown was out of sight, unaware of the plight of his trooper friends. Tyree sighted along the rifle barrel until these two disappeared. He sprinted to his horse and kicked it into high gear as he headed in the direction the scout had gone.

Another hour, the sun was sliding toward the horizon to his right. He stopped at a dark place that opened into a narrow gash. The horse went down of its own volition, smelling water. Tyree got down and rolled himself a smoke while it drank.

He caught a whiff of smoke as they came up out of the dent in the earth. His horse flicked its ears forward. He was closer than he had thought. He dropped reins and pulled his moccasins from his saddlebags, kicking off his boots. They would be quieter, and easier to run in, should he need to run.

Those were warriors out there. He wasn’t taking any chances. Cooking meat made his mouth water. His mind cast about for a plan but there was no real plan when it came to a war party of seven or eight against one of him. He hoped Brown had some ideas. He was counting on him being there when the time came.

Adding up the enemy was damned iffy. He had seen seven at the wagon. He knew there were three way west and north, he had seen their tracks. He knew two more had fallen in behind the soldiers to close the gap around them. That left at least three. The problem was, Indians knew this land. They could disappear like coyotes just by standing still. There might be three, there might be three or there might be more. He had to think like an Indian.

Stay low, stay quiet. Taking a handful of dirt, he rubbed the shine off his rifle barrel. He left his hat with his horse, and wrapped his bandanna around his head. Stay alert, be a bush, be a rock or be dead.

CHAPTER FIVE

Trees and brush choked the banks of the narrow stream which he followed until it virtually disappeared into the graveled area. As he wove through the brush, he stopped every so often to listen. Where was Brown? He couldn’t count on him being there when he needed him, but he hoped he would be. How many Indians were in that camp having their meal?

He walked quickly on cat feet across open spaces, then dropped to the ground and rolled to come up in another spot. He heard a horse nicker ahead of him and stamp its feet.

Working his way in an inch at a time, he saw there were only two men in camp. Sweat rolled down his back. A shiver went up his spine. Two might be all there was, or a third might be off away from camp, getting water, gathering wood, taking a piss. He gave it some time and swept the area around them. They were young, older than himself but young, probably out trying to make a name for themselves.

Across the camp, he counted six horses. Four of them were Indian ponies. They had paint on them, hand prints, circles around their eyes, hail spots on their rumps. This, he knew, could just be a hunting party who had run up on the wagon accidental. Not that it mattered. People were still dead. Someone was still going to die here today. The children sat side by side, huddled close, their faces quiet, eyes staring, hardly blinking as they took meat from one of the men and ate.

Tyree caught a few words, sharp angry words but mostly they spoke too low to understand them. He caught pony soldiers and coup. One of them pointed off to the west and said something more Tyree didn’t catch. Tyree carefully sprawled in the dirt in the concealment of the brush and brought his rifle around. His first shot better count for something.

It was unlikely he’d get no more than one shot at each of them. They had an old Winchester leaned against a tree bole, three or four feet away from the closest. The other man had a knife. The one closest to the rifle had to go first. If he got lucky, he could swing the Sharps around and take out the second. He wasn’t betting on it. He wasn’t assuming that third man wasn’t out there beyond his sight either. And where was the scout?

He laid the rifle down in front of him and took careful aim. His finger was squeezing down on the trigger when he heard a whisper of sound behind him and his blood curdled at the high-pitched panther like scream. He rolled, though there was precious little room to move in the brush around him. The Indian was flying as Tyree brought his rifle around, swinging it, hoping to catch something with its butt.

The warrior grabbed the rifle with both hands and Tyree let it go. The Indian’s own weight and his sudden release of the rifle carried him past Tyree slightly. As the Indian came down on top of him, he heard the blast of a rifle from the camp. His knife was in his hand, and he slashed upward, aiming at his throat, slicing across his Adam’s apple into the soft underside of his jaw.

There was a stunned expression on the man’s face as he rolled away. He wasn’t dead. The Indian lunged at him with a knife in his own hand, slashing, the light catching the blade like it was on fire. He rolled again, trying to scramble away from it, and felt the burn of the blade across his shoulder as he rammed his own blade into the man’s gut, burying it to the hilt and ripping it sideways. The Indian lay still, not dead but too injured to move.

There were several more shots from the camp, yelling, a scream of pain and cursing. With a great deal of relief he found Brown standing over two dead Indians.

“Bloody filth. Go to your happy hunting ground.” The scout leaned over one of them and Tyree cringed when the man grabbed a handful of dark hair and cut around the edge of the scalp yanking it from his head.

Tyree wiped the blood from his knife and glanced at the wounded Indian writhing against his open gut. He would die soon enough. The scout sent him a twisted snarl.

“He get you?”

Tyree stepped clear of the brush and checked himself, finding a red slash across his shoulder. It wasn’t deep but it bled freely. The scout walked past him and got hold of the wounded man’s hair. The warrior couldn’t have been more than twenty.

“You taking his scalp?” The scout asked.

Tyree shook his head, revolted by the thought. “No. I didn’t come to count coup or take scalps.”

“Don’t matter to me.” He took the scalp. “Worth more if he’s still livin’. But I guess you know that.”

Tyree knew it was worth more to an Indian but Brown was no Indian. He shrugged it off, and turned to the children. Squatting down before them he spoke quietly, calming them.

They were shaking, sobbing and hugging each other. “You taking them to Fort Riley?” He asked Brown then turned back to the children. He didn’t rush them and they quieted. He offered them his canteen and they took it.

“Yeah. I guess so. You said they got folks in Kearney? I’ll probably get an escort there. See if we can’t locate them. You don’t know their names, do you?” Brown said.

Digging into his pocket he found some pieces of hard candy and held out his hand. The children looking at him wide-eyed. The least one reached for the candy, and popped a piece in his mouth. There weren’t any marks on them. They were scared, no doubt shaken by seeing their parents killed, but otherwise unharmed.

From his saddlebags he pulled the cornshuck doll and handed it to the girl child. Her eyes widened, tearing up as she took it and hugged it tightly to her chest.

“Black is all I know. Hope your pony soldiers make it back. I’m taking one of these Indian ponies,” Tyree said as he ran his hands down a dark tobiano.

Slipping a hackamore on the horse he watched the scout talking low to the children until they seemed to calm down. Brown spoke over his shoulder.

“Might as well take them all. I’m sure you know someplace to sell them,” the scout told him. Tyree saw that small turn of the lip he’d seen in the saloon, and he tensed slightly. Where had he seen him? Where did this man Brown know him from?

The scout started to say something further, but he clamped his mouth shut and tipped his hat.

Tyree threw himself onto the Indian pony and led the others away, selling them would give him a nice little profit.

“I’ll hang back, make sure you get back with them.”

“Ride safe. Thanks for your help.”

His buckskin nickered, greeting the four Indian ponies, he rode down into the cut of ground where he had left it.

A vague listlessness overtook him as he rode away. He had a sense of wanting, but it was a nameless something that pricked at him. It had been with him since before he’d left Yellow Horse’s lodge, followed him as he’d left Jace Kettering lying dead in a doorway for Donny to deal with, it rode with him from Waco Texas and it settled over him now as he followed the North Platte.

A jackrabbit bounced up, running a zigzag pattern as the bird of prey folded wings tight, diving downward and plunged itself against the earth. The red-tailed hawk wheeled across the Nebraska sky, homing in on something below. At the last second her wings opened with a whisper of sound, breaking the downward stoop, maneuvering with the rabbit as it dodged. Tyree’s heart thrilled at the focus, the singleness of purpose. The rabbit squealed in shock and fear, powerless under the keen fierceness. The intensity of energy was stunning, the quickness of death—chilling.

A predator was honed by nature into a killing machine, acting without thought, without regret. It had no moral code, driven by the need to survive.

The buckskin shifted under him. Beyond the ridge, flowing placidly with dark swirling water lay the river. The rocky ridge was the exact same place he had sat two years before, at the age of fourteen. He didn’t often allow for reflection when he was traveling, taking his mind from the trail could prove deadly but as he sat there on his horse looking out across the North Platte, and he did a considerable amount of thinking.

It was running across Pym that had started his mind wandering in the direction of Jace Kettering. A life not so far behind him.

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