DARK TRAIL HOME

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CHAPTER SIX

Tyree Kettering, as he had been known then, had been running for his life. Having no idea which way was safe, knowing only that Clem Kettering, once he learned Tyree had killed Jace, would hunt him down like a coyote and put a bullet in his head. Two years seemed almost like yesterday. The memory of panic and loneliness revisited him.

He’d been with Jace Kettering and Donny Larson that last day. A spattering of rain pocked the dust outside their door. They were all edgy as they waited for the arrival of Clem, Jonas, Tangle eye, and Rip.

“Why we sitting here twiddling our thumbs? The law’s out there scoutin’ for us,” Tyree grumbled, his voice changing pitch mid-sentence, drawing a chuckle from Donny.

“You sound like a broken harmonica.”

“Shut your pie hole, Donny.”

Tyree searched out the door as he scratched at the fuzz growing under his chin.

“Need to borrow my razor?” Donny asked.

He didn’t need a razor, he couldn’t even see his peach fuzz in the mirror. It irritated him that Donny found it amusing to pick at him over such childish bullshit. He wasn’t worried about a squeaky voice or itchy chin hairs. The law had caught them stealing horses and nearly ran them to ground in the weeks prior. They had stolen horses, branded horses, and killed at least one man doing it. That was what gave him nightmares and kept him from sleeping, and here they sat playing cards and making him the butt of their asinine jokes.

“No. What I want is to light a shuck outa here, ’fore there’s a necktie party.” Fear etched cold fingers up the back of his neck and turned to anger at their recklessness.

“Change your name, you damn half-breed. Stop calling yourself Kettering. You don’t act like no goddamn Kettering.” Jace told him. Jace had always been quick to size up a bad situation. He was canny, always seeming to sense when it was time to move but Jace had been slow to respond the last few weeks. He had been drinking heavily and it seemed to slow his responses.

“Go to hell, old man.” Tyree muttered the words under his breath. Jace’s irritated glance landed on him, and he tensed.

“Whining like a little titty baby. You want to go? Go. I’m sick of both of you.” Jace tipped his whiskey bottle, draining the last of it against lips.

“Alley son.” Donny smirked.

Both Jace and Tyree had puzzled expressions on their faces as Donny Larson shuffled the cards.

Tyree sat down and picked up the cards Donny dealt. He rolled himself a smoke in an attempt not to appear as edgy as he felt.

“What?” Jace asked in his gravelly slur, irritated at Donny’s rambling. “What you talking about?”

“The name he should be using since you don’t want him calling hisself Kettering,” Donny grinned across the table at Jace. “He was dropped in some alley by a whore. So he’s the Alley’s son.”

Jace snorted and then cackled at Donny’s joke. “Alley son. Allison.”

Tyree laid down his cards, glaring across at Donny Larson.

“Worm infested polecats.”

Both of them laughed all the harder, and anger overrode Tyree’s jitters. Tyree was slightly drunk, adding fuel to his indignation. He got up, leaving his cards face down on the table as he poured himself a cup of coffee that sat on the stovetop. The coffee was black, thick with granules. He dropped half a cup of cold water in his cup, which made the sediment sink to the bottom.

“Allison. That’s fittin’.” Jace snickered.

Tyree, brazen in his annoyance and slurring slightly, strode over to the table and grabbed the empty whiskey bottle and slung it against the wall. The glass shattered, not unlike his nerves were about to. “None of you ain’t no more’n alley curs and vermin your own selves. How you cotton to that?”

Jace swung around, the laughter gone from his bloodshot eyes. “You be careful, boy. I ain’t in the mood for your guff. I’ll take a whip to your mangy hide.” Jace was just barking. For now. He turned back to his cards and hooted at Donny when he turned up four aces.

“You can try.” Tyree challenged, but so quietly Jace barely heard him. “You can just damn well try.”

Louder, with more conviction Tyree said, “Clem’s right you don’t do shit no more, just sit around and drink up whatever money we make.”

It was the liquor talking. He didn’t normally get this drunk, and with good reason. He wasn’t practiced in controlling his mouth when he drank. It was hard enough controlling it sober. His words were intended to rile Jace, not at him so much as at Clem.

Jace was facing him now. Behind him Donny’s eyes widened, shaking his head vehemently. “Shut up,” he mouthed.

“You goddamn little half-breed. I should have shot you in the head a long time ago.” Jace grumbled.

Jace stood up, staggering to the door, and leaned out to take a piss in the rain.

Jace snapped at them, “Load the horses. Clem can track us. Ain’t no need in waiting for him. I ain’t taking orders from him no how.”

Donny glared at Tyree. “You lost your mind?” He asked Tyree in a low hiss.

Shut your trap, Tyree. He bit his lip and sucked a deep lungful of air to clear his head.

“You both need to get to it straight in your heads, I give the orders around here. That’s how I earn my pay.” Jace barked at them.

He should never have brought up Clem. Jace’s brother was a bossy sumbitch and had no sense of humor. He barked orders at Jace, and that pissed Jace right the hell off. There was a rivalry there, between him and his brother. Jace hated to have his nose rubbed in the fact that he feared Clem just enough to let him give orders. Tyree was just drunk enough to disregard his own stupidity. He smiled to himself as Jace became enraged at the thought of them sitting there waiting for Clem.

Jace turned in the doorway and his foot slipped or twisted, and he tumbled back, clawing at the doorjamb, catching only air. He landed in his puddle of piss, his dignity destroyed. There was a burst of laughter from Tyree and Donny.

“Old man, imagine if you’d had your tallywacker in your hand, you’d a tore it right off.” Tyree hollered.

When he clawed his way up the door facing, his eyes were flat and angry. Tyree snickered again at the image of him landing in the puddle. The laughter released the tension of sitting around waiting for Clem, they needed something to laugh about and Tyree was happy it was Jace for once and not him they laughed at.

Tyree was still chuckling when the expression in Jace’s eyes shifted from mildly peeved to icy hatred and homed in on him. Tyre was stunned. Jace wasn’t as drunk as he had thought. His mouth went dry as cold fingers of fear raked across his forehead, down the back of his neck and a fist wrapped around his innards. He thought to apologize, but it was too late.

“Jace.” The word was a plea to the outlaw to overlook his error in judgment. He took a step back as he watched in horror as Jace’s hand dropped to his gun, hearing the whisper of sound as the gun slid out of the leather and the chamber made that crisp well-oiled turn as Jace’s thumb laid the hammer back. His own hand moved, thoughtlessly, instinctively, and his gun came up and bucked in his hand, once, twice, three times. He saw the slugs strike Jace, saw Jace jerk with their impact, watched him fall. Smoke curled from the barrel of his gun, he blinked in dread and confusion.

“Oh, god. Oh, my shit, Tyree.” Donny’s voice cracked.

Jace Kettering was one of the fastest gun hands Tyree had ever known. Not in a hundred years would he have imagined he would beat Jace. He wasn’t sure he had, but Jace was on his back in the dirt, with blood leaking from the holes in his chest, his eyes staring up at them in confusion, as though he couldn’t believe it either.

“Holy God,” Tyree wailed as he sank beside the man. His stomach lurched and twisted “Jace. Oh, god what did I do?” He ripped open Jace’s shirt and pressed his hand against the dark bruised holes, slipping on blood, as he whimpered regret.

“You killed me,” Jace said, his voice gurgled through froth as he choked on his own blood. His hand wrapped around Tyree’s wrist, clamping down hard. “You killed me.” Jace blinked up at him and slowly glazed over.

“You tried to kill me, you crazy sumbitch,” Tyree sobbed. “Donny, help me.”

Donny kneeled across from him, his face pale, his blue eyes full of terror. “Tyree, you better go. There ain’t no help for this.”

Jace’s lips were already tinged with blue, his skin graying as blood puddled in the dirt. His hand relaxed and slipped away to the floor.

Tyree stared at Donny unable to grasp what he was saying. “Go?”

“Run, you imbecile. You just killed Jace. Clem will be back soon. You better go.”

“Clem?”

“Clem. He is going hunt you down and murder you. Run.” Donny advised.

It sank in finally that there was nothing to be done for Jace. Jace was dead. Jace was kin to Clem as was Donny. Tyree was just a stray they had picked up and raised as one of their own while he held their interest. He was a nobody. His best option was drop off the edge of the earth because Clem would kill him, put him down like a coyote caught stealing chickens.

So he ran, leaving Donny to hide the body, to make up some story to tell Clem or to hide himself before the gang returned and took revenge for the death of one of their own. The more he thought about Donny, the more he realized Donny should run as well. They weren’t going to understand why Donny had not defended Jace. If Donny stayed, he would no doubt tell them all they wanted to hear.

Panic had stayed with him for days, robbing him of sleep, taking away his appetite. He had run his horse until it stood shaking under him. He’d headed straight south, making cold camps all the way across Nebraska until he hit the North Platte river. He didn’t take his first full breath until he stopped, sitting on this very ridge staring south into Kansas.

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