DARK TRAIL HOME

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CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

His mouth went dry as dust and his eyes quickly searched the crowd, his heart jumping in his chest. Clem is in jail, or dead, he told himself. No matter how loud his mind shouted, he was certain that was Clem’s horse and if he kept looking he’d find him in the crowd.

Where was Marcie? His eyes searched the shadows, and he saw someone emerge from the darkness across the street. Dark hair, thick shoulders. Kyle Brown stepped into the light of the lantern hung nearby. He had a rifle in his hands, and Tyree shivered. Brown came down the steps weaving through the crowd. Tyree’s eyes stayed on the bounty hunter until he heard his name spoken. He flinched, then his blood went cold. His knees turned to water.

“Been waiting for you, Allison.”

He stopped breathing. He didn’t want to turn around. If it had been anyone else, he wouldn’t have. He would have just walked away, trusting most people wouldn’t shoot a man in the back in front of witnesses.

Clem was not most people.

He loosened the thong on his gun as he turned. Clem came across the porch and down the steps as Tyree backed up, bumping into someone behind him.

There wasn’t a place to go, no place to hide. He backed onto the bricks, praying his heel wouldn’t catch on a loose one.

This wasn’t the place. Not here. Not now. It didn’t matter to Clem Kettering, but it mattered a great deal to him. Panicking, he dropped the glass in his hand, not even hearing it shatter on the street. Beside him, he was vaguely aware that someone was saying something about the glass. Clem lifted the thong from his gun, a humorless smile on his lips. Someone behind him grunted as Tyree bumped into them. He felt them push back in irritation.

He heard them behind him, people were talking,“Oh god no. Look out.”

His chest hurt. He took a breath, releasing the pressure building in him. Besides Jace, this was the one man he feared more than any other. He had no mercy. Pleading would not slow his hand.

“Clem.”

“Was he passed out drunk when you shot him? Or did you shoot him in the back?” Clem asked.

“Stop. Stop right now. You take that business somewhere else. There’s too many people here.” Someone yelled. The sheriff, or a deputy, he guessed.

He didn’t take his eyes off Clem, off the smile on his lean face. His mustache hung limp down either side of his mouth, making his face look narrower. His eyes were cold. Tyree had often thought Clem had a perpetual gambler’s face, no expression, no emotion, just cold hardness in every aspect of him. Even the half smile had no genuine emotion to it. He was tall, lean and hard as a fence post. His hands were long and graceful, designed for wrapping around a gun butt, now hanging over the gun on his hip. They drew Tyree’s focus. Tyree had seen him use that gun, and he was almost certain he was as fast as Jace had been, possibly faster. Clem was straight up sober. He didn’t have to be faster than anyone but Tyree.

“Clem, you know it wasn’t like that. He drew on me. I didn’t have a choice. I don’t know what he was thinking. But he didn’t give me no choice.”

Somebody stop him. Goddamn, don’t let him shoot in this crowd.

Clem stepped down into the street. His spur made a sound as it bumped the bottom step as he stepped onto the bricks. The metallic click of that spur sent a shock through him, like it was the only sound in a quiet room.

Tyree took another step back and behind him he heard someone exclaim, “Oh my god.”

“Clem. I didn’t have a choice.” His voice cracked as it croaked from his dry mouth, and he didn’t care if others heard it crack. He trembled, focusing on breathing. He didn’t even know if Clem heard him until he finally responded.

“You don’t have one now, either, Tyree Kettering. Oh, that’s right. You aren’t a Kettering. You’re a nobody. A piece of shit Jace picked up on his boot. I warned him. That’s why I stopped teaching you. I saw what he was making of you. You worthless little bastard.”

The tension was unbearable. His palms were sweaty, but he daren’t move to wipe them dry, for fear Clem would draw. Cold, hard eyes burned into him. As a boy this man had taught him tracking, eluding the law and to keep his back to a wall. He had given him his first lessons with a knife, showing him where to strike, how to sharpen the blade to a razor’s edge. He had also taught Tyree gunplay, even as Jace had. He had taught him to be relentless and to finish what he started.

“I always figured you’d do it one day. I told Jace to stop teaching you. I told him one day you’d turn on him. He thought he had you under control. But you were never in his control, were you, kid?”

Tyree took a long, shuddering breath. He wondered where Pym and Pye and the rest of Clem’s wolf-pack were. A deep chill ran through him. Then, from nowhere, he felt a hand on his back.

“Tyree,” Marcie stood right behind him, and his blood froze solid.

“No. Marcie get – ”

“Stop!” It was the sheriff, off to his left, his bark loud. Tyree wished that command was going to be enough, but he knew it was not. Clem’s mouth, cold and cruel, turned up very slightly as he focused on Tyree. He felt Marcie press against him, distracting him for the barest moment, and Clem’s hand dropped, and then a gun barked. It was his own.

He was fanning the hammer, focused on emptying it into Clem. Gunpowder burned his nostrils, and he tasted its bitter sharpness. He felt the impact of a bullet as it slammed into his side and spun him against Marcie. He felt her jerk as he went to his knees. There was no pain, but his legs wouldn’t hold him. He dropped to one knee as the air gushed out of him.

Marcie slid to the bricks with him. He fell against her as he went down. He heard her skirt rip, and he heard a cry torn from her. He felt the brick street come up to catch him. Everything seemed to fade, the light, the sounds, everything went black for a minute.

When he came to, the first thing he saw was Mark crouched beside him holding Marcie. Marcie leaned back against Mark, her arm across her lap, and there was blood staining her dress.

“Oh, no, no, no! God, no. Not Marcie.” He tried to get up, the wound in his side stabbing at him. He pulled himself up and reached for her, but then everything started swimming around him, faces blurred, darkness closed in, and he blinked as pain tore at him. Clawing at the darkness, the blur of sound, the ripping pain in his side, he reached for her and felt her skin, warm and so soft under his hand. And slick with blood.

“Marcie!”

He heard voices around them, but it was hard to concentrate on them. All he could think about was the blood soaking into Marcie’s dress.

“He’s dead, three shots right in the middle.” Someone yelled from the crowd. Who was dead? Was he dead? He was feeling pain ripping at him, so he knew he wasn’t dead, he was so confused, the people crowded around them, pressing in till he could barely breathe. He clamped down on Marcie’s arm as she closed her eyes and went limp in Mark’s arms. Then Malone was there, taking her from him, prying his fingers from her wrist.

“Let me have her, kid,” Malone was saying, “somebody get the damn doctor!”

She wasn’t moving, her eyes closed, her face white. Mark was hugging her to his chest and Tyree was trying desperately to hang on to her, but Malone was pulling him away. He saw Mark lift her and carry her away.

“Marcie, oh god, Marcie.”

Doc Hayes was tearing Tyree’s shirt away from him, and Tyree shoved him away.

“Not me! Get away from me, take care of Marcie. How bad is she hit?”

He felt weak as blood soaked his shirt, but it wasn’t the blood that made him feel like he was fading away into the darkness. He couldn’t lose her, not now.

“You sorry vermin, you just cost me two thousand dollars,” someone said. He focused on Kyle Brown. “Sumbitch!” The bounty hunter ranted. “Little shit, you got that bastard dead center three times. He was mine!”

Malone was there kneeling beside him. “Marcie?” Tyree groaned.

“Marcie is fine. The bullet that hit you went through her arm, but she’s fine. She’s fine. She passed out, but she’s fine,” Malone said.

“Get him over to my office. I can’t see a damn thing. It’s too dark,” Doc Hayes said, over the den of the crowd circling them.

“You cost me two thousand dollars, you worthless coyote pup,” Kyle Brown stormed as he shook a fist at Tyree.

“You never had him, did you? You used me to get him here,” Tyree said.

“Damn right. I used you for bait.” Brown agreed.

Malone’s face went dark as his head snapped around. “You. You planned this?”

“I had him dead to rights and this little…”

Malone reared up, a grizzly, his massive shoulders squared, his fists clenched. Kyle Brown staggered back away from him and his arm came up. Too late. Malone’s fist slammed past Brown’s arm like a pile driver and Brown grunted as the air was driven from his chest. His heel caught on the steps, and he sprawled like a ripped open bag of sand on top of Clem Kettering’s corpse.

Tyree’s heart caught in his chest and despite the horrid pain, a smile tugged at his lips.

“Sorry, worm infested polecat,” Malone growled.

Brown crawled up the steps and disappeared into the saloon. Then Malone was lifting Tyree, a thick arm under his shoulders and another under his knees. Tyree leaned his head against the man’s chest as Malone lifted him up. He felt hot tears of relief leaking from his eyes onto Malone’s shirt.

“Just rest easy, son. I’ll take you home.”

The End

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