DARK TRAIL HOME

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CHAPTER SEVEN

He found it ironic that this was exactly the same spot he had sat on his horse two years ago. He had been going south then, a scared kid, trembling at being so alone, not having any idea what lay ahead of him. Knowing Clem would kill him if he caught him. Now he looked north and quivered with some excitement that he was back in familiar territory with a mind to finding himself a home. He hadn’t seen a Kettering or heard the name for a full two years in Texas until a month ago. He had shivered when someone spoke of Clem Kettering packing his gear and heading north, hoping if he rode far enough he’d leave that name behind forever.

He was happy to be going back to Nebraska. He’d grown up there. He’d had a dream of returning, hoping to find a place to homestead as his own. It was a dream he’d shared with Jace and Donny, but they had laughed at that too. They weren’t interested in working the land. They liked their life; it was an easy living taking what someone else had worked for. They didn’t worry too much about the law. They’d been lucky.

Just south and east was Malachi’s place. Malachi was an old acquaintance. He didn’t consider him a friend. He didn’t claim any friends.

Juniper covered the green swaths of dimpled landscape. The buckskin horse worked its way down into a dish-shaped pasture, weaving through a herd of white-faced cattle. There were several different brands as this was open range for now.

The stone house, small and square, sat in the middle of a fenced off horse pasture. It was tucked up against a hill, partially buried in it.

Tyree waited at the gate, knowing the old half-breed might be sitting on his roof with a rifle. Most of the horses in the pasture and corrals were mustangs, unbroken. Their heads came up as one at the sight of a strange rider, and the horses that followed him. A stallion bugled from among their ranks; the small head, curved neck and thick chest were magnificent. Malachi had caught that stallion years ago. Tyree had been there when he’d caught it. It still gave him a thrill as the Arabian head tossed in challenge.

From the roof a rifle waved in the air and Tyree leaned from his saddle to unlatch the gate, leading the horses he had taken from the war party days ago.

Malachi ran a hand down the shoulder of one of the Indian ponies. Unasked questions were in his eyes at the war paint on their coats before he turned to Tyree with a welcome smile. “Coyote, my brother.” The man greeted him, grabbing his forearm in a powerful grip and patting his shoulder.

Coyote. It was a name he had not heard for years. He didn’t consider it an insult exactly but neither was it a compliment. Coyote was a trickster. It wasn’t clear to him why Malachi called him that, though he had asked many years ago. Malachi’s answer had been vague. “Coyote can take many forms. You never know exactly what you are looking at, even when Coyote speaks you don’t know if it’s serious or a joke. I see this in you.”

Inside the rock house was a few degrees cooler than out. The dirt floor was swept clean. Lances, a bow, a quiver of arrows hung from one wall. Malachi set a rifle in a corner and hung his hat on a hook there.

Against another wall was a stack of furs, bundled and tied. Beside them several pairs of moccasins in the process of being made, cut, stitched together, beaded. A woman sat there working on them. She ignored both of them as they came in.

“There’s stew, help yourself.” Malachi said. Tyree did, using fried tortillas for a spoon, he shoveled stew into his mouth. The meat was mild, seasoned with sage, salt and mesquite. If he had to guess he would say it was rabbit but it could just as easily be dog or horse. The spices hid the flavor.

“You travel alone. Where are your friends?”

The Ketterings the old man meant. “No friends. I left them a couple of years ago. You seen any of that bunch around here?”

“No, not since the buffalo soldiers started hanging rustlers left and right.”

Malachi tapped him on the chest. “You still wandering between worlds, Coyote?” The faded eyes burned into Tyree.

“Like you.” Tyree said with irritation.

The old man wore a blue cotton shirt covered by a vest with bead work, his head covering was a stetson, there was a gun strapped to his hips, a medicine bag hung from his neck, leather breeches and a loin cloth. He wore boots with spurs. A strange mix of white man and Arapaho. Malachi’s lip curled and a sly smile formed, crinkling the corner of his almond shaped eyes. “Not like me, Coyote. I may walk between the Arapaho and White men’s worlds but I know which I am.”

Whatever humor Malachi found in that thought was lost on Tyree. He filled his mouth with food before he could speak the bitterness coming up in him. Malachi had the respect of both white men and Arapaho with his smooth tongue and knowledge of the wilderness, of white man ways and Indian ways. Respect and fear.

“Where are you headed?” Malachi asked.

“Gotta find a job.”

“You can work for me.” The broad face split in a wide smile. Tyree wondered how a man could make such a smile and it not reach his eyes.

“I don’t want to do that kind of work anymore. I want to homestead me a little piece of ground. Thinking on farming.”

“Farming.” It wasn’t a question, so much as a surprised statement. Malachi’s eyebrows moved together.

“I want to own my own homestead.”

“Farming.” Malachi repeated. “Coyote, I never know when you jest. Arapaho are hunters, warriors. Farming is for Yakima. Root diggers. Yellow Horse would hang his head in shame. White men think they can own the Mother earth. Foolishness.”

He sipped at some homemade liquor Malachi offered him, letting it burn in his mouth a minute before he swallowed it. The half-breed told him about the area.

“Railroad has made a lot of progress. Fort Kearney is running guard for them.” Malachi said.

“The tribes don’t seem happy about it.” Tyree responded.

“When were you home last?” Malachi asked. Tyree shifted his feet, and watched the woman stitch moccasins. Malachi meant Yellow Horse’s lodge.

“Three years ago. I didn’t stay long. I guess they went to Wind River reservation.” Tyree told him.

“How was your mother?”

“She was happy to see me. More happy when I left maybe.”

“Yellow Horse?”

“I asked to sit in the sweat ceremony, and he denied me. Told me I was white.”

“You didn’t know this?” Malachi sucked at the pipe and blue smoke drifted to the ceiling. Tyree glared at him.

“Told me to return to my own people.”

“And who would those be?” Malachi searched his face but Tyree wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“Damned if I know.”

Kneeling in front of the pile of moccasins Tyree found a pair that fit him and offered the woman money for them. She shook her head.

“White man’s money is worthless to me. No good.” She said flatly. Tyree chewed his lip and retrieved his saddle bags. Digging in he found a bag, his sewing kit, laying it in front of her. She worked at the leather string and poured the contents into her lap. There was about a cupful of bright beads, glass and stone, needles and white quilting thread and a small sheathed blade as long as her thumb. A thick stack of fabric, tightly folded into squares. She smiled at the treasures it had taken him months to collect.

“Take the moccasins.” She pushed them toward him.

“You drive a hard bargain grandmother,” He said in Arapaho. She smiled broadly and nodded.

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