DARK TRAIL HOME

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CHAPTER EIGHT

Tyree followed a cow path to a dirt road and found a game trail which brought him into a broad pasture just above the floodplain. Before him lay a farm, plowed fields, smoke rising from the chimney, milk cows grazing, horses stretching their necks through the corral poles to reach the bluestem beyond the confines of their enclosure. He followed the creek that edged the farm and stopped just on the north side of it, where it was more open and easily accessible.

Trees surrounding the place stood a thousand yards from the house, trimmed back by someone with an understanding of making a defense. Maples made a windbreak around the tight little barn. No dogs barked as he came to the edge of the trees. No tracks had been made since the last rain three days ago.

A woman carrying a shotgun stepped off the porch, but she didn’t look toward the trees where he was. She walked straight to the woodpile, set her shotgun against the saw bucks and worked the ax loose from a chopping block.

The first thunk of the ax against the log told him it was dull as shit. She struggled under the weight of the thing as he left the shade of the trees behind, and jerked her head around at him.

She let the ax slide from her hand as she reached behind her to take up the shotgun, bringing it in front of her and laying it across her arm.

Tyree didn’t move a muscle. Imagining what she saw. A kid, half her age, dusty clothes, thin, tangled dark hair. His shirt too long, with a black gun belt strapped over the tail. Buckskin pants, run down boots, beat up flat-brimmed hat, sweat marked and dirty.

“Oh, you startled me. You were so quiet.” Her eyes widened, then narrowed at him, her face flushed. Her hands fisted her dress against her belly. “Who are you? What do you want?” She demanded raising her chin, glaring at him unflinching, recovering from her surprise.

His horse shifted under him as he waited for her to indicate what she might do; invite him down, chase him off, shoot him. A small smile curled at his lip as he measured her confidence against her ability. She was steady, more self-assured now that the shotgun was in her hands, the barrel raised between them. There was no doubt she had the ability to use it; most women out here did. He waited before responding.

“Name’s Tyree Allison. I was hopin’ to trade some chores for a plate o’ vittles if you can spare it. I can cut that wood for you.

She let him step down from his horse, considering. The barrel of the shotgun wavered, and finally dropped.

“That would be a good trade. I need kindling and tinder. I have stew cooked. I’ll be happy to feed you in return. I’ll go heat up the stew.”

Picking up the ax, he ran his finger across the blade. Dull as the wood it was trying to cut. She stepped toward the house with slow, careful steps. She never took her eyes from him until she reached her porch. He respected her caution, her wariness.

Why is she alone? Where is her man? Why isn’t there a dog? Why isn’t she more alert?

Aware that the woman was watching from her window, he walked to the barn, finding sharpening steel and returned to the ax. He sat on her porch to hone it. It was best to let her see what he was doing, let her see he wasn’t sneaking around.

She came to the door as he set on the porch to sharpen it. “I guess I should have thought of that. Joel usually does it. He will be back soon. I was running low on kindling. It never occurred to me to sharpen the darn thing. I was thinking about other stuff.”

Who is Joel? Whoever he is, he hasn’t been here in days. He wanted to know his odds. He needed to see all the cards in play.

Returning to the woodpile, he swung the ax, gratified as the blade sank deep into the ten-inch thick oak bole. There was a pleasure in the sharpness of the blade as it bit into the hard wood, the power of his muscles moving in sync with the tool. Sweat poured off him as he fell into a rhythm. He watched around himself, even as he swung the ax.

He wiped sweaty hair from his face and neck, unbuttoning his shirt against the heat. To the north thick dark clouds hung in the sky, they had gone from heavy gray to charcoal gray, to black. The sun was slipping down toward the horizon. There was an almost green tinge to the air, and lightning flashed close enough that he tasted that sharp nickel flavor. He guessed there was a good two hours left of daylight. He didn’t want to rush, hoping for more than just a meal. If it grew dark, if the storm broke, she might feel more pressured to let him sleep in her barn rather than sending him to find a camp.

Stacking kindling in his arms, he stepped across her porch, using his foot to shove open the door. He saw her hand shoot out to take up a Walker Colt that lay on the table. He froze for a second, his mouth going dry. She had that hammer laid back. Even if she fired it accidentally, it would cause a lot of damage.

He breathed in the aroma of coffee. There were other things, food, flowers. All mingled together. It tugged at him. Home. This was what he’d always imagined home to be like. He’d never been inside a place such as this, but he’d felt warm and comfortable before, briefly in an Arapaho lodge. He hadn’t thought of it as home as he’d been too young to think of such things.

“Ma’am I just brung your wood in. The door was open. I figured you left it open for me.” He said softly, seeking to calm her nerves as she watched him.

“You should have left it on the porch,” she muttered as she let the hammer down carefully.

“Yes’m, I’m sorry. I figured to fill up your wood box for you, get you plenty of dry wood before it rains.” She let down the hammer on the Walker, carefully, letting the heavy gun hang from her hand.

“Smells right good in here. I’m near about half starved, been eating jerky for three days.” Searching her face, not detecting much kindness.

She set a bowl of soup on the table and put a sizable chunk of cornbread beside it.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Eat it and go,” she said firmly, standing near the stove, the Walker hanging in one hand down at her side. Her other hand twisted in her apron, but her eyes were steady.

“Might I bother you for a cup of coffee? It smells right good.”

She kept the gun in her hand, indicating the coffee pot, letting him pour it himself rather than letting go her grip on the gun.

“Ma’am. I don’t mean to pry, but there ain’t no man here and no dog. Wouldn’t you feel safer with one or the other, or both?”

“That seems pretty bold to me. They might be off hunting,” she said defensively.

He chided himself for calling her out on her weakness. Challenging her was the wrong way to handle her. She knew full well she was alone and had little defense against him. He wasn’t accustomed to soft talking. He was used to bluffing, or simply taking what he wanted. What he wanted now was not something he could take by force. His wants had shifted, and he was adjusting to a new way of thinking. Acceptance wasn’t something he could demand, it had to be offered, freely given.

“I need to rustle up some work. If you was to need a body to do some chores, cutting wood, fixin’ stuff, taking care of your critters and such.” What did she need? Where could he get his foot in the door?

“I don’t need no help.”

“I need work. My grub is low. It’s been raining for days. I was hankering for some work. I can do most anything.” That sounded like begging, and he cringed at his own words.

Mixing the cornbread into the stew, he ate quietly, scraping the bowl clean. “Ma’am that’s prime stew. Only home cooked vittles I had since I left Texas two months ago.”

“You come a long way in two months.”

“Yes ma’am, long trip, tiresome, lonesome.” He let the wistfulness of his words work at her. He needed her to care. He saw her lips part slightly, relaxing, that slight tilt to her head, her shoulders dropped just slightly. His words were working on her.

She was a pretty woman, blue-eyed, blond hair pulled back tight into a bun, sunbonnet hanging off a string from her neck. Her dress was a plain blue cloth, hand-stitched. She wiped down the table and wrung out her dishcloth turning sideways so as not to put her back to him. She kept the table between them. The gun was always in her reach.

“Vittles is all I’d be askin. I need little else. I don’t mind bedding down in the hayloft. I’ve made camp in the rain for the last week.” He clamped his mouth shut, suddenly aware he was begging.

The workmanship inside the house matched the outside. It was clean, organized. There wasn’t much furniture, the sturdy table, four chairs, a rocker. The floor was wood, sanded smooth. A shelf beside the stove held heavy pottery, bowls, pitcher, beneath it on wooden pegs hung matching cups. In the center of the sturdy oak table was a wooden bowl, slightly lopsided, holding apples. Beyond it, on the rail of a low loft, hung a patchwork quilt. Below that was a door, into a bedroom, he assumed. It was homey. It spoke to that vague something he craved.

Under the window on a low shelf there was a collection of stones, arrowheads, marbles. Such things he had once collected himself. Small, fist sized wood carvings drew his attention as he stepped to the door, the craftsmanship and detail eliciting admiration. He picked one up and turned it as he studied it. He set it back down, imagining the patience it had taken to carve it.

The cozy warmth of the place etched the feeling of home into him, creating a yearning that had only recently taken hold. The wanting was an ache made more painful knowing she had made up her mind. She had not relinquished the gun, still carrying it at her side.

With a sigh he returned to the porch, rolling a cigarette, behind him in the doorway she held a pan of corn bread crumbs and left overs. She tossed the scraps to the chickens. They ran tilting side to side, squawking their demand to be first to the food.

“It’s gonna be a gully-washer,” he said, pointing his cigarette to the angry darkness in the northern sky.

The wind whipped across the yard. Her horses were pacing the corral. There was a spattering of rain. The clouds had a glow to them, almost green.

The cows were gathering closer together. She noticed them too.

“I better get them in the barn. You best be finding for shelter yourself,” she said.

“Yes’m,” he said grimly, “It’ll be dark soon. I better get if I’m gonna find a hole to sleep in.”

CHAPTER NINE

Rain pelted him even as he headed across the yard. He accepted that she was not going to let him stay. In his mind he was already moving on, thinking of the camp he had spent a few days before. A sigh on his lips, he turned to his horse. He should head east, go down her road that would take him to Kearney Junction. His horse snorted as he caught up its reins, side stepping and nipping at him as he vaulted into the saddle. The horse was tired of moving too, ready to get a belly full of grass.

He leaned over the horse’s neck to cut the wind as it thrashed the trees ahead of him. Forget a dry camp, he just needed to find a place to hunker down. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the woman running across the yard to the corral gate. She struggled to open it.

He pulled up for a moment, aware of disaster in the making. Her milk cows were splitting off, two headed away toward the creek, four were crowded up to her gate, keeping her from opening it, pressing against it, pushing it inward.

They’d walk that gate down in their panic. She didn’t stand a chance of holding them back while she unlatched that gate. He observed the latch tearing loose. Hesitating momentarily, he yanked his horse around, thumping its sides with his heels.

He threw himself to the ground and vaulted over the corral fence as he ran toward her, yelling. “Get outta the way, lady. Get back.”

She resisted as he grabbed her arm and dragged her away from the gate seconds before the cows pushed over it, breaking it from its hinges and crowded toward the open barn door. He barely missed being hit by the falling gate himself.

Hail pelted the ground, turning it white as the wind caught the barn door, and he pushed against it, shoving her through. They threw themselves clear of the crazed beasts churning into the opening, and Tyree searched around for some place to hide.

He guided her toward a dark corner that might be a stall. Pushing her into the shadows, he tried to pull the door shut, but the wind gusted, yanking it from his hands and slamming it against the outer wall of the barn. Hair stood up along his arms as the wind, rain and hail stopped, becoming dead quiet but for the lowing of the cows and nickering of the horses. Silence fell, the edges of the sky were black shredded rags but straight above them was a boil green sky, it looked infected and full of pus. From the center of that ugliness a cloud dropped down, bulging and spinning. It kept turning and dropping until it was a long, thick rope.

“Holy hell.”

Tornado.

The tail thickened and dropped lower. The whole sky seemed to churn with an ugly roiling gangrenous wound. He turned as the woman gasped beside him. A low moan grew from the silence, and he grabbed her wrist and dragged her toward that stall.

He saw the bunk there and pointed to it, “Get under there,” he screamed over the roar of the wind.

She stared at him open-mouthed and wide-eyed for a second, then crawled under the bunk. He threw himself down and shoved himself up against her, though there was barely room for it.

A low growl filled the air, a heavy ominous sound like some beast in agony, both in pain and rage. They heard branches slap against the barn as the monster screamed. The surrounding sound was now a deep thunderous howl and the walls of the barn creaked against the onslaught. The door was ripped free, hinges ruined. The walls rattled, the shook the building. Tyree pushed his back against the woman to squeeze further under the bunk. The barn was black. Dust, fine gravel and straw blew against his face. The smell of the barn floor was thick and dank in his nostrils.

Darkness engulfed them, glimmers of light from lightning flashes cut through momentarily, and he moaned to himself as he felt, as much as heard, a piece of the roof give. He heard the cattle rub against the posts and stalls, trying to squeeze themselves into tight places that were just too damn small.

No more than minutes had passed, but it might have been hours. He heard sobbing from behind him. The cows lowed as they wandered out into the yard. He heard the horses pacing and nickering. He wondered where his horse had gotten off to. ind still blew, but it had died back to gusts that threw grit against the outer walls. The milling of the cows moved to the barn yard, and the air became still and dark. The sun had abandoned the day.

He crawled out into the little room and searched around till he found a lantern and lit it. The barn floor was littered with leaves, branches, piles of straw thrown down from the loft. He hung the lantern from a hook and turned to the woman. She threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around his waist, burying her face in his neck as her body shook, and she cried. Lost, he held her as well as his breath in stunned silence.

“It’s over. It’s all over,” he mumbled into her hair as he held her. He waited until her sobs faded, and she stepped away from him, her face pale as she composed herself.

“I’m sorry. I was so scared,” she whispered, her faced darkening in embarrassment. She pushed wet hair out of her face.

He followed her outside, taking in the littered yard, the horses shivering in the corner of the corral. He ran a calming hand along their wet necks, whispering to them. They snuffled against his hand seeking comfort or as likely a cube of sugar.

The lantern chased shadows away as he set it on the table. The interior of the house was undisturbed, making it easy to pretend nothing had happened beyond it. The coffee pot was empty, and he refilled it as she slumped into a chair. He rolled himself a smoke while he waited for the coffee to heat. The woman stared at nothing with empty eyes, her mouth grim. She was badly shaken, and he wasn’t sure what to do about it. She seemed so desolate it made his heart ache for her.

He wasn’t sure what to say to her, so he said nothing and poured them each a cup of coffee.

The coffee was good. He wished for whiskey, a look around told him there was none. He was soaked. His coat and blankets were on his horse, which was who knew where. Stoking up the fire, he stood near the open stove door warming himself, letting his clothes heat up. The steam rolled off them, and he turned, drying another spot. Tears were rolling down her face as he filled her cup, and she wiped a sleeve across her face.

“Ma’am.”

“Aileen Lassiter.”

“Missus Lassiter. Are you okay?” He asked.

“I might have a dry shirt for you,” she choked.

She stood up slowly and disappeared into the door under the loft. She was gone for some time, and he walked out to the porch and back. He was beginning to think she wasn’t coming back out. When she did, she had changed into a dry dress, handing Tyree a shirt and a pair of breeches. He took them from her as she sat down in her rocker. She brushed long blond hair to her waist, the thick curls drying, shining in the lamplight. She was twice his age, but he saw the beauty in her. Light blue eyes turned to him as he stood holding the dry clothes.

“They were Davy’s. My son. I had two sons. My husband, my children. They’re all dead now,” she said tonelessly.

“I’m sorry,” he told her, uncomfortable with the pain he read in her. No wonder she had been distracted when he came into the yard.

She nodded. “Me too.” She got up and walked into the bedroom, closing the door behind her. Tyree finished his coffee, moved the coffee pot to the back of the stove and quietly left to the barn. He found a dusty blanket near the bunk and climbed into the loft, pushing open the loft doors to the light rain and left over gusts of wind.

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