DARK TRAIL HOME

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CHAPTER TEN

A sound awakened him. It took a minute to remember where he was. Mourning doves flew from the loft, their wings drumming over him, dust filtering down as they flew. The surrounding hay was damp where rain had leaked in during the night. He had slept through it. Pulling on his boots, he leaned out the loft doors. Thick green grass waved under the caress of a light wind. A waist thick tree lay across the corner of the corral, the top bar broken, limbs splayed across the ground. Down the slope toward the creek there were more trees, ripped up by their roots, scattered over the pasture. Below, he saw a squared off patch of ground, a low rock wall around it. A graveyard.

The milk cows were coming in, the Lassiter woman moving them along with a long switch, tapping their legs and talking to them. He forked hay into their mangers from the loft. Pulling dry clothes on, strapping his gun belt across lean hips, he went down to help with feeding the horses, checking them more thoroughly in the light. He whistled a few times and was relieved when the Gosheven came walking nonchalantly from the creek. He didn’t seem any worse for coming through a tornado. He pulled the saddle off, and brushed the horse down. Hanging his blankets and coat across the fence, he shook his head at all the leaf litter and twigs scattered around the barn.

“Give him some oats if you like,” the woman said as she carried a pail of milk to the house. He was glad the woman had some light in her eyes. She was still too quiet. Her hair was braided tight and wrapped up on top of her head. There was some color in her cheeks. The woman fingered the collar of his shirt, smoothing it down, buttoning one of the buttons and her eyes met his.

“Davy had dark blue eyes. But his hair was black as soot, just like yours,” she said softly. He shivered under her touch, feeling sorry for her, but stepped away. It was uncomfortable under her gaze. Davy. He sure as hell wasn’t Davy.

He grained the horses and cleaned up storm litter from the barn floor, raking it out. He surveyed the damage to the corral. Only one pole was broken. The corral pole could be replaced easily enough.

Walking out of the corral, he stopped at the low rock square. The graves. He read the names and dates. Dee Lassiter, Jeremy Lassiter, David Lassiter. Dee had died at thirty, Jeremy at the age of seven, David at sixteen, only a month ago. He hung his head and whispered a few words in Arapaho to the great spirit.

He set the gate up and worked at repairing where the cows had walked it down. Searching through the shelves, boxes and barrels, he found tools, wire and nails. As he came toward the barn wall, he saw a curious thing.

A rooster feather, clean and smooth, stuck straight out from the wall. The wind having driven it there like a nail. He shook his head.

He thought about the joke he and Donny had shared so long ago. He had picked up a crow feather and woven it into his horse’s mane. Donny had poked fun at him. He really didn’t know if he was a half-breed or not. He hadn’t known either of his parents. He had lived with the Arapaho from the time he was very small until he found the Ketterings. He clung to some of their ways and let others go. He still kept a feather in his horse’s mane, still painted hand prints and sometimes hail on its rump. Still carried a medicine bag, though he didn’t set tobacco smoke to the four corners so often any more.

“You going on the warpath, Injun?” Donny had laughed.

“Whichever way the feather blows, that is where we ride,” Tyree had said to Donny and the older kid had laughed at him.

Breakfast was quiet, a little uncomfortable as she didn’t seem inclined to talk to him. She’s thinking about a way to get rid of me. She busied herself sorting through some sewing, laying aside a few shirts and a dress in a folded pile, matching the thread against each piece. He ate slowly, enjoying biscuits, eggs and bacon, the smell and feel of the kitchen.

“Where were you going when you stopped here? Is it far, where you are going?” She asked quietly. He had no answer. He had been going nowhere and yet this place, the warmth of her kitchen, this was what he wanted.

“Could take a minute to get that tree cut up, repair that corral. I’ll get busy on it if you like. I got no place to be.”

He scraped his plate clean, hoping for an answer, but she ignored him. Bringing in water and wood, he took it on himself to boil dishwater and washed the cutlery. She frowned at his efforts.

“I’ll do those,” she told him.

“I don’t mind. I ate. I can help clean up.”

“I don’t want you to,” her voice cracked a little, and she turned her back to him as she took the dishcloth from him.

“Joel can cut the tree up. Him and Mark.” Who was this Joel she spoke of? A friend, a neighbor, her husband?

The storm was over. She had already dismissed him, no longer needing anything from him. He tasted bitterness as he walked out onto the porch and spat into the dirt. He hadn’t expected any less. It was still disappointing.

He walked toward his horse and it stubbornly ignored him as he clicked his tongue at it. Then its head went up, it’s ears flicking. The horse came to him then, perhaps sensing his quickened pulse, the possible danger binding them together. Two riders emerged from the trees.

One on a big dark sorrel, the other riding a flashy paint. The lead rider, a big red-haired man, dismounted and wrapped arms around the Lassiter woman, hugging her to him and kissing the top of her head. They turned to him as he stepped into the littered yard. The man stepped to the buckskin and ran his hand over the rain-faded hand print painted there.

“Joel, Mark, this is Tyree Allison. Mister Allison, Joel and Mark Malone. Mister Allison was here during the storm. I fed him breakfast for helping with chores this morning before he leaves,” she leaned against Joel as she shaded her eyes and turned to him. Tyree pressed his lips together as his shoulders sagged. Guess I’m leavin.

Green eyes, brilliant in the morning sun, scraped over him. This seemed like a man to whom a smile came readily, but his smile faded somewhat as he studied Tyree. Tyree saw his eyes narrow, his lips flatten out as they took in ragged black hair, dust covered clothes and a tied down gun. Trail trash, blown in with the storm was as plain in the man’s eyes as any words he might have spoken.

Tyree assessed them as well. Cognizant of the potential threat in the tall, muscular man. His little brother seemed harmless enough.

Mark shook his hand and fired off questions about the storm, asking where they had ducked for cover, what had happened, how long it lasted, what damage it had done. “Whoo-e,” he said as he looked around. “Looks like some tin is hanging loose up there. Better get that nailed down quick fore it slides off and does more damage.”

Tyree followed as Missus Lassiter walked them around the back of the barn showing the damage done by the storm. She tilted her head at Tyree as she laid a hand on the gate.

“You repaired it?” She turned in bewilderment.

“Yes’m. ’Fore breakfast. It just needed a little wire and elbow grease.”

The barn door was laid on the ground. Tin dangled off the edge of the roof.

“I spect Malone is right. Need to get that nailed down. There’s a hole up there. It got the hay wet in the loft. I forked the wet stuff over by the doors and left them open to air it out. I’ll keep flippin’ it till it dries good. I need an anvil and forge to get those hinges in shape,” Tyree said, indicating the door.

He walked over to the corner of the corral. “Only broke one pole. Shouldn’t take much to cut all this mess away and get it fixed. I count six trees down the slope. Good start on some firewood.”

“Between you and Mark, you should have this done in a couple of weeks,” Malone said. He poked Mark in the chest. “Right.” There was authority in his words. He was used to being obeyed. Tyree saw that, and he tensed against the assumption that he would take orders. He wanted to stay though, and Malone was offering him the opportunity to do so.

“Well, I guess you can use that bunk while you are here. I can feed you, but I have no money to pay you,” Missus Lassiter was saying. She was leaving the decision to Malone. The man had stepped in and taken the reins, and Tyree stiffened even as he accepted the task. He would deal with this Malone, one day at a time. At least for now he had a place to stay, a dry bed, the promise of some home-cooked meals. It was a start.

His brother, Mark seemed fine with being ordered around. “I reckon. Beats mucking out stalls. Let’s get those hinges off, and take them over to the forge,” Mark answered his brother.

“I didn’t see no forge.” Tyree answered.

“Over at the ranch.” Mark returned. He grabbed a hammer and started prying up the nails.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Malone’s ranch was laid out in a series of corrals and pastures. Wooden fence ran up the edge of the road and led to several outbuildings, and on a low hill behind it all stood a big rambling house wrapped with a low veranda. A stone path led from the house to the wide stretch of yard between the stables and a long, low building on the opposite side. The forge stood under the roof, attached to the stable. Tools, hooks, hammers, pliers hung off the edge of a bench. Barrels with old horseshoes, scrap metal and bent nails sat against the wall.

There were four large corrals lining the road, before they reached the arena. The arena was a huge round corral with a six-foot pole in the center. Behind all the corrals was fenced pasture. The first corral held a roan colt. Joel Malone haltered it, leading it toward the big livery barn. He nodded to Tyree and Mark as they rode past him.

Tyree admired the colt, the perfect conformation, long sleek legs, the curve of it’s neck. He’d sold lesser horses for a hundred dollars to Malachi. After a brand change, he knew Malachi doubled that price. He considered that for a minute as he watched Mark heat up the forge. He let the thought vaporize as he considered that a hangman’s noose waited for those who thought too long on such a venture. That thought didn’t appeal to him, and he shook it off. “Storm didn’t do much damage over here.”

“Blew right over. We saw the tornado dip down, it was headed south,” Mark said.

The sound of small voices came from near the corral.

“He’s so pretty, Aunt Marley.”

Tyree turned to find a little girl, six or so years old, hair the color of honey hanging in rings around her soft round face. Her eyes were blue as violets, her small mouth turned down at the corners. Her little brother had his hands wrapped in Missus Malone’s skirt. They weren’t strangers. They were the children he’d found south of Solomon.

Malone was their kin?

The woman had ginger hair and a sprinkle of freckles across her cheeks.

“Mother, this is Tyree. He works for Missus Lassiter. Tyree, my mother, Missus Malone.”

Tyree nodded to her, but it was to the girl his attention was drawn. She held a cornshuck doll in one hand. It was wearing a new dress.

The girl reached up to rub Gosheven’s nose, and he prayed the sooty buckskin didn’t take a bite, but the horse didn’t seem inclined to be an ass this morning.

“He doesn’t belong to us, Alisha.”

“He’s so pretty. His belly is gold.”

It was, sort of. The animal’s speckled buckskin coat had darker markings front and back and down its legs. It undoubtedly had some appaloosa in it. “He’s not usually so friendly. I think he likes you.”

The girl turned at the sound of his voice, studied him for a minute and then smiled. Missus Malone gave him a curious glance.

“First smile I’ve seen from her since she’s been here.”

Tyree squatted and rolled himself a smoke. He wasn’t expecting it when the girl walked over to him and tentatively put an arm around his neck. Missus Malone’s mouth dropped open, as the girl let him go and returned to her. “What in the world?”

Tyree stood and wiped a sleeve across his eyes. Joel Malone watched from the corral as the children followed his mother back to the house, his eyes too, were full of questions. Tyree flipped his cigarette butt onto the ground and returned to the livery to finish his work.

The hinges were flattened out after some heating and hammering. Mark gathered a few tools, and they returned to the farm to get to work on setting things right.

He and Mark made a good bit of progress, getting the door back up. They walked the roof, nailing down loose tin.

“Bucket of tar will fix this right up.”

From the roof the grass spread dark green from the rain. Off in the distance, water stood at the lower end of the field. That needed to be drained away, so the ground wasn’t soggy for so long. The creek shone through the trees, glittering in the sun. It wouldn’t take much effort to channel some of that into a pond, a dam to bring water closer to the field. He was daydreaming. In his mind he considered expanding the corral, having an arena like Malone’s. He wanted to build his own place, but he could practice here.

He snorted to himself at all the times he’d made such suggestions to Jace. Head in the clouds, Jace had said. Waste of time and energy thinking he was anything but a cur that would just get kicked in the teeth for thinking he was anything else.

“There’s a good fishing spot right there,” Mark said from beside him. Mark climbed down the ladder and helped carry it back to lean against the loft.

“You’ll like it around here. Ms. Aileen makes a mean gooseberry pie. I am here three or four times week cutting wood, doing repairs, helping with the garden and such. I’ll show you where the best fishing is, me and Davy ha…” Mark clamped his mouth shut. “There’s some big bass in that creek.”

“I been down to the crick. There is a nice hole where there’s some fish jumpin’. I figured it’d be good fishin’.”

“Let’s take some night crawlers and drop a hook,” Mark nodded.

“Maybe later. I got work to do.”

Mark shrugged it off but the disappointment was easy to see.

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