Aunt Iris had lived on the south side of town in a little cottage that still smelled like dried flowers. The moment he stepped inside, Clint looked at the walls for anything in a frame that might have also come from Ned's barbershop. There were a few little paintings of roses here and there, which weren't quite good enough to be done by an artist. The cottage only had one large room with another smaller one just off the kitchen. Once Ellie had lit the lantern next to the door, Clint could see the frame of a bed that took up most of the smaller room.
“If your father gives you too much trouble about that picture,” he said, “you could always hang it up here.”
Ellie looked around as well, which brought a smile to her face. “That's part of why I liked it so much. All those flowers remind me of her.” She kept her hand on Clint as if he were about to fall over any second. Once they were both inside, she closed the door but didn't stray too far from it. Keeping her ear pressed to the dusty wood, she whispered, “You think those men will come back?”
“Not for a while. I doubt they even know where we are.”
Shifting her eyes toward him, Ellie cautiously asked, “Isn't that what you thought when they attacked you the last time?”
“Yes, but I wasn't watching for them last time. They scampered off like scalded dogs, so I thought that was the end of it. Now I know better. I kept my eyes and ears open every step of the way between your house and this one.”
She nodded. “I didn't mean to nag.”
“I know. You actually made a good point. I got careless the first time I met up with those men, plain and simple.”
“And what about this time?” Ellie asked as she eyed Clint's bandaged elbow.
“This time they got lucky,” he told her with a bit of an edge to his voice. “They picked good spots and waited until dark. If they were better shots, they would have finished us all off.”
The distress was plain enough to see in Ellie's eyes. She was also growing a little pale and made her way to one of the chairs around a small dining table. There was another larger chair against the nearby wall, but it was blocked by a basket full of knitting supplies on one side and a footstool directly in front of it.
Clint settled into the chair next to Ellie at the table. She'd placed her hand on top of the table, so he covered it with his own. “That's not to say this situation is hopeless,” he assured her.
That kindled a bit of a spark in her eyes, but not a very big one. “Really?”
“There are marksmen out there who could kill you with one shot without you ever knowing they were there. That doesn't mean you should worry yourself to death about them.”
“Uhh . . . I guess not.”
“There are also plenty of ways for a horse to knock the stuffing out of you. Do you worry yourself about that?”
“No,” she said definitively.
“You can't spend your life worrying about any of that. There are plenty more loudmouth idiots like those two that ruined our supper tonight than there are real assassins. The truth is you've got to be a certain kind of someone to get one of those assassins after you. Riling up loudmouthed idiots isn't that hard.”
Ellie forced a shaky smile onto her face. “I guess so.”
“Those men aren't after you and they're not after your father. They're after me and now that I know they weren't scared away that first time, I can watch out for them. They won't get a chance to ambush me again. I'll see to that.”
“It sounds like you've had killers after you before. Is that why you carry that gun with you all the time?”
Clint instinctively reached for the modified Colt, but felt pain from his wound lance all the way to his fingertips and up to his shoulder. Even though the pistol was right where it should be, the gun felt awfully far away. “A lot of men carry guns,” he replied.
“But most of those are loudmouthed idiots or gunfighters. You don't strike me as the former, so you must be the latter.”
“You ever think there may be more than two choices?”
“Sure there are, but you definitely strike me as the latter. Tell me different.”
“I'm not a gunfighter,” Clint told her. Even though she let the matter drop, he could tell Ellie didn't quite believe him.
Ellie's stitches held up pretty well. Clint put them to the test after she'd curled up and fallen asleep in the big old chair surrounded by knitting needles.
Clint stood in the section of the room closer to the dining table, which also gave him a clear view through the cottage's wide windows. The window directly in front of him looked out onto the main street, which led straight through town. To his right, there was a large garden, which was open enough for him to spot anyone approaching the cottage from that direction. The window behind him was narrow, but looked out onto a porch that wasn't much bigger than the dining table. Clint had gone out there to test the boards and found the porch to be more than squeaky enough to suit his needs. The windows to his left looked out to the neighboring cottage, which was so close that only a cat could squeeze between it and this cottage.
Nobody would be sneaking up on the place. Clint was certain of that much.
After assuring Ellie she was safe, Clint urged her to get some sleep. Actually, he'd insisted she go home, but she wasn't having any of that. Since she wanted to stay with him and make certain he didn't rip his stitches, she planted herself at his side and wasn't about to budge. Finally, she'd gone to sit in the big chair and even picked up the knitting needles to do some work. Her hands moved so quickly that Clint became convinced she spent plenty of time in this cottage. Considering her father's sour disposition, he didn't blame her.
Before long, Ellie's breathing had become deeper and her head had fallen forward. Clint made sure she was comfortable, wrapping an afghan around her so she would stay warm. Then he took a position where he could see outside in every direction. Once there, he extinguished the lantern and stood in the dark until his eyes adjusted to the shadows. After that happened, the light from the moon and stars was enough to give him a good look at the street and garden.
Clint stood and moved his arm in a slow circle. His elbow felt as if it had been dipped in kerosene and lit by a match, but it still bent just fine. When he felt the first trace of blood trickling beneath his bandage, Clint removed his shirt and unwrapped the bandage around his elbow.
Now that his elbow had been cleaned up a bit, the wound didn't look so bad. Of course, being closed up by stitches helped. The wound itself looked more like a tear in his flesh. The edges were as ragged as ripped parchment, held together by thread. Flexing his arm a few times, Clint watched as the wound shifted with every movement. The blood that had come out was barely a trickle and was already drying up.
He lowered his arm, made a fist, and glanced at the windows. There was nobody outside. In fact, it was late enough that even the rowdy echoes from the saloon had faded away. The street was just as still as the garden, which made even the occasional nocturnal critters easy to spot.
The more he moved his arm, the easier it became. Now that he'd seen the wound up close, Clint tested himself a bit further. He reached for the Colt, took hold of it, and pulled it from its holster. His grip slipped a little, which caused the end of the barrel to snag upon the edge of the holster.
Clint dropped the weapon back in place and drew again. The movement was smooth, but not as fast as he would have liked. He tried again, speeding himself up to something closer to his normal pace. The weapon came up freely, so he tried again.
If Clint's life had been on the line against someone who knew what they were doing, he knew he would be in trouble. Against the two men who insisted on coming after him, however, he put his odds at well above average.
Just for the hell of it, Clint holstered the Colt and allowed his arm to hang normally. He took a few breaths, imagined he'd spotted someone through the window, and then went for his Colt as if he intended on pulling the trigger.
Pain shot through his arm in mid-draw, tripping him up before he cleared leather. Clint swore under his breath and replaced the gun.
“You shouldn't be doing that,” Ellie said. “Not yet anyway.”
Clint looked over at her and grinned. “Just seeing where I stand.”
“You're standing in front of open windows. Didn't you say that was bad?”
“Bad for you and your father,” he told her. “I wouldn't mind it if those two decided to stick their necks out and give me a clear shot for a change.”
Ellie winced as if she were the one who'd been wounded. “You are a gunfighter. I knew it.”
“Just because I carry a gun doesn't make me a gunfighter.”
“Is that a bad thing? Being a gunfighter, I mean?”
“Not as such,” Clint admitted. “Most folks just think of gunfighters as killers and murderers. Gunfighters sell their trigger fingers to the highest bidder or shoot men for the pleasure of it. I just go about my business and do what needs to be done. I don't know what you'd call that, but gunfighter doesn't seem to suit it.”
“Neither does flower courier,” she said with a chuckle.
Clint laughed a bit, too. “What about protector of fine arts?”
“No,” she said as she moved closer to him. “Not that, either. I'll have to come up with something more suitable before you heal up.”
“I'm doing well enough. Since those two haven't made another play at me, I think they're off somewhere licking their wounds. I'll head back to the room I rented once there are more people about. That way, plenty of folks will see where I am. If those two idiots are still in town, they'll see it, too.”
“But you can't just go away,” Ellie said. “You're hurt.”
“It's nothing. I can still hold my gun.” Seeing the critical look in her eyes, Clint added, “I can hold it good enough to go up against them.”
“And what if those stitches tear and you can hardly move your arm?”
“Then I'll draw with my left. It's not as fast as the right, but it's good enough. You and your father were almost shot tonight,” Clint told her as he grabbed her by both arms and stared at her so she knew he meant business. “You stay around me too long and those idiots will get the wrong idea. They might even try getting to you so they can get to me. The quicker I get away from you, the better.
“Those bushwhackers have always gone for the easy shots. They'll wait until I'm alone or until they can get the drop on me. I'm not about to hide in a crowd,” Clint said, “but I won't let them get the drop on me again either. You don't want to be around if they decide to take another run at me.”
Ellie's face took on a darkness that had nothing to do with the lantern cooling on its hook. “You're not going anywhere tonight, Clint. I'll see to that.”
Clint glanced at the window that faced east. “You've been asleep for a while, Ellie. There isn't much left of tonight.”
“Fine,” she said as she pulled the string that kept the front of her dress laced up. “Then I guess we'll just have to make the best of the time we have.”
Ellie's dress came off like water running down her body, pooling at her feet. Stepping out of the bundle of clothing, she wrapped her arms around Clint's body and pressed her nakedness against him. The moment she felt his hands upon her waist, she let out a slow, contented sigh.
“I want you, Clint. I want you so bad.”
“Maybe we should get away from all these windows.”
Suddenly, every muscle in Ellie's body tensed. It felt awfully good from Clint's side, but she obviously wasn't so comfortable since all of her clothes were piled up at her feet. Rather than wait for her to regain her composure, Clint picked Ellie up and carried her in his arms to the only other room in the cottage.
She wrapped her arms around his neck and swung her legs during the short ride.
Clint stepped through the narrow door, finding that the room was just as small as it had looked when he'd peeked inside earlier. The bed wasn't large, but it took up most of the space within the closet-sized area. Other than the bed, there was only an oval mirror hanging on the wall.
“You said this was your aunt's house?” Clint asked.
“She didn't live here for years before she passed on,” Ellie told him.
“And where did she pass?”
“At another of my aunt's places in Illinois.”
“All right,” Clint said as he put Ellie down onto the bed. “Just making sure.”
Quickly positioning herself so she was on her knees at the edge of the mattress, Ellie pulled at Clint's buttons as if he weren't doing it fast enough. “Don't worry about a thing, Clint. Nobody comes here anymore.”
“And your father? He knows we're here.”
“He must already be asleep. It'd take a hell of a lot more than gunshots to pry that old man from his pillow.”
By this time, Clint's shirt had been ripped off, his gun belt had been set aside, and his jeans were being pulled down. After kicking off his boots and taking a good look at Ellie, Clint didn't want to discuss anything else.
Her hair looked dark red in the shadows and her skin looked even paler in the moonlight that trickled through the small, plate-sized square of a window. Her breasts fit perfectly in Clint's hands and she trembled when he cupped them. She moaned louder when he rolled her nipple between his thumb and forefinger. As the soft, pink skin became taut, Ellie's left hand wandered along the front of her body and then worked its way down. When her fingers drifted through the soft downy hair between her legs, her eyes snapped open and she looked ready to blush again.