All four hands were locked around the shotgun. Hank pulled the gun toward his chest and Clint tugged in the opposite direction. Pouring in just a little bit more strength, Clint waited to feel Hank's response. Just as Clint had hoped, Hank doubled his own effort to get the shotgun away from him.
Suddenly, Clint reversed his own direction so he was pushing as Hank pulled. That way, all of the momentum was aimed at Hank and all Clint had to do was twist to give that momentum a nudge in the right direction.
The butt of the shotgun cracked against Hank's face and sent the man reeling. Blood sprayed from a cut in his chin, which Hank wiped away using his shirtsleeve. The ferocity in his eyes dimmed somewhat when he saw Clint open the breech of the shotgun to drop both shells onto the floor.
“There,” Clint said as he tossed the weapon to the other side of the room. “Is this finished now?”
“You'd like that, wouldn't you?”
“Yes!” Clint exclaimed. “I would! All I ever wanted to do was deliver a goddamn painting!”
“But you . . . you and Ellie . . .”
“That was between me and her,” Clint said. “She's not a little girl any more. Get used to the idea.”
“I'm just trying to do the right thing.”
“Really? You think knocking me out, tying me up, and trying to force me to marry your daughter is the right thing? I'd hate to see what you think is the wrong thing.” Watching the old man sputter, Clint let out a breath and asked, “Where's my gun?”
“So you are gonnaâ”
“I'm gonna take my property back. Then I'm gonna deliver that damn painting or whatever the hell it is and I'm gonna get the hell away from this place. You got any objections to that?”
Slowly, Hank shook his head.
“Now where's my gun?”
Acklund arrived at the little restaurant, expecting to be plenty early for his supper with Ellie. After dealing with his brother and watching Mose storm away like a kid with his nose bent out of joint, Acklund hoped he wasn't too cross to enjoy anyone's company. He realized the error in that thinking the moment he saw Ellie sitting at one of the front tables, wrapped up in a new dress with green ribbons.
“You look pretty,” Acklund said. “How long have you been here?”
“Not long,” Ellie snapped as she practically jumped to her feet.
The sudden move made Acklund jump as well. He twitched and started thinking of what he would tell her when she asked him about his part in shooting up her father's house. He was caught even more off his guard when Ellie smiled warmly and approached him.
“It's good to see you,” she said. “Really good.”
“Things are just all tangled up. There's a man. His name is Clint and at first I thought he was so handsome and so heroic. He stepped in and helped me and my father. Now I wish I hadn't seen him.”
Acklund scowled fiercely when he asked, “Did he hurt you?”
“No. It's just that . . . my father wants me to do something and Clint wants me to do something else and I'm just sick of hearing it. I tried to put a stop to it, but I don't know what I can do or even if there is something I can do about it.”
“What do you want?”
She blinked and shrugged. “Right now, I want to be where nobody else can find me and pull me back into that mess.”
“I know just how you feel. Would you like to meet some other time?”
Ellie smiled. “When I said nobody else, that didn't include you. I'm glad you found me.”
“Well, I'm hungry. Do you still want to get something to eat?”
“Yes. A friend of mine cooks at a hotel on First Street. She could make us something. It wouldn't be much.”
“That sounds good.” Offering her his arm, Acklund put on his best smile and asked, “Shall we?”
“Yes,” Ellie replied. “I think we shall.”
Acklund hadn't been expecting this. He hadn't been expecting to find someone like Ellie or to have her actually want to be with him for more than a few seconds. He hadn't expected Dave to get killed or for Mose to seek out Dave's outlaw friends instead of listening to his own flesh and blood. Rather than go against it and keep counting up the things he hadn't been expecting, Acklund decided to have supper with Ellie and enjoy the things that
gone his way.
Dave may have been a rambunctious, pigheaded fool, but he had taught Acklund something: Life was short and it could end at any second.
Acklund allowed himself to be led to a small kitchen that serviced a little hotel. Ellie's friend cooked up steaks that had been set aside on account of all the gristle hanging from them, as well as some mashed potatoes that were left over from dinner service for the guests. It was the best meal Acklund had had in a good, long while.
Clint's gun belt was buckled securely around his waist as he walked out of Aunt Iris's cottage. Just to be certain, he opened the cylinder and checked to see if the gun was loaded. Hank wasn't a complete idiot, which meant the gun was empty but there were still plenty of rounds in the loops of his belt. Clint stuffed fresh bullets into the Colt, snapped the cylinder shut, and glanced over his shoulder.
Since he'd gotten his gun back, Clint had been waiting for the old man to make another move. He didn't turn his back on Hank until the door was shut between them. Even then, Clint was ready to be shot in the back. After he'd put some space between himself and the cottage, Clint realized the old man had played his hand as far as it could go.
Hank didn't take a shot at him. He didn't even watch Clint through the cottage's windows. Even so, Clint didn't feel safe until he'd rounded a corner without incident. His first stop was the stable. If he'd taken someone as prisoner, one of the first things he would do would be to get the man's horse. Apparently, Hank hadn't planned for that either. Eclipse was right where Clint had left him when he'd first decided to stay in town for more than a few hours. After looking the Darley Arabian over and patting his neck for good measure, Clint left the stable.
“You gonna be stayin' around for another day or two?” the stableman asked.
Without turning around, Clint replied, “Not if I can help it.”
“You owe me for anything after tonight.”
“I'm good for it.” Since he'd already built up a head of steam, Clint intended on leaving it at that. If the stableman wanted an advance payment that badly, he would just have to come and get it for himself.
Apparently, the other man wasn't so anxious to stake that claim.
Clint's next stop was Bernadette's Room and Board. He pushed open the door hard enough to make it slam against the wall. Even though he hadn't expected to make so much noise, he was surprised at how little of a reaction his entrance created.
Bernadette looked up from her desk and asked, “Where have you been?”
“It's a long story,” Clint replied.
“Well, don't think that means you're getting out of paying for your room. It was reserved on your account, which means I couldn't rent it out to anyone else.”
As far as Clint could tell, there wasn't anyone else in the place, but he wasn't about to argue the point.
“Speaking of your account,” Bernadette continued, “that picture of yours is done.”
“Picture? Oh, that.”
“Didn't your little friend tell you?”
Clint narrowed his eyes and growled, “What little friend?”
“The girl with the brown hair. She said she knew you. I think her name was Nellie.” Shrugging, she added, “Seemed sweet enough, but a little scatterbrained.”
“That'd be Ellie.”
“So you do know her.”
“Yes,” Clint groaned. “She was here?”
Bernadette nodded as she got up from her desk. She closed the ledger in which she'd been writing and then walked over to the table that took up most of the dining room. “She said she wanted to pick up your things. I guess she forgot about that when she got a look at this picture of yours. She wanted to take that with her as well, but I wouldn't let her until I heard from you. She got all worked up and left in a huff. I think she forgot about picking up your things.”
Rubbing his face as if he simply didn't know what to do with his hands, Clint asked, “Is the frame repaired?”
“Good as new,” Bernadette said proudly.
Grabbing the frame with enough force to make Bernadette cringe, Clint looked it over from all sides. It hadn't been long since he'd seen it, but by this time he was just sick of the damn thing. “How much do I owe you?” he asked.
“I have it all figured up here,” she replied as she handed over a small piece of folded paper. “It's your bill. If you intend on staying longerâ”
“I don't. How much extra to deliver this to Hank Mason's house?”
“Fifty cents?” Bernadette replied hesitantly.
Without a blink, Clint said, “Fine. Tack it onto the bill and deliver it as soon as you get the chance. Here's your money.”
Judging by the look on Bernadette's face, she was upset that she hadn't pushed her delivery fee a little higher. She took the money and said, “Wait here and I'll get your change.”
“Keep it. Thanks for all you've done.”
It took Bernadette a moment to hear through Clint's gruff tone and digest his intent. When she did, she smiled and replied, “You're welcome. Anytime you're back in town, be sure to come on over. Will you be riding out of here soon?”
“That's the idea.”
“Then wait right here.” Clint started to protest, but Bernadette waved it off. “I made some food for you, but you never ate it. The least I can do is wrap it up so you can take it with you.”
While Bernadette was in the kitchen, Clint had a few moments to think. The first thing that came to mind was something else the thin brunette had mentioned before. He walked to the kitchen and found her bundling something up in a rag. “You said that Ellie was worked up about something?”
“What was it?”
“The flowers. She said she was going to get you to pick them up early, but she never came back.”
“And she never mentioned it to me,” Clint said. “Was there anything else that distracted her?”
Bernadette finished tying up the rag, but got a guilty look on her face. “Actually, there was another fellow here who was waiting for you. As soon as that scatterbrained girl left, he went after her.”
“I never got his name or what he wanted. He didn't even leave a note.”
“Why didn't you tell me about that?” Clint asked.
“Because,” Bernadette said sternly, “he didn't leave a name or note. What was there to tell? I did glance out the window after they left and the two of them met up outside. They walked away together and seemed awful close.”
Clint guessed that little bit of spying was behind the guilty look on Bernadette's face. “Do you recall what he looked like?”
“About your height. Longer hair, rougher face.”
The more Bernadette said, the clearer the picture in Clint's mind became. It was a picture of Mose's brother, Acklund. “Did he carry a gun?”
“Was anyone else with him? A taller fellow with light hair?”
Bernadette didn't have to think about that one. “No. He walked with a limp, though. Favored his left side. You know him?”
“I think so,” Clint replied as he accepted the bundle of food from her. “I just hope I'm wrong.”
Clint approached Aunt Iris's cottage the way he might approach a hornet's nest. Every step was tentative and every one of the hairs on his arms stood up as if the possibility of being stung was a current that ran through the air. His eyes were fixed upon the quiet little building and his hand never strayed from the holster at his side.
He was surprised to get all the way to the front door without seeing Hank or at least the barrel of his shotgun poking from one of the windows. When he knocked, Clint didn't hear so much as a rustle from the other side of the door.
Since nobody seemed to be at home, Clint went to the Mason house. He approached that place even more carefully. The house was surrounded with more homes and a few other people walking between them, so there were plenty of sounds to catch Clint's ear. He went up and knocked on the door a bit quicker this time, but got the same result he'd gotten at the cottage.
“You lookin' for Hank or Ellie?”
Turning toward the sound of that voice, Clint found an old woman sitting in a rocker on the porch of the neighboring house. “Hank,” he replied. “You seen him?”
“Nope. He must be at the mill.”
“What about Ellie?”
The old woman's face already looked like a prune that had been soaked in river water and left out to shrivel in the sun. The wrinkles became even deeper as she scrunched her face in concentration. Finally, she told him, “Nope. Ain't seen her either. You know where they been?”
“No,” Clint said as he wondered why he'd even hoped for something to go smoothly in this town. “I haven't seen them.”
As Clint walked away, the old lady kept right on talking. She had speculations on the weather and gossip about the rest of the neighbors, but Clint didn't pay any attention to her. He was grateful as soon as he was far enough from the house that he couldn't hear her voice. As he approached Knee Bend Creek, the rushing water and the creaking wood of the mill's wheel filled his ears.