“It's just a picture,” Clint assured her.
“I don't recall any photographer setting up outside of Ned's barbershop.”
Clint didn't have to act to put the annoyed tone in his voice when he said, “I wasn't here when it was taken. All I know is Ned had it done and went on about the expensive frame and glass he got to protect it.”
“Fine, fine. That man always was a little squirrelly.”
Clint chuckled when he heard that and fought like hell to say anything that might strengthen that opinion of hers. If Ned hadn't seemed like a good enough sort who was paying him so well, Clint might have let something slip about the barber's peculiar flower picture business.
Switching to a different tactic, Dot pulled at her shirt until the top few buttons came loose. “How about we take one more trip to the back of the stables?” she asked. “Just a little tumble before you come back?”
“I need to be going, Dot.”
She frowned, but still reached out to slip her hand between Clint's legs. “You sure about that? I know you like to pull my hair.”
“You like it when I pull your hair.”
“Same difference,” she said with a shrug. “From what I can feel, you like it just fine.”
It took every bit of conviction Clint could muster, but he took hold of Dot's hand and moved it away from his groin. Quite simply, it was either that or put off leaving town for a good, long while. “I do like it,” he told her. “That's the problem. Right now I need to get going.”
Dot grinned like the proverbial cat that had swallowed the canary. “I suppose I can allow that. You do still owe me for the stable fees, though.”
“After all I've done for you?” Clint asked in an offended tone. “You should be paying me.”
For once, Dot was the one caught off her guard. She recoiled and glared at Clint as though she couldn't believe what she'd just heard. “Clint Adams, that was the most . . .” As soon as she saw the smirk on Clint's face, Dot allowed her words to trail off.
He dug into his pocket with one hand and came up with a bit of cash he'd set aside for this occasion. “Here you go,” he said. “It's all there, including the cost of that feed we kicked over.”
“What feed? Oh! I remember. You did get a little rowdy there.”
Clint checked the knots holding Ned's parcel in place and then gave Eclipse another once-over before climbing into the saddle.
“So . . . you will be coming back?” Dot asked hesitantly.
“Yeah. I'm sure Ned will want to hear his picture was delivered. Also, there might be something I need to bring back for him.”
“How long are you going to make me wait?”
“Shouldn't be more than a week. I don't plan on racing into Oregon, but I won't be dawdling either.”
Dot smiled and rubbed Clint's leg. “Don't take too long,” she said. “Or I might just lose interest by the time you decide to come back.”
Clint tipped his hat to her, pointed Eclipse's nose toward the stable doors, and flicked the reins. Dot ran ahead to push the doors open a bit wider for him and then waved as he left. Just as he was beginning to entertain the thought of taking her up on her offer for one more quick roll in the hay, Clint felt the wind rushing against his face.
It was a beautiful morning. The sky was filled with clouds, but they were the thick white kind that didn't do much to keep out the sunlight. On the contrary, those clouds seemed to fill up with daylight and let it trickle down onto the world like water from a fat sponge. The air was warm, but the breeze was cool. It only became cooler as Eclipse broke into a run to put the town behind him.
The big Darley Arabian stallion's hooves pounded against the earth and kicked up dirt with every powerful stride. Soon, the horse's muscles were working like a steam engine to carry Clint northward. More than happy to get such a good start on the day's ride, Clint leaned forward and gripped the reins as his lips curled into a smile.
Oregon wasn't more than a day's ride away, but the trail would cut into the trees soon enough. Better to let Eclipse run at a full gallop while the trail was wide and open country spread out in front of them. Once they got into the wooded areas, the Darley Arabian would be able to move at a casual gait at best. Despite the slower pace, Clint was looking forward to the change in scenery. Already, he could see the tall trees stretching up in the distance and he was looking forward to picking out a quiet stream somewhere to spend the night under the stars.
The directions he'd gotten from Ned weren't extensive, but Clint knew his way around Oregon well enough to find Hinterland. And if he had to wander a bit before making his way to the town, well . . . Clint figured that wouldn't be so bad.
Clint had been riding for only a few hours and the trees still loomed in front of him. Every step of the way, he'd felt as if Eclipse was about to charge into the woods before he would have a chance to pull back on the reins. But no matter how furiously the Darley Arabian ran, those stubborn trees only crept forward at a snail's pace.
Mountains had a way of doing the very same thing. They could remain just outside a man's reach for days at a stretch until the man came up to them. Clint wasn't worried about the trick that had been played upon his eyes. He knew well enough that Oregon was still right where it was the last time he'd been there, and he'd reach the trees soon enough. In the meantime, he pulled back on the reins so Eclipse could rest for a bit.
Even after the stallion had slowed to a walk, Clint's ears were still filled with the roar of rushing wind and the echo of hooves against the earth. He settled into his saddle and let the echo fade away. Once they did, he was able to discern another set of sounds.
At first, he thought the sounds weren't new at all. They were awfully close to what he'd heard before, although a bit more frantic. They sounded like horses galloping at full speed, so Clint turned in his saddle to get a look for himself.
Sure enough, there were horses behind him. Three of them, to be exact. The group was tearing along the trail that Clint had put behind him not too long ago. As near as he could figure, Clint guessed those other riders would close in on him within the hour. That time would be cut down plenty if Clint decided to draw Eclipse to a stop and wait for them, but he didn't see any good reason to do that.
Odds were those riders were just on their way to their own spot and using the same trail to get there. Clint wasn't expecting any company, so if his first guess was wrong, there wasn't any cause for him to meet up with them.
Clint dug in his saddlebag and found his spyglass. He looked through the eyepiece and adjusted his angle until he got a better look at the approaching riders. They didn't look familiar, but that wasn't much of a surprise. It would have been a real shock if he did recognize the men thundering in his wake.
“All right, then,” Clint muttered as he dropped the spyglass back into his saddlebag and twisted around to face front. “I suppose there's one real good way to see if you boys are following me or not.”
Because Eclipse had been with Clint for so long, the stallion responded to the slight tapping of Clint's knee against his side. The Darley Arabian shifted gait to veer a bit to the right, but didn't change stride. That way, when Clint finally did snap the reins, Eclipse took off in his new direction like a bullet that had ricocheted off a rock.
In a matter of seconds, Clint had left the trail and was racing through a stretch of taller grass and fallen logs. Although he urged Eclipse to run a bit faster, he kept his eyes on the ground ahead of him so he could try to steer away from anything that might cause Eclipse to stumble. Every so often, the Darley Arabian would jump or swerve on his own to avoid an obstacle that Clint had missed.
After getting to a clearer stretch of land, Clint turned around to glance behind him. The other riders were still back there, but he couldn't tell whether or not they were responding to Clint's sudden change in course. He rode for a while longer and then turned around again. He didn't even need his spyglass to tell that the riders had not only changed their course but had also whipped their horses to go faster as well. All three of the men were cutting through a pond that Clint had passed earlier and were closing the distance fast.
For the next few minutes, Clint was nervous. He wasn't actually worried about the prospect of someone following him. He wasn't even concerned that those three men might be out to put him down. But he didn't want one of them to fire off a lucky shot before Eclipse could carry him to the cover of the nearby trees.
Clint stayed low in his saddle and let Eclipse run a good deal below a full run. That way, he could watch for how those three riders came at him and possibly even get a closer look at one of them. If any shooting started, he was more than ready to finish the job.
It wasn't long before the three men matched Clint's winding path and let him know for certain that they were following him. Before too long, he even heard a few anxious hoots from the three men chasing him. When he heard those excited voices, Clint grinned and patted Eclipse's neck.
“You ready for another run, boy?” he asked.
While the Darley Arabian might not have understood the words, he responded well enough to the slightest touch of Clint's heels against his sides. The stallion got its legs moving even faster until the rumble of its hooves sounded more like rolling thunder.
It didn't take long for the hoots and hollering behind Clint to fade away. Not only were the sounds swallowed up by the pounding of hooves against the earth, but the three riders no longer had anything to hoot about. Whenever Clint snuck a few glances over his shoulder, he saw the other men had their hands full just by keeping up with him.
Well . . . they tried to keep up with him.
Less than a minute after Eclipse really hit his stride, the shots started coming from the three riders. Clint could hear the distinctive crack of a rifle along with a pistol to add to the mix. Only one of the rifle shots came close enough for Clint to hear the hiss of flying lead, and he was too far outside of pistol range for him to worry about that weapon. The only thing Clint had to concern himself with was the outside chance of a rifle shot being fired dead-on from the back of a racing horse. Once Clint circled around a patch of trees and veered around to put the tree trunks between him and the riders, even that long shot was no longer a concern.
Clint let out a sharp yelp and snapped his reins again to push Eclipse even faster. The Darley Arabian strained every muscle he had, but only had to do so for less than a mile. After that, the other three riders were nowhere in sight.
The trail wound through trees that grew closer and closer together as the path cut deeper into Oregon. The little camp was set up two days' ride from Ned Smith's barbershop, which put it within spitting distance of Hinterland. Considering how fast the three men had been riding for the last day or so, it was a wonder that they hadn't passed Hinterland a while ago.
The youngest of the three men appeared to be somewhere in his late teens. He had light brown hair that looked like a tangled, wind-blown mess even when he was standing still. A scraggly mustache partially covered his upper lip and his eyes were narrowed into a constant squint. “You sure this is the place?” he asked.
Walking in front of the other two men and leading his horse by the reins, the second man was obviously older than the first by at least ten to fifteen years. He was tall and as thick as some of the nearby trees and had a full mop of lighter brown, almost blond hair. Without looking back, he nodded and said, “This where the tracks lead, Dave. Stop fretting about it.”
“Well, are you sure you followed 'em right?”
The third man in the group seemed to fall in between the other two as far as age was concerned. He had a rough face covered by dirt and dark stubble. His hair was darker than the other's but hung down just past his shoulders. Although the cut of his jaw was a bit sharper, there was a definite resemblance among all three men. Judging by the way the dark-haired man spoke to the younger one, he definitely outranked him in the group's pecking order. “You have such a problem with Mose's tracking, then why don't you do it?” he snapped.
“I don't got a problem. It's just that we ain't seen hide nor hair of this son of a bitch for a whole day!”
“This is the trail, all right,” Mose said as he squatted down to get a closer look at the ground in front of him. The big man with the blond hair ran his fingers over the top of the dirt, but didn't quite touch it. “There's the tracks put down by that horse.”
“And you're sure?” Dave asked.
“It was a Darley Arabian, for Christ's sake,” Mose snarled. “It ain't like you see too many of them anyways.”
“And you can tell the breed just by them tracks?”
The dark-haired rider gritted his teeth and locked his eyes with the youngest man. “Unless you got something helpful to say, just shut the fuck up, Dave!”
“Jesus, Acklund,” Dave grumbled. “No need to get so cross.”
“You're testing me, boy.”
“He was born to test us,” Mose said. “That's what Ma always said. As far as these tracks go, they're the same ones that we picked up after that Darley Arabian left us in the dust. It ain't as though any steps were taken to cover them.”
“That's right,” Clint said as he stepped out from where he'd been hiding. “I haven't covered them. If I did, I would have surely lost the three of you a long time ago.”
All three of the other men whipped around to get a look at Clint. By the time they spotted him among the rocks and trees he'd been using as a hiding spot, it was already too late. Clint had his pistol in hand and aimed in their direction.