“I'll be damned,” Dave said through a crooked grin. “Mose did get it right.”
“State your business or be on your way,” Clint said. “Whichever you choose, you won't be following me beyond this spot.”
Acklund kept his hand on his holstered pistol, but didn't seem rattled enough to skin it just yet. On the contrary, his eyes were clear and focused upon Clint as he said, “We don't intend on killing you, mister.”
“I suppose you just came by to say howdy?” Clint scoffed. “Well, howdy. You can go now.”
Dave's crooked smile grew a little larger and a little more crooked. When he looked back and forth between the other two men, he didn't find anything that was much to his liking. Acklund shook his head at him, but Dave chose to ignore that subtle warning. “Where is it, mister?” Dave asked.
Clint watched the youngest of the three men, but wasn't about to let the other two out of his sight. “Where is what?”
“You know what we're talkin' about!”
“Why don't you tell me?”
“The thing you're carrying for Ned! Where is it?”
Even though Clint heard those words, he couldn't quite believe them. Fortunately, his confusion must have shown on his face.
“We know you're carrying that package for Ned,” Acklund declared. “Just hand it over and we'll be on our way.”
“Do you even know what it is?” Clint asked.
“We know it's worth a lot of money and that's enough for us.”
“How much money?”
Silence fell between all three of the men in front of Clint. Mose looked cautious. Acklund seemed to be measuring Clint, but Dave was losing his patience.
“It was enough to get that barber worked up,” Dave growled. “It was enough for him to hide what he was doing and offer good money to hire a man to ride it into Oregon, so that means it's worth enough for him to pay out the ass to keep it safe. You can either hand over that goddamn package or enough money to make it worth our while to let you go. On second thought,” he added as he bared a few more of his yellowed teeth, “you can do both and be real damn quick about it.”
“Or,” Clint said, “I could do neither.”
“What's all of this to you anyway?” Acklund asked. “Are you a friend of that barber?”
“Who I am doesn't matter. What matters is that I let you catch up to me so I could give you a chance to think about what you're doing.”
“You let us catch up to you, huh?” Dave chuckled. He looked over to Mose, who was still standing over the tracks he'd been following. The biggest of the three shrugged as if he were about to agree with what had just been said.
“I gave you boys every chance in the world to turn back and let me go about my business,” Clint continued. “Since you came this far, it's plain to see that you don't intend on being so smart. You found me. Well done. Now go home while you still can.”
Dave continued to glance around at all the other men. The more time passed without anyone saying anything else, the more he kept looking around for something. Soon, his head seemed to be attached to a spring and he looked ready to jump out of his own skin. “I'm sick of this talk! You're outgunned, asshole! Hand over the package!”
Shaking his head slightly, Clint replied, “It's not worth all this fuss, boy. If you knew what it was, you wouldn't be so anxious to get it.”
“I don't care what it is! Justâ”
Before Dave could finish his sentence, Acklund cut him off by saying, “I do. Show us what it is, mister.”
Clint nodded and backed toward Eclipse. He even started to smirk as he imagined the looks on the three men's faces when they got a look at Ned's pretty flower picture. He made it to just within arm's reach of the Darley Arabian before a sudden movement caught his eye.
“To hell with that,” Dave snapped as he brought his arm up to sight along the top of his gun barrel.
Clint knew what the kid was going to do just by listening to the tone in Dave's voice. Watching Dave bring up his gun was just frosting on the cake. Even though he'd lowered his own gun to try to defuse the situation, Clint was able to correct his mistake in a fraction of a second. He kept the modified Colt down where it was and fired from the hip. Dave was close enough that a blind man would have been hard-pressed to miss.
The Colt barked once and bucked against Clint's palm. Rather than put the kid down with that single bullet, Clint placed his shot in a spot that was meant to keep Dave from doing any damage in return. When the lead punched through the upper portion of Dave's chest, it hit him with enough force to spin him to the side and snap his arm out like a whip.
Dave was still able to pull his trigger, but his shot ripped into the tops of the surrounding trees. His eyes were still fixed upon Clint, but were wide with pain and surprise.
Both of the shots happened within the blink of an eye. After they'd gone off like a pair of firecrackers, Acklund and Mose came to Dave's aid. Unfortunately for Dave, he'd ridden forward just enough to put his own horse in the line of fire of the two other men.
Mose pulled an old .44 from his belt and jumped to one side so he could get a look around Dave's horse.
Acklund was still in his saddle, so he had a better vantage point. He waited before pulling the trigger of his .38 Smith and Wesson until he had a clear line on his target. Since Clint wasn't about to step in the open for him, Acklund fired a shot anyway.
The bullet tore through the clearing that Clint had used for his camp. The angry hiss of the round was quickly followed by the screech of lead bouncing against stone and a short shower of sparks. Clint hopped around the tombstone-sized boulder and dropped down so he could put as much of himself as possible behind the rock.
“Kill that son of a bitch!” Dave hollered.
“You go around that way, Mose,” Acklund said.
Even though Clint couldn't see where Acklund was pointing, he knew that the men weren't about to leave him an easy way out. The men intended on flanking him and there was no way Clint was going to sit still long enough for them to do it. He leaned around the rock and was able to pick out Dave right away. The other two were closing in, but Dave's horse was blocking them from him just as well as it had blocked him from them.
“I see it!” Dave yelled. “I see the bastard's horse!”
Acklund poked his head up and glared as if he meant to shoot Dave himself. “Just get back here before it gets any worse!”
“It's gotta be with that horse. Even if it ain't, it's a fine horse. Hell, I bet it's worth more than whatever that barber's tryin' to hide.”
Clint wasn't about to give anyone a clear shot at him, so he remained with his back pressed against the rock. He didn't have to wait long before Dave came stomping straight toward him. As soon as he saw someone step around the rock, Clint swung his arm out to pound the top side of his Colt against the man's shin.
Dave let out another pained yelp, but didn't stop moving. In fact, he staggered another few steps forward until his momentum carried him even closer to where Eclipse was tethered.
Now that he was in arm's reach of the younger man, Clint could see the blood soaking through Dave's shirt where he'd been shot. Something else moved directly behind Clint, so he got his feet under him and abandoned the cover of his rock. Before Clint could turn around, he felt a thick hand drop onto his shoulder.
Mose had a strong grip, but wasn't able to sink it in before Clint twisted out of it and followed through with an elbow to the gut. Letting out a surprised grunt, Mose doubled over and sucked in a breath. He quickly straightened up and showed Clint the angry fire in his eyes. Clint swung his Colt around once more to slam it into Mose's face.
In the meeting between iron and bone, there was no question which would come out ahead. Mose's head snapped back and the fire in his eyes dimmed before his back hit the ground.
“I got it!” Dave hollered as he jumped off his mount to go after Eclipse. “Drop this asshole and I'll meet you back home with the horse and the barber's money!”
Clint swore under his breath when he caught a glimpse of where those words had come from. Somehow, Dave had gotten to Eclipse and was yanking the reins free from where they'd been tied. The young man might not have been in the best condition, but his wounds weren't bad enough to keep him from placing a foot in Eclipse's stirrup and hauling himself up to the saddle.
A horse came around the other side of the rock and Acklund fired a quick shot at Clint. The shot hissed within a few feet of Clint and gave him some extra incentive to keep moving forward. The moment Clint saw Eclipse start to rear up and fight off Dave's efforts to mount him, he shifted his attention toward Acklund.
Rather than take the time to aim, Clint raised the Colt as though he was pointing his finger. He squeezed his trigger twice and knew at least one of those shots was a hit. Acklund cursed and wobbled in his saddle as his horse let out a frightened whinny and bolted away from the gunfire.
With Acklund struggling with his horse and Mose just starting to come to his senses, Clint looked back at Dave. Eclipse had managed to pull his own reins free and was up on his hind legs with both front legs churning furiously in the air. Dave had one foot in the stirrups and was trying to swing his other leg over Eclipse's back when the stallion decided to throw him off. Eclipse had the size advantage, so he was able to toss Dave aside without much effort.
Clint rushed toward Eclipse with the intent of calming the stallion down and picking Dave up once he landed. The only problem with that plan was that Dave wasn't about to land anytime soon. Dave's foot had gotten snared within the stirrup and only locked in tighter after he'd lost his grip on the saddle horn and fallen off the side.
Dave's shoulders bumped against the ground and his arms flailed wildly as he dangled from the stirrup. A good portion of his upper body also hit the dirt, but his instinct to pull his head up saved him from breaking his neck. Even with that bit of luck on his side, Dave wasn't in the mood to celebrate.
“Goddamn horse!” Dave snarled as he tried to reach up for the foot that was wedged inside the stirrup. “I'll get you to sit still!” With that, Dave propped himself up as best he could with one arm against the ground. Eclipse's front hooves pounded against the dirt and were on their way up again when Dave swung his other arm around to aim his pistol at the Darley Arabian's head.
Clint reacted out of pure instinct. Although he'd wanted to try to get Dave away from Eclipse, he wasn't about to watch the asshole shoot his horse before he could get the job done. Standing just outside of arm's reach, Clint aimed and fired in the blink of an eye.
Dave's hand snapped to one side as Clint's bullet sparked against his gun. He twisted around either to look at the source of the gunshot or to get away from it. Whichever Dave had intended, his movement only curled his body in just the right way to make certain his right temple hit a partially buried rock when Eclipse dropped him down again. Dave's neck snapped loud enough for Clint to hear it, and then his entire body went limp to hang from the stirrup like a broken toy.
“Shit,” Clint snarled as he reached out for Eclipse's reins.
Eclipse calmed down the moment he saw Clint instead of a stranger trying to take hold of him. Once the stallion had come to a stop, Clint kicked at Dave's foot until it fell away from the stirrup.
From the moment Clint heard the men were after Ned's mysterious, valuable parcel, Clint knew the matter would blow over once the riders saw what the parcel actually was. Even after the shooting had started, Clint hoped to frighten the men away with a minimum of spilled blood. Now that one of the men was dead, the chance for an easy resolution was gone. Clint wasn't about to take time to grieve the loss of a man who'd tried to shoot him, so he climbed into his saddle and looked around for the other two gunmen.
Mose was dragging himself to his feet and just taking notice of Dave's crumpled body. Since Acklund was riding back to the camp, Clint fired a few quick shots at him to spook his horse some more. The animal was still skittish and waggled its head nervously as the bullets whipped past its nose. From there, Acklund had his hands full all over again trying to rein his horse in.
“Leave well enough alone,” Clint said in a voice loud enough to be heard by anyone in the vicinity. “You made a mistake in coming after me once. Don't make that mistake again.”
With his warning still drifting through the air, Clint left Acklund and Mose behind. Their kind of stupidity was its own punishment.
The town of Hinterland was nestled in a bed of trees and partially surrounded by Knee Bend Creek. The creek flowed along the town's northern side and then hooked south to form Hinterland's eastern border. Sticking to the directions he'd been given, Clint found Knee Bend Creek early that morning and followed it all the way into town. It was a beautiful ride that also made it easy to evade anyone else who might get the idea to track him. Eclipse seemed to have forgotten the run-in with the three riders as soon as his hooves splashed in the creek's cool waters.
Knee Bend Creek led Clint straight to a mill that had a tall, narrow wheel turning within the quickly moving waters. An equally tall and narrow young man tended to the wheel and looked up at Clint as if Eclipse had suddenly been spit up by the creek itself.
“Good afternoon to you,” Clint said with a tip of his hat. “Is Hank Mason about?”
“Hank?” the young man asked.
“That's right.” When he saw only a dumbfounded expression spread across the young man's face, Clint added, “I was told he works at this mill.”