Read Ball and Chain Online

Authors: J. R. Roberts

Ball and Chain (5 page)

The young man blinked and looked up and down the creek as if for traces of any more horsemen coming from that direction. Before Clint could try to break the uncomfortable silence, the young man opened his mouth and bellowed, “Hank!”
Clint fully intended on tipping his hat again and leaving the young man to shout all he wanted. Before he could move along, Clint saw another man step outside through a doorway that barely seemed wide enough to accommodate him.
The second man was old enough to be the younger one's father. He wasn't exactly fat, but the mill was narrow enough to make anyone look that way in comparison. He wore plain brown coveralls over a slight pot belly. As he rushed through the door, he took the floppy hat from his head and used it to swat the younger man in the back of the head.
“No need to shout, boy! I'm right here.” The man in the coveralls then shifted his eyes toward Clint and put on a wide smile. “Sorry about that, mister. Pete's simple, but he didn't mean to be rude.”
“He wasn't rude,” Clint replied. “Just loud.”
“Well, he's simple and loud then.”
“This fella was askin' for you,” Pete said with a grunt.
Adjusting his floppy hat so it sat toward the back of his head, the older man asked, “You wanted to see me?”
“Only if you're Hank Mason,” Clint said.
“I am.”
“Then I was asking about you. I've brought you something from Ned Smith.” Seeing the puzzled expression take root on the older man's face, Clint added, “He's the barber with the—”
Suddenly, Hank's eyes lit up and he clapped his hands loudly enough to make Pete jump. “Oh, right! Ned! That barber who does them prissy little flower things!”
Clint wasn't quick enough to keep the smirk from showing on his face, so he turned his head as he swung down from his saddle. “That's right,” he said. “I've got the picture he made for you.”
Pete grinned from ear to ear while laughing in a way that shook both of his shoulders. “Huh. You like flower pictures, Hank?”
“It's not for me,” the older man quickly pointed out. “It's for my daughter. She saw one of them when we were riding back from making those deliveries last month. You remember, Pete?
“Eh, of course you don't. Anyway, my Ellie saw that picture in that barbershop and she had to have it. The barber wouldn't part with it, so he offered to make one special for her. Demanded a hell of a fee for it, but my Ellie had to have it. I was sitting on a good sum after making my deliveries, so I gave in and plunked half of it down right then and there. Tell you the truth, I figured I was swindled and wouldn't hear about the matter again.”
Clint had only been half listening to Hank's speech. Rather than ask for fascinating details about deliveries and spoiled daughters, Clint loosened the knots that held the parcel to Eclipse's saddle. As he pulled at the ropes, Clint recalled Dave's attempts to climb into the saddle as well as Eclipse's attempts to throw Dave off. Despite all of that jostling, the package seemed to be in fairly good condition.
“That's it?” Hank asked.
Clint nodded as he held it out. “It sure is. If you've got the second half of the payment, I can hand it over now.”
“I suppose I should take a look at it first. You mind?”
“Be my guest.”
Hank grumbled under his breath as he fussed with the layers of paper surrounding the package like a cocoon. He reached his limit when he finally got through one layer of wrapping to find another one beneath it. “Damn it all!” Hank groused as he reached into his pocket for a small knife. The blade made things a lot easier and soon, Hank was holding the precious artwork in both hands.
Stretching his arms so he could take in the piece, Hank looked it up and down. “This is it?”
Clint stepped over to stand beside the older man so he could get a look for himself. There was a carved wooden frame around a pair of thick pieces of glass. In between the glass was a picture of a serene field in light colors. There were bits of flowers ranging from petals and stems attached to the picture in a way to make the whole thing look more like a sculpture. At least, most of the flower pieces were attached. As Hank rotated the frame, smaller bits rattled around between the glass.
“Which end is up?” Hank muttered.
Pete kept chuckling through his gaping mouth.
“Is that stuff supposed to be loose in there?”
Since the picture still looked good despite the stray seeds and things that had been knocked around along the way, Clint nodded and said, “I think it's supposed to be like that. Kind of looks like the ground when you hold it that way.”
“Yeah, I suppose it does. We'll see what Ellie thinks about it.”
“Do you have the other half of the payment?”
“I don't keep that money here at the mill,” Hank replied as he handed the framed panes of glass back to Clint. “Bring this by tonight and I'll see about it then.”
“I could just come back tomorrow.”
“Nah, you might as well come to my house. Like I says, I need to see what Ellie thinks. If it was up to me, I'd just be rid of that thing altogether.”
“But it's real pretty,” Pete said. “It reminds me of my grandma.”
“Shut up, boy.”
It wasn't difficult for Clint to notice that Hank was having second thoughts about his purchase. In fact, the longer Clint looked at the frame and glass, the more nicks and cracks he could find that probably hadn't been there when Ned had so carefully wrapped it. Placing the frame under his arm before Hank could notice the damage, Clint said, “I probably should see to my horse before conducting any more business. Why don't I come back tomorrow and we can make arrangements from there?”
“Suit yourself. It's your money.”
Clint's money sure was in question at the moment. Although it wasn't a fortune, Clint wasn't about to ride all that way and trade shots with three idiot gunmen just to let the money fly away at the last second. He tipped his hat to Hank and asked about a good place to rent a room for the night.
Hinterland was a small town that relied upon Knee Bend Creek for most of its sustenance. As Clint rode down the largest of its four streets, he saw no shortage of stores selling tin pans and other mining supplies. There were fishing companies no larger than a back room and a pair of saloons catering to whoever stopped by to pull something from the nearby water.
There was one hotel, but it struck Clint as the sort of place that would hold more rats than people. Fortunately, Hank was of the same opinion and had steered him toward a boardinghouse on the opposite end of town. By the time he'd gotten there, Clint was looking at a trail that led straight back out to the woods.
The woman who answered the door was short and skinny as a blade of grass. Hair as black as a crow's wing hung down close to her eyes like dirty straw. When she blinked, her eyelashes brushed against the ends of her hair and got those strands wavering back and forth. “You here about a room?” she asked.
“Yes, ma'am,” Clint replied. “Are there any for rent?”
“Of course there are. This is a boardinghouse.”
“I guessed as much from the sign,” Clint said as he grinned and nodded toward a shingle hanging over the door that read, BERNADETTE'S ROOM AND BOARD.
The skinny woman looked up at the sign without responding in the slightest to the playful smile on Clint's face. Turning back to look at him, she blinked once and said, “You read it right. Rent's three dollars a night, but that includes two meals. Can you afford that?”
“Yes, ma'am.”
“Good. Come inside.”
Clint stepped inside and was immediately overwhelmed by the scent of freshly cut cedar. There was more than enough crafted furniture in the front room alone to account for that, but there were also bowls of cedar chips laying scattered on almost every tabletop as well as an immaculately kept rolltop desk.
“My last boarder smoked cigars,” the woman declared as she pushed aside one of the bowls of cedar chips. “I'm almost rid of the stench. You don't smoke cigars, do you?”
“No, ma'am.”
“Good. It's a filthy habit. How long will you be staying?”
“Only as long as I need to.” Seeing the stern scowl on the woman's face, Clint corrected himself with, “Probably two days.”
“Two days, then. Meals?”
“At least three a day.”
“Your rent only comes with two.”
Trying to get the woman to grin had become a challenge and Clint kept trying to get a little something out of her even though she seemed hell-bent on maintaining her stony facade. “What about one meal the first day and the full three the next?”
“I don't work on averages.”
“Two, then.”
“Which ones?” she asked.
“The best two of the day. Then again, since you don't believe in average, I suppose they all must be better than average.”
Despite the fact that it was an awkward joke at best, that was what finally cracked the skinny woman. When one side of her mouth twitched up for a split second, Clint felt as if he'd just won a bet.
“Let me know what you like and I can cook it for you,” she said in a bit of a softer tone. “And I hope it's better than average.”
“Sounds perfect,” Clint said.
“You need anything else?”
“Not unless you can fix a picture frame.”
“What sort of frame?”
Of all the remarks he'd been tossing about, that had been the last one Clint had expected to garner a response. Since he'd been carrying the frame with him after untying it from his saddle, all Clint had to do was point to the cumbersome hunk of wood and glass that was under his left arm. “This one.”
The skinny woman leaned forward and studied the frame for all of two seconds. Then she nodded and leaned back again. “What's wrong with it?”
“Just some cracks and nicks from being jostled too much.”
“I can fix it.”
Clint blinked and held the frame out so she could get a full took at it. “There's damage that I thought I could just—”
“Do you know how to carve designs like the ones in that frame?”
“Well . . . I could get close.”
“Less than average, though, right?”
Smirking, Clint replied, “Probably, but it'd be good enough.”
“Well, if you want it done right, I can do it.”
“How much and how long?”
The skinny woman lifted her chin so she could look down her nose at the frame. After a few shrugs and hums, she told him, “Two dollars. It shouldn't take me more than a day.”
“A day?”
“If you want it done right, I can't just—”
“No, no,” Clint interrupted. “That's a lot quicker than I thought. You could really do that for me? You can really carve that well?”
“Sure. Who do you think made all these tables and chairs?” she asked as she swept a hand around the overly furnished room. “How do you think I got all these damn cedar chips?”
Clint nodded and handed the frame to her. “Fair enough. Just be careful not to harm those flowers. It's delicate.”
“I can see that.”
“I really appreciate this . . . uh . . . are you Bernadette?”
“Of course I am,” she snapped. “Couldn't you read the sign out front?”
Bernadette was already examining the frame and whittling away some of the chipped edges by the time Clint got up to his room. The boardinghouse had four rooms upstairs and only three of them were for rent. Since there was nobody else renting at the moment, Clint was given the key to room number one.
A quick look into the other rooms made Clint wish he could switch to room number two, but he could already hear the precise little woman downstairs fretting about that one. Rather than try to come up with a good reason as to why he wanted to switch, Clint dumped his saddlebags into room number one and was done with it. There was a bed, a bureau, a washbasin, and no less than three ornate wooden stools in that room. Just being in the immaculate setting made Clint feel like a stretch of dirt road, so he walked back down the stairs to where Bernadette was working.
“Would I be able to get a bath here?” he asked.
“You can get a bath across the street. That is, if you'd rather have me working on this frame instead of boiling water.”
Rather than take the chance of accidentally upsetting Bernadette any further, Clint told her to keep working as she pleased while he went across the street. The place she'd recommended was an old building that was twice as long as it was wide. There, several tubs were tended by a young girl who carried buckets back and forth from another room.
The girl was pretty and had full lips, but fell just a little short where age was concerned. She couldn't have been far into her teens, but Clint got the sense that she may have been a little younger than that. She could have been a little older, but he didn't want to take a chance on stepping out of line. The way she lingered to watch him every time she brought another batch of hot water only made Clint's decision that much harder to keep.
Despite all his good intentions, Clint was unable to help himself when she came in the final time. She wasn't even carrying a bucket for this trip.
“Can I get you anything else, mister?” she asked. “Anything at all?”
Clint was glad for the soap suds gathering on top of the water, because parts of him were answering before his mouth had a chance to form a single word. In the end, it was the girl's smile that told him what he'd needed to know. It was a bit too wide and a bit too anxious to be on the face of a woman instead of a girl.

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