Read Ball and Chain Online

Authors: J. R. Roberts

Ball and Chain (6 page)

“Actually, I could use some towels,” he told her.
“Is that all?” she asked.
“Yeah, it's all,” muttered the burly man who ran the bathhouse. Glaring at Clint, he added, “She is only sixteen, after all.”
Clint held up his hands. “I only asked for towels.”
“Sixteen's old enough, Uncle Jake!” the girl whined. “Sylvia got herself married at sixteen.”
“That's Sylvia, not you. Go on and git!” Once the girl had huffed away, the burly man set his sights once more upon Clint. “Someone's been askin' for you.”
Clint sat up and immediately looked toward his holster, which hung from the back of a nearby chair. “Who's been asking for me?”
“I don't know. Some fella says he wants to have a word with you.”
“Just one?”
“I ain't no messenger!”
“What did you tell them?” Clint asked.
The burly man sighed and turned around to look. Judging by the aggravation on his face, it was hard to tell whether he was looking at Clint or the girl who was still complaining loud enough to be heard from another room. “Hell, it may not even be you they was after. You already paid for the bath, so you can see yerself out.”
Before Clint could ask any more questions, the burly man had turned and walked away. Clint hopped out of the tub and reached for his clothes. Just as he got ahold of his shirt, he caught the young girl peeking at him from behind the canvas flap separating his room from the others.
“You . . . wanted some towels?” she asked as she did a poor job of keeping her eyes above Clint's waist.
“Damn it, Sylvia!” Uncle Jake bellowed.
The girl made a face and threw the towels she'd been holding at Clint before stomping away.
Clint dried off, got dressed, and buckled on his holster. Rather than go straight out through the door that led to the street, Clint looked at Uncle Jake and asked, “Is there a side door out of here?”
“Right behind me,” he said while hooking a thumb over his shoulder. “Be quick about it.”
It seemed that just leaving the bathhouse was enough for the burly man, since no more questions were asked. Clint left by the side door and immediately had to step over a puddle that was almost deep enough to drown a grown man. The building next to the bathhouse was more of a tent supported by a wooden frame, which meant the puddle leaked well under that place as well. For Clint, that meant there were plenty of other feet splashing around in that spilt bathwater to cover the sound of his own as he hurried toward the street.
Clint kept his hand upon the grip of his Colt and his eyes peeled for any familiar faces. Before he could think twice about being so suspicious, Clint spotted just what he'd been concerned about: two men riding down the street leading a third, riderless horse behind them. One of the riders was bigger than the other, but Clint wasn't able to get a close look at either of their faces before they moved along.
Clint leaned out and eventually stepped from between the buildings, then let out a breath. When he felt a hand slap against his shoulder, he spun around and drew his Colt in one swift motion.
Pete's mouth gaped open more than usual. He shook his head and started to back up in a frantic effort to get away from Clint's gun. As soon as he saw who'd gotten so close, Clint lowered the Colt and dropped it back into its holster.
“Jesus, Pete, you shouldn't sneak up on someone like that.”
“I asked if you was in there and Jake said yes,” the simple young man replied. “I didn't mean to put a fright into you.”
“Don't worry about it. So you were the one asking about me?”
“Uh huh.”
After waiting a few seconds in silence, Clint asked, “So what did you want?”
“Oh. Hank wanted to invite you to supper.”
“Actually, tomorrow would be better,” Clint replied. “Can you tell him that?”
Pete stared at Clint as if he'd just been asked to stand on his head and twirl. “He says supper is at six o'clock.”
“What about tomorrow?”
“Six o'clock is tonight.”
Realizing the conversation wasn't going to go much further than that, Clint nodded and patted Pete on the shoulder. When the younger man flinched at that simple movement, Clint felt even worse for drawing his gun on the boy in the first place. “All right. Where do I go at six o'clock?”
His face brightening at the more familiar question, Pete pointed toward the end of town farthest from the creek. “Hank lives in a blue house straight down that way.”
“The blue one, huh?”
“That's right.”
“Sounds good to me. I'll be there at six.”
“I'll go tell Hank,” Pete said eagerly. “Oh, do you want ham or cobbler?”
Clint squinted as he tried to make sense of what that question truly meant. His first instinct was to say, “Both sound fine.”
“Good, 'cause that's what Ellie's cooking.” With that, Pete threw Clint a cheerful wave and took off running down the street.
It had been Clint's intention to put Hinterland behind him as quickly as possible. He had business in Beaver Falls that he was much more eager to conduct than delivering some bunch of pressed flowers. It wasn't even the money that kept him in town. If he hadn't gone through so much trouble already, Clint would have left instructions for Bernadette to deliver the frame when she was done and he could wash his hands of the whole thing.
But Clint had gone through some trouble to get this far. He'd ridden out of his way, had made it all the way to Hinterland, and had even been shot at in the process. In his mind, leaving without tying up such an easy job would have made these last few days one big waste of time. Clint didn't like wasting time. He knew all too well that no man could afford to waste such a valuable commodity.
Now that it seemed he needed another few days to finish this job properly, he figured he should send word to Beaver Falls that he was going to be late. Hinterland wasn't a very big place, but there were some wires leading into one of the buildings at the edge of town. Clint followed the wires past a clean looking stable and to a large shed marked by a sign that read, WIRE SERVICE.
The man who worked the telegraph was large in every respect. He had large arms connected to large shoulders. A large chest puffed out over a large belly. Even his head was large, which worked out well because the smile he wore needed plenty of room.
Holding up the form Clint had filled out, the telegraph operator said, “Clint Adams, huh?”
“That's right. How long before that arrives in Beaver Falls?”
The operator consulted a sheet of paper tacked to a board beside his apparatus and replied, “Beaver Falls don't have a wire of their own, but there's one in the next town over. I go there quite a bit, so I know it shouldn't take more than an extra day. Could be less if someone's already headed in that direction.”
“All right. Would you send this for me?” Clint waited for a few seconds, but wondered if he'd forgotten something when the operator didn't say anything back to him. “If I need to pay first, I can do that.”
“Oh, it ain't that. Do you know who you are?”
Clint felt a knot form in his stomach at the prospect of someone calling him out for being the Gunsmith. The telegraph operator didn't look like a fighting man, but that didn't mean he hadn't heard some wild rumors or known someone who had crossed Clint's path and not lived to see the next morning. As the muscles in his gun arm tensed for a quick draw, Clint said, “I know who I am. What of it?”
“You're the Gunsmith, ain't you?”
The operator paused for another second, which was just enough time for Clint to see if he was heeled or not. As far as Clint could tell, the only thing the operator brandished was a pencil and paper.
“You remember a fella by the name of Zeke Brockman?” the operator asked.
“Can't say as I do.”
“Zeke drives shipments for Wells Fargo. Mostly rides the trail between Omaha and Dodge City. He was damn near killed in a shooting a year or so back when some bunch of wild, gunslinging assholes tried to rob his shipment. You and one sheriff's deputy rode in to clean those assholes out. Saved Zeke's life in the process.”
The knot in Clint's stomach loosened. Although he didn't recall Zeke by name, he sure recalled trading shots with those robbers. “There was a whole posse after those men when I signed on. Me and that deputy were all that was left by the time we caught up with those desperadoes.”
“Well, that's all that was needed. I gotta take your fee to send this message on account of this ain't my business. But ol' Zeke would string me up if I didn't buy you a drink.”
“Oh, no need for that,” Clint protested.
“Hogwash! I'm closing up shop right now and I intend on heading down to the Howlin' Moon for a drink. I sure as hell don't intend on drinkin' alone. Not when the one and only Clint Adams is in town. At least let me treat you to some whiskey as a way to say thanks. Zeke may be a pain in the ass, but he's family and you kept him alive.”
“The thing is, I'm not partial to whiskey.” When he saw the good-natured scowl on the operator's face, Clint added, “But a beer or two might just do the trick.”
“A beer or two it is!” the operator said as he slapped Clint on the shoulder. “Let me get this message sent and we'll tip a few mugs!”
If the operator hadn't been so good at his job, Clint might have been able to get out of there before he was done. As it turned out, the big man's fingers flew and the message was quickly tapped out. From there, the operator draped a hand over Clint's shoulder and practically shoved him outside so he could lock up the office.
The operator didn't lose one bit of his enthusiasm on the way to the saloon. When he pushed open the batwing doors, he announced, “This here's my friend, Clint Adams! He's a damn hero and I wanna buy him a drink!”
Clint wasn't about to refuse an offer like that.
The Howling Moon Saloon was a run-down place with a sagging roof. Because of that, there were more posts propping the ceiling up than columns in front of a Greek temple. Between the small round tables, rickety chairs, and thick wooden posts running from floor to ceiling, there was barely enough room to walk. A few of the drunks in the place raised their glasses to the telegraph operator's announcement, but not everyone in the saloon was in such a festive mood.
Acklund was already leaning to his left on account of the deep gouge that Clint's bullet had ripped through his right hip. The wound looked messy, but had mainly passed through meat without doing any serious damage. Wincing as he was forced to lean toward his left to get a look around the post directly in front of him, Acklund scowled and swore under his breath.
“What's the matter?” Mose asked from the other side of Acklund's table.
When he saw Mose start to turn around to look toward the bar, Acklund growled, “Sit still. That son of a bitch that killed Dave just walked in.”
That got Mose twisting around even faster. “Where? I wanna—” Even though he easily had fifty pounds on Acklund, Mose was stopped cold by a quick backhand from the other man.
“Keep still before he sees us.”
“Who cares if he sees us? Ain't we here to kill the bastard?”
“Not when he's surrounded by half a dozen of his friends,” Acklund said. “We ain't about to make a stupid mistake like the one that got Dave killed.”
“Dave may have been stupid, but he was our brother,” Mose pointed out “I want to get a look at this asshole's face to make sure we came to the right spot.”
“It's him, all right. Didn't you hear that fat man shouting his name?”
“I never caught the name.”
“It's Clint Adams,” Acklund snarled as though the last two words were vulgarities. “That's the man that the barber hired to carry that package and that's the one that killed Dave. I'm looking at him right now.”
Mose gripped the table with both hands. His knuckles whitened as if he intended on breaking the table apart, but he refrained from turning toward the bar again. “When are we gonna go after him? After he sets foot outside this place?”
“We need to be sure before we do a damn thing,” Acklund said. “He nearly killed the three of us when he was alone.”
“So we just let him get away with killin' Dave?”
As Mose started to raise his voice, Acklund bared his teeth like one wolf putting another member of its pack into its place. Mose quieted down, but didn't look happy about it.
“We didn't come into this saloon looking for a fight,” Acklund explained. “My hip's still bleeding and you've had too much to drink.”
“I can hold my liquor, goddammit,” Mose slurred.
“We want to kill that murderer, not give him a free shot at one or both of us. We can take him out whenever we like. We got the upper hand.”
“How do you figure?”
“He doesn't know we're here.”
Mose furrowed his brow and shifted toward the bar. He caught himself before being reprimanded and lowered his head once more. “He's right there. We can take him.”
“All he needs is one man to get him to look our way before we get there. Hell, that barkeep's been watching us since we got here and they know we're heeled. If we play this right, we can wait for the perfect spot and pick him off whenever we please.”
“We may not get a better chance than this,” Mose growled.

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