“We weren't even expecting to find him yet. We just came here for a drink before picking up his tracks again, remember?”
Reluctantly, Mose nodded.
“Then keep your head down and your mouth shut. If we catch his eye too soon, we'll have to fight him and God knows how many of his friends. We'll get our chance and when we do, we'll see to it that son of a bitch gets what he's got comin' for killing our little brother.”
Mose smiled. It wasn't a pretty sight.
All things considered, Clint was lucky to have run into the telegraph operator when he did. The big fellow may have been a little loud, but he was friendly and true to his word. He ordered several beers for both of them over the next hour or so and refused to let Clint pay for a single one. Just when Clint was beginning to feel the effect of the beer, the telegraph operator needed to lean on the bar to keep from falling over.
“I think you've had enough, Ben,” the barkeep said.
The big man slapped the bar and replied, “The hell I have. Did I mention that this man hereâ”
“You mentioned it, once or twice by now,” Clint said before Ben could go off into another round of his stories. Even though the tales were overblown in Clint's favor, there was only so much he could take. Judging by the grateful looks on the faces around him, Clint wasn't the only one who'd tired of those somewhat exaggerated accounts.
“Yeah, well I jus' wanted to thank you on behalf of my uncle.”
“I thought Zeke was your cousin.”
“He is,” Ben replied. “What did I say he was?”
“Why don't you tell him all about it?” Clint said as he nodded toward the barkeep. “I've got an appointment for dinner.”
The barkeep's eyes widened and he started to shake his head as Ben leaned in his direction. As soon as the big telegraph operator's bloodshot eyes were trained on him, the barkeep put on a well-practiced smile and said, “You mentioned Zeke plenty of times, Ben. I'm sure Clint won't just leave you here.”
Clint chuckled at the beleaguered expression etched onto the barkeep's face. “Actually, I was going to do just that. I think the big fellow will be safe enough where he is.”
“Sure,” the barkeep grumbled.
“All right, then.” Digging out some money and handing it over to the barkeep, he added, “This is for the next few cups of coffee along with your patience.”
The barkeep took the money and tucked it into his shirt pocket with a smile. “I've seen Ben off before. I can do it again.”
“Where the hell you going, Adams?” Ben roared. “I wanna hear all about what happened when you gunned down them robbers.”
“I already told you about it. Twice, in fact. I've got to go.”
“Where you going?”
“I'm having supper at . . .” Clint had to stop for a second to fight through the bit of haze in his head. The beer was just potent enough to make him pause before remembering the name he was after. “Hank Mason's place. I've got some business with him, and his daughter is supposed to cook supper.”
“Ellie Mason, eh?” Ben chuckled. A lewd grin spread across his face as he looked at the other men surrounding him. A few of them merely nodded, but the drunker of the bunch looked just as lecherous as Ben. “I'll want to hear all about it when you come back.”
Knowing that Ben was attempting to make a crude joke, Clint slapped him on the shoulder as if the comment had served its purpose. “I will, Ben. Thanks for the drinks.”
In the short time he'd been in the saloon, Clint had also managed to swap a few stories with some of the other locals inside the place. He said his good-byes to them and promised to stop by real soon. As he turned toward the door, his eye was caught by a pair of men sitting behind several posts at one of the back tables. Before Clint could get a better look at the men, he was spun back around to face the bar.
“Where you goin'?” Ben grunted. “You need to tell me all aboutâ”
“I will,” Clint interrupted as he bolted for the door. Even though he made it outside the Howling Moon, Clint could still hear Ben's voice bellowing from within the saloon. He quickened his steps before the big man charged outside to lasso him back to the bar.
Clint took a few steps down the street and stopped. The sun was on its way down, but the growing shadows weren't what threw him off his mark. He'd only been in town for a matter of hours and had barely walked down two streets in that time. He took a quick look over his shoulder to make sure he was headed in the right direction to get to Hank's house.
When Clint turned, he spotted a man stepping out of the Howling Moon. He couldn't make out the man's face, though, and when the man turned around and went back inside, Clint followed suit by going about his own business.
Foremost in his thoughts was the hope that Hank's daughter was a good cook.
The sun dipped below the horizon and several of the windows in Hinterland started to flicker with the warm glow of candles or lanterns behind them. The wind blew in from the west, carrying a cold chill along with them that cut like a blade as they blew to the east. There wasn't much of a moon showing that night, which made it easier for Acklund and Mose to creep up to the large blue house on the edge of town.
Stopping on the edge of the light being thrown onto the ground from one of the side windows, Acklund hunkered down and waved for Mose to do the same. Mose was a lot bigger than his brother, but he crouched down as much as his long legs would allow.
“Stay here and keep watch,” Acklund whispered. “If anyone comes toward us, just whistle.”
Mose nodded and moved away from the house so he could stand against a tree. In the darkness, he looked like just another bulky shadow.
Acklund kept so low that he was almost crawling when he approached the house. The window he crouched beneath was rectangular and stretched lengthwise along a good portion of the side wall. He removed his hat, pressed his other hand against the wall, and then slowly lifted his head until he could peek through the bottom of the window.
Just then, someone's voice came from the house.
“You sure you don't want anything stronger than that?” it asked.
Acklund's hand flinched toward the gun at his side, but he stopped short before drawing it. Once that initial reflex had passed, he noticed that the window in front of him was partially open and the voice he'd heard wasn't directed at him. Just to be safe, he froze in his spot and listened as intently as he could.
“Water is just fine,” another voice replied. Acklund recognized this one as Clint's, since he'd spent a good while listening to Clint back at the Howling Moon.
“Suit yourself,” the first voice said in a gruffer tone. “I always like some whiskey to go along with my supper.”
There was some further banter, but Acklund was more concerned with the clomping of boots moving away from the window. Once the steps had faded enough, Acklund eased himself upward again so he could take a look inside.
As soon as he was able to see over the windowsill, he caught a whiff of burnt corn bread and boiled beef. The food may not have been perfect, but after so many days of eating beans and jerked venison, it smelled good enough to get his stomach rumbling. He might have been thinking a bit too much about food, since Acklund didn't hear the lighter set of footsteps until the woman making them crossed in front of the window.
When the woman appeared in front of him, Acklund dropped to one knee and pressed himself against the side of the house. Even though he couldn't see the woman directly above him, he was close enough to feel the heat from her body as she pulled the window all the way open and leaned forward a little.
Acklund moved his fingers around his pistol so slowly that he could feel every joint creak within his hand. When the gun brushed against the holster and made the subtle sound of iron brushing against leather, he gritted his teeth and prepared for the worst.
Hank sat in his chair and let out an impatient sigh. “Ellie.” He grunted. When he didn't get a reply, he rolled his eyes and turned to look halfway over his shoulder. “Ellie, what in the devil are you doin'? The spuds are probably cold by now!”
“I thought I heard something, Daddy,” she replied from the kitchen.
Shaking his head, Hank ripped the napkin from where it had been dangling from his collar and slapped it onto the table. He then got up and stormed to the kitchen as if he were trying to stomp out a fire. “What the hell are you talking about now? If you made me get up for another rodent scraping at the wall, I swear . . .”
“Never mind!” Ellie said. “It's probably nothing.” Hank remained in his spot, half standing and half crouching over his chair. When he didn't hear anything else after that, he lowered himself back down again. Looking over to Clint, he explained, “She gets like this sometimes. Her Ma used to be fidgety, too.”
“It's quite all right,” Clint said. “Everyone's ears plays tricks on them sometimes.”
Ellie emerged from the kitchen holding a large platter in both hands. “Thank you very much, Mr. Adams,” she said. “It's nice to know I'm not crazy.”
Clint stood up and smiled when Ellie entered the room. She was average height for a woman and had long hair that was pulled back and tied behind her head. For most of the time, her hair looked to be a dark shade of brown. When she turned her head just the right way and the light hit her at just the right angle, there seemed to be shades of red mixed in among the soft, flowing strands. At those times, Ellie looked more like a portrait that had come to life than just a simple miller's daughter.
“Since Mr. Adams is the polite one here,” she said, “he can have the first helping.”
Hank let out a grunt and muttered, “If this is anything like the last few meals you cooked, he's welcome to it.”
Although her expression barely showed it, Ellie was obviously stung by that remark.
“It looks and smells wonderful,” Clint said. “I'd be honored.” He was laying it on a bit thick, but Ellie didn't seem to mind. She smiled warmly right back at him and set the platter down so it was closer to his spot at the table.
“Thank you, Mr. Adams,” she said.
“Do me a favor. Call me Clint.”
She didn't seem to mind that, either.
The beef had been boiled a bit too long and without quite enough spices, but it filled Clint's stomach well enough. The potatoes had been mashed a bit too much and the cornbread was definitely burnt, but Clint ate his helpings without any trouble. He'd had a lot worse and the company was good enough to make up for the rest. At least, Ellie's company was good.
“So where's this damn painting or whatever it is?” Hank grunted through a mouthful of beef.
“It's not a painting,” Ellie said. “It's more of a sculpture. Actually, it's like a little piece of nature all framed andâ”
“It's an overpriced bunch of flowers glued to some paper,” Hank cut in. “At least it'll be worth something, right?”
Rather than look at her father, Ellie kept her eyes fixed upon Clint. Her slight wince at his words may not have distracted Hank from his supper, but it would have been more than enough to tip any cardplayer off that whatever she said next was going to be a lie. “Sure,” she said. “Most works of art are valuable.”
Before Hank could say anything to that, Clint added, “And they usually gain value as time goes on.”
“Really?” Hank asked as he looked over at Clint with renewed interest.
Clint had put his two cents in as a way to take some of the heat from Ellie. Now that Hank actually seemed interested, Clint felt as if he'd painted himself into an awfully tight corner. “Yes. Once that artist gets known for, uhh, what he does . . . his works become . . . rare.”
It wasn't the best choice of words, but they did the trick. It helped that Hank was only halfway listening in the first place, so hearing enough terms thrown his way got him nodding and shifting his focus back onto his plate.
“I suppose,” he grunted. “Just don't expect me to buy any more of the damn things.”
“I won't, Pa,” Ellie said. “This will be just fine.”
“How do you know that?” Hank asked as he shifted his critical eye toward Clint. “You ain't even seen it yet. Why didn't you bring it along with you, again?”
“It's like I said when I first got here,” Clint explained. “There were a few things to touch up. After all, you wouldn't want me to hand it over before it looks its best would you?”
“No,” Hank grumbled. “I suppose not.”
“There you go, then. It should be all fixed up in a day or so.”
Hank's head snapped up. “Fixed up? Was it broke?”
“No. It's just . . .”
“I know what you mean, Clint,” Ellie said. “I don't mind waiting, Pa. That's the way these things are done.”
Suddenly, Hank waved at them both as if he'd been surrounded by horseflies. “Fine! Good! I'm just sick of talking about the damn thing. I wanted you to come over so I could get the rest of that money to you, but I don't feel right payin' when I don't have the . . . whatever the hell it is . . . in my hands.”
“I understand,” Clint said with a solemn nod.
“Good. I expect to have it in another day or so, just like you said. Otherwise, I might be inclined to ask for a discount on the price. After all,” Hank said, “this whole damn thing took too long anyways.”
That last statement from Clint took some of the wind from Hank's sails. He looked across the table, trying to get himself as riled up as he'd been moments ago. Unable to do so, Hank let out a disgruntled breath and pushed away from the table. “I'm gonna step outside for a smoke.”