Hank's boots smacked against the floor until they carried him through the front door. Once outside, the older man punished the porch in a similar fashion.
After a few seconds, Ellie said, “You can go outside if you want. He's never as cross as he sounds.”
“No,” Clint replied. “I think I'd rather stay inside.”
“I was just going to clean up.”
“Sounds like fun.”
Now that her father was outside, Clint had a good chance to see Ellie. Hank didn't exactly overshadow her and he certainly didn't intimidate Clint. The fact of the matter was that Ellie simply chose to fade into the background when her father was in eyeshot. Now that he was away, she could relax and shine a bit.
In fact, Ellie shined quite a lot. Her features were simple, but not plain. Her skin was smooth and her hair had a feathery quality. Her little nose and high cheekbones made her even more attractive when she smiled and at the moment, she was smiling very wide indeed.
“What's the matter?” Clint asked.
The two of them stood side by side in the kitchen. Ellie washed the dishes in a large basin and Clint dried them. Handing over another of the dishes, she shrugged and said, “You're embarrassing me.”
“You're . . . looking at me.”
“Sorry. Does that make you uneasy?”
“No, no,” she quickly said. “I'm just not used to it. At least, not from a man like you.”
Clint played up his wince as he asked, “Should I take that in a good way or a bad way?”
“It's good!” Realizing she'd been a little too anxious to say that, Ellie doubled her scrubbing on the largest platter and lowered her voice when she said, “It's good, Mr. Adams.”
“Remember what I told you.”
She grinned, but quickly tried to hide it. “I remember . . . Clint.”
“That's better. So you really like Ned's work, huh?”
“Oh, yes. We were passing through there and Pa was being really difficult.”
“So you decided to gouge him a little by making him plunk down his money for flowers and leaves glued to some paper?”
Ellie's cheeks reddened and she lowered her head. Judging by her expression, she wasn't ashamed of herself so much as she was trying to hide a wicked smile. “I liked those flowers. They're very pretty, but you may be right. Maybe a little.”
“I don't see anything wrong with wanting a little something for yourself around here,” Clint told her. “I don't see anything in this house that your father probably didn't pick out. Usually, there's a bit more of a woman's touch.”
“There used to be.” As she spoke those words, Ellie's voice tapered off and her eyes drifted toward the pictures that were framed and sitting on the mantel.
Spotting the kindly face of an older woman in several of those pictures, Clint put the pieces together quickly enough. “Your mother?” he asked.
Ellie nodded. “She's been gone a long while, but Pa never got past it. I don't want to push him. I don't think I could push him even if I wanted to.”
Clint reached out to touch Ellie's arm. “It's good of you to stay with him. From what I've seen, you must have a bit of a saint in you to put up with him day in and day out.”
“It's not too bad.” Giggling under her breath, she added, “Maybe it is sometimes.”
“Well, you'll have those pretty flowers to hang up soon enough,” Clint told her as he dried off the platter and set it on the table with the other clean plates. “That should brighten things up.”
Ellie dried her hands on the apron tied around her waist. Although she seemed meek with her head lowered, there was something else entirely when she raised it again. The little girl that was brought out by her father's presence was gone. Now, she looked to be every bit the young woman that she was. When Ellie looked at Clint, she had all the hunger in her eyes that any woman in her twenties might feel.
She stepped forward and placed her hands upon Clint's face, opening her mouth a bit as she lifted her lips to his. Clint reacted out of instinct. His hands went to her waist and he accepted the kiss she was giving him. Now that her body was pressed against him, she didn't remind him of a little girl at all. She was a woman through and through.
The moment she felt Clint's lips upon her own, Ellie sifted her fingers through his hair and pulled him closer. Letting out a soft, contented moan, she parted her lips and slipped her tongue into Clint's mouth just far enough for him to get a taste of her.
Clint was taken by surprise, mostly because he'd pegged Ellie wrong. He wasn't exactly disappointed or shocked, just surprised at how this quiet young lady could be so hungry for him.
Suddenly, she pulled back. Although the kiss was cut short, she was still close enough for him to feel the warmth of her breath as she said, “Oh, Lord. I . . . guess I got carried away. Was that too forward of me?”
“Forward?” Clint gulped. “Actually, it was the best dessert I could have asked for.”
“You didn't exactly ask.” Just then, Ellie's cheeks flushed as she felt Clint's erection through his jeans pushing against her body. Despite the fact that she was blushing, she didn't move away from him. Before she could say anything else, Clint moved in even closer.
This time, Clint wrapped one arm around her so he could encircle her waist. He kept the other on her hip simply because he liked the feel of her beneath her apron and simple dress. When he kissed her again, Clint could hear and even feel the contented purr that came from the back of her throat.
The kiss enveloped both of them so much that neither of them heard the gunshot right away.
A second later, Clint pulled back and looked around. “Did you hear that?”
Before Ellie could answer, another gunshot was fired. This one was followed by the booming sound of Hank's voice.
“Who in the hell are you?” Hank shouted.
Acklund stepped forward. The .38 Smith and Wesson in his hand was still smoking. “You hiding a killer in there?”
To his credit, Hank didn't seem rattled in the least by the fact that a gun had been fired so recently. “Just stay put,” he snarled. “When I come back out with my shotgun, I'm gonna blow your stinkin' head off!”
Hank made it halfway to his front door before Acklund fired again. This bullet whipped through the air to shatter the window to Hank's right. The older man paused with his hand outstretched. His head slowly turned toward the broken window and his voice rumbled from him like boiling water from a geyser. “You're payin' for that!”
“Just like you're gonna pay if you don'tâ”
“Let the old man go,” Clint shouted from the shadows surrounding the house. After bolting through the door leading from the kitchen, he'd run around to get a look at who was causing all the commotion. Clint had his suspicions as soon as he'd left the house, but now he saw he was correct. “Your fight is with me.”
Acklund snapped his head toward Clint while trying to cover the surprise on his face. He did a terrible job, but forced himself to smile arrogantly anyway. “You think we'd forget about you killing our brother?”
That choice of words made Clint nervous. The fact that Acklund had said “our” instead of “my” made him suspicious that the third man from the ambush was lurking about somewhere. Sure enough, Mose's blond hair stood out from one of the dark spots in the trees not too far away.
“Your brother died while trying to steal my horse,” Clint pointed out. “He would have been strung up for such a thing no matter where he was caught. Besides, if you'd stuck around to see, you would have known that I didn't shoot him. He broke his own neck!”
“That don't matter!” Acklund said. “He'd still be alive if it weren't for you.”
“You mean if I would have just let you men rob me?” Clint asked. “If you're expecting me to regret what happened, you'll be waiting a long time.”
“Fine. No more waiting, then.”
Clint had been hoping to put an end to the shooting to prevent Ellie or Hank from catching a stray bullet. He'd also hoped to keep Acklund talking long enough for any town law to come and check on the gunshots that had already been fired. The instant Clint saw the gleam in Acklund's eye, however, he knew it was too late for any of that. There would be more shots fired and he couldn't afford to wait around for anyone to help.
Clint reached for his Colt and cleared leather in a fraction of a second. He kept the gun at hip level so he could fire off a round without wasting time to aim. Acklund fired as well and both shots hissed through the air like a pair of angry wasps.
Acklund dropped, but Clint knew he hadn't been the one to put him on his back. Rather than fall over like a man that had been shot, Acklund fell to one knee so he could fire again. By the time Acklund got around to pulling his trigger, Clint was already on the move.
Knowing that Mose was still out there, Clint fired a shot in the last direction he'd seen the big blond man. He didn't hear a yelp of pain and didn't even hear a gunshot from that direction, which made Clint suspect Mose had already picked another spot. Clint fired another bullet toward the trees anyway, followed by another shot at Acklund to buy himself enough time to make it to some cover.
The only other thing on the porch was an old swing, so Clint ducked behind it and quickly replaced the spent rounds in his Colt with fresh bullets from his gun belt. Just as he was finished reloading, Clint heard the thunderous bang of the front door being kicked open.
“Clear off my property right now!” Hank roared as he fired a shotgun blast into the air.
“Get back in the house!” Clint hollered.
“The hell I will!” Hank replied before firing off his second barrel.
Since Clint couldn't see in the dark well enough to know if Hank had hit anything, he waited until the older man pulled the spent shell casings from his shotgun. Once Hank was busy with that, Clint rushed over to him and knocked him back into the house with his shoulder. Hank was still cussing up a storm when Clint stepped back outside and pulled the door shut behind him.
Another shot was fired from the shadows, but Clint couldn't get a look at who'd fired it. Both Acklund and Mose had retreated far enough into the trees that they couldn't be seen until they fired. The moment Clint saw another muzzle flash, he sighted in on it and returned fire. He followed that up with another quick shot that punched through one of the trees.
“You can't get us both!” Acklund shouted as he ran from the tree that had just been hit.
Clint was about to squeeze his trigger when he heard a twig snap to his immediate left. He turned to find Mose creeping up on him from that side. The blond man must have circled around the house to flank Clint from and damn near pulled his trick off before Clint turned and fired. The Colt bucked against Clint's hand, but Mose had already ducked back around the house. Splinters flew and Mose let out a pained moan.
“My damn eye!” Mose wailed.
“Now!” Acklund hollered. “Shoot the bastard!”
Now that he knew where both men were, Clint ran across the porch to put some distance between himself and both of the brothers. His eyes were becoming accustomed to the dark, so Clint was able to pick out Acklund's shape crouching against a tree. Clint aimed at that shape and fired, knowing that he'd probably missed.
With Clint away from the window, Acklund had to wait for his own eyes to adjust. Unlike Clint, however, he didn't seem too concerned with picking his shots or who else might get hit along the way. Standing up and hopping away from his tree to clear his line of fire, Acklund pointed his six-shooter at Clint and pulled the trigger as quickly as he could.
The .38 barked again and again, illuminating Acklund's face with a constant flow of sparks. When Clint's entire body whipped around with enough force to make him stagger against the side of the house, Acklund shouted, “I told you I'd get you, asshole! That was for Dave!”
Mose ran around the front of the house with his pistol held at the ready. Before he could get a clear shot at Clint, the front door came open again and Hank's shotgun erupted once more. Mose pulled himself away from the door so quickly that his feet kicked out from under him and his backside landed heavily against the porch.
Another shot cracked through the air as Acklund rushed toward his brother. That shot was soon answered by another blast from the shotgun, but both explosions were followed by the slap of hammers against spent shells.
“Shit!” both Acklund and Hank shouted at the same time.
Both men needed to reload, but Hank's shotgun would take a lot less time. The older man was spouting a steady stream of obscenities as he opened the shotgun, pulled out the empty shells, and struggled to get fresh ones in.
Mose had fought to get to his feet by now and had his gun pointed at Hank.
“Forget about him,” Acklund said. “I already wounded that murdering asshole.”
Mose grinned and lowered his pistol.
By the time Hank closed his shotgun and pulled back the hammers, he no longer had a target. He nearly emptied one barrel at the sound of another gunshot coming from the side of the house. The only thing he could hear after that were frantic footsteps racing into the night.
As soon as Hank rounded the corner on the side of the house where Clint had last been seen, a shot was fired that nearly caused him to jump out of his britches. The sparks from the barrel blinded him for a few seconds and his ears were ringing louder than a set of church bells.