“For Christ's sake, it's just me!” the old man shouted.
Clint was leaning against the side of the house as if his shoulder were the only thing keeping him up. His mouth moved, but Hank was still unable to hear anything. Although he saw Hank rubbing his ears and straining to pick out something through the rest of the noise, Clint didn't lower his Colt.
“My fault,” Clint grumbled as he squinted to get a look at the figures that had bolted into the shadows.
“What?” Hank asked.
“Never mind. Where'd they go?”
Clint was prepared to shout even louder, but he could tell by the old man's features he still wouldn't be heard. Realizing he'd been the one to put the ringing in the old man's ears with that last wild shot, Clint wanted to let out a different sort of shout. Instead, he flipped open the cylinder of his Colt to replace the spent rounds.
The back door had squeaky hinges, which Clint heard now as well as when he'd snuck out that way earlier. The footsteps that came his way were light and frantic, telling him there was no need to reload any faster or worry about who was coming toward him.
Just as Clint had expected, Ellie rushed around the house amid a series of panicked steps. “Oh, my God, Clint! They shot you!”
Clint held out a hand to silence her and angrily waved at Hank when the old man started to grunt for Ellie to repeat herself. Once they were quiet, Clint surveyed the surrounding area and strained his ears for any noises he could pick up.
The only movement came from the trees swaying in the wind.
The only sounds were rustling leaves.
Once Clint let out the breath he'd been holding, the other two took that as their cue to start up where they'd left off.
Ellie rushed over to him and grabbed Clint's arm. “You're shot, Clint. Does it hurt?”
“Who the blazes were those men?” Hank growled. “They knew you, sure as hell, so don't try to tell me any different.”
His gun reloaded, Clint shoved it into its holster and immediately swore at the pain that movement caused. Ellie tried to grab at him and her father kept shuffling to stay directly in Clint's sights. Finally, Clint shoved past both of them and snapped, “I am shot! We need to get inside in case they try to take shots at us from the dark.”
“But they're . . .” Hank protested.
“And you're . . .” Ellie added.
Before either of them could finish, Clint looked to Hank and said, “Yes. I have seen those men before and I knew they were after me.” Looking at Ellie, he said, “And yes. I've been shot. It hurts, but it won't do any good to stay out here. Can we go back into the house now?”
Father and daughter both looked stunned. They blinked, looked at each other, and then nodded. Hank seemed to grudgingly agree, while Ellie was anxious to help Clint make the short journey back to the door. Clint let her hold onto his arm, since it allowed him to speed her up a bit in the process. Once the two of them got moving, Hank followed soon enough.
“Lock the doors,” Clint said once they were inside. “Put something in front of them or do what you can to keep them shut. Close the windows. You have any curtains?”
“Some,” Ellie replied.
“Close them. Is there any law in this town?” When he didn't get a response right away, Clint raised his voice. “Hank! Is there any law around here?”
Clint wasn't sure if it was the two similar answers to such different questions or the dizziness that was creeping into his head from his fresh wound, but he couldn't help laughing.
“What's so damned funny?” Hank demanded. “We take care of ourselves just fine without bothering the deputy.”
“What about the sheriff?”
Hank shook his head solemnly. “There's just a deputy. The sheriff went missing a few months back and . . .”
Suddenly, there was a series of tapping knocks against the front door. Ellie was gathering up some towels and water, which she almost dropped in her surprise at the sudden commotion.
“That's probably Cale now,” Hank said. Looking at Clint, he explained. “Deputy Cale.”
“Make certain before you open the door.”
Hank waved off Clint's warning, but went to the window first before touching the door handle. After pulling back the curtain a bit, he peeked outside for a second. That was enough for him to step over to the door. “Told you so,” he said over his shoulder.
Clint lowered himself onto a chair. Despite the pain shooting through his right arm, he kept that hand upon the grip of his Colt so he was ready to draw if things took a turn for the worse. Ellie approached him and dropped to her knees so she could get a better look at his arm.
“Let me see to that,” she insisted.
“Just a second,” Clint replied.
Hank opened the door and exchanged a few pleasantries with the man outside. He then let a tall, spindly fellow into the house and closed the door again. Since there were no more gunshots and no one else trying to get inside, Clint let his hand fall away from his holster.
Part of him was glad the fight seemed to be over.
Another part was still steaming because of how the fight had ended.
Deputy Cale was a good deal taller than Hank, but still looked to weigh at least sixty pounds lighter than the old man. In fact, the double-rig holster he wore even seemed to outweigh him. The two mismatched guns in that holster were obviously too big for the deputy's hands, but the lawman strutted into the house as if he were routing out the devil himself.
“I heard shooting,” the deputy said.
“Most of the town must have heard it,” Clint grumbled.
When Cale glared at Clint without getting any reaction in return, he shifted his eyes toward Hank, who at least gave him an annoyed shrug. “You mind telling me what the shooting was about?” Narrowing his eyes into what he must have thought was a menacing stare, Cale added, “Or maybe I should just take a look at your gun to see if it's been fired.”
“You want to feel the barrel?” Clint snapped. “Sniff for burnt powder? How about I save you the trouble? I fired it at the two men who tried to ambush me and this family while you were off somewhere else waiting for the noise to die down before you got over here. In fact, this is the second time those two tried to shoot me, but I'm the one under suspicion!”
Despite the considerable weight of the two guns he carried, Deputy Cale seemed uncomfortable as he shifted on his feet. “I wouldn't know about the second time. Did it happen here in town?”
“This was the second,” Clint said. “The first was on the way here.”
“Oh,” Cale said with relief. “Then I wouldn't know about that. What can you tell me about what happened just now?”
Before Clint could answer, he felt a pinch in his arm. With all that had happened and all he'd been trying to do to keep the wrong people from getting shot while also trying to put the right ones down, Clint hadn't had a chance to look at his wound. It was a messy spot on his arm, with enough blood to soak through his sleeve. The sleeve had also been shredded by the passing bullet, and Ellie had already cut the sleeve away.
The pinch Clint had just felt was Ellie's sewing needle, which she'd pulled through so she could get a length of thread to close his wound. She drizzled some more water on the wound to reveal a long, gaping cut that went straight across Clint's right elbow.
“Did that hurt?” she asked.
“Not too badly,” Clint said through gritted teeth. “How bad is the wound?”
“I can't see any boneâ”
“Oh, Lord,” Cale groaned.
Glancing nervously between the deputy and Clint, Ellie continued, “But there's a pretty deep cut. There might have been a chip taken from your elbow when it passed.”
Cale straightened up and placed his hands upon his hips.
“Can you bend it?” she asked.
Without hesitation, Clint lifted his arm and bent it. The thread dangled from his flesh, but there weren't any real stitches to tear. Even so, Clint felt as if he were ripping his arm off when he bent it past a certain point. “Hurts, but I can use it.”
“Do you . . . feel anything in there?” Ellie asked.
Cale pulled in a breath as the color drained from his face.
Clint shook his head. “There's definitely no bullet in there.”
“Are you sure?”
“I've been shot enough to know. It feels more like a bad cut.”
Ellie reached out, placed her fingertips on either side of the wound, and eased it open.
“Holy . . .” Cale moaned as he turned around and leaned against Hank for support.
The older man immediately shoved the lawman's hand away. “You come here to whine or are you goin' after them gunmen?” he asked.
“Was . . . uhh . . . was this gentleman an offending party?” Cale stammered. “I mean . . . uhh . . . do you want me toâ”
“He didn't start it, if that's what you mean,” Hank snapped. “He stepped in to help.”
“Then I'll go see if I can find where those men went.” Before he made it more than a couple of steps toward the door, Cale turned and asked, “Do any of you know where they went?”
Clint, Ellie, and Hank all shook their heads.
“All right, then,” the deputy said. “I'll look and ask about and come back later.”
Even before the door had fully closed behind the lawman, Hank grumbled, “Good riddance.”
Clint couldn't agree more. Rather than say as much, he looked down to watch Ellie stitch his elbow. “I appreciate the help. You need me to do anything?”
“Just sit still,” she replied. “I used to lend a hand to Doc Ackermon when he was in town, so I can do stitches well enough.”
Hank stomped over to Clint's side, crossed his arms, and glared down at him. “You gonna live?”
“Not indefinitely,” Clint replied, “but this scratch won't be the end of me.”
“Good, then you can tell me what in the hell that was all about!”
Before Clint could say anything to that, Ellie turned to her father and told him, “Can't you wait for a bit? He's hurt and he got that way by saving both of us!”
Clint looked at Hank, but didn't need to say a word. Judging by the sheepish look on the old man's face, Ellie's words had been enough.
“I suppose you're right,” Hank muttered. “I still wanna know why them boys were after you. The least you can do is let us know if they'll be comin' back or not.”
“To be honest,” Clint said, “I'm not quite sure. The last I saw of them, Acklund was charging around the house after I was picking myself up.”
“Acklund?” Hank asked.
“The one with the darker hair. As soon as I caught sight of him, I fired a shot. At least, I thought I did. I'd just gotten hit and things were a little muddled for a second or two,” Clint admitted.
“Well, I saw 'em both take off runnin',” Hank told him. “They was either scared or riled up because they moved like their tails was on fire.”
Clint thought it over for a second or two, but didn't come up with much. “It would be good if they just thought I was killed. That way, we wouldn't see them again. Of course, that doesn't sit well with me.”
“Why?” Ellie asked.
Clint's eyes narrowed to intense slits and he said, “Because I wouldn't see them again. Those men tried to rob me on my way into town. They had another one with them that turned out to be their brother. He was killed while they tried to ambush me.”
“You shot him?” Hank asked.
“No, he tried to steal my horse and broke his neck along the way.”
“Serves him right, then.”
Clint nodded. “I agree, but they're not exactly of the same mind on the subject. Since their brother was killed and they think I did it, I suppose there's no question they'll be back. There's the off chance that they got a quick look at me and thought I was bleeding from a worse spot than my elbow, but I don't want to gamble on that and put you folks or this house at risk. I should probably get away from here.”
Ellie placed her hand on Clint's shoulder as if she thought he intended on riding away at that very instant. “You won't go anywhere. Not until this wound is properly stitched.”
“They found me once after I thought I'd shaken free of them,” Clint said. “That means they're better trackers than I thought or just plain lucky. Either way, they know where I am. If I stay here, it'd just be asking for trouble.”
“Then stay at Aunt Iris's!” Ellie said as her eyes snapped open wide.
In contrast to his daughter, Hank furrowed his brow until his eyes were almost closed. “Shut your mouth, girl! That ain't your place to do with as you please.”
“She left it to both of us, Pa,” Ellie insisted. “And she would have wanted it to be used to help a good man like Clint.” Seeing that her father wasn't quick to agree, she added, “A good man who saved our lives.”
“All right, all right,” Hank said as he waved his arms. “No need to keep sticking my nose in it! He can stay there, but I'll be the one who takes him and you'll steer clear.”
“I need to finish dressing his wound,” Ellie said.
“Then finish it here.”
“I'll need to check on it and clean it.”
Hank rolled his eyes, recognizing a losing battle when he heard one. “Good Lord Almighty!”
Ellie smiled and patted Clint's shoulder, knowing better than to spoil a victory with any more negotiations.