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Dave's hand snapped to one side as Clint's bullet sparked against his gun . . .
Even after the shooting had started, Clint hoped to frighten the men away with a minimum of spilled blood. Now that one of those men was dead, the chance for an easy resolution was gone. Clint wasn't about to take time to grieve the loss of a man who'd tried to shoot him, so he climbed into his saddle and looked around for the other two gunmen.
“Leave well enough alone,” Clint said in a voice loud enough to be heard by anyone in the vicinity. “You made a mistake in coming after me once. Don't make that mistake again.”
With his warning still drifting through the air, Clint left Acklund and Mose behind. Their kind of stupidity was its own punishment.
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BALL AND CHAIN
A Jove Book / published by arrangement with the author
Jove edition / December 2008
Copyright Â© 2008 by Robert J. Randisi.
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It was an easy job. Clint knew that much the moment he'd been asked to do it. Normally, he would have passed on such an easy job simply because it wasn't interesting enough to hold his attention and didn't pay enough to make it worth his while. After all, if someone wanted a parcel delivered, there were services to do such things and plenty of young riders looking to make a few quick dollars.
But when he was asked about the job, Clint couldn't shake his head because there was a piece of sharpened steel being held to his throat.
“I don't know about that, Ned,” Clint said carefully. “It's really not the sort of job I do.”
Ned Smith let out a sigh and took the razor away from Clint's throat. After cleaning it off on the towel draped over his shoulder, he pushed Clint's chin up and scraped a few more times. “I know you're not a scout or a courier, but there ain't anyone else around to do the job. I asked all the young bucks around town, but they're either more interested in drinking their time away or they'd rather ride south instead of north.”
“What about the post office?” Clint asked. “I hear they're real good at delivering things like the parcel you've got. Well . . . pretty good anyway.”
“The post office is closed up and my parcel is real fragile. If it gets broken along the way, I might as well have tossed out the money I used to ship it. Besides, I may not even hear for a few weeks if it does get there or gets lost or whatever. Besides that, there's a balance that needs to be paid upon delivery. That's why I thought I'd hire someone to run it on up into Hinterland for me. You can keep the balance as your fee for the job.”
Clint started to sigh again, but felt Ned's razor scraping a few more times along his neck. “Hinterland, you say?”
“Where is that?”
“Right across the border into Oregon,” Ned replied as he fell back into the tone of voice he used to strike up a conversation with anyone who sat in his chair and paid for a shave. “Beautiful place, it is! Ever been up that way?”
“Yeah,” Clint replied. “I have some business in Oregon.”
“Perfect! Wherever you're goin' in Oregon, Hinterland's got to be on the way.”
“Is it on the way to Beaver Falls?”
After folding his razor and setting it down, Ned wiped away the remaining lather on Clint's face. “Beaver Falls?”
“It's due west, about ten miles past the California border and within eyeshot of the Pacific.”
“Oh,” Ned grumbled. “Maybe it's not on the way there, but it can't be too far out of theâ”
“I'll pass,” Clint interrupted. “How much do I owe you for the shave?”
“You've still got a trim coming up. You did say you wanted the daily special, right?”
Clint looked toward the door to Ned's barbershop as if he were hoping to see a rescue party coming for him. All he saw was a few empty chairs and a crooked rack that held his coat and hat. Sunlight came in through a large front window, throwing a shadow of the lettering Ned had painted upon the glass. That lettering advertised the daily special of a shave and haircut, which Clint had asked for the moment he stepped through the door. Apparently, it was too late to change his mind now.
“I did ask for the special, butâ”
“Good!” Ned said as he spun Clint's chair around and reached for his scissors. “I'll give you your trim and you can think over my proposition. You'll stand to make a decent profit for an easy ride.”
“What's the parcel?” Clint asked.
Settling onto the stool next to the barber chair, Ned asked, “Does it matter?”
“Of course itâ”
“Sit still,” Ned scolded. “I've got scissors in my hand.”
Settling into his chair as Ned clipped away, Clint said, “Of course it matters. For all I know, that parcel could be more trouble than your fee is worth. It could be illegal.”
“It's not illegal.”
“Then what is it?”
Ned pulled in a breath and held it as he evened out one side of Clint's hair. Moving his stool so he could get to the top of Clint's head, he mumbled, “It's a piece of art.”
That caught Clint by surprise. He blinked a few times and tried to think of something else he might have heard. Deciding his ears were just fine, Clint asked, “You mean, like a painting?”
Clint did his best to get a look at Ned without moving too much. The large mirror hanging from the wall in front of him made that task a whole lot easier. Watching Ned in that mirror, Clint said, “Well, now you've appealed to my curiosity.”
“How about I appeal to your greed? I'll add another ten dollars on top of the balance that's due upon delivery. That'll give you close to a hundred dollars when it's all said and done. Well . . . thereabouts anyway.”
“That just makes me more curious. What kind of art are you talking about? And why do you look like you'd rather crawl into a shell than talk about it?”
Glancing up nervously into the mirror, Ned didn't seem any happier with meeting Clint's gaze that way than looking into his eyes directly. “It ain't illegal and it ain't any trouble for you to carry, other than it's fragile.”
“You're the one that got me to stay here and listen to you,” Clint pointed out. “I was about to leave after the shave, but now you started cutting my hair so you might as well finish. You don't strike me as the sort that would be so rude to not talk to your customer while you're working. I mean, isn't that part of your job?”